Saudi Arabia: Reform or Ruin?
Saudi Arabia: Reform or Ruin?
Gulf Arab Reconciliation Hides Simmering Tensions
Gulf Arab Reconciliation Hides Simmering Tensions
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Saudi Arabia: Reform or Ruin?

Last week's bold assault by militants on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah is a powerful reminder that Saudi Arabia remains a deeply troubled nation.

While escalating crises in neighbouring Iraq and Iran have captured much of the world's attention, this is in fact only the latest indication of worsening political tensions. These in all likelihood do not threaten the royal family's regime - at least not now. But if left untreated, they almost certainly will snowball into further violence. There is a way forward, but it requires both an understanding of the drama that is unfolding and a radical reversal in how the regime handles it.

Most importantly, the Saudis must engage domestic groups and integrate them into a more open political system. Anything less will assure sustained anxiety and a fertile environment for radicals.

Since May 2003, the kingdom has been engaged in a full-scale battle against domestic militants.  Despite a severe crackdown by security forces and assurances that the regime is winning its domestic war on terror, the Saudi Arabian offshoot of Al-Qaeda has proven resilient and periodically capable of carrying out spectacular attacks.

No consensus exists regarding the strength of the extremists, though they clearly operate well outside the mainstream.  Nevertheless, this latest assault signals that while Saudi security forces may be working earnestly, their hard-line approach is not working. And there is little reason to believe that the militants cannot and will not strike again.

Attacks by extremists, although by far the more deadly signals of dissent in the kingdom, are not the only ones. Other, non-violent groups, are vying for influence. The longer they are kept on the margins, however, the more likely they are to radicalize.

Among them, old antagonists have recently taken to criticizing the regime's policies. On the eve of the siege on Fallujah, 26 Saudi clerics issued a statement urging Iraqis to unite in toppling the occupation. Their message, ostensibly aimed at Iraqis, targeted a domestic audience as well, sending a political signal to the regime that it can neither ignore popular opinion - which opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq - nor dismiss the clerics' influence.

These are not just any clerics. The signatories included several well-known personalities with a long history of activism against the regime, notably Salman al-Awdah and Safar al-Hawali. Keen until recently to focus on protecting their authority over social and cultural issues, particularly since their release from prison in the 1990s, the re-politicization of Awdah and Hawali, most clearly expressed in their public call for jihad, is important. It may also be ominous, as Awdah at least, had recently shown a willingness to cooperate with other Saudi activists and the regime in pursuit of peaceful change.

Disturbingly, the jihad fatwa suggests that his anger with domestic political dysfunction may be ascendant. If so, others will follow, pointing to the opening of important fault-lines that bode ill for long-term stability.

Yet another dissident has re-emerged; the London-based Saad al-Faqih, who became notorious in the 1990's for anti-regime activities. Faqih has never concealed his goal of overthrowing the Saud regime and is seeking to organize a campaign of civil disobedience. He called for anti-regime demonstrations to take place in Riyadh this Thursday and knows full-well that security forces will deal harshly with such a public display. Indeed, he is counting on it.

Efforts to co-opt or crush opposition have met with little success. If they continue to generate heat in the kingdom, these groups will likely inspire more violence and will undoubtedly invite Saudi security forces to meet them with the same.

The path toward avoiding future violence has been presented to Saudi rulers, although they are reluctant to embark upon it for it inevitably will entail loosening their grip on power. The challenge is to reform a political system that has long-excluded participation and to re-forge trust between rulers and citizens, repairing damage to the regime's credibility and giving Saudis a stake in the process. The opaque and closed Saudi political system fuels distrust and empowers dissidents. Not surprisingly, because the kingdom's rulers forbid frank discussion of political challenges, the most radical voices enjoy the broadest support.

Over a year ago, several groups of home-grown Saudi reformers, largely unorganized but all in pursuit of reshaping institutions and generating greater political participation, transparency and the rule of law, presented a program for gradual change rooted in Islamic values. The reformers, a group of intellectual and social elites, did not enjoy broad social support. Still, there were promising but tenuous signs that potential coalitions between them and religious leaders like Awdah were possible. That promise is fading.

Since its initial lukewarm embrace of the reform agenda, which will culminate in limited and largely cosmetic local elections in February, the regime has responded by co-opting those it could co-opt while silencing or arresting those it could not.

This is a counterproductive and dangerous strategy, one that guarantees continued ferment. Political liberalization is not without risks, as unsavoury characters will certainly continue to seek to influence the shape of the system.  Not taking the chance is even more dangerous, however. If the regime continues to marginalize reformers eager to build relations and work with the current rulers in a more open system it will strengthen the hand of those who seek a much more radical, and daunting, alternative.

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