A kingdom exposed

A controversial new book by John R. Bradley, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis, has been praised by the LA Times as a “substantial contribution to the debate”, and hailed by Newsweek as a “remarkable volume” that offers a “thoughtful, incisive portrait of a fractured nation”. But Bradley’s former employer, the Jeddah-based Arab News, is not joining the chorus of praise, dismissing the book in a fiery editorial as “just more sensationalism”. MASSOUD A. DERHALLY caught up with Bradley at the end of his month-long US book tour.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  July 24, 2005

A kingdom exposed|~|3-BRADLEY-UPLOAD-PIC-200.jpg|~|UPFRONT: Bradley says most who write about Saudi Arabia have an axe to grind.|~|MASSOUD A. DERHALLY caught up with John R. Bradley at the end of his month-long US tour for his controversial new book, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis. Q: What sparked your interest in Saudi Arabia and moving there? I always had a strong interest in the Middle East and I had learned Arabic in Cairo. A Western journalist can’t really understand the geopolitics of the region without understanding what makes Saudi Arabia tick. After all, it is the regional superpower. It is also the most difficult country to get into, in terms of visas. So when the opportunity came to get in I jumped at it, because these kind of opportunities don’t come along very often. I was the only permanent, locally accredited journalist there from a few months before the 9/11 attacks until after the May and November 2003 attacks by Al Qaeda in Riyadh. My book is the product of that long immersion in Saudi culture, and especially the Saudi media. Q. Why the interest in the Middle East and learning Arabic? I’d always had an even stronger interest in Middle Eastern politics than I had in English literature, which I studied as an undergraduate at University College London and Dartmouth College in the US, and then as a graduate student at Oxford. For some unexplainable reason, I was simply determined to learn Arabic. Q. Why did you write this book? I had the intention of writing a book from the start, but a far more literary kind of work. Then 9/11 happened and there was the crisis in Saudi-US relations and the stirrings of a home-grown Islamist uprising in the kingdom itself. I found myself in the thick of things, and for obvious reasons it was not possible to deal any more in literary abstractions. Suddenly, I was observing all these so-called “experts” on Saudi Arabia who had never been to the kingdom, talking in many instances a lot of baloney. It was very frustrating. So I realised I had a wonderful opportunity to write a book, which would reflect the reality of the kingdom — not just the negative things, but its extraordinary contradictions and complexities. Q. What was the first thing that came to mind when you saw the planes hit the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001? Well, the horror of the scale of the attacks and the immense suffering on those who were trapped inside the towers. When I thought about the political implications the first thing that came to mind was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had much more sympathy then with pan-Arabism than I do now, for various reasons, and I was thinking how the attacks would have a devastating impact on the plight of Palestinians and on the plight of Muslims generally. It would be misconstrued as representing what Islam is, which is of course partly what has happened. As the information came through that the vast majority of the hijackers were Saudi nationals, my thoughts shifted to what the impact of this would have on the kingdom. It soon became clear that Saudi Arabia would never be the same again — not in terms of how it perceived itself or how it would be perceived by the outside world. Q. Why do you think the reporting on Saudi Arabia was — as you said earlier — baloney, and what do you think drives the type of reporting that exists out there about Saudi Arabia? It’s almost impossible for any Western journalist to pitch a story to an editor on a major Western newspaper about Saudi Arabia if it doesn’t have something to do with the “war on terror” or isn’t in some way dealing in stereotypes. The Western media increasingly isn’t interested in nuances. It isn’t interested in subtleties, in day-to-day realities. It has an agenda, which isn’t overtly political. It is more like a consequence of the dumbing down of the large sections of even the quality press. The other side of the equation is that the people who are writing about Saudi Arabia by and large have never been there. If I knew someone who claimed to be an expert on China and then I found out that he had never been to China, and then I found out that he didn’t speak Chinese either, then I might be justified in being rather sceptical … Of course, the complication is that the Saudis don’t make it any easier by making it so near-impossible for Western journalists and others to get visas to visit the country and travel freely when they are there. Q. You wrote extensively about the kingdom while you were the managing editor of the Jeddah-based Arab News, and have continued to write for publications like The New Republic, The Washington Times and The Independent since you left. Your detractors say you have an axe to grind and that you have a particular hatred of the kingdom and of Saudi Arabia and that your coverage is negative. What do you say to them? Well, they obviously haven’t bothered to read my book if they say that. The Newsweek review said what was most interesting about it was its refusal to indulge in tabloid-style sensationalism. I have always been on the side of the Saudi people. I have consistently