Abdullah's No Reformer

Those who predicted the Saudi monarch would bring real change to the kingdom had it wrong. His real goal has been to tighten his family's grip on power.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, the energetic octogenarian who is in his fifth year as head of the oil-rich kingdom, will visit Washington on June 29. Abdullah has overcome divisions within the royal family and proceeded to restore stability to the kingdom, which just a few years ago was under siege by local radicals and wracked with fears about the possible regionalization of the Iraq war. For all his considerable political acumen, however, Abdullah has turned to an old playbook to consolidate the House of Saud's authority -- leaving important questions about what comes next for the kingdom unanswered.

Amid political uncertainty, Abdullah has taken measured steps to transform his country. Abdullah's Saudi Arabia is a remarkably different place than that of his immediate predecessor. With his blessing, the Saudi press, while hardly free, is occasionally vibrant and sometimes even critically introspective. Some of the kingdom's most sacred institutions and practices, including the reactionary religious establishment and the draconian restrictions imposed on women, have come under fire in the media by a growing number of Saudi journalists, intellectuals, and activists. Saudi citizens have been taking their cues directly from the king, who has worked to rein in the clergy, which has enjoyed tremendous power since the kingdom took a conservative turn in the late 1970s.

Perhaps most importantly, Abdullah has led the charge in an effort to develop and promote a sense of Saudi identity. For decades, the kingdom's leaders neglected to foster anything resembling Saudi nationalism. Since 2003, Abdullah and his supporters have attempted to promote national unity through the institution of the National Dialogue, a conference that gives Saudi citizens an opportunity to raise issues affecting the kingdom.

Yet, despite the new levels of openness enjoyed by Saudi citizens, Abdullah is not leading the kingdom on the path to political liberalism. Just the opposite: While making small social and economic concessions, the king is in fact turning the clock back in Arabia, using his popularity to confront clergy and restore the kind of unchecked authority his family enjoyed in the 1970s. Although the royal family has been the preeminent political force in the Arabian Peninsula since the early 20th century, its supremacy was challenged in 1979 by the spectacular siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which marked the rise of a generation of Islamist rebels. The kingdom's leaders responded by co-opting its radical critics. In doing so, they greatly expanded the power of the religious establishment.

Thirty years on, it is this bargain that Abdullah has begun to dismantle. And he is succeeding. Indeed, Abdullah's most important domestic accomplishment so far has been the strengthening of his and his family's grip on power.

Abdullah's consolidation of authority has clear global implications, even affecting Saudi Arabia's relationship with the United States. Although the longtime allies agree in principle on the importance of security in the Persian Gulf, it is not clear that they share a common vision for how best to achieve it. The Saudis continue to look to the U.S. military for protection from regional threats -- even though, arguably, the American war machine has done much to destabilize the region in recent decades. In spite of security expectations and assurances, there is considerable uncertainty as to whether the two allies will continue to find common ground.

Ties between the two countries continue to be based primarily on the stable flow of Saudi oil to global markets and the flow of Saudi petrodollars into the pockets of U.S. weapons manufacturers. But while Saudi Arabia was once willing to do the United States' bidding, the kingdom under Abdullah has been a complicated ally, willing to use its oil power to push back gently against unpopular U.S. policies.

For instance, the Saudis opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, though they eventually provided some logistical support. More importantly, Abdullah has refused to become actively involved in settling nerves in Iraq, forgiving debt accumulated under Saddam Hussein's regime, or helping restore political order. The usually reserved king even preferred to isolate the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and stoke sectarian anxieties, rather than assisting U.S. efforts to stabilize the Iraqi political system.

The Saudis' frustration stemmed from their early realization that the war opened the door for Tehran's resurgence in Iraq and the renewal of the bitter Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The war also distracted from what many Saudis, including the king, consider the single most important political challenge facing the region: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Abdullah and other prominent Saudi leaders have insisted, rightly, that regional stability will remain elusive until progress is made on a political settlement between Palestinians and Israelis. And they will almost certainly continue to use whatever leverage they have -- including their support, or lack thereof, of U.S. efforts in Iraq -- to continue to push for movement on the Palestinian-Israeli front.

Future U.S. efforts to restrain Iran's purported development of nuclear weapons might meet with similar Saudi obstructionism. Mutual U.S.-Saudi concerns over Iran's growing influence, from Iraq to Lebanon and throughout the Persian Gulf, are no guarantee that Abdullah would support military action against the Islamic Republic. The Saudis have much to lose, particularly from any disruption of oil shipments in the gulf, or Iran's potential retaliation against their oil facilities in the region, a move that could accompany another conflict.

It is more likely that the Saudis want to see the Americans maintain a military presence in the region -- though not on Saudi soil -- preferring the demonstration of military force to its actual use. This would also represent a turning back of the clock to a time when the United States maintained a more robust presence on the Arabian Peninsula.

