Like Dallas policed by the Taliban

It is the place where God and mammon meet, the Arab

state where fabulous wealth and western values vie for

power with Islam. But, in the face of increasing

anti-Americanism and the war on terror, how long can

Saudi Arabia remain stable? Edward Pilkington visits

the kingdom that rarely opens its doors to journalists

Tuesday July 2, 2002

The Guardian 

Saudi Arabians have a colloquial name for the people

of Buraydah. They call them mutawwa. A respectful

translation is "deeply devout Muslims". The phrase is

formally applied to the religious police who enforce

the kingdom's strict moral code. A less flattering

interpretation, given privately by westernised

liberals and expats, is "fanatics". 

Buraydah sits at the very heart of the Saudi kingdom,

an oasis surrounded by nothing but desert for hundreds

of miles in all directions. The terrain is harsh,

pounded by a sun that will push the temperature to an

extreme 50 degrees within the next few weeks. The

residents - Bedouins whose lives only 50 years ago

were entirely dependent on the camel - hold views that

match the fierce terrain. For decades the town

resisted the introduction of the radio and telegraph

as un-Islamic. When the Saudi royal family began

educating girls for the first time in the early 1960s,

they protested so forcefully that the army was brought


Now there is a new focus for their sun-baked

resistance. We are sitting in the shade of a date palm

on a farm that lies on the edge of the desert. The sun

is beginning to fall, taking the edge off the searing

heat. A group of six prominent local religious men are

growing animated as they sip sweet mint tea and coffee

suffused with cardamom. 

"This is the centre of Saudi Arabia," the owner of the

farm declares. (Like the others, he requests anonymity

- though the regime is very slowly relaxing

censorship, an ill-considered comment can still invite

a late-night visit from the ministry of the interior.)

"It is pure here. There is no mixing with other


A quietly spoken, bookish man who leads prayers at his

local mosque says they have nothing against the west.

But nor will they let their religion be infected by

western materialism. "We allow all sorts of winds to

come to us, but we don't let them blow us into the

air. Mixing is one reason why people stray from

righteousness. It is our duty to make sure that we

bring our religion back to purity." 

It is their duty, too, to protect their fellow Muslims

wherever they are threatened. The group is angry now.

Voices are raised. Fists clenched. They have a new


"Bush is the puppet of Israel, and he is killing our

brothers," a teacher says. "We want a jihad to save

our brothers in Palestine." 

The conversation turns to September 11. "Who shall

bear the blame for what happened on that day? America.

Suppose you put a cat or a dog into a room and beat it

over and over again. What would happen? It would bite

you. That is what happened on September 11: the dog

bit back." 

I ask the farmer, was the attack good or bad? "When I

see what America has done all over the world since the

attack happened, yes, I start to think this was a good

thing." The teacher butts in: "Osama bin Laden. Now he

is a hero, for all the oppressed, all over the world."

September 11 came as a great shock to the Saudi

kingdom. A country that prided itself on its unique

blend of deep religious conviction and western-style

development suddenly appeared to have a problem. Not

only were 15 of the 19 hijackers Saudis (and Bin Laden

himself Saudi-born), but many of their convictions

were based on precisely those austere fundamentalist

Islamist views of purity and jihad that are so

staunchly adhered to in Buraydah and which have formed

an essential part of the Saudi state since its


Saudis are still largely in denial about the events of

that terrible day, as a rare tour of the country known

for its secrecy and usually closed to foreign

journalists, has shown. From all parts of the country,

and at all social levels, there is a refusal to accept

any real responsibility. "You cannot judge 12 million

people by the behaviour of 15"; "Bin Laden chose the

15 as a ruse to discredit the royal family"; "How come

there were no Jews in the twin towers - did Mossad do

it?" people said. 

But the question of why Saudis were so central to the

attack will not go away. Last week the Saudis revealed

they had captured 13 men linked to al-Qaida who were

believed to be planning attacks on US installations.

There were reports of missiles and launchers being

found near the main US military base at al-Kharj. A

few days before that three Saudi men, suspected of

being a "sleeping" al-Qaida cell who were planning

attacks on on British and US ships, were arrested in


There have been 10 successful or attempted bomb

attacks against British and other western expats in

Saudi Arabia in the past 18 months. Five Britons are

in jail facing sentences ranging from 18 years to

execution for the bombings, which the Saudi

authorities blame on a mafia war between illegal

British drinking gangs. But the latest killing of a

Briton, 10 days ago, combined with a bomb planted in a

US couple's car on Saturday, has prompted new fears

that Saudi insurgents lie behind the attacks. 

