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Crown Prince Mohammed reform: Saudi Arabia attacks high level corruption

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Saudi Arabia, the birthplace as well as spiritual home of Islam, has been in news in recent years as it makes strenuous efforts to enhance its global profile as a leader of (Sunni) Islamic world. It managed the Arab Spring so well that though the phenomenon had struck entire Arab world, starting from Tunisia, just passed by that nation without making any real impact on the Saudi life and politics.

However, Saudi government and the king himself were in anxiety and despair until the “spring” died down.

The fact that Saudi Arabians and royal families are corrupt like other materialistic countries has shocked the world as they thought Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of holy Prophet of Islam, was free from bribery and corruption and Saudi kingdom is a nation of honest people.   

Corruption is rampant in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The ruling classes and their allies, close relatives are engaged in wealth creation activities by engaging themselves in corrupt practices.

As the first ever Arab leader Saudi king Salman bins Abdulaziz Al Saud, through his son Crown Prince Mohammad, is now seen taking bold steps to cleanse the Saudi system off corruption and give Islamic laws due place in the system that would g a long way streamlining the Islamic governance in Islamic world beyond Arab nations.

All of a sudden Saudi government under Crown Prince Mohammad decided to check growth of corruption in the Islamic nation, found even many of the royal families within the government corrupt, arrested and put them in jail.  According to initial report, at least 11 princes, four current ministers and several former ministers had been detained in the anti-corruption probe.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Salman has dismissed a number of senior ministers and detained nearly a dozen princes in an investigation by a new anti-corruption committee on Saturday. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire businessman who owns investment firm Kingdom Holding, was among those held. The senior ministers who were sacked include Prince Mitaab bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard.

Those involved in  the historic corruption scandal of Saudi kingdom include: Alwaleed bin Talal, owner of Kingdom Holding group; Prince Mitaab bin Abdullah, minister of the National Guard; Prince Turki bin Abdullah, former governor of Riyadh ; Prince Turki bin Nasser, former head of meteorology, environment; Waleed al-Ibrahim, chairman of MBC media group; Khaled al-Tuwaijri, former president of the Royal Court; Adel Faqih, minister of economy and planning; Amr al-Dabbagh, former president of the General Investment Authority; Saleh Abdullah Kamel, chairman of Dallah al Baraka Group; Saud al-Tobaishi, head of Royal ceremonies and protocols; Ibrahim al-Assaf, state minister and executive of Saudi Aramco; Bakr Binladin, owner of construction company Saudi Binladin Group; Saud al-Dawish, former CEO of Saudi Telecom Company; Khaled al-Mulhem, former director general of Saudi Arabian Airlines.

In a statement Salman alluded to the “exploitation by some of the weak souls” who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money” for the creation of the anti-graft committee.

The detentions follow a crackdown in September on political opponents of Saudi Arabia’s rulers that saw some 30 clerics, intellectuals and activists detained. Prince Alwaleed, a flamboyant character, has sometimes used his prominence as an investor to aim barbs at the kingdom’s rulers. In December 2015, he called then-US presidential candidate Donald Trump a “disgrace to all America” and demanded on Twitter that he withdraw from the election.

The arrested officials are believed to be being housed in the five-star Ritz Carlton Hotel, which two weeks ago held a high-profile investment summit under the auspices of Prince Mohammed. The convention centre next door was used to receive Donald Trump in May, when the US president travelled to Saudi Arabia to reset relations with his country’s long-term ally, which had deteriorated under the Obama administration that had pivoted to Iran.

Saudis really are on the brink of dramatic changes.  In 2015, Mohammed bin Salman became minster of defence. Just a few months ago, he became the head of all the internal security forces because they got rid of the Mohammed bin Nayef, then crown prince. Now he’s taken control of the third most important security apparatus within the country, so he has defence, he is in control of interior and now he is in control of the guards.

Clearly he has the stage set. Clearly all the heads of all the major media networks, newspapers, and commentators were all already groomed, set in motion in order to defend the crown prince and his policies. There are already new songs for the crown prince and his glory, so internally they are definitely setting the stage in terms of the three security apparatuses, the media and so on.

President Trump has given his blessings and support to the crown prince Mohammad with the hundreds of billions of dollars of promised contracts, so he’s certainly supporting his various ambitions in the region, most importantly that of the confrontation with Iran in the region. This is something that Trump really wants as well as apparently a promised rapprochement with Israel.

Rise of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia houses the holiest Mosques of Islam. As the motherland of Islam, Saudi Arabia was a poor nation until oil was discovered last century.  

Saudi Arabia is geographically the fifth-largest state in Asia and second-largest state in the Arab world after Algeria. Saudi Arabia is bordered by Jordan and Iraq to the north, Kuwait to the northeast, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to the east, Oman to the southeast and Yemen to the south. It is separated from Israel and Egypt by the Gulf of Aqaba. It is the only nation with both a Red Sea coast and a Persian Gulf coast and most of its terrain consists of arid desert and mountains.

Discovery of oil greatly enhanced the economic and financial prowess of Saudi kingdom. Petroleum was discovered on 3 March 1938 and followed up by several other finds in the Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia has since become the world’s largest oil producer and exporter, controlling the world’s second largest oil reserves and the sixth largest gas reserves. The kingdom is categorized as a World Bank high-income economy with a high Human Development Index and is the only Arab country to be part of the G-20 major economies. However, the economy of Saudi Arabia is the least diversified in the Gulf Cooperation Council, lacking any significant service or production sector, apart from the extraction of resources.

Saudi Arabia is heavily dependent on oil for income and has been suffering since oil prices crashed from more than $100 a barrel in 2014. The kingdom has been desperately trying to diversify its economy away from the commodity, but is still focused on trying to raise oil values and restore its main income source. Saudi Arabia’s risky plot to raise oil prices to save its economy has failed sending the country into crisis. The kingdom tried to manipulate prices by slashing output to increase demand, but the plan backfired as US shale producers continued to pump more oil. Prices have fallen as low as $43 a barrel and remained well below $50 since the end of May when OPEC announced its plans to tackle oversupply. OPEC members Libya and Nigeria were previously exempt from the cap announced in May, but desperate OPEC and Saudi could now pressure the two countries to comply in the hope of denting supply. Russia has already called on OPEC to cap output from Nigeria and Libya in the near future and it will be interesting to see if any new agreements are proposed for both nations to join the oil production cut agreement. 

