Suspicious Saudi Arabia
by Stephen Schwartz
Activists for women's rights in Saudi Arabia called on foreign sympathizers to send messages to the country's embassies around the world for September 23, the kingdom's national holiday, demanding abolition of the male guardianship system under which Saudi women are forbidden to make any decisions on their own. American Muslim opponents of the official Saudi Wahhabi sect gathered at the country's embassy in Washington on September 28, demanding an end to vandalism of historic sites, and calling for reconstruction of the Al-Baqi cemetery in Medina, demolished by Wahhabis some 85 years ago. And the latest in a series of Saudi-sponsored interfaith conferences, with the participation of at least two gullible rabbis, will be held in Geneva on September 30.
Suddenly Saudi Arabia is again producing news, even if most of it remains unaddressed by Western media. Notwithstanding protests and ameliorative gestures, within the kingdom human legal, cultural, and religious rights have no firm ground. An explosion that killed a bomb-carrying terrorist in Jeddah, commercial capital of Saudi Arabia, on August 9, was emblematic of the general situation. That is, after almost two months, the incident remains confusing and suspicious. It confirmed the difficulties of analyzing Saudi reality - a field of endeavor much like the "Kremlinology" directed at Russian Communism. As my colleague Irfan Al-Alawi and I previously wrote in The Weekly Standard (see "Bulldozing Islam," October 9, 2006, at http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Protected/Articles/000/000/012/759cvwpc.asp.)
" 'Saudology'… resembles its predecessor, Kremlinology, in that major events may be discerned behind apparently trivial details." But at times, the opposite is true: trivial details may successfully conceal major events.
In the August bomb incident, Saudi subject Abdullah bin Hassan bin Taleh Asiri blew himself up at the office of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Prince Muhammad, head of the Saudi program for capture and reform of terrorists, was "lightly injured." Aside from the death of the bomber, there were no other casualties. The assault, if that is what it was, comprises the first ever mounted by present-day terrorists against a member of the Saudi royal family. The anti-terror chief's father, Prince Nayef bin Abd Al-Aziz, is the country's interior minister. Nayef is also the leader of the royal faction opposed to the improvised but necessary reform program advanced by Saudi King Abdullah.
The Saudi Gazette, an English-language newspaper, reported on September 2 that the bomber and his brother Ibrahim had previously attempted to cross the kingdom's northern border to pursue terrorism in Iraq, and that Ibrahim Asiri was jailed. In February 2009, the pair were included in an official list of 85 jihadists hiding in Yemen; the list also named Saudis released from Guantánamo, as well as some who had gone through Prince Muhammad's anti-terrorism program but were apparently left unconvinced.
Responsibility for the bombing was soon claimed by "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," hitherto the least prominent element in Osama Bin Laden's global movement, with a low level of verified activity. That entity, which the Reuters news service claimed had only been formed this year by merging radical groups in the Saudi kingdom and in Yemen, crowed that the bomber had repeatedly managed to evade the detection of his lethal device. He had travelled via the airports at Najran on the Saudi-Yemen border as well as in Jeddah, on the private jet of his target, prince Muhammad. But nobody, it seems, including the prince's own safety detail, normally loaded down with high-tech security equipment, could prevent the extremist's act.
Within the kingdom, ordinary Saudis turned the boasts of the terrorists around, asking how an individual included on a watch list could have foiled strict precautionary measures, as well as why he was transported in his target's personal plane. Then the Saudis released a transcript of a telephone call the bomber had made to prince Muhammad before their meeting. The conversation was so ambiguous as to increase the popular belief that something very strange had occurred. Published by the Los Angeles Times, which headlined it by referring to "a tangled history," the chat included cordial greetings, expressions by the prince of concern for the bomber's brother and the wife and children of a terrorist leader, and a plea by the bomber to confer with the prince.
Nothing in the transcript is specific, except that the bomber told the prince "I want to come and brief you." Certainly, the colloquy did not seem characteristic of bitter enemies - an anti-terrorist chief and a terrorist on a wanted list - and there was little to indicate a deceptive appeal by the bomber to be accepted as a "repentant" jihadist.
