Saudi Arabia on the boil

  • From: "" <muslim_affairs@xxxxxxxxx>
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  • Date: Fri, 28 Mar 2003 12:34:55 -0000

Saudi Arabia Seems Calm, but, Many Say, Is Seething
With war rumbling beyond its eastern border and violent antiwar
demonstrations rocking neighbors to the north and south, many people
here wonder how long Saudi Arabia can maintain its eerie calm. 
"The atmosphere is boiling," declared Mohsen al-Awajy, a tall, angular
Islamic scholar, distinguished by a long beard and white head scarf
without the usual black headband. He says even his daughters are urging
him to join Al Qaeda and follow Osama bin Laden.
"Our children are taking this a step further than us because they are
affected by the injustice of the war led by the U.S.," he said, adding
that he fears the mood could erupt into violence. "The Saudi street is
fertile for any action."
Saudi Arabia's royal family, many of whose most powerful members were
educated in the United States, is caught between its longstanding
American allies and an increasingly anti-American population deeply
opposed to the war. Those tensions have been heightened by the presence
of thousands of American troops in the country, including the United
States commander of the air war. Though the Saudi government officially
denies it, the bombing campaign is being directed from this country ?
something that few Saudis realize.
"If people knew that, they'd be in the streets," said a senior Arab
diplomat in the capital, calling Saudi Arabia a "volcano" that could
blow at any time.
The country's leaders are clearly angry with Washington for risking the
region's stability to prosecute what they call an illegitimate war.
Saudi Arabia has long urged the United States to put its energy into
solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than inflaming passions
with an attack on Iraq.
"We worked very hard to prevent it, and we've worked very hard toward
having a soft landing after a mistake that is so threatening to the
region," Prince Saud, the kingdom's Princeton-educated foreign minister,
said in a briefing Saturday.
He said the public's anger was natural and added that if the war was not
concluded quickly and its aftermath handled with care, "this anger will
continue to mount and continue to expand."
That anger is increasingly evident in the country's newspapers,
currently the only available forum for frank public debate. The front
page of Saudi Gazette today carried a photo of two British soldiers
staring down at the crumpled bodies of two dead Iraqis with a white flag
of surrender by their side. Another photo showed the face of a crying,
wounded Iraqi child. 
In an open letter to Crown Prince Abdullah, carried in two of the
country's largest newspapers, a well-known Saudi lawyer called on the
government to lift its restriction on public action against the war.
"It is time for us to move into a new era that will lead the nation from
a state of inaction to one of positive confrontation against any
aggressor who violates the sovereignty and sanctity of countries and
murders our brethren wherever they are," the letter read.
The emotions extend into Saudi Arabia's elite society. Sitting in the
hushed lobby of Riyadh's best hotel, a prominent Saudi intellectual
received several messages and phone calls on his cellular phone late
today from people expressing their support for the Iraqis. 
"Pray seven times for victory against the Americans," read one message,
which he said had come from a member of the royal family.
So far the Saudi government has kept its populace calm by referring
reassuringly to "brotherly Iraq" and declaring that it will not get
involved in the war. An active intelligence agency has also rounded up
dozens of suspected militants, and armed soldiers keep watch in areas of
the city frequented by Westerners.
But the lack of action belies the deep feelings here.
"Of course we don't like the war, but we're not allowed to protest,"
said Fars Altamimi, 24, sitting in the small living room of his home in
a poor neighborhood of Riyadh. He says he believes that the United
States has turned against the Arab world.
Mr. Awajy, the scholar, argues that repressing protests is only
increasing frustration, particularly among young Islamic extremists.
With the median age in the kingdom 17 and the population growing far
faster than the job market, there are plenty of frustrated young Saudis
who might turn to action. A slack economy is worsening the situation. 
Many of those bored and jobless youths find solace in religion, creating
a huge pool of potential militants. 
"What we are worried about is the growth of extremism under this
repression," Mr. Awajy said. "Not giving people a peaceful way of
expressing their outrage is creating an explosive situation."
There is no evidence that any organized network has yet coalesced from
the widespread political dissent and anti-American sentiment, but Saudis
say such an organization could appear quickly.
"The raw materials are available," Mr. Awajy said, adding that weapons
were easily acquired across the Yemen border. "We have thousands of
youths well trained in explosives in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and now
they are here."
Source:  New York Times

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