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August 12 2012

Photo Essay: First Saudi Female Athletes at the Olympics

After long negotiations with the International Olympic Committee and pressure from human rights groups, Saudi Arabia announced in the eleventh hour that they will be sending female athletes to the Olympic Games in London for the first time in the country’s history.

This was seen as a victory for the equality and the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia, but before that it was a victory for the IOC who declared that by London 2012 every national Olympic committee will have sent women to the Olympic Games.

The two athletes chosen to Saudi Arabia were Wojdan Shaherkhani, a 16-year-old judoka from Makkah; and Sarah Attar, a 19-year-old runner who holds dual citizenship for the United States and Saudi Arabia.

In the Opening Ceremony, the two teenagers walked at the back of the delegation, dressed in traditional clothes. As they made their strides to follow their male counterparts, the girls waved Saudi flags and flashed victory signs with big smiles on their young faces.

On August 3, 2012, history was made. “In white,” the announcer declared, “the first woman ever from Saudi Arabia, Wojdan Shaherkani.” Accompanied by her father, an international judo judge himself, she stepped onto the red and yellow mat in the ExCel Center to compete at the +78kg judo event.

Wojdan was also making another first. It was the first time a judoka competes at the Olympics wearing the hijab. That hijab caused contention in the days leading to the competition. Saudi officials insisted that Wojdan would only compete wearing the hijab, while the International Judo Federation said hijab is not allowed for safety reasons. When the Saudis threatened they would pull out if she can’t wear hijab, a compromise was reached allowing her to cover her hair.

Faced with a far more experienced competitor, Wojdan did not last for too long on the mat. Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica needed only 82 seconds to defeat her young opponent. On Twitter, some Saudis who were against women’s participation mocked Wojdan, sometimes using ugly racial slurs. But many others said they are proud of her.

Wojdan’s father said he was going to sue people who insulted his daughter. He also said he had to pay all the expenses had to pay all expenses for his daughter’s participation. “No one at the Saudi Olympic Committee promised to reimburse me, and I don’t really care,” he said. “My daughter’s participation is the true honor.”

Sarah Attar

Five days later, it was the turn of Saudi Arabia’s second female athlete to make her appearance. Sarah Attar, born and raised in Escondido, CA. to a Saudi father and an American mother, took her place on the track of the Olympic Stadium to run in the 800m heat.

Wearing a white headscarf, a long sleeved green top and black leggings, a beaming Attar waved to the 80,000 spectators who filled the stadium. This was a new experience for the college student who goes to school and trains in San Diego.

Few seconds after the race began, it was clear that Sarah had no chance to win. Other athletes ran past her, but she kept running. She was the last to finish the race, but she received a standing ovation from the crowd as she crossed the finish line, clocking at 2 minutes and 44.95 seconds. Her name was trending worldwide on Twitter.

“It’s an incredible experience,” Sarah told reporters after the race. In an interview with the BBC, she said this was not about winning. “It was really about the cause being here … representing all the women over there” in Saudi Arabia.

From their living room, Saudi women watched with hopes that what Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar did will be a meaningful step in the direction of changing women status in the country.


July 12 2012

End of Drama: Saudi to Send Women to Olympics

After much back and forth, Saudi Arabia will finally send two female athletes to the Olympics for the first time. A runner and judoka will be representing the Kingdom in the London 2012 Games, the International Olympic Committee said.

"This is very positive news and we will be delighted to welcome these two athletes in London in a few weeks time,” said IOC President Jacques Rogge.

It almost did not happen.

On June 24, Saudi Arabia announced for the first time that it was going to allow female athletes to compete in the Olympics. According to the BBC, the decision came after secret meetings held earlier that month in Jeddah, where “a consensus was reached in mid-June between the king, the crown prince, the foreign minister, the leading religious cleric, the grand mufti and others, to overturn the ban” on women participation.

At the time, all eyes were on showjumper Dalma Malhas, who won a bronze medal in the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010, and was seen as the country’s most likely representative. However, her mother told the Guardian that Dalma would not be able to compete in London because her horse was injured.

This seemed like a convenient way out for Saudi officials. By saying they don’t mind women participation but don’t have any female athletes qualified to compete, they can avoid an Olympic ban while at the same time avoid the rage of powerful clerics in the country who oppose competitive sports for women.

To appease the clerics, Saudi most senior sports official Prince Nawaf bin Faisal announced a set of rules for women’s participation at the Olympics. Athletes can only take part if they do so “wearing suitable clothing that complies with sharia” and “the athlete’s guardian agrees and attends with her,” he told local daily al-Jazirah. “There must also be no mixing with men during the Games,” he added.

Although the IOC said they remained cautiously optimistic of the Saudi women participation, they sounded very doubtful.

“I cannot guarantee it 100 percent,” Rogge told the AP on July 4, despite ongoing negotiations with Saudi officials. Four days later, the pan-Arab Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat quoted a Saudi official saying there is no “female team taking part in the three fields.” But human rights organizations urged IOC to ban Saudi Arabia from the London Games if they don’t send women.

“It’s not that the Saudis couldn’t find a woman athlete – it’s that their discriminatory policies have so far prevented one from emerging,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

On July 11, an unnamed Saudi official from the embassy in London denied media reports that no female athletes from his country will compete in the Games, telling the BBC “that a ‘shooter’ and ‘a runner called Alia’ are under consideration for London 2012.”

This turned out to be half true. Saudi Arabia will send two female athletes to London, but not the two mentioned by the embassy official.

Thursday, the IOC announced the names of the two Saudi female athletes to compete in London Olympics this summer: Wejdan Shahrkhani in judo above 78kg, and Sarah Attar at the 800m race.

Attar said she is honored to represent her country at London 2012 and hopes her participation will encourage Saudi women to get more involved in sport.

“A big inspiration for participating in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going,” she told the official Olympic website.

In the video published on the IOC website, Attar appears wearing a grey headscarf, with a loose-fitting long sleeves top and black sweatpants. She apparently did that to comply with the rules set by the Saudi government. A photo on her school’s website shows Attar in regular athletics gear, without a headscarf.

Attar was born and raised in Escondido, California. Her father is Saudi, her mother is American, and has been to Saudi Arabia only a couple times. She is a college student at Pepperdine University, where she is a a sophomore majoring in Art.

Attar has a message to Saudi women: “To any woman who wants to participate, I say ‘go for it and don’t let anyone hold you back’,” she said. “We all have the potential to get out there and get going.”


June 28 2012

An Old Letter from the New Minister

When law professor Mohammad al-Abdulkarim raised some uncomfortable questions about succession in Saudi Arabia in December 2010, he was promptly detained. The message was clear. This matter, the arrest said, is not open for discussion. That’s why the question of succession, while widely discussed by analysts in think tanks and Western media, is seldom talked about publicly in the country and when that happens it is rarely in any certain terms.