pointed out that Saudi society is not some monolithic entity, that not all Saudis are Wahabis, that not all Saudis are extremists. I always try to bring home the fact that Saudi Arabia is a diverse country where Westerners and others who visit can encounter an extraordinary level of hospitality, kindness and generosity. That is in the introduction to my book, and is in everything I have written — when I was there and after I left. Where I have changed my opinion is that initially I had believed in the reform process, especially at the beginning of 2002. I had faith in Crown Prince Abdullah and the reformists who were gathered around him. It really did seem as though they were in the ascendancy. But then the domestic war on terror came, and it provided a convenient smokescreen for the conservative elements of the regime to roll back reforms. So my writing has changed not due to my circumstances — whether I was inside or outside the kingdom — but because the circumstances on the ground have changed. The reform initiatives have been abandoned, and the regime has tightened its grip over the people. The change in my writing then reflects that change in reality. I try to write about the truth. I don’t have a personal or political agenda. The theory that I have made a small fortune by publishing Saudi Arabia Exposed is laughable. If only it were true. Q. What are the key themes and central messages of your book? What is your underlying thesis? My thesis is that Saudi Arabia is an empire, and to understand what Saudi Arabia is you have to go back to the 1920s and early 1930s, the formative years just before the kingdom was established in 1932. What you find is the country that would become Saudi Arabia was then made up of very distinct regions: the Hijaz in the West, which was liberal and diverse; the Eastern Province, which is majority Shiite; the Asir region, where the people worshipped the local ruler as a saint; and the northern regions like Al Jouf, where the locals had historic tribal ties to Iraq and Syria. All these regions were conquered by the Al Saud dynasty and the Wahabi zealots they employed as foot soldiers. Al Saud hegemony was imposed, often with the sword. There were no fewer than 26 major rebellions. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered. What I discovered when I travelled to these regions was that resistance to Wahabism especially has remained very strong — that Hijazis have a pluralistic and liberal tradition which they are very much aware of, that Asiris have not accepted the Al-Saud-Wahabi hegemony; and that in fact there are still men and boys who still wear flowers in their hair in the mountains down there: hardly Wahabi behaviour. The Eastern Province is still majority Shiite, and they are persecuted. In the north there has been a minor rebellion in Al Jouf, which represents tribal and other groups trying to take advantage of a perhaps fatally weakened Saudi regime in the wake of 9/11 and the ensuing domestic violence to reassert territorial claims. I see the Saudi people as not wanting to overthrow the Al Saud regime, but very much aware of their diverse history, which is denied them in the name of an alien ideology. They want to reclaim that history, just as people who lived under the Soviet Empire — in Poland, East Germany, or even Russia itself — were waiting for the moment to cast off the ideology that oppressed them: Communism. Q. Are you saying the kingdom is at a point of no return, as there is now talk of human rights, reform, and possibly giving women more rights? There is a short- and long-term answer to that. The short term is that when people’s backs are against the wall is not the time when they initiate radical change. The onslaught against Saudi Arabia — which targets the Saudi people, not just the injustices of the system — in the Western media has done nothing to help facilitate home-grown reform. Quite the opposite, in fact. At the same time, the domestic war on terror and the instability that has resulted from attacks has provided a smokescreen behind which the Al Saud regime can roll back reforms in the name of unity and in the name of fighting extremism. In the long term, everyone recognises that Saudi Arabia is doomed if it doesn’t change and there are precedents where the Saudi royal family has recognised this fact too, when it has done the right thing just at the right moment to prove everyone who was predicting its demise wrong. The fact is that in 60 years, the ruling family has transformed the kingdom, at least superficially, from a desert backwater into a twenty-first century country with a Western infrastructure. The question now is whether they can marginalise not only the terrorists but also the extremist Wahabi religious establishment, and whether they can give up power themselves to the extent that that they can regain legitimacy among the people. There has to be a gradual abandonment of the paternal nature of the regime in favour of democracy. Whether or not that is going to happen in time is still open to question. Q. When you were researching the book you must have explored certain themes with Saudis. How was that experience? What was brought home by talking to ordinary Saudis was the extraordinary divide in the kingdom between the public and the private. Publicly, which is to say on the record, Saudis are very reluctant to talk about their own life stories or express their political opinions. But privately, when you get to know them and they start to trust you, they open up. And there are many stories they want to tell. As I write in the introduction to the book, if you talk to five ordinary Saudis you will be told five different life stories, just as you would if you were to talk to five different Americans. There is no single