Saudi Arabia's Revolutionary Triage

The al-Sauds will do whatever it takes to stop the Arab Spring. Their newest—and most unconventional—attempt.

The house of Saud is pulling out all the stops to strengthen its legitimacy as the tsunami of revolution sweeps Arabia. As the self-proclaimed "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" in Mecca, protecting and developing the Grand Mosque is a way of underscoring the royal family's God-given right to rule. But trouble is closing in all around the royals.

This summer King Abdullah dedicated the new Royal Clock Tower in Mecca. The world’s second-tallest building (behind Dubai), it measures over six hundred meters and can be seen from all parts of the city. Bigger than Big Ben, it’s a symbol of Saudi power for every hajji making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques also announced plans to expand the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Currently it can hold 800,000 worshipers; when completed, the new expansion will allow 2 million people to worship at one time. Some 10,000 workers are now engaged round-the-clock in the largest expansion project in the mosque’s history by far.

Saudi sources suggest the new project is in part yet another response by the family to the Arab Spring. While planning began years ago, the king is eager to highlight and publicize the al-Sauds’ piety as other Arab leaders topple. Ever since its origins in the eighteenth century, the kingdom has cultivated its Islamic roots and its connection to militant Wahhabi Islam.

As the king reaffirms Saudi Islamic credentials, his brother Interior Minister Prince Nayef gave a recent interview describing the kingdom as surrounded on all sides by enemies. Without giving any details, Nayef said the country remains at high risk from al-Qaeda. The interior minister is the voice of the kingdom’s hard-liners, who see only peril and folly in reform and the Arab awakening. He quashed the Manama uprising last March in tiny Bahrain.

And the family's biggest headache won't go away: Yemen, which is boiling this summer. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been recovering in Saudi hospitals from wounds suffered in an assassination attempt last spring, refuses to give up power and threatens to return home. His son commands those troops remaining loyal to the regime in Sanaa and is preparing for full-scale civil war. The opposition is arming just as furiously. Saudi Arabia has invested billions in trying to rent Yemeni politicians for decades, but it now seems powerless to stop the slide into chaos. Saleh is oblivious to Saudi calls for peaceful change. No wonder building towers and mosques seems so much simpler.