Much of the uncertainty and speculation surrounding the question of succession can probably be explained by the nature of the Al Saud royal family which is very private and secretive. The process of making major decisions such as those related to succession is usually limited to a very small circle of senior princes who rarely speak to the media. Even when they speak to the media, it is more often than not to friendly local and regional media who confine themselves to asking softball questions.

After Crown Prince Naif passed away on June 16, it was clear that Prince Salman will be his successor. Less clear was who would be come the next interior minister. Three days after Naif’s death, a royal decree announced that Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz was appointed interior minister.

Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz photo

Prince Ahmed, 71, is the youngest of the Sudairi Seven, the sons of the Kingdom’s founder from his favorite wife Hassa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi. He was born in Riyadh, received his primary and secondary education at Princes School and Anjal Institute. He studied English at the University of Southern California, and graduated from Redlands College with a bachelor of arts in political science in 1968. Two years later he become deputy governor of Makkah, and in 1975 he was appointed deputy interior minister.

As deputy minister, he served in the shadow of the late Prince Naif and was rarely in the limelight that some analysts even speculated that he might be passed over for the position of interior minister in favor of Naif’s son Mohammad, a rising star who spearheaded the fight against al-Qaeda and served as the country’s counterterrorism chief.

However, Prince Ahmed was sworn in as the Kingdom’s new interior minister before King Abdullah at the king’s palace last Friday. After the ceremony, he made a general statement in which he thanked the King for his confidence and “on the people to cooperate with the Interior Ministry to maintain security and stability in the Kingdom,” Arab News reported.

That general statement did not say much, but on the same day, al-Hayat daily published an article that the prince wrote 55 years ago when he was a student at the Anjal Institute and was published in the school’s newsletter. In the article, titled “Social Life in Riyadh,” the prince goes to detail different aspects of life in the capital during the late 1950s.

Prince Ahmed wrote that the law of the land is Quran and Sunnah (the teachings of the prophet), and that no one is above the law “even the King himself.” This emphasis on the importance of Islam and the role of religion in Riyadh’s residents everyday life is repeated throughout the article. The prince described the people of Najd as “the most generous” of Arabs. Their favorite drink is bitter coffee mixed with cardamom, he wrote. “There is no one who drinks alcohol in Riyadh … drinkers of alcohol are very much detestable by the public and considered to be decadent.”

In the conclusion of his article, Prince Ahmed predicted that in less than five years Riyadh would become one of the world’s greatest cities, and prayed that to Allah to “help us all in doing whatever carries virtue to the name of our nation, and might he save our beloved king and makes him an honor for Islam and Arabism.”

It is a very long article, but it offers an interesting look into the prince’s thinking. The letter was written a long time ago when the prince was young, and maybe some of his views have changed or evolved as he grew older, but I think it remains an interesting document nonetheless. Below is a translation of the full article:

Riyadh is the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the seat of the king and all ministries, except for the ministry of foreign affairs which is located in Jeddah. Riyadh has its own governor, whose is Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz, and his government includes the center and south of Najd. Riyadh Province also includes al-Kharj, which is the center of the following: al-Sayih, al-Dalam, al-Hiyatm, al- Yamamh; and Sudair, which is a center for a couple of large villages. Also, Shaqra , Dharma until the borders of Hejaz. Al-Dawaser (which is a district includes a set of villages and oases). Al-Huota, al-Hareeq, and al-Muhmal. In every city or town subordinate to Riyadh Province, there is a local ruler appointed by the king himself after he’s been nominated by Riyadh’s governor.

About Riyadh’s history

Riyadh used to be an area which was covered with desert plants that transform, after rain pours in the seasons of winter and spring, into a number of flush oases, bounded by valleys that slopes down to streams.

Riyadh borders

It is bordered by Hanifah vally on the the west, Alison valley on the northwest, pnetrated by Abu-Rafi’s valley which is known nowadays as al-Batha. Its first inhabitants were some traveling bedouins, then Dahham bin Dawas lived there and buili a big city, which is Riyadh apparently. However, the first to take Riyadh as a capital for Al-Saud was Turki bin Abdallah Al-Saud.

Population

Riyadh population was a mixture of Najdi tribes and others since its foundation, a lot of them belonged to tribes from central Najd and its south, north and east, as well as from Hejaz and Yemen.

Disputes and how they were solved

Disagreements which occur between individuals are usually resolved by the judge or the king based on Islamic law, that is to say that the country’s law is governed by Quran and Sunnah, and no one can do anything but yield and give in to whatever the judge says even the king himself.

There was a trial between one of the citizens and king Abdulaziz, may God have mercy upon him, and the judge ruled against the king. After they left, the man told the king: I didn’t request to take you to the judge to humiliate you, but to let people know that you are fair and loving to your subjects and to let history record that. The king thanked him for that.

Intermarriages, and engagements and weddings

The people of Riyadh, like most of the population of the Kingdom, like to maintain compatibility between spouses. If this rule was violated, serious outcomes could not be avoided. Also, the man cannot see his fiancé except what Allah’s permitted which is the face and the hands. After marriage contract is signed, the relatives of the groom and his friends gather before evening prayer to drink coffee and beverages, and after prayer they wed the groom to his bride, and the next day a feast is hosted at the bride’s family house.

The care for Islam

The people of Riyadh and the rest of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia are very interested on following the teachings of Islam. Because of that, they don’t celebrate any holiday but Eid Al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, as they are affirmed in Islamic law. In these two holidays – after performing prayer – everyone goes to his home, congratulates his family for Eid and overwhelms them with joy then they would visit one another for occasion. Not so long ago, people took whatever they prepared of food to the souk so that they would arrange it on special tables to serve the wanderer whether poor or rich. When the city of Riyadh got expanded, this custom was broke off recently, but the rest of the villages of Najd kept this good custom.

Parties

The Arabs were distinguished from other nations by their generosity, and the people of Najd were particularly the most generous, by their undefiled Arabism throughout the ages. That’s why you always see them – especially the people of Riyadh – detest parsimony, wherefore, as soon as you see one of them, he invites you over for coffee, and food, everyone according to his ability. And you can never escape the invitation but by accepting it. And it’s been customary in eating food to put a rug on the floor so that people sit around it and eat using their hands as stated by the Sunnah, no difference in that between the ruler and its subjects. If you knew that the people of Najd are from Arab of Qahtan, you would be amazed by how genuine is their hospitality that it became one of their merits.

Birth and death

Whenever a baby is born, whether male or female, no ceremony takes place initially, but after seven days, the baby is named by his father choice, and on this occasion a feast is held where animals are slaughtered, and sheep and meat are distributed to the poor.

