Saudi Arabia

A DESERT STORM IN THE KINGDOM

Post-9/11, the country is under pressure to change

ADNAN R. KHAN November 8 2004
Saudi Arabia

A DESERT STORM IN THE KINGDOM

Post-9/11, the country is under pressure to change

ADNAN R. KHAN November 8 2004

A DESERT STORM IN THE KINGDOM

Saudi Arabia

Post-9/11, the country is under pressure to change

ADNAN R. KHAN

IT’S A DEEPLY CONSERVATIVE PLACE, where reformers must be subtle and the status quo must be upheld. But in the reordered post-Sept. 11 world, Saudi Arabia must contend with increasing calls for change. It’s been a difficult time for this Islamic kingdom that prides itself on being the caretaker of one of the world’s great religions, even as violent offshoots of that faith—sometimes funded by Saudi elements—have wreaked havoc. Both the monarchy, which rules in partnership with a puritan class of Wahhabi Muslims, and the general population are feeling the crunch—not least because of fears that an old relationship is fraying. “We are very afraid right now,” says Sami, a 35-year-old textile-shop

owner in Jeddah, the country’s commercial hub. “Americans are changing their relationship with us—they are turning against us.” Revelations that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were homegrown in the kingdom didn’t help matters. And the U.S. election contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry ratcheted up the anxiety level. There are few illusions here about the central role U.S. foreign policy plays in the lives of ordinary Saudis. “Saudi Arabia needs the Americans as much as the Americans need us,” says Dr. Talal Amin, a professor of physiology at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, and the brother of Ferial Masry, a Saudi-American contesting a legislative seat in California. “The relationship is crucial.”

But the openly anti-Saudi rhetoric and attacks on the

country s conservative religious leaders that coloured the Kerry campaign left many Saudis scratching their heads. “Kerry is an angry man,” says Turki al Ajmi, a 21-year old student at the Arab Open University in Jeddah.

Still, as a spate of domestic militant attacks since the spring of2003 has shown, the pressure for change is not just from the outside. Islamists come in a variety of shades in the kingdom, from hardcore jihadists to progressives. The jihadists, who according to a May 2003 report by U.S. and Saudi

sources have no more than 400 members, have managed to steal the spotlight from moderates. But the disparate groups agree on one thing: whatever reform is to succeed in the kingdom, Islam must remain at the heart of Saudi society.

Most Saudis don’t take well to change, especially of the religious variety. Dogma is built into the public consciousness, and secularism carries little weight. “You can say whatever you want to a Saudi,” says Amin. “Insult him, belittle him, criticize him, whatever, and he will laugh and walk away. Insult Islam, and he will kill you.” Demanding religious reform is the wrong way to go about changing Saudi society, Amin and others argue. Saudis will not stand for it.

But there appears to be little popular support for radicalism. The International Crisis Group, an independent, non-profit organization specializing in global conflicts, said in a July 2004 report that while almost half of Saudis support Osama bin Laden’s anti-Western rhetoric, less than five per cent support him as a leader. There is general distaste in the kingdom for the acts of violence that characterize al-Qaeda. And the violent acts inside Saudi Arabia, including the bomb attacks on foreign compounds in 2003 that killed dozens, have alienated Saudi society from the jihadist agenda.

Some argue that marginalizing the royal family and criticizing its conservative Islamic roots, which seemed to be at the heart of Kerry’s Saudi rhetoric, would lead only to a further deterioration in the kingdom. Instead, many reformers—while calling for greater public participation—say that cleaning up the monarchy, eliminating corruption and restoring its popular credibility may also prove efficacious. Saudis may murmur about the ruling class’s decadence when the country has seen per capita income plummet from US$18,000 in 1981 to $8,425 in 2002-in spite of Saudi Arabia having a quarter of the world’s oil reserves. But they still look to the royals for leadership.

In fact, Amin says, Saudis are just like anyone else. “Their primary concern is security and the development of a society that secures the future of their children,” he notes. Many may be ruled by emotion and tethered to polemics in a place where meaningful debate is just beginning. But the process has begun. Whether it continues will depend on how delicately, but consistently, the U.S. leadership is willing to apply its weight. ffll