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Targeting Islamic scholars from Malaysia to Tunisia, Saudi Arabia puts itself in the bull’s eye

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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By declaring the Qatar-based International Union of Islamic Scholars (ILUM) a terrorist organization, Saudi Arabia is confronting some of the world’s foremost Islamic political parties and religious personalities, opening itself up to criticism for its overtures to Israel, and fuelling controversy in countries like Malaysia and Tunisia.

In a statement earlier this week, Saudi Arabia charged that ILUM was “using Islamic rhetoric as a cover to facilitate terrorist activities.” The banning of ILUM goes to the heart of the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar and is driven by United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s visceral opposition to any expression of political Islam.

The UAE for several years has sought with little evident success to counter ILUM’s influence by establishing groups like the Muslim Council of Elders and the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies as well as the Sawab and Hedayah Centres’ anti-extremism messaging initiatives in collaboration with the United States and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

The ban appears to have been designed to position Saudi Arabia as the arbiter of what constitutes true Islam and marks a next phase in a four-decade long, $100 billion campaign waged by the kingdom to counter Iran by spreading for the longest period of time Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, that often served as an ideological inspiration for jihadist philosophy – an iteration ultra-conservatives have condemned.

ILUM “worked on destroying major religious institutions in the Muslim world, like the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar in Egypt,” one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning, charged Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi journalist and columnist for Al Arabiya.

Al Arabiya’s owner, Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, was among the kingdom’s top media barons arrested in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent purge of members of the ruling family, senior officials, and businessmen under the mum of anti-corruption.

“The terrorism project hiding under Islam launched its work around the same time organizations which issue extremist fatwas (religious legal opinions) were founded. Like al-Qaeda and ISIS (an acronym for the Islamic State), these jurisprudential groups said they refuse to be local as they view themselves as global organizations that cross borders. The most dangerous aspect of terrorism is extremist ideology. We realize this well now,” Mr Al-Rashed said.

The Council of Senior Scholars, despite having endorsed Prince Mohammed’s reforms in a bid to salvage what it can of the power sharing agreement that from the kingdom’s founding granted his ruling Al Saud family legitimacy, is a body of ultra-conservative Islamic scholars.

Various statements by the council and its members critical of aspects of Prince Mohammed’s economic and social reform since his rise in 2015 suggest that support among its scholars is not deep-seated.

Prince Mohammed recently vowed to move the kingdom away from its embrace of ultra-conservatism and towards what he described as a more “moderate” form of Islam.

Speaking to The New York Times, Prince Mohammed argued that at the time of the Prophet Mohammed  there were musical theatres, an absence of segregation of men and women, and respect for Christians and Jews, who were anointed People of the Book in the Qur’an. “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman! Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?” Prince Mohammed asked.

Authorities days later banned pilgrims from taking photos and videos in Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina in line with an ultra-conservative precept that forbids human images. The ban was imposed after Israeli blogger Ben Tzion posted a selfie in Mecca on social media. Authorities bar non-Muslims from entering the two holy cities.

In a statement, authorities said the ban was intended to protect and preserve Islam’s holiest sites, prevent the disturbance of worshippers, and ensure tranquillity while performing acts of worship.

Founded by controversial Egyptian-born scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s most prominent living clerics and believed to be a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, ILUM members include Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the co-founder and intellectual leader of Tunisia’s Brotherhood-inspired Ennahada Party, and Malaysian member of parliament and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) head Abdul Hadi bin Awang.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi, a naturalized Qatari citizen who in the past justified suicide bombings in Israel but has since condemned them,  was labelled a terrorist by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June as part of their diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. The UAE-Saudi-led alliance demanded that Qatar act against Mr. El-Qaradawi and scores of others as a condition for lifting the six-month-old boycott.

Mr. El-Ghannouchi was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 and Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2011. He was also awarded the prestigious Chatham House Prize. Mr. El-Ghannouchi is widely credited for ensuring that Tunisia became the only Arab country to have successfully emerged from the 2011 Arab popular revolts as a democracy.

The banning of ILUM has, moreover, sparked political controversy in Malaysia. Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, recently noted a deepening involvement of Malaysia’s religious authorities in policy decisions, developments she said were influenced by “a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula” that was “at odds with local forms of practice.”

“Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia,” added Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad

Critics of PAS  demanded that Mr. Bin Awang, a vice-president of the group, “come clean that he does not preach hatred” in the words of former PAS leader Mujahid Yusof Rawa, and called on the government to ask Saudi Arabia for information to back up its charges against the union.

