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Feature Article

The Legacy of 1979: Religious Fundamentalism and the Royal Family (Part II)

Following the attack on Makkah's Grand Mosque by a group of millennialist zealots in 1979, a time of liberal experimentation and openness to the West came crashing to a halt as the Kingdom renewed its alliance with the conservative religious establishment. The consequences were still being felt decades later.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Though the rebel leader, Juhayman al-Utaybi, had implored his followers to avoid using the weapons they had smuggled in to the Mosque (it is forbidden to shed blood there, or to deface or to pollute it in any way), matters had spiraled out of control almost immediately. Casualties quickly rose into the hundreds as the rebels, galvanized by the presence of their supposed "Mahdi", fought off wave after wave of attacks, despite being heavily outgunned and outnumbered by the Saudi authorities. Finally, the Kingdom's main clerics, brought together by King Khalid, issued a fatwa allowing the military to use whatever degree of force was necessary to expel the rebels. Logistical problems, however, delayed the response of the military and National Guard for several more days.

Ultimately, anti-tank guided missiles and heavy guns were used to dislodge the snipers from the minarets, and armored personnel carriers were sent in, finally breaching the gates. On the sixth day of fighting (and over a month into the siege), security forces managed to take control of the courtyard of the mosque and the buildings surrounding it. But this only pushed the remaining rebels deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of hundreds of rooms and cells lying underneath. This created a problem, since intelligence services had no accurate blueprints of the Grand Mosque, and knew nothing of the underground catacombs where the militants were sheltering (in the end, they received plans to the site from the family of Usama bin Laden, which had been involved in recent construction work there). Urgency mattered - despite Saudi attempts to prevent news of the event from spreading beyond the city, word was leaking out, and the royals were coming to realize that their forces lacked the skill and experience to deal with al-Utaybi's rebellion. The king decided to turn to an unexpected source: France. French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing understood that conflict in the Kingdom would severely impact the world oil market, and discreetly dispatched three advisers from his elite counterterrorism and hostage rescue force, the General Intelligence Directorate (GIGN). The entire operation had to remain secret, of course, to avoid the appearance of Western intervention in the Islamic country.

GIGN members set up shop in a hotel in the nearby town of Ta'if, from where they devised a plan to flush out the rebels, who by now were running low on food and ammunition - the catacombs would be flooded with gas. And so, after having been trained by the French, the Saudi forces (along with Pakistani commandos) dropped gas canisters into holes blown in the basement ceiling, forcing the surrender of the last desperate men. The king and senior royals were in no mood to forgive; a month later al-Utaybi and 63 of his men were publicly executed in eight cities. Officially, 117 of the rebels were killed, but estimates for the total number of casualties reach well into the thousands.

The royal family was shocked to the core. Against a backdrop of unprecedented economic growth and rapid modernization brought about by newfound oil wealth, tensions had been boiling over among groups of extremists like those led by al-Utaybi, who had called for an official end to what he called "Western influence" in the country. In some sense this movement can be seen as a reaction against the increasing participation of women in public society - women were not only going to school but were also starting to enter universities; their presence in a traditionally male workplace soon became a visible manifestation of such change. While the expansion of opportunities for women, and issues such as the right for women to drive or travel without a guardian were being discussed openly in the late 1970's, many were caught unawares that this growing liberalization was perceived by some conservative religious scholars as a dangerous, uniquely "Western", idea.

Related articles: The Legacy of 1979: Religious Fundamentalism and the Royal Family (Part I)
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Page 2: putting the brakes on reform
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Past Feature Articles
The Legacy of 1979: Religious Fundamentalism and the Royal Family (Part I)

For two weeks in November 1979, a ragged band of religious fanatics held Makkah's Grand Mosque, sending shock waves through the Islamic world and posing a direct threat to the legitimacy of the Al Saud. For how could kings who styled themselves 'Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques' be entrusted with dynastic rule, when they could not guarantee the safety of this most holy of places?

The Premier League Prince: Status Symbol or Image Laundering?

The acquisition of a long-suffering Premier League football club by Saudi's sovereign wealth fund has renewed charges of "sports-washing" its negative international image. But is the yearning for a high profile sports team more than a simple distraction from trouble at home?

Spectacles in the Desert: Sports-washing or Catalyst for Change?

All eyes are on Saudi Arabia as the country prepares to host its inaugural Formula One race in Jiddah, the latest in a series of high-profile sporting events that have shattered the commonly-held image of an austere and reclusive kingdom which shuns the corrupting influence of the West. At the same time, these spectacles have become embroiled in controversy, with concern that they are being used to divert attention from human rights abuses at home, in a phenomenon that has been termed "sports-washing". Is the use of sports and entertainment merely a cynical public relations ploy, or is there more than meets the eye?

The Taliban and Royal Support: a Change in Outlook?

Saudi Arabia's nearly complete silence in the wake of the rapid and astonishing collapse of the Afghanistan government is remarkable, given that the Kingdom was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban's control of the country before the 2001 US invasion. Further, the royal family has had controversial dealings with the Taliban and the al-Qa'ida leaders they sheltered in the past, and their involvement with the group is still a matter of ongoing contention. Yet, in light of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's efforts to moderate religious hardliners at home, would the Saudis now prefer to keep a Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan at arm's length?

Changing Dynamics: Family Enterprise or One-Man Rule?

While Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman dominates the headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that two of his brothers, Abd al-Aziz and Khalid, are both highly accomplished in their own right. But to what extent do their policies and views reflect the influence of the powerful heir to the throne, or indeed, the king?