Saudi Arabia: stable, but it has an Achilles' heel

Saudi Arabia, as some analysts see it, is the rich relation about whom almost everyone loudly frets: "Too cliquish. . . . Susceptible to revolution. . . . At the mercy of foreign technicians and laborers. . . . Too consevative. . . .Can it care for itself?"

The answer from neutral students of Saudi politics is, yes, the kingdom can take care of itself as far as internal matters go. But in the long run, Saudi stability depends greatly on whether it can influence its allies in Europe and North America to deliver a solution to the 32-year-old Palestinian homeland problem.

There is, of course, reason for the West's great concern with Saudi stability. With the Soviet Union active in the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan, with Iran unstable, and Pakistan facing internal problems, the Alaska-size nation of Saudi Arabia -- with one-quarter of the world's proven oil reserves, ruled by a king and 4,000 princes only a generation removed from desert wandering -- has several internal weaknesses:

* Many have feared that the two-year-old Shiite Muslim revolution across the Gulf in Iran could spill over into the Shiite eastern provinces of the Saudi nation, which are largely populated by Iranian immigrants. The Iranian example could even spark a similar revolutionary zeal among Wahhabi Muslims, some have said.

* The Saudi royal family must ensure that religious leaders are given a voice , members of the vastly extended family are happy, and the large non-Saudi work force -- especially the influential Palestinians -- do not become a threat to the regime. The mosque incident, the 1975 assassination of King Faisal by a nephew, and the frequent Palestinian ire at the Saudis for their pro-US stands have tended to make observers fear the regime is only a step ahead of trouble.

But an Arab analyst who watches Saudi internal affairs and Mideast strategy (his name withheld by request), maintains that the eastern province unrest and the Grand Mosque incident were unrelated. He says the Wahhabi religious establishment has, if anything, become more anti-Shiite since the Iranian revolution.

And he contends that the Palestinian position in the Arab world has become so weak lately that "the Palestinians depend on the Saudi Arabians much more than the other way around." Through the financial pressure it can exert on aiddependent Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Saudi Arabia wields great influence over the fate of Palestinians.

Within the royal family, the analyst says, there has been a coming together since the Mecca mosque incident. The "Sudeiry seven" faction (Crown Prince Fahd and his six elder brothers), which rivals the "Shammar tribe" (allied to Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdul Aziz), has worked with King Khalid toward a family reconciliation since early in 1980.

Royal family stability also has been enhanced, this source believes, by an increase in Prince Abdullah's power relative to Prince Fahd's. Abdullah received acclaim recently for negotiating to end the military buildup on the Jordan-Syria border. Fahd, one of the strongest members of the inner ruling circle, declined in power after a self-imposed exile in 1979.

The mosque incident caused King Khalid to build new bridges with the Wahhabi establishment .Although they did not support the insurgents, WAhhabi religious leaders did understand the insurgents' "reformist ideas." Wahhabi elders now visit the King's office each week to discuss Saudi affairs.

The regime, moreover, has worked to extend control over far-flung, potentially troubled provinces by embarking on developmental projects. Hospitals, roads, military bases, and new security networks are being established in the Shiite eastern areas, along the Yemeni border, and in the Wahhabi Hejaz region. New governors and bureaucrats linked with the royal family have been put into these areas.

"The Americans have a huge strategic security idea about Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi Arabians are taking care of their problems province by province," a Western diplomat explains.

In the past, American Mideast policy has had two views of Saudi Arabia. One was to separate it from the Palestinian- Israeli question; the other to use the nation as a moderating influence in the Mideast, especially with the Palestinians.

Arab analyst say it is ultimately impossible to separate Saudi Arabia from the Palestinian problem. This is not in the interest of either the Saudis or theri neighbors.And as a moderating influence, Saudi Arabia will have to show, via a peace breakthrough in the Middle East, that moderat ion is a realistic policy.

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