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The Kingdom’s Clock

Authors: Rachel Bronson, Former Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, and Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
September/October 2006
Foreign Policy


If Saudi Arabia’s new king is to stem the Islamist extremism that continues to inspire violence inside and outside his kingdom, he must quickly push reforms that will outlast his inevitably short reign. It’s a race against the clock. At 82 years old, King Abdullah’s time is already running out.

Along the desert coast of the Red Sea, the most ambitious real estate project in the Middle East is taking shape. The $26.6 billion development includes luxury waterfront villas, golf courses, a deep-water port, a “financial island” to house offices of the world’s largest financial institutions, new schools, and the requisite jaw-dropping skyscrapers. Emaar Properties, the slick, Dubai-based developer, is pitching the project—one that is expected to attract some 2 million residents within a few years—as a socially relaxed alternative to the strict conventions that have long defined Saudi Arabia. Brochures geared to investors show women in shorts, golfing alongside men, something unheard of in the kingdom today. But then, King Abdullah Economic City was never intended to look like the rest of the country. It’s Saudi Arabia’s answer to Dubai—the wild west of the Middle East.

As its name suggests, the project enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, the 13th son of Ibn Saud, the kingdom’s founder. King Abdullah Economic City is the most obvious example of the new king’s effort to thrust Saudi Arabia into the 21st century. It is also a critical part of the government’s attempt to draw private investment to meet the demands of its rapidly growing population. For reformers, the new city not only generates much-needed jobs and foreign investment, but it also redirects resources away from the highly conservative power center of Riyadh. Five more cities are on the drawing board. But unlike other, relatively liberal Arab countries with booming metropolises and unlimited potential for growth, there is but a small window of opportunity for such rapid development in Saudi Arabia.

At 82, the king is already the same age as his predecessor, his half brother, at the time of his death in August 2005. King Abdullah knows that the surviving half brothers who will succeed him are deeply vested in the existing financial and social conditions and show little interest in substantive change. That means that his struggle to put out the ideological fires that have fed Islamic radicalism for 25 years is a race against the clock—his own biological clock. Five years after September 11, the leader of the country that produced 15 of the 19 hijackers must quickly lay foundations for change that will survive his rule. King Abdullah is neither a radical nor a revolutionary, but it is up to him to push the country far enough ahead during his reign that it will have no choice but to move forward with reforms once he is gone. And time is already running out.

Dealing with the ‘Deviants’

As much as King Abdullah Economic City represents the king’s vision of the possibilities for Saudi Arabia’s next generation, it also serves as a painful reminder of the gulf between what Saudi Arabia could be, and what it now is. The country that King Abdullah inherited last year continues to wrestle with the internal demons whose fury was unleashed upon the world five years ago. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, broad swaths of Saudi society actively denied Saudi complicity in the attacks, including senior officials such as Interior Minister Prince Nayef. Although some still refuse to own up to the country’s role, the accession of King Abdullah corresponds with a growing acknowledgment that domestic realities inside Saudi Arabia shoulder some of the blame.

Whereas September 11 convinced the world of the urgency of Saudi reform, it was the wave of domestic terrorism that began in May 2003 that roused Saudi Arabia from its complacency. Until then, domestic terrorists had largely refrained from attacking the royal family and local Saudis for fear that the fingers of the royal family would curl into a fist against them. Now, Abdullah routinely refers to religious radicals as “deviants,” and the king and other high-level officials promote religious scholars who issue fatwas against jihad. The government is deploying reformed extremists inside Saudi prisons to “reeducate” and deradicalize jihadi terrorists. It’s a markedly different strategy from the 1980s, when the royal family bought plane tickets for Islamist fighters destined for Afghanistan.

Abdullah is also a markedly different king than his predecessor. And in Saudi Arabia, it matters very much who is king. He sets the tone for which reforms are acceptable and which are not. Fortunately, King Abdullah is widely viewed as a pious, uncorrupt, modest leader who understands the need to break away from the most radically zealous elements of Saudi Arabia’s recent past. Unlike the late King Fahd, who reigned from 1982 to 2005, King Abdullah enjoys broad popularity across Saudi society. One Saudi activist told us that “people love him,” and if there were an election tomorrow, “all Saudis would vote for him.”

Because defeating the fanatics his country helped create will largely be an ideological battle, King Abdullah’s image as a just, reasonable ruler is central to fighting radicalism. That is, he just may be the right ruler at the right time. The king has made clear that he is serious about tackling many of the kingdom’s challenges—but he will do so cautiously. In a statement before the Consultative Council in April 2006, King Abdullah laid out his priorities and the pace at which they should be addressed. “We cannot remain rigid while the surrounding world is changing,” he said. “Thereby we will continue, God willing, in the development process, strengthening national dialogue, liberalizing the economy, fighting corruption, uprooting monotonous habits, increasing efficiency of government institutions. We will enlist the efforts of all sincere workers, both men and women. All that will be done incrementally and moderately.”

