THE worry over Saudi Arabia is not whether the latest terrorist attack there will push the price of oil even higher but rather whether it is the beginning of a campaign that could stop completely the flow of 8 million barrels a day. There are two ways in which the terrrorists could bring this about: first, to destabilise and demoralise the already shaky government of Saudi Arabia to such an extent that it would collapse, leaving chaos in the country; second, to destabilise and demoralise the huge community of expatriate experts and workers, who keep the oil flowing, to such an extent that many would choose to leave their well-paid jobs rather than risk putting themselves and their families in further danger. These two approaches to bringing down the existing Saudi Arabian ruling class and to paralysing its single source of wealth are, of course, mutually reinforcing. They cannot be dismissed as a wild doomsday scenario.

The attempt by the Saudi government to portray its handling of the attack and hostage-taking at al-Khobar over the weekend as a success shows what an incompetent and unrealistic regime it really is. The House of Saud does not readily accept advice or help from outside beyond that needed for the oil industry; in addition, it is divided between those who believe that stronger action is necessary against the extreme Wahhabi sect and those who actually support it. As a result of all these factors the government is insulated from the reality of the threats that it faces from militant Islam and is unable to deal with them effectively when they occur. It seems likely that al-Qaeda inspired attacks will continue and grow in effectiveness in the near future.