- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

For decades, the hermetic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has refused to admit the harsh reality that not all was quite right in their magic kingdom. However, beneath the apparently tranquil facade of a society where the state took it upon itself to provide free cradle-to-grave health care and free education, resentment was brewing over perceived corruption in the royal House of Saud.

Much of this 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. 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 corrupt 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 of the 1950s appear tame by comparison.

The Saudi royal household’s spending money for the 24,000 members, its princes, spouses and assorted off-spring, 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 sharia — Koranic law — was rigorously enforced. The Saudi ruling class continued to live in a cocoon, where they erroneously believed they would remain impervious to the ills of a failed social system.

Even after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, the Saudis refused to acknowledge that 15 of the 19 hijackers were fellow citizens. But the Saudis have woke up to the fact they can no longer continue to play the ostrich game, hiding their heads in the sand.

Recent terrorist bombings and shoot-outs with police in Saudi cities — previously unheard of phenomena — have taught the Saudis that even they, with all their petrodollars, cannot remain immune to terrorism. For years, some members of the royal family wrongly believed they could “buy protection” from fundamentalists, much as one did from the Mafia.

Last week the Saudis prevented an attack in the holy city of Mecca and this past weekend suicide bombers, believed to be members of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda 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 U.S. Embassy and consulates in Riyadh.

Over the years, affluent Saudis, including some members of the royal family, financed madrassas — or Islamic schools — in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and even in Western Europe and North America, thinking it would appease the Wahhabi fundamentalists, who would leave them alone back in Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden, originally a Saudi citizen, is one of the many disenchanted Saudis who has now taken his fight into the streets of Saudi cities. The reason behind his hate of America is U.S. support of the Saudis.

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 nation where socializing between the sexes is banned, where cinemas are nonexistent, where alcohol is forbidden, where women are still veiled and considered second-class citizens, where political parties and elections are absent and democracy unknown, is now coming back to bite the government.

Some of these disaffected young men — like bin Laden — have turned to religion to vent their frustrations. Today, one should not dismiss the possibility of Saudi Arabia turning radical. Conditions are ripe for dissent to continue to rising to a perilous level, unless immediately addressed.

Saudi Arabia’s political situation today is not unlike that of Iran at the time of the shah. And we know how that turned out.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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