The Washington Post reports that the Arab Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, are becoming increasingly concerned about Iran and its apparent nuclear arms aspirations. So much so, in fact, that Iran now looms larger on their security horizons than Israel.

The article notes that the US is selling advanced defensive weapons systems to the various countries, though those countries make it clear that if the US doesn’t sell, they’ll go elsewhere. The piece also says that while the Arab states have no atomic weapon plans for themselves—and in fact are planning their nuclear power facilities in such a way as to make weapons production impossible—a nuclear test by Iran could change the equation. Interesting reading.

U.S. steps up arms sales to Persian Gulf allies
Joby Warrick

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — The Obama administration is quietly working with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies to speed up arms sales and rapidly upgrade defenses for oil terminals and other key infrastructure in a bid to thwart future military attacks by Iran, according to former and current U.S. and Middle Eastern government officials.

The initiatives, including a U.S.-backed plan to triple the size of a 10,000-man protection force in Saudi Arabia, are part of a broader push that includes unprecedented coordination of air defenses and expanded joint exercises between the U.S. and Arab militaries, the officials said. All appear to be aimed at increasing pressure on Tehran.

The efforts build on commitments by the George W. Bush administration to sell warplanes and antimissile systems to friendly Arab states to counter Iran’s growing conventional arsenal. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are leading a regionwide military buildup that has resulted in more than $25 billion in U.S. arms purchases in the past two years alone.

Middle Eastern military and intelligence officials said Gulf states are embracing the expansion as Iran reacts increasingly defiantly to international censure over its nuclear program. Gulf states fear retaliatory strikes by Iran or allied groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the event of a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities by the United States or Israel.

January:31:2010 - 12:14 | Comments & Trackbacks (12) | Permalink

Arab News runs an interesting piece in which the head of censorship at the Jeddah airport discusses how he sees his role and how censorship has changed in the Kingdom.

It is worth pointing out that he says explicitly that the religious texts of religions other than Islam are no longer banned. But it’s also worth noting that the decisions about what is permitted are being made by individuals. Not everyone draws the line between permissible/impermissible in the same place, so any given traveler could find himself confronting the whim of whomever is on duty when his flight arrives.

I do sympathize with the Saudi government’s desire to protect its citizens. In many ways, Saudis are naive and unsophisticated, never having had the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to deal with masses of unfiltered information. This may be why Saudi ISPs are reportedly among the top consumers of Internet porn. Rather than trying to protect people from accessing information, though—an impossible task anyway—it would be more beneficial to teach people how to avoid that which is deemed unseemly, unwanted, or corrupt. It’s fine to protect children from things they don’t know how to process; that is a valid role of parents. It’s not quite so fine, though, to treat an entire society as though it were comprised solely of children. That, in fact, is the definition of the term ‘paternalism’. Good in some regards, perhaps, but ultimately degrading.

Censor plays key role in preserving culture’
Omaima Al-Fardan | Arab News

JEDDAH: As the man in charge of poring through the many types of audio-visual and published materials that pass through Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, Abdul Khaliq Abdullah Al-Zahrani considers himself a guardian of culture and religion.

“The current situation of extreme openness has given a special importance to the role of the censor in preserving the cultural identity of any country,” he said. “We are not preventing the entry of books and publications just for the sake of preventing them.”

But Zahrani also admits that this “extreme openness” — especially the one brought by the advent of the Internet — has also reduced the censor’s effectiveness.

“Our role is not to totally prevent entry of all kinds of publications, but rather to curb the spread of unsafe and exaggerated ideas,” he said.

Topping Zahrani’s list of items he feels is the greatest threat to Saudi social values is pornography.

… He also claims that times have changed enough in the Kingdom that religious texts of other faiths are permitted.

“We will not prevent books of other religions such as the Bible and others,” he said.

However, Zahrani also said that the decision to allow certain books into the country, “depends on the discretion of the censor who should judge the need of the person carrying them.”

