Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2003 / 21 Elul, 5763

Jim Hoagland

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Can anything change The Saudi Syndrome? | .LONDON — Saudi Arabia's royal family has habitually confounded pessimists and optimists alike. For those who predict sudden collapse and revolution, or breakthroughs in reform and enlightenment, the kingdom is a serial disappointer.

Not even 9/11, which was inspired and largely carried out by Saudi nationals, or the furious U.S. reaction to that day of horror seems to have changed the Saudi syndrome.

After a period of tension and uncertainty, the family of more than 5,000 "princes" who form the governing political and commercial elite of a country that bears their name has once again regrouped and stabilized around its desire to hang on to power. The family will carefully adjust the limits of change, inch by inch.

That is particularly true in religion. The rulers see an urgent need to reform the perception of Islam in the United States and the West, but none to reform the Saudi-based religious practices and propagation that influenced Osama bin Laden and the other zealots of al Qaeda. The Saudis treat bin Laden's band as criminal deviants -- not the products of religious, social or other root causes.

Those at least are the impressions left by some prominent Saudis and foreign experts on the kingdom who gathered at Ditchley Park near Oxford last weekend for spirited but informal discussions about a country that is the world's leading oil exporter, the site of Islam's holiest shrines and a vital but extremely difficult U.S. partner in the war on terrorism.

There are few major global questions in the post-Cold War world that do not directly influence Saudi Arabia -- or that are not directly influenced by it. It is easy to overlook the centrality of a land that has been isolated and closed to Westerners for so much of its 80-year history.

A BOGSAT (a conference that amounts to a Bunch of Guys Sitting Around a Table) does not necessarily reveal a lot about the chosen subject. But it should provide a glimpse of conventional wisdom forming in a given expert community, with its intellectual, diplomatic, commercial or other interests. That in itself is useful to those of us who remain agnostic on Saudi Arabia's fate.

The royal family emerges in the majority expert view as far more resilient and tenacious than is the popular Western perception, shaped by highly visible cases of fecklessness and corruption among prominent princes. In moments of crisis, "worker princes" have moved with surprising determination to enforce family unity as the paramount value and tool of survival for the nation.

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That reflex seems to have kicked in since the May 13 bombings in Riyadh by al Qaeda. These attacks demonstrated conclusively that the 20-year-old Saudi policy of keeping bin Laden's nihilistic violence outside his native land had failed. Instead, strong domestic counterterrorist and police actions have become the kingdom's first line of defense.

The Bush administration also reports a new Saudi willingness to curb financial support for terrorism and to let the FBI operate in the kingdom. But neither the experts nor Washington should get carried away. There is still evidence that the Saudis will try to have it at least both ways for as long as they can, even in the war on terror.

U.S. authorities in Baghdad have provided the Saudis with a list of more than 12,000 religious extremists they would like prevented from infiltrating Iraq, I am told by non-conference sources. They add that the Saudis have done nothing about the list or about the continuing steady flow of jihadis across the border. "They talk up cooperation and wait for the Americans to go back to sleep," says a U.S. source.

Before Ditchley Park, two related things seemed difficult for me to imagine: One is that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states do not face overwhelming pressures to reform dramatically or perish. The other unlikelihood is that things can get much worse in the Arab world than they are today, in terms of stagnating or declining personal income, standards of living, opportunities for education, misogyny and social and religious turmoil.

But the Saudis as portrayed by the experts may be telling us that both things are possible: that these failing governments can do just enough to hang on to power and cause their citizens to miss the major global trends in political, economic and personal liberalization for the next 50 years too.

You don't have to be an expert to understand how truly scary that prospect is for them -- and for all of the rest of us.

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06/30/03: Fool's gold in Pakistan
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06/12/03: The Limits Of Saudi Openness
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04/21/03: Victims of civic passivity
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04/11/03: Saddam's final mistake

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