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dr. madawi al-rasheed

A historian and currently a lecturer in social anthropology at King's College, London, Dr. al-Rasheed's books include A History of Saudi Arabia and Politics in an Arabian Oasis, an account of her ancestors' early tribal dynasty. Here, she offers a clear and concise overview of the history of Saudi Arabia -- from the founding of the modern Al Saud dynasty in the early 20th century and the '70s oil boom that transformed the kingdom, to the crisis that confronted the monarchy over whether to depose King Saud, the ramifications of the '79 seizure of the Great Mosque, and the impact on the country of the 1980s Afghan War and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. This interview was conducted by producer Jihan El-Tahri in April 2003 in London.

You come from a family that was directly concerned with the story of ibn Saud taking over Riyadh in 1902. Were you told stories about this as a child?

The story of the formation of Saudi Arabia really starts for any Saudi at a very young age. It starts with the story of an exiled [Abd al-Aziz] ibn Saud in Kuwait who manages to get together with a number of supporters -- some people say 40 people; others say 60 -- and they sort of ride on camels and arrive in Riyadh and surround the castle. Then a battle takes place between the arriving group and the governors of Riyadh. This battle lasts for probably a couple of days, and then at the end of that, ibn Saud manages to kill the governor of Riyadh and announces in the city -- in the town at the time; I wouldn't call it a city -- that he's back, and he has restored his ancestors' right to rule in Riyadh.

Any Saudi who grows up in Saudi Arabia at a very young age [is] told this story in probably the history lessons that they will have. But obviously, as one grows older, one is more open to hearing different stories and different versions of the same story, and through some research and work one gets to know the complexity of that era, 1902. But obviously, not everybody is prepared to go in depth and investigating the story of the formation of Saudi Arabia. In my case, I have made it my profession and career, as I am interested in the history of the country. ...

And as a Rasheed, are you told any details to further the understanding of the story?

Obviously, yes. As a child in Saudi Arabia, one grows up with a rich oral tradition. It is a society that is characterized by storytelling. [In the] Rasheed household, I got exposed to different kinds of stories, and I actually grew up knowing the consequences of the establishment of the state of Saudi Arabia on my immediate family.

photo of dr. madawi al-rasheed
...from the late 1970's throughout the 1980's ... we have the beginning of an Islamist opposition emerging within Saudi Arabia in line with what is happening in other parts of the Muslim Arab world.

Which was what?

Which was living in a country where it was so obvious that there was some kind of -- if you want to call it dynasty or emirate that I belonged to, or my ancestors belonged to. And then there was this point in history when this dynasty ceased to exist, and now we are in Riyadh. So obviously we had to explain to ourselves why we are in Riyadh and the consequences of that, of living in Riyadh in the 1960s when I was growing up there.

After ibn Saud took over Riyadh, [he tried to] recreate a dynasty and an empire almost. How did he go about doing this?

The Saudi official story states that in 1902, Saudi Arabia actually came into being. But obviously the process took a very long period of time, over 30 years. And it was from the very beginning very much like the tribal raids that used to take place in Arabia before the 20th century. Ibn Saud would gather a small group of supporters, and they would launch an expansionist battle with the aim of conquering other territories.

So from Riyadh, there was expansion in southern Najd. Later on, there was an expansion towards the Qasim region in the middle of Saudi Arabia. After that, the Eastern Province [Ash Sharqiyah], which is today the host of the oil reserves of the country -- in 1913 there was an expansion in that direction, because one has to understand that Najd itself, even at that time, it was not really a very rich or prosperous region. It's locked in the middle of the country, and there was a strong need to expand towards the Gulf, for example, because that was an important trade route with the outside world. After the Eastern Province, then attention was turned to the Hijaz because of the importance of the Hijaz as a center for Islamic worship. Mecca and Medina are there, and also because of its symbolic significance to all Muslims. So the stages of the unification of Arabia took place over an extended period of time, and it was basically a battle after battle adding up to the unification that ended in 1932 with the incorporation of Najd, Asir, Hasa in one entity.

According to historical records, there are two groups that supported this expansion. The first group consisted of the sedentary people of Najd, the people who were in the majority oasis dwellers who lived in these centers and who aspired for some kind of security. They thought that by joining the forces of ibn Saud, there was this prospect of having a settled life.

