Why Saudis won't change tune

In its effort to curb the spread of anti-American hatred, Washington has called on Saudi Arabia to end certain activities, including financial support of extremist Islamic institutions. Less erudite critics have called on the Saudi regime to "stop lying" to the United States.

But Saudi leaders are not going to commit suicide, which is where Western demands would likely lead. Simply stated, Saudi Arabia cannot change its traditional doctrines: Doing so would mean the end of Al Saud rule - and the end of stable oil prices. Senior members of the ruling family have a "will to power" that will likely withstand the current crisis.

This "will to power," based on ideological justifications advanced to legitimate the elite's rule, probably took its current form after the epoch-making takeover of the mosque at Mecca in 1979. The rebels condemned the ruling family, accusing it of corruption and befriending Western infidels. They also called for eradication of Western influence in the kingdom, including television. The group held out for three weeks before its members were flushed out by Saudi troops, aided by Jordanian volunteers and French counterterrorism advisers. Sixty-three rebels survived the assault. All were publicly executed.

This incident illustrated that the Saudi regime had underestimated dissent in the kingdom; The rebels hailed from a broad spectrum within the population. Few dissenters were deterred by internal security forces, and even more telling, their armaments came from Saudi military stocks. The fact that armed forces personnel may have been involved in the uprising led the ruling family to purge suspected Air Force, tank, and infantry services.

The Mecca incident forced the House of Saud to take measures aimed at preventing future uprisings. "Mecca showed us we could be caught off guard," opined a senior family member.

Since then, Saudi monarchs have embarked on an unprecedented campaign to accommodate dissent and control the political damage from the uprising. The House of Saud provided generous grants for land purchases and outright loans to many ordinary citizens. They agreed to cooperate with the religious leaders more closely on security.

Yet even before the mosque takeover, Sunni Muslim extremism had gained prominence in Saudi Arabia, starting in the early 1960s, after its failures in Egypt. Known as the Salafi movement, its adherents accused the House of Saud of encouraging the erosion of Muslim values and giving tacit approval to the corruption that accompanied modernization.

Extremist believers further opposed giving greater rights to Shia Muslims. As Saudi rulers embarked on improved ties with Shias in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sunni extremists feared that accommodation between the ruling family and members of the Shia minority sect would single out the Salafi movement for retribution.

After the 1991 war for Kuwait, Sunni extremism against the ruling family grew again, as Salafis demanded political reforms and criticized Saudi reliance on Western forces. In 1993, Salafis announced the creation of a human rights group - the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights - to eliminate injustice, support the oppressed, and defend the rights prescribed by Islamic law in the kingdom.

The official response to the committee was swift. Neither the ruling family nor religious leaders wanted to contend with a second extremist threat. Religious leaders denounced the committee as illegal. The strong reaction was consistent with King Fahd's warning - which stressed his opposition to such movements - despite repeated calls for greater respect for individual human rights. Subsequently, the regime cracked down on Salafis.

In the meantime, and throughout much of the 1980s, Saudis tacitly approved, even encouraged, hundreds of their citizens - including Osama bin Laden - to continue their jihad from Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.

What was remarkable, however, was that the Saudi monarchy also came under attack by progressive groups, including Saudis educated abroad. Their goals included more acceptance of Western ideas, less strict adherence to Islamic tenets, greater freedom for women, and availability of alcohol.

Like the Islamists' views, progressive ideas pose equally corrosive threats to the House of Saud. If the monarchy's claim to power rests on its judgment that it alone is best suited to apply a traditionalist conservative interpretation of Islam, then liberalizers directly contradict the family's claim to rule.

Caught between extremes, the House of Saud must temper its reaction to ideological challenges while seeking to please Western allies. For Saudi rulers, effective policies must balance internal constraints - ranging from an increasingly awakened public opinion to growing regional and international requirements - with what Westerners may view as socio-political emancipation. For the West, stability in the kingdom is essential to the free flow of oil.

In 2001, Saudi Arabia holds an estimated quarter of the world's reserves of petroleum. In keeping with a traditional monarchy - in which the ruler remains supreme religious leader - the custodianship of the holy mosques at Mecca and Medina confer on the Saudi ruler unparalleled legitimacy.

If American policymakers had any doubts about Saudi commitments to Persian Gulf security, they were erased after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when the Saudis joined the alliance to defeat Saddam Hussein. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi Arabia has again shown that its interests coincide with the West's, that it needs allies to protect conservative Arab Gulf regimes from regional hegemons, and that the relationship is of mutual economic benefit.

To be sure, the Saudis have disagreed with some Western allies over the Arab-Israeli conflict, even though they've never allowed that crisis to damage long-term Saudi-Western ties. The US cannot afford to place the Saudi ruling family at risk, even if some US officials may be fed up with Saudi policies.

At stake are global economic issues over oil. Also at stake is the future of the Saudi ruling family. Committing suicide, by catering to narrow Western objectives, is not in the offing.

Joseph A. Kechichian is a fellow at the Center of Near Eastern Studies (UCLA) and the author of 'Succession in Saudi Arabia' (Palgrave, 2001).

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.