Category Archives: Regional and International

The Arab Revolution’s effect on Saudis

With what’s going on right now in Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Tunis and Egypt, I get a lot of questions about how Saudis are taking it and what’s the reaction. The short answer is they are shocked and captivated but haven’t made up their minds about any of it.

The long answer is Saudi Arabia is a country where 40% of the population is under 14 years old, unemployment is rampant and the conservative religious approach is the key to the majority. These three ingredients are a dangerous mixture and add to that the now available social media tools and you have a bomb waiting for detonation. So why has nothing happened?

We have been faced with defeat over the last three generations. First it was with the Ottoman’s and I can’t tell you the countless times I’ve heard stories about how my great-grandparents generation faced off with the Turks in Qaseem. There are even walls still standing with bullet holes from then. Then my grandparents’ generation faced the creation of Israel. Every family knows a Palestinian refugee or had someone in their family killed or injured, my own grandfather was maimed in 1948 when Israeli forces bombed the hospital he was being treated at. Then my parents’ generation witnessed the fall of Jamal AbdulNaser’s high hopes and grand plans. After that every country in the region had its own version of dictatorship and people suppression evolve so that in the end you had different countries with different names but all sharing the same tactics and the same system. People have lost hope in being represented politically and have adapted and figured out other ways to move forward in life.

This is the context and the lenses through which our young people are watching what’s going on in the region. And this is why that the fact that there was an uprising is not as important as the aftermath of that uprising.

They are watching, though. All over the country, all these Saudis who rarely watch or read the news and their only interests in doing so are for more local social openness or conservativeness (depending on their background), are now carefully observing what’s going on in neighboring countries. Saudis who didn’t know what the channel number for AlJazeera News was on their receivers now have it saved on their favorites list. University and high school students are now watching the news and social media feeds in their study breaks instead of a rerun of Friends. It’s a new atmosphere. The thing lacking is analysis or a discussion on what it means for us.

The only tangible effect is more outspokenness in their criticism of how the Saudi government was ill-prepared for the Jeddah floods. In just three days from the first Friday after the floods to last Sunday, there were one hundred and ten opinion pieces in Saudi newspapers condemning what happened and criticizing how the government handled things. Also Shiekh Salman Al Ouda broadcast an unprecedented episode of his MBC show where he spoke about how the government must listen to Saudi’s demands for more transparency and spoke highly of the movements in Tunis and Egypt. And then Ali Al Olayani, a popular TV presenter also dedicated a frank and brave show where YouTube videos uploaded by citizens in Jeddah were shown. And the most recent were reports of protesters in Jeddah and some being arrested and there was even a video that was taken down a day later of the protest where you can see men and women marching down a Jeddah street.

We are only at the beginning and the only thing that has been determined is that Arabs are fed up and that we won’t back down.

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Filed under Culture, Regional and International

Online Activism in the Middle East

On Saturday the Libyan president (41 years in the presidential office and counting), Muammar al-Gaddafi, came out on Libyan TV to give one of his rambling speeches but this time it was worth listening to. He expressed what a lot of Arab leaders are probably feeling towards the revolution in Tunisia; fear. More importantly by speaking dismissively about Wikileaks, Facebook and Youtube, he gave them the credit they deserve.

Online activism in the Middle East is reminiscent of the printing press revolution in Europe. At the time European dictators were unable to get ahead of the spread of information but by the time these tools got to the Arab world, political leaders already knew how to keep a handle on things.

Now with technology, regular citizens are again ahead of the game. When I was growing up in Saudi, people were paranoid about being overheard complaining. Little kids had this ingrained in them and were told that “they” can hear you through the electricity outlets in the walls and that those nice neighbors next door are spies for “them”. People did not talk to each other and they did not complain because stories and rumors abound about some distant relative or acquaintance mysteriously and forever disappearing and about dark dungeons in palace basements.

Never before the internet could everyone and anyone who cares have gotten their hands on the piece that got Dr. Al-Abdulkareem imprisoned indefinitely and without trial. Nor could they have expressed their support in such huge numbers online that the government becomes powerless in quieting them.

What Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Youtube…etc do in the Middle East is that they confirm our hunch that our fellow citizens feel the same way. And this alone is a powerful realization, and now we’ve taken it a step further by connecting, forming online groups and contacts that occasionally develop into real meetings and groups on the ground. The division and isolation that was upheld and so valuable to Arab leaders has now become a thing of the past. And now Arab governments are struggling to get back in control but so far they only sink deeper. Like when Dr. Abdulkareem published his piece on his Facebook page, he was shortly later detained. If it weren’t for his detention, not many people would have read what he wrote. Only those politically involved would have sought it out, but after the widely shared news of his imprisonment, everyone wanted to know what it was that he wrote. It was Emailed, BBMed, and printed out and shared with those of us who aren’t online. So the government’s traditional approach actually caused the piece to become more widespread and for the offending writer to gain supporters in the thousands.

