Remembering the siege of Makkah

The Hajj at the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 1973. Six years later, a sacrilegious storming of the mosque by armed fanatics shook Saudi Arabia and sent shockwaves through the Islamic world. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
Updated 19 November 2019

Remembering the siege of Makkah

  • Forty years ago, a group of armed fanatics led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi were primed for an assault that would cast a long, regressive shadow over Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH:  In November 1979, the Middle East was already on a knife edge. In Iran, a liberal monarchy that had ruled for almost four decades had just been overthrown by a fundamentalist theocracy preaching a return to medieval religious values that many feared would pollute and destabilize the entire region.

For the citizens of Saudi Arabia, however, the greatest shock was yet to come. The sacrilegious storming of the Grand Mosque in Makkah by armed fanatics that month sent shockwaves through the entire Islamic world.

Murder and mayhem erupted in the very heart of Islam, perpetrated by a reactionary sect determined to overthrow the Saudi government and convinced that one among their number was the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam whose appearance, according to the hadith, heralds the Day of Judgment. 

Ahead lay two weeks of bitter, bloody fighting as Saudi forces fought to reclaim the Holy Haram for the true faith, but that battle was merely the overture to a war for the very soul of Islam in the Kingdom.

Open, progressive and religiously tolerant, Saudi Arabia was about to travel back in time. Only now, as the Kingdom pushes forward into a new era of transparency and modernization, can the full story of the siege of Makkah and the regressive shadow it would cast over the country for the next 40 years finally be told.

As the citizens of Makkah and those pilgrims who had remained behind after Hajj saw out the final hours of Dhu Al-Hijjah, the 12th and final month of the Islamic calendar, and prepared to greet the year 1400 in prayer within the precincts of the Grand Mosque, a few inconspicuous pickup trucks slipped unchallenged into it through an entrance used by construction workers under the Fatah Gate, on the north side of the mosque.

The trucks and the men who drove them were there at the bidding of Juhayman Al-Otaibi, a disaffected former corporal in the Saudi National Guard.

As a firebrand at the head of a small group of religious students based in a small village outside Madinah, Juhayman had been on the radar of the authorities for some time. According to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who in 1979 was the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate, the group consisted of students from various religious seminaries who had put their faith in the eschatological figure of the Mahdi, the supposed redeemer of Islam. 

“Their aim, according to their beliefs, was to liberate the Grand Mosque from the apostate rulers of the Kingdom and to liberate all Muslims by the coming of the so-called Mahdi,” Prince Turki said in an interview with Arab News.

Juhayman and his group were set on a path that would lead to tragedy, reaching out to potential recruits both inside and outside the Kingdom. “Through their correspondence and preaching, they managed to recruit a few individuals,” Prince Turki said. 




Juhayman Al-Otaibi after his capture following the end of the seige. (AFP)

One temporary recruit was the Saudi writer Abdo Khal, who in 2010 won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel “Throwing Sparks.” In an interview in 2017 with MBC television, he said that when he was 17 he was one of Juhayman’s men and had even helped to spread the group’s ideology by distributing leaflets.

“It’s true, I was going to be part of one of the groups that was going to enter the Haram,” he said and, were it not for the intervention of his elder sister, he might have found himself among those who were to seize the Grand Mosque. 

“I was supposed to move out to (a mosque) where our group was gathering. We were supposed to be in seclusion at the mosque for three days, and we were supposed to leave with Juhayman on the fourth day.”

But his sister stopped him going to the rendezvous point, on the ground that he was too young to be sleeping away from home for three nights. Almost certainly, she saved his life. “And then, on the fourth day, the horrendous incident happened.” 

Writer Mansour Alnogaidan was only 11 years old when the siege happened, but like many Saudis of his generation, he felt the tug of various Salafi groups in his youth.

Now general manager of Harf and Fasela Media, which operates counter-terrorism websites, he has done extensive research on the Makkah siege.

Alnogaidan says there were a number of possible reasons behind the 1979 incident, including an existing idea in the mind of Juhayman and his group that they were the successors of a Bedouin movement by the name of “Ikhwan-men-taa-Allah.”

“Some believed they had a vendetta against the Saudi government,” he said in an interview with Arab News. “Another issue was essentially the personal desires of certain people (such as Juhayman) who sought power and control. He wanted to satisfy something inside him.”

Alnogaidan added: “Also, we must not forget that this incident came after the Khomeini revolution in Iran, which had an influence even though not a direct one.”

Juhayman and his group were on the radar of the security services. Over time, recalled Prince Turki, “there were many attempts by authorized religious scholars in the Kingdom to rectify the group’s beliefs by discussion, argument and persuasion.” 

