How Saudi Arabia has stayed immune from terrorist attacks all this while?

An expat’s question
By Muhammad Ali

Pakistan’s dictators have never been as brutal as those in other parts of the world – File photo.

MUNA Khan, a former Dawn hand, now abroad and working for a news agency, emailed the following question to me: ‘One thing that has struck me as odd is how Saudi Arabia has stayed immune from terrorist attacks all this while. What security measures do they have in place that act as deterrents?’

Her question deserves a doctoral thesis, but what is needed is a short and focussed response germane to the question. A cogent remark by a British journalist deserves attention in the context of the war on terror. He said Pakistan was neither a democracy nor a dictatorship. This was said in the summer of 2007 when, during the Musharraf era, two crises were running simultaneously: the Lal Masjid rebellion and the lawyers’ movement.

Pakistan has never been the barbaric dictatorship that Latin America and many parts of Southeast Asia had been and which the Middle East continues to be. Even in Ziaul Haq’s days — when Pakistan came nearest to being a barbaric dictatorship — the military regime had to have regard for basic notions of constitutionalism. He might have said that the constitution was nothing but a piece of paper he could tear up any time, but even Zia had to have his takeover approved by the Supreme Court and to rely on pseudo-constitutional nostrums to perpetuate his tyranny. Even for Bhutto’s ‘judicial murder’ (Dorab Patel’s words) he had to go through the charade of a trial. No such compulsions existed for tyrants in Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

One of Pakistan’s major problems has been lack of continuity of the political system. Even if a dictatorship lasts — notwithstanding the phut that comes later — certain advantages do accrue. Ayub’s decade of development wasn’t all fraud. The foundations of industrialisation were laid, the middle class expanded, and the world, from Beijing to Washington, respected Pakistan. Ziaul Haq’s tyranny was a disaster domestically, but the world knew who was minding the store. As for Musharraf, the US dealt with him as did India because they knew who was in charge. More important, under Musharraf the media was quite free (till the curbs in his final days in office). This had a direct but negative bearing on questions relating to the war on terror.

Let us now note some of the major differences between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the context of the war on terror. One, the desert is not guerilla-friendly. On a moonlit night you can spot a moving object miles away. Two, Saudi Arabia does not have a terrain where three of the world’s mightiest mountain ranges — the Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindukush — meet. For that reason it does not have those valleys and canyons and dry rivers-beds and hundreds of thousands of caves which provide sanctuary to terrorists armed to the teeth.

In Pakistan, arms for terrorists come from the tribesmen’s own improvised arms industry or are bought from the global market with drug money. The Saudi kingdom wouldn’t tolerate a semi-autonomous arms manufacturing industry which would flood Saudi Arabia not with delicious dates but a variety of arms ranging from a ‘toy’ like the Kalashnikov to the rocket launcher.

Three, in Saudi Arabia the government controls the ulema, who are not in a position to bully the officials. A slight deviation from the government-authorised version of the Friday sermon, and the imam is in trouble. In Pakistan, the so-called ulema — most of them semi-literates — bully the government and society and are a source of social anarchy. Well-armed and well-funded, Pakistan’s religious parties and institutions are the biggest hindrance in the war on terror and extremism.

Let us note the difference between how Islamabad handled the Lal Masjid rebellion and how the Saudis tackled the failed bid to take over the Grand Mosque and take the royal family hostage. While the Musharraf government acted late and half-heartedly against the Aziz–Rashid duo, let us see the ease — or, if your prefer, the ruthlessness — with which the Saudi government dispatched the rebels

Three decades after the failed takeover of the Grand Mosque in Makkah in November 1979 we do not know the details of how the mutiny was crushed. The Saudis called in French legionnaires to flush out the dissidents. Most rebels died fighting or were later captured and executed. Even encyclopaedias till today have no clue as to the number of the dead. Some accounts say the Grand Mosque was flooded with water and electric current released.

In our case, what do you do if half a dozen terrorists hide in a Swat or Fata village of 20,000? Do you order the army and air force to take out the village? Can any government in Islamabad do what Israel did in Gaza and Lebanon?

Far from taking out the village, even if Pakistani security forces seal off the village for a fortnight, within no time Pakistan’s human rights’ organisations and the pro-Taliban media would be up in arms, with lurid stories about babies dying for want of milk and pregnant women without healthcare in the biting cold. The government would retreat, and the terrorists would be the gainers. Neither Pakistani liberals nor aid-givers understand this point.

Pakistan has taken every imaginable step possible so far as security measures are concerned for tackling the rebellion in Swat and Fata. But Pakistan doesn’t enjoy the support of the liberals, who live in a world of their own, and seem to forget that their theoretical sermons on constitutional and liberal values may sound fine in Scandinavia, but help the Taliban and their supporters in the media and politics over here.

Friday, 27 Mar, 2009 (Dawn)