The Saudi royal family's power rests on twin pillars - one foreign, one domestic. The foreign pillar is an understanding, dating back to World War II, that the Saudis will provide the West with oil and the United States will protect Saudi Arabia. The second is an understanding with the country's puritanical Wahhabist Muslim establishment giving the Wahhabists free rein over education, social issues, and religion in return for backing the royal family.
The contradiction between a close relationship with the symbol of modernity (the US) and reliance on a clerical establishment that despises modernity has become increasingly obvious since the Gulf War. The deployment of US forces in Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom and expel Saddam Hussein's forces from occupied Kuwait profoundly disturbed extreme Wahhabists and helped give birth to the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.
The US, which should have understood the problem following the 1996 bombing of US barracks in Saudi Arabia and the 1998 attacks on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, awoke to the issue on Sept. 11, 2001. Investigators of the terror attacks say 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
But the Saudi government got its own wake-up call on May 12 of this year, when Al Qaeda bombers blew up three housing compounds where foreigners reside, killing 35 people. Riyadh has since unleashed a tough domestic campaign against terrorists.
The royal family now battles to shore up its supporting pillars. Foreign Minister Faisal rushed to Washington after it became clear the 28 classified pages in the congressional report on 9/11 released last week contained damaging information about what Saudi officials and individuals did or may have known before the attacks - and about the Saudi government's funding of "charities" that passed money to terrorists. Public support for the US-Saudi relationship is fast ebbing, further eroded by anger over the kingdom's human rights record of religious bigotry, mistreatment of women, and injustice toward the US-citizen wives and children of Saudis.
On the home front, the royal family must continue the anti-terror crackdown but also address the root causes of terrorism - beginning with an educational system that incubates intolerance and xenophobia. Internationally, the Saudis must remove all roadblocks to cooperation with the US terror investigation and ensure that the financial spigot that has financed Osama bin Laden and his thugs for more than a decade is turned off once and for all.
The US Congress and public will be patient if they see progress on both fronts. If they don't, the US-Saudi relationship - and the royal family itself - will be in grave danger.