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Fading Mirage: Illusory Reform in Saudi Arabia

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

In the eyes of many Westerners, the idea of reform in Saudi Arabia is a contradiction. The Al Saud dynasty has long held a monopoly of political, religious, and social power over its citizens. The government currently bans all opposition political parties and tightly controls domestic media outlets. Saudi Arabia has also gained notoriety around the world for its strict interpretation of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. Despite the apparent lack of freedom, Saudi Arabia has in fact experienced some movements toward reform and modernization over the past few years. Unfortunately, they do not represent a trend toward liberalization and political reform. Rather, they have only appeared in response to events such as lowered oil earnings and threats of terrorism. Given Saudi Arabia’s recent economic successes, it seems unlikely that the kingdom will move toward substantial reform in the near future.

The years of 2001 and 2003 were marked by significant drives for political reform in Saudi Arabia. Concerns over declining oil revenues and rising unemployment formed the basis for domestic dissatisfaction. The participation of 15 Saudis in the September 11, 2001, attacks left the government with a new combination of US pressure and internal calls for reform. In January 2003, 104 Saudi liberal reformers created a “Strategic Vision for the Present and the Future,” which consisted of detailed proposals for democratic changes such as separation of power and elected legislative bodies at the national and provincial levels. This document used religious and legal arguments to justify citizens’ supervision of government actions.

Pressures for reform reached a peak when 12 suicide bombers attacked the capital of Riyadh in May 2003, killing 30 people and wounding 200. Saudis refer to the attacks as their own September 11, and the bombings seemed to initially push the Saudigovernment to reform its authoritarian practices. The Riyadh attacks were followed by unprecedented criticism of religious extremism in the media. The Crown Prince himself made speeches acknowledging the problem of Islamic extremism–acknowledgments that would have been unthinkable just a few years prior. In 2005, Saudis also witnessed their first municipal elections in almost a half-century. That same year, women were even allowed to participate in elections for the board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. The start of the 21st century, thus, seemed a positive one for Saudi reform.

The impact of these reforms, however, should not be overstated. In many cases, they have been overshadowed by continued authoritarian behavior. Despite the optimism of the 2003 petitions, signatories to more recent appeals for reform have faced stiff government resistance. In March 2004, 13 pro-reform activists in favor of a constitutional monarchy were arrested, some of whom are forbidden to travel abroad even today. Perhaps most tellingly, the lauded 2005 municipal elections excluded women, and only half of the seats were contested. Political parties are still banned, and the government retains power over the municipal councils’ budgets. Sadly, even this encouraging glimmer of democracy has proved to be strikingly limited.

Economic growth in the country also suggests that substantive political reform may not arrive any time soon. As the oft-cited maxim goes, the higher the oil prices, the lower the prospect of democracy in the Middle East. The histories of Europe and the United States show that heavy taxation often leads to agitation for reform and greater demands for government accountability. However, the Saudi government’s high oil revenues allow it to forgo all income or corporate taxes. Indeed, owning a quarter of the world’s oil reserves permits the Saudi government essentially to buy off domestic demands for reform. Since revenues flow to the Saudi government directly, it has the option of exercising patronage to benefit political or social actors who demand change. Ways of placating interests include giving land gifts or supplying public services such as education and health care. Furthermore, the high concentration of wealth in the monarchy makes it harder for political groups outside of the government to find financial support. Additionally, since oil production does not necessitate mass labor mobilization, the potential power of unions dissolves. Even if demands for change were to remain strong within certain groups, the middle class’ demonstrated preference for economic stability over political freedom dampens the probability of widespread demands for change.

Current economic indicators may portend a negative political climate for Saudi citizens. In the years leading up to 2003, rising unemployment led to widespread dissatisfaction among the population. The Saudi Arabia of today faces no such problem. In 2006, the country saw a US$100 billion current account surplus and a GDP of US$350 billion. With plans to increase its oil production to 12.5 million barrels per day by 2009, there is little sign that the Saudi government will lose economic control, and thereby political control, over its citizens.

It is certainly possible that a downturn in the Saudi economy will once again spark the possibility for reform. Such reforms, however, would reflect the monarchy’s pragmatism rather than its conviction. Without firm government commitments to political change, it is unlikely that the Saudi government will make permanent, substantial improvements to its citizens’ rights. Reform in the Saudikingdom may not be the hopeless cause it once was, but the prospects for lasting, substantive changes remain illusory.

