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Saudi Arabia: Could Islamic Militants Bring Down The Royal Family?

  • Jeffrey Donovan

With militant attacks in Saudi Arabia intensifying, experts are comparing the situation there to the foment in Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But is the situation really so dramatic? RFE/RL looks at the state of the House of Saud -- a vital U.S. ally for 60 years, which is now under growing pressure from both Islamic militants and a disaffected public.

Prague, 9 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ever since the 11 September 200 attacks in the United States, some voices in Washington have labeled Saudi Arabia the greatest threat to American interests in the world.

The U.S. administration never endorsed that view, despite the fact that the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens.

But things are starting to change. America's difficulties in Iraq have complicated broader ideas about U.S. policy in the Middle East.
"Al-Qaeda, the threat of bin Ladenism, will be a powerful force, driving elements of the Saudi family and the United States closer together."

Richard Murphy is a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He says there is a new sense of realism in Washington about the Saudi kingdom.

"I think the school that is termed 'neoconservative' that spoke almost glibly of the potential to transform the Middle East has lost some standing as we got down to the bitter reality of postwar Iraq,” Murphy says. “It's good to approach it with a realization of what history has meant to [Saudi Arabia], what its role has been in the Arab world, in the Muslim world, and there are certain directions it can move in more quickly than others."

Saudi Arabia has come under increasing attack by Islamist militants over the past year. Western observers are concerned that the extremists' ultimate target is the kingdom's massive oil industry, which accounts for a quarter of the world's output.

Late last month, militants launched an attack on oil workers in the Saudi city of Khobar, killing 22 foreigners and raising fears such assaults could spur the exodus of expatriate workers considered vital to the kingdom's energy industry.

Such attacks -- many of which have been linked to Al-Qaeda -- began in earnest last year with the bombing of a residential complex in Riyadh that killed 26 foreigners. In the latest incident, an American executive was shot dead yesterday in the Saudi capital.

Richard Clarke, the former top White House counterterrorism official, said this week he feared Saudi Arabia's ruling family could be toppled by Islamic radicals in a scenario similar to the ousting of Iran's Shah back in 1979.

A recent Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report said it would not be surprising to see Saudi Arabia fall into the hands of Islamic radicals before 2020.

Some Western analysts argue that unless Saudi Arabia adopts major modernizing reforms, the ruling family is indeed in danger of falling. A recently released poll of 15,000 Saudis, conducted late last year, shows that almost half of Saudis have a favorable opinion of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, although they would not want him to rule the country.

It's a situation, says Richard Murphy, that leaves the Saudi royal family striking a delicate balance between radical religious elements and discontented liberal reformers.

"[If] you go too fast in reform, you alienate what has been a very solid base of support in the conservative elements of the clergy and of the general population. [If] you don't move enough, you get unhappiness among the liberal reformers. I think that the [Saudi] government is more concerned about going up against the conservatives than the liberals," Murphy says.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a former Middle East specialist with the CIA. He agrees that the royal family, as it confronts terrorism, is likely to concede more to conservatives than to liberals. But he tells RFE/RL that he also believes the threat to the Saudi establishment is being exaggerated.

"This doesn't necessarily strike me as a death blow, or even something which is going to be particularly challenging to the Saudi monarchy,” he says. “I think what you will see is the Saudi monarchy in fact fortifying its relationship with the Wahhabi [official religious] establishment. By doing so, it will protect its right flank, so to speak. And I would then expect the monarchy to become more aggressive, more lethal, in its efforts against Islamic radicals who want to take it down."

To be sure, in recent months the Saudi government has shown signs of opening up the country's deeply conservative system to reforms. Crown Prince Abdullah, for example, has suggested holding elections for city councils. There is also talk of allowing greater freedoms to women, such as allowing them to drive.

But Gerecht dismisses most talk of Saudi reform.

"That's not real,” he says. “That's for American consumption. I think it's a direct reflection of pressure coming from the Americans and the desire to rhetorically please it. And I don't think it's likely you will see a deepening of the reform rhetoric. Just the opposite. In fact, I think you've already seen that, with the harassment of what some people call ‘Saudi liberals.’ I think that has gone up, not down."

But Murphy disagrees. He says popular discontent and the need for reform are genuine issues that will force the Saudi rulers to seek gradual change.

"It's foolish to say it's minor and dismiss the issues. There is discontent. There's unemployment and the lack of political participation, lack of any sense of a role in deciding your future as a Saudi citizen. So the government has to remain alert to that. I think the top leadership is aware of this pressure," Murphy says.

What appears more real, for Gerecht, is the Saudi crackdown on militants. The government has sought to rein in some 3,000 radical preachers and has mobilized the Wahhabi establishment -- the country's official religious leaders -- to stress moderation and condemn extremism.

Gerecht, now with the American Enterprise Institute, believes a key part of the Saudi problem in dealing with militants is weak internal security. Once that improves he believes Saudi Arabia will get the problem under control.

Murphy, too, dismisses any Iran-style Islamic Revolution scenario in Saudi Arabia. He says that's because the royal family is unlikely to upset conservatives by moving too fast on reforms and because the 20,000-strong House of Saud is entrenched in key areas of Saudi society, unlike the family of the Shah of Iran.

"You have a situation with a very sizable royal family that is present in just about every vital aspect of the Saudi government, vital office of the Saudi government. It's unlike the system where the shah was pretty much on his own with a certain group of loyal officials, but when the pressure mounted and it became highly personalized, he felt he had to step down," Murphy says.

Both Murphy and Gerecht say the former close ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia may be over, but that there is unlikely to be any radical push for change from Washington.

Gerecht says the relationship will remain founded on the U.S. need for Saudi oil and the Saudi need for U.S. security and business.

"What you are seeing is a slow, gradual change. You will not see an abrupt break. You will still see many U.S. officials very wedded to the Saudi family. Al-Qaeda, the threat of bin Ladenism, will be a powerful force, driving elements of the Saudi family and the United States closer together. But, at the same time, it will not be as harmonious among the Saudi and American elites who deal with each other. There's greater skepticism, greater concern," Gerecht says.