The Battle for Saudi Arabia

Every time something goes kaboom in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I thank God that I am no longer working there.

It’s cold comfort, though, given how many friends and acquaintances I left behind, and I always worry that someone I know is going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when the shooting starts.

My wife asked me the other night, "Is Saudi Arabia going to be okay?" (I apologize for pulling a Tom Friedman on y’all, but it seemed the best way to weasel my way into the subject…) If it were up to a majority of Saudis, I replied, then yes, the place will be okay.

I’ve said so several times here as well. In fact, my pronouncements about Saudi Arabia probably come off wishful or naïve. I don’t apologize for that.

But I’m smart enough — and so are you — to know that it’s not up to a majority. In fact, majorities don’t often matter. All that matters, in the case of groups committed to violence, is that enough people are willing to kill and die for what they want. A "silent majority" is worthless by its very silence. I can’t tell you, in this case, what enough is. Enough is enough, something we’ll know when we see it.

By themselves, the militants will not be able to topple the government and depose the Al Saud family. They aren’t that strong and not that well organized, not yet, and the tribal alliances created by nearly 100 years of Al Saud rule in Nejd and 80 years rule over the entire country are firm. Those tribal alliances, the interlocking relationships and connections between the kingdom’s major tribes and extended families, are what really hold the country together. And they are what ensure the loyalty of the various parts of the armed forces (the army, the Interior Ministry troops, and the National Guard).

Even in an ideological age, when some young Muslim men reject the wisdom and advice of tribal sheikhs, parents, and religious leaders and tromp off to join the jihad, tribal affiliation can still sway many and keep them in line.

Besides, most Saudis (at least the ones I knew who weren’t in it) don’t respect their religious establishment very much, and know that the militants are more of the same. That doesn’t mean they love their government. It does mean if forced to choose between Al Saud rule and Al-Qaeda rule, they’re likely to choose Al Saud rule. But only if forced to choose.

And none of them want to be forced to choose. They would rather make a free choice of neither, I think. They may not get that opportunity.

The attack Wednesday in Riyadh is the latest in a series of attacks dating back several years. The attacks have killed dozens of Interior Ministry police and civilians and have alienated large portions of the Saudi public from the aims and methods of the militants, and because of that, the militants appear to have struck at night this time, to minimize civilian casualties and make the point that this is a struggle against the government, and not the people, of Saudi Arabia.

Whether it will work or not is another matter entirely. I suspect the threat of car bombs going off at night, when many Saudis are out enjoying themselves, will still not endear the militants to many people. "Oh, they don’t mean to kill us," is no comfort at all to the relatives of the dead or injured.

What is intriguing — and a sign that the Saudi militants have learned a thing or two from the Iraqi resistance (and may even be coordinating attacks, given the car bomb that went off in Baghdad on Wednesday as well) is the other target they picked: an army recruiting station. (In Saudi Arabia, young men can just walk in and enlist in the armed forces, and in the last two years the government has decided to use army training as a way of preparing undereducated young Saudis for the workforce and alleviating unemployment through a fairly complicated vocational training plan.) Like the Iraqi fighters targeting police stations and nascent Iraqi army units, the goal appears to disconnect people from their government, damage an important government institution and highlight the fact that the government cannot protect itself.

"And if it cannot protect itself, it cannot protect you," the message says to average Saudis.

Despite the litany of bombings and shootouts in Riyadh and Makka, the Saudi militants do not seem to be able to sustain a continuous pace of operations, so that message has yet to stick. They bomb, they skirmish with soldiers, and then they disappear for several months while the police and the army find a few safe houses, capture a few caches of weapons, and (in a fairly frightening revelation last year while I was there) admit that weapons and tactics training has actually taken place on a farm or two in rural areas of the country.

But the Anglo-American Invasion and Occupation of Iraq could change everything. Traditionally, Saudi militants smuggled their weapons from Yemen, but that long, bleak desert frontier with Iraq is now an open sieve, and Saudi officials have long complained about the flow of small arms (everything from infantry assault rifles to rocket propelled grenades). But it works both ways, too, and it would be hard to even estimate how many young Saudi men have wandered into Iraq to make jihad, to kill and be killed.

A better question is: how many of them have wandered back, their skills, bravado and experience intact? What’s the Royal Saudi Arabian National Guard or the Interior Ministry when you’ve fought the United States Marine Corps and lived to see the next day? Or, as I’m fairly certain the mujahidin veterans of Iraq are saying (as those mujahidin I knew did when they talked of their battles with the Red Army), when you’ve beaten the USMC?

And will these Iraq veterans be able to keep the pace of operations going? It’s not clear from a single day’s incident that they can, yet, but if they can, I’m not entirely sure the Saudi government is up to handling that. A sustained and effective military campaign against the government could also fray tribal ties as well. After all, some tribal sheikhs might conclude that if the Al Sauds cannot secure the country, then they don’t deserve allegiance or support.

So far, the militants have not been able to hit anything oil related, and aside from shooting of foreign oil workers in Yanbu, it’s not clear that they have tried. But the Nymex light, sweet crude contract jumped $2 per barrel on this news, and there’s no telling where it would go if they hit a pipeline or an oil terminal or set an oil well on fire. Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, regularly assures the world that everything is fine, and I suspect that aside from the Al Sauds themselves, oil facilities are the most heavily guarded things in the country.

For anyone out there entertaining happy visions of an end to Saudi rule, you need to be reminded — the entire industrialized world’s economy runs through Riyadh. Saudi Arabia produces slightly more than 10 percent of the 80 million barrels of crude the world consumes every day. If that crude disappears, for whatever reason, there is no way to make it up, there is no spare oil production capacity lying around in, say, Angola, Norway, Venezuela or Alaska, to fill that 10 million barrels. The global poverty and misery that would accompany that loss as economies grind to a halt or even collapse in the struggle to secure their share of the world’s remaining crude oil would be staggering.

I suppose the United States could occupy the oil fields and facilities of the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea (the plans have been around for ages), but with what army? The US military cannot even secure Iraq, and the Iraqi resistance has shown how to fight and beat the United States. Any attempt to use the military to secure oil fields would be met with the same kind of resistance (and a likely popular one at that) aimed at destroying the very infrastructure we’d come to save. It would be one of the world’s most memorable Pyrrhic victories.

I have not given myself over to pessimism. A few thousand Saudi police could still beat a few hundred committed militants. I won’t lose sleep over this. Not yet.

But I will keep my bicycle in good repair. Just in case.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.