Flush with cash from high oil prices, ascendant in its battle with homegrown jihadists, buoyed by a newly robust private sector and entry into the World Trade Organization, and led by a popular, reform-minded king, Saudi Arabia has sputtered to life. After the dark days of the 1990s, marked by stagnation, drift and policy paralysis, the kingdom faces a brighter future.
As custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina, and a heavyweight in councils of Islamic states, Saudi Arabia is a natural leader of a Muslim world in tumult. As the kingdom gets its own house in order, it's time it moved to assertively shape a more moderate, prosperous Muslim world.
King Abdullah clearly sees himself in this role. Last December, at the meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference, he called on his fellow Muslim leaders to emulate "the radiant beacon" of medieval Islamic civilization a time of scholarship, moderation and wise jurisprudence that proved to be the "decisive catalyst in bringing enlightenment to the dark ages."
Abdullah decried today's extremist bloodletting as the act of miscreants and said he looks forward to "the spread of moderation that embodies the Islamic concept of tolerance" and the success of "Muslim inventors and industrialists, to an advanced Muslim technology, and Muslim youth who work for their life just as they work for the Hereafter, without excess or negligence, without any kind of extremism."
Few paid heed to Abdullah's speech at the time. It was drowned out in the headlines when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran called for Israel to be wiped off the map. Today, across the Muslim world, Ahmadinejad's defiant speeches and incendiary rhetoric have made him a hero to many. Abdullah's voice of moderation barely registers a ripple. But the world should watch Abdullah closely. If his words are backed up with real action, Saudi Arabia could help transform a troubled swath of lands encompassing nearly one-fifth of humanity.
So far, Saudi Arabia's power to shape the Muslim world has mostly been exercised in damaging ways. The kingdom has used its clout and riches to fund a web of nongovernmental organizations, charities and religious schools that purvey the views of its intolerant Wahabbist establishment, poisoning seminaries and scholars from Bangladesh to Belgium.
Meanwhile, as the government looked the other way, private Saudi funds found their way into the coffers of Al Qaeda and Hamas. And Saudi Arabia's support for the Taliban a brutal, backward, deviant government that did a disservice to Islam should blacken the pages of Saudi history for many years.
Teachers in Saudi Arabia's own schools both Saudis and the Syrians, Egyptians and Palestinians who came to the kingdom as radical Islamist "refugees" from their secular establishments at home purveyed a noxious blend of anti-Semitism, anti-Shiism and anti-Americanism that infected a generation of Saudis.
This indoctrination, coupled with the failings of modernity and anger at U.S. policies, helped produce 15 young Saudis willing to fly suicide missions into American towers, thousands of Saudis willing to do battle in Iraq and a lingering sense of anti-Shiism that could cause lasting instability in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia's unwillingness even today to meaningfully challenge the entrenched Wahabbi establishment that dominates religious discourse in Mecca, the beating heart of the Islamic world, means that a city that could potentially be a lodestar of Islamic cosmopolitanism is instead a barren field of religious reactionaries. Western capitals may quietly applaud when Saudi religious scholars blast Hezbollah, but we should understand where such reaction comes from: a twisted anti-Shiite view of the world that will come back to bite the kingdom.
A year after the accession of King Abdullah, however, a new day seems to be dawning for Saudi Arabia. Citizens are pushing for and receiving more freedoms, a genuine civil-society space is emerging, newspaper opinion pages are experiencing a renaissance, the powers of the notorious religious police have been curbed, princely corruption is on the wane, and the economy is booming (and reforming).
Meanwhile, Abdullah has reached out to traditionally marginalized groups: women, disenchanted youth, the urban poor, liberal intellectuals, and Shiite, Sufi and Ismaeli minorities. He has been hailed by many Saudis as the "people's king." For the first time in several years, Saudis harbor hopes for a better future.
Amid today's crises the recent fighting in Lebanon, the showdown with the West over Iran's nuclear program, the war for Iraq's future, and the rising sense of Sunni-Shiite tension regionally Saudi Arabia plays potentially pivotal roles.
Riyadh is the only Arab capital that has meaningful influence over Tehran, and it also holds significant sway in Damascus. Its alliances with the Sunni tribes of Iraq could play a key role in gathering intelligence on Sunni insurgents, and its religious legitimacy makes it a potential arbiter of peace between Sunni and Shiite.
Saudi Arabia also has a strong voice in Japan and China two key markets for Saudi oil. And Abdullah's recent visit to Turkey marks a milestone, the Ataturkian-secularist state meeting the royalist-religious one on the field of pragmatism.
For Saudi Arabia to be an effective pan-Islamic leader, however, it must avoid alliances and decisions that make it look like a status-quo Sunni power protecting its narrow interests as the Cairo-Amman-Riyadh axis blaming Hezbollah for the war suggested. Attacking Hezbollah "adventurism," as the Saudis called it, won praise in Washington, but in Muslim popular opinion, it made Saudi Arabia look, at best, like a Sunni old-guard heavyweight protecting its interests; at worst, a U.S. lackey.
Riyadh also needs to find ways to reach out to Shiite communities across the region, in much the same way that it has done with some measure of effectiveness at home.
Saudi Arabia must also avoid a "cold war" with Iran. Like it or not, Iran's leaders have won a measure of respect on the Arab and Muslim street that Saudi Arabia could hardly match. Iran also remains a natural regional power, despite long-standing attempts to isolate it.
The Muslim world faces a critical moment in its history: The wheel could turn either toward greater Shiite-Sunni tension, a mounting standoff with the Western world, rising extremism and geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or toward enacting the principles of moderation and prosperity outlined by Abdullah at the Mecca summit meeting.
To enact those principles, Saudi Arabia should lead the way in promoting a new web of institutions that tackle the serious problems facing the Muslim world: unemployment and underemployment; religious intolerance; Shiite-Sunni tension; women's rights; human rights. It must also continue to strengthen its network of relationships with senior Iranian officials, cultivated over the past seven years.
What is standing in the way is the same Wahabbi religious establishment that helped create many of the problems in the first place. The Al-Saud rulers, wedded to this Wahabbi religious establishment in an old bargain of power dating back nearly three centuries, will never fulfill their potential to lead the Muslim world unless they effectively marginalize those voices.