www.mafhoum.com

Trouble in the Kingdom.

by Eric Rouleau

AT SEA IN THE DESERT


Crown Prince Abdullah cut an impressive figure when he arrived in Crawford, Texas, in late April to meet with President George W. Bush. The man who has ruled Saudi Arabia ever since his half brother, King Fahd, suffered a stroke in 1995, Abdullah managed to present himself as both firm and conciliatory, establishing a productive dialogue with the American president and improving a relationship that had been badly frayed by September 11 and the ongoing crisis in the Middle East. While pressuring Bush to take a more active role in the Arab-Israeli peace process, Abdullah also mollified the Americans by promising to keep Saudi oil flowing and by promoting his own groundbreaking solution to the conflict in the Middle East.

Abdullah's performance abroad, however, obscured the fact that the prince's power at home -- and indeed, the health of his nation -- has eroded significantly. A major crisis is now brewing in Saudi Arabia, and September's terrorist attacks -- committed by 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi citizens -- both highlighted and, in a way, aggravated the tensions in the kingdom. The intense violence in the Middle East has made matters even worse. The deterioration of the Arab-Israeli situation has started to threaten the very stability of the Saudi state in a way many Westerners, particularly Americans, had not anticipated. In particular, outsiders have underestimated the anger roused in the Saudi population by the suffering of the Palestinian people -- and the fact that this suffering is blamed less on Israel than on its American protector. Given the privileged nature of relations between Washington and Riyadh, this anger has also started to focus on the House of Saud itself. Although Westerners may not have anticipated the current crisis, it came as no surprise to Abdullah. A month before September 11, the crown prince had already warned Bush about the rising danger, asking him to intervene in the Middle East to help bring about a "balanced" settlement of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. According to his close aides, however, Abdullah's early oral and written messages to Bush were treated with skepticism in Washington, leading the prince, in an unprecedented gesture, to refuse an invitation to visit the White House.

It was his despair at Washington's refusal to get involved that led the crown prince to launch a bold peace initiative of his own in February, promising full normalization of relations between Israel and the entire Arab world in exchange for the implementation of the UN's resolutions on Palestine. The peace deal -- extended directly "to the government and the people of Israel" -- was clearer and more precise than any that had been formulated since the creation of the Jewish state. Coming at a time when most Arabs were outraged by the Israeli army's conduct in the occupied territories, Abdullah's offer was a risky move, capable of triggering violent protests at home and likely to be rejected by Israel. Yet Abdullah backed the proposal enthusiastically, even managing to twist the arms of several reluctant Arab governments to ensure its unanimous acceptance at the March 2002 Arab League summit.

Abdullah's moves represented more than just an attempt to defuse the time bomb of popular anger threatening all current Arab regimes. He also hoped to save his own government's privileged relationship with the United States -- an alliance that has been critical to Saudi Arabia's security and one to which Abdullah therefore attaches great importance. But not many Saudis seem to agree with the prince's priorities. Since his peace initiative was first announced, the Saudi security forces have had to put down anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations in at least three cities -- Riyadh, Al Jauf, and Dhahran -- and liberal Saudi intellectuals have circulated a petition calling for the rupture of diplomatic ties with the United States and (following Iraq's example) an oil embargo. Even before these incidents, a number of Western diplomats had already concluded that Saudi Arabia was fast becoming one of the most anti-American countries in the Gulf. Unless the United States succeeds in restarting serious and credible Israeli- Palestinian (and Israeli-Syrian) negotiations, Abdullah may not be able to contain the groundswell of opposition rising up in his country. This opposition poses intense risks for both countries; indeed, if not controlled it could tear apart a strategic alliance that has lasted since World War II.

BEYOND BELIEF

The one issue that angers the Saudis the most is Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, whom Saudis view as engaged in a legitimate independence struggle against a brutal -- and American-backed -- colonial oppressor. Another strong grievance, however, is the presence of American bases on Arabian soil. Despite official denials, the U.S. troops, who have been in Saudi Arabia ever since the Persian Gulf War, are highly unpopular. In keeping with strict government orders, the issue is not raised in the media or in public. In private, however, many Saudis complain that they consider it a form of occupation -- at best humiliating, since the regime should not have to rely on foreign protection, and at worst intolerable, since the U.S. bases may eventually become a staging ground for military operations against fellow Muslim countries such as Iraq. The U.S. presence undermines the government's legitimacy as well; "Ever since the Gulf War of 1991," complains Prince Nayef, minister of the interior and brother of King Fahd, "we are perceived in the Arab world as a pawn of the United States."

