Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving raises a host of questions that transcend the issue of women’s rights and go to the core of the standing of the kingdom’s religious scholars and its impact on conservative opposition to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic and social reforms.
There is little doubt that the scholars’ endorsement of the lifting of the ban amounted to the latest of a series of incidents in which Prince Mohammed imposed his will on scholars who long successfully opposed liberalization of religious and social codes based on the teachings of the 18th century ultra-conservative preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul al-Wahhab as well as Bedouin culture.
Adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia’s Shura or Advisory Council voted days after the lifting of the ban to allow women to issue fatwas or religious opinions, long a preserve of male Islamic scholars, for the first time.
Islamic scholars, many of whom enjoy celebrity status on social media, derived their ability to enforce ultra-conservative norms, including the ban on women’s driving, from a power sharing agreement concluded between the ruling Al Saud family and Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s followers that dates back to the founding of modern day Saudi Arabia.
It’s unlikely that the scholars who consistently maintained that women lacked the intelligence to drive and that driving would damage their ovaries, deprive them of their virginity and integrity, and promote immoral behaviour had a sudden, recent epiphany that convinced them that their decades-old beliefs were wrong even if those were falsely packaged as rooted in religion.
Prince Mohammed reportedly quipped a year before the lifting of the ban that “if women were allowed to ride camels (in the time of the Prophet Mohammed), perhaps we should let them drive cars, the modern-day camels.”
Commenting on the lifting of the ban, scholar Haifaa Jawad argued that “the biggest losers are undoubtedly Saudi religious scholars – legitimacy will now be questioned by millions of Muslims in the kingdom and beyond.”
That long-standing ultra-conservative values are alive and kicking among prominent scholars was evident when they felt confident enough earlier this year to voice opposition to Prince Mohammed’s loosening of social codes with the introduction of various forms of entertainment in a country in which cinemas and public concerts were banned.
Now a supporter of women’s driving, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, warned in January that concerts and cinemas were harmful and cause immorality. Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, another member of the Council of Senior Scholars that endorsed lifting of the driving ban, called for a referendum, asserting that a majority of Saudis opposed concerts.
Other scholars targeted performers as well as, in lieu attacking the ruling family head-on, the entertainment authority established by Prince Mohammed to create an industry.
This time round Prince Mohammed made sure the ultra-conservatives would hold their fire by arresting in recent weeks scores of scholars, judges and intellectuals, whose views run the gamut from ultra-conservative to liberal. Among those arrested were scholars Salman al-Odah, Aaidh al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari, poet Ziyad bin Naheet and economist Essam al-Zamil, some of whom have more than 17 million followers on Twitter.
The detentions were also designed to silence alleged support in the kingdom for an end to the almost four-month old Gulf crisis that has pitted Saudi Arabia and its allies against Qatar and mounting criticism of the conduct of the kingdom’s ill-fated, 2.5-year old war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia this week lost its battle to prevent an independent United Nations investigation into abuses of human rights in Yemen by both the kingdom and Houthi rebels.
“It is hard to envisage MBS succeeding in his ambitious plans by royal decree. He needs to garner more consent. To obtain it, he must learn to tolerate debate and disagreement,” quipped The Economist, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.
The arrests potentially could backfire. Those behind bars are likely to see their credibility rise while those that bent over backwards to accommodate the regime may find it increasingly difficult to justify their about-face to the more conservative segments of Saudi society.
To ensure continued buy-in into his reforms by Saudi youth, who account for more than half of the population, and counter opposition, Prince Mohammed has to both manage expectations, something he has yet to do, and start delivering on promises. The lifting of the driving ban and scores of entertainment events deliver on social aspects, but equally important will be yet-to be achieved delivery on jobs, opportunities and career paths for Saudi youth.
That is proving easier said than done as Saudis feel the cost of the prince’s unilateral rewriting of the kingdom’s social contract that promised a cradle-to-grave welfare state in exchange for surrender of political rights and acceptance of ultra-conservative moral and social codes.
Prince Mohammed was forced to reinstitute perks that were cancelled as part of an austerity program that saw prices, particularly of utilities, skyrocket.
