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The Saudi Paradox

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Summary: Saudi Arabia is in the throes of a crisis, but its elite is bitterly divided on how to escape it. Crown Prince Abdullah leads a camp of liberal reformers seeking rapprochement with the West, while Prince Nayef, the interior minister, sides with an anti-American Wahhabi religious establishment that has much in common with al Qaeda. Abdullah cuts a higher profile abroad -- but at home Nayef casts a longer and darker shadow.



By Michael Scott Doran

From Foreign Affairs, January/February 2004

Michael Scott Doran is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


When an attack on a residential compound in Riyadh killed 17 people and wounded 122 in early November 2003, U.S. officials downplayed the significance of the incident for Saudi Arabian politics. "We have the utmost faith that the direction chosen for this nation by Crown Prince Abdullah, the political and economic reforms, will not be swayed by these horrible terrorists," said Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage, in Riyadh for a visit.

But if any such faith existed, it was quite misplaced. Abdullah's reforms were already being curtailed, the retrenchment having begun in the wake of a similar attack six months earlier. And despite what was reported in the American press, an end to the reforms was exactly what the bombers and their ideological supporters hoped to accomplish. To understand why this is the case -- and why one of Washington's staunchest allies has been incubating a murderous anti-Americanism -- one must delve into the murky depths of Saudi Arabia's domestic politics.

The Saudi state is a fragmented entity, divided between the fiefdoms of the royal family. Among the four or five most powerful princes, two stand out: Crown Prince Abdullah and his half-brother Prince Nayef, the interior minister. Relations between these two leaders are visibly tense. In the United States, Abdullah cuts a higher profile. But at home in Saudi Arabia, Nayef, who controls the secret police, casts a longer and darker shadow. Ever since King Fahd's stroke in 1995, the question of succession has been hanging over the entire system, but neither prince has enough clout to capture the throne.

Saudi Arabia is in the throes of a crisis. The economy cannot keep pace with population growth, the welfare state is rapidly deteriorating, and regional and sectarian resentments are rising to the fore. These problems have been exacerbated by an upsurge in radical Islamic activism. Many agree that the Saudi political system must somehow evolve, but a profound cultural schizophrenia prevents the elite from agreeing on the specifics of reform.

The Saudi monarchy functions as the intermediary between two distinct political communities: a Westernized elite that looks to Europe and the United States as models of political development, and a Wahhabi religious establishment that holds up its interpretation of Islam's golden age as a guide. The clerics consider any plan that gives a voice to non-Wahhabis as idolatrous. Saudi Arabia's two most powerful princes have taken opposing sides in this debate: Abdullah tilts toward the liberal reformers and seeks a rapprochement with the United States, whereas Nayef sides with the clerics and takes direction from an anti-American religious establishment that shares many goals with al Qaeda.


The two camps divide over a single question: whether the state should reduce the power of the religious establishment. On the right side of the political spectrum, the clerics and Nayef take their stand on the principle of Tawhid, or "monotheism," as defined by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eponymous founder of Wahhabism. In their view, many people who claim to be monotheists are actually polytheists and idolaters. For the most radical Saudi clerics, these enemies include Christians, Jews, Shi`ites, and even insufficiently devout Sunni Muslims. From the perspective of Tawhid, these groups constitute a grand conspiracy to destroy true Islam. The United States, the "Idol of the Age," leads the cabal. It attacked Sunni Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, both times making common cause with Shi`ites; it supports the Jews against the Sunni Muslim Palestinians; it promotes Shi`ite interests in Iraq; and it presses the Saudi government to de-Wahhabize its educational curriculum. Cable television and the Internet, meanwhile, have released a torrent of idolatry. With its permissive attitude toward sex, its pervasive Christian undertones, and its support for unfettered female freedom, U.S. culture corrodes Saudi society from within.

Tawhid is closely connected to jihad, the struggle -- sometimes by force of arms, sometimes by stern persuasion -- against idolatry. In the minds of the clerics, stomping out pagan cultural and political practices at home and supporting war against Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq are two sides of the same coin. Jihad against idolatry, the clerics never tire of repeating, is eternal, "lasting until Judgment Day," when true monotheism will destroy polytheism once and for all.