More generally, however, Saudis also object to the entire thrust and tenor of Washington's foreign policy, which they see as arbitrary, unjust, and dismissive or contemptuous of Arab interests. Critics fault the United States for its unilateralism. "The arrogance of the United States is unacceptable," declared one young prince, speaking on condition of anonymity. "President Bush says that anyone who does not fully support the U.S. war plans is with the terrorists," he remarked. "In other words, we are being asked to board a train without being told where it is going, what route it will follow, or how long the journey will take. And we're told not to ask questions, which are considered inappropriate."

Not only do Saudis resent being told what to do, they were also profoundly shocked by the widespread skepticism displayed in the U.S. media about the kingdom's determination to fight terrorism after September's attacks. After all, as Prince Nayef has indignantly argued, al Qaeda is even more dangerous to Saudi Arabia than it is to the United States. America will never suffer anything more than physical attacks, he points out, which, however devastating and costly they may be, will not undermine the state itself. "For us, on the other hand, the threat is also -- and especially -- ideological and political, since [Osama] bin Laden accuses the royal family of betraying Islam and of being an accomplice of the United States." To prove his good faith, Prince Nayef then listed the antiterrorist measures his country adopted well before September 11, which included the establishment of tight coordination with Western and Arab intelligence agencies, the arrests of scores of extremists, and the execution of those found guilty of anti-American attacks on Saudi soil.

Yet bin Laden remains widely popular in Saudi Arabia today -- not for his crimes, but because of the population's reflexive anti-Americanism. Contrary to widespread opinion in the West, the Saudis -- like the citizens of the other Gulf countries -- do not attribute to bin Laden any Islamic legitimacy or authority. But even though his actions may be seen as contrary to the precepts of Islam, al Qaeda's founder is considered a hero for having challenged the United States by striking two key symbols of its power: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is nationalism, not Islam, that remains the dominant ideology in Arabia today, and this explains bin Laden's ongoing appeal.

Most Saudis actually believe that Islamic radicalism, such as that which bin Laden espouses, is foreign to both their religion and their traditions. One of the rare intellectuals who openly acknowledges the kingdom's responsibility for the spread of political extremism is Askar Enazy, a professor of international relations with university degrees from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Russia. He reproaches the Saudi leaders -- as well as the American government -- for having unintentionally allowed this "cancer" to spread.

Threatened by the Arab nationalism that led to the overthrow of governments elsewhere in the region in the 1950s and 1960s, Saudi Arabia granted political asylum to thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were fleeing repression in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. These men brought with them a doctrine of political Islam formulated by the movement's founder, Hassan al Banna, and developed by the theoretician of jihad, Sayed Qutb, who was executed in 1966 by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. And they soon came to exert vast influence in Saudi Arabia. Employed as imams in mosques, as instructors and professors in schools and universities, and as senior officials in the ministry of education, members of the Muslim Brotherhood designed school textbooks and syllabuses and published works interpreting the Koran along the strict guidelines of their beliefs. In the process, they won numerous local disciples, including many within the Saudi clergy.

Until the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabi Islam, the official state religion in Saudi Arabia, had been essentially apolitical, concerning itself mainly with puritanism in morals, the observance of proper dress, and correct religious practices per se. Under the impact of the new arrivals, however, part of the Saudi clergy progressively became politicized -- and began, for the first time, to challenge the House of Saud's temporal power.

The royal family, however, did not initially grasp this slow metamorphosis or the potential threat political Islam entailed. In fact, the government seemed to think it could control the movement. Riyadh thus launched an Islamization campaign throughout the Arab Islamic world in the early 1970s. Taking advantage of the windfall provided by the first oil boom, the Saudis funneled substantial revenues into financing Islamic movements abroad, building thousands of mosques, religious schools, and cultural centers, and sending contingents of imams and other missionaries to spread the good word. The goal was to fight atheism, communism, and secular pan-Arabism while at the same time extending Saudi influence in "brotherly countries." These objectives also happened to coincide perfectly with U.S. concerns during the Cold War; as a result, the Islamists were generally considered the natural allies of the West until the early 1990s.

