BraSaud 06-2-20


Inside a Kingdom in Crisis


John R. Bradley

Palgrave (Macmillan), 2005, 217 pp., ISBN 1-4039-6433-5

John Bradley, an Arabic speaker, worked as a journalist in Saudi Arabia for more than two years.  He was news editor and managing editor for the Arab News in Jeddah before and after 9/11.  At the time, he was the only permanent, accredited Western journalist in the country.  He was able to travel throughout Saudi Arabia, from its remotest village mountains to its least accessible city slums, without any restrictions.  “The Kingdom was not merely like nowhere in the West, but nowhere on earth.”  (Introduction)


“Saudi Arabia is marked by a breathtakingly contradictory embrace of the universal and the unique, the ultra-traditional and the defiantly modern, the tediously mundane and the truly bizarre.”  “There is no single culture that defines what Saudi Arabia is and who its people are.” (xv) 


“While there is more than one Saudi Arabia, the only one that has caught the attention of the West in recent years is the Wahhabi kingdom.”  It is home to 15 of the 19 hijackers, … governed by perhaps the most corrupt family the world has ever known, a place teeming with extremists, where children are taught that ‘the Jews’ are the eternal enemy, and where westerners are periodically blown up in their residential compounds or gunned down in the street by attackers filled with hatred for them and seeking martyrdom.” (xvi)


“The main concern for perhaps the majority of the population, the one thing in addition to their faith that binds them, despite their many differences, is the question of whether they and their children will be able to find a job, and if they are likely to recover their status in the world that was so profoundly undermined on September 11….” (xvi)


“Being a follower of anything other than strict Wahhabi Islam, secretively or otherwise, is a risky undertaking in Saudi Arabia….” (5)


“The roots of global Islamic terror can be traced in a very direct way back to the fanaticism of the Wahhabis, who to this day rule Saudi Arabia in partnership with the Al-Saud ruling family.” (6)


Saudi Arabia is a country the size of Western Europe and has a quarter of the known oil reserves on the planet. (9)


The Al-Saud rule in partnership with the direct descendants of Abdul Wahhab, (known as the Al-Asheikh family), who hold almost all the key positions in the religious establishment.  They are responsible for enforcing Islamic orthodoxy on the streets.  The “religious police” are both feared and reviled.  The members are drawn from the lower classes that resent the rich and are feared because of their freedom of action.  (10)


Along with a huge generational gap between the rulers and the ruled, a crime wave, and an ongoing economic crisis, these religious, regional, and tribal tensions represent a great challenge to the continuing rule of the royal family. (10)


“There is a saying that if in democratic countries everything is permitte4d except for what is forbidden, in totalitarian countries everything is forbidden except that which is permitted.  That is certainly true of Saudi Arabia.  To function properly, everything depends on everyone keeping face—on maintaining an image to the outside world and at home of Islamic unity in a manner that can only be described as a kind of higher hypocrisy.”  (39)


“…when it comes to the social, cultural, and religious sphere, the liberal Al0Saud princes are … paying the price of the conservative factions of the Al0Saud ruling family having abandoned complete authority tot heir Wahhabi cohorts in an attempt to maintain an iron grip on dissenting local populations.” (60)


“A number of the hijackers themselves, among them members of the same tribes, had bonded there [in Asir] in the late 1990s.  Many attended the sermons of a radical Wahhabi cleric….  No fewer than 12 of the hijackers were from the underdeveloped, highly tribal parts of Hijaz and Azir.”  (66)


Osama bin Laden knew the area well.  “Bin Laden knew too, of course, that the foundations of the Saudi state had been built on active fault lines and that, sooner or later, a seismic shift was sure to shake that state to the ground.  Pulling in one direction is the internal demands of the Wahhabis; pulling in the other is the fundamentally absurd and self-contradictory ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Saudi Arabia that has stood since February 1945….” (67)


“With access to cheap oil as the common denominator, the Western powers chose to overlook the fact that their staunch ally, the Al-Saud, was quietly cultivating a Wahhabi religious establishment that placed at the center of its ideology the goal of completely destroying the West.  The Wahhabi religious establishment was in an equally untenable position: supporting a corrupt royal regime that took its legitimacy from endorsing the Wahhabi version of Islam while, at the same time, forming such cripplingly dependant relations with foreign ‘infidel’ powers.” (67)


Western influences transformed the desert Kingdom into—in the eyes of those Wahhabi dissenters—a superficial replica of the ‘decadent’ West they despised.” (68)  “Bin Laden was always deeply critical of the official Wahhabi religious establishment that rules in partnership with the Al-Saud, which in his view has been co-opted by them.  The hijackers also shared his Yemeni-Saudi tribal roots.” “So by attacking the U.S. guarantors of Saudi security and survival on September 11, these tribal, hard-line Islamist Saudis were targeting the historic Wahhabi-Al-Saud alliance as much as they were the U.S.-Saudi alliance.” (69)


