How the 1979 siege of Makkah unfolded

How the 1979 siege of Makkah unfolded
Makkah’s Grand Mosque under attack in November 1979. Armed men seized the mosque, locking 100,000 pilgrims and residents inside. (AFP)
Updated 20 November 2019

How the 1979 siege of Makkah unfolded

How the 1979 siege of Makkah unfolded

JEDDAH: Throughout October 1979, close to a million Muslims from around the world had flooded into Makkah for Hajj, the pilgrimage to the spiritual heart of Islam that every physically and financially able believer is obliged to complete at least once in their lifetime.

On the morning of Nov. 20, the call to the first prayer summoned pilgrims from far and wide to the courtyard of the Grand Mosque.

Some were locals, others were visitors who had finished their Hajj pilgrimage two weeks earlier and delayed their departure to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime event, before bidding farewell to a place that for centuries had seen countless millions like them come and go.

It was a little after 5:15 a.m. The first shots rang out across the courtyard moments after the imam, 55-year-old Sheikh Mohammed Al-Subayil, had finished the fajr, the first prayer of the day.

Worshippers stood side by side, forming a circular formation around the Kaaba, as they welcomed the dawn of the new Islamic century. But among their number was a group of fanatics the like of which the Holy Mosque had never seen before.

In the courtyard behind where Al-Subayil stood, the siege of the mosque claimed its first victims — two unarmed police guards gunned down at their posts.

As chaos ensued and the worshippers began to disperse, some managing to flee from the mosque in the confusion before the gates were closed by the attackers, three armed men pushed their way through the crowd toward the imam.

One, dressed in a short, ragged traditional dress, took the microphone and began issuing orders over the mosque’s loudspeakers.  “Get on the minarets! Position the snipers! Close the doors! Deploy the guards! Position the guards and sentinels in front of the doors!”

It was the ring-leader, Juhayman Al-Otaibi. Then he handed the microphone to another man, and what he had to say shocked the imam and all who heard it.

The Mahdi, in the shape of Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Qahtani, had arrived to wipe the world of its evils and was here among the armed men who had seized the mosque and were now locking inside 100,000 pilgrims and residents. The speaker rejected the authority of the Saudi royal family and the ulema, the senior theologians of Islam, as illegitimate. Now everyone present, he said, must come forward to swear the oath of allegiance to the Mahdi.

The man himself, carrying an automatic weapon, stepped forward. He stood near the Kaaba, as the false prophecy adopted by the renegades had predicted the Mahdi would. Juhayman’s men took it in turns to swear their allegiance and then began forcing the worshippers to follow suit.

In the confusion, the imam blended into the crowd and made his way to his office in the mosque. There, he called Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Rashid, president of the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, and told him what was going on — and held the phone up so he could hear the gunshots that were ringing out.

At first, the official response to the wholly unanticipated outrage was confused.

“When these individuals took over the mosque, the first people to deal with them were the mosque police, who at that time were simply unarmed, and there to direct people where to go rather than to enforce security,” said Prince Turki, the then head of the General Intelligence Directorate who at the time of the attack was in Tunis, attending an Arab League summit with Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdul Aziz (later King Fahd).




The National Guard and the Saudi Army began arriving at the Grand Mosque in force to try to retake the building. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (later King Abdullah), then head of the National Guard, was in Morocco. An early-morning phone call from Sheikh Nasser,
the senior cleric in charge of Makkah and Madinah, woke King Khaled to the news that the mosque had been seized. 

The king immediately ordered two senior members of the government, Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, and Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, to assess the situation on the ground.

By 9 a.m. they had joined Makkah’s regional governor, Prince Fawwaz bin Abdul Aziz, in the holy city. Prince Turki, meanwhile, was on the first plane back to Jeddah. In Makkah the National Guard and the Saudi Army had begun arriving at the mosque in force.

At about 8 a.m., a lone police officer approaching the mosque in a jeep was wounded by sniper fire. Minutes later, a fusillade of fire from snipers posted on rooftops and in minarets greeted more officers who arrived on another side of the mosque, killing eight and wounding 36 more.

The behavior of the militants appalled all who witnessed it. In one incident, one of Juhayman’s snipers in a minaret had been shot dead by the security forces outside the mosque and was callously pushed to the ground from the balcony by his compatriots.

