A very interesting article from Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV today, suggesting that poor public relations efforts on the part of the Saudi and Qatari governments has led to a lack of general enthusiasm for taking action against Syria.
The article reports that the governments have spend billions of dollars in supporting the Free Syrian Army — just which factions they have supported is unreported — with little to show for it. Instead of arms, might those government have been more successful if they had lobbied both the publics and the legislatures of Western countries?
PR is a two-edged sword, as the article points out. Lobbying by the government of Kuwait in 1990-91 may have swayed a lot of public opinion, but when the lobbying efforts were exposed, many thought (and still think) that they were underhanded and less than honest. This has affected both the utility of this sort of PR campaign and damages the credibility of those who use it and those who end up agreeing with the message.
Nevertheless, more than 100K dead and over 2 million refugees ought to be a compelling story… as Stalin reputedly said, “Quantity has a quality all its own.”
As things stand today, the US is preparing to take some sort of punitive action against Syria. The GCC and the Arab League are all in agreement that some sort of action is necessary. Other Western governments aren’t completely convinced and some have decided against it. The UN, through its Secretary General, are against it. And Russia? Russia is being ambiguous. It’s against it, but given irrefutable proof of Syrian government use of chemical weapons, might support a US attack.
Buying arms vs. ‘selling’ the strike: Do Gulf states need more PR on Syria?
Eman El-Shenawi – Al Arabiya
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have reportedly plugged billions of dollars in arms over the course of the Syrian conflict, emerging as the main foreign powers bankrolling the revolt.
But amid the West’s hesitation this week over launching a military strike to punish Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, indicators suggest the Gulf states have been shooting blanks.
Analysts now believe a portion of Gulf finances could have been better spent on a global anti-Assad/ pro-intervention public relations (PR) campaign.
Could such a PR drive have led us to see a different result in British parliament last week and more decisive moves on the Syrian conflict from the White House?
“If a Saudi-Qatari PR campaign had been running much earlier, say since six months ago, and had been well-executed, then yes,” Mudassar Ahmed, a political media analyst and chief executive of London-based PR agency Unitas, told Al Arabiya English on Tuesday.
In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV, Khaled Al Maeena — Editor-in-Chief of Saudi Gazette — takes a look at the past, present, and future of Saudi media. Al Maeena was twice Editor-in-Chief for Arab News, but took over the helm of Saudi Gazette in 2012. I’ve certainly seen the difference he’s made there, though he freely admits that the media environment has changed for the better under King Abdullah and his reform agenda.
Saudi Arabia’s media industry is pushing the boundaries on ‘taboo’ subjects like never before, according to the editor of a prominent English-language newspaper.
The kingdom ranks among the world’s most restrictive countries in terms of media freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders, which placed Saudi Arabia 163rd in its latest Press Freedom Index.
But Khaled Almaeena, editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette, said that freedom of expression has grown “by leaps and bounds” over the last 15 years.
“People are discussing things that were totally a social taboo many years ago. We talk about… harassment of women, we talk about corruption, and incidents that have happened that one cannot hide,” Almaeena told Al Arabiya.
“You cannot imagine in the last 15 years… how things have changed in this country,” he added.
isn’t because there are more witches.
“The Atlantic” magazine takes a look at the aggressive stance the Saudi government takes when it comes to allegation of the black arts. The article helpfully puts in context with a discussion of how the ‘wahhabi’ sect of Islam arose during an 18th C. reformation of Islam, attempting to purge it of pagan practices that had crept into it over the centuries. It goes on to note that superstitions are fairly widespread in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is a bit schizophrenic about it, though. Most talismans, for instance, are forbidden — which goes to explain why Christians are forbidden to wear crosses in public, but so too is the public wearing of the “Hand of Fatima” and other Islamic wards against magic. But wearing pieces of jewelry that contain Quranic verses is not rare, nor is it punished. Casting a curse or blessing on someone is illegal, except when it’s not. Clerics curse various countries and peoples and rarely receive criticism. It’s all in how it’s done… and, of course, where the ‘witch’ comes from.
