U.S. 2016 election results in Saudi

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“Go back to the kitchen.”

Saudi Arabia is a young country both historically and demographically. It’s an absolute monarchy that was declared in 1932 with over 70% of its current population under the age of 30. Despite our young population’s high education and a 70% internet penetration, national political participation remains limited. It’s no surprise that Saudis enjoy spectator political participation. Local social media followed the American election closely. Our Arabic news channels’ coverage could compete with their American counterparts. And just like most people in the world, Saudis were entertained when Trump announced his candidacy. The likelihood of his winning was considered slim, and when pitted against a seasoned politician like Clinton, Saudis took her upcoming presidency as given. One of the first Saudis to do an about-face and tweet congratulations to Trump is HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal.

The shock of Trump’s victory did not inhibit Saudis from expressing themselves. Within minutes of the announcement, Whatsapp, Snapchat and Twitter accounts shared memes expressing dismay, fear, banality, and even joy. Many expressed their indifference with a meme of a merged Trump and Clinton face stating that they are two sides of the same coin. Others likened him to the Prophet Mohammed’s hostile half-uncle. In the Quran, the half-uncle is cursed as the father of flames and his wife the bearer of the wood.  So it goes the bearer of the wood lost to the father of the flames to express the candidates’ perceived animosity to Saudis. My favorites are one where Saudi men in traditional dress are running in horror from a giant Trump in the background and a Snapchat photo of a Saudi college student in the US anxiously watching the election numbers come in with a suitcase packed and ready to go.

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A reaction that was to be expected was the thrill of ultra-conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists at the fact that the United States had not elected a woman. A meme on how Clinton started an Instagram account to sell her cooking, a popular income generator among Saudi women, went viral. A Saudi Twitter news account boasting over 1.6 million followers euphorically tweeted : “A message to those calling for abolishing the male guardianship system: The results of the American elections are expected for a country as strong as the USA would never allow a woman to lead.” They soon deleted it, but the same text remained on their Telegram channel.

Soon after, Saudi political analysts began to put in their two cents. Mohammed Al Alshiekh optimistically wrote for Al-Jazirah newspaper about how American foreign policy will be in Saudi’s favor under a Trump presidency. He claims that the Democratic party has always been bad for the region and Saudi in particular and that the Democrat “whose father came from the jungles of Africa is the worst of them all.” Al Alshiekh blames Obama for the Arab Spring and calls him its “spiritual father.” He predicts that a Trump presidency might lead to a cancellation of the Iranian nuclear deal and at the very least a less civil administration to Islamic sectarian factions.

On the other end of the spectrum, the highly influential Jamal Khashoggi wrote for Alhayat newspaper about his uncertain Trump presidency outlook. The piece was so widely shared among Saudis that it contributed to the Saudi Foreign Ministry issuing a statement reminding people that Khashoggi’s opinions do not represent the government’s position. In Khashoggi’s piece, he forewarns that a president Trump is the same as the candidate Trump and that Trump has consistently held his current seemingly wild views for over two decades. Khashoggi points out that Trump is an extreme right wing populist who probably only thinks of the Arabian Gulf Countries as oil wells. His worst-case scenario is that a Trump presidency might lead to an American-Russian collaboration in the Middle East and the best-case scenario is that Trump’s advisers convince him to create an effective coalition with Middle Eastern Sunni powers to fight ISIS and bring stability to the region.

Currently, Saudis are closely watching Trump’s statements and choices for advisers and administration. While some are celebrating the likely new CIA chief Mike Pompeo’s comments about undoing the Iran nuclear deal, others are wary of Mike Flynn’s likening Islam to a cancer. Trump’s statements on how he’ll wean the United States off of Saudi oil drew an apt comparison to King Faisal’s oil embargo threats. Meanwhile, many are content admiring the new first lady and Ivanka Trump. Naif Alsalam even wrote a poem on how “for Trump’s daughter sake he’s not upset about the win and that he’ll forget all their differences. He goes on that “Ivanka governed humanity’s hearts long before her father governed the states.”