January:31:2010 - 12:05 | Comments & Trackbacks (13) | Permalink

In a comment thread a little while ago, there was a discussion about Saudi women and their being seen by male doctors. Today’s Saudi Gazette carries a piece in which the Ministry of Health lays down the rules:

MoH warns doctors against examining female patients alone
Abdullah Al-Muqatiand Abdulwahid Al-Wihaimid

TAIF/AL-AHSA – Male doctors have been warned against examining women inside their clinics in one-on-one consultations to avoid being accused of “suspicious situations of Khalwa (illegal seclusion with a woman)”, according to a Ministry of Health statement circulated at government and private hospitals in the Kingdom.

A female nurse should accompany the woman patient inside the clinic when examined by a male doctor, the ministry said.

The ministry said that a woman’s male guardian should be present during examination by a male doctor.

I think it simple prudence to have another person in the examination room when a male doctor is examining a woman. It’s certainly standard practice in the US, though the reasoning for it is to avoid false claims against the doctor as much as to protect the women. In the Saudi context, it’s definitely intended more to protect the woman. Why else would her mahram be suggested as that third party?

I’m not a doctor, but I would not be at ease with the mahram standing over my shoulder, ready to question every movement. Worse, mahrams also tend to feel obliged to answer the doctor’s question for the woman—no strange men talking to their women, thank you very much. Were the mahram to sit quietly in a corner, simply to ensure that no improprieties took place, that would be one thing. But that’s not quite how guardians see their roles.

January:31:2010 - 11:51 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink

Ahmed at Saudi Jeans was quick to link to a piece from the Saudi liberal movement website Muntidiatna reporting that the court ordered divorce of Fatima and her husband has been overturned. The major Saudi papers have caught up in today’s editions.

Ahmed aptly notes that this new decision strikes a serious blow to the concept of tribalism and the unwarranted powers it sometimes exercises in the Saudi system. I realize that nationalism is a concept over which many raise objections. Here, though, by insisting that all Saudis are equal under the law, it is a vast improvement over tribalism, where only members of a particular tribe might be equal.

Judiciary Council overturns forced-divorce decision
Walaa Hawari | Arab News

JEDDAH: Over four years after a judge in Jouf annulled the marriage of Fatima and Mansour at the behest of Fatima’s half brothers, the Supreme Judiciary Council in Riyadh on Saturday overruled the decision and ordered that the couple be reunited in matrimony.

“The divorce ruling is void, therefore the return of the couple together is inevitable now and does not require (another) marriage ceremony,” Ahmad Al-Sudairi, who has been providing the couple pro bono representation, told Arab News.

Fatima was pregnant with the couple’s second child when on June 20, 2005 a judge ruled in favor of Fatima’s half brothers and divorced her from Mansour Al-Timani in absentia.

It took the couple seven months to discover that they had been divorced against their will and without their knowledge. The half brothers claimed that Mansour deceived Fatima’s father in 2002 regarding his tribal affiliation, and that Mansour’s real tribal background made the marriage incompatible.

Saudi Gazette/Okaz have the more comprehensive reporting on the case. It seems Fatima’s brothers aren’t happy with the latest decision and will seek to have it overturned on appeal. With the Supreme Judiciary Council having made this decision keeping the couple together, that leaves only the King as possible arbiter. I think it exceptionally unlikely that he will disagree with the Council, however.

‘Forced divorce’ couple can stay married: Court
By Adnan Al-Shabrawi and Muhammad Al-Inizi

JEDDAH/DAMMAM – In a dramatic decision that could have far-reaching consequences for cases of ‘forced divorces’ in the Kingdom, the High Court in Riyadh has overturned a previous court decision that had divorced a young Saudi couple against their wishes.

The High Court overturned a verdict passed by the Al-Jouf Court four years ago that had ordered the separation of the Saudi couple Mansour Al-Taimani and Fatima Al-Azzaz on the grounds that the husband was of an ‘inferior’ social status. The case has been widely reported in the local and international media.

The couple had been married in 2003, with the consent of Al-Azzaz’s father, as required under Saudi law. However, when her father died, her half brothers approached the court in Al-Jouf to dissolve the marriage, arguing that her husband, Al-Taimani, was of a so-called inferior class.

