Saudis Under Seige

WaPo — The Crisis Within: In Saudi Arabia, Rebellion and Reform Seize Center Stage

Saudi Arabia is beginning to look like a society under siege.

At Riyadh’s trendiest shopping mall on a quiet afternoon last month, security officers were stopping vehicles entering the parking garage, opening hoods and trunks in search of explosives. At the Marriott Hotel, near the Petroleum Ministry, and at other hotels in the capital that cater to Westerners, ground-floor windows have been bricked up and Jersey barriers installed across driveways. At the airport, the fence around the Royal Terminal, which serves the king and the princes of the House of Saud, is topped with razor wire. On Riyadh’s main boulevards, and on the causeway connecting the kingdom with Bahrain, police have set up security checkpoints.

These are surprising sights in a country that has always prided itself on its law-and-order, crime-free environment. They reflect the unhappy fact that for the past 13 months, Saudi Arabia has been afflicted by an escalating wave of terrorist violence aimed at bringing down the regime, purging the country of Western influence and choking off the nascent liberalization of Saudi society. Scores of people have died in bombings and shootings at housing compounds where foreigners live and at oil industry facilities, including the May 29 attack in Khobar that claimed 22 victims. Yesterday, an American was shot and killed outside his home in a Riyadh suburb. Newspapers report frequent shootouts between security forces and suspected terrorists whose arsenals of weapons and explosives are distressingly large.

The desperadoes are Saudis, nurtured in an extremist environment that the government itself has long fostered. They are linked to al Qaeda and sympathetic to their countryman Osama bin Laden — which has predictably stirred speculation about the stability of the kingdom. Bin Laden and his followers have made clear that they are committed to overthrowing the House of Saud. Given the increasing audacity of the terrorists, the country’s swelling ranks of unemployed malcontents and the apparent indecisiveness of the senior princes, it might appear that the insurgency could indeed bring down the regime or at least ignite a civil war.

It’s surprising that it has taken so long to get to this stage. The Saudi regime has been a key sponsor of terrorism and of the Wahabi brand of radical Islam for generations. While they’ve been skillful in deflecting most of the rage at Israel and the U.S., the radicals also resent the debauched al Saud family and their lifestyle. One hopes that the royals are finally getting the message with their recent crackdown, although I fear it’s a bit late to put down the terrorists they’ve spawned without a lot of bloodshed.

The piece makes a common error that one would think would have been eradicated by this point:

There appears to be a large pool of poorly educated, narrow-minded, violence-prone men who are steeped in the religious absolutism that the regime itself promoted for 20 years, principally to reestablish its Islamic religious credentials after the mosque takeover.

The threat isn’t from the poorly educated unfortunates. Indeed, the sons of the afffluent, those with the highest level of education–often including graduate training in the West–have tended to be the most radical. The Islamists are much like other extremist groups in this way; the poor tend not to spend much time thinking about politics–they’re too busy trying to get by.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. BigFire says:

    A line attributed to RAF General Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris regarding the WWII Nazi Air Campaign also applied here to KSA: “They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

  2. McGehee says:

    That line is a paraphrase from the Bible, I believe.

    Just sayin’…