Dissent in Saudi Arabia

Danger may lurk for Americans sent to defend a repressive regime

By , Judith Caesar taught for five years at the Women's University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, spent one year as a Fulbright lecturer at Mansura University in Egypt, and now teaches at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill.

AMERICAN soldiers in Saudi Arabia may find themselves in more danger from Saudi opposition forces than they are from the Iraqi army. A quick look at the history of Saudi internal opposition and American involvement in their suppression will explain why. Both Western political historians and Arab journalists claim that the power struggles within Saudi Arabia have been far more violent and more ideologically motivated than American newspapers have indicated. One source of unrest has been the predominantly Shiite population of Saudi Arabia's oil-producing eastern province, who object to the Saudi monarchy on religious, economic, and political grounds.

In 1965, hundreds of Shiite activists, labeled communists, were imprisoned by the Saudi regime. This did not prevent a coup attempt in 1966. The rebels set off bombs near then-Prince Faud's palace, at the office of the senior American adviser in Riyadh, at the post office in Riyadh, at the Saudi security headquarters in Dammam, and at a Saudi airbase near the Yemeni border. At that time, King Faisal sought American help and renewed American guarantees of ``Saudi territorial integrity.'' The Saudi opposition is aware of the role played by the United States in apprehending the rebels.

In 1969, some 200-300 Saudi military officers attempted another coup. These officers were part of the National Liberation Front, a Saudi organization with Baathist and Marxist sympathies. Mass arrests followed. According to Dr. Fatina Shaker, some 2,000 Saudi students were recalled from abroad and arrested for ``requesting that the United Nations investigate the situation of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia.'' Also arrested were hundreds of Ghamidi tribesmen from the Asir (western) region and from the Yemeni border. These tribesmen were accused of being agents of the Iraqi Baathist party.

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After this coup attempt, American involvement became deeper. Peter Hobday, in ``Saudi Arabia Today,'' says, ``The [Saudi] secret service was entrusted to an American security firm, Interset, which included in its higher management ... retired CIA men, army generals, and former American cabinet members.'' Despite these precautions, King Faisal was assassinated in 1975 by Ibn Mosaid, a member of the royal family. Some say the assassination was the result of a dispute between King Faisal and then-Prince Fahd over measures used against the opposition.

In 1979, the opposition resurfaced with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Saudi rebels. According to Saudi dissidents and Egyptian newspaper accounts, these rebels were not the ``fundamentalist extremists'' described in the American press, but a coalition of Saudi liberal intellectuals with the fundamentalists.

Apparently, the revolt had widespread popular support. A Saudi ambassador quoted by a November 1979 report in the New York Times said, ``There's a spreading feeling of unrest and impatience with the uneven justice, with the huge commissions paid to princes, with the double standard we have to live with. The people in Mecca are asking for a change in the ruling system. They are saying that royalty is non-Islamic. This movement is much bigger than its leadership would suggest.'' Some Saudi intellectuals allege that the helicopters that opened fire on the rebel-held mosque were manned by American ``military advisers.''

The Saudi regime is severely repressive. All newspapers and magazines coming into the country are censored or turned back at the border if they unfavorably mention the Saud family. As for the treatment of the internal press, one small indication of its constraint is that in 1981, Saudi journalist Fawzia Al Bakr was imprisoned simply for submitting to her paper a story critical of the regime's policy toward women.

Both eye-witnesses and two Egyptian newspapers report that the 1988 Mecca incident, described in America as an ``Iranian anti-American riot,'' was in fact a demonstration by Saudi Shiites, along with some Iranians, against the Saudi monarchy and in favor of a caliphate. Since Islam explicitly rejects the establishment of monarchies and a caliphate is the approved form of government, the demonstration had considerable religious legitimacy.

The demonstrators must have been unarmed, as Egyptian reports indicated, because Saudi airport security is so strict that it would have been virtually impossible to smuggle firearms into the country. Moreover, the loincloth worn by pilgrims contains no pockets or folds in which to conceal weapons. Apparently, the Saudi security forces simply opened fire on thousands of unarmed men and women in a massacre on the scale of Tiananmen. (One Egyptian man told me of having his jaw broken with a club when he went to the assistance of a woman who had been shot.) After the Egyptian newspaper Saut al Arab printed its account of the massacre, the Egyptian government revoked the newspaper's license at the request of the Saudi King Fahd. It now publishes from London.

Finally, the recent ``stampede'' in Mecca this Haj, supposedly the result of a failed ventilator in a pedestrian tunnel, has provoked rumors that the 1,426 fatalities were victims of a poison gas attack. Some say terrorists pumped gas into the tunnel to discredit the Saud family's custody of Muslim shrines. Others say the Saudi government killed the pilgrims to prevent another demonstration. The immediate burial of the victims in unmarked graves fueled further speculation. Both these rumors may be false. The Wahabi sect of Islam, to which the Sauds adhere, dictates that all graves be unmarked. The existence of the rumor, however, shows the brutality of which the Sauds are believed to be capable.

This is the regime that American soldiers are now defending. It is a regime that has been opposed by the Saudi poor - the Shiites and the tribesmen - by Saudi students and intellectuals, and by forces within the Saudi military. In part because of continued American support of the regime, some Saudi dissidents have allied themselves with leftists in Yemen and even with the Iraqi Baathist party. These groups could instigate another series of bombings, as they did in 1966.

Sadly, American enlisted personnel, ignorant of Saudi history and innocent of any wish to violate Saudi human rights, may pay dearly for America's support of King Fahd. The American soldier ``accidentally'' killed by a truck driven by a Saudi tribesman may have been the first victim.

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