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dr. sulaiman al-hattlan

He is an American-educated Saudi journalist and columnist for the Saudi daily newspaper, Al Watan. Here, he talks about why intolerance and extremism took root in Saudi society following the relatively liberal decades of the '50, '60s and '70s, and he explains the difficult situation facing people like himself who want to challenge the conventional wisdom that "Saudia Arabia is perfect, the West is bad." Near the end of his interview he talks about some of the positive things that are slowly happening despite the obstacles: "My father's generation was happy with whatever the government was saying. My generation is critical of almost everything the government is doing, which is a positive thing to have." This interview was conducted by producer Martin Smith on Dec. 10, 2004 in Riyadh.

I want to help an American audience understand [the role of religion in Saudi Arabia]. Americans are used to separation of church and state…

…Unfortunately, throughout the past forty years, religion has become a factor in the political game within the kingdom, which means religion somehow has been used as what I call the Saudi McCarthyism. Meaning religion could be a tool of oppression, for political or social or whatever reason people use religion. I'm proud of being a Muslim. I practice my religion, but that doesn't mean I have to be enslaved by certain regulations of religion for whatever political reason.

What's an example of how religion is used as a form of McCarthyism?

It's extremely difficult to talk about the progress of ideas related to woman, for example, because immediately the answer will be, "Hey, remember we are a Muslim society. This land is the land of the Holy Mosque." We have Mecca and Medina, which is something very great we are proud to have. But that should not stop us from talking about progress of ideas in terms of the woman's position in the society -- political reform, social reform. I feel somehow we are really threatened, and when I say "we," I'm talking about intellectuals, writers, activists. Religion could be a tool of oppression for, as I say, mainly political reasons, to stop us from criticizing certain social norms in our society.

How does that work? How does the government use religion?

Not only the government. Certain groups within the society want to dominate the social agenda of the Saudi society: extremists, fundamentalists, you name it.

photo of dr. sulaiman al-hattlan
I think the educational system in Saudi Arabia, especially since 1979  gave people dangerous tools, tools to teach people how to hate.

Pardon me, but that makes it sound like more of a democracy than it is. When you talk about extremist groups that's the expression of people. It's a grassroots kind of organization, but, in fact, nothing really happens here without the government's decision.

But if you don't have protection for everybody in the society to express his or her idea, then this is not a democracy. I mean, I like to see my society appreciating the idea of diversity of opinions, even opinions that disagree with my own. The problem is you really have to use this cliché: "Religion is an important aspect of our society."

Yes, we know, but define religion when you talk about religion. What religion are we talking about? Islam is huge and prevalent. Are we talking about Wahhabism? Then be direct and talk about one form of interpretation of Islam in Saudi society. But Wahhabism has become a very controversial ideology even among us here in Saudi Arabia. Then again it depends on how to interpret religion, and how to define the term religion.

In the history of the country you've seen the Al Saud family in its alliance with the Wahhabists, with Ikhwan, at various times shift the strength of that alliance. In the early seventies before '79, you see a kind of opening, a kind of shift away from fundamentalism. What was happening in the seventies in Saudi Arabia?

I'm not a historian .… but I think the policy of the government or policies of the government in the seventies were more practical and were settled somehow. I mean the money was good and the oil was doing well and the Saudi educated who came back from the schools in the U.S. came back with a great intention and insistence on developing their countries. Until we reached 1979. And that year was, as I'm sure you know, was a critical period in our recent history.

So what happened and what effect did it have and how did the government respond?

…The biggest mistake in our recent history is [when] we killed the extremists of 1979. But a few months after we killed them, we adopted their ideology. We gave them what they wanted when they were alive. In every level in our society -- I'm talking about the educational system, I'm talking about the needed discourse, I'm talking about the relationship between the government and the people, I'm talking about even the relationship between people and the people -- we started competing on how to appear more conservative just to protect our reputation and to protect sometimes our safety. Terms like "liberals," "seculars," "Americanized" were and still [are], in fact, terms of alienation, terms of exclusion. We had to act. We had to pretend we were something that we actually were not. And this culture of hypocrisy was a result of our reaction to 1979 I think.

Why did the events of '79 force the government to feel that it had to adopt the program of those that had challenged it?

Before that year I think the government enjoyed a long time of stability, and there was no group that challenged the power of the government for whatever reason. Perhaps the society was developing, the society was happy with whatever the economy was doing, etc. Then in 1979, I think it gave the government an indication [of what] might challenge in a strong way.

