of Dissent: Islamism and Reform in Saudi Arabia
Okruhlik, Professor of Political Science, University of
The following essay will be forthcoming in Current
History. Our thanks to the editors for allowing the essay
to appear here.
The politics of Islamist dissent in Saudi Arabia have come
under intense scrutiny since September 11. This is hardly
surprising. Osama bin Laden is Saudi Arabian by birth and
upbringing. Suspicion existed for some time that Saudis, both
private citizens and public officials, had sent financial
assistance to bin Laden after his exile to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia was one of only three states (along with Pakistan
and the United Arab Emirates) to recognize the Taliban as
Afghanistan's legitimate government. Perhaps most alarmingly,
15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi Arabian citizens.
Ties between the events of September 11 and Saudi Arabia reinforce
the need for serious reform in the kingdom. Political, economic,
and social problems in the country have provided a fertile
field for dissent - dissent that can no longer be managed
from above. If these problems are addressed in a meaningful
manner, the attraction of the radical flank of Islamists is
likely to diminish in the presence of credible alternatives.
But if serious structural reforms are not implemented, the
call from the most radical flank will almost certainly find
an audience among the population.
The internal and external grievances of the Islamists resonate
broadly. The former involve authoritarianism and repression,
maldistribution and inequity, the absence of representation
in the political system, and the seemingly permanent stationing
of United States military forces in Saudi Arabia. The latter
involve American backing of Israel, United States-led sanctions
on Iraq, and American support for repressive regimes in the
region, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan.
Contentious politics in general and social movements with
Islamist lineages in particular are a significant part of
the landscape of the contemporary Middle East. The Saudi case
is especially interesting because Islamist movements, even
under the constraints of an authoritarian political system,
have been able to forge effective, amorphous underground networks
throughout the country. We have only begun to debate what
political dissent inside Saudi Arabia might mean for the future
of the country and its ruling family, the al-Saud. A start
is to understand the historical context, inner workings, and
impact of the Islamist movement in Saudi Arabia.
The al-Saud base their claim to legitimacy on the success
of military conquests in the 1920s and 1930s and on their
alliance with religious authorities. The al-Saud rule in an
uneasy symbiosis with the Muslim clergy. This relationship
dates to the 1744 alliance between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab
and Muhammad ibn Saud, a sort of merger of religious legitimacy
and military might. The descendants of al-Wahhab still dominate
the official religious institutions of the country. The official
clergy regularly issue fatawa (religious judicial opinions)
that justify the policies of the al-Saud in Islamic vocabulary,
even when the policies are deplored in the populace (the clergy,
for example, issued a fatwa to justify the presence of United
States troops during the Persian Gulf war).
Islam remains a double-edged sword for the al-Saud. It grants
members legitimacy as protectors of the faith, yet it constrains
their behavior to that which is compatible with religious
law. When family members deviate from that straight path,
they are open to criticism since the regime's "right to rule"
rests largely on the alliance with the al-Wahhab family. Today,
the "alliance" between the regime and the official clergy
is much contested by dissidents because the two groups no
longer serve as checks on each other: the official clergy
is said to be dependent on the al-Saud for its existence -
co-opted. The ruling family still needs the legitimation conferred
by the clergy, but the clergy has become subservient and bureaucratized
in the last 25 years.
Over time the al-Saud family has sought to add a new dimension
to its "right to rule" and its role as provider of the welfare
of the nation. The family continually seeks to appeal to these
claims through the mechanisms of distribution, coercion, and
penetration. Although distributive policies are increasingly
challenged by lower oil revenues, they still include health
care, education, subsidized food and energy, state-subsidized
loans, land grants for housing, and widespread investment
incentives. Coercion is applied through a massive intelligence
apparatus that constrains freedom of expression, assembly,
and mobility. The security apparatus is so extensive that
the belief in and fear of its retribution historically manifest
themselves in pervasive self-censorship. The al-Saud have
thoroughly penetrated every aspect of society. They dominate
all political positions, are active in every economic sector,
strategically marry into other families, and have worked to
dominate religious institutions. This is a carrot-and-stick
policy of rule, supplemented with a healthy dose of religion.
