The Great Game was the rivalry that played out between the British Empire and the Russian Empire in the 19th and early 20th C. for supremacy in Central Asia. Today, there’s a new “Great Game” being played out in iraq, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The rise of ISIS/ISIL and the declaration of a new “Islamic State” have brought into high relief the problems sectarian violence in the region. The direct causes are many, but the effects are a multiple of that, affecting all states in the region, including Saudi Arabia.

Cordesman’s piece is meant as possible guidance for US policy-makers. It’s an interesting analysis.

The New “Great Game” in the Middle East: Looking Beyond the “Islamic State” and Iraq
Anthony Cordesman

The U.S. has good reason to try to prevent the creation of a violent, extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to reverse the gains of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria)/ ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham), and to help move Iraq back towards a more stable and unified form of government. The chances, however, are that the U.S. can at best have only partial success. The U.S. faces years in which Iraq is divided by sectarian and ethnic power struggles, the Syrian civil war continues, facilitating some form of radical Sunni threat crossing the border between Syria and Iraq.

ISIS/ISIL did not suddenly materialize in Iraq in December 2013. For years, the group exploited growing Sunni and Shi’ite sectarian divisions and steady drift towards civil war. For at least the last three years, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s actions of building his own power structure around a Shi’ite dominated state with close ties to Iran alienated Sunnis and exacerbated tensions.

The U.S. cannot simply intervene in Iraq by attacking ISIS/ISIL. It is a major movement in Syria as well as Iraq. The U.S. must also find some way to limit and roll back ISIS/ISIL -– without taking sides in Iraq’s broader civil war. At the same time, creating anything approaching a stable Iraq means creating new and lasting political bridges across Iraq’s increasingly polarized and divided factions as well as helping to create a more effective and truly national government in Iraq, as well as rebuild Iraqi forces that serve the nation, rather than an increasingly authoritarian Shi’ite leader.

It is far from clear that the U.S. can do this, and Syria and Iraq are only the most visible challenges taking place in the strategic game board that shapes the Middle East. The U.S. must also deal with a much broader set of new strategic forces that go far beyond Iraq’s borders. The U.S. must change the structure of its de facto alliances with key Arab states in the region, and it must deal with new forms of competition -– or “Great Game” with Russia — and possibly China, as well.

July:12:2014 - 07:14 | Comments Off | Permalink

An interesting essay at The American Interest political blog today. It discusses an ad hoc Saudi group that tries to encourage critical thinking skills in the Kingdom as well as across the Middle East at large. It’s an uphill struggle as the culture as well as the education and political systems discourage critical thinking. Instead, they rely on things like the seniority of the speaker, historic precedent, and of course various fatawa that lock in beliefs and make them seemingly immune to any criticism. And the price of criticism can be high.

Learning Logic in the Middle East

Fledgling projects seek to fight Islamic extremism by introducing critical thinking and the scientific method to Arab societies. They may already be influencing education and government-run media

Joseph Braude

Whether a conflict involves enraged spouses or a nation embroiled in sectarian warfare, feuding parties can de-escalate by employing civil discourse and rational argumentation. They can talk and reason empathically, for example. They can call out each other’s logical fallacies and agree to stop using them. They can pinpoint irreconcilable differences, accept them, and negotiate a compromise. But doing so is hard enough in the heat of an emotional exchange; it is much harder under the yoke of a religious dictate, or in an environment where rational argumentation is neither taught nor even available to learn in the local language.

There are many such places, and one is Saudi Arabia, according to Omar al-Anazi, a 23-year-old medical student at King Abdelaziz University in the Saudi port city of Jedda. “When people talk to each other here,” he says, “too often they make arguments based on logical fallacies, impossible to resolve. It’s detrimental to the country to leave them that way.” In his view, an “ignorant movement” advanced by extremist clerics, reactionary media, and schoolteachers under their influence has effectively suppressed the use of logic and reason. It is possible to combat the movement, he says, by teaching critical thinking and the scientific method, and instilling a fascination with the many branches of science and technology which these techniques have enabled throughout history. In July 2013, Anazi and three friends launched a project aiming to do so: an online media platform called Asfar (“zeroes”) named after the world-altering numeral invented in ancient Babylon. Through audio, video, and prose, Asfar conveys ideas about logic and science in humorous, Saudi-inflected Arabic, tailored to the sensibilities of its audience.

There is a handful of projects like Asfar in the Arab world today, and more is riding on their success than the gratification of the volunteers who staff them. Amid massive bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, civil strife in Lebanon and Bahrain, political polarization in the post-Arab Spring states, and the proliferation of jihadist ideologies throughout North Africa and the Middle East, equipping Arab societies to think critically and negotiate their internal differences can help marginalize extremist groups, foster national reconciliation, and, by extension, improve regional stability and security. Asfar’s modest initial success as well as the challenges it appears to face provide a case in point as to what any homegrown Arab media effort to promote civil discourse would require in order to gain substantial ground.