The king’s emphasis on incrementalism frustrates the most ambitious proponents of change. Reformers hoping for bold, sweeping actions are growing concerned that King Abdullah might not move fast enough to save Saudi Arabia from its crushing problems. It’s hard to overestimate the precariousness of Abdullah’s position; he must weave between these forward-leaning reformers and the country’s entrenched, conservative religious establishment, which provides the royal family with legitimacy. Although the king is not pursuing revolutionary change, shifting governmental control seems to benefit the reformers right now, at least those who are willing to work slowly through the system. One member of the Consultative Council stated in no uncertain terms that the leaders of Saudi Arabia’s reform moment include King Abdullah “first, second, third, and fourth.” Now is a rare and precious moment for the reformers. But it’s unclear how long this moment will last.

After all, none of Abdullah’s likely successors commands the same amount of respect or popularity with everyday Saudis, and therefore will be more constrained in his abilities to contain hard-core Islamic conservatives. Crown Prince Sultan is widely perceived as a self-absorbed black hole of corruption. Prince Nayef, a potential successor and no friend to reform, seems more comfortable with the retrograde religious forces in society. Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh and a full brother of Sultan, Nayef, and the late King Fahd, draws mixed reviews. The grandsons of the kingdom’s founder are regarded as relatively promising by some reformers, but their fathers are likely to precede them and could reverse many of the strides made during Abdullah’s tenure. The question for today’s reformersand for the king—is how to create facts on the ground in terms of social, political, and economic reform that are of such obvious benefit to the health of the kingdom, and the royal family, that it will not be in the interest of Abdullah’s immediate successors to reverse them when they come to power.

Oil, Oil EverywhereAnd Not a Job in Sight

After the towers fell and the fires burned out, the questions inevitably moved from what happened to why; the answers often ended with “angry, young Arab men with no options but terror.” The explanation wasn’t lost on Abdullah. Even as far back as 2000, in a private interview in Riyadh, then Crown Prince Abdullah stated quite candidly that “unemployment is our No. 1 national security challenge,” notwithstanding the fact that both Iraq and Iran menacingly sat nearby. Forty percent of the population is under the age of 15, and unemployment is said to be around 30 percent for men and 90 percent for women. Drastic changes are needed to prevent idle, poorly educated youth from becoming easy targets for radical Islamist groups. “I don’t know when the revolution will start,” one human rights activist told us. “But it’s not going to be because of a lack of democracy but because people are angry. The ministry announces the creation of 50 jobs, and 7,000 apply.”

With oil prices hovering around $75 a barrel at press time, the new king ought to be enjoying the petro-bonanza. After two decades of steeply falling per capita incomes and nearly bankrupt government coffers, the windfall would seem to be the answer to solving some of these much-publicized demographic realities. But even with oil prices as high as they are, the economy is unable to absorb the millions of young people entering the job market. The urgency of the youth bulge is exacerbated by a sense of losing out on opportunities to more nimble neighbors. “Dubai Envy” is a growing phenomenon. The kingdom’s rigid conservatism makes it unable to compete for a slice of the booming tourism, leisure, banking, and media business in the region, problems King Abdullah Economic City and the other projects in the works must address. A senior Bahraini official notes that “most of the investment infrastructure in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates really should be in Saudi Arabia,” because it is, after all, the largest regional market. However, the kingdom’s oppressive social atmosphere and sclerotic bureaucracy have forced major financial companies to locate near the kingdom, rather than in it—costing the kingdom millions, if not billions, in potential revenue. “We have become laughingstocks in the Muslim world,” says one well-placed prince who is likely to play a key role in shaping Saudi Arabia’s future.

In response to these challenges, King Abdullah spearheaded Saudi Arabia’s controversial but ultimately successful bid to join the World Trade Organization to encourage greater economic accountability and transparency. He is supporting new privatization efforts, foreign direct investment, and even encouraging limited tourism, viewed as taboo by Wahhabi purists, including several of Abdullah’s potential successors. He is strongly backing a “Saudization” campaign—an effort to hire more indigenous Saudis—even though the business community, a loyal constituency, opposes such measures.

Whether another terrorist attack prompts even more hand-wringing about the desperate situation of angry, unemployed Arab youths largely depends on what Abdullah will be able to accomplish on the economic front. The youth bulge isn’t going away. Neither is investor interest in the Middle East. But sooner or later, the king will. And he will leave behind a generation of young Saudis who demand his attention now.

