The face of Saudi
opposition Interview by Mahan
Saad al-Faqih was a professor of
surgery at King Saud University until March 1994.
He was jailed for his heavy involvement in the
country's reform movement. On his release from
prison, he became director of the London office of
the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights
(CDLR), then the leading Saudi opposition group.
He left CDLR to form the Movement for Islamic
Reform in Arabia (MIRA) in 1996. MIRA is centered
in London and is widely recognized as the only
serious opposition to the House of Saud. Aside
from his role as head of MIRA, Saad al-Faqih is
widely recognized as a leading expert on al-Qaeda
and Salafi-jihadism. Saad al-Faqih spoke to Mahan
Abedin in London on April 6.
Mahan Abedin: How would you
describe the eight months since
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz
al-Saud's official ascension to the throne? Has
the transition been smooth?
al-Faqih: There has been no tangible
change in the country
because Abdullah was the de
facto ruler anyway. All the talk about reforms
under Abdullah is for media consumption only.
Moreover, Abdullah has real difficulty in reducing
the power of Princes Sultan and Nayif. However,
there is one development that has been detrimental
to the regime, and that is the extreme volatility
of the stock market, which has affected between 3
million and 4 million Saudi investors. The stock
market has gone from a high of 21,000 points to
almost 14,000 points during the first two weeks of
March this year.
would you explain this collapse?
Saudi investors have long had a preference
for investing in real estate (as opposed to stocks
and shares). But then the big companies
specializing in real-estate investments were taken
over by the regime, so the people had no option
but to invest in the stock market. This sudden
enthusiasm boosted the stock market as share
prices rose. Many people even abandoned their jobs
to devote themselves fully to investing in stocks
and shares. But as the liquidity of the market
reached record highs, the stock market collapsed,
ruining the lives of many people. To give you a
better picture of the situation, the investment
market mirrored a very tall building with a weak
base. There was bound to be a collapse.
MA: Like the dot-com
collapse in the West a few years ago?
SF: Exactly. The regime
enjoyed this stock market mania. It wanted to keep
people busy and distract them away from politics,
but this has now backfired. The investors now
believe the regime tricked them into losing their
money. The collapse of the stock market has been
the most important event in the past eight months,
but to my surprise many people in the Western
media are not even aware of it.
MA: Have there been any
other developments of import?
The arrest of Mohsen al-Awaji one month
ago was controversial. He was arrested for
publishing a critical article on Ghazi
al-Ghossaibi [former Saudi ambassador to the
United Kingdom and currently minister of labor],
claiming that Ghossaibi was abusing the authority
given to him by the Saudis, and Abdullah in
particular. For this he was kept in jail for 11
days. Awaji is a high-profile character who
supports the idea that the regime can accommodate
reform. Ironically, his arrest further discredits
this regime-friendly position.
MA: You had previously
warned that a "succession struggle" would ensue
after King Fahd's demise. Do you now accept this
is not likely to happen?
No, I don't accept this. The main problem
for the royals is that [Second Deputy Prime
Minister] Prince Sultan wants to become king and
does not want to wait for Abdullah to die
naturally. So somehow Abdullah has to be removed.
Moreover, [Interior Minister] Prince Nayif fears
that people close to Abdullah want to get rid of
him, mainly because of American pressure. Nayif is
keen to exploit Abdullah's so-called "liberal"
credentials, by turning the traditional religious
establishment against him.
MA: When can we see some
concrete manifestations of these divisions? Or are
the royals going to keep it hidden from public
SF: If Abdullah
decided to move against Nayif, then clearly the
divisions will come to the fore. However, the real
questions revolve around Sultan, since he is
desperate to become king. And because Sultan has
cancer and will probably die before Abdullah, he
will want to make sure that Abdullah dies before
MA: Let us talk about
your organization. MIRA is now 10 years old; what
have been its greatest achievements to date?
SF: Although MIRA is
officially 10 years old, our roots go back to the
Gulf War and the emergence of the reform movement
in Arabia. Most positive political changes can be
traced back to MIRA and its predecessors. To be
specific, we have achieved the following:
Raised public awareness about the shortcomings
of the regime.
Alerted people to the need for comprehensive
and strategic reforms.
