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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – the Hidden Well of Kindness

December 12, 2014
Riyadh early

Old Riyadh

I’ve just made it back to the UK after two fairly lengthy visits to Saudi Arabia. So this is my last postcard for a while. What began with a single post about a railway trip has turned out to be a series of fourteen articles about a country that I know pretty well, but that as a foreigner I can never know really well. It’s a country that still surprises me, and is changing more rapidly than at any time I can remember.

I’ve written about a number of subjects based on my own experience, on what I’ve read in the local media, and on conversations with Saudi friends and acquaintances along the way. I’ve spent my time in four cities: Dammam and Al Hasa in the east, Riyadh in the central region and Jeddah in the west.

The posts have generally been on the subject of change. Huge infrastructure projects, evolving institutions, changing attitudes as the young become increasingly influential. Old problems in new guises, new threats. By no means a comprehensive portrait of a country I first visited thirty-four years ago, but a series of snapshots that provide a counterpoint to the internationally received wisdom that Saudi Arabia is a country resolutely standing still.

I never expected to see three successive airports at one major city in my lifetime, for example. When I first arrived in Jeddah it was to a decrepit, crowded cattle market in the middle of the city. Soon afterwards it was replaced by the shiny new King Abdulaziz International Airport, which has now become equally decrepit and is doing the Kingdom’s reputation no favours with its limited facilities. And now a new airport, complete with rail links to the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah, is under construction. So it’s quite conceivable that before long I’ll be checking out yet another spectacular piece of infrastructure. Meanwhile the UK has spent at least as long debating and dithering about the future of Heathrow.

But some things never change. Though western observers often portray Saudi Arabia as a harsh, rigid and intolerant bastion of misogyny and religious conservatism, there’s another side to the Saudi character that rarely gets a write-up. And that’s the innate warmth, kindness and hospitality of its people. Not everyone shows those qualities, of course, but I’ve experienced enough examples to know that they are to be found in as much abundance as the hydrocarbons that lie beneath the sand.

To illustrate the point, here’s something that happened to me a couple of days ago. I’d been running a workshop in Riyadh. I mentioned that I’ve had a long-standing interest in the history of the Middle East – from Sumeria to the present day. Over lunch I got chatting with one of the participants, whom I shall call Abdullah. In the course of the conversation he told me that his grandfather was killed in the decisive battle between King Abdulaziz and the rebellious Ikhwan (Brethren) – the Bedouin warriors who had been at the forefront of Abdulaziz’s campaign to unify the Kingdom but had at this stage had turned against him. Abdullah’s forebear was on the wrong side of the argument, and in 1929 met his end with hundreds of others in a hail of machine-gun fire.

The battle of Sabillah was no contest. Camels and rifles against the King’s highly efficient gunnery. It was the last revolt against the authority of the Al-Saud until the 1979 insurrection in Mecca. Abdullah also told me that his father still had his grandfather’s rifle – one of a cache confiscated from the defeated German army after World War I that the British had supplied to Abdulaziz. The rifle, he said, still bears the original military emblems.

The story of Sabillah reminds me of the climactic scene in The Last Samurai, in which Tom Cruise joins a group of rebellious Samurai in a final encounter between bows and swords and the weaponry of the newly-created Imperial Japanese Army. Another unequal clash between ancient tradition and unforgiving technology. The Ikhwan‘s last stand would surely also make a compelling movie, though probably not until the Saudis are able to view the event more dispassionately than might be the case today.

The next day, before the workshop started, my new friend presented me with a photographic history of the Arabian peninsula in the early 20th century. Some photos I’d seen before; many I hadn’t. There were pictures of the Balad, Jeddah’s original quarter, showing magnificent coral and wood buildings, a sorry remnant of which still stands today. Photos of the Haj, of Abdulaziz’s mud-brick palace in Riyadh, of Najran and Asir in the south, of Al Hasa and the east and Qasim in the north. And portraits of foreigners who played a part in the Kingdom’s early history: Captain William Henry Shakespear, who accompanied Abdulaziz on one of his campaigns and fell in battle; Harry St John Philby, father of Kim, a former British colonial administrator who spent years at the King’s court and converted to Islam, becoming Abdullah Philby; Gertrude Bell, the first western woman to meet Abdulaziz.

