Saudi Time Bomb?
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interview: hassan youssef yassin

Some of the people that we've interviewed, Saudis, but what I would call Saudi dissidents ... say that the teachings in the schools in Saudi Arabia, the religious teachings in the schools, teach intolerance, basically. The interpretations of the Koran ... in some cases is pretty extreme. Is it true?

Let's take it in perspective. I went to school in Saudi Arabia and I was told similar things in school. ... After the 11th of September, we are all becoming self-conscious, to examine what happened to all of us. Why things do happen. ... And all of a sudden, all our school system is coming into examination. What really produces certain people to act and do what they have done? Committing suicide for a cause must get our interest to ask why. And I think we, right now, have all of a sudden awakened to a new situation. We are asking ourselves, How is it possible that our families can produce that hatred in man?

... [We've been reexamining] our school system since 15 years ago. We want to change our school system, but it is not easy. ... I'm not trying to find excuses, to answer. I think right now we should not be the subject of investigation. We have a common enemy, we have declared our intent to fight the Taliban system of interpretation of Islam. ... We are not the enemy of the United States. We should really be talking about how do we really master the forces of each of us, in bringing this group of people to justice, to dampen their hatred, to examine their grievances. ...


He was Saudi Arabia's first public information officer during the 1970s. He subsequently became a private businessman and is close to the Saudi royal family. In this interview, he says that reports of Saudi Arabia's reluctance to cooperate with the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. are unfounded. He talks about Saudi Arabia's past relations with the Taliban, and says his country has been reevaluating the conservative religious curriculum taught in its schools over the past 15 years. This interview was conducted on Nov. 12, 2001.

Well, accepted. But then how do you explain the reaction in the U.S. press right after the 11th of September, the editorials, the commentary, the appearance that we weren't allowed to use the bases [in Saudi Arabia] for the command and control in Afghanistan. There's longstanding complaints that there hasn't been the level of cooperation that people expected. Where is that coming from?

Let me simplify this thing by looking at it from an American point of view. ... Let's take the first issue. The first issue is [wanting the Saudi government to] come out, straight up, to condemn the act of terrorism that took place on the 11th of September. Yes. ... It took them two days to condemn the Iraqi invasion. It took us maybe 20, 30 minutes to make straight policy declaration.

That's #1.

Secondly, bases. You have facilities in Saudi Arabia as a result of the Gulf War, which are facilities that are allowed by the United Nations resolution ... to monitor the Iraqi regime and the misconduct or misbehavior. So it is that. Thirdly, from Saudi Arabia to Kabul, into Afghanistan, it's over 2,000 miles. Have you really asked? Is that something you have asked and we have refused? What is it you exactly want the bases for? I mean, it's a legitimate question.

I don't want us to be defending ourselves against certain things that happened in the past in our schools. ... The important thing is that, do we recognize that these might harbor and bring up people of that sort? It might. Should we reexamine them? Yes. I agree.

Nobody in the administration said that we have not fully cooperated when asked. Now, don't forget that I would say that 80% of public opinion in that part of the world has grievances against American foreign policy. Not one single Arab country, or not one single Islamic country, has not sided with the United States in two necessary demands: getting rid of the Taliban regime, and in getting rid of al-Qaeda. We're all in support. ... We have cooperated with you fully. Every name you have given us, we have investigated the roots of every one of those people.

You mean, you're talking about the alleged 15 hijackers.

We have talked to the families, we have talked to their friends. You know, all of our investigat[ors] have fully come and given you complete transparency on what we know about those people. And we are still investigating. ... Do you know of any involvement of anybody up here, in this country? They must have known other people, don't they? Do you know anything more than we know? ...

We only know what we're told--they've detained 900 to 1,000 people.

Do you have any details?

Very little.

In my country, do we have very much details? No. Because this is a process under investigation. And we are doing our darndest to find out if there are Saudi Arabians who can do something like this. Don't you think we are concerned about our own country? ...

Were you surprised that 15 of the 19 of the September 11 hijackers were allegedly from Saudi Arabia?

Absolutely. Horrible. We were horrified that we have in our midst the people that can do something like that. And not only that. Can you imagine that these people belong to families--and we are a very family-oriented society--to have somebody lie to their parents, lie to their mothers, to their people, about what they wanted to do. For what? Do we really want a society of terrorist bands? Do you really think we want to live in cages, to go backwards in history? What a ridiculous concept.