The United States, in fact, joined forces with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to recruit, arm, finance, and train tens of thousands of mujahideen for the "Islamist International" that was assembled to help drive the Soviets from Afghanistan. One of these fighters, of course, just happened to be bin Laden, who was supported and encouraged at first by Saudi intelligence in cooperation with the CIA. The mutation of a freedom-fighter into a dangerous dissident began only with his return home after the Soviet defeat. Bin Laden was shocked by Riyadh's refusal in 1990 to let him organize new brigades of the mujahideen to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait and to overthrow Saddam Hussein's secular regime; he became even more indignant when his government participated in Operation Desert Storm and subsequently leased military bases on Arabian soil -- holy land -- to the United States. This outrage finally brimmed over in 1991, when bin Laden turned his jihad against the United States and its allies.

Even then Saudi Arabia and the United States did not recognize the threat that political Islam posed; bin Laden's onslaught was seen as an isolated case. Washington and Riyadh continued to find the contribution of the "Arab Afghans" -- the mujahideen who had cut their teeth fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan -- useful in the struggle against Slavic hegemony elsewhere: in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, and Macedonia, as well as in the fight against the Marxist regime of South Yemen. Even the Taliban were considered potential allies at first. Their religious practices, inspired by Saudi Wahhabis, appeared innocently apolitical: the Afghan mullahs had been indoctrinated in religious schools set up in Pakistan using Saudi money and instructors, and the Taliban troops were trained, armed, and led by the Pakistani army and intelligence services. This degree of outside support, it was thought, would make them controllable. The Taliban, moreover, were seen as the enemy of the enemy of the West; after all, their opponents, the Northern Alliance, were supported by Iran and Russia.

"We recognized the Taliban regime only after America gave the green light," recounts one Saudi cabinet minister. "We shared the conviction that [Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad] Omar's followers were the only ones capable of restoring unity and civil peace in Afghanistan, which in fact turned out to be the case during the first two years of their rule." Washington did not ask Riyadh and Islamabad to break off relations with Kabul until after September 11.

The United States' ongoing indulgence of the Taliban can be explained by several factors. American envoys had begun secretly negotiating the extradition of bin Laden with Mullah Omar's representatives as early as 1997. An American oil firm, Unocal, also happened to be engaged in parallel talks to obtain permission to build a pipeline across Afghanistan linking Turkmenistan to Pakistan and the Arabian Sea. Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan- born American who is now Bush's special envoy to Kabul, actually worked as a consultant for Unocal in the late 1990s. And although he subsequently reversed his opinion, in 1996 he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post urging the White House to recognize the Taliban government -- which he argued was neither anti-American nor terrorist.

In light of Washington's pre-September 11 record on Afghanistan, it is no wonder Saudi officials are indignant when the American media now accuse them of being responsible for the growth of Islamic terrorism. The Saudis, after all, thought they were acting in line with American interests. Some of them, therefore, now question whether the U.S. intelligence community is trying to blame them for al Qaeda in order to deflect attention from its own failure. Other Saudis see a nefarious "Jewish lobby" at work, trying to use the situation to drive a wedge between Washington and Riyadh. Conspiracy theories aside, however, most Saudi elites remain determined to maintain the special relationship with the United States. Too many common interests, they explain, exist to risk breaking an alliance that has served both sides for six decades.

DOMESTIC DISTURBANCES

Whatever happens in the foreign policy domain, Saudi Arabia also now faces a serious domestic crisis that could destabilize the regime in the long run. "We live in a schizophrenic state," one prominent member of the royal family recently remarked. The expression, heard frequently in upper-class Saudi homes, is by no means an exaggeration. The foreign visitor arriving in Riyadh is immediately struck by the kingdom's modernity; by one of the most spacious airports in the world, luxurious and functional; by the wide, tree- lined boulevards of the capital, with elegant buildings, proud towers, American-style shopping centers, and cyber-cafes; and by the kingdom's computerized administration and businesses.

But there exists another Saudi Arabia, equally striking. This is the country that, since the demise of the Taliban, now bears the dubious distinction of being the most rigorous theocracy in the Islamic world. (One runner-up, the emirate of Qatar, also follows Wahhabi Islam but allows the consumption of alcoholic beverages in public places, like most of the other Gulf states.) In this Saudi Arabia, the Koran serves as the constitution and is interpreted as prohibiting such things as movie houses, theaters, discotheques, and concerts. Fully half of the population -- namely, Saudi women -- are banned from public spaces unless they cloak themselves in black from head to toe. Women are also treated as legal minors: instead of having her own individual identity card or passport, for example, a Saudi woman is listed on the documents of her male guardian (although starting this year, women can now obtain their own cards, but only at their guardians' request and with their guarantee). A Saudi woman cannot undertake the most routine administrative procedure, open a bank account, purchase property, work, or travel without the express approval of her guardian. Nor are women in Saudi Arabia allowed to drive. Officially, they can work only in two fields: education and medicine, and even there they must be segregated from their male colleagues. As a result of such strictures, tens of thousands of female university graduates do not work outside their homes. The mingling of the sexes is likewise forbidden in schools; universities require male professors teaching women's classes to give their lectures through a closed-circuit one-way television system, ensuring that the lecturers cannot see their students.

