Saudi King's Delicate Balancing Act

ByABC News

Oct. 13, 2005 — -- 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.

"I believe the day will come when women drive," he said. "In fact, if you look at the areas in Saudi Arabia, the deserts and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. ...The issue will require patience. In time, I believe it will be possible. And I believe patience is a virtue."

It's apparent that social policy is a delicate balancing act in the kingdom. When Walters asks whether Abdullah would issue a decree allowing women to drive, he said, "I value and take care of my people as I would my eyes. ... I respect my people and I value their well-being ... It is impossible that I would do anything that is not acceptable to my people."

The rising price of oil isn't the only issue causing tensions between the kingdom and the United States. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, criticized U.S. policy in Iraq last month, saying that Iraq may face disintegration that could ultimately drag the region into war.

Abdullah distanced himself from the foreign minister's statement, but expressed concern about the continuing instability in Iraq. "Iraq is composed of various ethnic and religious groups and factions. What we ask for is that justice and equality prevail among all of the ethnic groups in Iraq. We believe that all Iraq is one country in which all Iraqis [deserve to] live in peace and justice," he said.

Like Iraq, Saudi Arabia has significant Sunni and Shiite Muslim populations, and Abdullah's Sunni Muslim monarchy attempts to keep tensions between the communities to a minimum. In recent days, Saudi officials have expressed concern that Shiite-led Iran may attempt to exploit Iraq's instability. Iraq's Shiite majority has gained influence since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, and Saudi officials fear that Iran may be trying to gain broader regional influence and possibly assert control in southern Iraq.

Abdullah tells Walters he views Iran as a "friendly country," but seems somewhat anxious about its role in the region. "Iran is a Muslim country. We hope that Iran will not become an obstacle to peace and security in Iraq. This is what we hope for and this is what we believe the Iraqi [people] hope for," he tells Walters.

The king also stated his strong opposition to nuclear weapons, saying he would not attempt to obtain nuclear arms for his country should Iran develop them. "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, like other countries in the region, rejects the acquisition of nuclear weapons by anyone, especially nuclear weapons in the Middle East region. We hope that such weapons will be banned or eliminated from the region by every country in the region."

Walters pressed Abdullah on whether his administration is taking steps to curb religious extremism, the strict Wahabi strain of Islam that some say is promoting intolerance and hatred among young students. But the monarch said Saudi Arabia is being unfairly singled out on that point. "I will not deny that such extremism existed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but such extremism exists in almost every country in the world. If you look at the United States and what people have said about Islam ... I ask myself why the focus is only on Saudi Arabia when it comes to such matters," he tells Walters.

While Abdullah said his country does not support groups that promote religious extremism or terrorism, Osama bin Laden and 15 of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia. And in 2004, the Council on Foreign Relations reported that "Saudi Arabia continues massive spending on fundamentalist religious schools which export radical extremism that can lead to terrorism."

The king denies the council's assertion. "It doesn't seem logical. We are fighting terrorism and extremism in our midst. Why would we be funding it somewhere else?" he asks Walters.

He adds, "For those who level these charges against us, I say provide us with the evidence that this is happening and we will deal with it. It is not logical or rational for us to be supporting it. We have also regulated our charities and we have closed offices around the world, and we have withdrawn support for institutions that we found to be extremist."

Walters asks Abdullah why Saudi Arabia has become fertile ground for groups like al Qaeda. "Madness and evil, it is the work of the devil," he said.

He condemned terrorist acts and said his country "will fight the terrorists and those who support them or condone their actions for 10, 20 or 30 years if we have to, until we eliminate this scourge. I believe that the world must stand shoulder to shoulder with each other if we are to eliminate this evil from our midst."

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