Saudi king racing to reform his kingdom
The night of September 11, 2001, had come and gone in Saudi Arabia, and the dawn prayers had been said in Jidda. But at midmorning, when a visitor to Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud found him in one of the vast rooms of his palace, the de facto ruler of the country was still bent on the floor."He was alone," remembers the visitor, insisting on anonymity."He prayed long, long, long—much longer than I have ever seen." At last the man who is now the king of Saudi Arabia (he would inherit the throne in 2005) arose and spoke. He seemed stunned."I am sure our good people did not do these things," he said. Yet word had already come from the United States that most of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens."He could not put this within a context that he understood," recalls the visitor."Not in an Arab context or a Muslim context or a Saudi context." In the years since, when Abdullah has talked of Al Qaeda and its allies, he uses words that translate as"the deviant group," or"the miscreants," as if it is impossible that they could have been his subjects.
For years the pace of reform in Saudi Arabia has reflected what seemed
to be denial. Change has been almost imperceptibly slow, like a dune
moving across the desert, even as the kingdom's festering problems
nourished extremism. In the past few weeks, however, things have
suddenly accelerated as the king has moved to show the
ultraconservative Saudi religious establishment quite literally who's
boss. He sacked the head of the feared religious police and the
minister of justice, appointed Nora al-Fayez as deputy education
minister, making her the highest-ranking female official in the
country's history, and moved to equalize the education of women and
men under the direction of a favored son-in-law who has been preparing
for years to modernize the nation's school system."Abdullah waited,"
says Robert Lacey, who wrote"The Kingdom," the classic 1981 study of
Saudi Arabia, and is now working on a sequel."He bided his time until
it was appropriate for him to make the changes he wanted." Whatever
the reason, the 85-year-old monarch has begun acting like a leader
whose vision is becoming clear just as time is running short.
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