The article is good, but could be much better. But then, it’d probably take a book, not just an article.
Saudi Arabia’s War on Witchcraft
A special unit of the religious police pursues magical crime aggressively, and the convicted face death sentences
The sorceress was naked.
The sight of her bare flesh startled the prudish officers of Saudi Arabia’s infamous religious police, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), which had barged into her room in what was supposed to be a routine raid of a magical hideout in the western desert city of Madinah’s Al-Seeh neighborhood. They paused in shock, and to let her dress.
The woman — still unclothed — managed to slip out of the window of her apartment and flee. According to the 2006 account of the Saudi Okaz newspaper, which has been described as the Arabic equivalent of the New York Post, she “flew like a bird.” A frantic pursuit ensued. The unit found their suspect after she had fallen through the unsturdy roof of an adjacent house and onto the ground next to a bed of dozing children.
They covered her body, arrested her, and claimed to uncover key evidence indicating that witchcraft had indeed been practiced, including incense, talismans, and videos about magic. In the Al Arabiya report, a senior Islamic cleric lamented that the incident had occurred in a city of such sacred history. The prophet Muhammad is buried there, and it is considered the second most holy location in Islam, second to Mecca. The cleric didn’t doubt the details of the incident. “Some magicians may ride a broom and fly in the air with the help of the jinn [supernatural beings],” he said.
The fate of this sorceress is not readily apparent, but her plight is common. Judging from the punishments of others accused of practicing witchcraft in Saudi Arabia before and since, the consequences were almost certainly severe.
Arab News reports that Saudi Arabia’s Council of Ministers — here called the Cabinet — has taken sweeping action to contain domestic violence in the Kingdom. The change in laws now requires the police to take action when complaints are made, something vastly different from the hands-off approach of the past. Due to cultural factors and social values, what happened within a home was seen as off-limits to officials. Now, complaints must be taken seriously. Unstated penalties will be assessed on abusers and protection of complainants will be given. Those who complain will also be protected against publicity.
The move, while welcomed by human rights groups, does not go far enough, they say. The problem of guardianship still remains. Under Saudi law and custom, a woman’s guardian must accompany her in all official actions. Police are hesitant, too, to enter a home where there is no male guardian present. These are legitimate concerns, but fixing them is going to much more difficult than addressing criminal behavior.
KSA declares war on domestic abuse
JEDDAH: RIMA AL-MUKHTAR & ROB L. WAGNER
In a landmark decision, the Cabinet on Monday passed a law making it a crime to commit domestic abuse. The law also provides treatment and shelter to victims of violence.
For the first time, public and private sector workers have been encouraged to report abuse cases to law enforcement authorities or the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The legislation now holds law enforcement agencies accountable for investigating and prosecuting domestic cases. Previously, police treated violence against women and children as a private domestic matter with few legal consequences.
Abuse victims also will have access to psychological treatment, health care and shelter. “All civilian or military employees and all workers in the private sector who learn of a case of abuse — by virtue of their work — shall report the case to their employers when they know it,” the Cabinet said in a statement. “The employers shall report the case to the Ministry of Social Affairs or police when they know it.”
The Cabinet did not provide specifics of penalties for convictions of domestic violence.
Arab News runs an analytical piece from Agence France Presse that takes a look at ‘Arab Spring’ and what it has accomplished. It has accomplished the feat of turning a turbulent region into a chaotic one.
The article summarizes studies from a variety of European think-tanks, all of whom see little room for improvement in the situation over the short term. They seem to focus the blame on the politicians who have over-promised in their policies as well as the zero-sum attitudes toward politics in general. No one is willing to compromise and all positions are pushed to their extreme limits. The results are uniformly bad, with paralysis in government only the best outcome and bloody civil war the worst. What is uniformly lacking is any sense of tolerance to opinion or policy that differs from that held by the ruling parties.
