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The siege of Makkah

The siege of Makkah
The Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest sanctuary, had been seized by a group of 260 heavily armed religious fanatics. (Gettty Images)
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Updated 23 April 2020

The siege of Makkah

The siege of Makkah

Long a taboo subject, the full fallout from Juhayman Al-Otaibi’s attack on the Grand Mosque only came to light decades later

Summary

On Nov. 20, 1979, the first day of the Islamic year of 1400, tens of thousands of worshippers converged on the Grand Mosque in Makkah for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience the dawning of a new century in Islam’s holiest place. 

But within moments of the completion of fajr, the first prayer of the day, joy turned to horror as gunshots rang out across the courtyard. The Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest sanctuary, had been seized by a group of 260 heavily armed religious fanatics. It was the beginning of a bloody siege that would last two weeks and, coming as it did in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, would lead to a setback in modernization from which Saudi society is only now recovering.

JEDDAH: Shrouded in secrecy and rarely discussed, the 1979 siege of Makkah nevertheless had severe repercussions for Saudi Arabia, with many of my generation growing up largely unaware of the high price we were paying for the extremist attack.

Key Dates

  • 1

    A group of religious extremists led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi, a former corporal in the Saudi National Guard, seizes the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

  • 2

    For the first time in centuries, no Friday sermon is preached from the Grand Mosque. The ulema issues a fatwa authorizing force against the militants on holy ground if they reject an opportunity “to surrender and lay down their arms.”

  • 3

    After hours of bloody fighting, troops retake the Safa-Marwa gallery, driving Al-Otaibi and the surviving insurgents into the warren of interconnected rooms under the mosque.

  • 4

    At the start of the final assault, gas is dropped into the basement maze through holes drilled in the floor of the courtyard. This triggers 18 hours of bitter fighting before the final stronghold is breached, 15 days after the siege began.

    Timeline Image Dec. 3

  • 5

    King Khalid addresses the nation, thanking Allah for His support in crushing the “seditious act of sacrilege.”

    Timeline Image Dec. 5

  • 6

    Call to noon prayer brings thousands of worshippers to the mosque for the first time in three weeks. Many have camped out all night for a historic ceremony that is broadcast to other Islamic states.

    Timeline Image Dec. 7

  • 7

    Interior Ministry announces that 63 captured extremists have been executed in eight different cities. Al-Otaibi is among the 15 executed in Makkah.

 

Ringing in the new year with early morning prayers, the worshippers on their once-in-a-life-time pilgrimage were shocked to hear gunfire and then a demand to pledge allegiance to the so-called Mahdi. This figure is referred to as the Messiah in several passages of the Hadith (Prophet’s sayings), although Islamic scholars are divided over the meaning.
It wasn’t until I was 16 and in my junior year of high school in 2002 that I first heard of the siege. On the 23rd anniversary of the attack, I opened the Friday edition of the local newspaper Okaz and saw two pages featuring graphic black-and-white images of a mosque with smoke pouring from its minaret, and a photograph of a man with piercing eyes and a disheveled look. It was then that I learned the name of the extremist behind the horrendous attack: Juhayman Al-Otaibi. Curious by nature, my interest began to grow. 

For years there was little information to be found in Saudi Arabia about the seizure of the Grand Mosque. However, when the Internet was introduced, search engines provided me with the means to know more — but still it wasn’t enough.
It was only in September 2019 that a highly anticipated interview with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on CBS’s “60 Minutes” shed more light on the matter. Speaking to Norah O’Donnell, the crown prince explained how two events in 1979, the Iranian Revolution and the Grand Mosque siege, halted progress in Saudi Arabia.
“After 1979, it’s true, we were victims, especially my generation that suffered from this a great deal,” said the crown prince. “We were living a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries. Women were driving cars, there were movie theaters in Saudi Arabia.”

“Television showed pictures of the 170 renegades who were captured, huddled on the floor of a prison in Makkah, filthy and bedraggled.”

