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House of Saud - to fall or not?
By Ashraf Fahim

The vilification of Saudi Arabia by many in Washington after September 11, 2001, led to rash speculation that the United States might eventually turn on its longtime ally. But the sound and fury of ongoing neo-conservative polemics against the al-Saud dynasty have not signified a change in policy. The Saudi-US partnership is too profitable to risk throwing the baby out with the bath water, and it seems destined to endure, at least until the long-predicted fall of the House of Saud.

The United States and the House of Saud have maintained a mutually beneficial relationship for decades under which the US has gained access to the Arabian Peninsula's oil reserves and Saudi Arabia has willingly received US shipments of arms. But aside from the obvious economic incentives for a continuation of the status quo, Dr Sa'd al-Fagih, a Saudi dissident who heads the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), believes that Washington's dependence on Saudi cooperation in its "war on terror" has delivered it into a cul-de-sac, forcing the partnership on. "The Americans are stuck," he says. "They have gone too far in linking their fate with al-Saud. They had the chance to maneuver before September 11," but not now.

That even the non-violent Saudi opposition, such as the MIRA, is Islamic and less amenable to US interests than the House of Saud is an added incentive for Washington to stand by the current rulers of Riyadh. In addition, with Iraq in turmoil, the last thing Washington needs is more uncertainty in the region. Dr Mai Yamani, a research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA) in London, and an expert on Saudi Arabia, says that the administration of US President George W Bush needs stability there. "Now that there's so much instability in Iraq," she said, "they have been trying to protect the al-Saud rule, and to maintain the system as long as they can."

House of Saud and fog
Few predictions have been made as frequently as the imminent demise of the House of Saud, the dynasty that unified Saudi Arabia in 1932. Since Said K Aburish authored The Rise, Corruption, and Coming Fall of the House of Saud in 1995, analysts have waited on tenterhooks for the dynasty to fall. But rotten or not, the al-Saud apple stubbornly refuses to drop.

Now, under siege as never before, the country's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, has responded to domestic criticism by circumscribing the US troop presence, and to US criticism by reforming the educational system and religious establishment in order to staunch "extremism". Also, Saudi Arabia's own "war on terror" was ratcheted up after attacks inside the kingdom in May and November killed dozens. Despite these moves, observers insist that the end is nigh. "One day, some time soon, one way or another, the House of Saud is coming down," wrote former US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst Robert Baer in the Atlantic Monthly last May.

Notwithstanding such sanguine predictions, events inside the kingdom remain inscrutable. The precise identities of the Saudi militants are only slightly less opaque than those of their opposite numbers in Iraq. What is known, though, are their grievances.

By any reckoning, the House of Saud's monopolization of power has brought with it political repression and the marginalization of dissent. Likewise, the country's economic travails reflect the corruption and nepotism inherent to a system that privileges some 20,000 royals. The oil-rich welfare state is now heavily in debt, per capita income has plummeted by five times in 25 years, and population growth of 3.4 percent is exacerbating endemic unemployment.

Because of the apparent fragility of the regime, many have turned their attentions to its opponents. "The al-Saud have created a system where there is no space for the liberals," says RIIA fellow Yamani. "In Saudi Arabia now, the only organized opposition is Islamist, and in particular Wahhabi." Within that context, there have been numerous calls for political reform from inside the kingdom, including a recent petition for a move to a constitutional monarchy. However, Yamani says the more prominent dissidents, such as Sheikh Safar al-Hawali or Sheikh Salman al-Auda, have been "partly co-opted by the establishment".

The lack of transparency of the Saudi society and political system does make evaluating the domestic opposition a challenge. But in general, few non-violent groups within the kingdom appear to advocate the overthrow of the regime. For undiluted criticism one has to look abroad.

The Saudi Institute, a recent group based in Washington, DC, has generated some media attention in the United States. Headed by longtime Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmed, it has put a spotlight on the kingdom's allegedly poor treatment of minorities. The group's detractors, however, point out that because it represents the Shi'ite minority and is aligned to neo-con groups such as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, its legitimacy inside Saudi Arabia is marginal.

More credible is the London-based MIRA, headed by al-Fagih, who is a Sunni from the politically central Najd region. MIRA runs a satellite television station called al-Islah that broadcasts into the kingdom and attempts to use new media to coalesce dissent to the House of Saud. Several hundred MIRA supporters shocked the Saudi authorities by staging illegal demonstrations inside Saudi Arabia in October.

For al-Fagih, September 11 was the moment that rent the House of Saud's credibility asunder. Al-Saud had sold the US a bill of goods on stability in the kingdom, he says, and the attacks "convinced the Americans that the Saudis were lying - not for the sake of protecting the violent groups, but for the sake of keeping the American government from considering any alternative to the Saudi regime".

Crown Prince Abdullah's reforms - the Saudization of the job market, the firing of 2,000 "extremist" imams, the altering of schoolbooks to emphasize tolerance, and the monitoring of charities that send monies abroad (a regulatory body on this was announced last Sunday) - are insufficient, said al-Fagih. "Real reform is political reform, which is power sharing, accountability, transparency and freedom of expression, which is not happening at all."

