Foreign Views: Rocking Riyadh ripping royals
A series of suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia has turned the war on terrorism into an issue that could unseat the oil-rich kingdom’s ruling dynasty
Just before America’s Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, May 13 to promote a new Middle East peace plan, terrorists carried out a series of orchestrated attacks against foreign targets in the capital, Riyadh. According to some reports, at least ten people were killed and more than 160 injured as gunmen shot their way into gated compounds housing westerners and then set off a number of car bombs. A bomb also exploded outside the offices of an American-Saudi company. With the finger of blame being pointed at Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network, the carnage in the oil-rich kingdom underlines the fact that the war on terrorism is far from won.
Many of the casualties in Riyadh were reported to be Americans and other foreign nationals. Attacks against westerners have been increasing in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam—and that of Mr bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the September 11th attacks on America. At first, some Saudi officials tried to ignore or dismiss attacks as the work of petty criminal gangs or the result of feuds among foreigners. But as incidents have grown in intensity, it has become increasingly obvious that Saudi rulers are facing their own war on terrorism. Immediately after the explosions in Riyadh, the price of oil futures rose, reflecting traders’ concern that an escalation of terrorist violence in the region could disrupt supplies.
Mr Powell was in no doubt that the bombings bore all the hallmarks of Al Qaeda. “Once again it reminds us that terrorism is a global phenomenon the United States will not be deterred from pursuing the interests of peace around the world,” he said. If the attacks were not the work of Al Qaeda, then they were probably carried out by groups linked to or sympathetic with Mr bin Laden’s organisation.
American officials had given warning that a terrorist strike was being planned in Saudi Arabia. On May 1st, the American state department warned its citizens against non-essential travel to Saudi Arabia, citing intelligence that terrorist groups were in the “final phases” of planning attacks against the American community there. The car bombings in the luxury communities, where many foreign executives live, were clearly timed to coincide with Mr Powell’s arrival. The official purpose of his visit was to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian “road map” for peace with Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz. The plight of the Palestinians has been the touchstone for Arab support of militant groups. But there were plenty of other things to talk about.
The militants in Saudi Arabia accuse the country’s leadership of being lackeys to American interests, in particular because they have allowed American troops to be stationed on Saudi soil. Since the invasion of Iraq, however, America has reviewed its military presence in the region and recently announced that it would withdraw almost all its forces from the kingdom. After the first Gulf war, around 5,000 American troops had remained in Saudi Arabia to enforce a “no-fly” zone over Iraq, but now that Saddam Hussein has been removed from power that is no longer necessary. America has already moved its regional air headquarters from Saudi Arabia to Qatar.
Because of widespread anger at home against the American-led war in Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s leaders provided the coalition forces with less help than they would have liked. Some analysts have interpreted the American troop pull-out as an attempt to take pressure off Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, allowing the rulers to instigate political reforms without appearing to do so under pressure from Washington. But America would not want political change in Saudi Arabia to become so tumultuous, especially under the threat of terrorism, that it disrupts oil supplies to the West. Iraq may once again become a major producer, and a compliant one under an American-influenced interim leadership, but it could never be a substitute for Saudi Arabia’s vast oil output.
Mr bin Laden and his followers have long accused America of plundering the region’s oil riches. But it is unclear just how much of Al Qaeda’s structure remains after the invasion of Afghanistan, or if it was always a loose alignment of militant groups in different countries. A previously unknown Saudi group, the Mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula, recently vowed to attack American targets worldwide. A senior Saudi official said this month that suspected terrorists were receiving orders directly from Mr bin Laden and that they had been planning attacks against various targets in Saudi Arabia, including the royal family. On May 6th, Saudi Arabia’s security forces seized a big cache of weapons and explosives in Riyadh, but 19 of the suspects managed to escape; rewards of more than $50,000 have been offered to anyone who turns them in. Until now, the big terrorist outrages in Saudi Arabia have mostly been against military targets or defence contractors. In 1996, for instance, a truck bomber killed 19 Americans at a barracks in Dhahran. And in 1995, a car bomb exploded at an American-run military training facility in Riyadh; seven people died, including five American advisers to the Saudi National Guard. The response to the latest attack in Riyadh will be a tough test of Saudi Arabia’s royals, and one that could determine their own survival as leaders. —Economist