Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 June 2019

The siege of Makkah: once off the table now on prime time TV

With the Saudi Crown Prince forging a new vision for the kingdom, he is opening the way for popular culture to tackle recent history

Muslims pray and gather around the holy sites during Ramadan in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Reuters
Muslims pray and gather around the holy sites during Ramadan in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Reuters

It was shortly after morning prayers when hundreds of terrorists stormed the Sacred Mosque in Makkah, shot two police officers, held 50,000 worshippers hostage and chained the gates to the structure, cutting off access to Islam’s holiest site for the first time in almost 1,400 years.

For two weeks, the 1979 storming of the Great Mosque gripped the Muslim world, coming just months after the Iranian Revolution. In Saudi Arabia, the national crisis set the tone for the security and religious apparatus for decades. But for ordinary Saudis, it was a subject not discussed, a taboo rarely – if ever – shown on TV or debated ... until now.

Four decades after the dramatic events, Saudi Arabia is now grappling with the attack. The current government under King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is rolling back the changes that the incident ushered in.

Juhayman Al Otaibi, who led at least 400 gunmen, seized Makkah in a rejection of the Saudi monarchy which he said was being corrupted by the West. He also condemned the Salafi Ulama, a semi-government entity that spread Wahabi ideology in Saudi Arabia for not preventing it.

Jihman bin Saif Al Otaiba, shown in a picture dated December 1979 in Jeddah. AFP
Jihman bin Saif Al Otaiba, shown in a picture dated December 1979 in Jeddah. AFP

Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute – a UK defence think tank – said the significance and repercussions of the storming of Makkah cannot be overstated.

The 1979 attack ushered in the “Sahwa” or “awakening”, a period in which religious figures espousing hardline views wielded significant power.

Under King Khaled, the Saudi clergy were given more authority to counter what was perceived to be foreign extremism with the Saudis’ own, local brand of ultra-conservatism.

There was a rollback of women’s freedoms. Laws were brought in to enforce a dress code for women, to ban them from driving and to stop the sexes from mixing. Cinemas were closed and shops thought to have a western influence were controlled or shut. A powerful morality police, operating under the religious authorities not the security establishment, enforced these policies.

Extremely conservative and increasingly sectarian thought became widespread. Groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan were supported in their war against the Soviet Union, but the view bled over into groups that rose to prominence afterwards, like Al Qaeda – led by Saudi renegade Osama bin Laden.

The kingdom took action against terror financing in the second half of King Fahd’s rule until 2005 and more so under his successor, King Abdullah.

King Salman and Prince Mohammed are taking this push much further.

Prince Mohammed has laid out a modernising vision for the country and Saudi Arabia is beginning to grapple with the decades of strict conservative religious views that permeated every facet of the country.

The 33-year-old prince says he is forging a new tolerant, moderate Islam.

“Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979. We want to go back to what we were, the moderate Islam that’s open to all religions,” the Crown Prince said in public remarks in Riyadh in 2017. This statement was seen as the first official acknowledgement of the turning point that led Saudi Arabia down a vastly different path.

Several prominent members of the Sahwa movement have now spoken out publicly to disavow the period and apologise for their part in it.

In May this year, Aaidh Al Qarni, a prominent Saudi preacher, apologised for his role in the movement. He said that Sahwa led to extremist fatwas and a corruption of the religion. Now, Mr Al Qarni said, he embraced the moderate Islam of Prince Mohammed.

“The siege was extremely important; it was a massive wake-up call and maybe the reaction in the kingdom at that time was the wrong reaction,” Mr Stephens told The National. “I think Mohammed bin Salman is probably right – that the lessons learnt from the siege of Makkah were the wrong lessons”.

The attack was rarely discussed as it appeared to symbolise a divide in society between those supporting the more conservative stance and those against.

Officially, it was easier just to leave the issue out of the public discourse in the country.

“I do think a lot of Saudis took the right messages out of it and had already realised by the 1980s that the reaction to the siege of Makkah was taking the country in the wrong direction,” Mr Stephens says. But the change took time.

Against the backdrop of the new official attitude to the decades after 1979, came Saudi television giant MBC’s second season of the hit TV drama Al Asouf.

The 30 episodes of Al Asouf shown over this Ramadan and as the season crescendoed towards the Eid finale, depicted the blow-by-blow battle for Makkah in close detail.

Drawing in large audience numbers during one of the busiest times for TV networks, the multimillion-dollar production divided audiences.

Following the protagonist Khalid – a developer played by popular actor Nasser Al Qasabi – the show focuses on the dynamics between his relatives in the simpler years before Saudi Arabia’s oil boom lead the country to change at a dizzying pace.

Veteran actor Nasser Al Qasabi, centre, returns in the second season of 'Al Assouf'; a drama set in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Courtesy of MBC
Veteran actor Nasser Al Qasabi, centre, returns in the second season of 'Al Assouf'. The drama is set in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Courtesy of MBC

But the show also delved into the social tensions that were growing as several of Nasser’s family members are drawn to the burgeoning Sahwa movement. The protagonist is seen entering the Great Mosque of Makkah where Nasser became one of the 50,000 trapped in the holy site. Over the next three episodes, the battle to expel the terrorists plays out.

The new depiction is striking, but it also explores the less well-known detail of how the Saudis brought in French commandos who hastily converted to Islam before entering the holy city to reclaim the compound.

Al Asouf sparked a lot of conversation in the kingdom as people grapple with and talk about the once off-limits topic.

Many of the more liberal-minded Saudis say it finally addresses their concerns about radicalisation that they have witnessed for years. There are a few conservatives who criticised the show, its timing and the politics around it.

For broadcaster MBC, people questioning if they should have made the show are not new – for years a minority of ultra-conservatives have led a charge to boycott the channel for showing uncovered women, relations between unmarried couples and music. Despite this, executives believe the topic of the 1979 incident was important to show.

“The duty and responsibility of our media, and drama in particular, is to uncover the ugly face of extremism and terrorism,” MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek told The National.

“We know this is a drama, but these are incidents, terrorist attacks that shaped our region that shaped the way we live and the way we act. So it was obvious that we needed to shed light on it”.

Mr Hayek attributes a big part of the show’s success and MBC’s confidence in using drama to destigmatise discussions about religion to “shedding light on important topics for young Saudis”.

The station backs Prince Mohammed’s new direction and is taking an active role in the push to reform.

“Saudi Arabia is going through a sociocultural revolution – a positive one – and you can feel it in daily life,” Mr Hayek said. “Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a game changer and broke all taboos to open up things that people thought were impossible to tackle or talk about or to do [just] six months ago, not two years ago.”

This new boundary-pushing programming, Mr Hayek says, has been made possible by the government’s call to use every tool available to unlock the economic potential of society and sideline the ultra-conservatives, once so central to Saudi Arabia’s identity, who seek to keep the country isolated.

And despite the criticism from those in the kingdom who believe it unnecessary to cast the conservative turn as a mistake, MBC says it will continue to create output that it feels is a moral obligation to society.

“What may have been a taboo yesterday became OK to deal with and talk about today,” Mr Hayek said. “That’s thanks to the interruptive approach, this game-changer attitude that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman brought to the table.”

Updated: June 6, 2019 10:40 AM

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