Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Neil Partrick, Senior Analyst, Economist Intelligence Unit, The Economist Group



  Saudi Arabia is a pivotal player in the security and stability of the Arabian peninsula. However, it is not advisable for the British government to maintain relations going forward on the old basis of acceptance that the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia excuses political sclerosis in the kingdom. There needs to be continued UK government attention to managing our relations with Saudi Arabia in a manner most conducive to steady reform, and therefore kept in line with longer-term British interests, in the kingdom and the wider Middle East region.


  The attack on the US on 9-11 caused significant reflection by the US government of the basis of its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There were some whose closeness to neo-conservative administration opinion seemingly encouraged them feel to publicly think outside of the box in a way unimaginable for much of the previous three decades. In the UK responses were more measured, with the central assumption that the bases of foreign policy toward the Arab Gulf states was correct and that the comparatively gentle encouragement of good governance remained the right way to proceed. However in practice the US administration did not evince any willingness to promote radical new policies that might threaten existing Gulf Arab regimes by belligerent advocacy of western standards of political accountability, for example. Furthermore, the commitments to reform that were increasingly given by Saudi Arabia to its own people, and admonishments to the wider Arab world to change, and the beginning of practical measures in line with this rhetoric, suggested that the kingdom was aware of the need for internal change.

  The specific grievance felt by the US authorities as well as the wider international community over the disproportionate role of Saudi nationals in the attacks of September 2001 had also led to practical measures to constrain the comparative ease of financial relationships between radical individuals inside and outside of the kingdom. In the context of a Financial Sector Assessment Programme (FSAP) organised under the auspices of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a long-standing body created by the IMF and the World Bank to promote better financial management, experts on money laundering measures from those bodies have visited Saudi Arabia, along with many other countries internationally, and recommendations issued. Saudi Arabia's central bank (SAMA; the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency) began to initiate legal changes before the FATF visit, but, in the wake of the latter's initial recommendations, went further. The monitoring of significant bank deposits and/or transfers is now far more comprehensive, while charitable giving, formerly a key means for transferring monies to armed groups, is much more closely circumscribed, with one notable organisation eventually being prevented from operating.


  One area of residual US concern that continues to be expressed publicly however is the ongoing role of public fund raising in the kingdom, despite being taken out of the mosques, for Palestine, by which monies from telethon appeals have found their way to the families of militant suicide bombers. However Saudi Arabia has, through private channels, been a key financial supporter of Hamas since its inception. (As it was at the time of the Islamist group's less political antecedents, and as the kingdom was over three decades for the more secular, Fatah, formerly the backbone of the Palestinian leadership.) In the wake of the January 2006 parliamentary election results in the Palestinian territories, this connection is increasingly contentious. However, there is a clear and understood difference in the kingdom, and arguably internationally, between monies for those with a nationalist agenda, despite how disagreeable their means are judged to be, and money that hitherto had found its way into al-Qa'ida-related pockets. SAMA is more efficient in following financial trails and in limiting the potential for monies to be transferred out of the country for nefarious purposes than a number of other GCC countries' central banks. However, there is still a practical, as well as political, limit to what can be done to prevent money transfers in either direction. With the operation for example of the hawala system, which Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries are very keen to stress they monitor very carefully, it is very difficult to prevent monies reaching terrorists. The ease with which this informal transfer system can operate is what defines it; harsh constraints would render it unrecognisable and make the transfer of monies by much foreign labour in the kingdom very difficult.


  Saudi Arabia has also taken a number of internal measures designed to inhibit what hitherto had been the state's effective promotion of radical Islamism via officials placed overseas by the ministry of awqaf (Islamic affairs), as well as longer term objectives evident with the beginning of educational reform and a less restricted media environment. These developments, and the practical challenge to ambitious US regional objectives motivating the invasion of Iraq, subsequently combined to mute any US criticism of Saudi Arabia. Instead, Washington has exercised political expediency in talking up what, in political reform terms, were relatively modest steps (albeit quite dramatic by the standards of the kingdom, at least judged by developments hitherto from the early 1990s onwards).

