Saudi Time Bomb?
haroun fazul
photo of mai yamani
interview: mai yamani

How does your research on the changing identity of Saudi Arabia and the people of Saudi Arabia, help us understand what's been happening? Particularly Sept. 11.

... Following this crisis, many people are looking at, what is really going on in Saudi Arabia? ... When we look at Saudi Arabia, especially through the Western media, people think it is a very homogenous whole. This is not really the case. In 1932, [the Al Saud family] have united the Asir region, that very difficult mountainous terrain in the south bordering in Yemen. And in fact, most of the tribes in the Asir who still have loyalties to their tribe rather than the national identity have affinities with tribes in Yemen.

Then you have the Hejaz, the largest, and the most populated, and the most heterogeneous -- culturally and religiously the most heterogeneous region, because they traditionally got all the pilgrims who came and settled and intermarried.

In Mecca and Medina?

In Mecca and Medina. And then you've got, of course, on the other side, the eastern province ... Of course everybody is aware that the sole and only source of wealth of Saudi Arabia, oil, is in the eastern province. And that is where the Shi'a are.

Yamani is a research fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London and the author of Changed Identities. After becoming the first woman from Saudi Arabia to get a Ph.D. from Oxford, she moved to London, where she works on the Middle East program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs as a social anthropologist. In this interview, she discusses the role of fundamentalist religion in Saudi society and why some Saudis see Osama bin Laden as a savior. This interview was conducted on Nov. 5, 2001.

For people who don't understand, the Shi'a and the Sunni are, at times, blood enemies.

Specifically because, prior to the unification, in the great mosque of Mecca and in Medina, all the Islamic schools of thought were represented. They had all the Sunni schools of thought; they had the Shi'a; they had each one their own imam and somehow in different corners. ... It was after the unification of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 that a process of national homogeneity was attempted. That was gradual. ...

This is not the beginning of a revolution. But this is the beginning of a very difficult, turbulent time in Saudi Arabia. The gap between the ruled and the rulers has widened. And there is a lot of anxiety, agitation, among people, and even anger. ... When the government came to power in 1932, from the beginning, it tried to get rid of these various different groups, or ethnic groups or beliefs, and unify it all into one?

Actually, yes. ... [into] the Wahhabi Islamic thought... They regarded it as much purer because it's more fundamentalist, much more conservative than the people who are like in the south, the people in Mecca, who had more mystical religious trends, such as the Sufi trend, which is very mystical.

So the dominant religion, the state religion in Saudi Arabia is this pure, stricter form of Islam?


How does that help us understand that 15 of the 19 people who died as hijackers on Sept. 11 come from Saudi Arabia? Is it the influence of the strict religion?

This I'm finding very curious, and I think deserves investigation. Despite the fact that Osama bin Laden, who refers to himself, stresses when we watch him on al-Jazeera television, he says, "I grew up in the Hejaz, I studied in the Hejaz," and he does not mention Saudi Arabia. ... And many of those tribal names that we discover were involved on Sept. 11 had tribal names from Asir and from the Hejaz. In fact, five were Hejazi ... names. ...

Meaning they're from the Mecca and Medina area?

Or from the tribes of the Hejaz. And ten of the others were from the Asir.

Which is in the south?

Which is in the south, bordering on Yemen. So when we're looking at that, I'm asking, "Is it a coincidence that these are people from the region of bin Laden?" We know, and throughout my studies as an anthropologist -- and I've done research on the Hejaz region during the 1980s -- that those people still feel at the periphery. Periphery is not only a geographical state, but a whole, you know, politically. They feel isolated and marginalized. Is that linked -- the sense of marginalization, exclusion from the center, dissatisfaction, and other sentiments -- to their relations and their support for bin Laden? That is one question that should be asked and investigated. ...

By the 1970s, ... all the national educational curriculum emphasized the same unified school of thought: the interpretation of Islam by the Wahhabis. So bin Laden, who is a product of that system, and many others received that type of education, irrespective of their region. ...

So this was a homogenization of thought?

That was a homogenization of thought.

And we're told by people we've interviewed that it's the nature of this thought, its fundamentalist nature, that can be easily manipulated, so that people would, for example, become violent or extremist.

I think that the new mood, the new trend, especially after the Gulf War, has become for all these neo-Wahhabis ... [is to use] Islam ... as a platform for political ideas and activities, using Islam to legitimize political, economic, social behavior. These people have been brought up in a country where Islam legitimizes everything. And they have used the teachings from the religious establishment, but became more political in expressing dissent and criticism of the regime.

And it's been exported. To Pakistan, through systems of madrassas and throughout the Islamic world.

And it has been exported, yes, indeed.

... What is the assessment, for instance, of bin Laden from the people that you listen to [in your work as an anthropologist] -- men and women?

Most people I talk to, irrespective of the region or the tribal belonging, or what is known as "class," or even religious inclination, admire bin Laden. Now, there is a difference between admiring him and sympathizing with him and supporting him.

So those people admire him. Why? Because they think that he looks compassionate. Or they say, "I don't think that this man has violence in him," the way Osama bin Laden presents himself. And that's a very interesting subject. But Osama bin Laden has managed to address major issues that have been upsetting people in the country, and outside. Mainly, the dilemma of the Palestinians, and the Palestinian problem that didn't look to have any solution.

