A ROUNDUP of Saudi dissidents in September does not bode well for a regime whose legitimacy has been eroding since the Gulf war. Nor is an erosion of legitimacy the only weakness exposed by these developments. The country's financial institutions are suffering; the bureaucracy is corrupt.
The arrest of some 110 dissident clerics, Islamic movement leaders, is an indication that the royal family is losing the support not only of its conservative religious constituency, but also of important tribal leaders. Most of the dissident clerics are from Qasim, not the eastern province inhabited by the traditional Shiite opponents of the regime, or the Hijaz, an area more liberal than the rest of the country. Qasim is where the traditional supporters of the regime live, conservative Najdis from the Saudi heartland. Adding to the dissident movement's clout, some of those arrested, such as Safar al-Hawali and Salman al-Aouda are well known in the rest of the Muslim world.
Saudi Arabian Minister of Interior Prince Naif first dismissed reports of the roundup as false - part of a Zionist-inspired propaganda campaign. Then, switching tactics, he admitted to the arrests, but claimed the militants were backed by Iran. This claim, too, is suspect since the clerics are Sunni, not Shiite Muslims; nor would they need Iranian funds.
The discontent can be traced to the rise of a new middle class of Saudis who gained access to higher education during the 1970s, an era when the Saudi government spent lavishly on its citizens. Many dissidents are young men in their 20s and 30s - the ``oil generation.'' They want to contribute to shaping their nation's future, but the system is closed to them because they are not part of the Saud clan. Instead of family and tribal connections, the critics advocate education and Islam as an alternative form of advancement.
The choice of education and Islam is not arbitrary. These are shortcomings of the existing regime. The country's resources have been mismanaged, in part because some of those who acquired their positions through family connections lack education and financial skills. Islam offers an indirect way to critique the regime's lack of ethical constraints, principally the corrupt princes who skim money from their country's oil and commercial deals.
Islamists point to the $7 billion Saudi deficit as due to corruption and mismanagement. Some dissidents say the royal family could easily cover the deficit from their personal account, estimated at $20 billion. Many ordinary Saudis believe the royal princes are only interested in their own personal gains, not the welfare of the citizens. This strong belief that the royal family is corrupt attracts Saudi young men and women to Islamic leaders.
The threat of an Islamic challenge in Saudi Arabia is of special concern. Saudi Islamists do not need the outside financial backing that other Islamic movements in the region, such as those in Egypt and Algeria, are dependent on. Unlike Egyptian Islamists, some of whom have broken into jewelry shops to get money for weapons, the Saudi Islamists had funds to buy missiles to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Both Egypt and Algeria consider Saudi Islamists the main financiers of their opposition. Saudi Islamists have the finances necessary to destabilize the regime. In addition, Saudi Islamists have infiltrated the state bureaucracy and the Army, and represent a majority in the Saudi National Guard. They have also succeeded in forging alliances with other social forces in Saudi Arabia, namely rich businessmen from Najd.
Given the extent of the Islamists' network and the general dissatisfaction of the Saudi public with the ``despotic rule'' of the royal family, the question of change in Saudi Arabia is not one of how, but when. The disparity between a rapidly changing society and a static state is bound to lead to friction and perhaps revolt. Since the oil boom in the '70s, the society has had a taste of modernity. Students went to college in Britain and America; members of the Islamic movements have stopped communicating through cassette tapes in favor of the internet and computer bulletin boards. Meanwhile, the country is governed by a family whose sole means of maintaining power is its military. Yet the Gulf war has exposed the hollowness of the royal family's claims of building a modern state with a strong army. Saudi Arabia required American defense from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with which it should have been equally matched. One Saudi jokes that, ``The only thing the royal family can organize is a good soccer team.''
The best choice for preserving order in Saudi Arabia is a systemwide overhaul that begins to establish power sharing and responsibility sharing between all the social groups. This must be a central or driving principle.
Thus far the Saudi government does not seem to have considered this option. It has chosen repression instead. Worse, the Saudi policy of silencing dissent goes beyond national boundaries. Recently, they successfully demanded the firing of Hafiz Mirazi, the host of a Washington-based Arabic talk show after he interviewed Mohammed Masari, a leading Saudi dissident. Mustatpha Bakry, editor of an Egyptian opposition newspaper, told me during a phone interview that he was kidnapped by the Egyptian police at the request of the Saudi government because he reported on Saudi dissent.
Contrary to the assertions of the Saud regime, the problems of Saudi Arabia are not the result of a Zionist media campaign in the US. Nor are they caused by liberal journalists in the Arab world. Saudi dissent is home grown; unless its root causes are addressed, the discontent may grow violent.