  The Saudi leadership had for some time, however, realised that there was a need for a redirection in its internal as well as foreign policies, and this was not because of pressure from the US, the UK or other western governments. A reconfiguring of the excessive dependence of the country's economy and specifically fiscal receipts on oil revenues was set as a clear policy objective in response to the 1998 oil price collapse. That same year, in his then capacity as crown prince, Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud spoke plainly to his fellow GCC members. He bemoaned the failure of an organisation, which had been set up in 1981 to promote economic, political and security cooperation, to achieve any significant compromise of national sovereignty in order that collective interests be more effectively advanced. This, he said, left individual countries having to rely on outside forces, by which he primarily meant the US. There is an overlap with the then Crown Prince Abdullah's desire to reshape the kingdom's internal and external dispensation, and the call he made in 2003 for Arab countries to embrace political reform.


  The period subsequent to Abdullah's late 1990s initiatives had obviously seen a shift in the US's perspectives toward the kingdom in particular. However there were, and there remain to this day, significant internal forces in the kingdom that have urged political reform and whose profile has made the taking of steps in this direction expedient. These were evident in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war. There was a need then to balance disparate and what then were more overtly conflictual internal forces, chiefly consisting of Sunni Islamic radicals and a broadly "liberal" business and academic class. This resulted in the Basic Law, the closest the kingdom has come to a written constitution, and the founding, in common with some of its GCC neighbours, of an appointed consultative council (majlis al-shoura). However, the drive for a more accountable decision making process reflected in the latter's founding in Saudi Arabia, and in efforts of reformers in the ruling family and without to secure elections to it today, largely remains a preoccupation of relative liberals. Islamist radicals seeking a shift in policy direction, as opposed to the overthrow of the Al-Saud, concentrated their fire then, as they do today, on the kingdom's relationship with the US and on concerns about the internal Islamic rigour of the country, reflected in concerns at corruption and the maintenance of a strict adherence to Islamic law (shariah).

  Today, however, there is a greater coalescence of objectives among different reformist strands in the kingdom. This has been expressed in support for petitions that since 2002 have urged a programme of reforms upon the Saudi leadership. These have drawn support from Sunni Islamic radicals, Sunni liberal elites, and representatives of the Shia minority. The relative openness encouraged from the top down by Abdullah, then the de facto ruler, who was bent on tackling corruption and promoting transparent decision-making had created an environment in which he was literally, and publicly, petitioned. However, a year later this mood had passed, as more cautious voices, embodied in the person of interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud, targeted the leading petitioners. The petitioners' demands had grown stronger and events in neighbouring Iraq had compounded Al-Saud hesitancy in the face of a domestic terrorist challenge that was seemingly emboldened by the invasion, despite the fact that the kingdom had no public role in it. In keeping with the consensual pattern of al-Saud internal decision-making, Crown Prince Abdullah launched his National Dialogue in 2003 in what its more ardent liberal Al-Saud promoters sometimes presented in terms suggestive of a wholly inclusive decision making process, is in reality what its name says, a dialogue.


  The National Dialogue has a physical presence in Saudi Arabia beyond a series of meetings; it has a permanent headquarters and a permanent staff. However, it is not underpinned by any constitutional or other legal authority, nor is there any obligation on the government to heed the deliberations of National Dialogue meetings, which is also the case with the majlis-al-shoura. What has unsurprisingly proven to be largely a discussion forum on increasingly less pertinent issues, had at least provided a symbolic inclusiveness which, at its early stages, had seen an important expression of Shia "acceptability" in the eyes of the regime, underscored by the sight of radical clerics associated in the early 1990s with a militant assertion of an essentially Sunni chauvinism sitting with representatives of the Shia minority. The latter's exclusion from much of national life continues to reflect the pivotal role in the Saudi political system of an ultra-conservative Sunni religious class. Their ascribed role under the operative legal code in the kingdom in interpreting Islamic law, and the existence of a historic compact with the al-Saud, circumscribes the latter's executive authority. This, and Saudi clerics' (ulema) highly puritanical interpretation of Islamic theology in which tawhid (or "unity"), has effectively cast doubt on the Islamic credentials of a number of key minorities in the kingdom, including the Shia. However, when influential Sunni clerics had completed the public, as well as the less photogenic, dialogues with the most senior Shia cleric, Hassan Al-Saffar and his colleagues, the community of which the ayatollah is the public focus remains frustrated, even if its more educated leaders appreciate that some hitherto sacrosanct ground has been broached. Shia Islamists, at least those of the more representative cast that almost swept the board in the 2005 municipal election in Qatif (near Al-Khobar), recognise that the environment in the kingdom is, from their perspective, more accommodating, but they still see considerable limits.

