Saudi Shaykh Salman al-Awdah Warns Terrorism Will Follow Military Strike on Iran

Andrew McGregor

August 12 2010

In an interview with the pan-Arab Quds Press news agency, Shaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Awdah warned that a wave of terrorism will follow any military attacks on Iran while also calling on Tehran to end attempts to expand its influence in the Sunni world (Quds Press, August 2).

al-AwdahShaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Awdah

Shaykh al-Awdah is one of the most popular religious scholars in Saudi Arabia. After making his mark through the once-popular use of cassette tapes to distribute sermons, al-Awdah has since moved on to more modern methods of communication as the director of the Islam Today website. He also makes frequent appearances on television and in the commentary sections of Arabic language newspapers.

Born in Qaseem Province from a Najdi family, Shaykh al-Awdah was one in a new generation of “political preachers” that emerged after the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the establishment of American bases in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Awdah became associated with the religious opposition to the Saudi regime and suffered a five-year prison term as a result of his challenges to official fatwa-s permitting the regime to invite American troops to the Kingdom and his criticism of the expensive but ineffective Saudi military. Bin Laden was a supporter of al-Awdah in the 1990s and has quoted al-Awdah’s work in various communications. However, after his release al-Awdah devoted himself to a Ph.D. study of the Sunnah and transformed himself into a paragon of clerical respectability. He is now considered to be under the protection of the regime.

Al-Awdah rejects the “stereotype” that ties the da’wah (“call,” i.e. to God) of the 18th century reformer Shaykh Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab to terrorism. The shaykh’s followers are best known as Wahhabists, though Salafists in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere do not use this term themselves. According to al-Awdah, al-Wahhab’s insistence on Koranic authenticity in life and worship provided stability in a region where disunity and tribal fighting were previously common. “When the events of September took place in the United States [i.e. 9/11], people started saying that these acts were the product of the da’wah of Shaykh Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab. The truth is that this da’wah is totally innocent of these acts…,” stated al-Awdah.

The preacher goes on to note that “misinterpretations happen, even in Islam.” In an apparent reference to those militants who insist jihad is an individual obligation for Muslims, al-Awdah says, “Some people rely on the Koran to say that Islam wants to send the whole world to the battlefield. Those people have a twisted understanding of those acts [of terrorism]. The countries of the Islamic world in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Somalia and others are victims of these acts.” He insists 99% of Muslims are “removed from extremism and violence.” The militant remainder should be engaged in an Islamic discourse based on religious texts, but one that also considers the reasons behind the creation of a climate of terrorism, such as foreign aggression against Muslim countries.

The Saudi preacher warns that any escalation of military activity targeting Iran will result in the expansion of terrorism in the region. He notes that Israel possesses hundreds of nuclear warheads, adding that “nuclear weapons could be possessed by correct methods and through international supervision. I think that the dialogue with Iran has not yet reached a dead end.” At the same time, however, al-Awdah calls on Tehran to stop “Shi’i penetration of the Sunni world:”

I fear Shi’i Iran. All those who are loyal to Iran should tell it that its expansionist approach will hurt it. Iran has the right to live peacefully and to obtain the latest technologies. However, it does not have to have the desire for expansion, as is the case in Africa and the so-called Shi’i penetration of the Sunni world. This does not serve the Iranian people.

Turning to Gaza, al-Awdah says the ongoing siege is an “international scandal.” The preacher is a member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars (led by Egyptian Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi), which sent a ship to Gaza as part of the “freedom convoys.” Al-Awdah insists that all factions of the political spectrum in Palestine, including groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, should be part of the effort to find a resolution for Palestine. The shaykh stated that “it is difficult to deal with the Palestinian people while ignoring the forces of the resistance.”

This article first appeared in the August 12, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Saudi Military Operation along the Yemen Border Repels Houthist Incursion

Andrew McGregor

January 28, 2010

After a two-month Saudi military offensive along the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border, the Houthist rebels of northern Yemen appear ready to abandon their brief occupation of small areas of Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province. In an audiotape message, the leader of Yemen’s Zaydi Shiite rebels, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, offered a ceasefire and a withdrawal from Saudi territory. However, al-Houthi warned of consequences if his offer was ignored. “If [Saudi Arabia] insists on continuing its aggression after this initiative, this gives us the legitimacy to open new fronts and to wage an open war” (al-Jazeera, January 25).

