TIME portfolio

Inside a Saudi Arabian Oil Giant’s American Oasis

“When I think back on growing up in Dhahran, it seems like a dream. An American dream in Saudi Arabia.”

Photographer Ayesha Malik grew up in a typical American suburb with cookie-cutter houses, softball fields, and Christmas trees in December. However, her hometown, Dhahran, is located on the east coast of Saudi Arabia, some 8,000 miles away from the California neighborhood it was modeled after.

Dhahran is a 22.5 square-mile gated compound built for the American expatriate workers of Aramco, the biggest oil company in the world. Now owned by the Saudi state, Aramco was originally founded in 1933 as a U.S.-Saudi joint venture. Palm trees and lush lawns were imported after striking black gold.

“Growing up, I didn’t differentiate between ‘American’ and ‘Saudi’,” says Malik. “In my world, abayas and softball fields were very compatible. As I got older, I realized what a rare privilege it was to have the chance to experience Saudi Arabia.”

 Dhahran Saudi Arabia
Ayesha MalikStreet signs in Dhahran are written in both Arabic and English.

The opportunity for Westerners to travel, let alone photograph, in Saudi Arabia has always been severely restricted. “Sure, [Dhahran] is in Saudi Arabia, but it’s not really Saudi Arabia,” Malik tells TIME. Outside the Aramco compound, women can’t drive, shops close multiple times a day for prayer, and restaurants are segregated between families and single males, she says.

In Dhahran, Malik can drive, ride a bike, and photograph her hometown. But, if she steps out of the compound, she cannot enjoy the same range of freedoms without being accompanied by a male relative, and must conform to the country’s stringent rules. “I still get told to put my camera away by guards at the mall,” she says. “Legally, I can take photos in public — but that wasn’t always the case. For years, camera phones were banned at the mall, but there is no way that could be controlled in this day and age.”

 Dhahran Saudi Arabia Mall
Ayesha MalikDhahran Mall, a 10 minute drive outside of the compound. Women usually wear abayas outside of Aramco’s compound.

With her Pakistani origins, her American passport and Saudi background, Malik is perfectly positioned to document Saudi identity, which now forms an integral part of her work as a photographer. “I try not to let the restrictions on women get in my way,” Malik tells TIME. “I focus on the positive. As a woman, I have the chance to meet and speak with many other young women in Saudi Arabia, which would not be doable as a man. I get my fair share of rejections [from men and women], but I also find that people are more curious and open to [being photographed].”

Saudi Arabia is a complex country, and the pace of change is slow, Malik says. However, she sees signs of a shifting status quo. “I just don’t think you can look at Saudi Arabia and implement changes based on a Western perspective,” she says. “Saudi Arabia takes great pride in its history and tradition, but it also values the importance of a future in the modern world.”

Ayesha Malik is a photographer based in New York City and Riyadh.

Marisa Schwartz is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.com. Follow her on Instagram and twitter.

 

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Says the Chapel Hill Shootings Were a ‘Terrorist’ Act

Namee Barakat, center, watches during funeral services for his son, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Feb. 12, 2015, in Wendell, N.C.
Chuck Liddy—The News/ Observer/AP Namee Barakat, center, watches during funeral services for his son Deah Barakat in Wendell, N.C., on Feb. 12, 2015

Thousands also march in Qatar to show solidarity with victims

Saudi Arabia has condemned the killing of three American Muslims in North Carolina as “heinous” and a “terrorist” act.

A statement published by the official Saudi Press Agency on Sunday also called for an end to incitement against Muslims, the Associated Press reports.

On Sunday, several thousand people took part in a march in neighboring Qatar to show solidarity with the families of the North Carolina victims.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is made up of 57 Muslim countries, also expressed concern, saying the murders reflected “rising anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobic acts” in the U.S.

Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Abu-Salha were killed last Tuesday by their neighbor Craig Hicks. The FBI is now investigating whether their deaths were the result of a hate crime.

