Tag Archive | "Islam"

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Saudi Diplomat Shot Dead in Pakistan

Posted on 16 May 2011 by hashimilion

 

Motorcycle-riding assassins have gunned down a Saudi diplomat in the Pakistani city of Karachi, four days after a grenade attack on the Saudi consulate there.

The unusual spate of attacks raised questions about whether they were in reprisal for the death of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden or the consequence of regional Sunni-Shia tensions triggered by upheaval in Bahrain.

A senior police officer said the diplomat, named as Hassan al-Khatani and described as a security officer, was shot dead in his car on Monday morning by two men riding a motorbike who fired four shots from a 9mm pistol.

Television pictures showed a luxury sedan with gunshots through its windows. Police said a backup team of assailants rode alongside the killers, indicating a degree of professionalism in the hit.

On Thursday unidentified assailants threw two grenades at the front gate of the consulate, damaging the entrance but injuring nobody.

Attacks on diplomats from Saudi Arabia are rare in Pakistan, thanks to the country’s close relationship with the army and the widespread reverence towards the country as the home of Islam.

“We’ve always had sectarian tensions but rarely an attack on a Saudi diplomat like this,” said defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.

But decades-old Shia-Sunni tensions in Karachi have been reignited by turmoil across the Arabian sea in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia deployed troops last March to help quell an uprising by mostly Shia demonstrators.

Pakistani Shias became angry when it emerged that a private security firm was urgently recruiting hundreds of former soldiers to work for the Bahrain security forces and help with the crackdown.

Newspaper advertisements sought Pakistanis with experience in “security” and “riot control”.

A senior police officer in Karachi told the Guardian the Bahrain connection was considered the most likely motive for the two most recent attacks. But they were investigating whether they may have been in reprisal for the US special force raid that killed Bin Laden on 2 May.

Riyadh stripped Bin Laden of his citizenship in 1994 and has since co-operated closely with American efforts to crack down on al-Qaida, even though private Saudi citizens have been accused of sponsoring his network.

US intelligence is currently examining a trove of computer drives snatched from Bin Laden’s hideout, reportedly containing 2.7 terabytes of data, for further information about al-Qaida’s money pipeline.

A third possibility was that the attacks were linked to local criminal groups, the officer said. In recent years, he said, “some low-level officials at the consulate had been found to be involved in minor criminal activities with local mafias”.

The difficulty of investigating the killing is underscored by the general insecurity in the sprawling port city of 16 million people, where ethnic, political and Islamist militant groups hold sway in pockets of the city that are virtually out-of-bounds to the security services.

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Brave Saudi Women Dare to Take the Wheel

Posted on 11 May 2011 by hashimilion

 

Manal, a 32-year-old woman, is planning something she’s never done openly in her native Saudi Arabia: Get in her car and take to the streets, defying a ban on female drivers in the kingdom.

Manal and ten other people are organizing a campaign on Facebook and Twitter urging Saudi women with international driver’s licenses to join them starting June 17, risking their jobs and their freedom. The coordinated plan isn’t a protest, she said.

“I’m doing it because I’m frustrated, angry and mad,” Manal, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said in an interview from the eastern city of Dhahran. “It’s 2011 and we’re still discussing this insignificant right for women.”

The risk the women are willing to take underscores both their exasperation with the restrictions and the infectious nature of the changes sweeping the region. Saudi Arabia, which has the world’s biggest oil reserves, so far has avoided the mass demonstrations that have toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threaten officials in Libya, Yemen and Syria.

“These events have taught Saudi women to join ranks and act as a team,” said Wajeeha al-Howeider, a Saudi women’s rights activist, in a telephone interview from Dhahran. “This is something they could only have learned from those revolutions.”

Male Approval


Saudi Arabia enforces the ascetic Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Women aren’t allowed to have a Saudi driver’s permit, even though some drive when they’re in the desert away from urban areas. They can’t travel or get an education without male approval or mix with unrelated men in public places. They aren’t permitted to vote or run as candidates in municipal elections, the only ones the kingdom allows.

The last time a group of women publicly defied the driving ban was on Nov. 6, 1990, when U.S. troops had massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for a war that would expel Iraq from Kuwait. The Saudi women were spurred by images of female U.S. soldiers driving in the desert and stories of Kuwaiti women driving their children to safety, and they were counting on the presence of international media to ensure their story would reach the world and lessen the repercussions, according to Noura Abdullah, 55.

Abdullah was one of forty-seven drivers and passengers who stayed out for about an hour before being arrested. They were banned from travel for a year, lost their jobs for 2 1/2 years and were condemned by the powerful clergy as harlots.

Spread the Word

Now it’s “superb” that a younger generation is following in their footsteps, Abdullah said in an interview from Riyadh, the capital. She doesn’t have an international driver’s license, so she will help by spreading the word about the event with telephone calls, text messages and emails, she said.

“Their timing is perfect,” she added. “There’s momentum in Saudi Arabia now and that should help.”

King Abdullah has taken steps this year to ensure regional turmoil is confined outside his borders, pledging almost $100 billion of spending on homes, jobs and benefits. He also has promised to improve the status of women. He opened the first co- educational university in 2009; appointed the kingdom’s first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, the same year; and has said he will provide more access to jobs for women, who make up about 15 percent of the workforce.

A change of policy in 2008 allowed women to stay in hotels without male guardians, and an amendment to the labor law allowed women to work in all fields “suitable to their nature.”

