Saudi Arabia in the Balance

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If Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam, Buraydah, a nondescript town about 200 miles northwest of Riyadh, is the nursery of the faith's radical vanguard.

It was from here, before Gulf War I, that religious scholars and imams had launched the most strident attacks on the Saudi monarchy for allowing the "infidel" American troops in to defile the holy land.

Not this time, however. "We were very anxious about what would happen," said a doctor at a Buraydah hospital. "But it's been unusually quiet. All we've had are prayers in mosques for Iraqis. Nothing militant."

I attended afternoon prayers at Buraydah's main mosque, a new and elegant structure aglow with dozens of steel-and-glass chandeliers. The imam led the congregation in 'qunoot' prayers, a special invocation inserted into the regular 'namaaz' and until recently banned by the government.

The prayers were more impassioned here than in Riyadh. "Oh God, help Muslims against the depredations of Christians and Jews," intoned the young imam. "The Muslims of Palestine and Iraq are suffering. Come to their aid, Oh God!"

Baghdad was already rid of Saddam Hussein, and images of Iraqis celebrating had been beamed into Saudi homes. But in Buraydah, the war was being recast as a bloody confrontation between the region's three great religious civilizations. Still, there was no radical call to arms.

"There seems to have been a deal between the government and the radical clerics," said the doctor.

Despite the fact that popular perceptions of the conflict were at variance with the government's policy of limited and quiet assistance to the U.S forces, the agreement between the monarchy and the puritanical Wahabi religious establishment appears to have held fast.

There have been some hiccups though. Last week, 46 imams from mosques all across Saudi Arabia were sacked from their posts. They had crossed the line. "It's inappropriate for preachers to convey to the faithful political or news reports in their sermons, as the preacher should be neither a broadcaster nor a journalist," explained the Islamic Affairs Minister Sheikh Saleh Al-Sheikh.

More seriously, some army officers, including a major-general, were sacked from service for disobeying orders. Their group had been deployed to Kuwait on the eve of the war for security duties. After arriving there, they discovered this involved protecting American soldiers. They refused, and were summoned home to be cashiered.

News of the high-level military insubordination has been kept out of the media, but was confirmed to Time by an independent source. Yet the kingdom's newspapers, beneficiaries in recent years of the Saudi version of glasnost, have been given the freedom to attack the U.S. for its role in Iraq. (Editors have, however, been asked to 'balance' the criticism, and one paper even carried a glowing report on how the Marines are such nice guys.)

'Balance' seems to be the watchword for the Saudi monarchy in both its foreign and domestic policies.

Take the very serious business of Al Qaeda members who have trickled back from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The government says around 200 such militants were detained; diplomatic sources say the number is at least triple that.

But both agree that only a small number have been convicted and jailed. The majority have been released. "Not only that, high-ranking princes met the former Al Qaeda fighters to try and get them back on the boat," says a Western diplomat.

The spectre of Osama Bin Laden, Saudi Arabia's millionaire prodigal son, continues to haunt the Kingdom, but quite typically, the authorities decided to confront the issue with both firmness and considerable tact.

For the Saudi monarchy, a far bigger challenge than Bin Laden is managing their relationship with America.

"The Saudis feel most nervous about U.S. hostility," says another diplomat. "They don't trust the neo-conservatives, and are really afraid that in the name of reform, Washington will interfere in the domestic situation, even try to manipulate the succession in the monarchy."

Asked about the impact of the war on Saudi-U.S. relations, Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal replied: "As always with such questions, the answer is 'It depends!"

In his most detailed articulation yet on the issue, the soft-spoken diplomat said: "No war can happen anywhere that does not change relations between the countries that were involved in the war and the regional countries."

"So an impact on the relations of the Arab countries with the U.S. will undoubtedly cause change," he added. "Motives are questioned, there's much speculation about the intent of the occupation.

"But the real question is what direction this change will lead to — positive or negative.

"The proof of the pudding will be in what is done in Iraq. If the occupation is a quick occupation, if it leads to the establishment of the legal government of Iraq, if it doesn't lead to special arrangements for the occupying powers, if the resources of Iraq are left for the exploitation of the Iraqi people, all the accusations against America — that America is here because it wants oil, that America is here to occupy, that America is here to change the region, would have withered away.

"And they would have proved that their intention was what they had meant it to be, which is to help the Iraqi people to control their own destiny."

But Saudi Arabia is not taking any chances.

Prince Saud is the only senior member of government authorised to speak on Iraq and the American presence there. The others have been asked to stay quiet. In his public pronouncements, Prince Saud has been quite vocal, demanding that the "occupation forces" leave "as soon as possible" after establishing "a representative form of government."

But diplomatic sources now reveal that at the regional meeting of foreign ministers in Riyadh last week, Saudi Arabia played a critical role in ensuring the joint statement avoided a confrontational stance toward Washington. No deadline was set for coalition forces to leave, only mild "disagreement" was expressed in response to U.S. warnings to Syria, and there wasn't even a passing reference to the Palestine issue.

The Saudis and Turkey played the leading role, supported by Egypt and Jordan, against Syria and Iran.

"The Saudis feel they have no alternative but to go with the U.S.," said a diplomat. "They want to keep a low profile, rebuild their relationship with America, and save themselves."

Unless Iraq turns really messy, the Saudis could well succeed in this endeavor. As things stand, they need to worry less about the specter of domestic radicalism than on the external threat, especially the agenda of a very different set of radicals in faraway Washington.