Saudi troops on Y borderSaudi military outpost near the Yemen border

Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz rejected the offer, however, suggesting the Houthists could not be trusted. “We must remember history when it comes to Abdul-Malik al-Houthi and his people. They have gone to war with the Yemeni government on five occasions. They have also signed five agreements with the Yemeni Authorities. However, they broke those agreements after a year or two” (BBC, January 27). The Prince rejected the Houthist claim of a complete withdrawal, insisting the rebel fighters had been driven out of their positions by Saudi forces (al-Alam, January 26; BBC, January 27). Earlier this month Prince Khalid turned down a Houthist offer to withdraw on the condition that Saudis stop supporting the Sana’a government, saying, “We should not talk to infiltrators and subversives… Our talks must be with the Yemeni government” (Yemen Post, January 13).

Though Sana’a believes Iran is the main supporter of the six-year Houthist rebellion, Riyadh has been reluctant to join the Arab world’s general condemnation of Iran as the secret hand behind the Houthist revolt. Though the claim is popular, little has been offered in the way of proof. The Saudis instead make an even more surprising claim: the Houthists are in league with al-Qaeda. According to Prince Khalid, “We have noticed it on the battlefield, but it is proven by various bodies that there are contacts and coordination between them, and that they have a common interest, which is sabotage” (Saudi Press Agency, January 23). Yemen’s national security chief Ali Muhammad al-Ansi has similarly claimed the Zaydi Shi’a are working with the virulently anti-Shi’a al-Qaeda organization, while simultaneously claiming the Houthists are supported “financially, politically and through the media” by Iran (Asharq al-Awsat, December 13; Yemen Post, December 15). Yemen’s counterterrorism chief General Yahya Salih has also stated “there is no doubt” Iran is supporting the Houthist rebellion (al-Jazeera, November 16, 2009).Yemen’s controversial Islamist leader Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani insists that Iran is trying to “export the Shi’a ideology by force” (al-Jazeera, October 5, 2009).

Houthist rebels crossed the border into southwest Saudi Arabia in November in retaliation for what they claimed was Saudi support of Yemeni military operations against the Houthists. Fighting began after the insurgents killed two Saudi border guards and occupied several villages along the Saudi side of the border. Though Saudi military officials said their orders were not to cross the border with Yemen, the Saudis admitted their intention of establishing a ten kilometer deep buffer zone inside Yemen (Reuters, November 12).

Most of the fighting took place in the mountainous border region of Jizan, Saudi Arabia’s smallest province. Fighting was especially heavy around Jabal Dukhan, where the conflict started. Saudi forces battled the army of Yemen’s Imam Yahya in the same region in 1934. The terrain is well-designed for defensive warfare and the Saudis made several premature claims of victory before finally clearing the Houthists from their positions. Fighting was bitter, with 133 Saudi soldiers killed according to southern region commander General Ali Zaid al-Khawaji (al-Riyadh, January 21). Houthist losses are unknown, but are likely to have been significant in light of the Saudis’ superior firepower. According to Prince Khalid, Saudi mountain troops have learned important lessons during the intense fighting (Saudi Press Agency, January 23). The Prince added that the slow pace of the Saudi offensive was deliberate. “Time is with us. There is no need to hurry. We could have controlled all the areas in a month, or two weeks, but we opted not to rush in order to preserve [civilian] souls” (Arab News, January 24).

Soon after hostilities began in November, the Saudi Royal Navy’s French-built frigates imposed a blockade of Red Sea ports to prevent supplies from reaching the Houthists. The frigates belong to the Saudi navy’s Western Fleet, operating out of Jeddah. Houthist forces made a desperate attempt to seize the Red Sea port of Maydi on Yemen’s north coast in November, but were repelled by the Yemeni army (Asharq al-Awsat, November 22, 2009). The Saudi frigates fired on two boats they suspected of smuggling arms to the Houthists in December. After a chase with helicopters, the crews of both boats were reported to have been killed in massive explosions caused by the arms and ammunition they were carrying (Arab News, December 10). Shortly before the Houthist incursion into Saudi Arabia, ships of Yemen’s navy announced the seizure of an Iranian ship (the Mahan-1) carrying anti-tank weapons to a port in northwest Yemen for distribution to Houthist rebels (al-Arabiya, October 26). Iran denied any official involvement (Fars News Agency, October 28).