‘Largely Symbolic’

Human Rights Watch said in January that “reforms to date have involved largely symbolic steps to improve the visibility of women.” While the United Nations ranked the kingdom in the top one-third of nations in its 2010 Human Development Report — higher than Brazil and Russia — its score for gender equality was much lower. On that measure, which includes assessments of reproductive health and participation in politics and the labor market, Saudi Arabia was 128th of 138 nations, below Iran and Pakistan.

The campaign Manal is helping to organize, called “I will drive starting June 17,” is the latest effort by Saudi women this year to express their desire for more rights. On April 23, a group of 15 women showed up at a registration center in the western city of Jeddah, asking to participate in the September election, the Arab News reported a day later. While they were denied entry, they were permitted to relay their demands to Abdul Aziz al-Ghamdi, the head of the district office, the Arab News said.

Facebook Fans


The protest against the driving ban has attracted almost 800 Facebook fans since it began May 6.

“We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities,” the organizers said on their page. “We are here to claim one of our simplest rights.”

Sheikh Mohammed al-Nujaimi, a Saudi cleric, dismissed the campaign, saying statements he makes about religious issues that are posted on websites have received more than 24,000 page views in a day.

The plan is “against the law, and the women who drive should be punished according to the law,” al-Nujaimi said in a telephone interview. Driving causes “more harm than good” to women, because they risk mixing with men they aren’t related to, such as mechanics and gas-station attendants, he added.

“Women will also get used to leaving their homes at will,” al-Nujaimi said.

Other Support

Three telephone calls by Bloomberg News to the mobile phone of a press officer at Saudi Arabia’s Traffic Department, which enforces transit rules in the country, weren’t answered.

The campaign has received the support of some Saudi men. Ahmad al-Yacoub, 24, a Dhahran-based businessman, said he’s joined the effort because “these ladies are not fighting with religion or the government.”

“They are asking for a simple right that they want to practice freely without being harassed or questioned,” al- Yacoub said.

Ghada Abdul-Latif, a 31-year-old rights activist, said she will support the effort by filming it and posting it online; she won’t drive for fear of being jailed before her wedding in June.

“It is a courageous campaign,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi historian. “It feels so weird to consider such a human right a courageous movement. But it is in a country such as Saudi Arabia, which is trying to live against the current and life and history.”

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Bin Laden’s Ghost

Posted on 09 May 2011 by hashimilion

Osama bin Laden’s death in his Pakistani hiding place is like the removal of a tumor from the Muslim world. But aggressive follow-up therapy will be required to prevent the remaining Al Qaeda cells from metastasizing by acquiring more adherents who believe in violence to achieve the ‘purification’ and empowerment of Islam.

Fortunately, Bin Laden’s death comes at the very moment when much of the Islamic world is being convulsed by the treatment that Bin Laden’s brand of fanaticism requires: the Arab Spring, with its demands for democratic empowerment (and the absence of demands, at least so far, for the type of Islamic rule that Al Qaeda sought to impose).

But can the nascent democracies being built in Egypt and Tunisia, and sought in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, see off the threats posed by Islamic extremists? In particular, can it defeat the Salafi/Wahhabi thought that has long nurtured Osama bin Laden and his ilk, and which remains the professed and protected ideology of Saudi Arabia?

The fact is that before the US operation to kill Bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s symbolic head, the emerging democratic Arab revolutions had already, in just a few short months, done as much to marginalize and weaken his terrorist movement in the Islamic world as the war on terror had achieved in a decade. Those revolutions, whatever their ultimate outcome, have exposed the philosophy and behavior of Bin Laden and his followers as not only illegitimate and inhumane, but actually inept at achieving better conditions for ordinary Muslims.

What millions of Arabs were saying as they stood united in peaceful protest was that their way of achieving Arab and Islamic dignity is far less costly in human terms. More importantly, their way will ultimately achieve the type of dignity that people really want, as opposed to the unending wars of terror to rebuild the caliphate that Bin Laden promised.

After all, the protesters of the Arab Spring did not need to use – and abuse – Islam to achieve their ends. They did not wait for God to change their condition, but took the initiative by peacefully confronting their oppressors. The Arab revolutions mark the emergence of a pluralist, post-Islamist banner for the faithful. Indeed, the only people to introduce religion into the protests have been rulers, such as those in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, who have tried to use fear of the Shia or Sunni “other” to continue to divide and misrule their societies.

Now that the US has eradicated Bin Laden’s physical presence, it needs to stop delaying the rest of the therapeutic process. For the US has been selectively – and short-sightedly – irradiating only parts of the cancer that Al Qaeda represents, while leaving the malignant growth of Saudi Wahabism and Salafism untouched. Indeed, despite the decade of the West’s war on terror, and Saudi Arabia’s longer-term alliance with the US, the Kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment has continued to bankroll Islamic extremist ideologies around the world.

Bin Laden, born, raised, and educated in Saudi Arabia, is a product of this pervasive ideology. He was no religious innovator; he was a product of Wahhabism, and later was exported by the Wahhabi regime as a jihadist.

During the 1980’s, Saudi Arabia spent $75 billion for the propagation of Wahhabism, funding schools, mosques, and charities throughout the Islamic world, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Yemen, Algeria, and beyond. The Saudis continued such programs after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and even after they discovered that “the Call” is uncontrollable, owing to the technologies of globalization. Not surprisingly, the creation of a transnational Islamic political movement, boosted by thousands of underground jihadi Web sites, has blown back into the Kingdom.