June:30:2014 - 08:54 | Comments Off | Permalink

Writing at al-Monitor, Fahad Nazer, a Saudi analyst, takes a look at what’s at stake for Saudi Arabia following the onslaught by ISIS militias in Iraq. The Saudis don’t like it; it scares them. They’re particularly concerned about the number of young Saudis who have gone off to fight in Syria in the name of jihad. The last time young Saudis went off to fight in foreign wars, then ended up returning to the Kingdom, frustrated, angry, and willing to take up arms against their own government. No repeat performance is wanted.

Saudi Arabia threatened by ISIS advance in Iraq
Fahad Nazer

Contrary to an emerging consensus in the West and the Middle East, the turmoil in Iraq does not benefit Saudi Arabia, nor is it a “dream” for Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. While relations between the Saudi royals and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are among the most strained in the region, it is one thing for the Saudis to view Maliki as a divisive figure beholden to Iran, and something patently different for them to be actively supporting the armed Sunni rebellion, which al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is spearheading.

The prospect of a failed state torn apart by a sectarian civil war along its border, another one in Syria and an al-Qaeda “state” rising up from the ashes of these two civil wars must be a disconcerting one for Saudi Arabia. While both Iraq and Syria have publicly blamed the carnage in their countries on the Saudis for what they maintain is Saudi support of “terrorists,” including ISIS, the al-Qaeda affiliate itself has vowed to “conquer” Saudi Arabia after it has “vanquished” the regimes in Damascus and Baghdad. More than any of its neighbors, Saudi Arabia has the most to lose from the conflict in Iraq spiraling out of control. There are several reasons.

Saudi Arabia values stability more than anything. Its penchant for reactionary politics is most apparent in its unconditional support of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s new government in Egypt, which has reinstituted many of the policies of former President Hosni Mubarak, arguably the Saudis’ most stalwart ally for over 30 years. And while the Saudis have supported the rebels’ bid in Syria to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, this willingness to change the status quo is a function of the role Iran is playing in the conflict and because Saudi Arabia views itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, and therefore has a moral obligation to help the beleaguered Sunni majority.

But even in Syria, there are reports indicating that the Saudis are re-evaluating their policy. The exodus of hundreds of young Saudis to join the “jihad” there has rung alarm bells and brought back memories of the Afghanistan war in the 1980s, when Saudis joined the “Afghan Arab” fighters and either returned home, bringing their military experience with them, or joined other militant Islamist groups elsewhere. Osama bin Laden himself was such an example. Saudis who turned themselves in to authorities after fighting in Syria confirmed that not only are many Saudis — possibly hundreds — gravitating toward the most extreme armed groups in Syria, including ISIS, but that many have become known for their ferociousness and willingness to conduct suicide attacks.

June:26:2014 - 00:01 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Fuad Ajami, scholar and writer on Middle Eastern affairs, has died. I had the pleasure of hosting him at my home in Riyadh several times. While we had some differences on certain aspects of the politics of the Middle East, he was always courteous and informed, a pleasure to know.

June:23:2014 - 09:35 | Comments Off | Permalink

When I was working in Saudi Arabia, some ten years ago, the Ministry of Education was fighting to have English-language instruction start in the fourth year of primary education… and losing. The Minister was constantly being barraged by complaints that this was just another sneaky way to impose Western values on Saudi schoolchildren.

That battle was eventually won and now the Ministry is seeking to push the starting year down a notch, to the third grade, Saudi Gazette/Okaz report.

English language planned to be taught from third grade
Okaz/Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH – Saudi Minister of Education Prince Khaled Al-Faisal said the ministry is seriously studying the teaching of English language in elementary schools. At present the language is being taught from fourth grade.

He said the ministry realized the deficiency of students in the language.

Commenting on the estimates of UNESCO that global illiteracy will reach 50 percent by the end of 2015, he said the Kingdom has by far overcome these estimates. The percentage of literacy rate in the Kingdom has reached 60.61 percent in 2013.

June:21:2014 - 06:45 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Saudi Gazette picks up a piece from the Arabic daily Al-Hayat that comments on the way the definition of khulwa has been stretched by certain clerics in a way that would not be understood by the earliest generations of Islam.

Khulwa is the seclusion of two members of the opposite sex in circumstances which would permit them to do forbidden things — sex — without interruption. Some early commentators asserted that it could only be committed within a structure; that it was impossible to do outdoors. Now, according to some clerics, it can happen in offices, in a doctor’s office, within an ATM enclosure, or even in a car being driven by an unrelated male. That, the writer suggests, is using religious law to enforce a very narrow reading of religious law and extend it to situations where it does not actually apply.

