Saudi Royal Family Faces Troubles

Behind a façade of control, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia (search) is in tough shape and teetering on the brink of collapse, a victim of its own corruption and a violent Islamic insurgency at its door, some U.S. experts warn.

"It is a pretty fragile royal family, it's pretty corrupt and it's sitting on some pretty weak legs," S. Enders Winbush, director of the Center for Future Security Strategies (search) with the Hudson Institute, told

"The question is, can it do enough soon enough to put off what I suspect will be the inevitable — that at some point it will come apart," he said.

"Anyone who knows anything about the area knows it's not a question of ‘if,' but of ‘when,'" said Bill Lind, a military analyst with the Free Congress Foundation (search). "We need to delay it as much as possible … and think of what to do when it does happen."

Saudi Arabia's record has left open room for concern. Since a series of car bombs in May 2003, militant violence has escalated in the kingdom. This past May, a weekend rampage at two compounds housing offices and homes of expatriates in the city of Khobar left 22 people dead.

In June, American contractor Paul Johnson (search) was very publicly executed by militants in the country. Al Qaeda operatives claimed that Saudi security forces sympathetic to their cause aided in Johnson's abduction, which the government denied. Law enforcement authorities later discovered Johnson's head in a Riyadh home belonging to a suspected high-level terrorist.

Just days ago, armed men shot and killed an Irishman after storming his office in Riyadh.

Nonetheless, last month's release of the Sept. 11 commission report vindicated the Saudi government of any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks upon the United States. A day before, in a statement distributed by the White House, President Bush used Saudi Arabia as an example of positive progress in the War on Terror.

"[The Saudi government] is working hard to shut down the facilitators and financial supporters of terrorism," read a White House statement from July 21.

"Today, because Saudi Arabia has seen the danger and joined the war on terror, the American people are safer," the release added.

Aware of the pressures on it, the Saudi government has tried to take proactive measures. On Thursday, Saudi security forces arrested Faris al-Zahrani, who is on a list of 26 top wanted militants with suspected links to Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group.

In an overnight raid in June, Saudi forces killed the kingdom's top Al Qaeda (search) leader Abid al-Aziz al-Muqran (search) and three other terrorists.

In July, the Saudi government announced it will be holding its first nationwide municipal elections this September. Earlier, it also declared a month-long amnesty to suspected terrorists who turn themselves in.

That did not result in much progress. Near the end of July, the Saudi government announced that upon the expiration of its amnesty, only six would-be terrorists had turned themselves in.

Despite Washington's historically close ties with the ruling royal House of Saud as well as the official White House line, the country, which holds the world's largest oil reserves, is a mess and desperately needs change that will benefit the Saudi people, say the experts who spoke with

"We can wish this away all we want. But the reality is getting harder and harder to ignore," wrote former CIA Agent Robert Baer in 2003's "Sleeping with the Devil," which explores the U.S. relationship with the House of Saud and the destructive trajectory the ruling family is on today.

Baer said the billions of dollars spent each year by some 30,000 members of the family, combined with the corruption, debauchery and sporadic funding of Islamic extremist terror groups and mosques in and outside the country, have created a volatile beast that is racing back at them with a vengeance.

"The terrorists who were created by the royal family as a political weapon to control the population and the Islamic world are trying to pull the kingdom backward," said Stephen Schwartz, author of "The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role In Terrorism (2003)."

"Saudi Arabia is at a fork in the road of its history," Schwartz said.

Schwartz said he does not buy into the theory that the government's fall is imminent, but he does call the situation there "a crisis." He said a large middle class is repressed by the strictest of religious law, which bars women from an education and gives them no rights; men are whipped publicly if they don't get to daily prayers on time and people accused of crimes are beheaded in the public square.

The middle class is becoming increasingly restless with the environment in the country, said Schwartz.

"It has happened again and again (in history) — the business class and the elements of the ruling elite get together and merge a transition to normalcy and stability on the road to democratic reform."

But others have said Schwartz's view is too rosy. A large percentage of the ulama — or religious leadership — espouses incendiary anti-Western, anti-royal family rhetoric in schools and mosques across the oppressed country.

That leadership has been bolstered by the war and subsequent instability in Iraq, said Lind. The rhetoric continues to be a tool of Saudi-born Usama bin Laden (search), who remains at large after his orchestration of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"This is all one war," to purify the royal family and the Middle East of the "evil" Western influence, said Lind, who sees the violence in Saudi Arabia as part of a global Islamic insurgency. "When we do a thing like invade Iraq, we are going to have problems on the other parts of the single battlefield our opponents see."

Saudi Arabia's state religious doctrine follows Wahhabite (search) Islamic law, which is the ideology driving the fundamentalist militancy of the Al Qaeda network, according to experts.

Baer and others say Saudi princes have often thrown money at religious leaders — extremists and otherwise — as a way to control them.

"They retain remarkable tools of persuasion," said Jon Alterman, Middle East Program director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search). "It's a government walking around with a whole lot of money and they can co-opt a whole lot of people."

Jim Phillips, Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation (search), said the enormous amount of wealth owned by the royal family could help the government fend off an attempted overthrow.

"They are in a position to forcefully block a coup or a revolt," he said. "There is a rising disenchantment with the royal family, but the Saudis have shown themselves to be more stable than it appears."

Some experts suggest that if the government did implode, the extremists would rush in to fill the vacuum and the United States might have to move in to protect the oil supply in order to keep the world market in balance.

Almost all agree, however, that Iraq, which sits on the kingdom's border, could shift behavior and attitudes in Saudi Arabia. Last month, the two nations re-established diplomatic relations after a 14-year hiatus.

"If Iraq stabilizes, I see some hopeful signs," said Winbush, as the change would provide an attractive democratic model — and economic opportunities — for the Saudi people living in poverty and fear across the border.

"The other wild card of course, is if Iraq goes the other way and it descends into chaos," he said. "Then I think then you could see the Saudi regime being replaced by what I call 'The Nasties.'"