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RetroSaudi: Guns’n’poses

November 15, 2017

This episode of my RetroSaudi series is about guns. I wrote the piece that follows before the two Gulf Wars, and, even more critically, before the conflicts in the wake of the Arab Spring resulted in a massive proliferation of weapons in the region.

Then (1987):

The first Saudi I caught sight of when I arrived in Saudi Arabia was a spindly little fellow in an outsize helmet lounging at the bottom of the steps beside my British Airways Tristar. He was leaning against a semi-automatic rifle that was almost bigger than himself. He looked about as menacing as a museum curator and as bored as a cinema usher. That image has stayed with me, except that in my imagination the gun has gotten bigger and the soldier smaller.

Any uniformed official worth his salt wears a gun. Even firemen, provided they’re Saudi. Foreigners with guns are a definite no-no, unless they happen to be embassy guards, like the troop of muscle- bound marines who see to it that another bunch of hapless American diplomats don’t fall prey to a squad of revolutionary guards.

To a Briton coming to Saudi Arabia today, meeting so many guns would perhaps not be as shocking as it was to me in 1981. I had come out of a country in which naked shows of force, such as tanks ringing London Airport during an IRA scare, were so rare as to be deeply disturbing. At least to those of us on the mainland. But the Kingdom lies sweating in a ring of fire. To the north, Lebanon and Israel; to the west, Eritrea and the Horn of Africa; to the south, the feuding Yemens, and to the east Iran and Iraq. With half the hatred in the world festering on their doorstep, who can blame the Saudis for being a little nervous?

Surprisingly few ordinary citizens seem to own weapons. “Seem” because although ownership of firearms is restricted in Saudi Arabia, they’re legal and rife in the Yemen. Since the border between the two countries is ill-defined in many places, and therefore as leaky as a sieve, there are not only many Yemenis but also many guns surreptitiously stashed away in Saudi Arabia. A recent house-to-house sweep in Jeddah flushed out a truckload of armaments.

In Haj 1987, as the Mecca riots erupted, the local press announced in bold type that no shots were fired on the Ayatollah’s demonstrators by the security forces. Probably true, but what they forgot to mention were eye-witness reports about people leaning out of the windows of the apartments overlooking the action taking potshots at the rioting Iranians. A sharp-eyed American friend swears that on the official film of the riot you could see little puffs of dirt whipped up by the impact of bullets hitting the ground. Being a Vietnam veteran, he should know.

Most likely the bullet wounds another friend saw on the Iranian bodies (as they lay at Jeddah Airport ready to be shipped home) were caused by small arms.

What worries the Saudis most are the modern semi-automatics, like the Kalashnikovs that flooded the south during the Yemeni civil war in the early sixties. In 1980 such weapons allowed a tiny band of fanatics to hold the Grand Mosque in Mecca for many days, despite being vastly outnumbered by a rattled force of Government troops.

Out in the desert, the bedouin have carried weapons for centuries, but their firearms are usually more suited for suicide than offensive action; many started life in the hands of the British around the time of the Indian Mutiny. Every two or three years the authorities announce a weapons amnesty, but it’s a meaningless gesture to the gnarled old sheikhs, for whom the family flintlock is as much a status symbol as an instrument of destruction. Not so a hundred years ago, when armed robbery was a popular pastime among the bedouin, particularly if the neighbour’s camels happened to be there for the taking.

Surprisingly enough, you can buy antique guns in the Jeddah souk. True, the article for sale is usually seventy years old, and a Yemeni copy of an Afghan copy of a Lee Enfield, but if you could find all the necessary bolts and pins to make it work, it would probably fire. It’s debatable who would be most at risk, the firer or the fired upon.

The use of more modern weapons among private individuals is more discreet. Another friend was recently driving down a narrow road in Jeddah and came up behind a gleaming new Mercedes saloon that was dawdling along in the middle of the road. My mate honked his horn and signalled with an unmistakable gesture that he was in a hurry and would the gentleman kindly get the f**k out of the middle of the road?

The Mercedes slowly came to a halt at an angle, preventing my friend from passing, and a man in a white thobe calmly stepped out of the car, sauntered up to my friend’s window, pointed a pistol at his head and ordered him out of the car. Keeping my friend in his sight the man made a short call on his radiophone; within three minutes the police arrived and slapped an on-the-spot fine of a thousand riyals on the poor fellow for speeding! The gunman happened to be a high-ranking prince.

A final, salutary, tale – which may or may not be true – to place in perspective the somewhat threatening tone of this passage. The US Embassy in Jeddah used to be ringed with armed Saudi guards twenty-four hours a day. Such a dopey lot they were that one night the marines decided to highlight the shortcomings of the security arrangements.

When dawn broke and the guards finally woke out of their collective slumber, they reached for their weapons and found them gone. An hour later they were marched off at gunpoint, perhaps to be given freefall lessons over the Empty Quarter without the benefit of parachutes. Their bashful commanding officer called in to the Embassy to collect the weapons.

Now (2017):

Sadly, things got a bit more dangerous subsequently. The US embassy moved to Riyadh, and the compound guarded by the sleepy soldiers became a consulate. In 2004, during a wave of attacks by Al-Qaeda on both Saudis and expatriates, the consulate was attacked and a number of people killed. There were other attacks on ministry buildings and western compounds, resulting in many deaths over a three-year period. One of the compound attacks was the event depicted in the movie The Kingdom.

When I returned to the country in 2008 after a long absence, the difference was striking. Concrete blocks and blast shields protected ministries, embassies and hotels. Western compounds had watchtowers with armed guards. The major embassies, especially the US embassy in Riyadh, were fortresses. Soldiers armed to the teeth would patrol the grounds.

Had I written a piece about guns then, I wouldn’t have seen the funny side. People were still nervous about their safety. I knew Americans who kept their passports and open first-class airline tickets with them at all times so that they could make a quick exit. Others would rarely venture out of their hotels except to go to work. On one trip from Riyadh to Dammam, my passenger refused to get out and stretch his legs at a gas station, because he was a afraid that someone might shoot him.

Gradually things calmed down thanks to a very effective anti-terrorism effort by the Ministry of the Interior.

But over the past four years, the gun has raised its ugly head again. This time at the hands of ISIS supporters, who have launched repeated attacks with a seemingly sectarian motive against the country’s Shia minority in the east. There have also been attacks against the police. I wrote about one such attack in Al Hasa in my Postcard from Saudi Arabia series.

Guns continue to be a fact of life. If the borders were porous in 1987, they are by no means secure today, despite the wall the Saudis are building to the north of the country, and despite that fact that the border guards in the south are battle-hardened thanks to the current Yemen conflict. The sheer volume of weapons circulating in Syria, Iraq and Yemen among those motivated to harm for one cause or another means that the Saudis have an almost impossible task preventing some of these weapons getting through their borders.

The number of attacks has declined dramatically over the past year, but alertness is still the order of the day.

Also a sense of perspective is called for. Around eight thousand people are killed on Saudi roads each year. Compare that with 10 killed and 40 injured through terrorist attacks in 2017.

And if you happen to be an American working in the country, you might do well to ask yourself where you have a better chance of falling victim to a random shooting: in Saudi Arabia or the USA?

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