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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 July, 2004, 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
Reform beckons for reluctant Saudis
By Anthony Makin
Producer/director of Saudi: The Family in Crisis

Recent terror attacks on both Westerners and Saudi Muslims are intensifying pressure on the royal family to implement political, social and economic reform. Despite filming restrictions, the BBC managed some unprecedented access to one of the most secretive kingdoms in the world.

Saudi woman
The BBC were invited to speak to and film a group of Saudi women

Saudi is home to two of Islam's holiest cities and a host of modern, thriving, oil-rich cities.

Today, Saudi Arabia is one of the most closed and conservative societies on earth, and incredibly difficult to visit.

It is ruled by one of the world's last absolute monarchies, the secretive and powerful ruling family also known as the House of Saud.

Saudi Arabia is a major ally of the United States and the source of 25% of the world's confirmed oil reserves, which has made its royal family extraordinarily affluent, influential and resented.

It is also the birthplace of Osama Bin Laden and 15 of the 11 September hijackers - a nation accused of fomenting terrorism, yet itself haunted by the menace of Bin Laden's al-Qaeda movement and attacks such as the recent bombings in the capital, Riyadh, that killed Saudis and foreigners alike.

A lot of people in Saudi Arabia are not ready to vote...They do not even know how to make decisions
Saudi woman

But Saudi Arabia is changing. Spurred on by recent attacks by Islamic militants some members of the ruling royal family are getting increasingly anxious about the need to break their authoritarian grip on power.

That was the reason one of them invited us to come to the kingdom to gauge the attitude of the Saudi people to reform and to the extremist attacks.

We would have the opportunity to talk to and film not only members of the House of Saud but also ordinary Saudis, including women, about the direction in which the kingdom is heading and the challenges that lie ahead.

Emergency session

The access we were given within the kingdom was unprecedented.

From now there will be no mercy, except the mercy of God
Crown Prince Abdullah

This was brought home to us when we were invited to film a "majlis" - a social gathering for the purpose of conversation and counsel. A majlis may also amount to an official audience, especially if the host is powerful.

His Royal Highness Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, crown prince, regent, first deputy prime minister and commander of Saudi Arabia's National Guard, is the most powerful man in the kingdom.

He is, in effect, the acting monarch, in place of his ailing half brother King Fahd, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995.

The majlis we were to film, held in one of the crown prince's palaces in the coastal city of Jeddah was, in effect, an emergency majlis.

Tribal leaders from around the huge desert kingdom were called to attend in order to demonstrate their support in the crown prince's fight against the militants.

This was the first time a Western film crew were allowed in to film this extraordinary event.

With al-Qaeda thought to be preparing new attacks, security was heavy at the entrance to the crown prince's official palace.

Tribal leaders and members of the Saudi Royal Family
Tribal leaders lend their support to Crown Prince Abdullah

Yet inside, notwithstanding the splendour of a majlis hall - the size of a soccer pitch furnished in the style of a Louis XIV salon - the casual pattern borrowed from the desert was unmistakable.

At the beginning of the ceremony tribal leaders gathered in line to voice their support to the crown prince as one read aloud: "Your Highness, we are pained by this action that makes our skin crawl. Even though they are a small group, they are sons of this country - the sons of Islam."

The crown prince replied: "From now there will be no mercy, except the mercy of God."

Once the official bit was over, however, the majlis continued with day-to-day business.

We watched an elderly man, with the weathered skin of a desert herdsman, as he approached Abdullah.

They shook hands, and the man first presented the crown prince with a letter outlining his position and then sat down next to his nation's ruler to discuss a problem man-to-man.

Although the majlis we attended was unusual for the dramatic nature of the problem it was addressing, royal majlis are a weekly occurrence and demonstrate a tribal, grass-roots form of democracy.

It was a visual and cultural eye-opener.

Heartland of Islam

Village elders in Rija Alma
Village elders question the identities of the 9/11 hijackers

The Saudi population is deeply conservative and religious, but that does not mean extremists who have turned to violence at home are supported.

We traveled to Rija Alma, a traditional town in a mountainous part of the Saudi Arabian countryside.

Many of the 11 September hijackers came from this area.

After evening prayers, village elders told our interpreter that many of those who had been warning about the rise of the militants had been ignored.

"I feel sad because Islam has been abused. There is an ideological clash between the traditionalists and the extremists."

While they were happy to discuss the real rise in violent extremism here, some of these elders told us they just did not believe Saudis could have been responsible for 11 September - a theory that is widely believed within the kingdom.

Another elder explained: "There is a strong belief that what took place in Manhattan could be the product of Mossad and American political enterprise. Because there is no conclusive proof, no one is able to prove that any of the [19] men were responsible.

"What is being said about these events is being used to tarnish the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

'Gaze of strangers'

Another example of the extraordinary access given to us and our cameras was an interview we filmed with Gamal Khalefa at the fish restaurant he runs outside Jeddah.

Gamal turned out to be none other than Osama Bin Laden's brother-in-law.

Gamal AM Khalefa
Gamal Khalefa, Bin Laden's brother-in-law, opposes attacks on Muslims

He and Bin Laden went to Pakistan together to assist the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet occupier in the 1980s and he was able to give us a greater insight into the reasons for the development and growth of Islamic militant fundamentalism.

He told us: "Those people [the militants] are carrying a thought, not only that the West are an enemy, but that all the Muslim Arab states are an enemy... not in a political way... in a religious way... that they are not implementing Islam.

"The way they understand it, you are a disbeliever and they have the right to kill you."

All of this while enjoying one of the finest meals of fresh fish we had ever eaten!

One of the reasons women in Saudi Arabia wear the full "abaya" or full-length black cloak, is to hide themselves from the gaze of strangers - particularly Western males.

So it was almost unheard of to be invited to a private house in Jeddah to speak to and film a group of women.

Yes, we would like to progress faster but it has to be done at our own pace
Dr Salwa Haaza, female opthalmologist

We found although they wanted change, they wanted it at a pace that suited them and that was in the Islamic tradition.

One young girl said: "Democracy is still not that open yet... it is coming but it is not here right now. Yes, sometimes I feel frustrated, I want to change, I want to speak up, I want people to hear me."

Another told us: "A lot of people in Saudi Arabia are not ready to vote. They don't even know how to make decisions."

We also talked to Dr Salwa Haaza, one of the 5% of Saudi women who work.

She said: "We have millions and millions of people turning to us five times a day, so as a country with the two holiest places we have to be held at a stricter standard than the neighbouring countries.

"Many, many of the females here are happy with the situation. Yes, we would like to progress faster but it has to be done at our own pace and it can't come from the West, it can't come from the government... it has to come from within the females.

This was a common theme in our time in the kingdom. Change should happen but not dictated by attacks from radical militants or by demands from the West.

But what happens - as Saudis wrestle with their problems in the heartland of Islam - will send tremors all over the earth.

Saudi: The Family in Crisis was broadcast on Thursday, 15 July, 2004 at 2100 BST on BBC Two in the UK.

Saudi: The Family in Crisis
08 Jul 04 |  This World
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14 Jul 04 |  This World


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