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reSURFACE

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If I could describe Madeha Al-Ajroush in one word, it would be pertinacious. She is the only Saudi woman to take part in all the protests against the women driving ban since the first one in 1990 and right up to the most recent October 26th Women Driving Campaign.

madehaShe has always been consistent in that all human beings deserve respect and the freedom to live with dignity. Al-Ajroush worked with Prof. Hessa Al Shiekh to initiate what today is known as the Family Safety Program. They had to secede because they were insistent on it being a nation-wide program that not only provides support for domestic abuse victims but also trains and holds the police and courts accountable for how they receive and treat these victims. Over the years Al-Ajroush has had several occasions where anyone else would have capitulated to governmental and societal pressures. She has had her house raided by investigators, she was banned from travel, and she’s been fired. All this because of her outspokenness for women’s rights.

 

During her spare time, Al-Ajroush has managed to create one of the first private therapy practices in Riyadh and probably the only one that specializes in gender orientation. She has also published three photography books. I was lucky enough to assist in translating her latest book, reSURFACE. In this book, she showcases pictographs of women in Saudi that date back thousands of years. Many of the petroglyphs included in the book are from the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Hail Region. Others are from all around the Kingdom. These petroglyphs are evidence that women were not always relegated to the proverbial backseat. The women are depicted as deities, queens, and dancers. Besides the gorgeous and provocative photographs that fill this book, it also includes accounts of the challenges and surprising hospitalities Al-Ajroush encountered in reaching these desert caves and mountains.

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Next week Al-Ajroush will launch her book at Alãan Artspace in the heart of Riyadh. You can hear her in person talk about the book and what it took to get it from a dream to reality in this misogynistic desert nation.

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Adopt Skylar

  

 My sister rescued this male dog from abusive kids in the street. His name is Skylar, and he is highly intelligent and has a great sense of humor. He is friendly, playful, and fiercly loyal . Skylar is vaccinated and we had him checked out completely and the blood test came out perfectly healthy. All he needs is a loving home. If you are serious about adopting him please send an Email with your details and contact info to Saudiwomanblog@gmail.com

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My piece in Newsweek: No Sacred Space

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing its third round of municipal elections. The first round was held in 2005 to much fanfare, whilst the second was slated for 2009 but in fact delayed until 2011. Women were excluded in those first two municipal elections. The participation of women only became possible this third time around, after a royal decree by Saudi’s previous ruling monarch, King Abdullah.

With the exception of the inclusion of women, these elections faced a great deal of apathy, mainly because they are elections for municipalities that only concern urban development. Some see it as a distraction from demanding basic rights and more influential political participation. Others believe that these elections are held mainly for international media consumption to improve Saudi’s image abroad. Moreover, the elections are only for two-thirds of local council seats while the other third, as well as the head of the municipality, are appointed by the government. Thus, potential winners are unlikely to have much executive power. This has not stopped candidates from making promises and running under manifestos that show that they aspire for much more than they have the authority to deliver. Some of these include the promise to open up employment opportunities and to end corruption. CLICK HERE TO READ ON

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F.A.Q. About the Saudi Women Driving Ban

Today, November 6th, is the 25th anniversary of the first protest against the women driving ban in Saudi Arabia. On this occasion, it’s apt to answer all those questions Saudis usually get when the ban comes up:

Why is there a ban on women driving?
Any answer is pure speculation. The government arrests and/or punishes not only women who drive but also anyone who attempts to raise this issue. Simultaneously, all official statements concerning the ban claim it is a societal issue that the government does not want to interfere with. The Minister of Foreign Affairs insisted that it is a societal ban and not governmental when asked by British journalists in 2007.

It has no basis in religion. Even the most extremist interpretations of Islam such as ISIS’s do not ban women from driving. Even if an Islamic reason is forced, it should not lead to a government ban. There are fatwas against health insurance, against women working in hospitals, against women being alone with a driver…etc. These things and others are not only legal but also practiced by members of the religious establishment despite the fatwas.
The only answer that does make sense is the financial aspect. Dr. Mohammed bin Saud AlMasoud wrote a breakdown of this last year in Aleqtisadiah Newspaper, and I’ve translated it in the previous post.

