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Saudi Arabia: Missed opportunities

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-08-02

Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud succeeded himself yesterday, bringing to Saudi Arabia's throne his baggage of a decade's worth of squandered opportunities to defang Islam, make peace with Israel, and improve the lot of his mostly poor people.

Technically, of course, the 81-year-old Abdullah became Saudi Arabia's monarch after the expected death of his half brother Fahd bin Abdulaziz. In truth, as crown prince he'd been ruling the oil-rich kingdom since a stroke transformed Fahd into a vegetable a decade ago.

If that decade is any indication of Abdullah's capacity to govern, then it could surely be said that he squandered numerous opportunities in the last decade to curb the growth of virulent Wahhabi Islam that is now threatening neighboring Arab states and many developing nations, not to mention America and Europe.

He also squandered several timely opportunities to build bridges with Israel. He squandered opportunities to extend friendship to the global Jewish community, instead standing mute while some of his courtiers and countrymen uttered chilling phrases like "Kill the Jews."

Abdullah squandered opportunities to use Saudi Arabia's annual oil revenues of $95 billion to alleviate the widening poverty in his desert kingdom of 26.5 million people. Only 100,000 of them are members of an ueber-privileged community on account of their descent from the loins of promiscuous sheikhs and princes, the main beneficiaries of state largesse since oil was first produced commercially in 1936 and declared to be solely the property of the royal family.

The supply of that oil is seemingly endless: with 261 billion barrels, Saudi Arabia has a fourth of the world's proven oil reserves. At the current production of rate of between 7 million and 9 million barrels a day (bbd), the Saudis can expect revenues pouring in for another century. If oil prices continue to remain in the vicinity of $50 a barrel, they are assured of anywhere up to $100 billion annually. If projected world consumption rises from 77 million bbd to 121 million bbd by 2025 - well, do the arithmetic.

Because this sort of money is guaranteed to keep every Saudi aristocrat a Croesus, and because only so much can be channeled into pursuits of the flesh - or, at a stretch, the mind - it's got to go somewhere.

That somewhere, during the decade that Abdullah has been in power, included preaching halls dominated by mullahs of Wahhabism, a particularly stern, unforgiving and anti-Semitic sect of Islam.

The paradox of profligate Saudi pleasure-seekers contributing to the charity coffers of radical mosques is explained by the fact that the very notion of Saudi Arabia came into existence in the 18th century through a pact between a desert brigand, Mohammed bin Saud, and a Wahhabi proselytizer, Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab. The Saudis - the tribe affiliated with bin Saud - and the Wahhabis captured the Muslim holy city of Mecca in 1802, thereby establishing their legitimacy as guardians of the religion.

It would be another 134 years before various tribal territories were consolidated, and the state of Saudi Arabia was formally named and born. Abdullah's father, Abdul Aziz bin Saud unilaterally gave himself the title of king.

The title did not necessarily confer legitimacy. And that has long been at the root of Arab skepticism about the Saudi "royals."

The royals smothered such skepticism by lavishly underwriting white-camel projects in the Middle East. At home, they strengthened their nexus with the Wahhabi clergy. And, spurred by medieval-minded mullahs, they started exporting Wahhabism to parts of Africa and Asia.

They made financial gifts that enabled third-world leaders to build mosques, many of which began to incubate a new class of Muslim, the fanatics who were willing to become suicide bombers.

Abdullah may not have necessarily wanted such an outcome, of course, not the least because he was cozying up to the West - his rescuer of last resort in the event of a crisis, such as the 1979 takeover of the holy mosque in Mecca, and Saddam Hussein's threat to destroy Saudi Arabia's 300 oil fields.

And all the while, he and his fellow royals pledged allegiance to America's efforts to crack down on global terrorism.

The threat of that terrorism, and the expansion of Wahhabism, is now generating anxiety among Saudi Arabia's more stable neighbors, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, all firm allies of America. Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population (242 million) and India, which has the second biggest (nearly 200 million), are both concerned that Saudi-financed Wahhabi mosques are breeding new radicals intent on spreading Islam, destroying Western influence, and imposing a global caliphate.

These countries aren't likely to be especially encouraged by Abdullah's ascension to the Saudi throne yesterday. Neither should America. If Abdullah failed to stanch the flow of overt and covert funds to sources that were openly hostile to free societies, if his kingdom nurtured the murderers of Sept. 11, 2001 on his watch, if Saudi money spread radicalism among the Muslims of the Philippines while he was crown prince and de facto ruler, why would things be any different now that he wields the "royal" scepter?

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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