THE TERRORIST ATTACK on a residential complex in Riyadh last week is part of an intensifying campaign against a political order that has prevailed for decades. In this political scheme the royal family of Saudi Arabia, the Al Saud, keeps its subjects under control by mixing force and largesse in varying measure even as it allows the United States to pursue its interests in the kingdom and the region. While this particular terrorist outrage was perpetrated on a complex that mainly houses Arabs from countries other than the kingdom, the attack conveyed a political message to the Al Saud and its foreign patrons. The residential complex was apparently chosen because it was a soft target in a part of Riyadh that is otherwise well protected; several members of the royal family have mansions in the vicinity of the site and the diplomatic enclave is not very distant. No organisation admitted responsibility but the Saudi Government did not appear to be far off the mark when it claimed that the attack bore the stamp of Al-Qaeda. The perpetrators apparently shared Osama bin Laden's belief in the efficacy of indiscriminate violence and their action helped fulfil his expanded agenda. Al-Qaeda seeks not only to drive western military forces out of the Holy Land of the Muslims but also to topple a Government that invited them in. It appears to be creeping closer to its objective.

The U.S. had scaled down its military presence in the kingdom as public resentment grew and closed its diplomatic missions in apprehension of a growing terrorist threat a day or so before the attack. These measures are reversible. However, the divide that the terrorist menace has created between the Al Saud and the U.S. administration is likely to be more enduring. Most of the men involved in the attacks on September 11, 2001 were Saudi citizens. That Saudi charitable organisations were a major source of funds for terrorist outfits added to the mistrust engendered in American minds. The rift widened after the U.S. Congress discovered disturbing links between Saudi officials and those who carried out the attacks in New York and Washington. While the internal affairs of the Al Saud are shrouded in mystery, enough information has trickled out to suggest that the several thousand-strong royal family is riven by factionalism. The Princes who control the Government are under constant pressure from those branches of the royal family that have been kept out of power. A mix of personal interest and religious belief provides disgruntled royals with the incentive to support charitable organisations, which in turn sustain fundamentalism even of the terrorist variety. With its internal cohesion in question and the traditional source of external assistance becoming estranged, the Saudi royal house is fast approaching a crisis.

The Saudi royalty can no longer rely on time-tested methods to keep its subjects complacent. In other words, it cannot rule in the old way. It cannot absorb the ever growing numbers of educated youth into the public sector and it has been unable to persuade the private sector to give preference to Saudis over expatriates. A programme for political reform could have at least provided hope to Saudi youth even if it did not immediately lead to a solution of their problems. The political reforms attempted by the Al Saud can hardly be taken as serious when the proposal to hold local body polls next year is the only item on the agenda. The conditions favour anti-monarchist elements that have opted for a campaign of terror. Going by current trends and indications, the Al Saud will find the ground sinking under its feet — unless it contrives to pull off something truly extraordinary.