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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 August 2005, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
'Testing times' ahead for Saudi King
BBC's Frank Gardner
By Frank Gardner
BBC Security correspondent

Western dignitaries including the UK prime Minster Tony Blair have been lining up to meet the new ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah. Other callers to the royal palace have included prominent Saudi clerics and tribal chiefs. Viewed as a major US ally in the region, Frank Gardner considers what the future may hold for the new monarch and his kingdom.

Saudi ruling palace in Riyadh
Western leaders and Saudi clerics have been visiting the royal palace
Four years ago I attended a royal celebration in Riyadh to mark the late King Fahd's 20 Muslim years on the throne.

I was not actually a guest, more of a gatecrasher, really.

I had arrived on Tony Blair's plane with the rest of the Westminster press pack, then stayed on to report on a country that few Western correspondents could access at the time.

It was the month after 11 September and Saudi Arabia was in denial. People were finding it hard to accept that 15 out of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudis.

It was all a plot, I was told, to discredit the Arabs. Prince Naif, the interior minister in charge of internal security, spoke of a mysterious "third force", ie Israel.

'Founding father'

In one of the few surviving mud-walled fortresses just outside Riyadh, the celebrations of King Fahd's rule were in full swing. It was a case of: "crisis, what crisis?"

In their cool white robes and red chequered headcloths, the assembled dignitaries gathered to watch a display of camel riding, while tribesmen from the south beat out a rhythm that instinctively quickened the pulse.

Men linked arms and chanted, raising their curved swords aloft and made them tremble in time to the beat.

Anyone of any importance wore a bisht, a thin black cloak, trimmed with gold thread.

A troupe of turbaned servants poured thimblefuls of bitter cardamom coffee from brass pots with thin, curved spouts.

To this day, Saudi Arabia is the only country named after its ruling family
Before us, the camel riders kicked up the desert dust and cantered past, bearing huge green banners emblazoned with cursive Arabic script.

If I squinted my eyes I could just imagine them as the Ikhwan, the fanatical, camel-mounted holy warriors who tore across Arabia in the 1920s.

Their religious zeal, coupled with a taste for conquest, allowed the nation's founder, Ibn Saud, to capture, then unite, whole provinces into a single kingdom.

To this day, Saudi Arabia is the only country named after its ruling family. The all-powerful posts of king, prime minister, defence, foreign and interior minister are all filled by sons of the same founding father.


So how long can this anomaly survive into the 21st Century? The answer is probably longer than their critics would like.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) shakes hands with Saudi King Abdullah
Diplomacy with the West has been criticised by Saudi conservatives
Whole books have been written about the inevitable downfall of the House of Saud.

But, helped by astronomical oil revenues and a keen sense of self-preservation, the ruling princes have managed to bury their differences in public, and to smooth over most problems with money.

The new man at the top, King Abdullah, has already been in the job for 10 years, effectively running the country ever since King Fahd suffered a series of strokes. But now that he is king, he finally has the authority to push through much-needed reforms.

Regardless of who runs the country there remains an inbuilt tension in Saudi society, between the forces of modernisation and those of conservatism
For all its riches, the Saudi economy is still overly dependant on oil revenues and foreign workers.

Business still involves back-handers, red tape and local sponsors who do little more than lend their name.

Extravagant spending by some of the thousands of royal princes and princesses is a drain on national coffers, and there is enormous pressure to find jobs for the army of school leavers that pours onto the job market each year.

Yet regardless of who runs the country there remains an inbuilt tension in Saudi society, between the forces of modernisation and those of conservatism.

Religious concerns

I caught a glimpse of this at the Riyadh opening of the British department store Harvey Nichols where I was allowed to film the curious shoppers who surged inside.

Map of Saudi Arabia showing Riyadh and Jeddah
Almost immediately I was accosted by a couple of angry mutawwa, religious policemen known as The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

They carried long sticks and were accompanied by an armed policeman.

"Filming was forbidden in Saudi Arabia", they said, which is not actually true, although once, up in the mountains, the mutawwa had tried to stop me filming a herd of goats.

The black-bearded pair now confronting me in Harvey Nichols were the same two I had seen earlier ordering a watch shop to turn off its music. I had noticed then that as soon as they moved on, the shop assistants had simply turned the music back on.

But now they were demanding I hand over my camera and film.

Just then, the junior prince in charge of the store appeared, and with some embarrassment he ushered them away.

I could see his problem. Having the mutawwa prowling round his new store on opening day was like having the proverbial ghost at the feast.

But then this modern, Western store would probably not have been sanctioned by the powerful religious authorities without involving the religious police to check that public morality was being upheld.

It is not an impossible gulf to bridge.

Harvey Nichols is still standing and the mutawwa are still in business. But King Abdullah will need all his considerable skills to steer this country through some testing times ahead.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 4 August, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Saudi Arabia
01 Aug 05 |  Country profiles


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