Among the challenges to Saudi economy include halting or reversing the decline in per capita income, improving education to prepare youth for the workforce and providing them with employment, diversifying the economy, stimulating the private sector and housing construction, diminishing corruption and inequality.

In addition to petroleum and gas, Saudi also has a small gold mining sector in the Mahd adh Dhahab region and other mineral industries, an agricultural sector, especially in the southwest, based on dates and livestock, and large number of temporary jobs created by the roughly two million annual Hajj pilgrims. Virtually all Saudi citizens are Muslim (officially, all are), and almost all Saudi residents are Muslim. Estimates of the Sunni population of Saudi Arabia range between 75% and 90%, with the remaining 10–25% being Shia Muslim. The official and dominant form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia is commonly known as Wahhabism.

According to estimates there are about 1,500,000 Christians in Saudi Arabia, almost all foreign workers. Saudi Arabia allows Christians to enter the country as foreign workers for temporary work. Americans enjoy special status in Saudi as they are not punished there for their crimes and there could be some CIA agents too among them. In 1980, Saudi Arabia bought out the American interests in Aramco.

Saudi Arabia’s command economy is petroleum-based; roughly 75% of budget revenues and 90% of export earnings come from the oil industry. Saudi Arabia officially has about 260 billion barrels of oil reserves, comprising about one-fifth of the world’s proven total petroleum reserves It is strongly dependent on foreign workers with about 80% of those employed in the private sector being non-Saudi.

Saudi Arabia is called in the West as a monarchical autocracy.  Saudi Arabia is considered a regional and middle power.  Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer in 2010–2014. By 1976, Saudi Arabia had become the largest oil producer in the world. King Khalid’s reign saw economic and social development progress at an extremely rapid rate, transforming the infrastructure and educational system of the country; in foreign policy, close ties with the USA were developed.

In 1979, two events occurred which greatly concerned the government, and had a long-term influence on Saudi foreign and domestic policy. The first was the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It was feared that the country’s Shi’ite minority in the Eastern Province which is also the location of the oil fields might rebel under the influence of their Iranian co-religionists. There were several anti-government uprisings in the region such as the 1979 Qatif Uprising. The second event was the Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca by Islamist extremists. The militants involved were in part angered by what they considered to be the corruption and un-Islamic nature of the Saudi government. The government regained control of the mosque after 10 days and those captured were executed. Part of the response of the royal family was to enforce a much stricter observance of traditional religious and social norms in the country (for example, the closure of cinemas) and to give the Ulema a greater role in government. Neither entirely succeeded as Islamism continued to grow in strength. 

This partly explains why Saudi kingdom is touchy of Sunni branch of Islam and opposes Iran, accusing it of fomenting troubles in Sunni nations. .

King Khalid died of a heart attack in June 1982. He was succeeded by his brother, King Fahd, who added the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” to his name in 1986 in response to considerable fundamentalist pressure to avoid use of “majesty” in association with anything except God. Fahd continued to develop close relations with the USA and increased the purchase of American and British military equipment. Saudi used a good part of its income from oil sales on terror goods from USA, UK and other western countries.

As the USA began pushing its own religious and capitalist agenda in the nation of Islam, many Saudis opposed Washington and Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West began to cause growing concern among some of the ulema and students of sharia law and was one of the issues that led to an increase in Islamist terrorism in Saudi Arabia, as well as Islamist terrorist attacks in Western countries

The vast wealth generated by oil revenues was beginning to have an even greater impact on Saudi society. It led to rapid technological modernisation, urbanization, mass public education and the creation of new media. This and the presence of increasingly large numbers of foreign workers greatly affected traditional Saudi norms and values. Although there was dramatic change in the social and economic life of the country, political power continued to be monopolized by the royal family leading to discontent among many Saudis who began to look for wider participation in government

In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia spent $25 billion in support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran–Iraq War. However, Saudi Arabia condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and asked the US to intervene.[55] King Fahd allowed American and coalition troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia.

Hidden economy and rampant corruption

Oil made many poor Arabs rich and billionaires in a few years and they also began looting the nation’s resources by all possible means. In fact, Saudi is  no difference from other corrupt nations like India, Pakistan or USA or UK.

Arabs make huge sums and wealth, both legitimate and illegal. The line between public funds and royal money is not always clear in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy ruled by an Islamic system in which most law is not systematically codified and no elected parliament exists. WikiLeaks cables have detailed the huge monthly stipends that every Saudi royal receives as well as various money-making schemes some have used to finance lavish lifestyles.

Most of rich Arabs keep their wealth in USA and UK. Trump responded in typically combative terms accusing the prince of wanting to control “our politicians with daddy’s money”. Trump tweeted: “Dopey Prince Alwaleed_ Talal wants to control our US politicians with daddy’s money. His father, Prince Talal, is considered one of the most vocal supporters of reform in the ruling Al Saud family, having pressed for a constitutional monarchy decades ago”. Al-Waleed had in fact recently promised to donate all his wealth to charity – although he had years earlier purchased a yacht from Trump, and according to Forbes’s profiles, shares the president’s predilection for mocked-up Time magazine covers apparently featuring his exploits.

Prince Al-Waleed a grandson of Saudi’s first ruler and son of a Saudi finance minister, has an estimated net worth of $17bn (£13bn), although he has used them for underestimating his own wealth. He came to prominence internationally as a major backer of Citigroup in the 1990s, and more so when continuing to back the firm as its value evaporated during the financial crisis. His investments extended into major media groups, with substantial stakes in Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, Apple, Time Warner, Twitter, and owning Rotana, whose TV channels broadcast widely across the Arab-speaking world.  He has reduced his share in NewsCorp, but his clout was such that an intervention in 2011 in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal was seen as the coup de grace for News International’s Rebekah Brooks, telling the Murdochs from his superyacht in Cannes that “she has to go”.

