The sons of privilege

In the plush public spaces of Dubai International Airport, wealthy Saudi men swagger through the concourses in pristine white robes, fingering their prayer beads absent-mindedly while veiled women trail behind in robes of black.

As night approaches, clusters of Pakistani men with henna-dyed beards stretch out on the carpet to sleep, blocking walkways. Harassed and be-suited airport officials with walkie-talkies, pass by at the head of two long, orderly lines of Asian women, like teachers escorting children on a school trip. Outside, where departure gates announce destinations including Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, the women queue separately, divided from the men and from the people of wealthier nations.

Less than an hour later, high over the Rub al-Khali, the Empty Quarter, the bright lights of Dubai already seem a distant memory. Saudi Arabia is obscured by clouds. The cabin has fallen quiet.

The silence is broken by a cowed and whispering Bangladeshi man. He asks if I will fill out his Saudi arrivals card. He is illiterate and speaks neither English nor Arabic. He has been to Saudi Arabia before, many times. I help as best I can and he is grateful, perhaps more so for the fact that he is returning to a job offering wages which he could never earn in Bangladesh. He shuffles away, the anxiety of his alienation etched on his face and bowing, his demeanour making him one of the most miserable and dejected figures I have ever encountered.

Soon after my arrival in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I travel north into the conservative Islamic heartland of the Najd. Here, local tribes consider themselves to possess the purest aristocratic Arab blood, and to be the most faithful custodians of Islam’s legacy.

En route to Buraydah, Saudi Arabia’s most conservative city where even Western women must be veiled and Saudi security forces are in a constant battle against al Qaeda militants, we pass the turn-off to the small oasis of Al-Uyaynah. It was here that, in 1703, Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born. His family origins were modest, his family pious but poor. With little means of subsistence in his village, al-Wahhab left to travel the region as a religious student, passing through Mecca, Medina, Basra and Hasa before returning to Al-Uyaynah to preach a puritanical message calling for the purification of Islam and a return to the religion’s 7th-century roots.

The village sheikhs tolerated al-Wahhab for as long as it took for him to beat those who didn’t participate in communal prayers and to lead the stoning of a woman accused of adultery. Al-Wahhab was expelled from the village, but his message found a ready audience in the surrounding communities.

Further north, I pass the night in another Najdi village. As I settle down for the night, reclining on cushions in a Bedouin tent, I am joined by some men from the village. Hamdi is gentle and hospitable, deferentially asking questions about the West and showing me photos of his time in London. He can no longer return because Saudi passports have become objects of suspicion. Another, Mohammed, is a genial man who wants me to know that he loves George W. Bush and what he is doing in Iraq.

The village sheikh, a man of 80 who wears stunning robes of black with gold embroidery, learns that a Westerner is in town and invites me to a village feast. He speaks little but fills the room with his presence; a personal gravitas that inspires reverence among the villagers. His brother similarly presents himself with the nobility of royal blood, smiling easily and often, plying me with questions which suggest a genuine curiosity for the world: What is Australia like? What are the main industries? Why have you come to Saudi Arabia? What is your opinion of my country? You are welcome, guest.

Before dinner, I am seated next to the sheikh who distributes gifts to the men of the village, who smile and talk and ensure that I am comfortable. Great columns of smoky incense fill the room and tea and coffee and dates are distributed. When we eat, the sheikh tears off the choicest cuts of lamb and hands them to me, imploring me to eat more. A flat screen TV in the next room broadcasts Al-Jazeera’s coverage from Iraq.

After the meal, a sheikh from a neighbouring village arrives, full of his own importance and with a bearing which little resembles the discretion and dignity of my host. The newcomer announces that all of his sons studied in America but he ordered them to return to Saudi Arabia lest they be corrupted by the ways of America. ‘The Americans and their friends are criminals’, he concludes with a look around the room to make sure he has been heard. Some of the young men nod, others look embarrassed. Unexpectedly, he shakes my hand warmly when he leaves, wishing me a pleasant stay in Saudi Arabia.

The following morning, I leave for Riyadh. As I depart the village, I realise that I have not seen a single woman for the entire 24 hours of my stay.

Back in the capital, I take a taxi driven by Azeem, a gentle, bearded Pakistani. As the chaos of fast-moving American Cadillacs and SUVs swirl perilously around us with frightening speed, Azeem exudes a calm, weary serenity. He takes me past a girls’ school, outside of which young Saudi men cruise by in their shiny cars. In this land of strict segregation, they throw from their windows scraps of paper containing their mobile phone numbers in the hope of later receiving a call.

Azeem drives me to Dir’aiyah, just outside Riyadh. On the way, he speaks of his family. He has been in Saudi Arabia for 13 years, returning home to Islamabad for two weeks every two years. He has six children, born at two-year intervals and whom he scarcely knows, but each day he works to secure their future. He would go home more often but his employers, who hold Azeem’s passport while he is in Saudi Arabia, only allow him one week’s annual holiday. His daily takings are around US$55, but US$15 goes to petrol and up to US$35 must be given to his employer for the privilege of employing him. Still, he says, he could never earn that kind of money back home.

