In the two months since becoming Saudi Arabia's new monarch, King Abdullah has continued to walk a diplomatic tightrope, assuring the West – particularly the United States – of his country's commitment to reform and assuring domestic religious leaders of his commitment to Islamic law and tradition.
In his first television interview since becoming king, Abdullah tells ABC News' Barbara Walters he supports broader rights for women, is concerned about rising oil prices, and is a determined ally in the global war on terror. However, he acknowledges there is antipathy toward the United States among the Saudi public.
"The Saudi people have some disagreements with the United States, in particular when it comes to the issue of the Palestinian question, the war in Afghanistan and the war with Iraq," he tells Walters in an interview that airs Friday night at 10 p.m. on "20/20" and continues on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m.
Though 82 years old, Abdullah is widely considered to be the most modern and open of his 42 brothers. In each of his palaces, for example, there is a full wall of television monitors on which the king is said to watch news from around the globe.
Abdullah appears determined to present Americans with a new vision of Saudi Arabia, starting with the fact that, in a country notorious for discrimination against women, he has chosen to do his first-ever television interview with Walters.
To many in Saudi Arabia, the gesture will be seen as a welcome signal that social change is finally coming to the kingdom. But Abdullah knows he must tread the road to reform carefully – and slowly – to assuage his country's powerful religious conservatives and many in the royal family who agree with them.
One of the more visible gestures he has made is departing from the traditional royal protocol of having his subjects kiss his hand. "I have tremendous distaste for such matters because I believe that one only bows before God, not another human being," he said.
And in a widely photographed and meaningful gesture, Abdullah made a point to hold hands with President Bush during his April visit to the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. "In our culture, holding hands is a sign of friendship and a sign of loyalty and you do it with people dear to you. And President Bush is a friend whose friendship I value and treasure," he said.
Personal affection aside, the real treasure and binding tie in U.S.-Saudi relations is oil. The kingdom controls roughly one-quarter of the world's oil supply. With the price of crude nearly tripling over the past decade, Abdullah is keenly aware of the impact this has had on global markets and politics, and says his country – the world's leading oil exporter – is working to slow the rapid rise in oil prices. "Without a doubt we have benefited financially, but we believe that the damage to other countries is tremendous and we don't believe that the prices should be at these levels," he tells Walters.
Abdullah said Saudi Arabian oil production has risen to more than 10 million barrels a day to address increasing demand.
Although he admits it will take time, Abdullah tells Walters he is committed to broader civil rights for women. Currently, without a man's permission, women are not permitted to drive, attend university, or even have lifesaving surgery. And in the country's first-ever elections in 2004, women were denied the right to vote.