The second force that was important consisted of the tribal groups who were actually recruited into a fighting force that is well known now, and it is called the Ikhwan. The Ikhwan were mainly recruited from various tribes in Arabia, and they were initially asked to live a sedentary life in order to sort of Islamize them. And I use the word Islamize because that was an important project. They thought that by allowing these tribal groups who had had a nomadic lifestyle, if they settled down and were introduced to the basic tenets of Islam, they would actually be more conducive to the process of building the state. So the Ikhwan were an important fighting force that supported the expansion of ibn Saud.

Who are the Ikhwan?

The Ikhwan were tribal people from various tribes, the Mutayr and Unayzah and other tribes, who responded to this call. But there was also a pragmatic element in this. They would join in the fighting, but at the same time they had several rewards for joining the fighting, for expanding the hegemony of ibn Saud. They were rewarded after battles. They had to take what is called ghaneema -- booty, basically. Some of them were driven by a kind of zeal, a kind of Islamic mission, to spread Islam, but others had the objective of getting that booty after the wars are over.

Were they feared?

Obviously they were feared in, especially, Hijaz when they arrived there, because they had been indoctrinated into a kind of Islam that was uncompromising, that regarded the practices of other Muslims as basically a kind of innovation. They had this vision that they propagated through Islam in its purest form. So anything they encountered that differed from that vision was regarded as objectionable.

For example?

There are different cases. In the Eastern Province, which is inhabited by a very large Shi'a community, they would regard any practices by the Shi'a -- for example, celebrating their festivals -- as objectionable. In the Hijaz school, for example, which had a very cosmopolitan population -- it had lots of contacts with the outside world; with Egypt, mainly, and other areas -- its own population was cosmopolitan in the sense that the hajj brought about people from different regions from the Islamic world who settled in the Hijaz.

And obviously, at that time, there was a mixture of Islamic practices like we witness today. There were Sufi orders; there were coffeehouses where people sat drinking tea and also smoking the hubblebubble [hookah]. All these practices were regarded as un-Islamic, and the whole region had to be so-called Islamized by the Ikhwan. So there was a conflict between those groups and the inhabitants, the local inhabitants of these regions that came into contact with them, throughout the first three decades of the 20th century. ...

Well, the Ikhwan basically fulfilled their function, a very important function. They were very instrumental in expanding the realm of ibn Saud. But when the battles stopped in the late 1920s -- after 1925, there were really no major battles to take place -- the process of consolidating the state began, and here we have the problem, because the Ikhwan could not be restrained and could not actually be made to recognize that there is a new situation now.

There are foreign powers around Arabia, mainly the British, who would not accept any intrusion into their territories -- for example, in Transjordan and Iraq, [and] also in Kuwait -- and the Ikhwan did not recognize the reality of the situation. So when ibn Saud tried to restrain them and asked them not to launch attacks into these territories, they rebelled. And that was the rebellion of the Ikhwan in 1927.

Well, basically the rebellion was put down by sheer force. That was the outcome. Ibn Saud did seek the help of the British. The Royal Air Force that was based in Kuwait at the time chased them across the border and captured the leader of the Ikhwan, Faisal al-Dawish, and returned him to ibn Saud, and ibn Saud put him in prison. And he eventually died in prison, and the rebellion came to an end. Obviously before that, he tried reconciliation with them. He tried to bring them to a so-called negotiating table by restraining them, but all these kind of attempts didn't really succeed, and the final resort was to use force.

Up to that point, the ulama supported ibn Saud. And up to that stage, the ulama really regarded themselves as the moral guardians of the realm, and they were happy to give opinions on, for example, introducing the telegraph, introducing the cars. All these kinds of technology, all this kind of novelty, they gave an opinion on it.

In the majority of cases they accepted the argument that they needed to be pragmatic. But when the Ikhwan rebellions started, they were called upon in order to justify suppressing the Ikhwan. So the ulama of Riyadh gave their fatwa that the leader of the Ikhwan rebellion, Faisal al-Dawish, was outside the realm of Islam, and ibn Saud was justified in punishing him and using violence against him, although he was a Muslim.

So from that moment, they actually changed their role, the ulama, and they became almost like a force to be used to sanction politics. And that was the crucial moment in 1927 when they were used in that capacity. So they gave their authorization, and ibn Saud went ahead with pacifying the Ikhwan.