By Julia  Choe

 

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Gulf Initiative Endangers the Yemeni Revolution

Posted on 21 April 2011 by hashimilion

Saleh Habra

 

One of the political leaders of the Houthis, Saleh Habra said that the Gulf initiative on Yemen is unacceptable.

One of the main flaws of the initiative is that it tries to restore Ali Abdullah Saleh’s legitimacy. Saleh lost his legitimacy as a ruler when the people went out into the streets.

The initiative’s other main problem  is that it gives Saleh time to recuperate and reorganise his forces.

Habra also believes that the initiative will threaten the unity of the revolutionaries by dividing them into two camps. Those that support the initiative and those that reject it.

Part of the initiative involves transferring Saleh’s presidential powers to his deputy. But the initiative does not explicitly deal with Saleh’s fate or his removal. The initiative does however guarantee Saleh immunity from any future criminal prosecution should he step down from power.

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The Al-Ahmar Family

Posted on 20 April 2011 by hashimilion

Abdullah Al-Ahmar

Man reacts in one of two ways after God saves him from poverty. Either he remembers his poverty and uses his newly acquired wealth to assist those in need, or forget his past and become overtaken by greed. Abdullah Hussein Al-Ahmar is a prime example of the latter case.  He lived a miserable life before the Yemeni Revolution but fate and the Al-Saud family had other plans. The Al-Saud family picked Abdullah Al-Ahmar as their man in Yemen by showering him with money from all directions, and enabled him to control the wealth of Yemen. He is primarily responsible for ruining and weakening Yemen.

After the 1990 Yemeni civil war and unification, Abdullah Al-Ahmar used his vast wealth to control the Yemeni politics and society. He gained control by setting up companies that bore his family name, Al-Ahmar, which lead to the monopolisation of Yemen’s resources. He set up businesses such as restaurants, wedding halls and garages, which outcompeted average Yemenis and multiplied his wealth tremendously.

Abdullah Hussein Al-Ahmar and his 10 sons

Banks often complained about the multiplicity of accounts belonging to Al-Ahmar family. This forced the Al-Ahmar family to set up new Banks, whether at home or abroad, through partners such as Bank of Sheba so that the movement of their money avoids detection.

It is a well known fact that Abdullah Al-Ahmar was an extremely selfish man. Not once has he ever contributed towards any charity, but many analysts expected his sons to be different, especially Hamid and Hussein. Many people expected them to provide assistance for those affected by war in Saada excluding Harf Sufyan. Any assistance to Harf Sufyan would be impossible given the historic hostility between the Al-Ahmar family and Harf Sufyan. No assistance was given by Hamid or Hussein and to add salt to the wounds, both rejoiced at the sight of death and destruction in the Saada wars, which was caused by the Popular Army (set up by Hussein Al-Ahmar and funded by Saudi money).

Money gained through corruption won’t last forever. The Al-Ahmar family spend most of their money on mobilising the masses, but never invest on those that suffer and are in dire need. They wish to mobilise the masses so that they can pressurise Ali Abduallah Saleh’s regime into accepting them as a partner in power. One shouldn’t be surprised if Saleh bows down to their demands, especially after Hamid became the opposition leader, which has given their family the opportunity to control both sides of the same coin, the Government and the opposition.

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Relations Between Qatar and Syria Deteriorate

Posted on 19 April 2011 by hashimilion

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad reacts to Qatari threats by refusing to meet with the Qatari Foreign Minister.

According to semi official Syrian sources, the Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, informed the Syrian leadership that “Bahrain is equal to Syria”. Hence, any protests taking place in Bahrain would be countered by a large scale campaign of incitement against the Syrian regime by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya TV channels.

Syrian officials believe that Qatar has changed its political position and adopted a policy that is more in line with Saudi Arabia. They believe that the change was brought about by an internal struggle inside the Qatari ruling family.

The Syrian leadership is trying to repair the damage caused by the protests. Leading Syrian officials believe that there is a high level of coordination between the GCC Governments, Isreal and the United States. All three parties want to sabotage the political situation in Syria, as a first step to overthrowing the regime.