[AP]

 

TIME Saudi Arabia

Two Saudi Women Who Were Detained for Defying a Driving Ban Have Been Freed

Mideast Saudi Arabia Women Driving
Loujain al-Hathloul—AP This Nov. 30, 2014, image made from video released by Loujain al-Hathloul, shows her driving toward the United Arab Emirates–Saudi Arabia border before her arrest on Dec. 1, 2014, in Saudi Arabia

The pair had spent two months in jail

Two women’s-rights campaigners from Saudi Arabia, who were detained for defying a ban on female driving, have been released after spending two months in prison, a fellow activist said on Friday.

Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysaa al-Amoudi had been held since Dec. 1, after al-Hathloul, 25, attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates, Agence France-Presse reports.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving.

“Yes Loujain is free,” an activist who spoke to al-Hathloul after her release told AFP.

Al-Amoudi, a 33-year-old Saudi journalist who lives in the U.A.E., was arrested after she arrived at the border to help her friend. Al-Amoudi’s family says she was also let out of prison.

It is unclear whether the pair still face charges, or if any conditions were put on their release.

[AFP]

TIME politics

With Friends Like These

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

It’s time for an honest conversation about Saudi Arabia and the roots of Islamist terror

“We … see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge–or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon,” President Barack Obama recently told the National Prayer Breakfast. “We have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism.” A pretty strong statement, one would think. But it went largely unnoticed because of what the President said next: that Christians should be humble, because terrible acts–the Crusades, the Inquisition–had been committed in the name of Christ. Undoubtedly true too. My family was chased from Spain by the Christians in 1492, after Jews had lived there for centuries peacefully–if not totally free–under Muslim rule.

Assorted historical ignorami rose to challenge the President on the Crusades, including, sadly, former governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore, who accused the President of not believing “in America and the values we share.” But I’m not going to waste a column shooting ducks in a barrel. I’m more interested in another question. Why is the President willing to say all that stuff about ISIS terrorists and not call them what they actually are: Islamic radicals?

At first glance, this might seem a classic case of political correctness–which can be defined as avoiding hard truths in order to salve soft sensibilities. It’s certainly true that it is unfair to indict a global faith followed by more than 1.6 billion people, the overwhelming majority of whom consider ISIS an insane distortion of the Prophet’s teachings. “ISIS is a political movement,” says Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies and a former Obama Administration official. “It is an anticolonial movement, an attempt to separate whites from browns … Why should we be coronating ISIS and giving it the credibility it craves by calling it an ‘Islamic’ movement?”

But ISIS is, most definitely, a twisted extrapolation of a religious-political trend that gained traction in the region about a hundred years ago, after the egregious European gobbling, slicing and dicing of the Middle East. When you look at all the straight-line borders in that part of the world, you can be sure the locals didn’t draw them. Anger over the European usurpation is one thing Shi’ites and Sunnis have in common. The Iranian revolution of 1979, which imposed a brand-new form of political Shi’ism on a freewheeling country, was a reaction to the Western-imposed government of the Shah. On the Sunni side, the radical Salafist movement began in the late 19th century, also as a reaction to Western imperialism and ideas. It has become a powerful strand of thought in the Arab world.

“We have a serious internal debate in one of the world’s three great monotheisms,” says Michael Hayden, the former CIA director. “It has to be faced head on.” It is fine to call the ISIS adherents thugs and gangsters, but they are also Muslims. “Of course this is an Islamic issue,” Hayden continues. “It’s not about all Muslims or even the vast majority,” but reactionary Islamic radicalism–militant Salafism–is the source of the ongoing violence.

