Arab News runs an article that introduces the newest members of King Salman’s Cabinet:
The new Cabinet announced by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman on Thursday has several appointees who are accomplished administrators with vast experience and expertise in their fields.
Azzam Al-Dakhil, the new minister of education, is also chief executive officer of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Charity Foundation (MISK). This is an organization founded by Prince Mohammed, who chairs its board of directors.
The organization works to enhance intellectual capital in Saudi Arabia, to help build a creative, knowledgeable society that nurtures young and talented leaders through developmental, educational and cultural projects.
An American think-tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sent out a newsletter remarking on cabinet changes. It notes the demotion of Pr. Bandar bin Sultan and others, as well as the shuttering of the National Security Council, the Supreme Petroleum Policy Council, and other advisory bodies. The newsletter’s general tone is that we’re seeing a shift toward the conservative end of the political spectrum and that political relations with the US are going to need some work to re-establish connections.
Princely Personalities Sidelined in Saudi Arabia
The latest shakeup among Saudi decisionmakers will require Washington to work on new relationships in Riyadh and perhaps reconfirm understandings reached at Tuesday’s summit.
Just two days after President Obama’s visit to Riyadh, King Salman has sacked several of the princes who met with the U.S. delegation. According to U.S. and Saudi reporting of the January 27 summit, talks between the two leaders were dominated by national security topics, including Iran, the “Islamic State”/ISIS, and Yemen. It is therefore surprising that the most senior departure is Prince Khaled bin Bandar, the head of Saudi intelligence, who sat near the king during the discussion. Although Khaled has been retained as an “advisor” to the king, this is usually thought of as an irrelevant position. He has been replaced by Khaled bin Ali bin Abdullah al-Humaidan, a nonroyal former general who was already a senior intelligence official.
Also out is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the secretary-general of the Saudi National Security Council, former ambassador to Washington, and former intelligence chief who was viewed as one of the late King Abdullah’s closest confidants. The NSC has now been abolished, along with the Supreme Petroleum Council and other top advisory bodies. Another casualty is King Abdullah’s son Prince Turki, the sacked governor of Riyadh province who had greeted President Obama at the airport and bid him farewell upon his departure. Prince Mansour bin Mitab bin Abdulaziz — the minister of municipalities and rural affairs who was in the welcoming line for the president — was also demoted to “advisor,” even though Salman had confirmed all current cabinet members only a week before. Mansour and his father before him had run the ministry for thirty-five years.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) has a lengthy piece in which he talks about Saudi succession and the issues facing the new king. Not surprisingly, those issues are the same as faced the former king.
Cordesman gently slaps those who were expecting some sort of crisis in succession. The Saudis have been doing this for some time now; they know how to do it.
He points out numerous areas of reform where progress must continue if the Kingdom is to meet its challenges. He sees no reason why it cannot do so. He sees no major shifts in foreign policy, alliances, or cooperation with other nations, particularly when it comes to fighting terrorism.
Saudi Arabia’s Smooth Succession: The King is Dead, Long Live the King
Once again, Saudi Arabia has managed its succession without problems, delay, or any signs of serious divisions within the royal family. One of its most competent and impressive kings has died, but the Crown Prince – Prince Salman – officially became king virtually at the time King Abdullah’s death was announced. Moreover, Prince Muqrin immediately became the full Crown Prince, ensuring that one of the youngest sons of Ibn Saud would become king or de facto ruler if Prince Salman became incapacitated or died.
Within less than 24 hours, the new King also announced a whole list of new appointments that gave the next generation of princes more power and helped prepare for the succession after Prince Muqrin:
Al Arabiya TV carries a piece from Associated Press noting that Google — who owns YouTube — will have another day in court today to argue that an earlier decision that forced it to take down the notorious video of “Innocence of Muslims” was erroneous. The earlier decision was based on the copyright claim of an actress who appeared in the film (for all of five seconds). Google is arguing that she did not have a valid copyright claim, but that the producer/director of the film did.
The court argument has nothing to do with the substance of the film, but is entirely based on copyright law, which is a mess in itself.
Associated Press – Los Angeles: A federal appeals court will reconsider a decision to order YouTube to take down an anti-Muslim film clip that sparked violence in the Middle East and death threats to the actors from those who considered it blasphemous to the Prophet Muhammad.
An 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena will hear arguments Monday by Google, which owns YouTube, disputing the court’s decision to remove “Innocence of Muslims” from the popular video sharing service.
A divided three-judge panel ruled in February that actress Cindy Lee Garcia had a copyright claim to the 2012 video because she believed she was acting in a much different production than the one that appeared.
Saudi Gazette reports on a student-operated radio station, out of Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, that brings Saudi Arabia a bit closer to the US. The station, run by three Saudis, combines music and talk, in English and Arabic. The station can be accessed online — according to the article — and receives calls-in from Saudi Arabia as well as the Gulf.
