The Siege of Mecca

Although the uprising of Juhayman Al Otaibi in Mecca in 1979 played a crucial role in shaping politics and culture in modern Saudi Arabia, few details are available to the public about the sorry events that took place in the dawn of the current hijra century. I was born in 1984 and the first time I heard the name of Juhayman was only a few years ago following 9/11 and the terrorist attacks in the Kingdom. That’s why when I visited the US in September I made sure to purchase a copy of The Siege of Mecca, a book that tries to investigate the uprising in Islam’s holies site. The author is Yaroslav Torfimov, a staff foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

Once I started reading the book I was hooked and I could not put it down. The kind of fine details Torfimov provides were thrilling and sometimes even shocking to me. I was expecting this book to be a dry recount of the events based on some declassified documents the author obtained from the American archives but I’m glad I was wrong. The background of Juhayman, the way he led the uprising, and how the government dealt with the assault in addition to the historical context of the events made this book a very interesting and action-packed read.

Since many people who were involved in the uprising are still among us, some of them even serving in the very same positions, the book should give you a better understanding of the forces and ideas that influence the current situation in the country and the ongoing power struggle between them. Also of note is the secrecy that remains one of the most visible aspects of Saudi politics to this day.

The book goes into detail regarding concurrent events such as the attacks on US embassies in Muslim countries. These details may be more interesting to the American audience than readers like me, but these are not any less important because they help to explain the reasoning behind the US foreign policy in the region for years to come. The author also dedicated a chapter to the uprising in Qatif and how the government pulled out some forces from Mecca to crack down on the revolutionaries there.

One the most striking findings for me was the role of the official religious establishment. Believe it or not, most of the rebels were actually arrested a few months before the attack but the government released them based on instructions from the religious establishment. You would think that such thing would make the government lose its faith in the clerics, but surprisingly the horrific events led to a deal that empowered the religious establishment, making way to the rise of extremism and later the birth of Al Qaeda.

Due to the sensitivity of the subject here, I don’t think the book will see the daylight in Saudi Arabia, but I guess you can order it from Amazon or buy it when you go abroad. Highly recommended: 5/5.

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11 thoughts on “The Siege of Mecca

  1. I’ve just started reading the book; I’m only a few chapters in, so I’ll withhold final judgment.

    But I’m not enamored with the book. Not only is there a lot of assertion slipped in as fact (‘Saudi police whose main investigating technique tends to be torture…’ Pg 38), but he’s also got some things horribly, factually wrong.

    The Al-Saud did not seek to settle the tribes in hijras based on the claim of a lack of water with which to perform ablutions! There have been waterless alternatives since the earliest days of Islam.

    I’m hoping that his factual accuracy picks up when it comes to the ‘dry recounting’ part.

    The siege took place exactly three weeks after I joined the US Foreign Service. I paid close attention. Just four days after I joined, the US Embassy in Tehran was seized. That served to focus attention very much. And then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

    I knew beyond a doubt where I’d be spending my career.

  2. My husband was born and raised in Mecca and it was very interesting to hear the perspective from a Saudi who was living there at the time. I hope that the Saudis who follow your blog and were there will in turn share their perspectives.

    American Bedu

  3. When Al- Khomaini and his extremist followers siezed Iran in 1979, it was the beginning of the relegious extremism in the area. Juhayman and his followers wanted to take over Makkah, and the followers of Al-khomaini wanted an uprising in Qatif. The invasion of Afganistan by the Soviet Union helped even more the spreading of relegious extreism and the creation of Al Qaeda with help from the U.S. who provided them with arms and informations.

  4. i’m so sorry for the off-topic..really, but I am so furious at the moment and your the only saudi i can tell it to..no saudi i know speaks english.
    the qatif girl thing. she gets 200 lashes for khulwa. what abt those video and audio cassette shops? the cable network? arent they HARAM too? why is saudi such a hypocritical society i swear. it hurts so much. I’m not even saudi, but being born and raised here makes this place more home than ‘back home’ is or will ever be! it kills me..! :(

  5. You know, I haven’t read the book as yet ( just read about the book on a lazy Saturday morning :-D ) but just thought I’d pounce something that you almost said: if the people-in-power listened to the official religious establishment before the Siege, and have continued to do so even after the Siege, then doesn’t it stand to reason that the Siege had no effect on Saudi politics at all? Which is to say, while I’m sure it shook up the royal family and such, but in terms of broad effect on their governance, I could argue that an increase in, say, Wah’abbism (as some other commentators were arguing) in Saudi public spheres is a correlation at best, not a causation.

    That said, always interesting to read a Saudi perspective on things. Keep up the good work!

    • Actually, there IS a causation. The house of Saud required a ruling from the religious leaders that the mosque invaders were wrong (religiously). In return for that ruling, the house of Saud agreed to tightened up the country’s laws to be more Islamic. Cause and effect!

  6. I’ve finished the book an have a review up at Crossroads Arabia.

    I think the book is very, very good when it comes to detailing the events at Mecca and those that followed it.Not so good when it comes to understanding the way Saudi Arabia works. While the the siege rocked the Saudi establishment, I don’t think it represented an existential threat to the Al-Saud.

    The book does make the point that the Saudi gov’t had not been paying much attention to the Ulema prior to the siege. The government was proceeding with modernization, counter to the Ulema’s desires. There were still cinemas in the country; women were working at TV announcers; etc. The Ulema extracted a very high price for their support of the government.

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