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Saudis waking up to terrorist threat

WINSTON CHURCHILL recognized the potential Saudi problem more than 80 years ago, before there was a Saudi Arabia. In 1921 he warned: "In the vast deserts of Arabia . . . there dwell the peoples of Nejd, powerful nomadic tribes, at the head of whom the remarkable chief Ibn Saud maintains himself . . . A large number of Ibn Saud's followers belong to the Wahhabi sect, a form of Mohammedanism which bears, roughly speaking, the same relations to orthodox Islam as the most militant form of Calvinism would have borne to Rome in the fiercest times of the religious wars. The Wahhabis profess a life of exceeding austerity . . . They hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions . . . Austere, intolerant, well armed, and blood-thirsty, in their own regions the Wahhabis are a distinct factor which must be taken into account . . ."

Churchill's answer was what he called the "Sherifian solution." At that time Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashimites was the Sherif of Mecca, keeper of the Muslim holy places, whom Lawrence of Arabia had helped throw off the yoke of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Churchill wanted Hussein to stay in charge of the holy cities, and he helped put his sons, Feisal and Abdullah, on the thrones of the newly formed countries of Iraq and Transjordan, as Jordan was then called.

But Abdul Aziz ibn Saud soon swept out of the desert with his fanatical band of warriors, the Ikhwan (brothers), to capture both Mecca and Medina and displace Britain's ally Hussein. The Ikhwan cut all the telegraph lines along their line of march, saying the telegraph was Satan's tool. The Saudi state was proclaimed in 1932. Today all that is left of Churchill's Sherifian solution is Hussein's great-great grandson, King Abudullah of the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan.

The West made its accommodation with the oil rich Saudis and made them strategic allies. But in the age of terrorism and the Saudi kingdom's bad seed, Osama bin Laden, the whole US-Saudi relationship has come into question. In July a congressional report was extremely critical of the Saudi government for not cooperating on terror. The Saudis stand accused of supporting Islamic charities that are terrorist fronts. But there is something wrong with the "basic logic" of saying the Saudi government willingly supports terror, as Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, has said. Overthrowing the monarchy is one of Osama bin Laden's top goals.

It may be that the Saudi government was not quick to recognize the danger in its midst. It is also true that Saudis were willing to finance questionable activities abroad as long as the kingdom was not threatened. And it is certainly true that the Saudi-financed religious schools throughout the Muslim world have preached an intolerance that would have come as no surprise to Winston Churchill.

But the Saudi royal family itself is no stranger to attacks from the Islamic fundamentalist right. Ibn Saud had to forcibly suppress the Ikhwan, whom he called his "murderous innocents." In 1979 a band of militants took over the Great Mosque in Mecca, and the loudspeakers that traditionally call the faithful to prayer sounded forth with denunciations of corruption among the Saudi royals -- a charge not altogether unfounded.

Yet, even though the Saudi state was based on an alliance between the royal family and the ultra-conservative Wahhabi sect, over the years the House of Saud has proved to be in many ways a force for modernization, bringing in change slowly so as not to make the same mistake the Shah of Iran made by pushing reform too fast.

After the May terrorist incidents in Saudi Arabia and this summer's bloody crackdowns, it would seem that the Saudis have finally awakened to the extent to which their kingdom has become a cauldron of terrorists. In recent weeks US officials have been pleasantly surprised at how much cooperation the Saudis are willing to give combating terror, starting with a greater effort to choke off funds to bogus charities.

The United States should continue to work with the Saudi government with patience and understanding, not hostility, as frustrating as that may be. Getting American troops out of the kingdom, where many found their presence offensive, was a good first step.

Saudi Arabia has deep structural problems, and reforms won't be easy. But in Saudi Arabia reform will come slowly or not at all. Some neoconservatives believe that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was the first shudder of a regional earthquake that would sweep away monarchies such as the Saudis. But their concept of bringing one-style-fits-all democracy to the Middle East was always seriously delusional and would almost certainly lead to an even less tolerant and more repressive religious regime. Regime change is not a panacea, and the growing catastrophe in Iraq should be enough for one administration.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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