It later emerged that weapons, ammunition and food had been smuggled into the mosque before the siege. Some guns had been hidden in large construction containers. But others, taking advantage of the tradition of Islamic funeral prayers conducted by the imam within the sacred mosque, had been concealed in coffins.

“Using coffins of the dead to smuggle arms into the Grand Mosque — who could have thought of exploiting this?” said Rashed Al-Shashai, an artist who as a young boy heard tales of the siege from his grandfather, who worked at the mosque and narrowly avoided being taken hostage.

Inside the mosque, fear and confusion reigned. Juhayman’s men had begun allowing some of the hostages to leave, but it was clear that they had no intention of freeing any Saudis. Many were forced to swear allegiance to the so-called Mahdi.

With others, Al-Shashai’s grandfather moved toward the north of the mosque. As the infamous Mahdi “sermon” blared out of the speakers and occasional shots rang out, they hid behind pillars and looked for a way out.

“They had one of two choices,” said Al-Shashai. “Either they believe in the salvation of Juhayman or believe in their own salvation, search for it themselves and get out of the dilemma they found themselves in.”

They chose the latter and continued moving from one pillar to the next, heading toward the northern end of the Safa-Marwa gallery. It was here that several people, including Al-Shashai’s grandfather, were able to escape. 

By now the courtyard of the Grand Mosque, normally teeming with worshippers by this time on the first day of the new year, was eerily empty.

Juhayman’s men had forced men, women and children into the corridors of the mosque, and the silence was broken only by the crack of bullets as snipers fired on the surrounding security forces.

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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Timeless craft of cane carving sees Saudi statement pieces go global

Visitors to Saudi Arabia are constantly on the hunt for souvenirs such as swords, or canes. (Photos/Supplied)
Visitors to Saudi Arabia are constantly on the hunt for souvenirs such as swords, or canes. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 22 June 2021

Timeless craft of cane carving sees Saudi statement pieces go global

Visitors to Saudi Arabia are constantly on the hunt for souvenirs such as swords, or canes. (Photos/Supplied)
  • Adel Al-Shehri turns handmade sidr pieces into online phenomenon using local talent, materials

MAKKAH: A young Saudi in the south of the Kingdom is bringing back the timeless craft of hand carving wooden canes with a new look to suit modern tastes, driving demand from Hajj pilgrims and online customers from around the world.

Walking canes have always been associated with the elderly and ill, and usually comprise simple designs that focus more on function rather than appearance.
That association has prompted Adel Al-Shehri to give the concept a new life by bringing back an old craft and turning canes into famous statement pieces used by Saudis.
Through his work, he can convey the cultural and historical essence of Saudi Arabia by engraving cultural designs on sidr wood.
Al-Shehri grew up in the southern mountain ranges of the Kingdom and uses the old indigenous tree to create unique intricately designed canes just as his forefathers once did.
The sidr tree, known as Christ’s thorn jujube, is an evergreen species that is a deep-rooted part of the culture. It can be used in medicine and also in the construction of canes and wooden objects found in many homes in the south of the Kingdom.

FASTFACT

The sidr tree, known as Christ’s thorn jujube, is an evergreen species that is a deep-rooted part of the culture. It can be used in medicine and also in the construction of canes and wooden objects found in many homes in the south of the Kingdom.

He told Arab News that he inherited from his ancestors a love of artifacts, such as shiny swords and jambiyas, a type of dagger with a curved blade. Growing up surrounded by architecture adorned in stones and wood, Al-Shehri said that he wanted to bring the rich history of design back using a product found right in his backyard.


“Visitors to Saudi Arabia are constantly on the hunt for souvenirs, swords, or canes. However, shipping swords is a real problem, because they are considered white weapons. Meanwhile, some items lose quality or are damaged during shipping. This is why I shifted my entire focus to making canes,” he added.
Al-Shehri said that while carrying out his Hajj pilgrimage, he used his cane as a “crutch,” engraving his name on it. Soon after, he decided to use the phrase “Made in Saudi Arabia” and focus on the Umrah and Hajj seasons to introduce the product as a souvenir that could be carried back home by pilgrims. Al-Shehri said that some Hajj institutions even reached out to give out his canes as gifts at the end of pilgrimage tours.

The canes I create are enough to stop importing canes that neither accentuate our identity nor highlight our intellectual and cultural message.

