RIYADH, 1 March 2007 â€” An official in the Higher Institute for Justice at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University has stirred controversy by telling journalists at a press conference that the media in Saudi Arabia should not comment on judgesâ€™ rulings.
â€œThe media does not have the right to interfere in judgesâ€™ rulings or in the process of a trial,â€ said Dr. Zaid ibn Abdul Kareem Al-Zaid, dean of the Higher Institute for Justice.
Commenting on a judgeâ€™s ruling to divorce a Saudi woman forcibly from her husband, he said the media should stop publishing stories when a case is in the courts because it puts psychological pressure on the judge.
â€œJustice is the only thing that the judge should have to deal with,â€ he said, adding that media interference and pressure could have a negative impact on the judgeâ€™s final decision.
I’m glad I never had to rely on this Dean for justice. His belief that judges are above criticism runs very counter to most ideas of justice. He acknowledges that Saudi judges differ widely in terms of their education and practice. And I’m sure they feel pressured by media comments on on-going cases. That, however, does not mean that they or their judgments should be simply accepted.
Saudi journalists quoted in the piece push back, arguing that the public (and the press) has every right to look at a case, to try to understand it, to form and speak opinions about it. One suggests that courts could help themselves if they published the reasoning behind their decisions.
I do acknowledge that the media can (and sometimes does) interfere in the actions of courts. In some countries, this is sometimes by intent, seeking to intimidate judges. In others, it’s the result of the overzealous chasing of stories or sometimes just carelessness. Those involved in the courts, however, have the responsibility of insulating themselves from press opinion if it would interfere with their conduct. They most certainly have the need to accept responsibility—including public condemnation and vilification—if their decisions offend the public. That does not mean that the public is right, of course. It does mean that transparency is not the same as immunity.
Book Fair Reflects Cultural Maturity, Says Madani
Ali Al-Zahrani & Naif Al-Shehri, Arab News
RIYADH, 1 March 2007 â€” Minister of Culture and Information Iyad Madani inaugurated the Riyadh International Book Fair 2007 Tuesday evening. The 10-day event features over 200,000 books and hundreds of publishing houses from the Arab world.
The inaugural ceremony was attended by Prince Turki ibn Sultan, assistant minister of information, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, representatives of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and many foreign dignitaries.
â€œThe organization of this event is just an example of cultural development the Kingdom has witnessed,â€ said Madani. â€œIn the past, the Saudi book was received with amazement due to its limited circulation,â€ he said….
The opening of the Riyadh Book Fair has gone off quietly. Last year’s fair—though not the opening—was disrupted by religious and social conservatives who shouted down a member of the Shoura Council who had tried to raise the issue of women’s driving during a Council session. Let’s see what happens during the rest of the fair.
It is noteworthy, though, that many books that had been kept out of the country through censorship are actually on sale at the fair.
“Wahhabism”â€”a term used by different people for different reasons. My purpose was to collect some of these uses to serve the end-goal of debunking the term itself. After all, if it means enough different things for different people, it really comes down to not meaning anything real in an absolute sense. Also, as you will see, the use of this term is almost exclusively negative or with implied negative connotations. Hence, you will hardly hear anyone proudly referring to himself as a Wahhabi or a Masjid named Masjid al-Wahhabi. It simply doesnâ€™t occur. What this implies is that there is usually some emotional or prejudicial baggage with the termâ€™s usage or some other sinister agenda.
As I prowled the internet, there was nearly an unlimited supply of Wahhabi-referring articles, analysis, discussions, blogs, etc. It would fill pages upon pages if I attempted at collecting many of them, let alone all of them. So, here are my top-ten reasons to drop this word from the dictionary, esp. the dictionary of Muslims:
I came across this interesting piece on the blog Musing of a Muslim Mind. I’m not sure I agree with all he says, but much that’s said is worth reading.
On 19 February the Saudi Council of Ministers approved the draft of a proposal submitted by the Ministry of Interior entitled â€˜National Strategy for the Promotion of Honesty and the Combating of Corruptionâ€™. The proposal had initially been put forward by the Shura Council. At its meeting, the Council of Ministers recommended the establishment of a national committee for this purpose, giving it the title: â€˜The National Committee for the Promotion of Honesty and the Combating of Corruptionâ€™.