What is khulwa?
Hassan Bin Salim | Al-Hayat

Some scholars exaggerate the meaning of khulwa (when someone is caught in the company of an unrelated member of the opposite sex). They impose many restrictions on women in order to prevent them from committing khulwa. For them, a woman who rides in the back of a car with her driver on a public road has committed the forbidden act of khulwa. Similarly, a woman who goes to a male doctor for a medical problem and ends up alone with him in a room without a nurse has committed the forbidden act of khulwa. A woman who happens to be in the same ATM booth with a strange man has also committed the forbidden act of khulwa even though they are both only withdrawing money.

In fact, some scholars have not only warned about the consequences of such acts, they have also applied the term to almost any situation involving men and women. One scholar has recently decreed that any conversation in an Internet chat room between a man and a women is khulwa even if the man who is chatting with the woman is on the other side of the planet. In the scholar’s views, this still qualifies as khulwa.

Al-Hayat daily recently published an article regarding an academic study, conducted by a university researcher, warning about the negative consequences of khulwa involving women and their male drivers. We hear many scholars and researchers warning about the consequences of khulwa but we never hear them provide solutions for women who depend on drivers to get around.

June:21:2014 - 06:40 | Comments Off | Permalink

The linguistics blog Languagehat has an interesting post about the way the Disney Corporation has changed its approach toward localizing the versions of its films intended for non-English-speaking audiences. Commenting on the work done on the latest Disney film “Frozen”, it notes that rather than dubbing the film into Egyptian Arabic, as had been the norm, the film was released to Arab audiences dubbed in Modern Standard Arabic. This has both puzzled and upset many.

The comments to the post offer interesting insights about both language versioning of films and the question of how dialects of Arabic are considered.

Translating Frozen Into Arabic.

Elias Muhanna, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Brown University, has an excellent New Yorker blog post about just what the title says:

One of the forty-one languages in which you can watch “Frozen” is Modern Standard Arabic. This is a departure from precedent. Earlier Disney films (from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to “Pocahontas” to “Tangled”) were dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, the dialect with the largest number of speakers in the region, based in a country with a venerable history of film production. Generations of Arabs grew up watching Egyptian movies, and the Disney musicals capitalized on their familiarity with this particular dialect.

Modern Standard Arabic is very similar to Classical Arabic, the centuries-old lingua franca of the medieval Islamic world. Today, it is the language of officialdom, high culture, books, newscasts, and political sermonizing. Most television shows, films, and advertisements are in colloquial Arabic, and the past several years have seen further incursions of the dialects into areas traditionally reserved for the literary language.

June:07:2014 - 06:28 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink

Once again, Saudi media dangle the possibility of public cinemas in Saudi Arabia before an eager audience. I think that this is so far down the “must do” list and is such a contentious issue, that the investor is just wasting his time.

Al Arabiya TV has the story:

Cinemas to open in Saudi Arabia?

An investor has officially requested a license from the Saudi General Commission of Audiovisual Media to establish cinemas in the country, a local business website reported Tuesday.

The commission did not object to the idea in principle, and asked the investor to submit a study of the planned project, Maaal reported.

Cinemas are forbidden in Saudi Arabia.

If the commission thinks the investment is feasible, it could ask higher authorities to clear the way for movie theaters nationwide, sources reportedly said.

June:06:2014 - 08:25 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Washington Post reports on a flap that is stirring in Saudi Arabia over the naming of Prince Muqrin as Deputy Crown Prince. Tongues, including those of the sons of older princes who were skipped over, are wagging; fingers are being pointed; conspiracy theories are infesting the social media.

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised. This isn’t the first time princes have been skipped over. Sometimes, it’s been at their own request. At others, it’s been because they were not deemed suitable or capable of being King. Nor is it the first time that a Second Deputy Prime Minister — who was Deputy Crown Prince in all but name — has been selected.

With the aging of King Abdullah, the question of succession does become more urgent, but I believe he has settled matters through his creation of the Allegiance Council, formed to deal with exactly those issues. If it turns out that he was mistaken and that the Council has no authority, then there will be squabbling over who rises to power. And that will lead to a repetition of what happened with the Second Saudi State. If it happens again, though, there will be no chance for a future Abdulaziz to slip out of exile to regain the throne. Instead, the Saudi royal family with be dispersed — along with their bank accounts — to countries far and wide. What happens to the country left behind them will be something for future analysts and historians to discuss.