Like the hijackers of 9/11, who were also Saudi/Wahhabi ideological exports (15 of the 19 men who carried out those terror attacks were chosen by Bin Laden because they shared the same Saudi descent and education as he), Saudi Arabia’s reserve army of potential terrorists remains, because the Wahhabi factory of fanatical ideas remains intact.

So the real battle has not been with Bin Laden, but with that Saudi state-supported ideology factory. Bin Laden merely reflected the entrenched violence of the Kingdom’s official ideology.

Bin Laden’s eradication may strip some dictators, from Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi to Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh, of the main justification they have used for their decades of repression. But the US knows perfectly well that Al Qaeda is an enemy of convenience for Saleh and other American allies in the region, and that in many cases, terrorism has been used as a pretext to repress reform. Indeed, now the US is encouraging repression of the Arab Spring in Yemen and Bahrain, where official security forces routinely kill peaceful protesters calling for democracy and human rights.

Al Qaeda and democracy cannot coexist. Indeed, Bin Laden’s death should open the international community’s eyes to the source of his movement: repressive Arab regimes and their extremist ideologies. Otherwise, his example will continue to haunt the world.

Leaked Picture of Bin Laden

By Mai Yamani

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Saudi is Spreading Poison Throughout the World. Can Reform Save it?

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

At the end of last month, Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, son of the founder of Saudi Arabia and half-brother to its present king, made an astonishing call for reform. “We cannot use the same tools we have been using to rule the country [from] a century ago,” he told the Financial Times. “This region is roiling with turmoil and radicalism and the aspirations of a young population, and I’m afraid we are not prepared for that.”

The prince has long been a dissonant voice in a family that frowns on public dissidence, and has no decision-making power. But his words speak to a fundamental battle taking place behind the guarded walls of the kingdom’s palaces. Will King Abdullah’s tentative steps towards reform, attempting to take back control of the judiciary, education and the religious police (the notorious mutawa) from reactionary clerics, continue? Or will the king’s recent appointment of Prince Nayef, the arch-conservative interior minister, as deputy prime minister and third in line to the throne, bring them to a halt?

For the problem facing this absolutist monarchy, which has managed to function both as the custodian of the birthplace of Islam and as a US ally sitting on a quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves, is not its immediate overthrow. (It has already seen off a proto-insurgency by al-Qaeda followers.) It is that the very basis of the House of Saud’s legitimacy, the fusion of temporal and religious power which forms the bedrock of the Saudi state, rests on its alliance with the House of Ibn Abdul Wahhab. And Wahhabism, the puritan faith formulated by this 18th-century religious reformer, is, in its essentials, the totalitarian creed espoused by Osama Bin Laden to justify his murderous jihad.

For many years the Saudi ruling family, which is also dependent for survival on its 64-year-old alliance with the US, managed to keep any difficulties caused by its reliance on these two radically opposed sources of support concealed behind a brittle facade of modernity. All this began to change, however, after 11 September 2001.

At first the al-Saud were in denial that 15 of the 19 hijackers were their countrymen, and that the attackers had been inspired by Bin Laden, a member of one of the kingdom’s leading merchant families. A year later, Prince Nayef was still insisting to a Kuwaiti newspaper that the attacks were a Zionist plot. When five western oil executives were killed at Yanbu, the Red Sea port, on 1 May 2004, then Crown Prince Abdullah said he was “95 per cent certain” that Zionists were behind it. Such attacks turned international opinion against Muslims: so, what other explanation could there be?

Once the jihadis turned their gunsights on the heart of the kingdom, however, the al-Saud began to accept the possibility of there being other culprits. The turning point came with the 29 May 2004 attack at al-Khobar in the Eastern Province. This is the region that contains the largest oil deposits in the world and is, in addition, the homeland of Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shia minority. Islamist gunmen attacked two foreign oil company office blocks and an expatriate enclave, killing three Saudi and 19 foreign civilians as well as nine Saudi policemen. They sought out Christian, Hindu and Buddhist “infidels” to murder, while setting Muslim hostages free. As in Yanbu that same month, they were able to mount the spectacle of dragging the body of a westerner for more than a mile, spitting slogans as they went. Even though the attack turned into a siege, with Saudi security forces ringing the compound and commandos landing on the roof of a building where the gunmen were holding more than 40 hostages, three of the attackers were able to, or allowed to, escape.

The authorities finally had to acknowledge that al-Qaeda, incubated in good part by the fanatical Wahhabism the al-Saud imposed as the kingdom’s sole creed, was their problem, too. As the slaughter at al-Khobar was continuing, the then crown prince, now King Abdullah, vowed to crush “this corrupt and deviant group” in Saudi society. “Those who keep silent about the terrorists will be regarded as belonging to them,” he warned. The implication was that nothing less than a seismic reformation of the House of Saud’s relationship with the Wahhabi clerical establishment was required–a reforging of the historic agreement that is the foundation stone of the Saudi state.

This is, in fact, the third time the House of Saud has set up a state in peninsular Arabia. The epic begins in the mid-18th century, when an emir from the Nejd in central Arabia, Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Saud, took in an itinerant preacher by the name of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab. In 1744, the compact between the two houses was sealed by the marriage of al-Saud’s son and Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s daughter. This combination of Islam and the al-Saud has formed the basis of the Saudi kingdom ever since. Its essential promise is to banish chaos and darkness–an echo of the pre-Islamic jahiliyya, or epoch of ignorance, that God sought to end through his revelation to the Prophet Muhammad–and substitute order, both human and divine.

