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House of Saud Re-Embraces Totalitarianism By: John R. Bradley
ATimes.com | Tuesday, April 12, 2005


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. His website is www.johnRbradley.com.


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