Of course we had some communists here and there. We had some liberals who wanted to develop the way the government worked. But there was no real hostile challenge and, in fact, bloody challenge before 1979 or at the level of the group of Juhayman al-Utaybi in 1979.

| Read more about Juhayman al-Utaybi and the events of 1979 in "House of Saud: A Chronology."

I think perhaps the government found it easier to say, "Look, if the society wants to be conservative, let them be conservative. We'll help them be conservative as long as nobody will come to challenge our power." And that was a huge mistake in my opinion.

Most people in the United States think that Saudi Arabia has always been conservative, that there was no real opening, and this backlash that took place in the 1980s is not well known. It really was that you could see the liberalization taking place around you prior to '79? Was it actually visible?

Well, the society was tolerant in a very genuine way. I mean people were struggling to survive, and in many ways they enjoyed whatever they had. Religion was not really the way it has been … it wasn't as imposed on people's everyday life as it has become since 1979.

Give me examples of that.

Just one example was: If you go to before 1979, if you go to my small village in Saudi Arabia people did not go to schools. People did not speak English. People did not get really good jobs in the government. People mainly were farmers and shepherds. Yet if a foreigner like yourself came to the village everybody [would] run to [you], [would] be very proud to have you coming to his home.

I'm very angry at this stage to say that I will be very nervous to take you to my village [today]. And the question is, What has happened? Why? And again I think that education is sometimes worse than no education. I mean, what is the education actually when we define education? Education is a tool to take you from somewhere to somewhere else. So the so-called education in many places in Saudi Arabia took people from a tolerance and the natural way of living life into a process of complications. You have to define people by religions, by cultures, by their interpretation of their own religion itself.

So I think the educational system in Saudi Arabia, especially since 1979 -- the whole culture of education in Saudi Arabia -- gave people dangerous tools, tools to teach people how to hate. Tools of anger. And not tools of understanding the reality of the world. Not tools of creating bridges with the West, the East, everywhere else. That is the real problem of the education. And when we talk about educational system in a very critical way here in Saudi Arabia, people immediately look at us as these westernized liberals who want to impose an American educational system on our schools. Absolutely not. No.

And there's also the impression sold by the government of Saudi Arabia overseas that the problems in the education system are the doing of a small group of radicals.

Again the creation of a culture of almost extremism is dominating the whole social scene, including the educational system itself. It's like an invasion of negative ideas about the rest of the world, creating these feelings that we are the best because we are Muslims, and we are the holy land of Muslims. It's a very complicated process, and I think the educational system is a major part of it.

The Ministry of Education will defend this position because they will show you the books, and I agree there have been some efforts to change some aspects of the curriculum, but again, you cannot really change the minds of teachers by changing the curriculum unless you look at the sources of ideas, knowledge, these teachers get. They don't get these ideas only from the curriculum. They get them from the mosque. They get it from the media. They get it from extremists or Al Qaeda members or people who went to Afghanistan and came back with these hostile ideas toward everybody including liberals and moderate Muslims.

| Read more about the religious curriculum taught in Saudi classrooms in recent years from FRONTLINE's report "Saudi Time Bomb?"

But it's the government that actually made this move towards embracing conservatism and in many cases extremism after 1979 that has lead to this situation. It's not a grass roots movement that's built up under the nose of the government. It's something the government has been involved in?

I don't think the government planned with its policies to create this notion of extremism. I think the government overlooked the importance of the invasion of these new ideas and new ideology to the Saudi society. Because at the end of the day these groups are somehow aiming to challenge, and perhaps change, the government. So you can't really accuse the government of helping the groups to grow when you know that at the end of the day they want to take over. But again, I think bad policies, bad plans. Mistakes happened.

The reaction to 1979 -- the insistence on listening to only one voice, ignoring other voices because they might be "liberals," -- was tyrannized. That lead to a domination of one school of thought on the political scene in Saudi Arabia, the cultural scene, the social scene. And now we are paying a heavy price actually since September 11. I mean, September 11th woke us up to the reality of our society ….

What effect did the Gulf War have on Saudi society in terms of its direction? In terms of its balance between conservativism and liberalism?