The doctrine of Tawhid ensures a unique political status for the clerics in Saudi Arabia. After all, they alone have the necessary training to detect and root out idolatry so as to safeguard the purity of the realm. Tawhid is thus not just an intolerant religious doctrine but also a political principle that legitimizes the repressiveness of the Saudi state. It is no wonder, therefore, that Nayef, head of the secret security apparatus, is a strong supporter of Tawhid. Not known personally as a pious man, Nayef zealously defends Wahhabi puritanism because he knows on which side his bread is buttered -- as do others with a stake in the repressive status quo.

In foreign policy, Nayef's support for Tawhid translates into support for jihad, and so it is he -- not Abdullah -- who presides over the Saudi fund for the support of the Palestinian intifada (which the clerics regard as a defensive jihad against the onslaught of the Zionist-Crusader alliance). On the domestic front, Nayef indirectly controls the controversial Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), the religious police. The CPVVP came under withering attack in March 2002 when its men reportedly used batons to beat back schoolgirls as they tried to flee from a burning dormitory. The girls, so the story goes, failed to cover themselves in proper Islamic attire before running from the flames, and the religious police then mindlessly enforced the laws on public decency. More than a dozen girls were trampled to death in the incident. It is impossible to say whether the story is true in all respects, but considerable evidence indicates that the CPVPV did in some manner hamper rescue efforts. Nayef, however, flatly denies that the religious police did anything wrong.


If Tawhid is the right pole of the Saudi political spectrum, then the doctrine of Taqarub -- rapprochement between Muslims and non-Muslims -- marks the left. Taqarub promotes the notion of peaceful coexistence with nonbelievers. It also seeks to expand the political community by legitimizing the political involvement of groups that the Wahhabis consider non-Muslim -- Shi`ites, secularists, feminists, and so on. In foreign policy, Taqarub downplays the importance of jihad, allowing Saudis to live in peace with Christian Americans, Jewish Israelis, and even Shi`ite Iranians. In short, Taqarub stands in opposition to the siege mentality fostered by Tawhid.

Abdullah clearly associates himself with Taqarub. He has advocated relaxing restrictions on public debate, promoted democratic reform, and supported a reduction in the power of the clerics. Between January and May 2003, he presided over an unusually open "national dialogue" with prominent Saudi liberals. Two separate petitions established the essential character of the discussion: the National Reform Document, which offered a road map for Saudi democracy, and Partners in the Homeland, a call by the oppressed Shi`ite community for greater freedoms. The first endorsed direct elections, the establishment of an independent judiciary, and an increased public role for women. Its drafters also took pains to express respect for Islamic law. The clerics were not mollified, but this affront to their sensibilities was as nothing compared to the Shi`ite petition, which, in their eyes, issued straight from the bowels of hell.

The Saudi religious establishment is viscerally and vocally hostile to Shi`ism. Although Shi`ites constitute between 10 and 15 percent of the population, they do not enjoy even the most basic rights of religious freedom. Nevertheless, in an unprecedented move, the crown prince met with their leaders and accepted their petition. The controlled Saudi press did not publish the petition or even report on it, but Abdullah's move sent ripples of discontent through the Saudi religious classes.

By floating the "Saudi Plan" for Arab-Israeli peace -- traveling to Crawford, Texas, to debate the measure with President George W. Bush in April 2003 -- and accepting the notorious Shi`ite petition, the crown prince has sided resolutely with the backers of Taqarub against the hard-line clerics. To a Western eye there is no inherent connection between Abdullah's domestic political reform agenda and his rapprochement policies toward non-Muslim states and Shi`ite "heretics." In a political culture policed by Wahhabis, however, they are seen to be cut from the same cloth.


While Abdullah has signaled friendship with the West, Nayef has encouraged jihad -- to the point of offering tacit support for al Qaeda. In November 2002, for example, he absolved the Saudi hijackers of responsibility for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In an interview published openly in Saudi Arabia, he stated that al Qaeda could not possibly have planned an operation of such magnitude. Nayef perceived an Israeli plot instead, arguing that the attacks aroused so much hostility to Muslims they must have been planned by the enemies of Islam. This statement not only endorsed the clerics' paranoid conspiracy theory, but, more important, sent a message that the secret police saw no justification for tracking down al Qaeda.

