Are we or aren’t we?

The king’s has been back for a week and the celebrations are over. A financial package was announced and then thousands of government employees were granted job security. A reshuffle of key positions within the government is expected to be announced shortly. Is it enough though and will Saudi people revolt? Those are the two questions on every one’s minds both within Saudi and abroad. Nobody knows the answers for sure, even the people planning revolts.

My view is that we are still on the train heading to revolution town. People are not happy with the concessions so far and the future is still very murky. Nothing that was proposed or granted has any real long-term substantial benefits. A third of the population is made up of expatriates, the overwhelming majority of which are able to work longer hours and for much less than a national. Meanwhile the unemployment rate is going through the roof. A lot of young people are disenchanted with the religious establishment and are unhappy with the constrictions on their personal freedoms. Older generations are fed up with the corruption, nepotism and the disappearance of the middle class.

However Saudis are very big on privacy, and putting up a good front so street protests are being put down as the last resort. Another concern making Saudis hesitate to protest is the fear that if they go out they’ll be tricked into being a part of a movement they don’t belong to. There’s a lot of mistrust concerning who the organizers really are and what they represent. One of the biggest concerns is that by going out, they’ll be accused of being supporters of Sa’ad Al Faqih, an extreme anti-royal who has dedicated his life to hating the Saudi monarchy. He has his own satellite channel where the only program is him sitting behind a laptop and lecturing about the evils of the Al Saud family and taking in calls from Saudis who pledge allegiance to him and to his hate. Last time I checked his channel he was saying that if you miss a prayer or commit a sin you can redeem yourself to God by spreading Al Faqih’s message! The only thing going for Al Faqih, is his playing on Saudi anger and resentment about THIS, which is well-known to the young and old long before Wikileaks was a mere twinkle in Assange’s eye.

As a pre-requisite to street protests, Saudis have chosen to first clarify what it is they want for the country. This past week has seen a cropping up of petitions galore. They are mainly similar to the one I translated in this post. The number on that Facebook page has now gone up to 8400. There’s another promising petition going to be published in the next couple of days that specifically addresses the concerns of young people.

Petitions are a grey area in Saudi law. They are vaguely legal but activists have been imprisoned for writing them and/or signing them. It’s unprecedented in Saudi history that we have people sign on their names and in such huge numbers demanding what has always seemed impossible. So far thousands have signed these petitions, people from all factions; well-off people with established careers to the unemployed who have little hope. Unhappiness with the current situation is something that has brought sworn enemies together. It’s becoming more and more difficult to tell apart the demands of conservatives from those of liberals and the demands of the majority from those of minorities. You have to actually go through the petition to pick up on the single point that they diverge on, otherwise there’s a large area of overlap across all the petitions. Across the board, there’s a demand for a constitutional monarchy and accountability and the end of corruption in handling the nation’s wealth.

Based on this unity, and the unprecedented public proclamation of unhappiness with the current situation by thousands, it becomes reasonable to say that things will escalate if demands aren’t met or at least major compromises are made.

The government’s response so far has been denial and acting on the pretense that these calls are only being made by a few that can be silenced through website blocking and political imprisonment. How long can the government keep it up, and is it in their interest to do so, are two questions that anybody can answer.

This is a translation of the most prominent petition so far. Ahmed Al Omran has another translation of it but I was more than half way through when he published his.

A letter from Saudi intellectuals to the political leadership

Declaration of a national reform

It is no secret that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have raised tensions and political movements in many neighboring Arab nations – and our own country is in the heart of this turbulence. This has created conditions imposed on all of us to review our situation, and to make every effort towards reforms before the matter escalates and we find ourselves in front of unpredictable developments that cannot be stopped.

In January 2003, a group of Saudi intellectuals presented the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a list of specific proposals within the document “A Vision for the present and future.” This document was welcomed by the King and he promised to look into them. It was also announced by a number of senior officials at a later time that the government is determined to adopt widespread reform policies across all sectors of the government, and reform its relationship with the Saudi society.

