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.