Politics & Policy

Letter From Riyadh

Are we witnessing a Saudi glasnost?

In the sprawling desert city where Osama bin Laden was born almost half a century ago, last week the Saudis held their first international counterterrorism conference. A couple of days after the conference ended, Riyadh was the first city to vote in the only nationwide elections that have been held since the modern Saudi kingdom was founded three quarters of a century ago. Neither the conference nor the election–which was for only half of the seats on Riyadh’s municipal councils–was anything more than an incremental step along the road to an honest self-assessment about how al Qaeda was incubated within the kingdom, but both are indicative of a gradualist Saudi glasnost that may mark the beginnings of democratization and an enlarged civil society no longer amenable to the breeding of terrorists.

It is hard to imagine either the terrorism conference or Riyadh’s election taking place except in the context of the wave of more than 20 terrorist attacks that swept the kingdom beginning in May 2003–attacks that targeted Western expatriates, Saudi security personnel, and oil workers and killed 129 people. The multiple terrorist strikes gave those urging some measure of political reform a powerful argument with which to overcome the objections of those who wanted to maintain the House of Saud’s monopoly on power. And where previously Saudi officials such as Prince Nayef, the powerful minister of the interior, publicly denied the existence of al Qaeda in the kingdom and opined that Zionists were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, a different tone has been struck in the past year as the royal family has come to realize that al Qaeda poses a substantial threat.

Tacking Terror

In the first phase of eliminating al Qaeda, the Saudi strategy has been an aggressive military and intelligence effort to capture or kill terrorists such as Abdalaziz al-Muqrin, the group’s local military commander, who personally executed American helicopter-maintenance specialist Paul Johnson last June. Two days after a video of Johnson’s beheading surfaced on the Internet, security forces killed al-Muqrin. According to Saudi officials, over the past two years more than 90 other militants have been killed and 800 detained. An important facet of this counterterrorist effort are U.S.-supplied drones equipped with infra-red heat-seeking technology that fly over sparsely populated areas along the Yemeni-Saudi border locating remote farms where members of al Qaeda are holed up.

The second phase of the counterterror campaign is a hearts-and-minds operation to persuade the Saudi public of the evils of terrorism. Public-service announcements on Saudi television now routinely show the gruesome aftermath of terrorist attacks, while ATM machines print out messages conveying their harms. More important, a number of senior Saudi clerics have released statements condemning the terrorists. Most prominent among them is the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, a direct descendant of Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, the cleric whose religious and military alliance with the Saudi family in the 18th century created the first Saudi kingdom. In a statement published in al Madinah newspaper, al-Sheik said, “Attacking a building and throwing explosives, killing innocent people, frightening the populace and undermining the stability of society run contrary to the teaching of Islam.” Al Sheik also condemned the 9/11 attacks as “gross crimes and sinful acts.” While such statements are open to the criticism that they come from “government sheiks” toeing the new Saudi line, the fact remains that there has been widespread condemnation of terrorism amongst senior clerics in the past year. In addition, some 2,000 of the Kingdom’s 100,000 clerics have lost their jobs for making inflammatory statements, although, after what one Saudi official describes as “retraining,” most of those fired clerics have been reinstated.

The Saudis are also turning one of al Qaeda’s key weapons, the Internet, against the group. For the past several years al Qaeda’s Saudi arm has maintained two web-based magazines, Al Battar and Sawt-al-Jihad, where one can find training tips about how to clean AK47s and strategic advice urging attacks on economic targets. Now Saudi clerics are using the Internet to persuade al Qaeda sympathizers that they have strayed from the path of true Islam. Islamic Affairs minister Saleh al-Sheikh told reporters at the terrorism conference, “We conducted a dialogue with 800 of them and more than a quarter were convinced.” It is not easy to assess the validity of such claims, but a similar dialogue between clerics and al Qaeda sympathizers in neighboring Yemen has yielded positive results.

The terrorism conference opened on February 5th as delegates from some 50 countries arrived at Riyadh’s King Abdul Aziz conference center, a vast palace decorated in a tasteful version of the Louis Farouk style favored by Middle Eastern potentates. Security was intense with helicopters buzzing overhead, hundreds of soldiers lining the approaches to the conference center, and blast barriers ringing the site. The last thing the government wanted was an attack in the middle of the conference that had attracted media organizations from around the world enticed by an unusually relaxed visa policy.

Inside the conference center, under chandeliers the size of a Manhattan studio apartment, Crown Prince Abdullah delivered the keynote address, making no mention of al Qaeda and explaining instead that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance and emphasizing that terrorist groups benefit from arms-smuggling, drug-trafficking, and money-laundering. Over the next four days of the conference those uncontroversial themes were reiterated constantly–a shrewd way of taking off the table thorny questions about the causes of terrorism that would have derailed the conference. The role of authoritarian governments in the Middle East or the Arab-Israeli conflict in spawning terrorist groups was nor discussed, nor was there discussion of state sponsors of terrorism such as Syria and Iran, both of which sent delegations to the conference. (Israel was not invited.) After his address, the 80-year-old crown prince, the de facto Saudi ruler, shook the hand of each of the several hundred people attending the conference who all then repaired to a Versailles-sized banqueting hall to tuck into a sumptuous lunch of Scottish smoked salmon, fresh lobster, and veal medallions in black-truffle sauce served by fleets of liveried servants.

