Less than a month ago, American engineer Paul Johnson was kidnapped in Riyadh. Barely had his beheaded corpse gone cold than Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah appeared on nationwide television, vested with the full authority of his half-brother, the ailing King Fahd. Prince Abdullah offered a limited amnesty to the al-Qaeda terrorist offenders.
"In a crisis, if the al-Saud dynasty has to choose between the West and the Islamists, it will always choose the Islamists," observers of the Kingdom have repeated for years. Here is the crisis, and the choice has been made.
The Crown Prince's appearance and his proposed deal are a sure sign of the panic that has taken hold of the enfeebled, divided House of Saud. It is also a sign of weakness, and will be read as such by the Saudi population. A self-assured regime would have done the time-honoured thing -- a few dozen executions -- and everybody would have known again who is top dog and who underdog. The object lesson is clear for all in the Middle East: The dynasty does not have what it takes to fight and win. Terrorism pays.
This is an ironic flip: Until now, some in Saudi Arabia had been paying terrorism.
In the tribal mindset of those who beheaded Mr. Johnson, any member of the enemy tribe can be killed at will. American contractor, Korean interpreter, Italian hotel manager: the Saudi jihad allows it. Infidels, heretics, schismatics, apostates. Some Saudi theologians proudly talk of "our industry of death." Saudi Arabian imams, teachers and professors, schoolbooks, radio and TV programs, have been hammering the same message for decades. The sword that decapitated Mr. Johnson was in effect wielded by the Saudi creed, Wahhabism, the so-called charities that fund al-Qaeda, and many government officials in the senior ranks of the secret service and the military.
In 1996, a car bomb killed 19 U.S. servicemen in the Khobar Towers in the oil city of Dhahran. The Saudi authorities forthwith issued strongly worded statements: The murderous acts had been committed by a tiny minority of deviants who had nothing to do with either Islam or Wahhabism. They would be hunted down and appropriately punished for their crimes.
Since then, every bombing in the kingdom is greeted by the same official rhetoric. The victims, mostly Americans, Britons, Lebanese Christians and a few lower-class Saudis, get little or no justice. Are the Saudi security forces incompetent, lax and less than efficient? Yes they are. The story, though, lies elsewhere. Westerners were slaughtered at a compound in Yanbu last May; in June, in the Persian Gulf city of Khobar, 22 people were killed at another complex housing Westerners. Security forces let slip those responsible.
Complicity is rife. The National Guard draws from the backward, xenophobic Bedouin tribes. The secret services have had an organic connection with the terrorists for a quarter of a century.
Prince Nayef, one of the Sudayri Seven (a bloc comprised of the king and his six full brothers) is Minister of the Interior. A dominant figure in Saudi affairs, he knows what's going on: "Ninety-five per cent of the terrorist acts perpetrated in the Kingdom are committed by Zionists," he recently announced.
Crown Prince Abdullah -- often depicted as a reformer in the Western media -- chimed in. So did the former head of the secret service, now ambassador to Britain, Prince Turki. So did the spokesman the Saudis show on U.S. television, Crown Prince Abdullah's adviser Adel al-Jubeir. Their repeated statements fulfill the sole function of broadcasting to al-Qaeda and all the extremists that the Saudi princes share the same enemy, and that some form of a truce could be ironed out. Prince Nayef, incidentally, had also stated that the 9/11 mass killings had been organized by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad.
Why should the regime now turn imploringly to the killers and offer a limited amnesty? The latter have keenly perceived the paralysis that wracks a divided royal family. Arabia's Islamists believe they can hit the jackpot, and grab it all: power, money, oil fields, holy places and high-tech weaponry. They are tired of power flowing through the royals' effete hands, and money through their deep pockets. Civil war is coming.
Some time ago, only a tactical difference separated the sated princes from the feverish bigot Osama bin Laden. The former have fed the beast at their peril: It now wants to devour them.
President George W. Bush has revoked the traditional American doctrine for handling the Middle East, also known as the Eisenhower doctrine: In order to protect the source of oil, protect its landlords -- dictators and despots though they are. Mr. Bush has overthrown one, and other overthrows may be pending. The pressure imposed upon the Saudi royals is enormous, as it compounds with the pressure exerted from within by masses of unemployed, embittered, angry Wahhabi youths indoctrinated by the regime.
The deal between al-Qaeda and the royals was: Go wreak havoc elsewhere, keep us out of your harm's way. The deal has fallen through. So has the double game, which had allowed one discourse to be held in English ("friends, allies, partners") and another in Arabic ("Infidels, Christian and Jewish sons of pigs and apes").
There is an informal consensus among many Saudi watchers: The regime's life expectancy does not exceed 18 to 24 months. The component parts of the Saudi empire, conquered in blood 80 years ago, are restive. The sophisticated Hijazis, the persecuted Shiites of the oil provinces, the Yemenis of the southwestern province of Asir are reviewing new options.
So should we. We should be talking to them and to any "Gorbachev" in the wings in the royal family. We should, or the killers will move first.
Laurent Murawiec, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., is the author of La Guerre d'après, to be published next January as Princes of Darkness: The Saudi Assault on the West