Feb 15, 2005

Saudi elections analysis with Wolf Blitzer

Joining us here, CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen. He witnessed the voting in Riyadh. He was there for the last week or so, just back in the United States.
What's your bottom-line assessment? Is this just window- dressing, if you will, you know, wallpaper? Or is there something really going on in Saudi Arabia that we should take note of?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, maybe it could be both. I mean,obviously these elections were pretty small. They were for municipal councils, but they're going to start in Riyadh, the ones that took place just last week, and they're going to spread across the kingdom in April and March, and they may be the thin end of the wedge. You know, Saudi officials saying that women will be allowed to vote in the next round of municipal elections four years from now. There might be provincial elections, and these things have a sort of internal logic. It's very hard to sort of say once you've had these and they're reasonably successful, there wasn't any violence, they're reasonably fair, it's very hard to sort of say, well, we can't do more of this as time goes on.

BLITZER: As we're speaking we're getting word from the Associated Press, Peter, that the U.S. is withdrawing its ambassador from Syria in the aftermath of the political assassination, as it's now being dubbed, the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri.

A significant development for those of us who watched the Middle East for many years, and I know you have, the fact that the U.S. is withdrawing its ambassador from Damascus would seem to suggest that the bush administration suspects some Syrian involvement in this bombing, the suicide bombing, or car bombing, whatever it was yesterday, that killed about a dozen people in Beirut, including the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

BERGEN: As you know, Wolf, Syria is one of seven countries the United States has said is a state sponsor of terrorism, and it's been on the list for a long time. So perhaps it's not surprising this move has happened, although this is a much more significant step, to actually remove your ambassador.

BLITZER: It would sound like perhaps the U.S. government has some information that has not yet been made public. We'll get back to that.

Let's go back to Saudi Arabia and the elections. You've written that you suspect the recent wave of terror attacks in Saudi Arabia since 9/11 has had an impact in forcing the kingdom, the royal family, to go ahead and allow this experiment with democracy, with some minor elections, as they've taken place in the past few days.

BERGEN: There's been efforts to reform the House of Saud for more than 10 years now. Intellectuals writing letters to the king, et cetera. But I think there's been 20 terrorist attacks since May of 2003, and it's really shaking the kingdom. More than 130 people have been killed. The price of oil has gone up. A lot of Westerners have left the kingdom. I think the House of Saud understood that these terrorist attacks are sort of an existential threat. So they've cracked down on the terrorist groups very hard, but I think they've also allowed a certain amount of opening up. The press is a tiny bit more free. These elections are indicative perhaps of a gradual opening. Don't want to make too much of it, but it's something.

BLITZER: It's at least a tiny little baby step. Were you just in Riyadh, or did you get out of the big city, if you will, and see any other parts of Saudi Arabia?

BERGEN: Really just in Riyadh. There was a major counterterrorism conference, was the first of its kind, that they've mounted in any election.

BLITZER: Was the security -- I was in Riyadh a couple years ago, and it was relatively minor the security. I didn't notice major roadblocks or security precautions. What's it like now to be in Riyadh?

BERGEN: Very intense, very intense, particularly during the counterterrorism conference. I mean, there was armored-personnel carriers at the hotels. We were escorted in, you know, police escort everywhere. There were Bomb barriers everywhere. It almost looks, in parts of it, like areas of Kabul or Baghdad, where you've got a lot of these blast barriers. So it's a whole different situation than it was a few years back.

BLITZER: Did you get the sense also that they were reacting, the holding of these elections in Riyadh, to what the Bush administration has been saying, the bully pulpit, if you will, that the president has been articulating, you have to move towards liberty and freedom and democracy and elections? Was that kind of leverage, do you believe, at least in part a factor in causing these elections to take place?

BERGEN: Well, the Saudis I talked to said that, that this was just stuff we're doing, the Saudi government is doing to make the Bush administration happy. It's hard to tell. I mean, I think the bottom line is that these kinds of elections were arrived at because of Saudis for their own reasons want to do this.

BLITZER: I still take it, you come back from Saudi Arabia, somewhat encouraged.

BERGEN: Yes, somewhat encouraged. It's a fascinating place. And it does seem, it was the first time for a lot of journalists, and it very hard to get in there, and there was about a couple hundred journalists from around the world covering these events. So this may be the beginning of something.

BLITZER: In the scheme of things, it may be an opening. Certainly for those who have covered Saudi Arabia for many years, it's highly unusual to allow that kind of situation to unfold.

How concerned -- did you get a sense how concerned is the royal family of some sort of revolution, or coup or a civil war erupting?

BERGEN: You know, I think that people have been predicting the fall of the House of Saud for decades, and it hasn't happened. They've had a pretty good record of being able to kind of maneuver so that they remain in business. I was at one of the election polling place, and one of the members of the royal family was voting, and he was asked, is this the beginning of a constitutional monarchy? And he said, we'll wait and see. So of course we'll wait and see has sort of been the House of Saud's attitude for quite some time.

BLITZER: We'll wait and see with you. Peter Bergen, good to have you back.