Makkah siege: Laying the ghost of 1979 to rest

Time: November 21, 2019 

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman inspected expansions to the site during a visit to the Grand Mosque in Makkah in February this year. (AFP)
  • Now moving rapidly back to the future, Saudi Arabia took decades to overcome the effects of the assault on the Grand Mosque

JEDDAH: Today, Saudi Arabia’s leadership is working to reverse the years of social regression triggered in part by the November 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

Speaking at the Future Investment Initiative conference in 2017 in Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said: “We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.”

And in an interview conducted last year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that before the Iranian Revolution and the siege of Makkah rocked the Muslim world, “we were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979.”

If there is a specific date that will live in infamy, it is Nov. 20. On that day, Royal Saudi Air Force helicopter pilot Col. Mahdi Al-Zwawi was in Riyadh when he was recalled to his base in Taif, about 90 km from Makkah.

Murder and mayhem had erupted just hours earlier in the heart of Islam perpetrated by a reactionary sect led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi, determined to overthrow the Saudi government and convinced that one of their number, Mohammed Al-Qahtani, was the Mahdi, whose appearance, according to the hadiths, heralds the Day of Judgment.

The authorities, scrambling for intelligence so that they could put together a response, ordered his helicopter unit to fly constant reconnaissance flights during daylight hours over the mosque.

Flying at about 300 meters over the mosque for the first time, Al-Zwawi was struck by the unprecedented absence of worshippers in the great courtyard. Later on, flying lower, “we saw people in the minarets trying to shoot at us.”

At 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 22, Saudi artillery began targeting the mosque, not with high explosives but with “flash-bang” shells designed to disorient the militants. Under cover of this bombardment, troops were able to reach the eastern side of the Safa-Marwa gallery.

They were hoping to breach the Al-Salam Gate, halfway along the gallery, but were beaten back with the loss of several lives.

By the end of Nov. 23, the text of a fatwa sought by King Khaled was finally agreed by the ulema. Now the Kingdom’s hands were untied and the full force of Brig. Gen. Faleh Al-Dhahri’s armored brigade could be unleashed.

First, to comply with the fatwa, a call to surrender was broadcast over loudspeakers. When it was ignored, rockets were fired at the minarets, neutralizing the snipers, and artillery blasted an opening in the side of the Safa-Marwa gallery. M113 armored personnel carriers rumbled in through the opening and through the already-destroyed Marwa Gate.


The arrested gunmen in December 1979. (AFP)

It was not until midday Nov. 24, after hours of desperate fighting and many losses among the troops, that the gallery was finally cleared — but the battle for the mosque was far from over.

Driven from the upper levels, Juhayman and the surviving insurgents, along with some hostages and prisoners they had captured, had retreated into the Qaboo, the warren of more than 225 interconnected chambers under the mosque.

On Dec. 2, three advisers from France’s elite GIGN flew into Taif, bringing with them supplies of a chemical. CB, for short, was a gas designed to seriously restrict breathing, and which was fatal if breathed in for too long. The French agents trained members of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate in how to use it, equipping them with gas masks and chemical suits.

On Dec. 3, holes were drilled in the floor of the mosque and canisters of CB, attached to explosive charges, were dropped into the basement maze. The tactic was only partially effective and it took more than 18 hours of bitter, bloody fighting before the final stronghold was breached on Dec. 4.

In a room about two meters square were found cowering 20 thoroughly defeated militants, exhausted, hungry and covered with the grime of battle. Al-Qahtani, the self-declared Mahdi, was presumed killed on the third day or fourth day of the fighting.

The troops found the last of the surviving insurgents huddled together, surrounded by the dates, water and labneh they had smuggled into the mosque along with their weapons. Among them was Juhayman.

On the evening of Dec. 5, King Khaled addressed the nation, thanking God for His support in crushing the “seditious act of sacrilege.” The next day he led joyful worshippers into the courtyard of the mosque.

The death toll included 127 members of the forces. Another 451 of their colleagues had been wounded.

Inevitably, although large numbers of hostages had been either released, escaped or were freed by the security forces, some had been caught in the crossfire. The final official toll was 26 dead, including Saudi nationals and pilgrims from Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Egypt and Burma. More than 100 were wounded.

Of the 260 attackers, 117 were dead — 90 died where they fought and 27 others later succumbed to their wounds in hospital. Justice for the captured militants was swift. On Jan. 9, 1980, the Saudi Interior Ministry announced that 63 captives had been executed in eight different cities. Juhayman himself met his end in Makkah that day.

The price paid for the liberation of the mosque was a high one — both in number of lives lost and in the dramatic reversal of modernization to which it led, blighting Saudi society for generations to come.

Khaled Almaeena, former editor in chief of Arab News, has no doubt that it changed the climate in Saudi Arabia. Juhayman, he said, “lost the battle but won the war.”

Recalling that Jeddah was a “laid-back city,” he said: “I used to go to movies with my mother. Women were not told to cover up. In those days you had Saudi singers, women also, and then you had Saudi TV and radio shows, (with) women and men, and things were going on well.”

After the siege, all that changed. “They stopped women from appearing on TV — my wife used to read the news on TV. You could not even get (the famous Lebanese singers) Fairouz or Samira Tewfik to come on TV, and this was a big shock for a country that was used to music.”

Worse was to come. “We should be very frank,” said Almaeena. “The religious police started harassing people, started coming and interfering in our lives, asking questions. It was like the Spanish Inquisition … a shadow fell over the country.”