Did he trick them into it? How were the ulama led to do that?

Well, remember, the ulama ceased to be an independent force. I mean, they started getting salaries from the Treasury, so they became employees of the state, and how could employees object or give opinions that are really not acceptable if their livelihood was dependent on this new political authority that is crystallized in ibn Saud's realm? So they have linked their destiny with that of the new state, and it was very difficult to detach themselves after that. It was only later on, several decades later, that they were trying to have some kind of independence or maneuver.

And what happened to the Ikhwan?

Well, obviously their leaders -- and there were several -- were imprisoned. And Faisal al-Dawish died later, as I mentioned. Others were under house arrest. But obviously they could not imprison whole tribes. So gradually they were pacified through using different means, the carrot and the stick, basically. They were able to allow them to live in Saudi Arabia and also to prosper. Some of them were later on recruited in the National Guard. A lot of the tribal groups became the core of the National Guard in Saudi Arabia. So they were given a military role which was in the line of their previous lifestyle as tribal people.

[Abd al-Aziz] ibn Saud is usually portrayed as this amazing man, and there are all sorts of stories about his lifestyle. What were you told about him?

Well, like any historical figure, you're bound to have some legendary stories surrounding him, and I think if you read Saudi history, you'd find that lot of the literature falls into categories. There is one category that is often produced under the sponsorship of the Saudi state that glorifies ibn Saud as this historical figure that manages to return to Riyadh from his exile with only 60 men to create the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. ... But there are other stories that portray him as a real human being, as a natural human being who was assisted by certain historical factors, [a] certain historical context that made the project of unifying Arabia more possible at the time, at the beginning of the 20th century.

So there are opposed views, and I, as a historian, social anthropologist, I tend to look at both sides, and I don't privilege one, although I'm of the opinion that historical figures are important, but they have to be present at the right time and at the right historical moment to have some effect on the course of events. People do not operate in isolation. They operate within a context, and it's very important to understand the context in order to appreciate the role of these historical figures.

I think that ibn Saud was very clever in the sense that he knew how to operate in a world that was on the verge of a major war -- that is, the First World War -- in the sense that Arabia was normally under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, and the most natural thing for him was to ally himself with the Ottomans. But he didn't. He chose to ally himself with a power that was very new in central Arabia, and that is the British. The British had a major presence on the coast of Arabia for several decades before the First World War, and ibn Saud managed to maintain a contact with them that helped him a lot in this project. So in a way, he was able to side with the winning party very early on. And in that sense, he was able to carry on his own project under the sponsorship and the patronage of the British. ...

In the context of Arabia, wealth, in the sense of real wealth, didn't really start until the 1940s, perhaps later on. And in a society with very underdeveloped means of communication -- remember, we're talking here about Arabia before the radio, before the car, before the television, before the newspaper -- how would people know about this new power that is emerging?

And there was one way of doing that which actually builds on the tradition of this region, and that is mainly for a leader to show his qualities of leadership, to hold feasts and invite guests to come and eat. And this feast becomes the symbol of a new realm that ibn Saud was in the process of establishing. People from different parts of the country would come and attend wide and open gatherings where they'd be served meat and rice, but also, at the same time, they would probably be given a gift, a reward for coming and greeting the new leader.

So this was a common tradition and also, in addition to the hospitality that was taking place in Riyadh itself, the king traveled in different parts of the country, and his royal court would move with him, and wherever they stopped en route, they would hold a feast, and lots of Bedouins would come and eat and enjoy that hospitality. ... It's almost like a bribe. You gain loyalty from citizens by offering them food and also cash handouts. And the system continues even today in Saudi Arabia. ...

But most of the decision making is actually done in the majlis?

The majlis is an interesting institution in Saudi Arabia. There are different types of majalis. There is the formal majlis, where an important personality holds a gathering, usually in the afternoon, and people come and greet the person. Some of them may have a petition or a request, a specific request that they will hand over [to] the person. But there are other majalis that are purely for entertainment and purely for social functions. So not every majlis is a political one. There are some majalis, gatherings, that are really for personal, private entertainment or social entertainment.

But the important events, the important gatherings, majalis, tend to be very formal, and it is not a place to express dissent. ... I would disagree with the point of view that the majlis is a form of democracy or an Arabian version of democracy. ...

