Riyadh fears repercussions of retaliation The US war against terrorism could destabilise the kingdom, says Roula Khalaf Published: October 7 2001 20:12 | Last Updated: October 8 2001 14:48
On the streets, among businessmen and in government circles, unease prevails in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Everyone has been anxiously awaiting the US plans for retaliation for last month's terrorist attacks, fearing the likely repercussions of the fight against terrorism within the kingdom itself.
Their anxieties increased after the bomb that killed two people in Khobar, in the eastern oil-producing region, on Saturday night - and were heightened further by the start of bombing raids on Kabul last night.
With war raging in the region once more, Saudi Arabia faces its most difficult test since Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops into Kuwait a decade ago, directly threatening the kingdom's own security. The issue confronting the country's rulers is the need delicately to balance a strong military and political relationship with the US with the concerns of a young population mistrustful for religious and political reasons of US intentions. The apparent involvement of many Saudis in the attacks on Washington and New York will increase pressure to hasten domestic reforms and deal with the grievances that persuaded Saudis to join the jihad, or holy war, against the US.
In the short term, the government's management of the crisis depends largely on its ability to influence US actions. King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah have made clear that the kingdom stands on Washington's side in the fight against terrorism.
Their immediate concern is to dismantle Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and ward off further attacks. The government suspects Mr bin Laden's aim is to undermine US-Saudi relations and weaken the royal family's grip on power. "Bin Laden is a symbol - but who masterminded the attacks? Who helped him?" says a senior official.
Diplomats say intelligence information that used to take days to be delivered now passes to the US within hours. The clerical establishment and the press have been asked to stress that acts of terror are contrary to Islam and can never be justified.
The regime has also explained the limits of its ability to co-operate - and Washington has listened. As the largest exporter of oil, the kingdom is vital to US economic interests. Its religious and diplomatic clout in the Arab and Muslim worlds is also crucial to the US war on terrorism. US officials have therefore refrained from asking to use Saudi air bases to strike Afghanistan. As the legitimacy of the royal family is derived from its role as the guardian of Islam's two holiest sites, it must be seen to be caring more than any other country for the safety of Muslims.
In Riyadh, even the politicial elite query Mr bin Laden's guilt. At a gathering of Saudi professional women last week, many insisted that the US had exaggerated his role to hide the identity of those really behind the attacks. "The US plays up bin Laden deliberately; they have nothing to pin on him," says one university professor.
For a section of Saudi youth, who comprise the majority of the 20m population, Mr bin Laden - stripped of his Saudi nationality in 1994 - is a romantic figure: a pious man who gave up his wealth to live in a cave in Afghanistan. "No one likes US policies and young people see bin Laden as a hero because he's the underdog confronting the superpower and the whole world," says a Saudi lawyer.
The US has also sought to respond to the kingdom's persistent call for more even-handed and greater engagement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Saudi officials say US backing for Israel is the main source of anti-US feeling in the kingdom and a factor behind religious youths falling under the sway of Islamic extremists. Local journalists note that in the past year, as Palestinians waged an uprising against Israeli occupation, some Saudis wrote to newspapers saying they wanted to be martyrs for the Palestinian cause. "If there was Arab or Muslim participation in the US attacks, we can't forget that they took causes Arabs suffer from, primarily the Palestinian cause," says Prince Nayef, the interior minister.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has continued to escalate. But the US has revived efforts to seek a ceasefire. President George W. Bush last week backed the idea of creating a Palestinian state. Crown Prince Abdullah, who has been known for his blunt criticism of US policies, responded with unusual words of praise for the US president.
The Saudi government has sought to persuade the US to narrow the scope of any military attacks and combine them with more vigorous efforts to solve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. Last Friday, a senior cleric in Mecca, the holy city, warned that "this issue [terrorism] calls for new policies, not new wars".
"If civilians are killed and if the US is involved in [the] government building an independent Muslim state, people across the region will say this is part of a US imperialist plan," says a diplomat. "And they will look at the Saudis as an ally of the US action and say they are unIslamic."
Maintaining domestic stability, however, does not depend entirely on US actions. "The attacks in the US are a wake-up call to address the social fabric - if Saudis are involved, how many more are there? Where are they?" says a Riyadh businessman.
Liberals fault the regime for allowing an already powerful clerical establishment greater involvement in setting the social agenda, making young men more susceptible to religious messages such as a call for holy war. Schools and universities, they complain, produce tens of thousands of graduates well versed in religious teachings but lacking the skills needed in the labour market. Religious conservatism has also affected the drive, led by the crown prince, to reform the economy. Banks can provide credit but judges, who follow the strict interpretation of Islamic law barring interest, refuse to rule in cases of disputes over credit.
Analysts say the approach helped to silence the opposition that emerged after the Gulf war and to maintain the legitimacy of the royal family in a state based on Islamic law. "The government sowed the seeds of what it is reaping today. For years they encouraged the conservatives and used them to subdue others and they turned a blind eye to the liberals," says a Saudi academic.
However, moderate Islamists say the problem for Saudi youth is also a lack of political freedom. Droves of Saudis hungry for a political cause have joined fellow Muslims in Chechnya to fight against Russia. This is where some are suspected of having been recruited by Mr bin Laden.
People across the political spectrum and in government agree that growing youth unemployment exacerbates the frustrations of the young generation. Indeed, the dependence on oil revenues has pushed down income per capita from $16,000 in the early 1980s to about $7,000 now.
The days of great wealth and government pampering are over. The sprawling avenues of downtown Riyadh, with their American-style malls, stand in sharp contrast to the poverty of the dilapidated southern part of the city, where some women beg in the streets. Across the country, Saudis who were guaranteed cosy government jobs a decade ago must now look for employment in the private sector and in menial jobs.
The September 11 attacks, say regime insiders, have provoked a debate within the royal family about government policy. What seems certain is that the terrorism has put unprecedented strain on the so-far-successful attempt to follow a pro-western foreign policy without undermining the religious and conservative basis of the state. As one diplomat says: "Everything the rulers saw as long-term problems have suddenly rushed towards them."