The Houthists’ main weapons are small arms and landmines. They have a small number of military vehicles captured from government forces, though many of these appear to have been destroyed in the fighting with the Saudis. When a single Katysusha rocket was fired at a Saudi military base, the movement felt the action worthy of an announcement (Al-Arabiya, November 16, 2009). On the other side, Saudi artillery joined ground attack planes of the Royal Saudi Air Force in targeting Houthist positions and vehicles continuously throughout the conflict. In early December, Saudi frontline forces received new Swiss-built Piranha III wheeled armored vehicles and U.S.-built Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (Arab News, December 10, 2009). Saudi paratroopers have played a leading role in the fighting since it began last November, though they have not participated in any airborne operations (Saudi Gazette, January 25, 2010).

The Houthists claimed Saudi warplanes dropped phosphorus bombs in night raids on villages as far as seven kilometers inside the Yemen side of the border, though Saudi authorities claimed what the rebels saw was merely flares (, January 24; AFP, November 9, 2009; BBC, November 5, 2009). The rebels have also accused government forces of using phosphorus shells, though Sana’a says it does not have any such weapons in its arsenal (Gulfnews, November 9, 2009). Earlier this month the Houthists claimed to have shot down a Saudi AH-64 Apache attack helicopter near the Saudi border town of al-Khouba, though this was denied by Saudi authorities (Yemen Post, January 16; Press TV [Tehran], January 16).

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently condemned the Saudi role in Yemen, saying, “Saudi Arabia was expected to mediate in Yemen’s internal conflict as an older brother and restore peace to the Muslim states, rather than launching military strikes and pounding bombs on Muslim civilians in the north of Yemen” (Press TV [Tehran], January 16). Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Sa’ud al-Faisal rejected Ahmadinejad’s criticism and alleged Iran was responsible for the unrest in Yemen (Sana, January 14).

Though the Houthist rebels displayed tenacity and resilience in resisting over two months of attacks by Saudi Arabia’s professional army and air force, the movement is incapable of resisting intensified attacks by Yemeni government forces engaged in “Operation Scorched Earth” while fighting off the Saudis in their rear.

This article first appeared in the January 28, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Saudi al-Qaeda Leader Outlines New Strategy and Tactics of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Andrew McGregor

April 10, 2009

In a statement delivered on Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Al-Ikhbariyah TV, a former leading member of al-Qaeda in Yemen, now in detention in Riyadh, described the revised tactical and strategic approach taken by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a new organization that combines the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda (Al-Ikhbariyah TV, March 27). Captured in Afghanistan in 2001, Abu Hareth Muhammad al-Awfi was detained as an enemy combatant in Guantanamo under the name Muhammad Atiq Awayd al-Harbi (prisoner no. 333). In November 2007, al-Awfi was transferred to Saudi Arabia, where he entered the Counseling Program run by Saudi Arabia’s Advisory Committee responsible for the rehabilitation of Islamist extremists.

al-AwfiAbu Hareth Muhammad al-Awfi

Shortly after entering the program, al-Awfi fled Saudi Arabia along with Sa’id Ali al-Shihri “Abu Sayyaf,” another former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who was transferred to Saudi custody at the same time as al-Awfi. Al-Shihri became the deputy leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen and is a suspect in last September’s car-bombing outside the American Embassy in Sana’a that killed 16 people.  The two men headed for Yemen, mainly because it was accessible in comparison to Iraq or Afghanistan.

In January, al-Awfi appeared in a 19-minute video with three other al-Qaeda leaders to announce the unification of the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni chapters of al-Qaeda in a new organization, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Others in the video included Sa’id al-Shihri, Qasim al-Rimi “Abu-Hurayrah” (military commander) and Abu Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the group’s leader (Al-Malahim Establishment for Media Production/al-Fajr Media Center, January 24). Aside from issuing warnings to the “Crusader states” and the Saudi security services, al-Awfi warned “the brothers in prison” against participating in the Saudi rehabilitation program, run by “the ignorant oppressor Muhammad bin Nayif” and “the liar Turki al-Uttayan.” He accused the latter of heading a “psychological investigations delegation” to Guantanamo to help extract confessions from prisoners there.

Al-Awfi now maintains he did not want to appear in the January 24 video and argued with the leadership over this issue. Eventually he was ordered to appear in a certain place to make the video, but objected to the message he was told to read. Al-Awfi, who claims the message did not represent his viewpoint or ideas, was told to read it without changes because the wording in the message was carefully chosen. After careful reconsideration of the takfiri approach taken by his al-Qaeda colleagues, al-Awfi crossed back into Saudi Arabia and surrendered himself to authorities in mid-February after first contacting a shaykh at the Advisory Committee (YemenOnline, February 17).

