Wow, reform in Saudi Arabia. Just kidding. Eighty-three year old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, often hailed as a force for reform in the kingdom, has just issued a decree about who can succeed to the throne there. Specifically: sons and grandsons of Ibn Saud, the kingdom’s founder.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with no elected parliament or political parties and the population of about 23 million is ruled by strict Sharia Islamic law.
On the death of the monarch, the committee would immediately hold a meeting to name the crown prince as king and then the new ruler would have 10 days to inform the commission of his choice of crown prince.
All Saudi kings to date have been sons of the kingdom’s founder Abdul Aziz, although he is estimated to have fathered anywhere between 50 and several hundred.
Here’s an editorial in today’s Washington Post, by S. Rob Sobhani, about how reform-minded King Abdullah is: http://washingtontimes.com/article/20071010/EDITORIAL/110100007/1013/EDITORIAL
The king, who enters his third year on the throne, embodies a unique mix of reformist instincts, religious credentials, political credibility and vision for change.
The elevation of King Abdullah’s role as a strategic U.S. partner is based on his track record. While some may express frustration with the pace of the king’s reform agenda, there is little doubt that it is anchored in a vision never before seen from the Saudi royal family. Shortly after taking office, King Abdullah delivered a speech in Mecca about his vision for the future of the Muslim world: “Fanaticism and extremism cannot grow on an earth whose soil is embedded in the spirit of tolerance, moderation, and balance. Good governance can eliminate injustice, destitution and poverty.” The speech was vintage King Abdullah: honest, ground-breaking and reform-minded.
In a somewhat dissenting opinion, Parade.com ranked King Abdullah number five on its list of the world’s worst dictators; last year he was ranked seventh: http://www.parade.com/articles/web_exclusives/2007/02-11-2007/dictators05.html
Here’s an amusing, tangentially related article from 2005 about the Saudi princes lying about their ages: http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110007051
On Monday, the Saudi Press Agency said Fahd (pictured nearby) was born in 1923 and noted that Abdullah was born in 1924 and Sultan in 1930.
1930!? Sultan is just 75 this year! I must admit I laughed on reading this. For years I have noticed that Sultan has understated his age, but 1930 set a new record. In the Saudi system, age brings seniority, a key qualification for succession. But old age also suggests infirmity, a possible disqualifying factor. (Fahd’s detached confinement to a wheelchair was an embarrassment that the royal family likely does not want to repeat.) Sultan appears to have been shaving years, allowing himself to slip below a couple of half-brothers who, by virtue of temperament or lack of qualifications, are not in the running for the leadership, but still retaining an edge over a bevy of contenders born in 1931. It is the Saudi metaphorical equivalent of hair dye, although Sultan’s black hair is not genuine either (and a senior British official who met him recently said he was wearing makeup, too).
The article includes this bit, relevant to the succession issue:
Despite Abdullah’s reputation for reform, the spectrum of differences on policy within the royal family is probably quite narrow. Personality differences and succession rivalries provide added frisson. Is cautious reform better than very cautious reform? And does reform actually mean change? The House of Saud knows it has to stand together. Oil policy is not contested. Nor is the Saudi leadership role in the Islamic world. Neither, frankly, is the need to maintain links with the U.S., despite this being inflammatory to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda affiliates.
And here’s a lengthy article/interview from/with someone who thinks Parade’s characterization of King Abdullah as a dictator is unfair: http://www.saudi-us-relations.org/articles/2007/interviews/070219-molavi-interview.html
…Thomas Lippman, an adjunct scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a journalist who specialized in Middle East affairs. He wrote “Inside the Mirage,” a comprehensive book on US-Saudi relations. Speaking of Parade and Mr. Wallechinsky Mr. Lippman said, “”What planet do these people dwell on? You know, if [King] Abdullah is the world’s worst dictator then the world is in better shape than it has been at any other point in my lifetime.”
He continued, “You don’t want to get into invidious comparisons but the fact is [King] Abdullah doesn’t even fit the category of dictator. He’s not a dictator. He’s a negotiator. That is what he is. That’s the only way he can run Saudi Arabia. I’d ask any American who has been to Saudi Arabia, do you see armies of regimented slaves starving and chained in the factories? I don’t think so.. ..the references that we always see of Saudi Arabia as a quote absolute monarchy unquote, are just not correct. That’s just not the way Saudi Arabia operates. The metabolism there is one in which individual Saudis take on other individual Saudis in argumentation and discussion and questioning. And it’s one in which maybe what happens in the public arena is constrained, but that doesn’t mean it’s an absolute dictatorship like North Korea, for heaven’s sake.”
This interviewee mentions “flawed system” five times! Hey, it’s a flawed system.