Tracing Saudi fault lines

The mood among expatriates in Riyadh remains sombre. It is only a fortnight since the beheading of the American engineer Paul Johnson, and there is genuine fear of being shot at or kidnapped.

The expats have not been comforted by the Saudi government’s offer to allow them to carry personal guns for their own protection.

In one compound in the Saudi capital the nerves were not helped by a double murder last Thursday night although, for once, it was not related to al-Qaeda’s terrorist network.

The atmosphere is comparatively relaxed in Jeddah, on the Red Sea, where the government established its summer base two weeks ago for its four-month annual escape from the heat of the capital. Ministers remain cautious in public, but in private are optimistic.
There is a feeling that the worst is behind them, because of the recent killing of the senior al-Qaeda operative Abdelaziz al-Muqrin.

One official said: “Prince Sultan [the defence minister] will not say this, but with the killing [of Muqrin] we have taken the edge off al-Qaeda for the summer.” This view could turn out to be premature, and it is not one shared by the expats, many of whom remain intent on leaving.

Not since the House of Saud founded this ultra-orthodox Islamic kingdom in 1932 has the future of the country been so uncertain. “The jury is out,’’ said one Western diplomat.

Al-Qaeda, which sprang from Saudi Arabian soil, is only one of the challenges confronting this absolute monarchy. In-fighting in the royal family has raised doubts about an orderly succession.

King Fahd, the ruler since 1982, is 82 and has been incapacitated since he suffered a stroke a decade ago. There is enormous resentment at the extravagances of the royal family: some call it patronage, others corruption.

Estimates of how much of the national oil earnings the royal family receives vary between 10% and 40%. A journalist, one of the growing number of Saudis pressing for reform, said: “There are lots of social ills. You have corruption; people eating the fat of the land. There is no accountability.’‘

Such criticism comes on top of a dangerous demographic imbalance, in which more than 60% of the population is under 18. Unemployment is at least 15% and the education system is a shambles.

It is against this background that sympathy has grown in the poorer parts of Riyadh and elsewhere in Saudi for al-Qaeda, whose twin objectives are the removal of Westerners from the Arabian peninsula and the overthrow of the House of Saud.

Al-Qaeda has been helped by widespread resentment, even among the most moderate of Saudis, at the United States and Britain for the occupation of Iraq, support for Israel and failure to help the Palestinians.

Attacks by al-Qaeda began in 1996, but were intermittent until May 12 last year, when three suicide bombings on compounds housing foreigners in Riyadh left 35 people dead. The violence has continued since then, mainly in the capital but also at Yanbu and Khobar. Twenty-two were killed in a compound attack in Khobar in May.

Jamal Khashoggi, an adviser to the Saudi ambassador to London, Prince Turki al-Faisal, and a former editor of the newspaper al-Watan, warned against seeing al-Qaeda as a forerunner to revolution.

Khashoggi said: “It is not an insurgency. They are small in number but dangerous. There were only four at Khobar, but we saw what they can do. We can see why people are frightened. It is like having a serial killer in the neighbourhood.”

Part of the reason for government optimism, according to one official, is evidence from the interrogation of al-Qaeda prisoners that the organisation has been attracting relatively few recruits since 2000. It does not appear to be replenishing itself. The official said there might be an odd attack by “bigoted anti-foreigners, but these would not be organised in the way al-Qaeda is”.

Dr Saad al-Fagigh, the London-based leader of an exiled group, the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, does not accept this assessment. He said the killing of Westerners to frighten them into leaving was only the first of three stages in al-Qaeda’s strategy. The second would be to disrupt the Saudi and world economy further by attacking oil pipelines, and the third to assassinate a member of the royal family.

He said: “I think within the next few months we will face a conflict in the royal family or an assassination of a member of the royal family that will end the aura [surrounding them] — triggering chaos.”

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz accused Fagigh of having links with terrorism in an interview published recently in the Saudi Gazette. The Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, urged the British government this week to take action against him. But the exile denies such accusations against him, insisting that he favours peaceful change.

Some in the Saudi government have concluded that continuing reform is necessary for the regime to survive.

Crown Prince Abdullah, the king’s half-brother, who is now the de facto ruler, appears sympathetic to this view. But Prince Naif, an arch-conservative who is close to the orthodox religious establishment and also runs the secret police, has been resistant.

So far reform has been limited. Elections for municipal governments have been promised, but no date set, though some diplomats predict early next year.

Sheikh Sahal Zain Yaseen, imam at the Prince Sultan mosque in Jeddah, blamed the delays on terrorist attacks.

Some reformers hope that if the experiment with municipal elections proves successful, elections may eventually be held for the Majlis al-Shura, the 120-member advisory body at present appointed by the monarch.

Some believe that much more needs to be done. The reform-minded journalist said: “It is cosmetic and marginal. People are scoffing at the reforms — not taking them seriously.’‘

Their scepticism was reinforced when Prince Naif arrested nine out of 104 businessmen, academics and others who signed a petition in March calling for a constitutional monarchy within four years.

The government arrested them on a technical point, claiming that some of the signatories had not agreed to their names being included.

The government has confirmed that two of those arrested, Abdullah Hamid and Ali Adamini, the latter a poet, were still in prison.

It is a sign of the debate taking place in the higher echelons of the government that there are some who disagree with Prince Naif and regard the arrests as counterproductive.

Samar Fatany, a mother of five and a broadcaster for 20 years, welcomes the reforms announced so far but, to her, the top issue is women’s rights. Sitting in the family section of Fuddruckers, an American diner in Jeddah, she pointed to significant changes in the past few years. Women until then had been virtually invisible. “Now we see them on television, magazine covers, talk shows,” she said.

Among the further changes she sought was the right to drive, otherwise — in a country with limited public transport — going to work would be difficult.

Only one woman in the busy restaurant had her face covered, but Jeddah is more relaxed than Riyadh, where the religious police can issue fines and make arrests for what they regard as improper dress.

Whether the reform process continues depends on the royal family. The king and his inner circle of brothers and other relatives are more than 70 years old. The future of Saudi Arabia could depend on who dies first: a reformer or a conservative.

Muhammad Salahuddin, head of Makah publishing, predicted that the royal family would adapt.

A reformer and one of the country’s best-known columnists, he said: “The family is well aware of the danger of any conflict. We have witnessed in the past that, whatever the circumstances, the family reaches a compromise and will not allow any difference between them. They are too smart for that.”

Whether they are smart enough to prevent the descent of the country into further conflict and chaos will be put to the test in the months ahead. — Â

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