Don't quit on Saudi royals yet Extremism grows, but they know how to cope

August 04, 1996|By Steve Yetiv

THE RECENT bombing of American personnel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, shocked Americans, and raised a serious question about the violent Persian Gulf: How stable is the Saudi royal family? Can it go down in flames as did the once invincible Shah of Iran, thus undermining vital U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf region?

While media reports might lead one to believe so, in reality the Saudis face serious problems, but they also possess the ability deal with them. It is important to understand both the sources of trouble and of stability in the kingdom to have a balanced view of what is happening in this critical region of the world.

What are the sources of Saudi problems? First, as strange as it sounds to Americans to whom the words "Saudi" and "big bucks" go together, the Persian Gulf war temporarily bankrupted the oil-rich royal family. The Saudis spent $55 billion dollars in direct monies to support U.S.-led troops and much more indirectly. In the past, the royal family could use such monies to keep its domestic allies and adversaries happy. But with the money spigot temporarily dry, domestic discontent is on the rise. This is a relatively new problem for the royal family.

Second, the gulf war accelerated social and political turmoil in the kingdom. In December 1990, King Fahd received a "secular petition" from 43 religious and secular leaders, which was followed three months later by "the religious petition" from scores of top religious leaders. The religious forces expressed strong concern over royal family corruption, nepotism, and monopoly control over decision-making. Liberal democratic forces pushed for reforms as well, although more in terms of opening up the political system to a broader base of views.

While most political groups in the kingdom simply want the Saudi regime to reform itself, others want it overthrown. But, in either case, most of these extremist elements do want the U.S. regional presence curtailed or eliminated, in part because the kingdom is the home to Islam's holiest sites at Mecca and Medina, and the presence of U.S. troops is viewed as an affront to Islam.

Since 1990, a small but increasingly voluble and growing Islamic reform movement has developed, which has sought more influence over policy-making. In 1995, the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights of Saudi Arabia, a group that came into being mainly after the gulf war, organized a mass demonstration against the royal family at Buraydah. It was quite significant in defying the Fahd regime and further generating social ferment, and involved individuals who usually support the king and who come from his tribal and cultural hinterland. These are the people that King Fahd is most concerned about; some of them are elder tribal leaders with whom he regularly consorts as an equal among many, and with whom he needs to play careful politics in order to maintain legitimacy.

While Fahd is concerned about bombings in the kingdom, he is far more concerned with his standing among these tribal leaders.

Third, the gulf war heightened the American profile in the region. Saddam Hussein, while cut down to size, still possesses the strongest regional army. Without a strong U.S. military deterrent in the region, he would surely wreak revenge on the vulnerable Kuwaitis and Saudis. The Saudis know they need the United States against Iraq, but the Catch-22 is that the greater the U.S. role against Iraq, the more annoyed become anti-American groups in the kingdom and beyond. Until now, the Saudis have balanced these goals fairly well, but now they are starting to reconsider their options.

However, while the Saudis face these troubles, it is also important not to exaggerate their plight - at least not yet.

The Saudis have faced internal turmoil and political pressure in the past. In 1962, for instance, they were under domestic pressure to establish a Consultative Council of commoners appointed by the king, which could help advise the king on various policies, and they promised to do so, a promise that would be fulfilled only after Desert Storm in 1992. In November 1979, the Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by armed zealots and that same year, demonstrations erupted in the predominantly Shiite eastern oil province. Many observers rTC thought it was the beginning of the end for the kingdom. In 1987, Iran reportedly instigated a riot at the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are supposed to undertake at least once in a lifetime. This nearly put the two states in physical confrontation. The Saudis bounced back from these domestic problems by appeasing opponents, playing tribal politics, and cooperating with other states where appropriate.

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