In case of death, their habit is what is stated by the Islamic law. The first thing they do is washing the dead and shrouding him by the Islamic shroud which is white, and they carry him to his final home on his gibbous coffin which has for hands. Four men carry him alternately, with humility just as stated in Shariah, then, when they reach the grave which was dug for him, they put the corpse in it, throwing soil and grass and filling the wholes with adobes. The soil must be around 30 centimeters high, and a stone is placed near his head, another near his feet, so that the grave’s features aren’t hidden. No difference is taken in that between the grave of the king, prince or anyone of the people, and I’ve seen the grave of the late King Abdulaziz in this shape. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not build on their dead domes or memorials, because the prophet – PBUH – forbade that, as what benefits the dead is only his deeds and nothing else. And the royal family don’t have a private cemetery which they prevent common people from, and their graves never came out of the general cemetery.

Hunting

When winter comes and the rain pours heavily, princes go for hunting, both from the royal family and other rich families, to enjoy themselves. This trip usually takes a month or so, most of what they shoot are the Houbara Bustard using their falcons and guns. They also hunt wild animals like rabbits and deer. When the winter is over, the spring comes with its more frequent rain and the earth overgrows its green dress from green grass to other kinds of spring’s plants. After that, Riyadh becomes a true riyadh [garden], then, the wealthy people and the well-off set up tents near Riyadh city where they live along with their families and whoever has work in Riyadh can carry out his business then come back to his tent easily, and some of them build their tents far away from the city, spending a lot of days there.

Food and drinks

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is very intensely religious and adheres to the teachings of Islam, that is why there is no one who drinks alcohol in Riyadh, and this was originated from people’s strong faith. Also, drinkers of alcohol is very much detestable by the public and considered to be decadents and so, widely rejected. The most preferred drinks to the people of Riyadh – and the rest of the areas of Najd – is coffee with cardamom, without sugar. The elderly prefer this coffee more as they inherited it from their ancestors. But now, the tea dominated over coffee and it became more widely used. In addition, there are other kinds of beverages coming in cans from abroad, but there are also soda factories in Riyadh. However, the popular food in Riyadh is almost ordinary. The most popular local dishes are: jerieesh, murgug,and qursan, all made from grains. In winter, people make other local dishes like: al-Heneeni and al-Muhliee, and they are made by mixing brown wheat flour with sugar. Also, another popular dish is the rice with meat.

Their adherence to religion and Islamic traditions

What distinguishes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from the rest of the countries is its strong observance of religion, and its extreme care on executing its orders, no difference in that between the ruler and the ruled, and this is very well known that no one can dispute it. And the people of Riyadh and the rest of the Kingdom are very adhering to their religion and Sunnah, including that they let their beards grow in obedience with the Islamic law which prohibits the shaving of beards, but they don’t leave it as it is, but clip it to look better. But, when it comes to the clergy, elderly, and the religious, they prefer to let their beards grow naturally. Women are always covered, one could never see unveiled woman in the streets or inside the cars. A woman isn’t allowed to lift her veil except when with her husband and her close male relatives or when with women, and mixing of men and women is a taboo in every place other than the family.

Wardrobe of men and women

The clothes of men and women are different –in its own specific way- than other places in the world. That is to say, men cover their heads with the gutra (which is a large square of cloth) which they place over the taiga (a small white cap that keeps the gutra from slipping off the head) and then, they put on the igal (a doubled black cord that holds the gutra in place). The white gutra is the most common while the red is usually worn by sheiks and bedouins as it represents modesty.

The apparent clothes are made of cotton if it was to be worn in summer and wool if it was to be worn in winter. The bisht (mishlah) is made in a particular way from wool, and its thickness or lightness differ based on whether it was to be used in summer or winter. Yet, the underwear is conventional.

Women in old times used to wear al-Darra’h, which is a long dress covering the whole body, this dress is still worn in the less fortunate classes. Now, the modern costume is the Shila, which covers the head, the shoulders, and the back other than the face. And a long dress with long sleeves made of cotton, silk, and modern fabrics.

The occupations of people and businesses

People of Riyadh are proficient in trade. Also, they work in government, factories and companies. But, the agricultural business which was the old craft of the public since ancient times, changed now and got replaced by the trade business. Some of the people are practicing teaching, also, in Riyadh, all what the human needs of luxuries and comforts is available. Riyadh merchants are known to be honest in their dealings.

Education

Since Riyadh became a city, the education started there in mosques on the hands of sheikhs, so that the student learns how to read and write in addition to some of the religious sciences and grammar of the language. Years after King Abdulaziz opened Riyadh, the government established along with the people Al-Katatib, where students learn the previous subjects as well as mathematics which is no more than division, and 10 years ago, primary, intermediate, and secondary public schools were introduced where students get to learn all kind of necessary education.

In the past six years, the schools were transformed to be exemplary, their system in line with the most modern educational methods. These kinds of schools are increasing and upgrading one day after another that public high schools were founded in Riyadh. Also, night schools, industrial schools, an orphanage , teachers’ institution, and a college for Islamic law were installed. In 1377 AH, a Saudi university was established which is King Saud University. The first college in the university was the College of Arts, then in 1378, the College of Sciences was added, and so, all other colleges were completed year after another. This rapid progress is what promises a bright future for Riyadh by completing its concentrated educational renaissance.

Buildings and urban advancement

The architecture in Riyadh was simple. Houses were built using mud and adobes, and ceiled with tamarisk wood which grows in Riyadh, and over it, people put palm frond and mud. The buildings were only one floor, and their walls were painted with white plaster, and inside the house, places for fire and for animals to sleep. This continued to be the case until it was opened by King Abdulaziz. After his settlement, the two floors governmental housing was established and buildings were expanded. The cement was introduced for paving the walkways and rooms, but then it was used along with stones as a base for buildings, however, the old design stayed unchanged until 10 years ago. After that, the urban renaissance took place and modern buildings equipped with amenities were built. Also, restaurants and stores were opened and roads were paved. When King Saud came to power, he paid a lot of attention to Riyadh city and established its municipality. Also, he laid a special budget and organized administration to it and called it the Capital Municipality. This municipality paved roads, organized lands, and built the most modern buildings and villas for employees as well as for all citizens. It took extreme care on fixing, planting, and lightening the roads. It also did public gardens which have beautiful fountains in the middle. It also brought drinking water to al-Hayer, which is 40 kilometers away from Riyadh. In addition, it established a lot of mechanical garages for car repair and refreshments’ factories. In fact, this fast development promises a very bright future for the city of Riyadh. Five years won’t pass before it competes with the greatest cities of the world in terms of capacity, coordination, and excellence.

Finally, might Allah help us all in doing whatever carries virtue to the name of our nation, and might he save our beloved king and makes him an honor for Islam and Arabism.

Special thanks to Fatma al-Zuabi for the translation.


