December 22, 2002
In Iraq's shadow - Saudi Arabia Strained alliance
Threat of U.S. action against Iraq further tests key anti-terror ally
By MARCUS STERN
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The port city of Jeddah on the Red Sea
has Starbucks , McDonald's, Internet cafes and gleaming, glass
office buildings that produce at least the semblance of a modern
But in the shadow of those tall towers there is another side of
Saudi Arabia. Here, women must wear black abayas that cover
them from head to toe. They are banned from driving. And they
can't leave the country without their husband's permission.
Children attend schools where screeds against "infidels" are
common. Taking photographs in public is forbidden. And the
mutawa, or religious police, patrol shopping malls enforcing the
puritanical strain of Islam that dominates in Saudi Arabia.
Oh, and the Starbucks and McDonald's are carefully partitioned
into separate sections for men and women.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, focused new attention on
one of America's key allies in the Middle East, underscoring both
the similarities and differences of the two cultures. Now, the
threat of war with Iraq adds even more pressure to the already
strained relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Just as U.S.-Saudi relations have reached a critical crossroads,
so, too, has Saudi society. The oil-rich kingdom is being tugged
between modern global influences and conservative Islamic
clerics who cling to old and insular ways.
It also is facing a demographic time bomb.
With 70 percent of Saudi Arabia's population under 21, incomes
falling, unemployment rising and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
resonating here more than ever, analysts have likened Saudi
society to a large truck going down a long, steep grade. Analysts
worry that if the brakes fail, Saudi Arabia could revolt against its
royal family the way Iran revolted against its shah.
And that, they say, would be bad for U.S. interests.
The current governing arrangement, an absolute monarchy,
doesn't include elections or political parties. Power is inherited.
The royal family holds all of the top government positions and a
large share of the nation's wealth. The kingdom has been
criticized for human rights violations and is notorious for
withholding many basic rights from women.
Yet with one-quarter of the world's known oil reserves, Saudi
Arabia ensures a reliable supply of oil for the United States and
billions of dollars in sales annually for the U.S. defense industry.
This critical juncture in U.S.-Saudi relations comes as the
Islamic world has begun to hold the United States accountable
for what Muslims portray as daily, brutal treatment of
Palestinians by Israeli forces. In terms of single-minded fervor,
the closest parallel in the United States might be the
anti-abortion movement. But even that is a pale comparison.
Given that context, the ruling House of Saud will face a real
dilemma if the United States pushes the monarchy to assist in
another war with Iraq. The 1991 war cost the Saudis $65 billion
and led to a recession. The war freed the Saudis of any threat
from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but it left a bitter
aftertaste with them.
The heavy Saudi connection to the Sept. 11 attacks has thrown
the kingdom further on the defensive, creating a new bitterness
toward America by Saudis who feel they have become victims of
a smear campaign by the U.S. media.
They accuse the U.S. media of generalizing culpability to all
Saudis because Osama bin Laden is a Saudi, as were 15 of the
The most recent irritant was a spate of widely publicized
questions raised about whether charitable contributions by a
member of the royal family might have gone indirectly to
someone associated with the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Some worry that U.S.-Saudi relations are near the breaking
"Right now we have a dysfunctional marriage with the United
States and we have to be careful that it doesn't break up," said
Khaled A. Al-Maeena, editor in chief of the Jeddah-based Arab
News. "If the marriage breaks up, it will be bad for America, bad
for Saudi Arabia and bad for the world."
Al-Maeena went to great lengths to stress the common bonds
and good will between the two countries. Saudis don't hate
America, he said. They are simply angry and frustrated with U.S.
foreign policy, especially when it comes to the Arab-Israeli
conflict. And on that score, even his comments became biting.
"How can I be against America?" he said. "I am mad at those
ignorant people with IQs under seven who are running America."
While Saudis have no great love for Hussein and might abide an
attack on him, they could react badly if an attack on Iraq results
in a large number of civilian casualties, Al-Maeena said.
But the immediate concern is a perceived U.S. backlash since
"The Saudis and the Muslim people are not the enemy,"
Al-Maeena said. "The enemy of the American people is their own
ignorance and foreign policy."
The walls of old Jeddah city have long since crumbled, as has
much of the old city itself. Today the heart of old Jeddah is the
neighborhood of Al-Balad, a warren of alleys running
haphazardly between buildings made of white coral cut from Red
Sea reefs as far back as the 18th century.
Al-Balad today is crawling with feral cats and home to emigrants
from Africa and the Indian subcontinent. One of the many
striking contradictions of Saudi Arabia is that the cloistered,
intensely private kingdom should have such a large immigrant
population. Almost one in every five Saudis is foreign-born.
In Al-Balad, African children play soccer in the shadows of the
crumbling coral blocks while their mothers, in long, colorful
dresses and veils, move through the sprawling Al Alawi souq, or
Modern Jeddah has moved north of here. There, you will find
tall, thin Saudi men resplendent in white ankle-length robes
called thobes, embroidered cloaks called bishts, and red and
white headdresses, known as shamals. It is also where you will
find the headquarters of the BinLaden Group, the $5 billion
corporate empire built by Osama bin Laden's father.
