December 20, 2004

Saudi Arabia – The Next Target for Al-Qa’idah?

Al-Qa’idah leader Usamah Bin Ladin released another audiotape that appeared on an Islamic fundamentalist website on December 16. Much of the threats on the tape were leveled at the Saudi royal family, as well as Americans in the kingdom and oil facilities.

Saudi Arabia does not need threats from Usamah Bin Ladin – it has plenty of problems already. There are several external organizations calling for the overthrow of the royal family and the institution of a representative government. Although the United States is calling for more representative governments in the region – such as in Afghanistan and Iraq – they back the Saudi rulers.

The situation is almost reminiscent of Iran in the mid-1970’s. Many of the same factors that resulted in the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979 exist or are developing in Saudi Arabia today. If you look at the Saudi population – the Saudis, not the vast numbers of foreigners working in the kingdom – you find a host of well educated (many in the finest American and European universities) young men with limited job opportunities. The wealth of the country rests with and is controlled by the royal family.

These same youth, having been exposed to Western democracies, see that they have no input to their political system. Educated, underemployed and with no political voice, they are ripe for recruitment by organizations that call for change. Many turn to their religion for a solution. This is ready made for a fundamentalist charismatic leader to arise. Enter Usamah Bin Ladin.

If the Saudi royal family does not address these pressures, they likely will find increased internal opposition that might lead to their overthrow. In the last year, since the attack on a housing compound in Riyadh, they have begun to track down Al-Qa’idah affiliated terrorists. This represents a change in Saudi attitude – they were willing to turn a blind eye as long as there were no attacks in the kingdom. Closely linked to this crackdown is an effort to change the traditional madrasah system in which young boys are indoctrinated into a fanatical, intolerant brand of Islam. The U.S. State Department had a program where American educators were working with Saudi Ministry of Education to review the curriculum. Although the Saudi government (read: royal family) buys into it, the people don't. The program was made public and the American administrators identities published on the internet on an Al-Qa'idah website - they had to be withdrawn for their own safety.

What effect will the threats from Bin Ladin have on the Saudis? It might cause them to work closer with the United States against the Al-Qa’idah organization.