“The majority of the Muslim population—Saudi and expatriate alike—in the [Eastern] oil-rich region are from the persecuted Shiite sect.”  “Shiites are a liberal people, except in their faith, in which they are self-professed fanatics.” (77)  Neighboring countries, too, have majority Shiite populations, including Bahrain and Iraq.   Shiites are about 55% of the Eastern Province.  The huge oil wealth led to unprecedented development elsewhere but the Shiite areas were neglected, showing no sighs of prosperity transforming the rest of the kingdom.  The Wahhabis constantly show outright hostility to the Shiite sect.  And the hostility is mutual. (78)


When Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran, the Saudi Shiites got a boost.  Khomeini called for the export of his Islamic revolution.  (81)  


Chapter Five: Ticking Time Bombs: Saudi Youth.  What is it about Saudi society that breeds and raises men who are “so full of hatred and despair as to plot resolutely and act against the tenets of Islam,” targeting innocents or deliberately killing themselves, and, further, seems to hold them in some esteem? (88)  “The roots of the bifurcation and the alienation it results from lie within the clash between traditional Saudi societal attitudes and the increasing rootlessness of Saudi youth exposed to the opportunities and freedoms—even licentiousness—of the West while devoid of structures or values that are constructive in dealing with the modern world.  The result is something bordering on schizophrenia. 


For seven decades, generation after generation of Saudis have grown up being told at school by Wahhabi-inspired teachers that the West is the source of all evil.  At the same time, they have been forced to accept, also without question, that the very survival of the kingdom’s ruling elite—and the development o fits infrastructure—is entirely dependant on its intimate cooperation with the West.  How to reconcile the pride, even arrogance of the former with the at least implicit admission of weakness of the latter?  Saudi youths partake in the bounty of the West, are able to buy the latest consumer good, which exposes them all the more easily to its temptations.  My friend Mohammed would not listen to music, because it is forbidden, but he would look at pornography, which is equally so.” (90)


The sudden introduction of satellite TV and the Internet have exacerbated Saudi convictions in the most dangerous ways imaginable,” (91)


“If absence of authority is one side of the equation, the other is the felling of entitlement among so many youths in Saudi Arabia.  The growing legions of middle-class teenage Saudis—perhaps the majority—are now…able to obtain anything by simply shouting at the top of their lungs.  A few seconds later—whatever the time of day or night—a Filipino maid is knocking gently at the bedroom door.  Coddled by servants, ignored by parents, aware of the limitations of their own education and abilities to succeed in the wider world that attracts and repels them, taught that they are deserving and should be served rather than that they need, and should, work to obtain goals, Saudi youth have no guides, which leads some to wantonness and others straight and narrow of fundamentalism.” (92)


“They dwell psychologically in a series of logic-tight compartments that touch each other but never overlap, and that often relate only to the snapshots of the various competing cultures they are exposed to through the media and the mosques.”  “Saudis’ thinking patterns revolve around a series of rituals, obsessions, and categories that are self-contained.”  “Their behavior does not reach the self-conscious level of hypocrisy, of believe one thing and doing another, for it is a set of dissonant beliefs that they do not even recognize coexist at the same time.” (92)


“..radical Islamists [are] ever-eager to recruit to their ranks young men who have few critical faculties and a crudely simplistic world outlook.  With so many youngsters wandering aimlessly into adulthood with increasingly few prospects of a decent job, ruled by a corrupt elite closely aligned to an America the young are told to hate and hold responsible for Israel’s ruthless suppression of the Palestinians, the call of the Islamists is not falling on deaf ears.” (96)


“‘Kingdom of Audi Arabia’ means that it is the Al-Saud who own it, and its residents are their vassals.” (99)


“…the terrorists’ tactic of targeting foreigners [inside Saudi Arabia] is also intended to strike at the weakest links in the Saudi economy: its heavy reliance on Westerners to keep the oil pumping and the infrastructure operating, given the near-total failure of the Saudi regime to train and educate its subjects….” (107)


“Nothing makes a person more narrow-minded and defensive than the sudden acquisition of wealth from nothing.”  “The sudden oil wealth entrenched a sense of self-righteousness and arrogance among many Saudis.” (111, 112)


The oilfields remain remarkably vulnerable to a major terrorist assault.  More than 10,000 miles of pipeline crisscross Saudi Arabia, more than double the size of Iraq’s. (116)


