Saudi Arabia's Last Chance

Discussion in 'Middle East - General' started by NATO AIR, Jun 26, 2004.


    NATO AIR Senior Member

    Jun 25, 2004
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    USS Abraham Lincoln
    this is an excellent report by newsweek's fareed zakaria, their conservative foreign policy expert. the guy really reveals some great stuff about what's happening in saudi arabia and how it will effect iraq and the larger war on terror.

    The Saudi Trap
    A trip through the kingdom reveals what really needs to be done in the war on terror

    By Fareed Zakaria
    NewsweekJune 28 issue - The images of a beheaded Paul Johnson are gruesome, but for Saudi Arabia, it has been more than a year of grim images. It started on May 12, 2003, when three cars packed with bombs exploded in a residential compound in Riyadh, killing 35 people and wounding 200. Since then, there have been at least 20 terror attacks or clashes between Saudi police and Islamic militants. Most brazenly, four gunmen entered a residential compound for oil-industry workers in Khobar last month and killed 22 people. Does this turmoil mark the beginning of a civil war in Saudi Arabia? Could jihadis get control of the most powerful oil-producing nation and use its vital resource as a weapon against the modern world they so despise?

    In search of answers, I traveled through Saudi Arabia last month, talking to princes, preachers, businessmen and dissidents. Many of the Saudis I met were defensive about the country's problems, angry with American foreign policy and enraged about the "demonizing" of Saudi Arabia. "Let me be honest: 9/11 meant nothing in Saudi Arabia," a young writer, Mshari Al-Thaydi, told me. "Some didn't believe that any Saudis were involved in it; others thought it was a conspiracy or was deserved because of America's support for Israel or whatever." But the more recent attacks—particularly the May 12 bombings—shook people out of their complacency. "May 12 was our 9/11," said Al-Thaydi. "Since then Saudis have had to recognize that Al Qaeda is not a fantasy. It is here."

    After years of inaction and obfuscation, the regime is beginning to move forcefully. Saudi officials believe that the killing of Abdelaziz al-Muqrin, the leader of the group that murdered Johnson, will stop much of the domestic terror. "His group, with 50 to 60 members, was the one that planned almost all recent attacks," said one official. "It's now leaderless." The killing of Muqrin and three other wanted militants, this official argues, is the culmination of months of similar efforts. "It is because the regime has begun fighting these terrorists that they have been lashing out in response," he said. Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi government consultant, claims that the kingdom's security spending is up 50 percent over the past two years, to $5.5 billion.

    The Saudis have also finally launched measures to track the financing of terror groups. The Council on Foreign Relations issued a report last week noting that in the past year the Saudi government's new laws monitoring money laundering and donations "meet or exceed international standards in many respects" (though the report also notes that the Saudis need to do much more). The Riyadh government has admitted that some of the kingdom's clerics have been preaching messages of hatred, and it has begun to "discipline" and "re-educate" some of them.

    Were the regime to mount a sustained campaign on all these fronts, it would almost certainly be able to defeat the terrorists. Experts and Saudi officials both conclude that the militants do not have broad support, and whatever support they did have has been dwindling since the recent terror attacks.

    But there are many who believe that the regime is not acting decisively enough. One of them is Saudi Arabia's own ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. In a surprisingly forceful article in the reformist Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, Bandar argued that neither Saudi society nor the state had fully mobilized itself for this struggle. "War means war," he wrote. "It does not mean Boy Scout camp." He urged that people stop calling the militants "good people who were careless" and call them instead "terrorists and aggressors with whom there can be no compromise."

    Bandar made an analogy in his article to an event repeatedly cited to me by Saudis who want strong action: the battle of Al-Sabla in 1929. The founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdel Aziz, faced a revolt from his religious allies, the Ikhwan, because he was introducing modern technologies like the telephone and, worst of all, allying with the infidel British. Abdel Aziz refused to compromise, so the story goes, and slaughtered the Ikhwan at Al-Sabla.

    Why would the Saudis not act decisively now? When I pointed to Egypt's harsh but successful antiterror campaign of the 1990s, everyone immediately dismissed it. "We're not a brutal police state like Egypt," one young royal said to me. But a common response was to caution that such an approach would increase support for the radicals: "We have to act in a way that doesn't create a bigger problem than it solves."

    This, then, is the paradox. Saudi officials claim that the militants have no support and yet constantly act as if they do. Officials cite a recent (secret) government poll that showed 49 percent support Osama bin Laden's ideas. They speak of the need to move "slowly and carefully." While still sensitive on this topic, educated Saudis will now admit that parts of their society have become dangerously extreme. At a meeting with prominent Saudi journalists and academics, most argued that several trends over the past 30 years had fueled this radicalism. During the 1950s and 1960s, other Arab governments like Egypt and Syria had expelled Islamic fundamentalists. The Saudis, as competitors to these regimes, welcomed the dissidents, who came with revolutionary ideas advocating pure Islamic states across the Middle East. The intellectuals also recalled that the revolution in Iran in 1979 rattled the royal family, who feared a rising tide of Islamism across the Middle East.

