|House of Saud re-embraces totalitarianism
By John R Bradley
Residents of the tiny provincial capital of Saudi Arabia's northernmost
province last week witnessed a grisly scene in the main public square: the
corpses of three militants tied to poles, on top of which were placed their
severed heads. The three - who returned to the kingdom after fighting in
Afghanistan - were beheaded in Sakaka, the capital of al-Jouf province, after
being convicted of murdering the region's deputy governor, a top religious
court judge and a police chief. They also killed a Saudi soldier, and kidnapped
a foreign national.
That small-scale rebellion in al-Jouf, along with a prison riot and a rare
public demonstration in support of the Palestinians, occurred in a region that
is a power base of the al-Sudairy branch of the al-Saud ruling family. The
branch, known as the "Sudairy Seven", includes King Fahd and his six full
brothers, who hold most of the key government posts. Saudi officials admitted
in January last year that the rebellion's three leaders had attracted the
support of dozens of locals. At one stage, perhaps fearing an explosion of
violence or even a popular uprising, some 8,000 soldiers from the National
Guard were deployed in the nearby city of Tabuk.
At its height in 2003, the unrest had seemed to represent in microcosm the
kingdom-wide tensions that threatened to spill over into a general uprising.
The rebellion's end, then, with the crudely symbolic public display of its
leaders' heads on poles, could now likewise be seen as marking the al-Saud's
triumph over the most extreme of its homegrown enemies - at least for now.
The al-Saud regime appears to have got the upper-hand in its battle with
radical Islamists. Al-Qaeda's suspected chief in Saudi Arabia, Saleh al-Aoofi,
was reportedly among at least 16 militants killed last week in three days of
fierce gun battles with security forces in the north of the kingdom. Another
two of the 26 most-wanted terrorists were confirmed killed in that and another
clash in the capital Riyadh, leaving only three from the list still at large.
Through its actions against militants and close, behind-the-scenes cooperation
with US, British and French intelligence services, the regime has convinced all
but the most entrenched anti-Saudi voices in Washington that it is a crucial
and reliable ally in the global "war on terrorism". Crown Prince Abdullah, the
de facto leader, is expected to meet with US President George W Bush at his
Crawford, Texas, ranch later this month, signaling the importance Bush
continues to place on US-Saudi relations (notwithstanding the pre-election
excitement over the issue). Partial elections for municipality councils,
dismissed by the vast majority of Saudis as a waste of time and in which even
many senior princes did not bother to set an example by voting, have meanwhile
given other pro-al-Saud voices in the West - who often have links to
Saudi-funded think-tanks and/or the arms and oil industries - an additional
reason to champion the regime as a force for modernization and democratization.
In reality, the opposite is true. The regime is not giving up power or changing
its historically repressive domestic policies in the face of opposition, but -
more predictably - closing ranks and reasserting its totalitarian rule.
Emboldened by its success in the domestic "war on terror", which got under way
only after their rule was directly threatened, the al-Saud is flexing its other
muscles so that the masses, too, are left in no doubt that it is back in total
control. As with other Arab regimes, it is using the "war on terror" to silence
all dissent, but in ways that have peculiar Saudi characteristics.
A few days after the al-Jouf executions, for instance, six Somali nationals
were beheaded together in Jeddah for the crime of armed robbery. The six killed
no one, meaning the punishment was grossly unfair, even by the standards of
Saudi Arabia's strict code of Islamic Sharia law. The Somalis had served their
initial five-year sentence, and had also been flogged; they were not even aware
before being led to the chopping block that they had suddenly been sentenced to
death, according to human rights groups. Hailing from an impoverished,
war-ravaged country whose government can be guaranteed to ignore the sorry
plight not only of its citizens abroad but even those at home, the Somalis were
easy prey for a regime eager to do whatever it can to instill fear in the
restless Saudi population.
In the two years following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when reformist
voices were in the ascendancy and pressure from Washington meant the al-Saud
had to at least pretend to behave like civilized rulers, it was reported in
domestic newspapers that there was an increasing recognition that the death
penalty was not working as a deterrent. But at least 40 people have been
publicly beheaded this year alone, more than during the whole of last year. And
while there had been a wider debate in the Saudi media about the social causes
of crime, now scare stories blaming "African immigrants" abound in a
government-sponsored campaign aimed at diverting attention away from the real
causes: corruption, massive unemployment and a lack of respect for authority.
