The President of the United States and the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia belong to a mutual admiration society. Each time U.S. Ambassador Robert Jordan meets with Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, the prince always warmly asks about Bush's health. Yet when Jordan asked the Saudis for help recently, he got a brush-off. In April, U.S. intelligence picked up strong signals that major terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda against Americans in Saudi Arabia were in the works. In three separate letters to Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef dated April 29, May 7 and May 10 Jordan requested more security at residential compounds housing U.S. expatriates, only to recoil in anguish when terrorists struck with deadly force last week. Despite the good chemistry between the leaders, the Saudis could not or, worse, would not do everything possible to prevent Saudi extremists from murdering innocent people in cold blood.
The terrorists orchestrated attacks so brazen that they rattled the windows of Riyadh's royal palaces, and that fact alone shows that the Saudis have failed to fully grasp the threat that Islamic extremism poses to the world including, now more obviously than ever, to Saudi Arabia and its rulers. To some U.S. officials, the Saudis' glaring lack of vigilance is part of a disturbing pattern that has seen the Saudis encouraging or appeasing Islamic militants, or else pretending that they do not exist. A decade ago, when Osama bin Laden returned home from Afghanistan spouting criticism of the Al Saud regime, the Saudi solution was to cancel his citizenship and send him away. Heads remained buried in the sand even after 15 Saudi terrorists formed the majority of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Last week's attacks may finally change all that. Or so U.S. officials and many Saudis are hoping. "If this was not the Saudis' Sept. 11," Ambassador Jordan said after viewing the carnage in Riyadh, "it was certainly the Saudis' Pearl Harbor."
Judging from its initial response to the deadliest terrorist operation in the kingdom's history, the government seems more disposed than ever to join the all-out war against terrorism, the way that the U.S. was driven into the all-out war against fascism by the Japanese attack in 1941. Less than 24 hours after the blasts tore through the desert capital of his family's dynasty, Crown Prince Abdullah delivered an unprecedented television speech in which he condemned the terrorists as "butchers and criminals." Abdullah indicated that Saudi fundamentalists who tried to justify the bombings in the name of Islam would be treated as terrorists, too. Some of Abdullah's fellow princes approvingly compared his warning to Bush's famous line after 9/11, "You're either with us, or against us."
Actually making good on this threat would be a calculated risk for the Al Saud clan, which has for decades legitimized itself by giving the country's religious establishment control over the mosques and the education system. But for now, at least, the top imams are following the government's lead. The Council of Senior Ulema, the body that oversees a network of tens of thousands of preachers and religious scholars throughout the kingdom, condemned the attacks as a sin. The council's ruling said that such attacks were prohibited by Islamic law because they violated the sanctity of Muslim lands, terrorized innocents, killed people living under the protection of a Muslim ruler, wreaked havoc among people, destroyed property and involved the forbidden act of suicide. Compared to 9/11, which left many Saudis gloating at America's misfortune, the attacks on their doorstep seem to have left a large number frightened and angry.
Indeed, to judge by strong editorials in Saudi newspapers last week, the Riyadh attacks made it clear that al-Qaeda's threat to the kingdom cannot be deterred through gradual half measures. "For too long we have ignored the truth," wrote the English-language Arab News in Jeddah in an editorial titled, "The Enemy Within." "We can no longer ignore that we have a nest of vipers here, hoping that by doing so they will go away."<--!pagebreak-->
Leading members of the royal family are also growing impatient. "There has been too much tolerance of extremism," Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, one of the world's wealthiest investors, told Time. "This is a wake-up call for us, for the rulers of Saudi Arabia, to really take a harsh position against any extreme voice in this country. If the government has to step on some extremist toes, so be it."
There are signs that the government has been doing just that. Quietly since the beginning of the year, hundreds of radical preachers have been fired from government-paid jobs; scores of others have been detained. Yet their efforts have not been enough in the eyes of U.S. security officials. American probes into the Riyadh bombing in 1995, the Khobar Towers attack in 1996 and the U.S.S. Cole attack in Yemen in 2000 all lacked full Saudi cooperation. In addition to Ambassador Jordan's recent missives, U.S. concerns about an impending al-Qaeda strike had been raised by high-level visitors from Washington, the State Department's counterterrorism chief Cofer Black and Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. After reviewing the security, the Saudis concluded that it was adequate.
But if the Saudis have often seemed hesitant about cracking down on extremism, it may be in part because their society has been so effective at breeding it. Youth unemployment is as high as 35% and most citizens lack any meaningful voice in political decisions. Perhaps most crucial of all is the need to democratize Saudi-style Islam. Many believe that Saudi extremism is fueled by a kind of religious fascism that is encouraged by official intolerance for anything other than the strict Wahhabi brand of the faith.
To his credit, Abdullah seems to have seen the writing on the wall well before the May 12 Riyadh attacks. Abdullah developed a proposal earlier this year calling for "political participation" and "an Arab common market," effectively proposing that states be evicted from the Arab League if they do not adopt common principles of reform, democracy and free trade though Abdullah's definition of the notions remains fuzzy. Recently, he has promoted dialogue inside Saudi Arabia by holding town meetings with prominent groups including intellectuals, civic leaders and minority Shi'ite Muslims. While the government is allowing professional unions to be established, Abdullah's aides are talking about general elections for local offices, as a start. A Western diplomat calls the promising atmosphere "Riyadh Spring."
Most reformers say nothing will change if democratic institutions, a free economy and a modern legal system are not created soon. Nobody expects an overnight conversion to economic liberalism and democracy but the sense of urgency is there. "We are concerned about extremists gaining more and more ground," says Sami Angawi, a prominent civic activist in Jeddah. "If you have young people with no jobs, no hopes and no other opinions to guide them through Islam, which is a religion of love and understanding, then what do you expect from them?"
Last week's Riyadh attacks raised the question as never before about whether a clan that rules Saudi Arabia as a fiefdom is up to handling such increasingly complicated challenges. After all, a big part of the kingdom's troubles stem from the royal family's failure to reform even itself. Many Saudis believe, for example, that Abdullah has been prevented from being a stronger leader because of the refusal of King Fahd to abdicate in his favor despite being seriously debilitated by a stroke in 1995. Abdullah and others in the immediate line of succession are all in their 70s. If anything good is coming out of the growing Saudi crisis, it may be Washington's realization that relations can no longer be run on the strength of friendships between American presidents and aging Saudi rulers. As one U.S. official put it last week, "It is not enough for the Saudi government to support the war on terrorism. We both need the support of the Saudi people to do this." And in this ancient kingdom, asking for popular support is something brand new.