Among the tasks of this committee is that of devising ways and means of putting this new strategy into practice, as well as following up and monitoring its implementation and evaluating the results. All government agencies were urged to speed up and improve their services in compliance with this new direction of government reform.
This new strategy comes as part of the broader reform package initiated by King Abdullah. It is also part of the recent effort by the kingdom to encourage foreign investors, and to improve the competitive edge of local economy in preparation for full membership in World Trade Organization. It is a strategy that is meant to advance the public interest, protect national wealth and public property, and eradicate the many bureaucratic flaws which have become widespread in all branches of the government and public sector, and which range from inefficiency, tardiness, backlogging, negligence, kickbacks, nepotism, to the abuse and misuse of power, illicit dealings and favoritism in offering government contracts.
It was pointed during deliberations that no official â€“ no matter how high his rank â€“ will be immune from inquiry. This is an indication of the governmentâ€™s seriousness in taking this step. It is reported that the chairman of the new National Committee will be given the rank of minister and will report directly to the king. Some local websites have already started nominating their favourites for this position, among them Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz and Dr. Ghazi al-Gusaybi.
More of the same?
For much of the past week the strategy has been debated and commented on in the press and on TV. Reactions have ranged from the positive to the dismissive, the varying views generally depending on whether the discussion is in private or in public, whether the person is using his real name or pseudonym, whether he is a Saudi or an outsider, or an immigrant calling from a safe haven somewhere in Europe.
Some Saudis expressed optimism and faith in the new plans, seeing this new strategy as another forward step towards modernization and the improvement of the governmentâ€™s performance and services. The very fact of admitting that we have corruption and that is something in need of being confronted is a good sign in itself. This is a big first step towards correcting the situation….
This essay appears at Saudi Debate. It asks good questions and notes that the general Saudi public is asking them as well. Sowayan cites the popularity of call-in TV programs in the country and that ‘As many as 95% of Arab callers to the programme thought the kingdom was â€œbeyond repair.â€’ He also correctly notes that many of these calls are based on failed philosophies of the past—Nasserism, Ba’athism, communism—but they’re out there nevertheless.
He also notes that there are different strains of calls for reform running through the country, sometimes cutting across each other. He says, ‘While people in business and real estate are pressing for judicial reform, the intelligentsia is calling for academic freedom and freedom of speech, along with freedom of choice.’ These demands run into narrow-minded religious interpretations of ‘the way things should be’ and make efforts at reform very difficult within the society itself.
Do read the whole thing.
In a satirical poem titled “When,” posted on Arabic reformist websites including www.aafaq.org , reformist Saudi author and journalist Wajeha Al-Huwaider lamented what she regards as the conditions in the Arab world. In the introduction to this poem, she wrote: “‘When’ is an ode to the troubles of the Arab citizen. Both men and women participated in its [writing], and it is still open to additions. This ode will be hung on the walls of the palaces of the Arab rulers,  so feel free to add you contributions.”
The Israel-oriented Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) runs this piece. It’s not clear that there is a single author, Saudi or not. The use of satiric poetry, however, has a long tradition in the Middle East, dating from long before the arrival of Islam. You can read the submissions MEMRI chose to translate at the link above.
Teenager Dies, Raising Toll to 4 in Attack at Saudi Site
HASSAN M. FATTAH
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 27 â€” The death toll from the attack Monday on French citizens in Saudi Arabia rose to four after a teenager who had been in critical condition died Tuesday, Saudi and French officials said.
The teenager, whom doctors at the King Fahd Specialist Hospital in Medina identified only as Mubarak, the 17-year-old Muslim son of a French-Moroccan woman, died from a bullet wound to his shoulder, hospital officials said.
His father, who converted to Islam last year, Reuters reported, was also killed in the attack, one of the most serious on Westerners in Saudi Arabia since another French citizen was fatally shot in Jidda in September 2004.
French policy is to not release the identities of the victims of a terrorist act, an official of the French Foreign Ministry said. But colleagues identified two of the men as engineers at Schneider Electric in Riyadh and the third as a teacher at the French school in Riyadh….
