The Saudi kingdom is living on borrowed time, some Western and Arab intelligence analysts have concluded in the last few months. Their dire evaluations of the Saudi throne’s chances of survival stem from a judgment that “Saudi Arabia is lost to the West.” More than one Western policy-maker has been persuaded by these doomsters to think twice before entering into long-term ties with Riyadh
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Saudi experts have come to a quite different conclusion after carefully analysis of the most recent events in Saudi Arabia. It would be precipitate, they say, to eulogize the ruling princes. The West has written them off more than once in the last half a century and the prophets of doom have been forced to eat their hats.
The latest surge of pessimism emanates directly from the wave of al Qaeda terror that rocked Saudi Arabia in May 2003, killing around 100 people and wounding hundreds others. Yet, this figure is negligible when coolly compared with the casualties terrorists have inflicted in Iraq and Israel. What really bothers Western government leaders and intelligence officials is the ineptness with which Saudi intelligence and security forces handled the assaults and its impotent vacillations in fighting terrorism.
Saudi Arabia has never lived down its reputation as a hotbed of terror, gained from the disclosure that its nationals were the dominant participants in the September 11, 2001 hijack-suicide attacks in the United States. In the media lashing the kingdom has endured in three years – both as home base for terrorists and their victim – key facts have got lost and an apocalyptic vision planted of Saudi Arabia's future.
But with the ebbing of the terrorist assault on the kingdom, a reality check is in order. How has the Saudi throne come out of its crises? Is it really done for?
Even if it is, our experts say, some of the causes are a lot more mundane and universal than the threat of domestic terrorism.
For instance, the most striking feature of Saudi society today is a deepening crisis of confidence between the Saud public and its leaders – the royal family and the Wahhabi clerical establishment – which is aggravated by four key developments:
1. The Saud regime is fast losing credibility as the ruling caste because of its many princes’ glaring incompetence in government.
2. The general standard of living in the oil kingdom has plummeted in recent years. The gross national product has halved and unemployment soared to 30-40%. Education, medical and other state-provided services have suffered correspondingly.
3. The people are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the Wahhabi clergy’s stranglehold over the education system and ordinary life.
4. Saudi society has not recovered from its shock at discovering the key role Saudis played in 9/11.
Three main factions are taking advantage of the crisis to further their own aims.
- A religious group calling itself The New Islamists to distinguish itself from the Islamic opposition parties active in the kingdom in the 1990s. Just like its predecessors, this new group blames the Wahhabi establishment for many of the country's ills. Unlike them, the New Islamists are campaigning for broad domestic reform and are not averse to working with rival opposition groups if this furthers their agenda.
- Liberals advocating human rights, including equality for women, whose ultimate target is to end the Saudi throne's monopoly on power.
- Hijaz provincials who reject the austere Wahhabist Islamic doctrine imposed on their region of western Saudi Arabia and are clamoring for religious freedom.
Opposition groups offer no alternative leaders
These three groups have made some effort in the past year to put together a common platform in the hope of boosting their popular support and strengthening their bargaining clout with the authorities. None call for an immediate change of government. Neither has any individual leader, clan or political faction emerged capable of providing alternative leadership to that of the House of Saud.
This combined Reformist Front aims at advancing its goals in dialogue with the powers-that-be not replacing them.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Jihadists, including al Qaeda and its supporters, advocate holy war and grab headlines with terrorist attacks, but their popular support is marginal.
Most ordinary Saudis are against the extremist Jihadists’ terrorist ways, noting that Muslims are often killed too. But some clerics and also some royal princes provide them with limited backing.
On November 6, twenty-one Saudi clerics, among them opposition figures notorious in the 1990s such as Safar al-Hawali, Salman al-Awda and Awad al-Qarni, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling on young Saudis to fight in the Iraq jihad. Saudi authorities and senior establishment clerics condemned the fatwa. But it could not have been published without at least silent endorsement from senior government figures. Persistent rumors link the extremist clerics who issued the fatwa with certain Saudi princes. Hawali was one of the mediators between al Qaeda and the Saudi interior ministry over the month-long amnesty offered last June to members who turned themselves in.
On November 17, a deeply upset al-Awda made a well-publicized appeal to the authorities to help find his son after the youth ran away from home leaving behind a letter saying he was joining the jihad in Iraq – in obedience to the fatwa signed by his father. This was evidently too close to home to suit al-Awda. After he was found, the son said it was only a prank; his father obviously thought otherwise.
Clearly, both clerics, Hawali and Awda, are well connected in the interior ministry which is headed by Prince Nayef.
Each prince patronizes his own opposition group
In fact, not only do Saudi opposition groups have limited objectives – far short of overthrowing the Saudi throne, but each has its own princely patron with whom its members maintain a lively dialogue. The interaction between the princes and their tame opposition factions means that such actions as a petition for reforms or a religious fatwa will be reflected in the postures assumed by the rival princes in the power struggle inside the royal house.
Since he took over as de facto monarch from his ailing half-brother King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdullah has been in close colloquy with the reformist front. Many of the princes, including foreign minister Saud al-Faysal and billionaire businessman Walid ibn Talal, echo Abdullah's belief that reforms, in general, are necessary. Although they do not always agree on which reforms should be carried out, they see change as a rallying motto around Abdullah against the rival Sudeiri faction of the royal house.
The Sudeiris, led by Fahd, defense minister Sultan and Nayef, lean more towards the radical groups and among Saudis, the interior minister is accused of succoring al Qaeda members. There is no doubt that the minister, whose job it is to fight terrorists, is well connected in extremist religious circles. His crackdown on various terrorist groups was seen to be half-hearted at best – that is until the June amnesty. Since then, his interior ministry has come down much harder on these violent elements, without however foregoing its close ties with the radical clerics who headed the Islamic opposition in the 1990s.
The House of Saud is too hampered by infighting – worsening as the king’s health declines – to cope with the popular crisis of confidence and crying need for reform. Their conduct of affairs is often misinterpreted by Western observers as lax and their internal squabbles overrated as a threat to the stability of the royal house and the kingdom. However, the top Saudi princes are fully alive to the need to rise above their rivalries and show the public they can pull the government together.
This article is based on the researches and analysis of one large group of Saudi experts.
A second group takes the opposite view, that Saudi rulers have in the past three months conducted a successful campaign against al Qaeda, capturing or killing its cell leaders and forcing many to flee to Sudan, Yemen and Somalia. This group finds the ruling princes incapable of controlling the opposition factions, some of which seek regime change, either by overthrowing the royal family or making it a constitutional monarchy. Other factions, mainly in the Hijaz, seek secession.
This second group of analysts agrees with the first that all the opposition groups command no more than marginal influence. They took advantage of the regime’s preoccupation with fighting terror to promote their interests and gather strength. Though now a force in the succession battles besetting the House of Saud, they are far from being an imminent threat.