The Saudi Paradox

THE DUAL MONARCHY

When an attack on a residential compound in Riyadh killed 17 people and wounded 122 in early November 2003, U.S. officials downplayed the significance of the incident for Saudi Arabian politics. "We have the utmost faith that the direction chosen for this nation by Crown Prince Abdullah, the political and economic reforms, will not be swayed by these horrible terrorists," said Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage, in Riyadh for a visit.

But if any such faith existed, it was quite misplaced. Abdullah's reforms were already being curtailed, the retrenchment having begun in the wake of a similar attack six months earlier. And despite what was reported in the American press, an end to the reforms was exactly what the bombers and their ideological supporters hoped to accomplish. To understand why this is the case -- and why one of Washington's staunchest allies has been incubating a murderous anti-Americanism -- one must delve into the murky depths of Saudi Arabia's domestic politics.

The Saudi state is a fragmented entity, divided between the fiefdoms of the royal family. Among the four or five most powerful princes, two stand out: Crown Prince Abdullah and his half-brother Prince Nayef, the interior minister. Relations between these two leaders are visibly tense. In the United States, Abdullah cuts a higher profile. But at home in Saudi Arabia, Nayef, who controls the secret police, casts a longer and darker shadow. Ever since King Fahd's stroke in 1995, the question of succession has been hanging over the entire system, but neither prince has enough clout to capture the throne.

Saudi Arabia is in the throes of a crisis. The economy cannot keep pace with population growth, the welfare state is rapidly deteriorating, and regional and sectarian resentments are rising to the fore. These problems have been exacerbated by an upsurge in radical Islamic activism. Many agree that the Saudi political system must somehow evolve, but a profound cultural schizophrenia prevents the elite from agreeing on the specifics of reform.

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