In the wake of the Persian Gulf War, Saudi Arabia's aging rulers were rattled by a pair of anti-American bombings, a vocal domestic opposition and unrest among a Shiite minority with suspected ties to Iran. As it enters a new decade, however, the House of Saud seems to be resting easier, its most strident opponents calmed and its American allies hidden on a remote base in the desert.
A once-feisty dissident group that gained prominence in the mid-1990s by accusing the royal family of being corrupt and out of touch has quieted down, if not disappeared--so much so that three Muslim sheiks who had preached against the Saudi dynasty were released after several years in prison. Tensions with Shiite-ruled Iran, just across the Persian Gulf, have given way to increasingly friendly diplomacy, and the government's relations with its own Shiite minority apparently have taken a turn for the better.
The several thousand American troops stationed here, mainly Air Force personnel in Operation Southern Watch who are enforcing a U.N. ban on Iraqi flights below Iraq's 32nd parallel, are now far out of sight on a Saudi air base near Kharj, 60 miles southeast of Riyadh. That means they are no longer in daily view in Riyadh and Dhahran, where conservative Saudis often were offended by their presence in a kingdom that regards itself as the seat of Islam.
For King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdullah and the other brothers and half-brothers in line for the throne in this country's unusual, lateral line of succession, "there is no operative internal threat" at the moment, said a local diplomat.
Academics, diplomats and religious leaders once critical of the government vouch for the renewed sense of stability. In the several years since protests peaked and the bombings occurred, security has tightened, but the royal family has tried to mend fences with some of those complaining the loudest.
When Abdullah visited a popular mall in the country's heavily Shiite eastern provinces, walked among the crowd and ordered fast food, it "was a watershed," said John Duke Anthony, an academic and president of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. "The evidence is more than anecdotal," he said after a recent visit. "Look at the absence of demonstrations. . . . No strikes. No unearthing of arms caches or printing presses cranking out the radical pamphlets."
That stands in contrast to the mid-'90s, when dissident groups issued manifestoes listing their grievances against the royal family and a London-based opposition group hit the monarchy with regular broadsides that were widely distributed via e-mail both inside and outside Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi exiles in London have been plagued by internal battles that came to a head in 1996, when the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights in Saudi Arabia broke apart after an angry battle between the group's two leaders, Mohammed Masari and Saad Faqhi.
"We have had a long period of low activity since the big battle in '96," said Masari, chairman of the Legitimate Rights Group. "We have not had enough money to maintain an office or staff. Very little has been done."
After the break, Masari said Faqhi formed a separate organization that has a small budget and maintains a Web site. But neither group has had enough members or money to carry on sustained anti-government activities.
"You could hardly call it a movement at all," said Martyn Warr, the Saudi desk officer at Britain's Foreign Office. "There are some individuals, but they have pretty much dropped off the radar screen."
The Saud dynasty has ruled since King Abdul Aziz unified tribal governorates in three decades of skirmishing that culminated in the kingdom's founding in 1932. But in the mid-1990s, when the opposition was at its most vocal and bombings in Riyadh and Khobar killed a total of 24 Americans, questions arose about how long the family's grip on the country would last.
"People said, 'Oh, it's going to fall to pieces,' " said another diplomat. But he added that "it still looks pretty good."
As the major power on the Arabian peninsula and holder of the world's largest known oil reserves, Saudi Arabia and its stability have long been a chief concern of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It was to protect Saudi Arabia that the United States organized the Gulf War coalition after the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait in August 1990. And this remains the main reason for the presence of approximately 4,000 U.S. military personnel alongside British and French forces at the Prince Sultan air base near Kharj.
That close relationship, which dates to the early, American-led hunt for oil in the Saudi desert, came under challenge after the Gulf War as the strictest Muslims in this already conservative state protested the continued presence of armed nonbelievers. The U.S. presence was cited by the Saudi dissident and alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden in his call to target American people and interests around the world. It also figured in the two explosions--on Nov. 13, 1995, at a Saudi National Guard office in Riyadh used by American trainers, and on June 25, 1996, at an apartment building housing U.S. servicemen at Khobar near Dhahran.
The first bombing, which killed five Americans and two Indians, was solved and the confessed bombers were beheaded. The second, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen, is now apparently close to resolution as well.
The United States recently extradited one alleged participant, Hani Sayegh, to Saudi Arabia, and he is awaiting trial along with several others. The Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef, said in an interview in November that Saudi authorities now possess "full knowledge" of the case.
If the bombings represent the tensest moments in recent years, the last few months have been among the more relaxed, as evidenced by the release last summer of the three dissident sheiks. They had been jailed along with others in 1994 for their criticism that Saudi Arabia's royal family--the thousands-strong network of princes and princesses who receive a monthly allowance as their birthright--was corrupt and that the government was not strict enough in its observance of Islamic law.
The release of Safar Hawali, Salman Audah and Nasser Omar followed a general agreement, said one local Islamic leader, that open opposition to the government was yielding few benefits and should be dropped in favor of less divisive ways to push for reforms.
Although the three had been among the most vocal in their criticism of the Saudi dynasty, "there are no permanent enemies here in Saudi Arabia," a product of the accommodation and compromise interwoven in the politics of a still very tribal system, said Prince Sultan bin Salman, son of the influential governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman.
The increasing sense of political stability has been attributed partly to the skills of Abdullah, Fahd's half-brother and the country's de facto ruler given the poor health of Fahd, who is nearly 80. Diplomats here say, for example, that Abdullah is trusted by Shiites and is regarded as observant enough in his own religious practices to give him influence with conservative and powerful Sunni clerics as well.
Although he is in his mid-seventies, Abdullah is also seen as an advocate for economic reform--the one issue analysts say could rekindle political problems for the ruling family and which poses what is perhaps the country's greatest long-term challenge.
Oil revenues rebounded last year, but a long decline in prices left Abdullah and others convinced that fundamental changes are needed in how this oil-rich economy is organized. The petroleum boom allowed the Saudi royals to lavish so many benefits on the country's citizens for so long that a whole generation came of age assuming they could rely on government jobs, government loans and government price supports.
That is no longer the case, and the country is now worried about how to encourage its young people to work, to ensure they can find jobs and to reduce the ranks of the millions of foreign laborers from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere who dominate the labor market.
The result has been a glimmer of change in a country that has been both economically and culturally suspicious of outside influence.
The Saudis are negotiating aggressively to join the World Trade Organization, and they recently opened their mutual fund markets to outside investors. Other regulations would let foreigners own property and make other investments without the barriers that have reduced available capital--including hundreds of billions held by Saudis in foreign accounts.
Abdullah recently formed a Supreme Economic Council meant to broaden discussion of economic policy and advise the government on issues such as privatization and tax reform. Although perhaps slow-moving and not as dramatic as the open policies that have fueled investment in smaller Gulf countries such as Dubai or the industrializing economies of southeast Asia, this is nevertheless a sign that the country's internal battles are quiet enough for it to focus on other things.
"The Saudis are coming to the idea," said one local economic analyst, "that the world will not change for them."
Correspondent T. R. Reid in London contributed to this report.