Appointment of deputy heir to throne stirs controversy in Saudi Arabia
Liz Sly

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — When Saudi Arabia’s elderly king took the unusual step of naming a deputy heir, the move initially was welcomed as a sign of continuity in a country that soon will confront major questions over the future of its leadership.

But in subsequent weeks, the announcement has stirred a rare outburst of dissent, revealing previously unacknowledged strains within the royal family and casting into doubt prospects for a smooth transition from King Abdullah’s rule.

The king’s youngest brother, Muqrin, who was named deputy crown prince on the eve of President Obama’s visit in March, appears to be popular among ordinary people, who say he is not corrupt. He also is well-regarded by foreign diplomats, who describe him as likable and smart.

But behind closed doors, royal tongues have been wagging about the manner in which Muqrin was chosen, the validity of his newly created title and his pedigree as the son of a Yemeni concubine who was never formally married to his father.

May:27:2014 - 08:33 | Comments Off | Permalink

The online ‘Science Digest’ runs a story on a report out of the German Heimholtz Center for Ocean Research that confirms that the Red Sea is actually an ocean in the process of being born. Due to some differences that had been seen in the Red Sea, it was thought that it may have been the result of a unique geological process. The report says not. While there are some differences, the Red Sea is part of the Rift Valley complex and new ocean floor is being created at its depths. The process is slowed, however, by the movement of ‘salt glaciers’, salt laid down millions of years ago when parts of Africa were under water and while the Saudi peninsula was still attached to Africa.

Terrain map Red Sea

The Red Sea: An ocean like all others, after all

The Red Sea has turned out to be an ideal study object for marine geologists. There they can observe the formation of an ocean in its early phase. However, the Red Sea seemed to go through a different birthing process than the other oceans. Now, scientists have been able to show that salt glaciers have distorted the previous models.

May:07:2014 - 08:45 | Comments Off | Permalink

Alternate History is a form of fiction in which some past event happened differently than it did, leading to various types of changes in the present. Usually, the stories (or films or games) are based on one critical event or factor.

Al Arabiya TV reports on one thing which, had it happened, would have lead to considerable changes and remarkable ones at that.

During WWI, a Russian Jewish doctor, M.L. Rothstein, proposed to the British government, that he raise a force of 120,000 Jewish troops who would, with assistance from the Triple Entente powers, wrestle Hasa from the Ottoman Turks, then allied with the Triple Alliance.

Hasa, of course, is in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It was, at the time of the proposal, actually part of Saudi lands. King Abdulaziz had seized it from Turkish control in 1913. The Eastern Province, of course, is where most of Saudi Arabia’s natural wealth is to be found.

Lord Balfour — author of the notorious Balfour Declaration that was one of the origins of contemporary Israel — turned down the offer.

A Jewish state in Saudi Arabia? New British document reveals 1917 idea
Kamal Kobeisi | Al Arabiya News

A Jewish state in Saudi Arabia? One Paris-based Russian Jew threw this unorthodox proposal on the table in 1917, according to a recently revealed official British document.

The strategy, which proposed an army of 120,000 Jewish soldiers invading the Gulf, was one man’s solution to carve out land for a Jewish homeland.

Only two months before the Balfour Declaration was dated, a man named Dr. M. L Rothstein tried to sway then British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to create a Jewish state in modern day Saudi Arabia.

April:07:2014 - 06:22 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

The Washington Post reports that Abdulrahman Alharbi, a Saudi student who was injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, is suing American conservative commentator Glenn Beck for defamation. Beck, a little crazy, somewhat bigoted, a rather conspiratorial in his thinking, claimed that Alharbi played a role in the bombing and was an “Al-Qaeda coordinator” behind it, the “money man”. The FBI thought differently, however, and saw Alharbi as an unlucky, but innocent victim of the bombs.

Glenn Beck sued for defamation after calling victim
of Boston Marathon bombings the ‘money man’ behind attack
Terrence McCoy

On a mid-April day last year, Glenn Beck was in a full lather. Less than one week had passed since a pair of bombs had exploded at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds more. The FBI had just identified the Tsarnaev brothers as primary suspects behind the attack. But to Beck, cloaked in a gray button-down and a sheen of indignation, this wasn’t enough.

In attendance at the marathon had been a 20-year-old Saudi Arabian student named Abdulrahman Alharbi. He was on a full ride to study at the nearby New England School of English. He’d been injured at the marathon, later questioned by police and ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

Beck, however, had suspicions. The radio host urged the U.S. government to release information on Alharbi or Beck would “expose” him. “Let me send this message very clear,” said Beck, who left Fox News in 2011. ”We know who this Saudi national is…. We know who this man is and, listen to me carefully, we know he is a very bad, bad, bad man.”

April:03:2014 - 07:50 | Comments Off | Permalink
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