According to al-Awfi, the organization decided on a major change in tactics and strategy, moving away from the methods of former Saudi Arabian al-Qaeda leader Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Muhsin al-Miqrin (killed June 18, 2004 after overseeing a number of terrorist blasts and kidnappings). The group’s assessment of al-Miqrin’s campaign declared al-Miqrin had blundered by concentrating his forces in Riyadh. In the new strategy al-Qaeda would mount attacks in Saudi Arabia from bases in Yemen, leaving only a small group of 30 to 40 individuals in the southern mountains of Saudi Arabia to carry out small-scale operations such as assassinations and sniping attacks. For major operations, a reconnaissance and surveillance team would enter Saudi Arabia to collect detailed intelligence before returning to their base in Yemen, where the operation would be carefully planned. After a major strike the attackers would slip back across the border into Yemen, exhausting Saudi security forces in a fruitless search within Saudi Arabia. Training was to be aimed at producing fighters who could operate on various fronts, including guerrilla fighting, mountain warfare and jungle fighting (Al-Ikhbariyah TV, March 27).

The sincerity of al-Awfi’s latest act of repentance was questioned by some in Saudi Arabia; one daily newspaper asked, “How much can we trust Muhammad al-Awfi? … It is an embarrassment when terrorists continue to fool us with naïve justifications and stories, then try to destroy us once more” (Jedda al-Madinah, March 30). Noting his rejection of takfiri ideology, a Saudi economic daily noted: “We hope what al-Awfi has revealed would serve as a clear message to those who might think that al-Qaeda was an organization that seeks jihad in the name of God” (Al-Iqtisadiyah, March 28).

This article first appeared in the April 10, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

The Struggle for Saudi Arabia

The Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies

Strategic Datalink no. 108

Andrew McGregor

October 2002

In Saudi Arabia there are fears that Iraq may not be the only Gulf state in which the United States is planning “regime change.” US-Saudi relations have reached a crisis point in the wake of repeated charges of al-Qaeda support at the highest levels of the Saudi regime. There is a growing feeling in some quarters of the Bush Administration that the Saudi royal family are no longer reliable allies, and that Saudi oil supplies are at risk from a growing movement of Islamist radicals. For the Saudi regime, however, every expression of political support for the United States comes at a considerable cost to their slowly fading legitimacy. With the royal family, the Americans, and the radical Islamists each striving to consolidate themselves, the once-stable US-Saudi pact is quickly turning into a three-way struggle for the kingdom’s future.

Mounting Pressure in US-Saudi Relations

News was leaked this August of a recent RAND Corporation briefing on Saudi Arabia to the Defense Policy Board in Washington. The briefing suggested that the US insist the Saudis stop funding Islamist militants, prosecute anyone linked to terrorism and end anti-Israel land anti-US propaganda. Failure to comply should be met by “targeting” Saudi financial assets and oil fields. [1] While the Bush Administration was quick to reassure the kingdom’s effective ruler, Crown Prince ‘Abdullah, the kingdom is now awash in rumours of a coming UN seizure of Saudi oil assets. The leak may well have been designed to place pressure on the Saudi regime to change their opposition to the use of US bases within the kingdom for an attack on Iraq. On September 15, 2002 the Saudi foreign minister stated that the bases may be used in a UN-sanctioned action against Iraq, a major policy change and concession to the Americans.

The once well-entrenched Saudi royal family is now openly opposed by radical Islamist shaykh-s and, to a lesser extent, the government-controlled ulama (religious scholars). The government’s pro-Western stance is not shared by all its citizens. Saudi citizens have been involved in Islamist jihad activities in Bosnia, Chechnya, Daghestan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and hundreds have answered al-Qaeda’s call for fighters and terrorists. The continuing presence of permanent US bases in Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War inflames Saudi public opinion. [2] King Fahd only gained the approval of the ulama for their establishment by assurances that they would be closed immediately after the war. Part of the regime’s contract with its citizenry is defence. By ceding this responsibility to the Americans, the regime risks irrelevance. During the Gulf War, Osama bin Laden offered an army of Arab veterans of Afghanistan for the defence of Saudi Arabia. To his everlasting anger, the royal family rejected the offer in favour of an American presence.

