Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saudi Arabia from 9/11 to the death of King Abdullah

The attacks on September 11, 2001 (9/11), affected Saudi Arabia deeply. Reformists took the post 9/11 climate as an opportunity to promote social change. In response, the government tried to repress both violent religious extremists, and reformers who argued that extremism was a product of the political system.

Saudi Arabia from 9/11
Saudi security forces were deployed on 16 December 2004 in the centre of Riyadh as the London-based dissident Islamist group Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) called for protests to seek regime change in Saudi Arabia. Political demonstrations are outlawed under the strict laws of the Kingdom. AFP PHOTO/BILAL QABALAN

The Consequences of 9/11

Fifteen of the nineteen suicide hijackers were Saudis, which provoked an avalanche of international criticism, especially in the United States, where public opinion was enraged by the spontaneous celebrations of the attacks in various Arab countries. US commentators said Saudi Arabia educated children to be terrorists even though it professed friendship for the Americans.

Thus, the 9/11 attacks proved to be a stunning blow to US-Saudi relations. The Saudi government did its best to limit the damage by breaking relations with the Taliban and arrested suspected terrorists inside the Kingdom. The Saudi authorities knew that in the longer term they had to rebuild relations with the US. They began by trying to foster the peace process with Israel.

In late March 2002, the Saudis sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative at an Arab League summit. It proposed an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders in exchange for full normalisation of relations between the Arab states and Israel, with some ambiguous wording about the return of Palestinian refugees to their families’ former homes. The proposal collapsed in the wake of Operation Defensive Shield (2002), large-scale military operations in the West Bank and Gaza during the Second Intifada to neutralise Palestinian militias and their links with the Palestinian Authority.

Inside Saudi Arabia, reformists took the post 9/11 climate as an opportunity to promote social change. The reformists were a diverse group – from liberals to Sunni Islamists and Shia – many of them individuals with a history of peaceful activism against authoritarian rule. In response, the government tried to repress both violent religious extremists, and reformers who argued that extremism was a product of the political system.

An ageing leadership

The Al Saud family was not well-placed to deal with this double-edged problem. Its ageing leaders were attached to a conservative elite that was assailed both by younger, but even more radical Islamists, and by more liberal reformers.

King Fahd, the eighth son of Ibn Saud, had come to the throne in 1982 and was in his early 80s by 2001. In 2005 he died, to be succeeded by Abdullah, Ibn Saud’s tenth son, who was then also in his early 80s. King Abdullah named as crown prince his brother, Sultan, the fifteenth son of Ibn Saud who had been minister of Defence since 1963 and was in his late 70s.

When Sultan died in 2011, Nayef bin Abdulaziz succeeded him as crown prince. Nayef was the twenty-third son of Ibn Saud (born 1934), had been minister of Interior since 1975 and was 77 years old. Nayef died in 2012 and Ibn Saud’s twenty-fifth son Salman was named crown prince. He had been governor of Riyadh province since 1963. Hence, this was a government of old men.

Saudi Arabia from 9/11
Saudi royal guards stand on duty in front of portraits of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (R), Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz (C) and second deputy Prime Minister Muqrin bin Abdulaziz during the traditional dance known as ‘Ardha’ which was performed during the Janadriya cultural festival at Deriya in Riyadh, on February 18, 2014. AFP PHOTO/POOL/FAYEZ NURELDINE

Calls for reform

In the wake of 9/11, there were repeated calls for reform alongside multiple acts of terrorism. This reflected the two opposing sides within Saudi society at the time: on the one hand violent militants who sought to destabilise the Kingdom and force its foreign backers to flee and on the other, moderate, progressive voices who sought political, social, and religious reform.

Among the issues that raised protests was a scandal in March 2002 when fifteen girls were burned to death in a fire at a school in Mecca because the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (also known as the religious police) forbade rescuers from entering the building to rescue them. They also prevented the girls from escaping the burning building, saying that the girls were not wearing modest clothing. The incident proved a pivotal point in the relationship between citizens and the state, particularly the religious police. Under popular pressure, the apparatus was stripped of its benefits and powers in the years ahead.

The issue around women’s dress sparked more unrest in January 2003 when a newspaper printed pictures of female participants at an economic forum in Jeddah, showing them unveiled. They included Lubna al-Ulayan, one of the wealthiest and most prominent Saudi businesswomen. The official religious establishment reacted furiously. But the problem was wider than women’s clothing. Women were largely excluded from economic activity. Fifty-eight percent of Saudi university graduates were women, but they only made up five per cent of the labour force.

In 2003, Crown Prince Abdullah received five petitions urging the political and social restructuring of Saudi Arabia including a constitutional monarchy, elections, separation of powers and freedom of expression. Another petition called for an end to discrimination against Shia citizens. Crown Prince Abdullah met some of the early petitioners and promised a national dialogue and local elections. In October 2003, the government promised elections for half the local council seats within a year, but by the end of the year still no preparations had been made. At the end of 2003, petitioners made much more radical demands, including for a constitution. The government was unwilling to consider this. At the same time a terrorist campaign was getting under way.


The year 2003 saw a wave of terrorist attacks following the US-led invasion of Iraq. Although the Saudi government condemned the invasion and did not take part, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) prepared to attack western interests and expatriates in Saudi Arabia.