The treatment of Saudi gay men, too, seemed to be improving when international
uproar followed an Interior Ministry statement in January 2002 that three men
in the southern city of Abha had been "beheaded for homosexuality". The report
provoked widespread condemnation from gay and human-rights groups in the West -
and a swift denial from an official at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC.
Tariq Allegany, an embassy spokesman, said the three were beheaded for the
sexual abuse of boys, adding: "I would guess there's sodomy going on daily in
Saudi Arabia, but we don't have executions for it all the time."
The kingdom's Internet Services Unit, responsible for blocking sites deemed
"unIslamic" or politically sensitive, even unblocked access to a home page for
gay Saudi surfers after being bombarded with critical emails from the US. A S
Getenio, manager of GayMiddleEast.com, said at the time Saudi Arabia seemed
concerned about the bad publicity blocking the site would bring, "at the time
it was involved in a multi-million dollar advertising campaign in the US to
improve its image".
Now the al-Saud have no such inhibitions. The website is once again blocked,
and the Saudi religious police - acting on "tip offs" - are raiding gay
gatherings in Jeddah on an almost monthly basis. More than 100 young men caught
dancing and "behaving like women" at a private party were sentenced this month
to a total of 14,200 lashes, after a trial behind closed doors and without
defense lawyers. The men were also given jail sentences of up to two years.
This witch-hunt, like the one targeting "African immigrants", also serves to
deflect public attention from the royal family's indulgence and mismanagement.
But it additionally makes the al-Saud seem more Islamist than the Islamists, as
they try to steal the radicals' clothes to shore up support among the masses.
The paradox, then, is that instability in the kingdom over the past two years,
interpreted in the West as possibly threatening the regime's very existence, in
the end helped it not only survive but consolidate its iron grip on power. It
was one factor, for instance, that sent the price of a barrel of oil
skyrocketing to all-time highs.
At the same time, the violence hindered, rather than helped, those who were
pushing for peaceful democratic changes. No one knows that better than Saudi
Arabia's three leading reformists and their lawyer, who are languishing in jail
in Riyadh after calling for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and
an independent judiciary. Peaceful public demonstrations have been ruthlessly
crushed, with some of the participants sentenced to lashings and jail.
Their organizer, Saad al-Faqih, who heads the London-based opposition group The
Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, was bizarrely linked by the US to an
alleged plot by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to kill Crown Prince Abdullah,
the details conveniently "leaked" to the New York Times. Then, with backing
from the United Kingdom government, the US got him listed by the United Nations
as an al-Qaeda supporter and funder. This whole travesty was hastily concocted,
say other Saudi dissidents, at the behest of the al-Saud, who were beginning to
realize with alarm that al-Faqih's calls for change could potentially lead a
The kingdom now has an estimated US$60 billion budget surplus, and has
announced massive new infrastructure projects. Flush with cash, the regime
again seems to be resorting to the tried and tested, following the strategy of
spending ostentatiously to keep the people happy or satisfied, or at least not
dissatisfied, just as had been the case in the oil boom years of the 1970s.
Once again, it wants to be seen as the goose laying the golden egg. But it is
The regime has always sought to buy the loyalty of the Saudi people by
providing a cradle-to-grave welfare system, and crush all those who refused to
play the game. But by once again dealing with the symptoms and not the causes,
the regime is merely tightening the lid on a pressure cooker in an attempt to
delay the inevitable. And what worked in the 1970s, with a population of less
than 10 million, will not work with a population of 24 million.
The hoped-for stability is therefore delusional in a country where underlying
social and economic problems are not being addressed, and to where thousands of
Saudi jihadis will return in due course from neighboring Iraq. Indeed,
unconfirmed reports on Islamist websites say dozens of Saudi jihadis have
returned to the kingdom from Iraq in recent months specifically to plan a fresh
wave of attacks against the oil industry, following an unprecedented call by
Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden last December for just such attacks.
All the talk now on Islamist websites is about the remarkably vulnerable Saudi
oil pipeline network. It is not a matter of if, but when, those attacks start
to take place, in a second wave of violence that will once again punish the
al-Saud regime for burying its head in the oil-rich sand.
John R Bradley is the author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a
Kingdom in Crisis. He has reported extensively from Saudi Arabia and the wider
Middle East for many publications, including The Economist, The New Republic,
Salon, The Independent, The London Telegraph, The Washington Times, and
Prospect. See his website.
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