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The Saudi Who Can Speak Our Language

Author: Youssef Michel Ibrahim
February 24, 2002
The Washington Post


Americans accustomed to the staid styles of Saudi monarchs in past decades need to get to know Crown Prince Abdullah. His emotional style, blunt talk and decisiveness have helped him emerge as the most popular Saudi ruler since the late King Faisal, who ruled from 1964 until his assassination in 1975, and who instituted far-reaching economic and educational initiatives.

Understanding Abdullah is the key to understanding much of U.S. foreign policy. Though he rules a kingdom with a population roughly the size of greater Los Angeles, his country's massive oil reserves and strategic location give him the power to influence world oil markets, U.S. troop deployments, the American agenda in the Persian Gulf, and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And it is impossible to understand Abdullah without understanding his role in Saudi Arabia.

Over the past three years, as Saudi Arabia's ailing King Fahd, 79, has turned more and more power over to his half-brother Abdullah, the crown prince has put his signature on policy, quietly bringing changes to the royal family, Saudi society and the Saudi economy. While he has charted an "Arab nationalist" course -- resisting the imposition of American policies on the region and speaking up on behalf of Palestinians -- he is also strongly pro-American and an economic reformer who has flung open the doors of the Saudi oil sector for foreign companies. In the past two weeks his international political profile has risen with the offer he boldly extended to Israel in the name of the whole Arab world: peace in return for Arab land occupied after June 1967. The offer's acceptance of Israel's right to exist is something many in the region, including past Saudi monarchs, have been reluctant to state openly. Given his influence in the Arab world because of his earlier public positions against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Abdullah speaks from a position of strength.

That strength may come as a surprise to many Americans, who have wondered about the stability of the Saudi kingdom in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The participation of more than a dozen Saudi nationals in the attacks, former Saudi citizen Osama bin Laden's role in inspiring and planning the attacks, and rumors of problems in U.S.-Saudi cooperation on defense and anti-terrorism all have contributed to doubts about the House of Saud.

Abdullah, who is 78, was making waves long before Sept. 11. In the 25 years I spent covering that region for both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, I have never known a Saudi leader who talks so freely and often on matters of substance.

His style grows from his experience. He has never been a bureaucrat-monarch like others who were groomed as deputy ministers and ministers, and wedded to a hidebound system of committees and consensus. Abdullah spent nearly a quarter-century creating and running the Saudi National Guard, a force of tribesmen trained and equipped with the help of the U.S. Army and a private consulting company associated with the Central Intelligence Agency. In doing so, he got used to fast movement, quick decisions, and a great deal of networking, talking, and listening.

Abdullah has always had a flair for public relations, particularly in the Persian Gulf. He understands how small gestures can go a long way. For instance, he rises to greet old men in his majlis, or audiences, and has seats for them to rest upon while they talk to him.

He has substance, as well as style. Take his important "oil initiative." About three years ago, Abdullah asked his ambassador, Prince Bandar, to invite the bosses of major American oil companies to a quiet meeting in McLean. Over tea, with little fanfare, he dropped a bomb: Foreign oil giants would be welcomed back to Saudi Arabia to search for new reserves of oil and natural gas and invest as equity partners along with Saudis. Having been evicted -- albeit with compensation -- from all Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in the 1970s, the executives reacted with disbelief. Then a feeding frenzy followed. Negotiations with nearly 10 major oil companies from the United States and Europe are underway. In a year, Western oil companies will be back in Saudi Arabia; their investments may top $ 30 billion to $ 40 billion within a decade.

Ever since the Persian Gulf War, leading members of the Saudi Royal family had been mulling the decision. Abdullah finally put it on the table. In doing so, he tied Saudi oil and security even closer to Western economic and security interests, while getting money and technology to supplement exhausted Saudi budgets and provide new jobs.

Following this episode, Abdullah took a vacation in Hawaii. He put on civilian clothes, took his family to a shopping mall, and went for a stroll, something he never gets to do at home. Family members snapped pictures. My friend Abdul Rahman Al Rashed, the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al Awsat, a major Saudi daily, just as a joke, wondered if he could get and publish one of the photos. Abdullah sent him three and told him to go ahead. It had never been done before. Needless to say, it endeared the Crown Prince to Saudis.

In the past four years, Abdullah has also normalized ties with Iran to achieve a paramount Saudi objective: stability in the Persian Gulf. He even appointed a Saudi Shiite Muslim as ambassador to Tehran. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia used Iraq as its proxy in a protracted war with Iran. Today, Iran and Saudi Arabia coordinate closely.

Abdullah has undertaken other striking measures over the past three years. He banned commissions in deals involving the government, and in the oil initiative banned royal princes from participating altogether. He cut off the phone lines of royal family members who had large, unpaid phone bills. He also reduced tariffs to bring them in line with other Gulf nations and spur trade. And in the aftermath of Sept. 11, he told senior religious leaders to direct their preachers to convey a moderate message about other religions and the United States in their Friday prayers.

Two months ago, Abdullah began enforcing a system that requires Saudi women to have identity cards with photographs, names and serial numbers. These cards could lead to greater freedom for women, making it easier for them to travel, open bank accounts and do business. Soon, I am sure, they will even be able to get driver's licenses.

Among Arabs, Abdullah speaks bluntly. The emirs and kings of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which meets once a year, were stunned to hear his speech Dec. 30 in Oman. "Changing painful realities," Abdullah said, "can only begin by changing ourselves first." He added that Sept. 11 and the condition of the Arab world required "some self-accounting that precedes the accounting of others. This can only be done through insistent questions, important questions we have long avoided facing up to in the past." He said it was "the duty of all Muslims" to condemn these terrorist acts "without the slightest hesitation or ambiguity." Coming just before the new year, the speech went virtually unnoticed in the Western media. But in the Arab world, where leaders usually skirt around issues, people are still talking about it.

Does this mean Abdullah will do America's bidding? Almost certainly not. He argues that would only harm U.S. interests. What's more, his objections to what he views as America's totally biased support of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians are very real. Abdullah opposes a U.S. attack against Saddam Hussein if it means destabilizing Iraq. Instead, he agrees with CIA Director George Tenet, who favors a Baghdad coup, mostly because he believes it is the only thing that can work.

The difficult task will be reforming Saudi Arabia. Here Abdullah's power to change the system is -- like his predecessors' -- limited. He has to deal with an entrenched welfare state, a tenacious religious establishment, and an educational system that needs massive reforms.

Nevertheless Abdullah has begun a process of change. It has always been said, and it is true, that Saudi Arabia's population is far more conservative than its leadership of royals and technocrats. A well-educated generation of second-line princes must assume responsibility for implementing it. It would be helpful if the United States, which has a strong friend in Abdullah and a stable supplier of oil in Saudi Arabia, refrained from treating it like a obstinate, tottering regime and upsetting it with anonymous leaks and criticism.

Too much pressure to change can backfire. U.S. pressure to change Muslim schools is an example. Saudi leaders are not really worried about whether religious education provides recruits for bin Laden, but they know that Saudi schools are producing mediocre talents ill-equipped for the economy. My guess is Abdullah will implement economic reforms, including the opening of a bunch of new schools that teach practical skills for real jobs -- German style.

"What we need is for students to be directed away for these old fashioned schooling systems. Why do we need more graduates who can have no jobs? What we need is welders, technical experts, accountants, computer-savvy types. Practical training for practical jobs," said a senior Saudi planner. "This is not a matter of Saudi-American relations. It is a matter of Saudi changes. Our decisions." The kind of decisions Abdullah will make.

Youssef Ibrahim is senior Middle East Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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