Sunday, October 23, 2005

Kingdom in Crisis


John Bradley has written "Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis."

On 20 October 2005, at World Peace Herald, Martin Walker, UPI Editor, wrote about 'the real Saudi Arabia', as described by Bradley.

The following was written by Martin Walker:

It is not a widely known fact that more of the money deposited in Saudi bank accounts belongs to women than to men.

Nor have many in the West heard of Kerantina, the sprawling slum in south Jeddah, the main Saudi port, where hard drugs, prostitutes, alcohol and witchcraft are widely available, where the police dare not go, and where real power rests with a transplanted Nigerian tribal leader.

Nor is the West at all familiar with the scale of local opposition to the rule of al-Saud family in the Hijaz region around Jeddah, the Asir zone near the Yemeni border, and the al-Jouf area on the north by the Iraqi border.

Westerners know, or perhaps suspect, rather more about the unrest among the Shiite of the eastern province, where Saudi oil facilities are concentrated, but the troubled tribal and regional base on which the al-Saud family rests is threatened by many more fissures than the traditional sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite.

There is no more excuse for ignorance, because British journalist John Bradley has now written the most revealing and important book on the real Saudi Arabia to have been published in years. Hired to be the managing editor of Arab News, the country's English-language newspaper controlled by the Information Ministry, Bradley was the only Westerner to be an accredited journalist in the country. He speaks Arabic, lived in Saudi neighborhoods rather than Western compounds, and the result is "Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis." (Palgrave Macmillan, $22.95.)

He gets invited to dissident meetings of rich Jeddah merchants, where invited lecturers relate the rich and politically tolerant history of the Hijaz, the vast region that runs from the Jordanian border in the north down the coast of the Red Sea to the Asir region bordering Yemen. Hijaz history is deployed as a political statement, openly contrasting the former tolerance and diversity with the totalitarian mindset of the Wahhabi religious zealots with whom the al-Saud family rules.

"There is still considerable resistance to the al-Saud hegemony," Bradley told United Press International. "The resistance to them stems not only from corruption and because they are seen as outsiders in much of the country, but also because of the unpopularity of the Wahhabite clergy and religious police who are the al-Saud family's partners in rule."

The al-Saud alliance with the Wahhabites dates back to a pact signed in 1744 between Mohammed bin Saud, a tribal leader from al-Najd central region, and the puritanical cleric Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab. That pact endures to this day, and to maintain Wahhabite support, the al-Saud have handed over control of the clergy, almost all mosques, the judiciary, education and the media to Wahhabite supervision.

"This is the apparatus of a totalitarian state," Bradley suggests, but a totalitarian state that has satellite TV with 24-hour hard-core porn, Internet access and gambling, and -- until the censors stopped it -- the exiled Islamist dissident Saad al-Faqih beaming vitriol over Reform TV against the al-Saud princes as "thieves who should be beheaded." The Saudi security system can be ruthlessly efficient at times, Bradley says. He cites the example of the Riyadh-based lawyer Abdul Aziz al-Tayyar, who was giving a live TV interview from his home to Al Jazeera about social and economic conditions inside the country.

"All tribesmen are now willing to fight this government -- we will protect the rights of our people," al-Tayyar said. "This is not the kingdom of Saudi Arabia any more; it is a jungle full of monsters. The Saudi people are repressed."

Within minutes, the Saudi security police, evidently monitoring the broadcast and knowing instantly where to find al-Tayyar, kicked down his door and hauled the lawyer off to prison.

Bradley gives the insights of a Saudi insider who knows and loves the country, and one who is also a Western journalist; he is someone who knows how the game is played on both sides, as very few Westerners do.

"At the Jeddah-based paper I worked for, sub-editors were often amused to see columns of Middle East 'experts' in the Western press, Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pipes and the like, quoting our newspaper's anonymous editorials because they seemingly reflected "a change in the Arab mindset." In fact, they were written by me, a British chap who lives (now) in the south of France and (when we were not available) by another British chap who lives in the north of England," he writes.

Bradley used his years in Jeddah to great effect, traveling widely. When he writes on regional disaffection and repression, he has been to Shiite eastern provinces and gives an eyewitness report on the empty but costly new Sunni mosque, while the devout Shiite trudge to the ramshackle structure to which they are consigned. He drove down to Asir and went until the roads and tracks stopped to met the legendary flower men, and north to al-Jouf, where the Saudis deployed 8,000 troops in April 2002, to keep order and where the deputy governor of the province was gunned down in the street the next year.

The ruling al-Saud family has for years maintained a skilful balance, ensuring its domestic rule through the Wahhabi alliance, while winning U.S. military support because of its oil wealth and because of the al-Saud argument that the alternative to them is Islamist rule or even al-Qaida. That balance, which depended on ample funds to buy Wahhabite and tribal support and to fend off unrest with a lavish welfare state, became endangered in recent years when rock bottom oil prices in recent years plunged the national budget into serial deficits. But with oil above $60 a barrel, the al-Saud regime now has the money to continue their juggling act.

"The government has used the extra money to give 15 percent pay rises to all civil servants and public employees, and even larger pay rises to the security forces," Bradley told UPI. "But this could be only a short-term relief because of the demographic explosion that has some 70 percent of the population under the age of 21, many of them increasingly aware of Western pressure for democratization."

This puts real pressure on the security forces, Bradley says, adding the Saudi armed forces are not the mainstay of the regime. It relies instead on the National Guard, a separate and well-funded and well-armed body composed of young men from the most loyal tribes, from the traditional Bedu and from the Wahhabi religious establishment, and meant to have a vested interest in the regime's survival. The most alarming feature of al-Qaida's 9/11 terrorist attack, which Bradley says rocked the entire Saudi system, was that at least three and perhaps four of the hijackers were from the al-Ghamdi tribe, traditionally loyal to the state.

"The cave in Afghanistan where the plan for 9/11 was hatched was known as 'the al-Ghamdi house,' Bradley claims. He adds al-Ghamdi tribal members have now been tracked fighting with Chechens against Russia, with a terrorist cell in Morocco, and with the terror cell that launched the attacks in Riyadh in May 2003 -- but when the mastermind of the Riyadh attacks was captured, his al-Ghamdi tribal name was censored in the Saudi media.

"Never underestimate the capacity of the al-Saud family to adapt to new political challenges," Bradley concludes. "They are very good at survival, but the pressures upon them are mounting dramatically at a time of social and political turmoil."



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