The terrorist bomb that struck US forces in Dhahran has cast a burst of light on a repressive Mideast kingdom that helps set gas prices in America and that US officials maintain, even now, is an oasis of stability in a violent Mideast.
It remains uncertain who is behind the truck bomb that killed 19 US servicemen on Tuesday, but the attack is likely to push the Saudi Arabian monarchy to ratchet up its fight against internal Islamic militants, who may be gaining sympathy among an increasingly restless Saudi middle class hit by an economic downturn.
Though the blast was aimed at Americans, the real target appears to have been the already-eroding edifice of the Saudi regime. Calls for a more open society have been met with silence; moderate criticism is often suppressed with a heavy hand.
President Clinton's renewed effort to end such terrorism, highlighted during his presence at the G-7 summit of Western leaders yesterday, may fall flat if this attack was carried out by Saudis, analysts say.
"It is much too early to establish any group as the top suspect and too early to rule out any group as the logical culprit. We are being extremely agnostic on this," said one US official.
The official notes that a claim of responsibility had been called in to a small Arabic-language newspaper in London on behalf of an unknown group calling itself "The Legion of the Martyr Abdullah al-Huzaifi." He said the group was named after a Saudi citizen who was beheaded in August 1995 after being convicted of throwing acid at a Saudi official. Huzaifi had links to the London-based Committee for Legitimate Rights, the leading Saudi dissident group. However, cautions the official: "You can make some connection, but it's not conclusive."
Second blast in a year
Though Saudi Arabia has been a close US ally for half a century, part of its appeal to American strategists has been its reputation for stability in a troubled region.
But this blast - which left a crater four times as deep and three times as wide as the bomb that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City - is the second in Saudi Arabia since November, and reflects a growing instability. While it may cause Washington to reevaluate its aims in the Gulf and its support for the regime, United States officials now deny any doubts over the monarchy's future.
"We see no signs that cause us alarm," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
Extremists in the underground opposition have been incensed by the continuing presence of thousands of American and other Western troops in Saudi Arabia since the Gulf war in 1991, when an alliance led by a half-million-strong US force reversed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
In Saudi Arabia last year, Islamic fundamentalists made clear their agenda: They want to overthrow the royal family for serving as corrupt "puppets" and "infidel agents" of the West; they would target foreign troops, and warned that they would launch a campaign of terrorism that would force Americans and other Westerners from the land of Islam's two most sacred cities at Mecca and Medina.
An explosion last November in the capital, Riyadh, left five Americans and two others dead. It was the first blast of its kind - dispelling at a stroke the illusion that Saudi Arabia was immune to terrorism - and three previously unknown groups rushed to claim responsibility.
Four Saudis were beheaded in May for carrying out the attack, and all confessed publicly to being influenced by militants bent on replacing Arab governments with strict Islamic states.
Before the sentence was carried out, the US embassy reportedly received death threats making clear that execution of the culprits would provoke a violent, anti-American response. Tuesday's blast, some believe, may have been the fruit of that vow.
Some analysts in the West, however, point beyond Saudi borders toward Iran, Iraq, and Sudan, which have all been accused before of trying to destabilize the Gulf. Most of the US Air Force servicemen killed were deployed to keep an eye on Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein by policing the no-fly zone in southern Iraq.
The US official says that while some people may want to focus on Iran, the hard-line Shiite regime in Tehran rarely backs dissidents belonging to Islam's Sunni sect, the dominant branch in Saudi Arabia.
He says there was Iranian complicity in a recent failed attempt to overthrow the government of Bahrain, the tiny oil kingdom neighboring Saudi Arabia. But the takeover was being organized by members of Bahrain's large Shiite population.
Saudi Arabia's interior minister, Prince Nayef, warned as recently as April that the November blast might not be the last.
Saudi Arabia has not been struck by such a violent incident since 1979, when armed militants took control of Islam's most sacred shrine, the Grand Mosque at Mecca, leaving hundreds dead.
Signs that the regime may be slowly coming unglued are clear: The Saudi royal family has been locked in a power struggle since King Fahd became ill last November.
His anointed successor and half-brother - Crown Prince Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz - now oversees day-to-day affairs. Meanwhile, thousands of princes and their relatives are jockeying for power.