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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

May 25, 2003

Tom Friedman: tell it like it is.

Hummers Here, Hummers There

It seems that now that buildings are being attacked in The Kingdom by terrorists, Saudi Arabia might just have to begin doing something about its home-grown and home financed terrorism. And America will have to be more forthright in placing more blame upon its "friends" in Saudi Arabia.
In the wake of the recent terrorist bombings in Riyadh, Saudi officials seem to have — pardon the expression — gotten religion. They say they now understand that suicide terrorism in the name of Islam is as much a threat to them as it is to the open societies of the West. This time, they insist, they're going to crack down on their extremists. I hope so, but I fear we have a deeper problem with Saudi Arabia. I fear it is the Soviet Union. I fear it is unreformable.

I fear that the ruling brothers of Saudi Arabia are like the Soviet Politburo. I fear the 6,000 Saudi princes are like the Communist Party Central Committee. I fear that Riyadh is Red Square. I fear the Al-Sauds used Islamism to unite 40 fractious tribes in Arabia the way Lenin used Communism to unite 100 fractious nationalities across Russia. And I fear that Osama bin Laden is just the evil version of Andrei Sakharov — the dissident Soviet scientist who exposed the system from within. Sakharov was exiled to Gorky. Bin Laden was exiled to Kabul. And both systems meet their end where? In Afghanistan.

Even if this parallel is off, and the Saudi system could be reformed without collapsing, I fear that the Saudi ruling family has become too dysfunctional, divided and insecure to undertake this task. Surely one test is whether Saudi officials and spiritual leaders can condemn Islamic suicide terrorism, not just when it is against them, but when it is against people of other faiths — no matter what the context. Saudi Arabia's neighbors — Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman — are experimenting with elections, a freer press, women's rights and free trade with America. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, has been drifting under an ailing king, trying to buy a different perception of itself with better advertising rather than with deeper reform.

Frankly, I have a soft spot for the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, who is a man of decency and moderation. But he's too nice for his own good. He needs to break heads at home, force some sustained reforms on his religious establishment, revive his own peace initiative and begin to empower his women — because women's empowerment is the best antidote to extremism.

The problem with Saudi Arabia is not that it has too little democracy. It's that it has too much. The ruling family is so insecure, it feels it has to consult every faction, tribe and senior cleric before making any decision. This makes Saudi Arabia a very strange autocracy: it's a country where one man makes no decisions.[more]