The fire next time

by Giles Whittell 

Fifteen girls died when Saudi religious police blocked

rescue efforts and left victims to perish in a blazing

school. But this time the sheikhs are being held to

account. Our correspondent says pressure for reform is


On a potholed street in suburban Mecca stands a

four-storey building with grilles over its windows and

a locked front door. Its breeze block construction is

almost Soviet in its shoddiness. It is unused now and

empty, but once it was a school. Then something

terrible happened. 

One morning in March a teenage girl retreated to the

stairwell to smoke a cigarette. She dropped the butt,

without extinguishing it, into a pile of litter. Half

an hour later a fire was raging and more than 700

girls were trying to get out. There was only one

staircase and when the children stampeded, it

collapsed. When they reached the front door it was

locked. The only person with a key was the school?s

illiterate male guardian. He was nowhere to be found.

The fire brigade could have forced an entry, but the

headmistress needed permission from a higher male

authority to call them. Instead she fled the building

and ordered that the door stay locked behind her. 

Volunteers rushed to help; so did members of the

muttawa, Saudi Arabia?s self-appointed religious

police, who are drawn, like many of Osama bin Laden?s

disciples, from the most faithful followers of the

national Wahhabi Islamic creed. One of them picked a

quarrel with a regular police captain, warning that

there could be no contact between rescuers and girls

if the latter were not fully covered. 

Inside, clothing was not the main concern. ?I pushed

forward with the crowd because I was afraid of the

fire, but the locked door stood between the girls and

life,? one survivor says. ?Some girls jumped from the

top of the stairs, but I was overcome by smoke. I only

woke up in hospital.? A?ysha Akbar, another survivor,

says: ?I tried to run, but my foot got jammed in the

cast-iron banisters of the staircase. I fell and the

other girls were trying to jump over me but some

stepped on me. They broke my leg and ankle.? 

Some say the muttawa prevented the fire brigade from

entering the building; others that they forced girls

back inside for trying to flee without wearing their

full-length black abayas. Either way, what should have

been an orderly evacuation turned to chaos. When it

was over, 15 girls were dead. 

That afternoon the editor of Al-Nadwa, Mecca?s largest

newspaper, made what in Saudi Arabia was an immensely

brave decision. He ordered no-holds-barred coverage of

the fire ? its causes, witnesses, survivors, victims

and implications. To his surprise, so did his

counterparts throughout the country. The tragedy at

Girls? School No 31 became the occasion of sustained

outrage at the failings of the Saudi system and the

blind inhumanity of the muttawa. 

The Arab News, a progressive English-language daily

based in Jeddah, understood quickly that the factor

most likely to prise open the subject of the clerics?

influence on politics for critical public debate was

the alleged role of the muttawa. The paper sent a team

of reporters to Mecca with instructions to find

eyewitnesses, if there were any, to specific instances

of religious police forcing girls back into the

building. None came forward, but the debate erupted


What was clear was that the school door had been

locked and the muttawa had hindered efforts to open

it. That was outrageous enough. ?Maybe one or two

girls died as a result of being turned back,? deputy

editor Jamal Khashoggi says. ?But the attitude that

led to the door being locked, the attitude of the

religious police, killed more. If it had been open, no

one would have died.? 

The habits of decades of censorship and

self-censorship simply evaporated. The story ran on

every front page in the country, not with bland

evasions but with heart-wrenching eye-witness accounts

? many obtained from hospital bedsides, where Saudi

reporters had almost never ventured before ? and poems

written by survivors to their dead friends and


Tahani Ahmad El-Harethy was nursing a broken pelvis

when Al-Nadwa found her in plaster in the Al-Noor

hospital. She describes something reminiscent of the

Hillsborough football stadium disaster. ?It happened

during the first period,? she says. ?Girls panicked,

screaming and pushing each other at the front door,

which was locked. Some girls in front of me were

killed as they were squeezed against the door.? 

The agony was, if anything, even more intense for

those left powerless outside. Shayeb Haroun Moussa

rushed to the school with his son on hearing of the

fire, only to find his daughter already dead, ?lying

there on the pavement, by the tyre repair centre?.

Reporters revealed that previous safety warnings about

the building had been ignored, and exposed the

headmistress who, by most accounts, had fled instead

of ensuring the safety of the girls. 

