Along the desert coast of the Red Sea, the most ambitious real estate project in the Middle East is taking shape. The $26.6 billion development includes luxury waterfront villas, golf courses, a deep-water port, a "financial island" to house offices of the world's largest financial institutions, new schools, and the requisite jaw-dropping skyscrapers. Emaar Properties, the slick, Dubai-based developer, is pitching the project -- one that is expected to attract some 2 million residents within a few years -- as a socially relaxed alternative to the strict conventions that have long defined Saudi Arabia. Brochures geared to investors show women in shorts, golfing alongside men, something unheard of in the kingdom today. But then, King Abdullah Economic City was never intended to look like the rest of the country. It’s Saudi Arabia's answer to Dubai -- the wild west of the Middle East.
As its name suggests, the project enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia's new monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, the 13th son of Ibn Saud, the kingdom's founder. King Abdullah Economic City is the most obvious example of the new king’s effort to thrust Saudi Arabia into the 21st century. It is also a critical part of the government's attempt to draw private investment to meet the demands of its rapidly growing population. For reformers, the new city not only generates much-needed jobs and foreign investment, but it also redirects resources away from the highly conservative power center of Riyadh. Five more cities are on the drawing board. But unlike other, relatively liberal Arab countries with booming metropolises and unlimited potential for growth, there is but a small window of opportunity for such rapid development in Saudi Arabia.
At 82, the king is already the same age as his predecessor, his half brother, at the time of his death in August 2005. King Abdullah knows that the surviving half brothers who will succeed him are deeply vested in the existing financial and social conditions and show little interest in substantive change. That means that his struggle to put out the ideological fires that have fed Islamic radicalism for 25 years is a race against the clock -- his own biological clock. Five years after September 11, the leader of the country that produced 15 of the 19 hijackers must quickly lay foundations for change that will survive his rule. King Abdullah is neither a radical nor a revolutionary, but it is up to him to push the country far enough ahead during his reign that it will have no choice but to move forward with reforms once he is gone. And time is already running out.
Dealing with the 'Deviants'
As much as King Abdullah Economic City represents the king's vision of the possibilities for Saudi Arabia's next generation, it also serves as a painful reminder of the gulf between what Saudi Arabia could be, and what it now is. The country that King Abdullah inherited last year continues to wrestle with the internal demons whose fury was unleashed upon the world five years ago. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, broad swaths of Saudi society actively denied Saudi complicity in the attacks, including senior officials such as Interior Minister Prince Nayef. Although some still refuse to own up to the country's role, the accession of King Abdullah corresponds with a growing acknowledgment that domestic realities inside Saudi Arabia shoulder some of the blame.
Whereas September 11 convinced the world of the urgency of Saudi reform, it was the wave of domestic terrorism that began in May 2003 that roused Saudi Arabia from its complacency. Until then, domestic terrorists had largely refrained from attacking the royal family and local Saudis for fear that the fingers of the royal family would curl into a fist against them. Now, Abdullah routinely refers to religious radicals as "deviants," and the king and other high-level officials promote religious scholars who issue fatwas against jihad. The government is deploying reformed extremists inside Saudi prisons to "reeducate" and deradicalize jihadi terrorists. It's a markedly different strategy from the 1980s, when the royal family bought plane tickets for Islamist fighters destined for Afghanistan.
Abdullah is also a markedly different king than his predecessor. And in Saudi Arabia, it matters very much who is king. He sets the tone for which reforms are acceptable and which are not. Fortunately, King Abdullah is widely viewed as a pious, uncorrupt, modest leader who understands the need to break away from the most radically zealous elements of Saudi Arabia's recent past. Unlike the late King Fahd, who reigned from 1982 to 2005, King Abdullah enjoys broad popularity across Saudi society. One Saudi activist told us that "people love him," and if there were an election tomorrow, "all Saudis would vote for him."
Because defeating the fanatics his country helped create will largely be an ideological battle, King Abdullah's image as a just, reasonable ruler is central to fighting radicalism. That is, he just may be the right ruler at the right time. The king has made clear that he is serious about tackling many of the kingdom's challenges -- but he will do so cautiously. In a statement before the Consultative Council in April 2006, King Abdullah laid out his priorities and the pace at which they should be addressed. "We cannot remain rigid while the surrounding world is changing," he said. "Thereby we will continue, God willing, in the development process, strengthening national dialogue, liberalizing the economy, fighting corruption, uprooting monotonous habits, increasing efficiency of government institutions. We will enlist the efforts of all sincere workers, both men and women. All that will be done incrementally and moderately."