June 26 2012

Covering Up

Niqab-less Norah al-Faiz

Norah al-Faiz is supposed to be a symbol of progress in Saudi Arabia. She was appointed deputy minister of education by King Abdullah in February 2009, making her the kingdom’s highest-ranking female official. At the time, many observers hailed the move as a sign of reform.

But controversy has dogged Faiz since the beginning of her tenure. Continue reading at Foreign Policy

Update 6/27/2012: Saudi state press agency published this new photo of al-Faiz, reportedly taken in Riyadh last night during her visit to an Aramco cultural event. She is the first from the left in the black abaya.

Norah al-Faiz in Aramco cultural event in Riyadh


June 14 2012

Commission Makeover? Good Luck with That

The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has a new president. Abdul-Latif Al-alsheikh is a descendant of Mohammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, the preacher whose pact with Muhammad bin Saud helped to establish the first Saudi state more than 250 years ago. But the first time I heard of Al-alskheikh was in 2010 when he joined a heated debate in the country about gender mixing.

On that debate, Al-alsheikh took what many considered a moderate stance when compared to the official stance taken by the Commission. “Gender mixing is here by need and necessity,” he told al-Jazirah daily. “Such practice was not born today or in this age, but rather has existed for a very long time, including the early days of Islam.” Al-alsheikh went on to say that Sharia did not ban gender mixing, but rather allowed it within certain limits.

Other notable names who took this side of the debate included Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamdi, former head of the Commission in Makkah, former judge Eisa al-Gheith and the current Justice Minister Mohammad al-Eisa. On the opposite side of the debate you had more traditionalist clerics who warned that any easing of gender segregation rules will lead to dangerous consequences such as sexual promiscuity and complete social disintegration.

At the time, the Commission was welcoming a new president to its ranks. Abdul-Aziz al-Humayyen was appointed for the post as part of a major cabinet reshuffle ordered by King Abdullah on Valentine’s Day 2009. Al-Humayyen was hailed as a reformer, and he promised to fix the Commission and end transgressions. That did not happen. Five months ago, he was replaced by Al-alskheikh.

Before being appointed as a new head of the Commission on January 13, 2012, Al-alsheikh served as an assistant general secretary of the Council of Senior Ulema as well as an advisor to the former governor of Riyadh Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. He is married and has four children.

Like his predecessor, Al-alsheikh came to the new job with promises of change and reform. On his first few weeks he made the headlines when he announced that the Commission patrols will no longer chase suspects in the streets. The decision was well-received because several people have been killed or injured in high speed chasing incidents in recent years, but also made some conservatives uneasy as it indicated that the new president seemed more than willing to limit the powers enjoyed by his feared men.

Al-alsheikh has had some quiet months on the job since then, but that did not last for long. The Nail Polish Girl affair came and forced him to speak up.

The typical response to stories like this in the past was usually very defensive. Typically, the Commission president or spokesman man would come out to defend and justify the aggressive behavior of their staff in the field, and accuse the media – local and international – of targeting the Commission and being biased against it.

However, things went a bit differently this time. Instead of defending them, Al-alsheikh attempted to play down the story and instead directed criticism at his own men saying Commission members who abuse their power would be fired immediately.

That was unusual, to say the least.

Are we finally going to see change in the Commission? Is Al-alshiekh serious about reform? And even if he has a true desire to fix it, can he actually do that? The Commission annual report for last year offers some numbers that could help us answer the aforementioned questions.

According to the report, most of the employees in this government body are not very educated. The Commission employs 4389 men: 60% of the these employees do not have a college degree, and half of those did not even finish high school. It is safe to assume that most of them are field officers, the ones you usually see in malls and patrolling streets in white GMC trucks.

The report indicates that the Commission field offers have arrested 392,325 persons for two types of offense: religious and moral. That number translates to 1.5% of the country’s population, and it shows a 20% increase over the previous year

The news items that I have read summarizing the report’s conclusions do not provide more details regarding the nature of the offenses, but based on history we can probably guess that the definition of what actions count as offenses depend on the interpretation the Commission field officers. The very same officers who severely lack education and who seem to act as if they are entitled by God to perform their job, even if that meant infringing on citizens’ rights and invading their privacy.

Looking at the numbers, history and the status quo in the country, fixing the Commission might seem like an impossible mission. There are very few reasons to be optimistic, and so many ones to be pessimistic. Abdul-Latif Al-alshiekh has to turn it around and somehow make it work in a modern country where citizens know their rights and fight for them. He will probably need a magic wand. Would his men let him have one?


June 06 2012

Protest to Release Detainees in Riyadh Mall

Relatives of political detainees held a small protest in Riyadh Wednesday night, photos and videos posted to social media sites showed. The protest took place inside Sahara Mall in the northern part of the Saudi capital. The videos below show men marching inside the mall as they chant a hadeeth by the Prophet that says “release the distressed.”




The account @e3teqal on Twitter, which identifies itself as a coordinator for the activities of illegal detention victims in Saudi Arabia, posted a number of photos purporting to show the protest:





UPDATE 6/7/2012 1:10: Mohammad al-Abdulaziz said on Twitter that his brother and his family (wife and three children) have been arrested. It is said that more people have been arrested.


June 04 2012

Head of CPVPV weeps, Head of NSHR talks

  • Sheikh Abdul-Latif Al-alsheikh, head of CPVPV, joins the growing crowd of weeping clerics, though unfortunately we don’t have a video of the incident. The tears were spilled during a meeting with his staff as he recalled a conversation with King Abdullah. Al-alskheikh said the king asked him to avoid using violence against citizens. Al-alsheikh also commented on the Nail Polish Girl issue, saying the story has been exaggerated. “The world is making airplanes and we are telling a woman to leave the mall because she is wearing nail polish,” he exclaimed.

Nail polish photo

  • Arab New interviews Moflih al-Qahtani, chairman of NSHR, to talk about the society’s latest report that was published yesterday. “Our report is in support of the Kingdom’s efforts worldwide to sustain its positive image among international human rights organizations,” he said. I thought the goal was to highlight the human rights situation in the country in order to improve it. Silly me.

June 03 2012

NSHR new report, Crown Prince health, Madawi and Nail Polish Girl

  • The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) published their third report on the human rights situation in the country. Their previous two reports were well received, and this one will probably get the same reception. The report’s main theme is that the government executive bodies have failed to meet the ambitions of King Abdullah. At the end of the report, NSHR provided a list of recommendations including suggestions for partial elections of the Shoura Council as well as limiting transgressions by security forces and CPVPV members against citizens. Full text of the report in Arabic is available here (PDF)
  • Crown Prince Naif left the country last week for “routine medical checkups,” according to the state news agency. His deputy, Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, told local media Saturday that “Prince Naif is fine, I spoke with him last night. He is in good health and will come back soon.”
  • Madawi al-Rasheed says Nail Polish Girl is no hero because her confrontation with the Commission was not “grounded in demands for both personal freedoms and political and civil rights for men and women. Until then, Saudis and the rest of the world will continue to watch YouTube clips of futile disconnected incidents, grounded in sensationalism and imagined heroism,” she says. Rana Jarbou, on Twitter, disagrees: “I highly respect Madawi Al-Rasheed, but I find the ‘Nail Polish Girl’ more relevant to my plight as a ‪Saudi‬ woman.”

