Archive | May, 2011

Saudi Protesters Step Back—for Now

Posted on 27 May 2011 by hashimilion

The young people here stopped protesting last week, effectively ending the first chapter of the so-called Arab spring in the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The protesters of Qatif abandoned demonstrations after weeks of unrelenting pressure not only from the government—which arrested at least 150 of them without charges—but also from their own community elders.

Few activists, who seek more say in their government and an end to sectarian discrimination, have given up on their demands. They say they’ll be back, confident that time and global trends are on their side.

Protesters in Qatif last month carried a mock coffin and pictures of men said to be held without trial.

“Historical changes are going on. We are a part of this,” said a 25-year-old protester. “We’ve decided it’s our time.”

Qatif isn’t representative of Saudi Arabia, where there have been no other Arab spring street protests. But its corner of the country, in the Eastern province, where nearly all of the kingdom’s vast oil fields are located, is critical to the Saudi economy and world oil markets.

The city’s roughly 400,000 residents are almost all Shiite Muslims, a group that makes up perhaps 10% of the kingdom’s mostly Sunni Muslim population.

Qatif, as well as surrounding areas home to substantial populations of Shiites, has long had a prickly relationship with the government. Periods of protest and crackdown have punctuated the past three decades, and deep suspicions cloud the community’s interactions with the government and the majority Sunni population.

Shiites in the area complain of discrimination in jobs and education and restrictions on their freedom to practice their religion, which differs in significant ways from the purist strain of the Sunni faith officially endorsed by the government.

Meanwhile, the government worries that Shiites could link up with co-religionists in Iran to cause problems in the kingdom—fears community leaders in the area insist are exaggerated.

But plans announced in February by King Abdullah, the octogenarian ruler, to spend more than $100 billion for state security, the conservative clerical establishment, salaries of public-sector employees and handouts to other groups could be a sign of concern that Shiites in Qatif weren’t the only ones asking more from their government.

The spirit of the Arab spring has also led to a renewed effort by women organizing to win the right to drive. Though those behind the effort have been careful to protest only online or by driving alone, not in groups, one Saudi woman was arrested this week for getting behind the wheel and posting a video of it on Facebook.

In Qatif, small protests started in late February, about a week after Egypt’s president resigned. In nearby Bahrain, street demonstrations were already drawing tens of thousands into the streets, most of them Shiites seeking better representation and treatment from their Sunni-dominated ruling family.

In early March, one protest in Qatif drew several thousand people, and a concerned Saudi government began to take action.

Local police arrested 28 protesters. Prince Muhammed bin Fahd, the governor of the Eastern province, initiated a flurry of meetings with secular and religious elders, pressing them to stop young people from protesting, community leaders who attended the meetings said.

The deputy governor met with about a dozen youths, who presented him with a list of demands for equal treatment of Shiites and more participation on governmental decisions. Officials from the provincial government declined requests to comment.

But those who attended the meetings said the government priority was on stopping the protests immediately, as some social-networking sites were calling for a kingdomwide protest the following week.

In a gesture apparently calculated to build some goodwill in the community while also removing yet another reason to protest, the provincial government released the 28 protesters who had been detained. “They’ve tried to relieve some of the pressure,” said Jafar al Shayeb, an activist who heads Qatif’s municipal council.

Protests occurred anyway, with several hundred mostly young people taking to the streets on the designated protest day,March 11.

There were more meetings, which put more pressure on local elders. Some of them had been confrontational activists themselves, but nearly all had long ago decided to work with the Saudi government rather than confront it directly.

On April 22, about three dozen local clerics reluctantly signed a statement asking the young people in the community to stop protesting.

Young protesters were angry. Hundreds ignored the request and demonstrated the next week anyway. Police beat and arrested some at the scene, people who attended the protest said.

The activists debated among themselves for another three weeks, protesting sporadically and in small numbers, before a group of informal representatives issued a final set of complaints and agreed to stop demonstrating. But they describe their halt to protests as a pause, rather than the conclusion of anything. More than 120 protesters remain in government custody.

“The government says we are not ready for change,” said a 26-year-old writer. “We are ready. We are more than ready.”


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Saudi Woman Arrested for Challenging Driving Ban

Posted on 22 May 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi authorities arrested a female activist on Sunday who launched a campaign to challenge a ban on women driving in the conservative kingdom and posted a video on the Internet of her driving, activists said.