Resentment of abuse of state authority has long simmered just
beneath the surface in Saudi Arabia, but the regime has historically
been denounced only in private conversation, with criticism
rarely erupting into public confrontation. But two important
historic moments of opposition provide striking parallels
with today's Islamist opposition movement: the 1929 Ikhwan
rebellion and the 1979 seizure of the great mosque in Mecca
by Juhaiman al-Utaibi. In both instances, the Islamic legitimacy
of the al-Saud family was seriously challenged by movements
that emanated from the heartland of traditional al-Saud support,
the Najd. This meant that both movements were composed of
muwahidun (unitarians, commonly called Wahhabis by detractors),
who follow a particularly austere and puritanical belief system.
Both times opposition was justified because the regime deviated
from the straight path of the Koran and Sunna. Corruption
was a common theme.
During the conquests of the peninsula in the early part of
the twentieth century, the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz,
depended on the formidable fighting force of the Ikhwan, tribal
muwahidun warriors, to extend the borders of his kingdom.
When the strength on which he had depended turned against
his leadership, Abdulaziz crushed the Ikhwan as a military
force at the Battle of Sabalah in 1930. Nearly 50 years later,
in 1979, Juhaiman al-Utaibi forcibly took control of the sacred
mosque in Mecca in an effort to topple the ruling family.
He was the grandson of an Ikhwan warrior; his charges against
King Fahd of corruption, deviation, and dependence on the
West echoed his grandfather's charges against Abdulaziz. Al-Utaibi
did not garner much popular support because he chose a holy
venue rather than a palace, but the incident exposed the vulnerability
of the regime. It took several weeks and the assistance of
French special units to root the rebels from the mosque. This
uprising led to greater surveillance over the population,
more power granted to the mutawwain (the Saudi "police" of
public virtue), new constraints on mobility and expression,
and simultaneous promises of reform.
During the 1980s, an Islamic education system fostered a new
generation of sheikhs, professors, and students. The state
provided generous funding for the expansion of Islamic universities
even during the downturn in oil revenues in the mid-1980s.
The regime sought to legitimate itself during hard times by
binding religion and state institutionally. Imam Mohamed bin
Saud University in Riyadh, the Islamic University in Medina,
and Umm al Qura University in Mecca continued to grow even
as other programs were cut back. By 1986, more than 16,000
of the kingdom's 100,000 students were pursuing Islamic studies.
By the early 1990s, one-fourth of all university students
were enrolled in religious institutions. This generation of
students serves as bureaucrats, police officers, mutawwa,
sharia (Islamic law) judges, or preachers in some of the 20,000
mosques in the country.
An Islamic resurgence swept Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, but
it was not directed against the regime. Several nonviolent
Islamist groups took root during this time. The resurgence
was also propagated by the newly returned Arab Afghan mujahideen
(guerrillas). About 12,000 young men from Saudi Arabia had
gone to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviet occupation;
perhaps 5,000 were properly trained and saw combat. All this
cultivated a fertile field for dissent, which culminated in
the rise of an Islamist opposition movement during the gulf
war in 1990-1991. Its grievances and justification echo its
The Gulf War as Catalyst
The 1990s were a difficult decade in Saudi Arabia. Festering
anger suddenly exploded with the gulf war. The stationing
of American troops in the country during the war transformed
an inchoate resurgence of Islamic identity into an organized
opposition movement. Individuals emerged as symbols of resistance
against the corruption of the al-Saud. The war also accelerated
the debates that were long conducted in private. Although
the universities remained closed for much of the war, the
mosques became centers of sermons, ideological debate, and
political opposition. Secret tapes and underground leaflets
were circulated in the streets, schools, and mosques.
Although Islam has often been used by the ruling family to
bolster the prevailing order, it is also used to oppose that
order. During the gulf war, the call to Islam was especially
vibrant and empowered sympathizers. Islamists are by far more
coherent, powerful, and organized than any other social force
in Saudi Arabia, including those based on nationalism, regional
identity, or business activity. Islamism provided the vocabulary,
symbols, and historic reference points that resonated with
the population. Only Islamism was able to give the populace
common scripts to confront the overwhelming power of state
institutions. Islamism is the only movement that is able to
cut across multiple cleavages in Saudi Arabia. It has tapped
into two forces: a convergence of dissent, and socioeconomic
The dissenters have come together on grievances against the
regime; their convergence is indicative of a narrowing base
of legitimacy. Despite significant differences in ultimate
agenda, many sources of discontent now focus on three central
points: calls for redistribution of wealth, procedural social
justice, and regime accountability: in essence, the rule of
law. Because of this convergence, the state can no longer
resort to its time-honored strategy of playing one group against
another. This convergence cuts across cleavages of region,
gender, class, school of Islam, ethnicity, ideology, and rural-urban
settings. Private businesspersons and public bureaucrats,
industrialists and small-shop owners, Sunnis and Shias, men
and women share core grievances. People are weary of ad hoc
and arbitrary personal rule.
