On the night of May 12, 2003, four explosions targeted at Westerners rocked the Saudi capital of Riyadh. In the months following these attacks, the ruling Al Saud family has demonstrated new levels of vigilance and self-scrutiny and some recognition of the serious economic and social problems that pervade every level of Saudi society. This may be the start of a period unprecedented in Saudi history.
Addressing these social and economic troubles will be a mammoth undertaking. The Al Saud have ruled the Arabian desert for 80 years by a combination of often brutal political repression, alliances with tribal leaders and ulama (religious scholars), and control of the world's largest supply of oil. Since the so-called "Islamic Awakening" following the 1991 Gulf War, however, Islamic fundamentalism has quietly burgeoned in the country's mosques, in the private homes of prominent Saudis, in exiled communities in London and elsewhere, and (more recently) in Internet chatrooms. Inevitably, some of this renewed religious zeal has been channeled into militant opposition to the Saudi regime, which has always infuriated many Muslims for its close ties to the United States and the decidedly un-Islamic lifestyles of royal family members. Saudi rulers recognized that their state held the potential for an enormous Islamic opposition, and that May 12 was the first strike in a war that could one day topple them.
The Al Saud are survivalists, and their reaction was swift. Security forces, trained by and working closely with the United States, hunted down and killed the infamous Al Qaeda leader Swift Sword, wanted in connection with the bombings, before the month was out. In the ensuing months, nearly every week has brought reports of spectacular clashes between security forces and other Saudi Al Qaeda cells, including the very public July 2003 suicide of cell leader Turki al-Dandani when security forces surrounded him outside a mosque in Al-Jawf. In all, the Ministry of the Interior claims it has arrested over 600 militants since May 12. The government has also seized almost unfathomable amounts of explosives and munitions, suggesting that violent oppositionists had (and possibly still have) an arsenal capable of posing some threat to the Saudi defense forces. This push to restore security will continue, as the Al Saud recognize the severity of the threat to their stability.
Even more significant has been the public relations war the rulers have waged. While Saudi Arabia has suffered terrorist attacks before, attacking civilians in the land of the Two Holy Places has always been a risky proposition for anyone hoping to win the hearts and minds of average Muslims, and the May 12 attacks seem to have aroused public ire. Crown Prince Abdallah has been quick to condemn terrorism in any form and stress that Muslims as well as foreigners lost their lives in the bombings. Addressing the country one day after the attacks, Abdallah declared that "the whole Saudi nation, young and old, women and men, stand shoulder to shoulder in condemning this heinous act. …