Chaos in the Desert Kingdom

With opposition increasing, the Saudi royal family are prompted to begin reforms, argues

The eruption of terror in Saudi Arabia caught the attention of the world last week as militant attacks sent oil prices skywards, exposing key instabilities threatening the reign of the ruling al-Saud family.

On May 29, in a siege on oil-company compounds in Khobar, Al-Qaeda-linked gunmen killed 22 people – mostly expatriates – and injured 25.

The assailants, all but one of whom avoided capture by inadequate Saudi security, later published an account of the operation on the internet, detailing how they deliberately hunted down Westerners.

The slayings came in the middle of an upsurge in terrorist violence. A series of drive-by shootings, kidnappings and murders has provoked shockwaves throughout the large expat community, with renewed calls for ‘vigilance’ from Washington and London.

They also come amidst an ongoing battle between fundamentalist militants and the long-ruling al-Saud family, an autocratic dynasty that embraces the most puritanical form of Islam, Wahhabism. Abdulaziz al-Muqrin, named by the militants as the orchestrator of the attacks, indicated the terrorists’ greater ambition of overthrowing the Saudi royals.

Hostility towards the House of Saud is entrenched among Muslim extremists, with resentments stoked by the friendship which the Saudi princes extend to their oil-dependent cousins in the US. Sporadic extremism has always been clamped down on in the past with increased security provisions. There appears little reason to believe that the Saudi’s will act any differently this time around.

Osama Bin Laden’s folk hero status appears to be on the wane, but there remains a growing pool of young, well-educated subjects, frustrated by high levels of unemployment. They are angry at the greed, unaccountability and incompetence of Saudi’s many princes. Saudi Arabia’s relations with the US, whose backing of Israel and occupation of Iraq doesn’t win them any friends in this part of the world, also leads many to support criticism of the governing regime.

Disenchantment with the royal family is widespread and is pushing both moderate Saudi opinion and the royals themselves towards a mutually beneficial reform agenda.

The stuttering House of Saud should embrace this as a chance to win back moderate opinion from the right-wing radicals, who have been at the heart of much internal disquiet and caused the comparatively reformist Crown Prince a considerable headache.

The Crown Prince has already started the ball rolling. The Shura council, a consultative body, has been given more influence. Municipal elections have been proposed for October, where half the council’s members will be voted into office; the first example of suffrage in the kingdom.

A forum composed of handpicked opinion-formers has met twice under the chair of the Crown Prince to discuss the country’s future; sensitive topics under discussion have included school curriculum reform and strengthening the role of women in society.

The Saudi public, despite their conservatism, are being gently eased towards freer public debate but the reform process towards mass participation and civil rights will be slow. The wrath of the religious right will be difficult to avoid, but must be contested in order for the country to progress.

Although reforms will be a blunt tool in the short-term fight against terrorism, the House of Saud must have the courage and the determination to see them through.

Only then will Saudi rulers be able to govern legitimately. Only then, with the backing of the public, will they be able to defeat the terrorists.