In an interview with Arab News, Mansour Alnogaidan, a writer of Saudi descent who was drawn to Salafi groups in his youth, said: “After 1980, something was broken. What happened? In my opinion, Saudi Arabia lacked the political minds that could support the leadership and explain that the Kingdom could remain as it was: A conservative country that was proud at once to serve the Two Holy Mosques and be open to the world.”

For his part, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the then head of the General Intelligence Directorate, said that lessons were certainly learnt by the Saudi state. “The first lesson is that you must be wary of any ideas and attempts to change the basic beliefs and tenets of Muslim practice,” he said.

The second lesson is “that we must be wary of any attempts to use Islam as a tool for any political activity.”

It has taken decades for Saudi Arabia to recover its tolerance and respect for personal freedom. Now, as the Kingdom moves rapidly back to the future, for all of its citizens the sky is the limit.

This article was first published in Arab News

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How the 1979 siege of Makkah unfolded

Time: November 20, 2019 

Makkah’s Grand Mosque under attack in November 1979. Armed men seized the mosque, locking 100,000 pilgrims and residents inside. (AFP)

JEDDAH: Throughout October 1979, close to a million Muslims from around the world had flooded into Makkah for Hajj, the pilgrimage to the spiritual heart of Islam that every physically and financially able believer is obliged to complete at least once in their lifetime.

On the morning of Nov. 20, the call to the first prayer summoned pilgrims from far and wide to the courtyard of the Grand Mosque. Some were locals, others were visitors who had finished their Hajj pilgrimage two weeks earlier and delayed their departure to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime event, before bidding farewell to a place that for centuries had seen countless millions like them come and go.

It was a little after 5:15 a.m. The first shots rang out across the courtyard moments after the imam, 55-year-old Sheikh Mohammed Al-Subayil, had finished the fajr, the first prayer of the day.

Worshippers stood side by side, forming a circular formation around the Kaaba, as they welcomed the dawn of the new Islamic century. But among their number was a group of fanatics the like of which the Holy Mosque had never seen before.

In the courtyard behind where Al-Subayil stood, the siege of the mosque claimed its first victims — two unarmed police guards gunned down at their posts. As chaos ensued and the worshippers began to disperse, some managing to flee from the mosque in the confusion before the gates were closed by the attackers, three armed men pushed their way through the crowd toward the imam.

One, dressed in a short, ragged traditional dress, took the microphone and began issuing orders over the mosque’s loudspeakers.  “Get on the minarets! Position the snipers! Close the doors! Deploy the guards! Position the guards and sentinels in front of the doors!”

It was the ring-leader, Juhayman Al-Otaibi. Then he handed the microphone to another man, and what he had to say shocked the imam and all who heard it. The Mahdi, in the shape of Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Qahtani, had arrived to wipe the world of its evils and was here among the armed men who had seized the mosque and were now locking inside 100,000 pilgrims and residents. The speaker rejected the authority of the Saudi royal family and the ulema, the senior theologians of Islam, as illegitimate. Now everyone present, he said, must come forward to swear the oath of allegiance to the Mahdi.

The man himself, carrying an automatic weapon, stepped forward. He stood near the Kaaba, as the false prophecy adopted by the renegades had predicted the Mahdi would. Juhayman’s men took it in turns to swear their allegiance and then began forcing the worshippers to follow suit. In the confusion, the imam blended into the crowd and made his way to his office in the mosque. There, he called Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Rashid, president of the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, and told him what was going on — and held the phone up so he could hear the gunshots that were ringing out.

At first, the official response to the wholly unanticipated outrage was confused. “When these individuals took over the mosque, the first people to deal with them were the mosque police, who at that time were simply unarmed, and there to direct people where to go rather than to enforce security,” said Prince Turki, the then head of the General Intelligence Directorate who at the time of the attack was in Tunis, attending an Arab League summit with Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdul Aziz (later King Fahd).


The National Guard and the Saudi Army began arriving at the Grand Mosque in force to try to retake the building. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (later King Abdullah), then head of the National Guard, was in Morocco. An early-morning phone call from Sheikh Nasser,
the senior cleric in charge of Makkah and Madinah, woke King Khaled to the news that the mosque had been seized.

The king immediately ordered two senior members of the government, Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, and Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, to assess the situation on the ground.

By 9 a.m. they had joined Makkah’s regional governor, Prince Fawwaz bin Abdul Aziz, in the holy city. Prince Turki, meanwhile, was on the first plane back to Jeddah. In Makkah the National Guard and the Saudi Army had begun arriving at the mosque in force.

At about 8 a.m., a lone police officer approaching the mosque in a jeep was wounded by sniper fire. Minutes later, a fusillade of fire from snipers posted on rooftops and in minarets greeted more officers who arrived on another side of the mosque, killing eight and wounding 36 more.

The behavior of the militants appalled all who witnessed it. In one incident, one of Juhayman’s snipers in a minaret had been shot dead by the security forces outside the mosque and was callously pushed to the ground from the balcony by his compatriots.

It later emerged that weapons, ammunition and food had been smuggled into the mosque before the siege. Some guns had been hidden in large construction containers. But others, taking advantage of the tradition of Islamic funeral prayers conducted by the imam within the sacred mosque, had been concealed in coffins.

“Using coffins of the dead to smuggle arms into the Grand Mosque — who could have thought of exploiting this?” said Rashed Al-Shashai, an artist who as a young boy heard tales of the siege from his grandfather, who worked at the mosque and narrowly avoided being taken hostage.

