US intelligence experts now agree that the Saudi royal family has finally come to realize that al Qaeda, rather than President George W. Bush‘s Greater Middle East Initiative, poses the greatest peril of all to the throne.
But can – or will – the “enlightened” House of Saud do anything about it? Most experts see only the slimmest chances of the feuding royals burying the hatchet of their long-running succession struggle for a united confrontation against Osama bin Laden’s network
(as described in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 156, “War of Terror Used as Weapon in Squabble for Succession”).
Nor is it likely, experts believe, that the bickering royal family will want to run back for shelter under the US defense umbrella; the invasion of Iraq has fueled Arab anger toward the United States. Some strategic analysts predict a far darker conclusion, an effort by jittery Saudi rulers to come to terms with al Qaeda, much in the way that the founding father of the dynasty, Ibn Saud, reached an accommodation in the early 20th century with the puritanical Wahhabi Muslim religious leaders.
As one senior expert told DEBKA-Net-Weekly:
“The alliance between crown and turban has held the kingdom together for 70 years. It was founded on the Wahhabis’ need of protection and the royal family’s deep pockets. The Saudi rulers bought religious legitimacy while flouting most of the extremist Wahhabis’ religious edicts. Why wouldn’t a similar arrangement work equally well for al Qaeda and the Saudi throne?”
The Bush administration is not inclined to publicly jettison this longstanding American ally. But it recently took three secret steps that would indicate the hedging of its bets on Riyadh:
Washington lodged its first strong protest ever with the Saudi royal family over the continued detention of Saudi reformists and a new round of arrests. The US demanded that the Saudis free the dissidents and refrain from arresting any more.
Saudi ambassador to Washington, the Bush family favorite Prince Bandar was summoned to the State Department for a formal protest over the charge hurled publicly against “the Zionists” by Crown Prince Abdullah, accusing them after the May 1 murder of five Western oil industry workers in Yanbu of being behind the recent wave of terrorist attacks in the kingdom.
The US government took the landmark step of approving the operation of a Saudi reformist think tank in Washington, thus granting dissidents direct access to members of Congress and the American media.
As one senior Washington expert on Saudi affairs put it:
“There's a big difference between reformist groups operating secretly in Jeddah and Riyadh and critics of the royal regime who command direct access to the US media as platforms for their views and windows on Saudi Arabia and its jails.” Our sources report the new think tank will be called The Saudi Institute and it will be headed by Dr. Ali al-Yami, a member of the largest reformist group in the Asir and Najran provinces.
US officials have yet to decide whether to give Saudi opposition figures access to broadcasts beamed from the United States to the Middle East. Allowing Saudi dissidents on the US-backed al Hura Arabic television network or Sawa Radio could cause a major rupture in Washington’s already unsteady relations with Riyadh.