Not only women suffer under this system. At least 65 percent of the Saudi population is now under 25 years of age, and the frustrations felt by these youngsters are enormous. The kingdom's puritanical rules prevent young people from mixing with the opposite sex or enjoying the kinds of pastimes taken for granted elsewhere. Without meaningful outlets for their energy or ways to spend spare time, increasing numbers are turning to the illicit consumption of alcohol and drugs. They are also turning to satellite television and to the Internet, which serve only to broaden their horizons and give them a window on the modern world -- making their restrictions all the more onerous and helping ensure that their aspirations differ markedly from those of their elders.

Saudi Arabia's educational system also prevents many young men from finding productive jobs. The Saudi media are good at pointing out that local schools have churned out a mediocre work force ill adapted to the needs of modern corporations. But they fail to mention a salient explanation for this problem: 30 to 40 percent of the course hours in schools are devoted to studying scripture. The teaching of non-Islamic philosophy, meanwhile, is banned. As a result, Saudi university graduates end up more qualified to analyze holy texts than to work as engineers, architects, computer specialists, or managers. And this in turn means that many heads of Saudi companies prefer to employ foreigners rather than locals; in fact, a full two-thirds of the work force is now foreign. Expatriates are considered more competent than Saudis, and cheaper: they can be paid four to five times less than citizens. These factors together contribute to an unemployment rate of about 30 percent among Saudi men and 95 percent for women. These figures, moreover, are constantly rising because of a population growth rate that is among the highest in the world (more than three percent annually, birth control being seen as contrary to Islam), and because of a general failure of job creation. "We are the only country in the world that imports the unemployed from other countries in order to swell the ranks of the unemployed among its own people," quips Enazy.

The resulting social tensions have begun to take various forms. Among them has been a significant drop in marriage rates. Unable to afford the traditional dowry, many young Saudi men are now doomed to a prolonged celibacy. At the same time, growing numbers of young women are refusing to marry men chosen for them by their families, men whom their would-be brides are not allowed to meet before their wedding night. As a result, an estimated two-thirds of Saudi women now between 16 and 30 years of age cannot, or will not, marry.

Aggravating Saudi Arabia's general social malaise are severe economic problems. Business leaders who lack connections to the royal family and the exceptional privileges these bring must struggle in an environment that discourages commerce. Potential lenders and investors are stymied by obstacles such as an archaic judicial system based on the shari`a (Islamic law) and applied by religious courts; laws forbidding the establishment of local insurance companies on the grounds that they practice "usury," forbidden by Islam; and the nontransparency of state accounts. Saudi citizens keep much of their money abroad; these foreign investments, mainly in the United States, are estimated by Western bankers to total anywhere from $700 billion to a trillion dollars. Saudis have not brought this money home, not even since the September 11 attacks. But as a result, there is not enough money for local investment, and the kingdom's private sector generates only a third of GDP.

In the past, the Saudi state was able to use oil money to compensate for the shortcomings of private enterprise. But this is no longer possible; in fact, contrary to widespread perceptions abroad, Saudi Arabia, which should be the richest nation in the Gulf, is now far worse off than many of its neighbors. The Saudi budget has run a deficit ever since the vast outlays of the Gulf War a decade ago. That war cost the kingdom more than $60 billion, mostly to cover the United States' military outlay during the operation. Since then, Riyadh has spent tens of billions of additional dollars, often uselessly, on American weaponry. Thanks to such crushing expenditures, the kingdom now has the highest indebtedness in the Gulf: $171 billion in domestic loans and $35 billion in foreign credits, or 107 percent of the country's GDP. Unstable oil revenues are hardly sufficient to repay this debt or even to compensate state employees (who number more than a million); government salaries have already been frozen for years.

