Islamist Opposition

Some elements of the Saudi population, the religious conservatives, have become militant in their anger with the regime. Part of the inspiration for their movement goes back to the foundation of the modern state in the early years of this century. Just before the First World War there arose in the plains north-east of Riyadh an agressive reformist body known as the Ikhwan, the Brotherhood, which in the next 15 years fought for the Emir (later King) Abdel-Aziz in the campaigns which won for the Saud family most of the Arabian peninsula. There was always some question as to whether Abdel-Aziz was using the Ikhwan or the Ikhwan using him, to promote its puritan views, and when the King wanted to call a halt to his campaigns after the conquest of the towns of the Hijaz in 1925-6 the two parties come into conflict.

The Ikhwan continued raiding into the territories which Britain had formed into Jordan and Iraq, and when Abdel-Aziz tried to curb them they rebelled. By this time they were fighting as much for the continuation of an unhampered tribal way of life as for their religious principles. They were defeated by loyal forces at the battle of Sibillah in 1929. What remained of the Brotherhood was later absorbed into the National Guard, and nothing has been heard of it as a formal organisation since. Among many of the tribes, though, and some of the Nejdi ulema there are people who are still attached to the militant puritanism of the Ikhwan and are shocked by what they see as the Godlessness of Riyadh, Jeddah and the other big cities. Such people formed the band of rebels with which Juhayman bin Mohammad Al-Otaibi seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca in November 1979.

A separate strand of militant Islamic influence comes from the 1950s, when Saudi Arabia, encouraged by the West, gave support to the Muslim Brotherhood (in this case an Egyptian movement founded in 1929) which was standing against Gamal-Abdel Nasser and secular Arab republicanism. Saudi Arabia accepted refugee members of the Brotherhood as teachers in its schools and in time these produced a generation of graduates who saw politics and society in primarily Islamic terms. Many of those who graduated in the 1960s and 1970s have themselves become teachers, and they have been able to persuade the government enormously to expand the religious curriculum in schools (where it absorbs more than a third of pupils' time) and establish ever bigger religious faculties in the universities. There are now two out of the seven Saudi universities which are wholly devoted to religious studies. These institutions will accept virtually anybody - they can hardly turn away a student who says he wants to study God's word - and they have been producing tens of thousands of graduates who are hardly literate, virtually unemployable and have a strong sense of being in a society which is corrupted by Western influence and has no use for them.

In the 1980s many of these graduates went to fight with the mujahiddin in Afghanistan. Others volunteered to work for the Committee for the Commendation of Virtue and the Condemnation of Vice, a little respected body supposed to supervise public morals. Many more formed themselves into vigilante groups to undertake their own supervision of the public. Their activities included raids on shops selling suspicious products (such as cassette tapes and glasses which could be used for wine), shooting at television dishes, and upbraiding men and women for being improperly dressed in public. Improper dress could involve a lady showing a high heeled shoe or men wearing their thobes too long or not having grown a beard.

The religious militants became openly political in 1990 when in the wake of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait the government allowed a much freer public debate in the Kingdom. (It did this partly because it was genuinely shocked by the invasion, which produced a sense of national crisis, and partly because it needed to show its Western allies that it allowed freedom of expression.) The militants immediately attacked the government for the waste and corruption which had left the Kingdom unable to defend itself in spite of its having spent tens of billions of dollars on arms. They also attacked the decision to invite foreign troops, and then broadened their assaults to embrace corruption in general, Western influence and the behaviour of officials - including many of the most competent in the Kingdom - whom they deemed to be too secular. The media used were sermons in the mosques and cassette tapes of sermons or lectures, which were circulated privately or made available through stores in the souks (markets). What the militants said they were doing was "advising the people of the rules of the Shariah" (Islamic law) and showing that the law was being "violated". They were calling on the government to listen to them and reform itself; they were not preaching violence or the overthrow of the regime. The overall name given by its supporters to the movement was "Al-Sahwa", the "Awakening".

After the crisis, in May 1991 and October 1992, groups of shaikhs (religious teachers) and other devout and conservative Saudis, including some important businessmen, presented petitions to the King discussing Saudi institutions and practices of government, explaining what the Shariah said on such matters, and proposing changes. The petitions were ignored.