Adel Al-Shehri

He said that many people from across the world have requested their canes through Hajj institutions or on social media.
Most recently, he added, a German citizen requested four canes with different designs inspired by Saudi culture, but some customers request personalized canes or ones that are specifically customized to illustrate a memory.
Al-Shehri said that the canes he designs are delivered in handmade luxurious boxes that serve as a masterpiece to be displayed in a customer’s home. He described the cane as a “sign of prestige, warmth, and hospitality.”
The first thing that caught his attention as a child was how his family stores their ancient swords, guns, and jambiyas — all wrapped in ornate fabrics and stored in old boxes.

I inherited the love of artifacts from my ancestors.
Adel Al-Shehri

Al-Shehri had always wanted to put this heritage in the limelight and share it with other Saudi cities. The public’s broad praise of his initial work was the first building block in his dream toward producing his canes. He stressed that he often uses sidr wood for the canes because the diameter must be more than 40 centimeters.
For the wood fibers to grow, the sidr must also be dried for six months. “The handle is made from the core of sidr wood so that it could bear the grafting, which sometimes may reach a thousand grafts inside,” Al-Shehri said. With no educational experience, his drive to create such masterpieces taught him to push through and learn the craft with time and patience. “The manufacturing stages became an inspiration and taught me the ins and outs of this creative craftsmanship, which shaped the features of my personality and led me towards worlds of magic and beauty,” he said.
“I was first concerned with the metal lathe and mastering its unique way of manufacturing accessories and adding wood to them. I then focused on the element of touch and adding luster in the absence of real manufacturers in this field. I insisted on mastering the metal lathe myself so I would not have to depend on anyone else. My workshop, filled with nickel, chrome, stainless steel, and brass, along with the metal and wood lathes, became my best friend.
“I work for hours on end to meet the various requests, especially if a customer places an order for a special occasion with a tight deadline,” he added.
Al-Shehri said that what he and many other craftsmen in the Kingdom do promotes the Saudi culture and is a sign of pride in the Saudi identity. “The canes I create are enough to stop importing canes that neither accentuate our identity nor highlight our intellectual and cultural message.”


Saudi security officials arrest Ethiopian national for selling drugs in Asir region

Saudi security officials arrest Ethiopian national for selling drugs in Asir region
Updated 22 June 2021

Saudi security officials arrest Ethiopian national for selling drugs in Asir region

Saudi security officials arrest Ethiopian national for selling drugs in Asir region
  • He was caught violating the border security system in Balqarn Governorate
  • Initial legal measures have been taken against him

RIYADH: Saudi security officials arrested an Ethiopian national in Asir region who was accused of distributing hashish and was found with a large quantity of amphetamine tablets in his possession.
Spokesman for the General Directorate of Narcotics Control Capt. Mohammed Al-Nujaidi said that during a “proactive security follow-up of the activities of criminal networks that smuggle narcotic drugs into the Kingdom,” an Ethiopian was caught violating the border security system in Balqarn Governorate, in the Asir region.
He was arrested for selling a quantity of cannabis while 1,096 amphetamine pills were found in his possession, he added.
Capt. Al-Nujaidi said that initial legal measures have been taken against him, and he has been referred to a branch of the Public Prosecution.


16 Saudi companies join Arab Health Exhibition under ‘Made in Saudi Arabia’ program in Dubai

The Arab Health Exhibition 2021, in Dubai, UAE, is being held from June 21 to 24, with participation from 16 Saudi companies. (Screenshot)
The Arab Health Exhibition 2021, in Dubai, UAE, is being held from June 21 to 24, with participation from 16 Saudi companies. (Screenshot)
Updated 22 June 2021

16 Saudi companies join Arab Health Exhibition under ‘Made in Saudi Arabia’ program in Dubai

The Arab Health Exhibition 2021, in Dubai, UAE, is being held from June 21 to 24, with participation from 16 Saudi companies. (Screenshot)
  • Saudi companies in the health, pharmaceutical and specialized medical equipment fields took part
  • The program also aims to expand regionally and globally through actively participating in international exhibitions and conferences

RIYADH: The “Made in Saudi Arabia” program is participating in the Arab Health Exhibition 2021 in Dubai, UAE, from June 21 to 24.
A total of 16 Saudi companies in the health, pharmaceutical and specialized medical equipment fields have signed up for the exhibition.
The “Made in Saudi Arabia” program is part of an initiative to promote Saudi national products and services locally, regionally and globally.