Most of the early AQAP members had trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the 1980s or 1990s and had moved back to Saudi Arabia when Taliban-rule collapsed. On 12 May, suicide bombers attacked three compounds in Riyadh that housed Americans and Europeans; 30 people were killed and nearly 200 wounded. This was the beginning of an all-out confrontation between authorities and the AQAP and over the next six months, police and militants clashed throughout Saudi Arabia.

An extremely deadly attack in Riyadh on 8 November killed seventeen people and wounded over 120. Because many of them were Arab and Muslim, and there were children among them, the attack resulted in a public backlash. At the end of the year and on into 2004, some terrorist cells started to concentrate on Saudi domestic and official targets. By mid 2004, the attacks became more targeted – on individual Westerners and members of the Saudi security forces. The Saudi police and military fought back and by mid-2005 police and military had conducted many successful operations and raids, arresting between 600 and 1,000 men. This broke the back of the Islamist terrorist movement.

The economy

At the beginning of the 21st century, King Abdullah’s government faced the problem of falling oil revenues. Oil prices were still low and did not begin to climb again until 2003/2004: demand for Saudi oil was falling partly because of an increase in non-OPEC oil production.

In 2002, GDP per capita fell and unemployment rose to about 30 per cent among young men. Poverty started to increase.

In response, the government encouraged greater economic liberalisation to attract new investments and create job opportunities. Part of the oil wealth was used to create new industrial cities. Yet these attempts to invigorate the non-oil sectors did not tackle much-needed social and political transformations. Despite the unemployment, Saudi Arabia was still dependent on foreigners. In 2003, the Saudi government put the total of expatriate workers at 8.8 million men and women, accounting for 67 percent of the labour force. Of these, one million to 1.5 million were Indians. Many domestic servants came from Indonesia and Sri Lanka (estimated at 850,000 workers). Employment conditions were precarious and led to serious human rights abuses.

From 2003 onwards, the Saudi economy began to recover, fuelled by a rapid increase in the oil price, and the economy entered one of its longest boom periods. There was five percent GDP growth over the next five years, although it slowed down as a result of the global financial crisis of 2008.

Saudi Arabia and the Middle East

After King Abdullah’s ascension to the throne in 2005, secret contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia developed. The Israeli government of Ehud Olmert was anxious to deal with the Arab states and praised the Saudi-backed peace plan of 2002. The two countries shared interests in ending the 2006 war in Lebanon and limiting Iranian plans to develop a nuclear weapon.

The Saudis saw Iran as a very dangerous and inherently expansionist enemy exporting radical Islamism, encouraging rebellious movements among the Shia population in eastern Saudi Arabia. Historically, Saudi Arabia had supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as an ally against Iran, particularly during the Iran-Iraq war, but the post-Saddam government was dominated by Shia, and that relationship disintegrated. In 2006, when Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister of Iraq, he was perceived as being a close ally of Iran. Yet it was he who attempted reconciliation toward Saudi Arabia by making Saudi Arabia the destination of his first trip abroad as prime minister.

The previous year, in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had become president of Iran, increasing Saudi fears of his hard-line foreign policy, and his attempt to nuclearise Iran. That fear increased during the Arab Spring, when Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops to quell the uprising in Bahrain which Saudi officials described as an Iranian-inspired Shia rebellion against the Sunni royal family.

Saudi Arabia’s closest regional ally in the 2000s was Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. While Saudi-Egyptian relations were broken after the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, they were restored during the Iran-Iraq war. However, tensions continued, as they were both competing for leadership of the Arab world. During the Egyptian revolution in 2011 however, King Abdallah was quite clear. He condemned “meddling in the security and stability of Arab and Muslim Egypt by those who infiltrated the people in the name of freedom of expression, exploiting it to inject their destructive hatred.”

The Arab Spring

The Saudi government itself weathered the Arab uprisings or ‘Arab Spring’ safely. On 11 March 2011, virtually no one showed up for a planned ‘day of rage’. The Saudi strategy against the uprisings were threefold: gaining support from religious scholars who issued fatwas condemning the risings in other countries; the lavish expenditure of money derived from oil wealth – a social incentive package worth $130 billion; and heavy intimidation by the security forces. Even so, the discontent of the Shia population in the eastern province endured, with protests simmering.

In 2012, the Saudi government blamed Iran for a series of protests against discrimination of the Shia. Two years later, in October 2014, the Specialized Criminal Court in Saudi Arabia sentenced to death Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric involved in those protests. Although al-Nimr was not executed until 2016, by the beginning of 2015, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran had deteriorated even further.

The war in Yemen and the dawn of a new era in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and Iran got themselves involved in an emerging civil war in Yemen, and as regional rivals, each supported opposing sides. In 2012, an insurgent Shia group led by members of the al-Houthi family challenged the Yemeni government headed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh and forced him to resign. Saudi Arabia claimed that Iran was supporting the Houthis financially and militarily. As the Houthis had occupied the Yemeni capital Sanaa since September 2014, forcing the Yemeni President, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to flee to Riyadh, the Saudi government intervened by beginning a bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015.

On 23 January 2015, King Abdullah died, aged 91. He was succeeded by his half-brother, Crown Prince Salman. Salman was the twenty-fifth son of Ibn Saud, and 79 years old. Although the pattern of appointing sons of Ibn Saud as king had continued, it turned out to mark the end of the generation and opened a new era in Saudi history.