In the early 18th century, it was in Dir’aiyah, now a mud-brick ruin some 60km from Al-Uyaynah, that Mohammed ibn al-Wahhab sought refuge after being expelled from the village of his birth. Mohammed ibn al-Saud, the local sheikh who ruled just 100 houses, was at that time seeking to distinguish his rule from the countless other sheikhs of the Najd, seeking a status which only some form of doctrinal Islamic legitimacy could bestow. Similarly, Al-Wahhab had come to understand that the success of his reforms required the backing of a political authority capable of ensuring his protection.

Wahhabi Islam quickly became the ruling ideology in Dir’aiyah and, in 1744, Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Mohammed ibn al-Saud pledged an alliance. The agreement’s grand aim was to extend Saudi-Wahhabi authority over the entire Arabian Peninsula. Under the terms of the agreement, which was founded on the twin pillars of piety and patronage, Al-Saud assumed the position of imam, the political leader of the Muslim community to whom tribute must be paid. Al-Wahhab became the religious leader, authorised to rule on all matters of Islamic interpretation.

In Riyadh, the new capital of the Al-Sauds, Azeem takes me to the mud-brick Masmak Fortress, one of the few vestiges of Old Riyadh. In its door is lodged a spearhead from 15 January 1902, the day on which the Al-Sauds finally took control of Riyadh.

Not far away from the fortress stands the Great Mosque which overlooks the open area known by expats as ‘Chop Chop Square’—it is here that public beheadings are still carried out. Also on the square is the headquarters of the mu’tawwa (religious police) of the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and the Propagation of Virtue, the guardians of Islamic orthodoxy. It is their job to tear controversial subjects from international newspapers before they go on sale, to ensure that all businesses close during prayer time five times a day, that women are appropriately covered and that men and women do not mingle.

Since the 18th century in the Najd, and from its base in Riyadh since the early 20th century, the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance has always gained its greatest strength from confronting the threats posed to Islamic purity. More often than not, foreigners have been the target, uniting the faithful through their un-Islamic ways. Some 260 years after the fusion of Saudi political power and Wahhabi religious agreement was signed, it is this same suspicion of outsiders which fuels the forces that threaten to tear the kingdom apart.

When Saudi Arabia permitted the United States to launch its war on Iraq from Saudi territory in 1991, it was a fateful step. The decision to allow the presence of US and other foreign troops on the kingdom’s soil brought to the fore the long simmering discontent throughout the Muslim world about non-Muslims operating so openly and aggressively against a Muslim nation from the same country as the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The most obvious expression of this was the anger of al Qaeda—Osama bin Laden is a Saudi by birth and 19 of the 23 hijackers on September 11 were Saudi citizens. Behind it all, Wahhabi Islam has become a byword for militant and deeply conservative Sunni Islam, an orthodoxy so powerful that, 14 centuries later, it still holds sway in the kingdom.

The tensions within Saudi Arabia and increasing attacks on Western interests reflect the fact that the home of Islam is a deeply troubled land, a kingdom riven with contradictions.

This is a land governed by the precepts of 7th-century Islam, ruled by a dynastic family whose power derives from the 18th century, and which together form a fabulously wealthy nation propelled into the 21st century by oil wealth and state-of-the-art technology. This is a kingdom which is home to some eight million expatriate workers and which annually welcomes millions of pilgrims, yet it remains largely closed and unknown to the outside world. Deeply traditional and historically insular to the point of paranoia when confronted by those who wished to enter Arabia, Saudi Arabia has been propelled into the future without shedding its past—a nation at odds with itself and the world.

Modern and moderate Saudis have long called for greater political freedom and pushing for greater recognition of the rights of women, arguing that their nation will only survive by building bridges to the West. Conservative Saudis wish to tear such bridges down, decrying them as offensive for a kingdom whose leader holds the title as ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’.

The job of reconciling the many strands of Saudi society is hugely complex, one which the Saudi rulers seem no closer to resolving. Theirs is an unenviable task. Moves towards greater liberalisation continually founder on the fact that Islam not only casts an all-encompassing shadow over modern Saudi Arabia. It is indeed the country’s reason for existence and the very reason that the Al-Sauds hold power.

On my last day in Riyadh I meet Mahesh, an Indian from Kerala who is counting the days until he can leave Saudi Arabia. He is here out of necessity, a symbol of the kingdom’s perennially suspicious relationship with the outside world. I ask him what he thinks of the Saudis. He doesn’t answer, other than with a smile that resembles a grimace. There is no doubt that the feeling is mutual.

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer and photographer.



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