The May 12 terrorist bombings in Riyadh that killed 34 people seem genuinely to have shocked Saudi Arabia like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks did the United States. But among Saudi watchers, there’s deep skepticism as to whether the kingdom can deliver on its vows to change its ways. [IMGCAP(1)] Crown Prince Abdullah condemned the perpetrators to “hellfire,” and his adviser, Adel Al-Jubeir, has been assuring Americans that the Saudi government is using the attack to accelerate law-enforcement cooperation with the United States as well as internal political, educational and religious reforms.
But experts like Patrick Clawson and Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, say that past security crackdowns in Saudi Arabia have been temporary and that internal reform is “glacial” at best.
Moreover, while Bush administration officials continue to be upbeat — at least in public — about Saudi cooperation, Members of Congress are furious about Saudi unwillingness to heed advance warnings that Western targets were about to be hit.
It’s not a statement of great confidence in Saudi security that the Bush administration has closed the U.S. embassy in Riyadh and two consulates during the current terrorist alert. Other Western nations have closed theirs, too.
The worst-case outlook for the future of Saudi Arabia is laid out by former CIA field officer Robert Baer in a forthcoming book, “Sleeping with the Devil,” excerpted in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
Obviously written before the Riyadh bombing, the article describes how easy it would be for terrorists to shut down Saudi oil flows to the world with a few well-placed bombs.
But Baer’s deeper critique is that the Saudi royal family “presides over a kingdom dangerously at war with itself.”
He writes that average Saudis are convinced “oil money has corrupted the ruling family beyond redemption, even as the general population has gotten poorer.”
Moreover, Saudis think, “the country’s leaders have failed to protect fellow Muslims in Palestine and elsewhere and that the House of Saud has to be humiliated — that, in short, the country needs radical ‘purification.’”
Educated in militantly anti-Western Wahabi Islam, Baer contends that if Saudi Arabia ever permitted a free election, “Osama bin Laden would be elected in a landslide” because he’d “stand up to the thieves who rule the country.”
The royal family funnels “more and more ‘charity’ money to (foreign) jihadists … in a desperate and self-destructive effort to protect itself,” Baer says, but “sometime soon, one way or another, the House of Saud is coming down.”
In an interview, Al Jubeir told me that the Baer thesis “nonsense,” noting that critics have been predicting the country’s demise for 60 years. He claimed that Abdullah was set on a process of “pragmatic” economic, political and social reform designed to end corruption and contain extremism.
“Of course, [corruption] exists,” he said, but by moving to qualify for membership in the World Trade Organization, Abdullah is forcing through new laws to promote transparency and free competition.
He acknowledged “massive problems” with the country’s education system — not with its religious ideology, though, but with its quality — and said reforms are under way, including a “pilot program” to remove anti-Jewish and anti-Christian diatribes from textbooks.
Although the respected Middle East Media Research Institute keeps voluminous track of virulent anti-Jewish and pro-jihad sermons at Saudi mosques, Al Jubeir said they represent a small fraction of the messages emanating from the country’s 40,000 mosques.
“This notion of hatred for the West is overblown,” he claimed, but added that the religious establishment is removing and disciplining the “nut cases” preaching hatred.
He acknowledged that Saudi money in the past had flowed to “some despicable characters” overseas, but that the government now was determined to shrink the Islamic affairs sections at Saudi embassies and monitor aid to Islamic “charities.”
The Riyadh bombings were “a crystallizing event for Saudi society,” he said. “People who used to argue for going slow in reform are now saying we’ve got to do it quickly.
“We’ve got to eliminate the threat of terrorism and take away the environment in which this can flourish,” he said.
But Levitt, a terrorism expert, said “the bottom line is, we’ll have to wait and see. The Saudis have a good record in cracking down on terror attacks within the kingdom. They have a far less stellar record in cooperating with international efforts and sharing information.
“In the past, when they’ve cracked down inside, they’ve upped support for outside religious activities in order to placate the Wahabis,” he said.
Levitt charged that Saudi Arabia’s promised financial intelligence unit either hasn’t been formed or hasn’t contributed to international data banks. And on at least three occasions, he said, Saudi Arabia has facilitated the escape of figures linked to terrorist plots, including the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Their constant mantra is ‘we couldn’t possibly be supporting terrorism because we’ve been a target of terrorism.’ It’s not only ridiculous — the two things are not mutually exclusive — but it’s insulting,” he said.
“This denialism should no longer be tolerated, but I never underestimate the capacity of the State Department to lose its spine,” Levitt said.
As to Saudi capacity to reform, Clawson rated most of Crown Prince Abdullah’s efforts as “symbolic” though “popular” — such as making royal princes pay electricity bills and their Saudi airline tickets.
He said he doubted there’d be a revolution in Saudi Arabia. “It’s a profoundly conservative place in which the people look around at their neighbors and ask, ‘Did Iraq do better when it got rid of its king? Did Iran?’ They don’t think so.”
“The greater danger is that Saudi Arabia will slip into a slow decline because of a blockage of decision-making by the royal family. They’re moving at a glacial pace in an era of global warming.”
Saudi officials say that the Riyadh bombing was “a shocker,” but the Bush administration needs to keep pushing the Saudis to stop financing and exporting religious extremism.