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August 9, 2005
King Abdullah Sends A Message

With the death of his brother Fahd, Abdullah can now rule Saudi Arabia in his own name instead of as a steward -- and yesterday he sent a message intended for radicals and democrats alike in the Arabian kingdom, and even his own family:

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Monday night ordered the pardon and release of three prominent political dissidents and their attorney who had been imprisoned for holding meetings and signing petitions advocating a new constitution for the kingdom.

The 18-month imprisonment of the four men -- two university scholars, a poet and their attorney -- had galvanized protests from international human rights groups and prompted a rare public rebuke of Saudi Arabia's autocratic political system from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Lawyers and associates of the reformers described the pardon as an encouraging signal that Abdullah intends to relax the strictures on public debate about the kingdom's political system and social problems, and that he may also ease the interrogations, threats and forced confessions routinely faced by Saudis who speak out about controversial issues. Abdullah took the throne last week after the death of his half brother, King Fahd.

Does this signify a softening of the rigid Wahhabism of the ibn Abdul-Aziz family? That seems unlikely. Abdullah has remained on friendly terms with the West during Fahd's long twilight decline towards his death last month, but the new king never abandoned the deeply conservative and iconoclastic version of Islam upon which his grandfather built their kingdom. Until two years ago, when the radical Wahhabists they once encouraged decided to openly attack the royal family, Abdullah seemed content to jolly them along while balancing the Western trade that kept the huge royal family in the money.

The May 2003 attacks clearly changed Abdullah's perspective, but before Fahd's death it appears that he did not have the power as steward to do much about it. Abdullah has the opportunity to select his opposition, to some degree. Depending on how he chooses to use his security forces, he can select which form of dissent the royals will tolerate and send a signal to his subjects on how to blow off their political frustration. He may have finally decided that having democrats talking constitutions in public makes for less of a danger than Islamists talking mutiny against the royals.

That certainly wasn't the case before now. The Saudis spent a lot of money setting up madrassas that spewed anti-Western venom and preached the most restrictive of Islamist philosophies. Their success became so complete that finally the royals could no longer meet the standards of purity that their imams demanded, touching off the al-Qaeda impulse for their overthrow, especially after they aligned with their petroleum customers to push Saddam back into Iraq in 1991.

The Washington Post notes that Abdullah may have used this occasion to engage in a little pushback against Prince Nayef, the Saudi security chief that arrested the four in the first place. No fan of democracy, Nayef has made it his business to cut off any talk of constitutions and nationwide elections in order to protect the family privilege. No doubt that formed a part of Abdullah's motivation. Steve Coll also notes that the democrats themselves understood that the royal pardon still communicates their initial guilt despite Abdullah's "forgiveness", which will suit Abdullah just fine.

I'm not sure than anyone sees Abdullah's pragmatic selection of safety valves in this decision. If this continues as a pattern, it will show that Abdullah has learned from his extensive Western contacts that he has much less to fear from constitutionalists than he does from radical Islamists, and he has decided to marginalize the latter in the eyes of his subjects in favor of the former. That will represent a major sea change for Saudi Arabia, Islam, and the war on terror if Abdullah lives long enough to set that in motion.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 9, 2005 5:25 AM

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