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Saudis Need Better Successions

If ever a foreign event can influence an American lifestyle - car driving - it is the troubling way Saudi Arabia picks its leader. Instability in the petroleum-rich kingdom has often bounced world oil prices up and down like a camel's neck.

This week's royal succession after Monday's passing of King Fahd went smoothly, on the surface. Fahd's half-brother, now King Abdullah, has been running the country for a decade due to Fahd's illness. But competition for power remains strong among hundreds of princes in the extended royal family. Polygamy can beget intense sibling rivalry, and this tribal way of succession is no way to run a modern country, let alone one with the largest known reserves of crude oil.

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Yes, a new crown prince has been appointed. And the first national elections were allowed earlier this year - limited ones, just for municipal councils, and with no women voting.

But until Saudi Arabia moves toward more civil rights and democracy, its leadership will be the object of great concern, whether from the United States or Osama bin Laden.

Still, the new king has strong enough Islamic credentials to roll back the Wahhabi sect's radicals whom his predecessor unleashed, and to become a Middle East leader in civil liberties and in pushing a Palestinian-Israeli peace. But moving toward elected leaders would be his best legacy.