From a staff story on Arab News’ front page, Dec. 5, 1979

I knew this interview would encourage others to re-examine this event. In 2019, on the 40th anniversary of the attack, I was working at Arab News and was able to carry out a proper investigation as lead reporter on an online Deep Dive that looked at the siege in detail. The special report was a way of answering all the questions still on my mind.
As our team reported, Al-Otaibi was among 260 heavily armed religious fanatics who seized the Grand Mosque and sparked a standoff with Saudi forces that lasted for more than two weeks. Well trained and ruthless, the extremists launched the siege by locking the mosque’s gates, trapping an estimated 100,000 worshippers inside for more than four hours. 
Over the broadcast system normally used for prayers, they told those inside that the so-called Mahdi, Al-Otaibi’s brother-in-law Mohammed Al-Qahtani, was there to rid the world of evil and return Islam to its true path. The Kingdom, prospering and developing into a modern nation, was deemed evil by Al-Otaibi, Al-Qahtani and his followers. 
Thus began one of the bloodiest battles the Holy Mosque of Makkah has seen in centuries. The unbelievable events that unfolded are still difficult to believe, as many of our sources recounted, including Prince Turki Al-Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence at the time; a pilot from the Royal Saudi Air Force who flew over the mosque; and the grandson of a hostage who escaped with many others through star-shaped windows in the Safa-Marwa gallery.




A page from the Arab News archive from Dec. 5, 1979.

While I was not alive to witness it, the siege of Makkah changed the psyche of Saudi society, with repercussions for many in my generation.

Rawan Radwan

For the first few days, the Saudi forces pushed into the mosque and a battle ensued. The events played out like a scene from an action movie, with the Saudi forces forcing the religious extremists back. Faced with the final assault, Al-Otaibi and his followers barricaded themselves in the basement, making it more difficult for the Saudi forces to reach them. 
During the battle, Al-Qahtani was killed, along with more than 100 extremists. In the final stages, Saudi forces launched gas before they entered the labyrinth of tunnels under the mosque, where they captured Al-Otaibi and his remaining followers, including women and children.
When the siege finally came to an end, the mosque’s walls were riddled with bullets, and more than 25 innocent worshippers lay dead. More than 450 soldiers were wounded, and 127 lost their lives. In Al-Otaibi’s group, 117 were killed and hundreds arrested, with 63 later executed. In January 1980, Al-Otaibi was executed along with 14 of his followers in Makkah.

In an Arab News report from Dec. 5, 1979, entitled “Lessons of Makkah,” the writer concluded: “It is safe to say that the fact that they chose the Holy Kaaba for their attack is prime proof of the false nature of their call. We can only describe them as a gang of brainwashed religious fanatics, trained to believe in society’s deviation from Islam in the existence of their ‘expected Mahdi’ who they claim would ‘bring justice to the world.’”
The aftermath was grave. While I was not alive to witness it, the siege of Makkah changed the psyche of Saudi society, with repercussions for many in my generation. In the wake of the siege, the religious police were empowered, and the Kingdom’s steady modernization was put to a halt. School curriculums, everyday activities and social norms were drastically changed.

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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Although Saudi Arabia — religiously conservative, yet peaceful — rejected Al-Otaibi’s violent call for the “return to the true religion of Islam,” many felt pressured to conform to changes taking place in their communities.
The search for answers never stopped. It was only when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowed to return the country to “moderate Islam” 2017 and referred to pre-1979 Saudi Arabia in his CBS interview, that it began to make sense.

 

  • Rawan Radwan, regional correspondent for Arab News based in Jeddah, has a keen interest in Saudi history. For more than 15 years, she has carried out research into the siege of Makkah, and for the 40th anniversary in 2019, she was lead reporter on an Arab News Deep Dive that recreated the event in detail


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Total renewables capacity stood at 24,224 MW last year, according to a report by the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
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His remarks and the company’s underlying performance are the latest indicator of a shift in sentiment toward some segments of the UAE property market, despite a large overhang of completed and soon-to-be-completed new homes.
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MOSCOW: A school shooting erupted Tuesday in the Russian city of Kazan, leaving eight students and one teacher dead, Russia’s state RIA Novosti news agency reported, citing local emergency services.
According to the Interfax news agency, two gunmen opened fire in the school, and one of them — a 17-year-old — has already been apprehended.
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  • “The Journey Through Time Masterplan” will include 5,000 hotel rooms, with 1,000 rooms ready for use by 2023

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s recently announced $15 billion masterplan for the development of AlUla will mean the arrival of some of the world’s most-famous hotel groups in the governorate, as hospitality has been identified as a key investment area in the plan.

