The Monarch Who Declared His Own Revolution

By Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek, March 30, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Monarch Who Declared His Own Revolution


Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek


Byline: Christopher Dickey

King Abdullah, 85, is racing to reform Saudi Arabia. How much can he accomplish--and will it last?

The night of September 11, 2001, had come and gone in Saudi Arabia, and the dawn prayers had been said in Jidda. But at midmorning, when a visitor to Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud found him in one of the vast rooms of his palace, the de facto ruler of the country was still bent on the floor. "He was alone," remembers the visitor, insisting on anonymity. "He prayed long, long, long--much longer than I have ever seen." At last the man who is now the king of Saudi Arabia (he would inherit the throne in 2005) arose and spoke. He seemed stunned. "I am sure our good people did not do these things," he said. Yet word had already come from the United States that most of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. "He could not put this within a context that he understood," recalls the visitor. "Not in an Arab context or a Muslim context or a Saudi context." In the years since, when Abdullah has talked of Al Qaeda and its allies, he uses words that translate as "the deviant group," or "the miscreants," as if it is impossible that they could have been his subjects.

For years the pace of reform in Saudi Arabia has reflected what seemed to be denial. Change has been almost imperceptibly slow, like a dune moving across the desert, even as the kingdom's festering problems nourished extremism. In the past few weeks, however, things have suddenly accelerated as the king has moved to show the ultraconservative Saudi religious establishment quite literally who's boss. He sacked the head of the feared religious police and the minister of justice, appointed Nora al-Fayez as deputy education minister, making her the highest-ranking female official in the country's history, and moved to equalize the education of women and men under the direction of a favored son-in-law who has been preparing for years to modernize the nation's school system. "Abdullah waited," says Robert Lacey, who wrote "The Kingdom," the classic 1981 study of Saudi Arabia, and is now working on a sequel. "He bided his time until it was appropriate for him to make the changes he wanted." Whatever the reason, the 85-year-old monarch has begun acting like a leader whose vision is becoming clear just as time is running short.

The question is how much he can accomplish before his death or dotage. Physically and mentally, Abdullah is still going strong, says Ford Fraker, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Riyadh. "The physical power of this man is remarkable," Fraker says. "When you shake hands with him it's like shaking hands with a tree trunk. He is rock solid. There isn't a tremor anywhere." But he'll need every bit of strength and stamina he can muster. Transforming Saudi society may be a task as overwhelming as that of creating Middle East peace. There are just as many factions hoping the king's efforts will fail, and just as much hard, incremental, unglamorous work to make sure the reforms stick. Can Abdullah follow through? And will the next king continue those reforms or undo them? Abdullah's father, King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, had more than 50 sons by various wives, and not all the half-brothers-in-waiting have the present king's cool wisdom--like Interior Minister Nayef, 76, who publicly suggested in 2002 that "Jews" might have been behind the 9/11 attacks.

To say that Abdullah believes in simple values--those of the Arabs, of Islam and of the House of Saud, as he sees them--is not at all to say he is a simple man. His life has bridged centuries of change. Born into the crumbling palaces of desert tribes in 1923 (the precise date was not recorded), he now rules one of the richest countries on earth. When Abdullah was a child, his father had not yet finished his conquests on the Arabian Peninsula or founded the nation-state that bears the family name.

The boy was 6 when his mother died, and as her only son he felt he had to take care of his younger sisters even then. …

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