The Saudi Arabian authorities some time ago released official figures on lives lost in November’s startling insurgent occupation of Mecca’s Grand Mosque: 60 dead among goverment troops, 75 rebels killed. According to official reports, some 175 guerrillas were arrested after protracted fighting, most of them wounded. (As of this writing there were reports that the captured rebels were due to be executed in groups).

The fighting in and around the Grand Mosque lasted for no less than two weeks. The rebels first occupied the upper stories and minarets of the sprawling complex, thus dominating important parts of the city of Mecca and the surrounding mountains. Government troops later drove them down into the underground passageways beneath the mosque, where they held out for more than a week. The rebels reportedly had women and children with them. Previously they had smuggled weapons and munitions into the mosque and hidden them, a fact which indicates that they had local helpers. They also had supplies of food at the site, mostly dates.

During the first days there were apparently not enough troops on the scene to seal off the mosque effectively from the surrounding parts of the city. Only when reinforcements arrived was it possible to surround the mosque completely, penetrate the courtyard with armored personnel carriers, and drive the rebels from the galleries and minarets. The underground fighting was apparently carried out with tear gas and smoke bombs.

At the time of this writing the Saudi authorities have revealed nothing of the background of the occupation or the motives of the insurgents. They confined their information to the statement that most of the guerrillas were Saudis but that some Yemenites, Kuwaitis, Egyptians, Moroccans, and Pakistanis had also participated in the action. Observers in Mecca estimated the number of armed rebels at about 500, though some say there were as many as 800. Most of them were Bedouins from the Qahtan and Oteiba tribes of central Arabia.

The Oteiba are a Wahhabite tribe which has been involved in a number of earlier rebellions, notably that of 1930, when the still young rule of the Saudi clan was nearly ended. The Saudi dynasty itself is a product of the puritanical Wahhabi reform movement within Islam. The earlier rebellions broke out after the Saudis had conquered all of Arabia and were in the process of instituting a government administration, to which the Wahhabite warrior tribes did not wish to submit themselves.

It remains unclear to what extent the occupation of the Grand Mosque involved a “secular” protest movement and to what extent it was a religiously motivated action. The likeliest explanation is that the Bedouins and their foreign helpers, doubtless recruited from the ranks of Saudi Arabia’s millions of imported laborers, were giving expression to their dissatisfaction with existing conditions by mounting an act of “religious warfare” of a kind which is not uncommon in the Islamic world. Religious motivation does yield the cohesiveness and courage in the face of death which make an action of this kind possible in the first place. The assertion that the rebels had a mahdi (“Messiah” or “redeemer”) with them came initially from an official Saudi spokesman. It was eventually declared that the mahdi had been among the fatalities, after a host of false reports had alleged him to have been taken prisoner. His name reportedly was Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani and it was said that he had previously studied at the school of religious law in Mecca. The name of the man who led the entire operation, and who was taken prisoner, was given as Juheiman al-Oteiba.

A Moroccan pilgrim who had been at the Grand Mosque during its occupation told a newspaper after his return home that, contrary to official reports, the rebels had not demanded that the Moslems in the mosque join them and their mahdi. What they said, according to this witness, is that they were protesting against the “repression” which is victimizing the Saudi populace.

It is quite obvious that the Saudi information authorities have a vested interest in suppressing such stories and instead broadcasting versions which seem to prove that the action was that of religious fanatics.

The “Federation of the People of the Arabian Peninsula,” an old opposition group dating from the Nasser era, issued a number of statements from Beirut claiming that the perpetrators of the Grand Mosque action were closely linked to it. Nasir as-Sayid, the secretary general of the group who once headed a Saudi government-in-exile under Nasser, declared that in the week prior to the mosque’s occupation the Saudi security authorities arrested 1,500 members of his organization, some of whom were also members of the regular armed forces. It was after these arrests, according to as-Sayid, that some Bedouins and other inhabitants of the Hijaz decided to carry out the “suicide mission” in Mecca, in order to draw world attention to conditions in Saudi Arabia.