  In essence, the National Dialogue has offered a more inclusive approach to the Shia and other minorities, raising the hope rather than providing the guarantee of fairer treatment for them as fellow Muslims. Their political representatives are not being brought in as equal discussants, rather the representatives, for example of the Shia, and of the Ismaili sect, have been taking part as religious elders. Thus the debate, such as it is, is about ending individual discrimination; it is not based on a formal recognition of structural inequality in power. It is not therefore conceived of as a challenge to the political hierarchy, more as an exercise in political choreography, which, by bringing such groups in from the cold, has begun to affect their official treatment. This though reduces key minorities' desire for political accommodation within the kingdom to little more than the political expediency of senior al-Saud.


  Even in this limited respect, the setting back of the objectives of King Abdullah, and his allies among the more liberal of the al-Saud princes, reflects existential fears based on the perceived inter-relation between the political assertiveness of Saudi Shia and Shia authority in Iraq and Iran, and the influential role of the latter in southern Iraq and, so Riyadh fears, potentially in the kingdom's oil-rich Eastern Province in which many Shia are located. In this, Saudi regime and wider Sunni elite memories abound of the country's experience in the 1980s Iraq-Iran war, and the degree of political support among Saudi Shia that the Iranian revolution engendered. In organisational terms, as well as popular sympathy, this can link to Iraq, especially under its new dispensation. Mutual support existed then, and exists now, between Iran and what for many years was the leading Iraqi Shia Islamist party, al-Da'wa and its spin off, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The leading political trends among Shia parties in Saudi Arabia have connections and ideological commonalities with these Iraqi parties. Related to this is the status of the southern Iraqi city of Najaf, which, although politically problematic for the Iranian regime under Iran's present spiritual leader at least, provides the key sources of emulation (marja'iyya) for Saudi Shia, with Grand Ayatollah Sistani's status far eclipsing the authority of Ayatollah Hassan Saffar, who enjoys traditional authority but has comparatively limited religious credentials.

  The reassertion of the Al-Saud's traditional caution has ended what was shaping up to be a conjoining of the traditional Gulf practice of a ruler providing an audience for a broad cross section of the populace to voice their grievances, with what had been the presentation of fairly concrete political aspirations. Today senior Al-Saud, whether of a liberal or more conservative bent, continue to strike different tones on what had already been an ambiguous leadership commitment to extending the role of elections, for example. However, the senior al-Saud agree on the dangers of the war in Iraq and the impact that it is having on their ability to head off security challenges from radical Sunni fighters, especially those "schooled" in the "new Afghanistan" situated just across their northern border. This is impacting on relations with Iran itself, and could raise further tensions between members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) as attitudes to US and EU policy vis-a-vis Tehran are liable to vary if the emergent nuclear crisis with Tehran develops further.

