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D I S P A T C H E S

+ "An Obedient Dissident"


from Martin Smith

click here for a larger map In 1993, a group of clerics led a march through the streets of this city protesting official government corruption and loose morals that they felt were destroying Arabian society. The central authorities don't receive such criticism easily. They cracked down, arresting a number of the clerics during what has popularly become known as the "Buraydah Uprising." Among those arrested was Sheikh Salman Al-Oudah, a man whose following had grown so numerous and threatening to the royal family that he was imprisoned for five years. We have sought him out, and he has agreed to speak.

We have to wait until about 10:00 at night before his day has cleared and he can receive us. We are ushered through a gate and into a large tent adjacent to his home and office. Since his release from jail in 1998, he has been forbidden from giving sermons at the mosque. So he circumvents the restriction by hosting gatherings in this tent and by publishing his views on his own Web site, at [www.islamtoday.net.] I am eager to talk to him. Al-Oudah is a man who knew Osama bin Laden, a man to whom bin Laden looked for guidance and support in the past, according to U.S. intelligence sources to whom I have spoken.

He arrives with a small entourage after we have already set up our cameras, but he asks to sit aside with me and his retinue to discuss some ground rules before the camera rolls. "What do you want to ask me?" he says through a translator. I run down all the areas I hope we can discuss. They include his views toward the current crown prince, corruption, Wahhabi religious practices, the coming war in Iraq, the war between Palestine and Israel, as well as Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. He responds that he will only talk about his views regarding U.S. policies in the Middle East. I realize that this man is still under a kind of house arrest. If he criticizes the royals, especially the crown prince, he risks being re-arrested. I am not about to interview a dissident but to listen to a neutered cleric demonstrate his obedience to the throne.

It is a long-held arrangement in Saudi Arabia that was forged in the mid-18th century between the then Al Saud family and a puritanical religious reformer, Mohammed Abdul al Wahhab. The clerics will support the Al Saud rulers and, in return, the Al Sauds will protect and provide for the Wahhabi or Salifi (as they prefer to be called here) clerics. It is an arrangement between church and state that finds precedent in Islam's holy book, the Quran. Religious leaders must pay allegiance to the government that protects them. In Al-Oudah I am witnessing this tacit understanding. As mild as it was, a mere march with some fiery speeches, the "Buraydah Uprising" of 1993 was a break with tradition. Today, at least, Al-Oudah is unwilling to risk more punishment.

He speaks the official line which condemns U.S. policies in Palestine and Israel and Iraq. At times I try to turn the conversation. I know, from various sources, that Al-Oudah is among those clerics who regularly saw young men in the 1980s and 1990s who sought his blessing to travel to Afghanistan to wage jihad, or holy war, against first Soviet and now American infidels. He tells us that this did happen. But, he says, he didn't give his blessing to men wanting to join Al Qaeda to fight Americans. He tells me that he is appalled by what happened in New York and Washington, and anyway, "We have strayed from discussing the issues we agreed to." I am cut off.

Martin Smith interviews Sheik Al-Oudah in Buraydah, Saudi Arabia. (photo by Chris Durrance)
I leave suspicious that Al-Oudah is not being straight with us and I wonder what in this revered cleric's understanding of the Quran allows him to be less than truthful. Another source has told me that bin Laden's people were also extremely disappointed with Al-Oudah's public stance on Al Qaeda after 9/11. For now, anyway, the once extremely popular dissident, Sheikh Salman Al-Oudah, appears to be firmly in the government's pocket.

When we wrap up to leave, it is past midnight. We have a four-hour drive back to Riyadh. On the way out of town, we pass the shuttered shops where during the day I saw the mutawa, the Saudi religious police, patrol for anyone who exhibits any wayward behavior. Smoking is forbidden here, as is photography of any kind, and anyone caught not on their way to the mosque during prayer times can be arrested.

As we drive through the outskirts of Buraydah, I wonder about the future of clerics like Al-Oudah and the people of this bastion of Wahhabi Islam. I look out the window to see that at least one alternate version of the future has arrived. I can't believe it, really. It's a McDonald's franchise.

We arrive back at the Sheraton in Riyadh at 4:30 a.m. I wonder if we will be arrested for photographing a McDonald's.


< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

London
(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

Pakistan
(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

Pakistan
(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

Frustrations
9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

Indomitable
23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

+ An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

Yemen
(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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