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Reform in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? 8, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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This is an article that was published in Infinity Journal at the start of this year.

For those studying the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and attempting to discern its future directions, there are two broad schools of thought into which opinions fall. One says that the Kingdom is slowly but surely reforming; that the elite — or at least enough of the elite — believe that reforms are critical to the future of Saudi society. This line of thinking usually endows King Abdullah with relatively liberal values and a desire to open up the Kingdom. The other school suggests that the real heart of the elite is true-blue conservative with a very large C. Concessions for greater rights and freedoms, where they have been made, were grudgingly employed because of international (or indeed domestic) pressure to do so. The protagonist for this side of the argument is usually referred to as Prince Naif, the head of the Ministry of the Interior. Deciding which camp is closer to the truth is made all the more difficult by there being ample evidence for both sides.

In the months around the turn of 2008 there were a myriad of confusing, contradictory and disheartening reports on women’s rights. In November 2007 the Saudi appeal court doubled the sentence of a 19-year-old Saudi woman who was gang raped 14 times from three to six months in jail and from 100 to 200 lashes. Her initial ‘crime’ was sitting in a car with a man who was not related to her and her sentence was upped because she spoke out against the lenient sentences handed to her attackers. This understandably created international opprobrium and led – over a month later – to King Abdullah pardoning the woman for the crime and thus sparing her the punishment. Despite the barbarism of the initial sentencing and the inhumanity and callousness of the appeal, in the end, some kind of sense prevailed.

In January this year there was another small step forward for women’s rights when it was decreed that women could now stay in hotel rooms by themselves. True, there were draconian caveats on this, but again it is one milestone – albeit a small one — in the right direction. More importantly, however, the very next day it was reported that women in Saudi Arabia would be able to drive ‘by the end of the year.’ This would be a massive (if unlikely) step forward. The fact that a woman could drive is more or less incidental: it is the fact that this has become the symbol of the battle over Saudi women’s rights which makes this so important.

Back in 1990 a group of women drove through the streets of Riyadh hoping to capitalise on the presence of so many foreign reporters in the Kingdom owing to the Gulf War, only to be arrested and have their jobs taken away. The time was, it seems, not right. However, that is all it is: timing. It is agreed that there is nothing whatsoever in the Quran which forbids women to drive. Indeed, two prominent Saudi scholars including one of Saudi’s most senior religious figures, Abdel-Mohsin al-Obaikan, have recently reaffirmed this widespread belief. However, aside from practical issues (is it safe for women to wear the mandatory Niqab when driving?), problems lie in the fact that many of those against allowing such a practice see this as making it easier for men and women to fraternise. Moreover, they see women driving as the first great step towards a more liberal and permissive society.

In recent years, there have been other smaller but still significant improvements in women’s rights, which could be seen as softening up the ground for the decisive decision over women driving. For example, women may now travel abroad without a male companion (though his permission is still needed), own companies and seek a divorce. Further sign of progress was seen at the end of January when the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs allowed the creation of a women’s charity – ‘Ansar Al Marrah’ (supporters of women). Its stated goal is to help women improve their social, educational, and cultural levels. The degree to which it will be able to help is, however, entirely dependent on the level of support that it receives from the authorities. Nevertheless, this is another positive sign.

On a more negative note, at the start of February a woman was arrested for having a coffee with a work colleague in a Starbucks. She was put in jail, denied the right to call her husband, and forced to thumbprint (sign) a prewritten confession. It was only when her husband found out about this and managed to pull some strings that she was released. There have been suggestions that she might seek legal advice against the religious police that arrested her and the Ansar Al Marrah has offered their help.

The arrest was carried out by the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, who used to be a feared organisation in the Kingdom and were highlighted in a recent UN report as “reportedly often act[ing] independently and are accountable only to the governor…[and thus] said to be responsible for serious human rights abuses in harassing, threatening and arresting women who ‘deviate from accepted norms.’” Their powers today are as wide-ranging today as they have ever been, but, tellingly, in 2006 [the last year for which there are records available] there were record numbers of attacks on the religious police by angry citizens in addition to a number of high-profile incidents highlighting the seemingly growing trend against the police in more recent years. This could suggest that the Saudi population is turning a corner.

