June 16, 2012 / 5:17 PM / 7 years ago

King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's cautious reformer

RIYADH (Reuters) - The death of his brother Crown Prince Nayef on Saturday means Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is confronted with the need to name a new successor for the second time in less than a year.

Nayef, thought to be 78, died in Geneva, eight months after Crown Prince Sultan, his predecessor as the heir to rule a Middle East kingdom that puts great emphasis on stability.

“The passing of Crown Prince Nayef came a bit unexpectedly. But my sense is that talking about overall policy in terms of oil policy for example, in terms of foreign policy, whether regionally or internationally, we will have continuity,” said Asaad al-Shamlan, a political science professor in Riyadh.

However, King Abdullah - thought to be 89 - knows his successor will face an array of challenges, from ushering in a new generation of royal leaders to managing volatility across the Middle East and long-term imbalances in the Saudi economy.

“Unemployment is a very important challenge and diversity of the economy is another. But the external issues are the obvious ones. Syria, Iraq, regional issues with Iran,” said Hossein Shobokshi, a columnist based in Jeddah.

At stake is the future direction of the world’s top oil exporter and Washington’s premier Arab ally, which under King Abdullah has mounted a series of cautious changes aimed at reconciling the country’s strict Islamic traditions with the needs of a modern economy.

Crown Prince Nayef was often seen as opposed to some of those changes, but it is not clear how any successor might push economic, social or even political reform inside the kingdom.

Plain spoken and avuncular, King Abdullah was born in the court of his father, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, in the early 1920s, when the capital Riyadh was a small oasis town ringed by mud-brick walls at the centre of an impoverished but rapidly growing kingdom.

By the time he became de facto regent in 1995 when his predecessor King Fahd had a stroke, he was known to foreign diplomats as devout and conservative with strong ties to the kingdom’s Bedouin tribes.

That reputation was soon blown away by the then crown prince’s reforming zeal as he tried to trim the indulgent habits of his large ruling family and address the alarming problem of youth unemployment by liberalizing the economy to stimulate private sector growth.

After the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, and an al Qaeda bombing campaign against Westerners inside the kingdom, he also took on the conservative clergy who had promulgated an intolerant Islamist message in schools and mosques.

The reforms were slow and only partly successful, but they skewed the dynamic of Saudi policy towards gradual change and made King Abdullah a popular leader among an increasingly young population where 60 percent of Saudis are under the age of 30.

Yet while moving to open up the economy and press for social change, he has left the political system largely untouched.

Apart from introducing elections for town councils that hold little real power, his only major political reform has been to set up a council of the ruling family to make the royal succession more orderly.

ARAB UPRISINGS

When the “Arab Spring” rippled across the Middle East, King Abdullah was staunchly opposed to the pro-democracy protests in neighboring countries, reflecting Saudi concerns that the fall of old allies might create opportunities for regional rival Iran and al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, the king’s order to spend $110 billion on social benefits, new housing and new jobs helped to avert any significant pro-democracy unrest in Saudi Arabia.

In recent years activists who have demanded change through petitions ended up in jail, and political parties and public demonstrations are banned.

Yet even among those Saudis who called on social media for a “day of rage” to protest against the lack of democracy, the king has appeared to remain popular.

In a ruling family known for lavish excesses, King Abdullah’s fondness for retreats at his desert camp has distinguished him from Saudi princes who prefer to spend summers in Mediterranean palaces.

One of his first acts as king was to rein in spending on the royal family, demanding princes start paying for phone bills and air tickets rather than treating state bodies as a personal valet service.

His plain speaking and efforts to overcome a stutter acquired after he was punished as a child have further cemented his straightforward, old-fashioned image.

When he visited Saudis living in slum-like conditions shortly after becoming king, he was applauded for a first public recognition by the state that poverty existed.

King Abdullah has also aimed to improve the position of women in his ultra-conservative country, trying to offer them better education and employment prospects and saying they will be allowed to take part in municipal elections in 2015.

He said women would be selected as members of the next Shura Council, the appointed body that advises the government on new laws.

Women are still barred from driving and must seek the approval of a male “guardian” to work, travel abroad, open a bank account or undergo surgery in some cases.

In recent years, the king’s foreign policy has increasingly focused on efforts to contain what the Sunni Muslim monarchy sees as the rising influence of Shi’ite Muslim power Iran across the Middle East.

In March, Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to support the island’s Sunni Muslim monarchy against an uprising by the Shi’ite majority.

It was an unpopular decision among Saudi Arabia’s own Shi’ite minority, but many of the sect’s leaders in the kingdom said that King Abdullah has done more than his predecessors to reduce discrimination.

Riyadh feared that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 had already altered the regional balance of power, giving Iran more sway from Beirut to Baghdad.

Those concerns were underpinned by Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West suspects is aimed at making atomic weapons.

In a 2009 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, King Abdullah was quoted repeatedly as urging the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by attacking Iran.

Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Ralph Gowling

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