Osama Bin Laden vs. the House of Saud

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TIME.com: How well-equipped is the Saudi regime to deal with the challenges posed by the terror attacks in Riyadh?

Scott MacLeod: Al-Qaeda has clearly decided to launch a new phase in its operations by carrying out major attacks in Saudi Arabia, which it largely refrained from doing until now. And that poses both a political threat to the regime and a security threat. Al-Qaeda is risking a lot here, because the more turmoil it causes in Saudi Arabia, the more likely it is to turn off a lot of sympathetic Saudis. There's been a big backlash in the press here against these bombings, which is to some extent a reflection on public opinion in the kingdom. But al-Qaeda has clearly decided it has more to gain than to lose by doing this, so it has thrown down the gauntlet to the regime. Given that this is an unpopular regime, al-Qaeda is basically making a challenge for the hearts and minds of Saudi Arabia, and the question now is whether or not people rally behind its efforts to overthrow the regime and throw out Western influence.

The closed nature of Saudi society makes it impossible to determine the depth of support for al-Qaeda in the kingdom. We've always known that they had sympathy and supporters here, because there were 15 Saudis among 9/11 hijackers. One can certainly say that the ability to enlist so many people in this week's suicide operation, which was carried out with such precision, was clearly meant to scare the Saudi government and impress al-Qaeda's supporters in the kingdom.

It's certainly also another reminder that the government and Saudi society is in desperate need of reform. This is a kingdom that dates back 100 years, but absolute power remains in the hands of one family, albeit a very large family. Precious little decision-making power is in the hands of anyone outside that family. That situation worked for decades because oil wealth allowed the royal family to ensure that everyone got a slice of the pie. But the population has grown in recent years, oil revenues have declined and there has been growing disenchantment with the royal family running the whole show, particularly as the situation in the Middle East has made many question the royal family's close relationship with the U.S. In the absence of a system of broader political participation giving all Saudis a voice, religion and extremism have been the outlets that some have been turning to.

TIME.com: But the scale of the crackdown required now will inevitably set the Saudi regime against a substantial portion of its own citizenry. After all, here is an al-Qaeda attack carried out not by outsiders, but from the inside, and that challenges the government to crack down not only on the individuals in al-Qaeda cells, but on their broader networks of support that may run deep into Saudi society…

MacLeod: There is a broad category of Saudis who agree with the extreme interpretations of religion and the call to jihad espoused by Osama bin Laden, and they're also in agreement with Bin Laden's political perspective — accusing the Saudi royals of being puppets of the West, attacking the U.S. for support of Israel and its invasion of Iraq, opposing the U.S. troop presence in the region. There is a significant section of Saudi public opinion that is supportive of Bin Laden, and it's within that sea that these al-Qaeda extremists swim.

Setting out to crush al-Qaeda puts the government into conflict with this significant section of Saudi society, and that's a difficult problem. The government has not wanted to confront al-Qaeda extremism head-on. They hoped that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues that generate support for al-Qaeda would make the phenomenon fade. But the latest attacks leave the government no option but to clearly and decisively confront al-Qaeda, and the broader extremist perspective that allows it to find recruits and support. The Saudis can no longer look the other way when Saudis pretend it was the Mossad who carried out 9/11; they can no longer ignore the influence of the Saudi religious networks and the power of religious hard-liners and their control over education of young people have had on fostering a mentality that has allowed Saudis to find justification in suicide attacks in Israel, Chechnya and in the U.S. This kind of mentality that excuses or justifies terrorism also has to be challenged, to drain the swamp of extremist thinking that allows terrorists to operate as if they're doing society's good works.

Until now, politics in Saudi Arabia has consisted of the royal family and nothing else. Now, al-Qaeda is trying to move into the vacuum to try and create an alternative to the royal family. It's now up to the Saudi royal family to meet that challenge. The only real alternative is to broaden legitimate political participation.