Well, somehow in the eighties we took it for granted that nothing will challenge us -- except maybe Iran at some point. But we felt the United States is helping us, always will be with us. The invasion of Kuwait made thousands of Saudis realize that you cannot really take for granted that [we'll] be always stable and nobody will come to our home[s]. And that raised, or helped to raise, many critical questions about the political structure in Saudi Arabia.

… I think the Gulf War [caused] many of us in Saudi Arabia to realize that we really can't ignore regional and international defense. And you are part of the world, and you can't take it for granted that you will survive if you maintain the political structure you have. Therefore, in the aftermath of the Gulf War immediately we had many different groups within our society asking and calling for reform. And many in different directions. The Islamists felt that reform means going back to what they call the Islamic path. Some liberals would feel, "Yes we have our Islamic identity. But we need to really improve and develop our lifestyle, the way we govern the country, the way we look at the government, the way we look at the neighbors, etc."

But the irony is that the reaction to what certain groups in the society call for prove to us that the society has become extremely conservative. For example, when a group of Saudi women drove their cars, demanding the basic right to drive cars, the reaction was huge, almost like the vast majority of the society was angry at this group of women. And we realize that even the government -- with the huge power the government has -- cannot really control how conservative the society has become ... Leadership, to me, means you lead. And instead of the leadership going to lead the society, the society … leads the government, it leads the leadership.

Were you aware during the nineties of the growing sort of jihadi or … extremist movement in your society?

Yes. I went to Afghanistan to cover the war, mainly to write about certain Saudi fighters in Afghanistan. And during the eighties in the university, we witnessed some clashes between the Islamists who were actually in a powerful position in the University -- almost taking over the University. And the liberal professors, day by day were pushed away from the scene because they could not really fight.

You know it's remarkable that the society turned. I mean, if you go back to the forties or fifties and sixties, this was a more liberal society than it was in the nineties.

But I mean, this observation could be said about almost every Arab society. I mean, you really cannot ignore the implications of the Palestinian issue on Arab societies in general. So what you say about the Saudi society could be said about the Kuwaiti society or Jordanian or even Egyptians.

But in Saudi Arabia, we really did not have like a real experience of interacting with a new wave of new culture like, let's say, the sixties in the United States, the hippie movement in this case. We did not go through that. I wish we did. So the Saudi society came from a very tolerant society, very basic society -- farmers in general, shepherds -- trying extremely hard to survive the modern times as a rich country. You have all the clashes of ideologies all over the place, and you found yourself in the middle of it. Afghanistan was there.

Thousands of young Saudis were in Afghanistan believing in a strong way that they were fighting for a great cause. And the media discourse, everything around them, was supporting that notion. The terminology of jihad, the concept jihad itself was used in Washington D.C. as a great term. It was used by our media, by our government, by everybody. So jihad became the certificate of doing good, of being good.

Did you have any question at the time about it as a reporter? You say everything about [jihad] was seen as good. Did you have any doubts?

Yes, I did. Yes. But of course all of us were influenced by that ambiance of jihad in Afghanistan if you wish. So we thought that was a great cause. First of all, our government supported jihad in Afghanistan. Our friends in the west supported the concept of jihad and the war in Afghanistan. [But] many of us, including myself, were really nervous about sending young Saudis. We didn't mind supporting the Afghani movement in Afghanistan. But I think it was huge mistake to send young Saudis to Afghanistan, where they were received by all kinds of extremist ideologists. It wasn't only Al Qaeda ideology. Everybody was receiving the Saudis there. So Afghanistan also was another mistake, not only by the government, but also by our society as well….

What was the reaction, honestly, of the Saudi people [to 9/11]? How can you describe it?

In the beginning people were really confused. There was a huge confusion, I mean. And you really have to remember that the conspiracy theory is still very much alive in people's minds and their work and immediately people did not really believe it. It took them literally months to really comprehend what happened. And it took some of them years to really admit that, "Yes our society could produce terrorists like the group of 9/11."

But the initial reaction was, I remember reading an open letter from Safar al-Hawali to President Bush in which he says that, "Honestly a wave of joy rippled across Saudi Arabia."

Frankly speaking, it's really difficult to say. Like all Saudis or the majority of Saudis, I think many groups in the Arab world in general felt perhaps that 9/11 could send a message to the Americans. Of course, we have all types of thinking. I'm sure there were groups who were extremely happy, and they thought they got a huge victory. Some people … took it as a holy event.