Islamism also taps into an already-distressed social and economic
environment. King Fahd has been incapacitated since his stroke
in 1995, and the family has been wracked by succession struggles.
Since the heyday of the oil boom, per capita income has plummeted
by more than one-half. The birth rate is a very high 3.5 percent.
The majority of the population is under 15. These young adults
will register their demands for education, jobs, and housing
at the same time.
Unemployment in the general male population is about 10 percent,
and among recent male college graduates, around 30 percent,
likely higher. Yet Saudi Arabia remains utterly dependent
on foreign workers, who constitute perhaps 90 percent of the
private-sector and 70 percent of the public-sector labor force.
Social norms militate against the participation of local women
in many economic activities. Moreover, since the gulf war,
new social problems, such as guns, drugs, and crime, have
been reported. Islamism has tapped into this high level of
discomfort in Saudi society.
The Islamist Social Movement
All strands of the diverse Islamist movement share three key
attributes. First, their critique of the regime is both symbolic
and material. Second, all are aware of the power of the embedded
social structure in which they operate. Third, all contest
the dominant historical narrative on the founding of the kingdom.
Opposition activists charge that the regime, including the
official religious authorities, deviated from the straight
path. They focus criticism not only on the ruling family but
also on the clergy because it is this group that has convinced
the people that the al-Saud are Islamic. In interviews this
author conducted in London in 1997 and 1999, one Islamist
said, "We must follow true Islam as the prophet and his companions
understood it, not as the corrupt scholars say." Another argued
that the "Wahhabi in contemporary Saudi Arabia do not name
the exact ancestors to which we should refer because it would
undo their own arguments about authority and obedience. If
we really read the early stuff, we would see that the ancestors
do not advocate blind obedience to unjust rule, but rebellion.
Their writing undermines the position of the al-Saud, so they
have conveniently been dropped from the discourse."1
In material terms, all believe that there has been a fundamental
abrogation of the political pact in Saudi Arabia that defined
the relationship between state and society. Islamists call
for a separation of the political and public from the private
and commercial. There is shared resentment at corruption and
the commissions many princes have received. All call for a
halt to the ruling family's intrusion into private life. In
a more general sense, all criticize the mismanagement, maldistribution,
and waste of national assets. Enormous military expenditures
have proved worthless after years of spending. This holistic
critique centers on a renegotiation of the political pact;
that is, all want a redefinition of the rules of the game
that separates private from public, upholds governance by
the rule of law, and abolishes the official state clergy.
The second strand that ties the movement together is an awareness
of the power of the embedded social structure. The problem
of mobilization of an opposition movement is formidable under
any authoritarian regime. It is further complicated in Saudi
Arabia by oil revenues, which financed both an extensive state
intelligence apparatus and a cradle-to-grave welfare state
that may placate potential opposition. These constraints are
coupled with an overwhelming social concern for privacy and
discretion in one's behavior. The ever-present concern for
the privacy of the family unit and discretion in behavior
clearly constrains efforts to mount collective public action.
Yet family networks have also proved vital to mobilizing support
underground. Networks at the village level have been important
means by which to disseminate information through sermons.
One activist repeatedly emphasized in an interview with this
author the importance of the relationship between Saudis and
the desert as part of the training and mobilization of opposition.
He explained that "people know the desert well. They are able
to survive in it because families regularly spend three months
in desert camps as a part of holiday. The smallest camps cannot
have less than 50 people. Americans need mineral water to
survive in the desert. A Saudi Arabian can drink mud and survive."
The societal emphasis on the importance of consensus also
makes cohesion among dissidents important. Three splits have
occurred within the Islamist movement: between the Shia who
returned with amnesty and those who stayed in exile to wage
struggle; between Saad al-Faqih and Mohamed al-Massari; and
between Khaled al-Fawwaz and Osama bin Laden. These small
splits between individuals had painful repercussions in the
Islamist movement in Saudi Arabia.
The third strand that ties the movement together is criticism
of the dominant historical narrative on the founding of the
kingdom. All Islamists construct a detailed alternative history
of Saudi Arabia from a fabric of cultural symbols and language
that resonate among people across divisions of class, region,
gender, and status.
