Jewish World Review May 19, 2003 / 17 Iyar, 5763

David Warren

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The Saudi 9/11? | Within hours of the Riyadh blasts, and despite the U.S. secretary of state being uncoincidentally right on the scene, the Saudi regime was up to its old tricks, persuading the U.S. to cut the FBI investigative team it was sending down to just six agents, and then delaying their entry into the country. This was unquestionably "same old same old", and it undermined confidence that the Saudi investigation could be unlike the dark and deceitful efforts that led to pinning lesser bombings on a Canadian and other supposed "rum-runners".

Saudi police procedures are no more open than Saudi society. Nor did the failure of the Saudi police to hold some 19 probable Al Qaeda conspirators who had been captured just before the event, come as a surprise to persons familiar with the country. The official story was a dramatic gun battle; but the reader will be justified in believing anything he likes. Plain warnings to the Saudi government from U.S. intelligence of what was coming were ignored; and a follow-up warning of a possible strike in Mecca's port city of Jeddah has likewise met with inattention.

Moreover, despite frequent forgetful misstatements in our media, the hit was nothing new, whether in scale or target. The Khobar Towers massacre in Dhahran in 1996, which the Saudis pinned on the Iranian Hizbullah, claimed more American lives; and other terrorist strikes within Saudi Arabia, going back to the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, make further precedents. The Wahabi regime has long been under siege from even more fanatic Wahabi factions, and can't hide that any more.

The terrorist threat is international. The fact American and other foreign intelligence agencies seem better forewarned of strikes in Arabia than the Saudi authorities, is an indication of this, and adds plausibility to the Saudi claim that this is no mere domestic matter.

On the other hand, the Saudi refusal thus far to achieve even Red Chinese levels of candour about the information they have, is discouraging. Like the Arabs, we tend to look for conspiracies to account for this, but they are not necessary. An understanding of the situation of the House of Saud tends to explain everything.

Here is an extended family of between 7,000 and 10,000 princes (no one seems to be able to count), the product of an enthusiastic polygamy. These and the immediate families that extend from them try to knit together and hold the allegiance of a society of some 25 million, a large proportion of whom were born almost yesterday. They have two means at their disposal, vast largely unearned oil revenues, and the puritanical and violent Wahabi creed of Islam.

It is a mistake to assume that Arabs are not human, and therefore extremely various even within the Arabian culture. Many at the top have access to Western education and daily contacts, and speak of the problems of Arabian society in breathtakingly forthright ways. Many others nurse violent grievances against each other and most of the outside world. Both support for Al Qaeda and implacable opposition to terrorism are well-represented within this sprawling family elite.

And within the religious creed itself, more variety. Contrary to popular fallacy, Arabia has not been continuously in the hands of religious fanatics for a thousand years. Mecca itself was a fairly diverse, cosmopolitan city until it fell under the Saudi-Ikhwan blade in 1924, rather in the way Kabul fell to the Taliban. Within the Wahabi sect, there were divergent tendencies, from long before then; and the Saud family quickly aligned itself with the most moderate available faction upon taking charge. But the less moderate ones never gave up, and Osama bin Laden has as credible a claim to lead a Wahabi faction as any other Arabian aristocrat.

Were it not for the 20th-century explosion of oil revenue, the smouldering and continuous civil war between Wahabi factions -- common ideas but uncommon interpretations between them -- might never have involved the rest of the world. Nor could it have impacted upon the fate of all Islam to the degree it has, through monied attempts to export Wahabi ideology.

But now that it has become the whole world's business, the ruling, and most moderate, faction, confronts a most discouraging fact of life: that it's own state religious ideology offers no defence against the claims of the radicals, being only a watered version of theirs. It is Wahabism itself that needs taking down, and yet by now it is embedded in every strata of Arabian society.

The beginning of wisdom, in dealing with Saudi Arabia, is to appreciate the fix its ruling family are in. A vague comparison might be to the fix the Soviet Communists found themselves in, at the time of Gorbachov: no way forward without dismantling the very ideology upon which the government's claim to legitimacy is based.

And the Sauds are now doing what the Soviets did: proceeding, willy nilly. Crown Prince Abdullah, stuck with the role of Saudi Gorbachov, has been "getting it" in stages. In the last year he has commissioned and begun to review a number of specific reform schemes, to extend modernity, capitalist competition, even women's rights in some gradual and modest but conscious way. I suspect 9/11 was the first shoe.

And I suspect "5/12" -- the four blasts in Riyadh on Monday -- were the second shoe dropping. The Saudi official and semi-official media suddenly filled with items condemning not only the terrorists, but the attitudes that had spawned and nurtured them. In particular, a seething anti-American and anti-Israeli hate propaganda was named as a cause. Coming within weeks of the fall of the Saddam statue on live television across the Arab world, this was a powerful suggestion.

Yesterday the Crown Prince himself went on Saudi television, again to condemn not only acts of terrorism in themselves, but "the ideas that feed" and the "opinions that sympathize with" -- well, truth to tell, his own Wahabi creed. He vowed an end to all that, with all the warmth and fervour of which Abdullah is capable.

This more than makes up for characteristic foot-dragging on details. In the very heart of what has been rightly called "the dream palace of the Arabs", the sense of reality has begun to kick in; and this is tremendously good news.

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JWR contributor David Warren is a Columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. Comment by clicking here.

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04/16/02: By way of Syria
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04/08/02: Bagpipes in Baghdad
03/31/02: Behind
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03/21/02: To Baghdad!
03/19/02: Hostage crisis
03/17/02: Bush, the "UN's cowboy," is really the "un cowboy" --- a softie
03/17/02: United? Nations?
03/12/02: Blair goes wobbly
03/10/02: Ready aye ready
03/06/02: Logic of war
02/10/02: Play up, play up
01/30/02: No ambiguity
12/05/02: A farce
11/13/02: A game of chess
10/30/02: Material breach
10/21/02: Armed & dangerous
09/11/02: The enemy within
08/21/02: Bush v. world
08/06/02: Has Sharon gone 'wobbly'?
07/24/02: Evil Sharon
06/19/02: The end is nigh
06/17/02: Those darn American imperialists!

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