And the wellspring of Salafism is Saudi Arabia’s extreme, expansionist Wahhabi Islamic sect. Part of the reason Obama can’t utter the words Islamic radicals is that we have not been able to have an honest conversation about our Arabian ally. The Saudi royal family is a source of stability in the region, and under the late King Abdullah, it was a mild force for reform, especially in education. But the Saudi elites have funded not just al-Qaeda but also radical madrasahs throughout the Islamic world. They do it cleverly, privately, through “charitable” institutions. The impact has been enormous. In the 1990s, I asked Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan how her country had changed in the previous 25 years. “I used to be able to go out on the street wearing jeans” and without a headscarf, she said. I asked her why she couldn’t do that now. “The Saudis,” she replied, immediately–a reference to the Saudi-funded madrasahs that were rapidly replacing the ineffective public schools in her country. The Taliban came out of those madrasahs, just as a great many of the ISIS criminals do now.

This is not just an Obama problem. Both presidents Bush were way too close to the royal family. There is a secret section of a report by congressional intelligence committees that may relate to the Saudi role in the attacks. That section should be made public now, as an ongoing suit by the families of 9/11 victims has demanded. If we are going to continue to donate American lives to the fight–and sadly, we must, to protect our country from terrorist attacks–we need to be clear about exactly who the enemy is.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland


This appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Prince Charles Will Raise Plight of Christians During Saudi Arabia Visit

Prince Charles visits Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, Feb. 8, 2015.
Sam Tarling—Corbis Prince Charles visits Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, Feb. 8, 2015.

The Prince of Wales is also likely to ask for clemency for a jailed Saudi blogger and two women arrested for driving

Prince Charles has spent much of his adult life feeling he can’t win. He’s often criticized for doing too much, “meddling” in issues of the day, yet his opponents are just as apt to accuse him of doing nothing useful at all. On Tuesday these apparently contradictory responses to the heir to the throne of the United Kingdom will crackle across the headlines and flare into scornful tweets and posts as he arrives in Saudi Arabia on a trip that has already taken in Jordan, moved on to Kuwait and will also include Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. His frequent sojourns in the Middle East rarely fail to spark controversy, and his visit to Saudi Arabia could scarcely come at a more delicate time.

The Kingdom, unlike his own, is grappling with the upheaval caused by the transition from a long-reigning monarch to a newcomer. King Salman has succeeded to the throne vacated by the Jan. 23 death of his older half-brother King Abdullah and is already rolling back some of the cautious reforms Abdullah implemented. The nation also sits at the center of the interlocking crises gripping the Middle East. It is both a wellspring of jihadism and a crucial bulwark against the march of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other militant groups. But it is Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights and freedoms that is likely to play loudest for the Prince. Two cases, in particular, are causing outrage: Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for championing free speech in postings such as these, and Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi, two women sitting in Saudi jails, originally detained for the offense under Saudi law of driving a car despite the accident of birth that made them female.

A similarly random accident of birth gives Prince Charles a platform and an influence among the upper tiers of the Saudi establishment. Royals feel comfortable with royals. Yet that’s not the only reason the Prince has become, in the words of an official from Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “a huge asset” to British diplomacy in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. He has assiduously been building on that innate advantage since 1993, when he delivered a speech just before embarking on a trip to Saudi Arabia. His words — startling at the time in their acknowledgment of Christianity’s own muddy history and his call for closer ties between Islam and the West — established his status as a friend of Islam; elsewhere it sowed silly rumors that still flourish in corners of the Internet, holding him to be a secret Muslim.

He has continued to reprise some of the themes of that first speech, most recently in a BBC interview just before his current travels during which he did his best to argue for religious faith as a unifying force rather than a divisive one. That view is pretty hard to marry up with the violent fractures in the region he is now touring, but it is to him an article of his own faith. That faith, despite the rumors, is Church of England Anglicanism but the Prince also believes in the common roots of religion and the interconnectedness of much more besides. “Islam — like Buddhism and Hinduism — refuses to separate man and nature, religion and science, mind and matter, and has preserved a metaphysical and unified view of ourselves and the world around us,” he told his audience in his 1993 speech on Islam.

