31 May 2004
The assault on the luxurious Oasis compound at Khobar, which ended in such bloodshed yesterday, will only deepen the sense of foreboding in the West about the risks to foreigners in Saudi Arabia, about the stability of the Gulf region and about oil supplies. Which, of course, is precisely what the militants who stormed the compound and took and killed only non-Muslim hostages, aimed to achieve.
The chilling message subsequently put out in their name spoke of "slaughter" and said the struggle with America would be pursued "in the Arabian peninsula, in Afghanistan, in Iraq" and that the battle with the Saudi regime would continue until the "crusaders" had been expelled from the land of Islam. Opinions may diverge on whether the attackers belonged to al-Qa'ida or some other group. There may be differences, too, about the directness of any link between the conflict in Iraq and the growing frequency of attacks on Westerners in Saudi Arabia. But a link there assuredly is.
The continuing war in Iraq has done more than anything in recent years to intensify hatred of the West and all it stands for in many parts of the Arab world. The pictures showing the mistreatment of Muslim prisoners by US soldiers inflamed passions still further. There is a burning indignation now against Americans and Westerners in general that will mark the region for generations.
In Saudi Arabia, the US engagement in Iraq and the brutal and incompetent way in which it is perceived to have been conducted, reinforces the view among those of an already anti-Western disposition that their leaders have sold out to the infidel. Any hopes Washington might have had that the closure of its bases in Saudi Arabia would calm anti-American feeling have been disappointed. The call is no longer for US troops to leave, but for Westerners in general to leave, and not just Saudi Arabia, but the whole Muslim world.
In failing to stop at ousting the Taliban and liberating Afghanistan, the United States is now reaping the whirlwind across the whole region. Among the many justifications for the war presented in Washington, and to a lesser extent in London, was the heady ambition to create a swath of new democracies across the Arab world. What is happening is exactly the opposite of what the ousting of Saddam Hussein was supposed to achieve.
The grand plan was for Iraq to shine as a beacon of freedom and democracy, guiding its neighbours into an enlightened 21st century. The vision was for Western-style political reforms, for smooth transitions to accountable government, for peaceful co-existence with Israel and - not least - stable oil supplies to a thirsty West at lower prices. If there is the slightest prospect of such a happy outcome, in even Iraq alone, it is very far off.
Yesterday, as after previous anti-Western attacks, the Saudi authorities were at pains to stress that their country was a predominantly tranquil place, that the regime was not threatened and, especially, that oil production was safe, would remain safe, and would continue at the same pace as before. As if to underline its reliability as the world's largest producer, Riyadh recently broke with the Opec cartel to meet US requests for an increase in production, even though other producers had declined.
The reality is, though, that Saudi Arabia's rulers have no choice but to steel themselves for more attacks, dispatch the commandos - as they did yesterday to great effect - and pledge still tighter security. But security by itself threatens increasingly not to be the central issue. One reason why foreigners' compounds are now being targeted is that the protection for the oil infrastructure has been so effective. And even if the compounds are fortified still further, it will still be hard to prevent armed attacks on individual foreigners or groups. More and more the issue is confidence: of expatriate workers and their families, of foreign companies with staff in Saudi Arabia, and above all of the markets. With every new Khobar, that confidence seeps away.