Many of us, indeed, felt there was another disaster for us here in Saudi Arabia and in the Arab world. And the disaster is not only the reaction of the Americans to 9/11 but also the reaction of many of our people to 9/11. Meaning, "Will we be able to really understand that violence will not lead us to any place? Will we act on the same debate? Will we be stuck on the same struggle about the West and the Muslim world? Will this event help us to understand the reality of today?" And unfortunately, as we see now, we have not really gotten anywhere….

Some people have told me that Saudi society -- really out of the confusion -- lapsed into denial. You said it yourself just now, but [it took] some people -- many -- [a really] long time to realize that this was indeed in some way expression of Saudi society towards America. I mean, a minority perhaps, but it was a symptom.

Yes. Denial, denial, denial. That's always the case. And it's the self-delusion where it's easier for you to blame somebody else, and to say, "No. It's impossible. We are good people. We are not qualified to do such a huge act like 9/11." I mean, you have all sorts of reactions….

This is forgotten often in America, but prior to 9/11, there was a second Intifada going on with the Palestinians which had to have a huge effect on the way in which you were seeing the world and seeing America in Saudi Arabia.

…Throughout the nineties and the eighties the majority of Saudis were very frustrated and feeling hopeless about the Palestinians. And you can't really ignore what was happening there. And [the] feeling [was] that the Americans are in an obvious way supporting the Israelis. So there was a real anger, and perhaps the immediate reaction to 9/11 was very much influenced by the anger towards the Palestinian situation.

Was [there] a sense in Saudi Arabia in the nineties that you were entering [an era] in which the satellite dishes were going up everywhere … That had to be a fundamental challenge like few other events to the government in their control?

I have to admit many of us were really naive. I was a graduate student at Georgetown University, and I was very confident that the new technology [would] reform the entire Arab world within a few years.

Really?

Of course.

Why?

Because I felt the society was forced to be exposed to only one school of thought or to only one ideology. Then all of a sudden you have this great tool where you could have a huge window to the rest of the world. Then lately I discovered we were like the Native Indians [sic] in the United States, who almost for 100 years when they just first discovered the horse, and they didn't know what to do with the horse. They ate the horse. Whereas the other tribes, another tribe knew how to utilize the horse, and they became a very strong tribe, and they won their wars because they knew how to use the horse. At this stage I feel we, in Saudi Arabia and in fact in the Arab world, are like the Indian tribe who ate the horse.

We didn't know how to use technology ... We used it to enforce patriot[ism] and to attack people and to undermine the creative minds in our society. And we also have used it as a tool of oppression. We have used it also as a tool of control. So that was a big disappointment, I think.

That's very interesting. Let's go back to post 9/11 and you're in denial. Remarkable to most Americans that you can be in denial. Now even at the high levels of the royal family there was quite a bit of denial.

Many of us were in denial. And I'm sure you have heard it over and over during your visit that the shock of 9/11 was too much to really comprehend. But again I think we overlooked the new reality of the society. The whole environment has produced a notion of extremism, a notion of maybe hatred to non-Muslims and even [to] moderate Muslims.

A new environment post-9/11?

No. I'm talking about the environments since 1979 until 9/11. Again another shock for us to discover that our society has been literally hijacked by a small group of extremists who were in power to control the social agenda, to influence the educational system, in fact to influence even the social discourse.

What are people going to do about it? What is the crown prince going to do about the situation?

What we have witnessed in the past two years are some encouraging efforts. For example, I am not happy with the level of freedom we have in our media nowadays. But when I compare what we write today to what we used to write only two years ago I would say, "Yes I could see progress."

Having said that, this is not enough. I mean, we should strongly fight for the basic rights of freedom of expression. And in order to fight extremism you really have to genuinely believe in the right for the society to be exposed to many different ideas. And not to have the freedom of expression, or not to use it as a political tool. You use it when you are dealing with a crisis. Our government must understand this is an important way for the survival of the leadership and the society.

Also the religious discourse. We have Shiites. Many of us Saudis in many different parts of Saudi Arabia cannot really understand that we have Shiites in the society and Shiites are part of the society, and they are acceptable, and they have equal rights as citizens. We have Ishmaelis. We have Sufis. We have liberal groups. We have all sorts of groups in the society. So once you admit the diversity of school of thoughts, groups in your society, hopefully, hopefully you could help the new generation to understand the fact that they are not the only group in their society. Which means you really have to accept the other groups and you have to be tolerant to different ideas.

