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Saudi Arabia: Islamic Threat, Political Reform, and the Global War on Terror

Authored by Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur. | March 2005

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States have been allies for more than half a century. In the wake of the terrible events of September 11, 2001, and in the midst of a Saudi battle against a wave of Islamist terrorism on their own soil, the two nations are drawing apart. This monograph questions this unfortunate advent in the context of Islamist challenges and the growth of forces for reform in the Kingdom. The Saudi government has been strongly criticized for setting too narrow an agenda and too slow a pace for change. External sources also debate the efficacy of measures taken to control Islamic terror cells, in particular those associated with al-Qa?ida on the Arabian Peninsula (QAP), and to rein in those who provide ideological support to extremism. Sources internal to Saudi Arabia argue that, as their entire state structure and society is founded on religious principles, they must move cautiously.

As similar battles against Islamist extremists are being waged in Iraq today, it seems clear that the future of U.S.-Saudi relations is contingent on a redefinition of the two countries? interests. Both have high stakes in the future of the war on terror in the region. American policymakers and military leadership urgently need to comprehend clearly the nature and interests of the ?Islamic threat? in Saudi Arabia, as well as other broadly defined arguments swirling around the war on terror. Some have accused the Kingdom of gross sponsorship of terrorism. Yet they should distinguish the sectarian origins of Wahhabism from the new Islamic and Islamist discourses emerging in that country.

As the U.S. policy for the global war on terror recommends the ?forwarding of freedom? and prevention of ?failed states,? Saudi Arabia?s reform movement has assumed new importance as well. U.S. policymakers should determine future courses of action in light of the various pitfalls inherent in bolstering authoritarianism, empowering reform, treating the Kingdom as an essentially unwelcome ex-ally, or abandoning it in the event of a serious challenge. The future of security in Saudi Arabia is related to the future of political, educational, administrative, and social reforms. Current U.S. strategy calls for the attainment of both aims.

Principal recommendations for U.S. policymakers include:

  1. Developing a well-established plan in the event of catastrophic events in the Kingdom.
  2. Creating, facilitating, and participating in ad hoc and formal multination discussions of antiterrorism and its relationship to democratic or other reforms.
  3. Responding to Saudi conventional military and security needs and proposals regarding Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) force or multinational Muslim force creation.
  4. Encouraging Saudi improvement and modernization of the General Intelligence Presidency, the Saudi intelligence service, including the areas of research, human intelligence, and strategic thinking.
  5. Urging Saudi responsiveness to international efforts to improve human, legal, and workers? (international) rights. This might be bolstered by the development of a Bill of Rights.
  6. Examining and more carefully analyzing the influence of Saudi `ulama and Islamic institutions in the Kingdom and upon the progress of reform and democratization in neighboring countries.
  7. Monitoring the impact on Saudi Arabia of the security situation in Iraq, and eliciting allies? cooperation in monitoring travel for religious purposes in the Kingdom and regionally.
  8. Encouraging the Saudi government in its efforts to increase political participation and administrative transparency.