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August 19, 2005
Abdullah Sees Elections In Saudi Arabia In Next Decade

The Washington Times reports that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia wants to work towards tranforming the desert kingdom from an absolute monarchy to an elected, representative government over the next ten to fifteen years. Abdullah, whose mildly pro-Western stewardship over the last ten years of his brother's reign turned serious after the Riyadh bombings of May 2003, hals already authorized municipal elections and has pardoned constitutionalists that his brother had held as political prisoners:

Saudi King Abdullah promised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a series of reforms that could give the desert kingdom an elected government within 10 to 15 years, says a senior U.S. official who was present when the two met in June.

"He professed to transform his country and talked about having a representative government within a decade or a decade and a half," said the official, who asked not to be named.

The 82-year-old king made the pledge during a June 20 visit by Miss Rice to the capital, Riyadh, when he was still crown prince and the kingdom's de facto ruler.

It is thought to be the first time a Saudi ruler has attached a timeline to moving toward a democratic process.

While this move makes sense for any number of reasons, it is far from clear that Abdullah could deliver on the promise. For one thing, he's in his eighties already. He likely will only sit on the throne for a few years, and the crown prince who will succeed him is only a few years younger than Abdullah. Oil revenue will present almost as large of a problem. The bin Abdul-Aziz royal family collects billions, and even with the hundreds of people in the family over which that revenue must spread, it makes for powerful incentive to hang onto power. Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan need to tailor the succession carefully if they want to ensure the development of a constitutional monarchy along the lines of Britain or the Netherlands.

The benefits should be self-evident. The Saudis now recognize that they have a self-inflicted problem with radical Islamists. Fahd tried to suck up to the terrorists in the 1980s, but all that did was encourage them to demand more from the Saudi royal family in their attempts to turn the already-conservative Wahhabist tyranny into a Taliban-style horror. Clearly, the anti-Western rhetoric that the royal family used to defuse anger against the Saudi government made their problems worse, not better -- and they need a new strategy for the future if they want to prevent a coup which will completely cut them off from the oil resources which make them incredibly wealthy.

Abdullah will have to go slow in order to keep the process from running away and exposing the bin Abdul-Aziz dynasty to danger. Unfortunately, in almost all democratizations, the situation reaches a tipping point where the people take control regardless of the best planning possible. In Lebanon and Ukraine, it meant little violence and withdrawal with some honor for the eventual losers of democratization. In Romania, it resulted in a much different outcome for the Ceaucescus. Abdullah and Sultan need to start building bridges between democracy advocates and the rest of their family to ensure an outcome more like the former than the latter.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 19, 2005 6:52 AM

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