Now, a decade after those promises, the promised reforms had not occurred except an insignificant few, and we believe that the problems referred to in the Vision document and the subsequent letters of demands, have worsened because of the delayed political reforms. The current situation is full of caveats and reasons for concern. And we and Saudi people in general are witnessing the receding of the powerful role our country plays in the region, the growing failures of our governmental body, the deterioration of efficient management, the prevalence of corruption and nepotism, the exacerbation of factionalism, and the widening gap between state and society, particularly the new generations of youth. This leads us to fear catastrophic consequences for the country and people. This undoubtedly is what we want to avoid for our country and our children. How the government has been addressing the situation requires serious review. The government must immediately announce the adoption of a large-scale reform program for the state and the community to work together towards. It must focus on addressing the fundamental flaws in our political system, and lead the country towards establishing a constitutional monarchy. The consent of the people is the basis for the legitimacy of authority. Consent is the only guarantee for the unity, stability and effectiveness of public administration, and safeguarding of the country from foreign intervention. This requires a reformulation of the relationship between society and state, so that people can be a source of authority, and a full partner in policy-making through their elected representatives in the Shura Council. The purpose of the State is to serve the community and maintain the interests of its people by enhancing the standard of living, ensuring the dignity of citizens and the future of their children. That is why we anticipate a royal announcement that clearly demonstrates the commitment of the State to becoming a “constitutional monarchy”, and a schedule that determines the commencement date of the desired reforms and the date of completion. The announcement must also confirm that the objectives of the major reform namely are: the rule of law, absolute equality between people, the legal guarantee of individual freedoms and civil rights, people participation in decision making, balanced development, poverty eradication, and the optimal use of public resources. In this connection, we call for the reform program to include the following elements:

First: the development of the current basic governmental system into a fully integrated constitution that will function as a contract between the people and the state, with the recognition that the people are the source of authority. The separation of the three powers: executive, judicial and legislative, each governing only its specific area. Linking authority to responsibility and accountability. Ensuring equality of all citizens, and the legal protection of individual freedoms and civil rights and ensuring justice and equal opportunities. The emphasis on the responsibility of the state in ensuring human rights, and ensuring the right of peaceful expression of opinion, and the strengthening of public freedoms, including the right to form political and professional associations.

Secondly: the emphasis on the principle of the rule of law, unity, and that everyone – state officials and the general public are not above the law, equally and without discrimination. The prohibition of expending state resources for illegal or personal gain.

Third: The adoption of universal suffrage as a direct method for the formation of municipal councils, district councils and the Shura Council, and the participation of women in the nomination and election processes.

Fourth: The implementation of the principle of administrative decentralization and the empowerment of local administrations in the regions and provinces of all authorities necessary for the establishment of effective and interactive local governance that are able to directly address the demands of citizens in each region.

Fifth: The independence of the judiciary; the abolition of all bodies that play parallel roles outside the framework of the judicial system. The courts’ supervision over the investigation and the prosecution of defendants and the conditions of prisoners. The abolition of regulations that limit the independence and effectiveness of the judiciary, limit the immunity of judges, or fall within the jurisdiction of the judiciary. The acceleration of the codification and standardization of laws and judicial sentences while taking into consideration what our government has committed to by signing on to conventions of international human rights. All of this ensures justice, equality and discipline in the application of laws. The activation of a law of criminal procedure and a system of pleadings to achieve the above, and to prevent any action outside or in violation of the judicial process.

Sixth: Implementing the system by which civil associations are legalized, as was passed the Shura Council. Opening the door to the establishment of institutions of civil society in all its forms and purposes, as a channel to rationalize and embody public opinion, and activate public participation in decision-making.

Seventh: Despite the widening debate on the rights of Saudi women, the government has not taken sufficient action to fulfill the requirements of this file. The neglect of women’s rights or postponement contributes to deepening the problem of poverty and violence, and weakens the contribution of the family in raising the level of education. Legal and institutional action must be taken to enable women to attain their rights and ownership in learning, employment and participation in public affairs, without discrimination.

Eighth: The issuance of laws that prohibit discrimination among citizens, for any reason and under any pretext, and criminalize the exercise of any discrimination along sectarian, tribal, regional, or racial lines. Also the criminalization of hatred on religious grounds or others. And the development of a national integration strategy that explicitly recognizes and respects multiculturalism in Saudi society and considers it a source of enrichment for national unity and social peace. We need an effective strategy to address the situation of the national integration of minorities who have been exposed to exclusion and marginalization or impairment of rights due to any of the above reasons, and to compensate them for what they have been subjected to in the past.

