Last month the Saudi Arabian authorities ordered the removal of ‘poor boxes’ from outside mosques in an effort to curtail the flow of money to what the Saudi government calls “terrorist organizations.” The move comes after indications that individual contributions to Islamic organizations have greatly declined after the implementation of strenuous controls to curtail the flow of money to extremist groups. However, it appears that not all sourcing has been cut-off. Just this January, US federal banking regulators are looking into the Saudi Arabian Embassy’s bank accounts in Washington, DC, examining numerous transactions, totaling tens of millions of dollars in cash that weren’t properly reported, according to a Wall Street Journal report published on January 14.
The newspaper states, “While the US investigation into the Saudi accounts was previously known, the discoveries at the Riggs National Corporation show it is far broader than previously disclosed.” The inquiry, which began in 2002, initially involved only a few thousand dollars, thought to be tied-in to the September 11, 2001 perpetrators. “Now,” the paper reports, “investigators are trying to account for millions of dollars in hard-to-trace cash.”
The paper writes that it is unusual for the US to scrutinize the finances of a close ally such as Saudi Arabia. “But since September 11, the Justice and Treasury departments have been trying to track the origins and destinations of money brought into the US to fund schools, mosques, charities and Islamic groups, some of which are considered extremist by the US” This does not mean that the embassy’s money deliberately funded these groups, but it does cause concern to US authorities that want to keep a tighter lid on transfer of funds originating from potential supporters of such extremist organizations. The embassy ‘incident’ typifies the problems facing Saudi Arabia, but it may just be the tip of the iceberg. Today, for the first time since its creation in 1902 when Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman al-Saud captured Riyadh and set out on his 30-year campaign to unify the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia faces its most serious threat. Its once-thriving economy propelled by the 1970s oil boom is stagnating, affecting its society as never before.
The one-time social pressure valve – religion – offered to a society where socializing among mixed sexes is banned, where cinemas are non-existent, where alcohol is forbidden, where women are still veiled and considered second-class citizens, where political parties and elections are absent and democracy is unheard of, is now coming back to bite the government. Since oil was first discovered in the 1930s, bringing unimaginable riches and practically unlimited resources to the country, the ruling House of Saud had hoped they could forever live in a quasi-utopian world, far from the problems of the West. The Saudi rulers wished to market their oil to the West, but at the same time shut it out, thereby safeguarding the country from foreign influences. They believed the mighty petro-dollar could buy anything and distance all ills, be they political, socio-economic or any of the other turbulences that modernity unavoidably brings with it.
Now Saudi Arabia is now waking up to a very different reality. For decades, many people in the Kingdom refused to admit that all was not quite right. That beneath the apparently tranquil façade of a society, where the state took it upon itself to provide free cradle-to-grave healthcare and free education, compiled with no taxation thanks to generous oil revenues, resentment, nevertheless, has long been brewing. Turmoil, rather than oil, is now emerging from those desert sands. The reason for Saudi Arabia’s new internal disorder, brought to the world’s attention by the recent wave of terrorist activity that has ripped the until-now quiet country of about 20 million, is two-fold: Islamic fundamentalism and a growing disenchantment among the young, exacerbated by a decline in the economy.
Over the years, affluent Saudis, including some members of the royal family, financed madrassas in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia as well as Western Europe and North America, thinking it would appease the Wahhabi fundamentalists, who would leave them alone back in Saudi Arabia. Some contributions, such as that from the wife of the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, were made without the knowledge of where the monies would end up and it is these transactions that are now under scrutiny by the US authorities. In addition to stopping the flow of funds to possible terror groups, Saudi authorities have realized the need to curtail the preaching of fundamentalists. According to one well-informed report, more than 2,000 Saudi imams who advocate hard-line fundamentalism have been removed from the pulpit. About 1,500 are being reeducated or have been jailed. Bin Laden, originally a Saudi citizen, is one of the many disenchanted Saudis who have now taken his fight into the streets of Saudi cities. The reason behind his hate of America, as demonstrated by the horrendous September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, is due to the unfaltering support given by the United States to the Saudi royal family.
Many of these disaffected young men – like bin Laden – have turned to religion to vent their frustrations. Today, one should not brush aside the possibility that Saudi Arabia may turn radical. Conditions in the country are ripe for growing dissent to continue to rise to a perilous level, unless the situation is immediately addressed.