The dominant narrative is recounted in history textbooks and
state-run media. It tells of a glorious history of state formation
under the wise leadership of the founder, Abdulaziz, who unified
diverse tribes and regions. He married into all defeated tribes
to confer membership on them and to instill a sense of nationhood.
Islam was embraced by the al-Saud. This history, however,
is not congruent with private conversations. Alternative historic
narratives are about conquering rather than unification, violence
rather than wisdom, and the abuse of Islam rather than its
embrace. Marriage into defeated tribes was, according to one
Islamist, "a trinket, like graft."
The alternative historic narratives use clear historic reference
points. Often recounted are the agreements made between Abdulaziz
and representatives of major families, historic meetings between
Abdulaziz and the clergy, and the meeting between Abdulaziz
and the Hejazi notables, all of which shaped an implicit understanding
of the acceptable relationship between state (under the ruling
family), religion, and society, including distinctions between
public and private. All have been abrogated in recent years.
In the wake of the gulf war, the state-appointed clergy has
been supplemented by a popular-level alternative clergy that
is articulate and vocal. The divide between official Islamic
authorities and popular Islamic leaders is ggreat. A dissident
explained, "The old clergy believe that the ruler is the vice-regent
of God on earth. Advice can only be given in private and in
confidence. The new clergy reject the idea of vice-regency.
Rather, it is the duty of the clergy to criticize the ruler
and work for change." The alternative clergy decries waste
and imprudence in government expenditures. It highlights the
absence of a capable military despite massive expenditures
on weaponry. When the official clergy wrote the fatawa that
justified the presence of United States troops on Saudi soil
using Islamic vocabulary, other religious leaders offered
counter-fatawa that condemned United States troops, also using
Islamic justification. The alternative fatawa drew wider public
support than did the official fatawa.
During this turmoil, Islamists charged King Fahd with deviation
from the straight path of Islam. He was criticized for his
personal behavior, methods of governance, domestic and foreign
policies, and, of course, his decision to allow the stationing
of American troops. Influential popular-level sheikhs, such
as Salman al-Awdah and Safar al-Hawali, were arrested. Many
were forbidden to deliver sermons.
During this time of ferment, several petitions were presented
to King Fahd that demanded structural reforms in the kingdom.
The very dialogue of political intercourse changed. Before
the war, criticism could be offered only in private and on
a one-to-one verbal basis. Now it was transformed into a public
discussion - much of it written, signed, and documented. The
most influential petitions were from opposition Sunni clergy.
All Islamists concur that the official clergy should be abolished
and advocate the existence of contending clerical voices in
the country. They argue that debate would be healthy and that
each believer could choose to abide by the clergy he or she
considers most legitimate. The point is that the ruling family
would not control the clergy through the appointment of a
single official voice.
In spring 1991, 453 religious scholars, judges, and university
professors issued a petition that in strong and direct language
called for a restoration of Islamic values. The petition asked
for 12 political reforms, including a consultative assembly,
fair judiciary, redistribution of wealth, an end to corruption,
and the primacy of religious law. The government was shaken
because the people thought to be its pillar of support had
endorsed such sweeping changes. The ruling family was concerned
not only by the petition's content, but also by the very public
way in which it was circulated, making the rounds of schools
and mosques before the king saw it. Because it abrogated the
norm for privacy in political discussion, the Supreme Council
of Scholars, the elite of the official clergy, condemned the
publication and circulation of the petition.
In July 1992, 107 religious scholars signed a "memorandum
of advice" (muzakharat al-nasihi) to King Fahd. He refused
to receive the 46-page document. It was even bolder and more
defiant than the petition drafted the previous year. Its tone
was straightforward; its charges, specific. The petitioners
deplored the "total chaos in the economy and society . . .
widespread bribery, favoritism, and the extreme feebleness
of the courts," criticized virtually every aspect of domestic
and foreign policy, and demanded a more rigorous application
of Islamic law.
Pressures for reform were not limited to Sunni Islamists.
Representatives of the Shia Reform Movement (an umbrella organization
of several Shia opposition groups that press for the rights
of the minority Shia community in Saudi Arabia) continued
to call for a consultative council that included representatives
of their community. The business community submitted a so-called
liberal petition that demanded structural reforms. Forty women
kicked their drivers out of their cars and drove through the
streets of Riyadh.