Succeeded in presenting ourselves as an
alternative voice by using cutting-edge technology
and innovating new ways of expressing dissent
Introduced organizational concepts into Saudi
politics and alerted people to the critical need
for organized resistance against the House of
Created the conditions which enable people
both inside and outside the country to see beyond
the House of Saud - in short, we have impressed
upon people that the Sauds' rule is not permanent.
Finally, we have generally made life very hard
for the regime, and made it much more difficult
for them to promote themselves as they had done
prior to the emergence of the reform movement.
MA: MIRA is widely
recognized as the only serious and effective
opposition to the House of Saud. The key question
is, why have you failed to organize a popular
revolt against the regime?
You can create a mass movement either
through an underground organization or through
intense media activities against the regime. It
takes a long time to develop an underground
movement in Saudi Arabia; therefore we opted for
the media strategy, even though our mass-media
project has oft-times been undermined by jamming
and other forms of interference. On the ground we
have invented new tricks to guarantee the success
of large gatherings without the need for a
well-organized underground movement, which would
provoke a strong response by the security forces.
We have tried to provoke mass resistance against
the regime by asking people to gather in mosques
on Friday prayers and have instructed them to
openly defy the regime only when their numbers are
large enough to deter the security forces. These
activities are slowly eroding the foundations of
constitute your core activities?
The main activity revolves around our
media arm, which enables us to communicate
directly with our people inside the country. Our
TV broadcasts usually last for one to three hours
per day. Now that we have acquired a popular
satellite, we are hoping to have a minimum of
three hours' broadcasting every day. Also very
soon we are hoping to broadcast live pictures. We
also plan to make documentaries based on smuggled
footage from inside the country.
Explain the contents of MIRA's broadcasts.
SF: They are simply talk
shows. People ring in from the country and express
their frustrations and grievances.
MA: What other activities do
you engage in?
SF: We try to
organize people inside the country, in particular
the tribes, people in the army, industry and the
universities. We have penetrated these
institutions and are hoping to bank on their
support when the regime nears its end.
MA: Aside from
character-assassinating you, how is the Saudi
regime fighting MIRA?
They arrest people who make contact with
us. They detain whomever they can identify. They
use their media, or the media under their
influence, to attack our movement in general. They
have even pressured the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera to
not talk to us. Consequently, I am the only person
who is not welcome by Al-Jazeera. Even [Osama] bin
Laden speaks to Al-Jazeera! This gives you an
indication into how much the regime fears us, and
understands that MIRA is a more potent threat than
al-Qaeda. One of the senior producers at
Al-Jazeera recently told me that they are allowed
to talk to bin Laden and his people to anger the
Americans but they are not allowed to talk to me
for fear of angering the Saudis. The Saudis
recognize that bin Laden is preoccupied with
America, and in any case the regime has
successfully mobilized public opinion against
al-Qaeda inside the country. But they can never
hope to turn the people against us, simply because
we express people's grievances and aspirations.
MA: Aside from MIRA, is
there any other credible opposition to the Sauds?
SF: I am not aware of it.
The reformers are either in prison or have been
bought by the regime. Outside the country,
Mohammad al-Massari [former head of CDLR and
currently the head of the Party for Islamic
Renewal] has long gone down the pan-Islamic track
and is not exclusively focused on Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, Ali al-Ahmad, the Shi'ite opposition
leader based in Washington, DC, also seems more
concerned with developments in Iraq and the Gulf
than in Saudi Arabia itself. The important point
here is that MIRA is the only organization which
is professionally committed to the overthrow of
the Sauds. We work around the clock for this aim
and are recognized by everyone as the only serious
opposition to the Saudi regime.
This may be the case, but you are at the
mercy of the British state and its laws. Do you
think there is a risk that the British may
eventually cut a deal with the Saudis and expel
you from the United Kingdom?
SF: The important point here
is that we work within the law and have never
abused our position. We have been advised by our
lawyers that the British government has no legal
grounds to initiate any action against MIRA, let
alone expelling me from the country. In any case,
there is no precedent for the British government
to deal with a high-profile organization in such a
manner. Furthermore, the British are shrewd enough
to know that the Saudi regime is doomed and they
want to be in a position to deal with alternative
leaders. In the absence of an effective
opposition, the only alternatives are either
al-Qaeda or chaos. Liberals inside the country
lack the capability and resources to provide
leadership in the event of the regime's collapse.
The British also know that MIRA is an important
factor in reducing violence inside Saudi Arabia,
because we channel people's anger away from
violence and toward politics.
