saudi govt to tumble

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    Something for the redneck brigade; dont want them to feel neglected -

    Saudi rulers may be swept aside


    The al-Qa'ida-backed bombings in Saudi Arabia at the weekend, and President George W. Bush's landmark speech on the US's new determination to promote democracy in the Middle East, represent a potentially decisive moment in the history of the Middle East.

    For decades, US policy towards the Middle East has rested on two pillars: support for Israel and support for stability in the region.

    While urging its Arab allies to behave better on human rights, Washington has historically not pressured them to democratise. As a result, it has been seen by the regional populations to be supporting dictators.

    It is easy now to caricature and sneer at the Bush administration's desire to bring democracy to the Middle East. But it is a fundamental task of history. The Middle East has the potential to engulf the world in flames. It cannot be left outside of history any longer, with only two functioning democracies, Israel and Turkey, in the entire region, and no reasonable hope for progress for huge Arab populations.

    The failure of Arab nationalism and leftism has left only Islamic fundamentalism on the ideological field. Surely it is right to promote democracy and development as a competitor.

    The heart of the battle is Iraq. Anyone hoping that the Americans suffer a humiliating defeat in Iraq to bring them back to earth is really hoping that Arabs remain forever chained in tyranny, poverty and failure.

    But an even more intriguing battle is under way in Saudi Arabia. No relationship in the world is more murky or complex than that between the US and the Saudis.

    Saudi Arabia is meant to be a long-term friend of the US, yet the overwhelming majority of hijackers on the planes that attacked the US on September 11, 2001, were Saudis. The Saudis fund Islamic extremism all over the world. A US congressional report on the September11 terrorist attacks blacked out the entire section dealing with Saudi Arabia because it was too damaging to be released publicly.

    Saudi Arabia was formed as a modern state in 1932 and signed its first deal with Standard Oil of California in 1933. Ever since World War II, the Saudi royal family has approached statecraft by using its oil wealth to strike a series of bargains with friend and foe alike.

    The bargain with the US is simple Ð the Saudis provide energy security to the US and Washington doesn't press them to democratise. The bargain with extremist and terrorist groups, starting with the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the 1970s, is that the Saudis provide money so long as the extremists don't conduct operations on Saudi soil.

    With their own religious conservatives, the Saudis let them have total control over education and social behaviour so long as they don't challenge the rule of the royal family.

    The Saudi royals even had a bargain with their own people Ð they didn't tax them and provided welfare, education and other benefits out of the oil revenue, and in exchange the people were not to ask for democracy. Every single one of these bargains has now broken down. The Saudi method of dealing with the world is exhausted.

    The role of Saudi nationals in the terrorist attacks means Washington will no longer accept the Saudis' political irresponsibility. Extremist groups such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida no longer need Saudi government-sanctioned money. They've got their own money, loads of rich supporters beyond the reach of the Saudi Government, and now they want to topple the Saudi royals and put in place a much more fundamentalist regime. They can be bought off no longer.

    Similarly, the religious conservatives have become so fanatical that in effect, even if not in intent, they threaten royal rule. Their indoctrination of Wahabi Islamic teachings is so extreme that they create a sympathetic environment for terrorism.

    Even the Saudi people can no longer be bought off because the Saudi state can no longer afford it. In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia's population grew by 2.8 per cent a year while its per capita gross domestic product declined by 0.5 per cent a year. Apart from the oil industry, there is no substantial economic modernisation in Saudi Arabia.

    It may well be that the Saudi rulers are heading the way of the shah of Iran Ð to be violently overthrown and replaced by a far more radical and fundamentalist regime. The Saudi education system has been so toxic for so long that instant democracy would almost certainly produce success for extremists.

    The question is whether the Saudi royals have enough political dynamism to start the monumental task of modernising their society, building institutions, creating a more consultative government and hang on to power at the same time.

    I don't think Washington's ambitions are driven by neo-conservative hubris and therefore the criticism from the Right Ð that Bush is overambitious Ð is misplaced. Instead, the key dynamic is the wholly pragmatic realisation that the Middle East just cannot go on as it has, for the sake of Arabs and for all our sakes.

    I got one word of a Gough Whitlam quote wrong last week. When pressed on why he would not allow substantial numbers of Vietnamese refugees into Australia at the time of the fall of Saigon in 1975 (even Vietnamese employees of the Australian embassy were excluded), Whitlam told colleagues: "I'm not having hundreds of f---ing Vietnamese Balts coming into this country with their religious and political hatreds against us!"

    Greg Sheridan

    The Australian
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