The Saudi ‘royal’ family rarely commits the error of publicly expressing anxiety or doubt about the durability of the House of Saud, or of openly criticising its US protectors’ backing for Israel. Yet fear of the reaction of Saudis outraged by their government’s support for the US-led “war on terrorism”, and the unprecedented criticism in the Western media of the family’s repressive rule, have led its members to commit both errors in recent weeks.
The royals calculated that by taking out paid advertisements in the Arab and western press on what the government has done for the Saudi people, and by taking Washington to task publicly for its support of Israel, they could avoid being dismissed for Uncle Sam’s poodle. But the advertisements have only succeeded in being interpreted as a public admission of anxiety about their future, and president George W. Bush has responded by stepping up his support for Israel, declaring the “Islamic resistance terrorist” Yasser Arafat responsible for the “violence in the region” because of his failure to control Palestinian ‘terrorists’.
Bush effectively closed the Arab rulers’ escape-routes that Arab allies of the US, like Saudi Arabia, had been hoping for when he froze the accounts of Arab groups, claiming that they were financing Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and called on Yasser Arafat to arrest all Islamic activists listed by Israel as terrorists. Bush lined up behind Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister responsible for the murder of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the last year, and charged with war crimes in connection with his role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres (1982). According to Western media reports, the US president also put strong pressure on Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian rulers to induce Arafat to carry out Sharon’s demands: pressure which which those rulers have caved in.
US and Saudi sources have recently been quoted as saying that Saudi leaders – and Egyptian and Jordanian officials – had told Arafat to stand up to ‘Islamic extremists’ and end the violence against Israel. The report in the International Herald Tribune quoted a Saudi official as saying: “They are telling him, ‘Do something. It’s time to stop it’.” It also quoted a Western official as saying that similar messages were sent to Arafat by president Husni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan. Adding that they were telling Arafat “roughly the same thing secretary of state Colin Powell is telling him”, the western official said while Arab leaders hate Sharon they “are also frightened”.
It is presumably this fear that induced the Saudis and other Arab leaders to give up commenting on Israeli bombing of Palestinian towns and villages. They are now also calling on “both sides to end the violence”. Instead of criticising the Israeli bombing, “they have publicly put the onus on both sides to curb violence”, the newspaper report said, describing this as “a potentially important rhetorical shift” on the part of Arab leaders.
As a result of all this, the Saudi royals are in greater danger of being confronted by a local resistance. Instead of receiving help from Washington to boost their image as allies that can influence it to be less partial to Israel, they have been told to force Arafat to comply with Sharon’s demands and help defeat the Palestinian intifada. There are signs that as a result the House of Saud is beginning to get an intifada on its own territory. Local support for Usama bin Ladin and Afghani resistance to the US war has been growing among young Saudis, and several prominent ulama are publicly calling for jihad against Uncle Sam in defiance of a government ban.
Support for bin Ladin is particularly strong among the growing number of Saudi youths who cannot get jobs at a time when the government can no longer pay them unemployment benefits. Many young Saudis cannot count any more on getting free university education. Before the ‘royal’ family frittered away the country’s wealth, and while the country’s population was small, young Saudis could look forward to lucrative jobs or to free education. Signs of growing support for Bin Ladin among the young are the increasing number of youths volunteering to fight in Afghanistan, even at this late hour, and the frequency with which tapes of his speeches are being exchanged throughout the kingdom.
An increasing number of Saudi ulama are also issuing fatwas and giving speeches calling for jihad against the Americans. Shaikh Hamodah al-Shu’aibi, whose fatwas and speeches have been posted on the internet, is only one of the more prominent of these ulama. According to him, assistance for the Afghans and support for their jihad against the Americans is the duty of every Muslim, while any Muslim individual or government helping the US campaign (by either funding or fighting) is considered to be kafir. The 72-year-old Shaikh is beginning to influence many young Saudis.
The ruling family, now beginning to show signs of desperation, has moved against both the ulama and the admirers of Bin Ladin; some have been sent to prison. But this is not intimidating many. Rather, it is beginning to lay the basis for a local intifada; or, as the west sees it, the foundation for “creating terrorists”.
Mr. Iqbal Siddiqui is Editor of Crescent International and Research Fellow at the Institute of Islamic Contemporary Thought.