So it appears the prince simply ordered his plane sent to pick Asiri up, and the terrorist arrived at the prince's office where he triggered his bomb, doing almost no damage except to himself. Even the nature of the bomb itself has yet to be clarified, with explanations ranging from use of a cell phone in which explosives were hidden to concealment of a deadly object in the terrorist's bodily cavity.
Absent a clear account from the Saudis, guesswork, which would normally count for little in such a case, is the only way at present to attempt elucidation of the Jeddah bombing - and of many other aspects of the Saudi situation. Among Saudis, rumors proliferate daily. In a commentary posted in English by the Saudi-based Al Arabiya broadcast system, Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned London daily Sharq Al-Awsat (The Middle East) described the survival of prince Muhammad as a religious miracle. According to Alhomayed, in the room where the bomber triggered the blast, "blood splattered in almost every corner, and a hole in the roof [was] caused by the terrorist's flying body-parts… [but] despite the fact that the terrorist was on the left of Prince Muhammad, the area where Prince Muhammad was standing was not stained with any blood."
Alhomayed averred that ordinary Saudis continue to question their reality, but all the issues he brought up for debate reflected on King Abdullah's reform program rather than the Jeddah mystery. Why, Alhomayed asked, "does the ruler develop his system of government… especially when this is a very sensitive issue to the ruling house? Why does the King initiate major changes in vital areas which affect people's lives and the country, from changes in the judiciary to changes in other ministries? Why, when the King implements these changes, do those who refuse to accept the development of the education system, the curriculum, and the refinement of religious discourse oppose him?" Very few Saudis ask such questions. The answers are obvious: the kingdom needs to modernize, and Wahhabi fanatics oppose change. Alhomayed's discourse, like the transcript of the discussion between Asiri and Prince Muhammad, was opaque. While Alhomayed called on the Saudi authorities to prepare for people to ask for explanations from them, none of the imagined questions had to do with security measures that did not work, a bomb that did not kill anybody but its bearer, and a branch of Al-Qaeda with little recorded action in the kingdom.
At the end of August, Muhammad's father Nayef defended the habit of welcoming terrorists into the homes of the powerful, saying "This incident will not change this policy by which we open the door for those who repent… In this country we are targeted... The situation could change and could intensify, not in terms of the number (of attacks) but rather in their nature, and that is more dangerous." What that was supposed to mean was left unexplained. But it could indicate that Nayef and his hard liners are preparing a provocation or coup to halt Abdullah's reforms, elementary as they are, and that Abdullah bin Hassan bin Taleh Asiri was merely a participant in an elaborate subterfuge.
Eight years after the atrocities of 9/11, certain unquestionable facts remain about the world's strangest country. Saudi Arabia has never formed a "9/11 commission" or issued a report disclosing the links between powerful Saudis and Al-Qaeda. Until now, Al-Qaeda has never acted against the royal family, notwithstanding official Saudi claims - as echoed by Nayef - that the dynasty's overthrow is the goal of Osama Bin Laden. And while the Saudi anti-terror program claims a high rate of success, it has also admitted failures.
It is an irony of Islam that the much-overused insult "unbeliever" - qafir - literally means "concealer of the truth." Saudi Arabia has succeeded better than any other authoritarian state in history in the art of concealment. In a break with Wahhabi-ordered custom, Saudi Arabia currently allows archeologists to excavate pre-Islamic ruins in the kingdom, but then orders the public barred from them if they include ancient Christian churches. The state's top religious administration has banned distribution of swine flu information in mosques if it includes pictures of living creatures - an action treated by Saudi liberals as a defeat for King Abdullah's reforms. And recently, in yet another incident lacking transparency, 660 Chinese laborers, out of 5,000 contracted from China to build a high-speed railway between Jeddah, Medina and Mecca , announced that they had embraced Islam, in response to native Saudi complaints about the hiring of foreigners while the kingdom suffers from the global economic crisis. No other explanation for the sudden religious affirmation was provided.
King Abdullah and his reformist adherents, if they are truly dedicated to modernization and normalization of the country, should take a major lesson from Kremlinology. No concealment lasts forever, though it may take more than administrative reforms for Saudi subjects, and the world, to find out what really happened in Prince Muhammad's office not long ago. And even if Abdullah's reforms and interfaith blandishments succeed, Saudi Arabia may still justify suspicion by the rest of the world.