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Changing Saudi Arabia

EVER SINCE it became known that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, questions about the nature of the Saudi kingdom and its relationship to the United States have become inescapable. Have prominent Saudis wittingly donated funds to support Al Qaeda terrorism against American targets? Did members of the Saudi royal family, as alleged in a new book, act as go-betweens for payoffs to Osama bin Laden's network? Has the purist Wahhabi sect of Islam functioned as a doctrinal spawning ground for Al Qaeda's ideology of holy war against the "crusader West"?

It is crucial for US policy makers and the American public to develop a clear view of the country that is home to the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina. The family of slightly more than 100 princes that rules Saudi Arabia and controls its oil wealth can affect US security both by its power and its weakness.

Out of weakness, the Saudi royals have long practiced the art of buying protection by paying off regional actors who might otherwise threaten them. This is how they kept the former Syrian ruler Hafez Assad at bay. They also paid the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal $15 million a year to occupy himself with other targets. So it should not be surprising if, starting in the period when they cooperated with the CIA and Pakistani military intelligence in supporting the mujahedeen fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Saudi officials had contacts with bin Laden.

At present, wealthy Saudi businessmen outside the royal family are under investigation by the FBI for suspected transfers of funds to Al Qaeda. But US intelligence has now pieced together from interrogations of its key planners a nearly complete picture of the Sept. 11 plot, and no evidence has come to light that members of the Saudi royal family were complicit with Al Qaeda or had foreknowledge of the attack -- the sensational allegations broached in the final chapter of Gerard Posner's new book "Why America Slept."

Until recently, however, US officials did have strong reasons to complain about the kingdom's refusal to cooperate fully with terrorist investigations. That changed dramatically after the three coordinated bombings Al Qaeda staged last May 12 in Riyadh. Saudi authorities have since captured leaders of Al Qaeda cells involved in the Riyadh bombings. Some of the captives have confessed to their roles in the bombings. Weapons and explosives were found in Al Qaeda safe houses in Mecca, where there are no Americans or Westerners. It has become clear to Saudi authorities that Al Qaeda's aim now is to overthrow the regime of the Saudi princes.

Today there are FBI and Treasury Department teams stationed in the kingdom, receiving cooperation from their Saudi counterparts. These days when Saudi officials tell an American audience that they share America's interest in combating the threat from Al Qaeda, they can be believed.

But there is another danger from the kingdom: a combustible mix of economic mismanagement, a swelling, youthful population, and the chauvinist venom dispensed by radical Wahhabi clerics. Saudi government debt now equals gross domestic product. There is very high unemployment among Saudi youths, who know about the profligate habits of many princes. And those same youths hear from state-supported imams that their religion, their way of life, and their patriarchal hold over their women are all under assault from Christian and Zionist conspiracies.

A healthy change in the US-Saudi relationship came about with the withdrawal of US forces from the kingdom in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall. But other changes must be accomplished by the Saudis in their own society.

Since a radical Islamist takeover in the kingdom would be as much a catastrophe for Saudis as for Americans, both countries share an interest in Saudi reform. The Saudi princes must permit more equitable participation in the economy. Saudi women and the 20 percent Shi'ite minority have to acquire equal rights. Governance must become transparent and accountable. And there must be a stop to the radical clerics' incitement of religious war.

The Saudi princes have learned that Al Qaeda cannot be bought off or deflected to other targets; now they must learn to change their ways or be swept away.

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