How the 1979 siege of Makkah unfolded

Makkah’s Grand Mosque under attack in November 1979. Armed men seized the mosque, locking 100,000 pilgrims and residents inside. (AFP)
Updated 20 November 2019

How the 1979 siege of Makkah unfolded

JEDDAH: Throughout October 1979, close to a million Muslims from around the world had flooded into Makkah for Hajj, the pilgrimage to the spiritual heart of Islam that every physically and financially able believer is obliged to complete at least once in their lifetime.

On the morning of Nov. 20, the call to the first prayer summoned pilgrims from far and wide to the courtyard of the Grand Mosque.

Some were locals, others were visitors who had finished their Hajj pilgrimage two weeks earlier and delayed their departure to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime event, before bidding farewell to a place that for centuries had seen countless millions like them come and go.

It was a little after 5:15 a.m. The first shots rang out across the courtyard moments after the imam, 55-year-old Sheikh Mohammed Al-Subayil, had finished the fajr, the first prayer of the day.

Worshippers stood side by side, forming a circular formation around the Kaaba, as they welcomed the dawn of the new Islamic century. But among their number was a group of fanatics the like of which the Holy Mosque had never seen before.

In the courtyard behind where Al-Subayil stood, the siege of the mosque claimed its first victims — two unarmed police guards gunned down at their posts.

As chaos ensued and the worshippers began to disperse, some managing to flee from the mosque in the confusion before the gates were closed by the attackers, three armed men pushed their way through the crowd toward the imam.

One, dressed in a short, ragged traditional dress, took the microphone and began issuing orders over the mosque’s loudspeakers.  “Get on the minarets! Position the snipers! Close the doors! Deploy the guards! Position the guards and sentinels in front of the doors!”

It was the ring-leader, Juhayman Al-Otaibi. Then he handed the microphone to another man, and what he had to say shocked the imam and all who heard it.

The Mahdi, in the shape of Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Qahtani, had arrived to wipe the world of its evils and was here among the armed men who had seized the mosque and were now locking inside 100,000 pilgrims and residents. The speaker rejected the authority of the Saudi royal family and the ulema, the senior theologians of Islam, as illegitimate. Now everyone present, he said, must come forward to swear the oath of allegiance to the Mahdi.

The man himself, carrying an automatic weapon, stepped forward. He stood near the Kaaba, as the false prophecy adopted by the renegades had predicted the Mahdi would. Juhayman’s men took it in turns to swear their allegiance and then began forcing the worshippers to follow suit.

In the confusion, the imam blended into the crowd and made his way to his office in the mosque. There, he called Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Rashid, president of the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, and told him what was going on — and held the phone up so he could hear the gunshots that were ringing out.

At first, the official response to the wholly unanticipated outrage was confused.

“When these individuals took over the mosque, the first people to deal with them were the mosque police, who at that time were simply unarmed, and there to direct people where to go rather than to enforce security,” said Prince Turki, the then head of the General Intelligence Directorate who at the time of the attack was in Tunis, attending an Arab League summit with Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdul Aziz (later King Fahd).




The National Guard and the Saudi Army began arriving at the Grand Mosque in force to try to retake the building. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (later King Abdullah), then head of the National Guard, was in Morocco. An early-morning phone call from Sheikh Nasser,
the senior cleric in charge of Makkah and Madinah, woke King Khaled to the news that the mosque had been seized. 

The king immediately ordered two senior members of the government, Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, and Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, to assess the situation on the ground.

By 9 a.m. they had joined Makkah’s regional governor, Prince Fawwaz bin Abdul Aziz, in the holy city. Prince Turki, meanwhile, was on the first plane back to Jeddah. In Makkah the National Guard and the Saudi Army had begun arriving at the mosque in force.

At about 8 a.m., a lone police officer approaching the mosque in a jeep was wounded by sniper fire. Minutes later, a fusillade of fire from snipers posted on rooftops and in minarets greeted more officers who arrived on another side of the mosque, killing eight and wounding 36 more.

The behavior of the militants appalled all who witnessed it. In one incident, one of Juhayman’s snipers in a minaret had been shot dead by the security forces outside the mosque and was callously pushed to the ground from the balcony by his compatriots.

It later emerged that weapons, ammunition and food had been smuggled into the mosque before the siege. Some guns had been hidden in large construction containers. But others, taking advantage of the tradition of Islamic funeral prayers conducted by the imam within the sacred mosque, had been concealed in coffins.

“Using coffins of the dead to smuggle arms into the Grand Mosque — who could have thought of exploiting this?” said Rashed Al-Shashai, an artist who as a young boy heard tales of the siege from his grandfather, who worked at the mosque and narrowly avoided being taken hostage.

Inside the mosque, fear and confusion reigned. Juhayman’s men had begun allowing some of the hostages to leave, but it was clear that they had no intention of freeing any Saudis. Many were forced to swear allegiance to the so-called Mahdi.

