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Is Saudi Arabia falling apart?

Don't Panic!... Your war questions answered

That really depends on what you mean by falling apart.

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If, by falling apart, you mean that de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Abdullah needn't bother buying any green bananas next time he's at the supermarket, then no, Saudi Arabia isn't falling apart.

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If, however, you mean that Saudi Arabia has deep, systemic flaws that will eventually spell doom for the Saudi dynasty, then yes, it's falling apart. (Note to Saudis who don't speak English very well: That's D-O-O-M.)

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The immediate reason for all of this chit and chat about Saudi Arabia's viability as a nation is the dramatic increase in the number of al-Qaeda attacks there in the past year. The barrage started in May 2003 with car bomb attacks on three housing compounds in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, which killed 35 and wounded 200. Despite highfalutin talk about police crackdowns, about two dozen al-Qaeda attacks and battles between al-Qaeda militants and Saudi authorities followed. The crackdown ain't working.

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Speculation about how much sand remains in the top half of the desert kingdom's hourglass (how's that for an overwrought metaphor?) increased even more after the May 2004 attack on Oasis. No, I'm not talking about the washed-up Brit-poppers, unfortunately. Oasis is a residential compound housing Western oil workers in Khobar. Gun-wielding al-Qaedas hopped the compound's wonderwall and went on a machine-gunning, throat-cutting rampage that left 22 dead — and scared the crap out of the other 80,000 Westerners who currently call Saudi Arabia home. The beheading of American Paul Johnson by al-Qaeda did more of the same.

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The kingdom relies on its foreigners-in-residence for pretty much everything that gets done there. Hell, even the kingdom's most famous terrorist, Osama bin Laden, is a foreigner (his dad emigrated from Yemen). Foreigners keep the Saudi oil industry running like, uh, a well-oiled machine. If al-Qaeda scares enough of them off, the kingdom's oil industry (and thus its long-term oil income) will suffer. Here's a wacky irony, though: Fear about the oil industry's long-term viability keeps oil prices up, which in turn funnels more cash to the Saudi government.

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So al-Qaeda is doing damage that, barring a more comprehensive crackdown, will likely scare off some crucial foreign workers. But is al-Qaeda on the brink of toppling the monarchy? Nope. The number of militants willing to kill and die for a revolution in Saudi Arabia is relatively low — supposedly somewhere in the low thousands. And even though a recent poll shows that 50 percent of Saudis are sympathetic to Osama bin Laden's anti-American, anti-Israeli views, only 5 percent of those people said that they want bin Laden as their leader. With Nader in the race, bin Laden's support drops to 3 percent.

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Like I implied earlier, though, even if al-Qaeda ceased all attacks in Saudi Arabia tomorrow, the Saudi jig is up. And not just because dancing is banned there. The biggest reason Saudi Arabia could fall apart is the royal family itself. It's not a family in the traditional mom, dad, brothers, sisters, Cousin Oliver sense. The kingdom's founder, Abd-al Aziz Ibn Saud, had to do a lot of marrying of rivals' daughters to unite the Arabian Peninsula under his rule. He had 22 wives and 48 sons. Since kicking the bucket in 1953, Ibn Saud's kiddies have continued the "if the tent is a rockin', don't come-a-knockin'" tradition. Now there's something like 30,000 of them — all of whom use the national treasury as their personal checking account.

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At the same time, the country's nonroyal population is booming. In exchange for giving up all political freedom to an absolute monarchy, Saudi citizens expect much generosity from the government (housing, health, jobs, etc.). But pretty soon, there won't be enough oil revenue for everyone to live well. When that happens, Saudi royal rule will likely falter. Per capita income in Saudi Arabia has already fallen from nearly $29,000 in 1981 to less than $7,000 now.

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That's the rock. Here's the hard place: If the royal family starts liberalizing its social structure to cope with the fact that its socioeconomic bargain is running short of cash, it will run afoul of the fundamentalist Wahhabi religious establishment that resents anything remotely resembling Western-style democracy. If the royals piss off the religious establishment enough, they can expect that the hatred typically directed at the West and Israel will then be directed at them.

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In other words, a revolution in Saudi Arabia is a question of when, not if.

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andisheh@creativeloafing.com



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