In May 1993 the government struck at one strand of Islamist (Islamic militant) activity when it arrested Dr. Mohammad Masari, and later several associates, who had formed the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights. This body had produced a document which declared (correctly) that it was the duty of good Muslims to support the "oppressed". It said that the signatories were prepared to accept information from any citizen on any "act of oppression" and promised to try to right any wrong act by legitimate means. The Committee was immediately able to achieve some publicity by sending the document to the BBC Arabic service, and Mohammad Masari rose to prominence when the BBC telephoned for an interview and he was chosen to represent the group. It was ten days after the interview that Mohammad was arrested. The only reason why the Ministry of the Interior waited this long was that it wanted to have the "official ulema", loyal teachers in its own employ, issue a fatwa condemning the document.

Six months later, when all members of the group had been released, its leaders moved to Britain and established themselves in a north London suburb. They began a propaganda campaign, faxing reports of corruption to 800 people in Saudi Arabia (including government officials and princes) and relying on friends to photocopy and distribute their reports. Their information was obtained by circulating a United States toll free number which could be dialled from the Kingdom. Calls made to the number were re-routed to London.

In September 1994 the authorities moved against the whole Islamist movement when they arrested more than a hundred militants, including several prominent shaikhs. This act put an end to the open, public Islamist campaign in Saudi Arabia. At the same time as the arrests were made steps were taken to curb the activities of the vigilante graduates. The moves were generally popular with secular-minded Saudis and foreigners. But their effect was to force the Islamist opposition underground, and, by removing from circulation its best educated and more moderate leaders, to push those who remained at liberty towards violence.

The first major violent act was the bombing in November 1995 of a building of the National Guard in Riyadh. Four Americans and Filipino were killed. In due course the authorities arrested four young men, three of them ex-Afghan fighters, who confessed to having carried out the bombing and were executed in May 1996. In the course of their interrogation it emerged that they had received logistical support from ex-mujahiddin comrades in Yemen. The group has since been referred to by the name of its leader, a 24 year old Nejdi called Abdel-Aziz Al-Mithim.

In June 1996 a second bomb in Al-Khobar, in the Eastern Province, killed 19 US servicemen. As of early November nobody had been arrested for this crime and various foreign and Saudi suspects had been suggested by the Arab and Western press, and other analysts. The probability was that the bombers were Nejdis, similar to those in Al-Mithim's group. Shortly after the bombing, a claim of responsibility was made by an organisation named after Abdullah Al-Hudayfi, a Saudi "Afghan" who had been executed in August 1995. In November 1994 Al-Hudayfi had organised an acid attack on a Saudi security officer - allegedly a notorious torturer. He had been disfigured, it was made known, as a warning to other government officials.

The assumption in the Kingdom is that there will be more bombings and more Islamist propaganda from abroad, though the stream of faxes from London has been temporarily reduced. In March 1996 quarrels within the CDLR led to its splitting into two bodies, one retaining the old name and the other called the Islamic Reform Movement. The quarrels discredited both organisations, and even before they occurred it was known that Saudis had been getting bored with the extremism of some of the propaganda faxes and with their repetitive nature. It seems that the Committes did not have a sufficient supply of new corruption stories and had taken to recycling old ones.

The Saudi government remains enormously embarassed by both the propaganda and the bombings. Being ridiculously sensitive to criticism of any kind, it had blamed the bombings in part on the influence of the faxes of the opposition abroad, and so made its non-violent opponants seem more threatening than they were in reality. More sensibly it is greatly worried by the continued presence of Saudis in Afghanistan. Since the capture of Kabul in September by Taleban it has been trying to persuade the new Afghan government to expel Saudi citizens from its country, in return for financial aid. The best known of the Saudi Afghans, Osama Bin Laden, a member of a large and extremely rich contracting family from Jeddah, it wanted to have extradited. It seems, though, that Bin Laden had already fled the country, possibly to Sudan.

The whole upsurge of militant Islam in the Kingdom since 1990 has shaken the old Saudi policy of balancing traditionalists and modernisers. For fifty years the government has seemed to succeed in maintaining close ties with the West and developing Western-style commercial institutions, while allowing society to remain conservative, religious and highly orientated to the family. It seemed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that the government was placating the most conservative religious elements by what were thought to be fairly unimportant gestures, such as the construction of more mosques and the expansion of the religious curriculum in the schools.

Now it looks as if the government has failed. Saudi Arabia will have to accustom itself to a certain level of violence, as the government confronts the militants and hopes to rally public support. There is no doubt that most Saudis are shocked by the recent bombings. Alternatively the government will have to shift its stance in a conservative and religious direction. In carrying out either policy the government will be greatly weakened by the corrupt reputation of senior members of the royal family. There are many Saudis of moderate views who are so angered by what is referred to as the "robbery" of the Kingdom's resources that they have come to see the possible re-emergence of a powerful, independent religious establishment as a potentially useful check on the Sauds' behaviour.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | April 1999

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