Ten years after 9/11, Saudi Arabia slowly modernizing

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Abdulaziz Al Rabah remembers it was a Tuesday. The call to evening prayer was echoing across his hometown of Hafr-al-Batin, and bearded religious police had shooed him and his friends off the neighborhood soccer pitch.

“Have you seen what happened to America?” a wide-eyed friend asked the 13-year-old.

Racing home, Al Rabah joined his mother to watch the satellite television newscasts of America’s agony unfolding on September 11, 2001.

“I remember she was sad to see two guys jumping to the ground,” he recalled.

His family felt sympathy for the United States, Al Rabah said, and a few days later, shame, when they learned that 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi. He also remembers that some of his schoolmates “were happy” that America had been hit.

Al Rabah is now a 23-year-old journalist with Shams newspaper in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. He wears t-shirts and ripped jeans, is internet savvy, and like many Saudis his age wants his country to be globally connected and widely respected.

He came of age in the decade since 9/11 and like many Saudi youth, he is excited by the events of the so-called Arab Spring, which have given the region’s aging political elites — from Tunisia to Egypt and Libya and beyond — their biggest challenge in decades. While he is inspired by the youth-led uprisings, and puts himself with those Saudis who “want to change everything to the best: human rights, freedom of expression and women’s rights,” Al Rabah nevertheless does not want his own country convulsed by the disorder and violence wracking other Arab states.

For him, as for many other Saudis, what comes next is unclear. “No one knows what will happen next year, in two years,” he said. “It’s like, foggy, you know.”


I met Al Rabah while reporting from Riyadh during a recently concluded three-year stay in Saudi Arabia, where I was able to see close-up how events of the past decade have affected the world’s largest oil producer.

Just as that fateful, blue-sky day of September 11, 2001 changed America, it also changed Saudi Arabia, an important U.S. ally, but also the place where some of 9/11’s seeds were sown.

The terrorist attacks that day were a prelude to internal struggles that have preoccupied Saudi Arabia ever since. First came shock and shame at the large role of Saudis in the 9/11 attacks, followed by an Al Qaeda-led insurgency that traumatized the kingdom and left 164 people dead.

These events forced the government to ultimately come to grips with the role that its rigid, anti-Western Wahhabi brand of Islam had played in creating Al Qaeda’s ideology of anarchic violence.

After a belated, tacit admission that some extreme Wahhabi views had nurtured Islamist militancy, the government launched a series of initiatives to combat those ideas, including a domestic campaign promoting “moderate” Islam.

Now, the House of Saud is coping with a second, more complex struggle whose ramifications are potentially more profound: How to maintain its political legitimacy — which depends on an alliance with a theologically ultraconservative religious establishment that regards democracy as un-Islamic — in the tumultuous, post-9/11 landscape created by the Arab Spring.

The Saudi government is well aware of the political, social and economic reforms needed to assure the kingdom’s success in a competitive, globalized 21st century. But the ruling royal family is loath to dilute its powers through reforms. Indeed, it recently bolstered its ties to the clergy to help it ride out the storm of youth-led revolts that already have toppled two Arab leaders and threaten others.

But attempts to return to a more socially restrictive society after a decade of slowly opening up to change will be resisted, Al Rabah believes.

“People will never go back,” he said. “If they are forced, there will be a revolution.”

I told him that I was not sure that Saudis would be brave enough for that.

“That,” replied Al Rabah, “is what we used to say about Egyptians!”


Like Al Rabah, many Saudis clearly remember where they heard about Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. Some were dismayed, others pleased. Many denied that Saudis could have planned and executed the most successful terrorist attacks ever against the United States. Conspiracy theories that they were the work of dark forces within the U.S. government or Israel were widely believed.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef Abdul Aziz, who denied for months after 9/11 that Saudis were among the hijackers, suggested in a November 2002 interview that Jews were behind the attacks, saying that terrorist networks like Al Qaeda had links to “foreign intelligence agencies that work against Arab and Muslim interests, chief among them is the Israeli Mossad.”

But a few months later, on the quiet, warm evening of May 12, 2003, massive explosions ripped through three residential compounds in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Twelve suicide bombers managed to kill more than 30 people, including nine Americans. It was the start of a violent campaign by Al Qaeda underscoring that, in its eyes, the House of Saud was also an enemy of Islam.

Saudi religious leaders and government officials had swiftly condemned the 9/11 attacks. But it took Al Qaeda’s insurgency to make them realize that their dogmatic, literalist version of Islam, which views non-Wahhabi Muslims and non-Muslims as inferior, was partly responsible for the terror movement’s doctrine.

Wahhabism’s contempt for those who do not follow its creed, for example, nurtured a mindset of intolerance. It was common, for example, to hear imams curse non-Muslims in sermons at Friday prayers.

