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Monarchy Club to Extend Saudi Influence

Posted on 12 May 2011 by hashimilion

The Gulf Co-operation Council could be turning itself into the club of Arab monarchies as it considers bringing Jordan and Morocco into its fold, a move that would strengthen the political and economic capacity of the two countries’ leaders to fend off any popular challenge.

In a surprise announcement late on Tuesday, the GCC, which joins six oil-producing Gulf Arab states, said it was considering a request by Morocco and Jordan to join the bloc, even though the two poorer countries have little in common with existing members.

Following a GCC summit in Riyadh, Abdullatif al-Zayani, the secretary-general, said foreign ministers would be holding talks with the two non-Gulf countries to complete the procedures required for membership. It is not yet clear if membership will be granted or in what form.

Abdullatif al-Zayani

The GCC was formed in 1981 in the wake of the Iranian revolution as an alliance of oil-producing monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.

Efforts at economic integration have been only partly successful, undermined by rivalries and political divisions.

As republics dominated by family rule have proved most vulnerable to popular revolts this year, however, the GCC has been asserting itself, closing ranks to protect its members from the changes sweeping the region. GCC troops were sent to Bahrain to support the ruling Sunni family, helping it crush a Shia uprising. Meanwhile, the organisation pledged $20bn in financial aid to Bahrain and Oman, another Gulf monarchy that was hit by protests.

Saudi Arabia, the heavyweight in the GCC, has also been dismayed by the willingness of the US to abandon long-time allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted this year, and to criticise a Bahraini intervention, which Riyadh insists was needed to counter Iranian meddling.

Diplomats say GCC states have been sending the message that no Gulf ruling family will be allowed to fall – nor will Iran, which is seen as the biggest regional threat, be permitted to take advantage of the unrest in the region.

Khalid al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, said on Twitter that Jordan and Morocco were “clear examples of good, wise governance and real political development”. The GCC, he added, had “a vital interest in joining together with them”.

Mustafa Hamarneh, a Jordanian political analyst, said the GCC move was a sign that Jordan belonged to the “conservative monarchy club”. What all the countries had in common, he said, was that “they see eye to eye on all the main issue: on Iran, on Bahrain and on the question of political reforms”.

Membership in the GCC would be a boost for the Jordanian monarchy, if it went ahead, but would prove a setback for groups seeking reform, he added.

Hassan al-Mostafa, a Saudi writer, said the possible integration of the two countries into the GCC was an attempt to “reshape the region” by creating new alliances at a time when a democratically elected Egyptian government was likely to follow a more independent foreign policy, possibly becoming friendlier with Tehran.

“The GCC will also help Jordan and Morocco to avoid pressure or collapse of these regimes,” he said. “But Moroccans and Jordanians are more politically active and won’t accept the GCC dictating foreign policy.”

Dris Ben Ali, a Moroccan economist who has been advocating political reforms, said he was concerned about the political rationale behind a potential membership in the GCC, which might be aimed at halting Morocco’s move towards a “democratic, parliamentary monarchy” that could become a model for others in the region.

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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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Guarding the Fortress

Posted on 06 April 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia, fortified by its oil wealth, Wahhabi ideology and blanket American protection, finds itself drifting in the uncharted waters of a new Arab awakening fashioned in revolt.

SAUDI ARABIA APPEARS FROM THE OUTSIDE AS A BEGUILING FORTRESS HOUSING A remote Kingdom guarded by robed, well-oiled royals. This desert fortress is sustained by unlimited hydrocarbon resources, bringing fabulous wealth to its intoxicated rulers and sedating the inhabitants. Minarets serve as watchtowers of orthodoxy and dogma. The fortress has also remained strong because of a protective alliance with a foreign power, the United States (US), that chooses a romanticised vision of a kingdom that offers harmonious exchange and a false sense of security.

But the waves of revolution, dissent and sedition are lashing against the fortress’s very foundations, deepening cracks of this political structure built on shifting sand. King Abdullah and his thousands of royal brothers, nephews and assorted hangers-on have watched the fall of fellow dictators, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Others in their death throes, like Muammar Al Gaddafi of Libya and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, refuse to see the writing on the wall. The Saudi Royals’ younger brother King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain, kowtowing to Saudi diktat, has now made his choice by inviting Saudi military into his troubled land. Even the docile Jordanian monarch Abdullah II and his normally forgotten brotherly neighbour Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman are floundering.