The al-Saud regime simultaneously denied the existence of
an opposition movement, co-opted semiloyalists, and initiated
a massive crackdown on dissent. By 1993, actual organizations
were formed to disseminate the opposition message. Demonstrations
- largely unheard of under this authoritarian regime - erupted
to demand the release of the imprisoned sheikhs, the most
significant occurring in Buraydah in September 1994, the very
heartland of the ruling family's support. Within the Islamist
movement, activists disagreed about whether to engage in a
public demonstration. Some argued that the timing and the
causes were not appropriate, and that the movement was not
yet ready. Others fomented the demonstration. The dissension
over the Buraydah demonstration highlights the split between
the reformists and the radicals in the movement. The radicals
became more serious and violent. That split still haunts us
Only three years ago, it was fashionable to dismiss Islamism
in Saudi Arabia as a failed movement, or a mere post-gulf
war hiccup on the domestic front. Observers argued that Islamism
had been quashed or co-opted by the al-Saud regime because
sheikhs and dissidents were less vocal than before. This was
a mistake. Those who made this error were using an inappropriate
yardstick, looking only for "regime overthrow" as a measure
of success. In fact, Islamist pressures have initiated significant
steps toward reform.
It is unlikely that Fahd would have created the consultative
council in 1992 without the pressure of Islamists (it had
been promised regularly since 1975), or that he would have
created provincial councils, or later expanded the membership
of the council from 60 to 90. But the incremental response
of King Fahd to popular dissent in the early 1990s has satisfied
no one. He appointed a nonlegislative consultative council
and gave more power to provincial governments, where other
family members ruled. These "reforms" disappointed some and
angered others. They consolidated the ruling family's centrality
to political life, rather than broadening meaningful participation.
Most significantly, Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's
de facto ruler since King Fahd's illness, would have had a
harder time asserting his position in the succession struggles
against Prince Sultan (second in line to the throne) and his
brothers that followed Fahd's stroke in 1995 had it not been
for the power of the Islamist voice in Saudi Arabia. Abdullah
apparently will respond to Islamists in a way that grants
concessions to the opposition and protects the ruling family.
Specifically, Abdullah has begun to address the grievances,
allowing a popular clergy to voice opinions and by reining
in the more ostentatious behavior of princes. It is also reported
that he has tried to limit the extent to which they participate
in oil-related endeavors. In summer 1999, he released the
sheikhs who had been jailed. He has allowed the press a bit
more leeway than before. He has publicly criticized United
States policy toward Israel and Palestine. Still, on November
14, 2001, Abdullah summoned a number of religious authorities
to his side. He warned them to be cautious in their rhetoric
and to "not be emotional or provoked by others." He exhorted
them to avoid inflammatory comments and to "weigh each word
before saying it."
Islamists have successfully captured the discourse in Saudi
Arabia. The struggles of the Islamist movement have made conversation
permissible, an enormous feat in the authoritarian circumstances
of Saudi Arabia. Islamists have initiated a renegotiation
of the social contract in Saudi Arabia and an alternative
telling of history. The al-Saud occupy all positions of authority,
but they now must make some compromises in accordance with
the historical, material, and ideological critique that the
Islamists have eloquently articulated.
When the clergy presented King Fahd with the memorandum of
advice, the nasihi, they profoundly changed political discourse
in Saudi Arabia. It was a collective action conducted in such
a way that it had to be taken seriously. The nasihi permitted
people to talk about politics and religion in Saudi Arabia,
a right that had long been denied. Permission had to come
in Islamic vocabulary and with Islamic authority. The nasihi
gave ordinary Saudis "cognitive liberation," that is, it gave
people freedom to talk. The popular clergy assumed the risk
of political activity for Saudis who were hesitant to speak
out. They used their voice to give people a sense of empowerment.
The nasihi also gave Saudis "agency by proxy." Islamists opened
the floodgates of criticism in the kingdom by invoking the
Islamically grounded right to advise the ruler (hence, the
memorandum of advice).
If the success of a movement is measured by regime change,
then the Islamists have failed in Saudi Arabia. But if success
is measured by discourse and meaning, the Islamists clearly
have succeeded. The larger debates in Saudi Arabia today are
about the construction of meaning as a nation. People are
talking about the terms and content of their belonging together,
and about the right to talk about such sensitive topics. The
contemporary debate is about what it means to be "Saudi" that
is, the meaning of citizenship. The Islamists began a national
conversation about what it means to belong and about the relationship
of state and citizen, and religion and state.
Implementing Meaningful Reform
Islamists do not work in a vacuum, but are intimately tied
to the fabric of communal, regional, and economic networks.
