Middle East

Why it would Pay the West to Cultivate Saudi Public Opinion

"I cannot forecast to you its reaction. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." These words of Winston Churchill about 20th-century Russia apply almost equally well to 21st-century Saudi Arabia. It is the most pivotal, yet least understood Islamic power, potentially the most vital player or the most devastating non-player in the American-led coalition against global terrorism.

Because of the conflicting signals and tensions currently emerging from this desert kingdom, including its refusal to let the Americans use bases there for attacks on Arabs or Muslims, Western theories about its future stance in the coming conflict are rife with imaginative and often erroneous speculation. Yet the riddle of the Saudi Arabian sands is by no means unsolvable.

At the heart of the puzzle is the Saudi government's need to steer a careful course between national interest and public opinion. The national interest points to co-operation with the U.S. for protection against Iraq, for intelligence sharing and for wholehearted collaboration in the fight against terrorism. On the other hand, Saudi public opinion, largely unreported in the state-controlled media, is often virulently critical of American attitudes and policy. These anti-American sentiments do not, however, go unheard.

The ruling house of Saud has stayed solidly in power for nearly 70 years in Arabia because its princes understand its people. Autocratic in the eyes of outsiders, the Al Saud have at least one strong democratic instinct. They listen to grassroots public opinion. At the heart of the listening process is the majlis system, which some Saudis like to call access democracy. Every important personage in and around the government, starting with the king and crown prince and going down a long line of ministers, governors, religious leaders and heads of important families, holds a regular and often daily majlis. The word does not translate easily into English for it is a combination of an open house, a discussion session and a forum for ventilating grievances or presenting petitions.

I have sat in on many of these meetings, including the Majlis Al-Shura, or national consultative council, during my 30 years as a visitor to Saudi Arabia and have often been surprised by the robust and sometimes passionate expressions of controversial opinions by rank-and-file individuals to their rulers. Perhaps these days the younger generation are not as regular in their appearances at the princely majlis as were their fathers and uncles. Nevertheless, the system still works as a safety valve and as a listening post in the nation's body politic, for Saudis are nothing if not frank when it comes to expressing criticism of their government.

But the majlis is not the only pulse of public opinion. Political discussion is meat and drink throughout Saudi society, which includes several thousand working members of the royal family. For example, one of the best houses for lively conversation during my visits to Jeddah in the early 1980s was the home of Osama bin Laden's elder brother, Salem, whom I knew well. So far as I can recall it, the conversation at his hospitable table was light years removed from being seditious or subversive, but, had it strayed in that direction, it would have been openly debated and quietly noted. For on the clandestine front, the government has an efficient domestic intelligence service, the al mubaith, whose tentacles spread wide. So, one way or another, Saudi Arabia's rulers know very well what the voices of their people are saying.

These voices are speaking in tongues Washington would rather not hear. They ask such questions as: Why are 4,000 U.S. troops stationed permanently on our homeland? Are they infidels defiling Islam's most sacred sites? Why do U.S. and British warplanes bomb Iraq for breaking UN resolutions when Israel's violations of UN resolutions go unpunished? Why has American protection of Israel allowed the Sharon government to use heavy weapons such as tanks and F16 aircraft against Palestinian civilians in order to maintain 200 settlements on the West Bank? And why is Israel continuing to expand its provocative and illegal settlements at this time of world crisis, instead of using the moment for fresh negotiations?

The voices that are asking these sharp questions may be raised but they are not going to turn into rioters or revolutionaries. The domestic climate of Saudi Arabia bears no resemblance to that of Pakistan. The last (small) Saudi demonstration on the streets was in Buraida in 1994. Osama bin Laden clearly has a handful of active followers and a wider circle of passive sympathisers. However, I believe the article on this page last week by Paul Michael Wihbey was wrong in its comment that the bin Ladenites are numerous enough to "launch the destabilisation of the Saudi monarchy", just as it was wrong in several of its facts, such as its claim that King Fahd had fled to Geneva a week after the terrorist attacks.

Most experienced Saudi watchers agree that domestic public opinion would be horrified at the prospect of a King Osama and is broadly behind the existing government. However, there is also strong support for evolutionary changes and reforms of the kind that Crown Prince Abdullah, a bluff, shrewd, Jim Callaghan type of leader, is already bringing in. So anti-Americanism should not be interpreted as anti-royalism, even if a thin layer of young radicals espouse both causes.

Where these two strands of opinion are intertwining is in criticism of the Saudi regime for failing to make an impact on U.S. policy in the Middle East. This failure is not for want of trying. Saudi Arabia has two of the most impressive diplomatic voices on the international stage. One is the Princeton- and LSE-educated Saud Al Feisal, his country's foreign minister since 1975. The other is the former Cranwell-trained fighter pilot Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington for 20 years. I know both of them well enough to be sure that they will have been repeating their pleas to the Bush administration for linkage between the new U.S. war policy on global terrorism and a new U.S. peace policy for the Middle East.

Without that linkage, all that can be hoped for from the Saudis in the current conflict is positive neutrality. They have already said all the right words, but when it comes to deeds they will only cooperate in below-the-parapet activities such as intelligence sharing, Awacs flights and terrorist money-trail detection. These invisible contributions can be extremely helpful, as Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Defence Secretary, has acknowledged. However, if there is any disappointment in Washington over the degree of Riyadh's support for the global coalition against terrorism, the U.S. administration should recognise that Saudi recalcitrance is not being caused by bin Laden moving too dangerously, but by George Bush moving too slowly.

As Charles Powell rightly argued in his Daily Telegraph article [Sept. 26, 2001], now is surely the moment for the launch of a renewed American effort to achieve a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. If that moment is seized, then public opinion throughout Saudi Arabia, and the entire Islamic world, will swing far more favourably behind American policy.

The author is a former British minister for defence procurement and chief secretary to the Treasury