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Women’s driving: Saudi ultra-conservatives lick their wounds

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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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.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Public decency law puts Saudi reforms in perspective

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A newly adopted Saudi law on public decency helps define Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vague notion of ‘moderate Islam.’

It also lays bare the pitfalls of his social reforms as well as his preference for hyper-nationalism rather than religion as the legitimizing ideology of his rule and his quest for control of every aspect of Saudi life.

In an indication that Prince Mohammed is walking a fine line, Saudi media reported that the government was still weighing how to implement the law almost two months after it was adopted.

“This (law) is an effort to balance the pressure from conservative elements of society that accuse the (government) of allowing things to go ‘out of control’. Effecting social change is an art form — you want to push as fast as possible without provoking a counter reaction. Not easy!” Ali Shihabi, founder of Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based, pro-Saudi think-tank, told Agence France-Presse.

The law comes on the back of a series of reforms in recent years that were designed to facilitate Prince Mohammed’s plans to streamline and diversify the Saudi economy and project the crown prince as a reformer.

The reforms included the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, relaxation of gender segregation, enhancement of women’s professional opportunities, the introduction of modern forms of entertainment and the curbing of the powers of the kingdom’s feared religious police.

Prince Mohammed also vowed to revert the inward-looking, ultra-conservative kingdom to a form of moderate Islam he claimed existed prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Ultimately, Prince Mohammed’s short-lived reformist image was severely tarnished by the kingdom’s devastating war in Yemen;  the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; the mass arrest of clerics, activists, journalists and academics; his failure to lift the kingdom’s male guardianship system; and the mushrooming number of people fleeing the kingdom, including dissidents as well as women seeking to escape repressive and abusive families.

Sparking ridicule on social media, the new law defines limits of Prince Mohammed’s social reforms and creates one more anchor for his repression of any form of dissent.

The law bans men’s shorts except for on beaches and in sports clubs. It also bans garments with questionable prints that like shorts “offend public tastes.” It forbids the taking of pictures or use of phrases that might offend public decency as well as graffiti that could be interpreted as “harmful.”

The bans packages public decency as representing Saudi “values and principles” in a nod towards Prince Mohammed’s promotion of a hyper-nationalist Saudi identity.

Yet, various of its restrictions are more in line with the kingdom’s long-standing austere interpretation of Islam while others reinforce the crown prince’s repression of anything that does not amount to an endorsement of his rule or policies.

The restrictions on clothing and this month’s closure on opening night of the kingdom’s first-ever alcohol-free ‘Halal’ disco constitute an apparent effort to cater to ultra-conservatives who oppose liberalisation of gender segregation and public religious rituals such as the muted lifting of rules that force businesses to close during prayers times.

The reforms, while significant in and of themselves, stop short of dismantling what politics scholar Brandon Ives terms ‘religious institutionalism’ or the intertwining of religion and state through a “plethora of institutions, policies, and legal codes.”

Religious institutionalism complicates Prince Mohammed’s attempt to replace religious legitimization of his rule with hyper-nationalism because of its success in fusing religion with Saudi culture.

“Religion and culture are now so intertwined in what it means to be Saudi that it is hard to separate the two,” said Eman Alhussein, author of a just published European Council of Foreign Relations report on Saudi hyper-nationalism.

As a result, some nationalists have joined religious conservatives in calling for limitations on what is deemed acceptable entertainment and media content.

Ms. Alhussein noted that some online critics were cautioning that the promotion of hyper-nationalism stripped Saudis of their values in a manner that weakens their loyalty to the regime.

“Nationalism in this increasingly strident form could eventually become a Trojan horse that undermines the state,” Ms. Alhussein warned.

Nationalism’s double edge is enhanced, Ms. Alhussein went on to argue, by the undermining of the buffer function of the kingdom’s traditional religious establishment. “The state will now be more accountable for its credibility, and potentially much more exposed,” she said.

Prince Mohammed’s refusal to tackle religious institutionalism impacts not only his attempts at consolidation of his power but also his effort to project the kingdom as an enlightened 21st century state.

The crown prince, in a bid to alter the kingdom’s image and cut expenditure, has significantly reduced spending on a decades-long, US$100 billion campaign to globally promote anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.

Prince Mohammed has at the same time ordered state-controlled vehicles that once promoted religious ultra-conservativism to preach tolerance, mutual respect and inter-faith dialogue instead.