This conservatism, this extremism in your society. How do you experience it? …. What are the attitudes that you hear in that small town for instance or in your interactions with people? What kinds of things do you hear?

Well, let me start with positive things. For example, there is almost a general agreement that we are not happy with the situation we have in almost every level. And this is a good sign. And we should not be nervous about it. Even the government and members of the Royal Family should not feel nervous when they hear people feeling unhappy about the situation. In fact, this is a positive sign that people are aiming for a change.

Or there is a serious debate in many Saudi majalis [political meetings, or debates], including the majalis of people at small towns, [about] the practicality of sending young Saudis to fight in Iraq, for example. There are many people who would ask critical questions about the economy, about the future, about jobs, about wherever services they are looking for, health, transportation, etc. So I think the situation is not totally negative. There are many positive aspects of the situation….

What are the conservatives saying? What do you hear, for instance, in the small town that you come from, or on the streets of Riyadh?

I mean the challenge we face because we are defined by many in our society as liberal writers. I don't even know if I could define myself as a liberal writer. [There] is a reaction of suspicion towards us like feeling: "You bring a new idea. You try to write positive about the West. You must be an agent of the West."

And this is absolutely unacceptable because I could explain to people that when I write something positive about the West I am not defending the West but I'm trying to explain the West based on my personal experience living for many, many years in the West. I think it's a normal reaction sometimes by people who have this hostile attitude toward the West based on what they have learned over the years about the West. The West is, in their mind, is behind every problem we have.

Luckily in many aspects we have -- and when I say, "we," [I mean] people who write differently in our local media -- we have proven a point that we could be different, and we could be accepted as different voices in the society. And that was a tough, tough mission for us. It took us almost three years since 9/11 to really insist on the fact that there are different voices within our society. Yes we are challenging the conventional wisdom.

What is the conventional wisdom?

We are perfect. The West is bad. We are good. And all the problems are coming from Israel and the West, and we are almost like you know -- angels.

Well, certainly the invasion of Iraq conforms to a conventional wisdom that the West is bad in a sense.

The entire Bush administration is not helping anybody, actually. And that's frustrating. Now it's really difficult to defend any positive aspect of the United States, for example. And I'm not talking about the political culture in Washington. I'm talking about the social and educational culture in the U.S. I had a really great experience living in the U.S. as student and as a researcher and as a journalist. You come here, [and] it's almost swimming against the tide because everybody is angry. And when people are angry they really can't listen to any rational explanation or any rational analysis of the West.

So we feel frustrated because we really feel it is unfair to look at the U.S. as a whole as if Washington D.C. represents the entire country, or George W. Bush represents all Americans. And we always say this to our friends in the United States. We always say, "Look. You really have a tough mission in the Middle East. It's not only us, the Arabs, who have to go to the state to explain our case and to enhance the image of the Arab world. But also the Americans have a tougher mission and a more difficult mission: to explain America to the Arabs."

And I think we both have to do this. And this is not just like we talked about the theories of intercultural communications or global communications. But it has influenced the reaction of our people towards the West. Meaning, these guys who are willing to kill themselves in order to kill an American man are driven by an ideology that teaches them, "You are doing a holy job when you go and kill an American." So you really have to help people to understand what America is about and to cut off the road ahead of people like Osama bin Laden who, with their limited access to the media, succeeded in influencing these young people and young Saudis of what they teach as an Islamic ideology or an Islamic teaching.

There's great fear in the United States that the war in Iraq has driven young Saudis to the side of bin Laden. Is that a fair assessment do you think?

I think when people are angry -- and definitely people here are angry at the situation in Iraq -- out of desperation, I guess, they will listen to any critical voice or any even extremist voice that challenges the United States. And definitely Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are the most vocal voices in the Arab world nowadays.

And even with the events of May 12th? How did that change the formula?

Yes, it's created a huge debate among us, and you could easily read it in our media. It was a great tragedy. We really can't justify it with any reason actually. Nevertheless, I believe out of the tragedy we discovered a positive result. Meaning the debate we have had since May 12th: that fanatics could be Saudis and could be a product of the Saudi society as well. You can't really blame this notion of extremism only on international events or only on whatever outsiders are doing. So we realize that among us were extremists and terrorists: people who are willing to kill people and to die in order to kill others.

But it's remarkable I think that you realize [it now, not after] the 1998 African Embassy bombing, or the USS Cole [bombing], or certainly 9/11. That it took until May 12th [2004] for many Saudis. And in fact the Saudis talk about this as being a much bigger tragedy than 9/11.

| For more information about the terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia read the "House of Saud: A Chronology."