Inevitably, the population overall has become poorer: per capita income plunged from $28,600 in 1981 (equivalent to that of the United States the same year) to $6,800 last year. By comparison, the average per capita revenue in Abu Dhabi is $36,000, and in Qatar it is $26,000. To redress the situation, Crown Prince Abdullah has set two general goals: to modernize the state apparatus, and to liberalize the economy. To attract foreign capital, critically important for relaunching productive enterprises, generous incentives are being offered to potential investors. Prince Abdullah has also appointed a particularly enlightened and dynamic man, Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki, to head the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, and the latter prince has managed in one year to increase investments by more than $10 billion. The opening of the gas sector to foreign companies -- an unprecedented step since the nationalization of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) in 1976 -- is also expected to bring in an additional $30 billion within ten years. And a vast privatization program, if ever implemented, should inject still more into the economy. Draft legislation is being prepared to legalize insurance companies, to introduce the right to a defense in the courts, to establish labor regulations, and to create a human rights organization -- all positive signs.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

Not everyone has been impressed by the recent initiatives, however. Prince Talal, for example -- another of King Fahd's half brothers, and a man long known as one of the most liberal members of the royal family -- has welcomed Abdullah's reforms but argues that they are inadequate to move Saudi Arabia fully into the twenty-first century. "In order to survive," Talal told me, "the kingdom has to adapt itself to the new world and become fully integrated into the globalized economy." To do so, he believes, more fundamental reforms are needed. Saudi Arabia must join the World Trade Organization (WTO), for example; indeed, Riyadh has been trying to do just that for seven years but has been denied entry for its failure to make the required judicial, social, and political changes. This irks the prince. "As a patriot and a democrat," he declared, "I would like to see my country endowed with a transparent political system and with laws that are passed by a representative assembly, which would also approve the state budget." Among other items on the prince's wish list are equal rights for women, a totally independent judiciary, the removal of archaic laws from the books, the holding of municipal elections, a modernized educational system adapted to the needs of the country, the "humanization" of penal sanctions ("some of which were inherited from pre-Islamic times," according to the prince), a liberalization of social life (for example, allowing theaters and movie houses), and "state neutrality and tolerance toward all religions." "Nothing in my proposals is contrary to Islam," argues Talal. "Quite the contrary; the religious and political foundations of the kingdom would be consolidated through them."

The conservative wing of the royal family disagrees, however, maintaining that the reforms would destabilize the regime by provoking the opposition of both the religious establishment and a conservative population imbued with Wahhabi dogma. The reformists counter that there is nothing so revolutionary about the proposals; they point out that during the reign of Ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom, churches were allowed to function, banks collected and paid interest, and women legally enjoyed more freedom than they do today. Reformers also point out that Ibn Saud and one of his successors, King Faisal, managed to impose unpopular reforms -- sometimes through the use of force -- including the suppression of slavery, the opening of schools for girls, and the introduction of television. And they did all this without undermining the regime. Moreover, although reformers recognize that the kingdom was built on an alliance between the Wahhabi clergy and the House of Saud, they note that the government was always meant to maintain the upper hand, in keeping with an Islamic tradition that recognizes the primacy of the temporal over the spiritual in state affairs.

In any alliance, however, it is the balance of power that determines which partner dominates. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the House of Saud held all the cards and thus overshadowed the clergy. Two factors have since helped change that situation. First, the royal family has lost influence due to the excesses of certain of its members, who have been accused of abusing their excessive privileges, of leading dissolute lives marked by corruption and wasteful spending, and of inordinate submissiveness to U.S. wishes. A second factor has been the emergence of a militant fringe of Islamists under the tutelage of the Muslim Brotherhood. These radicals, such as bin Laden, have called into question the very legitimacy of the al Saud dynasty, and although it is impossible to gauge the precise impact of such propaganda, it appears to have resonated. Meanwhile, the ongoing deterioration of economic and social conditions has reduced the clout of the ruling family still further.

When first faced with these challenges, the Saudi royals made an ill- conceived decision to come to terms with their adversaries rather than confront them. When an armed revolt by Islamic extremists broke out in 1979 in Mecca, the authorities dealt ruthlessly with the perpetrators but were strangely indulgent toward those who had inspired them. A similar situation followed the Gulf War of 1991. The war was opposed by a number of religious figures, some of whom were jailed, but those given long prison terms were eventually released early, and political concessions were made to the radical wing of the clergy. Religious education was intensified in the schools and universities, including in science departments; girls' schools were placed under the direct control of the religious authorities (although the ministry of education reportedly regained jurisdiction last spring); women were forbidden to sing on radio or television or in public; and increased powers were granted to the mutawaun (volunteers), a clerical police force whose task is to "promote virtue" by making sure that public establishments close during the hours of prayer (five times a day) and by taking into custody women and young people whose conduct is not in keeping with "Islamic morals." The clergy was also given effective censorship power over the media, especially radio and television.

