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From the February 2004 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 51, No. 2)

Trouble in the House of Saud

Can Saudi Arabia Save Itself?

Subhi Hadidi, Al-Quds al-Arabi (Palestinian expatriate), London, England, Nov. 28, 2003

Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz
Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz is widely perceived as a prominent reformer within the Saudi royal family (Photo: The Times of India/AFP-Getty Images).
How and by what means could the kingdom of Saudi Arabia be eliminated from the oil-export market for as long as two years?

The answer is as simple as much as the motive is terrifying: a small bomb-laden truck exactly like the one that exploded in the heart of the Saudi  capital of Riyadh at the beginning of this month!

The terrifying part is due to the fact that the kingdom, still the world’s biggest and most important oil producer, possesses more than 87 oil fields, including more than 1,000 active wells. Yet in practice, it relies on eight major oil fields. Among them is Al-Ghawar, the greatest terrestrial oil field in the world. It is completely possible that, at any time, a terrorist organization could get lucky and bring in a bomb-filled truck to any of these eight oil wells.

This is just one of the “disaster scenarios” that American Robert Baer, who worked in the CIA’s office of Middle East operations for 21 years, examines in his new book Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, published [in June 2003] in New York.

The publication of his book is consistent with the current “Saudi trend” these days among American authors who generally focus on two gripping topics—connections between Saudi princes and Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and signs of the impending collapse of the House of Saud. 

Baer’s book also evinces at the same time a deep anxiety about the grave dangers that could interfere with U.S. interests in the region, specifically the development of terrorist activities inside the kingdom and their possible transition to a new kind of attack that targets oil wells.

These dangers I allude to stem from five facts: One, that Saudi Arabia commands the greatest share of the world’s oil and plays a role “controlling market fluctuations” in production levels.

Two, there isn’t a nation that consumes or is more reliant on Saudi oil than the United States.

Three, the United States and most of the industrialized world are in a situation of absolute dependence on Saudi oil, with this being the case for many years to come.

Four, if it were to come to pass that the Saudi oil rigs were shut down, whether as a result of a terrorist act or political revolution, the effect on the global economy (especially the U.S. economy) would be paralyzing and devastating.

Five, control over Saudi oil is maintained by a ruling family that is increasingly demonstrating manifestations of its corruption, weakness, disintegration, and isolation from reality and modernity—and that is spurned by both its people and neighbors.

These five facts have been further reinforced during the last few months as tales of corruption in the House of Saud (which comprises nearly 30,000 princes and princesses, whose numbers are expected to double in the next generation) have openly and publicly been associated with the rise of popular protests and their varying forms.

The “opposition,” if this designation is even correct for the first type of protest, began with the most basic form: the submission of petitions [to royal leaders] that included a number of reformist demands for political, economic, social, and cultural changes.

These petitions were signed by a majority of intellectuals, laborers, and even women—an uncustomary occurrence in the kingdom, which forbids women from driving cars.

The second form was the organization of public demonstrations with the intent of showing the sweeping extent of dissatisfaction for the first time in the kingdom’s history. This past October, two demonstrations took place in big cities such as Jiddah and Hail. During the first demonstration, however, 83 people were arrested, including three women, just as more than 50 people were arrested in the second demonstration.

Also worth mentioning is that the authorities not only mobilized thousands of security officers in the streets of these cities to prevent the demonstrations, but they also rallied religious authorities who issued religious fatwas forbidding the demonstrations. And thus we read how Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Sheik Abdul Aziz Al al-Sheik, attempted to curb peaceful protests by calling them “reprehensible.”  Those who call for demonstrations, he said, “sow misguidance and sedition” and cause people to stray “from righteousness into the fire.”

To be sure, the third method of expressing protest is the most violent and dangerous—the method of bombs and exploding cars.