The crown prince’s hopes for a $2 trillion evaluation of national oil company Aramco with the sale of a five percent stake in an initial public offering (IPO) expected next year has been called into question by potential investors who note that scrutiny could call the oil giant’s estimates of the kingdom’s oil reserves and security record into question.
Compounding the prince’s problems is the question whether and at what point the ultra-conservative religious establishment may feel that the cost of remaining silent or supporting reforms may be higher than the cost of standing against him. That decision could be influenced by the scholars’ ability to forge alliances with members of the ruling family reportedly opposed to Prince Mohammed.
Similarly, much will depend on the degree to which Prince Mohammed delivers on the expectations he has raised among an important segment of Saudi youth that aspires to jobs with career paths and a degree of social liberalization.
Despite an increasing number of entertainment opportunities and the lifting of the driving ban, Prince Mohammed has yet to manage the gap between unrealistic expectations and the timeframe within which he might be able to deliver on key economic aspects of his Vision 2030 reform program.
“The issue is how Saudis perceive change,” said Saudi scholar Abdul Al Lily in an interview last year. He likened Vision 2030 to the wind in a Saudi proverb that says: “If there is a door that might bring wind, close the door.”
Saudi attitudes towards change are in Mr. Al Lily’s view stand-offish. “People don’t believe in change… The government doesn’t have a plan to sell Vision 2030. In addition, it has at least partially been drafted by foreigners. All of this is important. Implementing it will not be easy,” Mr. Al Lily said.
The role of spin doctors in the Eastern Ghouta crisis
When it comes to war, it is exceedingly important to get all the facts straight: always remember there are—at least—two sides to every story and be careful to distinguish reality from propaganda.
Many words have been spoken about the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ghouta: the Damascus district, in fact, is paying the price of the umpteenth conflict between pro-Syrian government forces and rebels.
The protests against President Bashar al-Assad have been going on in the area since 2011 and the next year the rebel fighters managed to establish their control over the territory.
The initial tensions rapidly developed into a full-blown war that did not spared civilians—including a large percentage of children—from being a target.
In the last few weeks, a global campaign of solidarity—#IAmStillAlive—has been launched on social media platforms to support the children trapped in the rebel-held enclave, where there is almost no food left, nor medical supplies and humanitarian access has been completely cut off.
In this regard, it is necessary to remember that international aid convoys have been regularly delivered from the United Nations, the Syrian government, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and Russia. It became known, anyway, that the supplies do not always reach civilians falling, instead, directly in the hands of the rebels.
But who are exactly the so-called “rebels”?
Numerous groups are active inside the besieged region and, despite being in opposition to each other, they stand together against the Syrian Arab Army.
Jaysh al-Islam represents the largest factionwith an estimated 10-15,000 members. Formerly allied with Al-Nusra Front—al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria— they conducted several deadly attacks, such as the infamous “Adra massacre”.
The Syrian Military claimed that in last December 2013 over 80 people were executed in the city of Adra and, during the following days, dozens of others were kidnapped and use as human shields.
Geopolitical analyst Patrick Henningsen believes that the foreign encouragement of rebel forces was to blame for that tragedy; in an interview with RT he goes even further, claiming that “there is involvement by the Western intelligence agencies that have links to some of those radical jihadist groups.”
The Hay’-at Tharir al-Sham and the Faylaq al-Rahman—which is also affiliated to the Free Syrian Army—organizations are linked to al-Qaeda and they are responsible for a huge amount of atrocities, including the heinous attack that took place on 16 December 2016 in the Al-Midan neighborhood in Damascus, when jihadi-father Abu Nimr al-Suri sent his two daughters to die in a suicide-bombing attack against the police station.
The Ahrar al-Sham coalition is probably the biggest terrorist group in Syria and it is currently aligned with Jaysh al-Islam against al-Nusra Front.
The criminal organizations above—some more than others—aim at the extermination of Syrian religious minorities, proving themselves to be nothing but terrorist groups.
Furthermore, they are said to have received “donations” from Saudi Arabia, Qatar ,Turkey and the US, although they rejected those claims.
