Saudis break the silence
Saudi Arabia – America’s principal ally in the Middle East, the vital link between the West and its oil supplies – appears to be sliding steadily towards disaster. This can’t, of course, be said in Saudi Arabia but a number of Saudis have travelled out of their country in order to be able to speak of it in safety.
There are those who may find this assessment too pessimistic. But the country faces formidable problems – fundamentalism, the family succession, regional tensions, the economy, together with a generalised disenchantment and wish for reform. Since Saudi Arabia is essentially a family company, belonging, though not in equal shares, to the Al Sauds and their Wahhabi fundamentalist partners, the current fundamentalist assault, coinciding with a Saud family quarrel, means that the government is in trouble in a country where the government is everything.
It would, therefore, be wise, as Saudis here urge, for the West, which still has a decisive influence on the area, not to look the other way as it did in the case of Iran and Iraq, but to face up to the situation now, before Saudi Arabia is caught up in a Catherine-wheel of chaos that could well shower combustible sparks on its Muslim neighbours. The seizure of the Grand Mosque by fundamentalists in 1979 was one warning against complacency. So is the fact that the Saud family has squandered 180 billion dollars of reserves since 1983 when, with interest rates around 20 per cent, the royal family was still fabulously wealthy. It may seem astonishing, but Saudi is now entering a new era as a net debtor nation.
Saudis live in a state of tense expectation, fearing that one or other group of fundamentalists will stage a coup or that the Government will use them as a pretext to declare martial law and duck out of political reform. ‘We know the countdown to something very bad has begun,’ one of many necessarily anonymous insiders to whom I spoke told me, ‘but not the timing. Rather than face down minority fundamentalists by opening up the political system, the Government uses them as bogeymen to control the vast majority who hate and fear them. President Sadat tried this tactic and was gunned down by fundamentalists. The Algerians abused it and were swamped.’
Joining a political party is a state crime. So is criticising the Government in public. I spoke to a banker who comes to London to enjoy the rain but is unwilling to risk exile in it. ‘The government public health warning to Saudis,’ he said, ‘unspoken but widely understood, is this: a fundamentalist regime would be infinitely more unpleasant for you than we are, so stick to us. To fundamentalists the King says: if we let the people loose, you will have a hard time. Voice your opposition, if you must, privately.’ In other words, as the banker said, ‘for the majority of Saudis politics is a spectator sport’ – and the fundamentalists are used to make sure things stay that way. Meanwhile their power increases daily, fed by everyday frustrations: overcrowded hospitals, sporadic water supplies, chaotic schools, low salaries, growing unemployment and – since 1982 – recession, despite the recent post-war boom. With no other outlet for public discontent, a minority religious sect is broadening into a political movement.
The fundamentalist foot-soldiers come from religious universities. Their leaders are a new breed of religious intellectual who, unlike the old preachers, are not always in the Government’s pocket and therefore frighten it to death. Some are highly-educated, well-intentioned reformers, but the movement itself is ugly, querulous, quasi-fascist and xenophobic.
Already they are behaving like a state within a state. The talk of the town in Saudi is of the latest party they have crashed, hauling the guests off for drink or dress offences, They swoop down out of the blue: a man who has come to fetch his wife whom he had dropped off at the supermarket finds himself held until midnight explaining how he had gone in alone and come out with a woman. Occasionally some lesser cleric is whipped, but most of what they do goes unpunished. They produce tapes challenging government authority in quadrophonic sound: referring to the King’s favourite son, Abdulaziz, the world’s richest teenager, one tape observes that he hasn’t got the qualifications to be a servant, let alone rule the country. Fundamentalists step in where the state fails: they provide meat for the poor on feast-days, and loans and white wedding-dresses for young people who can’t afford to marry.
They also operate extensively underground, as I was told by a senior Saudi, a member of Fahd’s entourage who is familiar with Saudi intelligence files – he claims, incidentally, that the files are also known to Western intelligence agencies. ‘The fundamentalists have penetrated every single government department without exception, from civil aviation to Saudi Airlines, from prisons to the Ministry of the Interior. Their cells are well-organised and linked to outside groups, even the Army. They have created incidents in the past two years in the National Guard. They want power and they have the arms. Don’t ask where from – arms are just a fact of bedouin life.’
It would be more difficult to sustain a fundamentalist coup in Saudi Arabia than it was in Iran, but the attempt would be no less dangerous for that. Arabian bedouin are not ‘frightfully religious’, as an old British Saudi hand puts it: their evangelical fervour is only sporadically aroused and even then plunder and paradise tend to merge in their minds. But there is still a huge potential for anarchy in the combination of minority fanaticism, majority disenchantment, royal intrigue and the bedouin liking for a good fight; in possible joint ventures between Saudi fundamentalists and their underground friends in Egypt and Sudan; and, above all, in tactical alliances between fundamentalists and the tribes.
The Government’s unhappy handling of the 1979 fundamentalist crisis casts a long shadow over current events, making the strategy of appeasement seem pretty lunatic. Saudi Arabia was stunned when an extraordinary young man called Juhaiman occupied the Grand Mosque with his heavily-armed followers. Juhaiman’s tribal grandfather was killed by King Abdulaziz, the founder of the kingdom, and his revenge took a messianic form, Juhaiman condemned the Sauds’ decadent lifestyle, bad financial management and autocratic rule, and believed his forces would march on to free Jerusalem. A fortnight later, French special forces cleared the mosque with gas. Two hundred and fifty people emerged, including the wives and children of the defenders. According to a source close to Fahd, the Government decided to execute them all without a court order, but, fearing international outrage, the royal family planned to announce that a mere 63 were to be executed and the rest jailed. The then King Khalid objected: the West, he said, would learn the truth. But two of the most powerful men in Saudi decided otherwise: some were beheaded publicly in small groups while the rest, including the women and children, were shot in front of open graves. The silence as to what really happened has been maintained ever since.
Reticent and laconic, Saudis have always tended to keep criticism to themselves. Now, however, frustration and anger have persuaded leading businessmen, diplomats, technocrats and others within Fahd’s entourage to break their silence. But they have to go abroad to do so: at home, even bedrooms are bugged. The usual price for uttering any criticism is exile and loss of livelihood, but some dissidents are flogged, tortured by being buried in burning sand, or simply disappear. Those who go abroad to do their criticising are sometimes kidnapped in style by private plane.
‘Until about ten years ago, we could express ourselves directly to the King or reasonably openly through the newspapers, provided we abided by two cardinal rules: not to speak loudly against the regime or take up arms against it.’ The Medina doctor looks back fondly to those paradisal times and his son listens as if his father were describing another country Even Fahd himself can be open minded when his interest is caught, but since his accession in 1982 freedom has been pruned back to a stump. According to Amnesty International, there were seven hundred political prisoners in Saudi Arabia in the Eighties.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.