Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

November 4, 2016

Saudi Artists Struggle for Recognition at Home

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By Rob L. Wagner

Gulf News

4 November 2016

Jeddah: When artist and calligrapher Nasser Al Salem decided that traditional Arabic calligraphy was too confining and sought break the bonds of the centuries-old art form, he was met with criticism and derision.

“I wanted to break out with a new art form,” the 32-year-old Makkah native told Gulf News. “Calligraphy needs to keep evolving to a different, unique style.”

The transition from traditional to contemporary calligraphy did not sit well with the old guard who view a modern take on what is considered a sacred expression of Arabic writing a violation of the standards of design. But Al Salem, who has been a calligrapher since he was 13 years old, is expressing a modern Saudi Arabia that is steeped in national, if not regional, pride.

Strict moral and cultural codes kept most art genres underground since 1979, a sharp reversal from the 1960s when the Saudi government encouraged art as a career by sending students abroad on scholarships to study and return home to teach.

But a majority of the next generation of Saudis eschewed the arts and humanities as frivolous and barriers to careers that generated a healthy income and prestige. Teaching and medicine reigned supreme while artistically-inclined children were discouraged to pursue their talent.

The culture changed dramatically for Saudis born after 1990 and who came of age in post-9/11 Saudi Arabia.

Satellite television and the internet exposed young people to Western and Asian media, particularly filmmaking, music and other forms of artistic expression.

The King Abdullah Scholarship Programme gave Saudi university students a full free ride to just about any accredited university in the world.

It allowed them to absorb and be comfortable with other cultures. No longer was a government job an answer to one’s future.

Many young Saudi artists today are self-taught while an increasing number are receiving formal training in foreign countries.

Maryam Bilal, who curates exhibits and serves as a liaison between the Athr Gallery of Jeddah and undiscovered artists, said the gallery looks for artists with a deep sense of regional identity.

“Their art has to be relative to what is happening today,” Bilal told Gulf News.

“Today we see displacement and home, and an identity to what is happening in the region. There is a longevity in their art.”

The government has brought 2.5 million displaced Syrians from their war-torn country into Saudi Arabia.

Their presence, influence and the tragedy of their experiences and losses are deeply felt among Saudi artists who express the emotional toll of war and its impact on the region less in political terms and more of its humanity.

Afia H. Bin Taleb, 26, who trained as an interior designer and is a project associate with Athr Gallery, said Zarah Al Ghamdi, who often creates site-specific installations, is one artist who depicts the human relationship to the environment in a visceral manner by using black paint to allude to the scorched, scarred and polluted earth, not unlike the destruction witnessed in the region.

“A lot of the art we see today is conceptual,” Bin Taleb said.

Such themes have attracted museums and galleries from the Smithsonian and the Armory Show in New York to Art Dubai to showcase Saudi artists.

International exhibits can be a heady experience for a young Saudi attempting to make a name in art circles.

Yet recognition, particularly in Saudi Arabia, remains elusive. The number of artists, whose work has matured, is increasing significantly, but the environment to support such artists has failed to mature with them.

Jeddah artist Fatima Baazeem said artists were “not highly appreciated” in the past.

While the arts community is blossoming, she said, recognition is difficult to come by, giving some artists the feeling they are being marginalized in the community where they work.

Baazeem noted that a group of artists recently staged a protest to draw attention to their art. Each artist cut up one of their works and donated it to create a collage as a single expressive theme. It was a collective statement that their work had value. “I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the final result, but it certainly sent a message.”

Al Salem agreed that artists struggle to be seen and heard.

“There is not enough exposure,” Al Salem said.

“There is not enough media. We can’t find good critiques. We can’t find serious art critics.”

Bilal said there is a lack of infrastructure to support local talent.

“There is not enough platforms for artists,” she said. “There are not enough museums and galleries. We don’t have a collecting culture here. I understand the frustration of artists. We are very slow in developing a collecting culture.”

The Saudi art scene appears to be in a state of limbo. Artists are eager to see whether Saudis with the financial means will evolve into art patrons and benefactors to help establish galleries and museums to bring art to the public. It hasn’t happened on a scale that will draw enough attention both domestically or internationally, but there is an expectation among artists that it’s only a matter of time.

There is also an anticipation of “what’s next” in Saudi society, Bilal said.

“I think the public is ready,” she said. “We see it in social media, photography, YouTube and other media outlets. They are ready for galleries, for museums and for cinemas.”

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July 6, 2016

Muslims in Saudi Arabia Stand Shoulder to Shoulder this Eid – but Daesh is a Dangerous New Foe

By Rob L. Wagner

International Business Times

6 July 2016

Following the bombing at the security headquarters next to the Prophet’s Mosque in the holy city Medina on Monday (4 June), a much larger crowd of worshippers than usual flocked to the mosque the next evening to offer prayers.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, and jammed even tighter in front of the Prophet’s Tomb inside the mosque, Medina’s Muslims demonstrated a silent solidarity against the suicide bomber that killed four security men and left five others injured.

The Medina bombing was a special horror for Muslims worldwide and universally condemned. Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based organization listed as a terrorist group denounced the bombing as “a new sign of the terrorists’ contempt for all that Muslims consider sacred”.

In a tweet, Syrian scholar Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi quoted the Prophet Muhammad, noting that “anyone who harms the people of Medina, Allah will make him melt in fire like iron or like salt in water (Bakhari)”.

Writer Aisha Saeed wrote in a tweet, “As a writer I strive to tease out nuance, explore murky gray. But these people? Medina in Ramadan on the cusp of Eid? This is the face of evil”.

The Medina bombing was part of a coordinated attack, presumably by Daesh (it has yet to claim responsibility), that also included a Shiite mosque in Qatif and the United States Consulate in Jeddah. The attacks are believed to be related to the previous suicide bombings at the Istanbul Airport’s international terminal, a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and a marketplace in Baghdad. In all more than 200 people have died in the attacks.

Although Saudi Arabia has experienced unrest in the Eastern Province, which has a significant Shiite population, its contention is that violence between Shiites and security forces are the result of “external forces.”

The bombings on Monday pose a much more difficult problem. For the first time in more than a decade the Saudi government is facing an enemy willing to engage in mass murder. And these extremists operate well below the radar, never announcing to their families their intentions or pledging allegiance to a specific country or ideology.

But Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior has considerable experience in eradicating extremist violence within its borders. In 2003 and 2004, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula left a trail of carnage throughout the country with attacks on residential compounds in Riyadh and Al-Khobar, and an almost weekly series of shooting of individual Westerners. The attacks included the kidnapping and beheading of helicopter engineer Paul Johnson in Riyadh, and the December 2004 bombing of the US Consulate in Jeddah that left nine people dead.

The Ministry of Interior aggressively dealt with al-Qaeda, killing its leader, Abdel Aziz Al-Muqrin, and arresting hundreds of suspected terrorists.

Unlike the AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), which often operated as a cell and adopted battlefield-style operations with mostly Arab fighters, Daesh kills by inspiring young men via the internet to carry out suicide attacks. Attackers work independently and depend on Daesh only for limited logistical support, or receive no support at all.

In addition to Saudis, security forces must contend with disaffected expatriates, who feel maligned or marginalised in their host country. Saudi authorities identified a Pakistani driver, who lived in Jeddah with his wife and her parents, as the suicide bomber in front of the US Consulate.

Daesh is also a much more sophisticated foe. It has long recruited Saudis via social media and internet-based computer games to carry out acts of terror against their own families. In February, six men lured their cousin, Sgt. Badr Hamdi Al-Rashidi, to the desert and killed him because they were convinced he betrayed Islam as a member of the government’s security forces. And in September 2015 two Saudis killed their cousin, Madus Al-Anzi, an army recruit.

Saudi Arabia has not announced its intentions to deal with Daesh following Monday’s attacks. But the Medina bombing not only struck at the heart of Islam, but also the soul of the Saudi government. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is directing the war in Yemen and has a reputation as a tough, independent thinker, is likely to take decisive action drawing on the strategy and tactics security forces employed against AQAP.

The challenge facing Saudis, however, is not the security forces’ ability to root out extremists. Its intelligence branch is considered one of the world’s best, but few Western counterterrorism agencies expressed interest in how Saudi Arabia managed to decimate AQAP’s ranks and render it irrelevant.

Given that Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United States is at a low ebb as the Obama administration pursues stronger ties with Iran, and the recent rejection by the US to allow Saudi ground troops to fight in Iraq and Syria, the Kingdom is faced with tackling Daesh alone.

Saudi Arabia’s track record in quashing AQAP is unrivalled by any other country in the region. That experience will go a long way to eradicating terrorist acts, although the Kingdom must realise that AQAP was essentially a farm league operation compared to Daesh. But whatever challenges the Kingdom’s security forces face, it’s likely that they will deal with it without much help from other counter-terrorism agencies.

Rob L Wagner is an American journalist and former managing editor of the Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily newspaper. He is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.


January 25, 2012

Will Saudi Arabia Send the Troops?

With Iran threatening its oil exports, some experts say the kingdom will help defend shipments

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

25 January 2012

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Iran’s relationship with Saudi Arabia – once seen as improving following President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 visit to Riyadh – has deteriorated to the point that the Saudis may consider military intervention by joining the U.S. to protect oil shipped in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran threatened to choke off oil transportation in the Gulf following the U.S. President Barack Obama’s tightening economic sanctions at the end of December and again this week when the European Union voted to gradually impose a ban on Iranian oil. Last week, Chinese leader Wen Jiabao made a round of visits in the Gulf in a move seen by many observers as securing alternatives to Iranian oil.

Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal told Al-Arabiya television last week that the Saudi government is taking Iran’s threats seriously.

“I personally don’t think Saudi Arabia will participate with the military, but it’s a direct threat to our national interests and a direct threat to our industrial installations on the coast,” Ali Al-Tawati, a Saudi military affairs analyst and professor at the College of Business Administration in Jeddah told The Media Line. “That region is a most precious region with most of our resources coming from there.”

Tensions between the two countries increased when Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi promised that the kingdom could boost oil production by 2.7 million barrels per day (bpd)  to make up for any shortfall caused by sanctions on Iran. The pledge elicited a veiled threat from Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who warned Saudis it “will create all possible problems later.”

Iran’s threats “could be interpreted by Saudi Arabia as an act of war,” Al-Tawati said.

Nervousness about where all this could lead has been reflected in the international oil market in recent weeks, where the price of benchmark Brent crude has risen. Early Wednesday morning in London it was trading at $110.34 a barrel. In the third quarter of 2011, Saudi Arabia was the leading OPEC oil producer, delivering 9.34 million bpd, compared with Iran’s 3.53 million bpd.

The issue is not whether Iran is capable of closing the Strait to oil shipping, but how long it can maintain a full or partial blockade. Al-Tawati suspects three months at most. “The whole world will make a coalition to stop it,” he said. “Iran is trying to stop 40% of the oil production getting through. That’s an international threat.”

Al-Tawati said Iran cannot count on support  from its Asian customers as evidenced by Wen’s courting of Saudi Arabia to make its gas and oil wealth available to Chinese investors. China is Iran’s biggest oil customer, with the Islamic republic exporting 572 million bpd to China in December. Saudi Arabia delivered 1.12 million bpd to China during the same period.

“Most of the oil that goes to China, Korea and Eastern Asia is from the Gulf,” Al-Tawati said. “We sell most of our oil to the East. Japan is not going to support Iran, and neither will China nor Korea. If Iran wants to make an action that affects the whole world, it will need support and no one will support it.”

Ehsan Ahrari, professor of national security and strategy at the Joint and Combined Warfighting School at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, said he expects the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to join the U.S. to keep the Strait open. “If not with the military, then 100% in support to the point of spending millions, of not billions, in assistance,” Ahrari told The Media Line.

The question remains, however, whether Saudi Arabia and its GCC neighbors – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and United Arab Emirates (UAE) – have the military might to defend  themselves from Iranian aggression.

The GCC has the 40,000-strong Peninsula Shield Force (PSF) based in the Eastern Province city of Hafar Al-Batin. Last spring, the force sent 1,500 troops to help quell Shiite demonstrators and protect government installations in Bahrain. But the PSF has never engaged in a full fledged military operation since its founding in 1984. It did not participate in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, although the Royal Saudi Air Force flew sorties for coalition forces.

