Early on 20 November 1979, or New Year’s Day 1400 in the Muslim calendar, hundreds of armed men from a dozen countries took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Their weapons had been smuggled into the complex and hidden in its subterranean vaults or within the coffins brought there by pious families for blessings upon the departed. The group’s leader, Juhayman al Uteybi, seized a microphone from the Mosque’s startled chief imam and proclaimed a shy young man called Mohammed Abdullah the returned Mahdi – the apocalyptic warrior heralding the end of days. Innocent pilgrims caught up in the chaos fled through window apertures to avoid being taken as hostages.
Nothing in Saudi Arabia has ever been, is, or will be, straightforward. The fanatics who seized the Mosque were partly inspired by Abdelaziz Bin Baz of the new Islamic university, a conservative Wahhabi who constantly inveighed against such dangerous innovations as female newscasters and teachers. Yet Bin Baz and his