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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – The Road from Al-Hasa

November 6, 2014

Al Hasa

Do you want to read negative stuff about Saudi Arabia? How about “Ten Reasons to Disapprove of Saudi Arabia”? Executions, misogyny, mistreatment of domestic staff, the vagaries of the justice system, feckless driving, materialism, wasted energy, wasted food, environmental pollution, religious extremism?

If that’s all you want, you’ve come to the wrong place. And anyway you can look elsewhere and find plenty of horror stories that will make you purse your lips in righteous disapproval. To the US for example. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which national traits I’ve quoted above are largely absent in the Land of the Free. Not many, I’d argue.

You won’t find shock horror in this blog because my livelihood doesn’t depend on making your lips purse, or indeed giving you fodder for bad dreams. I’m not a journalist, nor do I wish to be. Besides, I consider the Saudis – or most of them – to be my friends. And with friends, you appreciate the positive and recognise the negative. You don’t go around belittling them in front of others even if on occasions they might richly deserve your criticism.

In my line of work I meet hundreds of ordinary Saudis, both men and women. Quite a lot of expatriates too. I used to be one of them. Now I just visit the country for a few weeks at a time. On my current trip, which is about to come to an end, I thought I’d post a few snapshots of the country. I particularly wanted to look at some of the changes it’s going through, and what those changes might mean to the ordinary people who live here.

So as I pack to go home, I’m delivering my last Postcard from Saudi Arabia. For a while anyway.

At this time of the year the weather is getting cooler. No more of the roasting heat of the summer. The thoughts of urban Saudis turn to the outdoors. Drive from Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport towards the city and you will take the Prince Salman Road, a newish highway that in places has been cut through some hilly terrain. Look right up the cuttings and you will see cars parked at the top. Groups of people, many in their workaday thobes, sitting cross-legged on the ground, maybe sharing some gahwa – Arabic coffee – from a thermos, or cans of Pepsi.

If you could look further into the desert you would see tents where people gather at the weekend. Many like to sleep under the stars. Late October and November is the golden season. It’s not too hot and not too cold. Young lads come out to escape their parents. Families barbecue, kids play. People chat, maybe kick a football around, maybe listen to music, maybe smoke some shisha.

A guy I met yesterday told me that he likes to take his horse out at weekends. And then there are the camel-owners who go to inspect and cherish their beloved beasts. Poor camels – prime suspects as the source of the latest coronavirus that has been troubling the country for the last couple of years. Too valuable to cull, so now the authorities are talking of vaccinating each and every one of them. Providing, of course, that a vaccine can be developed.

Back in the city, weekend life goes on. No rest for the housemaids, the cleaners, the street sweepers and the waiters. At the other end of the expatriate spectrum and at the wealthy end of Saudi society, people are getting out their tennis rackets, hitting the gym and maybe getting ready for some social occasion in one of the city’s many walled compounds or impressive-looking villas. Round the side of the houses, live-in drivers are busy washing the sand and dirt off their employers’ SUVs.

This is the rhythm of everyday urban life in Saudi Arabia, at least in the more prosperous areas of the city. There are other parts where poor people – Saudi and expatriate alike – struggle to make it through the day. Where petty crime is rampant. And where young men dream of Syria.

Out in the rural villages, accessible not from six-lane highways but single roads, life can also be pretty basic. Mosques, minimarts and dusty dun-coloured houses where nothing much happens except births, marriages and deaths, with occasional visits from sons and daughters who have left to make their fortunes in the city, or maybe even abroad. People dream of Syria there too.

So life trundles on – dolce vita for some, careworn for others.

Then suddenly, BOOM. Something happens that shakes everyone up. Causes them to question the future. Something of that nature happened this week. In Al-Hasa, near the east coast of the country, five people are no longer alive because a car load of young men with long beards stepped out of a car outside a mosque where a throng of people were celebrating the Shia festival of Ashoura. The gunmen sprayed the crowd with machine-gun fire, got back in their car and drove off.

It seems that the ringleader of the shooters was a young Saudi who had been fighting in Syria and Iraq. ISIS? Al-Nusra? Who knows? Within hours, a number of suspects were arrested or killed in gun battles with the security forces in six locations across the Kingdom. Two of the soldiers were killed, one of them the father of a five-month-old daughter. All in all twelve people died, including five members of the alleged terrorist cell. Among the dead and wounded in Al-Hasa were teenagers and young children.

I leave the political dimension to the journalists. Here, for example, is a thoughtful analysis from Bill Law in the Middle East Monitor. I’ll summarise by saying that there is a long history of sectarian unrest in the east of the Kingdom, where most of the country’s million or so Shia population live. The vast majority of Saudis are Sunni. But this was the first attack by an armed group against the Shia population. It bears the hallmarks of ISIS or one of its affiliates.