Mr Bin Awang, referring to Saudi King Salman, asserted last week that he relied on the “Qur’an (for guidance) although the ruler who is the servant of the Two Holy Cities has forged intimate ties with Israel and the United States, because my faith is not with the Kaaba but with Allah.” One of the most sacred sites in Mecca, Muslims turn to the Kaaba when praying.

“Just like Qatar, PAS had tried to ingratiate itself with Iran in an attempt to cover both bases, along with Saudi. Now the chicken has come home to roost, and just like Qatar, global minnows like PAS find themselves caught in the middle between the two Muslim world influencers,” said Malaysian columnist Zurairi Ar.

Among other members of ILUM is controversial Saudi scholar Salman al-Odah, who was among clerics, intellectuals, judges and activists arrested in the kingdom weeks before the most recent purge.

With millions of followers on social media, Mr. Al-Odah, a once militant scholar, turned a decade ago against jihadis like Osama bin Laden and played a key role in the kingdom’s program to rehabilitate militants, but retained his opposition to the monarchy.

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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Elections in the Lebanon

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The general elections in the Lebanon were held on May 6 last. They had originally been scheduled for 2013 but,due to the repeated failure of Parliament to elect a new President from April 23, 2014 to October 31, 2016 because no candidate had succeeded in obtaining the required two-thirds majority, the Parliamentary term had been extended at first until 2017 and then until 2018.

A new electoral law had been adopted in 2017, providing a proportional representation system for the first time in the history of the country.

The maximum proportional representation system in elections coincides with the maximum destabilization of a country.

Finally, Michel Aoun was elected President on October 31, 2016 at the 46th electoral session of the Lebanese Parliament, breaking a 29-month deadlock.

Aoun is a Maronite Christian, as provided for by the Lebanese Constitution, and he was Head of the Armed Forces as early as 1984. From 1988 to mid-October 1990 he served also as Prime Minister appointed by the then departing Lebanese President Amine Gemayel, whose controversial decision led to the paradoxical situation of having two rival Lebanese governments contending for power, one by Aoun and the other by Selim Hoss, apparently pro-Western and self-appointed Prime Minister.

The Lebanese Constitution lays down, inter alia, that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Head of  government an Islamic Sunni and the President of Parliament a Shi’ite.

The Lebanese Constitution, however, does not define – as happens also in other Middle East countries – traditional political groups, but sectarian parties of religious origin and affiliation.

Until Aoun’s election, two coalitions competed in the country. The first one was the March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri, a politician close to Saudi Arabia floundering in a very severe financial and political crisis – a political alliance currently established, together with the Christians of Samir Geagea, by the group of Sami Gemayel, the Head of the Maronite Phalanx, and by Walid Jumblatt, the historical leader of the Druses.

From the very beginning the whole “March 14 Alliance”  was closely linked to Saudi interests.

It is worth recalling, however, that the Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world, with a 150% share of the GDP, a total net indebtedness of 79 billion US dollars and an increase in the debt / GDP ratio which, according to the International Monetary Fund, could reach  a 180% share in three years.

In a forthcoming Conference to be held in Paris, the Lebanese government will ask for foreign investment targeted to infrastructure equal to at least 16 billion US dollars, while banks do not provide liquidity to anyone.

As evidenced by the growth of grassroots parties, infrastructure and local public services, as well as urban management issues, are the true weak point of the Lebanese State.

70% of the Lebanese public spending goes to wages and salaries and to debt servicing, in particular, while as much as 10% goes on subsidies to the electricity and energy bills of the poorest population.

Hence there is no room for any government to reduce the Lebanese public spending significantly.

Therefore there is always a very close link between the dysfunctionality of political systems and State’s indebtedness and, finally, between the rigidity of electoral representation and the impossibility of controlling the connection between debt and GDP.

This should be studied to further clarify the “Italian case”.

The March 8 Alliance, however, was established  by Hezbollah – the Shiite Party founded in 1982 by Imam Khomeini “as if it were the apple of his eye”, as well as by Nabih Berri’ Shi’ite movement of Amal (Hope) and, finally, by Michel Aoun’s Maronite Christian Party.

According to what is currently maintained in the Lebanon, the agreement between the two major factions envisages the “green light” of the March 8 Alliance for the future premiership of Saad Hariri, one of the leaders of the other coalition.

