The slum where BBC’s Frank Gardner was shot [Archives:2004/746/Opinion]
By John R. Bradley*
For the Yemen Times
The slum in a southern district of Riyadh where an Irish cameraman was killed and a British BBC reporter was critically wounded last week is only a short drive from the bright neon lights, towering skyscrapers, gated royal palaces and walled residential compounds of one of the world's wealthiest capitals.
But, as the impoverished epicenter of the kingdom's new Islamic insurgency, it is a world away from Riyadh's veneer of twenty-first century modernity.
The Al-Suwaidi district has a reputation as a bastion of strict Wahhabism even among the other residents of the ultraconservative Islamic kingdom. It attracts a steady stream of villagers from the surrounding countryside in search of a better life in the city.
The more than half-a-million people already crammed into the district live in a massive entanglement of narrow lanes, pot-holed roads and open sewers, and suffer frequent power and water outages.
Since they are the people most attracted by the Al-Qaeda's call to rid the kingdom of corruption and decadence, the slum has predictably become fertile breeding ground for Islamic extremism.
It is also a perfect environment for the kind of guerilla warfare Al-Qaeda's leader in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin, called for just two days before last week's attacks in Khobar, which left 22 people dead. But until now, the radicals had by necessity taken their fight from the slums and into the cities. Freelance cameraman Simon Cumbers and BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner were therefore comparatively easy pray. The assailants would have slipped away undetected into the maze of back alleys within seconds of carrying out the attack.
Riyadh is well on way to becoming the first mega city of the Gulf, with a population projected to exceed 11 million by 2020 – one of the highest ratios of capital to national population anywhere.
In recognition of its slums' potential for providing recruits to the cause of Osama Bin Laden, reform-minded de facto leader Crown Prince Abdullah made a tour of the Al-Suweidi district last November.
On live TV, he admitted to a socioeconomic problem that many rich Saudis and conservative members of the royal family would still prefer not to acknowledge, even privately.
Nevertheless, the Saudi people know how untrustworthy are promises of reform from the Al-Saud ruling family, and the young men of the slum's families contrast their own lives with the opulence and indulgence of the Saudi princes and ''infidel'' Westerners just a few miles away.
Although Al-Suwiedi, like the other slums on the edge of all the kingdom's new urban centers, effectively becomes a police no-go area after dark, in the last eight months it has been the scene of at least two armed clashes between the Saudi security forces and
Mr Gardner was on his way with his cameraman to film the family home of Ibrahim al-Rayyes, a terror suspect killed in a shootout with security forces in the slum last December.
Al-Rayyes was on a list of the 26 most wanted militants issued by authorities in December, whose photos and names were splashed across the front pages of Saudi newspapers last year.
An estimated 14 of the 26 other listed suspects either originally come from, or had recently moved to, Al-Suwaidi, including the kingdom's Al-Qaeda leader Al-Muqrin.
In November, an overnight siege in Al-Suweida left one presumed Islamist militant dead, several security men wounded, and five suspected militants in custody.
Al-Arabiya television showed footage of Mr Gardner sitting on the tarmac with multiple bullet wounds. According to a police officer, he pleaded for his life while shouting to onlookers to help him.
As shocking as the bloodstains on his white pullover was the fact that locals appear to have merely looked on, apparently unmoved by the sight of this “infidel” in such distress.
* John R. Bradley, formerly managing editor of Arab News, Jeddah, is author of the forthcoming book, Saudi Arabia Exposed: Princes, Paupers & Politics in the Wahhabi Kingdom (Palgrave-Macmillan, March 2005). His website is www.johnrbradley.com.