Jeddah is where bin Laden spent much of his early life. He
worked for the family business there and he eventually became
radical as a student at King Abdul Aziz University in the late
The modern, northern sprawl of Jeddah also is the location of
the home of architect Sami M. Angawi. Angawi has incorporated
into his house features common to the holy cities of Mecca,
where Islam's prophet Muhammad was born in the sixth
century, and Medina, where he was buried.
"The concept of (Islamic) extremism started in the '60s and '70s
and is blossoming now," said Angawi, who has devoted himself to
preserving Islamic architectural heritage.
The United States needs to be more far-sighted in pursuing its
interests in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia's Islamic clerics
need to allow greater diversity of thought within the religion, he
The kingdom has been ruled through a strategic alliance between
the royal family – numbering in the thousands – and the clerics
of Wahhabism, an austere 18th-century movement that seeks to
turn back the clock on Islamic practices to conform with the
seventh-and eighth-century rendition.
As long as it has been in power, the Saudi royal family has used
the strict Wahhabi clerics to keep the kingdom in check. In
exchange, the Wahhabi clerics have held the kingdom's religious
They have preserved some of Islam's harsher traditions,
including preaching against non-Muslims, referred to variously
as kafirs, infidels and the uninformed. Wahhabism now has
spread beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia, taking on
anti-Western overtones and becoming more sharply focused on
the plight of the Palestinians.
Today, Angawi suggested, the world is shrinking faster than
understanding is expanding. In Saudi Arabia, the modern,
secular West is bumping up against seventh-and eighth-century
Islam. He said a clash of civilizations can be averted through
moderation, cooperation and understanding.
One of bin Laden's chief grievances with the royal family has
been its decision to allow 5,000 U.S. troops to remain in the
kingdom after the 1991 war.
Jeddah businessman Yasin Alireza said bin Laden and the
religious right in Saudi Arabia use "spurious" religious concepts
in arguing that Islam forbids a non-Muslim presence on the
Arabian Peninsula, especially an armed presence.
And bin Laden is exploiting the Palestinian issue, Alireza said.
"He never spoke about the Palestinian situation before," he said.
Jeddah is the gateway to Mecca for 2 million Muslims each year
who make the Islamic pilgrimage known as the hajj. The city of
Mecca lies 45 miles east of Jeddah. A few miles before reaching
the city, the highway splits.
Green signs overhead direct non-Muslims to steer their cars into
the right lanes to take a fork that completely bypasses Mecca. A
ring of small mountains surrounds the city, preventing even a
distant view of it.
Only Muslims may enter the ring of mountains and the historic
and holy city of Mecca. Cars going straight stop at a checkpoint
just beyond the signs, where everyone must present documents
proving he or she is Muslim. The city of Medina, Islam's
second-holiest site, similarly is off-limits to non-Muslims.
The road bypassing Mecca turns serpentine, winding up a giant
escarpment that parallels the Red Sea for the length of the
Arabian Peninsula, just beyond a narrow coastal plain.
At the top of the mountain is the resort town of Taif. During the
summer months, Taif's cooler weather draws visitors from
Jeddah. Taif also was the hometown of Hani Hanjour, who
authorities believe piloted American Airlines Flight 77, fully
fueled and carrying 64 people, into the southwest wall of the
Pentagon on Sept. 11, killing 184 people. Hanjour, who was 19
when he died, is one of three hijackers who spent time in San
On a recent Friday, the call to prayer blared from loudspeakers
throughout Hanjour's well-manicured, clean and reasonably
affluent hometown. As happens every time the call to prayer is
heard during the business day, shopkeepers pulled down their
shutters and men throughout the city double-timed in droves to
the nearest mosque.
Some 2,000 pairs of sandals lined the steps outside King Fahd
mosque. Inside, the owners of the sandals were kneeling
shoulder to shoulder. Before praying, they listened to the Friday
khutba, or lecture, given by the Wahhabi imam. As
expected, he exhorted the faithful to rally behind the
Palestinians in their struggle against Israel.
Hanjour's family initially expressed disbelief at the news their
son had piloted one of the planes hijacked Sept. 11. Today, the
Saudi government keeps journalists away from the families of
the 15 Saudi hijackers.
In the nearby village of Shafa, Omar Safeani gives camel rides to
children in a park where mothers, completely covered in black
abayas, play on the swings with their young children
and older boys race around on all-terrain vehicles.
"Saudi Arabia and America are like brothers," Safeani said as he
walked with his 12-year-old camel, Faran, looking for young
Asked what he thought about local boy Hanjour and the other
hijackers, Safeani demurred, realizing anything he might say on
the subject could get even a lowly camel driver in trouble with
"I don't know anything about that," he said. "Ask me how I'm
going to feed myself. That's all I think about."
Photographer's Nelvin Cepeda's video of life in Saudi Arabia
and the first story in this series are available online at
SignOnSanDiego, the Union-Tribune's Web site, at