However, who is Michel Aoun? First and foremost, the military commander of the 8th Brigade of the Lebanese Armed Forces who succeeded in stopping the offensive of the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt who, at that time, was leading the pro-Syrian militia.

As already stated, in the years following his appointment as Head of government, Aoun clashed especially with both the Shi’ite and Druse groups and the Maronite militia of Samir Geagea’s “Phalanx”.

As was also the case in Northern Ireland and Spain, with the Basque movement, the political revolution easily gives way to illegal activities.

In 1989, after the signing of the inter-Lebanese peace agreement -a sectarian pact, named Taif Accord because it was made in Taif, Saudi Arabia, which put an end to the  Lebanese civil war-the new President Hrawi dismissed Michel Aoun and ordered him to leave the presidential Palace. He refused to dismiss and barricaded himself in the Palace to prepare for his defense, thus refusing to give up the power.

Not very long after the attacks on the presidential Palace Aoun was asked to leave the Lebanon and later went into exile in France. For the former Head of the Lebanese Armed Forces the exile was inevitable after the victory of the Syrian forces that entered the Lebanon to stabilize the “province” of Beirut.

It was a period in which Aoun established very close relations with the French intelligence services and, above all, with the Israeli ones.

During those years the Lebanon became a full Syrian protectorate.

Nevertheless Aoun came back to the political scene and to the Lebanon in 2004, when the UN voted Resolution No. 1559, which obliged all the Syrian Armed Forces to leave Syria.

Aoun ended 15 years of exile when he returned to the Lebanon on May 7, 2015 – eleven days after the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from the Lebanon following the assassination of Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. The huge demonstrations following the assassination of Hariri, guarantor of the Lebanese reconstruction -although with the Saudi money – after the massive destruction caused by the civil war, forced the Syrians to leave the country.

It was from that moment that Aoun, who had long  secretly and later overtly returned to the Lebanon, quickly began to approach and come closer to his long-standing enemies, the Shi’ites of Hezbollah and Amal.

Amal, the old movement of Nabih Berri, had fought against Hezbollah for control over South Beirut in the “Lebanese civil war” and, however, had been founded by Musa al-Sadr, the Imam who established the belonging of the Alawites – hence the elite currently ruling Syria – to the Shi’ite Islam and was most likely killed, upon Gaddafi’s order, in Rome in 1978.

As can be easily seen, the Lebanese politics has always been a game of shadows and paradoxes.

In 2008, however, Aounhad failed in his first presidential project, while reestablishing relations with his old Maronite enemy, Samir Geagea, who in 2016, withdrew from the presidential election and made his votes converge on Aoun.

Nevertheless Aoun could anticipate the real presidential victory only when Saad Hariri, weakened by the financial crisis of his company operating in Saudi Arabia and pressed by the French Embassy for other very urgent financial problems, gave him his support –  certainly in return for a future Premiership, thus abandoning the Christian candidate of his coalition, Suleiman Frangiehjr.

Aoun, however, is old since he is aged 82. He is supposed to pave the way for his son-in-law and current Foreign Minister, Gebrain Bassil.

Moreover, the two coalitions – both heirs of the civil war – are ever less voted by young people and by all those who want to lay the ghost of the Lebanese political and military factionalism. There are many of them.

Not surprisingly, in the latest elections the two coalitions  even joined forces to defeat the new civic and environmental movement known as Beirut Madinati (“Beirut My City”) which, however, unexpectedly won  one of Beirut’s three electoral districts.

Beirut Madinatiis a movement which emerged after the 2015-16Lebanese protests as a reaction to power and water shortages, streets filled with trash and dizzying urban infrastructure. Nothing destroys political representation as disaster in basic public services.

Nothing supported Hezbollah more than its supply of sectarian welfare, which replaces a State that no longer has  the money nor the rules – stupidly “liberalized” – to help the poor in hospitals, schools and at work.

The rules of privatization will destroy political representation also in the West.

As can be easily imagined, however, the core of the Lebanese political system is currently the intelligence service network.

Also as a military leader, Aoun is still at the centre of the Lebanese intelligence system.

He is the guarantor and the mitigator of both the demands of the Shi’ite alliances, including Hezbollah -Aoun’s ally since 2005 and traditional point of reference for Syria and, above all, for Iran – and of the multifarious, but powerful world of Sunni militias.

The Sunnis are a politically growing area no longer tolerating the defeats of the “jihadist brothers” in Syria and Iraq, nor the perceived dominance of Hezbollah and Amal.