The New York Times runs this piece today. Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, who writes for Arab News as well as his Rasheed’s World blog, contributed to the article. The article pretty well sums up what is publicly known at present.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese paper Dar Al-Hayat carries this op-ed: The Medina Incident, A New Kind of Terror. This piece concludes,
…[T]he incident deserves a fresh look at the re-emergence of terrorism in Saudi Arabia, since it carries with it new indications and points to a need that our religious discourse be reviewed with respect to terrorism, its legitimacy and our relationship with foreign expatriates residing in our country, since it is quite possible that the perpetrators of this criminal act were victims of a religious edict permitting the killing of tourists rather than being connected to a terrorist organization.
Surely, calls by the mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abul Aziz Al Sheikh, to Saudi citizens to condemn the attack constituted a significant and timely action. The mufti’s call, however, should have also included religious clerics and preachers, and should have acknowledged the fact that those involved in Islamic and ‘da’wa’ work in confronting the emergence of terrorism are still unsatisfactory.
Many observers believe that writers, intellectuals and the public are the most outspoken opponents of terrorism, while the voices of preachers and religious students, mosque preachers and religious councilors remain muffled, and sometimes, even nonexistent, despite their importance and influences.
Terrorism has been cloaking itself behind religion and using religion as a pretext to kill innocent people. Therefore, confronting this phenomenon should start at the mosques and their platforms. Otherwise, the intellectual battle with terrorism will never meet its objectives, so long as those involved in religious work perceive terrorism as a political issue with which they have little relation.
Lifting the veil in Saudi Arabia
LATE yesterday evening I left my hotel to buy a new battery for my mobile phone and was completely blown away by what I saw.
Saudi women without veils. I had never seen this in public before. Until now, women have always been covered, often head to toe in a black chador or cloak and a veil covering at least their hair and often their face as well. I was shocked and really had to keep doing a double take.
Perhaps they were foreigners who occasionally could get away without their hair covered? Was I really in Saudi Arabia?
Iâ€™ve been coming to Riyadh, Saudi Arabiaâ€™s capital, for close to five years. It is at the heart of the countryâ€™s vast desert and is known as the Najd region. Islam here has always been conservatively interpreted. The areaâ€™s austere desert-based culture is interwoven inseparably with religious teachings. Itâ€™s where the Wahabis came from and is what has always put the more cosmopolitan residents of the port city of Jeddah in the Hijaz region at odds with their conservative desert cousins.
In short, what I am saying, is that such a change in Riyadh is fundamental to the country â€” not a freak of some isolated pocket of liberal rebellion. It may seem like a miniscule change by Western standards, but here it is a massive shift away from the overbearing religious policemen of the past who often harshly enforced strict dress codes forcing women to wear a veil….
Nic Robertson, CNN correspondent, has this op-ed appearing in Khaleej Times. He notes that there truly is ‘fundamental change’ occurring in Saudi Arabia, but also states that he doesn’t know whether it is enough, or fast enough. He says that the reforms promised by King Abdullah upon taking the throne are starting to come into effect, though of course there is much ground left to be covered. He points out that it was barely 100 years ago that women in the UK were being arrested and dying to achieve political equality.
This is definitely a positive article about reform in Saudi Arabia. I hope the piece gets picked up elsewhere.
Riyadh, 28 Feb. (AKI/DAWN) – Saudi King Abdullah on Tuesday said the fatal shooting of four Frenchmen near the holy city of Medina on Monday was an act of terrorism. â€œWhoever carried out this terrorist act against innocent people will not escape justice,â€ the state-owned Saudi Press Agency quoted him as saying. King Abdullah made these comments in a telephone conversation with France’s President Jacques Chirac, the agency reported.
The death toll in Mondayâ€™s attack rose to four after a 17-year-old died of his injuries at the King Fahd Hospital in Medina. Among the dead were two expatriate employees of an electric manufacture company and a teacher at a French school….
The Italian news agency AKI carries this story, based on a Saudi Press Agency (SPA) report.
To date, the Saudi government has been cautious in its statements about the attack. The identity of the perpetrators and their reasons remain unknown—or at least unpublished. There is speculation among Saudis, of course, with rumors ranging from a tribal attack on ‘foreigners’ intruding on their area to an Al-Qaeda attack on foreigners. The fact is, at this time we just don’t know.
THE statement that Saudi Arabia is winning the war against terrorism will provide cold comfort for the families and friends of the four dead Frenchmen who were shot dead on Monday near Madain Saleh by still unidentified gunmen. Our first thoughts and prayers must be for these families in their deep pain and loss.
