Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

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


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.”

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.


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