Inside the mosque, fear and confusion reigned. Juhayman’s men had begun allowing some of the hostages to leave, but it was clear that they had no intention of freeing any Saudis. Many were forced to swear allegiance to the so-called Mahdi.

With others, Al-Shashai’s grandfather moved toward the north of the mosque. As the infamous Mahdi “sermon” blared out of the speakers and occasional shots rang out, they hid behind pillars and looked for a way out.

“They had one of two choices,” said Al-Shashai. “Either they believe in the salvation of Juhayman or believe in their own salvation, search for it themselves and get out of the dilemma they found themselves in.”

They chose the latter and continued moving from one pillar to the next, heading toward the northern end of the Safa-Marwa gallery. It was here that several people, including Al-Shashai’s grandfather, were able to escape.

By now the courtyard of the Grand Mosque, normally teeming with worshippers by this time on the first day of the new year, was eerily empty.

Juhayman’s men had forced men, women and children into the corridors of the mosque, and the silence was broken only by the crack of bullets as snipers fired on the surrounding security forces.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Remembering the siege of Makkah

19/11/19

Thousands of Muslims gather in the courtyard of the Great Mosque in Mecca for the Hajj.

The Hajj at the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 1973. Six years later, a sacrilegious storming of the mosque by armed fanatics shook Saudi Arabia and sent shockwaves through the Islamic world. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

  • Forty years ago, a group of armed fanatics led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi were primed for an assault that would cast a long, regressive shadow over Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH:  In November 1979, the Middle East was already on a knife edge. In Iran, a liberal monarchy that had ruled for almost four decades had just been overthrown by a fundamentalist theocracy preaching a return to medieval religious values that many feared would pollute and destabilize the entire region.

For the citizens of Saudi Arabia, however, the greatest shock was yet to come. The sacrilegious storming of the Grand Mosque in Makkah by armed fanatics that month sent shockwaves through the entire Islamic world.

Murder and mayhem erupted in the very heart of Islam, perpetrated by a reactionary sect determined to overthrow the Saudi government and convinced that one among their number was the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam whose appearance, according to the hadith, heralds the Day of Judgment.

Ahead lay two weeks of bitter, bloody fighting as Saudi forces fought to reclaim the Holy Haram for the true faith, but that battle was merely the overture to a war for the very soul of Islam in the Kingdom.

Open, progressive and religiously tolerant, Saudi Arabia was about to travel back in time. Only now, as the Kingdom pushes forward into a new era of transparency and modernization, can the full story of the siege of Makkah and the regressive shadow it would cast over the country for the next 40 years finally be told.

As the citizens of Makkah and those pilgrims who had remained behind after Hajj saw out the final hours of Dhu Al-Hijjah, the 12th and final month of the Islamic calendar, and prepared to greet the year 1400 in prayer within the precincts of the Grand Mosque, a few inconspicuous pickup trucks slipped unchallenged into it through an entrance used by construction workers under the Fatah Gate, on the north side of the mosque.

The trucks and the men who drove them were there at the bidding of Juhayman Al-Otaibi, a disaffected former corporal in the Saudi National Guard.

As a firebrand at the head of a small group of religious students based in a small village outside Madinah, Juhayman had been on the radar of the authorities for some time. According to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who in 1979 was the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate, the group consisted of students from various religious seminaries who had put their faith in the eschatological figure of the Mahdi, the supposed redeemer of Islam.

“Their aim, according to their beliefs, was to liberate the Grand Mosque from the apostate rulers of the Kingdom and to liberate all Muslims by the coming of the so-called Mahdi,” Prince Turki said in an interview with Arab News.

Juhayman and his group were set on a path that would lead to tragedy, reaching out to potential recruits both inside and outside the Kingdom. “Through their correspondence and preaching, they managed to recruit a few individuals,” Prince Turki said.

One temporary recruit was the Saudi writer Abdo Khal, who in 2010 won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel “Throwing Sparks.” In an interview in 2017 with MBC television, he said that when he was 17 he was one of Juhayman’s men and had even helped to spread the group’s ideology by distributing leaflets.

“It’s true, I was going to be part of one of the groups that was going to enter the Haram,” he said and, were it not for the intervention of his elder sister, he might have found himself among those who were to seize the Grand Mosque.

“I was supposed to move out to (a mosque) where our group was gathering. We were supposed to be in seclusion at the mosque for three days, and we were supposed to leave with Juhayman on the fourth day.”

But his sister stopped him going to the rendezvous point, on the ground that he was too young to be sleeping away from home for three nights. Almost certainly, she saved his life. “And then, on the fourth day, the horrendous incident happened.”

Writer Mansour Alnogaidan was only 11 years old when the siege happened, but like many Saudis of his generation, he felt the tug of various Salafi groups in his youth.

Now general manager of Harf and Fasela Media, which operates counter-terrorism websites, he has done extensive research on the Makkah siege.

Alnogaidan says there were a number of possible reasons behind the 1979 incident, including an existing idea in the mind of Juhayman and his group that they were the successors of a Bedouin movement by the name of “Ikhwan-men-taa-Allah.”

“Some believed they had a vendetta against the Saudi government,” he said in an interview with Arab News. “Another issue was essentially the personal desires of certain people (such as Juhayman) who sought power and control. He wanted to satisfy something inside him.”

Alnogaidan added: “Also, we must not forget that this incident came after the Khomeini revolution in Iran, which had an influence even though not a direct one.”