Among the people of the Hijaz, the province in which Mecca is located, there is a long-standing aversion to the Najd, the province in which the capital Riyadh is situated and from which the Saudi dynasty arose. The ill-feeling goes back to the period 1920-1924, when the inhabitants of the Najd under Ibn Saud conquered the Hijaz. The Hijazi are predominantly urban people and merchants, speaking a dialect similar to Egyptian because they long have had ties with the land on the Nile. Since the conquest, these people have felt subordinated to the “Bedouins” of the Najd.

Saudi Arabia’s illegal opposition, for its part, naturally has a vested interest in presenting the occupation of the Grand Mosque mainly as a political act of protest against the regime and to claim the perpetrators as closely tied to its organization.

The truth very probably lies somewhere between the official and the opposition versions: Bedouins and imported workers joined forces to occupy the Grand Mosque, in an “act of despair” with religious overtones. Ultimately, however, their despair is certainly rooted in the fact that the streams of oil revenue flowing into the Arabian Peninsula—and landing primarily in the pockets of the rulers and their friends and protégés—are generating inflation and a kind of “development” which is destroying the traditional ways of life of both the Bedouins and the settled oasis peasants. These groups are thus being uprooted and degraded to a kind of displaced proletariat. In various “camps” and slum districts, the alienated native populace mixes with foreign workers. (There are nearly a million Yemenites alone in Saudi Arabia, more or less devoid of rights, who do most of the hard and unpleasant work. The total indigenous population of the country does not exceed six million.) Whatever the truth of recent reports that hardline Palestinians of the PFLP helped supply weapons for the attack in Mecca, it is doubtless this mixture of uprooted Bedouins and disaffected foreigners that gave rise to the occupation of the mosque.

It is also quite probable that a significant part was played in all this by a decidedly Wahhabite puritanical reaction against luxury and sin. The people of Saudi Arabia have long known that, behind the high walls of their palatial residences, the members of the ruling class indulge in drinking, gambling, and the pleasures of the flesh. The same “crimes” when committed by the common folk, whether native-born or foreign, bring the harsh punishments prescribed by Islamic law, which can extend as far as public execution. As to the imported laborers, they are almost entirely vulnerable to arbitrary harassment by the police.

Reports have been circulating that the occupation of the Grand Mosque was preceded by unrest in Medina, in Taif in the northern part of the kingdom, and within the Saudi army and air force. Government information officials have indignantly denied such allegations. But those same officials, on at least three separate occasions, gave solemn assurances that the mosque had been swept clean of all the insurgents—and each time those assurances proved false. Despite confirmation from foreign observers, official sources also denied that during the Ashura holy days (November 30 and immediately following) there had been unrest among the Shiites in the region of the eastern oil fields, notably in the villages of Qatif (where six people are reported to have been killed), al-Khobar, Rahima, Ras Tanura, Abqaiq, and Safwa.

In the oil-rich province of Hasa the true natives are Shiites, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 of them. About 35 percent of the labor force in the oil fields are adherents of the Shia branch of Islam, and the conviction has grown widespread among them that the oil fields really belong to them. For more than a year tape cassettes bearing sermons by the Ayatollah Khomeini have been circulating among them from hand to hand. During the holidays passions among the Shiites apparently boiled over and Saudi troops moved against them harshly, with some villages being encircled and cut off from the outside world.

This Shiite agitation is not the same phenomenon as the demonstrably more Wahhabite unrest among the Oteiba and Qahtan Bedouins. But the dissatisfaction behind both of them certainly has the same root: anger and bitterness over the fact that the members of the ruling class are permitted to live in luxury and profligacy while their subjects are constrained to perform unaccustomed manual labor, the wages of which steadily lose value through inflation, and are thus being forced to give up their traditional way of life.

This Issue

March 6, 1980