Saudi oil drives globalisation, Saudi money drives part of the Islamic revolt against it. Have the princes lost control of the religious fervour which underpins their rule and become a liability for the west?by James Buchan / November 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
On 12th january 1980, at about the time a 22-year-old Osama bin Laden set off on his first journey to Afghanistan, Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi interior minister, held a press conference in Riyadh. The Saudi royal family had just passed through the most perilous few weeks of its existence, after more than 400 Islamic extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and held it for a fortnight against vastly superior government forces. Naif was anxious to show the world that his family, the al Saud (Saud’s clan) was back in control.
On a table in front of the stage, the ministry had laid out some of the insurgents’ weapons. They evoked a lost era of Arabian violence, before the wars of the 1980s and 1990s in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa-and Osama’s money-modernised the fundamentalist armoury.
There was a nickel-plated AK-47, a locally made Heckler und Koch submachine gun, an SKS Carbine with a folding bayonet of 1950s vintage, all manner of sporting rifles, a single-barrelled Spanish shotgun, miscellaneous revolvers, and the curved Yemeni dagger known as a jambiya. After admiring these antiques for some time, one of the reporters remarked that the insurgents had been mostly bearded and asked Naif if the security forces intended to take action against men with beards.
Naif smiled. “Half the Saudi population has beards,” he said. “Anyway, we will always respect people with signs of solemnity on their faces.”
This bizarre exchange reaches to the heart of the problem of Saudi Arabia, which is also the problem of the middle east. Ever since forming an alliance with the fundamentalist Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab in 1744, the Saud family has depended like all successful Arab regimes in history on inspiring and manipulating religious fervour: what a previous generation of British intelligence officers used to call the “short-skirts-and-beard brigade.” Yet whenever religious extremists threatened their authority, the Saud and their clerical allies have been content to invoke foreign aid in destroying them-from the biplanes and armoured cars of British Iraq in the late 1920s to the missiles now being fired from American and British ships at bin Laden’s sites in Afghanistan.
Osama, who was born in Riyadh in 1957, but stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994, has pronounced the Saud to be religious apostates and American stooges and called for the overthrow of the regime. He has also…