The YouTube video, posted on Thursday, has attracted more than 500,000 views and shows , who learned to drive in the United States, driving her car in Khobar in the oil-producing Eastern Province.

“Police arrested her at 3 a.m. this morning,” said Maha Taher, another female activist who launched her own campaign for women driving four months ago to spread awareness of the issue.

An Eastern Province police spokesperson declined to comment and an interior ministry spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that does not tolerate any form of dissent and applies an austere version of Sunni Islam in which religious police patrol the streets to ensure public segregation between men and women.

Women in the country are not allowed to drive and must have written approval from a designated guardian — a father, husband, brother or son — to leave the country, work or travel abroad.

The campaign Alsharif launched is aimed at teaching women to drive and encouraging them to start driving from June 17, using foreign-issued licences.

While there is no written law that specifically bans women from driving, Saudi law requires citizens use a locally issued licence while in the country. Such licences are not issued to women, making it effectively illegal for them to drive.

“When the police stopped her they told her she violated the ‘norms’. There is no law that says women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia and this arrest is unjust. She is a role model for a lot of people and the arrest will provoke her supporters. Now more women want to drive,” Taher said.

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Saudi Arabia, UAE funded Jihadi Networks in Pakistan

Posted on 22 May 2011 by hashimilion

Islamic charities from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates financed a network in U.S. ally Pakistan that recruited children as young as eight to wage holy war, a local newspaper reported on Sunday, citing Wikileaks.

A U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks said financial support estimated at $100 million a year was making its way from those Gulf Arab states to a jihadist recruitment network in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Dawn newspaper reported.

The November 2008 dispatch by Bryan Hunt, the then principal officer at the U.S. consulate in Lahore, was based on discussions with local government and non-governmental sources during trips to Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.

It said those sources claimed that financial aid from Saudi and United Arab Emirates was coming from “missionary” and “Islamic charitable” organizations ostensibly with the direct support of those countries’ governments.

Asked to respond to the report, Saudi foreign ministry spokesman Osama Nugali said: “Saudi Arabia issued a statement from day one that we are not going to comment on any WikiLeaks reports because Saudi Arabia is not responsible for these reports and we are not sure about their authenticity.”

Saudi Arabia, the United States and Pakistan heavily supported the Afghan mujahideen against Soviet occupation troops in the 1980s.

Militancy subsequently mushroomed in the region and militants moved to Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, seen as a global hub for militants.

Since then there has been a growing nexus between militant groups there and in Punjab. In recent years militants have been carrying out suicide bombings seemingly at will in Pakistan, despite military offensives against their strongholds.

The discovery that Osama bin Laden was living in a Pakistani town not far from Islamabad until he was killed by U.S. special forces earlier this month has severely damaged ties between Washington and Islamabad.

The United States wants Pakistan to be a more reliable partner in its war on militancy.


But militancy is deeply rooted in Pakistan. In order to eradicate it, analysts say, the government must improve economic conditions to prevent militants from recruiting young men disillusioned with the state.

The network in Punjab reportedly exploited worsening poverty to indoctrinate children and ultimately send them to training camps, said the cable.

Saudi Arabia, home to the fundamentalist Wahhabi brand of Islam, is seen as funding some of Pakistan’s hardline religious seminaries, or madrassas, which churn out young men eager for holy war, posing a threat to the stability of the region.

“At these madrassas, children are denied contact with the outside world and taught sectarian extremism, hatred for non-Muslims, and anti-Western/anti-Pakistan government philosophy,” said the cable.

It described how “families with multiple children” and “severe financial difficulties” were being exploited and recruited, Dawn reported.

“The path following recruitment depends upon the age of the child involved. Younger children (between 8 and 12) seem to be favored,” said the cable.

Teachers in seminaries would assess the inclination of children “to engage in violence and acceptance of jihadi culture.”

“The initial success of establishing madrassas and mosques in these areas led to subsequent annual “donations” to these same clerics, originating in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” the cable stated.

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Mission Impossible: How to Back Arab Reform but Ignore Saudi Arabia

Posted on 21 May 2011 by hashimilion

In all the Arab states Barack Obama name checked in his tour-de-force speech on Thursday night about the Arab spring, one nation was conspicuously missing - Saudi Arabia.

If State Department officials go queasy at the thought of Syria imploding, into the hands of Iran, they rush to the toilet at the thought of a Saudi uprising.

Saudi Arabia is, quite simply, too big to be allowed to fail. It is the world’s biggest oil producer. A generation ago it flexed its muscles, pushed up the oil price, and threw the world into recession.

