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The Saudi House of Cards

A grim economy and a grimmer political outlook.

May 18, 2003|Said K. Aburish | Said K. Aburish is the author of "Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge" and "The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud."

NICE, France — The bombings at three complexes housing Westerners in Riyadh last week made one thing clear: The Saudi royal family does not have the kingdom as firmly under its thumb as it once did. When the country's ailing 81-year-old ruler, King Fahd, dies, control could rapidly deteriorate, raising the question not only of what will happen to the House of Saud but how America will react.

Saudi Arabia's most striking problem is economic. Once flush with oil money, the West's most important Arab ally among the Gulf states is now going bust in the face of lower oil prices. The government is unable to control its debt -- which has now topped $100 billion -- and continues to overspend on popular programs. Both the defense budget and expenditures on the royal family continue to grow at the expense of education and health care. Billions are wasted on military hardware and useless show projects. A misguided alliance with the U.S. in opposition to regional powers like Iran and, until recently, Iraq, has also been costly.

The situation has hit average Saudis hard. In the early '80s, Saudi per capita income was about $18,000 per year. Today it is around $7,200. Jobs are now so scarce that unemployment among new college graduates has surpassed 25%. Payments to construction companies working on government projects are more than a year late, something that has led to sit-down strikes by foreign workers in Jidda, the Eastern Province and elsewhere.

The dire economic situation has energized opposition movements, including those embracing Islamic fundamentalism. The Saudi government and its protector, the United States, had hoped that by focusing national attention on external threats (Iraq and Iran) they could lessen the power of militant Islamic groups. But the power of those groups continues to grow, as does their ability to carry out major terrorist operations like those in Riyadh.

It is no longer just militant Islamists who blame the royal family for squandering the country's wealth. Moderate groups -- and even Saudi women -- have protested government practices, as well as U.S. policy in the region. Traditionally, Shiites have made up the bulk of the opposition in Saudi Arabia. But now several Sunni sects have also raised a clenched fist of protest. Even many among the rigid Wahhabi sub-sect, to which the royal family belongs, now oppose the regime. This poses a great threat to the House of Saud, which cannot crack down on its fellow Wahhabis without losing legitimacy.

The economic and political crises racking the country come at a time when Fahd is near death. Old and grossly overweight, he suffers from severe diabetes, bad knees and heart problems. He suffered a near-fatal stroke in 1995 and is now confined to a wheelchair.

In the background is a royal family divided by internecine battles and an unwieldy succession process. Fahd's designated successor, Crown Prince Abdullah, a semiliterate 80-year-old man also in poor health, is too weak to solve the country's problems, and many of his views are problematic for the U.S. He opposed the stationing of foreign troops in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and opposed the use of bases in his country to attack Iraq in the most recent war. In line after Abdullah is Defense Minister Prince Sultan, a man of 79 who is tainted by charges of bribery and his links to arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. Many Washington policymakers believe Sultan would not make an effective king. After Abdullah and Sultan, the line of succession is unclear.

It is this potential for chaos that has many conservative thinkers in Washington calling for U.S. action. As one former senior American diplomat in Saudi Arabia with close connections to the Bush administration told me: "We need a good, young man at the top. There's too much at stake here. We can't have a king every two years, and unless we get a reformer, things will get out of hand."

There has also been U.S. interest lately in the efforts of Saudi political activists and human rights advocates in London. Perhaps the greatest danger to the House of Saud -- and the group most acceptable to the West -- is the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights. Run by a soft-spoken, highly educated dissident physician, Saad al-Fagih, the group is made up primarily of well-connected and influential Wahhabi moderates. It represents an organized, methodical attempt to undermine the Saudi regime through advertising its dismal human rights record and political crimes.

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