Expectations of Change: the Rôle of Prince Abdullah

Inside Saudi Arabia there is much less anxiety about the Kingdom’s financial situation than one might imagine. This is not only because the government likes to play down any difficulties it encounters; Saudi society itself is adverse to defining and confronting problems. There is no free and aggressive media. There are no political or economic think tanks, and the appointed parliament, the Majlis as-Shura, is not divided between government and opposition parties. Its members are more polite and cautious than the members of Western parliaments.

It also happens that the last eighteen months have seen a slow change at the top of the government, as Crown Prince Abdullah has taken over much of the work of King Fahd, who has been increasingly debilitated since he suffered a major stroke at the end of 1995. Saudis have persuaded themselves that Abdullah is going to solve their country’s problems. From being a slightly nondescript figure for most of the last 37 years since he was appointed Commander of the National Guard in 1962, Abdullah has suddenly become very popular. His bigger rôle in government has brought with it a sense that things are about to change. It has helped to generate what by the very calm standards of Saudi Arabia is almost a mood of euphoria.

There is no question that Abdullah is a very different person from Fahd - and in several ways he appears more capable than the King of addressing financial problems. Fahd, who has been at or near the top of government since the early 1950s and who has been living in considerable pain since the beginning of the 1990s, has become increasingly arbitrary in his rule in recent years. His reaction to petitions, which occupy a large amount of the time of senior members of the royal family, is often seen as being abrupt and unreasonable. He has never been very interested in sitting in a majlis (council chamber) and meeting ordinary Saudis, and recently he has tended to withdraw even from members of his government. He is also a man who finds it very difficult to economise; his view has been that for himself, his family and his people nothing but the best will do. Projects in which he has taken a personal interest, particularly the expansion of the Mecca and Medina mosques, have been lavish in the extreme and colossally expensive. He is also not untainted by association with big commission payments. Since the early 1980s his adored youngest son, Prince Abdel-Aziz, and the boy’s maternal uncles, the Ibrahim brothers, have been allowed, or encouraged, to become involved in some of the biggest defence and civilian contracts. The popular Saudi view is that Fahd is incapable of saying "No" to his son.

Abdullah, by Saudi royal standards, has an almost austere reputation. His palaces, both in the Kingdom and abroad, are by no means small, but they are not as vastly opulent as Fahd’s. His six sons, most of whom are connected to the National Guard, do not have a reputation for being involved in contracts, and his small body of advisers is also known for being "clean". The expectation, or hope, is that Abdullah will gradually be able to push princes out of the commission business - though while Fahd is still alive he will not be able to act directly against the King’s family and its hangers-on. There are already suggestions that he will cut the amount the government spends paying stipends to members of Al-Saud, the extended royal family. Except at the top of the family, the amounts paid are not huge, but the fact that there are more than 5,000 princes on the payroll means that the total spent is considerable. One possibility is that stipends will not be paid to princes born after this year, so that gradually the burden will be reduced.

Abdullah has a reputation for listening. As Commander of the Guard he has had to make himself available to his troops and, more broadly, to members of the central Arabian tribes which provide most of his recruits. Since he has begun taking over much of Fahd’s rôle he has consulted many members of the royal family, ministers, senior civil servants and businessmen. Consultation by a ruler of his subjects is regarded as a great virtue in Islamic society, so Abdullah’s behaviour has had the important effect of winning him goodwill. To some extent he has been bound to consult widely because he has not had the benefit of a body of experienced and trusted advisers. Even in his recent fairly reclusive years King Fahd has remained close to, and been much influenced by, the senior officials of his court, his sons and most importantly three of his six full brothers - Sultan, the Minister of Defence and Aviation, Naif, the Minister of the Interior, and Salman, the well-regarded and influential Governor of the province of Riyadh. Lacking allies of this sort, Abdullah has needed to build a constituency of supporters outside the confines of the National Guard, and an obvious way of doing this has been to involve a large number of able people in formulating policies.

Having listened carefully to what Saudi society and his new advisers have been telling him, Abdullah has been able to make some important and popular statements. He has spoken of the rights of women - how they are as much part of Saudi society as their menfolk and should be treated well. In November last year, when speaking in public about a new organisation for the promotion of young people (male and female) with talent, he declared, "we are all the same" - which was a reference to the need for princes and the rest of society to be treated equally. His remark was greeted with enthusiastic applause from his audience. In this and other speeches recently it has been noticed that the Crown Prince no longer stutters.

The outside world and the better informed, tougher and more free market minded Saudis were impressed by a speech that Abdullah made at the summit of the Gulf Co-operation Council in Abu Dhabi in December. Here he announced, "the age of abundance is over and will not return. We must get used to a new lifestyle that does not rely upon the state."

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | September 2000

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