Arab Spring: What went wrong?
Bloodbath in Egypt, civil war in Syria, stalemate in Tunisia: The Arab Spring has stoked turmoil because of a lack of maturity among the region’s new political class, analysts say.
When popular uprisings swept away long-standing dictators in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in 2011, hopes were running high for a smooth transition and a fresh start.
But this year’s violence in Egypt and Tunisia, along with Syria’s bloody civil war, shows that the Arab world is still plagued by often deadly political unrest.
“Arab countries are entering a turbulent period of change, which will likely see even more domestic violence, polarization and regional competition,” said Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Nearly 900 people, mostly supporters of ousted President Muhammad Mursi, have been killed in a crackdown across Egypt since Aug. 14 when security forces moved to clear two protest camps in Cairo. Unrest escalated further with a deadly attack by suspected militants in the restive Sinai Peninsula on Monday that killed 25 members of the security forces. The crisis has swept away most of the gains from the uprising against long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011, “especially the multi-party system with the entry of the Islamists into politics and the first democratic elections,” said Sophie Pommier, an expert on the Arab world at Sciences-Po University in Paris.
“Egypt is going to the wall. The actors are incapable of political compromise,” Pommier said. “If the Muslim Brotherhood is dissolved, they will cross a red line,” Pommier warned.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has come out calling for Saudis to stop their (recently acquired) custom of kissing hands to show respect (or fealty). This is not the first time the King has criticized the practice, but he’s now coming out as totally against it.
There is a Bedouin practice of kissing various body parts — forehead, nose, shoulders, etc. — to show respect, but Saudi Arabia isn’t a Bedouin country anymore. The practice, says the head of the Islamic Committee of the Shoura Council, should be reserved to parents and a few others, but only as an act of respect, not subservience.
The practice of hand-kissing returns to spark controversy in Saudi Arabia. Some people reject it as humiliating; others support it as an act of respect.
Among those who oppose this practice is Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.
“I announce from where I stand my complete rejection of this matter and I ask everyone to do accordingly and refrain from kissing hands except for parents, honoring them,” the king said in a previous statement.
Recently Twitter users circulated photos of some preachers smiling while having their hands kissed.
In some regions of the kingdom traditional hand-kissing used to be common, but it is now mainly considered as disrespectful.
Some people say that only parents or elderly relatives should have their hands kissed, in a display of love and respect.
In an Op-Ed piece for Asharq Alawsat, Mohamed Al Rumaihi writes a useful reminder that just because you saw it in a film doesn’t necessarily make it so.
He’s commenting on the way supporters of both the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents in Egypt seem to believe that whatever is happening, it’s all due to the US. “The US support the Brotherhood!” cries one side; “The US supports the Army!” cries the other. Both believe, or seem to believe, that the US is omnipotent, that it can just make things happen, usually to the detriment of Arabs and/or Muslims.
If only! Were the US truly omnipotent, it would surely act to force things in directions that benefit it. It might try, but it also signally fails. Those failure ought to suggest that its power is actually rather more limited than imagined. Even if Hollywood films tend to show that Americans win in the end — a supposition of Al Rumaihi’s that I’m not quite prepared to accept — actual history, which is both knowable and should be known, ought to teach the American power is not unlimited, not always correctly applied even for American interests, and, just like any other human endeavor, is subject to human failings and flaws.
Hollywood is not a reliable teacher. Not only are its stories simplified to fit a format, but they are also written and directed to promote specific points of view. Sometimes these films intentionally distort what we know of history; sometimes they only ignore the importance of what they seek to portray. They are no panacea for ignorance, but instead often drive ignorance into stupidity.
Opinion: Thanks to Hollywood, Arabs have an inflated sense of US power
Mohamed Al Rumaihi
In the 1960s, Mutiny on the Bounty was screened in Egyptian cinemas. It was jokingly rumored that the then-president, Gamal Abel Nasser, told his PR manager to send a telegram in support of the rebels. The joke is not only cruel, but also bitter. It indirectly mocks Nasser’s readiness to support any “rebellion,” on the assumption that all rebels have experienced injustice.
