Saudi Arabia's pressure cooker Desert kingdom: Extremists, modernizers challenge a family dynasty's long rule.

November 15, 1995

THE POWERFUL explosions at a U.S.-run military training center in Riyadh that claimed dozens of casualties, including six Americans killed, is a reminder that Saudi Arabia is a pressure cooker trying to contain both religious extremists and modernizers within an absolute monarchy started by the Al-Saud family around the turn of the century and consolidated in 1932. If that vessel were to shatter, the explosion could touch a region that stretches from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan to Yemen, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Because both the domestic and international players are so varied, it is difficult to say with certainty who bears responsibility for the deadliest attack on Americans in the Mideast since a series of bombings in Beirut in the mid-1980s. What is clear, though, is that the stakes for the U.S. are high in Saudi Arabia, which has had close ties to this country since 1933, when exclusive oil exploitation rights were granted to the American-chartered Aramco.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has seldom been easy. Americans have always offered skills, know-how and a consumerist lifestyle envied by Saudis. Yet Americans are regarded as alien infidels in a country where strict Islamic law is enforced, alcohol forbidden and public activities of women severely restricted.

The threat from Iraq and Iran to the region has complicated the U.S.-Saudi relationship further in recent years. U.S. military expertise -- from weapons sales to training -- has become even more important. But as domestic discontent has increased against the Al-Saud family, its autocratic rule, corruption and nepotism, Americans also have become a convenient whipping boy for critics of various stripes.

The situation that is developing in Saudi-Arabia is not unique. Iran experienced something similar before the violent overthrow of the shah in 1979. The ruling Saudis are painfully aware of these parallels. That is why the House of Saud has so jealously guarded its exclusive power, mindful of how the shah of Iran, who applied brakes after a period of initial reforms, lost his ability to control events. Saudi rulers don't want to repeat his mistakes -- but do not quite know how to avoid them.

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