People were watching on al-Jazeera transnational [satellite] and other transnational Arab [television]. They have been watching day after day after day in their rooms images of the victimized brothers and sisters in Palestine, while the fathers of the nation -- in a patrimonial state, this is how the rulers are seen -- the fathers of a nation were doing nothing to help the brothers and sisters. And meanwhile, the United States is seen as supporting the victimizers. So that, I think, had a very big impact on people's sense of identity [and] their relationships with the rulers. ...

You say that people see bin Laden as a savior of sorts?

When they're waving his pictures, it's like a flag. They pick up Osama bin Laden's picture to represent a certain flag for a leaderless people -- people who feel they need a new form of leadership; for all those people who feel dissatisfied, thinking that they've lost their pride. ... He fills a gap, a political need, a rallying point for all those people. ...

You said that 15 of the 19 hijackers who are Saudis, some come from one region or another and feel marginalized probably, because these are the minority groups, if you will, within the Saudi kingdom. But why this fanatic belief in him? Why be willing to go to your death? In fact, these people are relatively well educated, it turns out, from middle-class families. We're not talking about people who had nothing to lose.

OK, now we've moved from the simple admirer, who would even deny that bin Laden has anything to do with violence, to those who actually are ready to give their life and kill others. I cannot really go into the psychology, and I think it's a very important subject. But I can only refer to these people's concept of jihad.

Their explanation, or some new explanations of this, is that if we are going to live in humiliation, there is no point. And since then again on the video that I've watched, Osama bin Laden's words, a person is going to die anyway. It's better that he dies with dignity, and for a cause. And the cause is Islamic -- the dignity of Muslims, and fighting the oppressors. So it's better to die than to remain living.

Now look at bin Laden himself. He represents to the people a very wealthy man, from a very wealthy family, who left all the comforts to go and sit in a cave in an austere way of life, to say the least. ...

When Sept. 11 happened, we are told that some people in Saudi Arabia, at least quietly, celebrated, or thought that this was about time the United States learned a lesson, or applauded.

Other than shock and horror, really, there was a range of opinions. I go back to the fact that Saudi Arabia is a very vast country. There is not one opinion. And some people were frightened, horrified. Some had a contained jubilation. Because ... in Saudi Arabia, you don't go out on the street to express yourself. And you can't express yourself at a university. You can't even now at the mosque. So it's not a place where you publicly give an opinion, political or otherwise.

So perhaps there were a lot of people who were thinking, "Well, now they know how we feel when we watch our brothers the Palestinians die. And maybe they will understand." ... But I must say that [when] the majority of decent human beings watched the atrocity ... there was a lot of sadness. It was painful. ...

Prince Bandar says to us, 'Those crowds in the street, I can get as many people as you want to wave my grandmother's picture. Just give them some money." He acts as if bin Laden is a nuisance who they, the royal family, initially underestimated, but who is not so important. Is this the arrogance of a monarchy? Or is it the reality that they're firmly in power?

We know very much that none of those poor Indonesians, nor Pakistanis, nor Palestinians, nor other Muslims in Arab anywhere, were waving his picture because anybody gave them money. In fact, they risked getting shot. Those people who most probably were linked and supporters of bin Laden, and go and commit suicide -- the hijackers -- you can't give them money and say, "Go kill yourself." Besides, most of them did not need the money. So I think that we must go beyond all these preconceived ideas, whether we're a Saudi or an American, and try to understand issues in a different way.

But I guess what I'm getting at is, how unstable is Saudi Arabia? Is there reason for the royal family to be concerned about the loyalty of the people, in terms of your talking with them? Is this the beginning of a revolution in Saudi Arabia?

This is not the beginning of a revolution. But this is the beginning of a very difficult, turbulent time in Saudi Arabia. The gap between the ruled and the rulers has widened. And there is a lot of anxiety, agitation, among people, and even anger. There are going to be opinions expressed. And I do hope that we would not have more terrorism in the country. ... I do not think that there is any problem for the stability of the ruling elites. But I think the pressure is building, and there must be ways of allowing people more space. ...

We are told that it's this form of fundamentalist religion represented by this Wahhabi-influenced Islamic, if you will, ideology, or view, that has created, if you will, a seedbed for people to become violent, to become anti-American, and to do the kinds of things that we call "extremism" now. Is that true?

I don't think it has to do with Islam. I don't think it has to do with any form of this ... Islamic interpretation. ... Of course there is a problem with dogma. But I think the problem lies with the political systems that use religion. ...

There's been a politicization of Islam. You've said it. But bin Laden, and his, if you will, similar people, are using Islam to promote political goals.


They base this on a dogmatic interpretation of the religion itself, black and white. Is the base of support that they are gaining a result of this proliferation of this view of Islam? It may not have initially been designed ... Wahhabism is what I am talking about. ... Is there a relationship between that and this development that we see of bin Laden and his movement?

Probably there would be a relation between an interpretation of Islam that lacks tolerance, and is a more narrow vision of the world. But particularly the problem is about the political systems that promote this type of interpretation of religion. This gives people the excuse, the platform, to go ahead and express themselves in Islamic language to suit their purpose of political ends.

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