After this period, around the time of the oil concession, it wasn't that easy to get foreigners in. How were the foreigners perceived, and how did ibn Saud go about getting what he wanted?

The oil concession took place at a very important time. You have to remember that in the early 1930s, there was a world recession, and also there was a desperate need for cash in Saudi Arabia as a result of the decline of the number of pilgrims who were visiting Mecca, which was actually a very important source of income for the Treasury. So there were talks about looking for oil in the country, and ibn Saud did actually accept that from the very beginning.

Now, how to serve the idea to those elements in society who would object to the concession? It wasn't actually brought or discussed as looking for oil. The main concern at the time was water. So as long as there were geological missions trying to search for water, that was fine.

But you have also to remember that these searchers, people who arrived, were not in the middle of the population or in the areas where there is a high concentration of the population. Most of them were in the deserts, and as long as they had the right number of guards and vehicles, they were able to move freely. So they were always accompanied by security people who would look after them and make sure that there were no clashes with local people.

Then the oil concession was signed in 1933, and obviously the Americans won the concession, and the way ibn Saud dealt with it was going back to the Quran and trying to concentrate on the verses of the Quran which defines relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. So on a Friday, during the Friday prayer, he would actually [chastise] his khatib, his imam of the mosque, for reading verses from the Quran which highlight antagonism between Muslims and non-Muslims. ...

Why did ibn Saud move towards America rather than staying with Britain?

Britain was obviously the most influential power at the time around Arabia ... but [the Americans] offered a better deal than other oil companies that were British at the time. ... The relationship at the political level came later.

Initially, the USA recognized that Britain had an interest in Arabia, and they respected that until the Second World War. So American oil interests came before political interest. And in a way, according to some historians, the American oil companies dragged the American political administration into Arabia at a larger stage. ... At the beginning, up to the 1930s, '40s, the bond was purely economic. There was the oil company, who were ready to invest in the infrastructure, develop the region, basically digging for oil and searching for it in return for the reward. So it was a very important economic relationship.

Later on, the political relationship was built on that economic relationship, and it changed throughout the years. ... Saudi Arabia was almost seen by the Americans as the only remaining power in the region that could put an end to, for example, communist threats throughout the 1980s.

The interesting thing about American-Saudi relations is that it was sealed at the meeting between ibn Saud and [Franklin] Roosevelt on the [U.S.S.] Quincy. And in that meeting, obviously, a new kind of relationship was beginning to develop. America now was ready to put the political power behind its economic interest, and that meeting was very important in the sense that it brought about this American interest at a political level.

Ibn Saud, the mythical figure, was replaced by his son King Saud. What was he like?

Saud was a crown prince before the death of his father. So in 1952, when ibn Saud died, it was almost like a natural progression; he became king. But at the same time, throughout the 1950s, there were some serious problems with the Saudi economy and also with certain debts that Saud inherited from his father, but also added to them, and the state of the Saudi economy was actually not very promising. On the top of that, there were internal divisions within the Saudi royal family and also rivalries that led to a crisis which resulted in Saud losing his throne and abdicating.

Saud was an interesting figure. Obviously he belonged to the generation that accompanied ibn Saud throughout his years, because he was old enough to witness the battles for the unification of Arabia, and he was very close to his father. But in terms of his suitability to rule at the time, he was seen as belonging to almost a generation that is really not suitable for the modern world. But again, there was no question about him not being the king given the fact that he was appointed by his father to be the successor.

In terms of self-indulgence, obviously he was excessive in the sense that he started building palaces and also having an extravagant lifestyle which was not appropriate given the economic situation in Saudi Arabia at the time, and that was used against him when his brother challenged the rule. ...

The '50s were times, I think, of turmoil in the Arab world, and Saudis began to respond to this in terms of showing sympathy towards the crisis in Palestine. Now, this wasn't translated at the top level in the sense that there was a concern with these issues. Saud continued with his lifestyle, with his extravagance, without actually paying attention to what was going on in the Arab world, and that became obvious, especially when his authority was challenged by his brother Faisal.

But then, [at] the same time, he was obsessed, almost, with communism.

Remember, this was also the Cold War, the beginning of the Cold War, and fear of communism was strong in Saudi Arabia, not only from the economic consequences but also on religious grounds. Communism was regarded as an "ism" that is not suitable for a Muslim country like Saudi Arabia. There was a concern about revolutionary forces in the Arab world. Even Arab nationalism became threatening to Saud.