But isn't--correct me if I'm wrong, but when we talk to people about the Taliban, we are told that they were not only supported, at one point, by your government, but also that the belief system of the Taliban is very similar ... [to] this movement within Saudi Arabia ...?

But Saudi Arabia is a very modern state, it has infrastructures that very few countries can match. We are not fundamentalists of restrictions, we are fundamentalists of progress. ... We are a highly developed society in many ways. We are completely literate, we have a telephone system that works, we have lighting that works....

The question I think for people is, where did this fundamentalist strain come from? Where did the 15 of the 19 come from? Where does the sense that, at least from various reports, that there was some sympathy in Saudi Arabia, in the population, for bin Laden, or even, initially, for the events of the 11th of September, come from?

But you are asking a question which we are asking ourselves: how can something like this happen? Some people say, well, it is the educational system. Well, that's fine. Let's reexamine that aspect. There are other aspects. There are grievances. [Do] these grievances justify acts of violence? No. Do we have grievances about American foreign policy? Yes. Is it resolvable? Yes. Can we talk to each other? Yes. Do we talk to each other? Yes. So all the factors are there. The thing is, how do we get from A to Z?

Let me understand it factually. If we hear reports that people -- some people were quietly celebrating on the 11th of September, in Saudi Arabia, those events, is that totally untrue?

Celebrate? I have not seen a demonstration of celebration. ...

You didn't hear any such things. You didn't see anyone that sort of supported it?

Well, the only sight we saw was the bunch of Palestinians. ... There is no secret that there are lots of people in the Middle East, and in Asia, who do not harbor kindness to American foreign policy. ... If I told you 80% that are in our part of the world dislike American foreign policy and we still support every one of your decisions that are made ... what does this tell you? It tells you that we have a government and people who are responsible, who know the truth and who want to cooperate with you.

But, for Heaven's sake, realize also, what is my grievance? Am I for bin Laden? No. Am I for a just peace in the Middle East for the Palestinian nation? Yes. Are you? We're not asking you for anything other than what you have agreed upon. We have not asked you to say give us all of Palestine. We ask you to give us what you have already approved ... to get for the Palestinian people. ...

Let me just show you this textbook from Saudi Arabia, these are the texts. It says: 9th Grade standard textbook in religious education.

Well, you know, in the Old Testament and the New Testament you can paraphrase certain paragraphs or sentences, out of context, and it sounds horrible. But we all admit that there is a tremendous need for all of us to reexamine what we teach our children. You have schools in the United States that are run by extremists that is as horrible.

Agreed. But the difference would be, I think, from the U.S. point of view is that in the United States, there [would not be] an official government published book that had that material in it. Private individuals, private religious colleges or schools, are able to teach whatever they want in the United States, and that's not endorsed by tax money, at least at this point.

Our system, it's all paid by the government.

Right. So this is an official publication that's in the schools themselves. And I heard the man translate it and he said, "This is what you have to learn in school."

And?

Well, the implication is that it teaches hatred, intolerance, and justifies violence against people who don't believe the same as you do.

That's one interpretation. ... I am getting to the point where I don't want us to be defending ourselves against certain things that happened in the past in our schools. That is not important. The important thing is that, do we recognize that these might harbor and bring up people of that sort? It might. Should we reexamine them? Yes. Are we doing that? Yes. That is the question. Are we going to be persecuted for doing things of the past? No. We should not....

Is there, in a sense, a struggle between people with your background and your understanding and, if you will, the street, as it's called, in Saudi Arabia, with in a sense the more fundamentalist side, people who want to stop the movement of the country, if you will, into the 21st century? Is there a real struggle?

Naturally, there is. Every society will face the gravities of pull within that society. And that's what democracy is all about.

But you don't live in a democracy in Saudi Arabia.

Well, in some way, you don't understand our democracy. We [may not] have democracy in the sense that you have, but there are forums. We have respectability to the elders, more so than you do, so we have some way of communicating with them in a different way than you do. We have instituted the Consulting Assembly in the last 10 years. We are moving, progressively, to make these institutions become more vocal and more apparent, as a form of expression over there. Is that enough? To some, yes. To some, it is too much. To others, it is too little. But it is there. Saudi Arabia is not standing, in history, backwards. It is doing its best, within the format that they have, in progressing. We go slowly. ...

