Residents of the tiny provincial capital of Saudi Arabia's northernmost province
last week witnessed a grisly scene in the main public square: the corpses of three
militants tied to poles, on top of which were placed their severed heads. The
three - who returned to the kingdom after fighting in Afghanistan - were beheaded
in Sakaka, the capital of al-Jouf province, after being convicted of murdering
the region's deputy governor, a top religious court judge and a police chief.
They also killed a Saudi soldier, and kidnapped a foreign national.
That small-scale rebellion in al-Jouf, along with a prison riot and a rare
public demonstration in support of the Palestinians, occurred in a region that
is a power base of the al-Sudairy branch of the al-Saud ruling family. The branch,
known as the "Sudairy Seven", includes King Fahd and his six full
brothers, who hold most of the key government posts. Saudi officials admitted
in January last year that the rebellion's three leaders had attracted the support
of dozens of locals. At one stage, perhaps fearing an explosion of violence
or even a popular uprising, some 8,000 soldiers from the National Guard were
deployed in the nearby city of Tabuk.
At its height in 2003, the unrest had seemed to represent in microcosm the
kingdom-wide tensions that threatened to spill over into a general uprising.
The rebellion's end, then, with the crudely symbolic public display of its leaders'
heads on poles, could now likewise be seen as marking the al-Saud's triumph
over the most extreme of its homegrown enemies - at least for now.
The al-Saud regime appears to have got the upper-hand in its battle with radical
Islamists. Al-Qaeda's suspected chief in Saudi Arabia, Saleh al-Aoofi, was reportedly
among at least 16 militants killed last week in three days of fierce gun battles
with security forces in the north of the kingdom. Another two of the 26 most-wanted
terrorists were confirmed killed in that and another clash in the capital Riyadh,
leaving only three from the list still at large.
Through its actions against militants and close, behind-the-scenes cooperation
with US, British and French intelligence services, the regime has convinced
all but the most entrenched anti-Saudi voices in Washington that it is a crucial
and reliable ally in the global "war on terrorism". Crown Prince Abdullah,
the de facto leader, is expected to meet with US President George W Bush at
his Crawford, Texas, ranch later this month, signaling the importance Bush continues
to place on US-Saudi relations (notwithstanding the pre-election excitement
over the issue). Partial elections for municipality councils, dismissed by the
vast majority of Saudis as a waste of time and in which even many senior princes
did not bother to set an example by voting, have meanwhile given other pro-al-Saud
voices in the West - who often have links to Saudi-funded think-tanks and/or
the arms and oil industries - an additional reason to champion the regime as
a force for modernization and democratization.
In reality, the opposite is true. The regime is not giving up power or changing
its historically repressive domestic policies in the face of opposition, but
- more predictably - closing ranks and reasserting its totalitarian rule. Emboldened
by its success in the domestic "war on terror", which got under way
only after their rule was directly threatened, the al-Saud is flexing its other
muscles so that the masses, too, are left in no doubt that it is back in total
control. As with other Arab regimes, it is using the "war on terror"
to silence all dissent, but in ways that have peculiar Saudi characteristics.
A few days after the al-Jouf executions, for instance, six Somali nationals
were beheaded together in Jeddah for the crime of armed robbery. The six killed
no one, meaning the punishment was grossly unfair, even by the standards of
Saudi Arabia's strict code of Islamic Sharia law. The Somalis had served their
initial five-year sentence, and had also been flogged; they were not even aware
before being led to the chopping block that they had suddenly been sentenced
to death, according to human rights groups. Hailing from an impoverished, war-ravaged
country whose government can be guaranteed to ignore the sorry plight not only
of its citizens abroad but even those at home, the Somalis were easy prey for
a regime eager to do whatever it can to instill fear in the restless Saudi population.
In the two years following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when reformist voices
were in the ascendancy and pressure from Washington meant the al-Saud had to
at least pretend to behave like civilized rulers, it was reported in domestic
newspapers that there was an increasing recognition that the death penalty was
not working as a deterrent. But at least 40 people have been publicly beheaded
this year alone, more than during the whole of last year. And while there had
been a wider debate in the Saudi media about the social causes of crime, now
scare stories blaming "African immigrants" abound in a government-sponsored
campaign aimed at diverting attention away from the real causes: corruption,
massive unemployment and a lack of respect for authority.