No state in the Arab world is being spared the sudden wrath of its people. The old strategic criteria of dividing the region on the basis of oil versus non-oil states, or of alliances with the United States, now fails to hold water. There are no longer any guarantees, with or without American support, for protecting regional rulers from the legitimate demands of their people. The people have made common cause, rising from years of misrule and repression, through the use of new technologies in new media adopted by young people. The demographics of the population are simply too lopsided in favour of younger generations versus the old ruling oligarchy. All these factors are plentiful in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: a youthful majority, an abundance of computers, and deepening social and political resentments and alienation.

The Saudi Kingdom contains within its fortress walls a deeper rot: an arbitrary coercive and corrupt system that denies its subjects its fundamental political rights and social justice. The Saudi royals do not even grasp what it is that their people are demanding. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have all helped bring down the walls of opacity. The seventy percent of the Kingdom’s population who are under the age of thirty are predominantly Internet savvy.

They are asking for the creation of a constitutional monarchy, parliamentary elections, the release of thousands of political prisoners being held without trial or representation, an end to the endemic and massive royal corruption, reform of the judiciary and the minimising of perks and privileges afforded the 22,000 members of the House of Saud, as well as meeting demands to curtail the influence of the religious establishment.

Talk of a ‘Day of Rage’ scheduled for March 11 captured the world’s attention. To stop the increasingly corrosive developments, the Saudi state has equipped itself with the biggest carrot and largest stick in the Arab world. The carrot comprises the king’s promise of 37 billion dollars to his country’s agitated younger generations – a fifteen percent pay raise for government employees, aid for students and the unemployed, and access to sport clubs – something that only a Croseus-rich monarch like King Abdullah could hope to deliver. Nowhere are subjects offered such largess to buy off their loyalties.

Since thousands of voices using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube expressed ingratitude for such a ‘benevolent’ act, the state then decided to deploy its catch-all religious fall-back to warn its subjects that demonstrations and protests are un- Islamic. Using the pretext of the Saudi Kingdom as the ultimate guardian of the Islamic faith and custodian of the holy mosques, the state claimed to be protecting its population from the sins of other Middle Eastern youth. There have been in recent days mass arrests of those calling for reform, and multiple websites have been blocked. The Saudi bogeyman, thousands of security forces backed by armour on the street and helicopters hovering over city skies, act as an iron-fisted warning against any dissent. The Saudi rulers are beyond the reproach of their people.

Meanwhile the United States, traditional protector and ‘custodian of the holy oil fields,’ has lapsed into diplomatic torpor. The US has guarded the Kingdom from external threats through the sales of hundreds of billions of dollars of high-tech arms. Since 1945, the stationing of American forces in Dhahran near the critical oil fields have been crucial for Saudi security and are the lifeblood of American and world economy. The US never alluded to the subject of democracy in its support of the Saudi rulers and deliberately did not deal with the people, remaining constant in their policy for the survival of the Al Saud. The pact between Riyadh and Washington was to always protect the Kingdom’s fortress and not to get embroiled with the multitude of tribes, sects, regions, and ethnic groups.

The big carrot and stick have bought the Saudi rulers a temporary sense of control. But the faces of millions of screaming, self-liberated Arabs beaming at them on the screens of Al Jazeera have increased the tension. Prince Naif, interior minister and crown prince in waiting, may continue to repeat the Kingdom’s slogan: “What we took by the sword, we will hold by the sword.” But the traditional sword is dull, limited, and unable to meet the challenges of the moment. The Saudi rulers are also using the sectarian discourse both for the US and for their Sunni populations, portraying the Shi’a as the scary spectre seeking dominance and a dangerous alliance with Iran. They also are using the divide and rule policy to warn their Sunni population against the internal Shi’a enemy.

The most challenging group to the Saudi rulers is currently the Shi’a, who constitute 75 percent of the population in the Eastern Province, the Kingdom’s main oil-producing region. The Shi’a were also the first to respond to the eruptions of demonstrations in the Arab region despite the legal ban on demonstrations. The Shi’a have experienced loss of lives and imprisonment since 1979 because of their defiance.

