Saudi Arabia Exposed
Inside a Kingdom in Crisis
By John R. Bradley
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2005 John R. Bradley
All rights reserved.
LIBERAL VOICES OF THE HIJAZ
One humid evening in the fasting month of Ramadan two dozen Saudi men and women gathered in the garden of a villa belonging to one of Jeddah's oldest merchant families, having been carefully selected because of their liberal inclinations. The men and women, sipping orange juice and fanning themselves, chatted in English and Arabic as they settled down to listen to a lecture attacking Wahhabism, the kingdom's official and uniquely austere brand of Islam.
A young British man had spent the afternoon under the blazing sun, setting up a makeshift lecture theater in the middle of the modern villa's carefully landscaped garden. He surveyed the rows of chairs just beyond the trickling fountains, drinking a glass of Coke filled with ice while, with a pinched finger and thumb, pulling a short-sleeved, sweat-soaked shirt away from his skin.
Now, he said, everything was finally ready, including a projector hooked up to a laptop computer.
The villa, a sprawling concrete and marble building in a style that blended local Arabian motifs with a superficially Western design, was built — as are most on the west coast of Saudi Arabia — to maximize the movement of the air through the rooms. It belonged to the Alireza merchant family, and was shut off to the outside world by a high surrounding wall. It was located in north Jeddah — a series of anonymous residential, shopping, and commercial districts that are a world away from the charming, rundown atmosphere of the historic downtown area of the city.
In the north, both lavish and jerry-built villas are hidden from prying eyes by massive walls, often topped by extra corrugated iron sheets: a manifestation of the Saudis' obsessive regard for their privacy. The streets between them are empty of people day and night, except for an occasional street cleaner from Bangladesh.
A stone's throw from the Alireza villa is Jeddah's sea road, or corniche, famous for being the longest such road in the world. Hundreds of outdoor sculptures are dotted along its 16-mile stretch. Over the years, they have slowly transformed it — and much of the rest of the laidback Red Sea port city — into an accidental outdoor art museum. However, in keeping with a strict Wahhabi aversion to recreating or displaying the human form, there are no images of people to be found there; such images are forbidden given the loathing of graven images or anything that interferes, or is seen as having the potential to interfere, with a person's devotion to Allah. Even human forms in the advertisements plastered between the neon lights throughout Jeddah and the kingdom's other major cities have an eye missing or part of a foot painted over, although you would have to look closely to notice the deliberately introduced mark of imperfection. Only with such alteration can it be argued that the human form is not being reproduced, let alone adulated. Thus an uneasy compromise is reached to reconcile conflicting pressures between form and substance, between Wahhabi austereness and the reality of modernity.
Back on the patio, in the garden of the villa, immaculately liveried waiters were offering cold drinks to the men and women who were still arriving. Most had rushed to the villa from exclusive parties where, an hour or so earlier, they had broken the daylong traditional Ramadan fast at an iftar — literally, a break-fast meal.
Iftars can be simple occasions, with poor families eating dates and sipping tea before settling down together to watch TV soap operas specially produced for the Ramadan season. But they can also be ostentatious displays of wealth and indulgence, events at which great crowds of relatives meet up in spacious gardens to indulge in a lavish array of food that has taken the villa's servants most of the day to prepare.
The lecturer, Sami Angawi, was busy in the garden fiddling with his laptop. A large man who had studied architecture in Britain and America, Angawi leaned heavily on a beautifully carved walking stick. He is from another respected Jeddah merchant family, and in 1975 he founded the Haj Research Center. It documents the more than 1,350 years of history of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a 45-minute car ride from downtown Jeddah.
Angawi is described by those who know him as the undeclared leader of the vast swath of Saudi Arabia known as the Hijaz, which runs along the Red Sea from Jordan in the north to the Asir region bordering Yemen in the south. He is also a reputed follower of Sufism, the mystical Islamic belief system based on the idea that love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. Perhaps that was why he was not wearing a long, white flowing thobe — the bland Wahhabi national dress — but rather a darker robe decorated with beads and toggles and a woven, colored pattern just below the neck.
Being a follower of anything other than strict Wahhabi Islam, secretively or otherwise, is a risky undertaking in Saudi Arabia — as, for that matter, is wearing a traditional Hijazi robe and giving a lecture. Such acts, public and private, are subtle but powerful political statements, suggesting as they do the cultivation of independent belief and action, luxuries in a quasitotalitarian state — Islamic or otherwise. In Saudi Arabia, any direct, untempered criticism of the Al-Saud family or the Wahhabi establishment it rules alongside might easily be overheard and reported by a person sitting nearby, who might even himself be a member of the feared secret police.
