Tue, May 20, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Saudis look for middle ground

The House of Saud has been trying to keep a lid on extremists in the country but is apparently failing

THE GUARDIAN , RIYADH

ILLUSTATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Last week's spectacular, al-Qaeda-style attack may not have come as a great surprise to moderate Saudi Islamists familiar with the thinking of the extremists in their midst.

The Iraq war brought anti-American feeling in the kingdom to new heights, as well as the militants' determination to give expression to this feeling in violent, "jihadist" deeds.

"They are a volcano waiting to explode," one of them, Muhsin al-Awaji, said in Riyadh, "and I fear that they will strike not just at Americans and British, but at westerners in general."

This fear certainly communicated itself to Saudi Arabia's vast expatriate community. They were confining themselves to their residential compounds, taking taxis rather than their own cars when they did venture out, while the favored weekend haunts, such as Riyadh's old souks, normally teeming with shoppers, were almost deserted.

Yet even for the moderate Islamists, there may have been some surprise in the fact that it happened now. Not only is the Iraq war over, but the Saudi regime has done something at least as important to appease the public's anti-American feeling. It has, implicitly at least, gone a long way to acquiescing in a core al-Qaeda demand: the removal of "infidel" US forces from Saudi soil.

Expected or not, the terrorist attack is a painful blow to the Americans, and an even more painful and ominous one to the House of Saud, at which it was also clearly aimed. It may or may not have been timed to coincide with the visit of US Secretary of State Colin Powell -- such a multi-pronged, closely coordinated operation clearly required long and careful preparation -- but it could hardly have been more timely in the messages it conveys.

The first of these is presumably intended to provide concrete confirmation of what al-Qaeda has been claiming: that, despite the US-led "war on terror," the terrorist network, or those who take their orders or inspiration from it, has lost none of its capacity to strike.

Al-Qaeda achieved what it did despite the strenuous campaign of repression which the Saudi authorities have been waging against it since Sept. 11, 2001.

The message to the House of Saud seems to be that it is an irredeemably "apostate" regime that can no longer do anything to save itself. Clearly, the agreed withdrawal of US troops has not impressed the militants, who are in any case engaged in a struggle that goes well beyond the Arabian Peninsula. This is partly religious and "cultural."

As they see it, America's war on terror is a war on Islam itself, now exemplified in Saudi Arabia by the pressures being exerted on the authorities to reform teaching and curricula in religious schools, thereby treating at source the culture of extremism and violence these have supposedly nurtured. But far more important, for most Arabs and Muslims at least, the struggle is political, with the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq now added to Palestine as its second great source of motivation.

From the Saudi militants' standpoint, it was time -- with Iraq -- for a renewal of jihad, Afghan-style, and the duty of the House of Saud, whose legitimacy is grounded in the same Wahhabist credo to which they themselves subscribe, to direct it. It had, after all, been the House of Saud which collaborated in the 80s with the US to recruit Saudi and Arab mujahidin to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. But now that the "infidel aggressors" were British and American, it put a very different interpretation on its Wahhabism, enlisting the official religious hierarchy to preach against the appropriateness of jihad.

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