Quite what the Saudi conference will achieve in the long term is not easy to say, though the fact that it happened at all may be achievement enough. Crown prince Abdullah’s key proposal was for the establishment of an international counterterrorism center, the mechanics of which were never described. The head of the U.S. delegation, Homeland Security advisor Frances Fragos Townsend, cautioned reporters that “the center would not end the need for bilateral exchange of information. Nothing would.” The proposal for an international center may eventually devolve into something more practicable, such as the proposal made by Bahrain for a regional counterterrorism center consisting of countries in the Gulf, several of which are now facing attacks by al Qaeda-affiliated groups.

“The beginning of something”

It is also unclear what the long-term implications of the election in Riyadh will be. Certainly, the election held on February 10 is a precedent, albeit a small one, as voters cast their ballots for only half of the members of their municipal councils and the government will continue to appoint the rest. While women were not allowed to participate in the elections either as voters or as candidates, the Arab News reported that more than 5,000 male prisoners were encouraged to cast their votes, perhaps in an effort to increase the pool of voters, only 150,00 of whom had registered out of a possible 600,000 eligible to do so. The lethargic rate of voter registration may have reflected skepticism among the public that the elections would achieve much of anything.

But then a strange thing happened as election day drew near; campaign posters started appearing on every street corner and more than 600 candidates declared candidacies for the seven open seats on the Riyadh city council. Retail politics Saudi style involved candidates’ setting up tents that drew hundreds of men to listen to campaign speeches and to feast on lavish spreads of lamb and rice as they warmed themselves by log fires to ward off the chill of the desert night.

None of this comes cheap. Abdulrahman al-Humedhi estmated he spent $100,000 on his campaign–a lot of money for a college professor, which he is. Al-Humedhi said his platform “stresses providing service for the poor, libraries, and parks.” He admitted it was a “risky investment” with so many candidates running, but even if he lost it was worth it, he said. “I’m happy to get myself exposed.”

Badr Saedan, the 41-year-old scion of a Riyadh real-estate dynasty, who ran one of the splashiest campaigns, explained that he was running on a nuts-and-bolts platform of affordable housing and a clean environment. Saedan said his Ph.D. in construction management from Dundee, Scotland, made him well qualified to deal with some unglamorous but important issues: “We don’t have enough sewage coverage for the city. We have a problem with landfills that are not safe because the city is expanding.” Milling around by the food tables, Faisal al-Rwali, a 40-year-old financial analyst, said that “tonight I made up my mind” to vote for Saedan. Al-Rwali expressed the hope that the municipal election was “maybe a test from the government to see how we act, to later give us a parliament.” Mohamed al-Qudhaieen, a heavily bearded professor of linguistics who was also attending the campaign rally, said he remained undecided how to vote, but “it’s great for the country. Our hope is there will be more.”

The day of the election, most of Riyadh’s population of 4 million went about its business as usual, as foreigners, women, and males under the age of 21–the vast majority of the population–could not vote. At a polling station set up in the basketball court of a school in a middle-class neighborhood, dozens of men in headscarves and long robes milled about, dealing with the complexities of a ballot featuring hundreds of choices. Sitting at one end of the court was 44-year-old Abdullah al-Amari, who was fingering a set of yellow prayer beads. Al-Amari, who teaches water-source management, was savoring the moment after voting: “This is the beginning of something. My way of thinking, it’s excellent.” For those who had not registered to vote he said they had made, “A big mistake, they should vote for their children’s future.”

On the northern side of town, an area of opulent marble houses sheltered by high walls, I found another polling station, this one used by members of the royal family. A tall prince regally dressed in a black robe with gold fringes, Mohamed bin Saud bin Khalid, told a gaggle of reporters that he voted for “someone I know well, someone I know is competent.” A French TV crew asked him the $64 billion dollar question: “Is the future of the kingdom to be a constitutional monarchy?” The prince replied, “Let’s wait and see”–which is what the House of Saud has been doing with some success for decades.

A senior Saudi official emphasized why a wait-and-see policy is prudent: “If there were general elections tomorrow the Islamists and tribals would win because they are the most organized.” A similar point was made by Professor Saleh al-Mani, an urbane political scientist at King Saud University, “The elections in Iraq have elected the mullahs.” Unlikely support for a gradualist approach also came from Soliman Al-But’hi, a landscape designer who once also worked for the El Haramain charity, which has been designated by the U.S. Treasury department as a supporter of terrorism. As a result, the Saudi government has banned Al-But’hi’s travel out of the kingdom and has frozen his bank account. As we sat cross-legged on the floor of a restaurant built around a courtyard designed to evoke the desert heartland of Arabia, Al-But’hi asked me, “If the House of Saud leaves what happens? Without the House of Saud there is chaos.”

Peter Bergen is a fellow at the New America Foundation, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a terrorism analyst for CNN.

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