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A one-man Mideast -- except for Saudis

The major complication and inescapable fact of political life in the Middle East is that politics is of men and not institutions. Yet, ironically, the absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia is the strongest institutionalized government in the region.

Culturally, every facet of Arab life functions through personal relationships and not organizations. President Sadat's assassination brought home once again the fact that the United States cannot avoid basing its foreign policy in the Middle East on one-man governments.

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But the Saudi royal family has succeeded both in ruling the country and in establishing itself as an institution which maintains order, preserves tradition , and ensures continuity in government. To predict that the House of Saud is doomed and that the US should jettison it as the bulwark of its defense of the Arabian Gulf's oil fields fails to grasp both the political composition of Saudi Arabia and the Sauds' ability to manipulate.

The government of Saudi Arabia is not so much a monarchy as it is a highly developed political machine. Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, founder of the House of Saud, based his power on an alliance between his family, the religious leaders, and the tribes he had conquered in uniting his kingdom. That alliance still exists.

Rather than government by decree, Saudi Arabia's monarchy rules through consensus. Members of the upper echelon of the royal family are first and foremost politicians and only secondarily monarchists. A former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John West, likens them to politicians out on the hustings the week before the election.

With 4,000-plus members, the size of the family alone precludes disrupting government by removing one man. The House of Saud since its founding in the 1920 s has had only four kings. Of these, Saud was forced to abdicate and Faisal was assassinated. Although there is no firm line of succession, the crown passed without incident through the sons of Abdul Aziz by order of age because of the concurrence of the political alliance.

The monarchy's ability to rule is based on the complex structure of Saudi society. The population is divided vertically into class and horizontally into regional interests and tribal structures. Each Saudi perceives himself as wearing three hats - class, tribe, and region. The result is that no one group ever has a single interest that is not blunted by other competing interests. Saudi politics is essentially a shell game of rapidly shifting the pea to insure that no more than one of these interests at a time comes into conflict with the political system.

It is the family's network of contacts and personal favors that keeps the country more stable than outside observers generally recognize. Everyone has a patron prince who intervenes in the bureaucracy for his constituents much as a US congressman does. But responsibility goes even further. Personal problems, often of a financial nature, are submitted to a prince, tribal sheikh, or friend within the power structure in full expectation that the problem will be solved. Direct access to the throne is available to every citizen at the king's regularly scheduled majlis where petitions are received and complaints heard.

The uniqueness of the Saudi system depends, to a large extent, on the small size of the population and the abundance of the country's wealth. But more important is the tradition behind the system. The Sauds have taken the traditional role of the sheikh, who acted as both civil and religious authority, and applied it to a nation state. Despite the tremendous physical modernization which has taken place in the country, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled has remained the same.

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Obviously, the system suffers strains from segments of the urban population and from conflicts within the royal family itself. Nevertheless, beneath the intrigue and speculation one constant remains - the Sauds are realistic and flexible political animals. Their genius has been to patiently seek the all-important consensus and abide by it.

In the wake of Sadat's death, US foreign policy cannot be allowed to be wrecked because Saudi Arabia's government does not live up to a Western cultural model. It does live up to its own cultural model.

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