I guess the question is, to what extent is the influence of those who are trying to stay in the past or turn the clock back--because, in a sense, what bin Laden wants to do is turn the clock back--caused the government not do what it might want to do, in many cases. How delicate is this balance?

It is an ongoing process. It is a delicate situation, but there is communication. If I said to a religious person, we kidding, and laugh, and he is trying to cajole me and I am trying to cajole him, but the message is very clear: do you share so and so? Do you want to really live in a backwards century? Do you want me to take your car and your t.v. and your telephone? No, no. What do you want? What is it? We want you to respect the Koran, to respect the laws of Islam, to follow its teaching--oh, yes. This is what you want? I am for you. We do want the same thing. How do we get that?

But hasn't the government given some degree of authority over education, over domestic policy, complete with religions beliefs, to these religions elements?

Yes, to a certain extent there are complaints, too, saying these people have more authority than what is given to them. And I think when these things appear the government is very firm on their misbehavior. But is it a big concern... ? No. ...

The Saudi government attempted to, if you will, bring the Taliban into a coalition, in '95, '96, and then subsequently supported the Taliban both with recognition but also some funding, directly or indirectly, when it was in power up until 1998. And there were lots of visits to Afghanistan by people in the royal family during that period. Was that a mistake?

I don't look at it as a mistake or not. We had to do what was in front of us. ... There were good intentions. There were non-corrupt people. We said, we will support you. ... And just like the Americans, we supported the mujahedeen against the Soviets--they were the same people. They wear the same turbans, with a beard. And we supported them. Are we surprised of the results? Yes. Would we have done something different if we knew what they would be doing? Yes, we would. But we didn't. ...

You've heard, obviously, the reports that, beyond bin Laden, there are people in Saudi Arabia who resent the presence of U.S. troops in the country.

I am not really [up] on this. ... Who sees American troops? They [go about] doing their business, they fly and they monitor what Iraq is [doing], they go back. It is not a big problem, I don't find it a big problem. The American presence in Saudi Arabia is not, at present, about an attack to Saudi Arabia. It is protection to the whole Gulf area ... against a regime, Saddam Hussein, which is a perpetrator of hatred. And we're very grateful and thankful to the United States for doing that for us. ...

I guess what I heard is that people feel the presence of U.S. troops is an indication that the royal family, in some ways, is dependent on this foreign power. You have to go through U.S. troops in order to do anything about the royal family, an alliance with an outsider.

The royal family in Saudi Arabia operates, rules, by consensus. It is a family that has established itself and its rules between its own people. If there is any complaint about the royal family, let the Saudi Arabians themselves address that issue. Thank you for all the advice, and for your concern. We are very happy with what we have. ...

... So the perception is not that foreign troops in Saudi Arabia are somehow defiling either the independence of the country or the religious integrity of Islam. Those are not beliefs? There's no support for that view?

I don't see that there's a tremendous support for this view, and I don't think we are concerned about this view. We know that the view is that, overwhelmingly, the Iraqis had enough of this nonsense of Saddam, and I think the day that he is gotten rid of people will be screaming for joy. ... And in Kabul, people enjoy the Taliban is out. Is bin Laden a martyr if he's gotten rid of? Absolutely not. We have pockets of people who would say, Oh, he's our hero, our martyr. Fine, he is your hero. But he's a hero for what? To do what? What is his plan for economic recovery? What are his plans for the engineering of a better life for the average Arab or the average Muslim? What is his manifesto? What is it? I see them in total shambles. They are in a cave, somewhere, pontificating about the greatness of Heaven, which we are all looking forward to, but we live today, here. Where is the honey that we are talking about, for the people who live on this earth?

I'm thinking of certain realities that strike us here in the United States. ... The leader of the organization [behind the events of September 11] is from Saudi Arabia, apparently, and the troops involved, if you will, on September 11th are from Saudi Arabia. So our natural tendency would be to turn to you, our ally, and say, What's going on?

Well, what is going on? We are cooperating with your country. I haven't seen one single American official that said that Saudi Arabia is not cooperating. ... We are cooperating to help in bringing those who are perpetrators of violence, in your country or in my country, throughout the world, in a uniform format of cooperation. ...

We have been very honest with America. We have special relationships and special differences. We have differences of how you perceive your policy ... towards the Palestinian nation. We have been consulting with you on this matter for many years. We had success and failures. You had successes and failures. But it's a continuous process. Nobody is washing his hands of the United States....

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