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Comment: Is Saudi Arabia on the Brink of Revolution?

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The chaos in Iraq must surely give many Saudis pause for thought. Unlike Iraq, there are not ethnic tensions in the country. Among advocates of reform, it is doubtful that even among the most modernised, Western-educated technocrats, that there is strong support for a radical move away from Islamic political theory as the basis of the Saudi constitutional system. 

August 09, 2004--On Saturday August 4, 1990, CNN reported that 170,000 Iraqi troops were massed on the Kuwaiti border with Saudi Arabia as President George Bush Snr. was in discussions with Saudi King Fahd on American military intervention in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The oil fields which had fuelled the dramatic transformation of the Desert Kingdom since the development of the oil industry began in 1938, lay south of the border. The Strategic Oil Storage Project which provided for the building of massive underground caverns at 5 sites throughout Saudi Arabia was still a work in progress. The aim of the project was to provide strategic supplies of oil in the event of catastrophic events at the oil fields. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had an opportunity to seriously undermine the Saudi Monarchy by capturing the oil fields and creating havoc in the Saudi economy and society by destroying a major desalination plant. It was high summer and most of the 19 million residents depended on the desalination plants for drinking water. Saddam Hussein didn't order his troops to cross the border and American Army units began arriving in Saudi Arabia in the following week.

President George H. Bush and King Fahd Saudi Arabia
President George H. Bush and King Fahd in Saudi Arabia 
Nov 1990    Photo Credit: George Bush Presidential Library

There is little doubt that the supreme prize today for al-Qaeda would be the double whammy of a serious attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities that would both undermine the Saudi Government and inflict serious damage on Western economies through a big surge in the price of oil. Saudi Arabian crude supply is estimated to have reached over  9 million barrels per day which is over 11% of world supply. The loss of this supply for even a relatively short period would likely induce a worldwide  economic recession. However, instability within the country over  a long period would likely have greater consequences. (See-Oil Market Statistics below)

Balancing a rapid economic modernisation programme while maintaining a very conservative religious based society is bound to have resulted in pressure points at some stage. The seeds of the current armed dissent were sown a quarter century ago. 

In the year that hundreds of Saudi religious extremists took over the Grand Mosque inGrand Mosque Makkah (Mecca) Makkah by armed force, US President Jimmy Carter signed a finding authorising a covert programme of assistance for groups opposing the Soviet backed communist Afghan government.  In his 1996 memoir From the Shadows, former Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates revealed the $500 million in non-lethal aid which was designed to counter the billions the Soviets were providing their puppet regime. Some American policymakers were eager to lure the Soviets into a Vietnam-like entanglement. Gates recounts that at a key meeting on March 30, 1979, Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocumbe wondered aloud whether 'there was value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, "sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire."' Former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said in a 1998 interview with the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur,: 'We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.'

1979 was the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the seizure of the Grand Mosque was a serious jolt for the House of Saud. In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and soon became the target of a Jihad holy war funded by Saudi Arabia and the US. Thousands of Saudis including Osama bin Laden headed for Afghanistan and their return home coincided with the arrival of more than a half million American servicemen in the Kingdom. It is not surprising that many of the returnees had been further radicalised by their experience in Afghanistan.  U.S. intelligence estimates that 10,000 to 20,000 men passed through the Afghan training camps. It is ironic that Jimmy Carter, a later winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, paved the way for the rise of Osama bin Laden.  On the credit side, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the beginning of the end of communism.

President George W. Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia 
President George W. Bush meeting Crown Prince Abdullah in April
2002                                         White House Photo: David Bohren

Today, as the murder of an Irish expatriate engineer in Riyadh last week confirms, al-Qaeda is focusing on soft targets by in seeking to undermine the Saudi economy through driving Western expatriates from the Kingdom. However, The Los Angeles Times has reported that al-Qaeda may be seeking to stage a spectacular assassination by killing a senior member of the Royal Family. It quotes a Saudi dissident in London Saad Fagih as saying: 'Many people are saying the jihadis are doing a big mistake by targeting foreigners..They should have targeted the royal family long ago. We would admire jihadis if they would attack the royal family rather than these compounds.' Last July, the Times reports that a group posted on a website affiliated with Al Qaeda detailed plans for killing Prince Nayif ibn Abdulaziz, the powerful Saudi interior minister. The plans described Nayif's daily routine and identified his residences and the way his car is concealed among other cars in his motorcade. 'If the jihadis succeed in getting one of the royals, people will join them in the thousands,' Fagih predicted. Intelligence officials and outside analysts estimate that Al Qaeda has 500 to 1,500 hard-core activists, a small number in a country with a population of about 19 million.

