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Saudis Have One Eye Open

August 10, 2004

In the months after Sept. 11, Saudi Arabian officials at first declared that 15 of the 19 hijackers could not possibly have been Saudis, then reluctantly accepted that fact. Efforts to stop Saudis from funding Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups remained lackadaisical, and many Saudis seemed willing to believe any loopy conspiracy theory that would blame the suicide hijackings on the United States or Israel. Only last year, when suicide car bombers attacked three housing complexes in Riyadh, the capital, killing more than 30 people, did officials fully grasp that the kingdom was threatened by the same brand of terror.

Since then Saudis have welcomed U.S. analysts, who sit with Saudi counterparts and collect intelligence on threats. The mutuality is clear: Saudi security officials need expertise in analyzing information and plotting counterattacks; the U.S. needs stability in a major oil supplier, a country that also contains the two holiest sites in Islam.

Smarter intelligence cooperation, however, may only delay the collapse of autocratic royal rule in Saudi Arabia. The gap between rich and poor has widened in the kingdom. Young men, the recruiting pool for extremists, go jobless. But democratic reforms are still brushed aside, and Saudi princes willfully ignore the anger that is hidden by suppression. On Monday, the government began the trial of three men who brought their advocacy of democratic reform to the public, still an illegal act in Saudi Arabia. At least the proceeding was public, a welcome reversal of usual procedure.

The three on trial are the last prisoners among 13 reformist intellectuals arrested in March. Some had signed a letter to the crown prince calling for political and social reforms, including elections for a parliament. Others sought a constitutional, rather than absolute, monarchy (although it would no doubt look more like Jordan than democratic Britain). The U.S. State Department too mildly said the arrests were "inconsistent" with democratic reforms.

A slightly more hopeful sign was a government announcement Monday regarding women. The announcement failed to overtly exclude women from voting in the country's first-ever municipal elections this year. Some limits on women have been eased, but the country injures half its population and deprives itself of an economic resource by restricting women's ability to work or divorce a husband or even drive a car.

Saudi Arabia's leaders have not fully made the connection between democratic reform and counter-terrorism. Osama bin Laden has urged the overthrow of the royal regime for more than a decade and has many devoted followers in the land where he was born. The increased security visible in the capital since last year may prevent some assaults. But improved intelligence-gathering is only a tactic. Long-term stability will depend on engaging more Saudis in the operation of their government. The handful of princes running the realm could start by listening, rather than jailing those who speak.

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