Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

With Saudi Changing of the Guard There Will Be No "Crash of '79"

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

With Saudi Changing of the Guard There Will Be No "Crash of '79"

Article excerpt

With Saudi Changing of the Guard There Will Be No "Crash of '79"

By Richard H. Curtiss

"Because we wish to spend some time resting and recuperating and because of your highness's good character...we entrust you in this decree to take over management of government affairs while we enjoy rest and recuperation."--Excerpt from letter from King Faisal to Crown Prince Abdullah released Jan. 1, 1996 by the official Saudi Press Agency.

In the early 1970s novelist Paul Erdman's action-packed thriller The Crash of '79 was a best-seller in the United States and Europe. Although most of the action took place among conniving atomic scientists, crooked European bankers and anti-West Iranians, the catalyst for the world economic crash the book predicted was the accession to the throne of Saudi Arabia of Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud.

Erdman's thesis was that after the progressive, modernizing reign of Western-oriented King Fahd, eldest of the fabled "Sudairi Seven" sons (and four daughters) of the modern Kingdom's founder, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud and his wife, Hassa bint Ahmed Sudairi, the assumption of power by Fahd's more traditionalist half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, would plunge an inherently unstable region into chaos, triggering a world economic crash.

The reality of such an accession, if that's what the current provisional transfer of duties eventually becomes, has turned out to be the opposite in every respect of the situation Erdman foresaw. Eight years of fighting between Iraq and Iran and the brief Gulf war that brought a million troops from 37 countries into and out of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors in the space of only seven months, left international borders in the region and even the administrations and ruling families of every concerned state unchanged. That's not instability.

The Saudi succession, laid out when King Fahd took over upon the death of his brother, King Khalid, in 1982, followed exactly according to plan and only months after King Fahd had initiated overdue austerity measures. They abolished wasteful consumer subsidies while retaining the country's two key social programs: free and modern medical care for all, and free education through the university graduate studies level to all who can qualify. King Fahd also had created a Majlis al Shura (consultative council) that contains the seeds of a broadening of the country's power base beyond the Al Saud family and, on Aug. 7, named a new cabinet that effectively passed the executive authority to a new and highly educated generation of technocrats.

The transfer of power was the result of a medical crisis variously described as exhaustion from overwork or a mild stroke that hospitalized King Fahd on Nov. 30. He left the hospital on Dec. 7 and was shown on television receiving official visitors. But Prince Abdullah began presiding over cabinet meetings and represented Saudi Arabia at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit meeting in Oman Dec. 4-6.

King Fahd is a diabetic and for several years has walked with a cane because of a bad knee, so the bad-health-induced transfer of authority, whether temporary or permanent, came as no shock to the country. Further, government announcements left no doubt that if the King's health improves sufficiently and he chooses to resume a full schedule, executive authority will be returned to him.

The event occurred some 17 years after Erdman's gloomy prognostication and, ironically, the very characteristics that alarmed him about Prince Abdullah now seem assets made to order for the times.

Tall, serious, with a firm handshake and an air of energetic and purposeful authority, Prince Abdullah bears some physical resemblance to his fabled father, King Abdel Aziz. The founder of the modern Kingdom had some 40 sons, and an equal number of daughters. All four kings that followed have been his sons. The oldest of them, King Saud, was born in 1902. King Fahd was born in 1922 and the youngest of King Fahd's six full (Sudairi) brothers, Prince Ahmad, was born in 1940. …

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