The Western Media seemed initially reluctant to highlight the Tafkiri-Jihadi inspired nature of the rebels, depicting them as “moderate rebels” or “freedom fighters”.
Once again, it is necessary to check the accuracy of sources of information and report on solid facts exclusively.
It can be quite tricky, since much of the country is inaccessible to journalists on the ground and news coming out is often filtered through “media activists” or unofficial outlets.
Every major newspaper and outlet gleaned the information from the often quoted Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based monitoring group—actually a one-man band—run by Rami Abdul Rahman.
According to the New York Times “military analysts in Washington follow its body counts of Syrian and rebel soldiers to gauge the course of the war,” as well as providing mainstream media with daily updates about the Syrian crisis.
In the same article from the NYT, he admitted to receive “small subsidies from the European Union and one European country that he declines to identify.”
Mr. Abdul Rahman—born Osama Suleiman—is a three-term convicted criminal in Syria, due to his years of activism against the Assad regime.
He fled to the United Kingdom eighteen years ago and the government relocated him to Coventry, in the West Midlands region; he has not returned to his home country ever since.
In the UK, he has had direct access to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, where has been documented meeting with the former Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Both Hague and current Foreign Minister Tobias Ellwood endorse Rahman’s political position.
Among Rahman’s network of contacts there is Rafid al-Janabi, better known as “Curveball”. The Iraqi defector played a crucial role in the 2003 Iraq War, falsely accusing Saddam Hussein of having weapons of mass destruction and pushing the US and its allies into launching offensive.
In 2011 he eventually admitted that he “had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime,” and spread the fake information that became the centerpiece of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s pro-intervention speech at the United Nations.
It is hard to believe that the Western press never considered to examine its main source’s political connections and background before using hisnot-necessarily-objective reports.
Funded in 2013 by ex-military officerJames Le Mesurier, the White Helmets NGO aims to rescue civilian survivors trapped in bombed buildings and the people who volunteer for the corps are hailed as some sort of heroes in the West.
The Netflix heart-breaking Oscar-winning documentary (“The White Helmets”, 2016) focuses indeed on the “perilous work of volunteers who brave falling bombs to rescue civilians from the carnage of Syria’s civil war.”
They present themselves as an unarmed, non-governmental and neutralorganization, yet they have had a leading role in various controversial events.
Although they claim to be apolitical, they actually actively campaign for a no-fly zone and they are largely funded by Western governments which advocate for regime change.Their principal funder is, in fact, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), along with the UK, and Europe.
They work exclusively in rebel-controlled areas, which raised doubts about the independence of their reports; in addition, some volunteers happened to be photographed while assisting in terrorist executions.
In 2016 members of the group were caught staging a rescue scene, later justified as their version of the popular ‘mannequin challenge,’ in which people were supposed to freeze for the camera. They apologized for the fact calling it an “error of judgment,” but the footage has been subject of harsh criticism on social media.
This does not mean that their effort as rescue workers is unappreciated, but it truly indicates the need to examine whatever information they provide with a critical eye.
In order to understand the reasons that could lead media to distort information, we have to introduce the concept of “spin”.
Spin is a form of propaganda used by public relations agencies—referred as “spin doctors” in this case—which provide a biased interpretation of facts and data to influence public perception on significant matters.
Cited as an invaluable source of information by Western media outlets, the Syria Campaign is a public relations and marketing company that, among other operations, branded and promoted the White Helmets to the international public.
The agency presents itself as impartial and non-political, yet they not only called for a no-fly zone, but also pushed for military intervention in several occasions.
They even attacked the UN’s work in Syria by publishing a 50-page report on a dedicated website that used a UN logo soaked in blood.
Ironically, among the supporters of their anti-UN campaign was the previously mentioned Ahrar Al-Sham.
The supposed most-reliable media outlets feed us altered and even fake news sometimes.
The majority of information we have about the Syria’s war do not come from disinterested observers: citizen journalists and activists, in fact, are either pro-rebel or pro-regime, which is no guarantee of objectivity.
In conclusion, we have a duty to question where the news is coming from, whether it has been manipulated or whether there is an intentional attempt to shape our own opinion.