Mr. Ives’ analysis suggests, however, that the kingdom’s U-turn is unlikely to lead to a clean break with support abroad of ultra-conservatism without the dismantling of religious institutionalism.

He argues that the domestic pressure that persuades states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran to support co-religionist rebel groups beyond their borders is generated not by religious affinity but by religious institutionalism that creates a political role for religious forces.

Mr. Ives’ arguments appear to be borne out by continued Saudi support for Islamist militants in Balochistan, the Pakistani province that borders on Iran, as well as Algeria and Libya and propagation of non-violent expressions of an apolitical, quietist, and loyalist interpretation of Islam in countries like Kazakhstan.

Saudi Arabia’s new public decency law in effect highlights the limitations of Prince Mohammed’s reforms.

In a private conversation last year with the Archbishop of Canterbury during a visit to Britain, Prince Mohammed reportedly put some flesh on the skeleton of his vision of moderate Islam.

When urged by the archbishop to allow non-Muslims to open places of worship in the kingdom, Prince Mohammed responded: “I could never allow that. This is the holy site of Islam, and it should stay as such.”

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Why should China fully support Iran in Persian Gulf tensions?

Payman Yazdani

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According to many international thinkers creating tensions in the Persian Gulf region by the U.S. also aims at containing China and limiting Beijing’s access to energy resources of the region which is driving engine of Chinese economy.

China was one of the oil exporter countries in 70s and 80s, but following its economic growth it has turned into an oil importing country since 1993 and due to continuation of its economic growth now the country is heavily dependent on importing of oil from other countries. Nowadays the country is the second energy consuming and third oil importing country in the world. Despite the Beijing’s efforts to provide its energy security by diversifying its energy sources during the past years, the country is still heavily dependent on energy import.

Thanks to its efforts and hardworking people China left its global economic rivals behind and became the second biggest economy of the world after the United States. It seems that due to its plans and initiatives Beijing is also managing to leave behind the U.S. in near future and become the world’s biggest economy. The White House has kept an eye the China’s development and its plans and initiatives. The U.S. has never been negligent in monitoring China’s achievements and ambitions.

By changing its approaches and positive interaction with rest of the world Since 1970s, China has promoted its global position to the second biggest economy of the world while before it the country was among the third world countries. The U.S.’s efforts to contain China has become more serious since the beginning of the 21st century. Since Donald Trump took office the level of conflicts between China and the U.S. has climbed up from economic and trade level and is entering into political and security level. Now, Increase of Chinese power and global influence is a major challenge for the White House. In the first step president Trump waged wagged a trade and economic war against Beijing and in the next stage Trump is going to restrict China’s influence globally particularly among the U.S. allies.

To contain China, the U.S. has resorted to many strategies and tactics such as destabilizing west borders of China in Afghanistan and Pakistan and trying to spread to central Asia aiming at thwarting Chinese ‘One road-One belt’ initiative that many experts believe that success of this project will let China to determine the word trade orders in the future.   

Trying to intensify territorial disputes between China and its neighbors besides its trade war against Beijing are among another U.S. tactics to contain China.  

Statistics from www.worldstopexports.com website indicates that China imports its needed crude oil from the following countries:

1.    Russia: US$37.9 billion (15.8% of China’s total imported crude)
2.    Saudi Arabia: $29.7 billion (12.4%)
3.    Angola: $24.9 billion (10.4%)
4.    Iraq: $22.4 billion (9.4%)
5.    Oman: $17.3 billion (7.2%)
6.    Brazil: $16.2 billion (6.8%)
7.    Iran: $15 billion (6.3%)
8.    Kuwait: $11.9 billion (5%)
9.    Venezuela: $7 billion (2.9%)
10.    United States: $6.8 billion (2.8%)
11.    United Arab Emirates: $6.7 billion (2.8%)
12.    Congo: $6.4 billion (2.7%)
13.    Colombia: $5 billion (2.1%)
14.    Malaysia: $4.8 billion (2%)
15.    Libya: $4.7 billion (2%)

Crude oil import is driving engine of Chinese economy so any threats to energy security of China will inflict a heavy blow to the country’s economic growth and can help U.S. to win trade war against Beijing and contain it.

Above mentioned statistics show that some 43% of the crude oil that China imports goes from Persian Gulf and 4.6% goes from Libya and Venezuela that the U.S. destructive polices has already created a chaotic situation in two countries.