The attack was plain evil in action. Putting aside the horror of the incident â€” which is not easy â€” the fact is that, nonetheless, Saudi Arabia is winning the war against terrorism. The situation is very different from that in 2004 when there were some 17 terrorist attacks in the Kingdom. This is the first major attack since then and the first against foreigners.
…Whether the Madain Saleh attack was an Al-Qaeda operation or a freelance gun-spree, one thing is certain: Those responsible will be hunted down, will be caught and will be made to pay for their evil deeds. That is no idle boast. Over the past two years, the Saudi security forces have established an impressive record of tracking down and capturing or killing those who have declared war on the country. The killers of these Frenchmen who were contributing to the prosperity of Saudi Arabia with their skills and who were engaged in something as normal as enjoying a desert excursion will find no hiding place.
The editorial is self-explanatory.
The killing of French citizens in a tourist area in the north of Saudi Arabia is definitely getting media attention. It’s still unclear, however, whether three or four were killed [it now appears to be four] and whether any or all of those killed were Muslims. Stories conflict. See below for the most recent reporting. I will update during the day as more information becomes available.
Three French nationals shot dead in Saudi: ministry
RIYADH (Reuters) – Three French nationals, some of them Muslims, were shot dead in Saudi Arabia on Monday in what appeared to be a militant attack, the Interior Ministry said.
A ministry statement said a group of eight French nationals came under fire near the town of Tabuk and a nearby historical site, Madain Saleh, in the northwest of the vast desert country as they were heading to the holy city of Mecca for a pilgrimage.
Two of the group died at the scene and one of the two wounded died later in hospital, said the statement carried by the official news agency SPA. A state television report earlier said 4 had died.
he group included four men, three women and a child, the ministry said. It said two of the dead were men. A security source said the attackers had singled out the men when shooting.
Reuters is running this story. There aren’t many details, but I’ll watch for them to post as they become available.
Arab News‘ report doesn’t have much more information: Three French Expatriates Shot Dead and Saudi Gazette has yet to post the current edition online.
UPDATE: Saudi Gazette is now online and runs this story, 4 French Nationals Dead in Drive-by Shooting, which has far more detail. The four (or is it three) killed appear to have been French Muslims, in Saudi Arabia with their families in order to take part in the ‘lesser pilgrimage’ or umrah. The article also reprises terrorist attacks on foreigners in Saudi Arabia since 2003.
UPDATE 02/27/07: The Washington Post/Reuters: Fourth Frenchman dies after Saudi attack: doctor. This piece is by Andrew Hammond, Reuters correspondent, whom I trust very much in getting the details right.
New York Times: 3 French Sightseers Killed Near Saudi Holy City
Financial Times: French nationals killed on Saudi tour
The Financial Times also includes a short chronology of attacks against foreigners in Saudi Arabia: Chronology: attacks in Saudi Arabia. One could debate whether or not the starting date, February 2003, is the right one to use. There’s much speculation that earlier attacks, which had been blamed on ‘European alcohol bootleggers’ were actually terrorist attacks.
Khaleej Times runs this Agence France Presse piece, with additional details on the victims: Fourth Frenchman dies after Saudi ambush
The BBC’s report, Saudi ambush claims fourth victim, provides a useful map showing the distances between Madain Salih and Medina.
Asharq Alawsat runs a more comprehensive list of attacks on Westerners in the KSA at Chronology of Attacks on Westerners in Saudi Arabia
Madain Salih, the reported destination of the tourists, is the southern extension of the Nabatean civilization, known through the more famous ruins at Petra, in Jordan. It is also of interest to archaeologists studying the Thamud civilization. As the historic Hijaz Railway also runs through the area, it draws those interested in more modern history as well. UPDATE: I have confirmed with sources in the KSA that the area in which the shooting took place was not restricted to Muslims.
While non-Muslims are not permitted in the city of Medina (or Mecca) as a general rule, Islam is both flexible and merciful enough to permit emergency medical care for non-Muslims in either of those cities, I believe. Thus, the fact that one of those who later died was being treated in a Medina hospital does not actually indicate whether he was Muslim or not.