Occasionally individuals were taken in for questioning by the authorities “because they were considered to be potentially disruptive to society. Once they were taken in, however, they always gave affidavits and signed assurances that they would not continue with the preaching and so on.”

But “once they were released, of course, they returned to their previous ways.”

At some point in the closing months of the 13th Islamic century, Juhayman’s group identified one of their number, Juhayman’s brother-in-law Mohammed Al-Qahtani, as the Mahdi.

In the early hours of Tuesday, Nov. 20, 1979, as the inhabitants of Makkah and the pilgrims who had lingered after Hajj gravitated toward the Grand Mosque for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the dawning of a new century in Islam’s holiest place, the stage was set for the most unholy of outrages.

Carrying firearms within the Grand Mosque was strictly forbidden; even the guards were armed only with sticks. An armed assault on the precincts of the mosque — on the sacred values it enshrined for the world’s two billion Muslims — was unthinkable.

But on the first day of the Islamic new year of 1400, the unthinkable happened.

 

Juhayman: 40 years on
On the anniversary of the 1979 attack on Makkah's Grand Mosque, Arab News tells the full story of an unthinkable event that shocked the Islamic world and cast a shadow over Saudi society for decades

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Startup of the Week: Wayakit, the biotech firm helping travelers beat odors and stains

Updated 10 December 2019

Startup of the Week: Wayakit, the biotech firm helping travelers beat odors and stains

  • Wayakit leaves the clothes clean and fresh again

JEDDAH: Wayakit is a biotechnology start-up incubated by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

KAUST Ph.D students Sandra Medina and Luisa Javier are avid travelers who have come up with a pocket-sized product that deals with both odors and stains on fabrics, leaving the cloths clean and fresh again.

Wayakit is also gentler on fabrics because traditional laundry eventually damages them, said Javier, who first moved to Saudi Arabia from Mexico ten years ago.

Her business partner, Sandra Medina, who came from Colombia to study at KAUST, explained to Arab News how Wayakit works. “You just spray the smelly area twice and you’re good to go. In the case of stains, you spray twice and then pat dry it with a tissue and it will disappear,” she said.

The idea for the product came during a trip for a conference two years ago when the travelers realized their luggage was lost “We had to present with our dirty, seven-hours’ flight clothes,” Javier told Arab News.

“We started looking into the possibility then, because there’s not a proper solution to doing laundry while traveling,” she said.

 

They decided they needed to come up with a product that was not pricey, was easy to carry, and did the job by removing stains and bad odors “on-the-go.”

 

 

The duo began by interviewing more than 100 travelers of 23 different nationalities to find out if this was a common issue that travelers struggled with.

 

“From the Entrepreneurship Center at KAUST, we learned the importance of listening first to the customers before designing any product,” said Medina. From these interviews, Wayakit team got the product requirements and then moved into the lab to start working on the formulation of Wayakit. “The amazing facilities and labs in KAUST helped us to speed up the creation of our first prototype. After this, the same KAUST community was the people who first tried Wayakit and gave us feedback. “In KAUST we do not only have state-of-the-art labs, but also a whole entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Medina added.

Wayakit is different from its competitors in that it contains no toxic chemicals, and covers a broader spectrum in covering stains — it is two products in one. It also contains anti-bacterial properties, acting as a sanitizer that “removes all the stains that occur on a day-to-day basis as well as being an odor remover,” Javier said.

The pair went for a biotechnology-based formula that excluded the usage of oxidizers and focused on more organic compounds. “Even the anti-bacterial properties are not toxic as we incorporated these in an environmentally friendly formulation,” she said.

The Wayakit founders had to rigorously test their product, dealing with different types of sweat and stains to perfect their spray. “We had to give testers to travelers to try it out and had to listen to their feedback, then went back to the lab to improve it, in order to make sure the product was as promised.”

Medina said KAUST’s mentorship had also helped their company to develop. “KAUST for us is a catalyst of entrepreneurship and has given us a lot of room to grow our start-up Wayakit,” she said.

KAUST helped Wayakit by giving the advice and support from the start. From entrepreneurial courses to teaching the concepts of building a brand, KAUST encouraged Wayakit to grow from a scientific outlook and helped the founders to better understand the customer.

“As foreigners, it was difficult for us to understand the logistics and procurement of shipping and importing here in Saudi Arabia. KAUST has helped us to face that hurdle in order to be able to reach all our clients in the MENA region and worldwide,” Medina said. “Beyond helping travellers, our mission is to change the way how laundry is commonly done. We found a way to effectively wash clothes reducing water and energy consumption,” Javier said. 

Wayakit has recently began selling in Jeddah’s Homegrown Market, chosen because it is “a Middle Eastern brand store with unique ambience,” said Medina.