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Bronson: King Abdullah’s Ascension Seen as Important ‘Plus’ by Washington

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Rachel Bronson, Former Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
August 2, 2005

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Rachel Bronson, the Council’s top expert on Saudi Arabia, says the death of King Fahd and the ascension of Crown Prince Abdullah to the throne will be welcomed by both Saudi society and the United States. Bronson—whose book on the history of U.S.-Saudi relations, Thicker than Oil, is due out next Spring—says Abdullah has been helpful to the United States in the war against terrorism, and within the constraints of Saudi society, has been in the forefront of domestic reforms.

“As crown prince, Abdullah showed himself to be more forward-leaning on reform than some of his brothers. Not as much, in some ways, as [King] Fahd was, but more so than the others,” she says.

Bronson, a Council senior fellow and director of its Middle East and Gulf Studies program, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on August 1, 2005.


King Fahd of Saudi Arabia died early this morning after a decade-long illness. Crown Prince Abdullah, who’s been running the government, was named the new king. Does this mean much in terms of domestic Saudi affairs? And what does this mean for U.S.-Saudi relations?

It means more for Saudi domestic politics than it does for the Kingdom’s foreign policy.  King Abdullah, as you mentioned, has been running the Kingdom basically since 1995 when King Fahd had his first stroke. World leaders have dealt with him and know him, and I don’t expect too many changes. He and President Bush had a good meeting in April at Crawford, and I would expect relatively smooth relations at the most senior levels between Saudi Arabia and the United States over the coming years.

Domestically, being king may give Abdullah more weight in pushing through certain aspects of social and political reform. He will still face constraints from within the royal family, but the change of title does make him more powerful.  

In terms of reform, which is high on President Bush’s agenda, the shift to Abdullah is a welcomed change. At home, Abdullah is viewed as more pious and less corrupt than his half brothers. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, corruption was a rallying point against King Fahd. Osama bin Laden’s criticism of the House of Saud’s corruption resonated with many inside the Kingdom. Crown Prince Abdullah has been a steadying hand, trying to root out some of the corruption.

Clearly, Crown Prince Abdullah has been in charge through the very difficult years since the September 11 attacks. He also came forth with a peace plan for Arabs and Israelis in 2001 which was approved by the Arab League. Is he going to remain interested in foreign affairs?

Abdullah is known to be more focused on regional politics than King Fahd, who was more interested in global politics. This is in part due to different priorities, but also in part due to the different periods in which they ruled. When King Fahd was actively ruling, Saudi Arabia was heavily involved in trying to hedge Soviet, and often Libyan, expansion in Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Saudi money and political capital were tied up in Africa and Central Asia. In Central America—you may remember they were involved in funding—

That’s right, the Saudis helped fund the Contras in Nicaragua.

Yes, so they were very global. Crown Prince Abdullah was always focused more on the region: the Arabs and the Arab-Israeli conflict. So I think you may see a more parochial view—if you consider the region parochial—which, at this moment, given a lot of the problems that the region is facing, is probably very useful. Abdullah did float the Abdullah Plan in February 2002.  Interestingly, this was a follow-up on the Fahd Plan, which Abdullah defended back in the early 1980s Abdullah. Still, Fahd wanted to get beyond the Arab-Israeli crisis, whereas I don’t think Abdullah believes that is possible.

Returning to the previous question, I don’t think yesterday’s change in leadership will mean much in terms of changing foreign policies, but over the past ten years since Abdullah has taken over, you have seen an increased attention to local issues, with less involvement in far away adventures.

On Iraq, the only thing you hear on the subject of Saudi-Iraq relations is that a lot of the insurgents are coming from Saudi Arabia. Do you think the Saudis might help the Iraqi government out?

I don’t think we’re going to see much of a change because, again, Abdullah has been basically running the show since 1995—these decisions around Iraq are largely his. But what you are seeing is very good cooperation with the United States on the tactical war on terror, and a constant dialogue about these Saudis showing up in Iraq. While the Americans are concerned with the Saudis flowing into Iraq, the Saudis are as concerned with terrorists and arms flowing out of Iraq. I think you’re going to see continuing working relations with the United States on this issue. Tied to Abdullah becoming king, is Turki al-Faisal [the king's nephew and the former head of Saudi Intelligence] becoming the ambassador to the United States. I think that’s a clear indication of the seriousness with which the Saudis are approaching this fight on terror and their desire to work closely with the Americans.

That was my next question. Two weeks ago, it was quietly announced that Turki al-Faisal was chosen to replace Prince Bandar [bin Sultan], who’s been there for years. What’s the significance of that?

Prince Bandar became Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States in 1983. Turki al-Faisal is a controversial figure, although the right choice. He knows the bad guys from Afghanistan, he supported many of them. He knew bin Laden personally. He was the director of Saudi Arabia’s general intelligence from 1997 to 2001. He’s got dirt on his hands, but he’s also very Western-leaning and was one of the Saudis who saw the trouble the religious radicals could cause the Kingdom and the United States long before many of his countrymen. And so while his past makes him controversial, it also makes him potentially very effective. Nobody on this planet knows these guys better than Turki al-Faisal.