The treatment of Saudi gay men, too, seemed to be improving when international
uproar followed an Interior Ministry statement in January 2002 that three men
in the southern city of Abha had been "beheaded for homosexuality".
The report provoked widespread condemnation from gay and human-rights groups
in the West - and a swift denial from an official at the Saudi Embassy in Washington,
DC. Tariq Allegany, an embassy spokesman, said the three were beheaded for the
sexual abuse of boys, adding: "I would guess there's sodomy going on daily
in Saudi Arabia, but we don't have executions for it all the time."
The kingdom's Internet Services Unit, responsible for blocking sites deemed
"unIslamic" or politically sensitive, even unblocked access to a home
page for gay Saudi surfers after being bombarded with critical emails from the
US. A S Getenio, manager of GayMiddleEast.com, said at the time Saudi Arabia
seemed concerned about the bad publicity blocking the site would bring, "at
the time it was involved in a multi-million dollar advertising campaign in the
US to improve its image".
Now the al-Saud have no such inhibitions. The website is once again blocked,
and the Saudi religious police - acting on "tip offs" - are raiding
gay gatherings in Jeddah on an almost monthly basis. More than 100 young men
caught dancing and "behaving like women" at a private party were sentenced
this month to a total of 14,200 lashes, after a trial behind closed doors and
without defense lawyers. The men were also given jail sentences of up to two
years. This witch-hunt, like the one targeting "African immigrants",
also serves to deflect public attention from the royal family's indulgence and
mismanagement. But it additionally makes the al-Saud seem more Islamist than
the Islamists, as they try to steal the radicals' clothes to shore up support
among the masses.
The paradox, then, is that instability in the kingdom over the past two years,
interpreted in the West as possibly threatening the regime's very existence,
in the end helped it not only survive but consolidate its iron grip on power.
It was one factor, for instance, that sent the price of a barrel of oil skyrocketing
to all-time highs.
At the same time, the violence hindered, rather than helped, those who were
pushing for peaceful democratic changes. No one knows that better than Saudi
Arabia's three leading reformists and their lawyer, who are languishing in jail
in Riyadh after calling for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and
an independent judiciary. Peaceful public demonstrations have been ruthlessly
crushed, with some of the participants sentenced to lashings and jail.
Their organizer, Saad al-Faqih, who heads the London-based opposition group
The Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, was bizarrely linked by the US to
an alleged plot by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to kill Crown Prince Abdullah,
the details conveniently "leaked" to the New York Times. Then, with
backing from the United Kingdom government, the US got him listed by the United
Nations as an al-Qaeda supporter and funder. This whole travesty was hastily
concocted, say other Saudi dissidents, at the behest of the al-Saud, who were
beginning to realize with alarm that al-Faqih's calls for change could potentially
lead a peaceful revolution.
The kingdom now has an estimated US$60 billion budget surplus, and has announced
massive new infrastructure projects. Flush with cash, the regime again seems
to be resorting to the tried and tested, following the strategy of spending
ostentatiously to keep the people happy or satisfied, or at least not dissatisfied,
just as had been the case in the oil boom years of the 1970s. Once again, it
wants to be seen as the goose laying the golden egg. But it is fool's gold.
The regime has always sought to buy the loyalty of the Saudi people by providing
a cradle-to-grave welfare system, and crush all those who refused to play the
game. But by once again dealing with the symptoms and not the causes, the regime
is merely tightening the lid on a pressure cooker in an attempt to delay the
inevitable. And what worked in the 1970s, with a population of less than 10
million, will not work with a population of 24 million.
The hoped-for stability is therefore delusional in a country where underlying
social and economic problems are not being addressed, and to where thousands
of Saudi jihadis will return in due course from neighboring Iraq. Indeed, unconfirmed
reports on Islamist websites say dozens of Saudi jihadis have returned to the
kingdom from Iraq in recent months specifically to plan a fresh wave of attacks
against the oil industry, following an unprecedented call by Saudi dissident
Osama bin Laden last December for just such attacks.
All the talk now on Islamist websites is about the remarkably vulnerable Saudi
oil pipeline network. It is not a matter of if, but when, those attacks start
to take place, in a second wave of violence that will once again punish the
al-Saud regime for burying its head in the oil-rich sand.
John R Bradley is the author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis.
He has reported extensively from Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East for
many publications, including The Economist, The New Republic, Salon, The Independent,
The London Telegraph, The Washington Times, and Prospect. See his website.
(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.)