For all these reasons, his Saudi hosts will treat him with the highest respect when he comes calling. That may well mean more photo opportunities that rebound against him, such as his participation last year in a traditional sword dance that inspired predictably scathing responses on social media

What is far less certain is that he will be able to intervene successfully on behalf of Badawi, al-Hathloul or al-Amoudi, though he is likely to use his high-level meetings to communicate the anxiety of Her Majesty’s Government about their plight. He will also raise concerns about the suffering of Christian communities in the Middle East, as he has done before and with increasing urgency as the turmoil in the region has deepened. He may have the ear of Saudi royalty but little or no sway over the country’s judiciary or its religious leaders, who operate in uneasy and fragile balance with the Saudi monarchy but are not under its control.

The imagery from his trip will not reflect these realities, producing instead a series of vignettes of a monarch-in-waiting cosying up to fellow royals, lending support rather than issuing challenges to the harsh regime. The role the Prince has carved out for himself in the region relies on him wielding such influence as he does have in private.

Catherine Mayer’s biography, Born to Be King: Prince Charles on Planet Windsor, is published in the U.S. on Feb. 17 by Henry Holt.

TIME Economy

5 Plunging Numbers That Explain the World This Week

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras looks on before swearing in ceremony of the new deputies that were elected in the January 25 national polls, in Athens, Feb. 5,2015.
Yannis Behrakis—EPA Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens, Feb. 5,2015.

From Greek bond rates to Indonesian approval numbers, these figures tell the story of an unstable world

With spiraling oil prices, crumbling economies, weakened leaders, and intensifying violence in Ukraine and the Middle East, we’re experiencing unusual volatility in markets and geopolitics. Here are five falling numbers that have broad-reaching implications.

1. Down to 1.38%

There’s a huge difference between the current Greek crisis and previous cycles of panic: today bond markets are treating the Greek economy as an isolated patient, swatting away notions of contagion risk to other periphery countries. The numbers tell the story. In the wake of the anti-austerity party Syriza’s victory in Greek elections last month, Spain’s 10-year yield fell to new record-breaking lows, closing at a staggering 1.38% at one point last week. That means Spain can borrow at better rates than the thriving United States. Compare that to Greece’s 10-year yield, which shot above 11% in the days after Syriza took office.

(Source: Eurasia Group, Bloomberg Business: Spain, Greece)

2. -30% Approval

Expectations for Indonesia’s new president Joko Widodo were sky-high when he was elected last summer. (He even graced the cover of this publication in October with the headline “A New Hope.”) But his recent nominee for police chief is a former aide to party powerbroker and ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, raising concerns about her influence over the supposedly independent Joko. Just days after the announcement, police chief nominee was named as a suspect in a corruption probe. Joko’s decision to trim fuel subsidies in November was lauded by investors; after all, between 2009 and 2013, Indonesia spent more on such subsidies than it did on social welfare programs and infrastructure put together. But it’s no surprise that a hike in fuel prices didn’t go over as well with the general population. According to an opinion poll by LSI, Joko’s approval rating has dropped 30 points—from 72% in August to just 42% in January.

(Source: Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Financial Times)

3. -$58 per barrel

The price of Venezuelan oil collapsed from $96 in September to $38 last month. That’s not a good thing in a country where oil exports provide more than 95% of foreign exchange. Venezuela needs that hard currency—more than 70% of its consumer goods are imported. Things are getting bleaker. The International Monetary Fund predicts an economic contraction this year of as much as 7% of GDP. Inflation is over 60%. And an economic perk is coming under threat: Venezuelans enjoy the world’s cheapest gasoline, paying the heavily subsidized rate of roughly $0.06 per gallon. This provision costs the government more than $12 billion a year. In a recent speech, President Nicolas Maduro declared, “You can crucify me if you want, but there’s a need for us to go to a balanced price.” Given all the economic woes and the President’s tanking approval ratings, it’s definitely not the easiest time to rake back this subsidy.

