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Saudi Arabia: Rising Islamic Fundamentalism Poses Challenge for Royal Family - 2001-10-17


Saudi Arabia is crucial to the world's oil supply and to U.S. strategy in the Middle East and beyond. Yet, there is evidence of growing tensions between the two countries over Saudi reluctance to investigate the background of several of the alleged terrorists involved in attacks in the United States. That leads to the larger question of rising Islamic fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia and its challenge to the ruling royal family. VOA's Ed Warner asked three longtime analysts of the region for their views of the kingdom and its stability.

Saudi Arabia is trying to promote tourism in the southwestern town of Abha amid scenic mountain forests. But the tourists may not arrive because this is the area where some of the al-Qaida terrorists were said to be based before they launched their attacks in the United States.

This has led many to conclude Saudi Arabia was central to the terrorist planning. They say that terrorism finds an all too congenial atmosphere in the severe fundamentalism known as Wahabbism that is prominent in the country. An article in The New Yorker magazine warns that Islamic extremists might be on the verge of taking over Saudi Arabia with one-quarter of the world's proven oil reserves.

Osama bin Laden has sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, says James Akins, a former U.S. ambassador to the country, but not among the ruling family who expelled him in 1991. Members of the royal family know what their fate would be if Osama bin Laden ever came to power.

"The Saudis know very well Osama bin Laden hates the Saudi ruling family even more that he hates the United States, and there is no reason not to cooperate with us in fighting Osama bin Laden and his group," Mr. Akins says. "There is going to be a mass execution of Saudi princes if Osama takes over in Riyadh, and they know that."

But the royal rulers must move carefully in a country with a stern form of Islam that they have financed and encouraged. A leading sheik has issued a fatwa, a form of ex-communication, against the royal family for backing the U.S. attack on the Taleban.

This is a containable threat, says William Rugh, president of Amideast, a Washington-based educational organization, and a former U.S. ambassador to Middle Eastern countries. Whatever its private practices, the royal family shares the religion of its subjects.

"One of the secrets of its success has been a relationship with the clerical authorities that at least until now has been mutually beneficial," explains Ambassador Rugh. "That is to say, the clerics have been supportive, most of them, of the Saudi ruling family and their political leadership, and the ruling family has been supportive of the clerics."

Much more internal unrest would be needed to dislodge the royal family, says Alfred Prados, an analyst at Washington's Congressional Research Service. Saudi Arabia is far from the condition of the Shah of Iran, whose monarchy was toppled by fundamentalists in 1979.

"The shah's regime was not much more than skin deep. It was not broadly based. In addition to fundamentalist sentiment, there was a lot of anger over the increasingly arbitrary and heavy-handed nature of the regime," he says. "In the case of Saudi Arabia, we have a regime that is fairly broadly based. It is not one monarch. It is a large royal family with inner cores but spread quite widely through inter-marriage with a large number of tribes and family groups."

Mr. Prados cautions that declining Saudi oil revenues are eroding the country's generous welfare system. That could lead to more discontent amid a growing youthful population facing an uncertain future.

The extravagant life style of some royal family members also builds resentment. But Mr. Prados thinks this is at least partially offset by the likely successor to the throne and the current de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah.

"One thing that may have alleviated discontent has been the decisive leadership displayed by Crown Prince Abdullah, who seems to have wide respect in large parts of Saudi society as a man of action, a man of honor, and a man of piety," Mr. Prados says. "This may help bridge some of the gaps between present-day problems and hopes for solutions in the future."

Author Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker says Abdullah's succession is not totally assured because he has alienated other family members by blocking some of their corrupt deals.

Ambassador Rugh says the ruling family has reflected Saudi opinion by opposing U.S. policy toward Israel, though that has led to criticism in the United States.

"If you ask most Saudis, 'Do you support Osama bin Laden,' they will say, 'No.' If you ask them if they think it was acceptable in Islam to blow up the World Trade Center, they will say 'No.' If you ask them if they would like to send their children to America to study, they will say, 'Yes.' But if you then say what do you think of America's policy toward Israel, they would be very critical," Ambassador Rugh says.

Saudis distinguish between American society and U.S. policies on certain issues, says Ambassador Rugh. The United States should make the same allowance for the Saudis.

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