The Crisis Within
In Saudi Arabia, Rebellion and Reform Seize Center Stage
By Thomas W. Lippman
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page B01
Saudi Arabia is beginning to look like a society under siege.
At Riyadh's trendiest shopping mall on a quiet afternoon last month, security officers were stopping vehicles entering the parking garage, opening hoods and trunks in search of explosives. At the Marriott Hotel, near the Petroleum Ministry, and at other hotels in the capital that cater to Westerners, ground-floor windows have been bricked up and Jersey barriers installed across driveways. At the airport, the fence around the Royal Terminal, which serves the king and the princes of the House of Saud, is topped with razor wire. On Riyadh's main boulevards, and on the causeway connecting the kingdom with Bahrain, police have set up security checkpoints.
These are surprising sights in a country that has always prided itself on its law-and-order, crime-free environment. They reflect the unhappy fact that for the past 13 months, Saudi Arabia has been afflicted by an escalating wave of terrorist violence aimed at bringing down the regime, purging the country of Western influence and choking off the nascent liberalization of Saudi society. Scores of people have died in bombings and shootings at housing compounds where foreigners live and at oil industry facilities, including the May 29 attack in Khobar that claimed 22 victims. Yesterday, an American was shot and killed outside his home in a Riyadh suburb. Newspapers report frequent shootouts between security forces and suspected terrorists whose arsenals of weapons and explosives are distressingly large.
The desperadoes are Saudis, nurtured in an extremist environment that the government itself has long fostered. They are linked to al Qaeda and sympathetic to their countryman Osama bin Laden -- which has predictably stirred speculation about the stability of the kingdom. Bin Laden and his followers have made clear that they are committed to overthrowing the House of Saud. Given the increasing audacity of the terrorists, the country's swelling ranks of unemployed malcontents and the apparent indecisiveness of the senior princes, it might appear that the insurgency could indeed bring down the regime or at least ignite a civil war.
Yet forecasting the demise of the Saudi monarchy would be premature at best -- and probably wrong.
The ruling princes are skillful, ruthless when necessary, unconstrained by the niceties of civil liberties, and connected by marriage and business ties to a huge percentage of the population, which secures them support and loyalty. The family history is one of alternately accommodating and crushing the religious militants whom the kings have used as allies -- except when they defied royal authority.
This balancing act has defined the internal politics of the kingdom since the 1920s. In 1929, when the religious zealots known as the Ikhwan challenged the authority of the country's founder, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, he killed or exiled most of them, despite their earlier efforts to help him unify the kingdom. When armed extremists took over the Great Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the regime showed them no mercy, publicly beheading 62 men in eight cities. Self-preservation is the first law of the House of Saud.
This is not to minimize the problem the regime faces today. There appears to be a large pool of poorly educated, narrow-minded, violence-prone men who are steeped in the religious absolutism that the regime itself promoted for 20 years, principally to reestablish its Islamic religious credentials after the mosque takeover.
These militants are willing to take up arms, attack women and children, and die for the illusory cause of an Islamic state culturally and spiritually similar to the one created by the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.
The messages they hear from the country's xenophobic religious establishment -- anti-Western, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist -- reinforce their convictions. Indeed, even Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, reinforced the venomous rhetoric by blaming "Zionists" for the Khobar attacks. His powerful half-brother, Prince Nayef, the interior minister, had earlier held "Zionists" responsible for the attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
More than a thousand of the most inflammatory preachers have been removed from their pulpits since then, but the senior princes are still reluctant to confront the religious leadership because alliance with it is the foundation of the regime's legitimacy.
Recognizing this contradiction, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States and a grandson of the founding king, called this month for the ruling princes to stop blaming others for the country's troubles and urged a total mobilization of the country's resources for what he depicted as a war to the death.
If the regime treats the terrorists the way Abdul Aziz treated the Ikhwan -- that is, destroys them -- the House of Saud will prevail, he said; if the rulers treat them as "Muslim youths who have been misled . . . in the hope that they will come to their senses," the House of Saud will be destroyed. (Excerpts from Bandar's manifesto appeared in last Sunday's Outlook.)
Still, even with its history of corruption and autocratic rule, Saudi Arabia does not face the conditions that have provoked revolution in other developing countries. It cannot be compared, for example, to Iran in 1978, where a society was united in its desire to get rid of the shah, who was perceived as a usurper who devalued Islamic culture.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
_____Outlook Live: Q & A_____
Thomas Lippman will field questions and comments about his piece in a live discussion Monday, June 14 at 4 p.m. ET.