The Islamist Opposition

The radical Islamists are not totally at odds with establishment ulama, which often gives subtle approval to radical aims. The ulama, radical or moderate, are all dedicated to distancing Saudi Arabia from the US. Violent responses to the US presence in the kingdom began in 1995 with the bombing of the US mission to the Saudi National Guard. This marked the beginning of the involvement of Saudi veterans of the Afghanistan war in the anti-US struggle. Their actions displayed the influence of Palestinian jihad theorist and practitioner Dr. ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam, who provided leadership and assistance to the Arab volunteers in Afghanistan until his mysterious assassination in 1989. In their confessions the plotters also admitted to being influenced by Saudi opposition leader Muhammad al-Mas’ari and an imprisoned Jordanian Islamist, Abu Muhammad (aka ‘Issam Tahir al-Maqdisi). Before being beheaded, the suspects described the illegitimacy of the Saudi regime and its tame establishment clergy. In their opinion, the royal family and the government-approved ulama had failed to adhere to Islamic Shari’a law, and had further allied themselves to the “Crusader” cause of the Western powers.

Muhammad al-Mas’ari (The Times)

The Saudi regime has in fact dealt harshly with many Islamic extremists, especially when they are judged to pose a threat to the survival of the royal family. In 1979, Islamists led by Juhayman al-‘Utaybi and Muhammad al-Qahtani seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca in an attempt to overthrow the royal family, terminate the “alliance with the Christians,” and to abolish the establishment ulama. [3] After protracted fighting, all the Islamists who survived were executed. A 1994 crackdown focused on a radical grouping known as the Awakening Shaykhs and the Islamist Opposition Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) was disrupted by mass arrests, leading to the self-exile to London of its leader, Muhammad al-Mas’ari. The Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) has largely replaced the CDLR in the kingdom since 1997. Nevertheless, relations between the Islamists and the Saudi regime are a far cry from the gun battles in Egypt between radicals and government forces. In one sense, the Saudi crackdown actually worsened the situation for the royal family. The dissidents in exile turned to the Internet and of the telecommunications sources, suddenly finding themselves with the means of getting their message into every Saudi home. Expensive efforts by the Saudi government to block the MIRA website have proven futile. [4]

At times, government reaction to criticism from the radical shaykh-s seems hesitant; the reaction of the Minister of Justice to charges of widespread government corruption was to suggest that radical Islamists were promoting fitna (public disorder), “and that is worse than corrupt rule.” [5] British authorities have determined that a November 2000 wave of car bombings directed against Westerners in Riyadh was the work of radical supporters of Bin Laden, but was blamed on Canadian Bill Sampson and other Western Expatriates in an effort to divert attention from the growing Islamist opposition. [6] At the highest levels there is a reluctance to acknowledge Saudi Arabia as a breeding ground for anti-American terrorism; according to Prince Turki al-Faysal, former Saudi intelligence chief, the fact that Bin Laden “chose 15 Saudis for his murderous [9/11] gang… can only be explained as an attempt to disrupt the close relationship between our two countries.” [7]

Beyond Wahhabism

Saudi Arabia is frequently identified as the source of the international Wahhabist movement, an austere Islamic reform movement rooted in Saudi Arabia’s harsh desert interior. Since the 18th century alliance between the Sa’ud family and puritanical Islamist revivalist Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, the Saudi royal family has relied on the support and approval of the Wahhabi clergy for their legitimacy as rulers. Growing opposition to the regime within the establishment Wahhabist ulama has led to attempts to marginalize opposition shaykh-s through the steady restructuring of the government bodies regulating Islam. The radical ulama want to decentralize establishment Islam, ending the process of state control that began with the reforms of King Faysal (1964-75). The new Islamist leaders do not rely on the example of al-Wahhab for legitimacy; the reliance of the royal family upon this figure for their own legitimacy has in some sense devalued this association. [8] Ideologically placed beyond the influence of the government and establishment Wahhabism, the independent Islamist ulama represent a serious threat to the regime.