King Saud went to America [in 1957]. Why did that visit happen, and what were the consequences?

It was the first time a Saudi king visited America. Saud decides he should go there. Remember, it happened after 1956, the Suez crisis, and America was seen as perhaps a counterforce to that of Britain and France, and obviously America sided with the Arab cause against the British and the French interests. So it was in a way an attempt to sort out this new power that is emerging in the field, and also it was an attempt to negotiate certain benefits and also certain deals in terms of modernizing Saudi Arabia, in terms of improving infrastructure, in terms of asking for American expertise. ...

The trip [to] the USA was also meant to deal with urgent issues such as the renewal of the lease for the Dhahran Air Base that was granted to America in the Second World War. Saud was interested in discussing the outcome, discussing the prospects of renewal. ...

The crisis between King Saud and Faisal -- to what extent was it a real crisis?

The conflict between Saud and Faisal was very serious, and it was actually one of the first events in Saudi history that could have threatened the foundation of the state, because the split was not only between two individuals, between Saud and Faisal, but it was also between different groups within the royal family.

As Saud left the throne in 1964 and Faisal took hold of the government, things began to improve in Saudi Arabia in the direction that a sense of stability at the top level was achieved. But the crisis was very important. It was threatening the survival of the royal family -- not only the Saudi state, but the royal family itself -- because of this schism that took place between those who supported Saud and those who supported Faisal. And that coincided also with the rise of Arab nationalism, Nasserism and all these pan-Arab movements that were actually targeting the Saudi state in their rhetoric -- at least as a state that is not in compliance with what is required from an Arab state.

Well, obviously Saud was not going to leave the throne peacefully. He was going to put [up] a fight, and even some members of the royal family, perhaps the seniors, were trying to mediate. The crisis reached a point where different groups took sides and also with them had the military force in order to protect them, and they did mobilize the National Guard, but eventually Saud succumbs to pressure by senior members of the family and he left for Greece. And that, in a way, solved the problem for him. ...

Faisal, the moment he came to power, it was obvious that he showed a serious dislike to all those so-called revolutionary ideas that were circulating in the Arab world. So obviously Baathism, Nasserism, pan-Arab movements, all those kinds of "isms" were rejected by Faisal because he saw them as a threat to the integrity of the Saudi state and the survival of the Saudi state. So in a way, Faisal tried to promote an Islamic rhetoric to replace those kinds of "isms", and in a way, he presented himself as a modernizer in Saudi Arabia, but he called for modernization within an Islamic framework.

So it appealed to people because it was an authentic, an indigenous kind of modernization, but at the same time, ironically, he developed a very close alliance with the Americans and American involvement in Saudi Arabia at the level of economic growth, at the level of training, at the level of military expertise. ...

Faisal was probably one of the most suitable kings in Saudi Arabia to call for this Islamic modernization given that he was brought up in Islamic tradition. He was surrounded by the ulama, and even his grandparents from his mother's side -- his grandfather was an important member of the ulama. So he was brought up with Islamic ideals at a very young age. ...

He had to surmount some obstacles in introducing girls' schools.

Obviously the introduction of female education was a great event in Saudi Arabia. I would have been illiterate if they did not have schools, and in fact, I was lucky to go to one of the early private schools that were established in the capital in the '60s. So female education did cause some problems for the king, but he was able to overcome them because female education was put under the direction of a separate body that would control the curriculum and make sure that what the girls are taught in schools is actually suitable for them as girls and as women. So in that way, he managed to reconcile the need for female education and also the requirements of the ulamas. ...

After this period of modernization, the money starts flowing, and you call it the age of commissions. Tell us about the '70s, the boom years.

In the '70s, with the rise in oil prices following the oil embargo in 1973, Saudis were overwhelmed by the new possibilities that this new wealth was going to bring. It allowed [them] to travel abroad; it allowed them to immerse themselves in consumerism; it allowed them to have holidays in different countries. It also allowed them at a basic level to have the services that were needed. There was a terrible expansion in building. The growth in the infrastructure of the country, airports, schools, hospitals, all that was very much the product of the oil wealth of the 1970s.

And at the same time, the 1970s was an age when you begin to have a new class emerging, people who were ready to engage themselves in business activities and also engage in commissions, the ability to provide services for the government and at the same time extract a commission. So there's a whole group of people who actually benefited from this oil boom, and not only at the top level, but it went down to various sections of society.

