My friend and colleague Peter Bergen is headed back from Saudi Arabia’s first international terrorism conference in Riyadh.
In the sprawling desert city where Osama bin Laden was born almost half a century ago, last week the Saudis held their first international counterterrorism conference. A couple of days after the conference ended, Riyadh was the first city to vote in the only nationwide elections that have been held since the modern Saudi kingdom was founded three quarters of a century ago. Neither the conference nor the election — which was for only half of the seats on Riyadh’s municipal councils — was anything more than an incremental step along the road to an honest self-assessment about how al Qaeda was incubated within the kingdom, but both are indicative of a gradualist Saudi glasnost that may mark the beginnings of democratization and an enlarged civil society no longer amenable to the breeding of terrorists.
In his letter from Riyadh, Bergen notes that the thorniest issues of responsibility for Al Qaeda-brand terrorism were left beneath the rug, so to speak, but points to several trends which collectively may point to real change in the Saudi Kingdom.
While the House of Saud has a reputation for total inflexibility regarding social and political norms (inside the kingdom), there seems to be some triangulation under way.
I’m one who agrees with Brent Scowcroft that “one election a democracy does not make.” But I think that rejecting the potential an election may bring is also wrong-headed. The Saudis may be incrementally adjusting the climate of the ecosystem they have managed so long and which served as the breeding ground for bin Laden and his closest adherents.
They are maintaining power and control at the same time because of the general fear of chaos that Saudi elites have — and all they need to do is to point to Iraq as a manifestation of the worst fears of those inside the Kingdom.
But frankly, what gives me some hope from Peter Bergen’s letter is the complex sophistication of the Saudi Kingdom’s seeming anti-terror efforts. They seem to be addressing the need to both interdict terrorists and the need to win back the affections of citizens that bin Laden has been winning over. (I realize that “affections” may very well be the wrong word here in a politically illiberal kingdom.)
I do believe that this latter task is the hardest — and is the challenge towards which America has been recklessly underperforming.
— Steve Clemons