The US Department of State prepares an annual report, mandated by Congress, on the Human Rights situation in most countries of the world. Below is a link and the beginning of the report on Saudi Arabia. You can find the introduction to the global report here, and links to individual country reports here. The reports cover 2007, essentially, with reporting from US Embassies finished toward year’s end. A month or so of editing, revisions, and corrections goes on before the report is published. This year’s report seems rather more comprehensive than those of the past, but I think it would be a mistake to relate this to a new White House or State Department administration. Rather, it’s just the regular process of improving the thoroughness of the data reported.
In general, the report on the Kingdom find spotty improvements… no one died at the hands of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, for instance. The reports cites no ‘political prisoners’, though I’m not at all sure what definition of that term they’re using. The report, of course, does not include the reforms announced with the Cabinet shake-up.
The report is quite blunt in pointing to failures of the Saudi state in protecting a wide range of human rights considered universal in most of the world. Whether it’s religious freedom, freedom of association and assembly, freedom of the press, or unrestricted travel, there is much remaining to be done to bring Saudi Arabia up to the standards that most citizens of the world enjoy.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by the Al-Saud family. The population is 28.2 million, including 5.8 million foreigners. Since 2005, King Abdullah bin Abd Al Aziz Al-Saud has ruled under the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a reference to his responsibility for Islam’s two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina. The government bases its legitimacy on its interpretation of Shari’a (Islamic law) and the 1992 Basic Law. The Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government. The law also provides that the Koran and the Traditions (Sunna) of the Prophet Muhammad serve as the country’s constitution. In 2005 the country held male only elections on a nonparty basis for half the members of municipal councils, the first elections for any government position since 1963. The civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces.
During the year the following significant human rights problems were reported: no right to change the government peacefully; beatings; judicially sanctioned corporal punishment; impunity, particularly on the part of the religious police; denial of public trials and lack of due process in the judicial system; political prisoners; incommunicado detention; restrictions on civil liberties such as freedoms of speech (including the Internet), assembly, association, movement, and severe restrictions on religious freedom; corruption; and lack of government transparency. Violence against women and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, sect, and ethnicity were common. The sponsorship system limited the rights of foreign workers and remained a severe problem.
Improvements during the year included: increased publicly available information concerning specific instances of official corruption or of government action against corruption; no reports that authorities confiscated personal religious materials from individuals at ports of entry; and a process developed by the government for prenuptial agreements when the wife is a noncitizen, permitting her to travel without her husband’s permission.
Plenty bad, if this story from Saudi Gazette is in the least accurate—and I’ve no reason to suspect it is not! Over a two-day period, in just one province of Saudi Arabia, police found 30,000 traffic violations. The majority of these, I’m confident, did not involve a missing license plate.
30,000 traffic violations in 2 days
By Shabna Aziz
DAMMAM – An overwhelming 30,000 traffic violations were found by authorities within a short span of two days in Eastern Province. The violations were found after the authorities installed radars and surveillance cameras on highways as part of traffic department’s fight against increasing traffic accidents. The traffic department has also placed officers in disguise at crucial points to monitor traffic violators.
These safety measures were taken in order to reduce the number of accidents because traffic in Eastern Province has considerably increased during the holiday season as schools across the Kingdom have closed for more than a week after the mid-term exams last week. – SG
Here’s a nice piece from the Arabic daily Okaz, translated by Saudi Gazette. In it, the writer asks just what ‘tolerant Islam’ means. He points out that there are enormous differences between practices and interpretations of Islam around the world. That’s certainly a fact, as Saudi society itself makes clear. What is ordinary to some is haram to others; what is proper to some is ‘extreme’ to yet others. Noting that the new Council of Senior Scholars is returning to a more universal composition, including all four school of Sunni Islam, he also quotes cites two of the members as saying that the ‘door to ijtihad‘ (independent interpretation of Islam) is indeed ‘open’. We will have to wait to see just what comes of this. The potential for reform is great, but there are also powerful forces that will fight against any lessening of the strictures that govern Saudi society today.
Again I point out: there is yet to be any sense that Shi’a Islam will be brought into the Council. This remains a necessary step if Saudi Arabia is to indeed be deemed ‘tolerant’, but it’s a step in the future, I’m afraid…
What is tolerant Islam?
Muhammad Al-Herfi | Okaz
Many people were very happy about the changes recently made in the Council of Senior Scholars. Many also expected to see drastic changes in the nature of the council’s work and the decisions that it might make.
