SAUDI ARABIA: Baby steps
William Fisher «View Bio

Saudi Arabia has finally been compelled to hear the terrorists’ wake-up call. But the task it faces is far more daunting than that of the United States or any other Western country.
The reason is that, for the kingdom, defeating terrorism means reversing powerful and deeply ingrained ‘jihadist’ ideas that Saudis learn from childhood. These ideas find their way into school textbooks, into the largely government-controlled press, and into the everyday conversations of the ‘Arab street.’

Long before the recent beheadings, Riyadh had begun to take some baby steps toward curbing extreme Islamic fundamentalism. For example, it identified some 3,000 clerics it judged to be “extreme,” called for “moderation in all things,” removed or arrested some clerics, and sent others for “reeducation.” Currently, the kingdom claims to be reorganizing its educational system. Yet, it has only just begun. It has not shut down the many Islamist websites that provide ‘off-the-shelf’ sermons for the Muslim clergy loaded with belligerent language that can be heard at Friday prayers throughout the kingdom – and throughout the Arab Middle East.

Against this background, it undoubtedly took considerable courage for Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, to put forward his two-state Israel-Palestinian peace plan in 2002.

And recently, for the Saudi government to ‘declare war’ on terrorism.

These and other modest reforms may be baby steps, but optimists see them as part of a process former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt Edward Walker, calls “The Quiet Revolution.”

Walker – now head of the Middle East Institute, and a former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration – said: “There is a quiet revolution going on in Saudi Arabia. No one knows its depth, its breadth, or its ultimate impact, but the reform effort is very real and probably unstoppable.”

The House of Saud, divided by disagreements among family members, finds itself walking a dangerous tightrope. Will it find the political will to go full-bore after the terrorists and thus risk alienating a powerful fundamentalist clergy and its millions of followers? Given the gruesome events of the past month, the world can only hope that ambassador Walker is right about the kingdom’s ‘quiet revolution.’ But time is certainly not on the side of the Saudis.

William Fisher is a regular contributor to the Middle East Times.