With others, Al-Shashai’s grandfather moved toward the north of the mosque. As the infamous Mahdi “sermon” blared out of the speakers and occasional shots rang out, they hid behind pillars and looked for a way out.

“They had one of two choices,” said Al-Shashai. “Either they believe in the salvation of Juhayman or believe in their own salvation, search for it themselves and get out of the dilemma they found themselves in.”

They chose the latter and continued moving from one pillar to the next, heading toward the northern end of the Safa-Marwa gallery. It was here that several people, including Al-Shashai’s grandfather, were able to escape. 

By now the courtyard of the Grand Mosque, normally teeming with worshippers by this time on the first day of the new year, was eerily empty.

Juhayman’s men had forced men, women and children into the corridors of the mosque, and the silence was broken only by the crack of bullets as snipers fired on the surrounding security forces.

Juhayman: 40 years on
On the anniversary of the 1979 attack on Makkah's Grand Mosque, Arab News tells the full story of an unthinkable event that shocked the Islamic world and cast a shadow over Saudi society for decades

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Hajj officials says all preparations completed to welcome pilgrims

Updated 24 June 2021

Hajj officials says all preparations completed to welcome pilgrims

  • Due to pandemic, only 60,000 pilgrims will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage as registration is only open to citizens and residents of the Kingdom
  • Officials have completed organizational, service, and health preparations to provide the best services to pilgrims at Grand Mosque in Makkah

JEDDAH: Officials in Saudi Arabia said they have completed all the organizational, service, and health preparations to provide the best services to pilgrims upon their arrival at the Grand Mosque in Makkah during this year’s Hajj season, which will begin mid-July.

The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques said that all field and administrative agencies and departments are working to improve the outputs of business and services through pre-prepared plans and programs.

Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Ministries of Health and Hajj announced earlier this month that a total of 60,000 pilgrims will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage this year as registration is only open to citizens and residents of the Kingdom.

Authorities will take into account COVID-19 health requirements to preserve public health and safety while also facilitating the performance of rituals and worship in the Grand Mosque.

Those wishing to perform Hajj must be free of any chronic diseases, and be within the ages of 18 to 65 years for those vaccinated against the virus, according to the Kingdom’s vaccination measures. 

Hajj pilgrims should be fully vaccinated, or those who took one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at least 14 days before, or those who are vaccinated after recovering from coronavirus infection.


Saudi, Omani officials discuss economic zones ties

Updated 24 June 2021

Saudi, Omani officials discuss economic zones ties

JEDDAH: The secretary-general of the Economic Cities and Special Zones Authority (ECZA), Nabil Khoja, met on Tuesday in Riyadh the undersecretary of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Investment Promotion of Oman, Asila Al-Samsamiya, to discuss special economic zones between the two nations.

They covered cooperation and integration opportunities the zones would offer, with Khoja touching on the ECZA’s role as the organizational umbrella that ensures the alignment of the special economic zones project with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 and national strategies.

He stressed that the meeting with Al-Samsamiya comes within the framework of strengthening international cooperation via special economic zones and seeking to build strategic partnerships.

Khoja noted that the ECZA has expertise in supervising, regulating and controlling economic cities and special zones, which can be shared between the Kingdom and Oman. He added that this will contribute to achieving the goals of the two countries, and to enhance the vital role that the ECZA can play in realizing the objectives of Vision 2030.

This meeting followed an extended session between the ECZA’s team, headed by the vice secretary-general for Special Economic Zones, Wassim Khashoggi, and the deputy chairperson of the Public Authority for Special Economic Zones and Free Zones in Oman, Ahmed Al-Deeb. 

The two parties discussed providing support for Omani efforts to attract Saudi investment for special economic zones and free zones projects in the Sultanate.

They also covered the possibility of establishing a Saudi industrial zone in Oman, which the Saudi side would develop, operate and manage, and build roads to transport goods between the Saudi and Omani special economic zones.

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Who’s Who: Dr. Hessah Al-Ageel, director general at the Saudi Institute of Public Administration

Updated 23 June 2021

Who’s Who: Dr. Hessah Al-Ageel, director general at the Saudi Institute of Public Administration

Dr. Hessah Al-Ageel has been the director general of the women’s branch of the Institute of Public Administration (IPA) in the Eastern Province since 2015.

As part of the IPA’s role in helping public servants, especially those with disabilities in workplaces, the branch recently delivered a three-day, text-processing training program designed for the region’s female public employees with hearing difficulties.

Al-Ageel received a bachelor’s degree in translation from King Saud University (KSU) in 2003. Seven years later, she obtained a master’s degree in applied linguistics (TESOL) from La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. In 2016, she was granted a doctorate in global, urban and social studies from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

In 2005, Al-Ageel joined the IPA, where she served as a faculty staff member in the English language department at the Riyadh women’s branch for nearly 10 years before she was appointed head of the women’s branch in the Eastern Province.

