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The 'Who's Next' Syndrome

Arab states are obsessed with America's next moves, and no regime is more concerned than the House of Saud.
By David Hirst

You won't find "Hatred's Kingdom" in any Saudi bookshop, but it is so much in demand among high officials that the government has brought out a reprint of its own. Its author is Dore Gold, a hard-line Israeli spokesman. According to him, the "hatred" in question is rooted in that austere brand of Islamic orthodoxy - Wahhabism - to which Saudi Arabia officially subscribes and which found its most horrific expression in the atrocity of 9/11.


The book has fuelled that Arab obsession known as "who is next?" Next candidate, that is, for the "reform" or "regime change" to which the Bush administration's neo-conservative hawks will turn now they have disposed of Saddam Hussein. Syria and Iran are the likelier ones. But Saudis see good reasons why they might be targeted too. Oil is one. Religiosity - those Christian fundamentalist tendencies within the administration for which Saudi Arabia is the most obvious Islamic antithesis - is another. But most important, they think, is the Israeli factor: the conviction that a right-wing Israeli agenda is built into the American one.


"As America's key ally in the region," said Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki, "we were the Israelis' only serious Arab competitor, on Palestine's behalf, for the ear of American administrations. 9/11 gave them the golden opportunity to portray us as the kernel of evil and fount of terror."


Virtually everyone, rulers and ruled, in this now viscerally anti-American country fear what America has in store for it. But the rulers' response to this fear was profoundly different from what most of the ruled would have liked: the government sought to placate the superpower of whose protection it is no longer confident, yet cannot risk forfeiting. So while no combat aircraft took off from Saudi territory, the command and control centre at Prince Sultan airbase near Riyadh effectively directed the air war in Iraq.


The House of Saud did not like granting military facilities for a war it officially deplored. But it bought US assurances that it would be quick, and calculated that the people would be better pleased by the removal of the despot than aggrieved by the means it was done. But the war turned out nastier than anticipated and the fear is that what follows could be worse: the more blatantly "colonial" the post-war administration turns out, the likelier it is that the Iraqis will seek to liberate themselves from their "liberators".


"I fear a far graver, Arab Afghanistan ahead," said commentator Abdul Aziz Dakheel, "and ourselves right next to it."


In contrast with other Arab countries, there has been no public agitation, no street demonstrations in Saudi Arabia. But the government fears that popular solidarity with Iraq, if it comes, will take an extreme and violent religious form. Bin Ladenist sentiment has declined since 9/11, but Iraq has given it a new lease of life.


"From the militant Islamists' standpoint," said Abdul Aziz Qasim, a lawyer close to them, "it is time for jihad against the infidel aggressor. They are awaiting the guidance of an authority under which to wage it."


That authority, of course, should be the same Saudi regime which, on impeccable Wahhabite grounds, joined forces with America to recruit mujahideen to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. But now that the "infidel aggressors" are American and British, the regime enlists the official religious hierarchy to preach against the appropriateness of jihad. It has also arrested hundreds of al-Qaeda suspects, fearing a renewal of anti-Western terrorism inside the kingdom itself.


"All depends on how the Iraqi situation evolves," said Muhsin Awaji, an Islamist and former political prisoner. "But the extremists are already a volcano ready to erupt, and I fear that they will target any westerners, not just American and British."


Any such "jihad" will in effect be aimed at the Saudi government, for it is not just religious fanaticism and anti-Americanism that wins al-Qaeda-style militants sympathy. It is a generalized discontent with the government that is fuelled by spreading poverty and a lack of modern, representative institutions through which to voice discontent. It is clear that few Saudis want to see the end of the House of Saud, a regime which, for all its flaws, they compare favourably with most others in the region. But, said Tawfiq Zughayir, a moderate Islamist, "it simply must reform - and build its legitimacy on a new foundation: democracy."


Crown Prince Abdullah has clear reformist inclinations, and is popular for it. But he stands alone, blocked by the rival clan, centred round the mentally incapacitated King Fahd, whose leading members seem to fear that any serious change will lead to the demise of the whole regime.


"This is a very dangerous attitude," said columnist Daoud Shiryan. "After Iraq, a start to reforms, at the very least, has become an urgent necessity." Otherwise, many fear, the country risks an internal destabilization that would arouse the interventionist instincts of the US neo-conservatives. Seize the oil fields and partition the kingdom, as some of them have suggested?


"For the Saudis," said a Western diplomat, "invasion is not a serious prospect yet - though it is certainly among the spectres and poltergeists that haunt them."


David Hirst is a Middle East writer and analyst based in Beirut.


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