The Washington Post runs an article from the Associated Press, under a somewhat exaggerated headline, noting that the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna is coming in for criticism.
The critics want the Center to condemn Saudi human rights abuses which include capital punishment, flogging, and jailing Saudi critics. Supporters say that Austria, Spain, the Vatican and others were well aware of the status of human and religious rights in Saudi Arabia before they signed on to support the Center. What’s more, human rights aren’t exactly the issue the Center was formed to address. It was set up to provide a venue where people of different religions could meet and discuss issues of religion as well as to create value by demonstrating that they could do that without calling each other pagans and apostates.
VIENNA — Austria was enthusiastic when Saudi Arabia said it was ready to bankroll a center for religious and cultural understanding in Vienna — but two years after its launch, the desert kingdom’s foray into promoting a more open society abroad while continuing to repress rights at home is in tatters.
Its vice president, a former Austrian justice minister, has quit over comments interpreted as downplaying Saudi beheadings. And the center’s silence over the flogging of a Saudi blogger for criticizing Islam has drawn weekly street protests and condemnation from Austria’s chancellor — who said the nation “will not tolerate” the center’s refusal to repudiate Saudi human rights violations.
“I believe that the center needs to be done away with,” said demonstrator Norbert Brandl outside the turn of the century downtown palace housing KAICIID — the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. “Either that or it has to speak up against these unbelievable incidents.”
The American Interest blog runs a brief analysis about why Saudi Arabia is comfortable with — if not exactly thrilled about — today’s lower oil prices.
With oil trading at less than half of what it was last June, plenty of market observers have been surprised by OPEC’s decision not to scale back output to set a floor to the price. One compelling reason is that the cartel’s largest member is well prepared to ride out this bear market. The EIA reports:
In addition to having the second-largest proved oil reserves—268 billion barrels, or 16%, of the world total in 2014, behind only Venezuela’s 298 billion barrels—Saudi Arabia has a massive sovereign wealth fund (SWF) that will enable it to weather lower oil prices. To maintain spending at the same level as in the past, Saudi Arabia would need to tap its SWF, which currently has $733 billion, or about 19 times its expected 2015 budget shortfall of $39 billion. Consequently, the short-term effect of lower oil prices on Saudi Arabia should be minimal. In contrast, OPEC’s decision to keep crude oil production near present levels, keeping supply high and prices low, has affected the budgets of members that lack Saudi Arabia’s financial reserves.
The Washington Post runs an analysis of human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. The piece notes that the Kingdom receives low marks on whatever metric is being used to measure liberty interests, including women’s rights, free speech, and religious freedom. The quandary is that most Saudis are not calling for changes in the way things work and, what’s more, it has been the government at the forefront of change and liberalization.
The US government, the article notes, is not eager to get involved in pushing for reform when there’s no popular support for reform. It would rather leave it to the Saudi government to implement changes at a pace acceptable to Saudi society.
The article also points to the question marks hanging over the changes in government following the ascension of King Salman, not noted as a reformer himself.
For almost 70 years, Saudi Arabia has been a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East. The relationship, which famously opened in a meeting on the Suez Canal between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first Saudi king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, is based around shared concerns about regional security and crude oil supplies. It has proved remarkably durable, despite a rapidly changing world.
Over the past few months, however, something seems to have shifted. Americans and other Westerners seem to have grown more and more skeptical about the true nature of their ally. In particular, an unusual set of circumstances — including the fearsome rise of the Islamic State, the death of Saudi King Abdullah and renewed concerns about Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks — has led to a significant public debate about Saudi Arabia’s true values.
One particular source of concern has been the state of human rights in the country, highlighted by a spate of public executions and the high profile punishment of liberal blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” last year.
Al Arabiya TV reports on The Washington Post‘s retraction of stories that questioned the health of Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman. The withdrawal (which I cannot find online at the Post‘s site) of the reporting is said to be because there was no supporting information on the allegation. Given that high-level USG officials met with the King (and others with his advisors and those of the former king), I’d expect some sort of comment on his health if it were detected.
The Washington Post has retracted and published a correction relating to claims it made regarding Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdelaziz suffering of dementia, a false claim which the paper later described as “too speculative and unsubstantiated.”
The Post said it retracted the statement because it did not meet its “standards for publication.”
The Post responded to Al Arabiya News’s request for clarification explaining that as the Editor’ Note has previously indicated the claims were “too speculative and unsubstantiated to meet The Post’s standards for publication. (These assertions were variously attributed to “said to be” (May 27, 2014), “reportedly” (Jan. 23) and “widely believed” (Jan. 24). The only specific attribution came in the Jan. 24 piece, which quoted The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Simon Henderson, which The Post claims is “an authority on Saudi Arabia and succession issues.”
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.