“Prior to September 11, there were nearly 50,000 Americans, 35,000 Britons, as well as smaller numbers of French, Germans, Italians, and other Europeans in Saudi Arabia.  These numbers have, however, dropped drastically since then.” (119)


“Saudi businesses like to have a white man at least in nominal charge.  Americans especially have always enjoyed a special status in the Saudi labor markets.  Despite their social and religious prejudices, Saudis tend to treat Americans preferentially.” (120)


“Even non-Saudi Arabs are subtly graded from, say, Jordanians and Syrians down to Egyptians and Yemenis.  But it is clear that Filipinos, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, and Bangladeshis are at the very bottom of the scale.”  “Still, the rule remains that it is Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis who clean the streets in the 40-degree Celsius heat, wearing orange uniforms reminiscent of nothing so much as the jumpsuits of the Guantanamo prisoners, earning a pittance and often living in conditions that would shame a Third World jail.”  (120)


“The sad fact is that there is hardly anything right about labor conditions for Asians in Saudi Arabia.” (124)


“Attempts at reforming the Saudi ‘justice system,’…will continue to be radically undermined by its fundamental flaw of leaving Al-Saud princes like Fahd completely above the law, while setting an example of impoverished Third World immigrants….”  “What cannot be in doubt is the need for widespread reforms, both in the way crimes are prevented and criminals are dealt with, because a population boom, rapid social change, and massive unemployment are bringing a new and frightening social reality to Saudi Arabia.” (142)


“It is poverty that is sucking the poor and dispossessed into the metropolitan centers and spawning in the process brawling, brutish slums on their outskirts.” (142)


“The combination of hard-line Islamic dogma, hatred of the West, poverty, and a perceived corrupt pro-Western ruling elite has created a monster in the very heart of the A-Saud’s third empire.” (147)


“…what sets Saudi Arabia apart is the efforts to keep the sexes segregated.  There are, given the customs, understandable reasons for doing so.  Honor is of crucial importance, and nowhere is protecting honor more important than in maintaining the purity of females, who are—to the Saudi male mentality—always temptresses, whether or not they seek to be, and vulnerable to the uncontrollable passions of males.” (154)


“And the inferiority complex of the Arab men is being fed daily, not least by pictures showing the sexual abuse of Iraqi Palestinians in the face of Israeli oppression—alas, the single galvanizing issue that holds the Arab world together.” (188)


“Some 55 percent of university graduates in the kingdom are females, but the overwhelming majority stayed at home because of the ban and a general lack of job opportunities.” (177)


“…there has always been a marked difference between what Saudi officials say abroad and what they think suitable for domestic consumption, in the same way that there has been a difference in the hedonistic and wanton way many Saudis behave in the West and the highly reserved way they behave back in Riyadh or Jeddah.” (182)


More than 80% of Saudis have satellite TVs in their homes and more than 30% have online access.  A system of proliferating text messages on cell phones and websites spread genuine news and wild rumors. (193)


The Al-Saud princes created their classic empire only in the 1930s.  It’s easy to forget just how new a country it is.  (206)


“Empires are inherently fragile, resting on a coherent and unified leadership, the consent or at least obedience of the peoples, and in extremis the ruthlessness of the secret police.” (208)


Regarding the war in Iraq.  It has potential to create a destabilizing blowback for the Al-Saud.  More immediately, however is the massive windfall from the dramatic increase in the price of oil.  The country’s budget has gone from a projected deficit of $8 billion (2004) to a surplus of $37 to $60 billion!   The regime is spending ostentatiously to keep the people happy.  They seek to be seen as the goose laying the golden egg.  (211)


“Anti-U.S. sentiment inside Saudi Arabia is now at an all-time high….” (211)  “The worse things get in Iraq, the more support and legitimacy the terrorists in Saudi Arabia are getting.  The Saudi terrorists in Iraq will likely provide a huge boost to Al-Qaeda’s ranks when they return to the kingdom because of their large numbers and the tactics they have learned.” (212)


“The extensive evidence of corruption, whether financial or moral or both, of various princes undermines the image of paternalistic rectitude.  In Islam, hypocrisy is among the most damning charger one can bring, a violent character assassination.”  “Ultimately, Saudi Arabia’s future is completely dependent on how the royal family decides to face the future, whether it deals with reality head on or continues to bury its head in the oil-rich sand.” (214)


“The American involvement in Iraq is simply providing more ammunition for extremists…” (215)


“In my years in Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that the ability of an outsider to influence others is highly limited.” (216)  “The bottom line is that if and when there will be positive and welcome change inside Saudi Arabia, it must be internally generated.” (217)


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