Saudi Arabia’s Highway 15 revisited

AL BAHA, Saudi Arabia – The road to September 11th began here on Highway 15, which stretches from Mecca into a barren desert landscape and up into the winding, rocky passes of the Asir province bordering Yemen.

Osama bin Laden’s father, a Saudi construction magnate, built this highway in the 1960s connecting the kingdom to his ancestral homeland of Yemen, and it was along this same stretch of asphalt that Osama bin Laden recruited 12 of the 15 Saudi youths who were among the 19 hijackers to carry out the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

Ten years ago, when the wounds of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and 3,000 deaths were all still painfully fresh for America, I traveled Highway 15 to find out more about the Saudi hijackers who hailed from the towns that dot the roadside. I talked to their families and friends. I wanted to hear from Saudi youth about their feelings for the apocalyptic ideology of bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and the events of 9/11.

What I found was chilling and alarming as so many of the youths here openly supported Al Qaeda, saw bin Laden as a hero and the hijackers as noble martyrs. The young men I met along the road back then had minds blunted by the rote education the religious establishment provides, forcing them to memorize the Koran and drilling them on anti-Western interpretations of its passages and robbing them of critical thinking.

On this 10th anniversary of September 11th amid the tumult of the so-called “Arab Spring,” I returned to Saudi Arabia, heading back out on Highway 15 looking for answers about where the country was headed, about its youth and its future and how the country has changed — or not — over the decade.

It has been said that the Arab world is a tent with two poles: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. One of those poles has seen its regime fall and the question on this journey was whether Saudi was teetering? “Not likely” is the short answer heard from many corners here. But the oil-rich kingdom and its stability is so crucial to the economic fate of America and to the political future of the Middle East that we set out to find the longer answer.

I wanted to hear firsthand the views of a Saudi youth population that is surging in numbers and sinking into unemployment and underemployment. It is a generation that is quite literally “drifting,” as they call a perilous ritual of tearing down this highway at high speed and then locking up the breaks and skidding as far as they can.

They seem better educated as a whole, but bored and indifferent. For most, religion remains an important part of life. They are online and live what one academic described as “a virtual life” that involves mixing with the opposite sex, flirting and open communication with each other. But then they have their “real” lives which are shaped by the conservative religious establishment. That life leaves them segregated by sex, atomized and lonely.

There are few if any on this trip who expressed even tacit support for bin Laden and the lure of ‘jihad’ wasn’t present anywhere that I could see. It has been replaced by rampant conspiracy theories that 9/11 was actually the work of some combination of the CIA and the Israeli Mossad. They are passive about most things. The excitement of the first digital revolution in Tunisia and then Egypt and the hopeful Twitter accounts and Facebook pages of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ hasn’t seemed to grab most young Saudis. At least, not yet.

With bin Laden killed and buried at sea and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the process of an agonizingly slow withdrawal of American and allied troops, I wanted to see where the kingdom found itself in these days that feel like the ragged end of what is no longer called the “war on terror,” but which has simply become known as ‘the Long War.’

The range of emotions here on this 10th anniversary was complex, and the bookends of that range was captured in two brief comments from family members of two Saudi hijackers who both came from a hilltop village here off Highway 15 just above Al Baha.

An angry father of one hijacker, a local sheikh named Ibrahim al Haznawi, told me in a cold and steady voice, “I am proud of my son.” Khaled, 40, the brother of hijacker Said Alghamdi, said with sadness, “I miss my brother…It was useless violence.”

Ten years after the “useless violence,” I was looking for the road that goes beyond 9/11.


My journey began at Dunkin’ Donuts.

It was late June and early in the morning. The first light of day glinted off the storefronts at the start of the road from the coastal town of Jeddah that leads to Highway 15. I was stunned to see all of the American chains, from the Gap to Ralph Lauren and McDonald’s to Pizza Hut, that made the road through Jeddah feel like any strip mall in America.

I needed coffee and stopped in at a gilded, two-story Dunkin’ Donuts that was crowded with young men in their early 20s. They said they had been out all night partying on the beach.

Not one of them expressed any interest in or support for bin Laden. In fact, they laughed aloud when I asked them about it.

Hussam Halawani, a  26-year-old bank teller wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a black fedora that looked more Kerouac than Al Qaeda, said, “We don’t care about Osama.”

“Seriously. We don’t even think about him. That whole thing is like a movie, not real,” he said.

“No money in Al Qaeda, dude,” he quips, turning to laugh with his friends and biting into a chocolate-covered donut decorated with a smiley face of yellow frosting.

I asked him if his job as a bank teller was rewarding given his college education and if there was enough opportunity in Saudi Arabia for people his age.

“There’s enough. But barely. And only if you really want it,” he said, turning serious.

His friend, Adwan, who did not want to give his last name, was more surly. He was dressed in a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and a RL cap with a tightly curved brim. He’s a flight attendant. And he’s spilling over with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about September 11th, a streak of irrationality that is widespread in Saudi and across the Arab world.