Saudis point out that Wahhabism teaches absolute obedience to political rulers, so it would never sanction violent revolts like Al Qaeda’s. Indeed, it is widely accepted by scholars that this aspect of Al Qaeda’s ideology comes from another strand of Islamist thought articulated in the 1960s by theorists like Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyed Qutb. A radical rejected by his movement, Qutb taught that governments following man-made laws are un-Islamic and must be overthrown.

The marriage of extremist expressions of Wahhabism with Qutb-derived justifications of violence was sealed in the 1980s in the mountains of Afghanistan, where the Saudi and U.S. governments armed Afghans battling Soviet occupiers. Both governments encouraged young Arabs to join this jihad, where they became radicalized and eventually waged jihad against Arab regimes and the United States.

That war, in hindsight, was a tragic error now acknowledged by Saudi officials. Since 9/11, “the first lesson, and it’s the biggest lesson, is that mistakes were committed by the international community when they supported the travel of young guys to go and fight in Afghanistan,” said Abdulrahman Al Hadlaq, general director of the Saudi Interior Ministry’s Ideological Security Directorate.

Then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz salutes during a welcoming ceremony prior to the start of a counter-terror conference in Riyadh in February 2005. Saudi Arabia, hit by a wave of attacks by suspected Al Qaeda militants, called at the start of the conference for the establishment of an international center to combat and preempt terrorism. (Rabih Moghrabi/Getty)


Since 2003, Al Hadlaq has been deeply involved in the Saudi government’s moves to combat “deviant thinking,” which is what it calls Al Qaeda’s ideology and the most aggressive expressions of Wahhabism.

A program to promote tolerance and dialogue among representatives of different Islamic groups, including Wahhabis, Shias, Sufis, Ismailis and Malikis was launched in 2003.

“We must study what has happened,” then-Crown Prince and now King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz told the first dialogue participants, according to historian Robert Lacey. “Something serious has gone wrong here, and we must try to put it right.”

The dialogue sessions formally recognized the kingdom’s religious diversity — a blow against Wahhabism’s view that there is only one way to practice Islam. But they have failed to produce much grass-roots tolerance or ameliorate the tensions between the Sunni majority and Shiite minority.

“We in Saudi Arabia still need a larger dose of tolerance,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a former newspaper editor who now heads a forthcoming 24-hour all-news satellite television channel owned by Prince Waleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men and a stalwart of the pro-modernizing wing of the ruling family.

“I still want more [change], especially in the war against the ideas which breed intolerance and extremism,” added Khashoggi during a recent interview on the 57th floor of Kingdom Tower, Riyadh’s sleek, iconic landmark built by Prince Waleed. “For example, it is not enough to preach against using violence against foreigners and at the same time you allow a preacher to say you should hate non-Muslims.”

In another initiative to promote religious dialogue, King Abdullah hosted an international gathering of religious leaders, including Jews, Hindus, and Christians, in Madrid in 2008. Displeased that the king was openly rejecting another core tenet of Wahhabism — to avoid contact with non-Muslims — many state-employed Saudi religious authorities declined to attend. While the king set a new example for his subjects, little else concrete has emerged from this initiative.

Saudi Arabia also got serious about reforming its educational system, which was heavily loaded with Wahhabi religious discourse. More class time is now going to math and science. Religious textbooks were revised, removing many passages critical of non-Muslims.

But reform in this area is far too slow, retarded by stiff headwinds from conservatives who object to “Westernizing” influences and decreases in religious studies. Girls still cannot play sports in government schools because of religious conservatives’ opposition. And despite new religious textbooks, teachers’ attitudes have not necessarily changed. As of 2010, more than 2,000 teachers had been removed from the classroom because of extremist views and 400 others jailed.

To rehabilitate thousands of Al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers arrested during the insurgency, the government implemented a reeducation program in prisons. Taught by government clerics, the courses promote a moderate, more tolerant version of Wahhabism. A second program designed to reintegrate around 120 returning Guantanamo detainees into Saudi society is widely recognized as highly successful, despite a recidivist rate of almost 20 percent.

Another priority has been the retraining and stepped-up monitoring of imams and preachers. Hundreds of mosque personnel suspected of militant sympathies were relieved of their posts. And symposiums on “The Saudi Moderate Approach” were organized at mosques, as well as at universities and schools, to caution against extremist thinking.

The government is also trying to regain control of takfir, the practice of labeling other Muslims apostates from Islam and therefore liable for execution. The concept has a long pedigree in Wahhabi thought, and extremists have used it to justify killing other Muslims. But Saudi state-affiliated religious scholars argue that excommunication is the sole prerogative of Muslim rulers and their appointed cleric. The government is planning an international conference to promote this concept of takfir this month.

“We did a lot as a country to counter violent extremism….[and] right now Al Qaeda ideology is not as it used to be eight or nine years ago,” said Al Hadlaq. “The ideology does not enjoy any popularity in Saudi Arabia.”

