Blow the House down

Could terrorist groups really topple the Saudi elite?

Nick Frayn

Topics Politics

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Oddly enough, this is not a bad time to be a Saudi. After years in the doldrums, the economy is picking up, and the seemingly intractable budget deficits have been avoided for the past two years.

Of course, the upturn is largely based on the widely inflated price of oil, which in turn is driven by Western fears of…well, just about everything (1). But there are some material changes, too. China’s demand for oil is leading the Saudis to look into increasing output for the first time in years. More encouraging still, East Asia’s demand for petrochemicals is growing at an extraordinary rate, leading to a Saudi boom in this sector. The long-touted Saudi goal of diversifying the economy to reduce dependence on crude exports is a real possibility. Here, in fact, might be a good news story from the Middle East.

Nobody, however, not even many Saudis, sees it like that. Instead, following recent attacks on foreigners working in the Kingdom and the shooting of a BBC journalist and cameraman on 6 June 2004, the news is overwhelmingly pessimistic. The USA has told its citizens to leave the country, which is no small demand given their critical role in the Saudi oil industry. The British authorities have warned against unnecessary travel to the Kingdom.

Experts are engaged in endless speculation about the stability of the House of Saud, comparing this moment to 1979 or 1990. One expert warned the BBC, ‘There is a real risk that people sensing a regime in crisis may throw in their lot with what they see as a more dynamic force, rather than an embattled monarchy’ (2).

Of course, no such thing is likely. Terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia are sporadic and incoherent; the choice of soft targets reveals the military weakness of the groups involved. Although the potential for an attack on strategic oil installations has been mooted, it would take an army to shut down Saudi’s hundreds of operational wells, terminals and refineries. Judging by the acquiescent reaction of the population to the government’s crackdown on Saudi militants, these groups do not seem to have any local support. They are isolated, marginal, and rapidly being hunted down by the authorities.

These groups don’t seem to have much more interest in the Saudi population than the Saudi population does in them. As radical Islam developed in the region during the late 1970s and early 80s, it had a broad social base, often built on networks of charitable welfare organisations that became critical during a period of economic decline. It preached equality and social reform, in large part borrowing the agenda of ailing Arab nationalism (3). Today’s movements have no such base. Their agenda does not include the capture of the state in order to reorganise the foundations of society. It is simply destructive and nihilistic.

Not that the Saudis, contrary to popular opinion, have ever been particularly interested in radical Islamism. The 1979 seizure of Mecca and Medina, inspired by the Iranian revolution, was widely unpopular and brutally suppressed by the authorities. The key factor about religion in Saudi Arabia is that it is profoundly conservative; that is, it is opposed to change. Radical Wahhabi Islam is a contradiction in terms. The last time the Saudi state came under serious threat was in 1969, when nationalist sections of the middle classes, humiliated by Arab defeat in the 1967 war, plotted a major coup. Given that the same year brought the overthrow of King Idris of Libya, by the charismatic young Colonel Gadaffi, this was not a far-fetched project.

Clearly, there are real problems in Saudi Arabia. Whatever the good news about the economy, the dependence on foreign labour means widespread unemployment for Saudi youth. Standards of living have fallen precipitously since the early 1980s, only rising over the past two years. Yet these factors, often cited by media pundits as the ‘roots of terrorism’, are no reason in and of themselves to radicalise Saudi youth. They might just as well have the opposite effect – instilling a fear of instability into a population that already feels its position is precarious. Much more problematic for the Saudi elite has been the international sphere, as their relations with the USA have entered a difficult phase.

Immediately after 9/11, once it was discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers hailed from the Kingdom, relations between the old allies were in danger of collapse. The Saudis initially denied that nationals of the Kingdom had been involved, and eschewed any relationship with Al-Qaeda or broader terrorism. Washington, released from any strategic relationship with the house of Saud at the end of the Cold War, floated a few balloons about ending the partnership. It must have been a terrifying time in Riyadh, as the princes pictured a future as pariah state.

In fact, the split never occurred. The possibility of a break in relations is there, but it has yet to develop. The war on terror is nothing if not contingent, and the White House did not pursue an anti-Saudi line. No doubt there was a certain pressure from the many US firms who have made millions off the Saudi oil industry. But more likely the Bush administration was infected by the same risk-consciousness that drives the headlines predicting the chaos and problems that a Saudi collapse might cause. Whatever the reason, the Riyadh bombings allowed Saudi to come back into the fold of right-minded nations involved in the war on terror.

Nonetheless, the Kingdom’s relations with the West are precarious. They face contradictory demands to tighten security, while developing a political system with greater accountability, hence the tendency for the Kingdom to look precarious. There may be more rough times ahead too. On the American left it has become popular to attack the US relationship with Saudi, as illustrated by the new Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11. Support for ‘democratisation’ in the Middle East, runs across the board in US politics. The White House, bereft of easy targets, still has an historic opportunity to target Saudi if it so wishes. If change does come to Saudi it would be a result of this external dynamic, rather than the crazed actions of a few nihilistic militants.

(1) Inflaming the oil crisis, by Joe Kaplinsky

(2) Is the Saudi oil industry safe?, BBC News, 3 June 2004

(3) For more on this see: Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, Harvard University Press, 1996

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Topics Politics


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