Zubaida Trail, located in Saudi Arabia’s Qassim region


Photo/Saudi Tourism
  • Al-Jufinah Lake, which is an important archaeological site, can be found in the western section of the trail.

Zubaida Trail was once an important route for Hajj pilgrims traveling through the Qassim region on their journey from Kufa in Iraq to Makkah.
Also known as Al-Kufi pilgrimage route, it stretches for more than 1,400 kilometers in the Kingdom and passes through the Northern Borders Region, Hail, Qassim, Madinah and Makkah.
The trail was named after Zubaydah bin Jafar, wife of Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, in recognition of her charitable work, including the number of rest stations she ordered to be established along the route.
Al-Jufinah Lake, which is an important archaeological site, can be found in the western section of the trail.

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The Place: Saudi Arabia’s Al-Kheraibah, an archaeological treasure trove


  • Various isolated mud walls with stone foundations, as well as a large collection of beads and pots, were found in this area

It is an archeological area located within Madain Saleh. Thomedians lived in this area before the advent of the Nabataeans.
Various isolated mud walls with stone foundations, as well as a large collection of beads and pots, were found in this area.
Stone basins for watering sheep and keeping waterfowl were used. Some small clay figurines in human forms were also found. Copious material made of wood, various metals and ivory, as well as ancient coins and various kinds of potteries were also found.

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4 historical graves discovered in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Maala cemetery in Makkah


  • One of the tombs is attributed to a person who died in 1288

MAKKAH: The Holy Makkah Municipality announced the discovery of four historical tombs, one of which that dates back to the second century of Islam and the rest dating back to more than 700 years. The tombs were discovered during the excavation and processing of a new smart parking project located at the northeast of the historic Al-Maala cemetery.
One of these graves is historically attributed to a person named Jamaluddine Al-Jilani who died in 1288.
The municipality explained that while the contractor was conducting the excavation works for the new project, the tombs were found.
A source at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) told Arab News that four historical graves were found near Al-Ashraf Awqaf, northeast of the historical cemetery, one of which dates back to the second century of the Islamic calendar. He stressed that the SCTH would receive the tombs officially next Sunday.
He also pointed out that 50 historical graves had been discovered 10 years ago during the expansion of the cemetery.


The graves were discovered during the excavation and processing of a new smart parking project located at the northeast of the historic Al-Maala cemetery.

Dr. Fawaz Al-Dahas, director of the Makkah History Center, told Arab News that the discovery of such historical tombs was a natural occurrence so close to the old cemetery.
According to Al-Dahas, there were a number of tombstones from similar finds in Al-Zaher Museum, which is supervised by the SCTH.
Al-Dahas explained the naming behind the cemetery was due to its location in Makkah.
It is the place where the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) wife, grandfather, and other ancestors are buried.
Historically, when a deceased person was buried, a sign would be placed on the grave to leave a mark, most probably an uneven, engraved rectangular stone.

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Hegra and AlUla: Rebirth of Arabia’s ancient crossroads

Time: December 19, 2019

A view of the ruins of the ancient city of AlUla and the new city that stands adjacent to it. (Supplied photo)
  • KSA’s Winter at Tantora festival will last over 12 weekends, drawing the world to AlUla from Dec. 19, 2019, to March 7, 2020
  • The archaeological sites of Hegra, the ancient Nabataean city in Saudi Arabia’s northwest, will be opened to the public next year

RIYADH: Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world.

Few have been privileged to visit Hegra, hewn from the rocks of the Hijaz in northwestern Saudi Arabia two millennia ago and lost for centuries.

The unveiling of the spectacular rock-cut tombs of Hegra is part of an initiative to transform the wider AlUla region into one of the world’s greatest cultural tourism destinations.

In 2020, the archaeological sites of Hegra will be reopened to the public, which had its first glimpse in many years through the 2018 Winter at Tantora festival.

The celebration of art, music and heritage will draw the world once again to AlUla from Dec. 19 to March 7. Over 12 weekends of festivities, visitors will be treated to an eclectic mix of performers, including the Gipsy Kings, Lionel Richie, Enrique Iglesias, Craig David and Jamiroquai.

Also returning to Winter at Tantora will be Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, Greek pianist Yanni and Egyptian composer Omar Khairat. In the New Year, the music of Beethoven will be heard in celebration of the German composer’s 250th birthday.

Saudi Arabia’s move to open up Hegra and the AlUla Valley restores a missing chapter in the history of the region and the entire world.

Mada’in Salih was the post- Islamic name for Hegra, a lost city in the AlUla Valley. Like its famous twin Petra in Jordan, Hegra was built by the Nabataeans, who from about the fourth century BC to 106 AD controlled the profitable trade routes that crossed the Arabian Peninsula from east to west and north to south.