Even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pales besides the thought of what would happen to the US economy if Saudi Arabia found itself in the hands of Islamists. The House of Saud maintains the strictest control of its subjects - it was named the seventh most authoritarian state on Earth by The Economist in 2010.

Protest, elections and political parties are all banned, along with a free press - one reason why we hear little of any Arab spring-style dissent there.

But there are protests aplenty. In January Shiites in Jeddah protested against local government corruption after several people were swept away in floods.

In February 40 women protested outside the interior ministry in Riyadh, demanding the release of men held without trial. That same month ten prominent intellectuals formed the Umma Islamic Party to campaign for freedom. Days later, all ten were jailed. More protests came in March with three Days of Rage in Shia areas in the east.

Yet despite harsh tactics by the police and grim reports from human rights groups, Mr Obama judged he simply could not affort the mildest criticism of the House of Saud, or even its use of police who crossed into Bahrain to help it crush its own Arab spring.

State Department officials privately say they are facing an impossible contradiction. The American public may support human rights, yet what if such support saw Islamic parties elected in Saudi Arabia and an oil boycott?

But as the Arab spring gains force, Mr Obama will find it harder to keep his current contradictory line - supporting pro-democracy protests in some parts of the Arab world and ignoring them in others.

By Chris Stephen

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The GCC: A Club Fit For Kings

Posted on 20 May 2011 by hashimilion

Buffeted by the wind of democratic change but determined not be blown over by it, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has surprised the rest of the Arab world by declaring that it would accept a request by Jordan to join the club and would encourage Morocco to do the same.

The reaction, especially in Morocco, which had never asked to join, was one of bemused incomprehension. The government in Rabat was respectful but cool, noting Morocco’s commitment to the Maghreb Arab Union. Jokes were traded on Twitter, with a #funnygcc hashtag, wondering how the different cultures of the Arab world’s easternmost and westernmost people would get on. Moroccan women worried half in jest whether, as in Saudi Arabia, they would no longer be allowed to drive. The republic of Yemen, by contrast, has been asking in vain for membership since 1999.

Abdullatif al-Zayani, the GCC’s secretary-general, a Bahraini who has been trying to mediate an end to the turmoil in Yemen, disclosed few details of the club’s planned enlargement. But the aims were evident. For one thing, the GCC sees itself as a bulwark against Iran, which all the club’s members, led by its most powerful, Saudi Arabia, view as a rising threat. Jordan’s King Abdullah II was the first Arab leader to speak darkly, in 2004, of a “Shia crescent”; Morocco’s King Muhammad VI cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran in 2009, accusing the Islamic Republic of trying to spread its sect of Islam in his stoutly Sunni kingdom. Aside from Oman, whose sultan follows Islam’s Ibadi school, all GCC members are Sunni-ruled. Jordan and Morocco have also given security support to GCC countries. A Jordanian contingent joined the recent Saudi-led intervention to suppress Shia protesters in Bahrain, and Moroccans have long provided brains and brawn to the UAE’s emirs.

There is an economic angle, too. Morocco and Jordan are relatively poor—and lack oil. The rich Gulf states have backed both with billions in aid. For Moroccans and Jordanians, many of whom work in the Gulf, the open borders and labour markets enjoyed by the GCC’s current sextet, which plans a customs union by 2015, is another lure, though today’s GCC members will not give the newcomers all the same privileges from the start.

Monarchical solidarity is, of course, the ultimate bond, at a time when the republican dynasties of Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia have come unstuck or look shaky. A common joke these days is that the GCC should be renamed the “Gulf Counter-Revolutionary Club”.

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Saudi Grad Student Admits Killing NY Professor

Posted on 20 May 2011 by hashimilion

A mentally ill graduate student from Saudi Arabia admitted Friday that he stabbed to death a professor he believed was part of a plot against him, a prosecutor in upstate New York said.

Abdulsalam al-Zahrani, 48, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in the killing of Binghamton University professor Richard Antoun in his office in 2009, said Broome County District Attorney Gerald Mollen. The plea bargain came after psychiatric experts determined al-Zahrani was schizophrenic but mentally competent to stand trial on an original charge of second-degree murder.

“There was no dispute he had a significant mental illness,” Mollen said, but that didn’t absolve him of responsibility for killing Antoun, 77, an emeritus professor of anthropology and expert on Middle East cultures.

