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No change in direction expected under new Saudi king

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No change in direction expected under new Saudi king


He has been the Saudi monarch in all but name for 10 years already.Now pronounced king, Abdullah brings more than just experience to the job. The quietly-spoken moderate has earned a reputation for honesty. A deeply religious man, he commands wide respect in the region. He is set to continue his country’s balancing act between the West and the Arab world – although Abdullah is seen as less pro-Western than his late half-brother.

However, he has a good understanding with George W. Bush and an invitation to the US president’s Texas ranch in April was a clear sign of warm personal relations. At home, King Abdullah has been a cautious reformer, overseeing modest economic and political liberalisation. The 81-year-old has strong links to Arab neighbours as well as religious and tribal groups at home. But it is on the domestic front that he faces perhaps his biggest challenge – a terror campaign aimed at ending his family’s rule of a land that is home to Islam’s holiest shrines. For some of the kingdom’s militants the jihad started in Afghanistan. In the name of the war on communism, they fought the Soviet army – supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Triumphantly back on home soil, many were eager to pursue a holy war. However, when their country was used as a launchpad for the 1991 Gulf War, the fundamentalists were outraged. It was only after the 2003 war on Iraq – publicly opposed by Saudi Arabia – that the US removed virtually all its forces from the kingdom.

Their presence had helped Saudi-born Osama bin Laden rally militants against the royal family and, within weeks of the US withdrawal, supporters of the al Qaeda leader launched their campaign against Saudi Arabia with triple suicide bombings, killing 35 people in Riyadh. Terrorism was already a sensitive subject in a country that provided most of the September 11 hijackers. Abdullah launched an unprecedented crackdown on militants, although he warned that the battle could continue for decades.Transforming the conservative and traditional kingdom could take as long. Abdullah has shown signs he is in favour of limited reform – initiating modest political change this year when Saudis voted in men-only local elections. One Saudi source familiar with government policy said “stability” and “continuity” would mark Abdullah’s reign.
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