On Mar. 15, two men in a jeep ran a police checkpoint in a Riyadh residential district. After a car chase, both fugitives were killed in a wild gun battle that left police vehicles riddled with bullets. The Saudi authorities identified the dead as Khalid Ali Haj, a senior al Qaeda operative of Yemeni origin, and Abdul Rahman Yazji, a Saudi associate. Haj was said to be No. 3 on the Saudi government's wanted list of 26 top militants.
Shootouts are part of life in Saudi Arabia these days -- and, in a strange way, this is encouraging. Osama bin Laden's former homeland may have been slow to join the battle against Islamic militants, but the Saudi government is now determined to eliminate the violent cells bent both on killing Americans and other expatriates and on overthrowing the Al Saud royal family. And the frustratingly slow pace of reform is speeding up -- even if more can be expected in economic areas than on hot button issues such as education and women's rights.
The Saudis are reacting to what they call their own 9/11: the multiple bombings in Riyadh that killed 35 people last May, followed by the bombing of a housing compound in the capital that killed 18 in November. The bombers aimed to create chaos to spur the House of Saud's overthrow, but the violence is having the opposite effect. "Before, the public was probably in denial. Now, they realize we have a serious problem," says Abdul Muhsin Al-Akkas, a member of the Shura Council, the appointed Parliament.
Under pressure from both foreign and domestic critics, the Saudis are beginning to talk about long-festering issues. That's the first step toward finding solutions to problems that contribute to extremism. The business community is pushing for reform because it sees Saudi Arabia losing out to more open neighbors such as Qatar and Dubai. And the once-docile Saudi press has become fairly lively. One recent article in the English-language daily Arab News reported that Saudi youths often rob gas stations, occasionally beating up attendants. That's a surprising revelation in a place where theft is thought to be rare and is punishable by amputation.
The press is also drawing attention to the government's campaign against the militants. The Al-Watan daily, for instance, regularly publishes mug shots of the most wanted al Qaeda types. Rewards of more than $1 million for information on the whereabouts of suspects have paid off with at least one arrest.
In all, about 600 suspects have been jailed. The Saudi authorities are also working to win over those in prison. They have persuaded three imprisoned radical religious leaders to recant on TV -- dealing the militants a further blow. The government is also maintaining strict control over the content of once-inflammatory Friday mosque sermons and has scrapped some hopelessly xenophobic school textbooks.
Savvy Saudi leaders know that killing militants or locking them up is not enough. They are also trying to address frustrations such as the lack of representative government. The Shura Council has been given more power to initiate legislation, while the government has promised elections to new municipal councils in the fall. Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler, is sponsoring a "national dialogue" in which sensitive topics such as extremism, education, the role of women, and the grievances of the Shiite Muslim minority are discussed at public meetings.
Simultaneously, the government realizes it needs to do more to pump up economic growth to reduce unemployment, now estimated at 13% among Saudi males. It is gradually forcing businesses to replace some of the millions of expatriate workers with Saudis. High oil prices, which have fueled stock and real estate booms, have also helped. Because oil is so crucial to Saudi economic performance, a price crash could quickly bring back gloom, as could a failure by the government to follow through on promising reforms. But for now, the threat from al Qaeda has kicked Saudi society into action -- and may be spurring the system to save itself.
By Stanley Reed