Many experts believe that the U.S. withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal known as the JCPOA under false pretexts not only aims at pressurizing Iran but also it is a way to pressurize China to compromise in the trade war that Washington has waged against it. Any conflict and tension in the Persian Gulf region which China’s economy is heavily dependent on means a great blow to the country’s economy, therefore many suspicious incidents and tensions created by Washington and its proxies in Persian Gulf region like attacking oil tankers can be interpreted as the White House’s measures to contain China in order to guarantee the U.S. hegemony and influence for the next decades.  

Commenting on possible relation between recent developments in Persian Gulf and its effects on China’s economy, Dr. Osman Faruk Logoglu a senior member of Tukey’s CHP and former diplomat says,” With its provocative actions and sanctions, Washington not only aims to buttress its support for Israel and its Arab allies by punishing Iran but at the same time also intends to deny Chinese access to Iranian oil.  The fear of and rivalry with China is today one of the primary drivers of American foreign policy.  Interruption of the oil flow in the Gulf is one way to directly hurt Chinese interests.  The Trump administration is, therefore, playing with fire in Iran and a potential conflagration with China.”

A senior Iranian analyst Sadeq Maleki also believes, “The rising tensions between the United States and Iran are mainly caused by Tehran’s independence policy and Washington’s intolerance toward this fact. However, such independence is considered as an exceptional opportunity for the Europeans and other states, especially China, that need to supply their energy from Iran and the Persian Gulf region. A big part of Washington’s policy of fomenting tensions against Tehran and making the Persian Gulf region more volatile comes in line with the White House’s plan to contain China. Iran’s resistance to the U.S.’ pressure is in fact shaping an equation, in which the Islamic Republic indirectly contributes to the interests of China and even Europe. So, China and Europe are highly expected to help Iran in this regard. In a long-term strategic perspective, the U.S.’ long distance from the Middle East, the dangers of insecurity in the Persian Gulf region, and the proximity of Europe and China to the region, heighten the need for greater coordination between Iran, China and Europe in countering the U.S.’ aggressive attitudes.”

Zeynep Oktav, an international relation Professor at Istanbul Medeniyet University also sees a close relation between U.S. created tensions in the Persian Gulf and containment of China. She said, “I believe there’s a close relation as Washington wants to dominate the Middle East with its efforts to exclude China from the region. In this context containing Iran is of crucial importance as China buys Iranian crude oil. China currently seems to change its previous policies of balancing Iran and USA. Beijing applies latest sanctions on Iran, however, it opposes any possibility of American military attack on Iran. In my opinion, USA challenges China by threatening Iran in the Middle East, the issue is not about Iran, it’s about China.”
Even some experts who don’t believe in close relation between the ongoing U.S. created tensions in Persian Gulf and containment of China by the U.S. don’t reject the possibility totally and say the relation is indirect not direct.

Prof. Larry Catá Backer of Pennsylvania State University says, “Relation between Persian Gulf tensions and U.S.-China negotiations may reflect post facto efforts to exploit serendipitous perceive opportunity; it is much less likely to represent the execution of some sort of strategic plan.”

Prof. Nader Entessar, a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at the University of South Alabama believes that if there is any relationship between the tensions in the Persian Gulf and containment of China, it is not direct.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Istanbul, the Mayoral Election Rerun: A Turning Point for Democracy?

Zakir Gul, Ph.D.

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Despite state-sponsored and private efforts to influence the outcome of Turkey’s mayoral elections on March 31 either directly or indirectly, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered major losses. Of particular note is the mayoral election in Istanbul where AKP member and former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim lost to Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, someone who was not especially popular or well-known. He resembles the last person, who effectively challenged the AKP in general election: Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who has been jailed since 2016.

The outcome of the mayoral election in Istanbul reflects poorly on the president’s ability to ensure that a member of his own party remains in power in the city where Erdogan himself was elected as mayor in 1994, although with the lowest percentage(25.19%) in Istanbul election history. Since then, Erdogan has not lost even one election—be it for mayor or some other political position—despite widespread claims of corruption involving Erdogan and the AKP.

