At first they were billed as religious fanatics, led by a local dropout from Mecca’s religious establishment. But they always seemed too numerous and well organized—several hundred strong, armed with hand grenades, sub-machine-guns and food for a long siege—to justify that label. And last week, as Saudi Arabia once more revised upward (to 161) the death toll from the siege of the Grand Mosque, reports in London and Washington persisted in claiming that the terrorists
were part of a much more sinister conspiracy.
In London, The Observer, noting that the terrorists comprised Egyptians, Moroccans, Kuwaitis and Pakistanis, as well as Saudis and Yemenis, reported that Arab leaders were haunted by the fear that they were part of a new clandestine, international organization with its roots in Islamic fundamentalism.
In Washington, intelligence sources, stressing that politics are inseparable from religion in the Moslem world, said the Saudis had launched an interna-
tional inquiry to fill in the terrorists’ backgrounds. They said that Saudi security forces were known to be working with Egypt and other conservative Middle East nations on formation of a joint intelligence service to keep tabs on radicals; and recalled that in both Syria and South Yemen governments had been overthrown by such forces in recent years. One fear is that Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia may be on the new organization’s hit list. President Anwar Sadat’s rapprochement with Israel and his repression of religious and political opposition have made him many enemies.
It will probably be some time before exact details are available about the siege of the mosque, which the Saudi authorities have consistently played
down (they several times announced it was over before the last holdouts were smoked out of the labyrinth of cellars). But it was regarded as significant that such bromides coincided with reports of unrest among the country’s minority Shi’ite Moslem population (most Saudis are Sunnis), 120,000 of whom are concentrated in the kingdom’s eastern province, which produces most of the oil and is at present the object of a $40-billion crash development program.
The unrest in the East and the seizure of the Grand Mosque have suddenly underscored the potential danger threatening a country on which much Western strategy in the Arab world is built. For years, American experts considered Saudi Arabia “the safest land on earth,” steeled by its own puritanical version of the Moslem faith and held in the iron grip of a vast royal family which has 4,000 male heirs. Yet similar views were held about Iran only a year before the downfall of the shah.
Like Iran, Saudi Arabia is a country whose mad gallop toward a modern consumer society has been watched with disbelief and frequently with resentment by its sparse population of between five and seven million. And while its image abroad is that of a country with money to burn at home its royal rulers appear to have lost control of the petrodollar bonanza.
The current five-year plan is ending to the tune of a staggering $142 billion. It has transformed cities into complexes of high-rises. It has built ports, airports, desalination plants and electric power lines. But it has not transformed the mentality of a country whose religion, at base, is incompatible with the ways of Western know-how.
It is only 40 years since the country’s rulers had to persuade the all-powerful clergy that telephones and cars were not evil. Now the Bedouin, only a short while ago the majority of the population, are being grouped around brandnew hospitals, schools and municipal centres, their grazing limited and the ecological balance altered. In addition, hundreds have drifted to the cities, whose concrete structures represent an alien concept.
The xenophobia latent in Moslem societies has been fuelled by the fact that it is foreigners—nearly two million of them—who are getting paid with Saudi
money for carrying out most of these massive development projects. The fact that the native population is being showered with benefits under the country’s oil-fired welfare state is not regarded as compensation.
Indeed, the debate over how the oil wealth should be used and the spending patterns it generates is said to reach right into the royal establishment, where it is causing rifts. The ultimate paradox is that the Saudi government and the ulemas (clergy) with whom it is closely linked exist to preserve the status quo. So while Crown Prince Fahd, who actually runs the country, believes in more progress, Prince Abdullah, who heads the national guard, feels that Saudi Arabia cannot and should not spend more money.
The royal rulers are attracting controversy in other ways, too. It has not gone unnoticed that while they live soberly within the walls of their lavish apartments and villas at home, con-
scious of the watchful mutawayeen (members of the “committee for the encouragement of virtue and discouragement of vice”), they break out while abroad. Stories of gambling and womanizing in the capitals of the West lose nothing in the telling in the towns and villages back home. And last week there were rumors of the embezzlement of vast sums of oil revenues.
Foreign policy issues are equally controversial. Saudi Arabia supports the Palestinian cause and recognizes the FLO, yet it continues to rely on arms and technical know-how from the U.S., which is Israel’s main pillar. With time that may become a major issue.
The future seems to depend on several factors. One of them is the degree of tribal support for religious stirrings. Another is the course of Islam as a whole, strongly affected by Iran’s religious revolution. Yet another is the question of whether Saudi Arabia should continue to humor the United States and pump 9.5 million barrels of oil a day. It is in any case demanding an economic price for doing so. Last week the Saudis added $6 a barrel to the price of their oil in advance of this week’s OPEC meeting.
More and more Saudis feel that their “black gold” should remain under the desert, which covers 98 per cent of the kingdom, until they can better digest the doubtful blessings generated by petro-money. And as the raid on the Grand Mosque showed, there may be outsiders who are eager to help them make that decision. With files from William Lowther in Washington
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.