Three students in Pittsburg launch first Saudi-run radio station in US
Nicolla Hewitt | Saudi Gazette
THERE are estimated to be over 15,000 radio stations in the United States, but there’s only one that’s got people in Saudi Arabia listening – Gahwa Al Sareea – also known as “Evening Coffee.”
The radio show is being broadcast by students from the Kingdom who are currently studying at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania. It was the idea of Fahad Al-Fifi, who said, “I came up with this idea for a radio show about two months ago. I saw there were so many Arabic people in the Pittsburg area but nobody really understood how things worked here. So I went to our media department and asked if we could broadcast a show in English and in Arabic, so both communities could benefit. We really wanted to build a friendly bridge for both of us, and the university loved the idea.”
As of this semester there are over 7,000 students enrolled at Robert Morris University, nearly 400 of them are from Saudi Arabia. Located just outside of Pittsburgh, the university is named after Robert Morris, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence.
The Saudi government has a penchant to use international agreements to push reforms that might meet with widespread social disapproval. “The devil (in this case, whichever treaty or agreement) made me do it!” is a useful argument.
James Dorsey, at the Mideast Soccer blog, points to an example of the Saudi government using international agreements to leverage its own program of Saudization. The government announced that Saudi soccer clubs, as businesses, would be expected to comply with quotas on the number of foreign workers. The clubs are screaming that they’re different, that they won’t be able to hire foreign players in order to stay competitive.
I think the arguments a bit specious. Unless Saudi soccer is unique in the world, the majority of the employees of a club are not players or coaches. They are the hundreds of support personnel. Specific nationality, by accident or design, has no real bearing on the ability to get the work done. Requiring the clubs to hire more Saudis will not put them at a disadvantage.
Mounting anger among Saudi soccer clubs at their subjugation to quotas designed to encourage employment of Saudi nationals and reduce dependence on foreign labour illustrates problems encountered by wealthy Gulf countries in balancing the contradictory demands of labour markets, often lopsided demographics, social contracts involving a cradle-to-grave welfare state that creates unrealistic employment expectations, and organizations’ need to hire personnel on the basis of nationality rather than merit.
The clubs, many of which are owned by members and associates of the ruling Al Saud family but publicly funded, warned that a Labour Ministry decision to include them in a quota system intended to force the private sector to hire a larger number of Saudi nationals could disadvantage them by preventing them from hiring foreign talent.
The clubs’ complaint mirrors problems across the Gulf with government efforts to encourage preferential employment of nationals. The complaint is particularly stark given that the kingdom unlike smaller Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates still boasts a population in which nationals constitute a majority, if only a slim one. Qataris, for example, account for a mere six percent of the Qatari labour market, making the country wholly dependent on foreign labour with no prospect of altering the market balance.
The conservative Washington Times has a peculiar bit of crystal ball gazing. Writer S. Rob Sobhani posits that Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, son of the current king, may be next in line for Saudi Arabia’s throne. This overlooks the fact that there are two senior princes already in line to assume the throne on the demise of King Abdullah: Crown Prince Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin, both sons of the founder.
While Pr. Miteb may very well have a future in Saudi politics, it’s not going to be any time soon, barring some cataclysm.
The Saudi prince who could be king
S. Rob Sobhani
Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt met with King Abdulaziz aboard the USS Quincy in 1945, Saudi Arabia has been one of America’s most steadfast allies. The visit by one of the grandsons of King Abdulaziz to Washington this month provides a historic moment for the United States to reach out to the next possible ruler of a country that is consequential on the world stage and of enormous strategic importance to the U.S.
Miteb bin Abdullah is the son of the current ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah. Prince Miteb was born in Riyadh and did his military training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, graduating as a lieutenant and rising through the ranks of the Saudi military. Beginning a military career in the early 1980s, he eventually was appointed commander of the Saudi National Guard in November 2010 — a position previously held by King Abdullah himself — and later appointed minister of the National Guard in May 2013. He currently is a member of the Saudi Council of Ministers, the Military Service Council and vice president of the Supreme Committee of the National Festival for Heritage and Culture — the Janadriyah. Prince Miteb’s resume of appointments demonstrates the high level of regard he holds with his father as a capable and influential member of the next generation of Saudi royal family leadership.
Yet Prince Miteb’s influence is not merely owing to the number of appointments he enjoys, but rather the actions he has taken over the past few years. These actions are grounded in four fundamental principles. The first is the importance of stability within the broader Middle East. Prince Miteb understands that stability in countries such as Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen or Egypt prevents subversive regional actors from gaining undue influence. For example, in 2011 he ordered the National Guard to intervene in Bahrain, thus preventing an American ally (Bahrain is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet) from slipping away to Iranian influence and from creating further instability in the Persian Gulf.