This is just the beginning, and we will soon outgrow the current online tools. Activist journalism is now catching on. People can no longer tolerate just being aware of what’s going on, they need to be able to do something about it. Right now the “happening” thing is petitions such as on Change.org and Avaaz.org. On Change.org, anyone can write up a petition about an issue they care about, and if it concerns an American politician there’s a drop down menu where you can click their name and automatically get it sent to their Email inbox. If it’s international, the writer has to find the Email address of the targeted politician for themselves. It’s a fantastic tool and it would be empowering if we could have a similar kind of website made by people of the Middle East and in Arabic. Even better, the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information could have taken up such a project instead of their flailing attempts at controlling the Saudi online community. To give citizens that kind of access and outlet where they can petition their issues online would help a lot in letting out the average citizen’s frustrations. It would be like a national council where every citizen is a member with a platform.

The only way anyone in this region is going to remain in power, is by adapting to this new internet age rather than sticking to the traditional methods of suppression; more transparency, more freedom of speech and above all more power to the people.

Recommended reading:

Tweeting Tyrants Out of Tunisia: Global Internet at Its Best

Reflecting On 2011 – The Year Online Organizers Got Real

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Filed under Culture, Informative, Regional and International

Saudi Arabia elected as a board member of UN Women

In the past two weeks there has been a lot of coverage regarding Iran and Saudi Arabia’s bid to join UN Women. UN Women is a merge of four departments within the UN whose focus is on women’s rights:

Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW)

International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW)

Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI)

United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

Looking at the four, you’ll see that they all work towards achieving equality, through research, funding, training and so on.

Most of the reports on Saudi Arabia becoming a member were expressed with incredulity, one going as far as calling it a joke. I can understand their misgivings but the issue lies on what type of organization will result from this merge. If by signing on Saudi Arabia, it is meant that Saudi has eradicated discrimination, abuse and inequality, then of course it takes no expert to tell you that that is absurd. However if by signing on, it will mean that Saudi will work towards that goal, then women in Saudi need all the help they can get.

If you go back to UN Women’s website, you’ll find that their aim is not a checklist of countries who have given women their full rights. Their board members are not supposed to sign a document and then pretend everything is ok. In a direct response to the question: How will UN Women work with UN Member States? on the FAQ page, the answer was:

One of the main aims of creating UN Women is to strengthen the UN’s ability to provide coherent, timely and demand-driven support to UN Member States, at their request, in their efforts to realize equality for all women and girls. It will be up to each Member State to decide what kind of support UN Women will provide in that country.

I don’t believe much can be accomplished by rejecting Saudi Arabia. All over the world women are treated unequally and abused in differing degrees so the majority of the countries on the board of the new UN Women do have women issues in their own countries. Ethiopia, Pakistan, India and even Congo are now UN Women member states! Yes Saudi Arabia is on the extreme side of the spectrum but that’s all the more reason to include it. By including it, UN Women will be able to gain access and document the ongoing gender apartheid. It could engage Saudis and educate women here on their rights. Generally speaking, inclusion could translate into a more proactive and direct influence.

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Filed under Regional and International, Women campaigns

THIS is what EVERYONE should watch!

I have been going on and on about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict because nothing will ever get done in this region especially regards fighting extremism and spreading democracy until it is resolved. King Abdullah of Jordon has articulated this in a much better and concise way on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Everyone should watch this and if you’ve seen it watch it again and read the comments on the website.  For readers outside the region, let me tell you this is the truth. Please help stop the Israeli settlements so the peace process can move forward.

P.S. If there ever was a person who should be the “ruler of the free world” it should be Jon Stewart. If I were in the US,  I would not have missed his Rally to Restore Sanity for anything.

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Filed under Palestinian/ Israel conflict, Regional and International

Dear Americans,

I occasionally get Emails and comments from non-Arab people asking what they can do to help. Generally there isn’t much that can be done by outsiders as it’s my belief that sustainable change is only change that happens from within. However in areas where West collides with East there are things that can be done to either hurt moderate Muslims or help us.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an area that has a lot of impact on the growth and recruitment of terrorist Islamic movements. This is a previous post on how young Saudis come to hate the West as a result of it.