Ninth: The decision by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to approve the formation of a human rights body, the National Assembly for Human Rights was greeted with optimism. But we find now that both the Commission for Human Rights and the Assembly had transformed themselves into bureaucractic factions controlled by the government. They have shown only a limited role in the defense of the rights of citizens .Among the reasons for their decline is government interference in the appointment of their members, as well as the refusal of many government agencies to recognize them. The top priority for any government and society must be the maintenance and protection of the rights and dignity of citizens and residents. We therefore call for the abolition of government restrictions imposed on the commission and the assembly, and the assurance of their independence under the law. We also call for the legislation for the right to form other associations for the civil defense of human rights.

Tenth: No dignity without a decent living. God has blessed our country with many riches, but a large segment of our citizens complain of poverty and lack of resources. We have noted the government’s delay in treating the unemployment problem, lack of housing, and the poor standard of living, particularly in rural areas, suburbs and for the retired and the elderly. We do not see a justification for failing to develop solutions to these problems. We believe that not to put these issues to public debate, and to overlook the private sector’s and civil societies’ roles is a grave mistake. When such issues come up they are considered purely through a business profit and loss perspective. Thus they have gradually turned from problems to dilemmas, and have become one of the main reasons for the humiliation and degradation of citizens.

Eleventh: the past years have revealed the increasing aggravation, tampering and mismanagement of public money. This requires the establishment of the Shura Council-elect to employ its powers to control and make accountable all government agencies. This is to be accomplished by establishing independent structures and administrative bodies that are able to perform regulatory functions, and the declaration of their findings to the people, especially cases related to administrative corruption, abuse of power and tampering with public money by government agencies. We in this area need to adopt the principle of transparency and accountability, and establish an institutional framework to ensure these principles, which consist of:

a) The establishment of a surveillance commission that has the benefit of national integrity, independence and immunity, and whose investigation results are open to the public.

b) to enable citizens to oversee the use of public funds by government agencies, and the abolition of restrictions that prevent the press from accessing information on transactions suspected of being involved in corruption.

Twelfth: oil revenues have leapt to high levels over the past five years, and consequently a lot of money was made available to the government. The people should benefit from this increase in funds, and its spending must be rationalized, rather than it being squandered on expensive projects of little use. This calls for the reconsideration of the current development plans and their basis. The building of long-term strategies for the overall development of the country; the focus must be on the expansion of national production, laying the foundation for alternative economic sources, job provision, and increasing the private sector’s participation in economic policy-making.

In conclusion, we call on the political leadership, to adopt the proposed reform program. In order to gain the people’s trust in the government’s sincerity and determination to reform, the following four steps must be taken immediately:

1 – the issuance of a royal announcement that confirms the government’s intention to undertake a program of political reform, and to develop a specific timetable to begin and where it will be applied.

2 – the immediate release of political prisoners. Those that have been proven to have committed crimes to be tried without delay, with the judicial guarantees necessary to secure justice for all.

3 – Canceling the travel ban imposed on a large number of opinion makers.

4 – Lifting of restrictions on freedom of the press and expression, and the empowerment of citizens to express their views openly and peacefully. And to stop the persecution suffered by those who express their opinions peacefully.

As we address this letter to our political leadership and the citizens of our country, we reaffirm the solidarity of all; people and government, in the face of threats, and in avoidance of unexpected consequences. We are confident that all have absorbed the lessons learned from the recent experience of our brother Arab countries. The challenges can only be overcome through a serious, thorough and prompt, participation of all in their resolution, and through the strengthening of national unity and achieving the aspiration of the people of a glorious and worthy homeland.


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26 responses to “Are we or aren’t we?

  1. Thank you for such an in-depth and informative post about what is currently going on Saudi and the possibilities of what could happen in the near future! I didn’t know that there were as many expatriates in the kingdom, equaling as much as a third of the population.

    In your opinion, do those who are against reform and this movement blame foreigners, particularly Americans, for this call for political and cultural reformation? If that is the case, is possible that those of this opinion would express their animosity towards Americans in the expatriate community if a revolt does ensue?

    Thank you again for your hard work and dedication to present readers with up-to-date information about things relevant to those in Saudi Arabian, as well as the global community.