By this time, the al-Saud had become oasis settlers. Increasingly populous and “detribalised”, they were obliged to find an alternative formula to build up their political and military strength, both to resist the predatory tribes and to press their ambitions. The alliance with Ibn Abdul Wahhab gave them just that: the magic ingredients of religious reform and jihad -a holy war to reclaim the peninsula of the Prophet Muhammad and the birthplace of Islam for true believers.

Abdul Wahhab espoused probably the most literalist, rigorous, antique and exclusivist interpretation of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy ever attempted as a form of governance. The Wahhab-Saud forces came to be known as Wahhabis, but often refer to themselves as the Ahl al-Tawhid, people of the oneness (of God). They regard any apparent deviation from monotheism–particularly evident to them in the practices of the Christians and the “idolatrous” and “rejection-ist” (Rafadah) Shia Muslims, for whom they reserved the lowest circle of hell–as infidel or apostate. This (in the strict sense of the word) totalitarian creed anathematised all other beliefs as illicit. It defined everyone else as “the Other”, drawing up as broad a definition of “non-believers” as has ever been devised. Wahhabism thus provides limitless sanction for jihad (making it hard for jihadis or their victims to understand how al-Qaeda, as the al-Saud insist, is in any way “deviant” from this orthodoxy).

The Wahhabi claim is to have found Arabia in a tribal stew of idolatry and chaos, war and pillage, ignorance and vice. In effect, the Wahhab-Saud forces claim to have ended the second Arabian jahiliyya or age of ignorance. If true, that would put them on a par with the Prophet himself- a heady boast indeed. In fact, Saudi-Wahhabi propaganda is a mirror image of the orientalist discourse about the Hobbesian fate from which the west saved the east. It is a self-serving myth to justify the hegemony of the al-Saud and the Nejd over a regionally and religiously diverse nation, which was unified by force only after King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud fought 52 battles across a 30-year war of conquest, ending in 1932. Tawhid came to mean not just the “oneness” of God but the oneness of Arabia under Saudi hegemony.

In return for this religious cover, the Wahhabi clerical establishment was given decisive social control, not only over religion and public comportment, but also over education and justice. Above all, it derived power from conferring legitimacy on the Saudi rulers, who had now named the land of the Prophet after themselves. The politico-religious symbiosis of the House of Ibn Saud and the House of al-Sheikh, as it is now known, built the world’s first modern Muslim fundamentalist state.

The state created by Ibn Saud has remained essentially static, while its subjects have been dragged into a modernity that rests on the shakiest foundations, imported like the air-conditioners that cool the gleaming malls and gated residential compounds. Within loudspeaker distance of a fire-and-brimstone mosque in Riyadh, close to the hotels where I have stayed many times, a shimmering mall houses a Harvey Nichols emporium with an outlet for La Senza, the lingerie chain. It is identical, in all respects except the gaudier range, to a similar shop anywhere else. But there is one fundamental difference. Because women may not mix with men outside their family and are kept in a mixture of seclusion and segregation, it follows that they cannot work in a lingerie boutique–which is therefore staffed entirely by men.

Saudi businesswomen, who operate with signal success but in a more or less separate environment from men, have increasingly been calling for a boycott of these kinds of arrangements, which are beyond satire.

A similar absurdity arises from the ban on women driving, which in practice has required the importation of more than a million foreigners to serve as drivers. In other words, a prohibition supposedly intended to keep women from temptation by denying them any independence leads to them being thrown into. daily contact with male strangers. Only a society that has living memory of the social conventions of slavery could be capable of countenancing such a paradox.

But it is probably in the field of education that this schizophrenia is most vividly and wrenchingly lived out. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia has an educated middle class, almost one million of whom have studied abroad. The kingdom has schooled its girls for nearly two generations. Saudis often have an intellectual depth to them that is less readily encountered in many Arab countries, where political and commercial pressures have debased and ground down the currency of ideas to convenient and remunerative cliche and myth. “There is something curiously uncalloused about the Saudis,” says a veteran diplomat to the kingdom.

But then turn to school textbooks, drawn up under the authority of the Wahhabi establishment. These drill into impressionable young Saudi minds the religious duty to hate all Christians and Jews as infidels, and to combat all Shias as heretics. A theology text for 14-year-olds, for instance, states that “it is the duty of a Muslim to be loyal to the believers and be the enemy of the infidels. One of the duties of proclaiming the oneness of God is to have nothing to do with his idolatrous and polytheist enemies.” The history textbooks typically emphasise the al-Saud hegemonic myth, burying any attempt to weave regional specificity or religious breadth into national identity under a suffocating narrative of Nejdi supremacy and Saudi redemption.

“It is really not very difficult to understand how we got to where we are,” says one reformist intellectual, asking rhetorically if there was any difference between the sectarian bigotry of Osama Bin Laden and the intolerant outpourings of the Wahhabi establishment. Saudi Arabia is a laboratory for jihad–that is its strategic dilemma.

While mosques and classrooms continue to spew out this fanaticism, Saudi Arabia has also been exporting these ideas for decades. Just during the reign of the late King Fahd, Riyadh claimed to have established 1,359 mosques abroad, along with 202 colleges, 210 Islamic centres and more than 2,000 schools. In addition, it episodically supported pan-Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and sponsored jihad abroad from Afghanistan to Bosnia. Jihadis were able to establish a base in Iraq partly because Wahhabi proselytisers had established bridgeheads in cities such as Mosul in the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

As king, Abdullah has introduced some incremental change. He has started rewriting textbooks, changing teaching methods and vetting teachers. He demanded the active co-operation of the clerical establishment in curtailing the flow of Saudi volunteers to Iraq. He has instituted de-radicalisation programmes for groups of jihadi prisoners who are willing to reintegrate into Saudi society. The king has also built tentative bridges to the Shias, and tried to foster a more pluralist conception of Islam.

