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Saudi Arabia: Will New King Bring Change, Or More Of The Same?

Former King Fahd (left) and his brother, King Abdullah (file photo) The death of Saudi King Fahd marks the end of an era in the Middle East. Or does it? The new king, Abdullah, has been Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler since Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke a decade ago. In that role, Abdullah has navigated a careful course, simultaneously working with the West -- particularly the United States -- on oil and foreign policy, while maintaining close ties with his country's conservative Wahhabi Muslim leaders.

Washington, 2 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The official version is that nothing will change.

"The crown prince who has become king, King Abdullah, worked closely with the late King Fahd in implementing the policies of Saudi Arabia, both external and internal," Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal told reporters yesterday in London. "So, I cannot imagine that there will be any particular change in that policy, but rather a continuation of the policies undertaken by the late King Fahd." Turki is the outgoing ambassador to Britain who soon will be Riyadh's ambassador to the United States.

Turki's assessment makes sense to Nathan Brown, who studies Middle Eastern issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. Brown has written extensively on politics and government institutions in the region. He told RFE/RL that he expects little significant change in Saudi policies to the West in the current succession. But the rule of a king from the next generation of the Saudi royal family is another question.

"We're still dealing, to some extent, with the sons of the founder [of Saudi Arabia]. Somebody of Fahd or Abdullah's generation really grew up with the creation of Saudi Arabia as we know it," Brown said. "They were born at a time when Saudi Arabia simply did not have the modern infrastructure it does today. The next generation [to] take over basically will have matured after that, and so you're really talking about a sea change in leadership. But what shape that will take we just don't know yet."

In fact, Brown said, the real question is the royal family itself. Abdullah has not had free rein as regent for 10 years, given the enormous influence of the royal family as a whole. Brown points to the family's decision in 1962 to depose King Saud after he sent troops to neighboring Yemen in an effort to support royalist troops in a civil war there.

"The change may be having to do perhaps less with his [Abdullah's] change in title from crown prince to king and a little bit more highlighting future succession issues. Because we do know that the king is a fairly powerful figure, but we also know that the family does exercise some kind of oversight over him. And with all eyes on the future succession, rather than the current succession that has just taken place, it would seem to me that it'll just change the dynamic a little bit," Brown said.

James Phillips, who studies foreign-policy and security issues at the Heritage Foundation, another Washington policy center, agrees. In an interview with RFE/RL, Phillips said that the Saudi king is really no more than "the first among equals" within the royal family.
"We're still dealing, to some extent, with the sons of the founder [of Saudi Arabia]. Somebody of Fahd or Abdullah's generation really grew up with the creation of Saudi Arabia as we know it." - Brown

Phillips said he understands that so far, Abdullah has been careful to adhere to the family consensus in governing Saudi Arabia and executing its foreign policy. He said it would be in the king's interest to continue to do so, or risk the family's displeasure. Still, Phillips said there may be a slight shift in Saudi Arabia's approach not only to the United States and the West in general, but also to neighboring Arab states.

"I think there will be gradual and subtle changes," Phillips said. "I think King Abdullah is not as pro-Western as King Fahd was. [Abdullah is] believed to be more religious, have more ties with some of the religious establishment [in Saudi Arabia]. At one point he had pretty close ties with the [ruling] Assad family in Syria."

At the same time, Phillips said, both U.S. President George W. Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, have carefully cultivated personal ties to the Saudi royal family. In April, the current president even held Abdullah's hand while guiding the then crown prince from his car to the door of Bush's Texas ranch house.

Similarly, Phillips said, recent bombings in Saudi Arabia have left Abdullah and the royal family much less inclined to support extremely conservative Islamic movements, as they have in the past. "Personally, he [Abdullah] seems to be very friendly toward President Bush, and things have changed a lot. The Saudis -- even after [the attacks of] 11 September [2001] -- were in denial that they had a radical Islamic terrorist problem. But now -- especially since 12 May 2003, when Al-Qaeda set off some major bombs in Saudi Arabia -- it's woken up to the fact that it can't continue funding radical groups as it did before," Phillips said.

Then there is oil policy. On this, Phillips expects no discernable change -- and certainly not using oil to make a political point, as Saudi Arabia did during an embargo three decades ago. Anything like that, he said, would simply be bad for the family business.