“Okay, I have a question for you. How do you know that Osama bin Laden did this? There are many of us who don’t believe it,” he said.

“We believe it was forces in your own country that did this attack to justify a war on Islam…Why were there no Jews killed? Don’t you think Jews in America were behind this?” he asked.

A group of Saudi youth make an early morning stop at a Jeddah Dunkin’ Donuts after spending the night partying on the beach. (Charles M. Sennott/GlobalPost)

His friends nodded in agreement. I’m sure I looked as insulted as I felt.

After an uncomfortable silence, the bank teller with the hipster hat looked to close the conversation, saying, “We just don’t care either way. We just live our life. That’s it.”


The cities and towns that have sprouted up along Highway 15 represent one of the largest concentrations of population in the kingdom. They form a part of the heartland of a country where youth comprise a larger part of the population than ever before.

Nearly 40 percent of the population is below the age of 14. More than half are under the age 25. And two-thirds are under 29. This unprecedented ‘youth bulge’ has not even crested yet, but it is projected to reach the high point within the next ten years.

Unemployment among youth is higher than it has ever been. According to official statistics, last reported in 2009, the unemployment rate for Saudis aged 15 to 24 was 30 percent. But many young people believe it is much higher, and say 40 percent would be a modest estimate. The jobs available are largely menial labor or service oriented and clerical work. Holding a college degree is, at least statistically, a liability in the job search because college-educated applicants are seen as overqualified for the lower level positions that are available. According to the government’s own statistics, holding a college degree almost doubles the chances of ending up unemployed for young men and women.


A detour along Saudi Arabia’s Highway 15. (Charles M. Sennott/GlobalPost)


We moved on down the road toward Mecca, where prominent road signs in English and Arabic warn, “Muslims Only.” The ‘infidels’ like myself are instructed to drive the long way around the holy city of Islam. We obeyed the signs and took the exits that led us up onto Highway 15. It’s an old road now in disrepair. It appeared to have been replaced in long stretches by a newer strip of asphalt that cuts through the barren desert landscape into Taif and then Al Baha. We tried to stay on the old road, but at several points were forced back onto the newer highway by rockslides and road repair crews.

On the roads that curved through rock formations, we saw camel herds and the timeless and enduring images of life in the Arab peninsula. They contrasted sharply with the strip malls and American chain stores of Jeddah and the ubiquitous highway billboards that depict the king smiling, and waving to his subjects.

And you realize that Saudi is at heart all about this confusing mix of ancient traditions and modern commerce wrapped into an absolute monarchy. It is a place where youth are stultified and where any sense of support for bin Laden has been replaced by a deep malaise that is “anesthetized,” as one analyst put it, through generous subsidies from the House of Saud.

In the spring, the king announced that anyone unemployed would receive a stipend equivalent to an average year’s salary while they look for a job. Two million applied for the subsidy in a country of 20 million. The palace also announced housing subsidies for first-time buyers. If there is discontent, it can’t really be heard over the loud, comfortable hum of air conditioning in government offices where people line up for more handouts.

“The question is how long can that last?” asked Ahmed al Omran, the founder of a leading blog called Saudi Jeans, which focuses on human rights and freedom of expression.

Omran agrees the majority are indeed complacent, but points out that a minority is energized and eager for change.

He added, “The palace is seeking short term solutions to long term problems. They can’t afford to do that forever. The answer is though true political and social reform even if I don’t see that happening any time soon.”


The boredom of youth is often expressed by young people taking insane risks behind the wheel. They pile into sleek, souped-up Italian-made Ferraris and all-American Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams and cruise at high speeds. The sound of the high-performance engines and the aggression behind them reminded me of the 1950s in America. Just like James Dean in the Hollywood classic “Rebel Without a Cause,” youth here are trying to break through the angst and the

boredom by putting their lives on the line with fast cars.

They fly at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour on this road and then lock up their brakes, skid and lose control for several hundreds yards with tires burning and brakes smoking. Crowds line the streets to watch. Many are injured and killed behind the wheel, as are the spectators on the side of the road. Vehicular fatality is high in Saudi Arabia. The weekend we were in Jeddah six people were killed, according to local newspaper reports, while taking part in “drifting.” It has become a sort of national pastime for a youth population that seems quite literally bored out of its mind.

“Yes, young people are bored, but they are also lazy,” says Firaz Habis, an architecture student at King Saud University and a member of the Youth Committee for the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue, a palace-funded organization dedicated to fostering dialogue among Saudis about important issues of the day.

He showed me YouTube videos of “drifting” as we spoke and shook his head at the cars swerving out of control in blurry video clips shot at nighttime.

“A lot of young people are just lost,” he said.

“They are sometimes trapped in immaturity because it is hard to go off on your own in this culture. We are tied to unemployment. And it is very hard to have the money to get married, to have your own life. We are often late in starting to build our families,” he explained.


