SAUDI ARABIA WALKED the tightrope between security and liberalization again this week. The U.S. Embassy and two consulates closed for two days because of threats; newly crowned King Abdullah freed four men jailed for demanding more political freedom.
Britain and Australia also issued warnings Monday that terrorist attacks in the kingdom might be imminent.
The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh and consulates in Jidda and Dhahran reopened Wednesday after the threatened attacks didn’t materialize. But the need for caution is clear, considering last December’s attack on the Jidda consulate by gunmen suspected of Al Qaeda links.
Saudi officials initially were skeptical of the fact that 11 of the 15 attackers on 9/11 were Saudi; the government was lackadaisical when there were subsequent attacks on compounds that house foreign workers. But assaults on Saudi targets in the last two years have prompted Riyadh to take the domestic threat more seriously.
Even so, the government has resisted all but minimal political liberalization. Last year, a dozen reformers were arrested after demanding a new constitution to grant more civil rights. Some soon recanted and were released, but four were convicted in May and sentenced to jail terms of up to nine years. In a rare public criticism, the U.S. chastised the government for the arrests. The new king pardoned the protesters Monday night.
Abdullah has in effect been the Saudi leader for a decade, after King Fahd suffered a stroke; he became king after Fahd’s death Aug. 1. He is a proponent of reform but faces opposition from several high-ranking princes. Although a longtime friend of Washington, Abdullah has been critical of the invasion of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein and other Sunnis have been replaced by leaders from the Shiite wing of Islam, which is dominant in Iran.
For the sake of his kingdom’s security, Abdullah needs to listen to those demanding more rights for women and an increased voice in government. He also needs to spread the wealth from $60-plus-per-barrel oil beyond the thousands of high-living princes to the poor and unemployed. Saudi stability is important to the U.S., which gets much of its oil from the kingdom, and to the Middle East. Political reform could convince Saudis that the king and his circle are listening to their concerns. That would diminish support for Al Qaeda, which considers the ruling family an enemy as much as targets abroad.