Abdulaziz Saud

Saudi Arabia, a country in crisis

If a recent report is to be believed, the Kingdom of Arabia has come to be raised, in diplomatic terms, to the level of a "crisis country" by the United States. A task force to monitor the development there is also reported to have been set up. The decision and the reasons which led to it have been kept secret.

Arabia remains America's most important Arab satellite. Despite having 25% of the world's known oil reserves, Riyadh is Washington's largest military client, the leader of the Gulf Co-operation Council, an important anchor for the US presence in the Middle East and a voice of moderation in the Arab League. Internal destabilization would have important effects on the Arab and Muslim worlds and the price of oil.

The decision, last October which prompted the US National Security Council to designate Saudi Arabia a crisis country is America's failure to move the Saudi government to act on two immediate threats. To America, the first threat is Islamic activism which targeted Saudi-based US objectives in November 1995 (Riyadh bombing) and in June 1996 (al Khobar bombing). The second is King FahdŐs poor health and the discreet conflict over power.

The policy-makers in the Clinton administration hold two opposite opinions on this issue. One group sees the problems of the country as transitory and of no long-term consequence, whilst the other team views the kingdom's current problems as structural ones which could lead to upheaval. Yet, both have resisted recommending serious economic and political reforms. In fact, their apparent differences centre on whether the House of Saud is capable of solving the two thorny issues of the Islamic renaissance movement and the succession to ailing King Fahd on their own, or whether American interference is needed.

The leading advocate of American interference in Saudi Arabia's internal affairs was Tony Lake, the head of the National Security Council. A friend, advisor and confidant of President Clinton, Lake assumed responsibility for American policy towards the kingdom two years ago when Clinton wanted to entrust the file to a politician capable of judging the impact of happenings within Arabia on American domestic policy.

The advocates of non-interference were Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Warren Christopher both of whom were supported by a slew of diplomats. This group believed in the House of Saud's ability to solve the two problems and wants to limit Washington's role to providing Riyadh with information about subversive groups. Supporters of this approach argued that the situation within Arabia had stabilized and that recent improvement in the price of oil would afford the Saudi regime room to tackle both problems.

The designation of Arabia as a crisis country implies that the advocates of interference won over their opponents. This step amounts to an official, although secret admission of the existence of a problem, but falls short of representing the emergence of a coherent policy towards Riyadh, whether a short or a long-term one. Moreover, all available evidence suggests that the designation was forced on the Americans by the lack of responsiveness to their recommendations by members of the House of Saud.

Most of the powerful members of the House of Saud, the seven Sudeiri brothers, have resisted American pressures for a simple reason. Since their family has wielded power in the country for over twenty years, they have not accepted the prospect of their half-brother and Heir Apparent Prince Abdallah succeeding to their brother Fahd and the curtailment of their power that this is likely to entail. So far, they have refrained from taking any steps that would help Abdallah's succession to the throne. With Fahd physically unable to exercise the powers invested in his office, Minister of Defence Prince Sultan, Minister of Interior Prince Nayef and the Governor of Riyadh Prince Salman have proceeded to run their departments in accordance with the narrow interests of the Sudeiri clan and without taking into consideration the American wish to protect the overall national interest.

The moves by members of the Sudeiri clan have been successful in intercepting American attempts to have Fahd cede power to Abdallah. Furthermore, the unhealthy atmosphere created by the lack of co-operation with Washington has also translated into an inability to deal with the problem of anti-American actions in the country. Suspicious of the intentions of the US government, the Sudeiris have unflinchingly refused to let American security experts interview bombing suspects and have withheld valuable information regarding several opposition groups. American protests against these policies have produced no results and many questions raised by the Americans have gone unanswered.

The designation of Saudi Arabia as a crisis does not reflect a policy to tackle the impending danger to the Kingdom, but reflects the continued absence of policy and a response to the lack of success in co-operating with powerful people on the ground. As such, this so-called policy should be seen as a step towards containing the feud between Washington and the Sudeiri brothers, a poor substitute for a plan which would address the more extensive problems facing the country. This is why the National Security Council has kept its decision secret. Admitting its existence would entail explaining the need for it and lead to a more serious confrontation with the Sudeiris.

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