Smouldering rebellion against Saudi rule threatens to set country ablaze

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The Independent Online

The tiny city of Sakaka, the capital of Saudi Arabia's remote al-Jouf province that borders Iraq, may seem an unlikely setting for the beginning of a popular, violent revolution against the ruling Saud family. But you do not have to spend too long here to realise this is what is happening.

The tiny city of Sakaka, the capital of Saudi Arabia's remote al-Jouf province that borders Iraq, may seem an unlikely setting for the beginning of a popular, violent revolution against the ruling Saud family. But you do not have to spend too long here to realise this is what is happening.

Al-Jouf has been witness to an extraordinary level of political violence in recent months. The deputy governor, say locals, was assassinated. Also killed was the police chief and the region's top Sharia court judge. Seven men have been arrested. Saudi officials admit the attacks are linked and that the seven may have been aided by as many as 40 others.

There are new social problems in al-Jouf, of the kind starting to plague the whole of this once crime-free Islamic state. The region's archaeological sites are defaced by the graffiti of the alienated and are littered with evidence of drug abuse. The violence is political, insist locals, who say it stems from the fact that al-Jouf is the historic power base of the al-Sudairy branch of the Saudi royal family, which includes King Fahd and his six full brothers.

Known as the Sudairy Seven, they include Prince Nayef, the Interior Minister, Prince Sultan, the Defence Minister, and Prince Salman, the Riyadh Governor. The Sudairy Seven make all the important economic and political decisions.

When it comes to business and local government in al-Jouf, the Sudairy clan have ruled the roost for the seven decades since the kingdom was founded. There are clear signs of the impact of a rebellion by local merchant families and tribes who were prominent before al-Jouf was incorporated into the Saudi kingdom and the Sudairys took over.

The five streets which constitute Sakaka are deserted after dusk. Since the killings, members of the Sudairy clan have not been able to venture out of their walled villas without an armed guard. Secret police watch outsiders allowed past the permanent roadblocks on the approach roads.

The families and tribes are taking advantage of the vulnerability of a perhaps fatally weakened Saudi ruling family to reassert their territorial claims over those of the Sudairy. Locals say that the final straw was the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, when US troops took control of the airport in the nearby town of Arar, the official border crossing with Iraq.

This was deeply resented by all Saudis, but especially by al-Jouf's residents, because they have historic links to Iraqis across the border. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Saudis have sneakedinto Iraq to join the uprising against the US-led forces. The rebellion in al-Jouf shows in microcosm what is happening throughout Saudi Arabia, where there is near-universal domestic resistance to the rule of the Saud. For 70 years, the family has claimed to unify the people of the land it conquered and gave its name to. But they only did so superficially. Getting rid of the Saud is becoming a question of necessity and honour for Saudis.

A Saudi told al-Jazeera television station last year ofsuppression and growing instability in the kingdom. Abdul Aziz al-Tayyar, who was arrested minutes later, said: "All tribesmen are now willing to fight this government - we will protect the rights of our people. This is not the kingdom of Saudi Arabia any more. It is a jungle full of monsters - the Saudi people are suppressed. They suffer poverty and unemployment."

Shias, too, have revolted in the city of Najran, near Yemen, in protest at the arrest of their mosque leader on trumped-up charges of "sorcery". Persecuted Shias, who have provided the manpower to keep the oil industry alive, are damned in schools as "infidels".

Anti-Wahabi merchant families of the Hijaz, a vast area of land that is home to Mecca and Medina, are also speaking out. They have seen their culture of Islamic tolerance and diversity destroyed by the Wahabi zealots, whom the Saud used to conquer the region in the 1920s.

In the West, the fear remains that, without the Saud, the kingdom will split along regional and tribal lines, resulting in instability, or leave a vacuum that only a Taliban-style regime could fill - and control one-quarter of the world's oil reserves.

Attacks by Osama bin Laden have brought home the terrorism Saud helped to export for decades. The subsequent crackdown has put the Sudairy Seven and their repressive internal security forces in the line of fire. Al-Qa'ida leaders realise that targeting Saud is not repulsive to most ordinary Saudis.

Royal decadence and Saud's dependence for its external security on the Westhas always disgusted pious Saudis. However, the frustration among the youthful, anti-Western population now runs much deeper. It is more akin to that which led to the French Revolution: hatred of the privilege and unearned wealth of the ruling class in a period of worsening economic crisis.

John R Bradley is the author of the forthcoming book 'Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers and Puritans in the Wahhabi Kingdom'

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