Four months on, the fire has grown in significance. No

one knows if it will be the turning point that Saudi

Arabia?s embattled liberals have been awaiting for

decades, but this much is clear: it was the moment

that reformist Crown Prince Abdullah went public with

his bid to modernise the powerful but sclerotic

petro-kingdom that he has run since King Fahd suffered

a stroke in 1995. 

The Crown Prince is in a race that Washington demands

he win. US pressure for reform has intensified since

the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers on

September 11 were Saudi-born. Last week that pressure

peaked with the leak of a confidential briefing to the

Pentagon?s defence policy board calling Saudi Arabia

?the kernel of evil . . . active at every level of the

terror chain?. It even suggested bombing Saudi

oilfields if Riyadh fails to stop exporting


The briefing laid bare a rift within the Bush

administration between anti-Saudi hawks and defenders

of the longstanding US-Saudi axis, but it also played

into the hands of Saudi conservatives on the defensive

since the fire in Mecca. Doubt has been cast on claims

that the religious police actually forced girls back

into the burning school, but serious damage to the

country?s religious establishment ? the chief obstacle

to reform ? has already been done. 

The Presidency for Girls? Education, which religious

leaders controlled and through which they enforced the

rigid segregation of Saudi women, has been merged with

the Ministry of Education. The change may sound

cosmetic, but its implications are enormous. For the

first time since King Faisal legalised girls?

education in the 1960s there is the prospect that it

might come to mean something: that girls might follow

the same curriculum as boys, receive more vocational

training and less religious indoctrination, and even

enjoy an unemployment rate lower than 95 per cent on


Currently, women may work only in health and

education. They are barred from driving and from

selling their jewellery or going to hospital except

with a male guardian. They face execution if convicted

of adultery, but many risk it anyway, taking their

servants as lovers. 

?The Presidency for Girls? Education was one of the

most important outlets for the religious establishment

in Saudi Arabia,? says Jamal Khashoggi. ?It was

theirs. They ran it. They were seen as the only people

to be trusted with the welfare of our girls. Now the

education minister has a free hand. I know him, and he

wants major change.? 

Saudi Arabia is the great, infuriating exception to

almost every rule of world affairs. It marginalises

half its population almost as rigourously as did the

Taleban, yet retains the dutiful respect of every

leader in the West. It is rich, but not remotely

democratic. It is all but closed to outsiders and

shows little yearning to open up. Its judicial system

is based entirely on religion; sharia is the only law.

Its human rights record would fit the 15th century

better than the 21st (?Two pickpockets have their

wrists amputated,? says a recent government press

release), yet no government that matters has called it

to account. 

It is a land of 7,000 princes and one king,

unchallenged internally despite his love affair with a

country that millions of his subjects hate ? the

United States. That affair brings in a staggering $100

billion a year in foreign exchange, enough to fund a

breakneck arms build-up and a per capita GDP of nearly

$7,000. This is barely a quarter of the figure 20

years ago but still ensures the short-term stability

of the regime because so many key players, including

the clergy, get much more. 

The ship of state floats, of course, on oil. Saudi

Arabia sits on a third of the world?s oil reserves,

most of them close to the surface, cheap to extract

and surplus to local requirements. By turning to them

or leaving them alone, the Saudi oil minister can

manipulate world prices more or less at will. For the

past 30 years Riyadh has resisted abusing this power.

The world has come to depend on the Saudi system, and

as events have shown since September 11 it will take

more than the World Trade Centre attacks to upend it.

Yet the fire in Mecca shook it to its core. 

Crown Prince Abdullah sensed the wave of indignation

almost before it hit. The fire gave him a rare

opportunity to take on the religious establishment

without ceding an inch of moral high ground, and he

seized it. The tragedy was an ?unacceptable? result of

?negligent, incompetent and careless officials,? he

wrote in a public letter to his brother Prince Sultan,

ordering him to ?start now to investigate what


Scapegoats would have to be found, but few predicted

who. Immediately after the fire Ali Al-Murshid, head

of the Presidency for Girls? Education, had smugly

declared that he would keep his post till he died. A

month later he was gone. His department has been taken

over by Qaidir Ibn Olayan Al-Quraishi, a secularist

with the Crown Prince?s full backing and plans to

shrink the number of compulsory Koranic texts at

secondary school ? for boys and girls alike ? from

seven to one. 