  The Iraq war has also emphasised Saudi concerns about US policy in particular in the region. While Riyadh is pleased that "strategic dialogue" has recently been formally institutionalised into a six monthly series of high level meetings, the kingdom is anxious that, in its eyes, the US and the UK are preparing to effectively "hand Iraq over" to Shia Islamists with firm connections with Iran. Saudi Arabia also fears that, in the medium term, a major drawdown of coalition troops will occur in Iraq that will not be due to them having helped create a relatively stable security environment on the ground. Thus Saudi Arabia may find itself increasingly drawn into a conflict in which other neighbours of Iraq are vying for influence. From the kingdom's perspective this may be needed in order to head off a radical hinterland that would enable a disparate array of forces implacably opposed to al-Saud rule to operate against it. King Abdullah has recently been building links to radical Iraqi Shia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, in an effort to build pragmatic relations of co-operation out of their common interest in Iraq not being subject to Iranian hegemony.


  In the aftermath of the coalition invasion of Iraq, and the ensuing development of greater militant anger inside the kingdom, Saudi Arabia showed signs of re-running the failed policy it adopted toward Afghanistan in the 1990s when domestic radicalism at home was encouraged to find an outlet in territory removed from the Gulf. Erstwhile militant clerics were allowed to use public fora on television and the press to effectively urge angry youth to take the "jihad" to Iraq. While in 2004 a clampdown was being conducted at home against Saudi ulema, with a significant number either sacked or "retrained", fatwas issued without repercussion also legitimised jihad against the "invading forces" in Iraq. This is not in overt contradiction, given that senior Saudi officials are becoming increasingly public in their concern about the consequences for the kingdom and the wider region of Shia dominance in Iraq. However, it is understood among Saudi leaders that ultimately this not a wise policy for the kingdom to pursue, and that the kingdom is once again playing with fire, given that at some point these effectively "exported" fighters will return home. Furthermore, both conservative and more liberal senior al-Saud are aware that the Iranian dimension that compounded their and the widespread fears among other Sunni Arab regimes of a Shia regional crescent cannot be offset by a few thousand foreign Sunni jihadists in Iraq. Officials keenly wish that the Iraqi/coalition side of the border could be more effectively policed to prevent the very "wash-back" that others have effectively encouraged.


  What Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and senior players in the national security apparatus in the kingdom lack is a strategy for replacing a coalition drawdown with a role for neighbours that facilitates internal cooperation, as opposed to regional conflagration. Saudi Arabia backed away from the seeming logic of its 2004 proposal that "Muslim forces" be sent to Iraq, subsequently emphasising that greater security in Iraq was always meant to be the prerequisite of such an involvement, and that it had never meant that Saudi forces should be present. The bottom line of course is that an Iraqi government would have to invite in any such force. However a role for the forces of other Muslim states is still possible, even if the contradictory and controversial involvement of the militaries of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Turkey, may be impossible to agree, within and without Iraq. Ultimately though, a means to provide a framework for regional cooperation over Iraq, just as Saudi Arabia seeks such a structure over other regional security issues, is needed. This provides a coincidence of British national interests with those of Riyadh, given the UK government's desire to withdraw its troops from Iraq as promptly as possible.

  The enhanced military capability of Iraq's fledgling national armed forces is the official prerequisite for a UK and US troop departure. Furthermore, the inevitably embattled new Iraqi government, assuming one is formed, as scheduled, by April 2006, is unlikely to want anything more than a symbolic drawdown of coalition troops, at least over the medium term. Therefore a mechanism should be encouraged by the British government that can downgrade the western troop presence and gradually introduce forces of Muslim, possibly Arab states, conceivably under UN "cover", that are not seen by different sectarian and ethnic interests in Iraq as overtly partisan. Such forces may have to be confined to more benign provinces and, central to wider ambitions, to contain terrorism as part of a combined Iraqi and international border security force. This would help ally the concerns of Saudi Arabia, and potential major flashpoints such as the Syrian, Saudi, and, not least, Iranian borders. Securing an international and Iraqi national presence on the Turkish border is more complicated, given the operation of Iraqi Kurdish autonomy. However, the latter could cooperate with international forces, thereby potentially easing Turkish disquiet about their border with Iraq.