Nevertheless, GCC leaders have recently gone on a spending spree buying military hardware. Saudi Arabia has been the biggest spender, purchasing from the U.S. about $60 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets, Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, bunker-buster bombs and Patriot missiles. The Pentagon sold an estimated $3.5 billion worth of an anti-ballistic missiles and military technology to the UAE, while Kuwait is set to buy 200 Patriot missiles.

“Saudis do a very good job of exercising diplomacy, but in terms of acting as a military force, they don’t have the capability,” said Ahrari, adding that Saudi Arabia’s military doesn’t possess the skills to engage in combat. “I never understood that simply buying high tech equipment makes a military force. They must have the know-how and infrastructure to make it work.”

Al-Tawati disagreed, but acknowledged the PSF may not be prepared to defend Gulf interests. “It isn’t developed enough to work as a joint military action, but we need to develop it to take military action or reaction.”

Al-Tawati said Saudi Arabia possesses more technologically advanced weaponry than Iran and has the training to go with it. “We don’t usually buy weapons without training, support and the experts that come with the weapons. Al-Tawati pointed to Saudi Capt. Iyad Al-Shamarani, who shot down two Iraqi Mirage fighters during the Gulf War, as evidence of Saudi mettle and technical prowess in combat. The air battle effectively ended Iraq’s attempt at air superiority.

A Middle East analyst for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who asked not to be identified because Israel is not directly involved in the Gulf crisis, told The Media Line that Israel may indirectly be affected by standoff between the GCC and Iran. Crucial to the current climate between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the Islamic Republic’s attempts to expand its influence to GCC countries, he said.

The Saudis have long held that the deadly clashes between Shiites and Saudi security forces in the Eastern Province and demonstrations in Bahrain are products of Iranian meddling.

“Saudi Arabia’s primary concerns are to maintain the stability of the region and to contain Iran’s interference, which the Saudis perceive as a destabilizing factor and as a threat to the Saudi regime,” the Israeli government official said. “The Sunni-Shiite rift plays a role in this regional rivalry, and it has been escalated by Iran’s attempts to employ Arab Shiite sentiment for its regional policies.”

He added that continuing sanctions are taking a heavy toll of the Iranian economy. “An Iranian military adventure against the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Gulf states – and perhaps also attacking Israel – would worsen Iran’s diplomatic and economic difficulties,” he said.

He added Iran’s Islamist leadership will consider the implications of a military confrontation, “but you can never be sure about it when political rationale is mixed with an extremist religious viewpoint.”

While building a more comprehensive military force is vital to protect the GCC’s oil interests, alternatives to shipping oil through the Strait of Hormuz have largely been ignored. A 745-mile east-west pipeline connecting the Eastern Province’s Abqaiq oil processing facility to the Red Sea port of Yanbu is operating under capacity. Only 2.5 million bpd move through the pipeline although it has a capacity of twice that amount, according to the U.S.-based Global Equity Research.

The Saudi government has expanded the Yanbu facility as insurance against trouble at the Strait of Hormuz, but capacity remains stagnant.

“We can export 50 to 60% of our oil away from the Strait of Hormuz, and we lessen to a certain extent [disruption],” Al-Tawati said. “We need to invest in other alternatives. We need a resolution, and, in fact, we now need the United Nations Security Council to make a decision to discuss the issue because of the threat to close an international strait.”
Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

January 3, 2012

News Analysis: Saudi Arabia — ‘Female Body is Battleground in The War to Stem Reform’

By Rob L. Wagner

MidEastPosts

3 January 2012

As Saudi women celebrate their progress in gaining voting rights and expanded employment opportunities, conservatives have intensified their campaign to marginalize those achievements in a new round of attacks targeting liberal Saudi writers and thinkers sympathetic to the women’s movement.

Saudi newspaper columnist Saleh Al-Shehi made a vague critical comment on Twitter at the Saudi Intellectual Forum at Riyadh’s Marriott Hotel that men and women were behaving “shamefully” by socializing during breaks. He implied Saudi men are aiding and abetting the corruption of women in the name of progress. One leading woman writer described the tweet as opening “the gates of hell.”

Saudi Arabia’s internal cultural and religious wars over the last decade have focused on women’s rights issues almost to the exclusion of everything else. Voting, running for public office, employment, education and women’s bodies rarely go unmentioned among religious conservatives railing against the perceived corrupting influences of the West. In essence, the female body has become the battleground in an ongoing war to stem reform.

Saudi women activists and Islamic feminists over the past year have aggressively pursued male allies to help advance their cause. And many forum participants offer varying levels of support to better integrate women into society.

Conservatives, however, see the changing role of women a threat to the stability of society, especially considering that gender segregation is ingrained in the daily lives of all Saudis.

Al-Shehi’s Twitter shot heard throughout the kingdom took on a life of its own on Facebook and the online Saudi newspaper Mmlkah (Kingdom), which reported the incident. The coverage gave conservatives ammunition that Saudi Arabia’s liberal writers and intellectuals crossed the line with flagrant immoral behavior.

The Saudi Intellectual Forum was the second conference held in eight years to bring together more than 1,000 writers and thinkers. A key speaker was Princess Adela Bint Abdullah, daughter of King Abdullah and the wife of the kingdom’s education minister, Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah Bin Muhammad Al-Saud. Among the attendees were author Abdo Khal, winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his book “She Throws Sparks.” Khal often writes about individuals living on the margins of Saudi society, which led the Saudi government to ban some of his work as un-Islamic. Also participating was Saudi novelist Badriah Al-Bishr. The conference concluded Dec. 29.

Al-Shehi’s tweet in Arabic said, “I have believed that the so-called enlightenment culture project in Saudi Arabia revolves around women.” He added that it was shameful. Al-Shehi tweeted during a break in events while in the Marriott lobby crowded with men and women. Almost immediately, photographs circulated online showing Khal and other men speaking in close quarters with Saudi women. Mmlkah implied the photos were taken at the forum, but were actually taken at a 2010 Qatar conference. The tweet, according to some participants, implied that Saudi intellectuals and writers were not promoting cultural awareness, but pursuing an agenda of corruption.

