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    Middle East
     Apr 20, 2006
The face of Saudi opposition
Interview by Mahan Abedin

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?

Saad 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.

MA: How would you explain this collapse?

SF: 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?

SF: 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?

SF: 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 view?

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 him.

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 Saud.
  • 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?

    SF: 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 the regime.

    MA: What constitute your core activities?

    SF: 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.

    MA: 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?

    SF: 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.

    MA: 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.

    MA: So you think these reports about a possible deal between the UK government and the Saudis is just idle speculation?

    SF: 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 Abdullah.

    MA: What is your analysis of the situation?

    SF: 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.

    MA: Is this directly tied to [bin Laden's No 2] Ayman al-Zawahiri's recent directive to this effect?

    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?

    SF: No, 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?

    SF: 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.

    MA: 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 them.

    MA: How many Saudis are fighting in Iraq today?

    SF: 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?

    SF: 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.

    MA: 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.

    MA: What type of operations can we expect the Iraq returnees to execute?

    SF: The same targets as the local al-Qaeda network, namely the oil infrastructure and the royal family.

    MA: Overall, how well has the Saudi security establishment dealt with the terrorism threat?

    SF: 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?

    SF: 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?

    SF: 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 be seen.

    MA: What targets are they likely to attack?

    SF: 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.

    MA: What is your assessment of the situation in Iraq?

    SF: I think al-Qaeda has succeeded in driving the country toward sectarian civil war.

    MA: 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.

    MA: 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 compatriots.

    MA: Do you think the Americans have been definitively defeated in Iraq?

    SF: Yes, 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 movement?

    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.

    MA: Do you think Hamas can reach accommodation with the West?

    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.

    MA: How 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.

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