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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.'
The kingdom’s youth ‘drift’ as militancy gives way to ennui.
AL BAHA, Saudi Arabia – The road to September 11th began here on Highway 15, which stretches from Mecca into a barren desert landscape and up into the winding, rocky passes of the Asir province bordering Yemen.
Osama bin Laden’s father, a Saudi construction magnate, built this highway in the 1960s connecting the kingdom to his ancestral homeland of Yemen, and it was along this same stretch of asphalt that Osama bin Laden recruited 12 of the 15 Saudi youths who were among the 19 hijackers to carry out the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Ten years ago, when the wounds of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and 3,000 deaths were all still painfully fresh for America, I traveled Highway 15 to find out more about the Saudi hijackers who hailed from the towns that dot the roadside. I talked to their families and friends. I wanted to hear from Saudi youth about their feelings for the apocalyptic ideology of bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and the events of 9/11.
What I found was chilling and alarming as so many of the youths here openly supported Al Qaeda, saw bin Laden as a hero and the hijackers as noble martyrs. The young men I met along the road back then had minds blunted by the rote education the religious establishment provides, forcing them to memorize the Koran and drilling them on anti-Western interpretations of its passages and robbing them of critical thinking.
On this 10th anniversary of September 11th amid the tumult of the so-called “Arab Spring,” I returned to Saudi Arabia, heading back out on Highway 15 looking for answers about where the country was headed, about its youth and its future and how the country has changed — or not — over the decade.
“We don’t care about Osama. Seriously. We don’t even think about him. That whole thing is like a movie, not real.”~Hussam Halawani, a 26-year-old bank teller
It has been said that the Arab world is a tent with two poles: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. One of those poles has seen its regime fall and the question on this journey was whether Saudi was teetering? “Not likely” is the short answer heard from many corners here. But the oil-rich kingdom and its stability is so crucial to the economic fate of America and to the political future of the Middle East that we set out to find the longer answer.
I wanted to hear firsthand the views of a Saudi youth population that is surging in numbers and sinking into unemployment and underemployment. It is a generation that is quite literally “drifting,” as they call a perilous ritual of tearing down this highway at high speed and then locking up the breaks and skidding as far as they can.
They seem better educated as a whole, but bored and indifferent. For most, religion remains an important part of life. They are online and live what one academic described as “a virtual life” that involves mixing with the opposite sex, flirting and open communication with each other. But then they have their “real” lives which are shaped by the conservative religious establishment. That life leaves them segregated by sex, atomized and lonely.
There are few if any on this trip who expressed even tacit support for bin Laden and the lure of ‘jihad’ wasn’t present anywhere that I could see. It has been replaced by rampant conspiracy theories that 9/11 was actually the work of some combination of the CIA and the Israeli Mossad. They are passive about most things. The excitement of the first digital revolution in Tunisia and then Egypt and the hopeful Twitter accounts and Facebook pages of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ hasn’t seemed to grab most young Saudis. At least, not yet.
With bin Laden killed and buried at sea and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the process of an agonizingly slow withdrawal of American and allied troops, I wanted to see where the kingdom found itself in these days that feel like the ragged end of what is no longer called the “war on terror,” but which has simply become known as ‘the Long War.’
The range of emotions here on this 10th anniversary was complex, and the bookends of that range was captured in two brief comments from family members of two Saudi hijackers who both came from a hilltop village here off Highway 15 just above Al Baha.
An angry father of one hijacker, a local sheikh named Ibrahim al Haznawi, told me in a cold and steady voice, “I am proud of my son.” Khaled, 40, the brother of hijacker Said Alghamdi, said with sadness, “I miss my brother…It was useless violence.”
Ten years after the “useless violence,” I was looking for the road that goes beyond 9/11.
STARTING OUT ON THE ROAD
My journey began at Dunkin’ Donuts.
It was late June and early in the morning. The first light of day glinted off the storefronts at the start of the road from the coastal town of Jeddah that leads to Highway 15. I was stunned to see all of the American chains, from the Gap to Ralph Lauren and McDonald’s to Pizza Hut, that made the road through Jeddah feel like any strip mall in America.
I needed coffee and stopped in at a gilded, two-story Dunkin’ Donuts that was crowded with young men in their early 20s. They said they had been out all night partying on the beach.
