Tag Archive | "Prince Nayef"

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Comments (0)

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Watching Bahrain, Saudi Shi’ites Demand Reforms

Posted on 22 February 2011 by hashimilion

When Saudi Shi’ites mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad, meeting at mosques and exchanging sweets is only part of what’s going on.

The Shi’ites also are testing the tolerance of Sunni clerics and taking advantage of reforms introduced by King Abdullah that allow them greater freedom to practise their branch of Islamic faith.

For the hundreds of Shi’ites who gathered on Sunday in the rundown eastern town of Awwamiya, near the Gulf coast, this year is special.

Just an hour’s drive and a bridge away is the island nation of Bahrain, usually a place where Saudis go for a bit of weekend fun but now the scene of a majority Shi’ite uprising that is challenging the minority Sunnis’ grip on power.

“You need to demand reforms and start popular movements if you want to achieve something. If you don’t do anything the government will not act,” said Mohammed, a young man who, like others, gave only his first name.

“You need to make use of the fact that the regime is in a weak position,” he said, referring to anti-government protests sweeping across the Arab world after popular uprisings toppled the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.

Mohammed used the Arabic word ‘nizam’ for ‘regime’ — the same word shouted by thousands of Egyptian protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand change.

Normally fear of landing in jail would curb such talk, but television images of protests and rapid Internet communication are making people think about what might be possible.

Analysts do not expect Egyptian or Tunisian-style unrest in Saudi Arabia, where the government sits on more than $400 billion in petrodollars that can be used to alleviate social pressures such as high youth unemployment.

But they say the elderly King Abdullah will face pressure from Shi’ites watching protests in Bahrain to give them a greater say and start some political reforms, such as calling municipal elections.

So far, Shi’ites are not represented in the cabinet, and often complain of attacks by hardline Sunni clerics who see them as heretics or even agents of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival.

“We follow events in Bahrain closely due to the geographical proximity, the shared religion and because we also have demands for reform,” said Khoder Awwami, a young Shi’ite preacher.

Saudi Arabia was stung by the loss of a key ally in Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and events in Bahrain, where it backs the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family.

Moderate Shi’ite leaders say King Abdullah may announce higher benefits — also expected by analysts — after returning from medical treatment. But that may not be enough to appease young people demanding a voice in the conservative kingdom.

“Will economic reforms have a long-term effect to satisfy people? I think some also want real reforms,” said Tawfiq al-Saif, a leading Shi’ite intellectual in the kingdom.

Offering some hope was the release on Sunday of three Shi’ites held in jail for more than a year, days after residents say activists staged a small but rare protest calling for them to be freed.

“I think the regime saw the necessity to defuse the situation,” said a young man who gave his name as Hussain.

In a small mosque illuminated by green and yellow lights to mark the Prophet’s birthday, dozens lined up to meet the three former prisoners.

“I was in prison over a year. I’m so happy to be here,” said released blogger Muneer al-Jasas, smiling widely and shaking hands.

NIMR’S CALL

Abdullah has given Shi’ites more freedom since 2005 but the outlook for his reforms is uncertain as he is around 87 years old. The slightly younger Crown Prince Sultan spent much of the past two years out of the kingdom for sickness.

With both in their 80s, succession is looming.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who is close to the Wahhabi clerics who uphold the kingdom’s austere brand of Sunni Islam, would have the best chance to become king after being promoted in 2009 to second deputy prime minister, analysts say.

Tensions flared in the Eastern Province in 2009 after Shi’ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr from Awwamiya suggested in a sermon that Shi’ites could one day seek their own state — a call heard only rarely since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which triggered some unrest among Saudi Shi’ites.

Since then calm has returned after moderate Shi’ite leaders distanced themselves from Nimr’s call.

There are no official figures about the Shi’ite minority.

“The government says Shi’ites make up 5 percent of the total population but I looked at the latest census data village by village and think it’s rather eight to 12 percent,” said Ibrahim al-Mugaiteb, head of the independent First Human Rights Society.

While Shi’ites can practise their faith in Awwamiya and nearby towns, they would get in trouble if they tried to do so in the neighbouring communities of Dammam or Khobar, he said.