Saudi analyst Fahad Nazer’s commentary on the attack on Shi’ite worshipers in Al-Ahsa runs in “The Hill,” an online news site aimed at US Capitol Hill. He points out not only the swift response by Saudi security personnel, but the widespread condemnation of the attack on the minority Shi’a population. From the highest levels of government to the man-on-the-street, the attack was seen as an atrocity.
He notes, too, that the Saudi government is taking efforts to reach out to the Shi’a community though those activities are not spelled out in the article.
A ruthlessly executed, deliberately timed attack by masked gunmen against a Shia religious center in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province earlier this month has caused some observers to maintain that it portends the spillover into the kingdom of the sectarian violence that has devastated both Syria and Iraq. There is little doubt that this unprecedented attack could have long-term repercussions for Sunni-Shia relations inside Saudi Arabia as well as far-reaching ramifications for the international community’s efforts against global terrorism. However, the Saudi public’s revulsion at the attack and widespread calls for “unity” from both Sunnis and Shia, in addition to the government’s quick actions and unequivocal rhetoric may actually usher in a new, more positive chapter in the Kingdom’s long-strained Sunni-Shia relations.
Nevertheless, it is clear that in the coming weeks and months, the Saudi government will have to utilize every tool at its disposal and rely on its long experience in the field of counterterrorism to prevent a repeat of this type of sectarian violence, while taking conciliatory measures towards its Shia citizens – as it has done already – to forestall a serious rupture in its often tenuous relations with them.
The attack against a Husseiniya – a Shia religious community center – in the Shia-majority governorship of Al Ahsa in Eastern Saudi Arabia has both shocked and repulsed Saudis for its brazenness, brutality and clear intent to foment sectarian strife.
Not only did the perpetrators pick the eve of the holiest Shia religious observance of Ashura, which commemorates the seventh century “martyrdom” of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein – marking the beginning of the still extant “schism” between Sunnis and Shia – they also displayed the ruthlessness that has become the hallmark of Al Qaeda and its offshoots. Several of those killed and injured were in fact children.
Saudi Gazette reports that the Associated Press release last week that suggested that Saudi Arabia was about to permit some women to drive was erroneous. The country’s Shoura Council — reported to have been discussing the issue — denies that it had recommended changes in the country’s prevailing practice.
The regulations the AP article reported are very much in line with what people expect to happen, but apparently the report is premature at best. The AP reporter, Ali Al-Shihri, has been reliable, but it seems he got burned by his source on this story. It’s entirely possible that his source was trying to create new facts on the ground. Or to make sure they never happened.
Shoura denies reports on women driving
Saudi Gazette report
RIYADH — Shoura Council spokesman Dr. Muhammad Al-Muhana denied reports published by foreign news agencies on Friday that the Council has approved women driving.
The Shoura Council has not issued any decisions regarding women driving, Al-Madina Arabic daily quoted Dr. Al-Muhana as saying on Saturday.
The Associated Press quoted a Shoura Council member without identifying him or her that the Council made the recommendations in a closed session held in the past month. Under the said recommendations, only women over 30 would be allowed to drive and they would need permission from a male relative — usually a husband or father, but lacking those, a brother or son. They would be allowed to drive from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday through Wednesday and noon to 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.
The said conditions also require that a woman driver wear modestly and no make-up, the official was quoted as saying by the news agency. Within cities, they can drive without a male relative in the car, but outside of cities, a male is required to be present.
Writing at Foreign Policy, Caryle Murphy — who has spent considerable time in Saudi Arabia — reports that the fundamentalist view of Islam promoted by the state and supported by large parts of the population, is coming under pressure.
On both social and political fronts, the most conservative aspects of the “authorized” Salafist interpretation of Islam is being questioned by Saud youth. They do not, of course, have the field to themselves. There are those who continue to see the government as too liberal, too inclined to “succumb to foreign influence.” The government itself has vested interests, of course. But increasingly, individual Saudis are willing to question the assertions that have been drilled into them since early school years. Some, indeed, are willing to acknowledge their agnosticism or atheism, knowing that they could be legally punished for expressing such views.
The article is worth reading in its entirety.
Questioning the Faith in the Cradle of Islam
In Saudi Arabia, a new generation is pushing back against the government’s embrace of fundamentalism. But is the kingdom ready for nonbelievers?
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Ahmed al-Ghamdi’s long, bushy beard and red-checked headscarf are emblems of his conservative approach to Islam, which is no surprise for a man who once supervised the Saudi religious police in the holy city of Mecca.
But it was something surprising about Ghamdi that brought me to his apartment in a scruffy, low-income section of Jeddah in the sweltering summer of 2011. I wanted to know why he had announced that, after extensive research, he could find no Islamic basis for Saudi society’s most distinctive feature: its strict gender segregation.