A Facebook user identified as Lamh Al-Khawater from Bahar Al-Makhatr (some thoughts from the sea of danger) posted a link to the Mmlkah article on the popular Facebook page run by Dr. Sabah Abu Zinadah. Zinadah writes on social issues and has more than 5,000 followers. Al-Khawater wrote, “Does being educated mean to strip off our values and our morality and cross the red lines?”

Coverage from Mmlkah featured several photographs of forum participants and screenshots of the tweets. Al-Shehi’s comments earned praise from Sheikh Muhammad Al-Oraifi. “(He) is a good man and I have found him smart, wise and educated and (he) cares about his country and religion,” he wrote.

Dr. Sunhat Al-Otaibi wrote on Facebook that, “Saudi Arabia’s new elites have turned to eve-teasing (flirting) and exchanging numbers and dates and shameless behavior. (It’s) a Westernizing project to corrupt women.”

Khal threatened Al-Shehi with a defamation complaint if he did not apologize, but the harshest remarks came from Saudi writer Lamia Baeshen, an academic specializing in English literature. She invoked an Islamic rebuke that shakes up even the most stalwart Muslim conservative. “Hasbi allahu wa ne’mal wakeel (“Allah alone is sufficient for me and is the best trustee of my affairs.” Muslims generally interpret this as “I delegate Allah as my attorney to give me justice from you”),” she wrote on Facebook.

“You have opened gates of hell,” she added.

By threatening a defamation complaint, or more accurately libel, Khal raised the stakes in the war over cultural values, attitudes about women’s social behavior and the price paid for damaging reputations. While the burden of proof for defamation and libel is set high in Western democratic countries, the threshold is much lower in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi’s honor and personal and religious reputation often are the keys to professional success. A Saudi can face professional and personal ruin if his religious faith and morality are impugned and the allegations go unchallenged.

Yet, as personal attacks via Twitter and Facebook grow and the ironclad protections against libel once found in Saudi print media diminish, establishing personal and professional harm has become more difficult.

Westerners are often baffled over controversies involving men and women socializing in the same room, but Saudi society strictly adheres to gender segregation to avoid improper conduct. Separating men and women goes to the heart of Islam’s definition of morality. Men and women meeting in the lobbies of Jeddah’s upscale hotels are relatively common, but Riyadh hotels follow a stricter code of conduct. However, Riyadh’s Marriott Hotel staff members often overlook such interactions since foreigners often can only conduct business with Saudi businesswomen in a public lobby.

Some Saudi journalists view the Marriott incident as an expanded effort by conservatives to tame influential male intellectuals supporting the suffrage movement. Until last year, women activists have largely fought the battle alone. In 2009, 13 Saudi women journalists complained to the Ministry of Interior that the online newspaper Kul Al-Watan defamed them by alleging that “women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.” In March 2011, Amal Zahid and Amira Kashgari, prominent writers on women’s issues for Al-Watan, were banned from writing.

One Saudi woman journalist said the mere suggestion of immoral behavior not only could leave a career in tatters, but also create a roadblock and even reverse advances in women’s rights.

“It’s not necessarily religious people who think this way,” she said. “It’s people blinded by backwardness and tribal culture. You look at what happened in the Marriott lobby and say to yourself, ‘How silly, it’s a big deal over nothing.’ But it is a big deal. If the men who support our cause are silenced for fear of being accused of corrupting Saudi women, we will get nowhere.”

November 29, 2011

Deadly Blaze Throws Spotlight on Saudi Girls Schools

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

29 November 2011

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The scene was chilling to watch: Three young girls, clad in their black abayas, dropping one by one from the third-floor window shrouded in billowing black smoke as their school went up in flames.

The fierce fire that burned Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School in the Al-Safa District on November 19 left three teachers dead and 56 students and school personnel injured. It was reminiscent of the 2002 Makkah Intermediate School No. 31 fire that killed 15 girls after members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice forced the victims back into the burning building to retrieve their abayas, the long black cloak that covers women from head to toe.

Killed in the Jeddah blaze were teachers Souzan Al-Khaledi, Reem Al-Nahari and Ghadeer Katoua. Al-Khaledi was fatally injured after jumping from a third-floor window. Al-Nahari and Katoua died from smoke inhalation. Katoua was also deputy director of the primary school. Civil Defense investigators determined that five students playing with matches started the fire in the school’s basement.

This time the commission didn’t interfere in evacuating the building, but the issue of school safety, first raised after the 2002 Makkah blaze, remains today. It also points up the significant difference between the resources allocated to boys’ and girls’ education even as the kingdom has promised to improve the status of women. Two years ago, King Abdullah opened the first co-educational university and appointed Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez as deputy education minister, the first women to ever hold such a post.

According to teachers employed at Saudi girls schools, little has changed in nine years.

Like the Makkah School, Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School was in an aging rented building not designed to accommodate school students, that crowded some 750 students inside. The two schools lacked safety equipment and adequate emergency exits, and its ground-floor windows were barred, according to Civil Defense officials.

A teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to speak for the Ministry of Education, said there are significant differences in safety features between boys and girls schools.

“Most of the boys schools are specifically designed to be schools,” the 40-year-old teacher told The Media Line. “Boys schools are not rented, and are all equipped with big yards for sports to play football and basketball. They are surrounded by huge open areas.”

She added that classroom doors are usually left open and classes are often held outdoors.

Privacy concerns by the Ministry of Education require a different environment for female students, the teacher says.

“Girls schools are usually rented and redesigned for privacy,” the teacher said. “Though they say there is a rule against it, the windows usually have bars. The girls don’t have allocated spaces for sports, so the yards are very small. It’s like a prison.”

A defining feature of virtually all Saudi public schools for girls is the tightly controlled access to school grounds. Fathers routinely drop off their children at the front gate, but rarely enter school grounds. Mothers have greater access, but still must pass muster from the guard at the gate to enter. Many Saudi girls schools feature high walls surrounding the building with no other entries or exits other than the main gate. Likewise, female colleges and universities have strict rules that prohibit students from leaving campus without authorization.

Hannan Al-Harthy, a former student at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah, told The Media Line that it is policy at virtually all female universities to lock students in their dormitories for the weekend unless they have permission to leave the university. Guards padlock all exits and only male guardians pre-approved by the university can retrieve the student to leave campus for a social visit.

“I never thought about the safety implications then, but in retrospect we were locked in a big box cooking food, lighting candles – basically playing with fire, if you will – without thinking of the consequences,” Al-Harthy said.

An estimated 4.6 million Saudi children attend public primary through secondary schools. About 2.2 million are girls, a jump from 33% of the student population in 1975 to about 48% in 2009. Girls schools accounted for about 48% of the Ministry of Education’s schools budget of 122 billion Saudi Riyals ($32.5 billion). Although the education ministry has spent considerable money on infrastructure improvements, many girls schools still lack the larger modern campuses and more comfortable environment boys enjoy.

However, Arwah Aal Al-Asheikh, owner of Baraim Al-Watan, told the Arabic-language daily newspaper Al-Madinah that her school had up-to-date safety equipment and features, including emergency exits, fire hoses and sensors. She said the building meets the standards of an educational facility.

Yet Civil Defense fire investigators reported the emergency exits were not used to evacuate teachers and students. They said safety training appeared inadequate because the children panicked when they attempted to board a rescue helicopter hovering over the roof the building.

Taif Saeed Al-Qahtani, 12, who jumped from Baraim Al-Watan’s third-floor window, told the Saudi newspaper Al-Arabyia that she remembers nothing after her leap to safety. Her father, Saeed Al-Qahtani, said he learned from his daughter that school officials had no proper crisis-management plan in place to allow school staff to organize an “orderly and safe” evacuation of the building.

Perhaps most evident in skirting safety guidelines were bars placed on all first floor windows.

An investigation is underway to address the school’s safety issues. Prince Khaled Al-Fasial, emir of the Makkah Governorate, appointed a five-member panel consisting of representatives from the Saudi General Investigation Department, the Makkah Governorate, Criminal Investigations, the Saudi Electricity Company and Civil Defense to conduct a probe of the causes of the fire and the events leading to the deaths.

Meanwhile, Abdullah Alami, an economist and women’s rights activist based in the Eastern Province city of Dhahran, and Saudi journalist Jamal Banoon in Jeddah launched the National Safety Campaign to address commercial and educational building safety issues.

“School officials claim their facilities have all safety measures, including emergency exits, in place as specified by the Civil Defense,” Alami said. “Our task is to review defects related to electricity, roads leading to the school buildings, emergency exits, fans, lighting and wirings. We intended to look at distribution panels, iron fences on windows, gates, gas cylinders, air conditions and refrigerators in school.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

October 19, 2011

For Saudi Terror Suspects, a Legal Fog

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

19 October 2011

Judges define terrorism on the fly, lawyers hesitate to defend them

The trials of suspected terrorists this month in Saudi Arabia bring good news and bad news. The good news is that accused extremists are getting their day in court after as long as five years of detention without trial. The bad news is that justice remains elusive.

Christoph Wilcke, the Saudi Arabia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The Media Line that kingdom has improved its approach to bringing suspected terrorists to trial. But he says continuing “flawed” court proceedings may deny justice.

“There were two major shifts in late 2008 to mid-2009 when Saudi Arabia decided to move [defendants] to trial,” Wilcke says. “All of these guys were put on trial and some were let out of prison. And earlier this year they [the Saudi government] decided to open trials.”

Saudi authorities see the new wave of public trials a huge step towards legal transparency. HRW sees the deck stacked against the defendants.

Wilcke says that terror defendants lack competent legal representation, a clear-cut understanding of the charges against them and due process.

In Riyadh, 16 Saudis and one Yemeni are on trial in Specialist Penal Court on 97 charges of belonging to a terrorist cell with links to Al-Qaeda in Syria. Prosecutors allege the defendants, who the court does not identify, plotted attacks in Saudi Arabia to destroy oil wells. The cell also allegedly planned to assassinate a Shiite cleric in an effort to spark sectarian violence.

In a Jeddah court, a top member of the notorious Turki Al-Dandani extremist cell admitted to unspecified terrorism charges against him. The cell leader rejected an offer for a lawyer and asked for the death penalty in order to become a martyr. Saudi authorities say the Turki Al-Dandani cell is responsible for the bombings of three residential compounds in May 2003 that left 239 people dead and injured.

In a separate trial underway in Jeddah, seven men face charges of plotting bombing attacks against U.S. military installations in Kuwait and Qatar. They are also accused of operating a training camp near the Yemen border.

The current, public trials are in stark contrast to the largely secret proceedings held between 2003 and 2009. In those trials, 327 convicted terrorists received prison sentences of up to 30 years.

Saudi Arabia has garnered international praise for its counterterrorism efforts. Yet it appears the Saudi courts define terrorism much like the U.S. Supreme Court defines pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Wilcke says a fair trial is not possible when the crime of terrorism is not defined.

The international community has yet to agree on a criminal law definition of terrorism. United Nations members in 2005 rejected a panel’s recommendation that would establish parameters to define terrorism as an unlawful act. Consequently, Saudi terror defendants face a double whammy. There are no international laws available as a precedent and Saudi judges, instead of relying on codified law, make up the definition as they go through the proceedings.

“We find that people are convicted of rebellion on earth, which is a Qur’anic concept and not a definition of terrorism,” Wilcke says. “In Saudi Arabia, the judge defines the crime to fit the crime.”

A draft anti-terror law proposed earlier this year was sharply criticized by Amnesty International, which obtained and published a copy last July. The law defines “endangering… national unity” and “harming the reputation of the state or its position” as terrorist crimes and allows suspects to be held incommunicado for an indefinite period, if approved by a special court. It also calls for a minimum 10-year jail sentence for anyone questioning the integrity of the king or crown prince.

Since then, the kingdom has hinted that a revised law is in the works, although it hasn’t released any details. An activist told Reuters in August that the amended draft changes the offense to taking up arms against the king or crown prince or abandoning loyalty to them.

Meanwhile, the absence of codified laws has long plagued the Saudi judicial system, although the quasi-legislative Shura Council this year is nearing completion of a codified system. Domestic courts in particular have bedeviled Saudi women who must contend with tribal customs superseding sharia (Islamic law). Accused terrorists face vague charges of belonging to Al Qaeda or working with foreign agencies plotting against national security. Although specialized sharia legal assistance is essential for defendants to make their cases, the court’s inability to rely on written law tips the scales of justice in the government’s favor.

“It’s just the Saudi way of saying in essence, ‘trust me,’ ” Wilcke says.

Add to the mix the lack of legal representation and defendants are engulfed in a perfect storm of a flawed trial leading to flawed justice.

Wilcke expresses doubts that having a lawyer can even help. “Some lawyers in normal, non-political trials tell me that the judge can kick out a lawyer if he doesn’t like him,” he says. “It raises the question of whether lawyers are any good in trials.”

Indeed, attorneys have complained to HRW that Saudi courts sometimes pressure them not to represent defendants. Other lawyers have no qualms about not representing terrorism suspects.  Sultan bin Zahim, deputy head of the Saudi National Lawyers’ Association, told Al Watan newspaper that it’s “a national duty and a professional objective” not to defend accused terrorists because the “investigation and trial methods are very precise in terrorism cases.”

However, a Saudi lawyer, who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line the courts attempted to recruit him to represent a terror defendant but he turned it down because the legal fog surrounding cases. “I didn’t want the job because I never know what to expect when I go to court.”

International observers also have no access to trials. Wilcke says that since 2009 the Saudi government has banned his organization entirely from the kingdom. Requests for HRW to attend trials have gone unanswered, he said.

Although the inconsistent approach to dispensing justice rankles human rights activists, Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts have been generally successful. Saudi law authorities view the trials as a successful coda to ending the reign of terror wielded by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from 2003 through 2006.

Maj. Gen. Mansour Al Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Interior, told The Media Line there has been little extremist cell activity inside the kingdom since trials started earlier this year. In August, the Interior Ministry reported that 5,696 people remain held in militant cases. Nearly 5,100 of those individuals have appeared in court.

“We are continuing our efforts and really keeping a preventative stand to any more activity,” Al Turki says. “We have our police ready, but here is really nothing to react to for the time being.”

Al Turki adds that the “terrorism threat remains a major concern to prevent Al Qaeda from continuing terrorists crimes, but the group continues to keep a low profile in the kingdom. The success is due to Saudi Arabia’s “soft” rehabilitation program to de-radicalize militants. The program has only 10% recidivism rate due in part to a post-release monitoring system of freed prisoners. The move by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Yemen also has contributed a reduction in extremist activity in the country.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

 

August 11, 2011

Women’s Football Making Headway in Saudi Arabia

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Yemen Times

11 August 2011

Dream of competing in Olympics despite sexist barriers at home

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Shaima Sabri, 12, dreams of the day when she plays football on a stadium field of green grass with her father and brothers in a crowd of thousands cheering her on to victory.

On the first day of Ramadan after Maghreb prayer, Shaima was running barefoot through a hardscrabble patch of dirt off Madinah Road in Jeddah. Playing with the neighborhood kids, she was kicking a frayed football. Her dreams at that moment of playing before thousands were as elusive as the sweeping green fields that she hopes to play on.

“Some day I will play like Salem Aldawsari with Saudia,” said Shaima, referring to one of Saudi Arabia’s leading footballers. “But sometimes I think this is as far as I will get.”

Yet Shaima, and girls and women like her, have an unlikely ally in helping them organize football leagues: the men’s Saudi Arabian Football Federation.

Ahmad Eid Al-Harbi, vice president of the Player Status Committee for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, which plays under FIFA, has been quietly visiting university campuses to help women develop football teams. Al-Harbi said meetings have included consultations on how to negotiate with the international football unions from Germany, Brazil, the United States and the United Kingdom in order to help women qualify for trainer positions. The Federation has also developed a physical education curriculum for women’s university campuses.

“Three weeks ago I visited CBA (College of Business Administration) University in Jeddah and we had long conversations with officials there with regard to women’s sports,” Al-Harbi told The Media Line. “We formed a group of women who are willing to play basketball and volleyball. We also convinced another group of women to form a football team. Now, they are considering organizing a league among all women’s universities in the region as a step towards participating in the Olympics Games.” At least seven Arab countries presently have women’s football teams.

The meetings mark the first acknowledgement from a sanctioned Saudi sports body that women could someday compete in the Olympics Games. Competing in the Olympics is a tantalizing goal for women athletes who believe that Saudi society might never recognize that women should have equal footing with men in sports. In the past two years, young Saudi women decided that they could no longer wait for government permission and funding to start their own football league. Instead, they organized their own teams and paid trainers out of their own pockets to develop competitive teams. One such team is the fledgling all-women’s Kings United Football Club in Jeddah.

Al-Harbi cautioned that although he wants to see women on the playing field, the road to government-funded leagues still is fraught with many obstacles.

“Saudi Arabia is a tribal society that doesn’t believe in speedy change,” Al-Harbi said. “However, I believe there is a quite sizable number of the society that is ready to accept women social sports that contribute to women’s good health and her main role in the family as a leader. When it comes to competitive sports, this needs quite longer time to be accepted.”

Although Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal joins Al-Harbi in supporting the right of women to play football, Al-Harbi characterized the atmosphere in Saudi Arabia as “hostile” to competitive women’s sports. “I’m all for [women’s football leagues] if we prepare the right atmosphere for such participation. We need to build a very strong infrastructure and we need human resources. Above all, we need to prepare the social atmosphere to accept such competitions to make it friendlier than it is now,” he said.

Indeed, Rima Abdullah, the founder of Kings United, told the Dubai-based Al-Arabyia TV last month that she has been criticized for organizing her football team.

“As for society as a whole, when we first appeared in public, we were attacked,” Abdullah said. “One of the most vehement attacks against me was during a Friday sermon. The entire sermon was about Rima Abdullah, as if I were pushing Saudi women towards promiscuity, or something.”

Kings United began playing in secret around Jeddah in 2005. The team rented secluded football fields to keep away the curious. Players paid their own expenses. Each player must have written permission from a male guardian to participate. The team then initiated a publicity campaign to drum up support. Last year, the team sought to participate in a women’s tournament in Bahrain that included teams from Oman and Kuwait. The Saudi team did not receive permission to play because FIFA and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation do not formally recognize the team.

Al-Harbi advised patience. “One should first work on providing suitable places such as playgrounds or stadiums that are specially equipped for women in our segregated society,” he said. “Second, women’s organized leagues should be operated under a very strong umbrella that protects women and the ultimate goals of which leagues are formed. I suggest it should be at least as a first step operated under Ministry of Education. It should also follow the Islamic regulations so it doesn’t upset the religious authorities.”

And there-in lies the obstacle. Religious conservatives have not only railed against women’s sports leagues as unseemly and undignified activities, but as a threat to players’ virginity. As perhaps the leading voice in domestic matters, religious leaders hold considerable sway over what is permissible and what is forbidden in Saudi society. Earlier this year, clerics demanded the resignation of the dean at the all-women’s Princess Noor University for Women in Riyadh for implementing a physical education program.

A 2009 Al-Riyadh newspaper survey of 2,250 Saudis reported that only 4 percent opposed female physical education. But Saudi Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul Aziz Al-Asheik told Al Eqtisadiah TV that, “Women should be housewives. There is no need for them to engage in sports.”

Kings United has been careful not to rock the boat. Players wear the hijab, sleeveless jerseys and shorts at mid-thigh in front of all-female crowds, but long white clothes and the hijab that complies with Sharia, or Islamic law, for male audiences.

Jeddah-based blogger Susie’s Big Adventure, who prefers to be identified only as Susie and writes extensively on Saudi women’s health issues, told The Media Line that physical education and participating in organized sports can improve Saudi women’s health. The Salman Medical Center at King Fahd Health City in Riyadh reported last year that half of the Saudi women between the ages of 30 and 45 suffer from obesity.

“If Muslim men truly cared about the health of Muslim women, they would encourage and support physical activities for women,” Susie said.

The good news is that government funding for women’s leagues may be more than just wishful thinking with the backing of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. The bad news is that it might not be what women footballers want.

Al-Harbi noted that women’s groups should receive government-funding equal to men, but money should first be allocated for physical education or “soft” sports, such as basketball and gymnastics, as a means to integrate Saudi women into competitive international sports.

However, as for a FIFA-approved Saudi women’s team like the Iranian Football Federation, Al-Harbi doesn’t see a quick solution. “Saudi society is a very conservative one, even when it comes to men’s clubs. No one can imagine his daughter playing in front of thousands of people wearing shorts, such as in football.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

February 10, 2011

Away From the Cities, Saudi Women Take to the Roads

Rural families can’t manage without wives and daughters driving, so ban is ignored.

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

Published Thursday, February 10, 2011

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Whenever Hawazen Ebrahim’s family spends an evening picnicking in the desert outside of Medina, it’s her job to jump into the car and drive to the nearest village to load up on extra supplies. During the week, she is responsible for taking the kids to school and picking them up each day.

Ebrahim, 25, doesn’t consider herself an outlaw, nor is she protesting Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. She does what many Saudi women do in rural villages throughout the kingdom and drives as part of the everyday responsibilities of managing a household.

Saudi Arabia is regularly criticized by human rights groups and the foreign media for its ban on women drivers, but when it comes to rural areas, the authorities have what can best be described as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Women who keep a low profile can drive. It’s the worst kept secret in the country.

“The women in my family and the families in my neighborhood think nothing of driving,” says Fawzyyah Hassan, 45, who tools along the roads in areas near Medina. “My husband goes to work before we even get up in the morning and comes home late. Of course, I drive.”

Saudi Arabia’s driving ban isn’t strictly speaking illegal since there is no actual law on the books that prevents women from driving. Sharia – the Islamic code of law – doesn’t address the issue.

Indeed, Abdullah Alami, a Saudi economist who is spearheading the latest campaign to make end the ban, says the law implies that women are permitted to drive. Alami is fighting a quixotic campaign to get the Shura Council, the body that advises the King on policy, to consider a petition allowing women to drive.

“You see, Islam calls for protecting women’s legitimate rights,” Alami told The Media Line. “Driving is a right for women, as it is for men. Article 32 of the Saudi Traffic Regulations provides that. It’s prohibited for any ‘person’ driving a vehicle before getting a driver’s license. Based on this text, the term ‘person’ isn’t limited to males.”

Women caught driving in cities don’t face arrest. A Saudi journalist explains that local police agencies follow a basic policy by taking the offending female driver to the police station and having a mahram (male guardian) come to collect her. At the station, the police require the guardian to sign a document promising never to allow his charge to drive again. Refusing to sign the document exposes the guardian to jail time for failing to discharge his duties the protector of the woman.

“I have to admit I never heard of any guardian being arrested because his daughter drove a car,” the journalist says.

Although Saudi Arabia keeps no statistics on how many women drive cars, large numbers routinely get behind the wheel in virtually every rural community where hundreds of miles separate towns and villages.

While men are at work, wives and mothers transport livestock to market and drive tanker trucks to ensure their villages have water. Many Bedouin women act as the principal breadwinners in the family by transporting goods from village to village. Unlike in urban areas, a woman driving in the desert isn’t taboo, but encouraged.

“There is evidence that women who drive in remote villages have earned respect for following traffic regulations,” Alami says. “It’s natural for women in rural areas to assist in making a living in every way possible.”

In 2009, there were so many women driving in the Ha’il region that the Commission on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the mutaween) filed a complaint with the administrative authorities asking that 15 women be stripped of all driving privileges. The local authorities ignored the demand because it posed a threat to the families’ livelihood.

Women in the hinterlands have few alternatives to getting behind the wheel. The typical family car in rural areas is a pickup truck with a single bench to seat three people in the cab. But women can’t sit beside a male driver because it puts them in a state of khalwa (seclusion with an unrelated man), which is forbidden. Families can’t afford to hire a professional driver because that would cut into the family income.

In any case, it’s virtually impossible for traffic police and the mutaween to patrol thousands of square miles of desert.

But the acceptance of women driving doesn’t extend to cities, where the ban is enforced. Women passengers sitting alone in taxis or cars with private drivers face harassment from men. The harassment has made many families fearful of allowing their daughters or wives to be alone in a car.

Alami, however, says that is no longer a valid concern. “People are more convinced today than ever that there is no justification for preventing women from driving,” he says. “Saudi women continue to drive in various countries around the world. It has become more acceptable for them to drive in their own country.”

There is also anecdotal evidence suggesting that police sometimes turn a blind eye to women driving in the city, at least in Jeddah where a large swath in the northern part of the city is inhabited mainly by wealthy Western-educated Saudis. Police officers are often reluctant to confront influential families that tacitly approve of their daughters and wives driving.

A 26-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be published, says she recently went on a driving spree with a female friend in North Jeddah. “I have a new Hummer. It was late at night and the streets were empty, so we were driving all over the place,” she recalls. “A policeman pulled me over. He said, ‘Don’t drive in the City Centre or to the south,’ and let me go. He acted like it was the most natural thing in the world.”

Alami says rural women could serve as role models to their urban sisters. They get behind the wheel to put food on the table and don’t bother themselves with the restrictions their urban counterparts face.

Last month, Alami sent a petition signed by 136 Saudis, including 98 women, to the Shura Council. The petition asks for consideration of a trial-driving phase. The Shura Council can forward a recommendation to the Council of Ministers for approval if it agrees the plan has merit. The petition seeks to specify driving schools available to teach women driving and to issue driving certificates. It also asks that police departments develop women’s sections to handle licensing and violations issues. A key component of the petition asks that stiff jail time and fines be imposed on people harassing female drivers.

Alami also seeks to have Saudi traffic authorities develop vehicle safety checks, highway breakdown programs and an awareness campaign.

A representative for the Shura Council says there was no record of the Council receiving the petition. Alami is undeterred. He is preparing a second petition and seeking additional signatures.

“Saudi Arabia has signed the international conventions of non-discrimination against women,” Almani says, referring to the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. “It is crucial that women aren’t discriminated against, including, and not limited to, driving.”

February 5, 2011

Saudi Bloggers Back Egyptian Uprising, But Don’t Want One of Their Own

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 09:09
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King Abdullah remains popular even after he throws his support to Mubarak

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

Published Thursday, February 03, 2011

Young Saudis are enthusiastically endorsing the anti-government uprising in Egypt filling Facebook and Twitter with postings supporting the demonstrators at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. But their enthusiasm for rebellion doesn’t extend to their own country.

Blogger Fouad Al-Farahan, who was detained by Saudi authorities three years ago for his on-line activities, Twittered, “Democracy is the Solution!” Even an eight-year-old Saudi girl calling herself “Juju” lectured Mubarak to resign on a YouTube video that has gone viral.

But much of the enthusiasm was tempered last week when King Abdullah announced through the Saudi Press Agency his support for Mubarak. He accused Egypt’s young anti-regime demonstrators of “tampering with Egypt’s security and stability … in the name of freedom of expression.” For many Saudis, publicly contradicting the king is disloyal to the kingdom.

Yet following a lull in Saudi postings, Facebook and Twitter lit up again on Wednesday when violence broke out between anti-government and pro-government factions in Cairo. Virtually every Saudi commenting sided with the anti-regime demonstrators. Nevertheless, young Saudis say that the situation in Egypt can’t compare to Saudi Arabia.

“What is happening in Egypt has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia,” Muhammad Al-Asmari, 19, a student in Jeddah, told The Media Line. “Mubarak has done absolutely nothing for Egypt in three decades. You can’t say the same for Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah has done a lot for us.”

Saudi Arabia and Egypt do share similar problems: high unemployment, inflation, an absence of democracy and a directionless youth. Unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth enables it to build schools, hospitals and infrastructure and provide social services that Egypt cannot.

Norah Shayib, 21, of Jeddah, said Saudi Arabia’s deeper Muslim identity is what has enabled to avoid the turmoil that has spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Jordan and Yemen over the last several weeks.

“This is not meant to be an insult to Egyptians—I have high regard for my brothers and sisters there—but they are a country of 80 million people who have varying attitudes about Islam,” she told The Media Line “It’s a secular country. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia is about being Muslim and we have nothing but affection for our king who has been good to us. We identify first as Muslims and second as Saudis.”

She added that Saudis take seriously the hadiths –words and deeds attributed to the prophet Mohammed that are often used as the basis for Islamic law. They demand loyalty to a Muslim ruler who has been “fair and just” to his people, she said.

However, some Saudis expressed a more cynical view. “I think Saudis are asking themselves, who would be better [than King Abdullah]? The answer is nobody,” said one Saudi who didn’t want to be identified.

Indeed, the Saudi king’s popularity among Muslims outside of the kingdom far outstrips other Muslim leaders, including Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

In a 2010 Pew Research Center poll, 92% of all Jordanians and 83% of all Egyptians expressed confidence in the Saudi king. In contrast, only 32% of Jordanians and 26% of the Egyptians expressed confidence in Ahmadinejad. A third of Jordanians and Egyptians had confidence in Abbas. The Saudi government, however, is not without its domestic critics.

Perhaps the most well known demonstration occurred when nearly 50 women defied the country’s driving ban by driving cars throughout the streets of Riyadh in 1990. Religious conservatives staged a demonstration in 2009 when Norah Al-Fail, the first woman named deputy minister of the Saudi Ministry of Education, visited a boys’ school. The demonstrators demanded the government enforce its gender segregation laws. More recently, about two dozen Saudis took the streets of Jeddah to protest against the government’s failure to improve infrastructure that led to flooding that killed 10 people.

Last week’s floods in Jeddah were the second massive flooding in 14 months and enraged local residents. During the November 2009 floods, which killed more than 100 people, Saudi authorities initially blamed the deaths on people failing to follow government instructions to reach safety. A news blackout followed, which prevented the Saudi media from reporting on the damage and death toll. Jeddah residents skirted the blackout by posting mobile phone video images on Facebook and YouTube. The graphic images of floating bodies angered Saudis.

“It was a huge change for Saudis,” Al-Asmari said. “We could make a change just by using the Internet.”

Public reaction to the floods prompted King Abdullah to order the arrest of about 50 Jeddah municipal officials and construction contractors. It also led to mass resignation of the city’s engineers. It was the first scandal of alleged corruption made public.

“This is the kind of change we can do on the Internet and I think it’s more effective,” Al-Asmari said. “I can’t imagine Saudis in the streets like what I see in Egypt on Al Jeezera. It’s not the right way to do things.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

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