Monday, January 26, 2004

SAKAKA, Saudi Arabia — An extraordinary level of political violence in the tiny city of Sakaka, the capital of a remote province bordering Iraq, has the makings of the beginning of a popular revolution against the ruling al-Saud family.

Residents of al-Jouf province say recent months have seen the assassination of the deputy governor and the execution-style killing of Sakaka’s police chief by a group of men who forced their way into his home.

Earlier, the region’s top Shariah, or religious law, court judge was shot at point-blank range as he drove to work.

Seven men have been arrested for involvement in the shootings, according to Saudi officials, who say the attacks are linked and that the suspects may have had as many as 40 accomplices.

Elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, such violence could be put down to tribal feuds, or general lawlessness in a region far from the capital, Riyadh. And al-Jouf is subject to the same social problems — including poverty, alienation and drug abuse — that are causing concern across this once crime-free nation.

But residents say the violence here is political, rooted in the province’s historic role as the power base of the al-Sudairy branch of the Saudi royal family — which includes King Fahd and his six full brothers.

Known as the Sudairy Seven, they include Defense Minister Prince Sultan and Riyadh Gov. Prince Salman.

The seven make all the important economic and political decisions in Saudi Arabia, with King Fahd’s favorite son, Abdul Aziz, increasingly standing in for his father.

In al-Jouf province, the clan has dominated business and local government since the kingdom was founded; for more than 40 of those years, the governor has been a family member.

But now there are signs of a rebellion by merchant families and tribes who were prominent before al-Jouf was incorporated into the Saudi kingdom and the al-Sudairys took over.

These days, the five streets that constitute Sakaka are deserted after dusk and members of the al-Sudairy clan are unwilling to leave their walled villas without an armed guard.

Secret police closely observe outsiders who manage to get through the permanent roadblocks on the roads into the city, manned by special security police in body armor and wielding automatic weapons.

If the visitor is a Westerner, his car is tailed day and night, as much for his own protection as out of inveterate Saudi suspicion.

Families and tribes are taking advantage of the vulnerability of a weakened ruling family to reassert long-standing territorial claims.

Locals say the final straw was the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, when U.S. troops took over the airport in the nearby town of Arar, the official border crossing with Iraq.

This was deeply resented by many Saudis, but especially by residents of al-Jouf, who have tribal links to neighboring Iraqis.

Many local officers resigned from the Saudi army in protest when they were temporarily relieved of their duties by U.S. soldiers, according to Saudi opposition groups.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Saudis have since sneaked across the border from al-Jouf to join the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq. Some have been implicated in suicide attacks, including the Aug. 19 attack that killed 22 persons at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

Officials report having captured only four militants trying to cross into Iraq, leaving doubts about the effectiveness of interdiction efforts.

The violence in al-Jouf shows in microcosm what is happening throughout Saudi Arabia, where there is now near-universal domestic resistance to the rule of the al-Sauds.

For 70 years, the family has claimed to unify the people of the land they conquered and gave their name to. But they have done so only superficially.

A Saudi who talked to the Qatar-based satellite-TV station Al Jazeera about suppression and growing instability in the kingdom in September was arrested live on the air, but before he was dragged away, he managed to say what is never heard from any Saudi media outlet.

Abdul Aziz al-Tayyar told Al Jazeera by telephone that Saudi security forces had surrounded his home in Riyadh and were preparing to storm the house.

As his door was being kicked in, Mr. al-Tayyar used his last minutes of freedom to tell millions of viewers that “all tribesmen are now willing to fight this government.”

“We will protect the rights of our people,” he said.

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