Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Saudi regime's worries extend beyond terrorism

ROYAL PROBLEMS Following the killing of a senior al-Qaeda operative, the Saudi regime appears relaxed about the terrorist group. But it has other issues on its mind

THE GUARDIAN , RIYADH,SAUDI ARABIA

The mood among expatriates in Riyadh remained somber Friday. Friday is a holiday and several groups held barbecues within compound walls. But it is only a week since the beheading of US engineer Paul Johnson, and there is genuine fear of being shot at or kidnapped.

The expats have not been comforted by the Saudi government's offer to allow them to carry guns for their own protection.

In one compound in the Saudi capital, nerves were not helped by a double murder on Thursday night although, for once, it was not related to al-Qaeda's terrorist network.

The atmosphere is comparatively relaxed in Jeddah, on the Red Sea, where the government established its summer base last week for its four-month annual escape from the heat of the capital. Ministers remain cautious in public, but in private are optimistic. There is a feeling that the worst is behind them, because of last week's killing of the senior al-Qaeda operative Abdelaziz al-Muqrin.

One official said: "Prince Sultan [the defense minister] will not say this, but with the killing [of Muqrin] we have taken the edge off al-Qaeda for the summer."

This view could turn out to be premature, and it is not one shared by the expats, many of whom remain intent on leaving.

Not since the House of Saud founded this ultra-orthodox Islamic kingdom in 1932 has the future of the country been so uncertain. "The jury is out," said one western diplomat.

Corruption

Al-Qaeda, which sprang out of Saudi Arabian soil, is only one of the challenges confronting this absolute monarchy. In-fighting in the royal family has raised doubts about an orderly succession.

King Fahd, the ruler since 1982, is 82 years old and has been incapacitated since he suffered a stroke a decade ago. There is enormous resentment at the extravagances of the royal family: Some call it patronage, others corruption.

Estimates of how much of the national oil earnings the royal family receives vary between 10 percent and 40 percent. A journalist, one of the growing number of Saudis pressing for reform, said: "There are lots of social ills. You have corruption; people eating the fat of the land."

Such criticism comes on top of a dangerous demographic imbalance, in which more than 60 percent of the population is under 18.

Resentment

Unemployment is at least 15 percent and the education system is a shambles. It is against this background that sympathy has grown in the poorer parts of Riyadh and elsewhere in Saudi for al-Qaeda, whose twin objectives are the removal of westerners from the Arabian peninsula and the overthrow of the House of Saud.

Al-Qaeda has been helped by widespread resentment, even among the most moderate of Saudis, at the US and Britain for the occupation of Iraq, support for Israel and failure to help the Palestinians.

Jamal Khashoggi, an adviser to the Saudi ambassador to London, Prince Turki al-Faisal, and a former editor of the newspaper al Watan, warned against seeing al-Qaeda as a forerunner to revolution.

Khashoggi, who was in Jeddah this week, said: "It is not an insurgency. They are small in number but dangerous. There were only four at Khobar but we saw what they can do."

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