I said in a previous article that change itself is a legitimate and important demand. I also said that the infusion of new blood into any organ would help develop that organ, particularly when this new blood is qualified and able to give and take. Some writers who wrote about the changes in the council said the entry of new scholars following different schools of Islamic thought would enable the council to make more tolerant decisions.
The council was established in 1971 by a royal decree, which authorized it to seek the help of non-Saudi scholars whenever necessary. From its very beginning the council included scholars who did not belong to the Hanbali school — such as Sheikh Abdul Raziq Afifi who was Hanafi, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Shinkiti who was Maliki and Sheikh Abdul Majeed Hassan who was Shafie. This diversification of schools has been recognized in the composition of the new council. So the inclusion of different religious schools on the council was not something new.
Writing at Arabic-language daily Al-Madinah (here translated by Arab News), Hamoud Abu Talib notes that while the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is making moves to become more moderate and tolerant in its behavior, it—and Saudi society—must still contend with members and wannabe-members who take the law and the Quran into their own hands, seeking to enforce their individual views of what is proper in society. He provides a list of recent incidents and the lack of effective response by the Commission which serve as flags to mark future activities of the Commission. It’s a valid list and the problems need to be addressed.
How will it end?
Hamoud Abu Talib | Al-Madinah, firstname.lastname@example.org
There was a genuine feeling of relief and optimism following the recent changes in the government.
In the wake of the rational and balanced speech by the new chairman of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, the newspapers shocked us with the following news:
• A number of youths raided the spring festival at King Abdul Aziz Cultural Center in Abruq Al-Raghama in Jeddah. Their aim was to stop the screening of a film because they believe that cinema is haram — forbidden. When they were denied entry to the venue, they left a leaflet, entitled “The Threats of Cinema in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques,” for distribution among the participants. The chairman of the commission in Makkah denied that the attackers were members of the commission.
• Bearded youths attacked the Desert Spring Festival in Sharoura. They climbed on the stage and stopped a show being presented by a group from Jeddah. The youths were chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) and “Long live the commission.”
The security forces intervened but the show was nonetheless stopped. The commission again denied that the attackers were its members.
Even while Saudi Arabia makes great strides in medical science, it is still encumbered by emotionally-driven pseudo-science, as this article from Saudi Gazette/Okaz makes clear. I don’t know just which ‘expert’ the honorable member of the National Society for Human Rights is consulting, but he might wish to take a look at reputable scientific reports from around the world which conclude the opposite of what he claims. Nor do I understand why he feels the need to create a panic—while dangling the image of monetary compensation—in front of the eyes of a society that is not terribly literate in science to begin with.
Of course, he’s far from the only person in the world to grab onto social panics. Both American presidential candidates pandered to a minority who believe—contrary to global studies to the contrary—that there might be a link between autism and vaccinations….
Communications towers ‘endanger public health’
Muhammed Saeed Al-Zahrani
TAIF – The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) is investigating the dangers posed to the public’s health by mobile telephone communications towers in the Kingdom, with one member describing them as “time bombs”.
Hussien Al-Shareef, the NSHR Supervisor General in Makkah, has said studies conducted so far show that the towers, which are found in large numbers in most major towns in the Kingdom, do have harmful effects on health.
“The NSHR has provided the Saudi Telecommunications Company with all the necessary information on the matter,” Al-Shareef said.
“Talal Qesti, an NSHR member, has conducted a comprehensive study and will make public his conclusions at a symposium next Tuesday,” he said.
Al-Shareef said the public had a right to sue Saudi Telecom and seek compensation which, he said, “will be the largest compensation in the history of the Kingdom given the danger posed by the towers to the whole of society”.
The Washington Post carries this enigmatic story in its ‘Around the World’ news summaries. There’s so little information in the piece that it’s hard to know just what happened. Anyone in the Kingdom with more information is kindly invited to share.
What this means in terms of the shake-up in the official religious establishment is also impossible to know, given the lack of details. More, hopefully, as better information becomes available…
Saudi police have clashed with Shiite pilgrims over several days near a cemetery in Medina, Islam’s second-holiest city after Mecca, prompting a Shiite cleric to appeal to the king to put a stop to the “insults” of the religious police.
Relations are tense between Saudi Arabia’s majority Sunnis and the Shiites, who make up a small portion of the country’s 22 million citizens. Shiites, who are considered infidels under the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam widely followed in the kingdom, routinely complain of discrimination.
My brother’s condition is stable, but still very poor. He’s unfortunately suffered collapses of multiple systems, but has shown some small improvements over the past two days. I’m spending most of the daytime at his hospital, but hope to be able to post occasionally in the evenings.
Thank you all for your concern and prayers.
Saudi Gazette/Okaz reports that the verdict against a Saudi who hacked into a woman’s e-mail and tried to blackmail her with what he found there has been upheld. This makes me wonder whatever happened with the case in the US, where a college student broken into Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s e-mail. I’ll have to check on that…
Sentence upheld in first Internet crime
AL-AHSA – The Court of Cassation has upheld the verdict given in the first Internet crime brought to court in the Kingdom. The case concerns a youth who hacked into a girl’s e-mail and stole private pictures to blackmail her, threatening to publish the pictures if she did not fulfill his demands.
He was sentenced to 200 lashes and 21 months jail, plus a fine of SR50,000.
Abdullatif Mohammad Al-Khateeb of the District Court in Al-Ahsa which handed down the sentence, said: “It’s unfortunate to see such cases in our society. We actually hear many similar ones in the court. This sentence will open the way for other similar sentences because previously judges were conservatives when dealing with these kinds of cases. With this sentence, their reservation may be broken.” – Okaz/SG
The online virtual world of Second Life has an Islamic world component. Exactly what Second Life is seems to be a matter of some debate, as the Wikipedia article linked above makes clear. Whether it has ‘utility’, in the normal sense of the word, is also open to question. What is unquestionable, however, is that tens of millions of people have alternate existences there, where they live a simulacrum of (or alternative to) the real lives they live in the ordinary world.
The website en.calameo.com has a 153-page Adobe Flash book on how the Islamic world and Islam are being represented and populated in Second Life. I find it very interesting, though I confess that I don’t really get the point. Whether the representation of the Islamic world is accurate—beyond the trivialities of architecture and clothing—is something you can decide for yourselves. As an exercise in human ingenuity, however, it is quite remarkable.
If you’re interested, take a look at this link.
Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies has published a report on how the changing economic relationships of the Middle East should be factored into an Obama foreign policy. The report (which can be saved as an eight-page PDF) is definitely worth reading.
U.S. – Arab Economic Relations and the Obama Administration
Prof. Nader Habibi and Dr. Eckart Woertz
This Brief examines four developments that affect U.S.–Middle East economic relations and present important policy challenges to the Obama administration: China’s and India’s increasing energy interests in the Persian Gulf, which pose a challenge to the United States; the U.S. interest in the economic development of areas of the Middle East in which poverty and inequality lead to instability and political violence; the U.S. loss of market share to European and Asian countries as the Middle East’s purchasing power grows; and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) emergence as the financial and economic center of the Middle East—and the concomitant need on the part of the United States to preserve its relations with the GCC.
I’ve just learned that my older brother is gravely ill. I’m traveling to Washington, DC today to be with him and his family. I expect that I will be posting, from time to time, as my attention is not always required with him, nor particularly useful. I will pre-schedule a few pieces for the coming days, however. If Crossroads Arabia doesn’t change for a day or two, don’t despair… just wait another few days.
Most of the analysis of King Abdullah’s shakeup of the Saudi government has been positive, seeing it as a major reform in the direction of increased tolerance and dialogue. Some, for whatever reason, see it only as a ‘snow job’, an effort to sway foreign public opinion without actually doing a thing to change the nefarious plotting to take over the world. I won’t be giving any links for the latter point of view, but they can be found easily enough if you’re interested.
Three pieces that do warrant attention, though. I recommend that you read them in their entirety.
Stephen Schwartz, a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia—though he doesn’t particularly understand it well and conjures evil with the name ‘Wahhabi’ —writes at Weekly Standard that the changes seem real. Schwartz still can’t get his facts right: The religious police are not volunteers, they are government employees; ‘Qatif Girl’ was not punished for being raped, but for the preceding crime of khulwa; King Abdullah is not an ‘absolute’ monarch as he is constrained by the power blocs that Schwartz does recognize; etc. He nevertheless finds the reforms ‘promising’:
Shaping Up Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia may have finally begun its long-predicted turn toward significant reform, as reported over the past weekend in Gulf media. King Abdullah ibn Abd Al-Aziz has effected a series of major decisions that could impose a dramatically new and modern direction on the kingdom.