    But the pivotal event was in November 1979, when a group of Islamic militants, led by Juhaiman al-Oteibi, took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held hundreds of pilgrims hostage. The government surrounded the mosque and, after a bloody showdown with dozens killed on both sides, Oteibi surrendered. The regime executed the 63 captured rebels in different locations across the country. But, as a businessman in Jidda put it to me, "having killed Oteibi, the regime implemented his entire agenda."

    Hoping to co-opt the Islamists, the royal family handed over education, the courts and cultural affairs to the imams. Many of the rigid features of modern Saudi life—no women on television, no music in any media, an overdose of religion in schools, stores closed during prayer times, increased powers for the religious police—were passed in the early 1980s.

    After my meeting I was contacted by one of the people present, a young man who wanted to see me separately. (This would happen three times during my stay.) Abdullah Bijad al-Oteibi was once an Islamic radical and some years ago turned away from that world view. He began our discussion by telling me, "I didn't like what they were saying at that meeting. The problems don't simply come from the outside. Our biggest problem is that our founding creed, Wahhabism, is itself an extreme ideology. It is revolutionary and was used to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. In a sense, bin Laden is using Wahhabi ideology in this original, revolutionary form against the Saudi state." Oteibi described Saudi Arabia as having two parallel ideologies now. "One says 'Follow the ruler,' the other says 'Only a narrow, pure Islam is good.' But there is an internal contradiction." I noticed throughout my visit in Saudi Arabia that you could talk about extremism, but you could not say Wahhabism itself was extreme. I asked Oteibi if I could quote him by name. He said, "I don't mind. I've been to jail. They're less rigid now. I'll probably get called in for hours of questioning but no jail."

    How deeply does Wahhabism run through Saudi society? "Saudis are very pious, they are conservative, but they did not create this extremism," said Oteibi emphatically. "It's politics. This version of religion comes from the religious establishment. The regime supports the imams, judges and teachers. And people don't hear anything other than the imam's voices. People are barely aware that other, more tolerant forms of Islam exist."

    The depth of this created culture of extremism is most evident regarding tolerance for non-Muslims—a crucial matter for the outside world. The Saudi religious establishment has until recently almost always referred to almost all non-Wahhabis (including the Shia, Sufis and all other Muslim sects) in derogatory terms. Non-Muslims are, of course, rank infidels. Saudi Arabia does not allow any churches, temples or synagogues and has no plans to allow any—despite having 6 million foreign workers in the country. Even last week, as the regime was issuing fatwas against the killing of Paul Johnson, one could see forces that fueled his execution. A prominent cleric, Sheik Saleh bin Abdullah al-Humaid, explained that "killing a soul without justification is one of the gravest sins under Islam; it is as bad as polytheism." So polytheism is akin to murder? Is it any wonder that the leader of the recent terrorism in Khobar explained his killing of Westerners and Indians thusly: "We purged Muhammad's land of many Christians and polytheists"?

    Why doesn't the regime take on the religious establishment more frontally? There is little danger that it would lose. Between state and mosque, there is really no contest. Every imam in the country is on the government's payroll; every religious scholar, judge and teacher is a salaried government employee. There is no Vatican here, no independent authority like the pope. And yet the regime is extremely cautious about clipping the wings of these bureaucrats.

    The key to the kingdom is not religion but politics. To understand why, you only have to drive through Riyadh, large parts of which are decaying, and then around the perimeter of the royal court. Rising on one side is an extension of the king's palace, a fantastical set of buildings, with a vast domed Renaissance extravaganza. When I commented on it, a government official nervously said to me, "Well, the French have Versailles." (I couldn't help but note, "Yes, and then they had a revolution.") Actually, Versailles doesn't capture it. Only Las Vegas compares. On the other side of the complex, which totals hundreds of acres, is a mile-long, high-walled compound of buildings, cloistered by hundreds of leafy trees rising out of the desert. All this has been built by a 32-year-old prince who never went to college: Abdel-Aziz bin Fahd, the favorite son of the king of Saudi Arabia.

    King Fahd is 82 and totally incapacitated, but "Azouzzi " (the favorite son's nickname) has the king's check-signing authority over the royal coffers. And large checks they are: the figures bandied about in official circles for the cost of Abdel-Aziz's palaces are well over $2 billion. Abdel-Aziz's palace in Jidda is a waterfront estate, also vast and walled, with two exquisitely carved Spanish-style towers rising out of it, dwarfing virtually everything in the city. An Arab diplomat who has been to one of the palaces recalls that inside the compound the roads are paved with Italian marble.