May 25 2012

Saudi Jeans Turns 8, Nail Polish Girl

Saudi Jeans turned 8 earlier this month. I did not mark the occasion with a post as I usually do, but I thought I would give the blog a facelift. As you can see, the redesign features (much) bigger typography with content taking center stage. It is still work-in-progress, so I will be polishing this over the next few days.

Speaking of polish, you probably have already seen the nail polish girl video. If you haven’t, here it is:

Eman al-Nafjan already wrote a good post about it, but I thought I would add my two halalas. What makes the incident interesting is not just that the girl is standing up to the Commission members (other women have done it in the past) but that she also tells them they have no right to chase her, she documents the whole thing on video and threatens to expose them on social media. She then reports them to the police who seemed pretty confused over what to do about it.

Abdul-Latif Al-alsheikh, the newly appointed chief of the Commission said the incident will be investigated. “We do not accept transgressions or mistakes by Commission members, but we also do not accept transgressions against them at all,” he told Sabq which reported that the Commission is now seeking legal action against the girl. This has become a trend: conservatives who for a long time despised government regulations because they are “man-made laws” are now using such regulations to sue people at courts where they are sure to find sympathetic judges to rule in their favour.


May 23 2012

So You Want to Be a Saudi Journalist?

With government’s blessings or against its wishes, the margin for freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia has been gradually expanding over the last few years. Some topics that used to be taboo are now regularly discussed on the pages of newspapers, though other taboos remain, but the number of those is decreasing.

The fact that many Saudis began to use the internet as a source of news and a place to express themselves posed a challenge for newspapers who began to lose their readers. But in a way, the internet and the freedom available online was good for the mainstream media in the country because it has put pressure on them to become freer, to stay relevant and to keep at least some of their readership.

The relations between newspapers and the government, however, did not change much. All newspapers remain loyal to the government, which must approve the editors that get nominated by the owners of each paper. Newspapers content is not pre-censored by the government, but editors effectively act as gatekeepers, making sure that anything that gets published shall remain within the accepted lines of the government.

Despite this, the government seems unhappy with the press.

During the weekly cabinet meeting in Jeddah earlier this week, the government made some decisions related to the press because “some unspecialized writers and journalists have made incorrect and fabricated allegations regarding the activities of some ministries looking after public services.”

Most of these decisions has to do with how ministries handle media, such as defining the tasks of spokesmen and “opening channels of contact and cooperation with the media.”

The Cabinet also said that if any government body finds that a media agency has published incorrect news and has not responded in an appropriate manner to the replies of the government agency, then it should immediately report the matter to the official bodies responsible for looking into and resolving these cases besides filing a lawsuit against the erring media agency or journalist.

However, there was one more decision that has sparked controversy: “The Cabinet also confined the practice of journalism to journalists accredited by the Saudi Journalists Association.”

The decision raised many eyebrows because the majority of journalists in Saudi Arabia are not members of SJA.

SJA has been around for almost 10 years now, but you probably have not heard of it until now. Since its inception, SJA has been fully controlled by the government-approved newspaper editors, who have easily won the latest board elections held last week. 440 full members of SJA voted in the elections.

Yes, 440 is the number of full members of SJA who have voting rights. Only full-time journalists can obtain full membership. Freelancers cannot obtain full membership and therefor cannot vote to elect SJA board.

For a country that has 11 daily newspapers, dozens of magazines, television and radio channels, the number 440 is very small. I don’t know the exact number of full-time journalists in the country, but I think it is safe to assume it is more than 440. In addition to those, there are thousands of freelancers (some estimate that 80% of those working in Saudi media are freelancers).

Why aren’t they members of SJA? Probably because SJA has proven to be pretty useless for them. Why pay membership fees when you are not getting anything in return? I personally can’t recall any examples of SJA providing services to their members or to the country’s press. Are they going to register with SJA now after the government latest decision?

The old guard of editors were quick to cheer the decision, as they always do for everything the government does, but others in the media raised their concerns.

Communications consultant Sultan al-Bazie is skeptical, but he said he expects the ministry of information to explain the decision.

“In principle, if SJA were doing a satisfactory job for all journalists then maybe we would have a situation that allows for the decision to be implemented,” he told al-Watan. “But the current situation is not suitable, unless the ‘practice of journalism’ is something else they would later explain.”

In his interview with Sabq, Saudi minister of information Abdulaziz Khoja did not provide much in the way of explanation. He simply said the goal of the latest series of decisions by the cabinet is to regulate the practice of journalism in the country.


March 10 2012

Saudi University Students Continue to Protest

Following last Wednesday’s female students protest at King Khaled University (KKU) in Abha, students on the male campus held a protest on Saturday. They demanded the resignation of Abdullah al-Rashed, president of KKU.

Wael Abdullah, a medical student at the university, uploaded this video early on Saturday showing the heavy security presence on campus in anticipation of the protest.

Yesterday, Asir Governor Prince Faisal bin Khaled warned that protests will not be tolerated. But despite the warning and the security presence, students gathered this morning and began chanting slogans calling for the university president’s resignation, as videos uploaded to YouTube show:




Another video shows students singing the Saudi national anthem during the protest:

The protest ended peacefully after Assir deputy governor spoke to the students using a loud speaker, promising that the governor will meet with 20 students to listen to their demands. This video reportedly shows the deputy governor addressing the student protesters:


Local daily al-Jazirah cited an unnamed official source at the university who said a number of officials will be fired in the next few hours. There have been unconfirmed reports about arrests of some students, but the general feeling among them after the protest seemed positive as seen on Twitter.


Translation: Back home after these honorable events. Tomorrow, I will be one of the 20 students to represent the university for meeting with the Prince.


March 08 2012

Hamza Kashgari To Be Released

Hamza Kashgari, the detained Saudi writer accused of blasphemy, will be freed in the next few weeks after a court in Riyadh accepted his repentance, multiple sources said.

Human rights activist Souad al-Shammary tweeted that a Sharia court in the capital has ratified his repentance in the presence of his family, and that he showed his regret over what he has written about the Prophet.

I have tried to reach Kashgar’s lawyer but he did not answer his phone, but I have confirmed this through a friend-of-a-friend of the writer. Local news site Sabq cited sources that also confirmed the news.


