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In Saudi Arabia, tribal and religious leaders gathered for a second day to pledge their allegiance to King Abdullah. The burial of his half-brother King Fahd on Tuesday marked the beginning of Abdullah's formal reign, though he's been in effective charge of the kingdom for a decade. King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995. Abdullah is seen as a reformer, but `caution' and `continuity' are the watchwords of the Saudi royal family. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Riyadh.
PETER KENYON reporting:
Under a fierce July sun, thousands of Saudi men stood patiently in line to pledge their obedience to the new king. Tribal sheikhs and clerics in their robes and military men in full uniform performed their traditional duty in a ceremony that's akin to a coronation without the pomp and grandeur usually associated with that ritual. Sheikhs and clerics describe the two-day ceremony known as a bayah as a contract between the ruler and his subjects. The people have a religious obligation to listen to and obey the king except if it would mean disobeying God. In return, the king is obligated to provide justice for all of his people.
For conservative Saudis, these traditions are a comfort. Sheikh Saud al-Barai(ph) told al-Arabiya Television that these ancient customs are all that stand between the kingdom and the encroaching forces of modernity, which he finds very dangerous.
(Soundbite of al-Arabiya broadcast)
Sheikh SAUD AL-BARAI: (Through Translator) On the other hand, this generation has shown a strong immunity to the winds and to the storms that seek to scatter and drive us apart. So thanks God for keeping us together and in a good condition.
KENYON: It was no coincidence that members of the Supreme Council of Senior Islamic Clerics were the first in line to greet Abdullah at the bayah ceremony. The royal family has long relied on backing from the fiercely conservative Wahhabi establishment.
Analysts agree that barring some unforeseen event, radical change is not in the cards. Abdullah has stuck closely to tradition so far, naming his half-brother Defense Minister Sultan to be crown prince next in line of succession. Sultan is not known as a reform advocate, nor is one of the top contenders for the now-vacant third spot, Prince Nayef, the conservative interior minister.
(Soundbite of music)
KENYON: At a gleaming steel and glass shopping center in downtown Riyadh, families stroll past shops filled with the latest in modern consumer gadgetry and designer clothes. All the women are covered head to toe in black, but the concerns of these families range far beyond religion. Most say what the new king needs to do first is attack this oil-rich country's huge unemployment and poverty problems. Hamid al-Cardi(ph), a young salesman behind a mobile phone display, says he hopes the king will act more boldly now that he's really in charge.
Mr. HAMID AL-CARDI (Salesman): (Through Translator) He needs to implement the recommendations already on his desk, like improving health care and especially reducing unemployment. There are lots of graduates every year and no jobs. He has to do something.
KENYON: One thing Abdullah will be able to do is spend money. Thanks in part to the unsettled situation in the Mideast, soaring oil prices have bloated Saudi coffers to the tune of a nearly $80 billion surplus in this budget year. Economic growth stands at a heady 6 percent, and yet many Saudis dwell in poverty. Dr. Issan Ali Buhaliga(ph), an economist and member of the Saudi Shura, a consultive council, says 75 percent of the population is under 30 years of age and the kingdom urgently needs to educate and train them to be able to compete internationally when the massive Saudi oil reserves give out.
Dr. ISSAN ALI BUHALIGA (Saudi Shura Member): Oil will be depleted in a few decades, and then what? We are not going to go back to desert and dates and stuff. No, we feel that our strength is our people. They need to be highly educated; they need to be competitive.
KENYON: Analysts say Abdullah has a long list of economic, social and political reforms, but how quickly he'll be able to act is an open question. Author and analyst Halil al-Halil(ph) says Saudis shouldn't expect too much too soon because while Saudi traditions give the king absolute power, they also require consultation within the frequently divided royal family.
Mr. HALIL AL-HALIL (Author): I will tell you none in the royal family members is against the concept of reform, but some of them do not want to offer too much reform. They don't want to offer a lot of changes. Some of them thinks that reforms has to be according to the Saudi way. Some dealing and wheeling to be also taken care of.
KENYON: Other analysts say the new king would be wise to move relatively quickly, at least by Saudi standards. They caution that if the situation in neighboring Iraq collapses, events in this often-volatile region could put domestic issues back on the shelf. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Riyadh.
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