Saudi Arabia currently has about 3,200 people in prison on terrorism charges, 17 percent of them foreigners. In addition, 342 foreign workers were deported over the last four months because they were suspected of terrorism activities. In the same time several thousand Saudis were charged with similar activities but were released after warnings.
The problem here is that the Saudi definition of terrorism includes more than the Islamic variety. The Saudis actually defeated al Qaeda five years ago, after a five year battle. Most al Qaeda survivors fled to Yemen and elsewhere. But the Saudi government kept arresting people. The Saudis claim they have arrested over 7,000 terrorist suspects since 2003. But Saudi pro-reform groups claim that it may be more than twice that. This is because Saudi Arabia is ruled by Sharia (Islamic) law, which allows the police and courts to do pretty much whatever they want. They are accountable only to God and the king.
Those arrested in the last five years are increasingly pro-democracy activists. Not criminals at all, except to royalists and Islamic conservatives (who believe democracy is un-Islamic). And to the royal family and the clerics, these reformers are terrorists. But at least the royal family realizes that their popularity is in decline and that some accommodation will have to be made, eventually. But in the meantime, democracy activists are arrested and held for months, or years, without being charged. Under Sharia law the accused have none of the protections taken for granted in the West.
All this has been done very quietly. There have been few “Arab Spring” demonstrations in Saudi Arabia. Not for want of trying, but anyone who tries to get such things going gets turned in, arrested, and disappears. Most Saudis are quiet, having been silenced by the tried-and-true “stuff their mouths with gold” technique. The Saudi royals are not stupid and they spread the oil wealth around to prove it. But many Saudis want more. They want what is forbidden, a say in how the country is run.
The royals also know how to fight and see these pro-democracy activists as just another competitor to be put down by any means necessary. The Saud family has been doing this for centuries. Al Qaeda and the Saudi government went head-to-head with each other from 2003 to 2008. The terrorists lost. After three years of terrorist violence and police operations, which left over 200 dead, there was two years of relative quiet, with al Qaeda unable to carry out any attacks. But during those two years the Saudi government kept coming after the Saudi Al Qaeda members and broke the organization in the kingdom. The survivors fled.
The al Qaeda defeat was not a sure thing. The fighting between the government and al Qaeda was triggered by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Before that, the Saudi government and al Qaeda had what amounted to a truce. Despite the events of September 11, 2001, Saudi Arabia did not tear the country apart to root out all al Qaeda supporters. The problem was that there were so many al Qaeda supporters in the country and the majority of the population supported al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. On September 11, 2001, there were spontaneous pro-terrorist demonstrations all over the country as the twin towers collapsed. American diplomats reported this to the American government. The American media played down the real mood of the Saudi population.
The Saudi government, and a significant minority of the population, realized that Islamic terrorism was a dead end and were desperately seeking a way to stem the growing popularity of the Islamic radicals. This has been a problem for centuries in Arabia but with the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Saudis feared that the anger in the Western nations could get out of control and bring down a catastrophe on Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. This fear even percolated down to most of the Saudi Islamic radicals and there developed an informal truce, where the terrorists did not launch attacks in Saudi Arabia, while the government did not press their search for al Qaeda supporters, particularly if those pro-terrorist Saudis were discreet and not too open in their activities. But this meant that al Qaeda fund raisers still quietly circulated and took care of business. Pro-terrorist preachers continued to exhort Moslems to support the violence. Islamic terror groups could still recruit young Saudis for overseas adventures.
Then the U.S. went into Iraq. This was too much for the Islamic radicals in Saudi Arabia. The truce was tossed aside and al Qaeda began carrying out attacks. The Islamic terrorists misjudged the resources of the government and the depth of public support for Islamic violence. The al Qaeda attacks turned public opinion against the terrorists and the police proved capable of using this shift to obtain tips and chase down the active terrorists. The government went even further than that over the next three years. Needed personnel changes were made in the government, especially in the security forces, replacing "family favorites" with more competent officials. Because Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, members of the large royal family are favored for key jobs. That custom was suspended for a while.
The government had other resources that the terrorists underestimated. Since Islam is the state religion, the government closely supervises the vast clerical bureaucracy. The king and his key aides spend a lot of time maintaining close personal relationships with key clerics. When the king called on the clergy to preach against Islamic terrorism, most complied. And those who did not were coerced to comply, remain silent, or retire. The clergy were also recognizing the shift in public opinion. Basically, a lot of Saudis were okay with Islamic terrorism as long as it happened somewhere else. But when the bombs began going off nearby, attitudes changed.
Still, it took three years for al Qaeda to be shut down in the kingdom and then energetic counter-terror operations continued for two more years, with police arresting hundreds of al Qaeda fans each year. The Saudi counter-terror effort has also benefitted from the thousands of young Saudis who went off to Iraq to join the fight and get killed or come back disillusioned. Very few came back as "hardened terrorists." Despite all this, Islamic terrorism remains popular among many young Saudis. They have to operate covertly, otherwise they will get arrested and sent off to a rehabilitation facility (endless hours of lectures from anti-terrorism clerics and interminable discussions with counselors until there is convincing evidence of a change in attitude). The rehabilitation often works but it fails frequently enough to maintain the population of potential terrorists.
The police, and particularly the intelligence specialists, have changed their methods greatly in the last seven years. The cops are quicker and more effective when they have to carry out raids. The intel people have developed elaborate informant networks, as well as Internet monitoring systems. Many Saudis fear that these new capabilities will make it even more difficult to introduce reforms in the kingdom. It's a lot harder now to do anything the government does not approve up. Meanwhile, five years of few terror attacks has allowed pro-terrorism attitudes to return. Many Saudis still approve of Islamic radicals killing "infidels" (non-Moslems) and don't care if al Qaeda is doing it. What remains unpopular is Islamic radicals attacking fellow Moslems. Al Qaeda tries to justify this by asserting that any Moslem that does not agree with them is actually not a Moslem (and is thus an infidel). Many Moslems disagree with this logic but not so much in Saudi Arabia. So while al Qaeda may be down in Saudi Arabia, it is not out. In the meantime, the pro-democracy “terrorists” are becoming the main target of government police.