  While Saudi Arabia considers its options to be limited regarding the shaping of events inside Iraq, it continues to pursue a mixture of short term conventional security measures inside the kingdom against terror attacks, and some steps with an eye toward shifting the longer term social and economic conditions in order to tackle the causes of disaffection. There were some undoubted preventive successes over the 12 months following the attempted terror attacks in Saudi Arabia in December 2004. Furthermore, those attempted attacks, at the US consulate in Jiddah, and at an interior ministry and related facility in Riyadh, suggested greater desperation on the part of the militants involved than the efficient operations that were conducted for example against two residential compounds in 2003. Penetration of the kind witnessed in two successful attacks in 2004 against energy and petro-chemical related buildings (as opposed to key infrastructure) was at that point not an option. However the attack on the US's Jiddah consulate succeeded in very publicly emphasising the daring of the militants and their ability to get very close to targets that lacked the moral ambiguity for many ordinary Saudis of more national targets.


  Shockingly for the Saudi authorities, in February 2006 two attempted suicide car bombings were conducted at Abqaiq, near Dhahran, site of the kingdom's major oil processing facility run by ARAMCO, the state-owned Saudi Arabian oil company which controls all the country's oil and gas facilities. Abqaiq processes more than a third of the kingdom's daily oil output, from which it separates associated gas for use in the oil sector or domestic consumption. Senior spokesmen and those close to the intelligence establishment emphasised that key alleged al-Qaida-related figures were killed in the shootout and subsequent clashes. However, other sources create a more disturbing impression than this apparently efficient "counter-terror interception" would suggests. Apparently the first of three perimeter fences of the Abqaiq facility was broached by men dressed in ARAMCO uniforms and driving ARAMCO vehicles. Only as they approached the second perimeter fence were they shot at. The fact that insurgents either had inside assistance from members of the formal security operation of the state-owned energy company to the extent that, as was suggested in the attacks in Yanbu in 2004, they gained vehicles and uniforms, or that security was sufficiently lapse that these items could be obtained and entry to the site obtained, is seriously concerning. ARAMCO security normally provides around 35,000 carefully recruited men, who, together with state security forces, are responsible for guarding energy-related infrastructure. This makes the attack all the more alarming, and emphasises the continued vulnerability of the kingdom. As failed attempts alone they represent a major psychological as well as practical blow, and if successful would impact majorly on oil prices as already limited spare production capacity internationally would have tightened significantly.

  A state of heightened security has in fact remained an ongoing feature of daily life since 2003, with not just seemingly tight perimeter security around westerners' residential compounds, but a succession of roadblocks in the major cities. There are regular, if until recently reduced, incidents related to the ongoing terror threat, whether shootouts or intercepted bombs. Much of this goes unreported in the kingdom and internationally. However the authorities claimed that the shootout in September 2005 in Dammam on the Persian Gulf coast prevented what was a plot to attack oil facilities there. It is unclear how significant that threat would have been. The Saudis are the first to emphasise that the security force operating under ARAMCO jurisdiction, together with the National Guard under King Abdullah's direct command, are fiercely loyal. As far as oil facilities are concerned, the security operation of ARAMCO is rigorously policed, tribally incorporated and devoid of Shia. However, the latter no longer represents the focus of security concerns, whether infrastructure or other targets. According to a US investigative reporting programme last year, Ras Al-Tanoura, on the Persian Gulf, was the target of a conspiracy that was successfully intercepted. Since the accession of Abdullah as King in August 2005, despite the traditional caution in political changes, some senior intelligence and security personnel were replaced. This contributed to what had been the relative success of the Saudi security forces in maintaining an absence of actual or attempted major outrages, but has clearly not ended the security challenge.