Saudi Female University Students Protest in Abha

At least 53 female students from the college of arts at King Khaled University in Abha, southern Saudi Arabia, were injured in a protest today, local daily al-Watan reported. Other sources said one student died in the hospital of a status epilepticus condition that she suffered during the protest, after the university security guards attempted to force the students to disperse.

The students were calling for the improvement of the learning environment after local news sites published photos of trash piles in the campus.

This video shows the students in their black abayas screaming:

Weal Abdullah, a medical student at the university, said his sister was among the protesters, and she told him that security guards used clubs to beat the female students.



UPDATE 21:25: Wael Abdullah posted more details on his blog:

On Wednesday Morning , My sister says that they were banned from bringing in or buying any water bottles or Any other refreshment; the dean instructions they said to punish them for throwing it at the guards. Around 10:45 AM the Guards grabbed one of the girls accusing her of hitting the guards and breaking the law, they were pulling her hair and dragging here on the stairs in the most humiliating way screaming and crying for help. Her friends, my sister included, rushed to help and pushed the guards away. This incidence triggered the demonstrations in the whole campus which was already sick of the corruption and ill-treatment of the dean and heads of departments . The girls were calling for an end to the university president Abdullah Alrashid’s era and held him responsible for all the ongoing corruption and deterioration for 13 years now.

The students were protesting for the second day when violence broke out. A local news site published photos of the students on campus during the protest. Photos also showed security forces and religious police patrols outside the school building.

Prince Faisal bin Khaled, governor of Assir province, has ordered a probe in the events at the university.

In a statement released by the media center of King Khaled University, the school administration said the students gathered and acted in ways that violate the rules then escalated to attack security guards, staff and the faculty. “The university will investigate the causes that led to this and address them according to the common good,” the statement said.

On Twitter and BlackBerry’s BBM, messages have been exchanged calling the students, male and female, to hold a demonstration on Saturday calling on the university president to resign.

“Personally, I think that If the government didn’t act and act fast, they could risk losing control over the whole situation;” Wael Abdullah wrote. “I know that We’re all used to be let down by our own country when it comes to rights and freedoms but lets just hope that it won’t this time.”


February 20 2012

The “New Terrorism”

The situation in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province has been tense for months. At least six people have been killed since November. The government repeatedly said the unrest in Qatif is backed by an unnamed foreign power, widely understood to mean Iran. The government refuses to acknowledge the protests in Qatif. Instead they call them ‘riots.’

“We do have evidence of a relationship with somebody else abroad,” Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki told a news conference last month when he announced that the ministry ordered the arrest of 23 men in Qatif who it said were responsible for unrest.

Some people noted how the government used to make similar announcements during the confrontations with Al Qaeda few years ago. While this announcement was very similar in style and presentation, the government kept referring to the recent unrest as “riots” but stopped short of calling it “terrorism.”

Until today.

The state news agency published a statement by an unnamed source at the Interior Ministry this morning saying “what is being committed by this small minority is new terrorism that the government has the right to confront like it has done before” with Al Qaeda attacks. A reporter for Arab News tweeted that the unnamed source is actually al-Turki.

Saudi MOI. Photo credit: Paul Tupman

This statement comes as a response to a Friday sermon by Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, the most prominent Shia leader in the country. In his sermon, al-Saffar said he rejects the use of violence by protesters against security forces, but at the same time he condemned the excessive use of force by the police. “Those are citizens, Muslims and humans. Their souls are dear and their lives are precious. The state is responsible for their lives and blood,” he said.

Obviously, the government could not accept this kind of language even coming from a moderate like al-Saffar and felt compelled to send a strong message. Security forces will confront the situation “with determination and force and with an iron first,” the statement said.

Al-Saffar has played in important role in mediating between the government and the Shia community since he returned to the country in the early 1990’s after years in exile. However, it seems that his role has been marginalized as young people decided to take matters into their hands by taking to the street, and also because the government chose to deal with the unrest heavy-handedly.

The Interior Ministry dismissed al-Saffar’s comparison of the situation to what is happening in neighboring countries, where governments are killing their own people. Saudi security forces are simply “acting in self-defense,” the ministry said.

So the ministry is basically saying the killings in Qatif happen when security forces defend themselves against terrorist attacks incited by foreign parties. Haven’t we heard this line before? Help me here: Was it Syria? Or Bahrain?

But the above questions are not important. The important questions are: How can this escalation in rhetoric by the government help to ease the tension? How do they plan to do that without allies like al-Saffar? Will the iron fist option work?

I don’t know the answers, but Toby C. Jones and Madawi al-Rasheed, two academics who wrote extensively about Saudi Arabia, had this interesting exchange earlier today on Twitter:



Scuffles in Janadriyah

High on what they seem to think is a victory in the Hamza Kashgari affair, religious conservatives opened another front by sending some of their young followers to protest against music, dancing and the mixing of men and women in the National Heritage and Culture Festival aka Janadriyah.

It all began when Sheikh Saleh al-Lihedan, former head of the judiciary, said that women should not visit Janadriyah. “My advice to anyone is to dignify their women, their wife, their mother, or anyone under his guardianship by not allowing them to go” to such events, he said.

Few days later, dozens of these religious conservatives, usually called “Mohtasbeen” headed to Janadriyah, where they clashed with security forces there. Few of them have been briefly detained. The incident was repeated the next day, and few other people were arrested as well.

Now some might think that those mohtasbeen are part of the Commission of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) aka Muttaween or the Religious Police, but that’s not the case. This group, most of them young men in their late teens and early twenties, act as some sort of unofficial muttawaeen who find things like music, dancing and gender mixing objectionable and believe they have the right to attempt to prevent such things.

I thought the story ended after the two scuffles on Wednesday and Thursday, but I was wrong. Yesterday, members of the official CPVPV squad in Janadriyah wrote a letter to their boss announcing they would go on strike until their demands are addressed. What are their demands?

  • Increase number of CPVPV squad in Janadriyah to 300 members.
  • Stop playing music on loudspeakers.
  • Provide a 100 female security guards squad to support them.
  • Stop intervention in how to do their job by anyone, including security forces and the national guard.

Ballsy move there, no doubt. It is not everyday that government employees in Saudi Arabia threaten to go on strike. At the end of the letter, they said they were doing this because without addressing their demands they would no longer be able to do their job in a manner that is satisfactory to God first, and to their superiors second. See, these guys are not doing this for the money. They do it because they seek reward from God.

After meetings between CPVPV officials and organizers of Janadriyah, it was decided that starting today and until the end of the festival music will be stopped and the number of CPVPV squad in Janadriyah will be increased to 100. Another small victory for the conservatives.

However, this was not enough for them. Today, a group of 50 clerics led by Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak and Nasser al-Omar released a statement calling on the government to cancel Janadriyah and the upcoming book fair because they “include many violations of Sharia.”

What does it all mean?

