RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–A new king -– and new custodian of Islam’s most sacred sites — has taken the throne in Saudi Arabia.
The ailing King Fahd, who inherited the desert kingdom his father founded and saw become the world’s biggest and richest oil producer, died Aug. 1. Crown Prince Abdullah, de facto ruler since his elder brother Fahd began suffering debilitating strokes a decade ago, now is officially the absolute monarch over more than 25 million people in Saudi Arabia.
Abdullah recently visited the Texas ranch of President Bush, who calls him a friend and ally against global terror. The new king styles himself as a moderate and a reformer, according to Saudi watchers. But he stands between powerful and opposing pressures inside and outside his kingdom: internal threats from radical Islamist forces and international demands that he democratize Saudi society and wipe out the brand of extremism that produced Osama bin Laden.
He allowed local elections (for male voters only) earlier this year and has sponsored some educational reforms. But don’t expect major change any time soon, advises “Jess Martin,”* a Christian who closely observes events in the kingdom.
Why? Because of tradition, a culture that rewards conformity and consensus –- and exclusive Islamic rule. Any other public religious expression is forbidden and punished, even among foreign workers.
Expatriate workers from Asian nations like the Philippines and Bangladesh who dare to worship Christ in home groups usually receive harsher treatment –- including arrest and imprisonment — than Westerners. Any Saudi Arab who embraces a faith other than Islam will face persecution and possibly death.
In the economic arena, whole industries languish because of over-dependence on oil wealth and “a cultural predisposition to keep people out,” Martin says. “In Saudi Arabia, they build compounds for foreigners — not to keep the Saudis outside but to keep foreign vices inside. They want people to come (from abroad), but they don’t want them to negatively influence society. That’s partly why the Saudis have been so unaffected by Christianity.”
A rich, essentially closed society built over four generations on the foundation of age-old customs won’t change in a few years. “You’re talking a generation, minimum,” Martin predicts.
“You see money taking great precedence in Saudi Arabia — having money, getting more money. Having a place of honor. A lot of the current violence is about power. Who will control?”
The quest for power and control drives Osama bin Laden and many other violent Islamists much more than religious zealotry, Martin says: “Anybody who says bin Laden is a ‘puritan’ in his faith is a liar. He is about power” –- which is the real reason he seeks to “purify” the Middle East by overthrowing the Saudi royal family and other regimes in the region.
The extremists pose very real dangers inside Saudi Arabia, but they remain a minority.
“Militancy is not where the average Saudi sits,” Martin observes. “The average Saudi wants many of the same things the average American does. He wants his kids to do well in school. He wants to have a certain standard of living. He wants a good job.”
The average Saudi also knows -– deep down –- that he is spiritually lost.
“They don’t need democracy; they need an encounter with the living God,” Martin stresses. “When you go inside a Saudi’s house, and you sit and talk to him, you’ll see his heart and it is just as sinful as everyone else’s — and he knows it. The challenge for us is: What are we going to do about it? What are we going to do in obedience to God to take Christ to the people called Saudi Arabs?”
Wherever he goes in the world, Martin challenges Christians to go to Saudi Arabia –- and to quietly share their faith when they get there. Asians keep going by the planeload because they need the jobs offered by the Saudis. But the number of American and European expatriate workers has dwindled since terrorist threats and attacks against foreigners have increased.
“In John 15, Jesus said, ‘If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also,’” Martin reminds. “I look at people who do bungee jumping and say that’s crazy. Yet, the Holy Spirit has set us free in Christ. We can take risks for His sake, knowing He will carry us through to the end.”
You don’t have to go to Saudi Arabia to share Jesus with a Saudi Arab, however. Just walk down the street, drive across town or visit a university campus.
“They’re in Houston. They’re in Orlando. They’re in Los Angeles,” Martin says. “Will we take a look at them and say, ‘They’re Muslim,’ and run away, or will we take the time to befriend them, embrace them as creations of God needing redemption and offer the only hope they have — Christ? We’ve got to go beyond our church pews. This doesn’t just go for Saudi Arabs. We’ve got to engage all Muslims. You don’t have to go far. You just have to look at who’s around you.”
*Name changed for security reasons
For more information on Saudi Arabs, visit www.lovesaudis.com.