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Middle East: Yemen, Saudis Working To Contain Islamic Extremism

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Saudi Arabia and Yemen have much in common historically, having basically the same tribal background. Today, they have something else in common as well -- namely, that they are both seen as under threat from Islamic militancy. Some experts see the Arabian Peninsula as one of the areas currently most vulnerable to destabilization by extremists. However, the Saudi and Yemeni governments have scored some victories in the past few days. But is this too little, too late?

Prague, 13 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Saudi Arabia and its southern neighbor Yemen are claiming successes in the fight against Islamic extremism.

Riyadh has captured one of the kingdom's most wanted militants, Faris al-Zahrani, who was sought for alleged involvement in Al-Qaeda-linked terror attacks. Zahrani was on a list of 26 top militants, and his arrest means that about half the people on that list have now been killed or captured.

And in Sanaa, the Yemeni authorities are claiming to have defeated in battle the forces of radical Shi'a cleric Hussein al-Houthi, at a cost of scores of lives. Al-Houthi is accused of establishing unlicensed religious centers and forming an armed group hostile to the United States and Israel.

For London-based analyst Mai Yamani, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, these successes are not sufficient to ameliorate what she sees as the very serious situation facing Saudi Arabia in particular. She sees the kingdom as already in crisis: "The Saudi government, what they are doing is too little too late, and the [country's] fate is not really in their hands [any more]."

In the last year, the Saudi state has been subject to a series of well-organized terror attacks by Al-Qaeda-linked groups, which have killed more than 100 people, mostly foreigners. The aim has been to destabilize the world's key oil producer, and to unseat the ruling Saudi royal family. One terror cell has even boasted of what it says are plans to assassinate a senior member of the royal family.

Yamani has said a climate of fear is now pervasive in Saudi Arabia, and she describes the situation as "very fragile."

However, another analyst, Toby Dodge, of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, sees matters in a more positive light: "The Saudis have clearly made a great deal of progress. From a slow start, they have come up to speed, they have recognized the challenge, and the nature of the challenge, of Islamic radicalism. And although they may be starting late in the day, they are working hard because the problem is on their very doorstep."

Since the present series of terror attacks began with the 12 May 2003 bombings of foreigners' housing, the Saudi authorities have replied strongly. Dodge notes Riyadh has employed a series of strategies, ranging from the use of force -- some 40 militants have been killed in various shootouts -- to diplomatic methods, such as the amnesty just offered to militants.

Dodge notes some movement towards democratic reform, such as the decision to hold nationwide municipal elections starting late this year. But he says the pressure of the terrorist violence is interfering with that process: "There needs to be what I would call 'decompression' -- meaning that the radicals need to be isolated from the larger community. You do that by economic reform, political reform, and by convincing the population that things are changing in the way they want. Hopefully the Saudis will do that, but clearly and understandably they have moved much more quickly on the security reform than they have on the political and economic reform. One would like to see those two other strands catch up with the first strand."

Analyst Yamani sees another emerging danger to stability -- namely, that old tribal loyalties have become much stronger among Saudis, at the expense of the bonds linking them to the Saudi national identity. This complicates the picture, in that family loyalties can become stronger than a sense of duty to the state: "The [Saudi] state or government cannot trust the security forces, because all of them are related; you have the men working in the Ministry of the Interior, or police, or security, and they are related to these jihadis."

She notes also that Yemenis and Saudis belong to the same constellation of tribes. The present political borders which separate the countries were drawn by colonialists without regard for tribal realities.

As to the vulnerability of Yemen to the spread of extremism, analyst Dodge acknowledges that it will not be easy for the government in Sanaa to keep its grip over the volatile and fractious tribesmen: "The Yemeni state has always had a much more diffuse control over its geography. They have always had difficulty in controlling the fringes of their state. So that is going to be a different project [from Saudi Arabia]. But also I think since 9/11 they have had a huge 'wake-up call' and they have worked very closely with the United States. So again, Yemen is a much more difficult situation, but they have made comparative progress, and are doing as much as they can."

And if Saudi Arabia and Yemen are under pressure, what of the other sheikdoms on or near the Arabian Peninsula, such as Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates? Yamani said: "They are very worried, because these jihadis coming from Saudi Arabia could infiltrate and influence [their populations], especially Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. They are trying to protect themselves, they say, by means of reforms, and changing their systems."