Saudi Arabia - Leadership



The cohesion of the royal family and the consensus-building process have enabled the family to survive. So far, disagreements have not been highly divisive and the royal family has been able to present a united front. Although Crown Prince Abdullah and King Fahd have not agreed on all major policy issues, the ailing Fahd has gradually turned his powers over to Abdullah since 1997. By 1999, Abdullah was widely considered to be king in all but name. Whereas Fahd was regarded as a modernist, Abdullah, only two years younger than his brother, is regarded as conservative, with a strong sense of Arab and Islamic identity. Since 1962, he has been the commander of the national guard.

Since he advocates modernization, Fahd historically has had the support of the middle class. The middle class, however, lacks political leadership and does not possess the ability to organize an opposition movement. Religious and radical elements have been the most vocal opponents of the royal family. While radical Arab nationalists who were active in the 1950s and 1960s more or less lost their appeal, Islamic fundamentalists emerged in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to challenge the regime. Islamic fundamentalists have criticized the royal family for its conspicuous consumption and privileges. Fahd has been a particular target due to his liberal and modern attitudes. Religious opponents demand strict observation of Islamic principles and rituals and see the process of development as leading the nation away from the pristine principles of Islam. The capture of the Grand Mosque (Kaaba) in Mecca by the Sunni Muslim extremists on the first day of the new Islamic century 1400 (November 1979) came as a surprise to the ruling family. In the past it regarded the Islamic opposition merely as an irritant devoid of serious political aspirations. On 12 May 2003, however, suicide bombers apparently linked to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network carried out attacks on three compounds where foreign workers live, killing 34 people and injuring dozens. The attacks forced the ruling family to confront the very real and dangerous threat posed by terrorists and and religious extremists because they challenge the ability of the royal family to maintain a safe and stable society.

To neutralize Islamic activists and strengthen the religious basis of the ruling family, Fahd has taken various steps. He has adopted the title of the Custodian of the Two Holy Places. Islamic principles, such as the ban on liquor and segregation of sexes, are strictly enforced, and violations are severely punished. Increased funding has been allocated to religious educational institutions and the proportion of religious studies in secular educational institutions has been increased. In the 1990s, increased activity by radical Islamists prompted a government crackdown that included widespread temporary detention of Muslim fundamentalists and long-term detention of their most prominent leaders, including radical clerics Salman al-Audah and Safar al-Hawali. As of 2003, Fahd was forced to confront the fact that these measures were not enough to quell the rising threat from terrorists.

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