Camel market in Buraidah (photo: Rainer Hermann)
Reforms in Saudi-Arabia

The Painstaking Moderation of the Narrow-Minded

Buraidah in Saudi Arabia has long been regarded as a bastion of Jihadism, where Al-Qaida could draw on many recruits. Yet, a transformation has been taking place for the past few years. A report by Rainer Hermann from Buraidah

"Look carefully at the woman," said Khaled. There isn't actually much of her to see – only her eyes and hands. "You can recognize modern families by the fact that the women don't wear black gloves anymore," added Khaled. In Buraidah, this is akin to a cultural revolution. The same holds true for the woman who is striding towards the entrance of a shopping centre without a male escort. This remains forbidden terrain in the Saudi Arabian city for unmarried men.

As such, the three friends, Khaled, Salman, and Faisal, meet in a café with an ambiance not dissimilar to a Starbucks branch. Looking outwards from its high windows, one can follow happenings on the square, but those outside can't look in. This is often the case in Saudi Arabia – the private sphere is sealed off.

The three friends discuss changes and the opening up of society in their country. They refer to the period in Buraidah five years ago as things began to change. It was at this time that the café opened – the first of its kind in the city. The "Spring Festival," from which they have just come, has now taken place for five years out in the desert. Only five years ago, the foreigner, with whom they are now meeting, wouldn't even have been allowed in the city.

Devout, but modern Muslims

Buraidah lies isolated in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. The city was always known for its scholarly theologians and successful merchants, as well as for the largest date plantations in the country and its camel-rich inhabitants.

King Abdullah in Riyadh (photo: Reuters)
Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive countries, but since his inauguration King Abdullah has introduced cautious reforms: His new educational policy has contributed to drying out radical Jihadism in Buraidah, Rainer Hermann writes

​​In recent times, Buraidah and Qassim Province were notorious as a bastion of Jihadism. In no other place had Al-Qaida recruited so many young men and women as from here. However, some five years ago, everything changed. Today, the citizens of Buraidah want to be devout, but also modern Muslims.

As far back as anyone can recall, the citizens of the city have been conservative and zealous adherents of the strict puritan religious doctrine of Wahhabism, which remains the basis both of religious practice and the concept of government in Saudi Arabia. The royal family has had difficulties with the city stretching back to 1929. At the time, King Abdalaziz Al Saud, the founder of the kingdom named after his family, took a stand opposing the Ikhwan militia, with which he had conquered and united the Arabian Peninsula.

The king, a pragmatic politician, faced pressure from the British and wanted to put an end to further raids and plundering by his fighters in the name of Islam. He crushed the Ikhwan rebellion, in which the religious scholars from Buraidah took sides with the particularly religious Ikhwan against the king. When the reformist King Faisal introduced television to Saudi Arabia in 1965, Islamic zealots stormed the television studio in Buraidah.

After the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by Saddam Hussein's troops, resistance formed here against the American soldiers that the king invited into the country. Preachers, such as Salman al Auda from Buraidah, began to question the legitimacy of the Al Saud family to rule and their popularity grew. Four years later, there were protest marches and unrest in Buraidah. The king's soldiers firmly cracked down on the dissidents and carried out many arrests, including that of Auda.

In 1999, the preacher was freed on condition that he refrain from any further criticism of the royal family. Since then, Auda, who is still one of the most popular preachers in the country, has been treading the fine line between loyalty and criticism. This has provided room for a new generation of radical preachers who want to abolish the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and who support Al-Qaida.

In May 2003, most of them were arrested. This decreased the influence of Al-Qaida in Buraidah, but did not stop it.

The government is still discovering Al-Qaida cells in the region. The security forces conducted their last major action in 2009. Last year, Buraidah was linked to Al-Qaida in another case. Unknown individuals killed a Saudi policeman and the terrorist network later professed to the crime.

A lack of legitimacy

The American anti-terrorism expert Mike Tucker, who has made his home on the Arabian Peninsula for years, offers an explanation of the abrupt transformation that has taken place in the minds of Buraidah's citizens.

A Saudi policeman guards the bullet-pocked entrance where a gun battle took place with suspected Al Qaeda militants in the northern Riyadh neighborhood of Al Maseef Thursday 18 August 2005 (photo: dap)
For a long time Saudi Arabia allowed radical preachers to propagate their militant ideology. But after Al-Qaida managed to execute a series of bomb attacks in the kingdom, the Saudi leadership quite successfully managed to crush most terrorist networkds

​​The strong arm of the anti-terrorism units were less influential than the important tribal sheikhs. They are the leading pillars of society and they preached against Al-Qaida and Jihad in the local mosques.

"I say to you from Muslim to Muslim," repeated all of the respected tribal elders, hammering their point home to the city's young people, "don't hop on this train, as it only leads to a dead end." Instead, young people should help to build up society. According to Tucker, the "real victory over Al-Qaida" was when the network and the Jihadists could no longer find refuge in the mosques and lost their legitimacy there. It will still take a generation before ways of thinking have completely changed.