Al-Ageel’s doctoral thesis focused on the behavior of Saudi women in contemporary Arabic-speaking situations. The research she presented for the degree investigated Saudi pidgin Arabic that has emerged as a result of Saudi people interacting with foreign workers, especially Asians.

In 2018, the IPA published an Arabic version of Jason W. Osborne’s “Best Practices in Logistic Regression” translated by Al-Ageel. She has also translated and reviewed a number of scientific papers in different fields, and has led consultation teams in training needs assessment, human resource and organizational structures.

She is also active in increasing awareness about corporate social responsibility and sustainable development goals.


Saudi Arabia will judge new Iran president Raisi by ‘reality on the ground’ — FM

Updated 23 June 2021

Saudi Arabia will judge new Iran president Raisi by ‘reality on the ground’ — FM

  • Prince Faisal says ‘very concerned’ about unanswered questions on Iran’s nuclear program
  • Austrian foreign minister: Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia are unacceptable

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia will judge Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi’s government by “the reality on the ground,” the Kingdom’s foreign minister said on Tuesday.
“From our perspective, foreign policy in Iran is in any case run by the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and therefore we base our interactions and our approach to Iran on the reality on the ground, and that is what we will judge the new government on, regardless of who is in charge,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan told a news conference with his Austrian counterpart during his official visit to the capital, Vienna.
He said he was “very concerned” about unanswered questions on Iran’s nuclear program, an apparent reference to the UN nuclear watchdog seeking explanations on the origin of uranium particles found at undeclared sites in Iran.

Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies continue to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, which Tehran says is entirely peaceful, and its ballistic missiles. US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nucleaar weapons program that it halted in 2003.
Raisi, a hard-line judge who secured an expected election victory on Saturday, said on Monday he wanted to improve ties with Gulf Arab neighbors.

Biden administration officials are insisting that the election of Raisi won’t affect prospects for reviving the faltering 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. But there are already signs that their goal of locking in a deal just got tougher, according to The Associated Press.

Optimism that a deal was imminent faded as the latest talks ended on Sunday without tangible indications of significant progress.

Raisi is likely to raise Iran’s demands for sanctions relief in return for Iranian compliance with the deal, as he himself is already subject to US human rights penalties.

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“I don’t envy the Biden team,” said Karim Sadjapour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has advised multiple US administrations on Iran. “I think the administration now has a heightened sense of
urgency to revise the deal before Raisi and a new hard-line team is inaugurated.”

Meanwhile, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg condemned the continuous Houthi attacks on civilians in Saudi Arabia, describing such assaults as “unacceptable.”

Prince Faisal said the Houthi militia has regularly rejected initiatives for a complete cease-fire, and have always resorted to escalate the situation.

Farhan said Saudi Arabia and Austria shared a “similar vision” regarding the region’s stability, while Schallenberg said his country supports developments taking place in across Saudi Arabia in several areas.

Prince Faisal met for talks with Schallenberg at the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where the two sides discussed opportunities for joint cooperation, developing bilateral relations, and ways to develop them in various fields, especially in light of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s foreign ministry said.
They also discussed ways to enhance joint coordination to serve the interests of the two countries, and the most prominent regional and international developments.
(With Reuters)

Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies continue to pressure Iran over its ballistic missiles and the nuclear program, which Tehran says is entirely peaceful.

US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003.


Who’s Who: Dr. Suzan Mohammed Al-Yahya, director general of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Institute of Traditional Arts

Updated 22 June 2021

Who’s Who: Dr. Suzan Mohammed Al-Yahya, director general of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Institute of Traditional Arts

Dr. Suzan Mohammed Al-Yahya has been appointed director general of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Institute of Traditional Arts.

Al-Yahya will be responsible for managing the institute, implementing its strategic directions and developing traditional arts in line with the institute’s vision.

She is one of the top academics in the field of art and design, having worked as a faculty member at Princess Nourah Bint Abdul Rahman University.

She also worked as a consultant, and was a member of advisory committees at the university and other organizations.

Al-Yahya obtained a master’s degree in art education and a Ph.D. in educational technology, as well as a Ph.D. in educational policies and leadership at the University of Northern Colorado, US.

She has authored research papers in various fields and participated in several scientific conferences.

The institute will launch its first training courses in September aimed at enriching traditional arts, training specialized national cadres, raising the level of public awareness, and preserving tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

The Royal Institute of Traditional Arts is one the initiatives of the Quality of Life Program, part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan.

The Ministry of Culture aims to develop the local cultural sector through education and knowledge. The institute will provide advanced educational programs to prepare young Saudis to help the Kingdom develop its cultural sector along modern lines.