The investment group he set up in 1980, rebranded as the Kingdom Holding Company in 1996, also owns several global luxury hotel chains, as well as landmark properties such as London’s Savoy Hotel and the George V in Paris. More recently it has backed Uber’s rival ride-hailing firm Lyft. On Twitter in 2015 he called Donald Trump a “disgrace to America” after the Republican candidate floated the idea of a ban on Muslims, and he urged Trump to quit the campaign.

Prince Al-Waleed was an early advocate of women’s employment in Saudi Arabia – hiring a female pilot for his jets, at a time when there was no prospect of women driving on the ground, and speaking out against the driving ban before the regime agreed this year to lift it. His wife, Ameera, who he divorced in 2013, usually appeared unveiled.

Al-Waleed’s international profile was extraordinary – frequently seen with top politicians, Wall Street executives and British royals. But he was an unofficial public face of the Saudi kingdom rather than a key part of the ruling elite – a status underlined by his arrest in King Salman’s crackdown.

In a 2013 court case in London, a judge said that Prince Al-Waleed’s evidence in the witness box was “confusing and too unreliable” as he was forced to pay out in a business dispute. And while the prince already owns a Boeing 747 for his personal use, complete with throne, his ambition to have the world’s biggest superjumbo, the A380, refitted with a concert hall, Turkish baths, luxury suites and a parking bay for his Rolls Royce, remains unfulfilled. Despite placing an order with manufacturer Airbus in 2007 at the Dubai airshow, the plane remains on the tarmac in Toulouse to this day.

Hidden economies promote corruption more than the open ones. Transparency deficit automatically causes corruption on a large scale as it had happened in Russia and now happening in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan etc are ordinary third world countries without any definition of good governance and so corruption is the order of the system in these countries. 

The regime and system promote and encourage corruption as a state policy.  

Now Arab government seriously considers multi-pronged approach to diversify its economy from oil into other fields of economy, including industries, agriculture, services, military equipment production, modernization, etc.

The highest profile arrest in Saudi Arabia’s anti-corruption purge is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a multibillionaire with huge investments in western firms.  Prince Al-Waleed, 62 and one of the world’s richest men, has become one of the most familiar – and progressive – faces of Saudi in western media. While he has the lifestyle, jets, yacht and palace of a stereotypical Saudi billionaire, he has burnished a different image with interventions such as backing rights for Saudi women and denouncing President Trump on Twitter.

Arab leaders do not distinguish between their wealth and state wealth as they loot national resources  for private use.

Anti-corruption probe and purge for accelerated change

Earlier, former British PM Tony Blaire had to resign for serious charges, including ones related to bribery scandals involving top Saudi officals and ministers. But the issue was never raised in Saudi Arabia or Arab world. Saudi government and king himself were keen not to publicize the corruption sandals of their ministers or officals because that would bring bad name for the nation with Holy sites. But the king or government did  not purse anti-corruption drive to cleanse the system and  present a positive image of  Saudi Arabia. 

Now for the first time in modern Arabian history a King, namely Salman has ventured to contain corruption prevalent in Saudi life by his launch of the anti-corruption drive and catching the top culprits in the royal dynasty itself red handed. Well done.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has tightened his grip on power through an anti-corruption purge by arresting royals, ministers and investors including billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal who is one of the kingdom’s most prominent businessmen. Prince Alwaleed, a nephew of the king and owner of investment firm Kingdom Holding, invests in firms such as Citigroup and Twitter. He was among 11 princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers detained.

The purge against the kingdom’s political and business elite also targeted the head of the National Guard Prince Miteb bin Abdullah who was detained and replaced as minister of the powerful National Guard by Prince Khaled bin Ayyaf. News of the purge came after King Salman decreed the creation of an anti-corruption committee chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his 32-year-old favourite son who has amassed power since rising from obscurity three years ago.

The new anti-corruption body was given broad powers to investigate cases, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions, and seize assets. “The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable,” the royal decree said.

King Salman issued a statement saying that the committee shall “identify offences, crimes and persons and entities involved in cases of public corruption”. The committee has the power to issue arrest warrants, travel bans, disclose and freeze accounts and portfolios, track funds and assets, and “prevent their remittance or transfer by persons and entities, whatever they might be”, according to the statement.

The shake-up of the Saudi government comes just months after King Salman replaced his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef with his son Mohammed bin Salman as the kingdom’s crown prince. Mohammed bin Salman has been responsible for pushing through a number of changes both at home and abroad since he became first in line to the Saudi crown. Ian Black of the London School of Economics said the move fit a “pattern of accelerated change” since Mohammed bin Salman became heir. “We’ve seen since June this year, very far-reaching changes,” he said, adding: “That was when Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman, was appointed crown prince.”Since Mohammed bin Salman became the crown prince in June, we’ve seen a lot of upheaval. We’ve seen the announcement of this very ambitious Saudi plan to transform the country the Saudi economy, Vision 2030.”

The dismissal of Mitaab bin Abdullah as National Guard minister came shortly after a missile attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport. However, Black said the two were probably not related as the sacking came bundled with changes to other ministerial portfolios.

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has announced an end to its long-standing ban on allowing women to drive, and Mohammed bin Salman has also promised to return the country to a “moderate” form of Islam. Since 2015 Saudi Arabia has been at war against Houthi rebels, who control much of northern Yemen on the kingdom’s southern border.

It is not clear if the Trump visit emboldened the kingdom, which has been locked in a decades-long tussle with Iran for power and influence across the region. Since then, a swath of economic policies has been launched, along with cultural reforms unprecedented in Saudi history. By mid next year, women are expected to be allowed to drive, to enter sports stadiums and travel abroad without the endorsement of their male guardians.

It is also said the arrests were another pre-emptive measure by the crown prince to remove powerful figures as he exerts control over the world’s leading oil exporter. The round-up recalls the palace coup in June through which he ousted his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne and interior minister. MbS, as he is known, was expected to follow at least by removing Prince Miteb from leadership of the National Guard, a pivotal power-base rooted in the kingdom’s tribes. Over the past year MbS has become the ultimate decision-maker for the kingdom’s military, foreign, economic and social policies, causing resentment among parts of the Al Saud dynasty frustrated by his meteoric rise.

