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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November, 2003, 12:38 GMT
Saudi Arabia: Uncertain front in war
Protesters in Saudi Arabia are limited by police action
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The latest attacks in Saudi Arabia combined with President Bush's call for "democracy" in the Middle East have left the ruling Saudi royal family squeezed between its own inclination simply to crack down on terrorism and demands for it to loosen its grip.

Saudi protesters are restricted by police action
Saudi protest limited by police
Its uncertain policy means that the Saudi front in what is proving to be a long war with al-Qaeda and its sympathisers is a rather confused one.

"The Saudis have to find a point of access where they can split their public opinion away from al-Qaeda," said Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

"The Saudi royal family is not a bunch of democrats," she said.

And nor has Mr Bush's speech helped much, she feels. "The reaction in the region has been to say, if only the Americans acted like that themselves. They invaded Iraq, they refuse to recognize Yasser Arafat who was elected, and they would not dare to unleash opinion in Saudi Arabia because it might be anti-royal and anti-American."

Immediate prospects

The immediate prospect in Saudi Arabia is of further attacks, a stepped-up campaign by the Saudis against the bombers - but probably only limited moves towards democratic structures.

The royal family appears to feel emboldened to take strong security measures because its opponents have shown their hand.

Once, the bombers demanded the removal of American forces.

Those forces have gone. But the attacks continue and the target is now clear - the Saudi royal house itself.

That is no great surprise. Osama bin Laden, himself from a Saudi family, has for years railed against the House of Saud which he sees as a Western protectorate.

Three parallels for Saudis

There are parallels which might help the Saudis as they consider their next moves.

The first is Iran- an example of what not to do.

In the late 1970s, the pro-Western Shah was faced with Islamic unrest. He failed to make any concessions and his repression simply increased his problems. He did not find his "point of access" with public opinion. Eventually, he left for exile and death.

The second is Egypt

The Egyptians faced Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990s, with attacks on tourists especially, and the government decided to crack down. But it found its "point of access" by appealing to the Egyptian public's strong sense of nationalism. The fundamentalists, it argued, were damaging Egypt. Public opinion responded. The terrorists were isolated.

The third example is from outside the Middle East, but is provided by the largest Islamic country in the world - Indonesia

The Bali bombing showed how active Islamic fundamentalists are in the country.

Indonesian intelligence leaders have told Western diplomats that terrorists "may have some bombs made up which are looking for a home," in the words of one senior diplomatic source who passed through London recently. So danger remains.

Issues of injustice

But, according to this source, the authorities in Indonesia "have done rather well" in the aftermath of the Bali attack.

A total of 26 people have been convicted and more trials are due.

The Indonesians have managed to get to a position where all parties getting ready for next year's elections, including the Islamic parties, are against terrorism
Western diplomat
And the recently democratised government, led by President Megawati Sukarnoputri, has found its access point with the public by refusing to turn Bali into an excuse for mass repression.

"They are very nervous of going back to the bad old days," said the diplomat.

"But the Indonesians have managed to get to a position where all parties getting ready for next year's elections, including the Islamic parties, are against terrorism," he added.

The head of the Indonesian national police, General Da'i Bachtiar, has spoken about the motives of suspects involved in the bombings.

Instead of dismissing them as mindless fanatics, he admitted that they "are moved by issues of injustice."

By trying to avoid giving the disaffected more reason to feel injustice, Indonesia is hoping to contain the problem.

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Saudi ambassador to the UK, Prince Turki al-Faisal
"Al-Qaeda, through these activities, have raised the ire and the anger of the Saudi people"



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