Not one of them expressed any interest in or support for bin Laden. In fact, they laughed aloud when I asked them about it.
Hussam Halawani, a 26-year-old bank teller wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a black fedora that looked more Kerouac than Al Qaeda, said, “We don’t care about Osama.”
“Seriously. We don’t even think about him. That whole thing is like a movie, not real,” he said.
“No money in Al Qaeda, dude,” he quips, turning to laugh with his friends and biting into a chocolate-covered donut decorated with a smiley face of yellow frosting.
I asked him if his job as a bank teller was rewarding given his college education and if there was enough opportunity in Saudi Arabia for people his age.
“There’s enough. But barely. And only if you really want it,” he said, turning serious.
His friend, Adwan, who did not want to give his last name, was more surly. He was dressed in a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and a RL cap with a tightly curved brim. He’s a flight attendant. And he’s spilling over with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about September 11th, a streak of irrationality that is widespread in Saudi and across the Arab world.
“Okay, I have a question for you. How do you know that Osama bin Laden did this? There are many of us who don’t believe it,” he said.
“We believe it was forces in your own country that did this attack to justify a war on Islam…Why were there no Jews killed? Don’t you think Jews in America were behind this?” he asked.
A group of Saudi youth make an early morning stop at a Jeddah Dunkin' Donuts after spending the night partying on the beach.
His friends nodded in agreement. I’m sure I looked as insulted as I felt.
After an uncomfortable silence, the bank teller with the hipster hat looked to close the conversation, saying, “We just don’t care either way. We just live our life. That’s it.”
HIGHWAY 15 AND THE SAUDI HEARTLAND
The cities and towns that have sprouted up along Highway 15 represent one of the largest concentrations of population in the kingdom. They form a part of the heartland of a country where youth comprise a larger part of the population than ever before.
Nearly 40 percent of the population is below the age of 14. More than half are under the age 25. And two-thirds are under 29. This unprecedented ‘youth bulge’ has not even crested yet, but it is projected to reach the high point within the next ten years.
Unemployment among youth is higher than it has ever been. According to official statistics, last reported in 2009, the unemployment rate for Saudis aged 15 to 24 was 30 percent. But many young people believe it is much higher, and say 40 percent would be a modest estimate. The jobs available are largely menial labor or service oriented and clerical work. Holding a college degree is, at least statistically, a liability in the job search because college-educated applicants are seen as overqualified for the lower level positions that are available. According to the government’s own statistics, holding a college degree almost doubles the chances of ending up unemployed for young men and women.
SLOUCHING TOWARD MECCA
A detour along Saudi Arabia's Highway 15.
We moved on down the road toward Mecca, where prominent road signs in English and Arabic warn, “Muslims Only.” The ‘infidels’ like myself are instructed to drive the long way around the holy city of Islam. We obeyed the signs and took the exits that led us up onto Highway 15. It’s an old road now in disrepair. It appeared to have been replaced in long stretches by a newer strip of asphalt that cuts through the barren desert landscape into Taif and then Al Baha. We tried to stay on the old road, but at several points were forced back onto the newer highway by rockslides and road repair crews.
On the roads that curved through rock formations, we saw camel herds and the timeless and enduring images of life in the Arab peninsula. They contrasted sharply with the strip malls and American chain stores of Jeddah and the ubiquitous highway billboards that depict the king smiling, and waving to his subjects.
And you realize that Saudi is at heart all about this confusing mix of ancient traditions and modern commerce wrapped into an absolute monarchy. It is a place where youth are stultified and where any sense of support for bin Laden has been replaced by a deep malaise that is “anesthetized,” as one analyst put it, through generous subsidies from the House of Saud.
In the spring, the king announced that anyone unemployed would receive a stipend equivalent to an average year’s salary while they look for a job. Two million applied for the subsidy in a country of 20 million. The palace also announced housing subsidies for first-time buyers. If there is discontent, it can’t really be heard over the loud, comfortable hum of air conditioning in government offices where people line up for more handouts.
"The question is how long can that last?" asked Ahmed al Omran, the founder of a leading blog called Saudi Jeans, which focuses on human rights and freedom of expression.
Omran agrees the majority are indeed complacent, but points out that a minority is energized and eager for change.
He added, "The palace is seeking short term solutions to long term problems. They can't afford to do that forever. The answer is though true political and social reform even if I don't see that happening any time soon."