Saudi Arabia’s stock index was dragged down briefly but recovered to close higher as some investors bet the crackdown could bolster reforms in the long run. The royal decree said the arrests were in response to “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money.”

Many ordinary Saudis praised the crackdown as long-awaited.

Reforms

King Salman’s purge should be seen as a part of his reform policy.

In September, the king announced that a ban on women driving would be lifted, while Prince Mohammed is trying to break decades of conservative tradition by promoting public entertainment and visits by foreign tourists.

The crown prince has also slashed state spending in some areas and plans a big sale of state assets, including floating part of state oil giant Saudi Aramco on international markets. Prince Mohammed also led Saudi Arabia into a two-year-old war in Yemen, where the government says it is fighting Iran-aligned militants, and a row with neighbouring Qatar, which it accuses of backing terrorists, a charge Doha denies. Detractors of the crown prince say both moves are dangerous adventurism.

The most recent crackdown breaks with the tradition of consensus within the ruling family. Prince Mohammed, rather than forging alliances as the usual strategy, is extending his iron grip to the ruling family, the military, and the National Guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war.

In September, Prince Mohammed authorised the detention of some of the country’s most powerful clerics, fearing they may not be loyal to his agenda and supportive of his boycott of Qatar, which Saudi leaders accuse of destablising the region. The state moves on the home front followed a striking foreign policy stance earlier in the day that appeared to put the kingdom on a political collision course with Iran. Under Saudi pressure, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, unexpectedly quit his job, citing Iranian interference across the Middle East. Hariri made his statement in Riyadh after twice being summoned to the Saudi capital during the week.

The attorney general, Saud al-Mojeb, said the newly mandated corruption commission had started multiple investigations. The decree establishing the commission said: “The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable.”  “The suspects are being granted the same rights and treatment as any other Saudi citizen,” he said. “During the investigation, all parties retain full legal privileges relating to their personal and private property, including funds.”

Prince Mohammed will oversee the corruption commission, adding to his already formidable list of responsibilities, including his role as defence minister and champion of the economic transformation, dubbed Vision 2030, that aims to revolutionize most aspects of Saudi life within 12 years. Prince Mohammed told the Guardian last month that the kingdom had been “not normal” for the past 30 years and pledged to return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam.

According to Al Arabiya, the new committee, which is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is looking into the 2009 floods that devastated parts of Jeddah, as well as the government’s response to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus outbreak.

The interests of the Al Saud would remain protected. Both King Salman and heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman are fully committed to them. What they wish to instill, and seem determined to execute, is to modernize the ruling establishment, not just for the 2030 horizon but beyond it too.

Observation: A step in the right direction

Corruption is alien to Islam. The action against corruption shocked the world- not just the Arab nations or Islamic world alone. The world is under the impression, rather illusion that as the Islamic nation Saudi Arabia would not at all allow corruption in any meaner and that Saudis as the decedents of the first ever Muslims of the world would care for projecting a positive way of thinking and living.

The evil of corruption is deep in Saudi Arabia but without any state efforts to contain and reduce corruption the malice has become large scale corrupt practices. The kingdom’s top council of clerics tweeted that anti-corruption efforts were “as important as the fight against terrorism”, essentially giving religious backing to the crackdown.

The state attack on Saudi corrupt machinery at the top level is a well thought out step to root out corruption from the land of birth of Islam and of Holy Prophet of Islam and His infallible companions.

Nearly six months into his tenure as crown prince, which will eventually see him succeed his father as monarch, Prince Mohammed has launched a dizzying series of reforms designed to transform the kingdom’s moribund economy and put the relationship between the state and its citizens on a new footing.

Saudi arrests show crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is a risk-taker with a zeal for reform but the move would enormously strengthen his place in the governance. The move strengthens Prince Mohammed’s control of the kingdom’s security institutions, which had long been headed by separate powerful branches of the ruling family.

Crown Prince is raising the leverage of power in Saudi Arabia. He certainly has the blessings of his father King Salman and he’s determined to make all kinds of changes in Saudi Arabia itself and in Saudi foreign policy, which led to the war in Yemen and the Gulf crisis. But on domestic front, this is new. Not only do we have a new chapter opening up in Saudi Arabia, we have a whole new book: it’s still all done in secrecy. Why those 11 princes, why those four standing ministers? Is it really just to consolidate power or is there more to it?

In the tradition of Saudi Arabia, revolting against the royals is not a good idea. It’s never been recommended. But does it all end with this or will it lead to more?  There have been signs over the last two and a half years that more of this is coming.

Corruption has been rampant in recent generations in Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed had vowed to make business dealings more transparent. The spectacle of royal family members being arrested would add weight to claims of a crackdown on graft. However, such is the manner in which business is done in the kingdom, there would be few senior figures not connected to contract deals that would be considered corrupt in many other parts of the world.

Saudi Arabia’s leadership has pulled off its boldest move yet to consolidate power around its young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, arresting 11 senior princes, one of the country’s richest men and scores of former ministers in what it billed as a corruption purge. The move aimed to reshape public behavior in a kingdom where patronage networks often determine business deals and prominent families secure substantial cuts from lucrative contracts.

However, some in the Saudi capital describe the move as a naked attempt to weed out dissent, and political rivals, as the ambitious heir to the throne continues to stamp his authority across most aspects of public life in Saudi Arabia.

The purge aimed to go beyond corruption and aimed to remove potential opposition to Prince Mohammed’s ambitious reform agenda which is widely popular with Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning youth population but faces resistance from some of the old guard more comfortable with the kingdom’s traditions of incremental change and rule by consensus.

Saudi Arabia, if it becomes a totally corruption free, can positively influence not only Arab world or Islamic world but even entire world of capitalism and imperialism to change for the better providing  genuine scope for redistribution of nation’s wealth on a possible perfect  principle without corruption and inflation.

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Middle East

Why US not trustworthy ally for Turkey

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Just weeks after failure of the ISIL terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, the United States announced that it is going to create a security belt from Erbil to Mediterranean Sea under the pretext of avoiding ISIL return.

To this end, Washington announced the US-led coalition is working with its Syrian militia allies to set up a new border force of 30,000 personnel, a move that has added to Turkish anger over US support for Kurdish-dominated forces in Syria.

