SOBHANI: Why royal Saudi leadership matters

The United States needs reliable allies in the Middle East now more than ever before. The rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria, continued instability in countries such as Yemen and the Iranian regime’s support for dangerous elements in the region demonstrate the need to actively strengthen relations with a country that shares our interest in a more stable Middle East — Saudi Arabia. Ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdulaziz aboard the USS Quincy in 1945, Saudi Arabia has been one of America’s most steadfast allies.

Indeed, it matters to Washington and to the rest of the world who governs Saudi Arabia. The Saudi king controls the world’s largest reserves of petroleum, is custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites and has been a counterweight to extremist ideologies — whether supported by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As leader of this nation of 25 million, King Abdullah has played all these roles and more.

King Abdullah has anchored Saudi foreign policy on the basis of stability and, domestically, has carried out many groundbreaking reforms such as expanding the roles of women in Saudi society and establishing a national dialogue among various elements of Saudi society and institutions to contribute to the development of the nation. The king’s encouragement of interfaith dialogue and extensive spending on educational scholarships to Saudi men and women to study abroad point toward his commitment to a more tolerant and interlinked society.

Indeed, the king puts a premium on education and raising his country’s human capital. To this end, he has established the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a coed institution along the same principles as the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The reforms King Abdullah has made demonstrate his willingness for change and his interest in transforming Saudi Arabia.

As Washington looks at the next chapter of its relations with Saudi Arabia, engagement with and cultivation of ties to the man who can uphold King Abdullah’s legacy becomes paramount. That person is Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the king’s reform-oriented 60-year-old son.

Prince Miteb was born in Riyadh and trained at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, graduating as a lieutenant and rising through the ranks of the Saudi military. Beginning a military career in the early 1980s, he eventually was appointed commander of the Saudi National Guard in November 2010 — a position previously held by King Abdullah— and appointed minister of the National Guard this May. He is a member of the Saudi Council of Ministers, a member of the Military Service Council and vice president of the Supreme Committee of the National Festival for Heritage and Culture — the Janadriyah. Prince Miteb’s resume of appointments demonstrates the high level of regard he holds with his father as a capable and influential member of the next generation of Saudi royal family leadership.

There are not many leaders who can unreservedly tick all three boxes. King Abdullah was one of them.

One of his top priorities was what he called “building houses of wisdom.” King Abdullah invested billions of dollars into modernization of the Saudi educational system in order to raise his country’s human capital. For example, he established the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a coed institution along the same principles as the Caltech and MIT. When he inaugurated KAUST he spoke about institutions of learning as being houses of wisdom. What the King meant was that education must serve noble goals.

The National Dialogue was another of King Abdullah’s initiatives whereby taboo subjects such as the rights of woman, fighting the “cancer of extremism” or empowering the Shia minority were all discussed in an atmosphere of openness. Establishing this national dialogue among various elements of Saudi society and institutions contributed to the development of Saudi society.

But it was on the world stage that King Abdullah made his mark. He anchored Saudi foreign policy on the basis of stability and being a reliable partner. While some leaders such as Vladimir Putin used their energy resources as a weapon, King Abdullah saw oil as an engine of economic growth for the global economy; thus not to be politicized. When state-sponsors of terrorism funded the murder of innocent Lebanese, Israelis, Iraqis and Palestinians, King Abdullah funded philanthropic ventures to help aid these victims. He was the anchor of the arc of stability constantly fighting against those whose chief goal is instability.

The United States needs reliable allies in the Middle East now more than ever before. The rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria, continued instability in countries such as Yemen and the Iranian regime’s support for dangerous elements in the region demonstrate the need to actively strengthen relations with a country that shares our interest in a more stable Middle East – Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, it matters to Washington and to the rest of the world who governs Saudi Arabia. The Saudi king controls the world’s largest reserves of petroleum, is custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites and has been a counterweight to extremist ideologies.

As Washington looks at the next chapter of its relations with Saudi Arabia, engagement with and cultivation of ties to the men who can uphold King Abdullah’s legacy becomes paramount.

S. Rob Sobhani, Ph.D., is author of “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence.”


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