By Andrew England and Abeer Allam in Riyadh
Published: May 31 2009 20:11 | Last updated: May 31 2009 20:11
|King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at an interfaith conference: he has sought to quell extremists|
At a resort complex on the outskirts of Riyadh, an eclectic group of Saudi psychologists, religious scholars and security officers watch a video showing bearded men, some with wild manes of dark hair, disembarking from an aircraft. They are greeted by Sheikh Ahmed Gilan, an ebullient cleric who belies the stereotype of the country’s austere religious figures.
“You are being welcomed once again as sons of the kingdom,” the beaming Sheikh Ahmed says.
It is no ordinary homecoming. The video traces a group of Saudi extremists returning from US detention in Guantánamo Bay 18 months ago. After a spell in Saudi jails, they were transferred to the resort turned rehabilitation centre under the care of the doctors and academics watching the video, among them Sheikh Ahmed. The programme is part of a campaign by the kingdom to tackle the militant extremism that has so darkened its name.
“Everybody [used] to say Saudi Arabia exports oil and terrorism,” says Sheikh Ahmed. “Now it exports oil and counterterrorism.”
Many Saudis hope his sentiments have taken root on a wider basis. After the September 11 2001 attacks on the US, critics at home and abroad pointed to the sermons of hardline clerics and an education system accused of fomenting intolerance. The kingdom was in dire need of an overhaul, they said, warning of the dangers inherent in growing wealth disparities and mounting social pressures.
The subsequent oil boom and the accession in 2005 of a new king, Abdullah, seen as a progressive force in Saudi terms, offered an opportunity to address some of the ailments. But whether the opportunity is being grasped remains open to debate. Some see signs of gradual progress but complain about the pace; others warn of a lack of clear economic or social vision in a country run by an ageing band of royal brothers.
|Youths in Riyadh|
Mr Obama has said he will discuss oil prices with the king, while another topic likely to come up is his administration’s desire for Yemeni detainees in Guantánamo to go through the kingdom’s rehabilitation programme rather than head home. Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia, has a history of militants escaping or being released from its jails. The Riyadh resort is a temporary home for the centre while at least five permanent ones are built.
OIL DEPENDENCE BRINGS DIPLOMATIC DEFERENCE
Barack Obama experienced America’s long difficulty in grappling with Saudi Arabia at literally first hand when the president bent forward to greet King Abdullah at April’s Group of 20 meeting in London – an apparent bow the Washington Times described as a “shocking act of fealty to a foreign potentate”, writes Daniel Dombey.
The White House blustered that the stoop came because the president was offering a double-handed shake. But the argument about the appropriate level of interaction with the Saudi monarchy was far from new. Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt met King Abdul-Aziz on the USS Quincy in 1945, the relationship has been framed by US dependence on foreign oil, a desire to make better use of each other’s clout in the Middle East, and the deep contrast between their political systems.
That bundle of factors goes some way to explaining why Mr Obama decided to call in on Saudi Arabia this week, ahead of a long-trailed speech in Cairo to the Muslim world – and why he announced the visit only at the last minute.
He has also learnt from his predecessor how encounters with Saudi leaders can be perilous. Whenever George W. Bush stopped by in his latter years in office, he seemed obliged to call on his hosts to increase oil production, with extremely limited results – a double show of impotence. Mr Obama is already behaving similarly. “I don’t think that it’s in Saudi Arabia’s interests or our interests to have a situation in which our economy ... is disrupted constantly by huge spikes in energy prices,” he said last week.
Still to be seen is whether King Abdullah will be won over by the new president’s powers of persuasion – or by his impeccable manners.
The rehabilitation programme helps illustrate that some change has taken place in the kingdom since 15 Saudis were discovered to have been among the September 11 attackers. After initial denials, Saudi Arabia acknowledged the threat of home-grown al-Qaeda militants and pursued an anti-terrorism campaign. At the same time, the fruits of the recent oil boom have allowed the kingdom to switch from debtor to accumulator of about $500bn (€354bn, £309bn) in foreign reserves.
Indeed, when Gordon Brown was seeking donors able and willing to provide the International Monetary Fund with additional resources to bail out stricken countries, Saudi Arabia was an important port of call for the UK prime minister. As if to reaffirm the kingdom’s improved standing in the eyes of its western allies, Robert Gates, US defence secretary, last month described the bilateral relationship as one of “the mainstays of stability in the Middle East for the last 60 years”.
Within Saudi Arabia, two changes have recently added spice to the debate about the trajectory the nation is taking. The first was a cabinet reshuffle that saw more moderate forces replace staunch conservatives at the justice and education ministries. Both are institutions in desperate need of reform and long-time spheres of influence of the Wahabi religious establishment.
Inspired by the reshuffle, some are bold enough to suggest the influence of the more radical clerics is on the wane. “In the years following the accession of the king I think the conservative Islamists are decaying,” says Abdelaziz al-Qassim, a Saudi lawyer. “People are being drawn more to pragmatic types.”
But if some see the king as seeking to reform the religious establishment from within, others are more cautious Indeed, while the reshuffle may have been the most significant domestic change since Abdullah took over, the second move was the more controversial. It saw Prince Naif, the long-serving interior minister, appointed second prime minister, which in effect elevates him to third in line to the throne.
Succession has been a critical issue in the absolute monarchy amid speculation over the health of Crown Prince Sultan. Prince Naif’s appointment eased some of those concerns but raised others about how life will be after Abdullah, now aged 84.