Dammam, a port city with a large Shi’ite population, has just one mosque serving them. Authorities do not permit new ones, the U.S. State Department said in its annual International Religious Freedom report in November.

Anti-government graffiti on walls in Awwamiya reflect simmering anger. Residents say workers repainted a wall but Shi’ite slogans quickly returned.

CRUMBLING PAINT

Shi’ite leaders who went into exile after the 1979 protests returned in the 1990s under a deal with the government. Moderate leaders say things are better than a decade ago, but they fear losing control of a younger population frustrated with a lack of reforms.

Jafar al-Shayab, a member of the municipal council in the nearby Shi’ite town of Qatif, said authorities needed to offer the Internet-savvy young people a voice or risk losing them.

“My daughter didn’t find a job for a year after university graduation in IT,” said Shayeb, adding that she had joined a Facebook group where other unemployed gather.

Despite being home to most of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, the Eastern Province is visibly less affluent than the Saudi capital of Riyadh, with paint crumbling from old houses and roads full of potholes.

In a sign that the government wants to reach out more to Shi’ites, regional governor Prince Mohammed bin Fahd, an ally of Prince Nayef, made a rare visit to Qatif last week.

Iran’s rising influence since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq produced a Shi’ite government in Baghdad and also revived official fears that Shi’ites could become a fifth column against the Saudi state, analysts say.

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables quoted King Abdullah as urging Washington to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear programme, and analysts say Nayef also appears to be a hawk on Iran.

Simon Henderson, a Washington-based analyst on Saudi affairs, said Riyadh faced the dilemma of hoping that protests in Bahrain would end peacefully while fearing a greater role in government by majority Shi’ites.

The U.S. naval base in Manama is vital for Riyadh, providing U.S. military protection of Saudi oil installations and the Gulf waterways on which its oil exports depend, without any Western troops present on the soil of the kingdom, Islam’s birthplace.

“It is hard to see what meaningful reform is in Bahrain unless it is a Shi’ite-controlled government. The Saudis won’t want this,” Henderson said.

By Ulf Laessing

Comments (1)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

King Abdullah ‘to return to Saudi on Wednesday’

Posted on 21 February 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is to return home this week after convalescing in Morocco from operations in New York, a source close to the oil-rich Gulf monarchy said on Sunday.

“The king is expected to return Wednesday and preparations are underway” to greet Abdullah, the official told AFP, requesting anonymity.

Another source said the heads of Saudi state media, especially television channels, have been instructed to begin from Tuesday to broadcast special programmes on the king’s return.

The streets of Riyadh have already been decorated with national flags for the monarch’s return.

Riyadh’s ambassador to Rabat told AFP on Friday the king would soon return to his country. “I was talking to him 15 minutes ago and I can assure you he is very well,” Mohammed ibn Abderrahman al-Bishr said.

King Abdullah, 86, arrived in Morocco on January 22 after surgery on his back in the United States and will return home to a Middle East rocked by anti-regime uprisings, although his own country has been spared.

In his absence, mass street protests led to the departure of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia’s close ally whom the king has backed in a phone call from Morocco.

Before Mubarak’s ouster on February 11, Tunisia’s strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea city of Jeddah after protests toppled his regime in mid-January.

Tension has also reached the conservative Gulf monarchy’s neighbour Bahrain, where Shiite protesters have taken to the streets to push for reform in the Sunni-ruled state.

King Abdullah flew to New York on November 22 and was operated on two days later for a debilitating herniated disc complicated by a haematoma that put pressure on his spine.

That surgery was declared a success, as was a second operation to repair several vertebrae.

The monarch’s advanced age combined with health problems have raised concerns about the future of Saudi Arabia, which has been ruled by the Al-Saud family since 1932.

Abdullah’s half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who has held the post of defence minister ever since 1962, is 83 and has been slowed by what is believed to be cancer.

Little seen at home for the previous two years, Sultan himself flew back from Morocco on November 21 to take over the running of the government in Abdullah’s absence.

Prince Nayef, 77, third in line to the Saudi throne, was appointed second deputy prime minister in March 2009.

Comments (0)

Advertise Here
Advertise Here