Last Bastion Saudi Arabia's Silent Battle to Halt History

Saudi Arabia's rulers are doing their utmost to resist the tide of history. The wealthy Arab country wants peace and stability within its society and in the region. But even the ultraconservative kingdom has not remained untouched by the unrest in the Arab world.


By in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

He landed at around midnight with two wives, an entourage of 59 people, including three cabinet ministers -- and a 7.6-centimeter (3 inch) piece of shrapnel in his chest. He walked down the gangway with great difficulty -- but "upright," according to eyewitnesses -- to a waiting convoy that would take him from the airport north of Riyadh to the city's large military hospital. The Saudi Arabian capital lay silent in the desert night, its landmark Kingdom Tower brightly lit in the darkness.

Riyadh stood in sharp contrast to the city Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh had just fled. For the past four months, the people in the Yemeni capital Sana'a had demonstrated against his regime and had taken to the streets, first by the tens and then by the hundreds of thousands, to demand an end to his regime. Saleh had his forces shoot at the protesters almost every night, but with each week the attacks from the other side came closer to his palace -- until June 3, when grenades were launched into the presidential mosque during Friday prayers, killing several of Saleh's bodyguards and seriously wounding him and his ministers.

Saleh, 69, is the third autocrat to be swept out of office by the tide of Arab unrest in the region, and the second to find refuge in Saudi Arabia. Since the Tunisians forced their leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to flee to Jeddah in January, none of the monarchs and presidents in the Arab world can be sure of retaining power anymore. Their subjects continue to vent their rage across four time zones, from Mauritania to Oman. The Arab world is out of joint.

Life as Usual

But not Saudi Arabia, or so it seems. And not Riyadh. As ever, Saudi men sit in their large SUVs, stuck in traffic between the steel-blue facades of office buildings, and the wives of these men are still having their drivers drop them off in front of the shopping malls in downtown Riyadh, where they scurry from Prada to Ralph Lauren and then disappear into Starbucks for a latte -- in the "family department," a room on the side kept separate from the world of men.

The boulevards and promenades of the Saudi capital look as though they had been swept clean, as if some mysterious force had extinguished all public life.

Riyadh has nothing like Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis or Tahrir Square in Cairo. In fact, there is no sign in Saudi Arabia of a public political discourse that could be compared with the debates, held in secret at first and then more and more in the open, with which the unrest began in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Almost every political discussion seems to end with the same words: Long live the king!

Saudi Arabia feels like a realm that has come to a standstill in a rapidly changing world. Its leaders, most notably the 86-year-old King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, are pinning their hopes on the old principle of stability, as if Ben Ali had not been driven out of Tunisia, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had not been toppled and Yemen's Saleh had not just been admitted to one of their hospitals with a piece of shrapnel in his body.

Influencing Neighbors

King Abdullah must have been pleased to see his enemy Moammar Gadhafi in difficulties, but it troubled him to see the avalanche the young protesters in Tunis had unleashed. He didn't hesitate a moment before offering exile to the embattled Ben Ali.

Abdullah was disgusted to see what happened to Mubarak in Cairo. Saudi Arabia still hasn't come to terms with the Egyptian revolution. Nevertheless, it promised €2.7 billion ($3.98 billion) to the military council in Cairo to provide the new leadership with "a certain level of comfort," as an Arab financial expert put it. It went without saying in Cairo that the Saudis wanted the Egyptian courts to spare the elderly Mubarak, and the Egyptian chief of staff personally thanked the Saudi king for his pledge of financial support.

Abdullah noted angrily how the spark of revolution jumped to the small country of Bahrain in February, and the Shiite majority rebelled against the Sunni Al Khalifa royal family. The moderate king finally lost his patience and, in a first in Saudi history, sent the soldiers of his national guard across the King Fahd Causeway to Manama to crush the uprising.

Saudi Arabia cannot intervene directly in Syria, where the unrest began in March and came to a preliminary head last week with a massacre in the city of Jisr al-Shughour. The House of Saud and the clan of Syrian President Bashar Assad have eyed each other suspiciously for years, and yet the Saudis would like to see the Syrians released from the embrace of their Shiite archenemy Iran. But there is one concern the two leaders share: They want calm in their countries, not change. As a result, Damascus supported Riyadh when its troops marched into Bahrain, and Riyadh is remaining silent, no matter how brutally Assad's forces crush the protests in Syria.

Bringing History to a Halt

And finally there is Yemen, whose sovereignty the Saudi Arabian air force had until recently routinely ignored to bomb Shiite rebels across the border. But now that it has been confronted with sheer chaos since the eruption of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia is pinning its hopes on stability. On Tuesday of last week, the Saudis announced that they were sending a donation to the orphaned leadership in Sana'a, in the form of 3 million barrels of oil.

By sending troops to Bahrain, billions to Egypt, goodwill to Damascus and oil to Yemen, Saudi Arabia, which is expected to earn $300 billion in oil revenues this year alone, is leaving no doubt as to what it intends to do with its power and money in the region: The kingdom wants to bring history to a halt and reinstate calm and stability on all fronts.

But how stable is Saudi Arabia itself? There are few countries on whose stability the world depends as much as it does on that of Saudi Arabia, which is currently responsible for 12 percent of global oil production. Exactly how calm is this wealthy country that wants nothing but calm all around it? And where are the first cracks beginning to appear?

'Democracy Is the Only Solution'

Jamal Khashoggi sits in his office in the Kingdom Tower, 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) above a city that stretches to a hazy horizon. "The absolute monarchy is obsolete," says Khashoggi. "Democracy is the only solution." Others in Saudi Arabia would be interrogated and locked up for such words.

Khashoggi, one of the country's most outspoken intellectuals, is wearing a snow-white shirt that reaches to the floor, known as the thaub, and a black cord keeps his head scarf in place. It's the standard work attire of Saudi Arabian businessmen.

The former reporter was a good friend of former Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, whom he knew as a young man in the 1980s, during the war in Afghanistan. He often visited him in the caves of Tora Bora and most recently met him in Sudan in 1995.

At the same time, Khashoggi is seen as one of the most progressive thinkers in the country. He is building a television network modeled after Al-Jazeera for Prince Waleed Bin Talal, a billionaire and a reformer within the royal family.

Saudi Arabia is a land of contradictions. Some of the things that are thought and expressed there would sound absurd, even outrageous, if voiced in the West. To this day, many in Saudi Arabia believe that bin Laden did not attack the Twin Towers in New York. "Of course it was him," says Khashoggi.

He confesses that he had long shared bin Laden's view that there are only two ways to liberate the Arab world of its corrupt regimes: by infiltrating the political system through its institutions, or by violently overthrowing the depraved ruling cliques. Democracy "was not an option at the time," says Khashoggi.

Signs of Insecurity

A drive through the kingdom today, to Jeddah in the relatively liberal West, for example, to Dammam in the oil-rich Eastern Province, or to the fundamentalist city of Buraydah, which is nicknamed the "heart of darkness," reveals a society that senses that things cannot continue the way they have been going if everything is to remain unchanged -- in other words, stable.

There are signs of insecurity, such as a decree recently issued by the king, under which the grand mufti and other clerics can no longer be criticized. The law probably says more about the dwindling power of the religious leaders than about their strength.

Members of the opposition are constantly being imprisoned. Some 11,000 have been arrested since Sept. 11, 2001, and more than 5,000 are still in prison today.

Who exactly these prisoners are is difficult to say. There is no transparency, and there are no legal procedures that adhere to international standards. Some are members of radical Islamic movements that are strongly resistant to Western-style modernization.


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