Nation-Building in Saudi Arabia

Oil prices are rising for a range of reasons, from too many gas-guzzling SUVs in America to booming demand in China. But one reason is relatively new - terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia that threaten the flow from the world's largest oil reserves.

The recent attacks by jihadists on Western oil interests in the desert kingdom have rattled markets and boosted prices at the pump. Last weekend's attacks on an oil complex in Khobar left 19 expatriates dead, and many more fleeing.

But the attacks also refocused attention on the need for Saudi Arabia's royal family to make the kind of internal reforms that can channel growing political dissent through some form of homegrown democracy, instead of through Al Qaeda.

Reforms that bring accountability and transparency to government are needed to help keep young Muslim men - millions of them jobless - from supporting Al Qaeda's goal of ousting the royal family and all non-Muslims from Islam's heartland.

The few Saudi reforms promised in late 2003 - such as possible elections of local councils or changes in bigoted textbooks - are simply too weak or not yet implemented. Last month, Saudi Arabia's religious authorities made an edict against the viewing of Al Jazeera satellite television, which often airs the views of Saudi political dissidents. Such a semiofficial repressive move signals a possible hard-line backlash against reforms within the secretive and often divided royal family.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iraq are now prime targets for Al Qaeda. But a big difference is that Iraq is working toward democracy. "A free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East is going to be a game-changer, an agent of change," President Bush said on Tuesday, after the UN selected an interim Iraqi government. "It's going to send a clear signal that the terrorists can't win - and that a free society is a better way to lift the hopes and aspirations of the average person."

Since Sept. 11, Saudi Arabia's rulers have cracked down on much of the financial aid that fuels Al Qaeda. Islamic clerics who preached violence and hate have been warned against religious bigotry. But government security forces have been inadequate to prevent terrorist attacks. The rising unpopularity of the royal family only pushes more citizens to side with Al Qaeda's goal of regime change, or simply not to help Saudi security forces with intelligence. And the mass exodus of Westerners who help run the oil industry threatens Saudi Arabia's future revenues.

The glacial pace of reforms begun by Crown Prince Abdullah isn't fast enough for the urgent need to bring about political and social change. Both global oil markets and the war on global terrorism now depend in some measure on the monarchy working harder to fulfill the aspirations of its people for representative government, even one that reflects some Islamic principles.

Minimal change toward liberalization is a dangerous course.

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