  A lot still happens outside of major cities such as Riyadh, Jiddah, Mecca, Medina and Dammam. Ironically this was evident in the development of the Saudi intifada in the early 1990s in the province of Qasim in the region of Najd. In Najd, the supposed "spiritual home" of the Al-Saud regime, the familiar and relative material sophistication of the capital and Jiddah are worlds away. Qasim is for many westerners particularly culturally and geographically remote, where in its towns and villages the austere values of the unitarian interpretation of Sunni Islam is a highly pervasive cultural as well as political force. Evidence persists that, while the more renowned leaders of the first generation active in the early 1990s demonstrations in Buraidah and Unaizah especially have been relatively successfully politically incorporated by the regime, others remain implacably hostile to the rule of the al-Saud and continue to seek to mobilise this opposition. This is by no means confined to Qasim and other parts of Najd, and it can be found throughout the country. Furthermore, the relatively small number of militant fighters at large in the kingdom, and their organisation in clandestine cells relies more on effective communication than territorial bases. Recruitment to such networks is difficult to define as any one process, but oxygen is effectively provided by the welter of websites, some produced and managed outside of the kingdom, whereby dissident clerics continue to expostulate what are effectively revolutionary views.


  That said, the case of Qasim and other more remote parts of Najd is an issue in terms of the need for popular engagement in the well publicised struggle by the state to ensure that its monopoly of violence is not undermined by a lack of political legitimacy. Over the last 18 months there has been evidence that the al-Saud had been able to more effectively police large cities in less conservative areas. However, the need to ensure cooperation in areas where the relationship of authority structures to the state has relied for its legitimacy on the overlap between religious adherence and al-Saud credibility is more problematic. Part of the almost secret war (to western eyes and ears at least) is related to events outside of main towns. On the other hand there is a clear sense that residents in more rural, as well as urban, areas are proving more willing to cooperate with security and police forces in the pursuit of wanted or suspected militants than was the case two years ago. For one thing, outsiders stand out, always a factor in the ability for the security apparatus to pursue wanted militants. However the deeper, more ingrained culture of religious-based opposition is a more complex challenge that still washes over with militant opposition and a willingness, at least, to conduct violence inside the kingdom.


  Patently the Saudi "war on terror" is not just a matter of security force operations, headed by the "right" personnel. King Abdullah has been at the forefront of the battle being waged by the Al-Saud for hearts and minds, beginning when, during his period as de facto leader, terror incidents were stepped up in the kingdom after the Iraq war. Admonishments to ordinary Saudis to expel those defined as un-Islamic from their midst had greater cache in the aftermath of the May 2003 residential compound attack in Riyadh, and an interior ministry office later that year in which some Saudis and foreigners seeking passport or visa renewals were killed along with a few low level employees. However the al-Saud have a credibility problem that over many years has developed into a situation where some of the kingdom's communities have been effectively complicit in the growth of militancy and in recent years have constituted the pool in which militant fish have swam. The work that has been done by Abdullah in pressing the moral case, backed up by pressure on clerics directly and through more willingness to police their ranks and his success in securing fatwas in which mainstream ulema as well as former jihadis explicitly condemn terrorism (albeit by implication only when conducted in the kingdom as opposed to Iraq), has been important. The messages that are endlessly conveyed on TV adverts, debates, newspaper articles; and in large, often ghoulish, hoardings depicting the after-affects of terror outrages have played their part too in the culture of condemnation of what until recently had seemed to seriously threaten the stability of the country.


  The bottom line though is that the causes of discontent that have developed since the first Gulf war in 1991 have revolved around an ideological radicalisation spearheaded by disaffected ulema in which the al-Saud have been judged increasingly harshly. Despite the cyclical patronage power of oil revenue windfalls, radical clerics have been able to exploit a relative economic downturn that has seen per capita GDP, although rising again in recent years, remain far below that enjoyed from the late 1970s to early 1980s. With officially admitted unemployment running at 10% among a 26 million population rising in excess of 3% a year, and the state unable to provide meaningful jobs for its burgeoning numbers of annual school or college leavers, then economic pressures are likely to continue to cause political frustrations. In this context radicals are easily able to point to corruption and the effective political complicity of the al-Saud leadership in US and UK policies which, at the popular as well as elite level, are judged to be unconscionable, whether in Iraq or Palestine. Any increased tension, and even threat of military action, against Iran would be seen qualitatively differently by the majority of Saudis to what is happening in Iraq. However it would certainly run the risk of making the UK's position in Iraq, and with more traditional Gulf Arab allies, more difficult. Given the existential dilemmas created by Saudi Shia discontent, it would certainly weaken our standing among this community as well as among the majority of Iraqis, which, given the potential for this relationship to unravel in the south, represents an unwelcome prospect.