It appears that history is repeating itself. The political forces in the Arab region have failed to realize that the main catalyst of the events has been internal, not external, and that outside players offer nothing more than verbal condemnation.
Both sides of the conflict in Egypt claim that the US supports the other side. There is no need to cite examples given that anyone overseeing the media, whether written or audiovisual, can hear and see the accusations both sides exchange.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s slogans and stances are clear. They not only condemn the US for siding with what they call the “Putschists,” they also adopt delusory slogans like “Down with America” and “Down with Israel.” At the same time, the Brotherhood praises the stance of Senator John McCain and his colleagues to the extent that they claim that US politicians are on the side of Mohamed Mursi.
In contrast, many media outlets and politicians in Egypt accuse the US of supporting and empowering the Brotherhood in Egypt, while still expecting them to establish friendly relations with Israel on the other. Nevertheless, wise viewers will realize that politicians twist facts in order to win supporters and tarnish the reputation of their rivals.
Reader Fahad Nazer calls my attention to a series of brief pieces in Sada Journal, a product of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on the stability of Saudi Arabia.
They make for interesting reading, but I’m not sure they’re all definitive. The piece that sees the Eastern Province as a “bellwether for the Kingdom”, for instance, lacks any mention of Iran’s meddling. That makes a big difference in how non-Shi’a Saudis view events in the area as well as providing the government with a tool — to use wisely or not — in framing the issues (which are real) and in forming its response to disruptions in the Eastern Province.
Still, it’s worth a few minutes of your time to read all of the articles.
An interesting Op-Ed in Asharq Alawsat today pointing out that using contemporary social media to spread a political message does not mean that the message is necessarily contemporary.
Marshall McLuhan‘s oft-cited trope about the medium being the message falls a bit short here, Yousef Al-Dayni insists. The medium — assorted social media like Facebook and Twitter — are simply the medium. The content of what is being said and spread is not suddenly hip and reflective of youthful trends, but instead is being used by every part of the political and relgio-political spectrum. With 70% of the Arab population under the age of 25, it’s not at all surprising that they will seize upon the new media. But it not to be expected that the use of new media suddenly imbues wisdom on the user, either. Nor does the cacophony of voices and messages make it easy to parse out what’s worth reading or listening to.
Opinion: The rise of the digital radicals
Wise people, even the supporters of the so-called “Arab Spring,” admit that the current intellectual atmosphere, following these difficult years, is in a state of crisis on the level of ideas and practices, and that youth are both the fuel and victim of this crisis. Popular revolutions (or protests) wherever they were and whatever they led to, suffered from a crisis of intellectual leadership. Later the non-political elites withdrew from the limelight to avoid being branded as supporters of tyranny, leaving only the helpless political elites—which suffers from severe state of confusion due to the gap between them and the younger generation—on the field.
They say that numbers do not lie. According to the figures, the youth is the main victim of chaos. In spite of all the plaudits the younger generation receives for its use of technology, those with a broader view of the scene can see that the majority of the intellectual products of the young generation suffer from a severe a crisis of content. This is the case with the youth even though they are creative on the level of tools and means of distribution, as well as the digital sphere that has become a hotbed for half-baked, even false, subject matter.
If the total Arab population is approximately 400 million, those under the age of 25 make up approximately 70% of the total, of whom nearly 84% use the internet. Of that 84%, approximately 40% spend 5 hours on the internet per day. You can imagine that the content of what is being distributed online during this crisis is primarily of a radical nature. The period spanning the decline of the religious awakening, the post-9/11 era, and the acts of terrorism the region witnessed, marked the climax of the production of radical extremist discourse that replaced thought with Takfirism.
