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Can Qatar, Saudi Arabia ease tensions at Gulf Cooperation Council? 24, August 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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It’s the gravest diplomatic crisis the Gulf Cooperation Council has ever faced — but as leaders from the six-member Arab alliance prepare to meet in Jeddah, are things about to get even worse?

The root of the current problem? Qatar simply will not do as it’s told by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have spent months trying to force the energy-rich nation to fundamentally alter its foreign policy. Bahrain, the UAE and the Saudis withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March, and have kept up the pressure ever since.

Read the rest of the article on CNN.COM

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King Abdullah returns & doles out the cash 24, February 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has returned to the Kingdom from a long period of convalescence in America. Three days of holiday have been announced to celebrate this auspicious occasion. Additionally, he has sizably increased the benefits for Saudi citizens including a 15% pay raise for lower paid workers all of which will cost some $36 billion.

I see this increase in benefits more in a Kuwait than a Bahrain model. This is to say both of these states recently increased benefits for their citizens. Kuwait did this as it was the anniversary of independence from Iraq and from the British. Bahrain did this in a desperate ploy to try to placate swathes of their citizens in a Middle East rife with revolutionary sentiment. I imagine that the Saudi King might have been tempted to do give out some cash even had Egypt and Tunisia’s regimes not fallen, though I would guess that he has increased the amounts in light of said events.

Though only fools make predictions, all I would say is that the only reason that Saudi need fear to any great degree is on the death of Abdullah. If it comes soon – he is a frail, recovering octogenarian after all – then aside the inevitable hullabaloo over Sultan being overlooked (which he would be; eventually) Naif’s reaction could be critical. If he stays true ‘to form’ then he may react harshly or at best, firmly, against any demonstrating elements. This, I fear, could then be a catalyst for wider demonstrations and – at the worse case scenario – prompt a serious challenge from another power centre in the Kingdom.

Hat tip: JK

Qatar’s diplomacy shunned 29, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Syria.
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Qatar engages in various diplomatic forays the most famous of which being the startling resolution of the intra-Lebanese disputes back in 2008. Yet, as a short article in Lebanon NOW reports, their attempts to offer assistance are not always taken up. On this occasion Assad of Syria apparently firmly rejected any notion of Qatar mediating between Saudi and Syria earlier this year.

Men and women: the differences 25, August 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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What an embarrassing idiot.

Article catch up 27, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Egypt, French IR, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates.
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– Reuters have an interesting article about Saudi’s dealings with their Shia minority. The most interesting sentence is in the middle:

Saudi King Abdullah removed the governor of the Najran region last year after the Ismaili Shi’ites, a majority in the area, complained about efforts to settle Sunni Yemenis and give them housing and jobs in an effort to marginalise them further.

– The Independent on Sarkozy’s recent trip to the Gulf. It is a neat summary, though quite how it fails to mention the recent case Abu Dhabi torture case (here and here)  or their nuclear ambitions is beyond me.

The presence in Abu Dhabi is seen by President Sarkozy as part of a radical shift of French foreign and security policy away from the independent or “multi-polar” approach taken by the former President, Jacques Chirac. Together with the decision to rejoin the military structures of Nato, the Gulf base is intended as a move towards the “Anglo-Saxon” way of looking at the world. At the same time, both moves are intended to give France a greater stake in Western decision-making.

– It appears as if Obama will be speaking at Cairo University and not at the Al Azhar as some had hoped.

– The extraordinarily optimistic  Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Abdulrahman Al-Attiyah is still hopeful that the Gulf monetary Union will go ahead, despite the UAE pulling out of the deal this past week. I am not that sure how, exactly, the Emirates could have made their wishes any clearer…

Bahrain to get rid of visa sponsoring 7, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Qatar.
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One of the key underlying problems with the issue of migrant workers in the Gulf lies in the sponsorship mechanisms. Workers from India, Indonesia Bangladesh and other countries sign up to a company who sponsor them to get to the Gulf country. This involves paying the company money over time for administration, visas and flights. The problem is that more often than not these companies are poorly regulated and abuse their position. Promised levels of wages often do not come to fruition, their hours can be significantly longer, the companies hold their passports, it is impossible to change jobs and so on.

Bahrain has, however, become the first Gulf country to end this system. According to the BBC such companies will be closed down and instead workers will work directly for the Ministry of Labour. This has advantages: it will enable the workers to retain their passport; they will be able to hand in a resignation letter and change jobs if they so choose and there is more accountability in the government department than an anonymous sponsorship company.

