A Saudi Survival Strategy

Did the bombings that rocked Riyadh shock the al-Saud royal family from its complacency at long last? This rude interruption to their majesties' indolence by their subjects incited rage and fury and something else--fear. Of course, alarm bells have rung before in Saudi Arabia, but the ruling family remained in denial--deniability and repression being the political arts at which the al-Saud excel. If the regime is to forge a survival strategy, it must now re-examine its foundations.

As ruling families go, the al-Saud are spectacularly numerous--there are perhaps as many 22,000 of them. But vast bloodlines have not prevented hardening of the arteries. Indeed, the men now struggling to hold things together are the incapacitated King Fahd (84 years old), his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah (79 years old), and his full brothers, Defence Minister Sultan (78 years old), and Interior Minister Naif (75 years old).

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Old men, unsurprisingly, find it hard to cope with the breakdown of the assumptions that have governed their entire lives. Perhaps the most shattering lost illusion is the fact that the bombings occurred in the heart of the al-Saud's home-base in the Najdi region, which indicates that the enemy within resides nearer to the throne than anyone suspected. This recognition is particularly unsettling because the al-Saud have alienated every group except their own. If some Najdi may now be mistrusted, where can the al-Saud turn?

Saudi Arabia's population is divided into distinctive regional, tribal, and sectarian groups. To the east, in the oil-rich province, are the Shia. Politically emboldened since the fall of Saddam's regime and the resurgence of their brethren in Iraq, the Shia wasted no time in petitioning Crown Prince Abdullah to end both their exclusion from Saudi politics and their demonization as heretics by the Wahhabi religious establishment. Their message to the rulers is that it will no longer suffice to identify being Saudi exclusively with being Wahhabi Najdi.

Meanwhile, the Hijazis, who originate in Mecca and Medina, hold long-repressed resentments due to their humiliating partial inclusion in Saudi politics. Although the Hijazis, who are Sunnis but not Wahhabis, are not viewed as heretics, they are marginalized because the Islam they practice has Sufi leanings--and tolerant Sufiism is anathema to the austerely dogmatic Wahhabis. Educated Hijazis ask only for modest reforms. Yet even moderation is dismissed by the al-Saud.

The tribes of the Asir region, which have a mixed sense of identity due to their close ties to Yemeni tribes, feel alienated from both the political and the economic center. The population of al-Jawf in the north has a similar sense of political and economic alienation.

Despite long simmering feelings of resentment and dispossession, these `minorities' remain moderate in their demands for reform. Their leaders want to rescue the state, not raze it. They form the vast majority of people in Saudi Arabia, and have not yet embraced the uncompromising rage of Osama bin Laden's clones.

The challenge facing the al-Saud is to include at the heart of the political system the peoples they have shunned for decades. Unless they begin to do so, these peoples will drift into the camp of the fanatics--if not as active terrorists than as passive supporters, much as the Catholic community in Northern Ireland passively embraced IRA terrorism as a way to end their exclusion from political life in the province. The danger in Saudi Arabia is that the IRA are no match for Muslim fundamentalists in their fanaticism.

For the regime to embrace peoples it has excluded, it must agree on inclusiveness--and the tolerance of non-Wahhabi forms of Islam--as a survival strategy and stick to it. This is difficult because the ruling al-Saud are themselves divided. Crown Prince Abdullah is far more disposed to reform than Prince Naif, the powerful Interior Minister, who clings to the old narrow system of repression.

The al-Saud will undoubtedly be ruthless in seeking out the individuals directly implicated in the terrorist bombings. Those captured face beheading in the traditional way. The problem for the regime is that the springs that nourish fanaticism will not be dammed by such exemplary punishment.

Some royals recognize this and know that a more thorough housecleaning is needed. They realize that the al-Saud must choose: continue on the narrow path of repression and ethnic and religious intolerance, or adopt a more open and inclusive policy.

Both choices are fraught with danger: open up, and they include people in Saudi public life hitherto considered unworthy for being either heretics (the Shia) or of impure blood (the Hejazis) or too primitive (the border tribes). Remain closed, and they will find themselves hostage to the forces of intolerance that threaten the regime.

The al-Saud religious alliance with the Wahhabis and the latter's control of a rigid religious educational system must change. "Moderate" elements among the population will support this change (and the manhunt for terrorist fanatics) if they secure inclusion in Saudi life.

Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the most dangerous time for any authoritarian regime is when it reforms. The al-Saud have procrastinated so long that every choice they now face is risky. Inclusion is the less dangerous path. It puts at risk only the ethnically narrow and religiously intolerant structure of the regime. By contrast, the regime itself will be imperiled if it clings to its narrow base.