As Americans bury the 19 victims of the June 25 explosion in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a nightmare is haunting U.S. foreign policy makers. It's Iran. Not in the sense that Tehran may have been involved in the attack, although it has to be considered a possibility. Rather, the nightmare is that the House of Saud may be going the way of the Shah of Iran, down and out.
Of course, history never repeats itself in exactly the same way. By the end of his 38-year reign, the Shah had become a desperate and possibly deranged autocrat. The 7,000-member House of Saud, by contrast, is anything but a one-man show, and many Al Saud princes still bask in the reflected glory of ancestor Ibn Saud, the charismatic desert warrior who united the Saudi kingdom early in this century. Iran has had a long history of revolutionary agitation and violence, while the only event that brings young Saudis out on the streets these days is a victory by the local football club.
THINK OIL. No, Saudi Arabia in 1996 is not Iran in 1976. But the similarities are disturbing enough that Washington should be reformulating its 50-year-old special relationship with the Al Saud. Otherwise, America risks being dragged into a tragic, even bloodier mess. The U.S. Establishment's embrace of the Shah fueled the extreme anti-American policies of Iranian rebels. Today, hundreds of thousands of ill-educated young Saudis unable to find work in a stagnant economy fiercely resent America's close ties to the billionaire Al Saud princes who wield near-total power. Such youths are ripe to become supporters of Islamic clerics pursuing a radical anti-American agenda.
While it is premature to talk about an overthrow, even a crisis in the U.S.-backed House of Saud would make the "loss" of Iran look like small change. America would be faced with incalculable damage to its global prestige. The demise of Saudi Arabia's discreet moderation would be bad news for the peace process. Problems in Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, would send shock waves through the global economy. And the holy cities of Mecca and Medina make Saudi Arabia sacred soil to more than 1 billion Muslims, who would be upset by any disruption.
So what can the U.S. do? For one, it can encourage the gradual opening up of the political system. The lack of a free press and almost any kind of unfettered political debate in Saudi Arabia only contributes to the increasingly religious radicalization of society. Already, U.S. prodding in the wake of the gulf war pushed King Fahd to set up a Consultative Council of commoners in 1992 to review government policy. Although the council was a welcome step, more needs to be done, including reining in widespread royal-family corruption. Pushing through sorely needed cuts in government spending will be impossible if those at the top are not seen to do their part.
Washington should also require that the Al Saud resolve the thorny issue of royal succession to avoid potential conflicts among the several hundred princes in line to the throne. Time is getting short. Fahd is 75 and in ill health. Crown Prince Abdullah, who has taken over many of Fahd's duties, is 74.
The U.S. must insist that allies such as France, Germany, and Japan pursue a common policy toward political change in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Persian Gulf. Otherwise, there could be a free-for-all to win Saudi business. When Iranian revolutionaries seized 62 U.S. hostages at the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, Bonn and Paris were reluctant to condemn the Islamic regime for fear of losing valuable contracts.
Saudi Arabia doesn't have to go the way of the Shah's Iran. Given the right mix of prodding and support from the U.S., change can be evolutionary, not revolutionary. But as the crescendo of anti-American violence demonstrates, there is no time to lose.