The case of the Saudi cleric Ali bin al-Khudayr helps explain Nayef's stance. A close associate of al Qaeda, al-Khudayr is known as a leader of the takfiri-jihadi stream of Islamic radicalism -- that is, as someone quick to engage in takfir, the practice of proclaiming fellow Sunnis guilty of apostasy (a crime punishable by death).* After September 11, he issued a fatwa advising his followers to rejoice at the attacks. Depicting the United States as one of the greatest enemies that Islam has ever faced, he chided those who had misgivings about the deaths of so many innocent civilians, listing a number of American "crimes" that justified the attacks: "killing and displacing Muslims, aiding the Muslims' enemies against them, spreading secularism, forcefully imposing blasphemy on peoples and states, and persecuting the mujahideen."

Al-Khudayr was eventually arrested by Nayef's security services, but only after the May 2003 suicide bombings in Riyadh that killed 34 people -- when the cleric's brand of extremism began to threaten the political status quo. Until then, he had been allowed to operate freely and spread his violent anti-Americanism without constraint. Why? Because along the way he helped terrorize critics of the religious establishment. For Nayef, Wahhabi vigilantism is useful in keeping reformers in check.

Saudi journalist Mansur al-Nuqaydan, for example, is an open critic of the hard-line clerics. An ex-Islamic extremist himself, he went to jail in his youth for rooting out idolatry by firebombing a video store. The combination of his personal background, his mastery of the clerics' idiom, and his clear and unflinching support for Taqarub makes him particularly threatening to the religious establishment. Consequently, the extremists have singled him out for special treatment.

Along with some associates, al-Khudayr accused al-Nuqaydan of apostasy, pointing to the text of an interview in which the journalist committed the crimes of "secular humanism" and "scorn for religion, its rites, and devout people." Particularly incriminating, claimed the clerics, was al-Nuqaydan's conviction that "we need an Islam reconciled with the other, an Islam that does not know hatred for others because of their beliefs or their inclinations. We need a new Reformation, a bold reinterpretation of the religious text so that we can reconcile ourselves with the world." On the basis of this expression of Taqarub he was sentenced to death, with the edict posted publicly on al-Khudayr's Web site. For five months, the authorities did nothing. In a regime where openly practicing Shi`ism can land you in jail for years, al-Khudayr's period of freedom speaks volumes. So long as the cleric was limiting his activities to inciting violence against Americans and intimidating reformers, Nayef had no argument with him.

Around the same time that al-Khudayr was arrested, on the other hand, al-Nuqaydan lost his job and soon after was barred from writing or traveling abroad -- a casualty of a parallel crackdown on the reform movement. For Nayef, whose chief concern is to protect the status quo, there is nothing puzzling about this juxtaposition. Al-Khudayr ran afoul of him when bombs targeting the regime started going off, but al-Nuqaydan also represented something of a threat to the Saudi elite. Nayef himself does not take overt responsibility for the persecution of the reformers, but the hand of the secret police is barely hidden from view.

The sequence of events is now familiar. Either without warning or in response to a complaint by a prominent cleric, a critic of the religious establishment loses his job. His employers subsequently refuse to comment. Islamic extremists then issue a death threat to the unemployed man over the phone or on the Internet. In 1999, for example, an associate of al-Khudayr's issued a fatwa against the Saudi novelist Turki al-Hamad, who later signed the National Reform Document. Partly as a result, al-Hamad received a slew of death threats. He and his family were also harassed by the CPVPV. The novelist turned to Abdullah for help, receiving a sympathetic hearing and an offer of physical protection. By offering only bodyguards, however, Abdullah tacitly admitted that he could not control the shadowy parts of the government that belong to his half-brother.


In the aftermath of September 11, informed American opinion concluded that Osama bin Laden had attacked "the far enemy" -- the United States -- in order to foment revolution against "the near enemy" -- the Saudi regime. Subsequent events have confirmed that al Qaeda does indeed use the war with the United States as an instrument against its domestic enemies. Yet the tacit cooperation between Nayef and al-Khudayr shows that the relationship between al Qaeda and the Saudi royal family is more complex than most people seem to think.