Well, again, before May 12th, almost all the news was reported by Westerners. And the suspicions about whatever the United States was saying was dominating the scene here. But on May 12th, you can't really hear the news coming from New York or London. You see it.

And now which way is [the public sentiment moving] in your country?

We hope, or we really want to believe what we hear, which is calls for reform especially in the educational system. And I personally I think the crown prince is really genuine in his calls [for reform]. Now it's really time for us to translate the promises of reform into actions. We have had enough long three years of promises. I think now we are expecting to see results. Not only in the educational arena but also in the political arena and, as we say, the role of woman in the society, [and] tolerance towards diversity of ideas. And again a change is not, or cannot come by only political decision. But the political decision, we believe, is an important factor to open the door for the society to really transform itself, to adopt new ways of lifestyles and to be exposed to different ideas. So definitely we rely on the political decision to open doors for a change.

But you're worried?

I'm worried … My fear -- and I really mean the term fear -- my fear of social censorship is by far greater than my fear of the official or governmental censorship. I mean with the government it's really easy to go and explain my case. Regardless of whatever critical attitude we have towards certain groups in the government, still it's much easier to explain your case. We have established a trust that even when we criticize the government we mean good for the society and the leadership.

But the thing that is extremely difficult [is] to explain to millions of people [that] you really mean well to the society when the society is suspicious about your writings and about your attitudes and about your beliefs. It's [an] extremely difficult mission for writer and intellectuals in Saudi Arabia to voice their ideas unless they [are] guarantee[d] a sort of protection. I think the responsibility of the government is to protect all voices in the society.

The election process that's taking place now, what does it represent for the society? It seems a small step for you?

It's a small step but it is a step.

[But the turnout is] very low: People aren't coming out to register in great numbers?

But look at the introduction of new vocabularies we are using nowadays in terms of the election. Participate in the "decision making". Even the term. Yes it's not enough, I know, but at least this is a step. And many of us, including myself, feel perhaps some anger that woman was not really included in the local elections. Nevertheless that doesn't mean, "Okay we don't have elections before we give woman equal right to vote." Yes hopefully in the near future we will. No, again, in my opinion this is a positive step and hopefully we will develop the system in the near future to make it [a] bigger step.

What would King Abd al-Aziz, the founder of your country, think of Saudi Arabia today?

I think, to have a generation like mine who have been exposed to all kinds of experiences and who is confident to ask critical questions is really something to be proud of. And I'm not talking only about King Abd al-Aziz, but I talk about his generation. It took us only three generations to really have all these complications we are dealing with now. Yet I think we should look also at the positive result of almost the past 100 years in Saudi Arabia.

But does that generation express its pride in the developments? What is the mindset of that generation? Or it's the second generation now that's running the country: amongst them Sultan, Nayef. What is the mindset of that generation?

…My father's generation grew up in a total poverty, and whatever they got from the government was almost taken as a great gift from the government. It took only one generation to have somebody like me [to] try in a polite way but in a progressive way to question things and to ask critical questions and to direct the questions to members of the government as well…

Dealing with this generation, my generation and the coming generation has to be different from dealing with my father's generation. My father's generation was happy with whatever the government was saying. My generation is critical of almost everything the government is doing, which is, again, a positive thing to have for the society.

You have a tremendous load of young people coming of age. They need jobs. It's quite depressing, economically, when one looks at it.

Well, they watch TVs and they watch MTV. They watch CNN. And they watch al-Majd. Then they watch Al Jazeera.

I find it remarkable that in a world where media has been seen as so influential, like in the sixties Western culture exploded around the world, and people in far off Afghanistan were reading fashion magazines. And suddenly you had this sort of whole generation of young people that seems to reject this in a way -- I mean violently reject [it] -- and [instead] sees what's happening as a form of cultural imperialism?

I think you can see sometimes two extremes among the young generation in Saudi Arabia. You might see a group of Saudis who are so excited about MTV, for example. Very excited about Western music, Western films. Very excited about traveling to enjoy the experience of traveling to the West. At the same time it is easy to see maybe a greater group of young Saudis who have internalized the culture of extremism. And you really have to understand that this is a result of almost 40, maybe 50, years of someone imposing religious teaching on every aspect of our life. Even those wild teenagers you might see in a city like Riyadh, deep down they are somehow conservative when it comes to dealing with women, when it comes to looking at the others….