Now with the Park51 Mosque, things have come to a head. This is an area where you can help. To lump Islam as one single ideology and 23% of the world population as terrorists is a grave mistake. To fight Islam in general is the single best backing position for the West to take in aiding fundamental Islamists. When you don’t support people like Imam Rauf and Tariq Ramadan, then in effect you are supporting people like Osama Bin Laden.

When outsiders  lump Islam into this one narrow interpretation that must be fought, they are playing their part on Osama Bin Laden’s world stage. Fundamental Islamists, from the nonviolent to terrorists all use the same effective argument to recruit Muslim laypeople. It goes along the lines of “see, see they hate us. They want to wipe us off the face of the Earth. Where is their freedom and democracy?”

They use as examples for this argument America’s support for Israel, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and discrimination against Muslims in western countries. The opposition to and cancellation of Park 51 looks like a future addition to the list alongside the burning of the Qurans in Florida.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone born in a Muslim country who only speaks the language of that country and who has never been anywhere besides that country. Your religious leader, your school teacher or any other person you might have reason to be drawn to tells you about the Palestinian plight illustrated with photos of maimed children and refugee camps. He then talks to you about the innocent civilians killed indiscriminately by American tanks and bombs. Iraqi women raped by American soldiers. He shows you pictures from Abu Ghraib. He talks to you about how Americans hate Muslims and illustrates about how thousands of Americans opposed the building of a mosque and how an American priest is going to burn the Quran. How would you feel?

Do Americans really want to feed into that argument? Islam is the second largest religion in the world, second only to Christianity. It’s not going away, you either help moderate Muslims or you feed into the fundamentalists’ view of the world. Who do you want to be proven wrong?

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Filed under Popular, Regional and International

The French burqa ban

Covering the face has been a highly emotional and politicized issue in the Muslim community for the past two decades. I have written about it before and called it the sixth pillar of Islam. It has become a false banner for Islamic piety. Islam is now reduced to a dress code. It does not matter if you lie, steal or slander your friends and neighbors, if you cover your face you are perceived by society as an untouchable religious God fearing person.

When I read that the ban has gone through the French parliament with an overwhelming majority, I was unexpectedly ecstatic about it. I don’t live in France and I don’t even to plan to visit anytime soon and yet it made me happy that women there don’t have a choice. Yes this is one area where I’m anti-choice. Covering the face is the very essence of objectifying women. With her face covered, a woman is reduced to an object that needs to be protected by a male guardian. For every woman who truly chooses of her own freewill to cover her face, there are hundreds if not thousands forced and pressured to by the religious establishment, family and society. Who would you sacrifice, that one woman who can manage to find God in something else or those hundreds, so that one can liberally  choose?

The number of  times I have heard Saudi women here, who are conditioned to believe that covering is an unquestionable issue, sigh as they watch uncovered women on TV and say لهم الدنبا ولنا الأخرة (they get the world and we get the afterlife). These are the women “choosing” to cover, brainwashed into living to die. I wish I had the power to take the choice away from them.

What are women covering from? They believe that the sight of their face will cause men to commit sin. Fitna they call it. And yet the places where most women cover their faces, like in Saudi’s central region, you can’t take a step outside your house without being harassed, it doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 80. It’s much more dangerous to walk the streets of Riyadh as a woman than it is in New York. Hence what the face cover is protecting us from has proven to be the complete opposite upon implementation.

It doesn’t stop at face covering. The subtle difference between putting the abaya tent style over your head or leaving it like a cloak on your shoulders decides if you’re “asking for it”. In both cases the face is covered but in the first the shape of the shoulders isn’t defined and so it’s a more religious and respectable style. Covering the face escalates into such silly issues like the seductive powers of a woman’s toes.  Isn’t it about time that men take responsibility for their actions instead of using the centuries old argument “she seduced me into it by not dressing properly”?!

How many public Islamist women figures (do they even exist?) do you know advocate face covering? The majority out there calling for it are men; Muslim men who brazenly stand there in Western clothes and with clean shaven faces and say it’s their religious belief that women should cover. Walk down Oxford Street London in July and see how many abaya swathed women with their niqabs are accompanied by their shorts wearing clean shaven male guardians. I want to take these men and shake some sense into them. I want them to consider the humanity we all share regardless of the genitalia we’re born with or the amount of testosterone in our bodies. Can they stand having their faces covered? “No but women are used to it”, they always answer when I ask them. “It’s their cross to bear for being so womanly and feminine.”

Well-meaning liberals and Human rights activists are trying to stop the French ban. They say it’s Islamaphobic and driven by the right-wing in a thinly veiled racist campaign. To them I say the old Arabic proverb خذ الحكمة من أفوه المجانين (take wisdom from the mouths of fools). If the Islam they are afraid of measures my piety by how much I hide my identity, then I share their phobia.