‘Abdul ‘Aziz ibn al-Sa’ud

Islamist Shaykh al-Shuaibi, described by an al-Qaeda spokesman as “one of the great imams [religious leaders] of Saudi Arabia,” has already issued a ruling declaring America to be “an enemy of Islam and Muslims.” Al-Shuaibi also endorsed the radical idea that jihad must be fought against heretical Islamic regimes, implying the Saudi royal family. [9] Osama bin Laden’s appeals to the Saudi armed forces to conduct a guerrilla campaign against American targets inside Saudi Arabia have fallen on deaf ears so far. His own abandonment of a disco lifestyle for the foxholes of Jihad has provided an inspirational model to many Saudis, but his cynicism and assumption of unearned religious authority have dissuaded disaffected Saudis from rallying to his cause. The fact that Bin Laden hails from a Yemeni family rather than a Saudi clan makes indifference to his cause convenient to some Saudis. Even the radical shaykhs are critical of Bin Laden’s strategy, pointing out that he has brought destruction upon Muslim lands. [10] Bin Laden has suggested that the Saudi regime be abolished, with the division of the entire Arabian Peninsula into two new states, “Greater Hijaz” and “Greater Yemen.” [11] Inspirations of this sort are unlikely to garner any support from the lesser emirates of the Persian Gulf. From Kuwait to Qatar, these tiny but wealthy states are largely governed by complacent royal families using a healthy patronage system. They are now discovering that they are not immune to the spread of radical Islamism.

A Kingdom of Arms

Saudi Arabia, despite its immense oil wealth, now runs a deficit, and is having trouble paying for US arms shipments. The re-export of Saudi oil revenues to America in the form of arms orders is a sore point for the Islamists. Many Saudis blame the US for encouraging the regime to waste money on unnecessary weapons. According to a leading Islamist shaykh, Dr. Safar al-Hawali:

Since World War II, America has not been a democratic republic; it has become a military empire after the Roman model. It is even more abhorrent because its administration is ruled by the pressure groups that are the most dangerous to the human race – the companies that create destruction and sell arms. {12]

The Islamists question why $300 billion in arms purchases over the last 25 years have left the kingdom so helpless it requires permanent bases of a foreign power to ensure its security. Defence spending currently consumes 18% of the Saudi budget, compared to 4.5% in the US. The truth is that with its small population and territory the size of Western Europe it has never been possible for Saudi Arabia to defend itself against any of the regional powers. Even the royal family has acknowledged they are entirely reliant upon the US for defence. For the Islamists, Saudi defence spending has the appearance of kickbacks in return for US support of the ruling family.

Crown Prince ‘Abdullah has not hesitated to express his displeasure with America’s unconditional support for Israel, and was thoroughly disappointed with US reaction to his peace initiative in early 2002. When ‘Abdullah gave a speech to Saudi troops departing for action against the Iraqis in 1991 he expressed his sadness that he was not instead witnessing Saudi soldiers and their Arab Iraqi brethren preparing to leave for the liberation of Palestine. Though there is no reason to doubt the Crown Prince’s sincerity in his desire to see a just settlement for the Palestinians, he has been able to use this platform to secure his pan-Islamic credentials in the face of growing pressure from the domestic ulama. In the meantime, the Crown Prince continues to warn Washington that its policies are forcing an irrevocable split between Saudis and Americans.

Khobar Towers (AFP)

The Quiet Struggle Between Saudi Arabia and the United States

There are a number of open irritations in US-Saudi relations. One is the stagnant investigation into the 1996 bombing of American quarters in the al-Khobar towers in which 19 Americans were killed. Almost certainly the work of Saudi Shi’is working with intelligence agents of the Shi’ite regime in Iran, the later reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran hindered the investigation. Saudi Shi’a compose 25 to 30% of the population of the Eastern Province [13] and are strongly repressed by the Sunni (majority) government of Saudi Arabia. [14] Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin ‘Abdul-‘Aziz denies even the existence of the Shi’ite “Saudi Hizbullah” organization that the US blames for the attack. [15] In the end, the Saudis suggested Iranian participation in the Khobar blast may have been limited to “rogue elements,” in exchange for an Iranian agreement to cease support for radical Saudi Shi’a and the prospect of warmer relations with the new Iranian President, Mohammed Khatami. The failure to bring the case to resolution fuels allegations from both Sunni radicals and Shi’ite opposition figures that Sunni veterans of the Afghan war carried out of character for the usually peaceful Shi’ite community. [16]

Despite American demands, Saudi Arabia has considered the Khobar Towers investigation complete since 1998 and refuses to send the imprisoned suspects to the US for trial. The Bush administration has likewise refused to extradite the large number of Saudi prisoners in Guantanamo Bay for interrogation and trial in Saudi Arabia. “Axis of Evil” member Iran returned 12 Saudi members of al-Qaeda to the kingdom in August, with the understanding that intelligence gleaned from their interrogations would be passed on to the US.

Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, with Shi’a zone highlighted (Stratfor)

Saudi Arabia now finds itself under legal and financial attack in the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Saudi-based Islamic charities, banks and corporations are under close scrutiny by federal investigators, and many are named (together with three Saudi princes) in a $3 trillion class-action lawsuit filed in August 2002 by families of victims of the attacks. Some reports indicate that court documents show the Saudi regime paid $300 million in protection money to al-Qaeda in the late 1990s to prevent further terrorist attacks within the kingdom. At the same time, a senior official of the Saudi central bank was confirming that $200 billion in private Saudi investments had been pulled out of the United States in the spring and summer of 2002. [17]

Protectorates in the East?

The US is currently involved in an expensive effort to fill the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to its 700-million-barrel capacity. Filling the SPR is a preparation for a possible interruption in Saudi oil supplies in the event of disruption due to Iraqi retaliation for American attacks, or seizure of the anachronistic Saudi government by radical Islamists. With bases already in the area, how long can it be before the US declares Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing Eastern Province “a strategic necessity,” and proclaims a protectorate over the region?

In the event of a seizure of the Eastern Province the royal family might continue as rulers of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and a smaller kingdom. The Saudi Islamists take the rumours of American plans to partition Saudi Arabia seriously. Shaykh al-Awaji suggests that American military superiority will be met with suicidal resistance. Said he:

If America has intercontinental missiles and bombs, then our bombs are the Jihad fighters, whom American has called ‘suicide attackers’ and we call ‘martyrs.’ We will develop them because we see them as a strategic weapon.

There is some speculation that the Shi’a of the Eastern Province may welcome a regime change, particularly if the new government is secular and democratic. Although the Eastern Province is the source of the kingdom’s incredible wealth, revenues have been slow to filter down to the province’s Shi’a community. Infrastructure is poor and the region’s first modern hospital was not built until 1987. The Saudi regime expects loyalty from the Shi’a minority in return for shielding the community from the most extreme of the Sunni ulama, who press for the forcible conversion, deportation or execution of the Shi’ite kuffar (heretics). The Shi’a once formed one-third of the oil industry’s work-force, but have been dismissed under pressure from the Wahhabists. Many Shi’a would welcome the opportunity to get back into the petroleum industry and to find relief from Wahhabist animosity.

Old Enemies, Uncertain Future

An alternative to the division of the kingdom is to replace the Sa’ud family with members of the Hashemite clan. The Hashemites, former rulers of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, emerged from the First World War as rulers of the Hijaz (western Saudi Arabia) and the newly formed kingdoms of Iraq and Transjordan. The Hijazi Hashemites were deposed by ‘Abdul ‘Aziz ibn al-Sa’ud in 1925, their realistic British patrons “allowing events to take their natural course.” [19] The Iraqi Hashemites were overthrown in 1958, but the Jordanian branch of the family still governs, though it also faces the kind of criticism from Jordanian Islamists that Saudi Arabia’s royal family endures. At least three major Islamist plots against the government have been foiled by Jordanian security services in the last decade. Though the Hashemite option has its proponents, replacing one monarchy with another would represent a return to imperialist diplomacy of a century ago, and would ultimately do nothing to contribute to the stability of the region. Many of the 7,000 princes of the Sa’ud family have important positions in the Saudi security forces, access to the kingdom’s vast arms stores, and a willingness to defend their authority and privileges against their old Hashemite rivals. A Hashemite regime is unlikely to gain the approval of either establishment or radical ulama in Saudi Arabia.


In the 1980s, the Americans nodded approvingly as the call went out for Muslims to volunteer for jihad against foreign intervention in Afghanistan, and gave full encouragement to rich Saudis to donate money to the cause. Having helped to establish both the cause and the network that sustains it, the Americans must now address the anger created by their Saudi bases and their ongoing support for Israel’s obstinacy. Washington’s solution to the Saudi problem may be to bring Iraqi oil assets under American protection while lessening America reliance on Saudi resources. American interests are already exploring expansion into the largely untapped petroleum fields of Central Asia and the Caspian Basin. The “liberation” of Iraqi oilfields will have a punishing effect on the Saudi economy, driving more unemployed young Saudis toward radicalism while inhibiting the government’s ability to fund international Islamist causes. It will also have the effect of disrupting the patronage system that keeps the al-Sa’ud in power.

Although the Bush administration is still supporting the Saudi regime publicly, Saudis and Americans are looking at each other in a new light, and neither cares for what it sees.