He also brings something else. When he became ambassador to the United Kingdom, it was sort of a marginal post, certainly less important than being the chief of intelligence. But he now brings to Washington a fairly good understanding of the second generation of terrorists, the ones born or bred in Europe, often hailing from London. While in England, he was active in trying to “convert” some of the more rabid clerics. He now brings this knowledge to Washington. On the war on terror, which is clearly a major issue for the Bush administration, I think his appointment is a good sign. It also suggests Abdullah is committed to this war, and interestingly, that he’s trying to put his own guys into important positions.

On reform—another big issue for the Bush administration—Abdullah as king is also a good sign. As Crown Prince, Abdullah showed himself to be more forward-leaning on reform than some of his brothers. Not as much, in some ways, as Fahd was, but more so than the others. And understanding the need for a little bit more openness, he’s instituted the national dialogues—which have been very important. Elections have come under him. The mutaween, the Saudi religious police, have been reigned in, although it seems they’re getting more power again. I think in terms of reform, Washington is probably breathing a sigh of relief he’s finally king and that he’ll have a little more heft to bring to his fights with his brothers in trying to move in that direction.

Now, who are his key brothers who are often seen as rivals?

There are a lot of brothers—the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdel Aziz, had forty-three sons. While I think the personalities matter, we should see splits in the royal family as reflective of splits in the Saudi population more generally. The brothers of immediate importance include Prince Sultan, the minister of defense and aviation, who has just been named Crown Prince. There’s Prince Nayef, who’s the interior minister and younger than him in age, and there’s Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh. [Princeton assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies] Michael Doran characterized the rivalry within the royal family in his Foreign Affairs piece as “Nayef vs. Abdullah.” [The article, The Saudi Paradox, ran in the January/February 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs]. And while that’s an over-simplification, it is a useful distinction. Crown Prince Abdullah, now King Abdullah, is trying to move this society toward a little bit more openness, a little bit more tolerance, and a little bit more engagement with the outside world slightly faster than it seems Nayef, who has been much more conservative, would prefer. Nayef is the one who clamped down on women driving in the 1990s; he’s the one who hauled in the human-rights activists who are now languishing in jail, and the one ultimately responsible for the mutaween. Whenever there’s a break on reform, the breaks are usually traced back to Prince Nayef.

Within Saudi Arabia, everyone knew the king was incapacitated for a decade, so I suppose there’s no great surprise—or jubilation, for that matter—at the news of his death.

There’s no great surprise and it’s been a slow transition. What we have missed here in the States is the fact that Saudi Arabia has actually been going through a major—though underreported—political crisis for the last ten years. You have a monarchy with out a monarch, a highly dysfunctional political entity.

So for the United States, in summary, it’s a plus.

Yes, I think it’s a plus and it couldn’t have come soon enough.

What will everyone be watching for?

The decision that everyone should be watching, and the one that will become King Abdullah’s legacy, is who he chooses to succeed Crown Prince Sultan [the current defense minister]. First, because there’s a chance Sultan may not outlast Abdullah, but also because it will be hard, though not impossible, to remove anyone that Abdullah designates. Fahd chose Abdullah to succeed him and Sultan to succeed Abdullah. Now Abdullah has a chance to strongly suggest who should follow Sultan– an extremely important decision.

So he did not designate his other brother, Nayef?

No, not yet. He could. But that’s going to be an interesting battle, and if they’re going to pass over Nayef, Nayef will have enormous powers in getting somebody else into key positions. Prince Salman is also waiting in the wings and is someone that Washington probably could work with. So his legacy will not only be what he does as king, but whether he can assure who comes after Prince Sultan, which every king before him has been able to do.

What are the most important things on the current U.S. agenda with Saudi Arabia?

I think there are three things the United States wants from Saudi Arabia. It wants seriousness of purpose in the war on terror, including continued monitoring and reigning in of terrorist financing. The Saudis have shown some improvement on this, certainly since September 11, but they still have a way to go. As part of the fight against terrorism, Washington also wants Saudi Arabia to stabilize its policies toward Iraq, and tamp down on the religious excesses within Saudi society and its proselytizing, which has been allowed to flourish since the early 1980s.

Secondly, the United States would like to see some movement toward political and social reform. Abdullah is a good king for that.

The third issue is oil. At the moment, oil prices are clearly higher than the United States would like, but Saudi Arabia, in general, is not seen as the main culprit of that. There are a number of contributing factors, including voracious demand from India and China. So oil will always be important to American-Saudi conversations, but it’s an area where we have shared interests in bringing the price down a little bit, and Saudi Arabia is not viewed as the key to the current crisis.

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