If there’s one book that I wish I could put into the hands of every Muslim woman who says that God wants her to cover her face and hand over her affairs to a man it’s this one:

It’s written by a Jordanian, Abdulrahman Omar Al Khateeb. He accompanied his sister and her kids to Makkah and the muuttawa there yelled at her “cover your face you hurma“! He had been thinking about the issue before due to how the face cover had been used against Islam in Western media but that incident was what got him working. He went back to Jordan and meticulously researched every argument that the muttawa used and showed it for what it is; political and fundamentalist propaganda.

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Filed under Gender Apartheid, Popular, Regional and International

The Origins of Saudi-American Relations

My father just finished his book. It’s published by the Arab Scientific Publishers and this is what it’s about:

It’s a real labour of love. As he had spent extensive time at the Public British Records in London, The National Archives in Washington D.C. and King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives in Riyadh. He brings a unique perspective to the table, with an American PhD degree in Political Science, his Saudi military experience as a retired Major General and a son of a man who fought in the Saudi army to establish the borders of Saudi Arabia.

As you can see from the above synopsis the book’s focus is the basis of the ‘special relationship’ between Saudi Arabia and the United States. However what I found most intriguing was the secondary topics (but essential to the main); on how Saudi Arabia came to be, the dynamics between the Royal family and the muttawas and how both compromised to achieve our current situation and how the Palestinian-Israel conflict influenced the British-Saudi relations. Here are some interesting extracts to illustrate:

On German-Saudi relation:

“From the German side, the main motive behind their change of position towards Saudi Arabia in 1939 appeared to be the need to find an ally in this region. They needed to promote their diplomatic position, especially because they could not depend on Iraq in the event of war and that their minister in Baghdad had been ousted.17 The Germans hoped to use Saudi Arabia as a base for spreading their propaganda against the British position in the Middle East in the event of war. The Germans, in view of the country’s potential for development, also thought it would be advisable to establish and develop their economic ties with Saudi Arabia.18 The Ministry of Economics expressed the desire for Germany’s Minister to Baghdad to be accredited to Ibn Saud because it would then be easier to obtain precise information about the economic and commercial possibilities for Germany. The German appetite for Saudi economic potential was not new. When Amir Faisal, then Viceroy of the Hijaz, visited Germany from 20-24 May 1932, the Berlin press, in general, pleasantly reported his visit, the DEUTSCHE DIPLOMATISCHE POLITISCHE KORRESPONDENZ commented editorially, saying:

Germany greets Viceroy Faisal as the representative of a country with which it has been bound by a treaty of Friendship since 1929. The Kingdom of Ibn Saud is of great importance as regards both politics and culture. It comprises vast territories which await their development. And it can well be considered that the wish of King Ibn Saud for stronger friendly relations between the two States, in which Germany is especially interested, will undoubtedly be instrumental in advancing Germany’s commercial relations with Hijaz.19

On the Ikhwan (muttawa):

“The mid‑1930s marked the beginning of serious attempts toward the modernization in Arabia. Telephone and telegraphic communications were set up, and automobiles and other western technological innovations were imported in increasing numbers. These developments seemed to widen the gap between the Ikhwan and the King. The former resisted change by cutting communications wires and even attacking the users of foreign equipment. Such inventions, from their perspective, could only be the work of the devil. For a time the moderate King tolerated such activities, hoping to exercise persuasion over the Ikhwan in the long run.61 This proved to be a vain hope. By 1927, the Ikhwan were on the verge of open revolt. They opposed many aspects of the King’s policy. They were critical of him for sending his sons into the lands of the infidels, e.g., England and Egypt. They attacked him for employing motor vehicles, telegraphs and telephones. They criticized him for levying taxes and for following other policies they considered un‑Islamic.62

On Yemen:

“In fact, reading the Taif Treaty of 1934, one can realize why King Ibn Saud did not absorb Yemen and welcomed the mediation. In a ‘Green Book’ issued in 1934 by the Saudi government explaining the nature of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, Ibn Saud stated that he had never intended to occupy Yemen, that his only desire was to conclude a frontier agreement between the two countries in order to avoid problems which might be exploited by foreign powers to penetrate the region. He never thought of setting up an empire or of expanding his dominion to other Arab countries. He knew well that winning the military campaign was not sufficient for an effective expansion. Ibn Saud realized the nature of the people of Yemen, their history, their religious sects and the difficult geographic nature of their country. He knew that all those who had invaded Yemen throughout history had suffered heavily because the people of Yemen had never abandoned their beliefs in the face of a conqueror.33

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Filed under Eman, Informative, Regional and International