In 2003, he launched a “national dialogue”, which held out the prospect of more open government, tighter financial controls on the royal family’s share of national wealth, greater rights for women, even the gradual introduction of elections. The king at least appeared to recognise the need for a more open society. But his brothers (the succession has always passed along the line of King Abdul Aziz’s elderly sons) did not share this view at all. No sooner was the national dialogue under way than Prince Nayef summoned dissidents to his office where, according to one reformer present, they were told: “What we won by the sword, we will keep by the sword.” Crown Prince Sultan said publicly, in March 2004, that the kingdom was not ready for an elected parliament, because voters might choose “illiterates”. Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, then minister of Islamic affairs, rejected even the term “reform” as being pregnant with liberalism and licentiousness.

It is inescapable, however, that the al-Saud need to curb the corrosive power of the religious establishment and lead the kingdom towards a form of modernity that its religious heritage can sustain. And the most feasible way forward is to enlist Islamist progressives.

This loosely connected group of Islahiyyun or “reformers” has rediscovered the thinking of Islamic revivalists and reformers of more than a century ago, and turned it into a devastating critique of Ibn Abdul Wahhab.

Encouraged by Abdullah, the newspaper al-Watan (the nation, or homeland) became a forum for this debate, as did internet discussion groups, such as Muntada al-Wasatiyya, set up by the dissident Islamist Mohsen al-Awajy.

This still embryonic force has already achieved three major changes. First, the groups have presented their demands collectively, instead of petitioning individually at the majlis or court of the prince. The turning point was a 2003 petition signed by leading Islamist reformers and liberals. Second, the document proposed allowing diversity in matters of faith and politics–in a country where uniformity on both has long been imposed. And third, it broke the taboo about speaking against Wahhabism, and implied that it was this distorted form of Islam that was preventing Saudi Arabia from becoming a successful modern state all its citizens could easily support.

It is important to realise that the petition, titled “A vision for the present and future of the homeland”, draws on sources of renewal that are and will remain Islamic and, in important ways, Islamist. However alien this fusion of religion and politics may seem to secular westerners, it is key to any possibility of change, because it provides reformers with an authenticity and a legitimacy that deflects charges of foreign influence and intrusion. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Qassim, a former Saudi judge and reformer, is an authority on this. “Al-Qaeda and the clergy are essentially doing the same thing in different ways–putting pressure on the House of Saud for being less devout than it should be. This paralyses reform,” he tells me. “The only way out is to dilute the link with Wahhabi fanaticism.

“The only way forward is to win the legitimacy of society itself- through political reform that does not depend on the approval of the clergy. If you make society part of reform you can overcome the clergy. It is the only way.”

The demands of the Islamist reformers include free elections, freedom of expression and association, an independent judiciary, a fairer distribution of wealth, and a clearer foreign policy arrived at through open debate–in short, a constitutional monarchy, if nowhere near a bicycling monarchy. “We are limiting our demands to very specific issues, and reiterating the al-Saud’s right to stay at the top of the tree,” says Mohsen al-Awajy. “They think it’s for tactical reasons, but the fact is there is no real alternative.”

Just how fundamental it is that liberals and Islamists take on Wahhabism cannot be overstated. But the liberals are an infinitesimal minority, tainted in the eyes of the masses with corruption and decadence. As one senior prince puts it, with a certain melancholy: “We liberals sit around a bottle of scotch and complain to each other, and then, the next morning, do nothing. Yet if we don’t get real progress, economically, socially and politically, we are going to be in a terrible mess in five to ten years.”

He, at least, shows an awareness alien to much of a bloated royal family that affects not to understand where a privy purse ends and a public budget begins, and continues to squander fabulous public wealth. Military spending, for example, is about three times the average for a developing country and is used as a mechanism for distributing power and wealth within the top ranks of the House of Saud–which is more than 5,000 princes strong.

No wonder that it is the Islamist reformers, numerically and ideologically, who are the real force for change. They can credibly argue that they intend no separation between mosque and state, but a redefinition of the relationship between the al-Saud and the al-Sheikh.

“Saudi Arabia has to be an Islamic state; it is the birthplace of Islam. The question is which Islam?” says Jamal Khashoggi, editor of al-Watan and adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington and London. “The alliance should be between the state and Islam, not between the House of Saud and the House of al-Sheikh.”

Awajy, whose candour lost him his job as a university professor, argues: “The contract between the two houses is no longer in the interests of the Saudi people; if we tolerated it in the past it does not mean we will in the future. Real reform cannot take place within the Wahhabi doctrine.”

The Wahhabi establishment has pumped the poison of bigotry into the Saudi mainstream throughout the existence of the kingdom. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, it became impossible to ignore that its ideas and al-Qaeda’s were pretty much the same. It is hard to imagine how the House of Saud will survive unless it breaks decisively with these ideas. Or, as one Saudi reformer put it: “If this clerical establishment is incapable of imagining the solutions we need to modern problems, then the answer is clear-we have to find another establishment.”

By David Gardner

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Saudi Arabia’s Political Risks

Posted on 04 May 2011 by hashimilion

The world’s No. 1 oil exporter faces the twin challenges of creating jobs for a young population at a time of unrest in the Arab world, and pursuing economic reforms with a royal succession looming.

The stability of Saudi Arabia is of global importance since the kingdom sits on more than a fifth of oil reserves, is home to the biggest Arab stock market, is a major owner of dollar assets and acts as a regional linchpin of U.S. security policy.

