The dismissal of an influential editor of a leading Saudi
newspaper has dealt a sharp blow to the hopes of reformists here and
underlined the deeply conservative nature of the kingdom.
Jamal Khashoggi was sacked last week as editor in chief of the
daily Al Watan after his newspaper published searing commentaries on
the potent influence of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia.
The leading Saudi reformist's dismissal takes place against a
backdrop of unprecedented soul-searching in the Saudi media. Since
the suicide bombings of Western residential compounds in Riyadh on
May 12, in which 35 people died, newspapers here have run a series
of unusually bold editorials on the ills of Saudi society.
While the flourishing debate in the media has encouraged
advocates of reform, not everyone here is happy. "Khashoggi went too
far. He exceeded dangerous limits," says Mohsen al-Awajy, a lawyer
and a representative of the more moderate strand of Islamist thought
in the kingdom.
The May 12 attacks have to some extent further polarized the
debate here between reform and tradition. Intellectuals, the
business community, and the more liberal populations on the east and
west coasts of the kingdom are pitted against the powerful religious
establishment and the conservative desert heartland.
"Both coasts have been cosmopolitan for 5,000 years," says a
Western diplomat. "In the middle of the country, they have been
goatherders for 5,000 years. If they could close the window on the
world, they would. That's the problem. You can't live like that
anymore. Something has to give."
Saudis have a traditional aversion to public debate, preferring
instead the time-honored tribal practice of deciding matters behind
closed doors. Religion lies at the heart of Saudi society,
dominating most aspects of life. Saudis adhere to Wahhabism, an
austere and literal interpretation of Islam. The kingdom's
traditionally insular society and the fiery sermons preached by
extremist clerics are seen by many observers as the root cause of
the anti-Western suspicion and hostility among many Saudis.
The promised withdrawal of US troops from Saudi Arabia - a key
demand of Osama bin Laden - has failed to dampen anti-American
ardor. "They have announced their withdrawal, but in fact they are
getting deeper and deeper into Arab land," says Abdullah, a
professed extremist who served time in a Saudi jail for his views.
He points to the continued US military presence in the neighboring
states of Qatar, Kuwait, and Iraq. "Al Qaeda will continue their
operations until the last American soldier has left the Arabian
peninsula," he warns. "If Western countries and America continue
their actions against Muslims, they will generate more hostility and
there will be repetitions [of the May 12 bombings]."
These days, the Saudi government has little sympathy for such
opinions. Since the May 12 attacks, Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi
Arabia's de facto ruler in place of his ailing brother King Fahd,
delivered a speech in which he vowed to "confront and destroy the
threat posed by a deviant few and those who endorse and support
Yet many Saudis remain reluctant to look within Saudi society for
the roots of militant actions.
Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki, the chairman of the Saudi
Arabian General Investment Authority and a powerful proponent of
opening up the country to the outside world, says he believes that
the militants are a result of the war against the Soviet occupation
of Afghanistan in the 1980s rather than a homegrown product. …