U.S.-Saudi Arabia relations will strain after death of king
August 2, 2005
With the recent death of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, the royal jockeying for power in the country has begun in earnest, and it may have a tremendous impact on U.S.-Saudi relations.
The struggle over who will succeed Fahd is not yet settled.
Crown Prince Abdullah immediately declared himself king. (There are no elections to speak of in the kingdom, and women are tightly shut out of the political process.)
But there are many factions in the royal family. And new factions, and perhaps a new generation of princes, will likely be making bids for power. Their agendas for so-called reform do not necessarily coincide.
Although King Fahd had been incapacitated and out of the political picture for 10 years,he
was symbolically important to Saudi Arabia and was an important figure in contemporary Arab political history, but not due to exceptional talents or skills. Instead, Fahd had vast
financial resources, much of which he used for extravagant living, as well as for political
The oil boom of the 1970s and the death of Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, who dominated much of Arab political and popular culture discourse, allowed the Saudi kingdom, under the leadership of then-Crown Prince Fahd, to dominate the politics of the region.
Fahd was a contradictory figure: He was notorious for indulging in officially defined sins, but he was also known for spending lavishly on Muslim organizations and groups around the world in the hope of creating -- hypocritically -- an image of piety.
Fahd changed the nature of U.S.-Saudi relations, especially during the Reagan administration. This came after he designated his favorite nephew, Prince Bandar, as his ambassador to Washington, D.C.
Fahd wanted the relationship to mirror strong U.S.-Israeli relations. He cooperated with
the U.S. government on many covert ventures, including the U.S.-Saudi alliance in Afghanistan during the Cold War (that would later produce Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), his destabilization of the now-defunct Marxist South Yemini regime and his funding of Nicaraguan contras.
Fahd was not active after Sept. 11., as he was stricken with a debilitating stroke and Alzheimer's. Instead, Crown Prince Abdullah was at the helm, though he could not fully rule because, not only was the king still alive, but Fahd's favorite son, Abdul-Aziz (and his mother Jawharah), continued to wield tremendous influence within the kingdom.
While Crown Prince Abdullah does not have the reputation for corruption and extravagance that plagued the career of Fahd, he has not had a smooth tenure so far as crown prince.
His relations with the United States were strained after Sept. 11 because the U.S. war and
the rhetoric from Washington were too much to handle -- even for U.S. allies. Abdullah has also not been able to please the U.S. Congress, no matter how hard he has tried. And U.S. unconditional endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left U.S.-Arab allies
feeling awkward and exposed in the Arab world. What's more, he has not been candid with the Saudi people about the real threat posed by al-Qaida inside the kingdom.
Abdullah also disappointed many reformers for being half-hearted in his pursuit of democratic and economic reform.
While the Bush administration has paid lip service to reform in Saudi Arabia, it is not likely to push the kingdom as long as it continues to produce and sell oil at desired price levels, spend exorbitant amount of its oil wealth on wasteful arms purchases from the United
States and fund and cooperate with U.S. covert ventures around the world.
But the new era will be more fraught with uncertainty. And the United States may not be able to count so solidly on Saudi support.
That may mean a lot of adjustment, politically and economically, here at home.
As'ad AbuKhalil is professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus and visiting professor at University of California, Berkeley. He is author of "The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism and Global Power" (Seven Stories Press, 2004). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.