Al-Azzaz refused to divorce her husband because she claimed that her brothers were using this argument as a pretext to get control of her property.

January:31:2010 - 11:39 | Comments & Trackbacks (16) | Permalink

Saudi Gazette/Okaz report that Saudi Arabia is suffering from a dearth of judges, something that is clogging up the legal system. An effort is being made to find and train new judges.

More judges needed, says Judiciary Council president
Hazem Al-Muttari

RIYADH – There is a shortage of judges in the Kingdom, according to Dr. Saleh Bin Humaid, Chairman of the Higher Judiciary Council.

Speaking at a forum for judges in Riyadh earlier this week, Humaid said that there were only 1,300 judges presiding at courts across the Kingdom.

He said the King’s reform of the judiciary includes the creation of a number of posts in the judiciary. The Council has now created 120 posts for appeal judges and heads of appeal courts.

Of course, they’re also going to need new judges to replace one like this one…

Judge gets jail, lashes for ‘false complaints’

January:30:2010 - 11:49 | Comments & Trackbacks (5) | Permalink

Two recent Saudi court cases hit international news cycles over the past several months, one involving a Syrian national sentenced to death for ‘witchcraft’, and of course the young woman sentenced to 90 lashes for assaulting her teacher. Saudi Gazette/Okaz report the latest developments:

Death sentence magic inmate dies choking

Jubail woman can seek verdict review

January:30:2010 - 11:47 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

While I’ve noted the development of Islamic-oriented music in various forms in previous posts, it should also be noted that the performers have to follow pertinent laws. Here we have the case of a popular musician (the article says) who is in trouble for lying about his relationships with two organizations identified as ‘supporters of terrorism’, HAMAS and the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. Mohamad Mustapha Ali Masfaka sought to immigrate to the US. Under oath, he denied those relationships. That’s bad and it’s dropped him into a pot of trouble. He’ll be lucky if he’s simply deported and denied the possibility of ever seeking US citizenship in the future. If you’re seeking citizenship, in any country, it’s never wise to be less than honest and forthcoming on the paperwork!

Popular U.S. Muslim singer indicted for alleged HAMAS role
Douglas J. Hagmann, Director

26 January 2010: Mohamad Mustapha Ali Masfaka, 47, more well known as Abu Ratib, a popular singer of Islamic religious songs in the Muslim world, was arrested last week on charges of attempted naturalization fraud, making false statements to FBI investigators and immigration officials, and perjury.

According to federal investigators in a press release dated 22 January 2010, the singer reportedly lied about his involvement with the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF), an organization that was designated by the U.S. Department of Treasury on December 4, 2001, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist [organization]. According to federal investigators, Masfaka praised HAMAS during some of his international performances subsequent to the 2001 designation of HAMAS as a terrorist organization.

The indictment (9-page PDF document) was unsealed on Friday.

January:30:2010 - 11:45 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Hamad Al-Majid writes in his Asharq Alawsat column about how fatwas (okay, fatawa) and those who issue them have become commodities in the marketplace of public opinion. Telling people what they want to hear is not the same as telling them what they should hear. Again, politics and religion become messily intertwined, along with a dose of personal vanity, and the result is chaos within the Umma.

Scholars and What the Public Wants
Dr. Hamad Al-Majid

If it were possible, the general public would pick and choose the religious opinions and fatwas of scholars in the same manner that listeners pick their favorite music on the well-known radio program “As Requested by the Listeners.” Scholars are no less on trial by the public than they are by the rulers, and there are many historical examples of a scholar being put on trail by a ruler, but there are only a few examples of a scholar being tried by the public at large. Perhaps the most prominent and famous example of how a scholar was put on trial by a ruler can be seen in what happened to Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal on the issue of the “createdness” of the Quran [The Mihna]. The scholars of the time resorted to equivocation in order to avoid a confrontation with the ruler [Caliph Al-Ma'mun], however when it came for Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal’s turn to answer [on the issue of the "createdness" of the Quran] the public played a positive role, for they were waiting pens at the ready for his statement, and this gave him the strength to uphold his [contrary] opinion and endure the torture and humiliation he was subject to as a result of this.