More than 50 percent of the mentioned forces would be Syrian Kurd militia which Turkey says they are offshoot of PKK terrorist group and considers them a major threat to its security, while Washington considers them the most effective ally on the ground in Syria.

Supporting Kurdish separatist forces in Northern Syria, the US is after its own geopolitical goals in the country and the region which some of them are:

-To prolong the conflicts and crises in Syria in order to pave the way for breaking and disintegration of the country which can be a beginning of more breakings in the regional countries, while the US hypocritically defends territorial integrity of the Syria and other regional countries like Iraq.

-To boost its military presence in Syria by building military bases in order to decrease its dependence on Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

– Playing with Kurdish card, the US intends to pressure and contain Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

-To provide  Security for Tel Aviv by destabilizing the security of the region.

-Dominating the energy rich region and the future energy routes.

Turkey began its military operation in Afrin to thwart some parts of the US organized plots against itself.

Facing obstacles on the way of its goals in the region due to cooperation between Russia and regional countries including Iran and Turkey, the US state secretary Rex Tillerson arrived in Turkey with new promises couple of days ago.

The regional countries should learn lessons from the past that the US is not a trustworthy ally and it is just following up its own geopolitical ambitions by empty promises and instrumental use from allies.

Turkish President in April 2017 in an interview with Aljazeera said, “With President Obama, we had a mutual agreement about the PKK – but Obama deceived us. I don’t believe the Trump administration will do the same.” But during Trump administration not only the US didn’t remove Turkey’s concerns but also intensified its support to the Syrian Kurdish fighters.

The only way to foil the US separatist plan in the region which is a direct threat to the all regional countries is close cooperation between Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria with the help of Russia. We have been witnessing the fruits of this cooperation over the past several months including in foiling Erbil independence referendum and creating de-escalation zones in Syria.

It is noteworthy that the US in line with Samuel Huntington’s advice is cooperating with some grade 2 regional powers like Saudi Arabia to confront and weaken regional grade 1 powers like Iran and Turkey.

First published in our partner Mehr News Agency

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The war in the Golan Heights and in the Lebanon

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The framework of the clash on the borders between Israel, the Lebanon and Syria is currently much more complicated than it appears.

Recently, namely in mid-January, a senior officer of the Israeli Defence Forces has publicly announced that Iran is organizing a peripheral command in the Lebanon, precisely in the Southern area – a region traditionally controlled by Hezbollah and now by most of the Lebanese regular army, which is traditionally funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The Lebanese Armed Forces are backed by the United States to the tune of over 1.5 billion dollars, but also by  Saudi Arabia (3.5 billion US dollars), which operates also with funding for security, intelligence andterritorial police.

Iran will grant additional funds to the Lebanese forces with a view to creating a stable link between Iran and the Mediterranean coast, which is also one of the grand strategy targets of the Shiite leadership in the Syrian war.

This will certainly change the Saudi and US attitude towards the Lebanese Armed Forces.

The Iranian strategic goals are designed to avoid being conditioned by Hezbollah’s tactical interests.

Said interests are not only against Israel. The excess of Iranian efforts and resources for the Lebanon and the clash with the “Zionist entity” – as they call Israel – does not absorb all Iranian strategic goals.

Iran wants to gain hegemony in a region stretching from the Lebanese Mediterranean coast to the Shiite areas of Afghanistan.

Nevertheless Iran’s operations in Syria are designed to  creating the conditions for a simultaneous dual attack on  Israel, starting from the Golan Heights and the Litani area, with or even without the “Party of God”of the Lebanese Shiites.

Suffice they avoid the anti-Iranian actions within the Lebanese State.

Hence the air clash, which occurred in Syria and in Israel on February 10, resulted in the loss of an Israeli F-16C aircraft belonging to the 110th Squadron,  which had taken off from the Ramat David base. It also led to the loss of an F-15I aircraft hit, but not destroyed, by Bashar al-Assad’s air defence and damaged some jets hit by the Syrian anti-aircraft, as well as an Israeli helicopter hit in the skies of the Shebaa Farms. Finally an Iranian-made attack drone was shot down.

Obviously the Israeli pilots had received the explicit order of avoiding any Russian jetsand the Israeli government is extremely careful not to hurt the feelings and undermine the strategic sensitivity of Russia, the new global leader in the Middle East.

Israel’s aircrafts were aSufaF-16I and aBaaz F-15I.

The air defences of Assad and the Syrian Arab Army have also the Russian long-range S-125 and S-200 systems available.

The S-125 (NATO reporting name SA-3 GOA) is an old design missile with a range of 25 kilometres which, when  modified – as happened during the Balkan wars in the early 1990s – can hit aircraft capable of reaching very high speed at various altitudes.

Conversely, the S-200 (NATO reporting name SA-5 Gammon) is a long-range missile (200-350 kilometres), but both types of Russian surface-to-air missiles are semi-automatically driven. Currently most batteries are equipped with systems for Airborne Early Warning and Control Defence (AEW).

The speed of both surface-to-air systems is still considerable.

It is therefore evident that, since the Russian Intelligence Services control both the single launching batteries of surface-to-air missiles and all the e-control networks of the Syrian, South Turkish, Lebanese and North Israeli space,  Russia has given the green light for actions against the Israeli aircrafts and helicopters.

Hence it has decided – or possibly accepted others’  decision – to hit the Jewish aircrafts.

What is Israel’s and the other regional and global players’  strategic rationale in Syria?

The shooting down of the Israeli aircraft is a factor not to be neglected both tactically and geopolitically.

Two aircrafts lost are certainly a problem, but not an unresolvable one.

This is an operational and strategic factor to be studied carefully, a probable game-changer in the whole Syrian-Lebanese system.

Based on an initial assessment of facts, Israel lost air superiority in the Lebanese-Syrian region just when the Russian Federation sold or transferred to Bashar al-Assad’Syria a system of S-400 surface-to-air missiles at the end of November 2015.

The S-400 Triumph (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler), with a maximum range of 400 kilometres, can launch its missiles at a speed of 4.8 kilometres per second and can detect up to 36 or even 80 targets simultaneously – hence it is hard to be saturated.

It is also a weapon system that has already been sold to China in 2014 and to Saudi Arabia in October 2017.

