The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd marks the end of an era for the desert kingdom. The king’s life encompassed his country’s transition from a collection of nomadic tribes who lived atop the world’s greatest petroleum reserves to a modern society whose alliance with the West created intense internal contradictions. The most pressing task for King Abdullah, who was quickly named King Fahd’s successor, is reconciling those contradictions.
King Fahd ruled Saudi Arabia since inheriting the throne in June 1982. He was originally a hands-on monarch, but a debilitating stroke in 1995 left day-to-day affairs in the hands of then-Prince Abdullah. That history suggests that there will be little or no change in policy with his accession to the throne. Saudi officials confirmed that continuity would mark the new king’s administration — it would remain allied with the West and continue to stabilize oil supplies. The retention of the existing Council of Ministers is proof that they are right.
While that reassured oil markets and most governments, the new king must change direction in one area: It must face the reality of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with radical Islam. The government in Riyadh denies that it supports extremists who have perverted Islam to serve their own violent ends. And, indeed, that government is one of the terrorists’ main targets.
But King Fahd, worried about criticism of his personal history and the gains made by radicals in Iran, made a deal with religious hardliners that gave them control of religious curricula and funded their outreach efforts. The result has been the propagation of an extreme version of Islam that justifies terrorism and horrific atrocities against innocents around the world — even in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi government has recently awakened to this threat and cracked down on hardliners at home. It has launched a campaign against extremist teaching and preaching at home. The new government must be equally vigilant against those same voices when they are outside the country. There are no sanctuaries in the fight against terrorism.
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