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Homeland Security

SLUG: 7-37450 Saudi Arabia: Blasts and Stirrings

DATE=MAY 15, 2003







CONTENT=9:52 V/O; 10:52 M/O


HOST: A series of synchronized suicide bombings Monday night blasted residential compounds in Riyadh, killing more than 30 [update as needed] people and injuring nearly 200, just hours before U-S Secretary of State Colin Powell was due to arrive in Saudi Arabia to meet with the Crown Prince. The blasts targeted Westerners living in the kingdom. Following the war in Iraq, the United States announced its intention to pull its troops out of Saudi Arabia, ending its military presence in the Kingdom. Today's Dateline explores the impact of the recent war in Iraq on Saudi Arabia, its nascent reform movement, and its relations with Washington. Here's Judith Latham.

JL: Long-term Saudi watchers say US-Saudi relations reflect the political and social complexity of the Kingdom itself. And the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the recent war in Iraq, and this week's bombings in Riyadh underscore the Kingdom's paradoxical role in both fomenting and fighting terror.

After viewing the devastation to one of the residential compounds in Riyadh, Secretary Powell told reporters that combating terrorism has to be a worldwide effort.


"This is why the President has said that this has to be the number one priority not only for the United States but for the civilized world so that things like this cannot continue to happen. This is criminality, terrorism at its worst."

JL: The bombings in Saudi Arabia come in the wake of the U-S led war with Iraq and an announcement of U-S intentions to withdraw its military forces from Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the United States has committed itself to supporting the forces of democracy in the Middle East.

Georgetown University professor Jean-Francois Seznec says that there are a "surprising number of stirrings" of democratization in the Saudi kingdom ruled by the descendants of its founder, King Abdul-Aziz ibn Sa'ud, and buttressed by the conservative Wahabi religious establishment.


(OPT) "I don't think one can say that requests for democratization and increased participation are coming from the public per se. (END OPT) I think it is actually coming from the top, from Crown Prince Abdullah who would like to have more participation. It's in great part because he knows that in the long term with population growth and increasing education that is the only way he can preserve the long-term role of the royal family in power. The problem, of course, with that is that the main opposition to democratization also comes from the royal family."

JL: Professor Seznec recently spoke at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington about the impact of the Iraqi war on Saudi Arabia. He says some remarkable changes have taken place since the first of the year.


"Considering the glacial rhythm of things in Saudi Arabia this is quite amazing. In January there was a petition signed by 103 people from well-known merchant families, intellectuals from the universities. This petition claimed that they gave full allegiance to the royal family, but they also asked for elections as soon as possible to the Mejlis as-Shura, the Council. And they also asked for the independence of the judiciary. The independence of the judiciary to me is the most important factor because that is a code word for control of the royal family. (OPT) Most of the problems in Saudi Arabia are based on the fact that the royal family is slightly above the law.(END OPT) What is interesting is that the Crown Prince accepted the petition and he met with some of the signers, and it was actually discussed in the press. (OPT) I think that in itself is very important." (END OPT)

JL: Furthermore, Crown Prince Abdullah brought a proposed charter on society in the Arab World to a January meeting of the Arab League. Professor Seznec says it included lengthy sections on privatization of the economy and participation by the people in the affairs of government.


"It's interesting that he brought the idea to the League from a country that probably needs to have more participation than anyone else does."

JL: In March, Professor Seznec says, the Mejlis as-Shura or consultative council of 120 members appointed by the state turned down a government-sponsored law allowing it to tax the wages of foreign workers."


"I've talked with some people at higher levels in Saudi Arabia who say there will be elections very shortly for local councils and will be followed one day by elections for the Mejlis as-Shura. We don't know when that's going to happen or how it's going to happen, but it is being discussed openly. So, there are some stirrings of democratization in the region."

JL: Despite these encouraging signs, Professor Seznec says, the tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia is "tremendous."


"Since 9/11, especially after all the homeland security regulations and mostly the Wall Street Journal campaign against the Saudis, the Saudis feel very much victimized. And they feel that the relationship between the United States and themselves is broken to a point where it is not retrievable. If democratization in the Kingdom is seen as being brought through Iraq from the United States it will add 'water to the mill' of the conservatives there. There are some groups that are not happy with democratization. Of course the more 'Islamist' groups are opposed to this as well. (OPT) If they can use the statements of the United States to say, 'Democratization is an American idea; therefore it's bad. Therefore, we have to stop it.' It will create a lot of pressure on the Crown Prince to limit democratization. (END OPT) On the other hand, if the Crown Prince can show that he is able to bring some participation in spite of the United States, then he can show this is truly an Arab issue."

JL: This week's truck bomb attacks in Riyadh, which the Saudi government has tied to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, has further strained Saudi-American relations. Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the attacks definitely "fingerprint" al-Qaida.


