KARACHI - Exclusive
information gathered by Asia Times Online suggests that
the latest incident of violence in the port city of
Jeddah in Saudi Arabia is the manifestation of extreme
discontent within the Saudi socio-political system,
which will be further reflected in the shape of more
violence in the coming days. This situation is
compounded by anger at US-imposed solutions on the House
of Saud to clamp down on Islamists.
militants invaded Jeddah's heavily guarded US consulate,
attacking staffers and others in the compound until
Saudi security forces stormed in. Nine people, none
American, were killed in the attack, which al-Qaeda
claimed responsibility for.
The government of
Saudi Arabia has had considerable success in tackling
the problem of militancy by employing traditional social
tools, which include mediation by influential religious
scholars, tribal elders and members of the royal family.
An amnesty package was announced and the authorities
turned a blind eye to several wanted figures, allowing
them to leave Saudi Arabia for countries such as Sudan,
Iraq and South Africa.
The remaining militants
still bent on conducting terror-related activities were
then crushed with an iron hand, but only after taking
the mainstream Saudi religious hierarchy in confidence.
These religious figures fully supported the Saudi
government's moves to go after the terrorists, and
issued detailed religious decrees which explicitly
categorized their deeds as "evil" in terms of the Koran.
They also substantiated their statements with Koranic
verses and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.
The moves were initiated in November last year,
in which leading Saudi scholar Safar al-Hawali played a
major role, after which some top 40 hardline
pro-militancy scholars met Prince Abdullah and agreed to
openly denounce terror activities in Saudi Arabia, in
the name of religion.
approach largely isolated the network of militants and
they were left without public support. Their strike rate
However, recent intense
US pressure on Saudi Arabia to take drastic steps
against Islamists has virtually reversed the gains and
badly split the previously united Saudi society on the
issue of handling terror. One of the moves instigated by
the US was for the Saudi government to shut down most
charitable/missionary operations sponsored by Saudi
Arabia. Some of these funds were believed to make their
way into the hands of terror groups.
al-Haramain Foundation is a case in point. Most of its
branches all over the world were shut down, which caused
hardship for the orphanages, hospitals and relief
operations that they legitimately funded. Just in
Somalia, the closure of an orphanage left 3,000 children
Had US pressure stopped at this point,
the situation might not have been too bad. But US
authorities demanded that action be taken against the
officials of the charities. As a result, several members
of charitable organizations, who are highly respected in
Saudi society as part of the religious elite, were
Recently, the personal accounts of
one of the former executive board members of the now
defunct al-Haramain Foundation, Soliman al-Buthi, were
seized. Initially, the Saudi government, after a full
investigation, cleared Soliman, but the US Federal
Bureau of Investigation placed Soliman on its terror
watch list, and so the US government demanded that Saudi
Arabia freeze all his personal accounts.
moves, including reform in the education sector, have
caused alarm within the Saudi religious elite and tribal
chiefs. On the one hand they do not doubt the House of
Saud's commitment to popular Saudi traditions and
religion, but on the other hand they see unacceptable
concessions to the US being made.
roots Although Saudi Arabia has developed
remarkably over the past decades and has become more
urbanized, thanks largely to oil wealth, compared to
many Middle Eastern countries its tribal system is still
strong and deep-rooted.
To keep the tribes
united behind the House of Saud, the rulers have used
the religious hierarchy as the binding force. This
arrangement received its first shock in the mid-1990s
with the emergence of Osama bin Laden - a Saudi - as an
heroic figure among the Saudi youth. The Saudi
government understood the threat and offered bin Laden
several truces, but bin Laden, through Prince Turki
al-Faisal, the then Saudi intelligence chief, refused
all overtures. Bin Laden's initial discontent with the
ruling family stemmed from the stationing of foreign
(US) soldiers on Saudi territory following the Gulf War
Support for bin Laden increased
multifold after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in
late 2001 in retaliation for the al-Qaeda-inspired
attacks on the US. Bin Laden resided in Afghanistan, and
numerous al-Qaeda training camps operated in that
However, the Saudi government's support
of the US attack on Iraq last year killed any chance of
reconciliation between al-Qaeda and the House of Saud,
and from 2003 a series of organized attacks in the
country began. And US pressure on Saudi Arabia to take
hardline steps against the anti-US forces in the country
derailed Saudi efforts to make al-Qaeda unpopular among
common Saudi citizens.
Should this discontent
break down the fragile unity of the tribal system in the
country, Saudi Arabia will be in deep trouble. There are
hundreds of tribes in Saudi Arabia, but tribal politics
generally revolve around a few major tribes, which
Tameem, considered generally as rural
(not Bedouin) and divided into many smaller clans.
Located all over Saudi Arabia and other parts of the
Otaibah, has probably the strongest
tribal bonds. Considered generally as nomads (Bedouin)
although many live in towns. They are located in the
western part of Najd (an area in mid-Arabia) and the
Qahtan, located in the southwest and
southern Najd. Some are nomadic.
Mutair, in mid and eastern Najd,
Subai, in mid and western Najd, mostly
Harb, in northwestern Najd and the
Anazah, in northern Arabia, mostly
nomadic, some clans live in parts of mid-Najd, such as
the al-Saud clan.
Ad-Dawaser, located in southern Najd
and spread over other parts of Najd, they mostly live in
towns or rural communities. The al-Sudari family belongs
to this tribe.
Shammar, mostly in the Hail area
(northern Najd). Half of them are nomadic. The house of
al-Rasheed belongs to this tribe, they used to be rulers
of Arabia before King Abulaziz took over Arabia.
Al-Rashid and al-Sabhan are both from this tribe, and
have marital relations with al-Saud.
Ya'am, in the Najran area and some
parts of Najd. Al-Hethlain is a small clan of al-Ejman,
which is also part of the Ya'am tribe. Al-Hethlain has
marital ties with al-Saud.
Bani Shihr, Bani Amr, Balhmar and
Balsmar, all related and living in the
mountainous range (as-Sarawat) of southwestern Arabia.
They live in towns or rural communities.
Ghamed and Zahran, they
are related and located in al-Baha city in northern
Sarawat. All live in towns or rural communities.
Shamran and Balgarn, in
the mountainous range (as-Sarawat) in southwestern
Arabia, all live in towns or rural communities.
Aseer and Rejal Al-Ma'a
live in towns or rural communities in the southern part
These are the major Saudi tribes,
each with a population of about 100,000. Traditional
bonds such as inter-marriages and prosperity in the
Arabian peninsula have played a large role in pacifying
disputes between the tribes, all gathered under the
umbrella of the House of Saud.
However, there is
a history of feuds between the House of Saud and the
Shammar, the Mutair, the family of al-Aidh and many
families in the Qaseem tribe. Several of these clans are
believed to still bear a grudge against the ruling
Splits are now emerging in the pro-House
of Saud (read pro-US) and anti-House of Saud (anti-US)
tribes. The US invasion of Iraq and the recent offensive
in Fallujah, whose residents are cousins to many Najad
tribes, have further accentuated the divisions. This is
reflected also among religious scholars, with 26
prominent ones coming out in support of the Iraqi
resistance against the US, while under US pressure,
state-run religious councils have condemned the Iraqi