- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia. — Saudi Arabia is quieter again after a tumultuous summer of unprecedented violence — gun battles, kidnappings, killings and beheading of foreigners — that ripped through this usually tranquil desert kingdom.

Most Saudis one meets these days seem confident the worst is now behind them. “It is 95 percent game-over for the terrorists,” says Waleed Abalkhail, president of SISCOM, a Saudi E-commerce firm. Pro-al Qaeda insurgents’ hoped their summer rampage would shake the establishment and royal family.

The government’s initial reaction, perhaps not sufficiently determined, in the end proved decisive. It is clear Saudi security forces now are on the offensive, the insurgents on the run. “The terrorists are on the defensive, and the government has the upper hand,” Prince Mohammed Al-Faisal told this reporter.

“We may have seen the peak of the violence,” another influential Saudi businessman-politician said, on condition of anonymity: “It is absurd to say that terrorism will overthrow the royal family.”

“The trouble was a passing storm,” Mr. Abalkhail said of the mayhem that frightened away many foreigners. He said: “It has not affected the market. The economy is not affected by the negative opinion of a few that was transmitted to the media.”

“The market is fine,” Mr. Abalkhail confidently said. The Saudi businessman said only about 1 percent of the market suffered and cited the Saudi stock market, up 50 percent in the last year. Indeed, walking around the Saudi capital of Riyadh, one does not feel business has suffered — the streets are crowded, the malls packed, well into the night.

There is, however, some manifest tension, a sign all is not well in the kingdom. National guardsmen and soldiers with heavy machine guns stand sentry outside government buildings and commercial centers. These are further protected by reinforced concrete barriers and security checkpoints. And the added security in the city’s hotels and shopping malls is hard to ignore. These measures, though, are part of the new reality of life in a world marred by terrorism.

Some Western diplomats warned “there is still a high threat of terrorism,” and “there will be further attacks.”

Mr. Abalkhail and other Saudis saw the frightening summer violence contrasting with Saudi culture. “This represents the mentality of people who lived in Afghanistan,” said Mr. Abalkhail. “The troubles were carried out by a small group of people who learned to become violent in Afghanistan. Saudi people are very peaceful.”

After the U.S. invasion advanced into Afghanistan, many Saudi mujahideen fled, returning to Saudi Arabia where adapting prove difficult. They believed they could impose fundamentalism on the majority, as in Afghanistan.

Since the U.S. occupation of Iraq, many moved north for a chance to fight Americans. But diplomats and Saudi analysts predict Saudi insurgents will likely to try to re-infiltrate Saudi Arabia as soon as the Iraq situation settles down.

“Then, Saudi Arabia will restart,” one politician predicted. But knowledgeable diplomats said this time the Saudis will be ready.

Saudi security is impressive, and it appears authorities now take the terror threat very seriously. “You cannot not take the threat of terrorism seriously,” Prince Mohammed Al-Faisal told United Press International. “That would be an insult.”

For the moment, Saudi authorities appear to have the upper hand. There are almost daily arrests, with authorities tracking down insurgents all over the vast kingdom. One source said about 700 terrorists have so far been detained and some 100 killed. But diplomats say the numbers are difficult to confirm.

Saudi support and sympathy for the terrorists, many here said, was quickly lost once they attacked and killed fellow Arabs and Muslims. That may be true in major cities, but in some more remote regions Osama bin Laden remains very popular.

Since May, about 90 people have been killed and scores more wounded in the worst violence the country has ever seen.

Thousands of expatriates from all economic sectors have fled, some never to return. Others came back but without their dependents, fearing the threat remains very real.

Enrollment at the British school in Riyadh is down 15 percent, diplomats say. Figures for the American school could not be verified, but diplomatic rumors were about 60 percent of its students will not return. Western visitors are warned by their embassies to remain vigilant and aware of their surroundings.

In the long run, Saudi authorities face two other urgent issues — job creation for the youth, about 60 percent of the kingdom’s 25 million people, and educational reform.

One Saudi politician, speaking anonymously, blamed the country’s education system — at least partly. “We created our own terrorists. Our education system produced the fundamentalists,” he said. He warned even educational reform, said to be under way, is unlikely to halt fundamentalist teachings so long as fundamentalist teachers remain.

Large numbers of young people, even those with college degrees, have few prospects. “You cannot have the youth going around without jobs,” laments Abdullah Aldubaikhi, president of AwalNet, a local telecommunications company.

As Prince Mohammed Al-Faisal told this correspondent, the country’s very young population has economic needs that must be addressed. Ignoring the problem will only enlarge it.

“Emptiness leads to terrorism,” said Ihsan Ali Bu-Hulaiga, a consultative Shura Council member: Disaffected youths are often easily recruited by Islamist fundamentalists.

While Saudi Arabia may have restored some quiet, it may be the calm in the eye of the passing storm. But this time, Western diplomats say, the Saudis are better prepared.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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