AlUla is full of archaeological treasures from the Dadanite, Nabataean, Roman and Islamic civilizations, nestled among beautiful desert landscapes. (Supplied )

Few people know as much about Hegra and the Nabataeans as Laila Nehme, a faculty member of France’s prestigious National Centre for Scientific Research and co-director of the Saudi- French Hegra archaeological project since 2008.

The first comprehensive survey of the Hegra site was undertaken between 2002 and 2005 by a team of French archaeologists under Nehme’s direction, in collaboration with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities.

The survey laid the groundwork for the archaeological exploration of the site that began in 2008 and has continued ever since.

Recognizing that tourism and heritage would become increas- ingly important economically to Saudi Arabia, in 2000 the Kingdom established an organization that over the years has evolved into the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), as it was renamed in 2015.

The SCTH, under its Secretary- General Prince Sultan bin Salman, nominated Hegra for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.

The application was accepted, and Hegra became the first World Heritage property to be inscribed in Saudi Arabia.

The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), established in 2017, is working in partnership with the French Agency for AlUla Development (Afalula), on “the transformation of the AlUla region into a worldwide cultural and touristic destination.”

In the core area, by far the biggest category of finds is rock art and inscriptions. So far, archaeologists have identified inscriptions in nine languages, whose use spans millennia: Thamudic, Aramaic, Dadanitic, Minaean, Nabataean, Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic.

In an interview with Leaders magazine in February 2019, the RCU’s CEO Amr Al-Madani said that AlUla is “full of archaeological treasures from the Dadanite, Nabataean, Roman and Islamic civilizations, nestled amongst the staggeringly beautiful desert landscapes.”

A cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the nation’s sustainable development, the project aims to create opportunities for the community and boost the local economy in AlUla.

Afalula will support the growth of infrastructure, archaeology and tourism in the area, with the aim of attracting 2 million visitors a year to the site by 2035, in the process creating 35,000 jobs for residents of AlUla.

The RCU’s task is to contribute SR120 billion ($32 billion) to the Kingdom’s gross domestic product by 2035. It currently employs 374 people, of which 134 are based in AlUla.

The RCU is also engaging the local community through programs such as Hammaya, in which 2,500 residents will train to be advocates for AlUla’s natural and human heritage.

The emphasis on local identity and heritage is unmistak- able. About a 45-minute drive from Hegra is the Sharaan Nature Reserve, a territory of 925 sq. km within AlUla that features some of the region’s most striking rock formations and desert habitats, managed by local rangers trained by international specialists.

“We’ve reintroduced Idmi gazelles, Nubian ibexes and red-necked ostriches into the reserve, and they’re thriving and doing well,” said Dr. Ahmed Al-Malki, head of the reserve.

The Arabian leopard may soon follow. In April this year, two cubs were born as part of a breeding program to preserve and eventually reintroduce the critically endangered species back into the wild in northwest Saudi Arabia.

“Our aim is to create a healthy ecosystem,” said Al-Malki. “When we started the operation, we employed rangers from the local communities trained by the Saudi Wildlife Authority and our partner, the Mweka Wildlife College in Tanzania.”

Nabatean-era tombs carved on limestone formations are a common feature in AlUla. (Supplied)

Once again, engaging the local community with the project is key to its success. The reserve will also be home to several luxury resorts, including one designed by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel, whose creations include the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Another luxury hotel operator destined for AlUla is Aman Resorts, which will open three eco-focused resorts in the region by 2023.

One will be a luxury tented camp, another an interpretation of a desert-style ranch, and the third will be situated close to AlUla’s heritage sights.

The Maraya Concert Hall, which was designed by Gio Forma Studio and opened in December 2018, will also be revamped, with an increase in the number of seats and the addition of a restaurant, rooftop terrace and new exhibition spaces that will host art events.

To better serve the antici- pated flood of visitors to the region, Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdul Aziz Airport in AlUla will be modernized and expanded, increasing its capacity from 100,000 passengers a year to 400,000.

Last year’s Winter at Tantora festival brought inter- national guests and world-class musicians to the area, culminating in the unveiling of the vision for the area by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in February this year. The RCU commissioned artists to create public artworks inspired by AlUla in the Old Town.

This time, the attractions include the multimedia theatrical production “Jameel Buthainah,” a Nabataean-inspired Caracalla dance performance, the AlUla Balloon Festival, vintage car and aircraft experiences, and the Fursan endurance horse race.

Central to AlUla’s vision is the incorporation of art and cultural initiatives. The RCU’s cultural manifesto says: “AlUla will become known worldwide as a place to dream, where the greatest artists and thinkers of our time gather to stretch their creative capabili- ties and realize some of their most ambitious artworks and arts experiences — an evolving cultural crossroads for today and the future.”

Just as the caravans of antiquity once came to trade in this land, so AlUla, with an ancient Hegra reborn, will once again attract travelers from all corners of the world.

This article was first published in Arab News

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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.

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Remembering the siege of Makkah


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


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


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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