Constantly interrupting himself, as the pious in the Muslim world are in the habit of doing, with religious mutterings, and vaguely distracted by working through worry beads dangling from his right hand, Angawi talked in his lecture about how Hijazi culture had historically thrived on balance and moderation, tolerance and diversity. It was all, he said, being wiped out by the influence of hardcore Wahhabi ideology, imported by the Al-Saud family when it conquered the region in the 1920s. Architecture, Angawi digressed, is a reflection of society, of its principles and priorities and deep-seated trends and beliefs. He advised his audience to think about how Mecca, Islam's holiest city in the heart of the Hijaz, is fast becoming one of the most crudely unplanned and overly commercialized cities in the world. Then they should ask themselves, he said, what that indicated about the psychological state of their sons and daughters and the sociopolitical environment in which they were being brought up.
Since the 1920s, he continued, the Wahhabis had even demolished places where the Prophet Muhammad himself had prayed. Their motive was a fear that such places would give rise to a cult that was tantamount to polytheism, the worship of multiple and equal gods or divinities, or idolatry. The Wahhabis have always despised polytheism and idolatry above and beyond every other Islamic "aberration" they condemn. It remains, in theory at least, punishable by public beheading. The Wahhabis' central belief is the concept of "tawhid," meaning the unity of Allah and reverence only for Allah. Even today, a theology text that 14-year-old Saudis study states "it is the duty of a Muslim to be loyal to the believers and be the enemy of the infidels. One of the duties of proclaiming the oneness of God is to have nothing to do with his idolatrous and polytheist enemies."
Angawi — an infidel perhaps, by such criteria — had personally excavated what may have been the Prophet's own home and discovered underneath public lavatories in the early 1990s, but the authorities had hushed up the find to avoid a rush of pilgrims to the site.
At the climax of Angawi's slideshow, a photograph was projected onto the far right of the screen that showed a beautiful Turkish building in Medina, four hours' drive to the north of Jeddah. The roof was being crushed by the yellow arm of a crane. Then, on the left of the screen, an image appeared of the giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban, whose numbers had been swelled by thousands of Saudi mujihadeen, or freedom fighters, as they fought Soviet occupation. Finally, slowly, an image of the Twin Towers, in flames after being hit by planes taken over by mostly Saudi hijackers, came into focus between the first two photographs.
Angawi's message was clear: The roots of global Islamic terror can be traced in a very direct way back to the fanaticism of the Wahhabis, who to this day rule Saudi Arabia in partnership with the Al-Saud ruling family. Just as the United States is reassessing its own oil-for-security alliance with the Al-Saud as a consequence of those attacks, he also seemed to be hinting, ever so subtly, that it could be time for his Hijazi audience to think about reassessing their relationship with the Saudi royal family.
He had been careful throughout the lecture not to mention the Al-Saud by name.
* * *
The great sweep of the Arabian Peninsula known as Saudi Arabia is home to several ancient cultures: from the Hijaz on the Red Sea coast, which includes the city of Jeddah where Angawi gave his lecture, to the Shiite-majority Eastern Province on the Gulf; from the central Wahhabi bastion of Al-Najd to the largely tribal Asir region on the Yemeni border.
As the Ottoman Empire expanded from the thirteenth century, the Hijaz and Asir fell gradually under Turkish rule. But these, and all the other regions, managed to retain their cultural and national character, both during the reign of the Ottomans and within the Saudi state after its emergence in the 1930s in the wake of the Ottoman Empire's collapse. Today, this stubborn regionalism, though glossed over in official Saudi propaganda, is reflected even in the most popular Saudi TV comedy series, Tash Ma Tash (No big deal), which broadcasts during Ramadan after iftar and in which regional accents and customs especially are mocked to hilarious effect. Other topics dealt with by the satirical comedy series deal with the restrictions and contradictions of the kingdom's daily life, from women who find themselves unable to leave the house because they do not have a male guardian to accompany them to young men who cannot find a job. The religious police hate the show, but — perhaps because comedy is viewed as an acceptable safety valve for social, regional, and other frustrations by the powers that be — it runs and runs and continues to get spectacular audience ratings, while the actors continue to get death threats.
