WASHINGTON is watching closely as one of its most stable Arab
allies enters a season of change.
The desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been a pillar of
American interests in the Middle East, a conservative but moderate
Islamic state that in recent years has helped maintain stable oil
prices and even given cautious support to the US-backed
Arab-Israeli peace process.
But mounting financial woes stemming from declining oil prices,
reckless spending, and the 1991 Gulf war - plus restive Muslim
fundamentalists - have afflicted a nation that once used oil
profits to hold adversity at bay. Now, with the country's monarch
at least temporarily indisposed, the kingdom's aging leadership is
In the short term, a coincidence of US and Saudi interests in
maintaining a strategic alliance to deter threats from the dominant
military powers in the Gulf region - Iran and Iraq - seems
Over the long term, King Fahd's recent decision to hand the
reigns of power to his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, has
implications that are less clear. Power was transferred Jan. 1.
"There's nothing to worry about now, but how is it going to pan
out if Abdullah becomes king?" asks one expert on Saudi Arabia who
requested anonymity. "In the worst case, it could lead to increased
uncertainty in the US-Saudi relationship."
The crown prince is one of 25 surviving sons of Abdul Aziz (Ibn
Saud), who established the Saudi kingdom in 1932. To become king,
Abdullah would need the approval of his 24 half-brothers, some of
whom consider him, at age 72, too old for the job. One possible
alternative: the popular, capable, and younger Prince Salman, the
governor of Riyad.
As head of the country's 57,000-man National Guard security
force, Abdullah is used to working closely with American military
But he is described as less reflexively pro-American than King
Fahd and, to a degree, less supportive of Middle East peace moves.
In a speech last October he declared that Jerusalem - which Israel
claims as its capital - should be an Arab and Islamic city forever.
The comment was not warmly received in Washington.
But State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said last week
that it was "absolutely untrue" that the US regards the crown
prince as "anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-peace with Israel."
Analysts speculate that for health reasons Fahd may not return
to power, meaning that Abdullah will reign as de facto monarch
until Fahd dies or formally abdicates. Without the full authority
of a de jure monarch, they say, Abdullah could have a harder time
arbitrating disputes among members of the royal family.
Even as the future of the monarchy grows clouded, the
restiveness of Muslim militants appears on the increase. Last
November, Islamic elements were suspected of planting a bomb that
destroyed a facility in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where Americans
were training Saudi military personnel. …