A number of factors appear to cause or support such changing attitudes. The explosion of blogging has been a well-documented phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. Whilst the police have been cracking down on this, including the arrest (for no official reason) and eventual release of one of the country’s most famous bloggers, Fouad Al Farhan, it is still a massively popular means for Saudis to discuss social and political issues. Additionally, the slow but sure encroachment of Western values via American soft power (i.e. through television, films, music, education in America, etc.) could finally be having an effect.

However, the religious police are not giving up easily, as shown by the arrest of large numbers of Saudi young men for the outrageous, scandalous, and reprehensible, moral, legal and ethical crime of allegedly “flirting” with a group of girls covered head to toe in a shopping mall in the Kingdom. Not to mention the arrest and sentencing of a lecturer at a Saudi university to flogging for meeting with a female student and the death sentence passed down to an illiterate woman who was accused of being a witch.

Reform is coming, even if at times it comes at a glacial pace. The only question is how well the country can manage this transformation. There is worrying scope for destabilisation, which King Abdullah is all too aware of. Indeed, maybe one ought to fall back on the trite, unhelpful, clichéd — but nevertheless true — fact that it took the Western world significantly longer than 150 years to give equality to the sexes. Saudi Arabia is a young country: all we can hope is that it is a quick learner.

Jewish businessman to buy half of Al Jazeera? 8, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Qatar.
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Micheal Collins Dunn turns Sherlock Holmes over the rumour that Jewish-Egyptian mogul Haim Saban is seeking to buy a large stake in Al Jazeera. Dunn comments that the notion that strong Jewish supporting tycoon buying Al Jazeera off the Qatari Royal Family sounds anywhere from bizarre to ridiculous (the latter of which being the end of the spectrum at which I stand). A bit of digging and Dunn goes to the source of the story, Egypt’s fairly scurrilous and tabloidish Al Misryyoon. Given the papers penchant for publishing – how to put this – not necessarily 100% corroborated reports and Egypt’s general antipathy towards Qatar these days and there is a perfect recipe for a naughty little story to stir up a bit of trouble.

Syrian student ban on KAUST’s new supercomputer 8, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Saudi Arabia.
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Saudi King Abdullah’s latest pet project, the much hyped, well funded and so far independent and autonomous King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) has been grabbing headlines throughout the world. One of their boasts was that the University would be equipped with one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, nicknamed Peregrine. Scholars from distinguished Universities such as Stanford, Oxford and Cornell, to name a few, would have access to Peregrine as partners in this endeavour.

In an odd but somehow unsurprising turn of events it transpires that, according to Arabian Business 15  Syrian students at KAUST will be denied access to Peregrine at America’s behest because of their ongoing Syrian embargo. Such a clause was apparently inserted into the IBM-KAUST memorandum of understanding (MOU) taking the decision out of the hands of the University.

However, with the recent visit of King Abdullah to Syria and gently mooted notions of some kind of Syrian-US rapprochement, lifting such a ban could be used as a simple and relatively cheap American sign of support and good will in the near future. Indeed, it is hardly as if it is a particularly effective ban that impinges in any way, shape or from on the powers that be in Damascus.

Overall, this situation is, however, only a small blip in KAUST’s otherwise impressive start. One must hope, therefore, that KAUST can, overall, resist such changes and maintain (or rather build up) its international reputation and not be dragged down by niggly but nevertheless pertinent issues restricting access, freedoms and the independence of the institution as a whole.

Al Jazeera on domestic worker abuse 8, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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Hat tip: Victoria’s blog.

The power of the Lord 8, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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…did not extend to 11 year old Kara after she died because her parents decided to prey for her as opposed to seeking medical help. Kara died from a complex but treatable illness on the floor of the family home in Wisconsin surrounded by people preying for her, not treating her. It is not as if the symptoms were mild and a serious illness was not manifestly apparent: she became too weak to speak, eat, drink or walk. The parents have been sentenced to one month in jail each for six years as opposed to a maximum 25 year sentence for second degree murder.

This sentence appears to be, however, lenient in the extreme considering that neither mother nor father consider themselves to have done anything wrong. The mother maintained that she did not “regret trusting in the Lord for my daughter’s health” whilst the father just claimed that he was guilty of ‘obeying his God’. Yet this is the point: he is guilty of follow his interpretation of what his God wants. As the judge said “God probably works through other people, some of them doctors.” However, it seems that because they had ‘good intentions’ they have been essentially let off for effectively killing their daughter.