Why don’t the Saudis who protest the ban go through the proper channels?
They have gone through the proper channels over and over again. The Royal Court has been bombarded with petitions requesting the ban be lifted since 2003. These petitions never get a response or even acknowledgement. The Shura Council rejected proposals to discuss the ban in 2006, 2011 and 2013. Aziza Al-Yousef and Hala Al Dosari even had a meeting with the Minister of Interior (albeit via closed circuit TV), and he told them that the Ministry has no executive power in these matters and that it is completely up to the King. However, the Ministry is the source of statements banning women from driving, and Saudi Kings have repeatedly stated that this is a matter for society to decide.

Why won’t those protesting the ban quiet down to give the Saudi government a chance to seem like it came to the decision on its own?
This approach has been attempted by activists over several years. They are promised indirectly through official statements and directly through private conversations with officials that the ban will be lifted soon. “Quiet down until after Ramadan” is a favorite of these officials. On and off, over the years, these promises and in return lulls in activism occur with nothing to show for it.

Why won’t more women just drive their cars to protest?
Hundreds, if not thousands, of women have driven both in protest and because they have no other option. The numbers are low for two reasons. The first is the risk of arrest is real. Cars are impounded; women are imprisoned, fined, lashed and even threatened with terrorism charges for public incitement. The second reason is that it is difficult for women to learn how to drive in the first place. Even neighboring Gulf countries make it difficult for Saudi women to obtain licences out of respect for the Saudi government.

Traffic in Saudi Arabia is already a problem, what would happen if women also drove?
Lifting the ban on women driving will help ease traffic. Due to the ban, there are millions of expatriate men in the country simply to drive women around. These drivers are using the roads twice and thrice more than if women were to drive their own cars. For example, when I need to get to work (a 40-minute commute), I use the roads twice, once in the morning and a second in the afternoon. The rest of the time my car is parked outside my office. However, because I am required to export and employ a foreign man to drive my car, we use the roads twice as much. Currently, he drives me to work, then drives back home and then drives to my office a second time that day to pick me up and drive me home. This is if we falsely assume that the driver will drive straight home and not use the roads for his errands and even joyrides. Traffic is only one downside of the ban on women driving. There’s also the economical, environmental, and societal impact of needlessly having all these strangers take up space on our roads and in our homes.

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The iniquity of imposing a ban and fees

One of the biggest misconceptions about Saudi Arabia is that the ban on women driving is societal. As a matter of fact, women driving is only prohibited in the cities. In traditional rural areas, women drive with no objections by society or government. If tribes living their traditional lifestyles in their villages have no objection to women driving, why would their more modern urban counterparts object? The answer is they don’t either. Women and men across the country have defied the ban either by driving or speaking out with no societal consequences but rather governmental. People have been suspended from their jobs, imprisoned and banned from travel simply for wanting the ban lifted. There is no definite answer as to why the government will not allow each woman to choose for herself whether or not to drive. However, there have been a few analyses as to why the ban is so strictly implemented. One of these is this article by Dr. Mohammed bin Saud AlMasoud published in Aleqtisadiah Newspaper on 19/July/2014. Here I’ve translated it for everyone:

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Lifting the ban on women driving will result in big losses for many. The campaign Women Driving is More Chaste addresses the abnormality of permanently imposing a strange man on Saudi women. The success of this campaign will be challenged by three institutions. These institutions will most likely constitute pressure lines to prevent women from obtaining the human and civil right of driving their own cars.

First: Fee-charging government bodies

– One and a half million drivers’ visas worth two and a half billion SAR (six hundred sixty-six million USD).

– The General Passports Department earns one and a half billion SAR (four hundred million USD) from residency fees.

– Health insurance fees bring in a minimum of seven hundred million SAR (a hundred eighty-six million USD).

Thus, the Interior Ministry will lose approximately five billion SAR (a billion and three hundred thirty-three million USD) if women driving were to be legalized. These enormous returns will start to dwindle and fall until ultimately they become nothing. It’s no wonder that the Interior Ministry is not overly enthusiastic about the idea of lifting the ban and are firm and strong against women who attempt to exercise their right to drive.