MIRA's critique of al-Saud is from an Islamic perspective, and al-Fagih considers the neo-con attack on Wahhabi ideology "superficial". Theological orthodoxy isn't the root of the violence, he contends, al-Saud "despotism" is. "Wahhabism has been there for 270 years. Why would it be causing September 11 now, not before?" he asked.

Al-Fagih admits that his group is incapable of overturning the current system in the short term, but he sees three ways the regime could collapse "spontaneously": First, if the ailing King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz dies; this would lay bare an insoluble succession dispute between the Sudayris (Fahd's full brothers) and Abdullah, his half-brother. Second, if the violent groups begin targeting senior royals, overly hierarchical state institutions could collapse. And finally, a decrease in oil prices could bring on economic chaos.

Though an effective critic of the House of Saud, al-Fagih is hardly the kind of proxy Washington usually elopes with. Like another well-known dissident, Muhammad al-Mass'ari, who heads the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), also based in London, an important part of his critique is that the regime is too closely aligned with the US.

The end of the affair?
For decades, successive US governments and the House of Saud have been entwined in a mutually beneficial strategic relationship: The peninsula's unmatched oil reserves have ensured the US-dominated global economy's stability, and the United States has served as Saudi Arabia's best customer and chief supplier of arms.

Tensions did surface when US troops were positioned on Saudi soil after the Gulf War of 1991, and attacks on US targets in the kingdom followed, but only the whirlwind that was September 11 truly endangered the alliance. As soon as Osama bin Laden was identified as the culprit, and the citizenship of 15 of the 19 hijackers became known, US-Saudi relations came under withering scrutiny.

The kingdom went from erstwhile ally to duplicitous knave in an instant. Saudi-affiliated charities in the United States were raided as the US media obsessed over the alleged nexus among the Saudi royal family, the bin Ladens, the conservative Wahhabi religious establishment and extremism. By mid-2002, Saudi-baiting had reached its apex, as the far-right Defense Policy Board held a seminar that concluded that the kingdom was "part of the problem" of international terror, "rather than part of the solution".

A breach on Saudi Arabia appeared to be opening up between, broadly speaking, the traditional Republican friends of Saud, centered on former president George H W Bush - the paleo-cons - and the staunchly pro-Israel, apparently anti-Saud neo-cons. A Saudi Arabia Accountability Act, requiring the president's annual certification that Riyadh is on the right side of the "war on terror", was introduced in Congress in November.

But in reality, few in Washington display a genuine interest in forsaking the Saudi royal family. The Bush administration, for example, dutifully redacted portions of a July congressional report on September 11 that might have embarrassed Saudi Arabia. Even the neo-cons seem content simply to pressure the House of Saud to reform. "There are divisions in Washington about 'what is to be done' about the Saudis," said Yamani, "but I think many would like to protect the al-Saud rule, and to find liberal princes among them."

William Kristol, editor of the neo-con newspaper the Weekly Standard, indicated precisely such a strategy in testimony he gave to Congress in May 2002. "Only by applying pressure can we encourage whatever modernizing movement there may be within the royal family," he said.

In the absence of a pliant Saudi opposition, no one at the center of the US administration seems ready to construct a new paradigm. The fear of what comes after al-Saud is just too forbidding. The militants aren't exactly the United States' natural allies, and the Islamic opposition is largely critical of al-Saud's pro-US policies.

Al-Fagih suggests that Washington isn't interested in real democracy in Saudi Arabia anyway. He contrasts the Turkish parliament's obstinacy in considering Washington's request to invade Iraq from Turkish soil with Saudi Arabia's compliance during the first Gulf War. "Why would they make life for themselves difficult by encouraging democracy and allowing people to say 'we don't want American interests in our land'?" he asked.

That the US-Saudi relationship has indirectly enriched all of President George W Bush's senior advisers can only work in favor of the status quo. Abandoning al-Saud would mean mothballing such organizations as the Carlyle group that provide beltway glitterati with a bottomless retirement fund garnered through Saudi defense and infrastructure contracts. The kingdom also has sticks to go with those carrots. Saudi Arabia has about US$1 trillion on deposit in US banks, and the same in the stock market, according to CIA agent Baer. A large withdrawal would devastate the US economy.

None of this stops the ideologues fantasizing, of course. A recent book by neo-con luminaries David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil, proposes championing independence for the largely Shi'ite Eastern province of Saudi Arabia (where most of the oil is) in order to put the screws on al-Saud.

To appreciate why the agenda of the Bush administration's usual uberhawks is so limited, it should also be understood that the neo-con critics of al-Saud are unabashedly pro-Israel, and Saudi Arabia's alleged funding of Palestinian militants is as important to them as its alleged coddling of al-Qaeda. Thus the Saudi Accountability Act focuses mostly on Palestinian "terrorist" groups. The intent is as much to frighten the royal family into ending support for Palestinian groups as Saudi jihadis.

Regardless of the agendas or prophecies of its many detractors, the House of Saud has thus far weathered all storms. How sturdy the throne really is is difficult to discern from without. All Riyadh's allies in Washington can really do is support them and hope for the best - or worst, depending on their bias - and keep waiting for the fall.

Ashraf Fahim is a freelance writer on Middle Eastern affairs based in New York and London.

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Mar 5, 2004



House of Saud plays a radical card (Nov 21, '03)

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(Nov 19, '03)

 

 
   
         
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