The new educational policy has also contributed to drying out the Jihadist swamp in Buraidah. In 2004, the Saudi government quickly established a modern university here in the desert. It offers young people an alternative to the old theological faculty. More than 45,000 young Saudis study engineering, economics, and medicine on the large campus in separate facilities for men and women. In comparison, there are now less than 10,000 students attending the theological faculty.

The three friends in the café also study here. They no longer wish to remain mired in the past. They make plans for their future and keep in contact with their friends via Facebook – including female friends. "I don't want my family to search for a woman for me to marry," says Khaled. As soon as he chooses a young women through Facebook, he will ask his mother to establish contact with her family.

Salman is occupied with his upcoming move to Chicago. "This is not a life here," he complains. It has to be possible to go to movies now and again and to casually meet with girls. He has to be able to finance one year in Chicago himself. Then, he will in all certainty receive a King Abdullah Stipendium. The king's generous stipend programme has already enabled 125,000 Saudi young men and women to study at Western universities. Faisal sighs in resignation. He is staying here. Who else will take care of his parents. And, after all, things are getting better in Buraidah.

The university campus is modern, spacious, and well-equipped, just like its American models. Its high arches bring to mind a Gothic cathedral and the central square under the large, light-filled dome resembles an Italian piazza. English is the language of instruction for most subjects. In addition to many lecturers from the Arab world, there are also dozens of Western instructors at the university.

The goal on campus is for students to have normal and daily interactions with foreigners. This should break down prejudices and establish trust. The teaching staff from Europe and America feel safe in this city with a bad reputation.

A troublesome adversary

Young men in Saudi Arabia (photo: DW)
Between tradition and modernisation: young Saudi men in a café, dressed in traditional garb and denim jeans

​​Of course, studying here is not at all like in the West. Most of the students are extremely religious. One lecturer explains that when he wants to show a video that features a woman without proper Islamic headdress, he must first ask the class if everyone is in agreement.

Sometimes one or another student objects. They all laugh, however, when the discussion turns to the theological faculty. It lies far away from the campus. There, the fanatics can stay to themselves. But it is still best for foreigners to stay away.

Yusuf studies at the theological faculty and he can't understand such prejudices. He wears the garments of the "most respected Companions of the Prophet." Yusuf does not want to be a fanatic, but he does admit that there is still a great deal of sympathy for Al-Qaida among the professors. Yet, nowadays, they have renounced "bloody Jihad" and pursue only "peaceful Jihad."

At a small oasis far out in the desert, Abdulkarim al Khadr, a dismissed Professor of Theology, elucidates texts for his student Yusuf. He speaks the clear and ornate high Arabic of Islamic scholarship and cites the Koran and Sayings of Mohammed. The Prophet himself said that the struggle against vice in one's own country is of greater merit than fighting against the unbelievers abroad.

Reform, not opening

He says that it is the royal family that constantly speaks of bloody Jihad in order to discredit the justified demands for reform within the kingdom. The dissident and chairman of the unauthorized "Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association" demands reforms, yet he does not mean an opening of Saudi society. The uncompromising Islamist wants a transformation of the political system.

photo: Rainer Hermann
The grip of the Saudi religious police seems to be loosening: Saudi youths taking part at a racing car competition at the annual Spring Festival in Buraidah

​​Most theologians in Saudi Arabia keep far removed from politics and follow the royal family like lambs, he says mockingly. They soil the memory of the most respected Companions of the Prophet by demanding blind obedience to the ruler, while at the same time ignoring the lack of rights for all citizens. He does not wish to talk of regime change, and even less so of terrorism. He thereby remains a troublesome adversary for the government.

There are currently more than 5000 political prisoners from the Qassim Province alone. Most of them were jailed without due trial, claims the dismissed professor and he energetically rejects the assertion that these are Al-Qaida terrorists. His 17-year-old son has been sitting for two years in prison in order to silence Abdulkarim al Khadr. He nonetheless refuses to keep silent. His Internet site is regularly blocked and then quickly reopened under a new name.

"Twitter has given us freedom," says the politically committed theologian. When he receives messages that state "the Grand Mufti is a liar," he nods his head in approval.

For many young people, like Khaled, Salman, and Faisal from the café, such talk is merely the bickering of old men. They want to enjoy life and spend their time souping up their automobiles into roaring racing cars to compete against each other in the desert. Such activities have become a part of the annual Spring Festival, a large-scale event even attended by the provincial governor.

There are no spectator stands on the site. The young people park their SUVs on the hillside and watch the race from there. Some even come wearing jeans. Women prepare local foods in a tent camp set up nearby. In the background, an unaccompanied bard sings simple melodies. None of this would be tolerated by the Mutawwa, the once feared religious police known for their ruthless behaviour. They have parked two of their cars in a corner, apparently as a deterrent. Yet, they are nowhere to be seen.

Mutawwa was also the name that Saudis used to call the people of Buraidah because of their narrow-mindedness. It could be that they will soon have to think up a new name to call them.

Rainer Hermann

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/ 2012

Rainer Hermann is the foreign correspondent of the German daily 'Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung' for the region, currently based in Abu Dhabi.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron editor: Lewis Gropp

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