Saudi Arabia is in a quandary in responding to the need for political and social reform. The Government fears that a fast track approach would precipitate revolution while too slow a process  would provide support for extremists.  

The Saudi Press Agency announced last week that municipal elections across Saudi Arabia, the first such voting in decades, will begin in November.  Last October, Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto leader, requested the authorities to prepare for municipal elections within a year. Plans for the elections, the first in four decades, fin Lollowed pressure from the United States and domestic advocates to grant some political participation and freedom of expression. Last March, advocates of reform had received a setback when about a dozen reform advocates were arrested. Half of the number were released within days after pledging they would no longer lobby publicly for change. Three remain in detention, and they are to go on trial this week. Many of the detained activists had signed a petition suggesting that Saudi Arabia be turned into a constitutional monarchy. Government officials have accused the campaigners of engaging in "incitement," sowing dissent, threatening national unity and having "some contacts with foreign sides." The first stage of the planned elections will be held in the region of Riyadh, the capital, and will begin in November. The second stage will cover the Eastern Province and southern regions. The third stage would be held in the western regions of Jeddah, Makkah and Medina and the northern regions after the annual pilgrimage to those places in January. It is thought that women will not have the right to vote.

The chaos in Iraq must surely give many Saudis pause for thought. Unlike Iraq, there are not ethnic tensions in the country. Among advocates of reform, it is doubtful that even among the most modernised, Western-educated technocrats, that there is strong support for a radical move away from Islamic political theory as the basis of the Saudi constitutional system. However, there must be a realignment of the pact between the House of Saud and the conservative religious establishment. The link with the Wahhabi doctrine of Islam dates back to the mid-18th century and supporters of al-Qaeda can justifiably claim that they are the true believers. In the schools, the teaching of the Holy Quoran (Koran), accounts for about 40% of the curriculum and the emphasis is often on an extreme interpretation, in particular in fostering a negative attitude to what are termed non-believers. The Government no longer has full control of the media  with the rise of media services like Al Jazeera TV. Saudi society has undergone a rapid modernisation in the space of a few decades. There is still time for gradual change from the system of absolute monarchy but the clock is ticking.

Terror in the Kingdom

The following is a compilation from The Los Angeles Times that has been updated by Finfacts:

Islamic extremists have killed scores of Westerners and Muslims in Saudi Arabia in a little more than a year, but they might switch tactics and target a member of the Saudi royal family. 


May 12: Suicide bombings at three Riyadh housing compounds kill nine Americans and at least 26 others.

Nov. 8: Suicide bombing at a Riyadh housing compound kills at least 17 people, most of them Muslims.


April 21: A suicide car bomber attacks a police headquarters in Riyadh, killing at least six people.

May 1: Gunmen kill seven oil workers in an attack on the offices of a Houston-based company in the western port city of Yanbu.

May 22: Gunmen kill a German national in Riyadh.

May 29: Gunmen shoot up oil industry compounds in Khobar, killing at least 22.

June 6: A BBC cameraman Irishman Simon Cumbers is killed and a reporter is wounded in a shooting in Riyadh.

June 8: Robert C. Jacobs, an Illinois native who helped train the Saudi national guard, is shot to death at his home in Riyadh.

June 12: American Kenneth Scroggs is fatally shot in Riyadh.

June 18: Lockheed Martin engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr. of New Jersey, kidnapped six days earlier in Riyadh, is beheaded.

August 3: Irishman Anthony Christopher Higgins is shot dead in his office. He had worked as an engineer in Saudi Arabia for 27 years.

- Michael Hennigan

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Source: Oil Market Report.Org

Source: Oil Market Report.Org

Source: Oil Market Report.Org

OPEC production ceiling allocations, applying shares of current base tb/d


April  1, 2004 (base)

Shares %

July 1, 2004

August 1, 2004











IR Iran












SP Libyan AJ















Saudi Arabia















OPEC production ceiling (excl. Iraq)





Source: OPEC

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Our Comment feature has been incorporated in the:

The Finfacts Ireland News & Comment  Service from October 2004


September 2004:

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The Gekko Doctrine-Fair Pay in an Age of Greed 
The Genesis of American Foreign Policy
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April 2004:

Dealing with Al Qaeda Terrorism
Employment Rights and Human Rights
The Opiate of the Masses
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March 2004:

The Irish Abuse of Power Tribunals
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