Courtesy Reuters

Trouble in the Kingdom


Crown Prince Abdullah cut an impressive figure when he arrived in Crawford, Texas, in late April to meet with President George W. Bush. The man who has ruled Saudi Arabia ever since his half brother, King Fahd, suffered a stroke in 1995, Abdullah managed to present himself as both firm and conciliatory, establishing a productive dialogue with the American president and improving a relationship that had been badly frayed by September 11 and the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. While pressuring Bush to take a more active role in the Arab-Israeli peace process, Abdullah also mollified the Americans by promising to keep Saudi oil flowing and by promoting his own groundbreaking solution to the conflict in the Middle East.

Abdullah's performance abroad, however, obscured the fact that the prince's power at home -- and indeed, the health of his nation -- has eroded significantly. A major crisis is now brewing in Saudi Arabia, and September's terrorist attacks -- committed by 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi citizens -- both highlighted and, in a way, aggravated the tensions in the kingdom. The intense violence in the Middle East has made matters even worse. The deterioration of the Arab-Israeli situation has started to threaten the very stability of the Saudi state in a way many Westerners, particularly Americans, had not anticipated. In particular, outsiders have underestimated the anger roused in the Saudi population by the suffering of the Palestinian people -- and the fact that this suffering is blamed less on Israel than on its American protector. Given the privileged nature of relations between Washington and Riyadh, this anger has also started to focus on the House of Saud itself.

Although Westerners may not have anticipated the current crisis, it came as no surprise to Abdullah. A month before September 11, the crown prince had already warned Bush about the rising danger, asking him to intervene in the Middle East to help bring about a "balanced" settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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