King Abdullah, who is around 87, unveiled $93 billion in social handouts in March, on top of another $37 billion announced less than a month earlier.

But this apparent effort to insulate the kingdom from Arab popular protests sweeping the region has not stopped activists, including liberals, Shi’ites and Islamists, calling in petitions for more political freedom. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with no elected parliament.

Riyadh has not seen the kind of mass uprisings that have shaken the Arab world this year, but Shi’ites in the kingdom’s oil-producing east have staged a number of protests.

Almost no Saudis in Riyadh answered a Facebook call for protests on March 11 in the face of a massive security presence.

Saudi Arabia has been ruled by the Al Saud family for 79 years, with influence from clerics following the austere Wahhabi school of Islam, and many oppose the very reforms the king has started.

However, slowing down reforms to modernise education might affect government plans to create jobs — unemployment last year reached 10 percent.

And with around 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s almost 19 million people under the age of 30, the pressure to find them gainful employment is huge.

SUCCESSION

King Abdullah returned home in February after spending three months abroad for medical treatment, during which he underwent two surgeries after a blood clot complicated a slipped disc.

With the slightly younger Crown Prince Sultan also in poor health, the throne could eventually go to Interior Minister Prince Nayef, a conservative who could put the brakes on some reforms started by Abdullah, analysts say. Nayef, around 77 years old, was promoted to second deputy prime minister in 2009.

He has supported the religious police who roam the streets to make sure unrelated men and women do not mix in public and that shops close during prayer times.

To regulate succession, Abdullah has set up an “allegiance council” of sons and grandsons of the kingdom’s founder but it is not clear when, or how, it will work in practice.

So far only sons of the kingdom’s founder Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud have ascended the throne, and the remaining 20 or so are mostly in their 70s and 80s. Leaders have been reluctant to hand senior jobs over to the next generation.

If a younger generation were unexpectedly to come into play, prominent potential candidates include Nayef’s son Mohammed, who as the anti-terror chief was the target of an al Qaeda suicide attack in 2009. Another leading face among the grandsons of Ibn Saud is Sultan’s son Khaled, the assistant defence minister.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– The health of senior royal family members and their involvement in day-to-day affairs of running the kingdom

– Any sign of abrupt cancellation of scheduled programmes such as foreign visits by senior leaders

– Any signs that the elder generation is passing on more responsibility to the grandsons of Ibn Saud, and to which ones

REFORMS

Officials who back Abdullah say they fear that young Saudis frustrated over their failure to find work could provide potential recruits to violent Islamists who want to overthrow the House of Saud.

Abdullah started some narrow reforms to overhaul education and the judiciary after taking office in 2005 but diplomats say his reform drive has run out of steam.

He has not altered the political system of an absolute monarchy that analysts say has fuelled dissent, with democracy activists, liberals and Islamists calling on the king in petitions to allow elections and more freedom.

Abdullah’s handouts focused on social largesse and a boost to security and religious police, but included no political change.

The kingdom in March also announced it would hold long-delayed municipal elections but said women will not be allowed to vote. With no elected assembly, Saudi Arabia has no political parties.

Saudi analysts say the king could reshuffle the cabinet, where some ministers have been on board for decades, or call fresh municipal elections, a plan that was shelved in 2009 due to the opposition of conservative princes.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– Any signs of protests or petitions by activists demanding political reforms

– Any signs of a cabinet reshuffle or plan to hold fresh municipal elections

– Any approval of a much-delayed mortgage law, which aims to ease pressure on the housing market

SHI’ITE MUSLIMS

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-led regional diplomatic heavyweight, has sought to contain Iran’s influence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq produced a Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.

With majority Shi’ites in neighbouring Bahrain having protested against the Sunni government there, analysts say there is a risk that unrest could spread to Saudi Arabia’s own Shi’ite minority, which lives in the oil-producing Eastern Province just across from Bahrain.

Shi’ites in the east have held a number of protests calling for prisoner releases and a withdrawal of Saudi forces sent to Bahrain to help put down the unrest.

Saudi Shi’ites have long complained about marginalisation and have started small protests to demand the release of prisoners they say have been detained without trial. Riyadh denies any charges of discrimination.

Riyadh also shares U.S. concerns that Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons in secret. The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iran, which says it is developing nuclear energy only to generate electricity.

Saudi Arabia has publicly tried to stay out of the dispute over Tehran’s nuclear programme but a series of U.S. diplomatic cables released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks portrayed Riyadh as pressing for a U.S. attack.

King Abdullah was said to have “frequently exhorted the U.S. to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear programme,” a cable printed in Britain’s Guardian newspaper said.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– Any signs of further protests and a deterioration in the eastern province

– Any possible military action against Iran and its impact on the Gulf region

– Any Saudi diplomatic moves to tighten sanctions on Iran and any signs of Saudi facilities offered for military action

AL QAEDA THREAT

Saudi Arabia, with the help of foreign experts, managed to quash an al Qaeda campaign from 2003 to 2006 that targeted expatriate housing compounds, embassies and oil facilities.

Riyadh destroyed the main cells within its borders. But many militants slipped into neighbouring Yemen where al Qaeda regrouped to form a Yemen-based regional wing that seeks, among other things, the fall of the U.S.-allied Saudi royal family.

The Yemen-based al Qaeda arm shot to the global spotlight after it claimed responsibility for a failed attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound passenger plane in December 2009.

