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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.'

Saudi Arabia’s Highway 15 revisited

The kingdom’s youth ‘drift’ as militancy gives way to ennui.


The boredom of youth is often expressed by young people taking insane risks behind the wheel. They pile into sleek, souped-up Italian-made Ferraris and all-American Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams and cruise at high speeds. The sound of the high-performance engines and the aggression behind them reminded me of the 1950s in America. Just like James Dean in the Hollywood classic “Rebel Without a Cause,” youth here are trying to break through the angst and the boredom by putting their lives on the line with fast cars.

They fly at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour on this road and then lock up their brakes, skid and lose control for several hundreds yards with tires burning and brakes smoking. Crowds line the streets to watch. Many are injured and killed behind the wheel, as are the spectators on the side of the road. Vehicular fatality is high in Saudi Arabia. The weekend we were in Jeddah six people were killed, according to local newspaper reports, while taking part in “drifting.” It has become a sort of national pastime for a youth population that seems quite literally bored out of its mind.

“Yes, young people are bored, but they are also lazy,” says Firaz Habis, an architecture student at King Saud University and a member of the Youth Committee for the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue, a palace-funded organization dedicated to fostering dialogue among Saudis about important issues of the day.

He showed me YouTube videos of “drifting” as we spoke and shook his head at the cars swerving out of control in blurry video clips shot at nighttime.

“A lot of young people are just lost,” he said.

“They are sometimes trapped in immaturity because it is hard to go off on your own in this culture. We are tied to unemployment. And it is very hard to have the money to get married, to have your own life. We are often late in starting to build our families,” he explained.


Young women experience the same level of boredom, but have a different set of issues in a culture where they are not permitted to drive, to work or even leave the country without the permission of their father or male guardian. As a Western male, it is not easy to strike up a conversation with a young Saudi woman. But I met one woman named Nabila, a 20-year-old student at a prestigious American university, who offered some keen insight in perfect English.

“I sometimes feel like something is about to explode. There’s a tension under the surface. It’s not so much because of religion, but more the tribal strictures that make it hard for young people to communicate,” Nabila said.

She said this tension is the backdrop for a wildly popular pulp fiction novel titled “Girls of Riyadh,” which was at first banned in Saudi Arabia but which, she said, just about every young girl has read in paperbacks which are handed around.

“The truth is there is a lot more going on between boys and girls then you would realize from outside. There is a lot of trading of phone numbers and email addresses. We are always texting and quickly deleting. It’s silly really, but we find a way,” she said.

I asked her if the ban on driving for women and the strict social and legal code that enforce a submissive culture for women bothered her, particularly when she comes home from an elite New England college campus.

“This surprises my friends in America, but the truth is it does not. There are so many women who love Saudi Arabia and love the king. I mean really love the king. My friends have the hardest time believing that, especially in the West, but it is true,” explained Nabila.

Nabila’s views are common. Acceptance, or what some might call complacency, in Saudi Arabia seems widespread, particularly among young women. Many young men and women alike would agree with Nabila that they watch the events unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and believe they are just not sure they want to partake in the chaotic and ill-defined goals of the protest movements that are toppling dictators, but leaving uncertainty and destruction in their path. They are surprisingly measured in their response to the dramatic events unfolding all around them.


When the road brought us to Al Baha, I stopped to listen to the sound of the call to Friday prayers and watched thousands of men, about 80 percent of them in their 20s, filing into the central mosque just off Highway 15.

The sermon was bland, but the mosque was packed. There was no fierce, pulpit-pounding, anti-Western rhetoric from the Wahhabi clerics as I had heard along this road ten years ago.

After prayers, I met with Khalid “Johnny” Abdel, an African-American convert to Islam who hails from Cleveland but has lived in Al Baha for the last four years teaching English to high school students and college-age students trying to get accepted to American universities.

Khalid "Johnny" Abdel (L).
(Charles M. Sennott/GlobalPost)

“Young people are very interested in their education and finding their way,” he said.

“And they are confused about America. They are on the one hand suspicious and fearful. But they are also trying very hard to get visas to study there. Those who return from America speak in a very good way about America and about the opportunity it affords. So from my perspective here, it seems to be we need to learn a lot more about each other,” said Abdel, a burly Cleveland Browns fan who was anxious to get home to his wife for a barbecue with some neighbors.


When I first traveled along Highway 15 ten years ago, the House of Saud was largely in denial, refusing for the first month after the 9/11 attacks to even publicly concede that 15 of the 19 hijackers were in fact subjects of the kingdom. But of course they were as was bin Laden himself.

Saudi fingerprints have always been all over 9/11, and just not those of bin Laden and the hijackers. There was also evidence that funding for Al Qaeda sifted through a network of Islamic charities based here and that inspiration for the ideology of Al Qaeda grew out of the often hateful theology of the anti-Western religious establishment, which provides the House of Saud with its legitimacy to rule.

Momhammad Fahad Al Qahtani, co-founder and spokesman for the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, observed, “This country is built on the basis of an extremist ideology. It is the government itself that manufactured extremism.”

“People are changing, yet the government is refusing to change. And in fact it takes reformers and throws them in prison. There are tens of thousands – 30,000 – individual political prisoners in Saudi prisons detained under the pretext of counter terrorism,” he said, indicating that the official figure of 11,000 political prisoners is low.

“I think in the long term, the regime will be pushed to moderate…The most important sectors that will drive change are women and youth…The decisive moment is not now, but three to five years from now,” he added.


In a small Islamic Cultural Center in Al Baha, I ran into Faraj Abdullah, 53, the father of four teenage boys, who is a religion teacher at the middle school. At the center, he mostly works with immigrant workers from the Philippines, Bangladesh and elsewhere who come to the center for Islamic texts in their native language.

“Ten years ago you would find the young people, Saudis and even some foreigners here who supported Osama bin Laden. They hated the injustice they saw America carry out against Muslims in Palestine and in Iraq. Those injustices have not really gone away, but the support for bin Laden has. I think people just don’t believe in violence as a way to succeed, and it is not the message of the Koran,” said Abdullah.

“I think 10 years ago this was a different road, and Saudi Arabia was a different place,” he added.

We headed back out on the road and the sun was fading now. The sunset was a burst of color on the horizon, a final and dramatic flourish of red and purple behind the vast sands of Saudi Arabia along Highway 15.

(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.)