A Woman’s Place

If the skyrocketing number of young Saudis looking for work is an urgent signal of what the king must accomplish during his reign, the changing role of women is a rare area of positive reform where he has already proven a willingness to move the country forward. It’s also probably the most dynamic and politically explosive issue that King Abdullah must handle.

Above all, the new king has raised expectations. Reformers are still talking about Abdullah’s first trip abroad as monarch, in which he included women in his delegation to China and India. Last December, his daughter Adila took a leading role in a prominent workshop that examined women’s issues in the kingdom. Women are increasingly obtaining identity cards, crucial to operating somewhat independently in the kingdom. In addition, Abdullah has reenergized the debate about women driving automobiles, and a controlled pilot program is likely to begin. It could set a precedent for all Saudi women driving some day. And in Saudi Arabia, establishing a precedent is politically meaningful.

Luckily for King Abdullah, a precedent for reform—though limited—on women’s issues was set before he took the throne. Since King Faisal opened the first government school for girls in 1964, women’s literacy has jumped from 2 percent to 70 percent a generation later. Women’s colleges are popping up in major cities across the country. They often boast strong curricula, including instruction in English, easy Internet access, and the occasional screening of international films, a rare treat in a country where movie theaters are banned. In a land known for its broken education system, the graduates of such schools are scooped up by foreign businesses, eagerly looking for competent Saudis to employ.

For King Abdullah, advancing women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is a key to pleasing reformers and improving the economic situation. But opposition to such developments remains stiff. The conservatives who dominate the country’s institutions continuously find technical reasons why they cannot reverse past precedent. The creation of opportunities for women in employment and education will prove to be among the best measures of just how vigorously King Abdullah can fight for progress against the powerful religious conservatives who have held the upper hand for more than two and a half decades.

Testing the Basics

Although incremental change may move Saudi society ahead in most areas, it may not be enough to solve the country’s education crisis. In the aftermath of 9/11, U.S. scrutiny of Saudi curriculum exposed endemic jihad promotion and downright hate-mongering. Critics contend that although the most blatant passages have been removed, more reform is needed. One schoolteacher whose own previous fanaticism gives him a unique perspective as a reformer today, readily admitted to us, “Yes, the curriculum has been edited. They took out the passages glorifying death and promoting hatred. But it’s not enough just to delete. We must replace the hatred with a new philosophy.” A recent report from the U.S.-based Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House questions the authenticity of even these modest changes. Today, what is needed is a top-to-bottom overhaul of the entire educational system.

With change deeply contested, some creative reformers are attempting to sidestep the entrenched educational bureaucracy by aggressively investing in private education. There are plans, seemingly supported by the king, to open some 4,000 private primary and secondary schools, which will have more flexibility in terms of curriculum and teaching styles. The government is trying to lure foreign (usually American) universities to the kingdom and seeking opportunities abroad. Just last year, King Abdullah announced scholarships for 5,000 students to attend universities in the United States.

All of these efforts are laudable, but they are simply insufficient to solve the mounting education crisis inside the kingdom, where a record number of schoolchildren enter the system every year. Sooner rather than later, real change will require King Abdullah to confront directly the religious conservatives who still control state education, where the bulk of students are educated. The resistance to change in this one sector could undermine all the other reforms the king is endorsing.

The Last Best Chance

The al-Sauds will not undo their historical pact with the religious establishment. Doing so would destroy any claim to domestic legitimacy. But they can redefine it, which is what King Abdullah seems to be trying to do. Leading members of the royal family now have license from the king to reward clerics who call for judicial reform and question the concept of takfir—the ability for one Muslim to define another as an apostate, a concept from which al Qaeda legitimizes much of its violence. Perhaps that is why developers like Emaar in King Abdullah Economic City and elsewhere are allocating space in new malls to house movie theaters in the future. They sense the tide is turning on the strict religious interpretations that have stifled social life in the kingdom.

King Abdullah is now offering reformers in Saudi Arabia an opportunity, however fleeting, to fix a broken system. These next few years will determine whether the kingdom is positioning itself to engage the outside world, or whether retrograde religious and political forces still hold the kingdom in their grip. The challenges are as clear as they are difficult. The question today is not whether the House of Saud will survive, but rather which members will define its future.

Now, it is King Abdullah’s turn to steer the kingdom’s course. He has the opportunity to leverage the country’s resurgent wealth and the region’s political fluidity to push through difficult reforms. The crux of the problem is that if King Abdullah moves too quickly, he risks backlash; too slowly, and the changes will not survive his tenure. Five years after 9/11, King Abdullah has a distinct chance to ensure that his people are never again forced to ask themselves why so many of their young citizens turned so angry, and so violent. He must act as if his life depended on it—because the life of his country surely does.

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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