Serious Threats to Saudi Arabia's Stability

Without outside support, disparity between a changing society and a static state will likely lead to more friction and perhaps to revolt

SAUDI ARABIA may not be able to continue for much longer under its current system. King Fahd's illness; his appointment of his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, to run the government; behind-the-scenes tension between family members; last month's bombing in Riyadh, which killed five Americans; the country's financial crisis; and pressure from almost all segments of Saudi society for reform suggest this absolute monarchy may have to make major changes to avoid the kind of civil unrest and political violence now troubling Egypt and Algeria.

King Fahd's decision to allow Crown Prince Abdullah to run the day-to-day affairs of the state as he recuperates would suggest Abdullah will be king in the future. But the tension between senior members of the royal family throws such an assumption into question.

The succession problem will long be a threat to the country's stability. The Saudi monarchy lacks a formal system of succession. With some exceptions, an informal system of seniority among the sons of the founder of the kingdom, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, has been the norm. Thus, those next in line aren't much younger than the king. Crown Prince Abdullah, Fahd's official successor, is 71, and the second deputy, Prince Sultan, is 70. This suggests that over the next 20 years, Saudi Arabia may have a series of ailing and elderly kings and uncertain transfers of power.

Tension between the Sudairi branch of the family (the sons of King Abdulaziz's favorite wife, Hussah bint Sudairi), who among themselves hold almost all the major positions in the Saudi government, and their half brother Crown Prince Abdullah runs high. Many Saudis believe that the Sudairis would like to sidestep the crown prince and move to the next in line, Prince Sultan (a Sudairi) and his powerful son Bandar, the ambassador to the US. Some Saudis declare that the US is encouraging this.

Control of the armed forces

This tension led Crown Prince Abdullah to insist on commanding the National Guard, a well-trained force of 60,000 men, entrusted with protecting major Saudi cities, oil installations, and palaces. The National Guard also maintains order during riots. National Guardsmen are recruited from Bedouin tribes loyal to the crown prince. On Nov. 25, 1995, the National Guard, under the leadership of Crown Prince Abdullah and his son General Mut'ib, conducted maneuvers in Qasim, in central Arabia, code named ''Victory comes from God.'' The religious significance of the name is obvious to all Saudis: Unlike the Saudairi seven, who rely on the US for support, Abdullah and his men rely on God. The rallying cry of the National Guard during this maneuver was ''Allah thum Abdullah,'' (God First and Abdullah second.) Crown Prince Abdullah's message seems clear: I'm next in line, and the National Guard is loyal to me.

The succession problem likely will return every two to five years, and each succession struggle will be potentially violent. Knowing how difficult it is for ordinary citizens to obtain explosives, some Saudis have suggested that the recent bombing in Riyadh was the work of some government faction to shake Crown Prince Abdullah's confidence in the National Guard.

The crown prince may become king, but power may well remain with the Sudairi branch. And if Crown Prince Abdullah proves to be a strong king, his relations with Washington could become tense. He is an Arab nationalist with sympathies for Islamists and a close relationship with Syria, which he may support in the peace talks with Israel. Crown Prince Abdullah seems to have relaxed his stance on the US because of its part in the Gulf war, but he's never liked the US's large role in Saudi affairs.

A second worrisome sign is the increase in violence in a society known for conservatism and calm. Two bombs exploded within a month; one in the southern town of Bisha and the other at the National Guard headquarters in Riyadh. This is unusual, especially in the Saud family's tightly controlled home district, the Najd. Violence would be more likely in the Western province, where foreigners come to the Haj. But outsiders probably could not have set off the Riyadh bomb since they need another visa to go to Riyadh or any other Saudi region.

The new Movement for Islamic Change, which claimed responsibility for the Riyadh explosion, was virtually unknown before the incident. But the fact that the rest of the Saudi Islamists declined to denounce the bombing is ominous. Even the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), a London-based group reportedly formed to monitor the Saudi regime's human rights' violations and report charges of government corruption, has not spoken out. According to a source close to the CDLR, the group hesitated to denounce the bombing for fear of losing credibility with its constituency in Saudi Arabia.

Though there is still less violence in Saudi Arabia than there is in Egypt and Algeria, the Islamist challenge to the royal family should not be taken lightly. Unlike the early days when challenges to the regime came from the Shiite minority of the Eastern province, the bulk of the Islamists and their leaders come from Qasim, where the traditional supporters of the regime live, conservative Najdis from the Saudi heartland.

An eye on the government

The Najdis are the CDLR's constituency, to whom they relay stories about Saudi government corruption, economic mismanagement, and apparent religious laxity. Recently, the CDLR also established a toll-free number for Saudis to report news of rights violations within the kingdom. The CDLR uses the Internet and has its own home page on the World Wide Web. On Jan. 4, the British government decided to deport the CDLR leader, Mahammed Mas'ari, to Dominica, apparently in response to Saudi pressure.

But silencing the CDLR will not resolve the country's worsening economic problems. Corruption and mismanagement have raised the deficit in Saudi Arabia to more than 15 percent of gross domestic product. Six months ago, Saudis marched in the town of Briada to protest the government's inability to pay its workers. Despite King Fahd's 20 percent budget cut, informed Saudis are worried about their country's financial and political future.

The threat of an Islamic challenge in Saudi Arabia should be of particular concern. Saudi Islamists, such as the billionaire Usamma Belladin, have the finances to destabilize the regime. In addition, Saudi Islamists have infiltrated the state bureaucracy and National Guard and forged alliances with other social forces in Saudi Arabia.

Given the Islamists' extensive network and the general dissatisfaction of the Saudi public, the change in Saudi Arabia is not a question of if but when. The disparity between a rapidly changing society and a static state is bound to lead to friction and perhaps to revolt.

For Saudi Arabia to achieve a peaceful transition, the US must press for democratization, major reform in Saudi financial institutions, and an end to the financial monopoly of the royal princes. It should also reevaluate its current policy of using US military personnel to train the Saudi National Guard, which implies that the US is there to protect the royal family from the monarchy's increasingly restive subjects.

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