Juhayman and his group were on the radar of the security services. Over time, recalled Prince Turki, “there were many attempts by authorized religious scholars in the Kingdom to rectify the group’s beliefs by discussion, argument and persuasion.”

Occasionally individuals were taken in for questioning by the authorities “because they were considered to be potentially disruptive to society. Once they were taken in, however, they always gave affidavits and signed assurances that they would not continue with the preaching and so on.”

But “once they were released, of course, they returned to their previous ways.”

At some point in the closing months of the 13th Islamic century, Juhayman’s group identified one of their number, Juhayman’s brother-in-law Mohammed Al-Qahtani, as the Mahdi.

In the early hours of Tuesday, Nov. 20, 1979, as the inhabitants of Makkah and the pilgrims who had lingered after Hajj gravitated toward the Grand Mosque for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the dawning of a new century in Islam’s holiest place, the stage was set for the most unholy of outrages.

Carrying firearms within the Grand Mosque was strictly forbidden; even the guards were armed only with sticks. An armed assault on the precincts of the mosque — on the sacred values it enshrined for the world’s two billion Muslims — was unthinkable.

But on the first day of the Islamic new year of 1400, the unthinkable happened.

This article was first published in Arab News

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‘Juhayman: 40 years on:’ Arab News takes a Deep Dive into Saudi history with a multimedia look at the siege of Makkah’s Grand Mosque

19/11/19

Picture dated December 1979 in Jeddah of Jihman bin Saif al-Otaiba, or Juhayman ibn-Muhammad ibn-Sayf al-Utaibi aka “Lieutenant Mahdi” (the Messiah), former captain in the Saudi White Guards (National Guard) who commanded the attack 20 November 1979 against Mecca’s Great Mosque. Several hundred (1,300 to 1,500) armed men hostile to the Saudi government barricaded themselves inside Mecca’s Mosque for two weeks, taking pilgrims hostage. In the end, two weeks ago, the rebellion was only subdued by a special detachment of French para-military special forces (GIGN) sent by Paris at Riyadh’s request who used stun grenades and chemical weapons. An official toll put the dead at 153 and 560 wounded. All arrested gunmen were later executed. AFP PHOTO (Photo by – / AFP)
  • Featuring interviews with key players such as Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s English-language newspaper tells the full story of the unthinkable event that cast a shadow over its society for decades
  • As part of its Deep Dive series online, featuring documentary-style multimedia stories, Arab News looks back at this event in a way no Saudi publication has done before

Forty years ago this week, on Nov. 20, 1979, a group of militants did the unthinkable: They seized the Grand Mosque in Makkah, taking people hostage inside in a two-week standoff with Saudi forces.

Until recently, the crisis remained too painful for Saudis to examine fully for almost four decades. Now Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s leading English-language daily, is looking back at the event in a way that no publication in the Kingdom has done before: with a multimedia Deep Dive story online at arabnews.com/juhayman-40-years-on.

“The 1979 attack on Makkah’s  Grand Mosque halted major social development in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, negatively affecting a progressing nation for generations to come,” said Rawan Radwan, the lead reporter on the project, who is based in Jeddah. “At Arab News, we delved deep into the matter to uncover the story of Juhayman, the terrorist who seized the holiest site and shook the Islamic world. It’s a story that for many years struck fear in the hearts of the Saudi people, yet has not been covered in such depth in local or international media — until now.”

Arab News launched its Deep Dive series earlier this year as an engaging new way to showcase its in-depth storytelling on key topics, enlivened by audio, video and animated graphics. Its first story was an in-depth account of the space mission by the first Arab astronaut, Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman; the siege of Makkah is another story from the Kingdom’s past that it chose to revisit.

Extensive research was conducted over two months in several cities, including Makkah itself, and involved teams in five of Arab News’ bureaus: Jeddah, Riyadh, Dubai, London and Beirut. The team interviewed key players such as Prince Turki Al-Faisal, then head of the General Intelligence Directorate, and re-created what happened in a series of interactive maps.

This article was first published in Arab News

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‘It’s time for us to tell our story,’ grandson says as ‘Born a King’ premieres in the UAE

Time: September 24, 2019  

The movie tells the story of a young King Al-Saud during his trip to the UK. (Supplied)

DUBAI: The UAE premiere of “Born a King” took place on Tuesday, with Prince Saud Bin Turki Al-Faisal, the grandson of King Faisal Al-Saud, revealing that the production team is willing to produce a sequel for the movie.

Al-Faisal believes the film, which tells the story of a young King Al-Saud during his trip to the UK on a diplomatic mission aged just 13, is a representation of Saudi culture.

“It is time for us to tell our story as it was, and not let anyone speak our story,” Al-Faisal said. “This is just the start.”

The film’s producer, Andre Vicente Gomez, believes the movie will break stereotypes about Saudi Arabia. “I worked three years on (this movie) since we started developing the picture,” he said during the press conference in Dubai.

“There are a lot of stereotypes about the country. If the film will surprise the Saudis, then imagine the European or American reactions,” he told Arab News.

The movie, shot in Riyadh and London, cost almost $20 million to make.

“When we started (the project) we did not know cinema will be authorized in Saudi Arabia,” Gomez added. Now, “Born a King” will be the first Saudi movie to premier in its home country, Gomez said.

