West must tackle Saudi regime
by Stephen Schwartz
British Airways has suspended its eight weekly flights into Saudi Arabia and the UK's Foreign Office (FO) has restated its warning against UK nationals, including 30,000 expatriates working in the kingdom, undertaking only essential travel there. The immediate reason is that the government has received "credible intelligence of a serious threat to UK aviation interests in Saudi Arabia". The longer-term one is that BA and the FO are now waking up to the fact that Saudi Arabia is near deep crisis. The actions of both the airline and government follow the announcement that Saudi authorities have arrested a cell of 10 alleged extremists who intended to attack a British target. But coincidentally, and confusingly, the Saudis decided to release six British subjects and a Canadian, who had been convicted in a Saudi court for their supposed involvement in a bombing campaign.
At the root of the evident disarray in Saudi Arabia are the patent contradictions that govern the kingdom. The first is the fact that Saudi justice has about the same meaning today as Soviet justice had two decades ago. For those born and brought up in the kingdom, it means submission to representatives of the Wahhabi sect, the most extreme form of Muslim fundamentalism, who order floggings at a rate previously unknown in the history of Islamic jurisprudence. They also use public beheadings in the spirit of public intimidation.
Expatriates in Saudi Arabia also suffer the dark night of Wahhabism. Even the American troops who have protected the Saudi monarchy for years are prevented from observing non-Muslim religious services. Foreign women, like Saudi women, are strictly forbidden to drive automobiles.
Saudi power in the peninsula is also based on a deception. The House of Saud has always maintained a close alliance with the western, Christian powers to assure its political dominance at home, while the Wahhabi clerics preach jihad against the world. But now the arrangement is collapsing, for reasons both external and internal.
In foreign affairs, after the rise of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, who challenged their claims to Islamic authenticity, Saudis sought to use their colossal oil revenues to impose Wahhabism by force on global Islam. Wahhabis succeeded in setting up a satellite regime under the Taliban in Afghanistan and made inroads into Pakistan, which remains the main frontline state in the battle against Islamic extremism. The Saudis maintain their effort to take over the legitimate cause of the Chechens. Saudi imams, meanwhile, continuously incite their followers to go north of their border in murderous attacks on coalition troops in Iraq.
Some powerful westerners remain blinkered to these realities. Many repeat the standard line that describes Saudi Arabia as an enemy of Osama bin Laden and a reliable ally in the war against terrorism.
But the truth is beginning to emerge. The general counsel for the US Treasury department recently testified to the US senate that the kingdom is the "epicentre" of funding terrorism in general and Al-Qaeda in particular. This is why raids this month have uncovered that terrorist cells are more embedded in Saudi Arabia than many analysts had earlier thought.
But it is getting harder to hide the truth because the internal problems of the Saudi regime are becoming too evident. They are easily known to anybody who spends time with ordinary Saudis. They despise the religious militia or "mutawwiyya," for example. But their continuation is an issue on which Saudi Prince Nayef, minister of the interior, and Osama bin Laden, are in full agreement.
Contrary to bogus polls conducted on Saudi territory, the victims of Saudi rule do not love bin Laden. According to dissident Saudis I meet every week, average Saudi citizens do not hate the West. They are also not obsessed with Israel and the Palestinians. They are ordinary people who want to live in a normal country that would resemble Malaysia more than any other Islamic society.
But their state's policies have led to a situation where BA no longer finds it safe to fly into the kingdom. The only solution now is for the West to undertake a forthright approach to those few members of the royal family, reputedly led by Crown Prince Abdullah, who perceive the catastrophe approaching. Saudi Arabia must provide the US with full disclosure about its subjects' role in 9/11; it must sever all connection between the state and Wahhabi ideology; it must turn a page in its history and respond to its subjects', and its foreign partners', legitimate need to deal with it as with any other legitimate, respectable state. Chaos may be avoided, but a transition away from the ugly past can no longer be delayed.