Three Years of Saudi Heinous Crimes in Yemen
Yemen a miserable isolated Arab country has been devastated by an ongoing Saudi bloody war. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and its gulf allies (GCC) have launched a vicious military campaign against Yemen to reinstall its former government. Recently, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the UK has refocused attention on this silent conflict.
The collation has imposed a blockade on the port of Hodeida city, the main entry point for food and medicines and has been repeatedly accused of unlawful airstrikes on civilian targets which amount to war crimes. Obviously, the U.K., U.S. and other Western governments back, supply weapons and provides training to the GCC soldiers.
Amid the global silent and the mainstream media hypocrisy, the criminal collation systematically targets residential areas, claiming it would control arms transfer to the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia regards the Houthis as Iranian proxies and intervened to check their advance. These heinous massacres have prompted accusations by some Western opposition MPs and human rights groups of significant responsibility for civilian casualties. Thousands of Yemenis have been killed and the infrastructure has been thoroughly pulverized.
The GCC collation has imposed a blockade on Yemen’s air, sea and land borders in November 2017 in response to Huthis firing missiles towards Riyadh airport, closing an aid lifeline to tens of thousands of starving Yemenis. The U.K. government denies that its forces are advising the Saudis on specific targets, though they admit that, after a raid, British officers can give advice on future targeting policy.
A UN panel of experts that reviewed 10 Saudi airstrikes found Saudi denials of involvement in these specific airstrikes were implausible, and individuals responsible for planning, authorising or executing the strikes would meet the standard for the imposition of UN sanctions. The panel reported early in January, “even if the Saudi Arabia-led coalition had targeted legitimate military objectives … it is highly unlikely that the principles of international humanitarian law of proportionality and precautions in attack were respected.”
At the end of February, Russia vetoed a UK draft resolution that included a condemnation of Iran for violating the UN arms embargo in Yemen over claims that it supplied the missiles used by the Houthis that were fired towards Riyadh.The ongoing war has witnessed heinous atrocities, which emphasizes the urgent need of taking all necessary and possible steps to stop the war, bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure impunity.
Since the beginning of the military campaign, the coalition has targeted numerous facilities including schools, hospitals, airports, ports, universities, water and electric utilities, roads, bridges. Although international conventions grant full protection for civilian installations, the Saudi warplanes have systematically targeted civil facilities using several internationally forbidden weapons, during the systemic raids over densely populated areas.
Medics have voiced alarm over the raging spread of the cholera epidemic in the impoverished country, saying that one child is infected every minute. Malnourished children, who number more than two million in Yemen, are greatly susceptible. Yemeni Health Ministry says that the Saudi aerial embargo has prevented patients from travelling abroad for treatment, and the entry of medicine into the country has been blocked. Over the following three years, the war has engulfed the entire country causing unbearable suffering for civilians. Due to the relentless bombardment, many civilians have been killed or injured, and a humanitarian crisis has spiraled, while the world ignores this raging war and hears little about its devastating consequences.
Various hospitals were shut because of the bombarding, and the insufficient medical teams. Further, vaccinations of major infectious diseases have been banned, amid the growth of the indicators of child malnutrition, and the spread of epidemics. In addition, more than 95% of doctors, nurses and consultants have been killed or fled the country. The lack of medicines has caused the deaths of many with Thalassemia and Anemia who need a monthly blood transfusion. Dialysis centres have made an SOS to save the lives of more than 6 thousand patients with Renal failure by providing them with necessary medical supplies, pointing out that the number of deaths of patients with renal failure exceeded 17 deaths in every 8 months.
The blockade imposed by the coalition has left more than 12,000 people killed, 49,000 injured and around 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. It has also created the world’s largest food security emergency. Human Rights Watch has accused the Saudi-led coalition of committing war crimes, saying its air raids killed 39 civilians, including 26 children, in two months. Additionally, The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that the number of suspected cholera cases in war-torn Yemen has hit one million. More than eight million Yemenis are on the verge of starvation, making Yemen the scene of, what the United Nations calls, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.The Saudi regime has launched his war to eliminate the Houthis movement and to reinstall a Riyadh-friendly regime in Yemen.