“Born a King” will hit theaters across the Middle East and North Africa on Sept. 26.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Saudi women celebrate new freedoms on Saudi National Day

23/09/19

As the Kingdom’s ‘dark days’ recede into the past, Saudi women look to the future with optimism
Vision 2030 reforms and new laws empower and protect women, ushering in a new chapter in Saudi Arabia’s history
RIYADH: Life for many young women in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s was an enjoyable mix of study, watching movies and looking forward to a normal, peaceful future in a growing society.

But as the decade drew to a close, an attempted terrorist overthrow and attack on the Holy Mosque in Makkah changed the lives of women and Saudi society as a whole.

Manal Aqeel, who later became an arts and crafts teacher in a government school, recalled: “We lived in peace, our children lived in peace. We knew our religion, we prayed, fasted, preformed Hajj and were kind to one another. I was in middle school when the attack happened on our Holy Kaaba and the aftermath was disastrous.

“Before the attack we would go out and live our daily lives normally. Our attire would consist of lightweight silk abayas wrapped around our waists to show off our colored skirts underneath.”

However, the seizure of the Holy Mosque by Juhayman Al-Otaibi and his militant followers in November 1979 sparked paranoia and fear among the Saudi population, and in the aftermath of the uprising people found themselves facing a rising tide of ultra-conservative restrictions in their daily lives.

“Our family gatherings before the attack consisted of all the family having dinner and enjoying our time like everyone else. But the incident changed our lives. An air of tension lingered in the air as there was surveillance. People started saying, this is halal, this is haram,” Aqeel said.

Within two years, her lightweight abaya was replaced by a full-length black garment that covered her head.

“I don’t know what it was that made women resort to this? Influence? Fear? But one thing for sure was even niqabs (clothing covering the face with slits for the eyes) weren’t acceptable.”

After the events of 1979, conservatism intensified in Saudi Arabia as people adapted to a life filled with restraint and fear.

“The days before Al-Otaibi were the best. We lived in security and safety, and enjoyed our lives without complications. We didn’t even lock our doors. It was a simple life,” Aqeel remembers.

The 1970s opened new horizons for women in Saudi Arabia, allowing them to follow traditional roles or choose different career paths.
Women were TV anchors, radio presenters, actresses, teachers and more. With the oil boom, the country was flourishing. Before the terror attack, segregation was done out politeness and choice, not by force.

However, after 1979, Saudis adopted a more conservative approach to female clothing, with heavy, black abayas considered the only acceptable form of attire.

“My sister, beware of men wolves; cover yourself and you will not be harassed” was a familiar saying in the 1990s, leaving young women in fear of normal life.

Religious police encouraged the notion that women should be “hidden,” and neither heard nor seen in case their presence evoked deep desires which men could not control.

Saudi men also were left in a state of confusion, forced to look down on women as lesser beings, and with the right to control every aspect of their lives.

Fayga Redwan, a former school principal, recalls how her extended family stopped gathering on the beachfronts of Jeddah to relax with their children around, for fear of being confronted by the religious police.

“We all lived together in our big family home, my brothers and their wives and children. We would pack separate lunches as we had to segregate our picnics. Women would sit together, while our husbands and brothers sat nearby. We weren’t afraid, but there was still a sense of uncertainty,” she said.

“People’s views changed, they were skeptical at all times. They were dark days, indeed.”

Mother-of-three Haya Saeed said that the 1990s were the toughest time for women. “By then the mutawa, or religious police, had greater influence and power. I remember how frightening it was just going to a shopping mall was because they would stop us and harass us,” she said.

“We couldn’t even go to a restaurant without a male guardian, and the religious police would go from table to table to make sure that there was no indecent mingling and that the male was either father or brother.”

However, over time, the restricted freedoms young women faced after the 1979 attack began to ease. Women were given more rights to hold higher managerial positions, education was a tool, and society began to realize that their role is vital to ensure progress.

The “dark days” began to fade, ushering in a new chapter in the nation’s history.

In 2005, the late King Abdullah launched the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP) for both men and women.

Sara Murad, host of MBC’s “Good Morning Ya Arab,” represents a new wave of Saudi women.
The initiative was welcomed by many Saudi families, who encouraged their young daughters, sisters and wives to apply — a blow to the extremists who opposed the program.

In 2010, King Abdullah appointed women to the Shoura Council, a groundbreaking move that highlighted the importance of having women in high positions.

Then, on Sept. 26, 2017, King Salman ordered that women be allowed to drive cars, another major blow to the ultra-conservatives.

In light of Vision 2030, a strict anti-harassment law was introduced in June 2018 to protect women and allow them to enjoy their newly won freedoms.

Times have changed, indeed.

Under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Kingdom is regaining its former tolerance and moving ahead with lightning speed.

On Aug. 1, 2019 a decree signed by King Salman declared that Saudi women no longer require permission from a “male guardian” to travel or obtain a passport.

Young Saudi women joined social clubs throughout the Kingdom in the 1960s and 1970s, with some clubs still in operation today.
“Life has changed so much now. This change is amazing and the new generation has more confidence,” said Latifa Al-Bazeay, a travel agent.

“There was a loss of nationalism after 1979, people wouldn’t even celebrate National Saudi Day. Now we see the difference,” she said.

“Saudis have always loved their country, but now their loyalty shines through. It is our duty to celebrate this day for its greatness,” she said.

The militant extremism of 1979 left an open wound that has only healed with the reign of King Salman and the crown prince.

“We will return to what we were,” the crown prince said — famous words that have been put into action, whether by eradicating extremism, fighting terrorism or empowering women.

