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.