Imamoglu prevailed in the election against his AKP opponent because he was seen by many diverse people as the antithesis of Erdogan and the AKP. Istanbul voters apparently saw Imamoglu as a champion of their desire for a peaceful country and someone who could stop the ruling party’s pervasive hateful and divisive discourse and policies, its human rights violations, and its embrace of kleptocracy and kakistocracy, at least in Istanbul. Erdogan, of course, was not happy with Imamoglu’s popularity and acted as if he, too, was running against Imamoglu. Erdogan wanted his close companion, Yildirim, to win the mayoral election and resorted his usual strategy of declaring his critics terrorists. Through state-controlled media, Erdogan implied that anyone voted for his candidate, Yildirim, was voting in support of Turkey and that anyone who voted for Yildirim’s opponent, Imamoglu, supported terrorists and were enemies of state. Yildirim’s (and by extension Erdogan’s) campaign slogan was “the survival of Turkey.”The message was that for Turkey to continue to exist, the residents of Istanbul should support the ruling party, the AKP. In other words, if the ruling party is defeated, Turkey will no longer exist. The campaign slogan and the policies of the AKP received consistent support from the leader of the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli. The efforts of Erdogan and Bahceli, however, failed miserably. The winner on March 31 was Mr. Imamoglu, leaving Erdogan and Bahceli shocked at the outcome.

The election defeat was not something that Erdogan could swallow, and he made his displeasure known.  The Supreme Election Council (YSK) subsequently ruled that the mayoral election in Istanbul would be repeated on June 23. Erdogan realized that his strategy did not work this time. He also realized the importance of Kurdish voters in Turkey and that these Kurdish citizens would be the ones to determine the winner of the mayoral election in Istanbul.

Armed with these insights, Erdogan changed his campaign strategy to one that was built on gaining the votes of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. Gone from the playbook was ethnic discrimination and the indiscriminate labeling of opponents of the ruling party as terrorists. The strategy, however, would be an uphill battle. Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have not forgotten the government’s harsh policies in the name of fighting terrorism, such as destroying houses in several Kurdish populated cities in the southeastern region of Turkey. When he developed his new campaign strategy, Erdogan most likely underestimate the power of the Kurdish vote. As the jailed HDP co-leader Demirtas warned, “Those who see Kurds as ‘simpletons who are very easy to deceive’ have always been mistaken, they will continue being mistaken.” He encouraged Kurdish citizens to go to the ballot boxes to say no to fascism and to defend their rights. In other words, Demirtas was implying that the Kurdish population should vote but not to support the AKP, as the AKP is fascist.

Discourse on the issues occurred for the first time. For example, Yildirim used the word Kurdistan during one of his political rallies. Just before the March 31 election, however, Erdogan said, “In my country, there is no region called Kurdistan.” In another example, the leader of the MHP, Bahceli, referred to the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as Ocalan. Bahceli previously had avoided calling the PKK leader by name, referring to him instead as “the chief of terrorists.”

At the same time, the leader of PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, countered Demirtas’ plea for Kurdish voters to vote in the mayoral election but not for the AKP, making an announcement through state news agency, Anadolu Agency(AA) in which he called on Turkey’s most influential pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, to remain neutral and not support either candidate in the Istanbul election rerun on June 23. Meanwhile, Osman Ocalan, the PKK leader’s brother, appeared on the state-run television network TRT Kurdi for an interview in which he supported his brother’s message and criticized the CHP and its candidate.

The outcome of the election on June 23 most likely will be the same as it was on March 31. The Kurds, whose houses and neighborhoods have been destroyed by the security forces in the name of counterterrorism policies have not forgotten what happened at the hands of the ruling AKP. They also have not forgotten the Kobani incidents, where Kurds were left to die in front of ISIS. Further, some righteous citizens who have observed the victimization of hundreds of thousands of individuals and families, regardless of their ethnicity or color, by government decrees, will also not support Erdogan’s candidate for mayor of Istanbul. They will choose the opposition candidate because they long for an end to the Erdogan regime’s constitutional and human rights violations (Human Rights Watch, 2019; UN Report, 2018) in response to Kurds who dare to disagree with the ruling party.Istanbul’s Kurdish voters will not forget Erdogan’s disdain for the Kurds. The Kurds know that Kurds,too, are human. They will not forget Erdogan’s overly political and pragmatist approach to human beings. Yesterday’s terrorist is today’s human, or vice versa, depending on the vote the ruling party needs.

If the Erdogan-supported candidate is again defeated, it is highly likely that the Istanbul mayoral election rerun will be a turning point for Turkish democracy—a turning back to Turkish democracy.

*Yusuf Gunay, Security Expert & Analyst, Cleveland, Ohio, US

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