Today Dr. Rob Sobhani launched his new book, “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence,” in Washington at a new book event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In this exclusive SUSRIS interview we talk with him about the objectives and scope of the book, and the insights he gained about the Saudi ruler. His research took him to the Kingdom six times in the last two and a half years to talk with Saudis and others from all walks of life, to gain perspective on King Abdullah’s impact on the important issues of the day in the Kingdom. We are pleased to share Dr. Sobhani’s perspectives on the rule of King Abdullah and to provide information about this book that adds an important chapter to the dialogue on U.S.-Saudi relations.
“King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence”
A Conversation with S. Rob Sobhani
SUSRIS: What led you to focus on King Abdullah for a book length project?
S. Rob Sobhani: There was a vacuum of strategic thinking as it concerns U.S.-Saudi relations that needed to be addressed. I felt it was important to highlight the role that King Abdullah could play in this bilateral strategic relationship but also the connections to the broader global issues we face, such as global warming, the war on terrorism, financial instability and so forth. So, the impetus was to fill in that strategic vacuum – between Saudi Arabia and the United States, and globally.
SUSRIS: What is it about King Abdullah that led you to name him a “Leader of Consequence” in your book’s title?
Sobhani: I chose the title “Leader of Consequence” because out of the four top leaders in the world, the first three being those of the United States, China and Russia, the leader of Saudi Arabia is truly a leader of consequence because his actions matter very much to the world.
If King Abdullah decides tomorrow to shut the Kingdom’s oil spigots because he doesn’t like U.S. policy, the price of oil would go through the roof. If the King decides he doesn’t like Dutch cartoonists caricaturing Prophet Muhammad he could have millions of Arabs in the streets chanting “Death to America” or “Death to the West.” But he is doing the exact opposite of those things. That is why he is a leader of consequence. His actions matter and they matter right now.
SUSRIS: What has been the King’s focus?
Sobhani: First and foremost, in my opinion, he has created a free zone of dialogue within the Kingdom. Issues that were taboo before are no longer taboo. He is standing up to terrorism, domestic and external terrorism, not only through guns – although if necessary he does and will — but also through rehabilitation. He is actually using the Koran as a weapon against extremists.
One of his accomplishments that concern the United States and the U.S. public is his action at the Opec Summit a few years ago to support the U.S. Dollar. King Abdullah stood up against some of the more radical elements of Opec who wanted to move the currency basket of the organization away from the Dollar and to the Euro.
These are a few of the things I believe make this King different. But I wrote the book because I believe the United States has an honest partner that it can work with to solve some of the pressing problems that we face whether it is terrorism, whether it is the Arab-Israeli conflict, whether it is global warming. King Abdullah is a partner. If the United States extends a hand to King Abdullah, he will be more than glad to shake that hand and sit across the table and start solving these problems. I believe that the U.S. needs to understand that this is a window of opportunity that will probably not come back again soon if it is allowed to close. So we need to grab this opportunity while it exists and solve some of these problems to our mutual benefit.
SUSRIS: Is your book about the man or the relationship?
Sobhani: The focus is on the man. The focus is on what he has accomplished, what his vision is, the effects and consequences of his actions. The man himself. Who are we talking about? Who are we dealing with? It was not a five-year endeavor to write a book about King Abdullah. It’s a profile rather than a biography. This is really a profile of a statesman, the purpose of which was to get Washington to open its eyes and to realize that we have a partner we can work with. That’s the book.
SUSRIS: What has King Abdullah brought to the table in his time on the throne?
Sobhani: The number one development in my opinion is the National Dialogue he instituted, giving the country a forum to discuss formerly taboo issues. Whether it was Shia-Sunni dialogue, whether it was women’s issues, whether it was extremism and terrorism. The National Dialogue has been a major contribution.
Second was to put Saudi Arabia’s economic house in order – getting it into the World Trade Organization and making the economy and financial environment more attractive. If you look at the figures, Saudi Arabia is now the number one destination for foreign direct investment in the Middle East in part because King Abdullah demanded and achieved transparency from the bureaucracy.
The third area was the institutionalization of Saudi political culture. Consider, for example, the changing of the education system. He made Prince Faisal, a Western educated guy, responsible to look at the entire curriculum program and to institutionalize educational reform. The institutionalization of the succession – he has put together the succession council, which oversee selection of future rulers.
In the area of foreign policy, King Abdullah has shown enormous wisdom in oil pricing making sure there is a fair return for producers but also being aware that consumers could be hurt by too high oil prices.
There is his philanthropy. This is a guy who watches TV. He sees something on TV and it affects him. Whether it’s in Lebanon or Gaza, or Haiti he has been extending his philanthropy to all parts of the world. His generosity has reached the United States. He has funded programs for under privileged kids here in the Washington- Baltimore area and elsewhere in America. So this is a man whose philanthropy is driven by what he sees and he acts from the heart.
SUSRIS: What about challenges he faces? Robert Lacey, author of “Inside the Kingdom,” recently talked to SUSRIS about the push back from conservatives over the newly launched King Abdullah University of Science and Technology campus being coed. There’s competition, friction, between progressive and conservative elements in the Kingdom. How has he done in this regard?
Sobhani: I think you touched upon it really. The challenge is to move forward yet move at a pace that doesn’t create a violent backlash from conservative elements, and the only person who can do it is King Abdullah. He is pious. He is religious. People like him because of his piety, because of his religiosity, and that’s why he can push these issues.
