December 31, 2001 Special Dispatch No. 323

Saudi Columnists: Urbanization and Development in Southern Saudi Arabia, Not Poverty, Led to September 11

December 31, 2001
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 323

Two Saudi columnists from the Saudi government daily Al-Watan provided their insights and explanations of theinvolvement of Saudi citizens in the September 11 terrorist attacks. In their analysis they relate to the socio-economicprocesses that pushed the southern Saudi Arabian region's clans into the arms of radical Islam.

In an article entitled "The New War: My Clan and Terrorism" Tarrad bin Sa'id Al-'Omari, wrote how he had felt when he was informed that some of the September 11 hijackers belonged to his same southern Saudi clan. Following are excerpts from the article:

"On September 11, I was in Washington, DC, when the catastrophe occurred. But my [personal] catastrophe came only after September 11, when I saw the list of the names of the suicide attackers. Many of them were Saudis, and most were from the South, from my clan, with deep-rooted Arab customs, supreme values, and a religion considered moderate by all standards. The southerners I knew embodied all the supreme qualities; many of them had enlisted in all the arms of the military and in domestic security units. [I had the privilege of] being familiar with their dedication to work and their solid and genuine loyalty… For southerners, deeply rooted rural moral values were a way of life."

"I devoted much effort… in an attempt to understand where their extremist thought came from. I examined the possibility that the southern region had been neglected by the state in development projects, which would explain this abominable behavior. I examined the possibility of discrimination against southerners in work or education, which might have infected these young people with ignorance and hostility. But I found that the southern region had accomplished within three decades what the world took ten thousand years to accomplish. I'm not exaggerating."

"In his book The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler says that three waves have passed over the world: The first was from 8000 BC to 1755 AD, during which the world's society was primitive and based on agriculture. The second was from 1755 to 1975, during which industrial society developed, and the means of production entered its way of life. The third wave began in 1975, and is based on transportation and communication, which have become part of life."

"Life in the South [of Saudi Arabia] three decades ago was no different from primitive life before Christ. In those days, the villages were no different than what we read in books and hear in legends, or see in movies, about the beginnings of human life. We would leave Al-Taef to go to my village, Al-Khattar, through Bisha. The car journey would last three days, during which we walked more than we rode. The link to urban life ended the moment we reached the village. Life in the village was primitive in the full sense of the word, with not a single characteristic of modern life. There was a burner in which they would put a little oil; house wares were made of pottery; the main means of transportation was by donkey. The houses were made of stone, and the roofs of wood. Animals were used in irrigation. The markets were held in accordance with the days of the week. The market closest to us was in Al-Nammas, every Tuesday. Commerce was by barter."

"It was a primitive life in the full sense of the word. Relations within the society were close; there were no barriers or veils between women and men, who worked together at home, in the field, and in the grazing lands. There was nothing unfit, no humiliation in these relations. Society had its own norms, laws, and traditions that set the rules for relationships among its members in all areas of life…"

"In the early 1970s, urbanization began to spread throughout the South with amazing speed; schools, hospitals, airfields, roads, electricity, telephones. [All at once] the South entered the second and third waves, according to Toffler's definition. Within a few years, the South became a center for tourism, on which tourists and vacationers from Saudi Arabia and abroad trod. The Festival of Abha equaled those of Ba'albek [in Lebanon], Jarrash [in Jordan], and Carthage [in Tunis]. The lives of the southerners became urban and a university was set up for them. Al-Nammas became a city with all the characteristics of modern life, such as supermarkets and even an Internet café."

"Where was the failure? There is no failure that can be linked [directly] to what happened [on Septemeber11]."

"The southerners joined all areas of work and education, and opportunities were opened to them just as to others, with no discrimination. Even the most important positions – those in the areas of the military and security – which are usually reserved only for the most loyal of citizens – were not closed to them."

"So what happened? Did the urbanization that swept over the people of the South become a disaster for them, for the Saudi people, and for all of humanity? Or was it that the new generation of southerners fell easy prey to the extremists, with their caprices? Was the southerners' naïve thinking recruited by a gang of those people who speak in the name of religion? Did the fathers of the new generation sink into the materialism of urban life and forget to bring up their sons on the supreme values and religious tolerance on which they themselves were raised? Is this what the state and the homeland expected from the denizens of a region in which many resources were invested so that they would not feel inferior in comparison with the rest of the kingdom's residents?"[1]

A few days later, Al-Watan published another article on the same subject by columnist 'Ali Sa'ad Al-Mussa. Al-Mussa agreed with Al-'Omari's view that poverty has no connection to terrorism. However, where Al-'Omari left the question of responsibility for the attacks open, Al-Mussa stated that the southerners' naivety had worked against them, and that they had fallen victim to clerics' exaggerated theories. Following are excerpts from Al-Mussa's article:

"Over the past months, I hesitated about writing this article. I felt ashamed, and if the honorable brother Tarrad Al-'Omari had not preceded me in Saturday's edition, I would have thought 1,000 times before writing even a single line."

"Tarrad Al-'Omari tried to delve deeply into the reasons why some of the denizens of our beloved South joined in the recent acts of terror. But in the final analysis, he left the heart of the issue open to questions, and did not have the courage to probe the issue in depth."

"In principle, I agree with him that the link drawn between terrorism and poverty and unemployment is not true at all, and recent events attest to this."

"Most of the perpetrators were from families that had been favored by fortune. In most cases, they weren't even middle class, but higher. If poverty was a cause of terrorism, we wouldn't hear about a single Saudi in this affair; the accusations would be directed at Somalia, Burundi, Chad, Bangladesh, and other countries classified as below the poverty line. Nevertheless, these societies were not represented in the [September 11] events and in other mass terror attacks."

"If poverty and unemployment were the fuel of terrorism, [terrorism] would have engulfed other regions. The 'Asir region is, according to all assessments and statistics, the fastest-developing region [of Saudi Arabia]. Its cities and towns are witness to the greatest growth in their history, and their residents are represented in all sectors of the country. It is a region with a large university, where the most widely-read newspapers are published. Every summer, more people go there than anywhere else, except to the two holy cities [Mecca and Al-Madina]."

"So what is the problem, and what are the solutions?..."

"The problem is not one of development. Laying [the responsibility] for the problem on development diverts the blame to the wrong address. [The right address] is, using religion as a cover beneath which venom is disseminated… It was this excess that misled the social and religious leaders of the South decades ago to believe that they lived in a spiritual vacuum, and that many of their customs and social traditions, even their religious schools of thought, did not meet others' expectations…"

"The southerners, primarily the mountain dwellers, are trustworthy and natural people, who believed in the Prophet [Muhammad], whose [Islam] reached them without conquest or warfare. But their problem is that since then they believe everything they're told… Some of them did what they did because they listened more attentively than they should have, regardless of who stands in the preacher's pulpit…"[2]

[1] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 22, 2001.

[2] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), December 24, 2001.

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