Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Terror Returns to Saudi

Terrorists are active in Saudi again, contrary to my expectations that things had been finally calming down once the government finally started feeling the issue was their problem too. It seems obvious that these elements feel at home there, both literally and figuratively. I went to a lecture by Dr Mai Yamani, a Saudi expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) in London who attributed their seeming impunity to the tribal links between the security forces and the insurgents, which also, she said, a common identity that also explains the willingness of Saudis, Syrians and Jordanians to cross the border to fight in Iraq.

It was an interesting lecture, and she answered a number of questions, including two from me. Unlike the French Arabist Gilles Kepel has written in his books, especially Jihad: The Rise and Fall of Political Islam, she seems to put little faith in the capability of the Middle East states to effectively oppress the insurgents. I think that this is a naive view, and that the Al Saud, as shown in the revolt of the Ikhwan in the twenties and the takeover of the Mecca mosques in 1980, is as ruthless as it needs to be to ensure its own survival.

She also told me that she believed that the Saudi government was uncertain, afraid and fractured in supporting the Iraq war, which is consistent with the analysis published by Michael Scott Doran of Princeton in Foreign Affairs earlier this year. This is quite different from the picture of eager support from Prince Abdullah and Ambassador to the US Prince Bandar painted in Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, which reinforced my own opinion that Saudi was a vital silent partner in the coalition of the willing that took on Iraq, facilitating the war with basing rights, diplomatic support for its smaller neighbours and an accomodating oil policy.

I'll take a look out for her new book, although I suspect that her expertise lies much more in culture and soft issues than the hard questions of security, economics and politics that fascinate me.