For the second time in six months, a massive bombing attack hit Riyadh, devastating a housing complex and killing 17 people on Nov. 8. That brutal act, in which mostly Arabs died, could turn many Saudis away from al Qaeda-inspired Islamic militants operating in the country. But even so it won't end the troubles of the Saudi royal family.
In fact, Saudi Arabia is entering an era of far greater political ferment, which could put the House of Saud to a severe test. The violence occurs against a backdrop of growing discontent with the royal family and strained ties with the U.S., long the country's most important ally. On Oct. 14, Riyadh witnessed the first street protests in memory. While the police cracked down on the demonstrators, more incidents are likely.
"No way out"
The handful of senior princes who are Saudi Arabia's key decision-makers know they face serious problems. But they don't agree on what to do. They all more or less back a gradual privatization of the state-owned economy. But granting political freedom is more controversial. They fear that going down that road could lead to a constitutional monarchy -- anathema to men used to having thousands of retainers and unlimited budgets.
Other consequences of a political opening could be far more serious. Saudi society remains conservative and deeply religious. Promoting rights of women -- a cherished goal of some Saudi reformers -- would provoke a backlash. And any political openings would almost certainly be filled by Islamists rather than the Western-oriented businesspeople that the Bush Administration might like to see in power. Worse for the House of Saud, a popularly elected government would likely try to bring the royal family to account for decades of mismanagement. "There is no way out. Once [the family] allows freedom of expression, it will collapse," says Saad al-Fagih, a London-based Saudi dissident who has campaigned against the royal family's disregard for laws and civil rights. He helped trigger the October demos with radio broadcasts on a channel that has since been jammed.
It's true that Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler since 1996, is pushing for change. But a nascent opposition says he's moving far too slowly. One criticism: He hasn't opened the economy enough to cut joblessness, which is 27% for 20- to 24-year-olds -- attractive recruits for al Qaeda-linked groups. Recently, 300 Saudi professionals and academics, including 51 women, signed a document that said the kingdom should "admit that being late in adopting radical reforms and ignoring popular participation in decision-making" are the "main reason" the nation faces a security threat. Petitions calling for everything from elections to greater rights for the Shiite minority have been presented to the rulers. Abdullah now promises municipal elections and has begun a "national dialogue" with the Shiites.
Impatient Saudis want more. "The dialogue that has been taking place is very limited, and the underlying economic problems are getting worse," warns Aziz Abu Hamad, a Saudi analyst. Every delay makes the solution even harder.
By Stanley Reed in London
Edited by Rose Brady