  2. NotTelling

    Eman, the “THIS” article you posted. It is not that well-known, and definitely not in that detail.


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  4. Ahmad

    Since your voice is on the net and loud, doesn’t mean there are not others in majority who are satisfied with the system.

  5. Maria R.

    To Ahmad: What majority? Has anybody been asked how they feel? Can they express themselves? Who is happy? Let me guess! People who do not want women to have power in case they are better than men! People who want to control women!People who are getting richer and richer! People who are corrupt! People who don’t want to work and enjoy having slaves and maltreating them! Shall I say more?The list will go on for ever. So enjoy while you can because it will not last!

  6. Harry Guggen
    Robert Fisk: The destiny of this pageant lies in the Kingdom of Oil
    Saturday, 26 February 2011

    The Middle East earthquake of the past five weeks has been the most tumultuous, shattering, mind-numbing experience in the history of the region since the fall of the Ottoman empire. For once, “shock and awe” was the right description.

    The docile, supine, unregenerative, cringing Arabs of Orientalism have transformed themselves into fighters for the freedom, liberty and dignity which we Westerners have always assumed it was our unique role to play in the world. One after another, our satraps are falling, and the people we paid them to control are making their own history – our right to meddle in their affairs (which we will, of course, continue to exercise) has been diminished for ever.

    The tectonic plates continue to shift, with tragic, brave – even blackly humorous – results. Countless are the Arab potentates who always claimed they wanted democracy in the Middle East. King Bashar of Syria is to improve public servants’ pay. King Bouteflika of Algeria has suddenly abandoned the country’s state of emergency. King Hamad of Bahrain has opened the doors of his prisons. King Bashir of Sudan will not stand for president again. King Abdullah of Jordan is studying the idea of a constitutional monarchy. And al-Qa’ida are, well, rather silent.

    Who would have believed that the old man in the cave would suddenly have to step outside, dazzled, blinded by the sunlight of freedom rather than the Manichean darkness to which his eyes had become accustomed. Martyrs there were aplenty across the Muslim world – but not an Islamist banner to be seen. The young men and women bringing an end to their torment of dictators were mostly Muslims, but the human spirit was greater than the desire for death. They are Believers, yes – but they got there first, toppling Mubarak while Bin Laden’s henchmen still called for his overthrow on outdated videotapes.

    But now a warning. It’s not over. We are experiencing today that warm, slightly clammy feeling before the thunder and lightning break out. Gaddafi’s final horror movie has yet to end, albeit with that terrible mix of farce and blood to which we are accustomed in the Middle East. And his impending doom is, needless to say, throwing into ever-sharper perspective the vile fawning of our own potentates. Berlusconi – who in many respects is already a ghastly mockery of Gaddafi himself – and Sarkozy, and Lord Blair of Isfahan are turning out to look even shabbier than we believed. Those faith-based eyes blessed Gaddafi the murderer. I did write at the time that Blair and Straw had forgotten the “whoops” factor, the reality that this weird light bulb was absolutely bonkers and would undoubtedly perform some other terrible act to shame our masters. And sure enough, every journalist is now going to have to add “Mr Blair’s office did not return our call” to his laptop keyboard.

    Everyone is now telling Egypt to follow the “Turkish model” – this seems to involve a pleasant cocktail of democracy and carefully controlled Islam. But if this is true, Egypt’s army will keep an unwanted, undemocratic eye on its people for decades to come. As lawyer Ali Ezzatyar has pointed out, “Egypt’s military leaders have spoken of threats to the “Egyptian way of life”… in a not so subtle reference to threats from the Muslim Brotherhood. This can be seen as a page taken from the Turkish playbook.” The Turkish army turned up as kingmakers four times in modern Turkish history. And who but the Egyptian army, makers of Nasser, constructors of Sadat, got rid of the ex-army general Mubarak when the game was up?

