Saudi Arabia Must Stand Up to Bin Laden

Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College and author of the forthcoming "The Islamists and the West" (Cambridge University Press)

Despite Saudi Arabia’s efforts to cooperate with the U.S. in the war on terrorism, there is reason to believe that Osama bin Laden’s existential threat to the House of Saud has not sunk in yet. His crusade is as much directed against the “infidel” Saudi rulers as it is against their American “masters.”

We should not minimize the positive Saudi response, albeit slow, to requests by U.S. officials to confirm the Saudi identities of 15 of the 19 hijackers, to block bank accounts with links to terrorist groups and to arrest some of Bin Laden’s associates and sympathizers. Further, in an unprecedented move for the royal family, some of its influential members have been vehemently critical not only of Bin Laden’s destructive message but also of religious extremism and militancy in general.

Yet the Saudis have shied away from fully joining the U.S. campaign against terrorism and the Al Qaeda organization. A look at one of Bin Laden’s videotapes gives us a clue as to why.

A recent study at Columbia University of the two-hour Bin Laden recruiting videotape shows that, despite his rhetoric of pan-Islamism, Bin Laden is first and foremost concerned about his homeland, Saudi Arabia. His main goal is to deny the legitimacy of the royal family in order to topple it.


Standing in front of a wall-size map of the world--a symbol of the extent of purification that he sets out for his Muslim audience--Bin Laden cries: “The crusaders and the Jews have joined together to invade the heart of [the Abode of Islam]: our most sacred places in Saudi Arabia, Mecca and Medina, including the Prophet’s Mosque.”

To dramatize his assertion that the U.S. military presence in the Saudi kingdom profanes Islam, throughout the tape Bin Laden interweaves images of American troops with those of former U.S. presidents fraternizing with Saudi rulers. The purpose is to show that the latter have failed to protect Islam’s sacred places and have forsaken their religious responsibilities. Worse, he asserts, “infidel” American soldiers, particularly women, roam freely in the land where the Prophet was born and the Koran was revealed.

Of all the Muslim countries, with the exception of Pakistan, Bin Laden’s message resonates the most with alienated young Saudi men, who make up more than half of the population. In the last two years, Bin Laden succeeded in recruiting hundreds, if not thousands, of Saudi youngsters into his Al Qaeda organization, a critical shift in his recruitment strategy. The fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and that some financing and planning for the attacks occurred on Saudi soil, reveals the susceptibility of Saudi men to Bin Laden’s message. Although conditions in Saudi Arabia do not resemble those in Iran in the late 1970s, social and religious upheaval exists more deeply under the surface.

Bin Laden and his fanatical ilk cannot be appeased or bribed away but must be confronted head-on. The Saudi establishment’s strategy of using religion as a legitimizing device and its channeling of hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars to various Islamic movements, including the Taliban, have proved to be potentially self-destructive. The Saudis have unwittingly empowered the Bin Laden phenomenon.


A clean break with past policies is needed. Instead of either trying to appease Islamic militancy by co-opting it or forcing legitimate opposition to go underground, the Saudis must gradually open up their closed system and integrate the rising social classes into the political field. An outlet of political expression is urgently needed to stem the steady degradation of support to Saudi rule. Throwing money at the problem or burying their heads in the sand will not enable the Saudis to overcome this formidable challenge.

Saudi Arabia must take the lead in putting the Islamic genie back in the bottle before it is too late.