However, the collation has failed to achieve its geopolitical and ideological objectives regardless of spending billions of dollars and enlisting the cooperation of its vassal states as well as some Western countries. The world’s largest humanitarian crisis caused by Saudi prolonged military onslaught has pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation. Unfortunately, the UN has not yet taken any effective measures to halt the humanitarian tragedy for the sake of the ultimate objective that Saudi Arabia is pursuing in the country, which is eliminating the threat of the Houthis. Obviously, the Saudis have not achieved their basic goals; hence, they are seeking revenge on the innocent Yemenis through their aimless bombardment.
West using JCPOA as lever to pressurize Iran
Recently, Reuters claimed European countries had commenced negotiations with Iran over the country’s role in the region in order to ease U.S. President Donald Trump’s concerns over the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Reuters alleges that the talks got off the ground on the fringes of the Munich security conference, with Yemen and certain regional issues taking center stage, and that the negotiations are going to continue in the future.
“European powers and Iran have started talks over Tehran’s role in the Middle East and will meet again this month in Italy as part of efforts to prove to U.S. President Donald Trump that they are meeting his concerns over the 2015 nuclear deal,” wrote Reuters.
What is worth mentioning about the Reuters’ report is that the news agency claims the talks between Iran and Europe on regional issues conducted is phased. Reuters says the first round of the negotiations were held on the sidelines of the Munich security conference with the Yemen war top of the agenda, and that the Europeans hope to discuss the role of the groups supporting Iran in Lebanon and Syria. A few points need to be taken into account in this regard.
First, regional talks with Iran has been one of the common demands of the U.S. and the European Union following the conclusion of the JCPOA. When the nuclear deal was signed in July 2015, many analysts unanimously believed that Washington and the European Troika intended to use the JCPOA as a springboard for regional talks with Tehran.
Efforts by Germany, Britain and France to hold regional talks with Iran can be analyzed accordingly. Here, France seeks to play the role of a leading player. The trip to Iran by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian comes within the same framework. Paris has promised Washington to spare no effort to hold negotiations with Iran on the Islamic Republic’s regional policies. Accordingly, Germany and Britain have got on board with France, too.
The second point is that while the general meeting of the UN General Assembly was underway in New York last summer, key talks were held between U.S. President Donald Trump and senior European officials over Iran’s regional policies and their connection with the JCPOA. In the talks, French President Emmanuel Macron promised his U.S. counterpart to channel and manage missile and regional talks with Iran. This comes as the fundamental principles of Iran’s foreign policy will remain unchanged. The principles include Iran’s backing for resistance groups, and above all, the country’s firmly dealing with the regional threats made by the U.S. and its allies and cronies. This firm approach by Iran will shatter the U.S. and Europe’s hope for regional talks with Iran. Still, the European officials believe the commencement of regional negotiations with Iran (even if unofficial), per se, can serve as a starting point to curtail Iran’s power and influence in the region. Thirdly, the Iranian diplomacy apparatus’ insistence on the unchangeable and general strategies of the country’s foreign policy, namely support for resistance groups, promotion of the resistance discourse, and fighting Takfiri terrorism will play a key role in foiling the ploys adopted by the U.S. and the European Union for talks.
One should bear in mind that the European Troika are channeling the talks on behalf of the U.S. and in coordination with the Trump administration. What Iran will employ to counter the joint game launched by Washington, Paris, London and Berlin will be the determination to safeguard the country’s strategic and behavioral principles in the region. It goes without saying that with this firm and prudent defense, the U.S. and the European Troika will not achieve any of their objectives in restricting Iran’s maneuvering power in the region. And lastly, the U.S. and the European Union are using the JCPOA as a lever to channel regional talks with Iran and pressure Tehran into giving in to Washington’s regional demands. In other words, Instead of serving its function as an independent legal document, the JCPOA has turned into a political tool to exert pressure on Iran. Here, too, the Iranian diplomacy and foreign policy apparatus should act very prudently and consider “safeguarding Iran’s regional power” as its red line, not “safeguarding the JCPOA.” Obviously, Washington and the European Troika should get to understand the definitive principle that Iran will not compromise on its fundamental strategies in the region.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
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