Describe to me, for example, how a Saudi prince would be living during that period.

First of all, he would start by building a new house, and in the majority of cases, there were land schemes that the government started initiating. For example, people could apply for a piece of land, and princes got the best lands in town, and they were able to get it for free and build and construct a house which would actually have all the facilities that modern-day life allows them. If you have money, you'll be able to engage in that consumerism -- refurbish a house, buy cars.

And then we get at different levels, the age when you travel abroad: You have yachts; you have other secondary private residences abroad. But obviously that was not available to every Saudi. And the problem with the 1970s is that although the majority of Saudis benefited from it, there were bound to be those who benefited more than others, and this was beginning to create resentment towards the end of that period, especially as we move on to the 1980s.

The rapid pace of modernity, was it scary? Were there debates about it?

At the personal level, yes, there were debates about what is allowed to be done and what is not allowed, which consumer products are suitable for a Muslim society, which are not. So at each level there was debate about how much can we modernize but at the same time retain our Islamic heritage, our Islamic authenticity. ... Obviously the oil wealth brought to the forefront the image of Saudi Arabia as a country that is responsible towards Muslims, and Faisal in particular promoted that image of Saudi Arabia, which he now could substantiate given the amount of money available to him.

So obviously the Palestinian cause becomes an important cause, and serious funds had to be dedicated to its realization. And Saudi Arabia at that time had to be seen as doing something, as a Muslim country with that incredible wealth. It had to be seen as supporting Muslims abroad, and the first responsibility was towards the Palestinian cause. ...

Saudi help, financial support -- for example, building mosques and schools -- that was appreciated at the time. But now it has become a problem because obviously it is linked to a particular kind of religious preaching which, in the eyes of the U.S., is responsible for terrorism and for hatred, etc., etc. But that's a different issue. Saudi support, financial support to Muslims throughout the 1970s and '80s, was actually appreciated, and there was no question mark over it. To help build a school or ship copies of the Quran to a distant location in Africa where Muslims actually could learn the basic principles of their faith was regarded as something that should be encouraged. ...

King Khalid comes to power in 1975. Did he want it?

King Khalid was really an unfortunate figure. He did become king, but his period of reign was uneventful with the exception of 1979. He wasn't seen as a strong character who was able to do anything that was different, and he lived on the legacy of his brother King Faisal basically until 1979, when the country, Saudi Arabia, and in fact the whole of the Muslim world, were shocked by the siege of the [Great] Mosque [al-Haram] by what is called the neo-Ikhwan, who managed during the hajj season, the pilgrimage, to have a siege. And it was so obvious that this was only the manifestation of something serious going on in Saudi Arabia, and that is the growth of a particular group with Islamic ideology, with Islamic teaching, Islamic upbringing. They're trying to challenge the status quo using Islamic rhetoric, and this is the movement of Juhayman [al-Utaybi], who was the leader of this group. ...

In a way, the movement and the siege of the Mosque was a manifestation of a growing dissatisfaction with the ruling group in the sense that the demands of the rebels, their slogans, were all pointing to the corruption of the ruling group, to its relationship with what they called the "infidels" -- basically the USA -- and because of that, I think, the rebels were not a small coterie or a small group of people. In fact, they represented a growing tendency, a growing movement in Saudi Arabia that was hostile towards the policies of the ruling group and, in particular, its relationship with the USA. ...

So Juhayman, who was he, and what were his demands?

Well, Juhayman belongs to one of the main tribal groups in Saudi Arabia. And in a sense, he was reaching the conclusion that the Saudi ulama had in a way not lived up to the expectation in the sense that they have allied themselves with the ruling group and they have ceased to be a force that can represent a critical check on power. So his critique was that the ulama had become accomplices in the policies of the state. ...

The Mecca siege in 1979 was a wake-up call, perhaps, that things in Saudi Arabia were not going as smoothly as expected, or as was believed to be the case. In a way, it opened up the door to future debates that began to crystallize in the '80s and in the 1990s. We have the beginning of a movement that highlighted certain inadequacies at the level of leadership, and it was beginning to criticize this leadership using Islamic rhetoric.

