Not since 1932, when the oil-rich kingdom was founded, has the House of Saud been faced with such serious prospects of demolition or division as it is today...
Not since 1932, when the oil-rich kingdom was founded, has the House of Saud been faced with such serious prospects of demolition or division as it is today. The widespread attacks, mainly against oil, military and foreign (particularly Western ) targets, attributed to al-Qa’ida, have proved the inability of the House of Saud to provide security. This is causing expatriate workers, who are vital to the kingdom’s economy, to consider leaving; some have actually already done so. It is also causing foreign governments and media to criticise the failure of the authorities to control the situation, and the princes to squabble about how to do that. Both the failure to provide security and the squabbling are partly due to king Fahd’s incapacity to govern, as a result of his decade-long illness.
The senior princes control the army, national guard and police, and the uncontrolled rivalries among them are seriously weakening their responses to the challenges facing their House. Their squabbling is not confined to private confrontations, as prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the US, made clear in a public statement in mid-June. "Neither the government nor the citizens are yet prepared for this crucial, fundamental stage to winning this war," he declared. "We shall not win by only resorting to praying. War is war." This is not only a public denial that al-Qa’ida is on the run and the authorities are doing all they can to combat terrorism, as the House of Saud repeatedly asserts, but also an acknowledgement that the senior princes have different views on how to deal with this threat.
Prince Bandar and those who agree with him want a harsher crackdown on what they call "Islamic extremism" and "Islamic radicals", although the Saudi authorities are cooperating with the US-led "war on terrorism". They want he government to stop, for instance, any donations to organisations and charities that might, no matter how remotely , be classified as Islamic. Like other princes, they firmly believe that the future of the House of Saud depends on US protection. Those opposed to them, however, feel that though relations with Washington must remain close, it is necessary to give the impression that those ties are not at the expense of Saudi support for Islam, and that Riyadh is opposed to Israeli persecution of Palestinians and to the occupation of their lands. This explains why, for instance, crown prince Abdullah blamed the violence in Yanbu on zionists, and why Saudi imams are allowed to launch the occasional attack on "crusaders and zionists", although this is bound to irk the US government and Congress.
But the princes are united in their determination to stay in power and to rob the kingdom of its resources. Consequently there is barely any difference in their approach to the political reforms the kingdom must undertake to improve its image and to meet the calls for such reforms by the US and fellow Arab countries. Even the Gulf rulers have told the Saudi royal family that reform is its only chance for survival, and that it might already be too late.
In February, for instance, Saudi television began for the first time to cover the proceedings of the Advisory Council (Majlis al-Shura), whose members are selected by the king, as part of the political reforms. Last November the council was granted the right to propose legislative proposals without first obtaining the king’s permission. And according to media reports citing government sources, the government plans to arrange the election of one third of the council’s 120 members, although its role will continue to be purely advisory. The head of the council is chosen from among the kingdom’s traditional religious leaders, while many of its members are graduates of religious schools. In 2001, the last time he appeared in public, the head said that it was not the council’s responsibility to pass laws because "the shari’ah is the law".
As part of the reforms, the government announced in March the establishment of "the first independent national human rights commission". In an interview with the Saudi-owned al-Hayat daily on March 12, Prince Tarki bin Muhammad bin Saud, the official responsible for dealing with international organisations in the foreign ministry, said that there are no "serious human rights violations, but minor violations that can by easily handled." The prince asserted that the kingdom "opened up its doors to international human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch", which visited prisons and interviewed a cross-section of Saudi citizens, then eventually issued a favourable report. Asked why the authorities had refused to admit the delegation from Amnesty International, he said that AI had proved "hostile in the past to us, taking an unfair position on the principles we believe in". But Dr Abdullah bin Saleh al-Ubaid, the head of the local human rights commission, told the same newspaper emphatically that "we will not cooperate with external organisations": a clear admission that the local human-rights group prince Turki has been speaking about is bound to be useless.
The Saudi people give no credibility to the ‘reforms’ or to the authorities’ claims that the security situation is under control. The anger at the government’s support for the US war in Iraq and on ‘terrorism’ bodes ill for the future of the House of Saud.