Abdullah has appointed the Wahhabi-dominated society’s first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, a former teacher trained in the United States, to direct a newly established official department for women’s education. That was the most impressive news out of Riyadh on February 14. The elevation of a Saudi woman to a deputy ministerial position represents a major break with ruling habits in a land that still does not permit women to drive automobiles–although 80,000 Saudi women own cars–or to travel without a family member or chaperone.
King Abdullah further placed reformers in charge of the ministries of justice, education, information, and health. Naming a woman deputy minister and emphasizing women’s training are giant steps forward. But Saudi authorities must also make education useful to graduates–rather than emphasizing obscurantist religious topics–and, of course, must completely remove the hateful and violent doctrines of the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi sect from the schools.
Writing for the Dubai-based Gulf News, Jumana Al Tamimi focuses on the potential for educational reform resulting from the shakeup. She identifies—correctly, in my view—the Saudi education system as the root of Saudi Arabia’s current problems. Beneath that, and still of critical importance, is ‘tribal culture’ that needs to be adjusted through education.
Long expected changes to education in the Kingdom finally materialise
Jumana Al Tamimi, Associate Editor
Dubai: It was shortly after 9/11 attacks, when the Saudi society came under the Western microscope.
Since then, calls started to pour on the Kingdom to introduce changes in many aspects of daily life, including school curriculum, and to be more open with the rest of the world.
The changes were needed to repair the image of the oil-rich kingdom abroad, distorted by the fact that the majority of the attackers were Saudis.
Some westerners and Saudis blamed the terrorism on the “narrow-minded” education system which they said had failed to keep up with other field advancements in Saudi society.
Perhaps the most thoughtful analysis to date is that of Simon Henderson, writing for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I find some of the Institute’s analysis to be shaded toward Israeli political points of view, but here, I think Henderson correctly sees the shakeup for what it is: a major effort to move Saudi Arabia out of the backwaters of the 21st C.
Saudi Arabia Changes Course, Slowly
On February 14, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced a range of new ministerial, legal, and bureaucratic appointments. Surprising in scope and timing, the changes include the appointment of the kingdom’s first woman as a deputy minister and were made, according to Labor Minister Ghazi al-Ghusaibi, “to speed up implementation of new educational and judicial reforms.” The realization of such reforms remains questionable given the traditionally glacial pace of administrative change in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, further advances could be blocked by more conservative and religious forces.
Abdullah’s First Reshuffle as King
Arguably the most significant appointment is that of Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Muhammad — who comes from a branch of the royal family with no direct claim to the throne — as the new education minister. (The woman appointed, Nura al-Fayez, will be a deputy education minister, in charge of girls’ affairs.) Prince Faisal is regarded as progressive, and he founded a think tank studying the reform of higher education. Until his appointment, he was a top leader in the Saudi foreign intelligence service and, before that, a senior officer in the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), the praetorian guard commanded by King Abdullah for more than forty years. But Prince Faisal’s principal significance is that he is married to the king’s daughter, Adila, giving his policy initiatives important backing. Princess Adila has strong views of her own, being one of the few Saudi princesses with a semipublic role and a known advocate of women’s right to drive. (The kingdom is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.)
Apart from Prince Faisal, other associates of King Abdullah also figure prominently in the changes. The new health minister is Abdullah al-Rabia, who has been in charge of health at the SANG but is better known as a surgeon who has separated several conjoined twins. Another new deputy minister of education is Faisal al-Muammar, who was secretary-general of the National Dialogue Center, the principal mechanism used by King Abdullah to allow public — albeit tentative — debate of contentious issues in the kingdom. The new head of the Saudi Human Rights Commission is Bandar al-Aiban, a former member of the consultative council (majles al-shura) and before that a SANG officer attached to the Saudi embassy in Washington.
King Abdullah, who turns eighty-six this year and is reportedly limited in his abilities, is probably best described as the sponsor rather than the architect of these changes. But he is allowing a group of close advisers to develop ideas and policies that are, in Saudi terms, pushing the envelope of political and social progress, even if by regional standards the measures seem minimal and overdue. Crucial advisers around the king include Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Labor Minister al-Ghusaibi (a poet and writer on the side) and Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the secretary-general of the Allegiance Council, the so far untried mechanism announced in 2007 for confirming the appointment of future kings. Another is Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubair, who seems to spend as much time with the king as he does in Washington.