The strategic regional predominance of Saudi Arabia through its oil wealth has allowed the country’s rulers to freeze reform. This policy offers temporary political respite for the kingdom, but the frozen body politic is brittle and can easily break. The danger is that continued repression of peaceful protests can lead to violence and radicalisation. At the moment, Islamic extremism and Al Qaeda have no space in the Arab movements of the people, but if this desperation continues to be confined to computer screens while political representation and expression is forbidden, then Al Qaeda will find renewed space.

By Dr Mai Yamani

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Bahrain, Libya and Yemen Try to Crush Protests with Violence

Posted on 19 February 2011 by hashimilion

Violence in Libya and Bahrain has claimed scores of lives and left many more injured as the two Arab countries were united by popular protests that continue to shake the status quo and sound alarm bells across the region and the world.

A week after Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to stand down, dozens of Libyans were reported killed by Muammar Gaddafi’s security forces. Meanwhile, Bahraini troops shot dead at least one protester and wounded 50 others after mourners buried four people who were killed on Thursday in the worst mass unrest the western-backed Gulf state has ever seen.

“We don’t care if they kill 5,000 of us,” a protester screamed inside Salmaniya hospital, which has become a staging point for Bahrain’s raging youth. “The regime must fall and we will make sure it does.”

Last night footage was posted on YouTube apparently showing Bahraini security forces shooting protesters.

Western nations have been struggling to adjust their policies in response to the security crackdowns in Arab countries.

But Britain announced that it was revoking 44 licences for the export of arms to Bahrain amid concern over the violent suppression of protests in the Gulf state. The Foreign Office also said that eight arms export licences to Libya had been withdrawn, while a review of arms exports to the wider region continues.

Bahrain’s crown prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa went on television to promise a national dialogue once calm has returned. But the country’s most senior Shia cleric, Sheikh Issa Qassem, condemned attacks on protesters as a “massacre” and said the government had shut the door to such dialogue.

While the unrest in Bahrain was broadcast instantly around the world, the unprecedented bloodshed in the remote towns of eastern Libya was far harder for global media to cover.

Amid an official news blackout in Libya, there were opposition claims of 60 dead as diplomats reported the use of heavy weapons in Benghazi, the country’s second city, and “a rapidly deteriorating situation” in the latest – and the most repressive – Arab country to be hit by serious unrest.

Libyans said a “massacre” had been perpetrated in Benghazi, al-Bayda and elsewhere in the region. Crowds in the port city of Tobruk were shown destroying a statue of Gaddafi’s Green Book and chanting, “We want the regime to fall,” echoing the slogan of the uprising in Egypt.

Umm Muhammad, a political activist in Benghazi, told the Guardian that 38 people had died in the city. “They [security forces] were using live fire here, not just teargas. This is a bloody massacre – in Benghazi, in al-Bayda, all over Libya. They are releasing prisoners from the jails to attack the demonstrators.” Benghazi’s al-Jala hospital was appealing for emergency blood supplies to help treat the injured.

News and rumours spread rapidly via social media websites including Twitter and Facebook, but information remained fragmentary and difficult to confirm.

In Yemen at least five people were reported killed when security forces and anti-government protesters clashed for a seventh consecutive day in the capital, Sana’a, Aden and other cities, with crowds demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year rule.

Barack Obama said he was “deeply concerned” about the reports of violence from Bahrain, a close ally and the base of the US fifth fleet, as well as those from Libya and Yemen, and he urged their rulers to show restraint with protesters.

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, also condemned the killings of protesters in Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. “The Middle East and North Africa region is boiling with anger,” he said. “At the root of this anger is decades of neglect of people’s aspirations to realise not only civil and political rights, but also economic, social and cultural rights.”

In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the influential Egyptian cleric Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi said the Arab world had changed and said Egypt’s new military leaders should listen to their people “to liberate us from the government that Mubarak formed”.

It has also emerged that the Ministry of Defence has helped train more than 100 Bahraini army officers in the past five years at Sandhurst and other top UK colleges.

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