    And democracy – the real, unfettered, flawed but brilliant version which we in the West have so far lovingly (and rightly) cultivated for ourselves – is not going, in the Arab world, to rest happy with Israel’s pernicious treatment of Palestinians and its land theft in the West Bank. Now no longer the “only democracy in the Middle East”, Israel argued desperately – in company with Saudi Arabia, for heaven’s sake – that it was necessary to maintain Mubarak’s tyranny. It pressed the Muslim Brotherhood button in Washington and built up the usual Israeli lobby fear quotient to push Obama and La Clinton off the rails yet again. Faced with pro-democracy protesters in the lands of oppression, they duly went on backing the oppressors until it was too late. I love “orderly transition”. The “order” bit says it all. Only Israeli journalist Gideon Levy got it right. “We should be saying ‘Mabrouk Misr!’,” he said. Congratulations, Egypt!

    Yet in Bahrain, I had a depressing experience. King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman have been bowing to their 70 per cent (80 per cent?) Shia population, opening prison doors, promising constitutional reforms. So I asked a government official in Manama if this was really possible. Why not have an elected prime minister instead of a member of the Khalifa royal family? He clucked his tongue. “Impossible,” he said. “The GCC would never permit this.” For GCC – the Gulf Co-operation Council – read Saudi Arabia. And here, I am afraid, our tale grows darker.

    We pay too little attention to this autocratic band of robber princes; we think they are archaic, illiterate in modern politics, wealthy (yes, “beyond the dreams of Croesus”, etc), and we laughed when King Abdullah offered to make up any fall in bailouts from Washington to the Mubarak regime, and we laugh now when the old king promises $36bn to his citizens to keep their mouths shut. But this is no laughing matter. The Arab revolt which finally threw the Ottomans out of the Arab world started in the deserts of Arabia, its tribesmen trusting Lawrence and McMahon and the rest of our gang. And from Arabia came Wahabism, the deep and inebriating potion – white foam on the top of the black stuff – whose ghastly simplicity appealed to every would-be Islamist and suicide bomber in the Sunni Muslim world. The Saudis fostered Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. Let us not even mention that they provided most of the 9/11 bombers. And the Saudis will now believe they are the only Muslims still in arms against the brightening world. I have an unhappy suspicion that the destiny of this pageant of Middle East history unfolding before us will be decided in the kingdom of oil, holy places and corruption. Watch out.

    But a lighter note. I’ve been hunting for the most memorable quotations from the Arab revolution. We’ve had “Come back, Mr President, we were only kidding” from an anti-Mubarak demonstrator. And we’ve had Saif el-Islam el-Gaddafi’s Goebbels-style speech: “Forget oil, forget gas – there will be civil war.” My very own favourite, selfish and personal quotation came when my old friend Tom Friedman of The New York Times joined me for breakfast in Cairo with his usual disarming smile. “Fisky,” he said, “this Egyptian came up to me in Tahrir Square yesterday, and asked me if I was Robert Fisk!” Now that’s what I call a revolution.

    • Ulrich Eggert

      Brilliant article. Thanks for sharing! (Although, let us not forget that the US “fostered Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida and the Taliban” just as well. It’s an Unholy Alliance we’re dealing with.)

  7. This petition is one of the most comprehensive and well written documents I have every read. The petition shows the high standard of the Saudi people and the fact that such a citizenry is capable of participating in policy-making. The world becomes a better place when people stand-up for human rights and equal justice under the law.

    My paryers and well wishes are with my brothers and sisters of Saudi. May Allah continue to direct your steps.

    Maryam Ruhulla

  8. Pingback: Saudi Arabia: Timing Critical for Interfaith Outreach and Understanding « American Bedu

  9. Reeshiez

    The petition is well written as are the demands you listed in your previous post. I wish everyone the best of luck. Its a difficult journey – I am Bahraini and believe me it hasn’t been easy. Sometimes you will feel that you are on a rollercoster ride that will never end. But hopefully the end result for all of us khaleejis are constitutional monarchies that include their citizens in governance. I pray that Saudi Arabia will reform to the better. Nothing will change in the entire Gulf region if Saudi doesn’t.

  10. turkishwoman

    The petition is well written and has a large scope but Saudi people should definitely hit the streets. As far as I followed, Saudi government kept promising reforms for the past years but did very little, if it didn’t made the opposite. Even the slightests effort is of course very valuable but obviously petitions and cyber activism alone won’t be enough. You should put more pressure. I hope on the 11th of March Saudis could make a protest with large participation and I hope it could be peaceful but effective.

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  13. Dr Gonzo

    Hi Imane,

    Just want to point your attention to an article by Simon Henderson in Foriegn Policy:

    I think the condescending remarks towards you are completely unacceptable and unprofessional. I urge you to write a response.