As his wife, sister, and mother listened in with obvious pride, Ghamdi explained that he could no longer take “at face value” religious rulings that gender mixing is haram — that is, religiously prohibited. “I wanted to go to their underpinnings, so I began collecting all the texts relating to this matter from the Quran and the Sunna [examples from the life and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed],” he said. “My conclusion was that not a single text or verse in the Quran and Sunna specifically says that mixing is haram. The word ‘mixing’ is not even in the Quran.”
Instead, he said he found plenty of texts “that proved that mixing happened at the time of Prophet Mohammed” and that “it is just another part of normal life.”
Over at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), Anthony Cordesman takes a look at US polices affected by the conflict with ISIS and doesn’t much like what he sees. ISIS, Syria, and Iraq remain problems that current US strategy seems unable to deal with other than by temporizing.
Keeping balls in the air may delay the disaster of their falling to the ground, but fall they will. When they land, they’re going to be landing in places like Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The Imploding U.S Strategy in the Islamic State War?
It is too early to say that the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State is imploding, but it is scarcely too soon to question whether this is possible. In fact, it is far from clear that the original U.S. strategy ever planned to deal with the complications that have arisen since President Obama officially announced a portion of what that strategy really had to be.
The Non-Strategy for Dealing with the Islamic State
To begin with, the basic goal of degrading and destroying the Islamic State always bordered on the ridiculous. It was always clear that some form of violent Islamic extremism would survive any combination of U.S. air attacks, Iraqi efforts to clear Iraq on the ground, and the limited capabilities of the Free Syrian Army. In fact, senior U.S. defense officials and military officers have repeatedly made this clear by limiting the objective to “degrade” and noting that the struggle against violent religious extremism would go on for years if not more than a decade.
Saudi media are replete with articles about the fight against IS, Nusra Front, and others. Saudi Gazette quotes Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal’s explanation of why Saudi Arabia is involved and the importance to the Kingdom of taking part in an international coalition against it. Keeping Saudi society on-side is going to be an important objective of the government.
Why did Saudi Arabia join anti-IS air strikes in Syria?
Saudi Gazette report
JEDDAH — Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud Al-Faisal stressed that his country will not hesitate to participate in any serious international effort seeking to mobilize and intensify action against terrorism wherever it occurs and whatever its motives.
This came in a speech delivered at the Global Counter Terrorism Forum in New York City on Tuesday as Saudi Arabia’s Air Forces participated in US-led bombing strikes against militants linked to the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria.
“We meet today as we are witnessing a concerted international effort to combat terrorism with active participation of the regional group and the United States to fight the most dangerous terrorist organization in the region inside the Syrian territories,” Prince Saud said.
He hoped that such an act will form the first nucleus of an international coalition to fight terrorism wherever it exists and whatever its justifications or reasons and without discrimination between sex, color or doctrine.
“We hope to continue this alliance for eliminating this scattered evil currently threatening the region and the world. Terrorism has distorted the image of Islam and Muslims,” he said.
Arab News reports that the son of the Minister of Defense was one of the pilots who flew in the raids. It notes that the pilots — who were named and shown in the media — have received death threats from IS supporters.
KSA throws full weight behind war on IS terror
RIYADH: Ghazanfar Ali Khan
The son of Crown Prince Salman, minister of defense, was among the eight Saudi airmen who took part in a US-led airstrike against Islamic State (IS) targets on Tuesday.
Prince Khaled bin Salman, a pilot, took part in the operations, sabq.org newspaper reported on Wednesday, much to the pride of his father, who expressed admiration at the team’s professionalism and bravery in standing up to the enemies of Islam.
A large number of Saudis, meanwhile, sent tweets praising the valor of Saudi pilots.
Saudi Arabia pledged stronger cooperation with the international community in combating terrorism.
“Saudi efforts will continue to eliminate terror outfits, including the IS,” said Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting.
And just to keep the testosterone levels in check, Arab News also reports that a female pilot led the UAE’s strike force in the raids:
Writing at The Wall St. Journal, Ahmed Al Omran — formerly known as “Saudi Jeans” — argues that Saudi participation in the raids shows that it is willing to take the risk of creating domestic unhappiness in the face of a far greater danger.
Long-time Middle East correspondent Chris Dickey writes at “The Daily Beast” website that the Royal Saudi Air Force was involved in last nights raids on ISIS facilities in Syria. It joined the US along with Jordanian, the Emirates, and the Bahraini air forces.
…The air strikes over Syria, participated in directly by the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain, represent “the beginnings of a real Arab defense force,” the Saudi source said optimistically. Other Arab states, including Qatar and Kuwait, reportedly provided or facilitated logistical support.