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Authored by Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur. | March 2005
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States have been allies for more than half a century. In the wake of the terrible events of September 11, 2001, and in the midst of a Saudi battle against a wave of Islamist terrorism on their own soil, the two nations are drawing apart. This monograph questions this unfortunate advent in the context of Islamist challenges and the growth of forces for reform in the Kingdom. The Saudi government has been strongly criticized for setting too narrow an agenda and too slow a pace for change. External sources also debate the efficacy of measures taken to control Islamic terror cells, in particular those associated with al-Qa?ida on the Arabian Peninsula (QAP), and to rein in those who provide ideological support to extremism. Sources internal to Saudi Arabia argue that, as their entire state structure and society is founded on religious principles, they must move cautiously.
As similar battles against Islamist extremists are being waged in Iraq today, it seems clear that the future of U.S.-Saudi relations is contingent on a redefinition of the two countries? interests. Both have high stakes in the future of the war on terror in the region. American policymakers and military leadership urgently need to comprehend clearly the nature and interests of the ?Islamic threat? in Saudi Arabia, as well as other broadly defined arguments swirling around the war on terror. Some have accused the Kingdom of gross sponsorship of terrorism. Yet they should distinguish the sectarian origins of Wahhabism from the new Islamic and Islamist discourses emerging in that country.
As the U.S. policy for the global war on terror recommends the ?forwarding of freedom? and prevention of ?failed states,? Saudi Arabia?s reform movement has assumed new importance as well. U.S. policymakers should determine future courses of action in light of the various pitfalls inherent in bolstering authoritarianism, empowering reform, treating the Kingdom as an essentially unwelcome ex-ally, or abandoning it in the event of a serious challenge. The future of security in Saudi Arabia is related to the future of political, educational, administrative, and social reforms. Current U.S. strategy calls for the attainment of both aims.
Principal recommendations for U.S. policymakers include: