Making Saudi Arabia safe

20 November 2003
The attack on a Riyadh housing compound on 8 November has raised a storm of conflicting analysis that has shed more heat than light. Prophets of doom have been eagerly at work painting a picture of Arabian disorder. Even the normally level-headed Financial Times reported that the attack could mark the start of an Algerian-style insurgency.

Close observers of the kingdom cannot rule this out. But killers of Muslim women and children win no friends in Saudi Arabia. Sympathy for Al-Qaeda and other groups of its kind is evaporating. Nevertheless, the latest compound bombing was inarguably a dismal moment for Saudi Arabia's friends and partners. Great damage has been done.

Security failure

The first emotion after grief, fear and fury is dismay that there has been a repetition of the attacks carried out in May. These showed that foreigners, Muslim or not, were preferred targets. Despite this precedent, the perpetrators have been able to strike again in the same manner with similar effect. This security failure has shaken confidence to the core. It will take at least a year with no further compound assaults for faith to be restored. And in due course, perhaps, an explanation can be provided about why Western embassies for weeks issued warnings that were contradicted at least once by official Saudi spokesmen.

The compound was probably selected because security there was lax. The guardians of the residents' safety may have believed that Westerners would be targets, not Arabs and Muslims, the majority in the compound. If that was the case, then they were wrong. The presence of families with children was surely noted and callously disregarded. This was neither the work of amateurs nor an error.

Desperate measure

One conclusion is that the attack, apart from terrorising foreigners and locals and demonstrating that it could be done, was designed to provoke a disproportionate response in the hope that it would precipitate the desired political upheaval against the status quo. There is evidence that the culprits have given up hope of winning over the Saudi people to their goals by lawful means. It was an act born of failure, even of desperation.

What is crucial, however, is not our present emotions or what the killers may do next, but how the Saudi government responds. The kingdom is not the first country to feel the effects of a small group aiming to achieve radical political change through violence. The IRA in the UK, the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and ETA in Spain rocked advanced and sophisticated democracies. Their Saudi equivalents are not invincible and should be tackled in a measured way using proven techniques, not in panic.

Guaranteeing by all possible means the safety of everyone living and working in the kingdom is the first priority. Identifying the perpetrators and destroying their capacity to carry out attacks must continue. Perhaps the kingdom should emulate the US response to 11 September and establish a Ministry of Homeland Security to co-ordinate counter-terror operations. The leadership of this effort should be vested in energetic professionals who can bring fresh perspectives to the challenge.

Lawful response

The security response must be lawful. And it must be as targeted as much as is possible, despite the difficult circumstances facing security forces operating in a country nearly the size of Western Europe. History shows that the excessive and illicit use of force can cause the very disease that it seeks to cure.

The political reform process initiated last month with the announcement of plans for local elections should continue. Extending the scope for political participation detaches extremists from the communities on which they feed and reduces the frustration that inspires desperate acts.

The kingdom has this year demonstrated again that it wishes to play a responsible role in ensuring balance in world oil markets and intends to continue to do so. A safe and secure Saudi Arabia is the best possible guarantee that Islam's holiest places remain accessible to the Muslim faithful of all nationalities. For these two reasons alone, therefore, it is overwhelmingly in the interests of the outside world that the kingdom's stability continues, and that it deals successfully with one of the greatest tests in its short history.

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