The program seeks to market national products to raise the private sector’s contribution to GDP to 65 percent and raise the percentage of non-oil exports in non-oil GDP to about 50 percent by 2030.
The program also aims to expand by participating in international exhibitions and conferences with member partners. It will provide a package of opportunities for member companies enabling them to use the program’s logo “Made in Saudi Arabia” on their products to ensure commitment to a recognized quality.
A total of 66 countries are participating in the exhibition in Dubai, with more than 3,500 participants, and the number of visitors to the exhibition is expected to reach nearly 52,000.


Suzan Al-Yahya appointed as director general of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Institute of Traditional Arts

Suzan Al-Yahya appointed as director general of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Institute of Traditional Arts
Updated 22 June 2021

Suzan Al-Yahya appointed as director general of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Institute of Traditional Arts

Suzan Al-Yahya appointed as director general of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Institute of Traditional Arts
  • Al-Yahya will be responsible for managing the institute, implementing its strategic directions and developing traditional arts according to the institute’s vision
  • The institute will launch its first training courses in September aimed at enriching the traditional arts

RIYADH: Dr. Suzan Mohammed Al-Yahya has been appointed director general of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Institute of Traditional Arts.
Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, minister of culture and chairman of the institute’s board of trustees, made the announcement, the Saudi Press Agency has reported.
Al-Yahya will be responsible for managing the institute, implementing its strategic directions and developing traditional arts according to the institute’s vision.
She is one of the top academic experts in the field of art and design, having worked as a faculty member at Princess Nourah Bint Abdul Rahman University and held a number of administrative and advisory positions there. She also worked as a consultant and was a member of advisory committees inside and outside the university.
Al-Yahya holds a master’s degree in art education and a PhD in educational technology, as well as a PhD in educational policies and leadership from the University of Northern Colorado, USA.
She has published research in various fields and participated in several scientific conferences.
The institute will launch its first training courses in September aimed at enriching the traditional arts, training specialized national cadres, raising the level of public awareness and preserving the assets of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage in the traditional arts field.
The Royal Institute of Traditional Arts is one the initiatives of the Quality of Life Program, part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan. The Ministry of Culture aims to develop the local cultural sector and develop it through education and knowledge, as the institute will provide advanced educational programs for national skills to ensure.


Red Sea Development Company, KAUST sign research agreement

The Red Sea is home to abundant species of coral and marine life, including a large number of species found nowhere else on earth. (Courtesy: Red Sea Project website)
The Red Sea is home to abundant species of coral and marine life, including a large number of species found nowhere else on earth. (Courtesy: Red Sea Project website)
Updated 22 June 2021

Red Sea Development Company, KAUST sign research agreement

The Red Sea is home to abundant species of coral and marine life, including a large number of species found nowhere else on earth. (Courtesy: Red Sea Project website)
  • The agreement will see the two organizations cooperate in fields such as marine environment sustainability, food security and energy conservation

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Development Company signed a research agreement with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) on Monday, Saudi Press Agency reported.

“There is a growing realization that tourism must be more sustainable and renewable, and the Kingdom’s Red Sea coast is among the purest ecosystems in the world, so our collaboration with KAUST helps go beyond just conservation. on the environment to enhance this unique ecological treasure for future generations,” John Pagano, CEO of the Red Sea Development Company, said.

The agreement will see the two organizations cooperate in fields such as marine environment sustainability, food security and energy conservation.

Pagano pointed out that the first task within the framework of the new research agreement is the continuous scientific monitoring of environmental changes over time, as this helps the Red Sea Development Company to fulfil its commitment to achieve an increase in the value of biodiversity in the project area by 30% by year 2040.

The head of Environmental Sustainability at the Red Sea Development Company, Dr. Rusty Brainard, explained that achieving carbon neutrality and improving biodiversity at the site is a difficult task, but  is extremely important for the company.

He reported that 11 of the current employees in the Environment and Sustainability Department of the Red Sea Development Company have previous professional experiences at KAUST, including seven employees who obtained a doctorate degree, and two who completed an associate's degree at the same university.

A joint working group between the Red Sea Development Company and King Abdullah University of Technology and Science is currently planning to establish a joint center for marine research and the protection of coral reefs on the Red Sea coast, which will become a permanent base for marine research and monitoring, and will open its doors in the future for visitors to learn about the natural environment and wildlife in this area.