The Deadly Rage Against Riyadh’s Repressive Regime

Charles William Maynes is editor of Foreign Policy

The shocking terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia on an apartment complex housing U.S. Air Force personnel and their families suggests that America may have identified the wrong enemy in the Persian Gulf area. Since the Gulf War, the United States has followed a policy of dual containment against Iraq and Iran--deemed the key threats to regional security. But the real threat might be the rotting social structure of Saudi Arabia itself, exacerbated by a massive U.S. military presence.

Tuesday’s blast may begin the process of dispelling illusions. This is the second attack on U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia in the past 12 months. On Nov. 13, 1995, a bomb exploded outside a U.S. training center in Riyadh, killing five Americans and two others and wounding 60 people. For the previous 60 years, such an attack was unimaginable, but it is only since the Gulf War that U.S. armed forces have been permanently stationed on Saudi soil.

In retrospect, the Gulf War, which seemed to entrench the U.S. position in the region, may have ultimately weakened it. An Islamist opposition has arisen in Saudi Arabia--partly in opposition to the U.S. military presence, which the Pentagon claims is necessary to carry out the policy of containing Iraq and Iran. Ironically, Washington’s strong desire to punish Iraq and Iran may be contributing to the undermining of political stability in America’s chief ally in the region.

The goal of the Islamist opposition appears to be the creation of a modern puritanical theocracy. In September 1992, 100 clergy members issued a document calling for removal of all government restrictions on Islamic clerics; the participation of the clergy in all government agencies, and the establishment of a supreme religious constitutional court to purify all laws. Other provisions called for censorship of foreign journalists and support of Muslim causes.


From London, an exile group, the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights in Saudi Arabia, has been bombarding the kingdom with faxes on such issues as government corruption and abuses of human rights, both of which are massive. As the director of the committee has stated, “Khomeini’s was a cassette revolution, ours will be a fax revolution.”

Of course, it is difficult to know for certain what is happening in Saudi Arabia, which lacks a free press, bans political parties and suppresses free assembly. The kingdom suppresses any criticism of the political status quo. It may be that those opposed to the U.S. presence are only a small minority. But because of its repressive system, the kingdom and its key allies, like the United States, would probably not know that major political change was at hand until too late.

In addition to the stationing of U.S. troops, regarded by many in Saudi Arabia as “infidels” on sacred soil, popular reaction to the cost of the Gulf War seems to be fueling discontent. Washington was in no position to pay for the Gulf War, so it imposed most of the costs on its key allies--with Saudi Arabia leading the list. It has been estimated that the war cost the kingdom $70 billion.

Meanwhile, oil prices, at nearly $40 a barrel in the early 1980s, fell to roughly $15 in 1995. A rapidly growing population must not only be fed and housed but pacified with lavish salaries and benefits--which in the past kept Saudi Arabia’s growing middle class politically quiescent. No longer. Perhaps 60% of the Saudi population is under 21. These young people are better educated than in the past but cannot receive the benefits enjoyed by their fathers because of fiscal constraints--yet the princes continue to live in luxury.

A shaken President Bill Clinton informed the nation soon after news of the bombing reached Washington that the perpetrators of this vicious act would be punished and he promised to elevate the issue of terrorism into the key point at the meeting of the G-7 nations in France. But the truth is that the leaders of the industrialized democracies are virtually powerless to deal with the problem of terrorism in the Middle East.

Military power is largely useless to combat terrorism unless it can be established that a state sponsored the act. When Iraq allegedly sent agents to Kuwait to attempt to assassinate former President George Bush, Washington ordered military retaliation against Baghdad. But there is apparently no evidence of state involvement in the current act of terrorism. Indeed, it would not be in the interests of Iraq or Iran to claim credit if either was responsible; it would be a sounder strategy to offer support that could not be traced. In this case, a private group, the Legion of the Martyr Abdullah al-Husaifi, among others, has claimed credit. It is unknown to U.S. intelligence, so its location has not been established.

Does this mean there is nothing Washington can do to lower the risk of terrorism in Saudi Arabia? Not at all. But the steps that can be taken will not provide the kind of satisfaction that retaliation could bring.

--Fighting terrorism in this case requires careful police work and greater intelligence efforts. Both are more effectively done by states in the area. Outside powers can assist, but not dominate. In this regard, an important step was taken when Washington encouraged a summit at Sharm-el-Sheik to rally behind the Israeli government, battered by terrorist attacks in the streets of Tel Aviv. States that have been enemies for decades met to discuss a common problem of terrorism. The fighting in Lebanon and the change in the government in Israel have temporarily halted that promising effort. Though it is unrealistic to expect cooperation among the area’s police and intelligence forces to proceed unless the peace process also proceeds, that kind of cooperation could be one of the desirable fruits of peace.


--The United States can attempt to shrink the target it presents in Saudi Arabia. There are now 35,000 Americans in Saudi Arabia, including 5,000 military personnel--a number of whom are women, whose roles in the U.S. military offend Islamic sensibilities. Are all of these people necessary? Can Americans do the job they have been sent to do while being less exposed? Are there correctable aspects of U.S. behavior that give particular offense to religious forces in the country? The main reason, of course, that there are so many U.S. military personnel in the kingdom is the Clinton administration’s policy of dual containment against both Iran and Iraq--a policy supported by no other major power. A number of states in the region, such as Qatar and Oman, want to open up a dialogue with Tehran. Should we continue to oppose that?

--Washington could ease Riyadh’s economic burden by ceasing to load down the Saudis with arms they will never use but which help the U.S. balance of payments. Washington has sold the kingdom more than $30 billion in armaments in recent years. Meanwhile, the Saudi government has a hard time finding the money to pay farmers the subsidies they expect. One must recall the fate of the shah, who made massive arms purchases from America at the same time he was strapped for funds to meet the wage demands of his oil workers.

--The United States could encourage a carefully controlled program of greater openness in Saudi Arabia. Experience in other areas of the world suggests that, while it is impossible to stamp out terrorism, it may be possible to dry it up.

Through negotiations on Northern Ireland, for example, the British and Irish governments are attempting to create a climate that will make it hard for IRA terrorists to continue to enjoy support from the general population. The Northern Irish reaction to the recent bombing in Manchester suggests this tactic may be making some headway. In the Middle East, Israel is fitfully embarked on a similar course. Through recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel attempted to dry up support for the terrorists and, notwithstanding terrible setbacks, it was making progress as the Israeli elections neared.


Saudi Arabia has made modest efforts at reform. In 1995, it underwent the most significant political shake-up in more than a decade--15 of 28 ministers were replaced with younger people. But the key ministries of defense, security and foreign affairs remained in senior hands; and a few years earlier, the king had ruled against the creation of an elective assembly as “un-Islamic and unsuitable.”

Terrorism is the inhumane weapon of the weak. Both our friends and our foes have used it. Israel adopted it as a tactic against the British, the Palestinians against the Israelis, the Vietnamese against the Americans and the Afghans against the Russians. The powerful, however, usually hold most of the cards. Terrorism can inflict pain--but it seldom can prevail. The powerful must answer this challenge by having the mental discipline to examine dispassionately the sources of the outrage fueling terrorist acts, by displaying the political courage to manage the emotional public reaction to terrorist acts and by mounting careful intelligence work to catch as many of the perpetrators as possible. Massive retaliation is usually counterproductive.

Precisely because terrorism is so advantageous to the weak, they will not give it up. We will learn this in the weeks ahead. Regrettably, terrorism is a phenomenon that the powerful can manage--but not eliminate.