Terrorism in Saudi Arabia: Causes and solutions
The repercussions from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 have affected the whole world. Perhaps no country has experienced these repercussions more acutely than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that has been labeled a place where terrorists and acts of terrorism are tolerated. Thus, there are some legitimate questions Saudis must ask if they are to have credibility not only with themselves but also with others.
Is there really a problem of terrorism in the Kingdom, or are last year’s bombings just the misguided actions of a small group of disaffected youngsters? Of course, it is indisputable that terrorism is a real concern to Saudi Arabia as it is to any other targeted place in the world. One only needs to look at the vast number of groups, clandestine organizations, quantities of frightening weapons, security barricades, inspection points, successive pursuits, victims, and deaths and injuries sustained by civilians, security personnel and even the terrorists themselves to realize the magnitude of the problem.
Having said this, what are the causes for the problem of terrorism that Saudi Arabia is now facing? It is quite difficult to list all the causes, so I will mention only some contributing factors. They include the lack of effective participation of individuals in building civil society, the non-existence of civil institutions and the stark contradiction between formal statements and reality. We did not learn from experience. At least the second Gulf War should have highlighted the need for both reform and change.
All of this resulted in conditions that contributed, by one means or another, to the existence and escalation of the problem.
Another factor may have been the government’s insistence that the Kingdom remain a closed society or be opened very gradually for fear that the country’s identity might be lost or compromised. To this should be added rising levels of poverty, unemployment, lack of balanced economic development, and an educational system that fails to meet the needs of a more global environment. Moreover, marginalization, intellectual void, foggy planning for the future, and hard-to-attain hopes have contributed to the problem of a significantly important stratum of Saudi youth.
Certain restrictions in our social life have led to very dangerous consequences by giving terrorist groups the opportunity to work clandestinely, because there are no political or other institutions allowing them to express their views and have those views challenged by others in an open and public forum.
Another problem is a certain intellectual heritage that has prevailed in Saudi society and taken away its freedom and will by con- fining thinking to certain preset boundaries. It is precisely this kind of outmoded thinking that makes it impossible for us to accept new and progressive ideas. This school of thought that has monopolized our thinking during the past decades has caused many negative consequences, because change and progress comes only when new ways of thinking are encouraged and embraced.
Having explored the causes of terrorism within its borders, it is now necessary for Saudi Arabia to devise effective solutions that can address and eradicate this scourge. These solutions must be permanent and not transitory if Saudi citizens are to live in a safe and secure nation where they can pursue their careers and raise their families. The first step toward such a solution is to publicly acknowledge that we face a number of serious problems that allow terrorists to exist and engage in their murderous activities. There is nothing wrong with this and, indeed, simply recognizing the problem can be halfway to a solution and the basis for future reforms. Refusing to acknowledge the problem actually helps the terrorists continue their mischief. There is a big difference between a country that faces and suffers from terrorism and a country that supports terrorism. Saudi Arabia is clearly a victim of terrorism, and not a nation that supports it. And to prove this, one can look to a number of events that occurred last year, including the latest attacks on Arabs and Muslims in Riyadh, which clearly were intended to destabilize the country and were not, as some describe it, attacks on Westerners or non-Muslims. It must be remembered that terrorism is not confined to a certain country or religion; it has become a global phenomenon affecting all communities — Islamic, Christian, and Jewish. Terrorism now extends from Jakarta to Dakar and from Oslo to Cape Town in South Africa. Every religion has extremists within it who foster terrorist activities whether they are Jews, Christians, or Muslims. Even within our Arab community, Egypt was a theater for Islamic groups to indulge in killings and mutilations. Algeria was and remains another example.
In fact, young people in Saudi Arabia (consisting of more than 65 percent of the population) are in a particularly desperate need of intellectual guidance in a spirit of brotherhood and equality, so they can become responsible and will not simply take orders from others. One who has intellectual integrity is much less likely to blindly follow the charismatic leader of a terrorist group. The Kingdom needs clear-cut and balanced political, economic, social, and cultural development at all levels; the kind of development that begins and ends with the individual and one that rids our society of the problems of poverty, destitution, unemployment and social injustice.
The key is education. If fairly and properly dispensed, education is the most effective means of reducing unemployment and improving an individual’s overall quality of life. Unemployment has become an appalling nightmare that needs to be addressed immediately. A solution to this problem requires that the Kingdom think beyond Saudization. More must be done than simply placing Saudi nationals in jobs currently occupied by foreigners. Our young people must receive the right kind of education to qualify them for the highly technical jobs that the government’s modernizing efforts will require.
Saudis need to initiate an open dialogue to challenge those who have held themselves out as the guardians of society. In reality, these thought-controllers have hurt the nation by encouraging people to be self-centered and seclude themselves from a world that knows no limits. Moreover, they think of their views and judgments as incontestably legitimate. It is high time they vacated the intellectual arena they have been forcefully occupying for so long. Constant dialogues are needed among different sections of the Saudi society to discuss the future of their country in the community of nations. We can no longer be so attached to the past that we fail to open ourselves to others. Granting women a more significant role to play is essential for our nation to progress. We should neither fear them nor coddle them nor, indeed, treat them as if they were creatures from a different planet. It is high time our women joined men in improving Saudi society provided that it is done within the framework of Islamic laws. Since the dawn of Islam, women have always played significant roles in society. We have to free them from being a hostage to habits and customs that have caused the rest of the world to think of us as if we are living in the Stone Age.
The establishment of the Shoura Council a few years ago and other steps such as the recent initiation of the national dialogue and the decision to hold partial elections to municipal councils are steps in the right direction. Yet, greater steps must follow them in order to widen the scope of people’s participation. The Kingdom must develop existing political institutions and widen their scope of action and establish new ones. The press and media need to have greater freedom.
The government’s security measures are necessary and important, of course; yet, they should not be the only ones. Increasing security fails to deal with the problem right at its very roots, which is dissatisfaction with one’s life and the “glory” of dying to advance the agenda of a terrorist group. All security measures must be accompanied by others at all levels that seek to address the root causes of terrorism. All this should be part of a comprehensive strategy.
Saudis can overcome the serious problem of terrorism provided courageous and significant decisions are taken now, what- ever the price may be, before it is too late. Confrontation today is much easier than tomorrow when it might be an unavoidable option. Time is of the essence, and these issues can no longer be ignored in the vague hope that society may some day become ready for change and greater openness. History, experience and logic teach us that this will not happen; closed societies never move forward unless their leaders make big and courageous decisions. There must be no hesitation in taking action. Moreover, the government’s continued attempt to satisfy all sections, particularly those who reject all attempts at modernization, is no longer acceptable, given the special circumstances in Saudi Arabia.
The future is not at all gloomy; instead, there is great hope for turning the corner. However, if we are to do this, all of us must make the big decision to change our way of thinking and deal with matters as they now exist, for the world today is a far different place than it was two years ago.
The Saudi government now has a golden opportunity to make these big decisions to improve our society, since everyone now realizes the seriousness of the terrorist threats.
Whether we can take advantage of this opportunity and existing public and inter- national support to bring about reform, democracy, and more openness or whether we continue to deal with the matter in the old way is the real question. Time will tell, although the will and determination of the Saudi government to go after those terrorist killers is now more obvious than ever.
— Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser is a Saudi lawyer based in Jeddah.