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Forcing change in Saudi Arabia

By Steven Martinovich
web posted February 2, 2004

A rebellion of sorts is underway in a small corner of the Arab world. Perhaps because it isn't in Afghanistan or Iraq the press has paid little attention to it. In the remote northern Saudi Arabian province of al-Jouf, the Saudi royal family's worst fears have come to pass: discontent that has turned into violence and could presage the beginning of open revolt.

As John R. Bradley reported in The Independent recently, in recent months the deputy governor, police chief and the region's top Sharia judge have been assassinated. In the province's capital city, Sakaka, the streets are deserted when night falls and the al-Sudiary branch of the Saudi royal family haven't been able to leave their walled compounds without armed escort. Roadblocks have been established and the secret police keeps an eye on the situation.

Troubling days: King Fahd Bin Abdel Aziz and Crown prince Abdullah Bin Abdel Aziz (L)
Troubling days: King Fahd Bin Abdel Aziz and Crown prince Abdullah Bin Abdel Aziz (L)

Bradley writes that the nascent rebellion is the result of discontent from different wings of Islam and extends across the country. Residents of al-Jouf -- who share historic links with Iraqis -- are angry at the American-led invasion of Iraq with hundreds streaming across the border to join the remnants of the Ba'athist regime in their uprising. In the West, anti-Wahabite merchants near Mecca and Medina decry the elimination of religious and cultural tolerance. In the east, Shias -- who form the backbone of the oil industry -- are protesting against the religious discrimination that they have suffered for decades.

Stability in Saudi Arabia has long been a priority for the West. It's long been feared that the nation could break up on religious or tribal lines, allowing the emergence of a Taliban-style government. With nearly a quarter of the world's proven oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, it's not a surprise that many in the West would rather live with the very imperfect Saudi royal family than an unknown alternative. The standard line emanating out of the U.S. State Department is that the Saudis are friends of the West and deserve our support.

That may be the prevailing dogma at Foggy Bottom but the behavior of the Saudis suggests otherwise. Although U.S. President George W. Bush didn't name Saudi Arabia among his "Axis of Evil", it remains the nexus of terrorist funding and recruitment. Saudi Arabia is the single largest source of income, much of it from members of the royal family, for terrorist groups that include al-Qaida. Along with Iran and Syria, Saudi Arabia is a primary point of origin for many terrorists in Iraq and terrorist groups in general. For decades the Saudis have spent billions of dollars to establish mosques and schools across the planet -- including North America and Europe -- where Wahabism is taught. Saudi government officials who refuse to allow the questioning of Saudi nationals implicated have stymied American investigations into terrorist attacks.

Despite these and many other troubling facts about the Saudi Arabia, the United States continues to support a corrupt royal family. The reality is that the alternatives aren't much worse then who we're dealing with now. The only difference, outside of easy access to Saudi oil, is that the hostility towards the West would be in the open, instead of quietly funded by their elites. If the West is dedicated to propping up the current regime, and it is primarily oil exports to the West that keep it in power, then we must use the instability in Saudi Arabia to force concessions from them.

We must demand that the Saudi government hand over or effectively punish those Saudis who support international terrorism, whether they are members of the extended royal family or not. We must also push the government to crackdown on the financing of terrorist groups -- one that would effectively destroy their inability to launch attacks across the world. Thirdly, Saudi Arabia must stop exporting its Wahabist philosophy around the world. Fourthly, the Saudis must become full partners in the war against terrorism, whether aimed at the United States or Israel. Finally, Saudi Arabia should be encouraged to become more democratic, and embrace women and religious minorities -- both Muslim and non-Muslim.

We can't compel the Saudi government to take these steps but we can take concrete action if we have to. The Saudi royal family only remains in power thanks to Western technology, our need for oil and the perception that we will act to save the regime if their position becomes endangered. The West must make it clear that none of these things should be taken for granted because our alliance with the present Saudi government is predicated on friendship, not the veil of lies that mask the real truth. If the Saudis aren't willing to make those changes than perhaps our friendship should be extended to the merchants of the west or the Shias of the east.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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