Conversations with many Saudis indicate that support for Al Qaeda dropped off dramatically after it began murdering civilians in the kingdom. But the same cannot be said for Osama bin Laden, whose killing by U.S. special forces in May provoked a variety of responses.

One American in Riyadh said he was approached in a supermarket line by a Saudi who said, “Osama bin Laden — Thank you!”

But some Saudis described co-workers who had tears in their eyes as they lamented the passing of a “hero” and “martyr” who, they said, is now surely in heaven.


Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was changing outside the domain of religion, often because of forces over which the government had little control. These forces are having their biggest impact on the kingdom’s large and growing youth population.

With a quarter of its 22 million citizens using the internet, the kingdom is increasingly connected, and its once formidable isolation is fast melting. Facebook has more than 4 million Saudi users, and Twitter tweets skyrocketed 400 percent in the past year.

Romantic soap operas and irreverent comedy shows that poke fun at traditional Saudi culture are wildly popular on satellite television. One of the most popular programs is “La Yekthar” (“Put A Lid on It“), an online comedy show produced by young Saudi stand-up comics.

“Starting in 2002, things got totally different here,” said journalist Al Rabah, who drives a battered Nissan Altima with bad shocks and, like a growing number of young men, lives apart from his family in his own apartment.

Abdulaziz Al Rabah. (Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

“We got more exposed because of the internet,” he noted. “The most important thing is that the country started to open up. It’s not like before, when the teacher is always right, the father is always right, the cleric is always right. You can refuse now. It’s not like it was back in the day.”

King Abdullah led the charge to move the kingdom forward. He gave the media a green light to raise social and economic problems, and to criticize clergy for retrograde rulings. He openly promoted women getting advanced degrees and working. He built the kingdom’s first co-ed research university, fired clerics who opposed his reforms, and ordered an overhaul of an obsolete court system.

But most of the king’s reforms were never hard-wired into new institutions and their slow pace, especially in judicial reforms, left many Saudis disheartened by the end of 2010. Moreover, none of his initiatives fundamentally altered the kingdom’s political system.


Then, early this year, along came the youth-led movements demanding reform and new political leadership in Tunisia and Egypt and posing profound challenges to the regimes in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. With their signature cry of “Salmiyah! Salmiyah!” (“Peaceful! Peaceful!”), these protesters have done far more than the killing of Osama bin Laden to suffocate Al Qaeda’s faith-glossed ideology of terrorist violence.

Armed with Facebook and Twitter instead of Semtex and grenades, these young people made demands more usually found on student-protest placards than jihadi websites: dignity, jobs, freedom of speech, transparency, meaningful political participation and an end to corruption.

Their mostly non-ideological stance has given new legitimacy to both secular and moderate, non-violent Islamist discourses. As a result, the Arab world is seeing the most widespread debate in decades over Islam and democracy and the role of religion in politics.

It is these debates and demands for reform that worry the Saudi government, even as they enthrall some Saudis.

Mohamed Al Hodaif took his family to dinner at a Chinese restaurant to celebrate the forced departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “There were a lot of parties,” said the Islamist writer. “People identified themselves with the situation of the Egyptian people. All the people of the region are seeking freedom and democracy.”

Attorney and one-time opposition activist Abdulaziz M. Al Gasim regards the still unfolding drama as landmark. “For me, this is a very important event in Arab history…because this is the first time the nation takes the initiative and…we discovered after Tunis and Egypt that the nation can reform political life peacefully, with no [public chaos].”

Arab governments, he added, “have now received a tremendous message…that they have to change their behavior or they will be replaced. This is the first time the battle is clear…It is for good governance and guarantee of good governance by a constitutional state.”

But when, everyone wondered, would the Arab Spring reach the Saudi kingdom? Unknown persons tried to hasten its arrival with a call on Facebook for a ‘Day of Rage’ on March 11.

Khalid Al Johani. (Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

It turned out to be a ‘Day of Fizzle.’ Saudis stayed home, deterred by a huge police presence on the streets and by the suspicious anonymity of those calling for protests. Moreover, many Saudis figured, why protest when the government had just announced billions in new financial benefits, including unemployment compensation, easier house mortgage terms and more affordable housing?

The government also pulled out the religion card. Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh declared the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings “chaotic acts” designed by “enemies of Islam” to divide the Islamic world. Another senior cleric, Saleh Bin Saad Al-Suhaimi, displayed his Wahhabi credentials by noting that protests are not approved in Islam no matter what injustices the ruler commits. He described the demonstrations as “Masonic and Jewish” plots backed by Iran, the West, secularists and liberals.

Journalists did encounter one lone protester. Khalid Al Johani, 40, a schoolteacher, publicly denounced Saudi Arabia as a police state to the TV cameras and then was promptly detained without charges or a trial. Six months later, he remains jailed.

(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.)