If all that should give intelligence chiefs in

Washington and London food for thought, there is more.

Hatred of America as a result of its support for

Israel has reached such a pitch that liberal

commentators fear the country is being destabilised

and that a whole new generation of potential bombers

is being spawned. 

At the centre of this heady swirl is the austere

strain of Islam that characterises the Saudi state and

which the people of Buraydah best personify. It is the

original Islamist fundamentalism, created in the 18th

century by a Saudi priest called Sheikh Mohammed bin

Abdul Wahhab, who believed that the faith had strayed

from the pure path. 

Wahhabism, as it is known in the west (Saudis do not

recognise the term - they use Salifism), has been

umbilically connected to the Saudi state from its

inception. Sheikh Mohammed's daughter married one of

the founding fathers of the royal house of Saud and

the Al Sheikh and Al Saud families have since

frequently interbred. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was

united in 1932, largely through the military might of

the holy warriors of Wahhabism. 

In return for their support, the first king, Ibn Saud,

entered a pact with the Wahhabi clerics, a covenant

under which the imams would be left in charge of all

personal morality, law and culture, while the royal

family would have a free hand in running the

government, economy and foreign policy. When oil came

six years later, and with it fabulous wealth, the

royal house of Saud forged ahead with a development

programme of breathtaking daring, converting villages

into modern cities, desert paths into motorways,

camels into Cadillacs (gold ones in the case of the


The infrastructure of the country was transformed

beyond recognition in just half a century. Yet, under

the covenant, the mindset of the Saudis - the preserve

of the religious men - remained embedded in the stony

desert austerity of Wahhabism. 

The result is a country of astonishing contrasts.

Riyadh is a hyper-modern city with ancient social

customs. It is Dallas, Texas, policed by the Taliban.

Women entirely shrouded in black abayas , with even

their eyes covered, go shopping at a Harvey Nichols

inside a Norman Foster building. Men pour into the

mosque under an enormous neon sign advertising Sony,

as if they were entering an electrical goods sale

rather than a place of worship. McDonald's is

seemingly on every street corner, and yet it closes

its doors five times a day for prayers - making Saudi

Arabia unique as a country where the most powerful

franchise on earth bends its knees in front of an even

stronger brand: Allah. 

Staggering contradictions run deeply through the

kingdom's relations with the outside world too. There

is only one power that matters for Saudi, and that is

the US. It was America that backed the country's

initial oil explorations, and it is America that still

bankrolls the economy with $100bn a year in oil

revenues. In return, the house of Saud sends its sons

and daughters to American universities to learn

western ways. Saudi has spent $45bn on US fighter jets

and other military equipment, and tolerates the

presence of 5,000 US troops stationed here since the

Gulf war. This is more than a marriage of convenience.

It is love. 

And yet ask an average Saudi to define where the

kingdom sits globally and he will say that it is the

centre of the Muslim world. For much of the past 20

years Afghanistan, not America, has been the focus for

the mutawwa of Buraydah and their countrymen. The

state actively encouraged about 10,000 young Saudis to

go to Afghanistan during the 1980s and 90s to fight

the Soviet invasion in the name of jihad and purity.

They were led by Bin Laden, a man seeped in the

teachings of Wahhabism, who then enjoyed official

favour. Among them were 15 young Saudis - many from

good middle-class families, most of whom had been

through religious training at one of the 60 Saudi

schools and colleges dedicated to Islamist teaching -

who went on to become the September 11 hijackers. 

There was no perceived problem with this at the time.

As an Islamist state, it was the duty of the kingdom

to fight the kafir or infidel wherever he threatened

Muslim brothers - in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan.

But then September 11 came along, and the chickens

came home to roost. 

It is 4.30am in al the Nahda district of Jeddah,

Saudi's second-largest city, and about 200 men are

shuffling into the mosque for dawn prayers spluttering

and hawking as they come. A fundamentalist Salafi

cleric called Sheikh Adnan Zhrani, begins to call in a

fine baritone voice. He is a huge bear of a man, so

rotund that when he gets on his knees and prostrates

himself to Allah it marks a considerable physical

achievement. "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar," (God is

great God is great), he chants, the sweet sing-song

words floating from loudspeakers on the minaret across

the neighbourhood. 

