IN SAUDI ARABIA LAST WEEK, A CAMEL NAMED "NO TO TERRORISM" finished second in the annual race that begins the Janadriya cultural festival. That was probably heartening for Crown Prince Abdullah, who watched the race, since it reinforced the message of his current antiterrorism propaganda campaign. The word is everywhere. There are electric billboards in downtown Riyadh flashing slogans like ISLAM IS MODERATION and SAY NO TO TERRORISM. Indeed, after the camel race--and a banquet featuring tables groaning
with whole lambs (one animal for every 10 diners, I estimated)--there was an opera celebrating the royal family, climaxed by a scene in which the Saudi people mourn the terrorist attacks of the past few years. "How can Muslims do this?" the chorus wailed. "This is not Islam."
Muslims have done this, at least in part, because they were funded by Saudi charities and educated in radical Islamist schools around the world designed by Saudi clerics, as was Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, the Saudi American charged last week with plotting to assassinate President George W. Bush. Crown Prince Abdullah would have us believe that those days are over, and there is some evidence to support him. The Saudis launched a major campaign to roll up local al-Qaeda cells after terrorists brought the war home to Riyadh, attacking housing compounds and killing 34 on May 12, 2003. U.S. diplomats believe that a significant effort has also been made to control the private Saudi charities that fund Islamist radicalism. A temporary ban has been placed on donations going overseas, with recent exceptions only for tsunami relief and the crisis in Darfur. "The ban is outrageous!" a Saudi politician screamed in a private meeting. "Why are you Americans insisting on this? Thousands of children all over Africa are going without food and clothing because of this."
The antiterrorism campaign is encouraging, but its impact is unknowable. I spent a week visiting with government officials, scholars and business people as part of a small delegation organized by the Council on Foreign Relations. The Saudis were uniformly charming, distressed by their post-9/11 reputation in the U.S. and impatient about the pace of reform in their society. "We made a mistake," a Saudi official told me. "We thought that when teachers cursed Christians and Jews, that it was just words and there would be no impact. It is said that communists take control of a country using trade unions and Arab nationalists take control through the military. Well, the Islamists take control through the schools. We gave them free rein starting in the 1960s. They have penetrated everywhere, and it is difficult to roll back."