“The Journey Through Time Masterplan” — the first in a series of plans for AlUla’s development, which the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) released on April 7 — will include 5,000 hotel rooms, with 1,000 rooms ready for use by 2023 and an overall target of 9,400 rooms by 2035 as part of a wider development strategy for AlUla.

The masterplan covers the core heritage area of AlUla and is being implemented in three phases until 2035, with the first phase set to be completed by 2023.

The total price of the development will be an estimated SR57 billion ($15 billion), out of which SR12 billion ($3.2 billion) is earmarked for primary infrastructure.

“Through The Journey Through Time Masterplan we are developing AlUla’s potential as a destination, a global cultural asset as well as a strong investment,” Wessam Lubbard, chief financial officer of the Royal Commission for AlUla, told Arab News.

“The masterplan presents diverse investment opportunities across multiple asset classes such as landmark cultural projects, social infrastructure, utilities and mobility, hospitality, commercial and residential projects,” he said. “In addition, we have de-risked all future investment by committing our $2 billion seed funding to critical projects in AlUla.”

The RCU believes hospitality is one of the main areas where AlUla’s potential can shine and where partnerships and projects are flourishing at a rapid rate. It is also a sector that can contribute greatly to Saudi Vision 2030 through sustainable growth within the local community.

“We want our hospitality offerings to be a true reflection of the welcoming and warm culture of the local community, rooted in respect for history and nature,” Philip Jones, the RCU’s chief destination management and marketing officer, told Arab News.

Hotels that already have a presence at AlUla, or are in the midst of building there, include Accor/Banyan Tree, Aman and Habitas. The RCU expects more names to be added to that list soon.

Aman is known for its exclusive properties, many of which are located off the beaten track in exotic destinations, while others can be found in some of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, such as New York and Tokyo.

Aman’s AlUla Hegra Resort, set to be completed at the end of 2023, will be located in a secluded mountain valley in AlUla’s Nabataean Horizon district near the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hegra. It will comprise 40 luxury villas, a discovery center, a library partially carved into the rock, a subterranean spa and a multi-layered organic orchard celebrating the natural landscape.

“Our partners, including Habitas and Aman, as well as renowned architect Jean Nouvel, have radically different styles but one thing in common — an immersive approach to each destination,” Jones said. “By partnering with world-class brands that understand our landscape, we are creating a destination that puts the visitor experience, as well as the local culture, at the fore.”

The eco-friendly luxury resort chain Habitas is another significant entry to AlUla. The brand, whose flagship location is in Tulum, Mexico — is in the process of building a 100-room property in the desert canyons of AlUla’s Ashar Valley that will incorporate local influences through its music, spa therapies and even astronomy-driven yoga sessions. Importantly, the resort’s modular development will also result in minimal ecological impact.

Accor-run Banyan Tree is expanding its existing Ashar Resort in partnership with RCU within AlUla’s Nabatean Horizon district. The resort will add 47 new villas, bringing its total to 82, in addition to several new restaurants and a spa. The design of the resort is being sensitively devised to complement the striking natural landscape of the Ashar Valley, which is located 15 kilometers from Hegra.

Another great example of RCU’s dedication to and investment in AlUla’s heritage through tourism and hospitality is the building of the first-of-its-kind property by leading architecture firm Atelier Jean Nouvel, which was also responsible for the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.

The building aims to revive the 2,000-year-old architectural legacy of the ancient Nabataeans, thus bringing back to life an important part of AlUla’s past within a contemporary structure that pays heed to the surrounding ancient rock formations through its sensitively construed architecture and design.

Of principle importance to RCU is investment in the heritage assets and primary infrastructure of AlUla. It has already laid down $2 billion for development projects including the expansion of AlUla International Airport and improvement of security infrastructure, as well as developing key tourism assets including Ashar estate and the Maraya.

The Maraya, a multi-purpose venue that serves as a concert hall and is the world’s largest mirrored building, also calls the Ashar Valley home. Within its mirrored walls, the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Lionel Richie and Lang Lang have all performed during the Winter at Tantora Cultural Festival. The venue is also suitable for large-scale meetings and conferences and hosted the 41st GCC Summit in January 2021, which brought together leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council.