To understand why the Mecca fire was so crucial, you

have to go back to 1991. When Saddam Hussein invaded

Kuwait, despite having spent $50 billion on

state-of-the-art American weaponry Saudi Arabia was in

no position to take him on alone. Its forces looked

good but barely knew how to operate their

anti-aircraft guns. 

Riyadh was next on Saddam?s list, and the only way to

deter him was to invite American troops on to Saudi

soil in massive numbers. For the royal family it was

an instinctive move. King Fahd and his inner circle

have an almost obsessive reverence for US muscle and

know-how. But for the religious leadership on which

the House of Saud has depended for its authority since

1932, it was sacrilege. 

Hosting Operation Desert Storm cost Saudi Arabia $60

billion, wiping out a large portion of its reserves.

Yet the political debt the regime incurred to the

religious establishment by allowing 500,000 infidel

GIs into the sacred land of the Prophet?s birth

weakened it far more. 

Progressives hoped the prospect of war and its

attendant media invasion might trigger a rush of

liberal reforms, but those hopes were swiftly dashed.

A group of 45 women who drove into the centre of

Riyadh in November 1990 demanding driving licences

were not only denied them, but arrested. After the

war, religious leaders called in the government?s debt

by tightening their control of girls? education. It

was to remain uncontested for ten years. 

Crown Prince Abdullah did once try to revisit the

issue of women?s driving licences but the clergy cried

foul. He backed down, and the surreal sight of

thousands of Saudi women being driven by their sons ?

or foreign males imported for the purpose ? endures. 

What started as a symbiotic pact between Wahhabism and

the royal house of Saud was turning into a naked power

struggle. Since September 11 that struggle has fuelled

an unprecedented public debate on who counts as uli

al-amr ? ?those with authority?. Who?s in charge in

Riyadh? The question is that simple. The religious

elite has claimed it shares authority with the royal

family. Crown Prince Abdullah has retorted that they

are mere advisers. The fire in Mecca was his chance to

prove it. 

Thanks to the 15 teenagers who died, Saudi women can

now hope that their daughters will study the same

curriculum as their sons, and even that they might

eventually share similar job prospects. But they

shouldn?t hold their breath. The Crown Prince has more

pressing concerns than the emancipation of women. Even

with most of them kept off the labour market, the

country faces soaring unemployment. More than half of

its 15 million people are under 20, and each year

400,000 of them go straight from university to

joblessness. The result is a growing reservoir of

disaffected young males, contemptuous of cooperation

by their own government with America or Israel and

highly susceptible to al-Qaeda?s calls to jihad. 

?The royal family is stuck between the religious

establishment and this rising generation on the one

hand, and the US on the other,? says Mai Yamani of the

Royal Institute of International Affairs. ?The US is

demanding reforms, but Crown Prince Abdullah is seen

by the Wahhabi religious establishment and the new

breed as compromising himself by talking about full

normalisation of relations with Israel? ? as he did in

a bold peace initiative in March. 

The stakes could hardly be higher. As Eric Rouleau

writes in this month?s Foreign Affairs, if the royal

family?s radical new opposition is not controlled ?it

could tear apart a strategic alliance (between Saudi

Arabia and the US) that has lasted since World War


What can the Crown Prince do? In the short term he may

be forced to crack down on rather than expand those

freedoms his subjects now enjoy, especially if

President Bush brings thousands of young Saudi

radicals on to the streets in solidarity with their

Iraqi brothers by attacking Baghdad. ?I see increased

repression to control the new opposition at all

costs,? Yamani says. 

But in the long term there are grounds for hope. The

Mecca fire produced an unequivocal win for Saudi

Arabia?s reformists over its theocratic dinosaurs.

Meanwhile Washington has demanded more reforms, and if

history is any guide it will get them in the end. 

For what it?s worth, the US still has King Fahd?s

undying trust. Last month he flew to Geneva for a

routine cataract operation that one Swiss doctor could

have performed. Instead a team of surgeons was flown

in to perform it ? from America.


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