After prayers, he takes me to his small dishevelled

office, which has a pile of old clothes in the corner

awaiting shipment to the Palestinian occupied

territories. Like everyone else in the kingdom - from

prince to pauper - Sheikh Adnan is angry with America.

"A child is not born aggressive. But if you give him

something and tell him it is his, then snatch it away

from him, he will react. That is natural." 

America is the world's only superpower, he goes on to

say, so it should behave towards other countries as

father to child, not master to slave. It is guilty of

double standards - supporting the strong (Israel)

against the weak (Palestinians). 

Sheikh Adnan has publicly spoken out against the

September 11 attacks, and he continues to argue for

peace. But he says that he is losing the argument. "If

you ask me, 'Does the man in the street side with Bin

Laden?' the answer is absolutely, yes. Today, if you

criticise Bin Laden people will look at you as if you

are mad. They think Bin Laden is good." 

Could another attack happen? "Bin Laden's network has

been smashed, so it is no longer so easy. But if the

organisation existed and people had the power to

attack then yes, they would." 

There is chilling confirmation from outside the

mosque. It is 5am now and the men of prayer are

shuffling away into the gloom, still spluttering and

hawking. An older man with a salt-and-pepper beard who

spent two years in England ("I loved the Guardian, it

was my paper") gives an insight into what Sheikh Adnan

calls the views of the man on the street. "For 20

years America has been sucking the blood of the

Muslims. I respect the American people, but not the

government. It is under the power of the Jews." 

He claims to have known two of the hijackers. So what

does he think of Bin Laden? "He is a great man. I am

glad about what he did to demolish America. We now

know that America is the first enemy of the Muslims." 

Rhetoric, certainly. Bravado, probably. But it is

repeated so many times and in so many places that

there is no dismissing it. And it is set against

worrying economic and demographic statistics that can

only heighten the sense of alarm. On the one hand are

stagnant oil prices, which make up 75% of Saudi's

income, on the other hand a massive population

explosion, among the fastest in the world. More than

half of the population of 15 million Saudis

(discounting an additional 5 million expats) is now

younger than 20. 

The combination produces an unemployment rate of 30%

among men (95% for women because of the Wahhabi

injunction against women in the workplace). Every

year, 400,000 more young men graduate into immediate

joblessness. Add to that the prevailing fundamentalist

religious climate and a white-hot wave of anger

towards America over Palestine, and you have a

cocktail that is lively, perhaps even explosive. 

Dr Khalil al Khalil, a lecturer at Riyadh's main

Islamic university, teaches 600 students a year and

estimates that more than half are pro-Bin Laden. "We

want our young people to be the raw material for a

better future. But if they are left with no guidance,

with no positive way forward, then yes, they will be

the raw material for violence." 

Dr Khalil despairs at the Bush adand he continues to argue for

peace. But he says that he is losing the argument. "If

you ask me, 'Does the man in the street side with Bin

Laden?' the answer is absolutely, yes. Today, if you

criticise Bin Laden people will look at you as if you

are mad. They think Bin Laden is good." 

Could another attack happen? "Bin Laden's network has

been smashed, so newspapers are daily filled with graphic

descriptions of Palestinian deaths and of the

American-made Apache helicopters and tanks that caused

them. The reverberations are being felt at every

level. Big Saudi investors are threatening to pull

their money out of the US and redirect it to China. A

consumer boycott of US businesses has spread

throughout the country, hitting outlets such as

Starbucks and McDonald's. 

The boycott is playing itself out in curious ways. A

young man dressed in jeans and T-shirt in an internet

cafe in a relatively cosmopolitan part of Jeddah told

me that he had just bought a new car. He had wanted a

Chevrolet but at the last minute switched to a

Mercedes because of the boycott. That one purchase

will not cause Chevrolet executives any loss of sleep.

But if America is serious in its struggle to protect

itself from further attacks, then the hatred of this

most westernised of Saudi youths should give someone

in the beltway some pause. 

It is one of the great ironies of the war on terrorism

that in trying to hold at bay this tide of Saudi anger

against the US, the Bush administration is having to

rely on one of the world's most feudal political

systems. The house of Al Saud rules the kingdom as a

family fiefdom. It is monarchy as we knew it pre-1688,

except that power is not passed from father to son but

from brother to brother. And there are plenty of them.