For one, the promotion of the 74-year-old Naif dashed hopes that a younger generation of the family would be brought to the fore. Since the death of Abdul-Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s founding father, the throne has passed among his sons, at least 16 of whom are still alive. Much of the uncertainty about the future is linked to the notion that the kingdom could still be ruled for years by men in their 70s or 80s.
Moreover, Prince Naif is considered a conservative close to the religious hierarchy; for those hoping to see political reform, the appointment was a setback. “He will cut off the tongues of reformers,” says an activist involved in petitioning the king for political and human rights reform.
But while such reform is likely to remain on the back burner – municipal elections were this month postponed for two years – some argue it will be impossible to roll back the gradual opening up. Where general agreement does exist is on the need to prepare young Saudis better for the future, particularly through improved education, and to diversify the economy to soften the shocks of oil price swings.
STIPENDS AND STEWARDSHIP FOR THE HOUSE OF SAUD
Abdul-Aziz, founder of the Saudi kingdom in its present form in 1932, is thought to have had around 70 children by at least 21 wives, with 16 or more sons still surviving. Together they and their own sons form a group of some 200 princes who wield most of the power, write Abeer Allam and Andrew England.
Total membership of the royal family is put at 7,000-25,000. Most receive stipends from Saudi oil revenues and their opulent spending has often been a cause of criticism.
King Abdullah, 84, ascended the throne in August 2005 as the fifth son of the founder to rule. Among the more powerful members of the family are a group of Abdullah’s half-brothers who are known collectively as the Sudairi seven. They are the sons of Abdul-Aziz by one of his wives.
The late King Fahd was the eldest of this group and the six remaining sons hold key positions, including Crown Prince Sultan, whose health has been called into question following a recent operation in New York. He serves as deputy prime minister and has been minister of defence and aviation since 1962. His sons include Prince Khaled, deputy defence minister, and Prince Bandar, who grew to prominence while serving as Saudi ambassador to the US but whose current influence is open to speculation.
The next most senior royal is Prince Naif, interior minister since 1975 and credited with leading the domestic fight against al-Qaeda. Also one of the Sudairi seven, his appointment as second deputy prime minister in effect elevated him recently to third in line to the throne.
Traditionally the successors were chosen by the king, who consulted main members of the family. But in 2006 King Abdullah formed the Allegiance Council to select future crown princes and kings. It consists of 35 members who are either sons or grandsons of Abdul-Aziz and was supposed to kick in only after Prince Sultan succeeded. Still, Prince Naif’s appointment caused some to query whether the council was in danger of being bypassed.
Sceptics included Prince Talal, another of King Abdullah’s half-brothers, who is among the most outspoken advocates for reform but holds no official position. His son, Prince Alwaleed, is one of the Middle East’s most prominent global investors, with stakes in Citigroup, Four Seasons Hotels, News Corporation and Time Warner held through his Kingdom Holding Company.
In spite of boasting a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is one of the poorest Arab Gulf states by per capita income, with a 24m population that dwarfs its neighbours. Discussion about the need to diversify has rumbled on for years, but oil still accounts for around half of nominal gross domestic product. With more than 60 per cent of the population aged under 25 and unemployment at around 9 per cent, the fear is of a nation burdened with a pool of idle, disaffected youths.
In an effort to head off the pressures, the government has announced a $400bn five-year spending programme. Ambitious projects include the construction of four new “economic cities”. Yet concerns remain that there will still be too little trickle-down from oil revenues.
“They are filling in potholes and building bridges and roads but not yet raising significantly the real living standards of the population. They have not yet discovered that niche that will take them into the 21st century in terms of employment,” John Sfakianakis, chief economist at SABB bank, says of the leaders. “The issue is not if you have the money; the issue is management of the wealth as the country does not have the luxury of time compared to the other Gulf countries.”
But in Saudi Arabia the pace of change has traditionally been glacial, even as the trappings of modernity flourish around Riyadh. In a street that cuts a path between designer shops and fancy restaurants, youths on quad bikes roar up and down pavements and pop wheelies through the clogged traffic. “For young people there are not enough forms of entertainment,” says Ahmed al-Omran, a Saudi blogger. “They worry about the future, how they are going to meet their significant others [as women are segregated in most aspects of society] and how they are going to get jobs.”
He wants change. But if it is happening, it is occurring so slowly “nobody will ever feel it”, he says. “You would not expect old generations to push for radical change and as long as oil is flowing I don’t think people will have an incentive to push for it.”
Not just the younger generation is concerned. In an interview with the Financial Times, Prince Talal, an outspoken half-brother of the king, warns that Saudi Arabia is unprepared for the challenges of the 21st century and cannot use “the same tools we have been using to rule the country a century ago”.
He is irked by suggestions that Saudi society is not ready for change. “Today, with the technological development, the internet and ease of travelling, even the Bedouin or the simple peasant are capable of understanding these issues [facing the kingdom],” says Prince Talal, 79. “Are we, as Saudi people, less sophisticated than the rest of the Gulf people, for example? I do not think so.”
Prince Talal and others point to history to suggest that resistance from the religious establishment can be overcome – citing the introduction of television in the 1960s, then satellite television and mobile phones.
If Mr Obama were to mix with Saudi society this week, he would discover that most believe King Abdullah is sincere about gradual reform, particularly in education and the judiciary, but know he is up against huge entrenched interests. While faces may change at the top, it means little if the system beneath remains untouched, say many.
“The problem is they are not thinking about the social justice problems,” says Mr Qassim, the lawyer. “It creates a very dangerous situation. I think they are working to extinguish the fire but not solve the deeper problems.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009"