There are few countries governed more closely by the stictures of Islam than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Ironically, as historian Joshua Teitelbaum points out in this fascinating Policy Paper, radical fundamentalists still pose the most substantial security threat to the ruling Al Sa`ud family, guardians of Islam’s two holiest shrines and the world’s largest source of oil.
Composed of both mainstream Sunni and minority Shi`i radicals, Saudi Arabia’s Islamic opposition poses a new and original threat to the Al Sa`ud by questioning the legitimacy of the family’s longstanding claim to govern according to Islamic shari`a law. Indeed, the radical fundamentalists stand poised to shake the public image of Saudi Arabia as the only Islamic country to have achieved a successful marriage between tradition and modernity.
This is not just some ideological challenge to the Saudi system of government. On the contrary, the Islamic opposition poses a real and present danger to the Saudi regime and to U.S. forces that provide a security umbrella to the Saudis and the other Gulf countries. Radical Islamists in Saudi Arabia have already left their violent mark in such bloody attacks as the 1996 al-Khobar Towers bombing against U.S. forces in Dharan and in the ongoing campaigns of the notorious Usama bin Ladin, whose arrest remains the top priority for both U.S. and Saudi law enforcement officials. Indeed, the common interests shared by America and Saudi Arabia in containing a form of religious extremism that targets both countries equally is one of the cornerstones of U.S.-Saudi relations in the first decade of the twenty-first century.