    • thanks. A shoddy analyst will still be a shoddy analyst no matter what you say. Obviously Henderson doesn’t read Arabic nor my blog. I’m here in Riyadh providing information and translating, shame on him.

  14. I appreciate you taking the time and the risk to write this.

  15. turkishwoman

    For the past few days, I’ve read a lot in the Western media about “concerns for stability” in Saudi Arabia. Greedy hypocrites! Why they never showed concern for women rights or human rights for all those years while they were happily getting their oil?! They never put pressure on the government to make reforms, they acted like democracy and constitutional rights are property of the West and the rest of the world consist of stupid subhumans who would blindly obey opression anyway. Well, here are the news: freedom and rights are universal and every people in every country in the world will ask for it and eventually get it! Lack of stability is a very small cost to pay. But, oh, the stock market can fluctuate and you may loose money, right? Poor greedy hypocrites…You invented islamophobia, discriminated and mocked with people, but didn’t dare to hear voices of people crying for a better system. Now that Saudi government banned protests, I can’t hear you saying: “This is unacceptable! Protesting is a basic human right!”

    • Thomas

      What you say is absolutely correct. We were (no, we are still) only interested in low oil-prices and cheap products. There was no real interest in the way of producing the goods. You delivered oil and anything else like democracy, human and women rights etc. in your countries was not interesting for us.

      And it is the same in China: cheap, cheaper, cheapest! But is anyone interested in the living conditions of all the poor workers (Foxconn …)? I guess, we aren’t.
      Greetings from Europe!

  16. sa'ada

    thanks for posting a translation.

    regarding number 3, that sortition is a more just system than that of elections. as aristotle said, elections are of an oligarchic nature. sortition, wherein people are randomly selected as with jury duty in the US, is a means for true representation of the people, not representation of powerful moneyed interests.

    also, sortition is more in keeping with islamic values, as one who desires a political office or position of power is deemed to be unfit for it. all candidates in an electoral system necessarily desire the position for which they are running and are therefore unfit for it.

  17. George B.

    Incessantly blaming every ill in the Muslim world on the west is as silly as it is unfair. Yes, the west does what is best for their own people. So should Muslims. Yes, the west purchases and secures oil. So do Muslims. Who today can live without oil? Certainly not Muslims.

    Muslims are responsible for their own freedom or rather, the lack of it.

    They could have had a revolution decades ago. They chose to live as slaves. Now they are tired of it, at least some of them are. It remains to be seen whether the Saudis have the courage to protest, since the government has amassed serious weaponry to counter any demonstrations according to Fisk:

    Saudis mobilise thousands of troops to quell growing revolt

  18. “O you who believe! If you give victory to God, He will give victory to you and make you stand firm.” (47:7).

  19. Lisa

    Turkishwoman, why do you blame and resent the West for the inhumanities and oppression of the Middle East? We are not responsible for the societal norms and practices of your culture. If we were to speak up against the oppressive and inhuman practices before now, we would have been viewed as being judgmental and superior. It is only now that you and your people are willing to stand up for your own civil rights, that we can feel comfortable putting demands on your government for democracy. Also, Turkishwoman, of course the West is concerned about oil. We are dependent on oil as much as the rest of the world. You are truly ignorant if you believe the West is responsible for “islamaphobia”. It is the Islamic TERRORISTS who are responsible. It is YOU who is hypocrite, not us. You hate and judge us for having what we have, all the while wishing you had the same. I am blessed by God to be a woman living in America and I love my country. Stop wasting your energy hating us and use it to better yourself and your people.

  20. Thanks for the translation. Keep up the good work!

  21. Is What We Desire Reform .. Or Is It The Reform We Desire ?

  22. I Under stand The Problems Besetting The Middle East; But I can`t See how Bowing to The West Will Solve Them …The Answers are In The Koran: The Vision of The Supreme, Imam, Muslim, Why do`nt The Fundamentalist`s See this. All this Violence against there fellow Arabs. This Is Absurd. I have always Said that If The Kaiser William had The Diplomacy to Conclude a Fair Treaty with The Soviets, he would have a Son on The Throne of England at this Minute, and not a Grave in Holland ………

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