The Storm and the Citadel

DISSIDENCE IN ARABIA

Saudi Arabia's royal family is convinced it presides over a country that is peculiarly blessed. It feels it has created a fusion of political and religious power ideal for an Islamic society, and it is puzzled that other Arab states do not emulate its system. It vows it will not have an army, like its neighbors Syria and Iraq, that can take over the state. It sees the disorderly parliaments of Kuwait and Egypt as warnings against the temptations of democracy. Although King Fahd was reported to have suffered a stroke in early December, the House of Saud insists there will be no succession crisis. The Sauds are proud of their leadership, which they say was vindicated in 1991 when Saddam Hussein's army stood at the border and the Saudi people rallied round.

Yet to the royal family's dismay, discontent has risen steadily since the Persian Gulf War ended five years ago. The war was not popular in Saudi Arabia. It aroused no nationalist fervor and was at best supported as a necessary evil. Before and after the fighting, many questioned the government's judgment in summoning an infidel army to defend the country against aggressive fellow Arabs. Where, they asked, had the billions gone that had been spent over the previous decade on national defense?

In November a car bomb destroyed a building in Riyadh in which American military personnel assigned to train the Saudi armed forces were based. Five Americans were killed and about 60 injured, and at least one other foreigner died. Weeks passed without the government issuing a report on the blast. Its only announcement was a denial--skeptically received--that internal forces were responsible. Iraq or Iran, it said, was the most likely culprit.

Other signs of domestic discontent were harder to deny. In the fall of 1994, Safar al-Hawali, a clerical critic of the royal family, was arrested in Mecca, where he taught at the Islamic university. A few days later, Sheikh Salman al-Audah, who had denounced the royal family from the podium of his mosque in Buryada, was taken into custody. Audah's arrest by antiriot troops over the protests of hundreds of his supporters, though blacked out by the Saudi press, was clandestinely videotaped and disseminated throughout the country.

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