Saudi Arabia in Crisis (Wall Street Journal) By Stephen Schwartz 08/15/03)
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British Airways yesterday suspended its eight weekly flights into
Saudi Arabia, and the Foreign Office has restated its warning against
U.K. nationals, including some 30,000 expatriates working in the
kingdom, undertaking any but essential travel there. The immediate
reason is that the government has received "credible intelligence of
a serious threat to U.K. aviation interests in Saudi Arabia." The
longer term one is that BA and the FO are now waking up to the fact
that Saudi Arabia is near deep crisis.
The actions of the both airline and government follow the
announcement this week that Saudi authorities have arrested a cell of
10 alleged extremists who intended to attack a British target. But
coincidentally, and confusingly, the Saudis decided to release six
British subjects and a Canadian, who had been convicted in a Saudi
court for their supposed involvement in a bombing campaign.
At the root of the evident disarray in Saudi Arabia are the patent
contradictions that govern the kingdom. The first one is the fact
that "Saudi justice" has about the same meaning today that "Soviet
justice" had two decades ago.
For those born and brought up in the kingdom, it means submission to
representatives of the Wahhabi sect, the most extreme and
uncompromising form of Muslim fundamentalism, who order floggings at
a rate and intensity previously unknown in the history of Islamic
jurisprudence. They also use public beheadings in the spirit of
Expatriates in Saudi Arabia -- like the ones who were "convicted,"
then released -- also suffer the dark night of Wahhabism. Even the
American troops who have protected the Saudi monarchy for years are
prevented from observing non-Muslim religious services. Foreign
women, like Saudi women, are strictly forbidden to drive automobiles.
Saudi power in the peninsula is also based on a deception. The House
of Saud has always maintained a close alliance with the Western,
Christian powers to assure its political dominance at home, while the
Wahhabi clerics preach jihad against the world. But now the
arrangement is collapsing, for reasons both external and internal.
In foreign affairs, after the rise of Iran´s Ayatollah Khomeini, who
challenged their claims to Islamic authenticity, Saudis sought to use
their colossal oil revenues to impose Wahhabism by force, on global
Islam. Wahhabis succeeded in setting up a satellite regime under the
Taliban in Afghanistan, and made inroads into Pakistan, which remains
the main frontline state in the battle against Islamic extremism. The
Saudis maintain their effort to take over the legitimate cause of the
Chechens. Saudi imams, meanwhile, continuously incite their followers
to go north of their border in murderous attacks on coalition troops
Some powerful Westerners remain blinkered when it comes to these
realities. Many repeat the standard line that describes Saudi Arabia
as an enemy of Osama bin Laden and a reliable ally in the war against
But the truth is beginning to emerge. The general counsel for the
U.S. Treasury Department recently testified to the U.S. Senate that
the that the kingdom is the "epicenter" of funding terrorism in
general and al-Qaeda in particular. This is why raids this month have
uncovered that terrorist cells are more embedded in Saudi Arabia than
many analysts had earlier thought -- which may have weighed on the
mind of BA´s executives. (Incidentally, some analysts believe that
the Saudi decision to release the seven foreigners was a reward to
Britain for siding with the U.S. State Department against the
Treasury, and counseling President George W. Bush to go easy on
But it is getting harder and harder to hide the truth because the
internal problems of the Saudi regime are becoming too evident. The
are easily known to anybody who spends time with ordinary Saudi
subjects. Ordinary people despise the religious militia
or "mutawwiyya," for example. But their continuation is an issue on
which Saudi Prince Nayef, minister of the interior, and Osama bin
Laden, are in full agreement.
Contrary to bogus polls conducted on Saudi territory, the victims of
Saudi rule do not love bin Laden. According to dissident Saudis I
meet with every week, average Saudi citizens do not hate the West.
They are also not obsessed with Israel and the Palestinians. They are
ordinary people, many now in possession of the Internet and satellite
dishes, who want to live in a normal country that would resemble
Malaysia more than any other Islamic society. To the extent they are
frustrated with the Western role in Saudi Arabia, their protests
spring from disillusion with U.S. and British support for the Saudi
monarchy. The claim that Saudi subjects are inflamed by foreign
troops "defiling holy territory" is nonsense.
But their state´s policies have led to a situation where BA no longer
finds it safe to fly into the kingdom. The only solution at this
point is for the West to undertake a forthright approach to those few
members of the royal family, reputedly led by Crown Prince Abdullah,
who perceive the catastrophe approaching.
Saudi Arabia must provide the U.S. with full disclosure about its
subjects´ role in 9/11; it must sever all connection between the
state and Wahhabi ideology; it must turn a page in its history and
respond to its subjects´, and its foreign partners´, legitimate need
to deal with it as with any other legitimate, respectable state.
Chaos may be avoided, but a transition away from the ugly past can no
longer be delayed.
Stephen Schwartz, an author and journalist, is author of The Two
Faces of Islam: The House of Sa´ud from Tradition to Terror. A
vociferous critic of Wahhabism, Schwartz is a frequent contributor to
National Review, The Weekly Standard, and other publications. (©2003
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