KARACHI – Exclusive information gathered by Asia Times Online suggests that the latest incident of violence in the port city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia is the manifestation of extreme discontent within the Saudi socio-political system, which will be further reflected in the shape of more violence in the coming days. This situation is compounded by anger at US-imposed solutions on the House of Saud to clamp down on Islamists.
On Monday, militants invaded Jeddah’s heavily guarded US consulate, attacking staffers and others in the compound until Saudi security forces stormed in. Nine people, none American, were killed in the attack, which al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for.
The government of Saudi Arabia has had considerable success in tackling the problem of militancy by employing traditional social tools, which include mediation by influential religious scholars, tribal elders and members of the royal family. An amnesty package was announced and the authorities turned a blind eye to several wanted figures, allowing them to leave Saudi Arabia for countries such as Sudan, Iraq and South Africa.
The remaining militants still bent on conducting terror-related activities were then crushed with an iron hand, but only after taking the mainstream Saudi religious hierarchy in confidence. These religious figures fully supported the Saudi government’s moves to go after the terrorists, and issued detailed religious decrees which explicitly categorized their deeds as “evil” in terms of the Koran. They also substantiated their statements with Koranic verses and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.
The moves were initiated in November last year, in which leading Saudi scholar Safar al-Hawali played a major role, after which some top 40 hardline pro-militancy scholars met Prince Abdullah and agreed to openly denounce terror activities in Saudi Arabia, in the name of religion.
This multi-faceted approach largely isolated the network of militants and they were left without public support. Their strike rate declined considerably.
However, recent intense US pressure on Saudi Arabia to take drastic steps against Islamists has virtually reversed the gains and badly split the previously united Saudi society on the issue of handling terror. One of the moves instigated by the US was for the Saudi government to shut down most charitable/missionary operations sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Some of these funds were believed to make their way into the hands of terror groups.
The al-Haramain Foundation is a case in point. Most of its branches all over the world were shut down, which caused hardship for the orphanages, hospitals and relief operations that they legitimately funded. Just in Somalia, the closure of an orphanage left 3,000 children homeless.
Had US pressure stopped at this point, the situation might not have been too bad. But US authorities demanded that action be taken against the officials of the charities. As a result, several members of charitable organizations, who are highly respected in Saudi society as part of the religious elite, were interrogated.
Recently, the personal accounts of one of the former executive board members of the now defunct al-Haramain Foundation, Soliman al-Buthi, were seized. Initially, the Saudi government, after a full investigation, cleared Soliman, but the US Federal Bureau of Investigation placed Soliman on its terror watch list, and so the US government demanded that Saudi Arabia freeze all his personal accounts.
These moves, including reform in the education sector, have caused alarm within the Saudi religious elite and tribal chiefs. On the one hand they do not doubt the House of Saud’s commitment to popular Saudi traditions and religion, but on the other hand they see unacceptable concessions to the US being made.
Although Saudi Arabia has developed remarkably over the past decades and has become more urbanized, thanks largely to oil wealth, compared to many Middle Eastern countries its tribal system is still strong and deep-rooted.
To keep the tribes united behind the House of Saud, the rulers have used the religious hierarchy as the binding force. This arrangement received its first shock in the mid-1990s with the emergence of Osama bin Laden – a Saudi – as an heroic figure among the Saudi youth. The Saudi government understood the threat and offered bin Laden several truces, but bin Laden, through Prince Turki al-Faisal, the then Saudi intelligence chief, refused all overtures. Bin Laden’s initial discontent with the ruling family stemmed from the stationing of foreign (US) soldiers on Saudi territory following the Gulf War of 1991.
Support for bin Laden increased multifold after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 in retaliation for the al-Qaeda-inspired attacks on the US. Bin Laden resided in Afghanistan, and numerous al-Qaeda training camps operated in that country.
However, the Saudi government’s support of the US attack on Iraq last year killed any chance of reconciliation between al-Qaeda and the House of Saud, and from 2003 a series of organized attacks in the country began. And US pressure on Saudi Arabia to take hardline steps against the anti-US forces in the country derailed Saudi efforts to make al-Qaeda unpopular among common Saudi citizens.
Should this discontent break down the fragile unity of the tribal system in the country, Saudi Arabia will be in deep trouble. There are hundreds of tribes in Saudi Arabia, but tribal politics generally revolve around a few major tribes, which include:
These are the major Saudi tribes, each with a population of about 100,000. Traditional bonds such as inter-marriages and prosperity in the Arabian peninsula have played a large role in pacifying disputes between the tribes, all gathered under the umbrella of the House of Saud.
However, there is a history of feuds between the House of Saud and the Shammar, the Mutair, the family of al-Aidh and many families in the Qaseem tribe. Several of these clans are believed to still bear a grudge against the ruling family.
Splits are now emerging in the pro-House of Saud (read pro-US) and anti-House of Saud (anti-US) tribes. The US invasion of Iraq and the recent offensive in Fallujah, whose residents are cousins to many Najad tribes, have further accentuated the divisions. This is reflected also among religious scholars, with 26 prominent ones coming out in support of the Iraqi resistance against the US, while under US pressure, state-run religious councils have condemned the Iraqi resistance.
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at [email protected]