No one knows the exact figure, but there are thought

to be about 7,000 princes in this most archaic of


It is a regime famed, since the advent of oil money,

for its ostentatious wealth and corruption. Saudis

rarely talk with disrespect about the princes, but

just occasionally someone will open up and reveal

their deep resentment. A retired schoolteacher took me

for a ride through the outskirts of Jeddah. He drove

through a huge swath of derelict land. He explained

that it had been grabbed by a group of princes for

their own profit - they were selling it off plot by

plot for homes at prices most families could scarcely

afford. Further on we drove past a succession of

walled palaces. The teacher's commentary grew

progressively more bitter. 

At the top of this princely heap sits King Fahd, an

ailing and fading figure who has passed day-to-day

running of the kingdom to the heir apparent, Crown

Prince Abdullah. In the post-September 11 world, the

prince's job must rank as one of the least desirable.

He is beleaguered from all directions. America glares

down at him and demands, in the name of the war on

terror, that he reins in the Islamists. To the side of

him there are his brothers (there are plenty of them

too: his father, Ibn Saud, hardly a model of family

planning, had 34 sons) jostling and vying for power.

And below him is the seething mass of young unemployed

men, inspired by the hardline religious ideals of

Wahhabism and inflamed with anger towards America. The

good news is that if anyone can hold things together

it is Prince Abdullah. He commands loyalty among many

Saudis because of his own devout religious beliefs and

because he has tried to put an end to the more

outrageous excesses of his relatives. 

To some extent, September 11 has helped him shore up

popular support, drawing public attention away from

the corruption and iniquity of the regime. The

country's dissidents and pro-western reformers have

abandoned their dreams of democracy because they now

fear elections would return a government of bearded


So much for the good news. The problem is that, as

hatred of America grows, the regime's intimate

association with the US looks daily more precarious.

Prince Abdullah has taken steps to distance himself

from Washington - he refused to allow the al-Kharj

base to be used in the bombing of Afghanistan and has

similarly rebuffed any talk of an attack on Iraq. He

also launched his own ambitious peace plan for the

Middle East, which would see Arabs accepting Israel in

return for the creation of a full Palestinian state

along pre-1967 borders. All that needs to be done is

for Bush to reciprocate by forcing Israel to end its


There's the rub. Bush's response has been a terrible

silence, broken only by his denunciation of the

Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, which has merely

intensified most Saudis' feelings of righteous

indignation. The longer Bush allows the Middle East

crisis to slide, the greater the anger of the Saudi

people, the closer the kingdom creeps towards the


So how bad could it get? A deterioration in

already-strained relations could put an end to the

50-year-old American love story. If Prince Abdullah

has to choose between losing the trust of his own

people and throwing out the US military, he will throw

out the US military. His advisers consistently deny

it, but if he has to go further and wield the

notorious "oil weapon" - as happened with such

devastating effect in 1973 - he may be tempted to do

that too. 

More ominous still, there are signs that the religious

hardliners, the followers of Wahhab, are on the march.

No one mentions it by name, but the historical

precedent of a monarchy being overthrown through a

popular anti-American insurrection is omnipresent. It

sits in the corner of the room, like a familiar but

unwelcome dog: Iran. 

"This is a time-bomb ticking away," says a leading

liberal dissident. "The evidence points in one

direction: the religious people are the coming power.

One day they will reach a point when they will go

public - and that's when the real problems begin." 

"Israel's actions, with the US behind them, are

putting Saudi stability at risk," says a western

diplomat. "They are exposing the strains and

weaknesses of the system." 

King Fahd's nephew, Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin

Turki, fears that if the Bush administration keeps on

its current pro-Israeli course, if it keeps conducting

its Middle East policy "in absolutely the wrong way",

it will "swing the opinion of the silent majority into

thinking that the west is just playing tricks. It will

demoralise people. We do not have long." 

The sun has set now in Buraydah, and the last of the

day's five prayers have been said. I am taken to see a

radical sheikh who is well known in the kingdom as a

firebrand and a thorn in the side of the royal family.

He sits at one end of a large carpeted room,

surrounded by his followers and students, as large

white fans turn slowly above us. I ask him whether he

think it is time for religious figures such as himself

to formally enter politics. "Religious people have a

natural ability and right to be involved in politics.

They are the right people to lead." 

There is a deep rumbling going on underneath the

surface of Saudi society, he says. "There is so much

anger and so much hatred in people's hearts towards

America that they are losing their balance. This is a

place where people can do anything. Nothing can be

predicted any more."


Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

Latest News about Islam and Muslims

Contact for further information