… This is not limited to the youth in the countries that witnessed the Arab Spring revolutions, where the sense of patriotism and state sovereignty have declined. Youth outside the Arab-Spring countries, such as the Gulf states, are not better off. Apart from religious extremism and terrorism, many maladies can be observed in these countries. In fact two discourses can be spotted in the Gulf youth, both worrisome: first, a discourse of return to inflated concepts of the self and the clan, which is also riven by regional and sectarian biases. Second, a discourse that can be described as “intellectually radical” in terms of the concepts of state, authority and general political issues.
And interesting and surprising piece from Abdulateef Al-Mulhim in Arab News on the stereotypical Saudi male headdress, the ghutrah (also known as the keffiyeh or shamagh.
While Gulf Arabs always covered their heads as protection against the sun and blowing sand and dust, the Ghutrah in its current form appears to be a recent development. According to Al-Mulhim, contemporary headdress traces it roots to England, with the material itself coming from Switzerland. He says that the ghutrah is undergoing the same fashion development as women’s abayas, with more attention being paid to the flair of it rather than its simple utility. He notes, too, that the way the ghutrah is worn can serve as a geographic (and therefore also nationality) identifier. Different regions and different countries have their own way of wearing it.
The black eqal, the cords that hold the ghutrah on the head, are also a recent development, he says. Prior to the modern period, any old piece of rope or cord would serve, but the black became standard when the ghutrah started becoming standardized. I was taught — which doesn’t necessarily make it correct — that the eqal was originally a camel hobble, the rope tied around a camels front legs to prevent it wandering away. When not in use, it needed to be stored, and on the top of the head, functionally holding down the ghutrah was as good a place as any. But fashion and style have an impact, even where you might least expect it. Black is the new black.
Ghutrah — who designed it?
There are quite a few frequently asked questions on the origin, significance and utility of the Saudi men’s national headdress called Ghutrah. Is it worn to keep away the heat from the scorching desert sun? Is there any connection between the black color of Eqal, the headband which holds the Ghutrah, and the black Abhaya worn by Saudi women? Has the Ghutrah evolved in style and presentation over the years?
These and many other questions about the Ghutrah, I felt, warranted some background explanation on this national headdress of Saudi men, particularly after the many responses I got for an earlier article I wrote titled “A young American girl and Saudi Abhaya.”
Not many may be aware that the present day favorite in the Kingdom — red and white-checkered Ghutrah — has its roots in far away London. It arrived in Saudi Arabia only a few decades ago. Many Saudi men also wear white Ghutrah, which is worn with Takeyah (also called Kufyah), worn on the head underneath the Ghutrah, and the black Eqal. The Ghutrah is a squared cloth folded into a triangle.
Al Arabiya TV republishes an opinion piece that first appeared in Asharq Alawsat that laments the way in which the political revolutions taking place in the Middle East have now become sectarian battlefields. As a result, those who might give support to those determined to get rid of tyrants have their hands stayed by the fact that opposition has been usurped by religious extremism. Where one might be willing to help on political grounds, one will stay away if it means getting entangled in religious battles, particularly when the lines are not clear and the motives very mixed.
Where the US might be willing — as the writer notes — to oppose the Syrian government on political and human rights grounds, it is not willing to do so if it empowers groups that have an even worse human rights agenda than the Ba’athist regime’s. When religious minorities — including various Muslim sects, but also non-Muslims — have to seek protection from the Syrian government from depredations by religious extremists, the ‘opposition’ becomes just as much an ‘enemy’ of the US as the Syrian government.
Egypt presents a similar, though of course different set of problems. If the Muslim Brotherhood could potentially be a partner, or at least a rational interlocutor, its support for extremist groups puts it outside the pale. And if extremist groups are arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsi government are not religiously strict enough, then the issues become even more convoluted and confused.
Arab extremism and counter-extremism trends
Eyad Abu Shakra
Within days of each other, both France and Britain retreated from their initial enthusiasm to arm the Syrian opposition, adopting the U.S. stance on the issue under the pretext of “the growing influence of Takfirist groups” among the rebel forces fighting against the rule of Bashar al-Assad. On the other hand, the EU voted unanimously to consider Hezbollah’s “military wing” as a terrorist organization.