The Lebanon, however, has four intelligence agencies: the “Intelligence Section of the Interior Security Forces” (IS-ISF); the “General Directorate of General Security” (GDGS); the “Military Intelligence Directorate” (MID) and the “State Security Directorate” (SSD).

The IS-ISF deals with counterterrorism, anti-drugs and criminal investigations; the GDGS works on visas and passports, censorship, port and airport checks, as well as counterintelligence and counterterrorism.

Conversely, the MID operates in the field of military espionage, the protection of Armed Forces’ sites and facilities, as well as the prevention of political upheavals.

Finally, the SSD protects public offices and important personalities.

General Antoine Suleyman Mansour has recently replaced his peer Camille Daher as Head of the MID.

Mansour was born in the Beqaa Valley and followed counterterrorism courses in the USA, in France, but above all in Syria.

The Beqaa Valley is the axis of Hezbollah’s economic and strategic power.

It is in that region, which is essential also for Israel’s defense, that the “Party of God” organizes its drug trafficking and where its main very secret arms caches are located.

The “Shi’ite pathway” stretching from Iraq to Teheran up to South Beirut – as currently imagined – is vital for the very survival of Hezbollah, but also for the Iranian power system.

It is the most evident threat to the Israeli system, especially if we relate it to the Iranian operations in the Gaza Strip and in the Territories.

Moreover, General Daher also dealt – directly with Saudi Arabia – a supply of brand new French weapons paid by Saudi Arabia and worth three billion US dollars. Nonetheless the negotiations  failed and the weapons were later bought by Saudi Arabia for its armed forces.

It is easy to understand what this meant for the Lebanese internal political equilibrium.

It is said that General Daher bears the brunt of his affinity with General Kahwahj, former Chief of Staff in Beirut and, above all, Aoun’ sworn enemy and internal rival.

General Karaa, the first Head of the SSD and Abdou Fattou,  responsible for the confidential funds of the Service, were replaced by Tony Saliba and Wafiq Jizzini, respectively. In 2008 General Karaa had investigated into Hezbollah’s advanced and confidential communication network, which is very powerful and secret, while Abbas Ibrahim, who leads the GSDS, is explicitly supported by the “Party of God” and hence has remained at his place.

Ibrahim has also held the recent and complex negotiations between the Daesh-Isis, Al Nusra and Hezbollah for the transfer – hence the recent increase in the Lebanese sectarian violence – of Sunni terrorists to Syria, under the direct protection of Hezbollah and the Lebanese intelligence Service.

Hence what is the current electoral system in the Lebanon? In June 2017 the various religious and political forces reached an agreement on electoral procedures.

The agreement led to a proportional representation system, wanted above all by the Maronite world, and, in particular, by Aoun’s movement, namely the Free Patriotic Movement, as well as by its Shi’ite allies.

Considering the 6.2 million inhabitants of the Lebanon, Muslims account for 54%, of whom 27% are Sunni and 27% Shi’ite, with the latter growing significantly.  Christians account for 40.5%, of whom 21% are Maronite, 8% areGreek Orthodox, 5% are Greek Catholics, 6.5% are other types of Christians, while the Druses are 5.6%.

As could be easily predicted, currently Hezbollah is the real winner of the latest Lebanese elections.

Together with Amal, united in a joint list called Al Amal wal Wafa (“Hope and Loyalty”), the two Shi’ite Parties, along with other friendly lists, won 13 and 15 seats respectively.

Beforehand, the two pro-Iranian Parties, with a very long history of violent struggle between each other, had 13 seats each in the Lebanese Parliament, which has a total of 128 seats.

As many as 7,000 clearly documented infringements of the electoral procedures were checked, with a voter turnout lower than 50%. Hence many operations of tampering with people’s will were recorded, whatever this means in the Lebanon.

Aoun’s movement rose from 18 to 22 seats while, at least this time, Geagea’s group–Hezbollah’s traditional Maronite opponent and Aoun’s current ally -rose  from 8 to 14 seats.

Also the Azm Party of former Prime Minister Najib Mikatirose from one to four seats.

The Azm Party was founded by Mikati, the well-known Premier of the March 8 Alliance, with the support of Hezbollah, Aoun and their local allies.

The Syrian National Socialist Party and Tashnag, the political group of reference for the Lebanese Armenian community, obtained two and three seats, respectively.

