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Balancing Act: The Saudi Conundrum

By Ali Alyami

2/22/2007 Saudi Arabia (Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia) Never in its recent history has the Saudi ruling dynasty been on shakier ground. Domestically, the threats of terrorist attacks are not declining, as Saudi senior princes would have the world believe.
Saudis from every segment of society are demanding reform of the corrupt, inefficient, and undemocratic Saudi government institutions. Regionally, the Saudi dynasty is surrounded by violent conflicts in Iraq , Lebanon and Palestine that could easily spill over the kingdom’s borders and plunge the country into sectarian strife. There was a time when the Saudi dynasty could play the role of peace-maker and emerge a triumphant regional champion while appeasing or silencing opponents at home. This practice seems to have run its course.

The Saudi dynasty has historically used religion as means of control over its people’s lives, movements and thoughts. Under tremendous external pressure, especially from the U.S. , and in an effort to appease powerful Shiite neighboring states Iran and Iraq , the dynasty has relaxed some restrictions on some religious minorities in the country. In return, minorities feel empowered and are demanding equality and an end to discriminatory polices based on religion. The government cannot go back and further restrict minorities from exercising their religious rights without risking outside intervention from Iran , Hezbollah , Iraq and some Shiite communities in the Gulf States .

At the same time, the government’s extremist Wahhabi clerics, who provide the Saudi dynasty with its legitimacy, consider the Shiites “heretics” who pose threats to the country and its official religion. These extremists control public activities, behaviors and movements. They object to the Shiite “heretics” practicing their religious rituals freely and publicly. The dynasty has become a hostage of its own discriminatory policies, and consequently finds itself trying to balance volatile internal divisions and external pressures.

To avoid internal strife and external threats, the Saudi dynasty must collaborate with visionary citizen reformers to take new steps toward a more stable and prosperous country. With public encouragement from the U.S. , a quantifiable political, social, religious, educational and economic reform agenda has to be developed, debated publicly, and implemented under a codified, non-sectarian constitution and bill of rights. This is attainable if the Saudi ruling dynasty is willing to put the people’s interests before its own and share power with all citizens regardless of gender, religious, regional and tribal affiliation.

The empowerment of Saudi Shiites and subsequent reaction from Wahhabi extremists could lead to destructive internal strife. Constructive reform in Saudi Arabia will not happen without intense international pressure. As the birthplace of Islam, and the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia ‘s stability is central to international peace and security. The nation’s fate should not be left to the devices of an autocratic, exclusionary and panicking dynasty.