Middle East

Saudi Arabia: Lines in the Sand

George Ziyad, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 5, 2003

A sandstorm blows through Riyadh
Coming storm: Children cover their mouths as a sandstorm blows through Riyadh, March 26, 2003 (Photo: Bilal Qabalan/AFP).
The United States’ announcement that it was pulling troops out of Saudi Arabia wasn’t enough to stop nine bombers from launching devastating suicide attacks in the capital Riyadh on May 12. The United States’ departure and the blasts have raised the stakes in a domestic battle for the future of the conservative Gulf state, the birthplace of Islam, which has the world’s most fundamentalist Islamic government and its largest supply of oil.

The coordinated attacks against three foreign residential compounds in Riyadh killed 34 people, including eight Americans, seven Saudis, and the bombers. Two weeks earlier, Washington announced it would be pulling most of its 5,000 troops out of the kingdom. The departure of Western troops may have been one of Al-Qaeda’s key demands, but it seems that the war in Iraq has kept resentment against the West simmering. In an audio tape aired on Qatar’s Al-Jazeera satellite TV station on May 21, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the lieutenant of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, urged Muslims to strike at Western embassies and commercial interests.

The Saudis, fearing backlash from radicals at home, were on heightened alert during the Iraq war. The kingdom has seen a rash of terrorism in recent months. In February, a British worker was shot at a traffic light in Riyadh. And on May 1—only two days after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that all but 400 American troops based in Saudi Arabia since 1990 would leave by the summer—an American worker at a Saudi naval base was wounded in another shooting. He died of his injuries on June 2. After the Riyadh bombings, Saudi security sources said three Moroccans had been arrested just before boarding a plane in Jidda, possibly with the intention of staging a hijacking similar to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Deep rifts are forming in Saudi society as theocratic hardliners and liberals vie for influence with the Saudi royal family. Three groups now compete for ascendancy: the powerful religious establishment, a liberal reform lobby, and radicals who back Al-Qaeda.

Clerics are caught in a dilemma: Their natural inclination is to support the pan-Islamic ideology of Bin Laden’s followers, but they fear that could damage their standing in the long term by giving the liberals the leverage they need to pressure the Saudi royals to curtail clerical power. Instead, the clerics seem resigned to sticking with the house of Saud and doing their best to limit whatever reforms the royals eventually have to make.

The royal family itself seems split. Liberals are placing great store on the kingdom’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Abdullah. But the interior minister, Prince Nayef, is commonly identified with the conservatives, who succeeded in getting prominent journalist and political analyst Jamal Khashoggi removed as editor of Al-Watan newspaper on May 27. The paper had attacked the clerics and the religious police squad, the Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Forbidding Vice, sensing an opportunity in the kingdom’s anxiousness to appease anti-Saudi voices in Washington. 

Prince Nayaf's treatment of the reformist press suggests the conservatives within the government are perhaps not as anxious as the reformers had hoped. At a press conference in mid-May, Prince Nayef lashed out at a Saudi journalist who asked him if the government would consider dismantling the morality police. “I don’t know how any Saudi national could ask such a question,” the interior minister angrily responded.

Many ordinary Saudis feel that the power of the clerics has become overbearing over the last two decades and fear that the religious conservatives will be emboldened by their success in getting U.S. troops off Saudi soil. Nayef’s recent treatment of the reformist Saudi press has confirmed their fears.

“I'm happy the troops are going, but the fundamentalists will exploit their absence to grow in strength and control the people and their freedom,” one Riyadh shop owner said.

Saudi public life is dominated by the central alliance between the Saud family and the religious scholars, who are given a wide berth to impose the austere Wahhabi brand of Islam on society, via broad access to state television, control of the education system, and a religious police squad that enforces dress codes and gender segregation on the streets.

Following the Riyadh bomb blasts, liberal commentators within Saudi Arabia and columnists from abroad criticized the Saudi religious establishment for feeding the ideology that makes terrorism possible, a charge the clerics deny. Speaking on Dubai’s Al-Arabiya satellite TV station, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, retorted: “It’s not possible to imagine that what happened is [because of] shortcomings among clerics, preachers, and religious people,” he told Al-Arabiya viewers. “The Islamic establishment was not negligent, thank God, and has not been going too far in raising religious awareness in society.” He went on to say there was no need to dismantle the Saudi religious police force and played down calls for reforms, including elections and women’s participation in political life. A statement issued in Riyadh by a prominent group of religious scholars had condemned the attacks but said “extremist writers” were using the blasts to attack the religious establishment, including Islamic schools.

Mohsen al-Awajy, an Islamic scholar who has spent years in prison for his support of democratic reforms, is among the Saudis calling for Abdullah to follow in the footsteps of the late King Faisal, who introduced public education for women in the 1970s. Abdullah is still considering a reform petition signed by 104 prominent Saudis in January that calls for parliamentary elections. The members of the Saudi Parliament are currently appointed by the ailing King Fahd, the crown prince’s older brother. The petition also calls for giving women the right to vote and greater equality among different regional groups. Those hailing from the tribal Nejd area around Riyadh, where the Saud family is based, dominate the national agenda, the senior and middle-ranking government offices, and the core of the religious establishment. Reformers like Al-Awajy and Khashoggi are calling for an end to royal corruption and profligate spending no longer justified by the country’s deteriorating economic situation, as well as the curtailment of royal power in favor of democratic institutions.

Liberals and reformers were also disappointed by a Cabinet reshuffle in late April. They had hoped the government would be overhauled and modernized, and that new faces and younger ministers would be introduced. Instead, they got a routine change in which only five ministers were replaced. All five Saudi royals in the Cabinet—the only ministers with any real power—stayed put. All this in the same week that fellow Gulf Arabs in Yemen voted in landmark elections and Qataris voted in a new constitution.

“We definitely wanted more. People were anticipating a change in personnel and policy as a grand step toward political participation, like what’s happening in neighboring countries,” said one prominent business figure from Jidda.

Many had been hoping to see new ministers of finance, education, and information. Though all three ministries were revamped—culture was added to the information portfolio and the finance minister’s portfolio was streamlined by farming parts of it out to the other ministries—the names stayed the same. The large Shiite minority in the east of the country was particularly disappointed, as there had been some speculation that a Shiite minister might be appointed for the first time in the country’s history. A Shiite information minister might have helped lessen discrimination against the Shiites. The Saudi education system calls Shiites infidels, Shiites are banned from building new mosques, and they have no access to the state media.

But diplomats stationed in Saudi Arabia say pushing the Saudis to reform too quickly may not be the best course. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one senior Western diplomat cautioned, “This is a very complex society: It’s not as monolithic as many people think. The Saudi royals have a lot of things they have to take into consideration when they set policy and think about how to move ahead.”

Restless marginalized groups such as the Hejazis in the west and the Shiites in the east are knocking on the door of a system dominated for decades by the Bedouin tribes in the central Riyadh area, with whom they have little in common. The royals must navigate the often conflicting demands in a society of 24 million, of whom 6 million are foreign expatriates, and more than 50 percent are under the age of 20.

Not so long ago things were more relaxed in the country, raising hopes that change might be around the corner. Saad, a young athlete from the Red Sea coast city of Jidda, remembers mixed wedding parties in his hometown, where foreigners and Saudis could even swim freely in unpublicized, small beach resorts. Asked about the prospects for democratic reform in Saudi Arabia, he responds, “Things will change, but how and when, I don’t know.”

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