I’m not quite sure, but it seems that the tide of the conservative wave that I wrote about last month keeps on rising, and that there are groups and individuals who want to take advantage of this be sweeping everyone and everything in their way.


February 19 2012

Update on Kashgari’s Case

Just a quick update on the Hamza Kashgari case since many people have been asking: The young man is now in detention, his family visited him and he is reportedly in high spirits and being treated respectfully. Several sites and petitions have been set up to support him and call for his release.

Prominent human rights lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem has announced that he will defend Kashgari, arguing that he will push for this case to be handled by a committee in the information ministry instead of a Sharia court.

Meanwhile, several people on the right are claiming that Hamza is a member what they believe is a “sleeping cell” to spread atheism among Saudi youth. Al-Hayat has a thinly sourced story saying public prosecutors are likely to summon people that supported or agreed with Kashgari, which opened the door widely for something like a witch hunt.

People like Mohammed al-Hodaif are accusing Abdullah Hamidaddin of being the cell leader but so far they have failed to provide a strong evidence to support their claims.The two men faced off on TV today where al-Hodaif threatened Hamidaddin, who is currently traveling to the US, to return to the Kingdom for a trial in a Saudi court.


February 08 2012

Saudi Writer Hamza Kashgari Flees Country After Controversy on Twitter

Hamza Kashgari, a young Saudi writer, caused a firestorm when he posted a series of tweets on the birthday of Prophet Mohammad last week. In his tweets, Kashgari imagined a conversation with the Prophet in which he said they are equal, and that although he admires many of the Prophet’s characteristics there are also others that he disliked.

Saudi users on Twitter erupted with outrage, posting nearly 30,000 tweets on the topic in less than 24 hours. Many people believed that he insulted the Prophet by addressing him and speaking about him like that. They accused Kashgari of blasphemy, atheism and apostasy. Many said he must be punished and some said he should be killed. Others even went as far as threatening to kill him or offer money for his head.

The outcry resulted in a full U-turn by Kashgary, who deleted the controversial tweets and published an apology saying he has sinned and that he has now repented. He explained that what he wrote earlier was “feelings I erred in describing and writing, and that I ask God for forgiveness, but they don’t really represent my belief in the Prophet.”

The apology was not enough for many people, especially the religious conservatives who demanded that Kashgari be tried in a Sharia court. One of these people is a cleric named Nasser al-Omar, who appeared in a YouTube video weeping because he said he could not bear to see the Prophet insulted.

“These people [like Kashgari] should be put to trial in Sharia courts,” al-Omar said. “It is known that cursing God and his Prophet is apostasy. And the fact that he has repented with cold words will not probably save him in the court.”

Al-Omar and others insist that even if Kashgari has repented he should still be sentenced for apostasy, effectively calling for his death by sword. Al-Omar called on his followers to send telegraphs to the King, Crown Prince and the Grand Mufti to punish Kashgari.

Yesterday, several websites said that the King has ordered the arrest of Kashgari and today news came that he has fled the country. According to Al Arabiya’s sources, Kashgari had flown to Jordan then the UAE before reaching a country in southeast Asia.

The 23-year-old writer used to write a column for the Jeddah-based al-Bilad daily, but yesterday the information minister Abdul Aziz Khoja ordered all newspapers not to carry any article by Kashgari. “I have instructed all newspapers and magazines in the Kingdom not to allow him to write any thing and we will take legal measures against him,” Khoja said.

How a couple of tweets by an obscure writer reached the King and resulted in an arrest order and a possible death sentence in the matter of three days is nothing short of astonishing. Saudi Arabia being a conservative Muslim country, the outrage over Kashgari’s tweets was expected. Remember the Danish cartoons? Nevertheless, this case escalated rapidly.

While I understand how many Muslims would take offense at anything that touches the prophet, I don’t think it explains the whole story. Yes, many feel strongly about such matters and therefor they reacted accordingly. However, it is clear that many on the right decided to take advantage of the incident to score points and make political gains. It was a low hanging fruit.

While some may perceive religious conservatives defending the Prophet’s honor simply as piety, others say there is more behind it, that this is actually part of a long-term plan.

“This is not spontaneous,” a friend of Kashgari’s told me. “Hamza has had people marking him since the Marriott affair and before.”

There is a disturbing “bloodthirstiness” about the conservatives’ reaction, the friend said, adding that Hamza is “just the first in a list they’re targeting.”

Ironically, Kashgari had a conservative upbringing. He was part of the many “circles for memorization of Quran” in Jeddah, and according to one source familiar with the matter, his old preachers helped convince him to delete his controversial tweets and apologize. However, these very same preachers refused to come to his defense publicly in the face of the rabid attacks by the conservatives.

Contrary to reports circulating in Twitter and some sites, Kashgari was not detained upon his arrival to the airport in southeast Asia. He is free, his friend told me, but remains worried about being extradited.

This controversy emerges as an equally contentious case is finally coming to an end.

Local media reported this week that the King has pardoned Hadi Al Mutif, a man who was sentenced to death in 1996 after being convicted of allegedly insulting the Prophet. King Abdullah did not confirm the death sentence as required under Saudi law and Al Mutif remained in jail for 18 years. He is expected to walk free later this week.


February 06 2012

Saudi Women Driving: Shifting Gears

The campaign for women driving has slowed down almost to a halt since the big push last June, but the issue is now making a comeback as activists seek a different route. On Saturday, two women filed lawsuits against the government for refusing to issue them driver’s licenses and banning them from driving a car.

If you have been following this story, you will probably remember one of these two woman: Manal al-Sharif was detained last year for her leading role in the driving campaign. Her lawyer is prominent human rights lawyer Abdulrahman al-Lahem who told al-Hayat daily that the court, aka the Board of Grievances, has accepted to look into the case.

The lawsuits represent an interesting shift in strategy by women rights activists who in the past preferred to petition the government rather than to confront it.

It is still way too early to predict how this case would play out in the court or how the government will choose to react, but it is definitely worth watching. Also worth watching is to see if other women decide to follow the same steps and file more suits against the interior ministry over the driving ban. More on this story in the upcoming few days…


January 06 2012

Riding the Wave

For some reason, the government here finds itself compelled to get involved in organizing cultural events even when they suck at it. Why? Maybe because they don’t allow non-governmental organizations that usually play such roles in other countries. Or maybe because they want to keep the matters of arts and culture under control. Anyway, they keep organizing these events and it is very rare that anything good comes out of them.

Recently, the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) organized in Riyadh what they called the second intellectual forum. The word ‘intellectual’ here is a vague term used to describe a diverse group of people who work in the fields of arts and culture: writers, novelists, columnists, artists, journalists, etc.