When a radical imam gets up and says satellites are “haram,” or forbidden, Abdullah can take a stand and say, “You know what, it’s not.” Yes, a major challenge he faces is the extreme conservative, violent elements of Saudi society that, in my opinion, are no different from extremists in other parts of the Muslim world. It all boils down to power. The radical elements want people to be ignorant and that is why education becomes so important. They do not want modernity, because modernity means taking away their power. The extreme sheikhs and imams in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere thrive on ignorance. To the extent the population is ignorant means the ignorant population goes to the imam and sheikhs for answers. That is why King Abdullah’s reforms in education are so crucially important.
Of course there are some imams who don’t act that way. There are those who believe the Koran is the blueprint for enlightenment. They point to the Golden Age of Muslim thinking, when Islam, the Muslim world was light years ahead of Europe. They point out the need for jihad, or “struggle,” for building airplanes instead of the jihad of taking airplanes into buildings.
SUSRIS: Look ahead. You talked about King Abdullah as a global leader but there are problems in every corner of his region. Challenges from Iran, the Middle East peace process, what’s happening in Iraq, what’s happening in Yemen. How does he approach all these challenges?
Sobhani: In Yemen I think he is making progress. I think he has gotten the President of Yemen to realize there must be good governance. Part of the reason Yemen is moving toward failed state status is the lack of good governance, so I think Abdullah has a good approach there. The Houthis, the rebels in the north of Yemen, have been told to listen, to either shape up or the Saudis are coming in – and they have gone in.
The biggest challenge to the region and to Saudi Arabia remains Iran. It is the warehouse of bad ideas, the warehouse of destruction. But King Abdullah is torn, and I say this because I’ve talked to his people. He’s torn because he sees so much potential in the Iranian people. He feels Iran is a rich country with a lot of culture and history but does not like the policies of the Iranian government. Iran is his biggest challenge.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is often times stoked by Iran’s involvement in funding terrorist groups like Hizballah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad and not allowing the peace process to go forward. For King Abdullah the Palestinian situation is the most important issue. For him to be able to walk in Jerusalem one day, is a dream and that is why he wants this it resolved.
SUSRIS: What should Americans know about King Abdullah as a man. His background. What brought him to be the man that he is today?
Sobhani: I think it may sound like an exaggeration but consider that King Abdullah is a hybrid of – shares some characteristics of – American Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Eisenhower, in the sense that he is very well liked, he has vision, he is not reluctant to make difficult decisions, and when he makes a decision he moves forward confidently. The American public and policymakers need to know that King Abdullah is a partner that we can work with. We should take advantage of his willingness to work with us because this window of opportunity may not present itself again, since we do not know who will replace King Abdullah when he is gone.
If President Obama wants to tackle global warming why don’t we marry American technology and King Abdullah’s desire to solve it. If you want to tackle radicalism in Yemen or Pakistan why not do a major rehabilitation project throughout these countries. Learn from the Saudi experience. If we want to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, well King Abdullah already has a plan. Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders and the Arabs will normalize relations. He’s serious. He means it. Why not bring all the parties together. Not in front of cameras. Behind close doors and resolve this. King Abdullah is serious, he is sincere and he can deliver the Arab world.
SUSRIS: Have you gained any perspective on what the period after King Abdullah might look like.
Sobhani: It would be a few years of, not confusion, but soul-searching. Saudi Arabia will use that period to figure out its identity. That identity will be driven by the next ruler but also by factors outside Saudi Arabia. What will Iran look like? What will Yemen look like? What will Iraq look like? Is the Arab-Israeli question resolved? The post-Abdullah period in Saudi Arabia will be a period, in my opinion, of soul-searching and trying to find an identity.
SUSRIS: Last thoughts on your book on King Abdullah?
Sobhani: It was a labor of respect. It was my own initiative that I hope will serve as a bridge between Saudi Arabia and the United States, a bridge of understanding between our two countries. That’s really what I’m hoping will come out of it.
About S. Rob Sobhani
Dr. S. Rob Sobhani is the President and founder of Caspian Energy Consulting. Dr. Sobhani is a business consultant, with an academic background, who specializes in corporate and government relations.
Dr. Sobhani founded Caspian Energy Consulting (CEC) in 1991 to specialize in negotiating projects for clients with business interests in the Middle East and former Soviet Union. As a means to achieving a company’s goal, CEC puts together a comprehensive strategy that includes country risk analysis, public relations, lobbying the host government on behalf of the project, and maintaining the image of the client as a corporate citizen in the host country.
Until 2005, Dr. Sobhani was an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University where he taught courses on U.S. foreign policy and energy security. He is a frequent contributor to op-ed pages of major U.S. newspapers and has appeared on domestic and international television and radio programs discussing U.S. foreign policy and energy markets. Dr. Sobhani is also a guest lecturer at major conferences dealing with international energy security.
In addition to his professional and academic background, Dr. Sobhani sits on the Board of or is otherwise affiliated with a number of organizations. He sits on the Board of Mohawk Innovative Technologies in Albany, New York. He is Deputy Chairman of Washington Capital Partners. Dr. Sobhani also serves on the Board of Directors of c5I Corporation and General Magnetic Sciences. Dr. Sobhani is also a member of the bi-partisan Committee on the Present Danger.
(Source: Caspian Energy Consulting)
About “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence”
Date of Release: February 24, 2010
Ordering Information: Email Dr. Sobhani < email@example.com >
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