A series of mysterious bomb attacks against Westerners in Saudi Arabia has thrown an uncomfortable spotlight on the oil-rich kingdom, which craves an image of stability.
The latest came last week when Gary Hatch, an American doctor, was maimed by a parcel bomb that exploded in his face at his hospital office in the eastern city of Al-Khobar. He was the first US victim since the bombings began in November, claiming the life of one British man and injuring several other foreigners.
Who's behind this spate of bombings, and whether they are even connected, is still unclear. But they have disrupted a period of relative tranquility in Saudi Arabia that had lasted since June 1996, when the port city of Al-Khobar was the target of one of the most devastating terrorist attacks against American targets abroad. A suicide bomber drove a truck packed with explosives into a US military barracks, killing 19 and wounding more than 500. That attack is still under investigation.
The Saudi authorities say those behind some of the recent attacks are connected to a bloody turf war between rival gangs of foreigners over the multimillion dollar trade in alcohol, which is outlawed in this Muslim country. No evidence, however, suggests the victims are involved in the trade. Dissidents dismiss the accusation as a cover-up. The perpetrators, they claim, are small groups of Saudi Islamic extremists attempting to embarrass the regime and drive "unholy" Westerners from the Arabian peninsula.
Gangland-style turf war over bootleg alcohol in a supposedly dry Islamic state? Or Middle Eastern terrorism against Westerners? Either explanation is embarrassing for the Saudi authorities, who have volunteered little information on their investigation.
The arrest of three Westerners, who confessed on Saudi state television to a bombing that killed a British engineer, has failed to stop the bombings. Since the February confessions, there have been four more bomb attacks. The three, a Briton, a Belgian, and a Canadian, have been in police custody for several months. Friends of the three accused say their confessions were extracted under duress, and British survivors of one bombing say they have difficulty believing the three were guilty.
"The continuation of the attacks after the detention of the accused confirms it is not a matter of a fight over alcohol," says Saad Al-Fagih, a leading Saudi dissident based in London. Those responsible were Saudi fundamentalists, he alleges. "They want to keep the matter of the Western presence in the country as a hot subject, and to give a message to Westerners that they are not wanted in the Arabian peninsula," added Dr. Fagih, the director for the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, which is committed to change through peaceful means.
While the authorities have not implicated any Saudis in the investigation, Fagih says at least 70 suspected Saudi Islamic fundamentalists have been arrested since the bombings began. They were from small groups which did not have the ability to launch more spectacular terrorist attacks against US military targets, such as the suicide bombing that killed 17 American sailors on board the USS Cole in Yemen last autumn.
"They want to hit the big US military bases [in Saudi Arabia] but they cannot reach them because they are like formidable fortresses," Fagih says. If Islamic rebellion is growing, it appears, then, to be in isolated pockets.
Alcohol flows in, over land, over sea
Those who believe home-grown anti-Western terrorists are responsible suspect that the reason few Americans have been targeted so far is that they are more security conscious and mix less with locals than do the British expatriates.
If, however, the bombings are linked to the underground trade in alcohol, that also raises serious public relations problems for the Saudi authorities, especially because of suspicions of official complicity in the bootlegging business. While alcohol is banned, the local authorities have always held a benign tolerance toward foreign workers who drink discreetly. As long as they do not flaunt their activities or cause problems after drinking, bars on workers' compounds are allowed to flourish.
The bootlegging prize is huge. By conservative estimates, 150,000 cases of spirits, most of it Scotch whisky, are smuggled into the country every year, with resulting profits of $200 million. Industry experts believe that 70 percent is consumed by Saudis and the rest by expatriates.
Despite draconian penalties that can include public floggings for those found guilty of alcohol offences, the spectacular profits appear to have made prohibition little more effective than it was in America in the Roaring Twenties.
Experts say 80 percent of the smuggled alcohol comes from the United Arab Emirates. Another 18 percent arrives by the tiny Persian Gulf island of Bahrain, via the causeway linking it to Saudi Arabia.
Some used to be ferried in by private jet, a method that has become less popular because jets can be spotted by American military surveillance aircraft over Saudi Arabia.
With a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label selling for as much as $200 in Saudi Arabia, a 20-ft. container with 1,100 cases brings in $2,640,000. Some $2 million of that is profit, although there are expenses to be paid all down the supply line. The scale of alcohol smuggling into Saudi Arabia would be impossible to sustain without some official complicity involving customs agents and higher-level patrons.
"Who is likely to have the sort of influence to ensure that two patrol boats happen to be pointing in opposite directions to allow a fast launch into the coast?" says one alcohol salesman with long experience in the Middle East.
"You also hear stories about sheikhs being rung up in the middle of the night by very worried people at the port saying, 'Sorry to bother you, sir, but your container of spare parts is leaking,' " he adds.
Less lucrative is the moonshine business, which caters to those reluctant to pay large sums for bootlegged whisky or who do not have access to the privileged diplomatic cocktail circuit. (Foreign embassies are allowed to serve alcohol on their grounds.)
A litre and a half of raw alcohol known as "uncut" sells for about $40. Several large Western companies in Saudi Arabia even provide booklets informing workers how to make their own moonshine in kitchen distilleries without poisoning or blowing themselves up - while at the same time advising readers it is illegal.
Some expatriates claim to make as much as $3,000 a week producing it, although this business, like the bootlegging trade, has suffered because of a police crackdown following the bombings.
More than 15 foreigners, including at least seven Americans, have been arrested on alcohol charges in a wide-ranging sweep, although Western diplomats say none of them havebeen implicated in the bombing campaign.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor