Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر


News Analysis: Intimidation Tactics Attempt to Silence Saudi Women Journalists

By Rob L. Wagner
02 June 2011

Tucked low in Manal Al-Sharif’s statement to the media this week was a plea to individuals to resist attacking her religious and moral beliefs after she sparked a public debate about Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban.

Saudi municipal police in the Eastern Province released Al-Sharif from jail on May 30. Law authorities had charged her with “violating the public order” by driving in Khobar and then posting a video of her driving on the Internet. In her statement, Al-Sharif said she would leave the driving ban issue to the discretion of King Abdullah. However, trailing in the wake of her release is a tattered reputation.

Al-Sharif said in her statement that she “was stunned to learn of the accusations hurled at my religious and moral beliefs” and the allegations had caused “serious harm.”

“I held my breath for those speaking in the name of religion and others —May Allah guide them rightly — to do me some justice, and that if I had done wrong to blame me only accordingly and fairly, without defaming my faith, creed, and moral system,” Al-Sharif said.

The statement has become an increasingly common refrain among Saudi women activists and journalists who write and blog about women’s rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

Conservatives anonymously attack outspoken women by questioning their morals and beliefs in Islam. Long-held speech freedoms in democratic countries have made Western journalists relatively thick-skinned to personal attacks. But Saudis view allegations of improper behavior as scandalous and creating great shame among family members. Publicly questioning a Saudi woman’s moral ethics damages not only her personal reputation, but also her professional credibility. Public shaming hurts marriage prospects and the ability to find employment.

As more Muslim women create blogs and write for newspapers and websites, online attacks — particularly in the comments sections of news websites — have grown in proportion.

“Whenever I write an article, I can expect some comments from readers raising questions about my sex life, or they comment on how I look in my photograph. They say I’m not a good Muslim girl,” a Saudi woman journalist told me recently. “Why? Because I wrote an article about equal justice for women in the courts.”

The newswoman said that her brother once read comments about a video interview she gave, and he “cried” about the effect the personal attacks would have on their parents.

“Obviously, some people feel that by attacking women’s religious beliefs and morals, they can silence them into submission,” the journalist said. “It’s almost as if it’s an organized effort to sideline us.”

The smear campaign became apparent in 2009 when 13 Saudi women journalists filed complaints with the Ministry of Interior accusing a local online newspaper of “defaming and distorting the image of the Saudi media.”

According to the English language daily newspaper Arab News, the Kul Al-Watan news website alleged, “that prostitution, alcohol and drugs have become widespread in Saudi society, and that women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.”

Suad Al-Salim, one of the complainants, told the Arab News: “The report is offensive to Saudi media and Saudi women journalists. Saudi media have been able to build a relationship of trust and integrity with society. How will this relationship sustain after the publishing of this report?”

Last March, the highly respected Arabic language daily newspaper Al-Watan banned popular journalists Amal Zahid and Amira Kashgari from writing. Zahid and Kashgari often write on women’s rights issues. The newspaper cited no reason for the ban, but both women had complained of attacks on their morality without elaborating.

Kul Al-Watan, the same news website accused of defaming women journalists, reported that the firings “followed growing attacks through the Internet against Saudi female journalists as some consider this (writing about women’s rights) against Islam and local traditions.”

Many women journalists and activists continue to write about social causes despite efforts to marginalize them through slander. However, some Saudis have ratcheted up the rhetoric to encourage violence against women. A prominent Saudi sheikh recently announced that women demanding their right to drive a car deserve death, and a group of men created a Facebook page to wage a campaign to beat women who get behind the wheel.

Tougher media laws enacted in Saudi Arabia earlier this year include new standards for slander. The regulations ban individuals from writing “anything affecting the reputation or dignity of, or slandering or personally insulting, the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom or members of the Board of Senior Ulema, or dignitaries of the state or any of its employees, or any person of ordinary standing or any legal person.”

Yet journalists and people like Manal Al-Sharif that fall in the category of “any person of ordinary standing,” receive no such protection under the new law.

News Analysis: Bin Laden’s Family Under ‘Islamophobic’ Microscope

By Rob L. Wagner
20 May 2011

It’s inevitable that following the slaying of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs earlier this month that the Western media turn its attention to the terror leader’s sixth wife, Amal Ahmed Al-Sadah, and their 12-year-old daughter, Safiyah.

Most notable in engaging in pointless speculation, Islamophobia and conflating pop culture with the life of Safiyah, is Jezebel, the high traffic U.S.-based feminist website.

While we know virtually nothing about Safiyah’s life, Jezebel’s Anna North tells her readers that the young girl is an assassin in training poised to take on a jihadi role. That is, after she spends some time in a Pakistan madrassa.

Amal was shot in the leg and Safiyah may have suffered minor shrapnel injuries from a grenade during the raid at the Abbottabad compound. Safiyah reportedly witnessed her father’s death.

Safiyah was among many children living at the compound, but she has drawn the most attention. In a May 12 post on the Jezebel website, North describes Safiyah not as a victim, bystander, or even a daughter caught up in circumstances beyond her control, but a potential black ops killer. Why? Because bin Laden allegedly said, “I became a father of a girl after September 11. I named her after Safiyah who killed a Jewish spy at the time of the Prophet. (My daughter) will kill enemies of Islam like Safiyah.”

Jezebel’s North, however, never mentions that Safiyah bint Huyayy was a Jewish convert to Islam and one of the most political savvy of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives. And while North does mention that bin Laden was “attentive and playful with his children,” he also wanted to toughen his kids with camping trips to the desert. This, according to North, is cause for concern.

North implies that bin Laden’s teachings radicalized Safiyah. Bin Laden brought two Saudi women – including one with an advanced degree in Islamic studies – into the compound to home-school Safiyah and the other children. While we can speculate on the impact bin Laden’s skewed views of Islam had on Safiyah, there is no evidence that he interfered with the tutors’ teachings.

She also notes that bin Laden’s children could end up in a Pakistan madrassa. According to North, “It’s not clear what the US will do with her and the other children now in its custody, but a lot of the options look pretty bad. According to The (Toronto) Star, the kids could be sent to an orphanage, but conditions in government-run Pakistani orphanages are grim. Some in Pakistan want them sent to a madrassa, but a Pakistani ex-diplomat says, “It’d be a huge mistake. The children would have a cult following and almost certainly become jihadis.”

Left unsaid by North are the dozens of bin Laden family members, many associated with the multinational construction company Saudi Binladen Group and who have long renounced terrorism, who could take in the children.

However, North exercises a special brand of Islamophobia when she conjures up images of the recently released film, Hanna, about a teen-age girl trained as a killer.

North writes: “And while Safiyah hasn’t murdered anyone, her upbringing is a little like that of the titular teen in Hanna – she was raised in isolation, and if we take bin Laden’s words at face value, she was raised to kill. If this were a movie, she’d spend a few years training, and then wreak her revenge on her father’s killers. The job of the US now is to make sure things don’t turn out like that.”

Good grief. North wants to make sure that Safiyah doesn’t avenge the killing of her father like in the movies and because her father believed Safiyah’s name is synonymous with killing the enemies of Islam.

North manages to reduce Safiyah bin Laden to a pop culture caricature based on sketchy media reports and the fact that being raised in the bin Laden household automatically makes a 12-year-old girl a potential killer.

Jezebel up until last week usually got it right about Muslim women. Its articles on Muslims were generally non-judgmental and often its stand-alone photographs depicted young Muslim women without comment on their manner of dress. Jezebel was one of the few websites that refused to label young Muslims as anything other than just women. The website exercised remarkable restraint by not forcing Western feminist ideals on the Muslim community.

Yet Jezebel has also moved away in the past year or so from its more serious attempts to examine feminist issues to more frat house humor, titillation and reliance on four-letter words in headlines to attract readers. Perhaps North’s Islamophobic musings of the future of a 12-year-old girl is indicative of Jezebel’s own future as a feminist website. Why address what truly waits for Safiyah as she grows into adulthood when a mash-up of pop culture and true-life experiences makes for better reading? Readers can find this sort of thing at any of the innumerable anti-Muslim hate websites. Perhaps Jezebel is seeking this editorial direction.

Saudis Engage in ‘Tug of War” Over Women’s Right to Vote

By Rob L. Wagner
May 18, 2011

Voter registration for the Saudi municipal elections ends on May 19 and Saudi women have made no progress in persuading the government to give them the right to vote.

Many Saudis have privately expressed their doubts about the wisdom of denying women the right to vote in the Sept. 22 municipal elections. Last month a small group of women staged a protest outside the voter registration office in Jeddah. In Makkah, a woman filed a lawsuit in administrative court against the Ministry of Municipal Affairs for denying women the right to register to vote.

Yet results from a poll released last month by the Riyadh-based ASBAR Center for Studies, Research and Communications conflict with Arab and Western media reports that Saudis generally support women’s right to vote. The study reported that 59 percent of Saudis opposed women voting and 72.5 percent were against women as members on councils.

The 772-page report, titled “The Evaluation of the Elections in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” only gave cursory attention to women’s participation in the municipal elections beyond the fact that poll respondents were not ready to have women cast votes. In fact, the study concluded that “there was a clear increase in the percentages showing the lack of support concerning women’s participating in the elections, whether in voting or as candidates. This was attributed to reasons related to traditions, norms and the weak qualifying of women.”

The study, however, painted a relatively positive portrait of Saudis’ attitudes toward the country’s tentative steps to achieve a measure of democracy.

The study reported that 72.7 percent of the polled Saudis voted in the 2005 elections because it was an act of national pride and patriotism. Nearly 63 percent of the Saudis polled said they voted because the elections assured “every citizen’s right to vote” while 48.3 percent said they voted because they wanted to encourage and support the elections.

Perhaps the most striking revelation of the study – aside from its conclusions about women’s rights – was the generational gap in voter interest. Three-quarters of the Saudi men who registered to vote were over the age of 46. Only 40.4 percent of Saudis between the ages of 21 and 29 registered to vote.

Architectural consultant Nadia Bakhurji believes that female voter participation legitimizes the election. Bakhurji said she was planning her candidacy in September’s municipal election when the government announced that no women would be candidates or allowed to vote.

“Honestly, the news was so surprising,” said Bakhurji, a board member of the Saudi Council of Engineers. “In the past two years there have been positive steps in the progress of women and this would have been a natural step. There is no excuse for us not to participate.”

Some Saudi men also complained the election would not produce tangible results, local government transparency or changing the way municipalities conduct business.

“The municipal council has not said a single word to the public since they were elected six years ago,” said Abdullah, 38, a high school teacher. “What would be the point of voting this year?”

Saudi men began registering to vote last month. Registration closes May 19 while council candidates can register their campaigns between May 28 and June 2. Voters throughout the Kingdom will cast votes for 1,632 seats in 258 municipal councils, a jump from 1,212 seats in 179 councils in 2005.

Saudis initially reacted to the 2005 municipal elections with mixed emotions, but quickly became enthusiastic as voting drew near. The election demonstrated a well-organized campaign by religious conservatives who issued a “Golden List” of candidates. The endorsements from religious scholars resulted in overwhelming victories for conservatives in Jeddah, Riyadh, Makkah, Madinah, Taif and Dammam.

Since the 2005 election, Saudis have heard little from the councils.

“It’s been a complete blackout,” said Bakhurji, who also was the first woman to announce her Riyadh municipal council candidacy in 2005 before the government banned women from participating. “I thought at first that maybe the municipal council was on a learning curve, but to my knowledge there’s hasn’t been very much done.”

The lack of interaction between the electorate and municipal council members appears to be only partly responsible for the lack of enthusiasm among some Saudis for this year’s voting. Political parties cannot organize and campaigning will be limited. And banning women from the polling booth has puzzled some Saudi men. “I understand why women could not vote in 2005, but again in 2011?” one Jeddah lawyer said. “There is no reason this time around.”

Bakhurji insisted that men are ready to vote for women candidates. She said the 13,000-member Saudi Council of Engineers has only 200 female members. Bakhurji was the only woman among 75 candidates running for a board seat and her male colleagues elected her to a second term. She also pointed to Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez’s 2009 appointment as deputy education minister and women elected to seats on the Riyadh and Jeddah Chamber of Commerces. “Obviously women are on the path to higher decision-making,” she said.

Dr. Hatton Al-Fassi, an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, wrote on the Arabic-language website that the government is doomed to “repeat past mistakes” by not permitting women to participate in the September polls.

Bakhurji acknowledged that the “country is divided towards the progress of women” and a “tug-of-war” has developed high in the Saudi government between liberals and conservatives about the pace of women’s rights.

The uprisings in neighboring Arab countries has put the spotlight on Saudi Arabia, which has tread lightly in issuing new reforms since King Abdullah returned from Morocco in February. Charting a path to guarantee more rights for women has taken a backseat to what the government sees as the more pressing issue of economic stability by solving the country’s unemployment among Saudi men. One Saudi journalist observed that a rough-and-tumble fully democratic election might unhinge the country at a time when it needs to keep the economy stable.

Bakhurji agreed that other issues are at stake as the government goes through the delicate process of holding elections. “It is not just about women,” she said. “The problem is universal. It is Saudis versus foreigners. It is about Saudi men not being able to get a job in private companies because they want foreign workers. It’s a disgrace.”

News Analysis: Riyadh Book Fair Nothing More than Theater

By Rob L. Wagner
March 6, 2011

A common misconception among casual observers of Middle East politics is that Saudi Arabia is a monolithic entity that is the sole authority on foreign and domestic matters. Yet the debacle involving religious conservatives and a Saudi minister at the Riyadh Book Fair points to a much more complicated way in which the country governs itself.

The Saudi government in its brief 79-year existence has been far ahead of its people to modernize the country. The government brushed aside concerns from Islamic clerics and brought radio and television to the country 60 years ago. It abolished slavery and provided formal education for girls although there was no popular demand for it. Modern medicine followed. In 2009, the co-educational King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened.

From King Abdulaziz Al Saud in prewar Saudi Arabia to King Abdullah today, Saudi leaders brook no interference in the government’s efforts to modernize the country.

But King Abdullah recognizes the government can’t force modernization on an unwilling people without checks and balances. That is why religious conservatives, who have little patience for such modern concepts as freedom of expression and gender equality, have wide latitude to behave badly. It’s not surprising that hardline religious conservatives last week disrupted the Riyadh Book Fair and intimidated its attendees. To many Saudis, their behavior is offensive. To others it makes a weird kind of sense.

The city of Riyadh holds its book fair annually, and this week more than 700 publishers representing 30 countries are participating. Conservatives nearly every year employ intimidation tactics to disrupt it and similar book fair gatherings, claiming the writings promote an un-Islamic agenda.

So why does a no-nonsense government with a history of implementing a progressive agenda stand for hooligans bullying writers and publishers?

The answer is the conservative religious establishment serves the government’s purposes.

The Saudi government could have—and according to many observers, should have—prevented religious conservatives from hijacking the book fair. However, those who express outrage fail to consider the relationship between the government and the religious community. The conservative religious establishment, which includes the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, acts as a balance by not allowing the government to get ahead of itself. It’s not a formal arrangement, and only the government decides whether it is getting ahead of itself. Yet by having fundamentalists create controversy at a relatively harmless book fair allows the government to gauge public reaction.

Not unexpectedly, the incident outraged Saudi journalists. But the majority of YouTube comments posted under videos of the altercation support the conservatives.

The commission denied it had any role in the disruption, but it had all the hallmarks of a commission operation.

About 30 highly organized men barged into the fair, shouldered past security men and immediately divided into smaller groups spreading across the hall. Communicating through hand gestures or their eyes, they targeted the stage where writers were signing books and women speakers were preparing to address an audience. They bullied a female journalist not to take photographs. The group also sought out publishers of books deemed as secular or non-Islamic.

The commission could offer plausible deniability because the gang possessed no identification. The government did not concern itself with a minor confrontation since the group was not at the fair in an official capacity, .

Most telling, however, was the exchange recorded on video cell phones between the apparent leader of the group and Abdul Aziz Khoja, the Minister of Culture and Information. Invading Khoja’s personal space, the leader complained that “not even one religious lecturer” was part of the fair and most of the writers and speakers had “western tendencies.”

“There are seven or eight who have deviant tendencies and there is no wise man to answer those people,” the leader said, noting the fair had no representatives from the Islamic Imam and King Saud universities. “Who chooses these lecturers? The worst of them is Turki Al-Hamad (a liberal). Why didn’t you bring us Sulaiman Al-Dewaish and Youssef Al-Ahmad?”

Al-Ahmad is a noted conservative opposed to gender mixing.

Under any circumstances in Saudi society, such challenges to a government minister are rude. The fact that Khoja and his assistants tolerated such verbal assaults can be construed as tacit approval of the opposition to the fair. This was further exacerbated by the fact that after the exchange Khoja quickly left through the back door of the hall as if he was fleeing.

Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the Arabic language newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, argued in his column that the exchange between the conservatives and Khoja was “nothing more than an assault on the state and its authority.”

If Khoja shares the same opinion, he is keeping it to himself. “There’s no harm in having different views,” he later told reporters.

The Saudi government repeatedly demonstrates that it forges ahead in its agenda to bring the Kingdom into the 21st century regardless of what religious conservatives think, so the exchange between the lecturer and Khoja amounted to little more than theater.

The disruption at the book fair served its purpose by allowing the country’s conservative element a voice, but the fair runs through March 11 and the dissenters probably will not be heard from again. The Saudi government accomplished two goals: The book fair continues with its wide range of ideas from the world’s intellectuals and the conservatives got their 15 minutes of media attention.

News Analysis: Saudi Student’s Arrest Will Have Unplanned Repercussions in the U.S.

By Rob L. Wagner
March 1, 2011

Saudi student Khalid Aldawsari can rest easy if he thinks his suspected attempts to engage in terrorism in the United States have failed.

He accomplished more than he knows.

Aldawsari, 20, is accused of plotting to bomb several targets in the United States, including the Dallas residence of former President George W. Bush. According to the FBI, he apparently had childhood dreams of waging war against the U.S. for a variety of transgressions against Muslims. He never outgrew those fantasies and had planned to use his student status as cover for his alleged terrorist activities.

The FBI alleges in an affidavit filed with the Texas U.S. District Court that Aldawsari apparently acted alone. Yet he accomplished at least one goal of Al-Qaeda: He drove the wedge a little deeper between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

There are about 30,000 Saudi university students studying in the United States, nearly four times as many students in 2001. Every one of them has now become a terror suspect.

Following 9/11, the number of Saudi students applying at U.S. universities dramatically fell. The U.S. government tightened its visa requirements and Saudis were reluctant to study in the west because they feared backlash from Americans.

The U.S. consulate in Jeddah shut down its visa application center and sent Saudis to Riyadh where they often waited in long queues outside the embassy. Saudis also feared the U.S. would revoke their visas at any time, increasing the chances that they could lose credits that may not transfer to another university.

Many Saudis decided to study in the United Kingdom, where they numbered about 16,000 in 2010.

Efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations and the Saudi government turned things around. In 2008, the U.S. granted about 10,000 visas to Saudi university students. That number grew to 26,744 in 2010. The Jeddah consulate recently re-opened its office for visa applications.

Already, though, there are calls for tightened visa requirements on foreign students.

Within a day of Aldawsari’s arrest, Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas said, “We shouldn’t be surprised that terrorists continue to enter the U.S. on visas when our immigration laws are so loosely enforced. The 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. after obtaining visas. And the Christmas Day bomber was able to board a plane en route to Detroit because he too had a visa.”

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up an Airbus 330 in Detroit in 2009 further increased scrutiny of Muslim travelers. Saudis, for example, now undergo supplemental screening for visas in which a separate form asks applicants to identify their tribe, their charitable affiliations, weapons expertise and whether they belong to any terrorist organizations.

Most Saudis gladly accept the additional scrutiny for the opportunity to study in the U.S., but Aldawsari’s arrest will prompt legislators already skittish about immigration to further tighten regulations. Smith is now arguing for strengthening the Patriot Act and immediate implementation of the 2005 REAL ID Act that establishes a national standard for issuing identification to prevent suspected terrorists from receiving driver’s licenses.

Aldawsari’s actions played into the hands of immigration foes. According to the FBI affidavit, Aldawsari earned good grades and learned English in secondary school for the sole purpose of winning a university scholarship to further his plot in the U.S. The Saudi government and private Saudi companies approved his applications for a full scholarship. But he chose a private scholarship from Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) because it offered more money to finance his alleged plot.

He studied English beginning in 2008 at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University before transferring a year later to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. He then transferred to South Plains College in January. Aldawsari was careful to comply with immigration regulations by notifying authorities when he changed colleges. His Saudi classmates told investigators Aldawsari was antisocial.

American universities take it for granted that students by the time they reach 18 understand the cultural differences between U.S. and foreign students. Young Saudis, however, come from a closed society. Many are naïve and lack critical thinking skills. Some Saudis are unprepared for an open society. Universities can identify these students by incorporating cultural awareness and dialogue sessions in their required English language programs. By identifying young people struggling with a free society, university personnel can also get a better handle on a student’s ideology. Simply asking a young Saudi man to write an essay on the differences between U.S. and Saudi societies guarantees illuminating results on how he thinks.

For now, however, Saudis can expect further delays in their visa approvals, which will jeopardize their studies to the point that they will go elsewhere for an education.

It’s particularly troublesome for Saudi women who have seen the field of studies widened for them. University degrees in science, law and the arts allow young Saudi women to compete against men in the Kingdom’s workplace, which is a goal among human rights groups.

If the U.S. restricts foreign student immigration to the point that young people don’t want to study there, then it compromises its policy of helping Saudi women gain their rights. This, of course, accomplishes the goal of militants who want Saudis out of the U.S. and back in Saudi Arabia.

News Analysis: Why Saudi Arabia is a Step Ahead, and the Reasons it Won’t Fall

By Rob L. Wagner
February 23, 2011

Western foreign policy analysts are engaging in a bit of wishful thinking that Saudi Arabia is ripe for a revolution.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Kingdom will follow the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. With protests continuing in Bahrain and Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan government in its death throes, Saudi Arabia future is said to be shaky.

Yet western analysts who compare Saudi Arabia to its neighbors fail to consider that not a single Arab country threatened with anti-government protests is in the same league as the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia doesn’t come close to the crimes perpetrated by Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Qaddafi on their people.

That’s not to say that Saudi Arabia is without severe problems, not the least of which is women’s rights. Religious conservatives continue to wield a club to keep Saudis in check. The unemployment rate is at least 10 percent and perhaps as high as 20 percent. Thousands of young Saudi men and women returning with degrees from foreign universities have no job prospects. Only 10 percent of the Saudi population owns their own homes. The judicial system is mired in tribal customs and the abuses of male guardianship have put a stranglehold on women’s ability to find employment or travel.

Yet the Saudi government recognizes these critical issues. On Tuesday, the Saudi government announced a new wave of benefits for its citizens. For the first time, the government agreed to establish unemployment allowances up to one year to help Saudis find jobs. University students studying abroad at their own expense will now receive scholarships. SR 1 billion ($266.6 million) has been added to the social welfare rolls. SR 14 billion ($3.7 billion) will be available for home loans. The government also announced Tuesday that it is setting aside SR 10 million ($2.6 million) to fund literary clubs and licensed NGOs.

Saudis generally lead comfortable lives. Saudi Arabia is the most prosperous country in the Arab Gulf and North Africa. It produces 8.3 million barrels of oil a day. Its middle class is large, albeit shrinking, but government services are first class. Saudi Arabia provides free medical care and hospitals are staffed with top-notch physicians. The Kingdom is the “go-to” country for surgeries to separate conjoined twins and it ranks in the top five countries for medical tourism. Further, it hosts an estimated 2.5 million pilgrims each year and few Muslims are willing to jeopardize their ability to perform Hajj.

Male and female university students not only receive a free education, but given generous scholarships to study abroad. Studies once closed to women, such as the sciences, are now open.

Although many Saudis fear and even scorn the religious establishment, most notably the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, their strong Muslim identity encourages loyalty to what they see under King Abdullah as a benevolent government. King Abdullah is immensely popular. He implemented reforms long before the current crises in the Middle East. These reform efforts solidified that loyalty.

Unnoticed in the west is even the deeper tribal loyalty to the royal family. Saudi Arabia is a tribal society with a deep allegiance to the king. A prince, or emir, is responsible for each of the 13 provinces and tribal leaders have access to the emir. In fact, Saudis with a little wherewithal can manage a private audience with an emir to extract a promise or aid in a variety of matters ranging from settling a business dispute to marrying a spinster daughter to a foreigner. This relationship between the average Saudi and the prince creates a bond with the royal family not found in other Arab countries.

Young Saudis have emerged recently as a strident voice against government corruption, echoing similar complaints from their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. A recent Facebook campaign organized by Saudi youths demands free elections and a constitution, among other democratic principles, approved by the country’s citizens.

While it’s unclear whether the campaign will gain traction, a bigger concern is the attitudes of Saudi Shi’ites in the Eastern Province. Interior Minister Prince Naif dismissed fears that the Shi’ite community poses a threat to Saudi security. He sees no spillover from the Shi’ite-dominated protests in Bahrain. While Saudi Shi’ites have grievances—there was a small protest in the Eastern Province last week—Saudis remember that Shi’ite leaders visited King Abdullah the day he assumed the throne in 2005 to pledge their support. Since 2005, Sunni sheikhs have met regularly with their Shi’ite counterparts. Shi’ites, who account for about 10 percent of the Saudi population, are also included in the Kingdom’s national dialogue programs. They not only remain loyal to the King but also have a much stronger allegiance to Saudi Arabia than to Iran or Bahrain.

Six months ago, no Arab could imagine that a leaderless, non-religious protest could topple the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. The Saudi government is not taking anything for granted. Arabs have learned that anything can happen in the blink of an eye. But the likelihood of the streets of Jeddah and Riyadh filled with angry Saudis demanding change is remote. Since 9/11, the Saudi government has been intent on reform, but has met resistance from the religious establishment and a patriarchal society that wants its women to remain second-class citizens.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt in which the governments ignored the will of its people, the reverse holds true for Saudi Arabia. The government, at least under King Abdullah, seeks change. But it first must convince the conservatives to embrace that change.

News Analysis: Saudi Electronic Media Law Sparks Blogger Fears

By Rob L. Wagner


February 7, 2011

As more young Saudis embrace social media to effect change in Saudi Arabia, worrisome signs are developing that could silence these new voices.

The Egyptian anti-government uprising demonstrated that Saudi youth could rally online in solidarity with their Arab brothers and sisters. Bloggers were also at the vanguard of demands for accountability when Jeddah’s poor infrastructure led to the deaths of more than 100 people as a result of flooding.

In January, however, the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information issued new electronic media regulations, which become effective this month, that require licenses for online newspapers. The new regulations are likely to raise concerns for bloggers who have made great gains in public expression.

Initially, Western media erroneously reported that bloggers would also be licensed, setting off widespread condemnation from media watchdog and human rights organizations. The ministry’s new regulations, in fact, say nothing of the sort, but allow for “voluntary” blogging licenses.

Abdulrahman Al-Hazzaa, domestic media supervisor for the ministry, addressed voluntary licensing last September when he said the government “only encourages bloggers and others to register.”

“We are not putting it in our mind to license them,” he told reporters at the time. “There are so many we cannot control them.”

The backlash over licensing online news sites is a little overwrought. Saudi Arabia licenses all of its print and broadcast media outlets, so it seems to be behind the curve in finally developing regulations for online news organizations.

Licensing of online news groups will have little impact because it applies the same standards followed by Saudi print and broadcast outlets. The online newspaper Al-Wi’am’s editor-in-chief, Fahad Al-Harithi, welcomes it. He told Saudi reporters recently the regulations will “protect” his website’s intellectual rights.

Yet the problem is how the ministry’s regulations define blogging. According to the ministry’s final draft, blogging “consists of diaries, articles and personal experiences, or description of an event. This could be through text, audio or video applications.”

It’s unknown whether blog websites that republish Arab and Western news from various sources fit the definition of an online news outlet.

The personal musings of a young Saudi man or woman are not likely to generate much interest among ministry officials. But the regulations are vague enough to put in the ministry’s sights blogs that republish news articles and then editorialize on the content.

The ministry defines online news outlets has having a fixed web address and publishing regularly scheduled news articles, photos and videos. The same definition could apply to blogs. Given the fuzzy line between online news sites and some news-oriented blogs, the ministry could consider a blog an online news outlet whenever it wishes. Further, licensed news organizations are subject to censorship. Although the ministry will not censor unlicensed bloggers, website owners remain accountable for their content and face prosecution over material deemed objectionable by the government.

On the flip side, the regulations could provide unexpected—and perhaps to the Saudi government, unwelcome—benefits for bloggers who voluntarily obtain a license. If bloggers receive licenses, the question rises whether they can share the same playing field as online news organizations with access to government press conferences and perform reporting duties. Simply, does licensing bloggers provide the same rights and protection as an online newspaper? While Western governments and political groups now routinely grant press credentials for bloggers, there is no such practice in Saudi Arabia. However, the ministry’s regulations are so vague that it could leave the door open for licensed bloggers to attend the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ news conferences whenever a dignitary visits the Kingdom and has something to say.

Another troubling aspect of the regulations is the ministry’s requirement that only Saudi nationals and expatriates over the age of 20 with a high school or higher education and “of good conduct and behavior” are eligible for a license. This part of the law should give pause to any news website. Consider that someone, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Ministry of Culture and Information, will decide who is a person of “good conduct.” It also means that teenagers with a budding sense of civic responsibility have no outlet for their voices.

There are enough holes in the regulations to dampen social discourse among news-driven bloggers who previously enjoyed some latitude in criticizing public institutions, but now don’t know where they stand. Some Saudi blogs may go dark and others could lose their zing because they must take care not to annoy bureaucrats with too many complaints about the government.

It’s unlikely Saudi bloggers have any interest in licensing because it puts them on the ministry’s radar and it will inevitably lead to restrictions. However, some websites may have no choice if the ministry applies its loose definition of an online news outlet to them.

Al-Hazzaa acknowledges the impossible task of enforcing licensing regulations on bloggers. Regulating Saudi websites based outside the Kingdom is impossible other than to block the site. But that is the least of the ministry’s problems. As some Saudis shift their attention from blogging about their social lives to political commentary and news events, the ministry is in the uncomfortable position to either leave bloggers alone or give them a license and the same latitude as the news websites.

News Analysis: Why the West Should Not Fear the Muslim Brotherhood

By Rob L. Wagner

Mid East Posts – The Voices of the Middle East

2 February 2011

Western and Israeli leaders are wringing their hands over the potential role of the Muslim Brotherhood once Egypt forms a new government following the departure of President Hosni Mubarak.

If indeed Egyptians embrace democracy and hold free elections, the fear is the Muslim Brotherhood would gain control of the country, install Sharia as the law of the land, and ultimately wage war against Israel. The events involving the Brotherhood today echo the push by the United States in 2006 for legislative elections in the Palestinian Territories that gave Hamas a victory over Fatah. The U.S. and Israel are now wondering whether the Muslim Brotherhood will cause the West as much grief as Hamas.

But should the West fear the Muslim Brotherhood? The short answer is no. The Brotherhood doesn’t have the support of Egypt’s youth.

Clearly, Egypt’s relationship with Israel would change dramatically if the Muslim Brotherhood—known as Al Ikhwan Al Muslimeen in Arabic—played a pivotal role in governing the country. The region could face a difficult future. Yet young Egyptians have a lukewarm, if not distant, relationship with the Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which claims widespread support from the middle class and intellectuals, renounced violence many years ago. The Ikhwan also says it adheres to the democratic principles of free elections, religious and speech freedoms, and the right to form political parties. At best, though, young Egyptians view the Muslim Brotherhood as a fringe political party with a Taliban-style agenda. “They talk about democracy, but they are not explicit about their goals,” one young Egyptian woman told me.

An Egyptian university student said that participants in the uprising accept Islamists to add more voices to their cause to depose Mubarak, but the relationship ends there.

“The Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t offered any effective action for Egypt over the last three or four decades except talk and to criticize the present system,” he said. “I don’t think the Egyptian people in the next step (following the transition to a new government) will accept them. If they hold Egypt, we will go back many years.”

In the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood captured 20 percent of the seats thanks largely to its aging followers. But the majority of Egyptians find the Brotherhood’s more extremist leanings unappealing while radical Islamists claim the group has abandoned its original goals of jihad. Although the Ikhwan views Israel as illegitimate and continues to advocate for its destruction, terrorist groups despise the Brotherhood for its overall moderate practices and its participation in Egyptian politics. Al Qaeda sees the Brotherhood as nothing more than responding to Mubarak’s bidding as a weak opposition party.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood’s overall goals appear reasonable when put in the context of what other Islamist political parties have to offer throughout the Arab world.

The U.S. government’s myopic view of the Muslim Brotherhood by lumping it with Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and other extremist groups has prevented policymakers from reaching out to moderate Muslim political parties. Part of the problem is the Obama administration and past presidents have been unable to define what makes a moderate Muslim because they view political Islam as a monolithic movement.

To President Obama’s credit, he acknowledged his support this week for the Muslim Brotherhood to play a role in a new Egypt.

That support, however, is conditional. The Obama administration is insisting the Brotherhood recognize Egypt’s democratic goals and reject violence, which the organization has already articulated. Granted, the Brotherhood’s attitude towards Israel is odious to Westerners, but Obama recognizes that such groups are entitled to sit at the table if a true democracy in Egypt is to emerge. The Muslim Brotherhood is not the perfect answer, but it’s a starting point.

A  Pew Research Center poll released this week found that 59 percent of the “Muslims in Egypt believe democracy was preferable to any other kind of government.” However, 59 percent of Egypt’s Muslims also identified with Islamic “fundamentalists” while only 27 percent identified with “modernization.”

So how is the Obama administration to interpret these seemingly contradictory responses? The answer is in the language of the poll. Modernization to many Arabs usually means liberal, and liberal often implies a loosening of society’s moral standards and loss of Muslim identity. Fundamentalism is preferable to their idea of modernization, but they view fundamentalism as compatible with democratic principles. It’s a nuance lost on U.S. policymakers.

Democracy is around the corner for Egypt, and it could include religious aspects, but that’s no disaster.

News Analysis: The Saudi Arabian Female Brain Drain

By Rob L. Wagner

Mid East Posts – The Voices of the Middle East

1 February 2011

There’s a quiet revolution underway in Saudi Arabia. I say “quiet” because there are no street demonstrations in Riyadh, Madinah and Jeddah or Facebook and Twitter campaigns. Rather, the revolution is occurring in the Kingdom’s universities and on campuses abroad with Saudi women leading the way.

An estimated 56.6 percent of students in Saudi and foreign universities are women. About one-quarter of 110,000 Saudi students studying abroad are women with the backing of the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program. In addition, the Saudi government earmarked SR150 billion ($40 billion) in the 2011 fiscal budget for education and training, a 9 percent jump in spending over the 2010 fiscal year. The country’s education budget accounts for about one-quarter of the country’s entire budget of SR580 billion ($154 billion).

Although nearly 4,000 schools and 10 colleges are planned or currently under construction in the Kingdom, perhaps the most significant news is the foreign scholarship university program that has given Saudi women easy access to a free undergraduate or postgraduate education to just about anywhere in the world. Western universities top the list of the most desired education.

Yet Saudi Arabia is facing a crisis when its female students return home to find no jobs and a patriarchal society that has done little to give them equal footing among their male peers. The Saudi women I have spoken to on British university campuses expressed little enthusiasm for returning to a country that undervalues their university degree by giving them less than meaningful employment. Instead, many women are looking to other Gulf countries and the West where jobs will match their degrees and they can live a more fulfilling life.

The Saudi government recognizes the threat of a female brain drain. Authorities have eased some of the more restrictive laws, such as lifting the gender-mixing ban in the private workplace in the Makkah Region.

However, it may not be enough to meet expectations of returning female students who are enjoying almost complete freedom to do as they please in the West. Through the King’s scholarship program, all women students must have a mahram (legal guardian). The requirement poses logistical challenges because the guardian must live with the student during her studies that can last up to five years. Foreign governments do not allow the guardian to work. Many Saudi women solve this problem by having a brother or young male relative accompany them and enroll at the same university. Students with children have their husbands take over the domestic responsibilities while they attend class and live on the scholarship money. In the United Kingdom, the ministry gives a Saudi female student and her guardian about £1,700 ($2,700) a month and pays all tuition costs. Some students simply send their guardians home after a few months and live alone on about £1,100 ($1,745), plus tuition, each month.

Most female students have abandoned the abaya and niqab (face veil), and more than a few do not wear the hijab (headscarf). Women students work side by side with men, which is not permitted at most Saudi universities. They obtain international driver’s licenses and often buy their own cars during the duration of their studies.

The goal of the King’s scholarship program is to educate Saudis to bridge the gap between the West and Middle East and to integrate women into the Saudi workforce. Jobs for women, however, are often limited to teaching positions at secondary schools and universities. Many of these jobs are waiting for them when they return to Saudi Arabia.

While Saudi women do pursue teaching careers, anecdotal evidence suggests that many have no interest in teaching, but hope to gain employment in private business. Given that Saudi male-owned private business are notorious for refusing to hire women in decision-making positions, graduating students are looking beyond Saudi Arabia for employment. Saudi women pursuing work in Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom poses a real threat to the Saudi government’s vision of a degree of parity in the workplace.

The Ministry of Higher Education is aware some Saudi students decide not to return home. The ministry recently notified its cultural attachés to investigate and take legal action against scholarship students who seek permanent residency or citizenship in the countries where they are studying. The ministry will suspend the scholarship and demand a refund if students are caught. Yet the government has been unsuccessful in reducing unemployment or persuading private business to hire women in management positions.

Saudis, though, can never be accused of putting the cart before the horse. Providing an education is the priority. For now, the government is aggressively pushing university students to study abroad. In the United States, 38,000 Saudi students attend colleges and universities, which exceed the number of Saudis studying in the U.S. before 9/11. About 15,000 Saudis are enrolled in the United Kingdom and 10,000 in Canada, according to the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education.

The ministry expects worldwide enrollment to leap to 150,000 over the next few years.

In the United States, the Higher Education Research Institute reported that enrollment of Muslim students increased dramatically at Catholic colleges and universities. Catholic University in Washington, D.C., for example, has seen its enrollment of Catholic students drop since 2006, but had admissions of Muslims more than double from 41 to 91 for the 2010 fall semester. The majority of such admissions are Saudis.

Although Saudi female students only make up about 25 percent of the total number of Saudis studying abroad, the number of women enrolling in foreign universities continues to increase each academic year. In 2011, Saudi Arabia ranked 25th among the total number of women enrolled at domestic and foreign colleges and universities.

The spike in large numbers of Saudi women earning university degrees may be meaningless if the Saudi government is unable or unwilling to reduce the 28 percent unemployment rate among working age women. And if young women are not going to find a job at home, they will find it elsewhere.