These concessions, according to numerous reformists, were as unnecessary as they were dangerous. They were made to a vocal minority that should have been suppressed rather than placated. Reformists argue that the great majority of the religious establishment -- officials whose salaries are paid by the state -- would have remained loyal to the royal family without the compromises. The fidelity of this silent majority of clergy has long been virtually guaranteed by the many privileges they enjoy, privileges that enable them to enrich themselves through speculative ventures -- for example, by selling at high prices land received as a gift from the state. Afforded the same diplomatic immunity as members of the royal family, clerics cannot be arrested or put on trial without the explicit authorization of the palace. Small wonder, then, that most remain loyal to their benefactors. Indeed, this loyalty was recently demonstrated by their quiet acquiescence to Prince Abdullah's peace plan.

And yet the state has consistently bowed to militants and conservatives, and liberals -- religious and otherwise -- have been condemned to silence. The authorities even intervened in August 2001 to censor a Web site that the reformists had established in London with secret financing by certain members of the royal family. Moreover, conservative clerics have been allowed to dominate the media. As a result, there has been no national debate on the gradual transformation of the kingdom, and reformers have found few outlets to garner support.

Contrary to the contention of the conservatives, however, most Saudis would be amenable to the modernization of their state -- if it could be carried out without violating the fundamental principles of Islam, as has been achieved in some moderate Muslim countries. Especially supportive of such reforms are Saudi women, young people, business leaders, technocrats, and the enlightened intelligentsia -- not to mention the liberal wing of the royal family. Together, these forces make up more than half of the population. They believe that change need not be destabilizing; according to one young prince with an important government position, "democratization would have the advantage of increasing the legitimacy of the ruling family. Unfortunately," he continued, "we are ruled by a gerontocracy that prefers the artificial comfort of the status quo."

As for which side will prevail, Enazy, for his part, is pessimistic. He believes that the Wahhabi kingdom is going through "a Brezhnevian period. But no one here wants to play the role of [Mikhail] Gorbachev, who ushered in the collapse of the communist system." Rather than Russia, however, the more apposite analogy may be with Iran. Crown Prince Abdullah, like Iranian President Muhammad Khatami, has become the standard-bearer for a reformist majority that lacks the means to realize its aspirations. Both leaders are prisoners of a political and religious system dominated by a conservative faction that, although perhaps not representative of the populace, nonetheless controls the levers of power. Prince Abdullah cannot act without a consensus within the royal family, which is dominated by a powerful group of his half brothers known as the "Sudeiri Seven." This group includes the king and his six full brothers (whose mother belongs to the Sudeiri family); they control key positions in the realm, including the defense ministry, the interior ministry, the treasury, and the governorships of the main provinces. Although the royal family is far from monolithic, none of its more liberal members is prepared to confront this powerful bloc; after all, dissension within the House of Saud could unleash dangerous chaos.

Having said that, the reformists have failed to capitalize on what strengths they do possess. Unorganized and amorphous, they represent various schools of thought and segments of society, from business leaders calling for transparency in state affairs to democrats advocating universal suffrage, from constitutional monarchists and Wahhabi modernists to determined secularists. Given this lack of cohesion, even liberal members of the royal family fear that, if given free rein, the reformists, lacking any one clear agenda, could get out of hand.

The fundamental truth, however, remains that radical change would spell the end of the al Saud family's absolute power and the privileges enjoyed by some 3,000 princes and the hundreds of families linked to them. This is the real source of the government's conservatism, and helps explain why Prince Abdullah, like President Khatami -- both of whom have a stake in the survival of the system -- has proceeded so cautiously. There is no doubt that the crown prince fully intends to carry on with his efforts to modernize the state and to promote economic development. But the extent and the pace of his reforms will depend less on his intentions than on the internal tensions of a society riddled with contradictions, and on the external pressures engendered by the irresistible push toward globalization.

* Eric Rouleau, a writer, was France's Ambassador to Tunisia from 1985 to 1986 and to Turkey from 1988 to 1992.