Saudi Arabia, 20 years after September 11: “A country in the making” | World


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Saudi Arabia today is very different from the Saudi Arabia of September 11, 2001.

All but four 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and the Saudi kingdom was the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida and the mastermind of the attack he 20 years ago. Over the next two decades, Saudi Arabia confronted al-Qaida on its own soil, overhauled its textbooks, worked to curb terrorist financing, and partnered with the United States to fight against terrorism.

It was only in the last five years, however, that the kingdom began to drift away from the religious ideology on which it was founded and which it has espoused inside and out. of its borders – Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam that has helped spawn generations of Mujahedin. .

For countless people in the United States, Saudi Arabia will forever be associated with September 11, the collapse of the world trade towers and the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.

To date, the families of the victims have tried to hold the Saudi government in New York to account and have pushed President Joe Biden to declassify some documents related to the attacks, despite the Saudi government’s insistence that any allegation of complicity is “Categorically false”. The victims of a 2019 shooting at a Florida military base and their families are also suing Saudi Arabia for damages, saying the kingdom knew the Saudi air force officer had been radicalized and could have prevented the murders.

Saudi Arabia’s close partnership with the United States, including the presence of American troops in the kingdom after the first Gulf War, has made its leaders a target of extremist groups.

“It is important to realize that the terrorists who struck the United States on September 11 also repeatedly targeted the people, leaders, military personnel of Saudi Arabia and even our holiest religious sites in Mecca. and Medina, ”Fahad Nazer, spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington, told The Associated Press. He said Saudi-American counterterrorism work had saved thousands of lives.

Yet even as Saudi Arabia battled al-Qaida and subsequent IS group attacks, Al Saud leaders continued to give ultra-conservative clerics a monopoly on preaching and influence over society in return. for their unwavering support for the monarchy.

This decades-old pact collapsed in front of a room full of foreign investors in 2017 when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared a return to “moderate Islam.” A year earlier, with the support of his father the king, the prince had cut off the powers of the country’s religious police – those who would chase young Saudi men and women out of parks to mingle, prey on playing cars. music and forcing shops to close during the five daily prayers.

“It’s a new country. It is a country in the making, ”said Raghida Dergham, founder of the Beirut Institute think tank and longtime columnist in Saudi newspapers. extremism … and it was not easy. “

The crown prince doubled in April this year in remarks on Saudi television. He said the Saudi identity is based on its Islamic and Arab heritage. His words seemed to equate the two and underscored the broader effort the state has undertaken to assert a Saudi national identity that is no longer tied to pan-Islamic causes and the religious ideologies of Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, whose teachings Ultraconservatives of Islam in the 18th century are widely referred to by its name.

“If Sheikh Mohammed Abdel-Wahhab came out of his grave and found us adhering to his text and closing our eyes to independent reasoning (ijtihad) or deifying it, he would be the first to oppose such a thing,” said Prince Mohammed.

Ali Shihabi, who has ties to the royal court, said the kingdom’s new tone signals “any cleric in office” that moderation is the only way forward.

Moderation, however, goes no further. As Saudi Arabia strives to shift perceptions and control the narrative of its past for new generations of Saudis two decades after September 11, it remains politically repressive.

Prince Mohammed’s rapid changes are part of a rushed effort that has coincided with him to build up power by sidelining rivals, like the country’s former anti-terrorism czar, and harshly cracking down on critics, including the murder of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by agents who worked for the prince.

Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution scholar who served with the CIA for 30 years, says US-Saudi relations have undergone fundamental changes over the years, but even in the best of circumstances, “it’s hard to sell Saudi Arabia as the country of America. best friend.”

While Saudi Arabia remains far from an open society, the cloud of social restrictions that has hung for generations in the kingdom is dissipating. Stunning concerts, cinemas and women at the wheel are no longer impossible or illegal.

“My personal point of view is that there is envy of the younger generation who have the opportunity to have these opportunities,” says Hisham Fageeh, a 33-year-old Saudi filmmaker, actor and writer working in Los Angeles who grew up in the shadow of September 11. .

But there are questions about where this new path will lead.

“There are several doors that people can go through,” says Fageeh. “The challenge will be how do we integrate all of our parts – our past, our present and our future? “

In the two decades since September 11, Saudi Arabia and the world have been reshaped by social media, the internet, and global connectivity. In Saudi Arabia, however, there is also a massive generational shift taking place. More than a third of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 14 and was born years after September 11. More than 60% are under 35 years old.

All of them came of age following the September 11 attacks. They, like the 36-year-old crown prince, were not even born when the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979 and replaced by an anti-American, anti-Saudi Shia regime. That same year, Sunni Muslim extremists besieged Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

Saudi leaders responded to the events of that year by empowering hardline supporters of the state and allowing Wahhabism to further shape life in Saudi Arabia. A power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran emerged, a struggle that continued to unfold in sectarian proxy wars across the Middle East.

As late as the still ongoing Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states have either encouraged or turned a blind eye to the arming, funding, and recruiting of jihadist fighters who fought Shiite militias and Iranian-backed fighters.

But it is the joint effort of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the 1980s that can reverberate the strongest today. Years before being stripped of his Saudi nationality, Bin Laden and other Mujahedin were armed and funded by the CIA and the kingdom to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan during the Cold War.

Years later, bin Laden would prepare the 9/11 attacks from al-Qaida base in Afghanistan, housed by the Taliban – the group which a few weeks ago returned to power.

When judging Saudi Arabia, Dergham says, consider the broader strategic interests that have long underpinned US-Saudi relations. “The Americans just think Saudi Arabia is the equivalent of September 11,” she said. “You know, wake up and smell the roses. It has been a partnership, an alliance with the United States for years and years.

Dubai-based Associated Press reporter Aya Batrawy covers Saudi Arabia. Follow her on Twitter at

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