Saudi Arabia: Ally or target?

Riyadh, Saudia Arabia – You won’t find “Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism” in any of the local bookshops, but the book is in such great demand by among high officials here that the government has brought out a reprint of its own.

The book by Dore Gold, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations and a prominent right-wing government adviser, charges that this “hatred” is rooted in that austere brand of Islamic orthodoxy – Wahhabism – to which Saudi Arabia officially subscribes and which found its most horrific expression in the attacks of Sept. 11.

The book has fueled the current Arab obsession with trying to identify “who is next?” – which nation is the next candidate for “reform” or “regime change” now that the Bush administration has successfully disposed of Saddam Hussein.

Syria and Iran are, of course, often considered the most likely candidates. But increasingly, Saudis believe they have several reasons to be on the list, too. Oil, of course, is one suspected reason. Religiosity – those Christian fundamentalist tendencies within the administration for which Saudi Arabia is the most obvious Islamic antithesis – is another.

The latest terrorist attack, on the eve of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit, adds to this sense of being a potential target for Washington.

But most important, Saudis think there is an Israeli component to the current tensions with the Bush administration. Many here believe that that a right-wing Israeli agenda has become America’s agenda, too.

“As America’s key ally in the region,” said Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki, “we were the Israelis’ only serious Arab competitor, on Palestine’s behalf, for the ear of American administrations. (The attack on) 9/11 gave them the golden opportunity to portray us as the kernel of evil and font of terror.”

Virtually everyone, both the rulers and the ruled, in this now viscerally anti-American country fear what America has in store for it. But the rulers’ response to this fear was profoundly different from what most of the ruled would have liked: the government has sought to placate the superpower whose protection it is no longer confident of yet cannot risk forfeiting.

So while no combat aircraft took off from Saudi territory, the command and control center at Prince Sultan air base near Riyadh effectively directed the air war in Iraq. The House of Saud did not like granting military facilities for a war it officially deplored. But the government bought U.S. assurances that the war would be quick and calculated that most Saudis would be better pleased by the removal of the despot than angered by the way it was done.

The war, however, turned out nastier than anticipated and the fear is that what follows could be worse. The more blatantly “colonial” the postwar administration in Iraq turns out to be, the likelier it is that the Iraqis will seek to liberate themselves from their “liberators” – a development that will find plenty of ardent supporters here.

In contrast with other Arab countries, there have been no sign of public agitation, no street demonstrations in Saudi Arabia over the war. But the government fears that popular solidarity with Iraq, if it comes, will take an extreme and violent religious form. Al-Qaida sentiment has declined since 9/11, but Iraq has given it a new lease on life.

The Saudi regime that was once happy to recruit Islamic fighters to join America and drive the Russians out of Afghanistan now finds itself preaching against the appropriateness of jihad against American and British “infidel aggressors” in Iraq. It has also arrested hundreds of al-Qaida suspects, fearing a renewal of anti-Western terrorism inside the kingdom itself.

“All depends on how the Iraqi situation evolves,” said Muhsin Awaji, an Islamist and former political prisoner. “But the extremists are already a volcano ready to erupt, and I fear that they will target any Westerners, not just American and British.”

Any such “jihad” will, in effect, also be aimed a the current Saudi government. It is not just religious fanaticism and anti-Americanism that is gaining al-Qaida a following here. There is a generalized sense of discontent with the present government that is fueled by spreading poverty and a lack of modern, representative institutions through which to voice discontent. While few Saudis may want to see the end of the House of Saud, an increasing number of educated, unemployed young people are unhappy with how the government operates.

“It simply must reform -and build its legitimacy on a new foundation: democracy,” said Tawfiq Zughayir, a moderate Islamist.

Crown Prince Abdullah has clear reformist inclinations and is popular because of that. But he stands alone, blocked by the rival clan, centered on the incapacitated King Fahd, whose leading members seem to fear that any serious change will lead to the demise of the whole regime.

“This is a very dangerous attitude,” said Daoud Shiryan, a Saudi columnist with the Arab-language newspaper Al-Hayat. “After Iraq, a start to reforms, at the very least, has become an urgent necessity.”

Otherwise, many fear, the country risks an internal destabilization that would arouse the interventionist instincts of the U.S. neo-conservatives.

David Hirst is a Middle East writer and analyst based in Beirut who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.