F. Gregory Gause III, a prominent expert on Saudi society and politics, says that the terrorist attacks on residential compounds in Riyadh will force the Saudi leadership to make a critical decision. If the Saudis deny domestic terrorism is a problem—as they did after 9/11—“it will just further alienate U.S.-Saudi relations,” he says. But, “if this is a wake-up call for the top Saudi leadership about the need to face more directly and forthrightly the problem of violent extremist Islamist movements within Saudi Arabia, then I think it actually could help U.S.-Saudi relations.”
Gause, associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont and director of its Middle East Studies Department, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on May 15, 2003.
What kind of impact will Monday’s terrorist attacks in Riyadh have on U.S.-Saudi relations, which had already been strained for some time?
A lot depends on how the Saudis react. If they go into denial like they did after 9/11, I think that it will worsen U.S.-Saudi relations. However, if this is a wake-up call for the top Saudi leadership about the need to face more directly and forthrightly the problem of violent extremist Islamist movements within Saudi Arabia, then I think it actually could help U.S.-Saudi relations. It would remove the excuse that I think some people at the top levels of the Saudi security system had, [who said], “Look, this al-Qaeda business is not a problem for us. It might be a problem in other places, but we’re secure here, we have our situation under control.” The events of Monday showed that that’s not the case.
Crown Prince Abdullah made a rather forceful speech on television, saying the culprits had to be wiped out. Will those sentiments be translated into policy, or will his tough talk just fade away?
The effort to round up and break up the cells that were involved in this attack is definitely going to be policy. The question is what happens in the longer term. Is this going to be the beginning of an effort by the Saudis to use all of the means at their disposal—not just police and security means, but also the religious establishment itself, their own media, their own political discourse circles within the kingdom—to take on the ideas behind bin Ladenism?
What could be done to change the relationship between the clergy and the government or the people?
I don’t think that there’s much that you can do to change the institutional arrangements. What we’ll see is an effort by the official religious establishment to forthrightly condemn not just the violence but also the ideas that lead to violence. The whole issue of jihad is central to this. The success of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union had a profound impact on ideological currents within parts of the Muslim world but particularly in Saudi Arabia, because the Saudis were so involved in the Afghan jihad, [which was] the beginning of the Osama bin Laden phenomenon .The infatuation with jihad was not confronted directly by the regime in Saudi Arabia. After September 11, after a period of denial and evasion, from about mid-2002, you began to get a more forthright effort to confront this idea that the interpretation of jihad that bin Laden and [others] put out is legitimate. The war of ideas—in the war on terrorism—is something that the Saudis have not taken as big a role in as they could. Perhaps the attacks on Monday will lead them to use their resources both in the larger Muslim world and at home to really take on those ideas directly, in the education system, in the media, and in the religious establishment.
If there were a democratic election, would the Saudi royal family be elected?
In a democratic election for a legislature, you’d get a lot of people [elected] whose sympathies are very close to bin Laden. If there were an election for a ruler of the country, Crown Prince Abdullah might not do too badly. But the key is not so much how popular these royal family members are—their popularity ebbs and flows, some are more popular than others. The bottom line is there’s no practical alternative to them, and even people who are not particularly enamored of them, and disagree with them on policy, from a more liberal [perspective], say, “Look, there’s no alternative to them to hold the country together.”
Most Americans, from the history books, know that President Franklin Roosevelt visited King Abdul Aziz at the end of World War II, and American oil companies worked in Saudi Arabia, and a lot of Saudis have studied and worked in the United States. What is the U.S.-Saudi relationship like today?
The same factors that led to President Roosevelt meeting Abdul Aziz and that have nurtured the relationship over decades are still there. Oil is still there. Twenty-five percent of all the proven oil reserves in the world are in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the biggest oil exporter in the world. It’s the biggest oil producer in OPEC [the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries]. It’s rivaled only by Russia and the United States as an oil producer, but unlike Russia and the United States, the Saudis could up their oil production capacity pretty easily, whereas we’re on the decline. So it’s that centrality in the oil world that is the main element of the relationship, always has been, and it’s the reason why the relationship is still important.
There are other elements, of course. Saudi Arabia does have an enormous amount of influence in the Muslim world; Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities, are located there. The Saudis have used their oil wealth to try to spread their version of Islam. To some extent, we saw that as positive when we were competing against communism and Arab nationalism in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. We saw it as positive when the Saudis were confronting the Iranian revolutionaries for influence in the Muslim world. Clearly, since the ’90s, that influence has taken a very anti-American turn.