To better understand how al Qaeda reads Saudi Arabia's political map, one can turn to the work of Yusuf al-Ayyiri, a prolific al Qaeda propagandist who died last June in a skirmish with the Saudi security services. Just before his death he wrote a revealing book, The Future of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula After the Fall of Baghdad, which gives a good picture of how al Qaeda activists perceive the world around them.

According to al-Ayyiri, the United States and Israel are the leaders of a global anti-Islamic movement -- "Zio-Crusaderism" -- that seeks the destruction of true Islam and dominion over the Middle East. Zio-Crusaderism's most effective weapon is democracy, because popular sovereignty separates religion from the state and thereby disembowels Islam, a holistic religion that has a strong political dimension. In its plot to denature Islam, al-Ayyiri claims, Zio-Crusaderism embraces three local allies: secularists, Shi`ites, and lax Sunnis (that is, those who sympathize with the idea of separating religion from state). Al Qaeda's "near enemy," in other words, is the cluster of forces supporting Taqarub.

The chief difference between the ways al Qaeda and the Saudi religious establishment define their primary foes is that the former includes the Saudi royal family as part of the problem whereas the latter does not. This divergence is not insignificant, but it does not preclude limited or tacit cooperation on some issues. Although some in the Saudi regime are indeed bin Laden's enemies, others are his de facto allies. Al Qaeda activists sense, moreover, that U.S. plans to separate mosque and state constitute the greatest immediate threat to their designs and know that the time is not yet ripe for a broad revolution. So al Qaeda's short-term goal is not to topple the regime but to shift Saudi Arabia's domestic balance of power to the right and punish supporters of Taqarub.

The politics surrounding the suicide bombings in Riyadh last May show how the interests of al Qaeda and the Saudi religious establishment overlap. Working together, they managed to turn a terrorist attack on Americans into a political coup against Americanizers. Right after the attack, the Saudi authorities called for public assistance in capturing 19 suspects, whose names and pictures were published in the press. In response, al-Khudayr and two like-minded clerics issued a statement claiming that the accused were not terrorists but "pious and devout" men and "the flower of the mujahideen." The statement claimed that the Saudi authorities, acting on U.S. orders, were using the suicide bombings as a pretext for persecuting fighters who had "participated in the jihad against the malevolent Crusaders in Afghanistan" and "distinguished themselves with courage and heroism in the battles in the Tora Bora mountains." The clerics called on the population to disobey the regime's request for help and pronounced that any assistance to the police would constitute aid to the United States in its war against Islam. The statement urged other Saudi clerics to step forward and support the beleaguered mujahideen.

Responding to this call, 33 activist clerics who had already formed a group called the Internal Front Facing the Current Challenges lobbied the government on the basis of a statement that reads like a contract for a new alliance between the Saudi dynasty and the Wahhabi religious establishment. The statement worked with al-Khudayr's basic premise -- that the Saudis, in deference to their foreign masters, had grown hostile to jihad. But it changed the tone of the discussion. Whereas al-Khudayr had focused on the need to wage jihad against the Americans, the clerics emphasized the need to wage jihad against the Americanizers -- a reference to the enemy at home.

The statement drew a causal link between the movement for liberal reform and religious extremism. On the one hand, it admitted that religious extremism exists in Saudi Arabia and called for it to be restrained. Yet it also blamed extremism on the creep of "reprehensible practices" -- a euphemism for the growing public legitimacy of the Taqarub reform agenda. The Internal Front essentially offered Abdullah a tradeoff: if he would curtail the reformers' activities, then the clerics would provide Islamic legitimacy for a government crackdown on the takfiri-jihadis, al Qaeda and its fellow travelers.

To make these demands more explicit, the Internal Front's leader, Salman al-Awda, posted an additional statement on his Web site attacking the aggressively reformist newspaper al-Watan. (The newspaper's name means "the homeland," but religious conservatives refer to it as "al-Wathan," meaning "the idol.") According to the statement, the publication's staff was little better than agents of the Americans working against Islam -- "Thomas Friedmans in Saudi garb."

The reformers at al-Watan had concluded that the terrorist attacks vindicated the principle of Taqarub and mistakenly assumed -- like many in the West -- that the Saudi authorities had no choice but to dismantle those institutions that promote Tawhid. Emboldened by a general mood of public outrage, they began to publish articles criticizing the entire Wahhabi edifice. One cartoon in particular enraged the religious establishment. It depicted a suicide bomber wearing a belt of dynamite next to a cleric wearing a belt of fatwas. The caption read, "Those who issue fatwas and manifestos inciting terror are themselves terrorists."

