Fragile friend: Succession points up Saudi Arabia's problems
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A death and a succession in Saudi Arabia have pointed up for Americans again the precariousness of a very important strategic and commercial relationship in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia possesses huge oil reserves and provides a substantial percentage of U.S. oil imports every year. Its capacity to turn up or curb its production causes it to be able to play a critical stabilizing role in world oil markets. Saudi Arabia is and has been for some time also a very reliable strategic ally of the United States in a sensitive part of the world. It practices the particularly austere Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam and its king is the official guardian of two of Islam's three holiest places, Mecca and Medina.
At the same time it presents the United States major challenges in maintaining solid relations. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, with scarcely a whisper of even slight representative not to mention democratic government prevailing there.
The current monarch is King Abdullah, who is 88. He is one of the sons of the founding monarch, King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud who founded the kingdom in 1932. Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, another son of the founding king, died on June 16. He was succeeded as crown prince by another son, Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, 76, who was defense minister. There are some 7,000 Saudi princes altogether, of varying levels of competence. Eventually, rule is expected to pass to the founding monarch's grandsons, the third generation of al-Sauds. There is, needless to say, considerable rivalry among the princes of both generations.
In the meantime, the ruling family keeps a tight lid on any political ferment in the kingdom of 20 million. Last year, when there were stirrings in Saudi Arabia in response to the Arab Spring in the region, the family rolled out a new $130 billion public welfare program to be sure that peace and tranquility continued to reign. When there was trouble in neighboring Bahrain from the majority Shiite Muslims there, the Saudis sent forces across the causeway to the island to be sure that its Sunni rulers remained firmly in place.
The other problem that close relations with Saudi Arabia presents for the United States is its appalling human rights situation. Apart from the kingdom's retrograde treatment of women, the Department of State's annual report on human trafficking put Saudi Arabia on the list of countries that fell short of standards in attacking that problem. A few days ago a man was executed for adultery and witchcraft. Last year -- 2011 -- there were two beheadings for witchcraft.
Washington would have to worry more about Saudi Arabia if the situations in countries like Egypt, Libya and Syria were not as grave as they are. As it is, the kingdom will bear very close watching, particularly as the current generation of rulers passes on and rule goes up for grabs among the third-generation princes.
First Published June 25, 2012 12:00 am