Why did anti-Americanism take hold so quickly in Saudi Arabia?
There are basically three reasons. One, the very close relationship between us and the Saudi regime after the first Gulf War, which was in many ways closer than it had been, certainly more publicly and militarily closer [as a result of] the stationing of American forces in Saudi Arabia. I think this rubbed a lot of people in Saudi Arabia the wrong way. For some it was just the presence of the forces. For others it symbolized the overall close relationship.
Another element as the 1990s wore on was Iraq. By the mid-1990s, Saddam Hussein had basically won the propaganda war, and it was generally believed that economic sanctions on Iraq were aimed at, in effect, impoverishing an entire Arab-Muslim country, and were not aimed at getting rid of Saddam Hussein.
And then, with the collapse of the Mideast peace process and the [increase in] Israeli-Palestinian violence, the second intifada was brought home through the new Arab satellite television channels into everybody’s living room every day.
Why did the terrorists target Saudi Arabia itself this time?
[Terrorists] hit in Saudi Arabia a couple of times in the mid-1990s [in the 1995 attack on a Saudi national guard center and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers]. Then the Saudi security forces kind of cracked down on them, and bin Laden made a strategic change [to attack targets outside Saudi Arabia]. In the aftermath of September 11, and the roll-up of al-Qaeda around the world, the attack on its base in Afghanistan, and the fall of the Taliban, perhaps [the May 12 attacks represent] a reassessment of the strategy, and bin Laden is going back to the original targets, which were within the Arab world—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Algeria.
We also have to recognize that, in picking these targets, these residential compounds, the attackers were trying to differentiate between Saudi Muslims and foreigners. In fact, before the attacks, one of the Saudi opposition websites published a communique [from suspected extremists]. Part of it directly addressed the Saudi people and said, in effect, “We’re not out to get you, we’re out to get these Christian crusaders.” That’s a direct quote—the use of the term “Christian crusaders.” I think that [the Riyadh attacks] are going to backfire on them, because Saudis were killed, as were other Arabs who lived in the residential compounds. This kind of attack, right in the middle of Riyadh, will have a different impact than, say, the Khobar Towers bombing, which was very much against American military personnel.
Is the terrorists’ goal to overthrow the house of Saud?
Definitely. In the communique they issued—it’s on an opposition website, and so it’s hard to check its veracity—they implicated the Saudi ruling family. They basically said that the Saudi regime is not a Muslim regime and cooperates with non-Muslims to attack Muslims, so it’s lost whatever Islamic legitimacy it might have had.
That’s the irony—this is supposedly the most orthodox of the Muslim regimes, right?
Yes. When you set the bar that high for your own legitimacy, you can always be faulted for not reaching it.
Will there be a real showdown between the Saudi rulers and al-Qaeda?
It’s inevitable that there’s going to be a showdown between the Saudi security services and people who are suspected by them of being implicated directly in these events. A larger question is: Is this going to be the spur to a reassessment in Saudi Arabia of what it is in their society that produces these people? There’s plenty of support for that kind of reassessment. I’m not talking about the end of the relationship between the ruling family and the religious establishment, but a reassessment of how religion and the religious establishment are portraying Islam both to their own society and to the world.
We have a tendency to [use a kind of] shorthand [to describe] what is a complicated ideological turn that I refer to as bin Ladenism. [Many people in the West] tend to shorthand that and say it’s Wahhabism [Saudi Arabia’s officially sanctioned strain of Islam]. [Bin Ladenism] is a mix of all sorts of things that come out of the Afghan experience—and certainly the kind of close-mindedness, the austerity, the rejection of difference that characterizes the official interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia are part of it. But so are Egyptian Islamic Jihad ideas. [Calling that mix] Wahhabism can lead to a real misunderstanding, because if in fact Wahhabism is the origin of the kind of violence [that took place in Riyadh], then it would be almost impossible to reform the Saudi regime. But if we see this kind of ideological turn toward a violent, anti-American, anti-[Saudi] government [approach] as something that is a departure from, if you will, mainstream Wahhabism, then you can say that the Saudis can do something about it in a way that we can cooperate with them on. That is an important distinction to draw.