“His belief was that the Saudi secret police were conspiring to ruin his life and have him returned to Saudi Arabia to be killed or tortured,” Mollen said.

He described Antoun as “a gentle, kindly Binghamton University professor who had helped Mr. al-Zahrani for years.”

But at some point, al-Zahrani came to believe the professor was part of the conspiracy against him.

In court Friday, al-Zahrani said he was provoked to the violent attack by a smile from Antoun.

“He believed the professor was laughing at him and mocking him,” Mollen said. “I’m not sure there was a single, pure motive. There were a lot of things going on.”

Mentally ill and afraid, al-Zahrani “wasn’t doing well in his studies in the anthropology department,” the prosecutor said.

He was running out of money and facing the possibility he wouldn’t be able to finish his dissertation, an academic failure Mollen said would likely have led to revocation of his student visa and return to his homeland, a deep fear.

Mollen said Antoun’s family was kept informed about the progress of the case and supported the plea deal. Al-Zahrani is expected to be sentenced Sept. 9 to 15 years in prison and then face deportation.

“This assures he never walks in America as a free man,” Mollen said.

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The Gulf Revolutions Are Underway

Posted on 19 May 2011 by hashimilion

Omanis recently took part in massive demonstrations in the northern city of Sohar and were knocking on the doors of Abu Dhabi. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the last dictatorial powers in the region cannot ignore democracy. The people of the Gulf are fed up with the Gulf ruling elites and have awakened from their 40 year old slumber. It’s true that they’re not as poor as the Egyptians or Tunisians, but they are become increasingly more aware that a country’s wealth belong to the state and the state alone.

Some wikileaks documents suggest that peak oil production levels in the Gulf have already been met and that current supplies will only be sufficient for a couple more decades. These backward political regimes have lead to poor planning and corruption. The future for the youth is not so great.

Bahrain has given us a glimpse of what lies ahead in the future. Its oil reserves have diminished and its unable to change its fiscal policy or  turn itself into a modern state. For decades bahrainis have contributed towards the state but were denied any meaningful political representation by the ruling family. They were left with few options and hence took matters into their own hands. The Al Khalifa regime responded by using live ammunition and immediately unleashed their Pakistani mercenaries on the demonstrators. The regime had showed its true colours.

The regimes of both Saudi Arabia and UAE gave the Al Khalifa family unlimited moral support in crushing the protests by all means necessary. Both regimes tried to bribe their populations with financial incentives in order to stop the protests from spreading. The Saudi King Abdullah announced a 36 billion dollar spending program, which was promptly rejected by the protestors who felt insulted.

Saudi protestors chose the 11th of March as their day of rage, and openly called for overthrowing Al Saud’s regime. Had live ammunition been used on the protestors it would have catalysed protests in the Emirates. Thousands of UAE nationals are ignored by the oil rich states of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and live in modest conditions in the poor Northern Emirates. The majority are angry at the huge economic gap in wealth between the different federations  and at being excluded from participating in major policy decisions. Some are curious why large coastal lands were sold to foreign investors.

Also, a large number of stateless people live in both the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. They were born and brought up in the country of their grandfathers, yet find it perplexing that the regime’s friends nationalises Indians and westerners.

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Distrusting America, Saudi Arabia Embarks on More Assertive Role

Posted on 19 May 2011 by hashimilion

As U.S. President Barack Obama seeks to reinvigorate his administration’s policy in the Middle East, he will have to contend with several issues where U.S. influence is less than overwhelming.

Chief among them, according to Middle East analysts, is the growing assertiveness of Saudi Arabia as it confronts Iranian influence in the region and tilts away from its historic bargain with the U.S.: oil for security.

In recent months, the Saudis have essentially taken the gloves off — sending troops into Bahrain to prop up the island’s Sunni monarchy against a rebellious Shiite majority; consolidating their relationship with Pakistan as a regional counterweight to Iran; and expanding the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to reinforce the club of Sunni monarchies.

Through the GCC Saudi Arabia has also moved to resolve the crisis in Yemen, its neighbor to the south, where al Qaeda is establishing a foothold and where the Saudis suspect Iranian meddling.

Their core mission, says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, “is to ensure stability in their neighborhood.” Bremmer believes “the single most important long-term implication of the Arab Spring may be a consolidated GCC that is tacking away from the West.”

At the same time, the Saudi kingdom’s relations with the United States have deteriorated — in part over the Obama administration’s support for pro-democracy movements in the Arab world. On two occasions in recent months, according to well-placed sources in the Gulf, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia even refused to meet senior U.S. officials.