Hence considering its full and unrestricted control over the Syrian airspace and Syria’s broad strategic region, evidently Russia has de factoendorsed the Israeli raids on targets located both in Syrian areas and in the Lebanon.

The Israeli raids are already significant.

Let us think about the Israeli air attack in early  September 2017, with an operation in Masyaf, Western Syria – a mission carried out by Israel shortly after the United Nationshad accused Bashar al-Assad’s government  of the chemical weapon attack on Khan Sheykhoun, which had taken place in April 2017.

At the time, both the Russians and the Syrians of Assad’s government had reassured the United Nations and the other players that no one had ever used forbidden weapons.

However, those who were poisoned and unable to breathe  were still in hospitals, so as to demonstrate the opposite of what had officially been declared by the Syrian-Russian military connection.

The ease with which the Syrian allies put Russia in difficultiesvis-à-vis the West and the other global powers is a burden for it.

Hence what did Israel want and what does it want to demonstrate with these raids, the last of which was  unsuccessful  for  “David’ slingshot”?

Firstly, it wants to make it clear to all regional players that the “red line” between the territory of the Jewish State and the territory of the Syrian-Lebanese State is still fully in force.

Secondly – but this is a strategically primary issue – Israel wants to show how dangerous it is for Iran to try and build its new forward bases in the border area between the Golan Heights and the Litani River in the Lebanon. Finally, Israel wants to ever more perfect its air attacks to avoid or postpone a ground attack.

The technologies for air attacks have already been largely developed.

As far as we know, they would be a mix of micro-intelligence on the ground and of new remotely-controlled, but high-precision weapons,  as well as a new distribution of defence systems, built and deployed on the ground in such a way as to hit several thousand targets within one hour at most.

Certainly, in all likelihood, there is a new Iranian base south of Damascus.

A station mainly equipped with air forces, but fully managed and controlled by the Al Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, with the high probability of adding submarines in the coastal areas controlled by Hezbollah in the Lebanon.

Hence either a scenario of attack on Israel from a unified front in the North, between Syria, Golan and the Lebanese Litani area, or another even more dangerous scenario for Israel, in which the Jewish State would be attacked from the North and the South at the same time.

The first attack would take place according to the model already tested by Hezbollah in 2006, and also in 2004, but this time together with the Lebanese Armed Forces.

The second attack could take place when movements modelled on Hezbollah will be active and dangerous also  in the Palestinian area east and south of Jerusalem, like the recently-established Al Sabiroun in the Gaza Strip.

Also the Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian organization founded in Gaza in 1979 from a previous network of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been based with its leaders in Damascus since 1988.

Currently, however, Iran’s funding is scarce for this Sunni organization that, since the very beginning, accepted and supported the 1979 Ayatollah Revolution, as also Yasser Arafat did.

It is always worth remembering it.

Indeed, there isclose continuity between the “secular” and Marxist Palestinian uprising, which is still very much liked by the EU finest spirits, and the “radical” jihadist and Islamist twist that,for the amateurs of Middle East politics, appears to be a novelty with respect to the para-Soviet model of Yasser Arafat’s PLO and its many internal groups.

Iran’s relations with HAMAS are rhapsodic, precisely considering the close link – strengthened from 2011 onwards – between this Palestinian military structure, which also originated from a cell of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia.

In all likelihood, however, the timing of the combined attack from the South will be connected to the development and military preparation of Al Sabiroon, which shall be at least equal to Hezbollah’s.

According to some sources, however, Iran has already long arranged as many as 70,000 missiles in Syria, all targeted  or targetable to Israel.

The Al Quds Force has also already deployed 5,000 soldiers in the area around Damascus and about 50 kilometres from the border with Israel.

Then there are the Shiite military groups, who often approach the border with Israel and sometimes cross it.

Furthermore, in Syria, Iran arms and trains Shiite battalions  from the various regions of that country, such as Al Baqr and the Battalion 313.

The latter Syrian Shiite unit reminds of the number of Muhammad’s fighters in the Battle of Al-Badr, but it is actually called “The Great Apostle’s Brigade”, while it is worth recalling that the number 313 also regards the  esoteric eschatology connected to the final coming of the Mahdi, He who will put an end to the world.

According to our sources, the Brigade 313 is still in the region of ​​Homs where jihadists still operate in its Southern area.

Currently, however, the number of brigades or battalions of Syrian-origin Shiite militants, all trained by the Pasdaran, is equal to five units, all located between Central and Southern Syria and all with autonomous commands, but actually directed by Iranian officials of the Al Quds Force.

The operations of camouflage and strategic deception of the many Iranian missiles were all directly authorized by Bashar al-Assad and conducted by Iran and Hezbollah with the active support of the Syrian Arab Army.

Again according to said sources, within a year from now,  the number of small or large missiles is expected to reach over 500,000 (according to Iranian and Lebanese programmers).

A saturation of airspace that, according to Iran experts, is supposed to block the reactions of the Israeli’s space protection system.

During the Israeli State visit to Russia of January 29, 2018,Netanyahu officially asked Vladimir Putin to containIran’s anti-Israeli operations in Syria.

It is also very likely that the Israeli leader provided to Vladimir Putin also a good amount of intelligence on the Iranian threat to the Jewish State from within Syria.

Furthermore, the strategic divergence between Russia and Iran on the Syrian territory is already quite evident and  essentially unresolvable, considering the current situation on the ground.

But certainly Russia has no interest in creating further tension with Israel.

Hence probably the Russian authorization for the Syrian (and possibly Iranian) anti-aircraft operations is the last act of a sequence of strategic signals between Russia and the United States on the Syrian issue.

In fact, while it is true that Iran is absolutely essential in Syria for the Russian Federation, with a view to avoidingRussia’s too heavy engagement in favour of Assad, certainly Russia does not want to create a political and strategic system in which Bashar al-Assad is subjected solely to Iran’s will.

Once finished the clashes on the ground, Russia will redesign the Syrian map, thus preventing the country from splitting – also implicitly and subtly – into various regions, all with a different padrinage.

Russia does not certainly want to guarantee to Iran a Shiite context going from Iraq to Syria, so as to arrive without interruption up to the Mediterranean coast.

