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2004-06-24

Propping Up the House of Saud: A Saudi Dissident Speaks

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Our guest Mai Yamani says, "It would be wrong to predict any immediate collapse of the state. Despite a marked cooling in relations, Saudi Arabia remains the key ally of the US in the region. With continuing violence in Iraq, Washington"s priority is to prevent Saudi Arabia descending into similar anarchy, even if it means propping up a regime it no longer likes or trusts."[includes transcript]

Following a recent spate of attacks against US citizens and corporations in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom announced a limited amnesty offer yesterday to militants who turn themselves in within the next month. Those who have never taken part in attacks apparently won’t be prosecuted. The announcement came in an address by Crown Prince Abdullah broadcast across Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. He said the government was offering a chance for militants to "repent, plead guilty and voluntarily surrender." Prince Abdullah added that those who did not would "face a resolute force."

Over the past two months, Saudi Arabia has become a major frontline of resistance against the US presence in the region. Last week, Lockheed Martin employ Paul Johnson was beheaded and statements broadcast on an al Qaeda website claimed that sympathizers within the Saudi military helped facilitate his kidnapping. Johnson worked on Lockheed"s production of Apache helicopters. He was one of 3 American contractors killed in Saudi Arabia over the past two weeks. Over the past year, militants have also targeted US companies like the Vinnell Corporation, a private military firm which trained the feared Saudi National Guard. Last May, a triple car bombing in Saudi Arabia killed 34 people, including 8 Americans at a housing compound used by Vinnell.

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has appointed a former Saudi security officer named Saleh Mohamed Al-Oufi to head the organization in the kingdom following the killing of Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin last Friday. A cousin of the new Al Qaeda leader was allegedly one of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.

But as our next guest writes "It would be wrong to predict any immediate collapse of the state. Despite a marked cooling in relations, Saudi Arabia remains the key ally of the US in the region. With continuing violence in Iraq, Washington"s priority is to prevent Saudi Arabia descending into similar anarchy, even if it means propping up a regime it no longer likes or trusts....While oil prices remain exceptionally high and with a US presidential election in November, Saudi Arabia is the pump that cannot be allowed to run dry."

Those are the words of Mai Yamani in a article published in the Guardian entitled "Washington will prop up the House of Saud–for now." Mai Yamani is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and author of the forthcoming book "Cradle of Islam: the Hijazi Quest for an Arabian Identity." Her previous books include "Feminism and Islam." She is also the daughter of former Saudi Oil Minister Ahmad Zaki Yamani. Mai Yamani joins us on the line from London.

  • Mai Yamani , is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and author of the forthcoming book Cradle of Islam: the Hijazi Quest for an Arabian Identity. Her previous books include Feminism and Islam. Her latest article published by The Guardian of London is called "Washington will prop up the House of Saud–for now." She is also the daughter of former Saudi Oil Minister Ahmad Zaki Yamani.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Mai Yamani is a fellow at the Royal Institute of Affairs, and author of the book, "Cradle of Islam," and her previous books are "Feminism and Islam. And is the daughter of a former oil minister. Mai Yamani joins us on the line from the studio at Chatham House. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

MAI YAMANI: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us.

MAI YAMANI: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s start off by talking about the beheading that took place of Paul Johnson, and the allegation that some in the Saudi security forces helped to facilitate his capture.

MAI YAMANI: Well, the beheading is part of a series of horrendous acts and an increase of violence in Saudi Arabia that we have been seeing in the last year. We have to look at the fact that one, al-Qaeda itself, is home-grown Saudi, ideology support and recruits are from Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia, fights in Afghanistan, but seems to send his people and his ideological children back to his homeland. So, the possibility of collusion between the security forces and the violent jihadists or terrorists is based on the fact that there are familial tribal links between some of those working in security and their cousins, and we see now the appointment of this, al-Oufi, an ex-policeman, although he did not have any experience of jihad in Afghanistan. But he is related to the terrorists. The whole thing is infiltrated, and the problem at moment is not only that the royal family, who turned a blind eye for a very long time, and even supported these radical Islamists or Senafis, now is the time when they see that it is too late, they realize that they cannot — they do not know who is their enemy and who is their friend. The situation got out of control.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Mai Yamani, who is banned from working in Saudi Arabia, who is in Britain now, but follows closely what is going on in Saudi Arabia. Much of what we hear about the claims of responsibility, for example, appears on websites. You have written about the Islamic websites and their use by various groups. You recently wrote a piece called, "fatwas.com." you can talk about this?

MAI YAMANI: What happened was there is no central authority in Islam and the Islamic world today. You have Muslim states, be they Iran and the Shia in Iran, or you have the Wahhabi state in Saudi Arabia. They have attempted to control. If we focus on Saudi Arabia now, it is a coalition government. You have the alliance with the Wahhabis, and they have tried to control and to have their own version of Islam. At the moment, it has been hijacked. There’s no more role for Mecca or for a central role or acceptance of pluralism. What has happened is the fatwas on line reflect the dissatisfaction, the anger of so many young Muslims and specifically the Muslims from Saudi Arabia against their regimes that are not satisfying their needs. And they attempt to have their own version of Islam, and some of it is very violent. I think the most important thing that we’re looking at now is there are going to be religious wars within Saudi Arabia between different — because the Wahhabi religious establishment itself is fragmenting with the different groups, because the Shia-Sunni problem has been exacerbated, and the Shia are considered heretics by the Wahhabi-Sunni establishment. We seeing like a looming religious war between all of these factions, and you can see them with the many fatwas online.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, "All Saudi Shia are followers of the Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, so, they already look across the border for guidance." You write, "Bearded, turbaned and cloaked Shia clerics more visible in Iraq terrify the minority Saudi Wahhabis." Can you talk more about that?