In the 1960s and 1970s, perhaps, the early years, most of the political ideology was coming from the Arab world. Critics of the Saudi government used Arab nationalism, used Nasserism, used Baathism, to criticize the government and voice an opposition. But from the late 1970s throughout the 1980s, opposition began to crystallize around an indigenous solution; that is, mainly Islam. So we have the beginning of an Islamist opposition emerging in Saudi Arabia in line with what is happening in other parts of the Muslim world, and mainly in the Arab world.

Osama bin Laden was an outcome of this period. How?

I think Osama bin Laden was a product of those last three decades in Saudi Arabia. Remember at the time, in the '70s, there was an expansion of religious education. There were religious universities being formed. There was quite a lot of theoretical debate, theological debate within these universities about the nature of the just ruler, about the role of Islam in politics. All these kind of new outlets allowed a whole generation of Saudis to be exposed to Islamic discourse about politics, religion, morality, etc., as they began to be taught formally in universities or institutions of higher learning.

Was the seizure of the Great Mosque a precursor?

The seizure of the Mosque was portrayed in the media as an isolated event. Once the rebels gave up, some of them were killed and others were arrested and hanged later on. There was not talk about discovering a movement. There was talk about Juhayman and his followers who seized the Mosque, and they were actually terminated.

But at the time, with all the restriction on the media and broadcasting in Saudi Arabia, it wasn't known that this was the beginning of a movement that may have wider implications than the people who actually seized the Mosque, which were counted as 200 people at the time, an insignificant number really. But obviously there were sympathizers, and at the time, it wasn't recognized as such.

In the 1980s, there was an exodus of young religious volunteers towards Afghanistan.

I mentioned that the Saudi religious education and also the institutions of higher learning began to produce masses of young graduates who were very well conversant in Islamic theology, but who could not really be absorbed easily in the economy. And the Afghanistan war, the liberation of Afghanistan from the Soviets in the '80s, provided an opportunity to absorb some of these Saudi youths. And this was actually encouraged by the government, who probably saw it as a way to release some of the tension, but they didn't realize the potential for an exploding situation later on to emerge from the involvement of Saudis in Afghanistan.

So lot of Saudis, young men, traveled to Afghanistan, encouraged by the Saudi government in order to fulfill their desire for jihad against the communism or the Soviet army at the time. But the problem started when they came back to Saudi Arabia, and also the radicalization of this group. They had acquired military skills in training camps in Afghanistan. They had acquired certain levels of expertise in conducting warfare. So when they came back, this coincided with the Gulf War 1990-1991 and also the view among sections of Saudi Arabian society that Saudi Arabia should not invite American troops to liberate Kuwait.

And here we have an escalation of the problem. We have those returnees, Arab Afghan returnees, coupled with a new situation that presented itself with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the liberation of Kuwait. ...

How did you react when you heard the Iraqi troops had invaded Kuwait?

... The invasion of Kuwait was an event that wasn't really not expected in the sense that after Iraq finished the war with Iran, there was quite a lot of tension in the relationship between Iraq and the rest of the Gulf States, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iraq was in debt, and some kind of clash was bound to take place. So the invasion was in a sense daring, but not completely unexpected.

And for Saudi Arabia, what did it mean?

For Saudi Arabia, it brought the whole problem of its own security at the forefront. Saudi Arabia was very scared at the time that the Iraqi army would continue its road to the Eastern Province. I didn't think they thought that it would reach Riyadh, but I thought that the Eastern Province where the oil reserves are began to be seen as possibly under potential attack from Iraq, and there was this fear in Saudi Arabia that this would happen. ...

The main concern during the Gulf War was to prevent any encroachment on Saudi territory, to stop it there where it had reached. Why was the Saudi army not up to it?

First of all, in terms of numbers, it was not a match for the Iraqi army at the time. ... This brought up the problem of, how could you justify spending so much money on an army that can't be used for any real combat situation? And this brought to the forefront this problem with the corruption, the commissions, the military contracts and the inability of a sovereign state to defend itself in case of outside aggression. ...

Immediately after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, there was this proposition that the Arab Afghans could be used to liberate Kuwait, but obviously that wasn't going to take place. So there were strong objections. First of all, I am not sure whether their numbers would actually allow such an operation; I don't know whether their training would have allowed it. But it was a symbolic gesture, I think, that we could liberate Kuwait using our own resources rather than resources of an outside power. ...

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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