Riyadh bombings spur political reform in Saudi Arabia

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmad Musa

Rabi' al-Thani 22, 1437 2003-06-01

Occupied Arab World

by Ahmad Musa (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 7, Rabi' al-Thani, 1437)

A week after the four bomb blasts in Riyadh which killed 24 people on May 12, the US, Britain and Germany shut down their embassies in Saudi Arabia after warnings that more deadly attacks could be expected. At the same time, authorities in Jeddah announced the arrest of three suspected members of the al-Qa’ida cell believed to have been responsible for the Riyadh attacks. Authorities had already arrested four suspected al-Qa’ida members two days earlier, and announced that five of the attackers had been identified.

The Interior Ministry said that the attack had been carried out by members of an al-Qa’ida cell that was broken up by a police raid in Riyadh on May 6, when 19 men had escaped. That raid had taken place very close to one of the three housing compounds attacked on May 12. At the time, Saudi authorities had said that the cell had been planning attacks on Saudi interior minister Prince Naif and his brother Defence Minister Prince Sultan, two of the most powerful members of the Al-Saud family.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the West immediately put pressure on Saudi authorities to crack down on suspected al-Qa’ida sympathisers and activists. The US rushed 60 FBI and other investigators to Riyadh to "assist" in the investigation, but there were immediate reports that they were not being permitted to operate by Saudi authorities. After the Khobar bombing in 1996, US investigators criticised the Saudis for not co-operating with them. This time, despite diplomatic words from both sides in public, US officials said privately that Saudi authorities would not be permitted the option of being less than fully co-operative.

It appears that in matters of political reform too, the Saudis may be coming under pressure from the US. In a televised address read out on his behalf to the country’s Shura Council— consisting entirely of government appointees—on May 17, King Fahd gave an explicit sign of pending political reform by promising to expand the scope of popular participation and open more areas for women’s employment. He declared that Saudi Arabia "cannot stand still while the world changes".

This is the first time that Fahd himself has spoken out about political reform. In the past, rather less explicit statements about reform have come from Fahd’s half-brother and anointed successor, crown prince Abdullah, and his main ally, foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal. This latest intervention from Fahd is a clear recognition that his position is under threat if he does not accept the pressure for radical change.

This pressure was expressed in a petition to Abdullah from reformist intellectuals earlier this year, in which they expressed fear that anti-Western sentiment stemming from the war on Iraq and America’s continued support for Israel would severely damage the country unless political reforms were implemented. The petition, which some suspect to have been influenced by Western voices, called for elections, an end to corruption, the right to free speech, the monitoring of public spending, and a radical overhaul of an education system heavily criticised since September 11, 2001, for promoting a rigid, Wahhabi understanding of Islam, regarded as being partly responsible for the hard-line anti-Western sentiment shown by Saudis sympathetic to Usama bin Ladin.

Advocates of reform, including the West, which would like far greater say on internal developments in the country, are to be stepping up their pressure after the Riyadh bombings.

Abdullah, meanwhile, appealed to Islam to condemn the bombing, saying that the bombers would "suffer the wrath of God in hell. The country’s pro-regime newspapers added to the chorus of condemnation. "There is no place here for terrorism, and swift punishment must be the response," read the front-page headline of the Jeddah-based Al-Madinah.

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