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Feminism and headscarves 3, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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Never let it be said that I am not in tune with feminists doctrine…here’s an excellent article which, so far as i can see, superbly speaks to one of the touch-stones of feminism: choice. The article is from the Washington Post and tackles the issue of head scarves. The author, Mona Eltahawy, has seen the ebb and flow of general proclivities regarding hard scarves over the years: to wear or not to wear, and now suggests that the general resurgence of Islam (in Egypt for example) is again reducing choice. She also rightly points out the bizarre state of affairs between people demanding to wear scarves in one Muslim country (Turkey) and a relative lack of people demanding that women’s oughtn’t have to wear them in another Muslim country (Saudi Arabia or Iran, for example).

More Saudi statements for greater women’s rights 2, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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Prince Turkey Al Faisal the former Saudi Ambassador to the US and the UK recently gave a lecture at King Saud University regarding Saudi Diplomacy. Whilst the lecture is reported to have descended into a somewhat boring history about the Prophet, during the questions and answer at the end, there were a few interesting comments. The following is a quote from Ahmed Al-Omran who attended the conference and was one of the founders of Saudiblogs.org.

Al Faisal admitted that women’s rights are being violated “in the government’s bureaucracy and in the social arena.” He said the government is trying to promote women’s rights but described them as social matters related to the progress of society. Princey Turky said he sees no problem in women’s working as diplomats, and he thinks that they will excel and give a good image for the country. Finishing his remarks, he said he is looking forward to the day when there is no discrimination or injustices against women. “As men, we should put women above our heads.”

Once again, therefore, there are official pronouncements from members of the Saudi Royal family which are clearly in favour of further women’s rights. The unknown factor in this is, therefore, the degree to which the public as a whole are behind such proposals. Or indeed, if the public are mostly behind the Saudi religious police and their recent outrageous actions.

Tension ahead of the Arab summit in Damascus 2, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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Saudi Arabia has removed its Ambassador from Damascus without nominating a successor. This is, as diplomatic rebukes go, fairly high on the list. Riyadh is angry that Damascus appears (not just to Saudi but to everyone in the region and beyond) to be blocking the election of a new Lebanese Prime Minister. The removal of Saudi’s Ambassador is a clear sign that Saudi want some movement on the Syrian side before the annual Arab summit, scheduled to take place at the end of March in Damascus. Indeed, theoretically, was Saudi sufficiently unhappy then they could not hand over chairmanship of the meeting, scheduled to go to Syria, at all. Though it must be said, such an action would have drastic consequences, and is, at the moment at least, unlikely.

It appears as if many other Gulf countries are backing Saudi in this move, though not quite as strongly. Naiela Mouade the Lebanese majority leader revealed that her party has had assurances from “several Arab capitals” that if Syria to not invite Lebanon to the meeting, then there will be a general boycott. However, Arab diplomatic sources are not quote as confident as they report countries saying that rather than a total boycott, simple low-level representation may be sufficient a signal for the Syrian regime. Yet this is not the end of the complexity, as there are decidedly different levels of enthusiasm for a boycott throughout the Gulf. Qatar, Oman and the UAE appear to wish to attend the Damascus conference as opposed to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, who are less keen.

Between now and the conference at the end of the month, there will, no doubt, be a number of subtle and not so subtle articles, speeches, pronouncements, quotes, and off the record thoughts designed to goad and prod various countries in various directions. Trying to keep up with the intrigue and opaque world of Arab diplomacy is a nigh-on impossible task – it is probably best to simply see who turns up in Damascus, rather than follow the twists and turns, dead-ends and about turns that will litter the Arab press in the coming weeks.




The most inappropriate children’s book covers 2, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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This article does exactly what it says on the proverbial tin. Over at theissue.com they recently had a rather funny competition to see who could send in the best doctored children’s book cover. I’ve copied a few of my favourites here. Visit their site from plenty more.




pop up book

Censorship in the Middle East 2, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Middle East.
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After living in the Middle East for a couple of years, you begin to get somewhat accustomed to various kinds of censorship, especially when you live in Kuwait and you are a teacher. I was reminded of the often bizarre nature of censorship by a recent post on the Indie Hour blog. If ever there was proof to the adage that a picture tells a thousand words, this is it. Witness what the Saudi censors did to Nirvana’s Nevermind album cover.

Nirvana censored

If for some reason you can’t remember what the original cover looked like (shame on you), here is the dastardly image in all its Bielzibubian horror.

Nirvana uncensored a

There is not that much you can add to that really.

This incident fervently reminded me of being in the Jarir bookstore in Hawally, Kuwait when one of my friends showed me a children’s book of Whinny the Pooh and friends. The only difference between this book and one from the UK was that Piglet – cute, little, harmless, Piglet – had been heartlessly, brutally and conscientiously scribbled out with black felt pen. Obviously, if Kuwaiti children saw this picture of a cute pig they would no doubt rush out in a panicked and hungry (but fruitless) rampage to find themselves a chunk of pork.