News Analysis: After the Flood: Rising Saudi Anger Getting Response

By Rob L. Wagner

Mid East Posts — The Voices of the Middle East

29 January 2011

The recent floods in the port city of Jeddah, the second massive flooding in little more than a year, serves to remind Saudis what they already know: the city’s crumbling infrastructure is costing lives.

In November 2009, more than 100 people perished following torrential rains in Jeddah. In last week’s flood at least four people died. In the 2009 disaster, an estimated 10,785 buildings sustained damage and more than 10,000 vehicles were destroyed.

The inadequate government response to both disasters to save property and lives, and the clear evidence that the municipality’s incompetence played a role in the loss of life, continues to feed public anger that was once unthinkable in Saudi Arabia.

In the early days of the 2009 floods, Saudi authorities attempted to downplay the disaster. Authorities issued a news blackout and blamed victims for panicking. Yet Jeddah’s residents were shocked to see bodies floating in the street and instantly recorded those images to broadcast on YouTube and Facebook. The images led to outrage and demands of accountability for municipal authorities who failed to anticipate the destruction.

In an unprecedented move, the King Abdullah in May 2010 ordered the prosecution of about 50 Jeddah Municipal officials and businessmen on corruption and malfeasance charges stemming from managing construction projects and land use.

It was no longer business as usual for the Saudi government.

When last week’s flooding occurred, the Jeddah Municipality was marginally better prepared. It immediately sent in Civil Defense rescuers to pluck stranded motorists from car rooftops. The Saudi National Guard delivered food to Dar Hekma College, where female students were stranded for up to 24 hours.

However, the Facebook images, twitter messages and online videos continue to fuel Saudi anger and repeatedly raise the question as to why Saudi authorities learned nothing from the 2009 floods.

From an engineering standpoint, the 14-months gap between floods is no more than a blink of an eye when it comes to repairing 100 years of poor municipal planning. Saudi authorities also must develop checks and balances to see that proper construction funding is allocated to the right contractors.

In a region that is bone dry 51 weeks out the year, it’s somewhat understandable that Jeddah municipal authorities underestimated the need for properly constructed flood channels. But it does rain in Jeddah—usually in November through January—with short, but intense cloudbursts. Inevitably, streets flood and motorists are stranded, although not to the degree witnessed since 2009. This in of itself is enough evidence that rain must go somewhere. The municipality failed to address an obvious issue.

Jeddah is a city of 4 million. Construction of neighborhoods since the 1970s has been haphazard at best. Much of the city’s newer neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city are built on wadis, natural flood channels—that until buried under concrete—effectively handled rain runoff. Further, when the municipality constructed tunnels to accommodate the runoff, the drainage system was inadequate. In both the 2009 and 2011 incidents, water had no place to go but downhill from east to west wiping out everything in its path.

The flooding alone, however, doesn’t explain the massive loss of life and destruction of property, and therein lays the culpability of the municipality. The city has no sewage system, but relies on septic tanks. Large sections of roadways up to 10 feet long were ripped up and carried downstream in 2009. Streets caved in, creating holes up to 15 feet deep in nearly 200 locations.  Bridge support beams collapsed. Adding to the flood-related damage are Jeddah’s existing infrastructure problems of crumbling sidewalks, exposed street lamp wiring, rickety wooden pedestrian bridges and ubiquitous unfinished roadway construction sites.

These long simmering problems of shoddy construction practices served as a recipe for disaster when the floods struck. King Abdullah recognized this core issue when he called for the prosecution of city officials and contractors.

Jeddah is divided into districts and each district has an administrator who supervises the municipal services for his district. When the Saudi government announces its annual budget at the end of each year, the government allocates funds to each administrator to pay for services, construction projects and other expenditures.

Residents can instantly recognize which districts actually use their allocated funds for services. In north Jeddah, the Al-Arawdah, Al-Shati and Al-Azahra districts have regular garbage pickup, clean streets and well-maintained curbs and gutters. Road improvements are performed quickly and efficiency. No flooding has occurred there. Al-Rehab in east Jeddah is a moderately maintained district. However, Al-Azziyiah, which cuts a large swath in central Jeddah and is home primarily by low-income expatriate workers, has neighborhoods with overflowing garbage dumpsters that attracts vermin and feral cats. Where the money goes is anybody’s guess.

Following the 2009 floods, Ibrahim Kutubkhanah, deputy mayor of Jeddah, acknowledged that about 30 percent of the city has a drainage system and is equipped to handle just one inch of rain, not the three inches that fell. He also said that it would take to the end of 2012 to complete SR 1 million ($266.6 million) worth of existing drainage projects, with an additional SR 3 million ($800 million) needed to solve the city’s problems.

Criticism of the Saudi Municipality may be premature following last week’s deadly floods. The path to completing all drainage projects remains a long one. The real progress beyond the nuts and bolts of improving Jeddah’s infrastructure is the societal changes prompted by the floods.

According to Human Rights Watch, King Abdullah’s demand for accountability has prompted the Saudi courts to scrutinize local government conduct. Government jobs once protected for life are no longer safe. More than 20 municipal engineers resigned following the 2009 floods to avoid prosecution. Perhaps for the first time in modern Saudi history, a public scandal resulted in resignations and arrests. An estimated 500 lawyers stepped forward to defend the civil servants arrested on corruption charges. The effort was perhaps the first instance in which the private legal community was willing to stand up against the Saudi government to guarantee that defendants receive due process in court, and thus establishing rule of law in the Saudi judicial system.

Equally important to improving Jeddah’s drainage system is the fact that average Saudi citizens pushed their government to provide oversight to local spending, which is a change that ultimately will limit corruption.

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