So you think these reports about a
possible deal between the UK government and the
Saudis is just idle speculation?
There are a few in the British government
who are ready to cut a deal with the Saudis.
However, they are not strong enough to form a
consensus in favor of the Saudis. The Saudis have
been working with the Americans to pressure the
British government to move against me and MIRA.
Protecting the al-Sauds is a primary US policy in
the Middle East. The Americans recognize that I am
a threat to the al-Sauds and went so far as
pressuring the UN to put me on a terrorism list in
December 2004. The Americans are very shortsighted
and lack the maturity and farsightedness of the
British foreign-policy establishment. Fortunately,
no matter how much pressure the Americans apply,
the British are too wise to make rash decisions.
MA: Let us talk about
terrorism. How significant is the failed bombing
of the oil facilities at Abqaiq (Buqayq)?
SF: According to our
information, the operation was discovered by the
Saudis one week prior to the incident. The
Ministry of Interior decided to keep silent to
discover the real capabilities of the cell, which
they had penetrated. Despite knowing the place and
timing of the operation, they failed to foil it.
They even failed to stop the car from entering the
complex, and were just fortunate that the car did
not explode next to the right tank. Had it done
so, there would have been considerable damage to
exports and Saudi prestige in general. Also, the
car exploded because the bomber pressed the
detonation button and not because the guards shot
at it, as the Saudis have claimed.
MA: What was the Saudis'
plan, to gather information right to the end?
SF: Yes, and they probably
thought they could foil it at the right time.
However, there is a conspiracy theory going around
that [Interior Minister] Mohammad bin Nayif
deliberately failed to foil the plot to embarrass
MA: What is your
analysis of the situation?
This is al-Qaeda's new strategy of
attacking the oil infrastructure and members of
the royal family. They have decided to cease their
attacks on the security forces.
Is this directly tied to [bin Laden's No
2] Ayman al-Zawahiri's recent directive to this
SF: I believe so.
MA: Saudi security forces
allegedly disarmed two explosive-laden vehicles
near the Abqaiq oil facilities on March 28. Do you
think the militants were planning a reprise of the
February 24 attack?
this is a false story planted by Saudi agents.
MA: The Saudis claim to have
arrested 40 members of al-Qaeda during raids on
March 29. How significant are these arrests?
SF: This is another false
story. These 40 people had nothing to do with
al-Qaeda. They were activists of some sort, and
some may have had some sympathies to al-Qaeda, but
they had no concrete ties to the network. The
Saudis make announcements like this all the time
to boost the morale of their agents and convince
the West that their regime is stable.
MA: In January, Saudi
Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal claimed
that the kingdom had killed 120 militants since
the start of the terrorist campaign in May 2003.
He also claimed that only two individuals remain
on the June 2005 wanted list. Do these figures
reflect reality on the ground?
They have killed many people; some were
militants and some were not. But they have
arrested thousands more, very few of whom can be
described as militants.
What about the claim that only two militants
remain on the wanted list?
SF: This is rubbish. That
list has never reflected the situation on the
ground. The Saudis do not know how extensive the
jihadi networks are. They have a particular
problem with the returnees from the Iraq conflict.
They don't know who they are, how many have come
back to the country and what they should do with
MA: How many Saudis
are fighting in Iraq today?
Until late 2004 there were no fewer than
3,000 Saudis fighting in Iraq. I don't know if the
figure has increased or decreased since that time.
But the really interesting point is that many of
these people are either members of the National
Guard, the army or the Interior Ministry.
MA: How influential are the
Saudi fighters in Iraq?
The Iraqi insurgents do not lack
leadership skills, military prowess or courage, as
many of them are drawn from the ranks of the
former Iraqi army. But the Saudi fighters are very
brave and they have gone to Iraq to die.
Consequently they are mujahideen of the highest
caliber, and no doubt the Iraqi resistance
welcomes their presence.
Roughly how many Saudi fighters with
experience in the Iraqi insurgency have returned
to the kingdom?
SF: This is
very difficult to say. But many have returned;
some are in hiding and some have been arrested.
MA: Who ultimately controls
the Iraq returnees, the jihadi leadership in Iraq
or the local al-Qaeda leadership in the kingdom?
SF: Most likely the jihadi
leadership in Iraq.
type of operations can we expect the Iraq
returnees to execute?
The same targets as the local al-Qaeda
network, namely the oil infrastructure and the
how well has the Saudi security establishment
dealt with the terrorism threat?