  1. The RAND Corporation speaker, former Lyndon Larouche associate Laurent Murawiec, delivered a rather bizarre and poorly-received lecture on “Islamic Terrorism” at the University of Toronto last spring. The address consisted almost entirely of a discussion of ancient Chinese taxonomy, occasionally spiced with irrelevant quotations from 19th century German scholars. In the wake of the uproar caused by the later briefing to the Defense Policy Board, Mr. Murawiec’s resignation was received by the RAND Corporation in September 2002.
  2. Last June, the Saudis announced the arrest of an al-Qaeda cell planning attacks on American military installations within Saudi Arabia. A Sudanese veteran of the Afghanistan war led the cell of 11 Saudis and one Iraqi.
  3. Joseph Kechichian, “Islamic revivalism and change in Saudi Arabia: Juhayman al-‘Utaybi’s ‘Letters to the Saudi people’,” The Muslim World 80, 1990, pp. 1-16.
  4. For the information war in SA, see Brian Whitaker, “Losing the Saudi Cyberwar,” Guardian, February 26, 2001; “Islamic Psy-Ops,” from “The IW Threat from Sub-State Groups: an Interdisciplinary Approach,” by Dr. Andrew Rathmell, Dr. Richard Overill, Lorenzo Valeri, Dr. John Gearson: Paper presented at the Third International Symposium on Command and Control Research and Technology Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Norfolk VA, June 17-20, 1997.
  5. ‘Abdullah bin Muhammad Al al-Shaykh, quoted in Milton Viorst, “The Storm in the Citadel,” Foreign Affairs, Jan-Feb 1996.
  6. Francine Dubé: “Family asks son in Saudi jail to cooperate,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), February 2, 2002.
  7. Prince Turki al-Faisal (Director, Saudi General Intelligence Department, 1977-2001), “The US and Saudi Arabia: A partnership that works,” Washington Post, September 18, 2001.
  8. Madavi al-Rasheed, “La couronne et le turban: l’état saoudien à recherché d’une nouvelle légitimité,” In: Bassma Kodmani-Darwish and May Chartouni-Dubarry (eds.), Les états Arabes face à la contestation Islamique, Paris, 1997, p.74.
  9. “Saudi Arabia faces pro-Taliban religious movement at home,”, Dubai, October 17, 2001, , 19/2/01.
  10. Shaykh Mohsin al-Awaji and Dr. Muhammad al-Khasif, quoted in “Saudi opposition Sheikhs on America, Bin Laden, and Jihad” (Transcript of a broadcast by al-Jazira TV, July 10, 2002), Middle East Media Research Institute Special Dispatch Series no. 400, July 18, 2002.
  11. Joshua Teitelbaum, “Holier than thou: Saudi Arabia’s Islamic opposition, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Papers no. 52, Washington, 2000, p. 77.
  12. “Saudi opposition Sheikhs on America, Bin Laden, and Jihad,” op cit, fn.10.
  13. Formerly known as the region of al-Hasa. The name was changed to the mundane “Eastern Province” to sever the historic connections between al-Hasa and the Shi’a community.
  14. The influential Wahhabist clergy regards Shi’ism as shirk (polytheism), and hence a heresy in Islam. The Saudi Shi’ite community is one of a number of Shi’ite groups found in the Gulf. The relatively powerless Shi’a majority in Iraq is the best known. Kuwait’s Shi’a minority has prospered, but the Shi’a majority in Bahrain has been involved in frequent and often violent protests against the Emirate’s Sunni regime.
  15. Much of the information alleging the existence of a “Saudi Hizbullah” was provided by the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) at the deportation proceedings of Hani ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Sayigh, a Shi’a suspect in the attack.
  16. Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke, The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims, New York, 1999, pp. 179-201.
  17. Roula Khalaf, “Saudi downplays US investment selloff,” Financial Post (Toronto), August 23, 2002.
  18. Shaykh Mohsin al-Awaji, quoted in: “Saudi opposition Sheikhs on America, Bin Laden, and Jihad,” op cit, fn. 10.
  19. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz relied upon al-Ikhwan (“the Brotherhood”) for the military power needed for the al-Sa’ud to form the Saudi Kingdom. The Ikhwan were strict Wahhabists from the interior province of Najd, the home of the al-Sa’ud. They were disbanded by ‘Abd al-‘Aziz in 1927 as a threat to the stability of his new dual kingdom of Najd and Hijaz, later united in 1932 as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There are constant complaints from the other provinces of Saudi Arabia of “Nadji chauvinism” amongst the rulers of the kingdom, and some even complain that the name “Saudi” Arabia implies personal ownership of the Kingdom by the al-Sa’ud family.