It is true that American and European traders and expatriates are the backbone of the multimillion-dollar market for smuggled alcohol in Saudi Arabia, and take the lion’s share of the proceeds. But, while it is right for the Saudi authorities to take action against hitherto privileged smugglers and consumers, targeting selected foreigners will not end the activities of what has become known as the ‘alcohol mafia’. After all, members of the Saudi elite, including princes, are often said to be deeply involved, and it is doubtful whether the handful of westerners now in detention would have been arrested had it not been for their involvement in the explosions in November in which a Briton died .
So far nine people have been arrested in connection with alleged alcohol-smuggling; seven, including three Americans, are being held for the bombings. A Briton who fled Saudi Arabia to evade arrest is in custody in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pending extradition to the kingdom.
The first explosion took place on November 17, when Christopher Rodway, a British hospital engineer, was blown up in his car in Riyadh. On November 22 a second car-bomb went off, injuring all four passengers. When a third bomb exploded in the eastern city of Khobar David Brown, a British Coca-Cola executive, lost an eye. By December the expatriates suspected of causing these explosions were safely behind bars, but the bombings did not end. On January 10 an explosion in the plush Euro-marche mall in Riyadh destroyed a telephone-booth and damaged a passing car.
Initially the finger of blame was inevitably pointed at ‘Islamic fundamentalist groups’; those holding them responsible cited the unpopularity of westerners, particularly Americans, in the kingdom (and the Muslim world as a whole) in recent years. All the attacks were against foreigners. There have been explosions in the past specifically targeting US bases, such as the one in Khobar, in which American troops were killed; more recently, a US warship was sunk by an explosion, killing its crew in neighbouring Yemen.
But the Saudi authorities linked the first bombs to a turf-war within the alcohol mafia over their illegal but lucrative trade, and arrested three westerners: William Sampson (a Canadian), Alexander Mitchell (a Briton) and Raef Schifte (a Belgian). Prince Nayef ibn Abdul-Aziz, the interior minister, was quoted on February 5 as saying that they had been arrested in connection with the first two car-bombs.
All three appeared on state-run Saudi television on February 4 and confessed to the killings in November, reading from written texts. Mitchell said: “I confess that I was ordered to carry out an explosion here in Riyadh, which took place on Friday the 17th November, the year 2000. The explosion was directed against Christopher Rodway, who is a British national. I placed the explosive device under the driver’s seat of Christopher’s car.”
But the British media and Mitchell’s friends in Britain took the view that the statements were extracted under duress, arguing that the Saudis were anxious to blame the bombings on “infidels in the west”, and prove thereby that “Saudis are peaceful people” whose prosperous country is not the “target of terrorist attack”, as a London-based Sunday paper put it on February 11. They insisted that the real culprits are Islamic groups that are opposed to the regime and resentful of westerners. Western human-rights organisations also condemned the treatment of the westerners in detention. They and the media spared no thought, of course, for the 50 activists rounded up by the Saudi authorities in November and spirited away into torture chambers.
In fact the odd media report that referred fleetingly to the Saudi activists’ plight did so in order to prove that their allies and supporters were responsible for the bombings. Yet, oddly enough, most of the British media’s reports, while asserting the innocence of the arrested Britons, also described at length the decadence of the expatriate community, the activities of the alcohol-and-drugs mafia, and the dangers of the illicit trade. They even accused diplomats of smuggling alcoholic drinks into their compounds in diplomatic bags.
A report in the London Observer on February 11 argued that by pinning the blame on foreigners linked to the underground drinking industry, Saudi Arabia “lifted the lid off one of its best-kept secrets - the decadent high life enjoyed by foreigners there”. The report added that, despite strict laws banning drinks and drugs, it “is possible to party around the clock in Saudi Arabia”, with alcohol “freely available”.
There was even the odd report that balked at blaming the Saudis for the crackdown on foreigners. The London-based Independent on Sunday wrote on February 11 that it was “difficult to argue” that the authorities were “wrong to order a clampdown when the damage done by drinking in the expat community is examined”. The report added: “Yet when bombs are going off and people are getting hurt, they may have had little choice but to call time on the alcohol-fuelled excesses of their drunken guests”.
But the western media, politicians and human-rights groups are mostly not worried about the activities of the “drunken guests”, the offence they are causing to Muslims, and their corrupting influence on Muslim society in the peninsula. Equally clearly, the Saudi ruling elite - content to receive protection-money from the alcohol mafia, which is ready to bribe and kill to safeguard an industry which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars - is not serious about eliminating the industry, the mafia or the “drunken guests”. After all, arresting a handful of westerners - when, according to one estimate, there are almost 300,000 Europeans and North Americans ‘working’ in the kingdom - is not even scratching the surface. Unfortunately, radical change must wait on the removal of the ruling dynasty.