However, Kollouna Watani(“We are All National”) – a recently-established political group -got no seats.

Saad Hariri’s Party, which seems to be no longer close to its Saudi friends’ heart, fell from 33 to 21 seats only. Moreover, in Beirut, in the traditional strongholds of Hariri’s Future Movement, the Shi’ites won.

The Druse Party of Walid Jumblatt, namely the Progressive Socialist Party, lost two seats falling from 11 to 9.

Here demography rather than militant politics matters – as well as the great Lebanese migration of the middle class to  Europe and the United States.

The Kataeb Party, the old Maronite Phalanx of Sami Gemayel, fell from five to three seats.

Marada, Frangieh’s old movement, kept its three seats.

Certainly the prorogation of Parliamentary terms of office  began with the outbreak of riots in 1975 – except for the extraordinary appointment of 40 MPs elected in 1991. Hence the Parliamentary Assembly elected in 1975 lasted in office precisely until 1991.

The Parliament just dissolved had been elected in 2009, for four years only, but its term was extended four times in a row.

Furthermore, the election of President Suleiman on May 25, 2008 had been made possible only by the inter-Lebanese Dialogue held in Doha on May 21, 2008, shortly after the (military) show of strength by Hezbollah in West Beirut, right in the Sunni area of the capital city.

Therefore the elections of June 2009 directly followed President Michel Suleiman’s rise to power.

Four years later, the elections already scheduled for June 7,  2013, were postponed again.

The Parliament continuously renewed its term of office  until 2014, then until June 2017 and again until 2018. A failed link between the Presidency and local representation.

Moreover, at military level, since that moment Hezbollah has been a unit integrated with the rest of the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Hence the Syrian army, the “Party of God” and the Al QudsIranian brigades have become actors on the operational front as early as the fall of Aleppo, on December 22, 2016, while a real Iranian military protectorate on the Lebanon has been created by the presence of said three forces along the axis stretching from Northern Syria to Southern Lebanon, through the Golan Heights.

Later, after the clear support of the “Party of God” to the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, the cleavage, i.e. the final “break” between Sunnis and Shi’ites, widened, even in the Lebanon alone.

Therefore, after the end of the “Caliphate”, Saudi Arabia and its allies have no elements on which to manipulate the balance of power and forces in the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon axis.

All this happens while Saad Hariri, together with the Saudi “enemies” that are still in the broad March 8 Alliance, are agreeing with Hezbollah to form a “national unity” government. Hariri, who is floundering in a financial crisis, needs this government to get back on track.

As an old South American parliamentarian used to say, politics “es muy lucrativa pero muy peligrosa”

With specific reference to Hariri, this is the sense of his defacto “being held hostage” by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as from November 2017.

This is the internal and external sphere of power relations in the Lebanese political system.

The rationale of the new electoral system provided for by Law No. 44 of June 17, 2017 is to project internally the external equilibria which ensure unity and funding to the Lebanese State.

With a view to avoiding further chaos, after Michel Aoun’s election, all the electoral districts and constituencies were designed to preserve and stabilize the traditional religious-sectarian electorate.

In fact, electoral law No. 44/2017 divides the country into fifteen major electoral constituencies, further divided into 26 cazas, namely minor electoral districts, thus putting together the classic proportional representation system with a mechanism defined by the specific “preferential voting”.

This means that each voter shall vote for one of the competing lists and shall be entitled to cast one preferential vote for a candidate of the same list he/she has chosen.

This voting system selects candidates only within the caza, the first and smallest electoral district.

The vote, however, is valid only if the preferential votes are cast in all fifteen regional constituencies – with the electoral quotient determined by the number of voters in a given constituency divided by the number of seats already allocated for that constituency.

The preferential voting, however, defines the ranking – hence the winner at caza level.

In other words –  as is also the case with Western Europe -this happens to create a sort of electoral elite as against the mass of irrelevant representatives.

Therefore the  Lebanese system creates a hidden electoral bonus, but only for the best known candidates.

Nonetheless the real issue is another one: the division is currently within the March 14 Alliance, with the Sunni, Druse and Christian side opposing the Syrian designs on the Lebanon, as against the March 8 Alliance that is  increasingly linked to the Syrian regime and its external supporters.

Hence the local paradoxes of a now clear geopolitical framework: Samir Geagea’s “Lebanese Forces” of Samir Geagea are hostile to the Syrian-Iranian axis and close to Saudi Arabia, but are allied with the Free Democratic Movement of Aoun and his son-in-law Bassil, who have instead signed a written contract with Hezbollah.