    Tales of corruption in Saudi Arabia are not new. Corruption dominates and distorts the entire Saudi system; some estimate that 25 percent of Saudi GDP goes toward the support of the royal family and its patronage networks. Members of the royal family repeatedly pointed out to me that Al Qaeda attacks it not because they are corrupt or undemocratic but because they are regarded as secular and pro-American. Perhaps this is true, though I was struck by the number of Islamist Web sites that detail the extravagance of the royal family, and also by the number of ordinary Saudis who mentioned it to me. In that secret poll done by the government, corruption was ranked the No. 1 issue on people's minds.

    But the reason corruption is so debilitating for Saudi Arabia today is this: the only way to effectively take on religious extremism—whether by terrorists or government clerics—is for the government to have its own source of credibility. And you earn authority in the modern world through good, clean, responsive government. "The fear is that if they take on the religious folk, the imams will stop preaching about infidels and start talking about decadence," said a journalist who asked not to be named.

    The story of King Abdel Aziz's taking on the Ikhwan in 1929 omits one crucial detail. The king was able to raise an army for his battle against the Ikhwan from ordinary people. Who in Saudi Arabia today would volunteer to fight for the royals? I spent some time talking to young Saudis and asked them who their role models in the country were. "That's our basic problem," replied one of them, freshly returned from an American university and deeply patriotic about his country. "We have no role models. Not one." I asked if there was someone in government or the royal family he looked up to. He simply laughed.

    Saudi Arabia is not a rich country. one is struck by that fact driving through its cities. For a brief decade and a half it was wealthy, before population growth and economic stagnation set in. It's a middle-income country but crucially one where the government has access to large revenues without taxing its public. That means the regime can spend easily, on arms from America and Britain, on mosques in Indonesia and, of course, on itself. Saudi Arabia's per capita GDP is now half that of Israel's; it ranks 70th in the world, after Slovakia and Bulgaria. If present trends continue—an exploding population, a declining educational system, a rotting welfare state—Saudi Arabia will be a poor country in 25 years. But with a rich royal family, if it still exists.

    To reverse course, Saudi Arabia needs a real government. Crown Prince Abdullah is a decent man, honest by the standards of the family, and appears to want to modernize his country. And yet he cannot put a stop order on a 32-year-old prince's checks. The crown prince's brothers have power bases independent of him. Some of them support the very religious bigots Abdullah is now fighting. That does not spell civil war, as some have suggested. But it does make for ineffective, incompetent government. A succession of men in their late 70s simply cannot provide Saudi Arabia with the leadership it needs. And a governmental structure of fiefdoms, secret accounts and slush funds cannot win the support of its people. A better model exists within the kingdom: the Saudi minister of oil has never been a royal, and is always chosen for his competence. The country should be run like the one thing that works in it—the oil industry.

    To fight extremism, the regime will have to make space for the enemies of extremism. Every noxious version of Wahhabism has had free rein in Saudi Arabia, and yet all liberal ideas and debates have always been closed down. Even the baby steps the regime has allowed—in publications like Al-Watan and Al-Sharq-al-Awsat—have been followed by reversals. If preachers speak of infidels burning in hell, they are, at most, scolded. But when 116 brave Saudi liberals put forward a petition in March suggesting reforms that would lead to a constitutional monarchy, the regime arrested some of them and forced them to recant. It continues to imprison those who refuse to take part in this charade. With this kind of imbalance, is it any surprise that the public is more receptive to Islamic fundamentalism than reformist thought? Saudi Arabia is a conservative society. But it also has political and religious elites who have reinforced and perpetuated that conservatism for their own purposes.

    The tragedy is that Saudi Arabia has one of the largest groups of reform-minded liberals in the Middle East. It's an odd combination: the most conservative society and a vast swath of modernists. But because of its oil money, the country has sent tens of thousands of young Saudis to the West (mostly America) over the past few decades. Unlike most other Arabs, these students did not return home espousing socialism, Arab nationalism and anticolonial rhetoric. For the most part, they liked the West, especially America, business and the modern world. They support the royal family, but want to see change. Many of them are greatly encouraged by Crown Prince Abdullah's reforms. They hope that Saudi Arabia will soon become a member of the World Trade Organization and that this will unleash even more economic reforms, that events like the Jidda Economic Forum will grow, that educational reform will flourish, that women will be moved out of the shadows of everyday life.

    I want to be hopeful—and there are some hopeful signs. But I fear that governments change when they have to. Saudi Arabia will probably weather this storm and beat back the terrorists. The oil money will buy off other critics for at least another decade or two. The royal system will muddle along. But without wrenching change, Saudi Arabia will not achieve the promise of genuine modernization that its liberals and reformers hope for. The young Saudi who lamented the lack of role models ended our conversation poignantly: "Perhaps history will call us the country that could have been."

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