JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — President Bush's visit to Saudi Arabia has underscored a deepening social chasm within the desert kingdom that has both religious conservatives and advocates of political reform pointing accusing fingers at the United States.
Amid growing tensions over the deployment of foreign troops and increasing disillusionment among liberal Saudis over the government's failure to crack down on Muslim activists, Bush's visit comes at a time when both sides of the social debate are becoming increasingly critical of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf crisis.
Pamphlets distributed this week from mosques in the Saudi capital of Riyadh lashed out at "American plans to hit the last component of Islam." At the same time, a growing number of Saudi intellectuals, at the other end of the spectrum, were blaming the American government for failing to demand more democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia in exchange for the protection of its armed forces.
The Saudi government, in the midst of a military crisis that has brought more than 300,000 foreign troops within its borders, finds itself in the midst of a deepening social crisis that has religious conservatives and social progressives making urgent--but conflicting--political demands.
"Things are going so rotten. People now, they are heading towards uncertainty. The war is there, the economy is facing problems, spending habits are not changing, unemployment is getting higher, university graduates are not finding jobs," a prominent university professor said in an interview this week. "I am expecting now we are probably heading for a similar situation that prevailed before the Khomeini era (in Iran)."
Over the last two weeks, religious conservatives have preached at the mosques and churned out a flood of leaflets.
The leaflets initially attacked a group of women who challenged Saudi tradition by driving their cars in public. As the days went on, they began to criticize the American troop presence in Saudi Arabia and to accuse a wide range of Saudi government officials, including the oil and finance ministers, of acting under the influence of the U.S. government.
"The war did not finish. The war is just started," declared one leaflet distributed in Riyadh this week. It accused the U.S. government of planting U.S.-educated Saudis in top Saudi government positions in order to control the government and thereby "change the country from Islam to a secular country."
Another leaflet suggests that the United States encouraged Iraq to invade Kuwait in order to flood Saudi Arabia with its troops and establish a permanent military presence in the gulf.
The flood of protests from religious conservatives, including a reported demonstration by hundreds of men outside the governor's palace in Riyadh on Nov. 12, was countered by a quieter but, for the Saudi government, perhaps more dangerous sense of unrest among liberal, largely Western-educated Saudis. These liberals are angry over the government's failure to crack down on the religious activists.
"People are saying the Al Sauds (Saudi Arabia's ruling family) should get their act together, or they will be swept away. And this is from people who wish them well," said a leading Jidda intellectual. "Things like this are like irritants: They slowly become like an ulcer and finally like a cancerous growth."
In a number of interviews over the past week, a variety of Saudi business leaders, writers and academics expressed outrage over a statement from Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, the interior minister, condemning the women's driving demonstration, and they also were doubtful about King Fahd's recent pledge to implement democratic reforms in the kingdom by establishing an advisory, or shura, council.
"Everybody will be sitting in the shura council and saying (to the king), 'Sure, sure, sure,' " complained one Jidda businessman. "Everybody is saying this is nonsense, this is anesthesia, doping us. . . . The government enjoys the good will of the people, by and large. Why are they alienating us? Because they want to appease a bunch of half-literate people, and in the process, they are losing the good will of people like us."
Added to the chorus are demands for greater financial accountability from the royal family. Riding out several years of reduced oil prices that have chipped away at the Saudi economy, many Saudis have expressed growing irritation over the splendid royal palaces still springing up all over Riyadh and the millions of riyals that senior princes, some of them young, receive from the government treasury.
"People are mad. They're mad like hell. Why should this child (a prince) get 450 million riyals when I'm working like hell and I get pennies?" said one Saudi. "I think people, they are fed up now, male and female."
A government employee in Riyadh said some Saudis have begun to be influenced by anti-monarchy propaganda, from Iraq and other sources, challenging citizens to rise up against the wealthy emirs who govern them.