Young women experience the same level of boredom, but have a different set of issues in a culture where they are not permitted to drive, to work or even leave the country without the permission of their father or male guardian. As a Western male, it is not easy to strike up a conversation with a young Saudi woman. But I met one woman named Nabila, a 20-year-old student at a prestigious American university, who offered some keen insight in perfect English.

“I sometimes feel like something is about to explode. There’s a tension under the surface. It’s not so much because of religion, but more the tribal strictures that make it hard for young people to communicate,” Nabila said.

She said this tension is the backdrop for a wildly popular pulp fiction novel titled “Girls of Riyadh,” which was at first banned in Saudi Arabia but which, she said, just about every young girl has read in paperbacks which are handed around.

“The truth is there is a lot more going on between boys and girls then you would realize from outside. There is a lot of trading of phone numbers and email addresses. We are always texting and quickly deleting. It’s silly really, but we find a way,” she said.

I asked her if the ban on driving for women and the strict social and legal code that enforce a submissive culture for women bothered her, particularly when she comes home from an elite New England college campus.

“This surprises my friends in America, but the truth is it does not. There are so many women who love Saudi Arabia and love the king. I mean really love the king. My friends have the hardest time believing that, especially in the West, but it is true,” explained Nabila.

Nabila’s views are common. Acceptance, or what some might call complacency, in Saudi Arabia seems widespread, particularly among young women. Many young men and women alike would agree with Nabila that they watch the events unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and believe they are just not sure they want to partake in the chaotic and ill-defined goals of the protest movements that are toppling dictators, but leaving uncertainty and destruction in their path. They are surprisingly measured in their response to the dramatic events unfolding all around them.


When the road brought us to Al Baha, I stopped to listen to the sound of the call to Friday prayers and watched thousands of men, about 80 percent of them in their 20s, filing into the central mosque just off Highway 15.

The sermon was bland, but the mosque was packed. There was no fierce, pulpit-pounding, anti-Western rhetoric from the Wahhabi clerics as I had heard along this road ten years ago.

After prayers, I met with Khalid “Johnny” Abdel, an African-American convert to Islam who hails from Cleveland but has lived in Al Baha for the last four years teaching English to high school students and college-age students trying to get accepted to American universities.

Khalid “Johnny” Abdel (L). (Charles M. Sennott/GlobalPost)

“Young people are very interested in their education and finding their way,” he said.

“And they are confused about America. They are on the one hand suspicious and fearful. But they are also trying very hard to get visas to study there. Those who return from America speak in a very good way about America and about the opportunity it affords. So from my perspective here, it seems to be we need to learn a lot more about each other,” said Abdel, a burly Cleveland Browns fan who was anxious to get home to his wife for a barbecue with some neighbors.


When I first traveled along Highway 15 ten years ago, the House of Saud was largely in denial, refusing for the first month after the 9/11 attacks to even publicly concede that 15 of the 19 hijackers were in fact subjects of the kingdom. But of course they were as was bin Laden himself.

Saudi fingerprints have always been all over 9/11, and just not those of bin Laden and the hijackers. There was also evidence that funding for Al Qaeda sifted through a network of Islamic charities based here and that inspiration for the ideology of Al Qaeda grew out of the often hateful theology of the anti-Western religious establishment, which provides the House of Saud with its legitimacy to rule.

Momhammad Fahad Al Qahtani, co-founder and spokesman for the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, observed, “This country is built on the basis of an extremist ideology. It is the government itself that manufactured extremism.”

“People are changing, yet the government is refusing to change. And in fact it takes reformers and throws them in prison. There are tens of thousands – 30,000 – individual political prisoners in Saudi prisons detained under the pretext of counter terrorism,” he said, indicating that the official figure of 11,000 political prisoners is low.

“I think in the long term, the regime will be pushed to moderate…The most important sectors that will drive change are women and youth…The decisive moment is not now, but three to five years from now,” he added.


In a small Islamic Cultural Center in Al Baha, I ran into Faraj Abdullah, 53, the father of four teenage boys, who is a religion teacher at the middle school. At the center, he mostly works with immigrant workers from the Philippines, Bangladesh and elsewhere who come to the center for Islamic texts in their native language.

“Ten years ago you would find the young people, Saudis and even some foreigners here who supported Osama bin Laden. They hated the injustice they saw America carry out against Muslims in Palestine and in Iraq. Those injustices have not really gone away, but the support for bin Laden has. I think people just don’t believe in violence as a way to succeed, and it is not the message of the Koran,” said Abdullah.

“I think 10 years ago this was a different road, and Saudi Arabia was a different place,” he added.

We headed back out on the road and the sun was fading now. The sunset was a burst of color on the horizon, a final and dramatic flourish of red and purple behind the vast sands of Saudi Arabia along Highway 15.

(This work was supported by a 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California’s Knight Program in Media and Religion.)