As amusing as these examples are – and they are, to my mind, simply hilarious – there are, need it be said, more insidious examples of censorship in Kuwait and beyond. Teaching in a Kuwaiti school is an eye opening experience. On the wall outside my classroom there was a nice, large world map. However, political sensitivities being what they are, I was instructed to scrub out Israel on the map. Can anyone tell me where Israel is on a world map? Pretty much right in the centre. So, aside from every child in Primary simply walking past the map ten or more times a day and not paying it the blindest bit of notice, they were all transfixed and curious as to the nature of this black square in the middle of the map. “Mr David…shino hatha?” ‘What’s that’ – was all I heard for weeks.

Then there are the dictionaries and text books. After they have been carefully vetted by the Kuwaiti Ministry of this or that, we were given a list of what must be erased. Words such as “Israel, Jew, Zionist…etc” were to be blacked out of the dictionaries. (As well as the word “Dawn” for some inexplicable reason). In the text books, all Ancient Greek or Roman statues which depicted nakedness in any some way shape or form were to be given shorts or t-shirts. As did any other picture in any other historical context where the human form was depicted unclothed.

The censorship takes a more insidious form as you progress up the school and is, unsurprisingly, most difficult for History and Biology teachers. Most students in Kuwait sit the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (I-GCSE) which is a British exam. There are, therefore, severe clashes between what the pupils need to be taught and what they can be taught. Whole swathes of History text books were stapled together or just ripped out. These sections generally dealt with the Holocaust or Jews generally. The booklet that came around from the Ministry explained why the Holocaust could not be taught by saying that “others suffered more in the War.” I somehow doubt that the Kuwaiti Ministry of whatever was really that preoccupied with the Russians and their huge losses. It was permitted, however, to teach the Holocaust from the perspective that the Jews deserved it. For example, Kristallnacht could be taught as the teacher could explain, if they so chose, that the reaction against the Jews was understandable given the clichéd notion of Jews being disproportionately rich. The history teachers that I knew were totally unprepared to teach in this manner.

You don’t need much imagination to work out what the problems were for the Biology teacher. Either way, the pupils entered the exams only knowing parts of the syllabus and could conceivably have been examined on topics about which they knew absolutely nothing.

The historical censorship is the more surprising example of the two as the Kuwaiti press is arguably the most liberal in the region and frequently discuss Israel. Often this is even done in a relatively even handed way. The subject of the Holocaust is also discussed from time to time. However, the issue of childhood education is always a touchy subject. Witness the issues and diplomatic incidents in Japan and China in recent years over the school history textbooks.

It is a thoroughly trite and clichéd conclusion, but it has to be made: if the Middle East is ever to see any kind of lasting peace, the education of the next generation needs to be changed. Israel, some months ago, tackled this thorny problem when Yuli Tamir the Education Minister said that Israeli school text books ought to also show pre-1967 borders. Needless to say, this caused an apoplectic fit from the right wingers in the country, but it was the brave and correct decision to make. For an Arab country to make a similar decision is, at the moment, singularly impossible (see my article on the Middle East’s ideological straight jacket). However, hopefully slowly but surely the most egregious examples of bias and bigotry could be removed one step at a time. For example, starting with the simple step of acknowledging that Israel can be shown on a map. Such a transition would, obviously, take a generation or more, but with the way that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is spiralling at the moment, and the way animosities are growing seemingly exponentially, then it may come at just the right time.

What’s the point of Kuwait? 1, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Western-Muslim Relations.
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…was the title of an article by Mshari Al Zaydi of Saudi’s ‘Al Sharq Al Awsat. It is an interesting piece which discusses the Shia Sunni divide in modern Kuwait. This debate was recently sparked off when two Shia Kuwaiti MPs eulogised Imad Mughniyeh after his death in Damascus last month. This, somewhat unsurprisingly, caused an uproar in Kuwait and led to calls for them to be removed from parliament, jailed, exiled and so on.

However, I didn’t find the article especially interesting from that perspective, but because of the way that it discussed Kuwait’s role or raison d’etre in comparison with Saudi Arabia. Al Zaydi quotes a probably apocryphal story where a man who is tired of the morning prayers leaves Saudi Arabia and goes to Kuwait believing that he will not have to perform them there. To his disappointment he is awoken for the morning prayers in Kuwait the very next morning, to which he is supposed to have said ‘what’s the point of Kuwait?’