The problem is that following the digital revolution, the public has become obsessed with the large numbers of scholars, preachers and writers across the Arab world and pressure is being exerted on them preventing them from voicing their opinions and convictions. In some cases such convictions are limited to just a few lines of writing, or are only whispered quietly in private. It would be no problem if these opinions were largely confined to judicial issues of no importance to the structure, cohesion, and security of society, for example if this issue was on the religious permissibility of financial underwriting or whether or not it is permissible to listen to music. However the problem arises when a scholar or preacher chooses to remain silent on a fatwa or opinion that has serious consequences [for society].

When Arab countries were facing the threat of Al Qaeda expansion during the past 10 years, during which time Al Qaeda limited its attacks to US interests in Arab countries, condemnation of this was almost non-existent, or at the very least extremely rare, and in most cases such condemnation was locked away and confined to private gatherings. In addition to the fact that attacks such as this are a violation of the country’s agreements and treaties, they also resulted in the death of a number of innocent Muslim citizens. Therefore scholars, preachers, and writers, should have condemned these attacks and denounced them as crimes in a much stronger manner than they did, and this condemnation would have reverberated across the Arab world.

The Israeli paper Jerusalem Post makes note of the chaotic situation as well. In this piece, it highlights Saudi Arabia’s attempt to bring fatwas under control. Of course, any attempt to standardize something will have its critics as well. The article gives some of those critics space to express their views…

Saudis to Regulate ‘Chaotic Fatwas’

January:29:2010 - 10:34 | Comments & Trackbacks (6) | Permalink

Caryle Murphy, a free-lance journalist based in Riyadh (and whom I had the pleasure of meeting last year at the KAUST inauguration) files this story for Christian Science Monitor on her visit to the Saudi-Yemeni border.

View from Mt. Doud: Saudi Arabia says offensive
against Yemen rebels over

Saudi Arabia took a group of reporters to what had recently been a raging front line with the Shiite Houthi rebels of Yemen. The Kingdom’s defense minister said the Houthi’s have been repelled from Saudi Arabia and that they are now an “internal problem” for Yemen.
Caryle Murphy

Khouba, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister Wednesday rejected Yemeni rebel claims that they had voluntarily withdrawn from Saudi territory, saying they had “been forced out” by the Saudi military.

Prince Khaled bin Sultan said the border area had been “cleansed” of Yemeni rebel positions, but that snipers continued to infiltrate and attack Saudi troops.

The prince’s remarks were the first official Saudi response to a statement Monday from the Yemeni rebel leader saying that his forces had withdrawn from Saudi territory and were offering a cease-fire in the almost three-month-old conflict.

Prince Khaled spoke to reporters after reviewing a parade formation of several hundred Saudi infantry, paratroopers and artillerymen in a dusty, open field several miles from the Yemen-Saudi border near the town of Kouba in the southern province of Jizan.

Earlier, journalists were driven to the top of Mt. Doud, a peak about a mile from the border that was seized by the rebels in mid-November and retaken by the Saudis a week ago, according to a senior Saudi military officer.

Exploding mortars and occasional gunshots could be heard in the distance along the border, and Saudi military officers said that was fighting between Yemeni forces and the rebels, known as Houthis.

January:28:2010 - 10:31 | Comments & Trackbacks (9) | Permalink

The New York Times has this piece on Michael Muhammad Knight, an American convert to Islam who writes about Islam for international audiences. In his latest book, according to this piece, Knight castigates conservative Islam for suffocating the rich variety of the religion’s regional manifestation. While definitely on the left side of political discourse, Knight thinks that, strange as it may seem, the US just might be the salvation of Islam. Do read the entire article.

