KARACHI – Even as Saudi Arabia pushes its peace agenda in the Middle East, internal pressures within the kingdom are mounting on the House of Saud over what is perceived as a far too pro-Western – especially American – foreign policy.
Dissent against the absolute monarchy – effectively the rule of Crown Prince Abdullah since King Fahd is extremely ill – does not manifest itself in rowdy, placard-waving marches in the streets. But signs have been noted of late of pressure being brought on the rulers to change their foreign policy, with the press and the mosques, even though these institutions have traditionally been firmly under the royal thumb, leading the way.
The mainstream national press is becoming increasingly anti-US, as are the sermons delivered during Friday prayers by clerics in the holy city of Mecca. Already, calls to boycott US goods are being heeded, with the McDonald's and Burger King franchises being high-profile casualties. The US is Saudi Arabia's largest trading partner, and Saudi Arabia is the largest US export market in the Middle East. And during the first 10 months of 2001, Saudi Arabia supplied the US with 1.6 million barrels per day of crude oil, or 18 percent of US crude oil imports during that period.
Political analysts point out that there are precedents for the House of Saud giving in to internal pressures, particularly from fundamentalists, and that the present contradictions in the administration's policies make it susceptible once again.
In 1979 a group of religious fanatics occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca. They denounced the legitimacy of the Saudi government, claiming that it was not "Islamic" enough. The government reclaimed the mosque, and the group's leader and most of his followers were executed. However, even though the protestors were killed, the government in effect adopted the very ideology for which they gave their lives.
After the Mecca incident, the Saudi authorities began to impose crushingly strict rules. Women were banned from appearing on television, music was not allowed in the media, stores and malls were closed during the five daily prayer sessions, and the religious police were granted pervasive powers to monitor people's lives. This was done, seemingly, to prevent a recurrence of the Mecca incident, but it served to send a strong message that the extremists were in fact dictating terms.
Similarly, four years ago in Buraydah, a city of about a 150,000 people, fundamentalists raised the flag of Islam on minarets in protest against the House of Saud for 48 hours before the Saudi National Guard was able to subdue them. Again, the incident served to strengthen the monachy's resolve to stick with harsh Islamic principles.
Adherence to this Islamic fundamentalism at the domestic level while following a pro-West foreign policy is creating severe ripples in Saudi society, no better illustrated than by Osama bin Laden, Saudi Arabia's most notorious exile.
Bin Laden broke with the Saudi monarchy over the Gulf War of 1990-91 and now avidly seeks its overthrow. In 1990, bin Laden approached the Saudi defense minister and volunteered to mobilize veterans of the 1979-89 Afghan jihad against Soviet occupation to defend Saudi Arabia against Iraq. The Saudi government declined, preferring a US-led coalition assembled by then president George H W Bush. The US sent about 500,000 troops to Saudi Arabia after US secretary of defense Dick Cheney (now vice president), promised King Fahd that the troops would be removed after the war. More than 5,000 remain in the country, 80 percent of them air force personnel. Ever since, bin Laden has resented the presence of "infidel troops" on the holy land where the Prophet Muhammad founded Islam in the 7th century.
Bin Laden's views are now gaining credence in Saudi Arabia, even among some members of the royalty, in addition to three underground organizations in the country – the Organization of Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula, the Arab Socialist Action Party and the Saudi Hizbullah in the Hijaz. Most of the members of these groups are Saudi nationals of Palestinian and Yemani origin.
The country's population of more than 22 million includes more than 5 million non-nationals (July 2001 estimate), brought in as laborers – making up more than half the labor force. The government in the past granted such workers nationality, but it has stopped the practice, although the workers are still fertile ground for disruptive influence on the thinking and attitudes of the indigenous population. The workers are also susceptible to the doctrines of external political movements, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Thus, the recent events in the Middle East have heightened the contradictions within Saudi Arabia. At the very time that Crown Prince Abdullah is pushing his plan for peace, large sections of the people in his country harbor pro-PLO and similar sympathies. And as the suicide bombers continue their relentless attacks in Israel, the Saudi rulers will come under ever-stronger pressure to rethink their ties with the US – or risk another uprising by their own people.atimes.com/c-asia/DE23Ag06.htmlE-mail this article