Islamists, however, have clearly been the most articulate
and powerful of the various social forces in Saudi Arabia.
They are better organized and more cohesive than other social
forces in representing their interests to the state. Even
though people disagree on strategy and the ultimate goal of
opposition movements, they do concur on grievances and particularly
on the call for regularity and predictability. In effect,
Islamists express the grievances of many people.
Contentious voices also resonate because the exclusionary
structure of governance does not reflect the diversity of
the population. Contrary to popular images, Saudi Arabia is
not a homogeneous country in ethnicity, religion, or ideology.
The variety of Muslim practices include Wahhabi orthodoxy,
mainstream Sunni calls for reform of the state, minority Shia
communities, Sufi practices throughout the Hejaz, and, most
important, a Sunni Salafi opposition movement (the Salafi
- believers who adhere to the ways of their pious ancestors,
the companions of the prophet - are the most powerful voice
in Saudi Arabia today). In religious, political, social, and
economic affairs, inclusion must be practiced. The sprawling
religious bureaucracy must be reformed to incorporate the
religious diversity of the country, rather than only the muwahidun.
Likewise, political positions, from the local to the national
level, must allow for the inclusion of diverse ethnic identities,
regions, and ideological voices. Reform of the political and
religious institutions would promote greater tolerance in
In economic matters, the domestic economy must, as the ruling
family well knows, be more diverse, private, and local. The
overwhelming dependence on foreign labor creates economic
and political problems. The private sector must be simultaneously
nourished and confronted - that is, it must be given protection,
particularly in the face of World Trade Organization-mandated
direct foreign investment, but it also must hire (more expensive)
Saudi labor. The ruling family has long postponed a confrontation
with the private sector be cause new expectations must be
reciprocal: if it must hire more expensive labor, then the
private sector will in turn insist on transparency in the
awarding of contracts, representation in politics, and limits
on princely activity in the commercial realm.
In international terms, the maintenance of United States military
bases in Saudi Arabia must be reconsidered. The bases are
there to protect a stable and cheap supply of oil to the United
States and its allies. Yet the presence of the bases fosters
opposition to the regime they are there to protect. The bases
cannot be fully used because of this opposition (they are
not, for example, being used during the current war in Afghanistan).
It is a vicious circle, but several other basing options (Oman,
Bahrain,Turkey) are available to the United States.
Above all, Saudi Arabians are now looking for more inclusive
and representative governance. They want freedom of expression
and freedom of assembly. They want to participate in the development
of their country, particularly in meeting the needs of education,
health, employment, and infrastructure for a booming population.
Saudi Arabians do not want to waste precious national resources
on arms purchases from the United States, deals over which
they have no control.
Portrayals of internal politics as contests between United
States-allied "moderates" and puritanical "Wahhabis" are grossly
oversimplified. So too is a menu that offers two stark choices:
an absolute monarchy tilting toward the West or a revolutionary
Islamist regime hostile to the West. Internal contests and
choices are more complex than that.
The depth of royal coercion has meant that other voices have
not been allowed to flourish. Today, there is not a viable
alternative to the ruling family that could unite the disparate
parts of the country, perhaps enhancing bin Laden's pull artificially.
What many Saudi Arabians are talking about constitutes neither
full competitive democracy nor absolute monarchy. Rather,
it is a voice in governance, and the rule of law. The challenge
before Crown Prince Abdullah is to promote domestic reform
that incorporates the diversity of the population. His strong
nationalist voice can be used to counter the power of the
radical movement. The wide middle ground between a revolutionary
bin Laden and an authoritarian ruling family cries out for
The bad news is that serious structural reforms are necessary
in Saudi Arabia. The good news is that Abdullah has the capability
and the personal legitimacy to initiate such change. He must
protect his close relationships with other branches of the
ruling family, particularly the sons of King Faisal and of
King Saud. He must preserve a working relationship with the
seven brothers who comprise the al-Fahd branch, even though
they contest his rule. But Abdullah is 78 years old. He must
work quickly and with sensitivity. It is not clear that other
high-ranking members of the family carry the same weight in
diverse quarters of Saudi society as does Abdullah. At least,
ordinary Saudis now have permission to engage in a national
conversation about their future.
1 The Islamists
interviewed included Khaled al-Fawwaz (Committee on Advice
and Reformation), Saad al-Faqih (Movement for Islamic Reform
in Arabia), and Mohamed al-Massari (Committee for Defense
of Legitimate Rights).