This last comment is intended to correct a misimpression created by the Islamophobic blog JihadWatch by Robert Spencer. He is claiming in his blog that those killed were in an area restricted to Muslims only. That is patently false. NOTE: This error appears in a wire story from the Associated Press. It may be the root of later stories with the same mistake.
UPDATE 20:05 Arab News runs this story, with considerably more detail:
Shooting Survivors Return to Riyadh
Raid Qusti & Muhammad Abdullah, Arab News
RIYADH/MADINAH, 28 February 2007 â€” The remaining five members of the French group who were targeted by unknown gunmen 50 km north of Madinah off the Tabuk highway returned to the capital yesterday evening amid tight security.
The group arrived at Riyadhâ€™s King Khaled International Airport on a private flight from Madinah at 8:30 p.m. Officials from the French Embassy and the Saudi Interior Ministry received them along with loved ones.
Two men died when assailants in car opened fired on a group of nine French nationals after the group visited the historic site of Madain Saleh. A third man died while his wife rushed him to a hospital. The fourth victim, a 17-year-old boy named Mubarak, whose father was also killed in the ambush, died after undergoing surgery to extract a bullet from a lung overnight….
Given the information that the teenage boy who died was named ‘Mubarak’, it is entirely likely that his family was Muslim. This would explain their being given medical treatment and shelter in Medina and completely moot the question of non-Muslims being permitted in Medina.
Gruesome Fare on TV
Maha Sami Aboulola
JEDDAH: AMONG thousands of images broadcast via satellite channels in the Middle East, one particular image recently stood out. An American soldier is standing at one of the many checkpoints in Iraq. A shot rings out and the young man collapses and dies.
This image appeared on the Al-Zawra satellite channel, a pirate channel that airs videos of attacks against American troops in Iraq accompanied by nationalistic Iraqi songs and calls for resistance against the American occupation.
Egypt on Monday stopped the transmission of Al-Zawraa, an Information Ministry official said. However, the chairman of the board of NileSat, Amin Basyouni, said the Al-Zawraa feed had been cut for technical reasons and not as an act of censorship. But the owner of Al-Zawraa, Mishan al-Jabouri, saw the move as politically motivated and said he would sue Egypt.
It is believed that the channel has a sizable viewership among those in Saudi Arabia who believe that the US has no business in Iraq. Not all Saudis have an affinity for the channels and its often gruesome fare. Some, in fact, find it counterproductive and possibly a threat to the safety of innocent people.
â€œThe situation in the Middle East, with all the terror attacks that are taking place, does not need channels like this to infuse Muslims with hatred against the West. There are good and bad people everywhere,â€ Said Omran Marghalani, 26, a banker.
According to, at least, one academic, Al-Zawra has the capacity to inculcate the young generation of Saudi Arabia with ideas of jihad that are both questionable and dangerous.
â€œAfter the terrorism attacks in Saudi Arabia over the last few years, the government is making a real effort to educate the young generation about the true meaning of Jihad,â€ said Talal Abdulmalik, a Professor at King Abdulaziz University. â€œSuch a channel can fill the youngsters with hatred against any American, even if he has nothing to do with the Iraqi war.â€
The channel even seems to appeal to some women, as well. â€œI spend hours looking at the humble equipment the Iraqis have and the fully equipped American army,â€ said Jameelah Abdulhay, 50, a housewife, â€œwith the help of God, the Iraqis succeed.â€
This Saudi Gazette piece notes the noxious effect certain satellite TV channels—such as the Al-Zawra channel recently shut down by the Egyptian government—are having on Saudis. The article condemns the way in which the channels conflate American policy and American citizens. Interesting piece, for sure.
US National Kills Daughter in Al-Khobar
By Joe AvanceÃ±a
AL-KHOBAR: AN American killed his 5-year-old daughter here on Saturday when his 27-year-old Saudi wife was away on a business trip to Dubai, the police told The Saudi Gazette on Monday.
The couple have four children.
Motive behind the killing is still not known, according to the police.
A source said the 40-year-old American is under police custody.
The US national, who is employed in a local company, is suspected to be mentally disturbed.
There are very few details available in this Saudi Gazette article. It’s already peculiar that an American would have a Saudi wife—I suspect the American may be a dual-national Saudi-American. The US Consulate in Dhahran confirmed the story, but is not providing any further details. That is not surprising because US privacy laws prohibit it from giving any information without written permission from the American involved. More as it becomes available.