Despite the U.S. killing of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden on May 1, the Yemeni wing of the militant Islamist group is expected to remain active, and exploit political instability in Yemen as well.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– Whether al Qaeda’s resurgent Yemen-based branch mounts more operations in Saudi territory, as it has within Yemen

– Riyadh wants to build a fence to seal the mountainous 1,500-km (930-mile) Yemen border, which could help stop militants from crossing.

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While the Saudi Elite Looks Nervously Abroad, A Revolution Is Happening

Posted on 14 April 2011 by hashimilion

The Saudi regime is under siege. To the west, its heaviest regional ally, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, has been ousted. To its north, Syria and Jordan are gripped by a wave of protests which shows no sign of receding. On its southern border, unrest in Yemen and Oman rages on. And troops have been dispatched to Bahrain to salvage its influence over the tiny kingdom exerted through the Khalifa clan, and prevent the contagion from spreading to Saudi Arabia’s turbulent eastern provinces, the repository of both its biggest oil reserves and largest Shia population.

Such fears of contagion no longer seem far-fetched. Shortly after the toppling of the Tunisian dictator, an unidentified 65-year-old man died after setting himself on fire in Jizan province, just north of the border with Yemen. Frequent protests urge political reform, and internet campaigns demand the election of a consultative assembly, the release of political prisoners, and women’s rights – one that called for a day of rage on 11 March attracted 26,000 supporters.

The government’s response was in keeping with a country named the region’s least democratic state by the Economist Intelligence Unit last year. Tear gas and live bullets were fired at peaceful demonstrators as helicopters crisscrossed the skies. One of the 11 March organisers, Faisal abdul-Ahad, was killed, while hundreds have been arrested, joining 8,000 prisoners of conscience – among them the co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, Mohammed Saleh al-Bejadi. Many Saudis have even been detained when seeking news of relatives at the interior ministry, like Mubarak bin Zu’air, a lawyer whose father and brother have long been held without charge, and 17-yearold Jihad Khadr whose brother Thamir, a rights activist is also missing. A short video tackling the taboo of political prisoners attracted over 72,000 views since its release 4 days ago.

Although demands for change date back to 1992’s Advice Memorandum – a petition for reform submitted by scholars to the king – the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have accelerated them. In an unprecedented move, a group of activists and intellectuals defied the official ban on political organisation to announce the formation of the kingdom’s first political party (all 10 founding members have since been arrested). And calls for reform have even come from the royal family, with Prince Turki Al Faisal appealing for elections to the Shura, the appointed parliament, at the Jeddah Economic Forum two weeks ago.

What had been whispered behind closed doors for years is being discussed openly not only in social networking sites, but even in front of cameras – as Khaled al-Johani did to a BBC crew in defiance of the hundreds of police, disappearing soon after. And although the regime seeks to appeal to sectarian divisions and invoke the threat of Iran in order to delegitimise dissent, the truth is that the discontent is found across Saudi society, fed by political repression and developmental failure, as a result of corruption, government malfunctioning, and the squandering of billions on arms. You need look no further than ravaged Jeddah after the floods of 2009 and 2011 to see that marginalisation is not unique to the kingdom’s Shia.

Along with the visible political threats facing the regime, it is beset by a more potent social challenge. This is the product of the advancing process of modernisation in Saudi society, with growing urbanisation, mass education, tens of thousands of foreign-taught students, and widespread communication media, with one of the region’s highest percentages of internet users (almost 40%, double that of Egypt). The country’s gigantic oil wealth has taken the society from a simple, predominantly desert existence to a model of affluent consumerism in the space of a few decades. Yet this rapid transformation has not been matched at the culture level, causing a yawning gap between social reality and a conservative ideology imposed by the regime and justified via an intimate alliance between the ruling clan and the Wahhabi clerical establishment with its austere Hanbali interpretation of Islam. This is not to say that the clerical council and its religious police are the decision-makers in Saudi Arabia. They are mere government employees who provide a divine seal for choices made by the king and his coterie of emirs. Their role is to issue the monarch with edicts like the one that sanctioned the “appeal to infidels for protection” when US troops were summoned to the Gulf in 1991.

As a price for political quietism, the clerics’ hands are left untied in the social realm, where they are granted unlimited authority over the monitoring and control of individual and public conduct. No one has paid a greater price for this ruler-cleric pact than women. While turning a blind eye to the monarch and his elite’s political authoritarianism, financial corruption, and subordination to American diktats, these divine warriors turn their muscle on women instead. Every minutia of their lives is placed under the clerics’ watchful gaze, rigorously monitored by draconian religious edicts rejected by the majority of Muslims; they are denied the right to drive, enter into any form of legal agreement, vote, or even receive medical care without a guardian’s consent. But as Hanadi, a Saudi friend, put it: “It’s all hypocrisy. While we are forbidden from baring any flesh in public, including our faces, the TV channels funded by the emirs are the most promiscuous ones around. You don’t see any black robes or niqabs there, only half-naked young girls gyrating to the beat of cheap pop music. It’s a shameless exploitation of religion.”

Now Saudi Arabia finds itself in the eye of the Arab revolutionary storm, its religious and financial arms have been deployed to fortify the status quo. As well as made-to-fit fatwas prohibiting dissent as fitna (division and social strife) and demonstrations and pickets as forms of “insurrection against rulers”, the regime has resorted to bribing its subjects in return for allegiance and acquiescence. On his return from a three-month medical trip in US, the ailing 87-year-old King Abdullah announced financial handouts worth an astonishing $129bn – more than half the country’s oil revenues last year – including a 15% rise for state employees, reprieves for imprisoned debtors, financial aid for students and the unemployed, and the promise of half a million homes at affordable prices – not to mention increases to the religious police budget.

