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The road to 9-11 began in Saudi Arabia. GlobalPost set out to understand how the kingdom has changed — and how it hasn't — on this 10th anniversary. In this seven-part series, "Saudi Arabia: The Road Beyond 9-11," GlobalPost hit the streets of Riyadh where some women now dare to get behind the wheel and travelled Highway 15 where Osama bin Laden recruited 12 of the 9/11 hijackers. The series goes inside the House of Saud's struggle against extremism — and its balancing act between a desire for reform and resistance to the revolutionary spirit of the 'Arab Spring.'

Rsz 911 aftermath
A man stands in the rubble of the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, calling out to potential survivors. (Doug Kanter/AFP/Getty Images)

Ten years after 9/11, Saudi Arabia slowly modernizing

Saudi’s royal family disavows religious extremism while staving off the popular ‘Arab Spring.’

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Abdulaziz Al Rabah remembers it was a Tuesday. The call to evening prayer was echoing across his hometown of Hafr-al-Batin, and bearded religious police had shooed him and his friends off the neighborhood soccer pitch.

“Have you seen what happened to America?” a wide-eyed friend asked the 13-year-old.

Racing home, Al Rabah joined his mother to watch the satellite television newscasts of America’s agony unfolding on September 11, 2001.

“I remember she was sad to see two guys jumping to the ground,” he recalled.

His family felt sympathy for the United States, Al Rabah said, and a few days later, shame, when they learned that 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi. He also remembers that some of his schoolmates “were happy” that America had been hit.

“The most important thing is that the country started to open up. It’s not like it was back in the day.”
~Abdulaziz Al Rabah, Saudi journalist

Al Rabah is now a 23-year-old journalist with Shams newspaper in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. He wears t-shirts and ripped jeans, is internet savvy, and like many Saudis his age wants his country to be globally connected and widely respected.

He came of age in the decade since 9/11 and like many Saudi youth, he is excited by the events of the so-called Arab Spring, which have given the region’s aging political elites — from Tunisia to Egypt and Libya and beyond — their biggest challenge in decades. While he is inspired by the youth-led uprisings, and puts himself with those Saudis who “want to change everything to the best: human rights, freedom of expression and women’s rights,” Al Rabah nevertheless does not want his own country convulsed by the disorder and violence wracking other Arab states.

For him, as for many other Saudis, what comes next is unclear. “No one knows what will happen next year, in two years,” he said. “It’s like, foggy, you know.” 


I met Al Rabah while reporting from Riyadh during a recently concluded three-year stay in Saudi Arabia, where I was able to see close-up how events of the past decade have affected the world’s largest oil producer.

Just as that fateful, blue-sky day of September 11, 2001 changed America, it also changed Saudi Arabia, an important U.S. ally, but also the place where some of 9/11’s seeds were sown.

The terrorist attacks that day were a prelude to internal struggles that have preoccupied Saudi Arabia ever since. First came shock and shame at the large role of Saudis in the 9/11 attacks, followed by an Al Qaeda-led insurgency that traumatized the kingdom and left 164 people dead.

These events forced the government to ultimately come to grips with the role that its rigid, anti-Western Wahhabi brand of Islam had played in creating Al Qaeda’s ideology of anarchic violence.

After a belated, tacit admission that some extreme Wahhabi views had nurtured Islamist militancy, the government launched a series of initiatives to combat those ideas, including a domestic campaign promoting “moderate” Islam.

Now, the House of Saud is coping with a second, more complex struggle whose ramifications are potentially more profound: How to maintain its political legitimacy — which depends on an alliance with a theologically ultraconservative religious establishment that regards democracy as un-Islamic — in the tumultuous, post-9/11 landscape created by the Arab Spring.

The Saudi government is well aware of the political, social and economic reforms needed to assure the kingdom’s success in a competitive, globalized 21st century. But the ruling royal family is loath to dilute its powers through reforms. Indeed, it recently bolstered its ties to the clergy to help it ride out the storm of youth-led revolts that already have toppled two Arab leaders and threaten others.

But attempts to return to a more socially restrictive society after a decade of slowly opening up to change will be resisted, Al Rabah believes. 

“People will never go back,” he said. “If they are forced, there will be a revolution.”

I told him that I was not sure that Saudis would be brave enough for that.

“That,” replied Al Rabah, “is what we used to say about Egyptians!”


Like Al Rabah, many Saudis clearly remember where they heard about Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. Some were dismayed, others pleased. Many denied that Saudis could have planned and executed the most successful terrorist attacks ever against the United States. Conspiracy theories that they were the work of dark forces within the U.S. government or Israel were widely believed.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef Abdul Aziz, who denied for months after 9/11 that Saudis were among the hijackers, suggested in a November 2002 interview that Jews were behind the attacks, saying that terrorist networks like Al Qaeda had links to “foreign intelligence agencies that work against Arab and Muslim interests, chief among them is the Israeli Mossad."

But a few months later, on the quiet, warm evening of May 12, 2003, massive explosions ripped through three residential compounds in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Twelve suicide bombers managed to kill more than 30 people, including nine Americans. It was the start of a violent campaign by Al Qaeda underscoring that, in its eyes, the House of Saud was also an enemy of Islam.

Saudi religious leaders and government officials had swiftly condemned the 9/11 attacks. But it took Al Qaeda’s insurgency to make them realize that their dogmatic, literalist version of Islam, which views non-Wahhabi Muslims and non-Muslims as inferior, was partly responsible for the terror movement’s doctrine.

Wahhabism’s contempt for those who do not follow its creed, for example, nurtured a mindset of intolerance. It was common, for example, to hear imams curse non-Muslims in sermons at Friday prayers.