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).

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.