Therefore, in the Lebanon, there is a political system reaffirming and maintaining the destabilization of the country indefinitely. It brings back memories.

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A Ramadan Humiliating Commercial: A Blatant Call for which Sort of Peace?

Sondoss Al Asaad

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The Kuwait-based Zain Group, a leading Mobile Telecommunications Company (MTC) in the Middle East and North Africa, has released a three-minute ad by the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. The commercial ad features a child addressing the leaders of powerful countries including U.S.’s Donald Trump, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The child, who allegedly expresses children’svoice living in various conflict areas tell them [The Leaders] that they [Arabs and Muslims] will soon break their fasting in Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine, But!!

The suspicious viral Ramadan ad has sparked a social media backlash, accusing Zain of taking advantage of the Palestinians’ and of other Arabs and Muslims refugees’plight.At the first place, seventy years after the Palestinian diaspora [Nakba,] an Arabian effective and influential company has finally and surprisingly remembered the Palestinian cause and the misery of its people along with other peoples.

Indeed, Jerusalem is definitely and unarguably the capital of Palestine, however it is more than shameful to utilise this cause in Zain’s marketing projects for two obvious reasons. First, to gain more profits under the umbrella of standing in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Secondly, to covey hidden-messages, i.e. normalising ties and ‘peace’ connotations. It would be reasonable, if the ad was purely commercial, however it is a politicised invitation to Arabs and Muslims to break their fasting, in Jerusalem, with their enemy on the same table.

Zain’s ad, shockingly and audaciously, promotes the scheme of reconciliation and peace with the Zionist enemy and its imperialist allies, which kills on daily basis tens of innocent Palestinian children, youth and elderlies. Apparently, this ad, sponsored by Zain,has not been arbitrarily picked, exploiting a vulnerable child to beg Trump’s sympathy.How come an oppressed plea his oppressor to grant him peace?

While the American president does not appear in a place other than his disreputable office, Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, sits in a starving family’s kitchen, portraying him as the murderer of the Syrian children. On the other hand, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel rushes to save one of the refugees children on the death boats.

In the same scene, also the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shows up to promote how kindly Canada and Germany welcome the Syrian refugees. Laughably enough, the same state where Zain and its other GCC allies have long refused to welcome refugees. These states in many cases deal with foreigners as second-class citizens or they exploit them in their demographic schemes as what is goingcurrently in Bahrain.

The ad continues its dramatic farce when the child tells the North Korean President Kim Jong-un that he cannot sleep; as whenever he closes his eyes, he hears an explosion. I wonder,has North Korea bombarded any missile against the Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqis, Yemenis, Palestinian? Who knows everything is possible according to the Persian peninsula’s governments and their media!

The legendary melodramatic ad does not only cover Arabs’ miseries; although it is supposedly addressing the Zionist arrogance American tyrant Donald Trump, inviting him to a humiliating fast-breaking in Jerusalem; the capital of Palestine!! It further reflects the Rohingya ethnic crises, where a group of displaced victims, together with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, walk in rough ways and cross a river. This hypocritical part attempts at showing Zain’s concern over this humanitarian melancholic catastrophe, through a suspicious ad, but not efficiently on the ground.

The ludicrous ad is purely a clear call of peace with Trump’s aggressive administration and a reprehensible approval of the imperialist hegemony; despite its ongoing genocides and atrocities. Unfortunately, Zain has made foolish of itself, demeaned the innocent victims and particularly degraded the Palestinian cause. Instead of promoting such a ridiculous ad. Unequivocally, Zain should have either exerted pressure on its government to resolve the Palestinian calamity or it should have backed those peoples financially to purchase weapons and resist the occupation.

Besides, Zain’s ad promotes the Arab’s dilution belief, which requires a quick reconciliation with the Zionist enemy. A claim that obviously refutes the resistance choice and approves the superiority of the West. Furthermore, the ad boosts an emotional generation to avoid resistance and to easily accept humiliation and subjugation. Zain surprisingly turns blind eyes and deaf ears to the fact that this awaited ‘Saviour,’ i.e. Trump, due to his arrogance and foolishness, has already put the Middle East into a ‘ring of fire’ by declaring Jerusalem as a capital of the Zionist illegal entity.

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Saudi Arabia’s Entertainment Plans: Soft Power at Work?