I prefer to focus on the human impact. The deaths in Al-Hasa are a drop in the ocean compared to the orgy of slaughter, bereavement and grief that seems to be taking place every day in Syria and Iraq. But judging by a report in one of today’s local newspapers, the event has come as a deep shock to the people of this country, who are more routinely accustomed to grieving at the untimely deaths of loved ones in road traffic accidents.

It certainly shook me up. I was in Al-Hasa for a couple of days, and I left for Riyadh a few hours before the killings. I come to the town quite often. Most of the Hasawis I have met are kind and friendly people. Despite the grievances of the Shia, it’s not a community divided by sectarian differences. Sunnis live and work alongside Shia. I hate to think what these killings will do to disturb the equilibrium of life there. Will sectarian barriers form? Will friends stop speaking to each other? I saw that happen over the four years I spent living in Bahrain. Sectarian conflict is tragic to behold. Much depends on the attitudes of local leaders. The government can only do so much to calm inflamed passions. Action is needed on the ground, too.

What of the impact further afield within the country? I haven’t had the chance to discuss the situation with many Saudis because the events have only unfolded over the past couple of days. And anyway, most are reluctant to disclose their innermost feelings to foreigners. But I could read the shock on the faces of the few I have spoken to. No wonder they are reticent. After all, they have to live with an uncertain future in their homeland, whereas people like me can go home.

What of the expatriates? Most of them will be keeping their heads down and hoping not to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Among the westerners, the reaction will depend upon the length of time they have been here. I know a number of people who have been here for twenty or thirty years. In a way, I’m one of them. I first came here in 1981, though unlike them I’ve had long periods living in other places. The veterans will have lived through 2003 and 2004, when there was a wave of attacks on westerners. Compounds bombed, attacks on the street and in offices, many people killed. That generation of terrorists also went after the government. Those attacks resulted in mass arrests and widespread security measures to protect government installations, hotels and compounds.

Security is much tighter now, and for a decade the authorities have, barring one or two exceptions, managed to keep the lid on things. However I have noticed that over the past five years security has loosened somewhat, particularly around all but the most expensive hotels. That might change soon.

Most of the veterans will keep cool, despite ISIS leaders encouraging their followers to attack the west and westerners wherever they find them. They will tell you that in Saudi Arabia you have a far greater chance of being killed on the roads than at the hands of a gun-toting terrorist. That was the feeling when I lived in Riyadh five years ago, and the other day one of my long-term resident friends repeated the sentiment.

Those who did not live through the events of the mid-2000’s will, I suspect, be less sanguine. Much depends on what happens now. If the attack in Al-Hasa turns out to be a one-off, and is not followed by attacks on foreigners, it’s likely that there will be no significant exodus. A repeat of 2003-4 would be a different matter.

As I said earlier, the reaction around the country has been one of deep shock, though perhaps not surprise. The usual religious authorities have, quite rightly, been quick to condemn the attack as an attempt to destabilise the country. But I wonder how much notice the younger people pay to the pronouncements of the sheikhs who point out that the philosophy and actions of ISIS are an affront to the true nature of Islam.

The population explosion, the generation gap, and the social media are all factors that contribute to the young paying less respect to the old. Young people, it is said, increasingly regard the religious establishment as being out of touch. And that includes not only people attracted to ISIS, but also at the other end of the social spectrum those who feel that the sheikhs are acting as a brake on progress.

A westerner like me will rarely hear such sentiments expressed directly. But if you listen carefully you will hear subtle allusions. As one young Saudi said to me the other day: “in our country, if we want to recognise great achievers we wait until they are dead. Then we name roads and buildings after them”. A little unfair, perhaps, but you get the drift.

The deaths in Al Hasa have barely made a ripple in the international media. The world’s attention is focused on Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. On Ebola, on tensions in Israel and on the consequences of the mid-term elections in the United States.

As a geopolitical junkie, I’m keenly interested in all those things. But I can’t stop thinking about the dead children lying in a pool of blood outside a mosque in a country that has been a gracious host to me for more than three decades. I think of the lines of traffic heading for work every morning, and about the simple pleasures of those who like to camp out in the desert at weekends. About millions of people going about their daily lives, doing stuff they might be ashamed of as well as things of which they should be proud. Whatever their shortcomings as human beings and as a society, they don’t deserve the fate of Iraq and Syria, and I’m sure that no more than a tiny minority in their hearts want that for themselves and their loved ones.

Let’s hope the road from Al Hasa leads to reconciliation and progress without violence, rather than across a cliff into chaos.

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