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Analysis: The Saudi ostrich

By CLAUDE SALHANI   |   May 14, 2003 at 6:05 PM
WASHINGTON, May 14 (UPI) -- Has Saudi Arabia's refusal to admit that there might be something fundamentally wrong in the Wahabi kingdom contributed to Monday's triple suicide bombing in Riyadh that killed more than 34 people, including at least seven American citizens?

Indeed, several questions beg to be asked.

What firm actions has the Saudi government undertaken since alarm bells sounded -- in the form of 15 young Saudi hijackers who commandeered and crashed four American civilian aircraft into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania -- on Sept. 11, 2001?

First, did the kingdom's leaders try to dig into the reasons that might have propelled their disaffected youth into allying themselves to the likes of Osama bin Laden and adopting the cause of radical organizations such as al-Qaida? Did they look into what motivated their young people into carrying out such violent acts?

In a country where alcohol is banned, as are cinemas, nightclubs, cafes and other forms of amusements that allow young people to mingle, there is no space permitted for the young to spend their built-up energy -- an energy that simply had to explode sometime, somewhere, somehow.

The only avenue left to many young Saudi men, especially those with an education, and often plenty of leisure time on their hands, was quite naturally, religion. And this is where the Saudi experiment seems to have backfired. They calculated -- wrongly -- that through their tough restrictive religious rules and cultural controls, they could continue to shape, mold and direct the thinking and actions of their youth.

They were grossly mistaken.

Under normal circumstances, a country such as Saudi Arabia, with a per capita gross domestic product of $10,600 (2001 estimate) should not be fertile ground for terrorism. Yet it is.

What programs were undertaken to educate Saudis in the evils of radicalized Islam in the more than one and a half years since the Sept. 11 attacks?

"Nothing that I am aware of," Khaled Saffuri, president of the Washington-based Islamic Institute, told United Press International.

Second, did the Saudi government try to pre-empt further attacks by stepping up security at potentially vulnerable targets, such as the three building complexes that housed mostly foreigners and that were targeted on Monday?

Or, as might be more probable, were they sticking their collective heads in the sand, ignoring the perils, hoping the dangers would simply pass them by?

For the good part of two weeks now there have been increasing "communications" that Islamic militants were gearing up to attack American interests in the country.

"We had indicators that they were planning something. We didn't know exactly what," The New York Times quotes a senior U.S. official as saying.

Were the attacks predictable?

"There were many indications," Saffuri says.

Among the indicators that something was amiss was the discovery during a raid last week that a terrorist safe house only "several hundred yards" from one of the targeted buildings contained a weapons cache, according to one U.S. official. Among the items found was a collection of 55 hand grenades, more than 800 pounds of explosives and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Added to that, were the unusual steps taken by Saudi authorities of broadcasting on national television the names and photographs of more than a dozen suspects the police were seeking to apprehend.

So, why were no decisive actions taken? Herein lies part of the Saudi dilemma -- supposedly, a staunch ally of the United States.

"They are a monarchy without elected representative institutions or political parties. We embrace religious freedom. They rule through religious police. Economically, diplomatically and socially, the Saudi Arabian government has long promoted policies that challenge American beliefs and undermine the basic human rights of their own people," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. These words were said at a hearing on Capitol Hill in June 2002, but, nevertheless, still hold true today.

"If Saudi Arabia had been a more open society all along, the terrorism that now seems to emanate from there would have dissipated over the years," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a member of the House Committee on International Relations, also in June 2002.

"In a free society, people have many different avenues to approach their frustrations, they don't turn to religious fanaticism. In Saudi Arabia that is about all the avenues they left for people to deal with their frustrations," Rohrabacher told UPI at the time.

These attacks came on the heels of a U.S. announcement that it was moving its military base from Saudi Arabia to nearby Qatar, where the U.S. Central Command was headquartered during the recent Iraq war.

Part of al-Qaida's long-standing gripe and one of its demands was that the United States pull its troops out of Saudi Arabia; fundamentalist Muslims considered it insulting to have "infidels" based on the land that houses Islam's two holiest sites -- Mecca and Medina.

The fact that the attacks occurred despite America's intention to withdraw its troops from the kingdom should send a clear message to Saudi Arabia. It is not only the Americans who are in al-Qaida's line of fire. Once the Americans leave, the Saudi royal family will be targeted next.

Maybe now the Saudis will begin to realize they may not be able to appease the fundamentalists, as they wrongly believed they were doing all those years by "buying" protection in the form of financing religious schools -- or madrasas -- and other considerable contributions.

This latest attack should act as their wake-up call. As the English-language Arab News columnist Raid Qusti wrote, "It's about time we got our act together."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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