You said something else about how you cannot in this age go through a day without facing or asking a critical question. What did you mean?

I'm talking about our government nowadays. It's like almost every day you really have to face critical questions about people's expectations, people's demands, people's hopes. And you really have to speed up. I mean you really have to deal with these questions every day.

Some of them would say we have to slow down. That is, I guess, their way of facing their critical question is to say, "That's enough MTV. That's enough fashion channel. We have to stop both." [But] you can't stop. You can't stop. Either you really speed up or you'll be left behind. Just look at cities around us like Dubai, Doha, Beirut -- let alone places in Europe or in the United States. And now you really can't lock people in a dark room and say, "Okay you are the best. You are the greatest." No. People even inside their small villages could have access to see the world….

But there is this big question mark that hangs over everybody's head about whether you're really progressing or whether the government is using liberals to combat conservatism. You know whether there is this balancing act. I mean fundamentally why should they go for democratic performance? They were going to give up power. Why should the government change? Why should the government want to liberalize? It's going to lose power.

The government?

The royal family.

To initiate a change yourself is much easier than to be forced to start a change or to make a change. And one thing we are very secure about in Saudi Arabia -- and I really think I have not really met anyone who challenged the legitimacy of the royal family in Saudi Arabia -- one thing we are secure about is that the royal family has become the symbol of the unification of Saudi Arabia. And the unification of Saudi Arabia is something we are really careful about and we are very proud of.

And this is something I always like to say to members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia that you should not really worry about your legitimacy. The legitimacy you have created based on the unification you represent in the country is by far more important than the legitimacy you think Wahhabism gives you as a political establishment. So we are not worried about the relationship between us, the people of Saudi Arabia, and the leadership, or mainly the royal family. But it is extremely dangerous to feel that if you change Wahhabism or if you stay away from Wahhabism you might lose your political legitimacy.

That's absolutely crazy and extremely dangerous for the royal family themselves. Meaning perhaps there are groups within Saudi society who try to convince the royal family that [their] survival is based on the survival of Wahhabism. And we say, "No. Your survival is by staying away from a controversial ideology, a controversial ideology even by the Saudis themselves."

It seems to me that's perhaps the lesson of history, too. King Abd al-Aziz understood that he had to put down the fanatics. He had to put down the Ikhwan when they became out of control and too expansionist. And that he understood his legitimacy was in holding the country together. Whereas after that, the family began to toy with this dangerous sense that you have to give too much to the Wahhabists.

What we need now is to reread the experience of King Abd al-Aziz … The struggle between King Abd al-Aziz, [who] represent[ed] the political establishment at the time and Al Ikhwan, who at the time also represent[ed] the ideology of the Wahhabis, was a great lesson and should be a great lesson for us.

And that doesn't mean we exclude everybody who disagree[s] with us or to alienate [them]. No, but at least to understand that there are other ways to strengthen the political legitimacy of the royal family. When people in the south for example, people in the north, people in the east during the time of King Abd al-Aziz agreed on the unification of Saudi Arabia and agreed to join King Abd al-Aziz and his machine, they did not do [it] based on, "Okay we agree Wahhabism will be our ideology" … They say, "We will unify the country and therefore we will be with you."

So, I wonder: Why do we insist on maintaining an ideology that could be the cause of the [end] of this unification? Because really not [all] Saudis are in agreement [with] Wahhabism. Many of us are critical of Wahhabism in an open way, an obvious way. We luckily now we are able to write critically of Wahhabism in our local media. This is a great time. But again we have to take it to the next step which is [where] people are free. They [must] have total freedom to believe whatever they want to believe. When it comes to the government, when it comes to the practicality of the work of the government, we have to have policies based on the needs of today, not the ideology of yesterday.

So this is a real challenge for this generation to really understand that unification is one of the greatest accomplishments for the previous generation or King Abd al-Aziz's generation. And in order to maintain this unification we really have to feel you equally belong to this unification. And therefore you are treated equally, in terms of positions in the government, in terms of economic opportunities, in terms of access to power, in terms of treatment by the government.

You do not really need to question people's loyalty based on their religious beliefs or their regional origins. You really have to understand that everybody in this country belongs to Saudi Arabia, and therefore, everybody has to feel that he or she has been treated equally mainly by the government and by the royal family.

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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