Threats to Stability
Despite the political and military upheavals in surrounding countries, Saudi Arabia's internal situation appeared to be under control. Most Saudis seemed to accept the authority of the Al Saud and strict observance of Islamic law to ensure domestic stability. However, the kingdom's sudden exposure to international scrutiny after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 brought into sharp relief the polarization between the two competing forces of society - the powerful religious establishment and the liberal reformist elements. The modern sector pressed for greater popular participation in decision making and for greater accountability by the government.
In return for their loyalty and the maintenance of peace and order in the tribal areas, the king provided subsidies to the shaykhs and a minimum of government interference in tribal affairs. Under this system, offenses and breaches of the peace were punished by the responsible shaykh. The national guard acted as a support force to quell disturbances or restore order if tribal authority could not.
The successful forging of the different tribes of the Arabian Peninsula into a coherent nation during the first half of the twentieth century must be credited to Abd al Aziz and the House of Saud. If there were one singular element in Saudi society that explained the relative stability during the first decades of the kingdom, it was the allegiance that had been exhibited by a preponderant segment of the population to the Al Saud. Internal order and the continued existence of the monarchy, however, did not come automatically to the country simply because of the leadership and charisma of Abd al Aziz. Of great significance during his reign was the establishment of the country's basic security forces and a code of behavior intended to instill fear and respect for the law and obedience to it.
Traditionally, the allegiance of the people has been to the tribe and to the extended family. One of Abd al Aziz's truly significant accomplishments was to implant the concept of allegiance to the House of Saud and by extension to the government and the judicial system. Also important was the recognition by the Saudis of their ethnic identity as an Arab people and their religious identity with Wahhabi Islam. Each aspect of a person's day-to-day conduct could be categorized as being within the bounds of acceptable behavior or outside those bounds, with no distinction between the secular and the religious spheres. Few Saudis chose to live outside the law, and their basic attitudes supported an orderly society.
Criticism and anger over corruption by members of the royal family and other members of the elite were more openly expressed than previously. King Fahd promised that he would create a majlis ash shura (consultative council) to respond to political grievances. Such promises had been made in the past, however, with little result.
Some potential for social instability arose from the modernists' belief that the ruling family remained too deferential to traditional Muslim interests. These liberal elements desired the opportunity for involvement in the political process and a share of political power. In May 1991, it was reported that even the conservative religious establishment had petitioned the government for a consultative assembly. This action was accompanied by demonstrations in several cities. Extremists accused the religious establishment of hypocrisy in adhering to Islamic practices and of the maldistribution of wealth, fueling resentments within broad segments of Saudi society.
Marginal political groups of the left and right were considered illegal and their members were subject to arrest and detention by government security organs. These groups included the Organization of Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula, the Arab Socialist Action Party, and the Party of God in the Hijaz. The sizable alien population, estimated at 4.6 million in 1992 and representing more than half the labor force, was feared as a possible source of divisiveness as well as a disruptive influence on the thinking and attitudes of the indigenous population. It was assumed that clandestine organs of external political movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were represented in the labor force. Among the most numerous of the foreign workers were Yemenis, who always tended to be regarded with suspicion. Because many of these workers were employed in strategic economic sectors and in the oil industry, strikes and sabotage were constant dangers. In 1990 the Saudi authorities took measures to identify illegal residents and to regularize their status or deport them. These efforts intensified after the Persian Gulf crisis began, and about 1 million Yemenis as well as Sudanese, Iraqis, and Palestinians were compelled to leave.
In the oil-rich Eastern Province (Al Ahsa) lived between 200,000 and 400,000 Shia. They had endured two centuries of Wahhabi subjugation and remained disaffected elements in Saudi society. Riots in late 1979 and early 1980 among the Shia were believed to have been inspired by taped messages of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Because Shia comprised possibly half of the labor force of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), from 1988 called the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco), the government treated their presence as a security problem. During the 1980s, the government bolstered its security forces in the area, while at the same time attempting to allay Shia resentment by responding to their social and religious grievances. Among other groups with a distinct identity within the kingdom were the Hijazis, who lived along the mountainous western coast extending to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and the tribes of Asir Province just north of Yemen. Although both groups benefited from the rising wealth of the country, they lacked sympathy for the traditional royalist regime and for the strict religious leadership. Accordingly, questions of their fundamental loyalty to the Al Saud persisted.
The likelihood of schisms within the royal family arising from policy differences or personal rivalries seemed remote but could not be completely discounted. Factional disputes could arise over such issues as the closeness of ties with the United States or curbing the power of the religious establishment. For the most part, the informal assembly of princes has succeeded in keeping rivalries within bounds and has prevented internal differences from becoming public issues.