The Syrian leadership realized weeks ago that the Qatari Foreign Minister had became the broker for opportunistic trade-offs in the region, which prompted a firm response.

The sectarian tendencies of  the Saudi and Qatari officials lead to annulment of the meeting between the Syrian President and the Qatari Minister in Damascus. President Assad will not meet with any official until the threats stop.

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Saudi Arabia: Human Rights

Posted on 06 April 2011 by hashimilion

Asked By Lord Ahmed

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the political and human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, following events elsewhere in the region, there have been a few very limited protests in Saudi Arabia. However, the Government have brought in a reform process and a national dialogue initiative to keep pace with the people’s wishes. We have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. We have made our views well known, including through the universal periodic review process, and we make those concerns clear to the Saudis at the highest levels, just as they are frank with us on issues that concern them.
Lord Ahmed: I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that thousands of detainees are held in Saudi prisons, without any charge, trial or representation-some for more than seven years, and a few for more than 13 years? The Minister will be aware of the recent concerns of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in relation to the arrests of peaceful demonstrators and the use of force against them. What is the position of Her Majesty’s Government regarding arms and security sales, given recent events in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain? Will the Government review arms and security exports to Saudi Arabia until they are clear that UK equipment is not being used for internal repression?
Lord Howell of Guildford: All questions on arms exports are under review, as the noble Lord may know, and we have grave concerns about the use of crowd-control equipment. Because of those concerns, a review of the whole policy and practice of Her Majesty’s Government on the export of equipment that could be used for internal repression-in particular, crowd-control goods-has been commissioned and is under way. As to the noble Lord’s question on Bahrain, the Saudi forces are there to protect installations-or so it is reported to me. That may not be 100 per cent accurate, but that is the intention. The Saudis share the same goals as the Government of Bahrain, which are, of course, to have a dialogue on reform and to address the concerns of

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the Bahraini people. That is very different from some other countries in the region. However, it is a tricky situation that we are watching very closely.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, my noble friend will no doubt be aware that the Saudi rulers have requested their clergy to issue a fatwa, stating that all democratic peaceful protests are un-Islamic. Does he agree that turning democracy into a religious issue sends a message to 1.5 billion Muslims that democracy is not an option open to them if they wish to adhere to their religion? Does he think that Saudi Arabia, given that attitude towards freedom, can any longer be trusted to pursue peace and stability in the Middle East?
Lord Howell of Guildford: Of course, as the noble Baroness recognises, there are attitudes that we do not like and seem to go against our values and views of how democracy should work. We do not miss any opportunity-in fact we take all opportunities-to put these matters frankly to the Saudi authorities and to other countries. One has to think in positive terms; the aim is to make progress by establishing trust, rather than by dismissing the efforts of certain countries and saying that they no longer qualify to operate or to make a sensible and responsible contribution to world affairs. The positive approach is the one that pays off in the end. While I recognise many of the worries that my noble friend articulates, I believe that the approach I am describing is the best one.
Lord Soley: In those discussions, how much emphasis has been placed on access to forms of justice in Saudi Arabia, and on the promotion of the rule of law?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I am sorry, but I did not hear the first part of the noble Lord’s question.
Lord Soley: In the discussions with Saudi Arabia to which the Minister referred, how much emphasis is put on access to justice for the people of that country and on promotion of the rule of law?
Lord Howell of Guildford: These are our values and these are the points that we put to the fore in our ongoing dialogue with the Saudi authorities. Because of certain relationships of trust and our close alliance, we are in a position to put those matters forward and get a hearing for them. I cannot measure precisely the amount of emphasis, but these issues are very much to the fore in all our dialogues.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, while it is true that Saudi troops have entered Bahrain simply to guard installations, does that not mean that the forces under the control of the Bahraini authorities are released from those duties and can engage in further internal repression?
Lord Howell of Guildford: When I mentioned that a moment ago, I did say that this was reported to me. I do not know whether it is 100 per cent accurate. However, I would slightly query the logic of my noble friend’s statement that this action releases Bahraini troops to indulge in internal repression. Bahraini troops may well have made some bad moves, which we ought