Second: Taxi companies

The vast majority of this companies are owned by elites. 85% of their business depends on women seeking transportation in the bigger cities. These businesses generate unbelievably huge sums that reach to five million SAR (a million and three hundred thousand USD) a month. Naturally, if women were allowed to drive, this enormous financial resource will gradually dry up. Hence those millions a month will be no more. Again, it’s no surprise that these elites would not be too excited or happy to see the ban lifted. This is what happen in Qatar when they lifted the ban on Qatari women driving. The taxi companies’ profits fell to a quarter of what they were. It is especially worrying for the Saudi companies now that taxi charges rose a 100% in the cities after fees on foreign recruitment rose.

Third: Recruitment agencies and airlines

When we talk about one and a half million visas then we are also saying one and a half million flights worth up to three billion SAR (eight hundred million USD), as well as one and a half million recruitment contracts valued at eight billion SAR (two billion USD) minimum. The price of recruiting one driver from abroad is about eight thousand SAR (two thousand USD) which adds up to thirteen billion SAR (three and a half billion USD). That is a number that would be difficult to let go. Experts are forecasting that under the current ban the number of drivers is expected to double to three million foreign drivers. Thus, these profits will also increase a 100%.

All the billions mentioned above are paid by Saudi families and specifically Saudi women, not once but many times over. What’s more, financial penalties up to twice the original cost are imposed if there is any delay in payment. For example, the driver’s residency renewal fees double if they are not paid on time.

Hence, we have so many winners at the expense of Saudi women. Women, who are weak, tender, helpless citizens in need of protection and care, represent 60% of humanity’s workforce, and yet women have to bear all these consequences. Since the ban on women driving is implemented with threats of firmness and strength against all who defy it, it would only be fair to revise all these driver recruitment fees and fines. These fees add up to about six billion SAR (one and a half billion USD) paid by Saudi families, in particular, Saudi women because drivers are imposed on them by necessity.

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Municipal Elections 2015

Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, Cofounder of Baladi Initiative

Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, Cofounder of Baladi Initiative

Thursday was the last day for candidacy registration in Saudi Arabia. Don’t get too excited! The elections are only for municipal council seats. But it’s still a start. This is the third round of municipal elections in history and

Dr. Aisha Al Mana, Dean of Mohammed AlMana College for Health Sciences and Dr. Hanan Al-Sheikh, pediatrician

Dr. Aisha Al Mana, Dean of Mohammed AlMana College for Health Sciences and Dr. Hanan Al-Sheikh, pediatrician

the first to allow women to vote and run. The inclusion of women is not the only progress. This round, the municipal election winners will be a bit more than the nominal seats they were in the past and will have a little more say in the budget and performance of the municipalities. For example, in the past the head of the municipality is also a voting member of the council. It doesn’t matter which way he votes or even if he abstains because the ultimate decision is made by his office once the issue leaves the council. However, this time around, the heads of municipalities are no longer council members and only a non-voting coordinator from the head’s office is allowed to attend. Other changes include lowering the age requirement to eighteen and raising the educational requirement of candidates from literate to a high school diploma. Also the number of elected versus appointed council members has changed. Instead of half elected and half appointed, now it will be two-thirds elected and one-third appointed.

Many have expressed that participation in these elections is futile. They point out that previously elected officials have not had any real impact. Others claim that many of those that were elected, were voted in for reasons other than merit such as tribal and religious affiliations.

Naseema Al Sada and daughter, activist

Naseema Al Sada and daughter, activist

This has also been evident in the current election with Shiekh Al-Mutlaq, member of the Saudi Highest Islamic Council, telling people that they should vote for their relatives regardless of merit unless those relatives release them from the obligation. However, others are more farsighted including the Municipal Affairs elections spokesperson, Mr. Jadeeh Al Qahtani, who told Al-Riyadh newspaper that the experience gained from the elections will enable the country to conduct any type of elections. And he’s right. After this round, the country will have 35 thousand Saudi men and women across the country who are trained to conduct elections. A million and twenty thousand men are already registered voters from the previous two elections. In this third round, there were over half a million new registrations. Overall, there are 1,750,149 registered voters, with women making up 22% of the total. Nominations for the seats ended yesterday with 16% going to women nominees. Some areas have released their numbers:

