A Desert Kingdom Feels the Heat

Pressure is mounting on the Saudi royal family to resist the U.S.

There are no demonstrations against the government in the hot, quiet streets of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's sprawling capital. But there is plenty of disquiet in government offices and private houses. The royal family of Saudi Arabia faces a crucial choice: support possible U.S. reprisals against Afghanistan or heed the increasing anger of the streets and pull back from its traditional ally.

In the coming weeks, Crown Prince Abdullah must wrestle with these issues, which could redefine the Kingdom's relationship with the U.S. Washington will probably press Riyadh to provide intelligence on Islamic extremist groups and on citizens suspected of involvement in the Sept. 11 hijacking of American planes. Washington may also push to use the country as a base for striking terrorist redoubts, and may urge Saudi military participation.

But if the U.S. presses too hard, the Saudis could resist--thus undermining American efforts to build an antiterrorist coalition and hampering the investigation into the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. "Each request [from the U.S.] will be treated on its merits," says Ghazi Algosaibi, Saudi Arabia's ambassador in London. "Unilateral actions by the U.S. are the responsibility of the U.S. alone."

LOATHING. To many Saudis, Bush's war against terrorism is a more difficult cause to support than the 1991 war on Iraq. Saddam Hussein had occupied neighboring Kuwait and made forays into the kingdom itself. Moreover, Saddam, despite his professions of piety, is an adherent of the secular Baath party, which is loathed by religious Saudis.

Saudi attitudes toward Osama bin Laden are more complex. While many Saudis despise him, others admire his anti-American stance. The Palestinian intifada, which has inflamed opinion in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, has added to sympathy for him. But bin Laden poses a threat because he challenges the royal family on religious grounds. Bin Laden says he, not the royal family, protects Islamic holy places from infidel Americans. "This upstart seems to have caught much of the mood of the Islamic world," says Simon Henderson, author of a book on the Saudi succession. "If that's the case, Saudi leadership of [that] is under threat."

UNCERTAIN. Given this state of affairs, Abdullah will have to play the next few weeks carefully. Unlike the invalid King Fahd, in whose name he rules, Abdullah leans more toward neighbors like Iran than the U.S. Although Abdullah has pledged full support for Washington, he probably will offer halfhearted, low-profile help. If oil supplies are disrupted, the Saudis are likely to fill the gap. What's more uncertain is how far they will go in sharing information on Saudi nationals or providing military bases.

Bowing too much to Washington could stir up the Saudi religious Establishment--as well as cause dissident groups such as the banned Jihad organization to launch violent destabilization campaigns. That could threaten vital oil installations and spark upheavals in the long-static royal family. Some analysts speculate about the possibility of a younger prince bidding for power with Islamic allies. Outwardly, however, the royal family remains upbeat. Says Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki, chairman of the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority: "Continuous conflict emanating from military action would frighten investors and be a problem for a while, but the security of the Persian Gulf is pretty much guaranteed."

Of course, the House of Saud is one tough clan. It has survived ordeals as far back as the 1960s, when the Arab nationalism of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser posed a serious threat. This time, however, Saudi Arabia's royal family must cope with the dangers posed by its closest ally--and an enemy within.

By Stanley Reed in London, with John Rossant in Paris

— With assistance by John Rossant

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