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to condemn strongly, but the overall strategy of the Bahraini authorities and the king is to establish a dialogue and address the grievances of the people. That is in total contrast to the pattern that we see, for instance, in Libya.
Lord Clinton-Davis: How can we support Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Libya when it has such difficulty with basic human rights? Are they not very important? The reaction of the Saudi Arabians is very little improved as far as that is concerned.
Lord Howell of Guildford: It is very hard to generalise. There are reformers in Saudi Arabia who are anxious to take the country forward. There are also very reactionary people who are trying to stop them. It is the reformers whom we need to identify and support. If we do, we may be able to make progress, as, ironically, was being made in Bahrain, which was one of the few countries that had quite lively democratic elections.
Baroness Corston: My Lords-
Lord Cormack: My Lords-
Lord Reid of Cardowan: My Lords-
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, it is now 30 minutes and Question Time is finished.

 

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Saudi Arabia Is Behind the Destruction of Shrines

Posted on 06 April 2011 by hashimilion

Alulbayt Association in Egypt condemns the Salafi attacks on Shrines.

The Association also holds Saudi Arabia responsible for the attacks because it encouraged the Egyptian Salafis. The association urged the Military Council to put a stop to the relentless Salafi attacks on shrines, which have increased since the 25th of January Revolution. If not, conflict will erupt between muslims.

The Association accused the extremists of actively defending Mubarak.

The Statement also called for setting up an alliance between the Alulbayt Association, the Ashraf and Sufis in order to put a stop to Salafi threats and attacks.

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Bahrain Crisis Will Ignite a Regional Conflict Warns Chalabi

Posted on 06 April 2011 by hashimilion

Ahmed Chalabi, the prominent Iraqi politician has warned that the crisis in Bahrain could result in a regional conflict. He also said that Iraq will not remain silent at the unfolding events in Bahrain and that Iraqis are ready to support the people of Bahrain.

Chalabi warned of a big regional conflict, which would have a historic effect on Bahraini political life. He added: we are looking for solutions that would avoid bloodshed, we need to find a solution, otherwise this problem could ignite a big regional war. We are part of the solution and not part of the problem. We put forward progressive ideas that do not involve war.

Chalabi threatened the Bahraini Government by saying: Iraq will not remain silent or ignore the persecution of the Bahraini people who are using peaceful means to achieve a democratic constitution. Chalabi also added: what’s happening in Bahrain is an important matter for Iraq because Iraq is the largest country in the Gulf, and because of the cultural, historic and religious links between the two people.

Chalabi, who is a contender for the Interior Minister position in Iraq added: those who think that Iraq is unable to undertake it’s role are mistaken. Iraq is ready to support Bahrain and has many means of doing so. Chalabi also called for supporting the 14th of February Youth Movement in Bahrain, the chief organiser of the Bahraini revolution.

The Head of the Iraqi National Congress stressed that: Iraq supports the Youth’s popular revolution in Bahrain, regardless of the position of the Arab league, who’s position is hypocritical. The Arab League called for intervention in Libya in order to protect the civilians but remained silent at the events in Bahrain. The Arab League also referred Bahraini revolutionaries as Hoolgans, however Chalabi preferred to described them as “authenic revolutionaries who are seeking freedom and are using peaceful means to gain their political rights.”

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Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Last Minute Mediation Attempt

Posted on 05 April 2011 by hashimilion

Ali Abdullah Saleh begs Saudis to mediate on his behalf.

Sources close to the Saudi King said that Ali Abdullah Saleh had sent his Foreign Minister, Abu Bakr Al Qurbi to Riyadh on the 21st of March, begging the Saudis to meditate between Saleh and the protestors. Analysts believe that protests have entered their final stage and that Ali Saleh’s regime is close to collapsing.

Sources also added that the Yemeni President wanted Saudi Arabia to mediate with tribal leaders, leaders of the Southern Movement and military leaders, so that he can see out the remaining 6 months of his tenure. The Southern movement swiftly replied that negotiations should take place directly with the protestors who have no political affiliation, and hence no opposition party can claim to represent them.

Yemeni analysts warned Saudi Arabia of sending military equipment to help Ali Saleh. Any help would anger the Yemeni revolutionaries, and would make saudi mediation nearly impossible.

Saleh had sent a letter to the Saudi leadership via his Foregin minster begging for support, which was rejected. The Yemeni delegation got the impression that Saudi Arabia was incapable of mediating in this critical time.

 

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