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New Saudi King Expected to Push Cautiously for More Reform

Saudi Arabia's new King Abdullah is expected to step up the pace of economic and political change in the world's biggest oil-exporting country. But analysts and diplomats say he will do so cautiously because he has to walk a tightrope between his country's strict Islamic traditions and what many Saudis believe is its need to become a more modern society.

King Abdullah, who has been his country's de facto ruler for the past 10 years, following a crippling stroke suffered by King Fahd, his predecessor as monarch, now has the power to reign in his own name, following King Fahd's death last Monday.

The new sovereign, who received the pledges of allegiance from religious and tribal leaders, the military and government officials on Wednesday, faces several challenges, ranging from cracking down on home-grown al-Qaida-inspired terrorists to opening up the political system so that citizens can play a greater role in their country's governance.

The Saudi monarchy has, since the country was founded in 1932, relied for its legitimacy on the support of clerics from the puritan Wahabi strain of Islam. King Abdullah's limited political reforms, during his de facto stewardship of the country, have been centered on Saudi Arabia's first elections, held earlier this year to pick members of local councils. But diplomats say he has met resistance from some hard-liners in the Islamic clergy and their allies in the royal family.

On the other hand, there is an increasing clamor from a growing middle class for more political participation. Khaled el-Maeena, the editor of the English-language Arab News, told VOA in a telephone interview from the Red Sea port of Jeddah that, even though the king will proceed cautiously, he knows he has to move to modernize Saudi society.

"He will have to balance his policies well because, in this country, there are people who want the wheel of progress to go full speed and there are people who are a bit careful," he said. "He knows he has to go ahead, so there will be no let up on the road to progress."

Western diplomats say the king may also be helped in his reform-minded cause by money. After several years of deficits, caused by low oil prices, heavy spending on a cradle-to-grave welfare system and the extravagance of an ever-expanding royal family, the Saudi government's coffers are now overflowing with oil profits amid rising prices. The diplomats say King Abdullah now has the cash to please disgruntled members of the royal family so that they won't interfere with his modernization plans.

The other major challenge King Abdullah faces is guaranteeing Saudi Arabia's security and the survival of the monarchy amidst the rise of al-Qaida-type militancy in the kingdom itself. Attacks aimed at destabilizing the country and toppling the monarchy over the past two years forced the leadership to take a closer look at the radicalization of many Saudi young men. The government's forceful crackdown on terrorism has led to an easing of tensions with the United States, which has eyed the royal family's financial support of radical preachers with suspicion ever since mainly Saudi hijackers carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.

Nawaf Obaid, a national security consultant to the Saudi government, acknowledges that his country was slow to move against radical elements. But he says that Saudi society, including the religious establishment, is now united against terrorism.

"There was a shortcoming from Saudi authorities in basically getting a grasp on the extreme elements within this establishment," he said. "But where the critics have been attacking Saudi Arabia overall has been that they're accusing the Saudi establishment of supporting terrorism, which is completely wrong. And, on the contrary, as you've seen over the past couple of years, it's been those same religious leaders that people are accusing of supporting terrorism that have come out more strongly against the terrorists."

King Abdullah and the newly elevated Crown Prince Sultan are both believed to be in their 80s. So even though the succession from one monarch to another went smoothly this time, some diplomats worry about Saudi Arabia's stability in the long-term. They say they are concerned about the prospects of infighting and jockeying for position among royal family members once King Abdullah dies. But Simon Henderson, the author of a book entitled After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia says the royal family always comes together whenever there is a crisis.

"The House of Saud and, if you look at it in its widest terms, it's 5,000-plus princes or so, presumably an equal number of princesses, if you look at it in those terms, they know on which side their bread is buttered," he said. "They know that they've got to stand together. Otherwise, in the worst situation, they'd lose power. And so there might be differences of policy, approach, and there might be personality rivalry, but I think the basic assumption is that they will stand together, and, so far I can't see that they're not going to."

Still, as one western diplomat in Riyadh put it, even though King Abdullah is an absolute monarch, he still must rule with the consensus of other senior princes. The diplomat says real change in Saudi Arabia may have to wait until the throne passes, not from brother to brother, but from one generation to the next.