A terrorist bombing in the Saudi capital Saturday night suggests that Saudi Arabia's family-run government may be facing a more direct threat from within than ever before. But popular revulsion at the attack on civilians, including children, may strengthen the government's hand in confronting its opponents.
Saudi officials and analysts blamed Al Qaeda for the attack, which killed at least 11 people and injured more than 120, at a residential compound in Riyadh that houses mainly families from other Arab countries. Previous attacks of similar magnitude in Saudi Arabia have almost always targeted the US.
The militants responsible for Saturday's attack are "no longer targeting Westerners, now they just basically trying to disturb the entire country," says Hussein Shobokshi, a Saudi political analyst and businessman.
In so doing, says Khaled al-Maeena, editor in chief of the English-language daily Arab News in the port city of Jeddah, "These people are pulling a rope around their own necks.... The Saudi government is relentless these days and I think these guys are losing."
Even so, says one Western diplomat in Riyadh who spoke on condition of anonymity, the attack shows that those responsible for the Saturday bombing can act even when the government believes a strike is imminent. Last week, Saudi security forces clashed with suspected Al Qaeda supporters in Mecca, killing two and seizing a cache of weapons. Two other suspected militants blew themselves up to avoid arrest in Mecca, and a fifth suspect was killed in a shootout with security forces in Riyadh.
"Although we're onto Al Qaeda in the kingdom," says the diplomat, citing the work of Saudi and other governments, "they are still able to operate. There's no reason to relax vigilance."
But Saudi analysts also argue that the militants have crossed a line in striking Muslim civilians, especially during the holy month of Ramadan. News reports from the bombing site described a scene of collapsed villas and blackened palm trees, where bits of concrete and children's toys littered the ground.
"They have selected this target wrongly as far as their propaganda is concerned; they are going to lose substantial support among people who used to show some sympathy for them," says Mohsen al-Awaji, a Riyadh lawyer and a moderate Islamist activist.
According to the diplomat, no more than three or four Western families lived in the compound, which was home to many expatriates from other Arab countries, mainly Lebanon. But the compound is located near several royal compounds, including that of Interior Minister Prince Nayef.
The Saudi government has always had to walk a fine line in combatting Al Qaeda and other militants who claim to act from religious motives. "The government is based on Islamic legitimacy, and to crack down, you really need to make arrests of popular preachers," says Joshua Teitelbaum, an Israeli expert on Saudi affairs. "But if you start arresting these people you may find that you have less Islamic legitimacy, because you're arresting Islamic preachers. Those have always been the horns of the government's dilemma."
Following a set of suicide bombings in Riyadh on May 12, which killed 35 people, including eight Americans, the Saudi government has intensified its efforts against militant groups, arresting hundreds of suspects and confiscating weapons and explosives. It tightened procedures for transferring money and cracked down on charities suspected of funding militants. It also detained hundreds of clerics and says it has sent more than 1,000 to be "reeducated."
Al Qaeda itself may have received little overt support from Saudi clerics, but the issues it raises - such as the need to rid the country that hosts Islam's holiest sites from "infidels" or anger at the US - have drawn broader support.
Mr. Maeena says Saturday's attack will create a backlash. "Nobody in his right mind - if you claim to be a practicing Muslim - can support this kind of thing. It's horrendous."
Mr. Awaji, who is initiating an effort to mediate between the government and the militants, says the situation in Iraq is influencing events in Saudi Arabia. "The news coming from Iraq" - especially the reports of rising US casualties, "is encouraging militants to go ahead with jihad everywhere," he says, using the Arabic word meaning "holy struggle."
"They believe Iraq is a new Afghanistan for them," he adds.
Some Saudi analysts were appalled that militants acting in the name of Islam could attack civilians during Ramadan, a month when many Muslims fast and concentrate on spiritual matters. But Awaji says the timing may not have held special significance for those who perpetrated the bombing of the compound. "It's meaningless for them," he says, "the whole year is open for their operations."
If the popular revulsion holds, it may make it easier for the government to expand its actions against Al Qaeda and other militants, but that assumes that the government is still holding back in deference to political or religious sensibilities.
Teitelbaum, a scholar at Tel Aviv University, says commentators voiced similar disgust after the May 12 attacks. The government's hand "will be strengthened, but I don't see the difference between this attack and the May attack."