Differences over internal policy have emerged into the open among the usually secretive members of the House of Saud, who have until now maintained a facade of unity in times of crisis.
The current challenge to the ruling family’s authority is the most serious yet: a determined campaign whose purpose appears to be to destabilize, and eventually to drive the regime from power, has been under way for several years but has now escalated almost into an insurrection. The massive bombing on November 8 at an upper-class residential compound in Riyadh, which left 17 people dead and 122 wounded, is the latest in a series of attacks in the kingdom. The government and its American patrons immediately blamed al-Qa’ida for the bombing, although it was not clear why al-Qa’ida would target fellow Arabs when their stated purpose is to drive the Americans out. In another revealing twist, the American state department had announced two days earlier that they had received credible information about a "terrorist" attack and that they were closing their embassy and consulates in the kingdom until further notice. The campaign to blame al-Qa’ida appears to have been premeditated.
Members of the House of Saud are divided over how best to deal with the latest challenge. While interior minister Nayef has said that he will give no quarter to the extremist elements, bluntly stating that "we can talk to them only with the gun and the sword," crown prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, has adopted a more conciliatory approach, indicating that he is open to dialogue. The differing approaches also point to a deeper split in the ruling family. Even the ailing king Fahd has waded into the controversy, threatening to deal with the "extremists" with an iron fist.
So concerned is the regime about the latest developments that, for three days from November 14, crown prince Abdullah met about 40 leading Saudi scholars in Makkah to consider the growing threat as well as the question of mediation with those challenging the regime. Safar al-Hawali, a leading alim who was imprisoned in 1991 for his opposition to US forces in the Arabian Peninsula, was reported on November 13 by the London-based Saudi daily al-Hayat as saying that Abdullah had agreed to the mediation proposal. He said that he was pleased by the authorities’ agreement, as this will encourage the scholars to pursue their efforts to preserve the unity of the country and to halt the destabilization efforts. That al-Hawali should characterize the campaign as a threat to the unity of the kingdom is revealing.
Who is behind the campaign? There is not just one group; in addition to those who may sympathise with al-Qa’ida – and there is no shortage of such people – a number of western-educated reform-minded liberals are also involved in the anti-government campaign. They are calling for an elected assembly and a little more voice in how the country is governed. This group is not opposed to the monarchy; it is within the religious establishment, the regime’s mainstay for decades, that there is now growing opposition to its policies. In fact, Usama bin Ladin enjoys immense support among the Islamic elements, some of whom are known for their fiery speeches, and who can inspire and mobilise the people. It is the challenge from this group that is of great concern to the Saudi government, especially because they cannot be dismissed as outsiders; the religious establishment is from Najd, the power-base of the House of Saud. Thus one pillar of the kingdom, the religious elite, is now opposed to the other, the ruling family.
For decades the regime managed to deceive Muslims in the kingdom as well as abroad by claiming to be upholding the banner of Islam. Fahd even assumed the title of Khadim al-Haramain (Servant of the Two Holy Places); the great reverence Muslims have for Makkah and Madinah was also extended, unjustifiably, to the House of Saud. But it was the religious establishment that enabled the ruling family, despite its many well-known indiscretions, to claim a spurious Islamic legitimacy. Now that carefully crafted image is crumbling; the religious establishment itself is challenging the regime.
In the past the regime tried to ride out such difficulties by bribing those who would challenge its authority; that option is no longer available, thanks to the profligate ways of the ruling family. At least 60 percent of the countries oil revenues are pocketed by the "royals," but with these revenues dwindling there is little left for everyone else. The kingdom’s economy has reached a crisis; unemployment is now more than 40 percent and poverty affects 30 percent of the population. In the eighties, every Saudi citizen was given a job and enormous government handouts to buy a house and a car; he did not have to do anything except act as the boss. There were always people from India, Pakistan and the rest of the Middle East who were willing to put up with the Saudis’ idiosyncrasies because the pay was good. In the last decade, most of these expatriates have been forced to leave because of lack of jobs and revenue. Now the Saudis are forced to do many of these jobs at a fraction of the pay. The average Saudi income of more than US$8,000 in the eighties has declined to less than $1,600 today.
There is also growing awareness among the Saudis about what is happening in the world, thanks to al-Jazeera Television and the Internet. The tragedy of the Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans is brought into the living-rooms of all Saudis by al-Jazeera daily. Such tragedies have had an immense effect on the people. Aware of the strong relationship between the ruling family and the US – Saudi Arabia has invested or deposited US$2 trillion in US companies or banks – the average Saudi can easily figure out who the architect of the Muslims’ misery is, and why their government is so comfortable with the Americans and Israelis.
The regime’s timid response to US/zionist crimes contrasts oddly with the heavy-handed tactics used against those opposing it at home. In fact, since the latest attacks in Makkah (November 4) and Riyadh (November 6 and 8), the regime has given its security forces a carte blanche. Never known for their gentle manners, these men have launched a terror campaign in which many innocent Saudis have been brutalized. Such crude tactics can only swell the ranks of opponents of the regime. Many ulama who are regarded as opposed to the regime have been arrested. About 3,000 ulama have also been sent for "re-education," as part of a campaign to please the US. This has further increased resentment against the ruling family among ordinary Saudis.
The announcement in October that elections for municipal offices will be organized next year has been greeted with derision. Most Saudis are not impressed by such gimmicks; they became even more sceptical when Bush praised Saudi and Egyptian "reforms" early last month and promised to "usher" in democracy in the Middle East. Quite aside from disgust at Bush’s gall in claiming to deliver ‘democracy’ to others when there is an obvious ‘democratic deficit’ in the US itself, people are also appalled to hear Bush praise two of the most oppressive regimes in the region.
The House of Saud is in a crisis the like of which it has never faced before. It may well not survive the latest onslaught; however, what is unclear is what or who will replace it. The Americans are not likely to allow one of their main cash-cows to fall to those who are opposed to US/Israeli domination of the Middle East. It is likely that some obscure colonel, spouting anti-American slogans, will be brought to power to pacify the people, in order to enable the US to continue to plunder the country’s resources. It would also be much too naive to hope that the Americans will let the kingdom go without a fight. Muslims had better analyse the situation very carefully before assuming that the sacred territories will revert to Islamic rule any time soon.