Abdullah's vision for Saudi Arabia is reminiscent of that of his half-brother Faisal, who ruled the kingdom from 1964 until his assassination in 1975. Respected at home as a reformer, confident in regional affairs, and willing to take on the United States, Faisal's era as monarch is viewed by many as the kingdom's golden age: a period of material prosperity and political strength. Abdullah may not welcome the comparison, however, as Faisal's reign helped galvanize a generation of Saudi radicalism, creating the political order that he is trying to take apart.

There are no indications that a new wave of dissent is on the way, but by looking to re-create the past, rather than finding a way forward, the question of what will follow Abdullah should concern the kingdom -- and its most important patron.



Heads I Win, Tails I Win

By offering to set up negotiations between Hamid Karzai and insurgent-commander Sirajuddin Haqqani, Pakistan shows it's in control of Afghanistan's Great Game.

In this 21st-century version of the Great Game in Afghanistan, Pakistan seems to be maneuvering masterfully. Its reported offer to convince one of its most-prized strategic Afghan assets, the powerful insurgent commander Sirajuddin Haqqani and his fearsome al Qaeda-linked network, to negotiate with the Afghan government is just Islamabad's latest gambit in its grand strategy of securing influence in a post-U.S. and post-NATO Afghanistan. But it might also prove a clever move on the home front: If Haqqani proves to be a good-faith negotiator, it may quell America's relentless pressure on Pakistan to get tough on its terrorist havens.

Washington has long pressed Islamabad to mount a military offensive in North Waziristan, Haqqani's border refuge and the only one of Pakistan's seven tribal areas that has been spared a Pakistani attack. Until now the Pakistanis have resisted, citing an overstretched military busy fighting the Taliban on other fronts and consolidating gains elsewhere. Analysts speculate that Pakistan also wants to shelter its Afghan allies until such time as it can use them to shape the outcome of the war in Afghanistan. That might be precisely what Pakistan has in mind with its suggested outreach to Haqqani.

According to Al Jazeera, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Haqqani have already held Pakistani-brokered discussions, though Karzai, Pakistani military and intelligence officials, and the Haqqanis deny the report. Regardless of whether talks have started, Islamabad's offer appears real. CIA Director Leon Panetta said he was aware of it, but that he didn't sense "a real interest" among Afghanistan's various militant groups to negotiate. "Unless they're convinced that the United States is going to win and that they're going to be defeated, I think it's very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that's going to be meaningful," Panetta said June 27 on ABC's This Week talk show.

Even before the issue took center stage at a jirga in Kabul this month, it was no secret that Karzai has been keen to open a dialogue with Afghan militant leaders and their Pakistani backers. But what are Haqqani's motivations? Unlike other warlords such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Haqqanis have not shown any public interest in negotiations or breaking with al Qaeda.

Retired Pakistani general and military analyst Talat Masood says that the Haqqanis might be amenable now to negotiations because they perceive themselves to be in a position of strength, especially with the United States' planned drawdown of troops next year. In the absence of a negotiated settlement in advance of a U.S. withdrawal, Haqqani might be anticipating an extended civil war that would be in nobody's interest.

"In certain areas of Afghanistan, the Haqqanis are very powerful, but that doesn't mean that they'll have a free hand once the Americans leave," Masood says. In the absence of a peace deal, Masood says, the country "will undoubtedly" spiral back to the bad old days after the 1989 Soviet military withdrawal and the ferocious Afghan war of the 1990s.

But even if the Haqqanis do want to talk, can Pakistan's military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency actually deliver them? "Frankly, I don't think so," says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani writer and Taliban expert, adding that there are "no indications whatsoever that Haqqani is actually interested in negotiations." Jalaluddin Haqqani, Sirajuddin’s father, may have cooperated with the CIA in the 1980s and have a relationship with the ISI dating back to the mid-1970s, but analysts doubt that the insurgent leader will give up his group’s Al-Qaida ties, or its weapons.

"Sometimes it might be that a common interest brings two sides together," says Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies and an expert on extremists. "But it is not yet clear if Pakistan and the Haqqani network will remain on the same page."

For now, Pakistan prefers to give the impression that they are indeed on the same page. But regardless of whether the talks happen or bear fruit, it's a win-win situation for Pakistan. If Haqqani and Karzai work out a power-sharing agreement, the Pakistanis would have an ally they consider "more loyal than the mainstream Taliban would be," Rashid says. An agreement would also help shore up U.S.-Pakistani ties by relieving incessant U.S. pressure to go into North Waziristan, given that the Haqqanis would likely stop their cross-border attacks. This would have the added bonus of isolating the Pakistani Taliban and stripping them of some of their Afghan supporters. And if the Haqqanis stay in North Waziristan with the blessing of the Afghan and Pakistani governments, they might force the Pakistani Taliban out of their North Waziri sanctuary and into the Pakistani military's cross hairs.

Even in the worst-case scenario, Islamabad's offer has already earned itself the good graces of its Washington allies. "Maybe these talks will go nowhere," Rashid says. "Maybe this is just a very clever diversionary tactic to divert pressure away from Pakistan and away from North Waziristan." Whichever way the deal turns out, it will have been a bargain for Pakistan.