Saudis Look to Aging Monarchy for Reform


With King Fahd in failing health and the economy in a tailspin, Saudis are having to do some uncharacteristic soul searching about the future.

There have been public calls--even from within the royal family--for reforms such as creation of an elected parliament and clearer guidelines for succession to the throne.

Most people expect to see some evolution in a monarchy that has seen few changes since the al-Saud family came to power nearly 100 years ago, long before the discovery of oil transformed a poor country into one of the world’s richest and tied it to the West.

“Saudi Arabia’s certainly not on the poverty line,” said Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to the kingdom. “But it has pressures that some Saudis wonder if the government is prepared to deal with--not just now, but five or 10 years down the line.”


The kingdom faces shrinking oil revenues and a growing population, simmering restiveness among Islamic radicals who abhor Western influences, and complaints from businessmen who say Saudi Arabia must modernize to prosper.

Despite the world’s largest oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the cradle-to-grave services that its 20 million people have come to expect.

With the drop in world oil prices, this year’s government deficit has ballooned to $13 billion, economists estimate. Development projects from power plants to petrochemical factories are being delayed.

The royal family--which dates its rule to the 1902 conquest of Riyadh by Abdul-Aziz bin Abdul-Rahman al-Saud--remains a unifying force. But the royals are a huge drain on the treasury; an estimated 7,000 princes and princesses draw monthly stipends and get first crack at lucrative business and land deals.

The biggest question facing the kingdom is whether it will be ruled in perpetuity by men in their 70s because of succession traditions that favor elder royals.

Fahd, believed to be at least 75, is the fourth son of Abdul-Aziz to rule. Amid repeated illnesses since a stroke in 1995, he has turned over the day-to-day running of the kingdom to his designated successor, Crown Prince Abdullah, a half-brother who is a year or two younger.

In a rare public appeal earlier this year, Prince Talal, another royal brother, called for elections to the 90-member Consultative Council, which now is appointed by the king.

“The council must progress,” he told an Arabic newspaper. “People must call for elections, for the council to look into the budget and see where the country’s funds are going.”


He also urged the kingdom to begin thinking about setting up a succession process to ensure an orderly transition to the next generation.

Omar Bagour, an economics professor at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jiddah, believes the younger royals should become more involved now.

“It’s time for the next generation of princes to take a stand, because they have the capacity to deal with the problems of the 1990s,” he said. “One of the cushions, if the system is going to land softly, is involving the [younger] princes.”

Abdullah is widely respected for staying in close touch with Saudis through his weekly majlis, which is a kind of town hall meeting, and his frequent trips around the country. The son of a Bedouin mother, he is said to have strong ties to tribal and religious leaders.


He is believed to be tighter-fisted than Fahd, which could mean fewer U.S. weapons purchases. He already has made his mark on foreign policy, opening diplomatic channels with Iran for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the Iranian monarchy.

In his first major foreign tour, Abdullah recently visited Saudi Arabia’s main military allies--Britain, France and the United States--and returned home via Japan and China.

In the United States, he made an unexpected overture to American oil companies, suggesting they look for ways to become involved for the first time in several decades in oil exploration and production in the kingdom.

At home, many Saudis who want reforms worry that Abdullah is being constrained by other members of the royal family from making significant changes in domestic policy.


Businessmen in the port city of Jiddah, for example, said they were heartened when Abdullah announced this summer that Saudi Arabia’s shoreline, fast disappearing behind the walls of royal villas and private clubs, should be reserved for the public.

Less than 48 hours later, his office backed down, saying the policy would “except those with legal titles” for shore property.

“Read ‘those’ as princes and princesses,” one Jiddah businessman said bitterly. Like most Saudis, he would discuss the royal family only on condition that his name not be used.

It remains unclear how Abdullah will deal with a religious challenge that has largely gone underground since the government rounded up dozens of militant Muslims starting in 1994.


Saudi Arabia is viewed by outsiders as among the most religiously conservative countries in the Muslim world--its women are covered head to toe in black, and all activity stops five times a day for prayer--but home-grown Islamic purists still find fault.

The radicals accuse the royal family of being “secular and corrupt” and of desecrating the land where Islam’s Prophet Muhammad was born by allowing American military bases on Saudi soil.

Muslim extremists have twice bombed U.S. facilities in recent years. A car bomb linked to Saudi exile Osama bin Laden killed five Americans and two Indians in the capital, Riyadh, in November 1995. Seven months later, an explosion in the eastern city of Khobar killed 19 Americans.

Saad Faqih, a Saudi dissident who lives in exile in London, says Abdullah is more open than many royals to allowing freedom of speech and assembly because “he believes this could play a role in preventing violence. But we must wait and see if there are actual reforms,” Faqih said.