But al-Watan failed to take the full measure of its enemy. Having a good argument is one thing; controlling the secret police is another. One week after the bombing, a journalist had the temerity to ask Prince Nayef if the bombing meant that the CPVPV would be restructured: "As a Saudi," Nayef snarled, "you should be ashamed to be asking this question." One week later, al-Watan's editor, Jamal Khashoggi, was fired. He now resides in London.


It is often claimed that the recent growth of anti-Americanism in the Middle East has been due to U.S. policies themselves. The fact that the suicide bombing of an American compound in Riyadh turned into a crackdown on Saudi reformers and that the bombings continued even after the announcement of a U.S. troop withdrawal, however, should give us pause. These events strongly suggest that the jihad against the United States is actually a continuation of domestic politics by other means. The Saudi religious classes and al-Qaeda use it to discredit their indigenous enemies, who, given half a chance, would topple the clerics from power.

If Saudi clerics do indeed preach a murderous anti-Americanism because they fear their domestic rivals, then certain implications follow for U.S. foreign policy. Washington cannot afford to ignore what Saudis say about each other, because sooner or later the hatreds generated at home will be directed toward the United States.

This is particularly true of the Shi`ite question in Saudi politics. Radical Sunni Islamists hate Shi`ites more than any other group, including Jews and Christians. Al-Qaeda's basic credo minces no words on the subject: "We believe that the Shi`ite heretics are a sect of idolatry and apostasy, and that they are the most evil creatures under the heavens." For its part, the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment expresses similar views. The fatwas, sermons, and statements of established Saudi clerics uniformly denounce Shi`ite belief and practice. A recent fatwa by Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, a respected professor at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University (which trains official clerics), is a case in point. Asked whether it was permissible for Sunnis to launch a jihad against Shi`ites, al-Barrak answered that if the Shi`ites in a Sunni-dominated country insisted on practicing their religion openly, then yes, the Sunni state had no choice but to wage war on them. Al-Barrak's answer, it is worth noting, assumes that the Shi`ites are not Muslims at all.

This sectarian hatred that the clerics preach bears directly on the United States. Projecting their domestic struggle onto the external world, Saudi hard-liners are now arguing that the Shi`ite minority in Saudi Arabia is conspiring with the United States in its war to destroy Islam. Thus al-Ayyiri, the al-Qaeda propagandist, argued that the Shi`ites have hatched a long-term plot to control the countries of the Persian Gulf. As part of this conspiracy, the Shi`ite minorities in Sunni countries are insinuating themselves into positions of responsibility so as to function as a fifth column for the enemies of true Islam. "The danger of the Shi`ite heretics to the region," he states, "is not less than the danger of the Jews and the Christians."

Many other clerics warn of a Shi`ite-U.S. conspiracy. Safar al-Hawali, for example, a prominent cleric and member of the Internal Front, wrote a long and vituperative response to the Shi`ite petition Abdullah accepted. Al-Hawali characterized the petition as an attempt by the Shi`ite minority to tyrannize the Sunni majority. Throughout history, al-Hawali wrote, the Shi`ites have conspired with the foreign enemies of the Sunnis: in the thirteenth century they aligned with the Mongol invaders; today they conspire with the Americans. If the Saudi authorities meet the demands of the Shi`ite petitioners, al-Hawali continued, one of two outcomes would result: Shi`ite government or a secular state.

All this might sound like the product of an addled brain, but it is not as detached from political reality as it seems. The Saudi clerics and al Qaeda base their political analysis of the Shi`ites on two assumptions: that Wahhabism is true Islam and that it must have a monopoly over state policy. From this perspective, the various forces promoting Taqarub, both domestic and foreign, are indeed in cahoots to upend the status quo. The Shi`ites offer an alternative notion of Islamic community and history, they tend to cluster in strategically key regions, they share bonds with co-religionists beyond the borders of their country, and they have political interests that coincide with those of Sunni reformers. These attributes would allow the Shi`ites to form a powerful political bloc should a participatory political system ever emerge. And offering them even minor political concessions now would be dangerous, the clerics say, since other sects and other regional identities would clamor for political representation and soon overwhelm the system.