culture that defines what Saudi Arabia is, any more than there is a single culture that defines what America is. Q. How has your book been received by Saudis? There are two camps. There are those who emailed me saying it was very balanced and they learned a lot from it and that it was a refreshing change from the usual hatchet jobs that come out about Saudi Arabia. But there are those, especially in Arab News, who were against the book from the very start. They saw my decision to write it as horribly opportunistic, especially with that eye-catching title Saudi Arabia Exposed. They openly accused me of being a traitor. They have these tribal notions of hospitality, which suggest that because I was there for two and half years and they hosted me and allowed me the freedom to move around and so on — that I somehow betrayed that hospitality and trust. All I can say to that is that the US hosted 15 Saudis in the years, months, weeks and days leading up to 9/11. It gave them visas, it allowed them to travel freely and live freely as Muslims, allowed them to take flight classes, and how did they repay that hospitality? So compared with me writing a book, which is in fact very balanced, the [9/11] attacks were a gross act of throwing hospitality in someone’s face. I don’t feel at all guilty about what I’ve done. Although they won’t realise it for a long time, I think I have actually done the kingdom a service by presenting it to Westerners as a very diverse, extraordinarily complicated, and fascinating country. Any idiot who has never been to a place, and who has an ideological axe to grind, can write a hatchet job. But my book actually reveals how ordinary Saudis live on a day-to-day basis. I think it humanises the kingdom. I hope sooner or later people who are upset about the book will come to see its merits. Q. There was a recent study cited in the New York Times that said that 61% of the suicide bombs in Iraq have been perpetrated by Saudi nationals. What is the allure, if this is true, for Saudis to go and blow themselves up? I think we have two questions here: Why the Saudi regime is not doing anything to prevent this — in fact quite the opposite. And why is there such a huge pool of Saudis apparently willing to blow themselves up? The first question is easier to answer. Last November, 26 Wahabi clerics openly called for suicide attacks against Americans and Iraqis inside Iraq. Most of the clerics are salaried by the Saudi royal family, yet not one of them has been interrogated let alone arrested. This suggests a certain amount of sanction on the part of the regime for this activity. Now, why would they want that? There are many reasons. The first is that they fear a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq because they see their own Shiites in their Eastern Province where all the oil is as a potential fifth column. Then they fear the spread of democracy and freedom. They prefer young Saudis to blow themselves up in Baghdad and Mosul rather than in Riyadh and Jeddah. And, perhaps most importantly, the instability in Iraq is one of the main reasons for the huge hike in oil prices. Before the Iraq war, the Saudis were estimating an US$18 billion deficit. They are now estimating a US$125 billion surplus. So they can turn to the people and say: don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Why do young Saudis go to Iraq? Well, they have been brought up on a steady diet of jihadi rhetoric from the mosques, the local TV, the schools, and so on. So although many of them come from regions that are not historically Wahabi, many of them have nevertheless been seduced by this jihadi-based extremism. When you combine that with all the frustrations they have in terms of poverty, unemployment, and lack of opportunity to express their political and other grievances, they are a perfect recruitment pool for Al Qaeda operatives. They present things in black and white: the West is the cause of their misery, and there is an opportunity to take revenge and kill Americans in nearby Iraq. Q. But several months ago when I interviewed Prince Turki Al Faisal, the London ambassador, he denied Saudis were going to Iraq and said that the Saudi state was not turning a blind eye regarding Saudi youth going to Iraq. Politicians talk like politicians wherever they are in the world. One should consider such responses that come from senior Saudi officials with a degree of scepticism. It’s not necessarily a Saudi phenomenon that politicians don’t speak the truth. As I say, all politicians put a gloss on reality. That is their job. All the indications are that there are thousands of young Saudis who have gone to Iraq, and there is ample evidence of specific attacks having been carried out by Saudis. There are wakes almost on a weekly basis inside Saudi Arabia for so-called “martyrs” that have blown themselves up or died in action in Iraq. If Saudi princes do not want to deal with this reality, it is your job to ask them why that is. Q. Is there the possibility of serious instability in the kingdom? You have a highly combustible situation. Unemployment is about 35%. There are slums on the edges of cities. About 60% of the people are under the age of 21. And you have a regime that denies these young people any avenue to express their frustration. While a clampdown on extremists who blow themselves up and attack Westerners inside the kingdom is welcome, it has to come in tandem with a clampdown on extremists in the official Wahabi religious establishment as well. That way you have a chance of winning in the long term the hearts and minds of the Saudi people, who it should be pointed out, have by and large totally rejected terrorism. Q. What is the future of the American-Saudi relationship? In the short term they have an