Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 August 2005
Issue No. 754
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Smooth succession

The coronation of King Abdullah prompts no major changes to Saudi Arabia's modern history, report Rasheed Aboul Samh from Riyadh

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Although an emergency Arab summit was postponed, Arab leaders gathered in Riyadh for the funeral of King Fahd on Tuesday

Saudi King Fahd Ibn Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, a longtime ally of the United States, died in a Riyadh hospital on Monday morning at the age of 84, following a long illness. Crown Prince Abdullah, Fahd's 81-year-old half brother and the effective ruler of the kingdom for the past decade, was immediately named his successor.

The death of the monarch was announced on state television at a little after 10am Monday in a statement from the royal court read by Information Minister Iyad Madani, whose voice trembled with emotion as he read the news. "With all sorrow and sadness, the royal court announces the death of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd," said the statement.

A three-day official mourning period was announced, with government offices expected to be closed until at least next Saturday.

Fahd's funeral took place Tuesday afternoon. He was buried in the royal cemetery at the Imam Turki Mosque in Riyadh. Scores of foreign royals and leaders attended the solemn funeral including Prince Charles of Britain, who represented his mother Queen Elizabeth II at the funeral.

On Wednesday, Saudi citizens were invited to acclaim the new king and crown prince at the royal palace in Riyadh after the noon prayers.

The political transition has been smooth so far, with members of the ruling royal family pledging allegiance to the new king who appointed his other half-brother Defence Minister Prince Sultan Ibn Abdul-Aziz as the new crown prince.

But speculation was rife as to why the third person in the line of succession, the deputy crown prince, has not yet been announced. The two main contenders are the powerful Interior Minister Prince Naif Ibn Abdul-Aziz and Riyadh Governor Prince Salman Ibn Abdul-Aziz. Some commentators have speculated that Salman is the favourite for being closer to King Abdullah and less abrasive than Naif.

"It is still not clear who will be named the deputy crown prince," said Saudi political analyst Adel Al-Toraifi in a phone interview from Riyadh. "They may leave the decision for later."

"Not announcing the third person in the succession indicates a lack of consensus in the royal family," said Khaled Dukhayil, a professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh. Abdullah had been the de facto ruler of this ultra-conservative Wahabi kingdom ever since a major stroke in 1995 left Fahd debilitated and in a wheelchair.

Abdullah earned the respect of his people. For the past three years, Abdullah assumed the role of a social reformer. Knowing the increasing level of poverty and unemployment, he established what is called the Fund for Combating Poverty. Abdullah also built on his brother's policy of Saudisation thus increasing the job quotas for the nation's youth to reduce unemployment.

According to many Saudis, more social change would take place now that Abdullah, a known reformer, was fully in charge after being named king on Monday. But other Saudis cautioned that any change introduced in the country would not be radical.

"I wasn't surprised because he was critically ill for long time," said Mariam, a 20- year-old Saudi student of international communications. "He did do a lot for the country, and there isn't going to be dramatic change since the crown prince was already running the country. But I do think the new king will give more job opportunities to Saudi women and hopefully allow us to drive."

Women are still banned from driving here and were not allowed to vote in the landmark municipal elections that were held earlier this year across the country for the first time in over 40 years. "I'm sad but it doesn't affect me directly," said Ola Badeeb, a 20- year-old Saudi woman who is studying in the United States.

"But I think that King Abdullah will be better for everyone as he will use our oil resources wisely, offer more jobs to Saudis and perhaps allow women to drive," she added.

Toraifi said he didn't believe that women would be allowed to drive or vote in the next five years, as this would antagonise the ultra-conservatives, whose support of the royal family has been crucial in their rule of this country.

"Women driving and voting will not come in the next five years," said Toraifi. "If they allow women to do so it will spell the end of their control over the Saudi population and it would be too dangerous for them."

But Toraifi anticipated that political reforms would be speeded up now that Abdullah has the full powers of a monarch, and that a new generation of princes is being groomed to take over after this current geriatric generation of rulers passes away.

"Abdullah has appointed his son, Mutaab Ibn Abdullah, head of the National Guard, which is a very important post nearly equivalent to that of minister of defence," explained the analyst. "Prince Sultan has appointed his son, Khaled, deputy defence minister, and powerful Interior Minister Naif has appointed his son Mohamed, deputy minister of interior."

"King Abdullah is a reform-minded ruler and I think that he's going to do something about women driving, economic reforms and further political reforms," said Dukhayil. "But we have to wait and see until he gives his first speech as a king."

One of the major challenges facing king Abdullah is widening popular participation in the political process. Abdullah is a real advocate of citizen's political rights though, with no major changes in the political scenes.

As the news of the ailing king's death spread across the kingdom, glitzy malls and traditional Arabian souqs were mostly open but empty and people were seen glued to television sets to catch up on the latest details.

Fahd became king in 1982 after the death of King Khaled and guided Saudi Arabia through the most turbulent era in its history, which saw the kingdom survive two Gulf wars. But he is blamed by some Islamic extremists for having invited US troops into the country in 1990 to defend the country after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August of that year and signalled his intent to move into Saudi Arabia too.

The latter part of his rule saw the kingdom engulfed in Islamic extremism with the rise of Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden and the bloody 11 September, 2001 attacks on the United States by mostly Saudi terrorists.

On relations with the US, Dukhayil believes things will remain relatively the same, despite King Abdullah's reputation for being a nationalist and pan-Arabist.

It has been heard of several times in the words of Abdullah the talk of Arab unity and the necessity of Arab economic integration.

"Don't forget it was Abdullah who brought the Saudi-US relationship back on track after 9/11. Basic policies on oil, US relations and Middle East relations are going to remain unchanged," said Dukhayil.

Abdullah was keen to win the confidence of the US administration. He courted both Democrats and Republicans. He fought the Christian right known for their intense hostility to Arabs and Muslims. These groups are known for their unqualified support for Israel.

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