(Brookings, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, International Business Times)

4. -$500,000,000 in military aid

With ISIS rampaging across Iraq and Syria—and Houthi rebels seizing the capital of Yemen and pushing that country into civil war—Saudi Arabia is accelerating its plans to wall itself off from volatile neighbors. In September, the Saudis began construction on a 600-mile wall along the border with Iraq. To the south, they are strengthening fortifications to keep unwanted visitors from breaching the 1,060-mile border with Yemen. Border guards told a CNN correspondent that in just the last three months, they have stopped 42,000 people from crossing a 500-mile section of the border. It’s not just about security—it’s also economic. As of 2013, Saudi citizens represented just 43% of the country’s workers—and only some 15% of the private sector—with the rest consisting of foreign workers. With youth unemployment at around 40% in Yemen, many try to cross in search of work. But even as the spending spree on security continues, the Saudi Kingdom is halting most of its financial aid for Yemen, fearful it could fall into Houthi hands. According to a Yemeni official, the Saudis recently refused to pay $500 million earmarked for military aid.

(Newsweek, Reuters, Bloomberg, CNN, Al Arabiya News, Reuters, Wall Street Journal)

5. -$61,000,000,000 … and -16%

They’re the group of Russians best equipped to weather hard times, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling the burn. In 2014, the 21 wealthiest people in Russia lost a combined $61 billion—a quarter of their net fortune. Those who aren’t losing money are removing it: 2014’s net outflows by companies and banks topped $150 billion. That’s more than double the 2013 figure, and shatters the old record from ’08, amidst the financial crisis. The IMF expects the Russian economy to contract 3.5% in 2015. At least Russians can express their dismay while drinking more affordable liquor: this week, Moscow passed a new measure cutting the minimum price of a bottle of vodka by 16%.

(Reuters, Businessweek, IMF, Washington Post)

 

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Women Right-to-Drive Activists Deploy Twitter, Face Terrorism Court

Mideast Saudi Free Speech
Loujain al-Hathloul—AP A screenshot from a video released by Loujain al-Hathloul on Nov. 30, 2014, shows her driving towards the United Arab Emirates - Saudi Arabia border before her arrest on Dec. 1, 2014, in Saudi Arabia.

It has been nearly two weeks since Saudi Arabia lost King Abdullah, 90, whom his people affectionately labeled “The King of Humanity.” Since then, the notoriously slow-moving country has swiftly shifted gears. The new ruler, King Salman, 79, is the first Saudi King to have an official Twitter account and he addressed his citizens on social media. The Saudi history book is now being written live, 140 characters at a time. But while Saudi communications have moved into the 21st century, other traditions of the nation remain stuck in the past.

King Salman isn’t the only reason Saudi citizens have been glued to their Twitter feeds recently. Nearly two months ago, a determined Saudi woman with a valid driver’s license, Loujain Al Hathloul, 25, drove alone to the Saudi border from neighboring United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since women in Saudi Arabia are unable to drive in the country, the men working at the border confiscated her passport. She sat alone in her car, stranded yet defiant, and let her fingers do the talking. Although she objected to the men taking her passport, Al Hathloul praised them for their hard work. She tweeted how they offered her a 7UP soda, and showed a picture of the food and water bottles they bought for her.

Hours and dozens of tweets later, her UAE-based friend, Saudi journalist Maysaa Al Amoudi, 33, came with her own car to offer supplies to Al Hathloul—like a toothbrush—and support. It was cold and rainy, they each tweeted. At last count, Al Hathloul had 231K Twitter followers and Al Amoudi had 135K. At the time, Arabic hashtags of #LoujainBraveHeart and #LoujainAtTheBorder were trending on Twitter. After Al Hathloul had stayed at her car for a full day, and Al Amoudi for a few hours, tweets from both accounts abruptly stopped.

Al Amoudi did not intend to enter the country, sources say, but both women were taken into custody; Al Hathloul was taken to a juvenile center for girls and Al Amoudi was taken to the al-Ahsa Central Prison. Reports say that Al Amoudi has become ill during her stay, but no details have been released on her condition. It has been 67 days since the women were jailed.

When Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman went on state TV on Jan. 29th, citizens refreshed their smartphone feeds once again. As is the tradition when a new King steps into power, King Salman offered royal decrees. Along with generous salary bonuses and changing of ministers, he ordered the release of certain inmates currently held in Saudi jails. However, there were exceptions, including those jailed for speaking out against the government and human rights activists. Al Hathloul and Al Amoudi are still in jail.

The King’s nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, who is the new deputy crown prince and second in line to the throne, is in charge of Al Hathloul and Al Amoudi’s case. A father of two daughters, Bin Nayef was educated in the U.S. and trained in counter-terrorism at both the FBI and Scotland Yard. His counter-terrorism training means the two women will be reportedly tried in the terrorism court, under a charge called “incitement to public disorder.”

Under the late King Abdullah’s rule (2005-2015), many changes happened for Saudi women. King Abdullah’s began a scholarship program in 2005 that allowed both men and women to pursue higher education at universities abroad without any personal cost. In 2011, the same year another female driver was jailed for defying the driving ban, King Abdullah made the monumental decree that Saudi women would be allowed into the Shura Council, which is the formal advisory board that proposes laws to the King. During that same year, the late King also said that women would be allowed to vote and run for office in the next elections, scheduled for 2015. Two Saudi women living outside of the Kingdom participated in the 2012 London Olympics for the first time ever. The athletes qualified at the last minute, after extreme pressure from outside entities, including Human Rights Watch. In 2013, the number of working women in Saudi Arabia reached almost 400,000, a four-fold increase in just three years, according to Labour Ministry figures. That same year, the Kingdom also saw its first ever Oscar-nominated director for the film Wajdja, written and directed by a Saudi woman, and the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.

Despite the driving ban, there is no official law that prevents women from driving in the country. The Kingdom has been aiming to introduce public transportation to ease tensions. One such project is the King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD) Metro Station in Riyadh—designed by Iraqi-British architecture superstar (and woman!) Dame Zaha Hadid. Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University, in Riyadh, the largest all-female university in the world, has its own driverless metro on campus where women can ride to class on their own.

The last few decades have seen a handful of different Saudi women go behind the wheel, each starting both their the engines and the conversation. For reaching for the car keys, many of these women were jailed, stripped of their jobs and shamed for stepping into the front seat of the car. But, despite the backlash, every few years, another woman tries to break the cycle.

Regardless of the efforts by the late King Abdullah to allow Saudi women to gain more rights and be more active in society, Al Hathloul and Al Amoudi were both jailed during his reign.

What is perhaps most surprising about the women driving movement is the support of fellow Saudi men. A parody video that went viral entitled “No Woman, No Drive,” was released on Oct. 26, 2013 to coincide with the Women2Drive campaign. One of the secondary performers in the video, wearing traditional Saudi attire, is Fahad AlButairi, a well-known Saudi stand-up comedian and actor.

AlButairi married Al Hathloul just five days before her arrest. His updated Twitter bio now reads: “Saudi stand-up comedian | Actor | Host of @LaYekthar | Member of @Telfaz11 | Proud husband of @LoujainHathloul.”

 

TIME Saudi Arabia

So This Saudi Prince Didn’t Actually Graduate From Lewis & Clark College

BAHRAIN-GCC-INTERIOR MINISTER
Mohammed Al-Shaikh—AFP/Getty Images Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in the Bahraini capital Manama on April 23, 2013.

The college corrected a statement by the Saudi Embassy

Saudi Arabia’s new deputy crown prince didn’t get a degree from Lewis & Clark College, the college said Friday, contradicting a statement last week by the Saudi Embassy.

The Saudi Embassy said this month that Prince Mohammed bin Nayef graduated from Lewis & Clark College in 1981, the Associated Press reports.

