Two years after Saudi Arabia’s monarch suffered a serious stroke, the kingdom has all but completed a quiet but decisive transition from ailing King Fahd to Crown Prince Abdullah, a shift altering issues ranging from Persian Gulf policies to U.S. relations, according to Western envoys in the kingdom and American analysts.
“Abdullah, who was for decades a man of the future, has recently very much become the man of the hour,” said a former U.S. official with continuing ties to the region.
“It’s increasingly unacceptable to do important business without going to him first,” the former official said. “Even important Aramco [the Saudi oil company] correspondence is now signed by the crown prince for the king.”
Significant changes in policy are already visible, most notably in economic policy. There is now new emphasis on austerity previously unknown in the oil-rich nation--with a rippling impact on allies.
To help balance the budget, for example, Abdullah is prepared to forgo some of the expensive U.S. military equipment and technology that poured into the kingdom for a quarter of a century--and channeled billions of petrodollars back into American coffers, according to the diplomats and analysts, who include former government officials.
The transition is also now beginning to shift Saudi Arabia’s approach to central diplomatic and security issues.
As the kingdom reaches out diplomatically to engage regional rivals once viewed as threats, including Iran, Saudi Arabia could ultimately become less dependent on the U.S. military, the sources say.
“These have always been two very different men,” a Western envoy in Riyadh said about the king and his half brother. “Enough time has now passed to be able to see the differences.”
The crown prince was initially hesitant to make decisions for fear of crowding Fahd, who temporarily appointed Abdullah to act on his behalf after a stroke in 1995.
The king is in his mid-70s. Abdullah is just two years younger, but he is in far better health.
Fahd officially resumed power several months after his stroke but unofficially continued to rely on Abdullah because of continuing health complications.
“He has been suffering from memory loss and limited powers of concentration for years,” said Simon Henderson, author of a report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The king still receives visiting dignitaries; last month he saw Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and South African President Nelson Mandela. But diplomats say privately that Fahd’s mental capabilities now vary greatly from day to day.
“He’s in and out,” said a Western official who saw him recently. “Sometimes he doesn’t recognize people he’s long known, other times he drives his own car.”
The transition will increasingly be felt in Washington, the sources say, although not necessarily in negative ways.
Fahd, who served in several Cabinet posts before becoming the fifth Saudi king and who masterminded the modernization of the country, is largely responsible for upgrading relations and then linking Saudi security to the United States.
Although major decisions usually involve family consensus, Fahd is widely said to have unilaterally decided in 1990, during talks with then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, to allow half a million American troops into the kingdom after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Fahd also spent $1 trillion to build a national infrastructure and a modern army almost from scratch. Central to those efforts were U.S. corporations, including airplane manufacturers, telecommunications firms, architects, health care companies and construction firms.
Saudi purchases became so critical to the U.S. arms industry that certain equipment, including one of the most modern tanks, would not have been cost-efficient without them.
In contrast to Fahd, Abdullah’s main responsibility for the past 30 years has been commanding the National Guard, a force independent of the Defense Ministry that is partly charged with the kingdom’s security and protecting its economic installations.
Through U.S. trainers of the National Guard, he developed close ties to Washington. Several U.S. major generals have served as advisors to him, even during tense relations in the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet despite these ties, the crown prince is more of an Arab nationalist than is the king, and he is also a more devout Sunni Muslim and therefore less tolerant of non-Islamic practices. Many of his closest advisors are Syrian and Lebanese, and his wife is Syrian.
Abdullah’s mother came from the Bedouin Shammar tribe near the border with Jordan, once a rival to the kingdom’s founding Al Saud family. His father, Saudi founder King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, had more than 40 sons with different wives but had only one with Abdullah’s mother.
Abdullah is strongly in favor of security based on regional peace, even with long-standing rivals. Just recently he became the highest-ranking Saudi official to travel to Iran since Tehran’s 1979 revolution.
In a speech to the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Tehran this month, Abdullah called for coexistence with the predominantly Shiite state, which has a vastly different political system.
“It is not in the nature of things for all Muslims to arrive at a single interpretation of how the Islamic state should look, or a common approach to our Islamic jurisprudence or a single concept of international politics,” he said.
He then proposed U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.
“I do not think it would be difficult for the brotherly Iranian people and for a big power like the United States to reach a solution to any disagreement between them,” he said.
When queried, he offered Saudi assistance in bringing about talks between the two enemies.
The crown prince also differs somewhat on the Mideast peace process.
“Abdullah is bolder than Fahd in seeing the benefits of an Arab-Israeli accommodation but less patient” with the time it is taking to resolve the issue, a former senior envoy to Saudi Arabia said. “The king has been willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the process, whereas the crown prince is not.”
Economically, Abdullah wants to balance the budget--forgoing the kind of big-ticket American items his older brother favored.
While Fahd believes that Aramco and God will always provide for the kingdom, diplomats and analysts say, Abdullah is a pragmatist who is aware that expenses are growing along with the population, yet income is dependent on a finite amount of oil.
Among the U.S. products he is unlikely to pursue are 100 F-16 fighters, made by Lockheed Martin. A deal is now unlikely since the kingdom is still having trouble paying for Boeing aircraft it has already ordered, the sources said.
Corruption has grown worse since Fahd’s stroke, sources said, as profiteers recognize that the crown prince intends to crack down.
“Abdullah has a vision of a Saudi Arabia where there are fewer rake-offs in the process of doing public business and less padding for the purpose of passing patronage money around to the princes and their proteges,” the former envoy said.
The transition is changing Abdullah too. Usually less visible than his brothers or hundreds of nephews, Abdullah is now visibly at the helm, decisive and at ease with power.
“It’s really quite striking,” a Western official said. “With growing authority has come self-confidence.”