Bin Laden's Message Deepens Political Dilemma Faced by Saudi Royal Family
This is the second of a two-part series. Click here for Part I. The Saudi monarchy has tried to convince the public in the Kingdom, and the larger Muslim world, that Riyadh can simultaneously be a US ally and the preeminent defender of Islam. Both before September 11 and especially after it, Osama bin Laden has forcefully argued that any Muslim government allied to the United States is, by definition, an enemy of Islam. Bin Laden's message is resonating broadly in Saudi Arabia, a country struggling to reverse steady economic decline. The threat of domestic instability poses a significant danger to the ultimate success of the US-led anti-terrorism campaign.
Even if conditions deteriorate further in the Kingdom, it seems highly doubtful that Riyadh would actively oppose the American-led anti-terrorist campaign in Central Asia and elsewhere. [For background on Saudi Arabia's economic crisis click here]. What may occur instead-indeed, what some Western observers say is occurring already-is a lack of Saudi cooperation with those efforts. To the extent that this is happening, though, it is not because the Saudi royal family sympathizes with the terrorists, but out of its fear of inflaming those elements within the Saudi population that do.
Many political observers in Saudi Arabia express concern that if things keep going the way they are, an increasingly paralyzed Saudi government will simply be unable to deal with the deepening domestic crisis. Observers add that the current situation cannot continue for long without giving rise to political opposition. A major question is whether the Saudi government is equipped to deal with political opposition. Saudis that I interviewed said the royal family has taken steps to prevent the Saudi armed forces from mounting a coup. But they questioned whether the royal family could rely on the military's support to crush popular protests. If the army remains neutral in a potential domestic disturbance, the government could easily fall.
Some observers suggested that the US armed forces could intervene to prop up the Saudi royal family. However, others insisted that while the US government could be expected to defend the Kingdom from external attack, Congress and US public opinion would not sanction intervention to protect the Saudi monarchy from internal opposition. All individuals interviewed for this article agreed that US intervention would destroy the Saudi monarchy's legitimacy, and, thus, do more to fuel domestic instability than to eliminate it. The collapse of the Saudi monarchy could easily lead to the emergence of an anti-Western, fundamentalist Islamic state.
Observers do not have ready answers on how to resolve the economic conundrum. None of those interviewed thought that democratization was the answer. They all insisted that their society was simply not ready for it. If elections were held in the Kingdom, they believe that most Saudis would vote for authoritarian forces, probably of the Islamist variety, at this point in time. Any external pressure on the Kingdom to democratize would only be seen as a plot to somehow increase American and Western domination over the country.
Most observers that I spoke to (prior to the September 11 attacks) tend to be pessimistic about the future. Some believe the Saudi monarchy is incapable of solving the economic problems, and worry that a government collapse is inevitable. One even said that many people were preparing for this possibility by sending as much money out of the country as they can while there is still the opportunity to do so. A few, however, hold out hope that Crown Prince Abdallah, who is believed to be reform oriented, will take steps to reduce corruption and improve efficiency once he becomes king.
Compounding the challenges for the Saudi royal family is an expanding flow of information. With access to relatively independent television news sources such as Al-Jazeera and Sky TV-plus access to the internet-Saudi citizens now can readily compare the circumstances of their lives with those of people in other countries. A strong sense of relative deprivation, as well as resentment, has consequently developed among younger Saudis.
To those who feel that the Kingdom's problems are due to the royal family's having fallen away from Islam, bin Laden's message offers an attractive alternative: reassert Islam. Those that I spoke to do not believe reasserting Islam would actually solve Saudi Arabia's problems, but they indicated that many of their countrymen do.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. He is the author of, "Assessing Saudi Susceptibility to Revolution," in Joseph A. Kechichian, ed., Iran, Iraq, and the Arab Gulf States (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 95-110.