Moreover Russia wants the strengthening and final success of the Astana talks – a decompression system of the Syrian conflict inevitably involving two other players besides Russia, namely Iran and Turkey.

Turkey against Iran, despite the recent good relations between the two countries sanctioned by the meeting held in early October 2017.

A visit which significantly took place while the Saudi leadership was paying an official visit to Russia.

Hence, from now on, the Russian Federation will play Turkey against Iran and viceversa, so as to avoid losing the role of main actor in Syria and, at least for the time being, in the rest of the Middle East.

Yet good relations between Russia and Israel are still needed.

Hence this is the reason why, on the one hand, Bashar al- Assad is ever less interested in supporting Iran’s post-war ambitions and he does not directly operate – at least for the time being – against the Turkish forces that entered Idlib.

This happens while Syria operates – now explicitly – in favour of the Kurds, traditionally fought by Turkey and currently de factoabandoned by the United States.

However, we have just been informed of a new agreement between the United States and the Kurdish leadership in Syria.

Besides Russia, Tukey and Syria have every interest in preventing the Kurds from changing the complex ethnic composition of the areas under their control – but here the only possible broker and mediator is the Russian Federation.

And this is also a primary Israeli strategic interest.

Moreover, all Syrian richest oil and water areas are now under the direct control of the Kurdish YPD, which will create further conditions for Russian mediation.

This happens while the United States is now ambiguously avoiding supporting the Kurds, whom it has armed and trained so far.

Moreover, currently the United States has problematic  relations also with Turkey, which has never appreciated the US strategic double standard in Syria.

But today, after Putin’s phone call to Netanyahu on October 18, 2017- designed to avoiding military climax in Syria and particularly to protecting his forces, distributed throughout the Iranian and Hezbollah networks – we need to look at some other variables of this complex equation.

Israel’s operations could also hit the Russian  base of Tiyas, i.e. the T4 near Palmira, the base from which the Iranian drone – copied from an old US drone lost by the Americans many years ago – is supposed to have left.

The base currently hosts four air squadrons.

In other words, Russia’s message to Israel is simply the following: dear Israeli friends, accept the new Russian hegemony over Syria and the Middle East and nothing will happen to you – neither by Irannor by others.

The Russian message, however, also entails as follows:  Israel should stop putting the lives and operations of the Russian soldiers present in the region in severe danger.

It should also stop putting the Russian forces in difficulties in their relations with the Iranian and Syrian forces that could put Russia in trouble precisely because of its friendship with Israel.

Israel cannot do without the alliance with the Russian Federation, while Russia cannot forget the number and importance of the Russian Jews who emigrated to the Jewish State.

It cannot forget how close the Russian-Israeli cooperation is in the technological, military, intelligence and cultural sectors.

For Israel the Russian military presence in Syria represents two strategic variables: on the one hand, it avoids the clash  in the Golan Heights – and also in Lebanon, considering  the tested system of terrestrial passage into Syria between Iran and the Lebanon -being massively targeted to Israel, that is not at all a Russian enemy.

On the other hand, the Russian military presence in Syria prevents the Jewish State from striking – surgically or not – the Iranian and Hezbollah forces operating on the ground.

Furthermore, Russia knows all too well that – by reaction – the operations in Syria have created a strong Sunni alliance, signed early June last with the exclusion of Qatar.

Israel hasnow excellent, but confidential relations with the new Sunni political universe.

Finally Russia has no intention of breaking all ties with the world dominated by Saudi Arabia and by the other Gulf powers because of their alliance with Iran in Syria.

Too much business is already underway, but above all what is at stake is Russia’ strategic wisdom in proposing itself as a global broker and mediator for the Middle East region, without ever forgetting anyone.

Moreover, the Russian Federation is well aware that, without Hezbollah’s and Iran’ support, it could certainly not have afforded a solitary war against ISIS and its allies in Syria – terrorists and Caliphate’s jihadists also backed by many Western powers and their Middle East points of reference, as Putin correctly stated in October 2015.

Thanks to its new dominance in Syria, the Russian Federation also wants to achieve a project of strong relations with the United States, thus re-establishing a new “strategic parity” with it.

It is precisely through the war in Syria that Russia wants to get out of its old post-1989 role of “regional power” in order to be once again a global player.

But how can it reach this goal without Israel’s regional support?

It is worth recalling, however, that Iran is absolutely necessary for the Russian Federation both for the creation of the Eurasian bloc – the future central axis of Putin’s geopolitics – and also for the essential oil connection  between Russia and Iran.

Last August there were also secret contacts between Israel, Russia and the United States in Amman.

Jordan and the Jewish State pointed out – especially to Russia – that the “de-escalation zones”,envisaged in the Astana agreements and later reaffirmed by the Geneva Peace Conference, had apositioning that would enable the  Iranian and Hezbollah forces to attack the Israeli positions, and obviously the Jordanian ones, more easily.

It is worth recalling that the “de-escalation zones” in Syria are the following : 1) the Idlib province, as well as the Northeastern  areas of ​​Latakia province, Western areas of Aleppo and Northern areas of Hama; 2) the Rastan and Talbiseh enclave in Northern  Homsprovince; 3) Eastern Ghouta in the Northern Damascus countryside; 4) the rebel-controlled South along the border with Jordan that includes parts of Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

Again in that secret meeting Jordan and Israeli added that  it would be preferable for them to have Russia’s direct control over the border between Syria and Jordan.

Russia and the United States – this time united – only wanted to reach, as soon as possible, an agreement on the cease-fire in Southern Syria, unavoidable to successfully attack the areas still held by Daesh-Isis.

This was the strategic sense of the Amman meeting.

At that time Israel also asked – but only to the Russian Federation – to create an area of ​​at least 20 kilometres away from the Israeli border with Syria completely devoid of Iranian or Hezbollah positions.

There was also the possibility that Israel would ask Russia and the United States to expel all Iran’s and its allies’ forces from Syria.

Obviously this is inconceivable. Neither of the two major global players, namely Russia and the United States, is interested in expelling Iran from Syria.

Russia cannot do without it, as we have already seen.

