[Editor's note: the following article was originally published at National Review Online.]
On Jan. 1, 1996, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz became regent and effective ruler of Saudi Arabia. His 15th anniversary this week offers an opportunity to review the kingdom’s changes under his leadership and whither it now heads.
His is perhaps the most unusual and opaque country on the planet, a place without a public movie theater, where women may not drive, where men sell women’s lingerie, where a single-button self-destruct system can perhaps destroy the oil infrastructure, and where rulers spurn even the patina of democracy. In its place, they have developed some highly original and successful mechanisms to keep power.
Three features define the regime: controlling the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, subscribing to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, and possessing by far the world’s largest petroleum reserve. Islam defines identity, Wahhabism inspires global ambitions, oil wealth funds the enterprise.
More profoundly, wealth beyond avarice permits Saudis to deal with modernity on their own terms. They shun jacket and tie, exclude women from the workspace, and even aspire to replace Greenwich Mean Time with Mecca Mean Time.
Not many years ago, the key debate in the kingdom was that between the monarchical and Taliban versions of Wahhabism – an extreme reading of Islam versus a fanatical one. But today, thanks in large part to Abdullah’s efforts to “tame Wahhabi zeal,” the most retrograde country has taken some cautious steps to join the modern world. These efforts have many dimensions, from children’s education to mechanisms for selecting political leaders, but perhaps the most crucial one is the battle among the ulema, the Islamic men of religion, between reformers and hardliners.
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