Givin’ It to the Man, Islamic Style

NEW YORK — No doubt for many — probably most — Americans, Islam is associated these days at the very least with ultraconservative social mores — the lesser status of women, for example — not to mention the practices of the radical extreme — the cult of death, suicide bombings, acid thrown in the faces of girls going to school.

So how about Muslims who embrace feminism, play in punk rock bands, and castigate orthodox, official Saudi Arabian-supported Islam as “Islamofascism?”

Meet Michael Muhammad Knight, an American convert to Islam, a person deeply schooled in Islamic history and literature, and the emerging leader of a small but growing movement that practices punk in an Islamic context. He’s a novelist, essayist, and self-described performance artist who is slowly making a name for himself in the mainstream media.

Mr. Knight, who grew up Irish Catholic in Rochester, New York, converted to Islam when he was 17 and wrote a wildly unexpected novel, “Taqwacores,” about a fictitious Muslim punk rock band. He followed that novel with “Blue-Eyed Devil: An American Muslim Road Odyssey,” which recounts a 60,000-mile, or 96,000-kilometer, Greyhound bus tour of the numerous sites of Islam in America that he took between 2003 and 2005.

Now, Mr. Knight has published another Islamic travelogue, “Journey to the End of Islam,” which recounts visits he made in 2008 to Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, in search of the many varieties of Islamic experience.

January:28:2010 - 10:21 | Comments & Trackbacks (16) | Permalink

As the proverb has it, “‘Tis an ill wind that blows no good.” The border conflict between Yemen and Saudi Arabia appears to have had the benefit of reducing the number of children being smuggled across the border, at least. Child trafficking across this border has been a problem. The children often end up on the streets of cities like Jeddah, begging for cash under the ‘guidance’ of career criminals. Or worse.

Child trafficking from Yemen drops
Laura Bashraheel | Arab News

JEDDAH: The number of children being trafficked from Yemen to Saudi Arabia in 2009 has decreased, according to the Yemeni Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor.

Officials there attribute awareness campaigns on child trafficking, collaboration between Yemeni and Saudi authorities and the unstable situation in northern Yemen as the reasons behind the slowdown.

According to Abbas Ghalib, head of the juveniles department at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor in Sanaa, only 602 children were reported as trafficked to Saudi Arabia in 2009, compared to 900 in 2008.

January:28:2010 - 10:05 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Now, physically assaulting a teacher is a serious thing. It deserves punishment, certainly. As this CNN piece points out, though, 90 lashes might be a bit of overkill for a 13-year-old offender. The piece goes on to note some other recent cases in Saudi Arabia in which flogging was a part of a criminal sentence. All of them, by Western standards, would be considered extreme.

Saudi schoolgirl sentenced to 90 lashes
after assaulting headmistress
Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN

(CNN) — A schoolgirl in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to 90 lashes and two months in prison for assaulting her headmistress after a confrontation over a cell phone, sparking an outcry from a government-sponsored rights group.

Saudi Arabia’s National Society for Human Rights said it is surprised by the verdict and called for the punishment be reconsidered, according to statement by the group.

The verdict was handed down by a court in the eastern province city of Jubail as a punishment for the 13-year-old who allegedly assaulted her headmistress.

Saudi daily newspaper, Al-Watan, which first reported the sentence, said the girl struck the headmistress on the head with a glass after a confrontation over the confiscation of the girl’s camera-equipped cell phone.

Dr. Saleh Al-Khaslan, a spokesman for the rights group, said the penalty was too severe.

UPDATE: 01/24/2010 — I’m informed that the Saudi Ministry of Justice has released a statement saying that the girl involved is actually in her 20s. I will try to find a link quoting that. If this is the case, then it takes away the dimension of child abuse that is inflaming so many. It still leaves the issue of corporal punishment, but that is not the issue which forms the focus of this post.

UPDATE: 01/27/2010 — The Ministry of Justice is taking strong umbrage at media reports over this story. It insists that the girl in question is 20, that she acknowledged her crime and accepted her punishment, and that she had her father in the court with her when she did so.

January:27:2010 - 10:40 | Comments & Trackbacks (66) | Permalink
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