The United States, however, has no intention of being  directly involved in the Syrian chaos, with many boots on the ground, since it rather prefers a military and geopolitical balance between its various client groups.

Furthermore, the visit paid by the Russian Defence Minister, Shoigu,to Israel in mid-October 2017 has not solved the primary issue, i.e. the excessive presence of  Iranian weapons and soldiers – or connected to Iran – near the Golan Heights border.

In fact, Israel saw the emergence of ISIS in Syria as an excellent opportunity to overthrow Bashar al-Assad – an enemy if considered on his own and also Iran’s loyal supporter.

Netanyahu, however, reiterated to Minister Shoigu the concept we have already mentioned, i.e. that the de-escalation zones do not guarantee at all the absence of Shiite militias on the Syrian-Israeli border.

Probably they favour their transfer to the Golan Heights and to the Lebanon.

A possible solution is that, after destroying the last Isis-Daesh pockets of resistance, Russia is really ending its operations in Syria.

This will soon imply also the withdrawal of Iran and Hezbollah, as well as the other Shiite militias.

A return back home that, according to our sources, will be controlled by the Russian Federation and by other regional and global players – none of them particularly interested in favouring Iran.

Hence if Israel persuades the Russian Federation to carry out a parallel credibleand geographically verifiable withdrawal from Syria – also of the Iranian and pro-Iranian forces – the tension on borders, but also the line of direct connection between Iran and the Lebanon could be interrupted or damaged.

But certainly the Jewish State cannot fail to keep on monitoring its borders carefully. It will check with other actions, but not necessarily with the air force, Russia’s willingness to defend Iranian positions to the bitter end.

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Middle East

Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

Valentine’s Day in Riyadh and Islamabad as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia puts into sharp relief Saudi Arabia’s ability to curtail the global rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism the kingdom helped fuel at the very moment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing some of its sharpest edges in his own country.

To be fair, controversy over Valentine’s Day is not exclusively a Muslim ultra-conservative preserve. Russian and Hindu nationalists have condemned the celebration as either contradictory to their country’s cultural heritage or a ‘foreign festival.’

Yet, the Muslim controversy takes on greater global significance because of its political, security and geopolitical implications. Its importance lies also in the fact that it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia, after funding the global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for four decades to the tune of $100 billion, has helped unleash a genie it no longer can put back into the bottle.

The contrast between, yes, a socially liberalizing Riyadh, and increasingly more conservative Islamabad; Indonesia’s Makassar, Surabaya and arch-conservative Bandar Aceh; and Indonesia and Malaysia’s highest Islamic councils could not be starker.

Banned for years from celebrating Valentine’s Day with shops barred from hawking anything that was red or mushy cards that hinted at the love feast, Saudis this year encountered a very different picture in markets and stores. This year they were filled with items in all shades of red.

One Saudi flower vendor reported that he had sold 2,000 red roses in one day with no interference from the kingdom’s once dreaded religious police.

Sheikh Ahmed Qasim Al-Ghamdi, the outspoken former religious police chief, in a reversal of the conservative religious establishment’s attitude, put Valentine’s Day on par with Saudi Arabia’s National Day as well as Mothers’ Day.

“All these are common social matters shared by humanity and are not religious issues that require the existence of a religious proof to permit it,” Sheikh Ahmed said in remarks that were echoed by religious authorities in Egypt and Tunisia.

While Saudis were enjoying their newly granted social freedoms that include the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, Pakistanis were groping with a second year of a Saudi-inspired ban, in part the result of the kingdom’s pernicious support of ultra-conservatism in the country for more than six decades.

The Islamabad High Court last year banned public celebration of Valentine’s Day on the basis of a private citizen’s petition that asserted that “in cover of spreading love, in fact, immorality, nudity and indecency is being promoted –which is against our rich culture.’

The ban followed a call on Pakistanis by President Mamnoon Hussain to ignore Valentine’s, Day because it “has no connection with our culture and it should be avoided.’

This year, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator ordered broadcasters not to air anything that could be interpreted as a celebration of Valentine’s Day.

Official opposition highlighted the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative attitudes have become entrenched within the Pakistani state and would take years, if not a decade, to dislodge without creating even greater havoc in the country.

While ultra-conservatism dominated attitudes in all of Pakistan, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were engaged in culture wars with proponents of Saudi-influenced worldviews agitating against Valentine Day’s or imposing their will in parts of the country where they were in control or exerted significant influence.

In Indonesia, at least 10 cities banned or curtailed love feast celebrations. Authorities in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, last week briefly detained some two dozen couples suspected of enjoying their Valentine’s Day.

Banda Ace in Ace province and Makassar on the island of Sulawesi upheld their several years-old bans. Last year, Makassar’s municipal police raided convenience shops on February 14 and seized condoms, claiming that they were being sold ‘in an unregulated way’ to encourage people to be sexually promiscuous on Valentine’s Day.

The actions were legitimized by a ruling in 2012 by Indonesia’s highest Islamic council that stipulated that Valentine’s Day violated Islam’s teachings.

The attitude of Malaysia’s state-run Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) based on a fatwa or religious opinion that it issued in 2005 is in line with that of their Indonesian counterparts. JAKIM annually blames Valentine’s Day, that it describes as a Christian holiday, for every sin in the book ranging from abortion and child abandonment to alcoholism and fraudulent behaviour.

Authorities have over the years repeatedly detained youths on Valentine’s Day on charges of being near someone of the opposite sex who is not a spouse or close relative.

Valentine’s Day is often but one battleground in culture wars that involve gay and transgender rights as well as the existence and application of blasphemy laws and the role of Islam in society. The vast majority of ultra-conservative protagonists have no link to Saudi Arabia but have been emboldened by the kingdom’s contribution to the emergence of conducive environments and opportunistic government’s that kowtow to their demands.

The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.

A Saudi decision earlier this month to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels in the face of Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators appears at best to be an effort to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and underline Prince Mohammed’s seriousness rather than the start sign of a wave of moderation.

Brussels was one of a minority of Saudi institutions that was Saudi-managed. The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s largesse operated independently.

As a result, the Valentine’s Day controversy raise the spectre of some ultra-conservatives becoming critical of a kingdom they would see as turning its back on religious orthodoxy.

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