Many might find an attempt to achieve a sort of “equilibrium” in these two steps, particularly in terms of the West’s approach to the escalating crisis in the Arab Mashriq. Yet others might interpret this as an adoption of the U.S.’s negative stance towards both the Syrian revolution and its opponents regardless of the justifications for this stance, whether helplessness, reluctance or collusion.
Polarization in the region
One fact no sane analyst can ignore is that the state of polarization in the region is evolving in a manner that makes it impossible to continue to foster illusions and practice self-deception. The uncompromising factional discourse of both sides, whether we like it or not, has become a reality on the ground, and is threatening the region with dire consequences.
Even the most fervent supporters of the Syrian revolution have become apprehensive of the threat that radical Islamist groups pose. Even the pro-revolutionaries who warn against Iran’s regional ambitions are now worried about the radical Islamists’ threat to the future of the revolution, as well as the future of a unified Syria. This can best be seen in the public indignation towards radical Islamists’ transgressions in provinces of Syria where Sunnis constitute the majority, such as al-Raqa and Hasaka. It is worth mentioning here that most of these groups came to Syria after the popular uprising erupted.
The violations of these groups, including those claiming the Nusra—“support”—of the people of Syria, and others planning to establish an “Islamic state in Iraq and the Sham (i.e., the Levant)” have caused strong aversion among Sunnis. It is these same Sunnis who have a vital interest in not only uprooting an oppressive, factional, and corrupt regime dependent on open foreign support, but also preserving Syria’s unity under an Arab banner that is tolerant of religious, racial, and linguistic differences. This has become increasingly obvious in the latest developments along the borders in northeastern Syria, as well as in the course of military operations in central, north, and western Syria. The developments that we have witnessed truly threaten the country with division and partition.
These extremist trends which are actually seeking to “hijack,” or rather usurp, the Syrian revolution, claim to be deterring Iranian expansionism. On the other hand, Iran—along with its allies and followers—claims under its Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) theocracy to be leading a struggle against Takfirist groups and Arab regimes that gave up the jihad for the liberation of Palestine and instead signed a truce with the Israeli “enemy.” Ultimately, the behavior of both sides gives the Israeli extremists and their ilk—such as the Quran burning U.S. Pastor Terry Jones — a pretext to be even more extreme and intransigent in refusing to offer any concessions or compromise solution to the Palestinians, or co-exist with their Arab neighbors.
Arab News reports on the story making its way through Saudi-bashing forums about how Saudia — the national airline of Saudi Arabia — allegedly discriminates against Jews by not allowing them to transit the country on route to further destinations. As the Saudi Arabian Airlines spokesman reports, this is not a matter of religious discrimination. Jews can indeed transit the country, or enter it for that matter. Israelis however, no matter their religion, can not. This is because Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have diplomatic relations. Airlines do not carry passengers to a destination in which they cannot receive permission to enter, plain and simple.
The attempted ‘gotcha’ on the part of a New York politician fails because he neglected basic international law. Or, perhaps it succeeded in the eyes of those he’s trying to court through ignorance.
Saudia rejects ‘discrimination’ allegation
JEDDAH: JASSIM ABUZAID
Khaled Al-Molhem, director general of Saudi Arabian Airlines, has rejected allegations that his airline discriminated against nationalities but emphasized that it would uphold the sovereign rights of countries.
“We don’t discriminate against passengers on the basis of nationality and religion,” Al-Watan Arabic daily quoted Al-Molhem as saying while commenting on US media reports that Saudia did not allow an Israeli to board its flight.
“Diplomatic relations and political exchange are basic requirements for a person to enter a country,” the Saudia chief said indicating that Saudi Arabia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Al-Molhem made it clear: “We cannot accept a passenger if his country does not have political relations with Saudi Arabia because it would be impossible for him to enter the country.”