Earlier this week, Saudi grievances were laid out in a Washington Post op-ed by Nawaf Obaid, a consummate insider and a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Describing a “tectonic shift” in the Saudi-U.S. relationship, he complained of an “ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable” for its settlement-building in Palestinian territories. On the latter issue, he said the U.S. “had lost all credibility.”

Obaid also echoed some of the criticisms made last year by Prince Turki al Faisal, a former ambassador to the United States who said that “negligence, ignorance and arrogance” had cost America the “moral high ground” it held after 9/11.

Saudi alienation from Washington predates the Obama administration. Riyadh saw the invasion of Iraq as a disaster because it unleashed Shiite influence in a country traditionally dominated by its Sunni minority. Several Saudi officials have described Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki — who leads a Shia-dominated government — as an “Iranian agent.”

The Saudis also complained that the Bush administration had “dropped the ball” on the Israel-Palestinian peace process by not endorsing King Abdullah’s plan for a two-state solution, with east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. That, they argued, had only strengthened more radical forces in the region, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Above all, the Saudi establishment has long been anxious that the threat it perceives from Iran is not adequately acknowledged in Washington.

U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published last year showed growing Saudi impatience with U.S. caution toward Iran’s nuclear program, with King Abdullah quoted as urging Gen. David Petraeus to “cut off the head of the snake” during a meeting in April 2008. A year later, the King is quoted as telling President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, that he hoped the U.S. would review its Iran policy and “come to the right conclusion.”

So now, Obaid writes, “Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.”

One long-time observer of Saudi policy says the kingdom is preparing to use its wealth and economic growth (forecast at nearly 6% this year, thanks to the rising price of crude oil) to lead an expanded bloc as old certainties wither away.

The Saudis plan to spend $100 billion to modernize their armed forces, buy a new generation of combat aircraft and add 60,000 Interior Ministry troops. Like other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia also plans to expand its special forces.

Beyond its borders the kingdom wants to expand the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, until now a club of wealthy monarchies, by inviting Jordan and Morocco to join. They might not have much money, but they, too, are ruled by Sunni monarchs and have — by regional standards — cohesive and well-trained armies.

In return, Gulf largesse would help support their weak economies. Amid recriminations and confusion in the Arab League — whose planned Baghdad summit has just been postponed for a whole year — the Saudis see the GCC as the institutional antidote to the upheavals of the Arab Spring.

Saudi Arabia has already created a $20 billion fund to assist Bahrain and Oman. And the dispatch of some 1,000 troops to Bahrain in March served notice to Tehran that Saudi Arabia would not tolerate a Shiite-dominated state a few miles off its coast.

“Sending a force to Bahrain was a necessary evil for the GCC in order to protect the monarchy in Bahrain,” says Theodore Karasik of the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “If a monarchy falls in the region, this might create a domino effect.”

It was also a slap in the face to U.S. policy in the region, which was focused on coaxing dialogue in Bahrain. Just days before the Saudi intervention, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Bahrain urging King Hamad to take more than “baby steps” towards reform.

That followed alarm in Riyadh over the Obama administration’s desertion of long-time ally Hosni Mubarak, who had cultivated close ties with the Gulf states and who was regarded by the Saudis as another Arab bulwark against “Iranian expansionism.” The U.S. eventually told Mubarak it was time to go, but the Saudi royal family supported him to the end, even offering to make up for any cut in U.S. aid.

Bremmer of the Eurasia Group says the United States does hold important cards — through multi-billion-dollar arms contracts and long-established relationships in the oil industry. And regional analysts say that ultimately Saudi Arabia would likely appeal for and get U.S. help in any showdown with Iran.

Bremmer says that much in the Gulf revolves around personal relationships and loyalties, and he says the Obama administration needs to invest more in that, starting at the top. By contrast, senior executives in U.S. oil companies — by and large no fans of the president’s energy policy — do talk with the Saudis.

In the longer-term, a Saudi tilt to the East may simply reflect new economic realities. Some 55% of Saudi oil now flows to Asia, compared with about 10% that flows to the United States. The Saudi state oil firm has built refineries in China, and trade between the two countries was worth $40 billion in 2010.

As relations with the West fray, Bremmer concludes that “a far-reaching Saudi-China strategic partnership could well result alongside expanded Chinese contracts to buy long-term access to Saudi oil and Chinese investment in developing Saudi infrastructure.”

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