Middle East

The Costs of Terrorism

Between Change and Fear of Results

Prince Nayef
Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz, the Suadi interior minister, is widely viewed as the religious conservatives' most powerful patron (Photo: Joseph Barrak/AFP-Getty Images).

After the bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the country’s rulers are caught between wanting to effect change and fearing its results. The situation is compounded by the obscure political future of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

There are two ways to interpret the renewal of violence against the United States with respect to its impact on Saudi Arabia. The first interpretation suggests that these acts of violence by Al-Qaeda will increase the pressure on Riyadh. This is so because the terrorism has likely confirmed that Al-Qaeda is Saudi in origin and pressure will thereby increase on Riyadh to act against this organization. Similarly, the attacks suggest that the Saudi authorities dawdled in cooperating with their American counterparts.

The second interpretation, which could mitigate pressure on Riyadh to change, argues that the attacks prove that Saudi Arabia, like the United States, is a target of terrorists. Since the Saudi government is not lenient in dealing with terrorists, the argument goes, it is not necessary to pressure the kingdom to reform politically. This has been a critical issue for the Americans, especially in light of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s promotion of democratic principles in the Middle East.

The Riyadh explosions allowed the Saudi government to make this new argument, which could not have been substantiated prior to the attacks. Riyadh wasn’t slow to compare the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and May 12, 2003, and to emphasize that Saudi citizens were among the victims of the Riyadh explosions, a fact that furnishes the Saudis with the ability to say, “We are not supporting terrorism as has been claimed in Washington; rather we are its victims too.” Indeed, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal made this very point quite clearly. Likewise, Adel Al-Jubeir, adviser to the crown prince, quickly began to talk as a post-Sept. 11 victim.

Over the past 20 months, Saudi Arabia has been subjected to a widespread campaign by the American media, political analysts, and politicians who have whipped up concern for Saudi Arabia’s alleged sheltering of terrorists. These people have claimed that Saudi Arabia created favorable conditions for terrorism or even gave the terrorists active support. The campaign has pointed to many dimensions of Saudi society, including the royal family, the political system, human-rights violations, the Saudi relationship to Islamist groups, and even the education curriculum, as evidence for its claims. At first, the bombings in Riyadh and Morocco seemed to verify the campaign’s arguments. But things changed when it became apparent that the terrorists who perpetrated the Moroccan attacks were Moroccan and not Saudi.

For their part, the Americans have rushed to accomplish two goals in Saudi Arabia. The first is to create a division between the Wahhabi (or Salafi) movement and the ruling Saudi family (the House of Saud). Neither side wants this. The House of Saud founded its political existence on religious support from the Salafi-Wahhabi school, and if this cover were stripped away and the House of Saud lost the religious authority justifying its policies, its political existence would be in danger. At the same time, the Salafi movement needs the support of the ruling Saudi family to stay in power and influence the Islamic world.

We have begun to see a small increase in the amount of information about this situation in the official media and in debates among intellectuals and clergy. But it is not possible for the government to be too daring in repressing the Salafi movement, as the United States wants, because doing so would create opposition from within the political establishment itself—a group that has many long-standing alliances with the Salafis. This doesn’t mean that the government won’t initiate any measures—it will institute, to a certain extent, political, media, and security activities and it will announce some arrests and the discovery of some weapons. However it will not comply completely with Washington’s dictates. 

America’s second goal in the kingdom is to persuade the ruling Saudi family of the necessity for some kind of political reform. It is widely believed that dissatisfaction with political repression and the absence of democratic practices feeds terrorism and extremism. The Americans hope that some political relaxation will improve the social situation, encourage moderate actions, and segregate extremists. 

Reforms will strengthen moderates in the opposition and weaken the extremists. This was the essence of King Fahd’s speech, which was presented by his proxy, Crown Prince Abdullah, at the inauguration of the current session of the Consultative Council and included a promise of reform and an allowance for popular participation. This new political direction doesn’t please the Sudairis [a powerful faction inside the Saudi royal family], who are represented by Prince Nayef, the minister of the interior. Two days after the speech, he warned against misunderstanding its message. His actions show that it will be difficult to initiate real reform in the kingdom.

As for the Morocco attacks, they lessened the pressure on Saudi Arabia because they showed that there is a wide and diverse movement practicing political violence against American interests. Saudi media outlets have been preoccupied with those attacks, emphasizing the different locales for violence and that the terrorist problem is not confined to Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, when Donald Rumsfeld said that Iran supported some members of Al-Qaeda, a claim that Tehran vigorously denied, Saudis attempted to use this to bolster their claim that terrorism is a manifestation that extends far beyond Saudi borders. 

And despite the Saudi government’s opposition to the war on Iraq, their instincts for staying in power prevented them from refusing the U.S. request to use their facilities, including Prince Sultan air base. They did this to try to prevent the United States from in-creasing pressure for reforms that they fundamentally don’t want, such as the U.S. State Department’s request for the elimination of the Department of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of  Vice, which is among the most prominent Salafi fronts in the kingdom.
The Saudi government doesn’t want to overstep its bounds in striking at the Salafis (to whom Osama bin Laden traces his ideology) because they fear this could lead to attacks on Saudi targets like oil facilities or royal palaces, and could cause a political earthquake. Tensions between the government and the Salafis reached a low with the announcement a few days ago that a terrorist cell was planning to strike oil interests in the Arabian Peninsula. This shows the danger of Al-Qaeda’s new program, which until recently targeted only American interests and didn’t target Saudi rule directly.

Saudi and American announcements have revealed apprehensions on both sides: The Saudis resist pressure to modernize their government, and the Americans try to change the political systems they support. While Riyadh is attempting to combat reform, delay it, or totally negate it, the Americans are at their wits’ end trying to figure out how to lighten the excesses of the societies supportive of them in the region, especially in the Arabian Peninsula.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Saudi position has become greatly weakened. While Americans won’t easily forsake their Saudi ally, the alliance has often gotten in the way of America’s regional strategy. While the West has often been two-faced, with its democratic slogans and its actual practices in the world differing, Riyadh also tends to try to delay implementation of internal reforms whenever an act of terrorism occurs on its soil by insisting these acts actually delay reform. An example of this was the formation of the Consultative Council more than 10 years ago, which in practice has no real political weight. 

Saudi Arabia is facing a difficult situation these days, and it is a situation that can’t be resolved with speeches, slogans, or promises. There must be some satisfaction, some reform; otherwise the Saudi entity may simply dissolve into Hijazis, Najdis, Shiites, and others. A dictatorship can unite a country superficially, as we saw in Iraq and the Soviet Union, which was shred into little republics when its era ended. One British writer described Saudi Arabia as the Soviet Union in its last days. This is because Hijazis don’t find themselves committed to the Saudi national identity, Najdis are extremely disjointed at the ideological and administrative level, and there exists a disunity and uncertainty in political and national identities generally. Additionally, the positive economic factors that played a numbing role in the past no longer exist. The policy of Saudification has failed. All of this can be summed up by asking a difficult question: Who is Saudi?

There is no doubt that Riyadh is delaying the implementation of reasonable reforms. To continue doing so will exacerbate problems and could bring about the eventual fall of the ruling family, which has held power for 70 years. The tensions we see now are not only between citizens and government but also among the ranks of the ruling family itself and the Gulf in general.