Saudi King Abdullah and Prospects for Reform

With reform-minded new leader King Abdullah, some Saudis are hoping for progress on political, economic and social issues. Earlier this year, the first local elections in decades sparked hope. But in the conservative Islamic theocracy, analysts say progress is likely to come slowly and could be derailed by turmoil in the region.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The death last Monday of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd elevated his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz to the top of the Saudi monarchy. Abdullah's change in title from prince to king is largely a formality. For the past 10 years, Fahd has been incapacitated by a series of strokes, and Abdullah effectively has been leading the oil kingdom. Abdullah is seen as more receptive to political and social reforms than his late half-brother, but as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Riyadh, any reform comes very slowly in the conservative Islamic theocracy that dominates Saudi Arabia.

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PETER KENYON reporting:

The jarring juxtaposition of massive oil wealth and Saudi Arabia's conservative religious and social customs is on display every day inside Riyadh's highly modern shopping malls. Under the glow of giant flat-screen TVs and other high-tech products, children gleefully point to their favorite gadgets as their fathers window-shop. The men here are happy to speak with a foreign reporter about the new king, but when the reporter turns to a group of women, covered head to foot in traditional black, who want to offer their comments, security guards quickly break up the interview, saying advance permission hasn't been obtained.

Saudis say they expect King Abdullah to continue the late King Fahd's efforts to modernize this insular kingdom. Abdullah's reputation as a reformer was confirmed for Saudis in January of 2003 when he met with advocates of political, economic and social change and told them he supported many of their ideas. Now that Abdullah is king and no longer under the traditional restraints placed upon the crown prince, Saudis are wondering if the pace of reform will accelerate. In recent years, women have been permitted to join men in certain jobs, although the controversial ban on women driving remains in place. Professor Khalid al-Dakhil at King Saud University says the driving ban is a good example of an issue that could be solved the Saudi way: through dialogue and consensus. He says it depends on Abdullah's willingness to find a solution with the conservative clerics who support the ban.

Professor KHALID AL-DAKHIL (King Saud University): Because there's nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, in the Islamic sources that would even suggest that women cannot drive. It's a matter of interpretation. Yes, the state needs the legitimacy from the religious establishment, but on the other hand--and this is just as true--the religious establishment derives its legitimacy and its legitimate form from the state. So it's a matter of give and take here.

KENYON: Give and take, in fact, is a hallmark of Saudi politics. Saudi traditions invest absolute power in the king, but they also demand that he rule by consensus. And on sensitive issues, consensus is hard to find within the sometimes fractious royal family. Analysts say the result is evolutionary and often partial reform. There were local elections in parts of the kingdom this year, for instance, the first since the mid-'60s, and yet calling for a further opening of the political process is still a dangerous thing to do here. Three men are in jail for calling for the kingdom to become a constitutional monarchy. But writer and analyst Khalil al-Khalil says King Abdullah may be laying the groundwork for future reforms even in sensitive areas such as religion.

Mr. KHALIL AL-KHALIL (Writer, Analyst): He is not happy at all--at all--with the religious extreme ideas. Probably he would reduce some of the power of the religious establishment in the right way. That doesn't mean he's against the religion. No, he is a religious man in a very positive way, but he has very particular interest in changing the traditional ideas.

KENYON: But not necessarily right away. Analyst Khalid al-Dakhil says the discussions and negotiations over reform will necessarily take time because they will encompass many different reforms at once.

Prof. AL-DAKHIL: It's like a package. You cannot do one thing without the other. You will have to make political reform, economic reform and cultural reform, too. And I think maybe this is one of the hurdles, that there is no consensus within the government on the question of reform.

KENYON: In addition, outside factors may come into play. Analysts note, for instance, that when the late King Fahd came to power, few expected his reign to be shaped by a violent Islamist backlash, but that's what followed his decision to permit non-Muslim troops, including Americans, into the cradle of Islam during the First Gulf War. Violence linked to al-Qaeda hit the kingdom in 2003 with attacks on three compounds housing Westerners. Saudi officials say the ensuing government crackdown killed some 112 suspected terrorists and is still going on. Analysts say the precarious situation in Iraq, combined with turmoil in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, could mean that if King Abdullah doesn't move quickly on his domestic agenda, it may soon be at the mercy of events outside his control.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Riyadh.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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