The regime succeeded in rooting out the
older generation of jihadis. However, the new
generation which has been radicalized by the Iraq
conflict is a different story altogether. This
generation may cause the Saudis big headaches. I
would expect one or two major incidents within the
next six months.
MA: What is
the objective of the jihadis?
By attacking the oil infrastructure, the
jihadis aim to raise oil prices and damage the
American economy. Secondly the jihadis want to
create rifts between the Americans and the
al-Sauds. As far as the Americans are concerned,
the al-Sauds' primary function is to guarantee the
flow of oil. If they fail in this mission,
America's confidence in them will diminish
accordingly. Once this happens, the Americans will
be forced to look at alternatives, maybe even
Islamist alternatives. More broadly, the jihadis
do not want to topple the regime at this point in
time, because they are not yet ready to take over
the country. Therefore they will most likely
assassinate a minor prince first to send a message
to the regime, to the effect that if you do not
behave yourselves, we will go for the next royal.
MA: How would you assess the
core al-Qaeda organization today?
SF: Much of the old cadre
have either been killed or arrested. But the base
of the new generation is much wider and deeper.
The new generation is also much more
sophisticated, and no intelligence service really
understands the complexity of this network.
MA: What about bin Laden's
warnings to the United States?
Given bin Laden's track record in
following through with his threats, I believe
there will be a second major attack in America.
Whether these attacks are on par with the
[September 11, 2001] attacks, or even exceed them
in terms of sophistication and damage, remains to
MA: What targets
are they likely to attack?
The only real clue we have is that
al-Qaeda will attack American states that voted
for George Bush in the last US presidential
elections. Bin Laden referred to this is his
speech in late October 2004.
What is your assessment of the situation
SF: I think
al-Qaeda has succeeded in driving the country
toward sectarian civil war.
You think Iraq is moving toward civil war?
SF: They are already there.
You don't need to have fighting on the streets to
have civil war. Because of Shi'ite domination of
the security forces, every Sunni feels threatened
and wants to carry arms. Moreover, because of
American mismanagement, every Sunni in Iraq is a
potential jihadi. Somebody in Iraq called me
recently and said the situation has got so bad
that even the Americans are telling Sunnis to
defend themselves against Shi'ite militias. More
broadly, the Americans are in a real dilemma,
because if they increase Sunni participation in
the Iraqi government they will be strengthening
the resistance, and if they support the Shi'ites,
they will be strengthening Iran's role in Iraq. So
it is a lose-lose situation for them, and this is
exactly what al-Qaeda wanted.
What do you think would happen if the
coalition forces departed Iraq?
SF: The Sunnis would sweep
the Shi'ites away. Even though Shi'ites outnumber
Sunnis, Iraqi Sunnis have a reputation for
fierceness and are more competent in governmental
and military affairs than their Shi'ite
MA: Do you
think the Americans have been definitively
defeated in Iraq?
they have lost strategically. They are stuck in
the mud, and no serious observer can deny this.
Every available option is bad for them.
MA: Talking about the region
more broadly, how important is the Hamas election
victory in Palestine to the global Islamic
SF: I don't think
it is very important. Hamas has seriously
constrained itself with this victory because they
are now in a very difficult situation. They are
being pressured by all sides and will not be able
to function as a government without some contact
with the Israelis.
you think Hamas can reach accommodation with the
SF: Hamas has already
achieved this. For instance, they have been in
contact with the British government for a while.
Hamas accepts the current international order, and
in this respect it is worlds apart from the
jihadis of al-Qaeda.
seriously is new Iranian President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad taken by Arab Islamists?
SF: The problem with Arab
Islamists is that they do not go into the details
of personalities and issues. They just analyze
events from a superficial political perspective.
Some Islamists respect him for his hardline stance
and defiant defense of Iranian national pride.
MA: What about Ahmadinejad's
unprecedented verbal assault on Israel?
SF: They really liked that.
But some Islamists in the Arabian Peninsula fear
Ahmadinejad's nationalism, even though they admire
his Islamism. And as for the Salafis, they cannot
see beyond their hatred for Shi'ites. Some of the
more extreme Salafis in Saudi Arabia even think it
would be acceptable for America to attack Iran.
Mahan Abedin is the editor of
Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the
Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization
specializing in research and analysis on conflict
and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed
here are his own.