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what is saudi arabia's future?
In a dangerously shifting society, can the House of Saud adjust to change without jeopardizing its own survival? Here are views from journalist Robert Lacey, former U.S. Ambassador Robert Jordan, attorney and reform activist Bassim Alim, and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Robert Lacey
Author of The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud.

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…Looking into the future, it would be easy to identify terrorism as the greatest threat facing the House of Saud. But I think that's a mistake, just as it is a mistake for us in the West to feel that the terrorism threatens our way of life. It's an enormous red herring.

What causes the terrorism -- the sense of injustice and dislocation coming from Westernization and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, as they see it, the grossly unfair Western support of their enemies in Israel -- that's a threat for the future. That is really the biggest black mark against the survival of the House of Saud.

I myself am very optimistic about the future. I see the Al Saud morphing and reinventing themselves as a constitutional figurehead. It's worked very well in Europe. I'm not just saying that because I am English and because of the success of the British royal family. People forget how many of the successful nations of Europe in the Common Market are constitutional monarchies, with this family retaining the best of tradition but in some way coming to terms with the reality of the modern world.

And also talking to younger members of the House of Saud, they don't want to hang onto power forever -- what's in it for them? It makes much more sense if they can share the burden, if the merchant classes can come in and if eventually, in some way, from the religious establishment, there can be some sort of accommodation whereby this increasingly modern ... state can go forward in a virtuous way, Islamically as well economically.

Participation presumably also means a reduction in their share of power and influence. Why give that up unless forced to?

The House of Saud are as greedy as anyone else on the planet, and they would like the maximum fair share they could get from their country's resources. They know that 100 percent of nothing is nothing and that the realities of the world mean that they'll have to settle for 50, 40, 30 percent of a country which is expanding enormously.

They're realists; they're survivors; they know how to reinvent themselves. The ones I've spoken to know that the old days of authority, owning the country as if it's a personal possession, are long gone.

And part of the reason for that change is globalization, the influx of satellite TV and the Internet into people's homes in Saudi Arabia?

It's amazing when you're with a Saudi. You've almost always got a television there, just going all the time. ... It's a curious sort of dichotomy. But it is changing the way their brains are wired, and the survival of the House of Saud will be coming to terms with that rewiring that's going on in every Saudi's brain.

But hey, they're called Saudis, these people; they're called after this ruling family. It's the only country in the world named after its ruling family. While we might see that in the West as something medieval, I am always impressed by what a source of pride that is to the Saudis. This is one country that this family and this group of tribes created themselves, without the help of the West, or at least the help of the West on their own terms. That's something that goes right back into the past, and they seem pretty determined to keep going into the future as well.

bassim alim
attorney and activist for political and social reforms in Saudi Arabia.

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…There's a bomb coming from Saudi Arabia. It's often referred to as the demographic bomb.

Yes. It's a youthful society, and we are mushrooming. The latest population census was about 22 million, 17 million of which are Saudi citizens and the rest are, I think, expats.

But how can you look at this situation and not just see a disaster, when the average man has nine or 10 kids and such a large percent of the population is [unemployed]? Where are the jobs?

Where is the disaster? Is it because our country cannot absorb this much? No, I believe the potential in this country can absorb more than that. We can be a regional superpower. We can be as populous as Turkey or Iran or Egypt with the potential that we have.

We are not a simple country. We have petroleum. We have two great coastlines with huge potential. ... We have mind power. We have everything. That's not where the disaster lies. We should not curb our population growth because we cannot accommodate them. The disaster lies in not having good and proper plans to accommodate these people, to create the jobs for them, to create the industries and the working society that will absorb these kind of people. That's where the problem lies. It's not because people are making more babies. …

…Paint a clearer picture, if you can, of the consequences of not putting in place real reform. What will happen in Saudi Arabia?

I think a great period of confusion and instability will follow. Right now you have extremists who are carrying guns and using bullets to [move] their point forward and calling for certain sets of reforms. People are getting confused more and more. They're saying, "These [people] are crazy, but they're calling for the same things we are calling for." If you have a person who is shooting others, who are putting bombs, blowing up cars, and he's saying [that] he's doing all this because he's calling for transparency, for less corruption -- they are deliberately confusing the issue.

But if the government says, "Okay. Let's have the voice of our society be broadcast, be open -- and we have venues for that. Let's have political parties, let's have a parliament, let's have elections and free press in a way [that] society can vent its concerns and what it wants." Then all of a sudden, you're simply taking the carpet from under their feet. Those extremists who would further confuse society, confuse the situation in the government, would be simply exposed for what they are. …

But if that doesn't happen? Egypt took ten years for them to battle the so-called terrorist movement -- And what happened? It did not stop. They had to go into a dialogue with them. It was then that it subsided.

You know what makes us more successful than the Egyptians? I don't want to reinvent the wheel. I don't want to have the government, our police force, us as citizens, and these people, suffer for another ten years before we discover the inevitable….

Prince Saud al Faisal
Saudi Foreign Minister.

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You've got critics who will say, "Look, this is an anachronism." Saudi Arabia is the last great monarchy. ... England is a monarchy, but this is a real monarchy where the crown prince or the king rules, and some people would say it's an anachronism.

They may say that, but it is a government that is in transition. An anachronism is something that is against nature. If it were against nature, nature would have dealt with it in its own way. This government has shown versatility and permanence that I think belies this issue of anachronism. We have faced many conflicts.

When oil came in the '50s, they said this country cannot survive because the wealth will change the underpinnings of the government. But it's here. In the '60s, when they were calling [Egyptian president Gamal abd al-]Nasser the wave of the future, Nasser went away. And the government is still here. After the liberation of Kuwait, they were saying that hundreds of thousands of American troops existing in Saudi Arabia would surely mean the death knell of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is still here. For an anachronism, we have shown tremendous permanence, I think.

How much is that permanence due to the close relationship you have with the United States? Or is that presumptuous?

It is the real world, and perhaps we have carried more burdens because of that association than advantages.

Can you elaborate on that?

No.

Robert Jordan
U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 2001-2003.

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…They have a reform movement that they certainly support, but don't want to get too far, or encourage, to too great a degree. At the same time, you have an extremely intolerant, backward and conservative religious environment where at least certain sects and certain segments of this religious theocracy are allowed to do and publish and preach things that are absolutely unbelievable. And so I think you're finding it very difficult to read all of these tea leaves at the same time. We all are. ...

It doesn't sound like our ally.

Well, ally, you know, is a flexible term. And I think we have common interests that are served. But it doesn't mean that we agree with an ally on every point. We certainly don't with our European allies. We have enormous disagreements with them. But we have the fundamental basis and a fundamental common interest in going forward. I think that's the way we've got to look at Saudi Arabia as well. We have some fundamental common interests here, even though our cultures are diametrically opposed in many ways to each other. And we're learning more about each other, and in many cases, neither side likes what they see. And so we've got to find ways to work on the common interests and to help the Saudis through a period of coming into the 21st century.

They're dealing with this in fits and starts. And it's not always going to be pretty. We need to encourage the reformers. We need to encourage the members of the royal family who want to move forward. And there are plenty of those. And they have great younger leadership that I think is emerging. They have some very well-intentioned and sincere leadership right now in many aspects of their government. But they need more. And they need that side to be encouraged.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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