Though I don’t read Arabic, I was easily able to recognise many of the characters and locations – more with Abdullah’s help.

I was very touched that someone I had only met the day before would take the trouble to bring me such a gift. I was a person he might never meet again, yet my interest in his country’s history was enough to spark this unexpected act of kindness.

Over the years I have been invited to weddings, to people’s houses, on outings to camel fairs and places where Saudis gather to eat, chat and smoke shisha. Yet I don’t speak Arabic well enough to take a full part in the conversation, so my hosts have spent much of the time speaking in my language.

Such hospitality would be unlikely to be afforded so spontaneously in my country to ordinary Saudi visitors, especially now, as we come to terms with our newly resurgent spirit of xenophobia.


Ikhwan Warriors

Abdullah’s book, however, despite its portrayal of an innocent and largely peaceful age, also shows a dark side. I keep coming back to the famous photo taken by Captain Shakespear of King Abdulaziz’s Ikhwan marching through the desert atop their camels. The mayhem their leader sowed through his ultraconservative shock troops almost destroyed him and his new kingdom. At Sabillah it took modern technology to overcome the challenge of his disgruntled followers against the settled, law-abiding state he was in the process of founding.

Today his descendants face a similar challenge – the result, many would say, of their use of soft power rather than the machine guns of Abdulaziz. Through the funding of mosques and madrassas, and the distribution of literature promoting the uncompromising view of Islam inspired by Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahab in the eighteenth century, several decades of influence-wielding has, claim the sages of the west, helped to produce in the Middle East and beyond a generation of extremists who are again questioning the legitimacy of the Saudi state. But today the adversary has technology that equals, and, in the case of internet and social media expertise, perhaps exceeds that which is at the disposal of the Saudis.

The confrontation with the new enemy, ISIS, will be brought to a head not, most likely, by Saudi armies but by others who feel equally threatened and have the means and the determination to see it through.

In case anyone doubts the parallel, here’s a description by Robert Lacey in his 1981 book, The Kingdom, of the Ikhwan’s entry into Taif, a town close to Mecca, when they were still following the banner of Abdulaziz:

“A deputation of Taif citizens, it is said, negotiated a surrender with Khalid ibn Lu’ay and Sultan ibn Bijad. Perhaps the gates were simply opened without formalities by local Ikhwan sympathisers. But certainly the townspeople were not considering any forcible resistance when the brethren’s takeover of Taif suddenly turned into a dreadful massacre.

Afterwards it was said that the Sa’udis had been fired on from a police post, but whatever the provocation, real or supposed, the slaughter was merciless: the town’s qadi and sheikhs retreated to a mosque, to be dragged out and cut to pieces; houses were destroyed, shops and market stalls looted; throats were cut and bodies were flung down the open wells of the town in a rampage that left more than 300 dead in a matter of hours.

The massacre of Taif threw the Hijaz into a panic, and King Husain appealed desperately to Britain for help. But he received no response, for, on hearing the news of the Sa’udi invasion, His Majesty’s Government decided to let events follow their natural course.”

The capitulation of the rest of the Hejaz, including Jeddah, followed shortly thereafter.

Yet it was the kindness of a descendent of the fearsome Ikhwan that stayed in my mind as I headed back to London. A symbol of hope that in a few decades the grandchildren of the fanatics currently rampaging though Syria and Iraq will be equally welcoming to those who don’t share their religion and their cultural values.

  1. Do you have another blog that writes about London? I enjoy reading your thoughts and stories.

    • I’m glad you enjoy the blog, Suzette. I’m afraid that I don’t specifically write about London – only when something comes up that attracts my attention. Also there are many journalists who focus on London, most of them better than me! Steve

      • Its your style that keeps me reading. Doesn’t have to specifically be about London, I asked bevause in your post you mentioned you were heading back.

        Do you only write when you travel? Hope you continue to post periodically. Its interesting. Thanks!

  2. i post from wherever I am, and as regularly as possible! S

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