Starting with the first terrorist attack just over a year ago, Saudi Arabia has witnessed about one major violent incident a month.
This pattern has culminated with four incidents this month, including this weekend's deadly attack on a residential complex in Khobar. Although mostly directed against foreigners, and so the country's economic infrastructure, the attacks reflect a deep divide within Saudi society that has implications which go far beyond this.
The issues involved concern religious, political and economic orientation, and they continue a conflict that began nearly a century ago.
The Saudi kingdom took shape in about 1750 when Muhammad al-Saud, a tribal leader, formed an alliance with Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, a religious leader. Saud bestowed his name on the kingdom that (excepting two brief periods) survives to this day; al-Wahhab's name defines the Islamic interpretation that remains the kingdom's ideology.
When it first appeared, Wahhabism was seen by other Muslims as extremist and made little headway beyond its central Arabian birthplace. Its rejection of the Islamic identity of non-Wahhabi Muslims, combined with its hardline opposition to traditional Muslim ways, made Wahhabism unacceptable to the powers in the Middle East, especially the Ottoman Empire. The widespread hostility to Saudi intolerance explains why it collapsed twice.
Bernard Lewis offers an American analogy that helps envision the Saudi position among Muslims: "Imagine that the Ku Klux Klan gets total control of the state of Texas. And the Ku Klux Klan has at its disposal all the oil rigs in Texas. And they use this money to set up a well-endowed network of colleges and schools throughout Christendom, peddling their peculiar brand of Christianity. You would then have an approximate equivalent of what has happened in the modern Muslim world."
The third Saudi kingdom was founded in 1902, when Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud captured the town of Riyadh. A decade later, Abdul-Aziz formed an armed force called the Ikhwan (Arabic for brethren) which became the spearhead of the Wahhabi movement, armed, confrontational and fanatical. It was known for a war cry that summed up its outlook: "The winds of paradise are blowing. Where are you who hanker after paradise?"
The Ikhwan won most of its battles, expanding Saudi rule and Wahhabi practices. Its greatest victory came in 1924, when it captured Mecca from the Hashemite dynasty that had controlled the city for centuries (and continues to rule Jordan). This victory by Abdul-Aziz transformed his situation in two ways. By bringing the final Arabian competitor under Saudi control, it established the Saudis as the unrivalled power in its region. And by bringing the leading city of Islam and the peninsula's main urban area under Saudi jurisdiction, it created new stresses for Wahhabism.
The simple verities of previous decades were now challenged. Saudis had to develop more sophisticated diplomatic relations with outside powers while having to accede to the relatively liberal atmosphere prevalent in Mecca. Abdul-Aziz soon realised he had to control the Ikhwan and the wilder features of Wahhabism. As he cracked down on the Ikhwan in the years after his conquest of Mecca, it revolted, leading to a civil war that lasted until Abdul-Aziz defeated his renegade forces in 1930.
Seen in today's terms, the Ikhwan resembled the Taliban in their greater purity and extremism and Abdul-Aziz resembled his sons who continue to rule the less pure kingdom he founded. His victory in 1930 meant that a milder version of Wahhabism defeated the more fanatical version. If the Saudi monarchy has always been more rigorously Islamic than its neighbours, it has also been lax by the earlier standards of the Wahhabi doctrine.
True, the monarchy claims the Koran as its constitution, prohibits any non-Islamic religious practices, sponsors the notorious Mutawwa religious police, and orders a strict separation of the sexes. But this is mild compared to the Ikhwan version, for the monarchy does promulgate non-Koranic laws, it tacitly permits non-Islamic worship, limits the writ of the Mutawwa, and permits women to leave the house.
The Ikhwan approach to Islam did not die in 1930, however. It retreated and maintained a hold over rearguard elements. As the Saudi monarchy blossomed in the oil age into an ever more inflated and hypocritical institution, the appeal of the Ikhwan message gained ground. This purist appeal first reached world attention in 1979, when an Ikhwan-like group of youths overtook the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held it for two weeks. The same Ikhwan-like approach emerged in Saudi-sponsored Mujaheddin efforts to push the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in 1979-89. The Taliban regime embodied this approach during its five years in power, until the US-led war brought it down in 2001.
Among Saudis today, the Ikhwan approach has many prominent spokesmen, including leading sheikhs and, of course, Osama bin Laden. A Saudi national who spent his formative years fighting with the Afghan Mujaheddin, bin Laden has no patience with the Saudi monarchy, which he sees as crooked financially and dominated by the US politically. In its place he seeks to build an Ikhwan-like government that would impose more rigorously Islamic virtues and adopt a stalwart Islamic foreign policy.
From all indications, this outlook has wide appeal in Saudi Arabia; it certainly has more support than the liberal approach Westerners would prefer to see succeed.
In light of this history, the spate of violence during the past year points to a profound Saudi dispute in which the winner takes all, just as in the ‘20s. Who prevails decides whether Saudi Arabia remains a monarchy that to some extent bends to the imperatives of modern life, or becomes an Islamic emirate reminiscent of the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan.
For Western states, the choice is an unhappy one, between the Saudi monarchy with all its faults and the still worse Ikhwan alternative. The policy options are thus limited to helping the monarchy defeat the even more radical threat while pressuring it to make improvements in a range of areas, from financial corruption to funding militant Islamic organisations worldwide.