This article was first published in Arab News

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‘The air was heavy with fear’: Memories of Makkah’s Grand Mosque siege resurface on Saudi National Day

23/09/19

Militant mastermind Juhayman Al-Otaibi’s terror strike on Nov. 20, 1979 left hundreds dead
Storming of the mosque ushered in Kingdom’s ‘darkest days’
JEDDAH: For decades, the infamous name Juhayman Al-Otaibi had been buried in the memories of Gen X Saudis.

On Nov. 20, 1979, a well-organized group of terrorists stormed Makkah’s Grand Mosque, killing and wounding hundreds of worshippers and hostages in what came to be one of Saudi Arabia’s darkest days. Al-Otaibi was the mastermind behind the terrorist attack.

Fast forward four decades, and in his first American TV interview — with CBS’s “60 Minutes” — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowed to bring back the Kingdom’s pre-1979 moderation.

“We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries,” he said. “Women were driving cars. There were movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. Women worked everywhere. We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979.”

Al-Otaibi committed an atrocity in the name of religion, seizing the Grand Mosque for two weeks in a standoff with Saudi special forces.

Photos taken from fighter jets above the mosque showed the floor surrounding the Kaaba empty of worshippers, an image never witnessed before.

In a video published by the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives, the late Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Subayil, the imam who performed fajr (early morning) prayers on the day of the siege, recalled what he described as “one of the most significant events” of his life.

He said he arrived at the mosque 30 minutes before prayers but did not sense anything untoward.

“But after concluding fajr prayers … a number of militiamen with weapons stormed the area heading toward the Kaaba,” he added.

“I headed to one of the rooms, where I immediately called Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Rashed, the chief of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques at the time. I told him of the situation, and I had him listen to the bullets being fired. I found out a while later that they (the terrorists) were allowing pilgrims to leave the mosque’s grounds.”

Al-Subayil decided to leave after about four hours. He removed his mishlah (a traditional flowing outer cloak worn in the Gulf), went down to the basement, lowered his head and left with a group of Indonesian pilgrims just as two militants stood at the gates that lead outside the basement.

Soon after, the gates were chained shut, and snipers took positions in the high minarets and shot innocent worshippers.

Al-Otaibi’s followers, who had taken positions in the minarets, shot at bystanders and Saudi special forces if they came too close to the mosque’s grounds. An estimated 100,000 worshippers were in the mosque that morning.

The siege shocked Saudi society, which had been living a normal life, and whose country was transforming itself from a desert nation to a sophisticated state.

Born and raised in Makkah, housewife Fajr Al-Mohandis recalled the day she heard the news, and the dreadful atmosphere in the city during “those awful two weeks.”

She told Arab News: “I was a student in middle school, and just like every other day, I went to school just like all the school children did. Everyone went to their jobs, including those who worked in the Grand Mosque.”

She said: “We heard gunshots during the day, and that would’ve been the first sign something was wrong. But we were still oblivious to the fact that a terrorist attack was taking place until our parents came to pick us up.” She added: “Makkah was a very small city at that time … and news spread fast.”

Al-Mohandis recalled how schools were shut for the next two weeks. “The air was heavy with fear, no one knew what was happening and we were shocked to the core,” she said.

“This was the holy city. This was the Grand Mosque. How was this even possible? As I was young it was too much to process, but residents of the city who grew up here took the responsibility of keeping it safe, assuring young ones like me that it’ll be OK and Saudi special forces will free the mosque from the blasphemous group.”

A former member of the National Guard, Al-Otaibi was a member of the Salafist group Jama’a Al-Salafiya Al-Muhtasibah.

He was angered by Western influence in Saudi society, and had been recruiting followers from various nationalities for years under the guise of piety.

It was later discovered that his followers smuggled ammunition by hiding it in barrels disguised as construction equipment, and in the mosque’s basement and minarets, taking advantage of its expansion.

Saudi forces stormed the mosque, and the ensuing battle killed most of the terrorists, including Al-Qahtani. Sixty-seven of them were captured, including Al-Otaibi.

The siege ended on Dec. 4, 1979. On Jan. 9, 1980, well-known news presenter Hussain Najjar announced Al-Otaibi’s execution.

This article was first published in Arab News

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How Saudi Arabia turned back to the future

23/09/19

When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged to bring back moderate Islam, he referenced a time before the developments of 1979 halted the Kingdom’s progress
Saudi Arabia was on a roll in the 1970s, enjoying the social and cultural developments that had begun in the previous two decades, and buoyed by the rising price of oil and the Kingdom’s first Development Plan.

But 1979 changed everything. Saudi Arabia took a conservative turn, prompted by two events: the Iranian Revolution in February, which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, and the siege by religious extremists of the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

OPINION: Reconnecting with the past, reimagining the future (Faisal J. Abbas, Editor-in-Chief, Arab News)

As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told 2017’s Future Investment Initiative: “We were not like this in the past. We only want to go back to what we were, the moderate Islam that is open to the world, open to all the religions … And quite frankly, we will not waste 30 years of our lives in dealing with extremist ideas … We want to live a normal life, a life that translates our moderate religion, our good customs.”

And that’s what has happened. Under Vision 2030 and a flurry of life-altering developments – movies and concerts, greater freedom for women, fitness in schools, to name just a few – the Kingdom is on a trajectory back to the future.

— THEN —

1955 – Saudi Arabia’s first private school for girls, Dar Al-Hanan, is founded in Jeddah by Princess Effat, with the support of her husband, Crown Prince Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, amid a social outcry.