The college said in a statement that the prince completed coursework in the late 1970s but didn’t get a degree. The prince is “remembered fondly by our alumni, faculty, and staff,” the college said, adding it’s proud Nayef studied there.

The Saudi embassy said the error resulted from a mistranslation.

[AP]

TIME portfolio

Meet Saudi Arabia’s Special Security Forces

These forces don’t pull their punches

In March 2013, photographer Lynsey Addario, along with TIME‘s Africa Bureau Chief Aryn Baker, gained access to Saudi Arabia’s highly secure and secretive Special Security Forces’ training grounds. They witnessed how the elite soldiers’ intense exercise regimen has prepared them to face all forms of terrorism or threats in the Kingdom. Following the death of King Abdullah, Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef, who leads his country’s counterterrorism program and oversees these forces, was named Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. He is now second-in-line to the throne.

Every country has its moment of reckoning. For Saudi Arabia, it was May 12, 2003, when heavily armed militants affiliated with al-Qaeda attacked residential compounds in Riyadh, killing 36, including nine Americans. That assault was just the beginning of a terror epidemic that unleashed car bombings, suicide attacks and targeted assassinations on a country that had known relative calm for nearly a decade. The number of attacks climaxed in 2004, when more than 60, including several foreigners, died throughout the country in a campaign of violence orchestrated by al-Qaeda militants bent on destroying the Saudi monarchy. The government responded by bolstering its Special Security Forces, crack anti-terror teams that work under the Ministry of Interior to root out terrorists in the Kingdom.

For three years, the Special Security Forces battled with militants in the country’s urban expanses, until the threat died down with the capture and killing of the al-Qaeda chief and hundreds of other militants in “pre-emptive” strikes in late 2006 and early 2007. Lessons learned from those early days now form the core of Saudi Arabia’s Special Security Forces curriculum. The forces, which number about 10,000, go through a rigorous training program designed to prepare soldiers for every possible contingency, from an attack on a VIP convoy to hostage search and recovery, bomb clearance, storming militant hideouts, pinpoint parachute landings, precision shooting and surveillance. In March 2013, TIME was granted rare access to a demonstration that put the newly trained recruits through their paces. “2003 to 2007 was a good lesson for us. The kind of training we have now reflects the new era of terrorism,” said Major Ahmad Hakimi, as he guided us through the purpose built facilities just outside Riyadh.

The facility boasts a massive, foam-covered and bullet proof shooting arena with adjustable housing configurations, to mimic urban house clearing. The adjoining warehouse features an entire airplane fuselage so commandos can practice combatting would-be hijackers. Outside recruits practice dropping from helicopters into fake compounds, in the style of the bin Laden capture. They climb up and rappel down water towers and practice hand-to-hand combat with designated “enemies.” They don’t pull their punches either—learning to take a gut punch is part of the training.

Basic military training lasts three months, followed by another month of basic security training and an additional specialization that can last for anything from two months to seven. There is a strong focus on explosives, and Hakimi seemed to take particular delight in having his visitors inadvertently set off pyrotechnic “bombs” triggered by every day objects, from the tab on a can of Pepsi to a doctored Koran or a small briefcase. None of the disguised bombs were invented, he explained. Militants had used each at one time or another in the Kingdom, to devastating effect. “It’s important to realize that anything has the potential to set off a bomb. We have to be aware,” he said.

Saudi society is strictly segregated along gender lines. Even when it comes to security issues, female police deal with women and male police, men. I asked if there were any women in counterterrorism training. Hakimi laughed, and pointed out that there would be no need in Saudi society. So what happens in the case of female terrorists? I asked. Hakimi, our voluble guide with an answer for everything, was momentarily stumped. “I guess,” he allowed, “we deal with terrorists as terrorists. It doesn’t matter when they are trying to harm our nation.”

Lynsey Addario, a frequent TIME contributor, is a photographer represented by Getty Images Reportage.

Michelle Molloy, who edited this photo essay, is a senior international photo editor at TIME.

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