These force the kingdom into a new period of political instability and insecurity, open to all kinds of scenarios. This method has also been used since this past May, which saw a series of  terrorist acts in a number of the kingdom’s regions, the most prominent being Riyadh. The bombings proved that those who perpetrated them, whatever their identity or adherence to Bin Laden, relish high casualities, hide underground, and enjoy accurate information, great flexibility in movement, and effective implementation.

It is certain that the latest explosions, which the capital witnessed at the beginning of November, came after a concentrated security campaign the likes of which the country has never seen. For six consecutive months, Saudi authorities used various means to quell its citizens. It arrested more than 600 people and killed dozens in nightly police raids. Furthermore, members of the National Guard, royal brigade, and armed forces have been incorporated into these activities, in addition to the different security, intelligence, and police forces.

The campaign occurred with complete official American blessing, during which the White House raised the banner of  “security cooperation” with the kingdom. U.S. President George Bush praised the “democratic measures” that the kingdom proposed to establish. Yet total American silence has reigned over the disgraceful violations of human rights during the campaign, which included FBI units being granted unrestricted authority to go anywhere inside the kingdom, summoning and interrogating any citizen they wish.

Just as Saudi authorities resorted to fatwas to forbid demonstrations,  considering them “upstart” innovations leading to the fires of hell, they promoted the recanting by two major sheiks who rescinded previous “counter-fatwas,” if it is possible to call them that. In their previous fatwas, these sheiks had declared the legality of “jihad against the infidels in the Arabian Peninsula” and included Saudi authorities in the category of infidels.

Later, the two sheiks, Ali al-Khadir and Nasir al-Fahd, appeared on Saudi TV screens to announce what seemed to be a reversal. They annulled what they once said was permissible, now calling it sinful.

All of this is happening in the middle of real economic problems that the kingdom is experiencing for the first time since its founding in 1932. Average personal income has dropped from US$26,000 in 1981 to $6,800 in 2001. Unemployment has reached 30 percent. General debt is about 120 percent of the national income, a number approaching averages found in countries like Lebanon. Only 5 percent of women work in the kingdom, and every year, 110,000 Saudi youths enter the job market, while only 40,000 of them find work.

Contributing to this critical atmosphere are late-breaking revelations of severe conflicts between the major princes of the House of Saud—especially between Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto king of the country, on the first front, and the “Sudayri wing,” which includes King Fahd and his brothers Minister of Defense Sultan and Minister of Interior Naif, on the other front.

Another front is composed of the Princess Al-Jawhara bin Ibrahim (fourth wife of King Fahd and the most influential) and her son Abdul Aziz. A group of sons of the former King Faisal, such as Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, form a fourth front. Finally a collection of what are called “Reform Princes,” like Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz and his son Walid (one of the richest men in the world), are the fifth front.

This incomplete accounting of a crowded scene bears on the kind of tensions and apparent tug-of-war that predominates in current U.S.-Saudi relations and has deteriorated the once-solid alliance between the two countries. Regardless of the strategic constraints that rule these peculiar relations, a number of fears grip the chief American experts on Saudi affairs.

Saudi Arabia is a linchpin in a chain of constants because of the corrosive danger that Saudi instability would have on the other Gulf nations. This is not the type of danger that’s easy to control by simply dispatching aircraft carriers or troops to quickly intervene.

The political situation in the region is in need of remedy. There are rulers who haven’t felt the need to share authority with anyone. Furthermore, they haven’t opened up any public debate about economic, social, or political questions. The natural result of this is the complete absence of any form of representational contract between the state and its citizens.

The moral of this story is that you cannot shut your eyes on the shifting sands of the region for one instant without paying a serious price.

Important regional developments are occuring related to Islamist trends, new economic interdependence, an idle peace process [between the Israelis and Palestinians], military occupations, grain policies, the aging of leaders, and issues of succession.

All of these factors, in one way or another, threaten to demolish the fundamental roots of the old social system entirely, and it is the awful consequences of this that make American experts stop in their tracks.

Yet for the House of Saud, one thing is certain: It must reform or die!

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