Beneath the conspiracy theory, therefore, lurks a very sober struggle over real political and economic interests. The clerics hope to place the Shi`ites in a kind of political quarantine, making it all but unthinkable for Sunni reformers in Saudi Arabia to form alliances with them. The reams of anti-Shi`ite material on Saudi religious Web sites are marked by three persistent charges: that the Shi`ites are agents of Iran, allies of the United States, and close associates of the Jews. The last accusation merits particular attention.

Isaac Hasson, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has identified what he calls a "neo-Wahhabi campaign against the Shi`ites, which aims to demonize them by comparing them to the Jews." Traditional Wahhabi teachings, for example, include the medieval Sunni myth that it was actually a Jewish convert to Islam, Abdullah bin Saba, who invented Shi`ism. This means Shi`ism has a kind of Jewish dna flowing through it. New attributes borrowed from modern antisemitism, such as the notion of a Jewish plot for world domination, have been grafted onto this charge. In the neo-Wahhabi campaign that Hasson has identified, therefore, Shi`ism is simultaneously an offshoot of Judaism, the natural ally of Zio-Crusaderism, and an inveterate generator of grand plots to destroy Sunni Islam.

The clerics' anti-Shi`ite campaign traces, on a communal scale, the same pattern as the threats that al-Khudayr directed against al-Nuqaydan. Just as the radical clerics pass death sentences on individual reformers, so the Saudi religious establishment periodically threatens the Shi`ites with genocide. In his refutation of the Shi`ite petition, for example, the cleric Safar al-Hawali warned the Shi`ites about the dangers of overreaching. If they were actually to succeed in establishing a secular state, he argued, the result would be a civil war, and "if the [Sunni] majority gets riled, it will act -- a matter that could lead to the complete annihilation of the [Shi`ite] minority." This thinly veiled threat carried even greater significance for having been published on the Web site of another cleric and anti-Shi`ite firebrand, Nasir al-Umar, who has urged the government to fire Shi`ites from all positions of responsibility in the country. Al-Umar has also insisted that the government must find "a quick solution" to the Shi`ites' demographic domination of the eastern province, a proposal that can only be described as an incitement to ethnic cleansing.

Rather than shutting such inflammatory voices down, Prince Nayef finds it convenient to keep them on the streets: al-Umar runs a mosque as a government employee and operates an attractive Web site. By giving clerics such as al-Umar privileged platforms from which to spread their doctrines, Nayef gets the best of both worlds. To foreign critics, he can distance himself from al-Umar's extremism, claiming that the cleric speaks only for himself; at home, meanwhile, he can reap the benefit of al-Umar's threats, which strike terror into Shi`ite hearts.

Al-Umar's booklet promoting ethnic cleansing was written almost a decade ago, before the notion of a U.S.-Shi`ite conspiracy gained traction. The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, however, has made him pay closer attention to this putative relationship. He has thus returned to his pet theme of a grand Shi`ite plot but reshaped the story in light of the new political reality to include a prominent U.S. role. In a lecture he gave last April, he depicted the United States as the "nursemaid" of global terrorism. For 30 years, he stated, Washington has been supporting terror around the world, something that went largely unrecognized until the war in Iraq. The war also demonstrated clearly "the strength of the bond between America and the Shi`ite heretics," who allied with each other in order to destroy the Sunnis.

Any analysis of the causes of anti-Americanism in Saudi Arabia has to account for people such as al-Umar. Many factors lead him to preach a deep hatred of America, but three are most significant: a deep loathing of Shi`ites, an ingrained habit of associating them with hostile external powers, and fears about the future position of Wahhabi clerics in the Saudi political system. No conceivable shift in U.S. policy would affect any of the three.


Last year's suicide bombings in Riyadh forced Prince Nayef to crack down on extremists inside Saudi Arabia. As a consequence, the Saudi security forces have clashed repeatedly with militants, arresting hundreds of activists and confiscating large caches of weapons. In Washington, these operations have helped to support the view that the Saudis have, once again, become our close allies. After receiving a wake-up call in May and a reminder in November, so the story goes, the Saudis have come back around to play their role as the strategic partner of the United States.