Under the Ottoman Empire, the Hijaz, home of the sacred shrines of Mecca and Medina, was run by the House of Hashem, or Hashemites, descendants of the Prophet, and they had considerable autonomy. Turkey sided with the Germans in World War I, however, and their defeat meant the end of centuries'-old reigns, in this part of the former Ottoman Empire as elsewhere. In 1916, at the height of World War I, when France and Great Britain were conducting secret talks known as the Sykes-Picot agreement to carve up the Middle East into zones of influence, Sherif Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite ruler of the Hijaz, initiated the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. At the Cairo Conference of 1921, the British rewarded Sherif Hussein, naming one of his sons, Faisal, king of Iraq, and another, Abdullah, ruler of modern-day Jordan — both countries imperial creations carved out of the sand. However, Sherif Hussein himself was double-crossed by the British, who were privately also backing his rivals, Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi followers. Ibn Saud was viewed as the leader most likely to pacify rival tribes in the Arabian Peninsula and had already proved himself very willing to cooperate closely with Britain in order to achieve his goal of carving out a state for his family to rule over. Hussein, then, was forced to abdicate in favor of his eldest son, Ali, and he went into exile — first to Cyprus and then, after falling ill, to Amman, where he died in 1931. Ali's rule itself lasted only one year, and in 1925 he followed his father into exile. Ibn Saud and his forces meanwhile were sweeping across the region, and he prepared to declare himself the new ruler of the Hijaz. Many of the lower-ranking members of the Hashemite family, however, stayed put, after promises of protection from the Al-Saud (which were subsequently kept).
This was the third time the Al-Saud dynasty had tried to establish an empire across the Arabian Peninsula, and the third time proved lucky.
Back in 1744, Mohammed bin Saud, a local ruler from the central region of Al-Najd (and from whom Ibn Saud was descended), had signed a pact with a religious reformer, Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab. Their aim was to bring about, through force if necessary, the reign of the word of God. Abdul Wahhab had begun his preaching some years earlier. Wahhabism, his legacy, advocated a literalist and legalistic stance in matters of faith and religious practice. It damned Shiites as not being true Muslims and was particularly hostile to Sufism, because Wahhabis adhere to the most cautious opinions and shun any form of worship that is not literally attributed to the Prophet. For example, Wahhabis judge it sinful for Sufis to sit in circles and mention the name of Allah as a group or recite the Qu'ran melodiously; and they damn Shiites because they recall the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson, Hussein. Wahhabism claims to "purify" Islam from such innovations, superstitions, deviances, heresies, and idolatries. Unsurprisingly, Abdul Wahhab condemned as well modern and ancient "innovations," such as listening to music and smoking.
During the time of Abdul Wahhab, the people of Al-Najd were in fact practicing Islam in these and many other ways contrary to hardline Wahhabi beliefs — such as invoking prophets, saints, or angels and not simply Allah in prayer; worshipping at graves; celebrating annual feasts for dead saints; and wearing charms. These practices he regarded not as mere sins but as acts of apostasy that merited the maximum penalty, and he justified the slaughter of all who stood in the way of Wahhabism's domination of the entire Muslim world.
Abdul Wahhab's religious fervor and his partner Saud's military skill proved to be a potent combination. After conquering and converting most of the tribes of Al-Najd to Wahhabi doctrine, the Wahhabi–Al-Saud forces swept out across the Arabian Peninsula. By 1806, the first Wahhabi state stretched as far as Iraq in the north, and into parts of the Hijaz. It was, however, soon dismantled by Mohammed Ali, the sultan of Egypt, who had been delegated the task of doing so by his Ottoman masters. Since the Hijaz was already part of the Ottoman Empire, and much of that empire's legitimacy came from ruling over Islam's two holiest shrines, the Turks instructed Mohammed Ali to spare no effort in forcing the Saudis back into Al-Najd. He succeeded in doing so, and finally that central region also fell to Mohammed Ali's forces. By 1818, the Saudis were crushed, and the lands they had ruled over were pillaged. Thus the first Saudi empire was brought to an end.
An attempt by the Wahhabi–Al-Saud alliance to retake lost territory resulted in the less ambitious, but more stable, second Saudi empire. It suffered various political and territorial fortunes between 1824 and 1891. Its establishment was not so much important for the territory it encompassed as for the loyalty it garnered from those it ruled over. Slowly, many of them embraced Wahhabism, as the Wahhabi–Al-Saud pact itself — in terms of intermarriage between the Al-Saud and Abdul Wahhab's descendants — was consolidated over numerous generations. But this second empire, too, was finally crushed — this time by a rival clan, the Al-Rashid. They were based in the city of Hail, to the north of Al-Najd, a relatively easy-going place that, like the Hijaz and Asir, had always fiercely resisted Wahhabi-Al-Saud domination, and in many ways continues to do so.
The Al-Saud family's third revival began in 1902, when Ibn Saud captured Riyadh back from the Al-Rashid. That victory ushered in a string of conquests to the east, north, and west, which laid the foundations of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. When, after World War I, the extraordinarily skilled diplomat Ibn Saud finally deposed Sherif Hussein in the Hijaz, his army was also moving south to colonize the mountainous Asir region that had historic links to Yemen. By 1932, Ibn Saud was able to declare himself king of Saudi Arabia, a country the size of Western Europe to which fortune would soon grant untold wealth in the form of more than a quarter of the known oil reserves on the planet. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Saudi Arabia Exposed by John R. Bradley. Copyright © 2005 John R. Bradley. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.