This forum that took place in the Marriott hotel included discussion panels and meetings with senior government officials. It was also a chance for these so-called intellectuals, many of them have known each other for years, to meet and talk. Like most of these events, the forum almost passed unnoticed. That is, until al-Watan daily columnist Saleh al-Shehi tweeted this:

Translation: What happened in the Marriott lobby on the margins of the intellectuals forum is a shame and a disgrace.. I believe that the so-called cultural enlightenment program in Saudi Arabia is centered on women

That tweet generated some angry responses by other people who attended the forum. Author Abdo Khal, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction aka the Arabic Man Booker, tweeted: “Your allegation has crossed the line. Either you prove it or face trial for libel. You should apologize before things get there.”

Abdul Aziz Khoja, the minister of information and culture, and whose this event is happening under his auspices, also took to Twitter to make his feelings clear:

Translation: For criticism to cross its goals and ethics and reaches the stage of libel and slandering, that is what’s shame. And I will say no more.

Al-Shehi was unapologetic. He insisted that as a good Muslim there was no way he could remain silent about what happened at the Marriott lobby. He also said that he plans to sue Khoja. This kind of talk struck a chord with the conservatives, who took his tweet and ran with it because it reaffirms their view of the so-called liberal intellectuals as a group of immoral men and women.

During a talk show on Rotana TV, Khal pressed al-Shehi to say what did he see exactly that he deemed too scandalous. The latter kept refusing to answer, but at the end of the show he agreed to provide one example: some women there did not cover their hair.

The horror. Seriously? All this fuss over a few strands of hair? People thought al-Shehi saw some orgy going on or something. I mean look at these photos: some really hardcore stuff, no?

Some people think the government must be thrilled to see the elite of society bickering over trivialities like this instead of demanding political reform. For a government that paid billions in money handouts and made some merely symbolic concessions to prevent the Arab Spring from reaching their shores, a controversy like this one is certainly a welcome distraction.

The past few months have seen a wave of conservatism that al-Shehi and his supporters seem more than happy to ride. Hardliners are on the rise, and that shows in the heavy-handed manner in which authorities are dealing with recent calls for reform.

Earlier this week, the interior ministry ordered the arrest of 23 citizens wanted in connection to last October’s unrest in the city of Awwamiya in Qatif in the eastern part of the country. The ministry held a press conference to make the announcement and released a list of names and photos in a way that eerily similar to how the government dealt with Al Qaeda cells few years ago.

Few days later, the organizers of an event for arts and culture in Riyadh were ordered to cancel all the musical segments in their program, and two days ago long-time activist Mohammed Saeed Tayeb was stopped at the airport when he tried to board a plane to Cairo to attend his daughter’s wedding there.

In July 2010, Saleh al-Shehi wrote about meeting Abdo Khal in a Parisian cafe, where “girls of all nationalities and ages were flying around us like butterflies in the Spring season.” Why is he now all worked up about some Saudi women not covering their hair? Halal in Paris, haram in Riyadh?

Saleh al-Shehi kept repeating the word “shame” to describe what he saw at the now-infamous lobby, but failed to provide any specific examples except for the uncovered hair of some women. If some free strands of hair offend his sensibilities that much, then he probably should not be there in the first place. However, there are many other things in the country that he, and all of us, really, should be ashamed of like injustice, corruption and discrimination.

For shame, Saleh. For shame.


December 26 2011

On the Statement and Shameless Apologists

Two stories were the focus of much debate and discussion in Saudi Arabia recently: a) the trial of what the local media likes to call the “Jeddah cell,” a group of reform activists accused of terrorism and plotting to overthrow the monarchy; and b) the tragic events in Qatif that resulted in the death of four young men and injury of two members of the security forces.

On December 5th, a group of activists released a statement condemning what they called the “extremely harsh sentences” against the Jeddah reformers, and also condemning how the government handled the events in Qatif. The list of signatories on the statement included some prominent Sunni and Shia activists such as Mohammed Said Tayeb, Abdullah Farraj al-Sharif, Tawfiq al-Saif, Mohammad al-Ali and others.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is business as usual in Saudi Arabia. Something happens; a statement or a petition is released by a group of people. After all, it is not like there is much more they can do. Street protests are strictly prohibited, and there is no elected parliament where these people can question the government and hold it accountable for its actions.

However, something else happened this time around. Shortly after the statement was released, it was received with an aggressive backlash in the local media, where columnists held no punches in their scathing attack on the statement and those who signed it. Some observers even suggested that the attack looks coordinated and is probably orchestrated by the interior ministry to win public opinion.

But I don’t think the media backlash was coordinated. As Ahmad Abdulaziz said, it is not as if columnists in the local newspapers wait for government orders to open their verbal fire on government critics. “After a long practice, they have come to know very well what they have to do without even getting instructions,” he wrote. Also, let’s be honest here, does the government care all that much about public opinion?

I have read about 50 columns over the past 3 weeks attacking the statement and those who signed it. Some of these columns were penned by editors of the papers. This is fine, I’m all for free speech. If you feel this strongly about the statement and truly feel compelled to defend the official line on these issues, by all means go knock yourselves out.

One little problem though: none of these papers actually dared to publish the statement or report on it. If readers wanted to know what statement the columnists are talking about then they had to go Google it themselves. When the new editor of al-Eqtisadiah Salman al-Dosary was confronted with this fact in a recent TV interview, he said “we don’t publish anything” because they practice responsible freedom and protect national security.

Al-Dosary seems to think that protecting national security is part of his job description. Yay for the independent Saudi press! But I digress. Let me focus here on “we don’t publish anything.” In his column, al-Dosary accused those who signed the statement of “incitement to overthrow the regime and the government.” Nothing in the statement language even remotely suggests this.

It is one thing to choose to take the government side on some issues. It is quite another to lie and distort the facts just to show how patriotic you are and, while at it, imply that those on the the side of these issues are unpatriotic. The problem with many government apologists is that they severely lack any kind of class; they are shameless.

People like Samar al-Mogren, Adhwan al-Ahmari and Saud al-Rayes for example went as far as calling the signatories terrorism supporters. Seriously? But hey, this is a free country as I said earlier, I’m all for free speech. I just think that it is rather a sad day for this country (and boy did we have many of those lately!) when some people, including the grand mufti, try to score points with the government by using false accusations to discredit some national figures like Mohammad Said Tayeb.

Taybe, a long time activist who was repeatedly jailed over the past four decades, used Twitter to defend himself, calling those columnists a “choir” from a bygone era.

After a series of tweets directed at the columnists, he chose to send a message to Crown Prince Naif: “We understand the interior minister’s duties and responsibilities, but we believe that the most important duty of the crown prince is to guarantee the protection of public freedoms and human rights.”

I’ve been putting off writing this post because I thought the period of verbal diarrhea by government apologists would end soon, but the articles kept on coming nonstop like the floods of Jeddah.

Right, whatever happened to holding the corrupt officials accountable in that disaster? Oh, we are not supposed to talk about this? Sorry, my bad.


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