Area Women Men Total
Riyadh 236 1051 1287
Eastern Region 65 451 516
Qaseem 78 533 611
Madina 129 528 657
Total 508 2563 3071

municipal elections nominees

The names of those whose nominations are approved and finalized will not be released until November 29th. Afterwards the candidates have to be careful about their campaigns. According to the bylaws, their campaign spokesperson has to be approved by the Ministry. The candidates have to also be careful that their campaign program does not contain anything “seditious.” In 2005, Salman Al Sulayman candidacy was disqualified because his campaign program included his support for lifting the ban on women driving. Both men and women candidates are not even allowed to include their personal photo in their campaign programs.

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Hind Al Zahid, Director of Eastern Region Businesswomen Center

Hind Al Zahid, Director of Eastern Region Businesswomen Center

The small number of women voters and nominees is partly due to difficulties in registering including the fact that they will be arrested if they drive their own cars. Some of these difficulties were eloquently explained in an article by Maha Akeel. Other difficulties include the prohibition on civil societies and political assembly. Civil societies are illegal and Saudis who create them face legal consequences. For example, both Waleed Abu Alkhair and Dr. Mohammed Al Qahtani are currently serving long prison sentences for starting nongovernmental organizations that promote and advocate human rights. Women participation in the municipal elections had their own government independent advocates; Dr. Hatoon Al Fassi and Fowziya Al Hani started the Baladi Initiative to advocate for women participation in the municipal elections in 2010. A year later, King Abdullah decreed that women will take part in elections. The Baladi Initiative since then has worked on raising awareness about the importance of women participation through lectures, workshops, and media appearances. ْ

Dr. Thoraya Al Obaid, Shoura Councilwoman

Dr. Thoraya Al Obaid, Shoura Councilwoman

Unfortunately once the elections were coming up, these efforts were abruptly stopped by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. The Baladi Initiative had started workshops for women who planned to run and for potential women campaign managers. The workshops were free, open to all and planned for all the major cities. As soon as the first one began in Riyadh, the Ministry issued a statement that anything pertaining to the elections has to be either run or licensed by the government. And since the Baladi Initiative is non-governmental then all of their lectures and activities became now illegal. Fortunately this did not discourage these bold women. Since they could not do anything on the ground, they took their movement online. They do interviews on TV to encourage participation and used social media to get the word out.

Sahar Nasief, author and activist, and her mother

Sahar Nasief, author and activist, and her mother

Many influential women also had their photos at registration taken and posted to encourage other women to do the same. Some of these leading women’s registration photos are included in this post. If you click on a photo, it will take you to either their Twitter profile or an online bio.

There weren’t that many objections to women participation. Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Barrack issued a fatwa that women’s participation is prohibited. However this is the same sheikh who issued an earlier fatwa claiming that Muslims not adhering to and believing in gender segregation are apostates who should be killed. So far, no one has been executed. He also called soccer the “mother of all sins” and a “Jewish conspiracy against Muslim.” Yet soccer remains the country’s national and by far most popular sport. Others from the religious establishment took a more politically savvy approach. Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Fowzan encourages good Muslim women to run for seats in case a female quota is implemented. This is so “deviant” and “westernized” women do not get any seats. However, if there is no quota then Sheikh Al Fowzan states all devout Muslim men and women should vote for men. Thus no woman gets a council seat. Three videos came out and were widely shared on social media and Whatsapp calling on all “morally vigilant” men to register for the elections to ensure that no women are voted into the councils. The most telling part about these videos is how men and women are represented graphically. The men are portrayed singularly and hold their heads high looking straight ahead while the women are covered, in groups, in profile and with their heads bowed down.

Screenshot of how women and men are portrayed in videos against women participation

Screenshot of how women and men are portrayed in videos against women participation

So far there has been little indication that people are acting upon the religious establishment’s advice. There were a few minor reports of vandalism at locations for women registrations but nothing serious.

Considering that this is the first time for women to take part and how new Saudis are to the whole democratic process, it’s so far been an auspicious start for the future of political participation in Saudi Arabia.

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