In view of elaborate security measures, such as the division of armed power between the regular military and the national guard, and the substantial benefits enjoyed by both officers and enlisted personnel, the possibility of an insurrection emerging from the armed forces was regarded as highly unlikely. Nevertheless, in 1991 leaflets critical of royal princes were reportedly distributed in garrisons. The influence of radical Islamists among soldiers and lower ranking officers was said to be growing.
The military leadership has been free from serious conspiracies against the regime except for an abortive coup by air force officers in 1969. About 300 air force personnel were arrested even before the plot was set in motion. The dissidents were tried and sentenced to prison, but by the mid-1970s all had been released. High wages and privileges tended to keep discontent among the officer corps to a minimum. The appointment of many members of the royal family to military positions also provided a measure of protection against intrigue. The separate national guard, with its tribal roots, provided an additional safeguard against any threat from the military.
The prestige of the House of Saud was closely associated with the protection of the holy places. When, in 1979, an armed group of about 500 religious extremists occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the standing of the royal family was seriously affected. The insurgent leader condemned the Al Saud for corruption, declaring that the kingdom's rulers had forsaken the primary tenets of Islam.
Security forces did not immediately respond to the occupation because of the Quran's strictures against shedding blood in the holy place. Partly as a result of lack of coordination and poor discipline, it took troops, national guard, and security forces fourteen days of heavy fighting to oust the insurgents. Many people were killed. The occupation of the Grand Mosque inspired riots and demonstrations by Shia dissidents, which were answered by the liberal use of firearms and the sealing off of major trouble spots by the national guard.
Followers of Ayatollah Khomeini tried to stir up trouble by disrupting the annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, on several occasions during the 1980s, but heavy security controls usually succeeded in preventing major incidents.
In July 1987, however, more than 400 people died as a result of a serious riot instigated by thousands of Iranian pilgrims. Khomeini called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family to avenge the pilgrims' deaths. Saudi Arabia, in turn, accused Iran of staging the riots to support its demands that Mecca and Medina be internationalized as pan-Islamic cities. Several Saudi Shia were tried and executed for exploding bombs at Saudi oil facilities in 1988, probably as retaliation by Iran and its sympathizers against restrictions on Iranian attendance at the annual pilgrimage after the 1987 riots. A number of bomb attacks were made on Saudi agencies abroad--primarily offices of the national airline, Saudia. Saudi diplomats were assassinated by groups calling themselves the Party of God in the Hijaz, Soldiers of the Right, and Arab Fury. Both types of attack were thought to be the work of Saudi Shia instigated by elements of the Iranian government. Saudi Arabia accused Iran in connection with two bomb incidents during the 1989 hajj in apparent retaliation for Saudi restrictions against Iranian pilgrims. Sixteen Kuwaiti Shia were executed for these attacks.
Some easing of relations with Iran occurred after Khomeini's death in 1989. During the 1990 pilgrimage, more than 1,400 pilgrims were trampled to death or suffocated after they were stampeded in an underground tunnel. The incident, however, was not linked to Iran. Disputes over the size of the Iranian contingent and rules governing their conduct prevented Iranians from participating in the hajj for three years. In 1991 the Saudis accepted a quota of 115,000 Iranian pilgrims and allowed political demonstrations in Mecca. Although peaceful, the demonstrations included strident attacks on the United States and Israel.
The First Persian Gulf War placed new strains on the government's efforts to maintain the allegiances of both the modern, secular segments of Saudi society and the traditional, religious elements. Although it offered some conciliatory gestures to the modernists, the government appeared adamant and ready to respond forcefully to any dissent against the authority of the Al Saud.
The existence of a large and diffuse royal family, the vast territorial extent of the kingdom, and its widely scattered population centers reduced the likelihood that an attempt to overthrow Saudi rule could succeed. Still, the government continued to exercise control over the information media and strictly supervised or prohibited independent interest groups such as political parties or labor unions.
Islamic radicals were few in number but had undeniable influence, projecting their messages from the public mosques and university classrooms. Their criticism that the government under King Fahd had weakened in its devotion to Islamic principles was difficult to silence because it was offered in an Islamic context. Islamist pressure for greater Islamization in education, the press, and foreign policy appeared to strengthen after the Persian Gulf War.
Saudi Arabia has seen terrorism morph into extreme acts of violence deliberately planned by some by small groups of zealots with specific religiously motivated political objectives meant to destabilize the Kingdom and bring about political change. Saudi officials concentrated first on gathering intelligence against the terrorists, specifically in the areas of organization, finance, and operations. Once these areas were understood, the government put most of its efforts in the areas of education, social programs, economic incentives, and working with influential religious leaders.
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