In late November, this optimistic view was reinforced when Ali al-Khudayr recanted on prime-time television. Speaking from jail, he renounced entirely his radical stance on takfir and jihad. It is impossible to say whether this about-face was sincere, coerced, or part of a political bargain, but the Saudis are treating it as a great victory against extremism. To emphasize the point, they even allowed Mansur al-Nuqaydan to publish his columns again. Although this is certainly a positive development, the roots of Saudi unrest extend beyond the contest between these two figures. The thousands of disgruntled young men who looked to al-Khudayr for guidance are still angry, and the central question of whether to reduce the power of the clerics remains locked in controversy.

As the case of Nasir al-Umar demonstrates, the domestic Saudi conflicts that originally generated anti-American feeling are still in operation. Moreover, indications suggest that, despite the recent crackdown, al Qaeda and the establishment Saudi clerics still share a strong sense of the common enemy.

Consider, for example, a statement that Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Najdi, an al Qaeda spokesman, issued in early October 2003. What preoccupied him was not the Saudi security services' crackdown on al Qaeda but the rise of the Shi`ites in Iraq:

We call openly on our brothers, all the mujahideen in Iraq, to kill the Sunni clerics who befriend the Americans, because those clerics are infidel apostates; and to kill every satanic Shi`ite Ayatollah who befriends the Americans -- first among them the satanic Ayatollah Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum and those like him. Likewise we demand from the Shi`ite youth that they return to the book of God and the Sunna of Muhammad.

Al Qaeda's nightmare scenario is that the Americans and the Iraqi Shi`ites will force Riyadh to enact broad reforms and bring the Saudi Shi`ites into the political community. There is no question that many hard-line Saudi clerics share precisely the same fears. Even before the United States attacked Afghanistan, Saudi clerics preached the doctrine of a Jewish-American conspiracy to destroy Islam. Now that American forces have unshackled the Iraqi Shi`ites, it would be naive to expect those clerics to take a more benign view of U.S. intentions.

The Saudi religious establishment's views regarding the American-Shi`ite conspiracy are not simply an internal Saudi matter. They legitimize the daily attacks on American soldiers in Iraq's "Sunni Triangle," as well as attacks such as the anti-Shi`ite suicide bombing in Najaf last August. The dazed onlookers who crowded around the rubble in Najaf immediately asked themselves one question: Who did it? "Wahhabis," cried one group. "Baathists," cried another. If Washington maintains business as usual with Riyadh, it will not be long before the Iraqi Shi`ites will conclude that the United States covertly supports the Wahhabi bombers who blow up their mosques -- just as they concluded, after the events of 1991, that the United States supported Saddam Hussein against them.

Nonetheless, changing the situation will be difficult, because the United States has limited means of muting the anti-Shi`ism and anti-Americanism that the clerics espouse. Getting Riyadh to divorce itself from radical Wahhabism will be as great a task as getting the Soviet Union to renounce communism. Clearly, there are forces in the kingdom who would be willing to support the efforts of a Saudi Gorbachev, but it is not clear when or whether one will appear.

Wahhabism is the foundation of an entire political system, and everyone with a stake in the status quo can be expected to rally around it when push comes to shove. In Iraq, as odious as the regime of Saddam Hussein was, it still enjoyed a social base of support in the center of the country, and the opponents of the old system were -- and remain -- fragmented and leaderless. In Saudi Arabia, Washington faces a similar problem. The United States has no choice but to press hard for democratic reforms. But the very attempt to create a more liberal political order will set off new disputes, which will inevitably generate anti-American feelings. Saudi Arabia is in turmoil, and -- like it or not -- the United States is deeply involved. As Washington struggles to rebuild Iraq it will thus find, once again, that its closest Arab ally is also one of its most bitter enemies.

*Al-Khudayr's sympathies with al Qaeda are apparently reciprocated. Following the cleric's arrest in May 2003, the London-based Saudi dissident Saad al-Faqih reported that Osama bin Laden had warned the Saudi authorities not to hurt him. Bin Laden, the report claimed, labeled al-Khudayr "our most prominent supporter." Should any harm come to him, al Qaeda's response would be "commensurate with the sheikh's high standing with us, ... We will not issue a statement on the matter other than one dripping with blood."

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Last modified 2005-03-06 11:07 PM

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