There are three possible motives for Bahrain’s decision. First, they could be doing this for humanitarian reasons; simply because it is the right thing to do. Call me cynical, but I doubt this very much. Second, Bahrain, like all of the Gulf countries, finds itself on the US State Department’s people trafficking list (though not as highly placed as Saudi, Kuwait and Qatar). This, therefore, is a blot on their international reputation and this new system could be a way of trying to remedy this situation. Third, Bahrain is facing large social problems. Their Shia majority is chaffing ever more at the Sunni minority rule. Unemployment is estimated to be around 15% and, as always, afflicts younger generations more. These factors have recently coalesced in the rioting in Manama and elsewhere. This measure can perhaps be seen in part as an answer to this. Theoretically, the Department of Labour can designate more jobs for Bahrainis now that they have control of the migrant labour supply. Whether a Bahraini citizen will take a job that is traditionally seen as a migrant worker’s job, is, however, a very different question.

Saudi religious police to get firearms 8, June 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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A new study recommends that the Saudi religious police ought to be given extra training as well as firearms to protect themselves from the increasing number of attacks to which they have been subjected in the past few years. Somehow the study estimated that “82 percent of the members of all commission branches are incapable of defending themselves against assault during their fieldwork”. How they arrived at such a statistic and indeed what that statistic even means is unclear.

The apparent goal of these recommendations is to put an end to the “behavioral chaos within the Saudi society.” However, this is just looking at one side of the argument. If the religious police were being assaulted simply as they walk down the street, or something of this nature, then of course action would be needed to be taken. Yet surely the vast majority of cases of violence ensue from their actions as a starting point? Childishly put: they start it.

The general argument as to why attacks have gone up recently stems from a belief that Saudi society is getting less and less tolerant of the officious interference that that the police have in every day life. Thus whilst the police may well be performing the same actions as they were, for example, ten years ago, these actions are eliciting a different response. They could well argue that the ever extending and ever increasing reach of Western culture into Saudi society causes if not mandates that they – the police – act more to counter what they perceive to be increasing licentious behaviour. However, no matter the degree that this may or indeed may not be true, the fact remains that the Saudi population are changing and showing less adherence and less respect towards the police.

Their answer is to enable the police to defend themselves, which does not seen that unreasonable. Yet at the same time, there is no examination of the pertinence of the laws that they are enforcing or the way that they are doing so on modern day Saudi society. Obviously, some kind of far reaching overhaul of Saudi law is, to say the least, unlikely. Yet, the solution posed by the study is simply guaranteed to cause further problems and resentment between the two groups involved. Perhaps a dialogue would be a more fruitful and all together safer way to proceed. I doubt very much if by carrying firearms the religious police will suddenly be able to turn back to clock to the ‘good old days’ whenever they perceive them to have been.

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.

Reform in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? 28, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Saudi Arabia, Soft Power.
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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, are of the opinion 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. Whilst they may make hopeful noises from time to time about liberalisation, really, deep down, the regime just want things to remain the same as they were for their forefathers. The protagonist for this half of the argument is usually referred to as Prince Naif, the head of the Ministry of the Interior.

Therefore, for the student beginning to delve into the seemingly bipolar world of Saudi Arabian politics, there is a choice to make, and what is worse, there is ample evidence for both camps. This can most starkly be seen regarding the role of women in Saudi society and their rights, or lack thereof.

In the months around the turn of 2008, there have been a myriad of confusing, contradictory and, at times, 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 crime was sitting in a car with a man who was not related to her. This, understandably and justly, created international opprobrium and lead – over a month later – to Saudi King Abdullah pardoning the woman for the crime and thus sparing her the punishment.

Despite the barbarism of the initial sentencing and the staggering 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, this is only provided that they had photo ID which would be photocopied and sent to the local police, but, again it is one small step 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 step. 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: time. All agree 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 wide spread 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. Indeed, 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 dependant on the level of support that it receives from the authorities. Yet, this is, nevertheless, another positive sign.

Unfortunately, we may well get to see just how much power this charity has sooner rather then later. At the start of February a woman was arrested for having a coffee with a work colleague in a Starbucks. After being arrested, 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 Charity 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 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 are 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 officially no reason) of one of the country’s most famous bloggers, Fouad Al Farhan, it is still a massively popular means for Saudi’s to discuss social and political issues. Also, 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 is accused of being a witch.

Perhaps it is a naïve comment to make, but despite such instances, I am personally convinced that, eventually, Saudi society will reform and treat its citizens equally. 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 we ought to fall back on the trite, unhelpful, clichéd but thoroughly genuine 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 for is that it is a quick learner.

If only… 7, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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If only The Times of London read my blog more frequently, then they wouldn’t have had to have waited an extra two days to ‘break’ the story about the Saudi woman arrested in Starbucks for having a coffee with a work colleague. Alas…

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article3321637.ece