Dr. Theodore Karasik

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Saudi Arabia recently broke ground on its ambitious “entertainment city” known as Qiddiya, near Riyadh. The splashy launch, attended by 300 dignitaries from around the world, highlights a frequently overlooked aspect of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan: the entertainment industry as a growing economic sector. As the kingdom diversifies its economy away from reliance on petro fuels, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been keen to showcase the increasing openness of his country, promoting festivals, concerts and sports events and ending the country’s 35-year ban on cinemas.

These projects are partially intended to bolster the economy and attract FDI—but not only. Saudi Arabia is also playing catch-up with other regional actors, such as Qatar and the UAE, in terms of cultural output and cultural participation. With Qiddiya and the other cultural projects in the works, Saudi is now carving out a road for itself to become a regional culture hub.

Thefirst phase of Qiddiya, which includes high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari area, is expected to be completed in 2022.  Saudi officials hope the park will draw in foreign investment and attract 17 million visitors by 2030; the final phase of the project is expected to be completed in 2035, by which point the entertainment resort will be the largest in the world, dwarfing Florida’s Walt Disney World.

Beyond these financial incentives, however, the Qiddiya project is Saudi Arabia’s answer to events like the Dubai Expo 2020 or the Qatar World Cup 2022 and suggests that the kingdom is trying to position itself as the next big destination for lucrative events – which also add to the idea that entertainment, culture, and innovation are key to Saudi Arabia’s economic vision and success.

Vision 2030’s emphasis on entertainment raises a key question: is Riyadh attempting to increase its soft power across the region in a constructive and proactive way?  The answer to that question is yes.

In the immediate future, Qatar and the UAE will remain the region’s foremost entertainment and cultural hubs.  From Qatar’s Islamic Museum of Art, which famous architect I.M. Pei came out of retirement to design, to Dubai’s theme parks, including a $1 billion behemoth which is the world’s largest indoor theme park, these two Gulf states are demonstrating their prowess to develop an arts and culture scene.  In Doha, Qatar is exemplifying its unique outlook towards world affairs by emphasizing humanitarianism and fourteen centuries of history.  Qatar is also hosting the World Cup in 2022, intended to bring Doha center-stage in the sports world. Abu Dhabi’s Louvre has been referred to as “one of the world’s most ambitious cultural projects”, while advertisements throughout the emirate insist that the museum will cause its visitors to “see humanity in a new light”.

Despite these Gulf states’ head start on developing vibrant entertainment sectors, there is still room for Saudi Arabia to offer something new. For one thing, some of its neighbors are dealing with trouble in paradise: Qatar’s once-strong economy is under increasing strain as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt boycott it; meanwhile, the company which owns many of Dubai’s largest theme parks lost $302 million in 2017.

The Qiddiya project also represents a particular vision that’s distinct from neighboring countries’ cultural programs. Qiddiya is designed to mix desert heritage and the ethos of the past with the technological advances of the future. The intended result is to be a fusion between aspirations and building on those achievements from desert to post-modernity, on a colossal scale.

The project is crafted both to satisfy domestic demand—it includes plans to build 11,000 homes to serve as vacation homes for Riyadh residents— and to compete directly against Saudi Arabia’s neighbors in the Gulf. With two-thirds of the Saudi population under the age of 35, building a thriving entertainment sector is particularly important.

The kingdom is hoping to use its idea of mixing the past with the future in Qiddiya to significantly alter the flow of tourist revenues in the Gulf. The UAE, Qatar and Bahrain rely on tourists from the Gulf and beyond for essential cash inflows—including the $30 billion a year Saudis spend on tourism abroad every year. By providing new entertainment options in-country for Saudi Arabia’s citizens and residents, who pay more than any other country’s citizens while on vacation, Riyadh aims to redirect some of this overseas tourism spending back into the kingdom. It’s set up concrete goals to this effect, hoping to increase domestic spending on culture and entertainment from about three percent of household income to six percent. Saudi Arabia also likely hopes that Qiddiya will attract significant international tourism as well—one senior official tied the park’s creation to the goal of making Riyadh one of the top 100 cities in the world to live.

Of course, it is likely to be a long wait before the kingdom itself starts producing the cultural output that will make it a real entertainment hub; after all, Saudi public schools still do not teach music, dance and theater, and the kingdom lacks music and film academies. But by taking the first steps of embracing the vast economic potential of the entertainment sector, the kingdom may well be on its way there.

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