Externally the regime draws sustenance from its “special relationship” with the US. In return for keeping the oil supply steady and pouring billions into the American treasury through arms deals, the Al-Saud family gets a US commitment to complete protection.

Does this mean that the country’s fate is to remain ruled by an absolutist system where the notion of the citizen is non-existent and power is monopolised by an ageing king and his clan? That is unlikely, for Saudi Arabia is not God’s eternal kingdom on Earth and is not impervious to the change that is required internally and regionally. The question is not whether change is coming to Saudi Arabia, but what its nature and scope will be.

By Soumaya Ghannoushi

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Yemen’s Peaceful Protests Appeal to Shi’ite rebels

Posted on 10 March 2011 by hashimilion

Yemen’s northern Shi’ite rebels, inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, have stopped fighting the government and are joining to non-violent protests instead, a theologian with close ties to the rebels said on Tuesday.

The rebels, known as Houthis after their leader Abdel Malek al-Houthi, have fought the government on and off since 2004 in a conflict that even drew in neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia when Houthis briefly seized Saudi territory last year.

Abdulkareem Ahmed Jadban, who has mediated between the government and the rebels, told Reuters the Houthis have put down their weapons and joined nationwide peaceful protests that have swept Yemen demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32 year rule.

“The examples of Tunisia and Egypt have been powerful. The Houthis have not fired a single bullet in the last several weeks. The have taken to the streets in Saada in their thousands like the rest of Yemen,” Jadban said. But he cautioned that the non-violence could also be short-lived.

Yemen agreed a truce in 2009 to halt its intermittent war with the Houthis. But sporadic violence has continued, Jadban said, because Saleh is supporting a tribal figure in the Houthi stronghold of Saada.

“They still reserve the right of self-defence. The attack on them last week was unjustified. Saleh is trying to divert attention from the street rage he is facing throughout Yemen,” he added, referring to an attack by the military on protestors that killed two in Saada, the Houthis’ northern stronghold.

At least 27 people have been killed in Yemen since protests erupted last month. Saleh, a key U.S. ally against al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, is refusing street demands to leave and has hinted that Yemen would fall apart without him.

The Houthis, Jadban said, want effective representation in a national dialogue to take place if the popular movement manages to remove Saleh from office.

Jadban was until recently a member of Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress Party until he resigned last week along with 11 other parliamentarians to protest Saleh’s refusal to meet street demands to step down.

“Being in parliament was the only way to help the people of Saada because the ruling party controlled everything. No longer,” said Jadban, who has written books on the sect of Shi’ite Islam known as Zaidism, to which Houthis belong.

Jadban believes the Houthis might gain more traction if Houthis relinquished their belief in an Imamate, where the ruler must be a descendent of Islam’s prophet Mohammed. A Zaidi imamate ruled much of modern Yemen for more than 1,000 years until it was overthrown in 1962.

The Houthis are also deeply resentful of Saudi Arabia’s promotion of its austere Salafi school and fear that this fundamental version of Sunni Islam threatens their identity.

Saleh, who is backed by the United States, is of the same minority Zaidi sect as the Houthis, but also receives backing from Saudi Arabia in the conflict.

A Qatari-brokered peace agreement last summer stipulated that the government should help with the reconstruction of Saada but Jadban said little effort was made to improve the lot of the province, which is more impoverished than the rest of Yemen.

“There is no electricity. The whole region is sinking in darkness,” he said.

 

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Gaddafi’s Sons Tried To Get Saudi Cleric Help

Posted on 01 March 2011 by hashimilion

Sons of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have failed to persuade prominent Saudi clerics to issue religious rulings against a revolt that is threatening to bring down the veteran leader, Al Arabiya television said on Monday.

The Saudi-owned channel said on its website that Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam had contacted one cleric, Salman al-Awda, and Saadi Gaddafi had reached out to a second, Ayedh al-Garni, but both rejected their calls.

“You are killing the Libyan people. Turn to God because you are wronging them. Protect Libyan blood, you are killing old people and children. Fear God,” Garni said he told Saadi.

Garni made the remarks on air on Sunday, the website said, adding Awda gave the same message to Saif al-Islam.

Awda has a weekly television show on Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel MBC1 and has been praised by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before as a religious scholar he felt did not toe the government line. Garni gave lectures in Libya last year.

Gaddafi’s forces have been trying for days to push back a revolt that has won over large parts of the military and ended his control over eastern Libya. Gaddafi has accused followers of al Qaeda of staging the protests in the east, where Islamists have clashed with government forces in the past.

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and the ruling al-Saud family see the clerical establishment, who have wide powers in society, as the leading authority in mainstream Sunni Islam.

The world’s top oil exporter is nervous that protests sweeping the region, which have included its neighbours Bahrain, Oman and Yemen, could ignite dissent on its own territory.

Activists have set up Facebook pages calling for protests on March 11 and 20 in Saudi Arabia. These have attracted over 17,000 supporters combined. Last week King Abdullah, a close U.S. ally, ordered wage rises for Saudi citizens along with other benefits in an apparent bid to insulate the kingdom from the wave of protests.

Gaddafi has long been an unpopular figure in Saudi Arabia, which once accused him of plotting to assassinate the king.

Clerics close to the government have said it is not the place of religious scholars to back protests or otherwise. But others have said Gaddafi is an illegitimate ruler and denounced him as an apostate.

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