  UK policy toward Saudi Arabia should continue to be based on the strategic significance of the kingdom and the extent to which the ruling al-Saud are able to continue to serve as an important ally to this country's interests. This is not just in terms of the "war on terror", but in some related aspects including attempts to re-energise the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP), and in the maintenance of a responsible balance of national and international commercial interest in sufficient a surplus of oil on international markets to offset excessive price pressures. After all, price pressures from geo-political factors as well as other supply issues affecting non-OPEC countries and consumer countries' refining capacity, could easily see an already historically strong oil price rocket further. All of this, however, emphasises the pivotal importance of Saudi Arabia; not as a country to simply be appeased and for a blind eye to be turned toward unacceptable practices, whether fatwas or financial transfers. Being a "critical friend" also requires the UK government to encourage realism about the further steps that may be needed for Saudi Arabia to extend its spare oil production capacity. This must not be presented in ways that arouse suspicion that Britain's economic interests are in anything other than a sufficient international oil capacity surplus over the longer term. It also requires greater UK government frankness about the political and administrative changes needed in the kingdom to enhance accountable and transparent decision-making; a direction that, if anything, appears to be being setback of late.


  Re-energising the MEPP is patently unlikely to wither violent "jihadi" fighters overnight. King Abdullah faced major risks domestically and regionally in drawing up what against Arab resistance in some quarters became known as the "Arab Peace Plan" underwritten at the Beirut Arab League summit in 2002. However, the plan's initiation, while mindful of the immediate flak coming from the US after 9-11, was done in the longer term awareness of the poisonous impact on Arab-western relations and on local regimes' ability to manage those relations that the conflict with Israel continues to present. Those who saw Abdullah's spelling out of an offer that gave expression to the long Israeli demand for the Arabs to offer the vision of a "warm peace" simply as a Saudi attempt to placate the US administration were somewhat wide of the mark. The Bush administration never took Abdullah's peace plan seriously, given the political mood in a Washington reeling from 9-11, but already thinking of the next phase after Afghanistan, and in an Israel that at the time was engaging in a military assault on Jenin. The infamous assault on the West Bank town only emphasised the risks to King Abdullah in launching the plan in the first place. At the same time the Israelis' heavy-handed response to the terrorist attacks upon them in the course of the second intifada only emphasised the need for the US and for the UK to offset criticism of their position in the Arab world with a more serious effort to give the plan some diplomatic ballast. That plan is not dead, however. In fact it has been resurrected in recent Saudi suggestions of ways in which Hamas might be eased into international acceptability, and could, should they be minded, enable Syria to play a role in the process as Damascus seeks to extricate itself from current US and European pressure.


  Anglo-Saudi relations would benefit from an easing of the kingdom's regional unease through more innovative US and UK approaches to the Iraq question and to the MEPP. These are plainly not easily done, but they also emphasise how difficult it is to look at the kingdom in isolation from the regional problems bedevilling the UK and the US, with whom our policies are closely linked. Our need to engage with Riyadh on these questions, and to offer them incentives for greater involvement over regional issues vital to both their and our security interests, cannot be separated either from their need to address fundamental problems at home. In part these are security challenges requiring more effective interception work by the Saudis, who continue to work closely with the US and the British in maintenance of effective intelligence regarding common threats in the region. However, these are also challenges requiring consistent British pressure over the pace and nature of political reforms. For the latter to be effective, attention to popular perceptions of the al-Saud which feed a climate of delegitimisation, and can thus facilitate terrorist activity, needs addressing too.

Neil Partrick

Senior Analyst

Economist Intelligence Unit

The Economist Group

March 2006

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