Yet the answer to the Saudi dilemma is not simple. The United States, who keeps pushing for greater democracy in the Middle East, ironically, might not find it entirely in its national interest if free elections were to be held in Saudi Arabia tomorrow. Many analysts believe the majority of the vote would be won by bin Laden supporters, turning the world’s largest oil supplier into an anti-American, anti-Western strict Islamic theocracy.
The perceived corruption in the royal House of Saud does nothing to help the royal family’s cause; many Saudis, particularly the fundamentalists, frown heavily upon the jet-setting life style of the royal princes and what they call their ‘decadent’ Western habits. Additionally, the growing numbers of university graduates, who are injected yearly into Saudi society, but with no prospects of decent employment, add to the growing resentment of the royal family.
Much of the disenchantment stems from the country’s youth, many of whom, despite free higher education, remain unemployed and see little, if any, prospect of a brighter future as long as the status quo remains unchanged. The under-25 year-olds now comprise a clear majority in the kingdom. Over the years, this resentment has matured and developed into an aversion to the lifestyle portrayed by the country’s 7,000 princes, who, on average, receive each a $500,000 yearly stipend. This money, critics say, is wasted on luxury items, extravagant villas strewn over Marbella, the Cote d’Azur and other chic resorts. Many Saudis begrudge the princes’ excessive lifestyles that would make even the most extravagant Hollywood star appear tame by comparison.
The Saudi royal household’s spending money for the 24,000 members, its princes, spouses and assorted offspring comprised, hovers around a $3 billion annual budget.
Meanwhile, the official line in Riyadh was that everything was golden in a country that prided itself on its low crime rate and strict Islamic codes, where shari’a – Qoranic law – was rigorously enforced. Even after September 11, some members of the Saudi ruling class continued to reject the possibility of terrorist striking at home, refusing to bring change to a failed educational system that helped produce some of these fundamentalists.
Even after the September 11, 2001 attacks, some Saudis refused to acknowledge the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were fellow citizens. But the recent surge of homegrown terrorism in their own streets has suddenly woken the Saudi authorities to the fact that immediate action is needed.
Recent bombings, including shoot-outs with police forces in Saudi cities – a previously unheard of phenomenon in the kingdom – have made the Saudis realize they cannot remain immune to terrorism. For years, some members of the royal family wrongly believed they could "buy protection" from fundamentalists, by paying them off through generous financial donations and in building madrassas.
Late last year the Saudis prevented an attack in the holy city of Mecca, but suicide bombers, believed to be members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, blew themselves up in a residential complex close to the king’s palace, killing 17 people and injuring about 120. This attack followed the temporary closing of the US embassy and consulates in Riyadh.
Today, under the quiet desert sands a revolution of sorts is brewing. The May 2003 attacks acted as a rude reality check. It was their September 11. It made them realize that changes had to be made or else risk continuing upheaval, and even worse.
The solution to the country’s mounting problems lies in a succession of quick reforms that should be adapted at all levels of Saudi society. The most pressing is in education, where the curricula need to be transformed and updated in order to bring it in line with 21st century learning. Women need to be given greater rights, and the people need to be gradually introduced to democracy by giving them a share in the running of their country. The other burning issue, of course, is restraining militant Islamic activism. At a lecture given at the American University of Kuwait on January 13, Marwan Muasher, Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who had previously served as Ambassador of Jordan to the United States of America, stressed the need for political reform in the region. "The Arab World needs to adopt a new political order to be able to address ever-increasing changes on the global arena. Anyone who calls for political reforms and more freedoms in the Arab world is condemned and branded an ally of Washington. Not so long ago Arab experts (through the UNDP) outlined problems in Arab societies which included lack of freedom, outdated educational system, human right abuse and trampling on the rights of women". Political reform, Muasher stated, should not be limited to one country alone but implemented in the whole region and should not be delayed; otherwise economic development without corresponding political advancement would be meaningless." He added, "Political reforms are needed now because they may come later at a higher price". “The core of the reform and its success or failure will depend on the Royal Family’s unified efforts to define Islam and delegitimize its more extreme elements,” says Ambassador Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. Walker, who has served as American ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel and was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs from 1999 to 2001, believes that “There is a quiet revolution going on in Saudi Arabia. No one knows its depth, its breadth or its ultimate impact, but the reform effort is very real and is probably unstoppable.”
One can only hope that the revolution continues to be a quiet one and revolves in the right direction.
(Claude Salhani is the foreign editor and political analyst with United Press International in Washington, DC.)