Read more: Saudi schooling goes back to the future

1960 – Royal decree approves public education for girls; schools are established in Riyadh, Makkah and other cities.

1962 – The non-profit women’s organization, Al-Nahda, is established by Princess Effat and a number of prominent Saudi women.

1963

The Council of Ministers approves a project to establish television in the Kingdom.
The Department of Youth Welfare (previously the Department of Sport) creates four federations: volleyball, basketball, athletic and cycling.
1965 – King Faisal approves the first national television broadcast, a reading of the Qur’an, amid protests from conservatives.

The first TV broadcast in Saudi Arabia is launched from the US Consulate in Dhahran; “The Eye of the Desert” is broadcast in English and only to the Dhahran area.

1957

The Kingdom’s first institute of higher education, King Saud University, is opened in Riyadh.
The launch of Aramco TV, with a wider broadcasting range that reaches Al-Hofuf and other areas across the Gulf. Broadcasts are in both Arabic and English.
OPINION: The 1970s — a seismic decade for Saudi Arabia’s economy (Frank Kane)

1979

IRANIAN REVOLUTION

January 22 – Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his wife leave Tehran.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

February 1 – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returns to Iran from exile in France.

February 11 – Khomeini officially assumes power when troops loyal to the shah surrender.

February 16 – Iran’s revolutionary authorities start executions of leading supporters of the shah, including four top generals.

November 4 – US embassy in Tehran stormed by Iranian students who take 52 Americans hostage, demanding the extradition of the shah.

SIEGE OF MAKKAH’S GRAND MOSQUE

November 20 – A well-organized group led by Saudi militant Juhayman Al-Otaibi storms the Grand Mosque with weapons smuggled in coffins and vehicles using members pretending to be there to pray. Al-Otaibi is a member of Al-Jamaa Al-Salafiya Al-

Muhtasiba (Salafi Group that Commands Right and Forbids Wrong), which is angered by Western social influence, women’s presence in the Saudi workforce, TV and other issues. Worshippers are prevented from leaving after the announcement of a takeover over a microphone. Hostages are forced to pledge allegiance to the group’s leader, Mohammed bin Abduallah Al-Qahtani, Al-Otaibi and their followers.

December 4 – The siege lasts for two weeks and ends after an intervention by Saudi special forces and their allies, leaving hundreds dead, including Saudi officers, soldiers and civilians as well as Al-Qahtani and his followers. Al-Otaibi is arrested and executed on Jan. 9, 1980.

Read more:

‘The air was heavy with fear’: Memories of Makkah’s Grand Mosque siege resurface on Saudi National Day
MBC’s ‘Al-Asoof’ tells the untold story of the Makkah siege

— NOW —

2016

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveils Vision 2030, a road map for Saudi Arabia’s future.
The Saudi Cabinet approves a new law restricting the religious police from questioning, pursuing or arresting violators; they must instead report them to the police or anti-narcotics officers.
Read more: Saudi women celebrate new freedoms on Saudi National Day

Princess Reema bint Bandar is appointed vice president for women’s affairs at the General Sports Authwority.
Kariman Abuljadayel is the first Saudi woman to compete in the 100-meter event at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.

The General Authority for Entertainment and the General Sports Authority are established by royal decree.
2017

King Salman appoints Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince ofSaudi Arabia.
The Saudi Stock Exchange appoints a woman, Sarah Al-Suhaimi, as chairperson for the first time.

In one of the first public music performances in many years, Mohammed Abdo performs for a men-only audience in Jeddah.

Giga-projects are launched: NEOM, a $500-billion megacity in theTabuk region, and the RedSea tourism project.
Saudi state schools announce that they will offer physical education classes for female students.
At the inaugural Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledges a return to moderate Islam.
2018

  • Female fans are allowed to attend football matches for the first time in Saudi Arabia; the match was Al-Ahli vs. Al-Batin in Jeddah on Jan. 12.
  • Ending a 35-year ban on cinemas, the first commercial movie theater opens in Riyadh with a screening of “Black Panther” on April 18.
  • A ban on Saudi women driving is lifted on June 24.
  • An anti-harassment law, approved by the Shoura Council, receives praise from around the world.
  • King Salman launches plans for Qiddiya, expected to be the world’s largest entertainment city.
  • The Culture Ministry, headed by Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al-Saud, is established.
  • Al-Ahsa Oasis is designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
    Weam Al-Dakheel becomes the first Saudi woman to anchor the main evening news on Saudi TV.
    Enrique Iglesias, Amr Diab and the Black Eyed Peas are among the first international performers at the Formula E in Riyadh, for which the first trial tourist visas are granted.
    The WWE’s Royal Rumble takes place at Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, beginning a 10-year partnership with the General Sports Authority.
    2019

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launches a mega tourism project in AlUla which will include a resort designed by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel and a nature reserve dubbed Sharaan.