"First of all, al-Qaida has been interested in targeting the Saudi regime for some time. And while Westerners were those primarily who were injured, this was principally aimed at the regime. It's very embarrassing for the regime to have Westerners targeted. It's very embarrassing for the regime for this to happen while Secretary Powell was in the region."

JL: While Americans often tend to focus on al-Qaida's hatred for all things Western, regional specialists say much of the impetus for the terrorists' rage is directed toward the Saudi monarchy itself for allowing foreign troops to be stationed on its soil. Osama bin Laden and his supporters are outraged by the presence of non-Muslims in the land which guards the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. For that reason, former U-S Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Richard Murphy calls the recent announcement that the United States will remove its military forces from the Kingdom "good news for both sides."


"Particularly I like the fact that this is mutually agreed. It isn't a matter of Saudi Arabia saying, 'Get out of the Kingdom.' It's an agreement this is in the best interest of each of us."

JL: Ambassador Murphy acknowledges that the American decision was in part a response to Saudi Arabia's refusal to allow the United States to use bases in the war against Iraq, but he says other factors have been at work for several years.


(OPT)"I think that has been a constraint that has been with us for about five years. (END OPT) They said that Operation Southern Watch was welcome, but the planes based in Saudi Arabia shouldn't be used to attack Iraq. Then they placed a similar restriction on our actions against the Taleban in Afghanistan and repeated it for the third time during the latest war in Iraq. (OPT) It reflected Saudi discomfort at the presence of operational force in the Kingdom, which had been criticized domestically by some of the Saudi religious figures back in 1990. And it had become a prime point of attack by Osama bin Laden and his supporters in the late nineties. (END OPT)

JL: Richard Murphy, former Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Mamoun Fandy, professor of media and politics at Georgetown University and author of Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, says several "broad trends" have emerged in the Kingdom since the war with Iraq.


"One is that there is a clear split in the debate in Saudi Arabia between those who saw that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator, mainly the liberal forces, and those who were against the United States and supporting anybody who would stand up to the United States. And these are the fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia. I think the fault line between liberals and conservatives in Saudi Arabia is sharper now."

JL: Mamoun Fandy says he believes the U-S decision to withdraw its forces from Prince Sultan Air Base was politically wise from the perspective of the Saudi royal family.


"In many ways I think it strengthens the hand of Crown Prince Abdullah in terms of dealing with the ultra-conservative, fundamentalist forces in Saudi Arabia and allows reform to go through because these reforms will appear indigenous."

JL: But, Professor Fandy says, the enormous royal family and some of its corrupt princes do pose an impediment to reform in Saudi Arabia.


"There are more than 5,000 princes all over the place. But the core component of the family, the more senior members, seems to be a cohesive group. We're looking at about twenty or so at the top. Yes, there are differences and there are cleavages, but it seems to me, there is a general understanding that this is a moment of reckoning for Saudi Arabia. It either has to move forward with reform and restructuring the relationship between the royal family and the rest of the society. Or the fate of the realm is in doubt. (OPT) Right now it's proposed that two-thirds of the Majlis will be elected and one-third will be appointed. The defeat of Saddam Hussein was a major lesson for the Saudis that, when one party is in control, there is no political cooperation and the country is weak. And it invites external intervention." (END OPT)

JL: The strained relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia was exacerbated by the war with Iraq, Mamoun Fandy says.


"There is a great deal of anti-Americanism in Saudi Arabia and there are a great many anti-Saudi feelings after September 11th in the United States. (OPT) The Saudis are coming to terms with the fact that 15 of the 19 were Saudis who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. (END OPT) There is an understanding that indeed there is a problem. I don't think that at the strategic level either the Saudis or the Americans have a problem, but at the popular level, there are serious rifts."

JL: Although many people would clearly welcome democratization in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Professor Mamoun Fandy of Georgetown University says, he thinks the monarchy has an important stabilizing role to play.


"If you remove the Saudi royal family, it could break down into four or five pieces and could go into tribal civil war. (OPT) And that weighs very heavily on the minds of ordinary Saudis that this is a family that keeps the peace. (END OPT) And the risk of disintegration is so great that no rational person both tribal chiefs and important people in Saudi Arabia would be willing to risk."

TAPE: CUT #15: SOMBER MUSIC. [Establish, fade, and bring up after sign-off.]

JL: The government in Riyadh now finds itself under increasing pressure in the wake of renewed terrorism to address anti-American attitudes and actions by its citizens. The attacks also represent a wake-up call to reform what many call a "medieval" regime and to end state support for religious militancy. Some suggest that a constitutional monarchy might be a first step toward channeling the frustration of Saudis away from terrorism and into free elections.

For Dateline, I'm Judith Latham.

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