How general a feeling this is I can not say, but I find it interesting that from this point of view Kuwait is seen as a miniature but less strict Saudi Arabia. Kuwait is, of course, something of a paradox. It has one of the most progressive parliaments in the region with female representation, and female voting all correct and present. Yet, it is one of the few countries that bans alcohol entirely and they even have specific x-ray machines at the airports to catch those trying to smuggle it back into the country. But their paradoxical stance is apparent here as well, as if they find a bottle of Bombay Sapphire in your bag (or indeed nominally pork hot dogs) all they do is shrug their shoulders, put it under their counter and sell it on to you at a later date at an eye-wateringly expensive mark up. Kuwaitis are also a relatively cosmopolitan bunch and go travelling abroad a lot. The road thorough Saudi to Bahrain is, to say the least, well worn. And why are they going there? Like the Saudis who flood there in absurd numbers across the King Fahd Causeway every weekend, neither group are going there repeatedly for the nice views or to see cultural artefacts. 

But, as Al Zaydi points out, Kuwait was supposed to be, and indeed believed to be “a scene that was a model for the Gulf and was admired and appreciated by the people of the Gulf owing to the tolerance and development that it demonstrated.” Therefore, with the Shia Sunni tensions that this recent Mughniyeh episode has revealed, what is the point of Kuwait, if not to act as an antidote to such primitive urges?

However, I do not think that the picture is quite as grim as Al Zaydi paints it. I do not forsee Kuwait’s demise, having been riven in two by ancient tribal hatreds in any way, shape or form. Why? Simply because they have so much money in Kuwait. They are, overall, too busy counting the cash, buying Humvees, shopping in Marina Mall, holidaying in Cairo, Bahrain, and London, and eating out at TGI’s to have the time or indeed crass stupidity to mess things up when they are going so well at present.

The point of Kuwait at the moment is, therefore, to brazenly and boldly show how compatible Western and Arab culture can be. Kuwait is a country littered, imbued and infested with Americana, which the population have thoroughly taken to. Nevertheless, they have kept some of the more austere elements of Islam, such as the prohibition of alcohol. Of course, there are, from time to time, examples of hostility between these groups, such as the closing of the Virgin Megastore for a few days for carrying some quasi-salacious magazine. Yet, owing to no small degree to its epic windfall, Kuwait is a success and a model to be followed if at all possible.


The Arab ideological straightjacket 1, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Lebanon, Middle East.
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Professor Barry Rubin at the Global Research Center for International Affairs (GLORIA), the people who manage, edit and produce the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), wrote an interesting and insightful argument about the blanket ideological straightjacket that pervades the Middle East. He, somewhat unfortunately, dubs this the Arab Ideological Doctrine Syndrome: AIDS. This is used to describe a general state of mind and policy whereby fighting Israel or America is the ultimate way to gain acceptance and righteousness. It doesn’t matter how you pursue this; if you are successful, what the repercussions of this are, or how badly this affects your country, people or friends – to fight Israel and America is to be immune to criticism and to be a saint. As Rubin eloquently puts it:

 You can lose the war (like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser), wreck your own country (like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein), be a dictator (like Syria’s Hafiz and Bashar al-Asad), lead your people into catastrophe (like Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat), and be extraordinarily corrupt (like…everybody) but it doesn’t matter as long as you fight Israel and the West.

Obviously, there are people who do not abide by such an ideology, who do not fight Israel or America. They are, therefore, by default and definition, pejoratively described as pro-US, appeasers, spies for the West, or moderates – and in this case, to be called a moderate is certainly a bad thing. Rubin uses the example of Lebanese cabinet minister Marwan Hamada. He was interviewed by Press TV, the Iranian news channel, where he defended himself from being accused of being a Western spy, the default position for anyone in the Lebanese government who is not out rightly supporting Hezbollah and castigating America or Israel as the devil incumbent.

He refuted the claim that he was a Western spy and simply maintained that he was a Lebanese patriot. Usually, as Rubin points out, such a line would be a sure-fire popular vote winner of a line. To be a patriot, to put your country’s interests first and foremost, to do all you can to ensure its viability, strength and security against all enemies is ordinarily the simple way to acquire legitimacy and respect. But not in the Middle East. Because Hamada puts his country first and above all else (unlike many of the actors in Lebanon) this means that he does not want to pitch Lebanon into the control of either Iran or Syria, allow Lebanon to be changed into an authoritarian Islamist state, or be “dragged into an unnecessary, damaging, unwinnable war with Israel.” All of which helps to explain why he was nearly assassinated a couple of years ago – he has no shortage of enemies.

Whilst Hamada may well be no saint himself, it is surely clear that he is one of many actors around the Middle East who try to eschew the typically damaging, retrograde but populist policies of attacking the common enemy. Rubin concludes by saying that this broad ideological outlook which makes enemies of moderates is the very reason why “peace, moderation, and pragmatism still cannot win there.” This is an unfortunately plausible and seemingly just conclusion. Perhaps the only hope is that the average ‘Arab on the street’ is able to distinguish between the seductive and the pragmatic policies as offered by politicians and people with power.