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Bracing for War

Despite these problems, many in the region yearn for change. On a recent day in Riyadh, Mohammed Al-Sarhan, managing director of Al-Safi-Danone Co., a Saudi-French joint venture, groused that he could not figure out how to hire a highly qualified young Saudi woman. The problem: The mutawas, the notorious religious police, would go into conniptions if they discovered a woman working alongside men. "It is frustrating to see such talent go jobless," Sarhan says. "Somebody has to start" bringing women into the top level of Saudi companies, he adds.

Such candid expressions of frustration give some Americans hope. "There is great potential for Saudi Arabia to look a lot more like the U.S. in 20 years," says an American official in Riyadh. "There is a well-developed middle class. Islam melds well with capitalism." After all, the prophet Mohammed was a merchant, Saudis have a long tradition of trade and commerce, and nothing in Islamic doctrine is inherently opposed to business. A democratic Iraq might inspire such change. "It won't happen quickly, but Iraq could act as a mecca for liberals just as Egypt was" for Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, says Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo.

But how far does the U.S. want to go? Real democracy would give an opening not only to moderates but also to governments much less willing to do America's bidding--or even extremists. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 69% of Egyptians had an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. And a Zogby International survey earlier this year found that 87% of Saudis shared that view. The main reason: U.S. support for Israel. If fair elections were held in most countries in the Arab world, the Islamists would stand a strong chance of winning a substantial share of the votes.

Already, the Islamists are getting their message out. Religious scholars circulate anti-U.S. tracts on the Internet and by hand in Saudi Arabia. "Today it is Iraq's turn: Tomorrow it will be the turn of anyone who resists Westernization and secularization," says one. The House of Saud's early opposition to a U.S. invasion has won it more credibility among Islamists. "We feel that they [the royal family] are more with us than they have been in a long time," says Mohsen Al-Awajy, an Islamist who spent four years in jail for his role in a campaign against corruption.

The rulers of most Mideast countries have been around for decades. They have outlasted many changes in government and policy from Washington. Will they survive the era of uncertainty the fall of Saddam will usher in? "The leadership here is always forward-looking," says Turki Al-Faisal. Those leaders will soon be put to the test.

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With Stan Crock in Washington

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