  • Lubna Al-Olayan becomes the first Saudi chairwoman to run a Saudi bank, a merger between Alawwal and Saudi British Bank.
  • Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador, Princess Reema bint Bandar (top center), is appointed to Washington.
  • The Saudi Cabinet approves a “Privileged Iqama residency permit,” which will allow foreign nationals to work and live in Saudi Arabia without a sponsor, offered to highly skilled expatriates and owners of capital funds.
  • By royal decree, Saudi women no longer require permission from a male guardian to travel or obtain a passport.
  • A lineup of superstars perform in concerts across the Kingdom: Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and 50 Cent in Jeddah; Andrea Bocelli in AlUla; Pitbull and Akon in the Eastern Province.
  • High-profile sports events include the Italian Super Cup between Juventus and AC Milan; Fight Night between world boxing champion Amir Khan and Billy Dib; and the largest Battle Royale in WWE history.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Different phases of Jeddah’s rich history under spotlight

23/06/19

  • the Red Sea port city was added to UNESCO’s World Hertitage Sites list in 2015

RIYADH: The King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives (Darah) has published highlights of Jeddah’s heritage since the pre-Islamic era and the use of the city as a port for Makkah by Caliph Uthman ibn Affan in 647.
Darah documented the era’s buildings, neighborhoods, balconies and windows, found in the architecture of the “Historical Jeddah” area, on its Twitter account.
Those characteristics are still being appreciated, making Jeddah an open museum that was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list in 2014.
While documenting the establishment and unification of the Kingdom, Darah mentioned the arrival of King Abdul Aziz to Jeddah in 1925, where he stayed in the house of Nassif and used a council room and a prayer room next to Al-Hanafi Mosque.
The city became a large one and became the gate of the two holy mosques and the Kingdom’s first port.
Darah highlighted the area’s important heritage and historical sites and buildings such as historical mosques of unique architectural style, in addition to the city’s markets.
Jeddah’s wall was built by Hussein Al-Kurdi, one of the Mamluk princes, during his campaign to fortify the Red Sea against attacks by the Portuguese.
He equipped the wall with fortresses, towers and cannons to stop invading ships and dug a trench around the wall.
Darah noted that the wall, which was built with the help of Jeddah’s residents, had two doors, one from the side of Makkah and the other from the side of the Red Sea. It also had six towers each with 16 branches. Six doors were built — Bab Makkah, Bab Madinah, Bab Sharif, Bab Jadid, Bab Al-Bant and Bab Al-Magharibah — before Bab of Al-Siba was added at the beginning of this century.
The wall was torn down because it merged with the urban area in 1947.
The city was divided into several neighborhoods inside the perimeter of the wall called “Hara.” These were named according to their geographical location inside the city by the events that made them famous: Harat Al-Mazloum, Al-Sham, Al-Yaman, Al-Bahr and Al-Karantina.
The city’s residents built their houses from rocks they extracted from the 40th lake before modifying them by hand to fit according to their sizes next to the wood they brought from neighboring areas such as the Valley of Fatima or imported from other countries, mainly India.
They used the contents from the Sea of Mud to strengthen the structure.
These houses look a lot like modern cement buildings. Some of the famous buildings still found today are the houses of Al-Nassif, of Al-Jamjoum, Al-Baesh, Al-Kabel, Al-Banaja, Al-Azahed and Al-Sharbatli.
Darah also documented the most famous mosques in Jeddah’s historical area such as Al-Shafei Mosque, Uthman ibn Affan Mosque, Al-Basha Mosque, Akkash Mosque, Al-Memar Mosque, Al-Rahma Mosque, King Saud Mosque, Al-Jaffali Moque and Hassan Anani Mosque.
The old neighborhoods still carry a touch of the past and are surrounded by old handicraft and traditional shops. Significant public markets in the historical area include Al-Alawi Market, Kabel Market and Al-Nada Market.
Some of the most important specialized markets in Jeddah’s historical area are the fish market, also known as Al-Banqala, the vegetable and butcher’s market in Al-Nawariyyah at the end of Kabel Street, the large fabric market, Al-Khaskiyah, located behind Sheikh Mohammed Nassif’s house, Al-Nada Market, Al-Jami, named after Al-Shafei Mosque, Al-Hababa Market located in Bab Makkah, Al-Hiraj auction Market in Bab Sharif, Al-Badou (Bedouin) market in Bab Makkah, Al-Aser in Bab Sharif, Al-Baraghiyah, where donkey, mule and horse saddles were made, and Al-Sabhiyah in Al-Khaskiyah where prayer beads were made.
Jeddah was also known for its “Khanat” (“Al-Kaysariyah”) — markets made up of a number of small shops.
Some of the most important “Khanat” of Jeddah’s historical area are Khan Al-Hunud, Khan Al-Kasaba, where fabrics were sold, Khan Al-Dallalin and Khan Al-Attarin.
Jeddah’s traditions and its people still unite loved ones — residents decorate their houses with lights while others chant to welcome visitors.
These traditions represent Jeddah’s beauty on religious occasions such as the holy month of Ramadan, especially in the central historical area.

This article was first published in Arab News

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‘Nafthah’ — an art exhibition on the history of oil in Saudi Arabia

07/06/19

  • Fourteen artists are participating in the exhibition dubbed “Nafthah”

JEDDAH: The Ministry of Culture will organize an extraordinary art exhibition that looks at the cultural impact that oil has left on the history of Saudi Arabia.

Scheduled on June 8 until July 18, 2019 at the historic Khuzam Palace in Jeddah, the exhibition dubbed “Nafthah” showcases the first oil exploration agreement between the Kingdom and the United States in 1933. Fourteen artists are participating in the exhibition dubbed “Nafthah”.

This discovery oil in the Kingdom resulted in a social and economic transformation that made Khuzam Palace a gateway to development.

The Ministry of Culture aims to highlight the Kingdom’s modern past in an innovative and fresh creative approach, where artists express their own reflections on this great history and their vision of the positive and cultural impact it has left on Saudi society.

This article was first published in Arab News

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