MAI YAMANI: Indeed, for many years, from the beginning of the establishment of the state, the Shia in Saudi Arabia have been discriminated against. They are not allowed to be part of the government or the diplomatic corps or even teach history in schools. Since the 1980’s, they were not even allowed to operate the oil installations like they used to do. What is happening is that Shia have become emboldened after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, and they have gone to Crown Prince Abdullah and they have demanded more rights. What is more important is to recognize that the balance of power within the Middle East, the religious Shia are going to be more powerful than when they used to be a minority. In other words, from Iran to the eastern province of Saudi Arabia that is the oil-rich province, to the southern Iraq, this is a "Petrolistan" — it is like an accident of geography that the richest oil areas are under the Shia, the majority are the Shia. I think the Shia are not going to lose this opportunity in history to show their political weight, and economic clout. This will create tensions for the Saudi regime because it is in direct clash to its state ideology, the Sunni-Wahhabi. So, we have also changes in the balance of power in the region, and this is a worrying thing for the regime in Saudi Arabia, and the borders are open. There are jihadists going into Iraq and we know they are there in Falluja, Saudi jihadists and the other way. Arms are coming in from Iraq, very cheap, despite the attempts of the control of the Minister of Interior.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Mai Yamani, speaking to us from Britain from Chatham House. The most often seen Saudi spokesperson here in this country, on many talk shows in the beltway, is Adel al-Jabar, who is identified as the foreign policy adviser, the Saudi foreign policy adviser. Can you talk about him and what he represents?

MAI YAMANI: I think that the Saudi rulers have both from within their royal family and others who work for them are very educated and eloquent elite, who are trying to convince the world and perhaps themselves that things are under control in Saudi Arabia. Now, it’s becoming more and more difficult to explain the very ambiguous situation and the increasing violence and the dubious relationship also with the United States. So, the task is more difficult, and I think what is more important here is how do they explain when the king and the Crown Prince Abdullah are offering amnesty to sympathizers. Let’s say not those who are the killers, but sympathizers with the jihadist terrorists today. How do they explain that the moderate liberal educated men have been put in jail — arrested and put in jail since last March? Why don’t they offer them amnesty? There is so much more to explain in this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Mai Yamani in Britain. What about these gun battles we hear about in Saudi Arabia when they say there’s a gun battle here, and there. Overall about the issue of how stable is the Saudi regime right now, and who is engaged in these gun battles?

MAI YAMANI: There are so many gun battles that are not reported. There is so much siege and there are thousands of new security men brought out from the tribes. I don’t know how well they are trained. We don’t know what is their connection with other jihadists. It is certainly not a question of revolution now in Saudi Arabia, nor is it a question of an immediate collapse of the state, but all the signs of a failing state, failure of the state of Saudi Arabia to integrate its people to use the moderates, to use the educated middle class, to try to bring the people from the different regions and who feel themselves to be marginalized, we’re looking at a very difficult situation. It is perhaps too late, but maybe if we don’t want to, if we want to look at the window of hope, if they still can use some of the moderate elements and embark what real, genuine reform not only the talk of reform and the window dressing and cosmetic changes that they have been promising.

AMY GOODMAN: Mae Yamani, why are you banned from Saudi Arabia?

MAI YAMANI: I would like to correct this. I am not banned. I am not banned from going to Saudi Arabia. In fact, I think they really would very much — very much like to have me in Saudi Arabia so that I would be silenced. That is the problem. Many of my colleagues, who wrote and spoke and lectured in Saudi Arabia, are still in jail. The question here is why is there no liberal opposition in the country. The question is, they allow so many, and you refer — we go back to the website of very violent language, and some of their neo-Wahhabi guys, and they allow them to keep their websites, but there are, it seems, they are more frightened from the liberal moderates in the country. I’m just simply an academic and I analyze and I write what I see. If I see reforms, I would write it, but I am not going to be silenced or — they’d attempt to intimidate me or put me in jail, so I remain here.

AMY GOODMAN: What about your father’s role today? He’s the former oil minister of Saudi Arabia.

MAI YAMANI: I do not think we should mix my independent work as an academic and my writing with my father’s political role.

AMY GOODMAN: Though —

MAI YAMANI: There is no connection between the two. I work entirely independently, and I write according to what I see.

AMY GOODMAN: And in terms of comparing the human rights records of the Saddam Hussein regime and the Saudi regime, how would you say the Saudis compare?

MAI YAMANI: I really don’t think that the Saudis would compare to the atrocities of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I think that the Saudi human rights abuses and the record is appalling, but certainly not to the level of crimes committed under the Saddam Hussein regime, and I speak from experience as half Iraqi and the knowing of, you know, through relatives and family there. There is no comparison except that the al-Saud remain in denial, and are not doing anything yet to reform the judiciary, to look at the corruption in the country, and also to do something about the role of women in the country, and their rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I look forward to having you back on to talk about the role of women in Saudi Arabia. Mae Yamani, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

MAI YAMANI: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!.

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