interdependent relationship and there is nothing anybody can do about it. On the one hand, America needs to stick with the Saudi royal family, because with the chaos in Iraq, any kind of instability in Saudi Arabia would be catastrophic for the Middle East and the wider world. On the other hand, the Saudi regime relies in large measure on Washington for its survival and legitimacy. Both, however, realise in the long term that they have to wean themselves off each other. The Saudis are doing this, in a sense, by giving mega gas project deals to other major emerging superpowers. America must gradually move to adopting a much broader kind of energy policy, which tries to reduce the country’s dependence on Saudi oil. Q. Is Osama Bin Laden still a force to be reckoned with in Saudi Arabia? Is he still powerful? He is obviously still an icon and knows how to play the media game very well. By coming out with statements infrequently, he maximises publicity. But in terms of his ability to carry out attacks or to influence people who do so, it seems he is more of a symbolic figure than a major practical player. He is more of an inspiration that someone who issues orders. Saudis realise that they were among the victims of the 9/11 attacks. They could do whatever they wanted before then, whereas after 9/11 they are viewed worldwide as potential terrorists. Increasing numbers blame Bin Laden. But if you talk to Saudis about his general goals — fighting American hegemony in the Middle East, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land — you find widespread support. What gives him legitimacy is that he had the chance of leading a very decadent, indulgent lifestyle, and he turned his back on that. Q: Have you ever met Bin Laden or any of his immediate family? A few months before the Iraq war I was invited to a picnic in the desert near Mecca by a 19-year-old nephew of Osama Bin Laden. Some of his teenage Saudi friends were there, and a bit later in the afternoon we were joined by three more members of the Bin Laden clan: one was a brother or a half-brother of Osama (I didn’t quite catch which in the introductions); the two others were also his nephews, like my acquaintance. The Bin Ladens told me two bits of information that are particularly extraordinary. The first is that they have applied to the Al Saud regime to have their names changed in their passports: they no longer want to be known in the outside world as the Bin Ladens. Apparently, the royals have in principle approved that request, a decision unprecedented in the history of the Arabian Peninsula. No one has reported this yet. The other information relates to the issue of the special flight, which took place after 9/11, on which many Bin Ladens and other prominent Saudis were whisked out of the US. There are still lingering official denials that the flight took place. Back then, when I had the picnic, the issue hadn’t really been picked up by the mainstream media. But the two Bin Laden nephews who joined us told me very casually that they had been in the US as students on 9/11, and that a plane had picked them and all the other Bin Ladens up, along with royals and other prominent Saudis, and got them out of the country. They flew out on a Saudi Arabian Airlines plane. So when I hear the lingering denials I kind of chuckle to myself, because I know for a fact that the flight took place. There would have been no reason for those two Bin Ladens to lie: quite the opposite, in fact. Q. What was it like to be a journalist in Saudi Arabia? Journalism is a very risky business to be involved in when it comes to a country like Saudi Arabia. There is an intense climate of fear, intimidation, and paranoia — all underscored by the knowledge that saying the wrong thing will leave you out of a job (and maybe worse) after a quick phone call from the Ministry of Information to your editor-in-chief. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, there was a brief Prague Spring. But then the government told everyone to shut up, and now things are as bad as ever. Just about everything is off limits again. I have nothing but pity for the journalists there and throughout the Middle East, who have to work under such terrible conditions. And I have nothing but contempt for the editors-in-chief, who are appointed by the governments to do their dirty work. They are a disgrace to the profession of journalism. Q. What’s the most outrageous thing you experienced while you were in the kingdom, and what was the most positive thing you remember about the country? The most awful thing I saw was a double beheading in Jeddah’s chop-chop square, which I stumbled on by accident one morning when I was taking my washing to the dry cleaners. They were two Pakistanis who’d been convicted of smuggling heroin. What was so shocking was not only seeing the deadly results of a far-from-transparent judicial system, but also the sheer incompetence of the executioner. He ended up having to hack the heads from the bodies like a butcher cutting a joint from a still-living carcass. The best memory I have — in fact, the overwhelming memory — is of the remarkably diverse and resilient people. Saudi Arabia gets a lot of bad press, but it really is a land where you encounter some of the finest Islamic traditions of kindness and hospitality, especially outside of the main urban centres. Saudis would drive me miles out of their way when I asked for directions, taking me to the place themselves. It’s simply not true that all Saudis are arrogant and conceited. Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis by John R. Bradley (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) is available from www.amazon.com, priced $16.47. ||**||

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