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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.'

Ten years after 9/11, Saudi Arabia slowly modernizing

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


Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was changing outside the domain of religion, often because of forces over which the government had little control. These forces are having their biggest impact on the kingdom’s large and growing youth population.

With a quarter of its 22 million citizens using the internet, the kingdom is increasingly connected, and its once formidable isolation is fast melting. Facebook has more than 4 million Saudi users, and Twitter tweets skyrocketed 400 percent in the past year.

Romantic soap operas and irreverent comedy shows that poke fun at traditional Saudi culture are wildly popular on satellite television. One of the most popular programs is “La Yekthar” ("Put A Lid on It"), an online comedy show produced by young Saudi stand-up comics.

“Starting in 2002, things got totally different here,” said journalist Al Rabah, who drives a battered Nissan Altima with bad shocks and, like a growing number of young men, lives apart from his family in his own apartment.

Abdulaziz Al Rabah.
(Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

“We got more exposed because of the internet,” he noted. “The most important thing is that the country started to open up. It’s not like before, when the teacher is always right, the father is always right, the cleric is always right. You can refuse now. It’s not like it was back in the day.”

King Abdullah led the charge to move the kingdom forward. He gave the media a green light to raise social and economic problems, and to criticize clergy for retrograde rulings. He openly promoted women getting advanced degrees and working. He built the kingdom’s first co-ed research university, fired clerics who opposed his reforms, and ordered an overhaul of an obsolete court system.

But most of the king’s reforms were never hard-wired into new institutions and their slow pace, especially in judicial reforms, left many Saudis disheartened by the end of 2010. Moreover, none of his initiatives fundamentally altered the kingdom’s political system.


Then, early this year, along came the youth-led movements demanding reform and new political leadership in Tunisia and Egypt and posing profound challenges to the regimes in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. With their signature cry of “Salmiyah! Salmiyah!” (“Peaceful! Peaceful!”), these protesters have done far more than the killing of Osama bin Laden to suffocate Al Qaeda’s faith-glossed ideology of terrorist violence.

Armed with Facebook and Twitter instead of Semtex and grenades, these young people made demands more usually found on student-protest placards than jihadi websites: dignity, jobs, freedom of speech, transparency, meaningful political participation and an end to corruption.

Their mostly non-ideological stance has given new legitimacy to both secular and moderate, non-violent Islamist discourses. As a result, the Arab world is seeing the most widespread debate in decades over Islam and democracy and the role of religion in politics.

It is these debates and demands for reform that worry the Saudi government, even as they enthrall some Saudis.

Mohamed Al Hodaif took his family to dinner at a Chinese restaurant to celebrate the forced departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “There were a lot of parties,” said the Islamist writer. “People identified themselves with the situation of the Egyptian people. All the people of the region are seeking freedom and democracy.”

Attorney and one-time opposition activist Abdulaziz M. Al Gasim regards the still unfolding drama as landmark. “For me, this is a very important event in Arab history...because this is the first time the nation takes the initiative and...we discovered after Tunis and Egypt that the nation can reform political life peacefully, with no [public chaos].”

Arab governments, he added, “have now received a tremendous message...that they have to change their behavior or they will be replaced. This is the first time the battle is clear...It is for good governance and guarantee of good governance by a constitutional state.”

But when, everyone wondered, would the Arab Spring reach the Saudi kingdom? Unknown persons tried to hasten its arrival with a call on Facebook for a ‘Day of Rage’ on March 11.

Khalid Al Johani.
(Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

It turned out to be a ‘Day of Fizzle.’ Saudis stayed home, deterred by a huge police presence on the streets and by the suspicious anonymity of those calling for protests. Moreover, many Saudis figured, why protest when the government had just announced billions in new financial benefits, including unemployment compensation, easier house mortgage terms and more affordable housing?

The government also pulled out the religion card. Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh declared the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings "chaotic acts'' designed by “enemies of Islam” to divide the Islamic world. Another senior cleric, Saleh Bin Saad Al-Suhaimi, displayed his Wahhabi credentials by noting that protests are not approved in Islam no matter what injustices the ruler commits. He described the demonstrations as “Masonic and Jewish” plots backed by Iran, the West, secularists and liberals.

Journalists did encounter one lone protester. Khalid Al Johani, 40, a schoolteacher, publicly denounced Saudi Arabia as a police state to the TV cameras and then was promptly detained without charges or a trial. Six months later, he remains jailed.

(This work was supported by a 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California's Knight Program in Media and Religion.)