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Salafi mission calls into question Saudi concept of moderation and policy in Yemen

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Plans to open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and Saudi Arabia raise questions about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salah’s concept of a moderate form of Islam.

The questions are prompted by the fact that Prince Mohammed has so far put little, if any, flesh on his skeletal vow last October to return his ultra-conservative kingdom to “moderate Islam.”

The crown prince has created expectations of more social liberalism with the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, a residual of Bedouin rather than Muslim tradition, as well the granting of female access to male sporting events; the legitimization of various forms of entertainment, including cinema, theatre and music; and the stripping away of the religious police’s right to carry out arrests.

While removing Saudi Arabia as the only Muslim country that didn’t permit women to drive or allow various recreational activities, Prince Mohammed has yet to conceptualize what a rollback of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism would mean in a nation whose public life remains steeped in a puritan interpretation of the faith. (The lifting on the ban of women entering stadiums leaves Iran as the only country that restricts female access to male sporting events.)

The disclosure of the plan for a Salafi mission suggests Prince Mohammed may only want to curb ultra-conservatism’s rough edges. It also calls into question Saudi policy in Yemen that is reminiscent of past failures.

Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s.

The plan harks back to the creation of an anti-Shiite Salafi mission near the Houthi stronghold of Saada that sparked a military confrontation in 2011 with the Yemeni government, one of several wars in the region. The centre was closed in 2014 as part of an agreement to end the fighting.

Prince Mohammed’s use of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam in his confrontation with the Houthis was also evident in the appointment as governor of Saada of Hadi Tirshan al-Wa’ili, a member of a tribe hostile to the Shiite sect, and a follower of Saudi-backed Islamic scholar Uthman Mujalli. Mr. Mujalli reportedly serves as an advisor to Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the exiled, kingdom-backed Yemeni president.

“Over the past forty years, the Saudi government has invested heavily in Salafi-Wahhabi-style madrasas and mosques in the northern areas, only to realise that this programme was jeopardised by the Zaydi revival movement. If the Houthis were to be defeated in their home province, it is likely that the Salafi-Wahhabi programme will be revived, and implemented more fiercely than in previous years,” said Yemen scholar Gabriele vom Bruck.

The disclosure of the Al-Mahrah plan coincided with a damning 79-page United Nations report that condemned Saudi, Iranian and United Arab Emirates interventions in Yemen. The report concluded that Saudi and UAE proxies threatened peace prospects and that a secession of South Yemen that includes Al Mahrah had become a distinct possibility.

The questions about Prince Mohammed’s concept of a moderate Islam go beyond Yemen. The arts, including cinema, remain subject to censorship that is informed by the kingdom’s long-standing ultra-conservative values. A soccer player and a singer are among those who face legal proceedings for un-Islamic forms of expressing themselves.

The government last year introduced physical education in girls’ schools and legalized women’s fitness clubs, but has yet to say whether restrictions on women competing in a variety of Olympic disciplines will be lifted.

Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, it has yet to indicate whether male guardianship, gender segregation, dress codes that force women to fully cover, and the obligatory closure of shops at prayer times will be abolished. Also, the government has still to declare a willingness to lift the ban on the practice of non-Muslim faiths or adherence to strands of Islam considered heretic by the ultra-conservatives.

The example of Yemen suggests that little has changed in Saudi Arabia’s four-decade-old, $100 billion global public diplomacy campaign that promoted Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to revolutionary Iranian ideology.

Yemen is but one extreme of the spectrum. The Saudi-funded and operated grand mosque in Brussels is the other. Saudi Arabia, responding to Belgian criticism of the mosque’s ultra-conservative management, last year appointed as its imam, Tamer Abou el Saod, a 57-year polyglot Luxemburg-based, Swedish consultant with a career in the food industry. Senior Saudi officials have moreover responded positively to a Belgian government initiative to prematurely terminate Saudi Arabia’s 99-year lease of the mosque so that it can take control of it.

In contrast to Yemen, where the use of ultra-conservatism is a deliberate choice, Prince Mohammed may feel constrained in his moderation quest in the kingdom by the fact that his ruling Al Saud family derives its legitimacy from its adherence to ultra-conservatism. In addition, the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment has repeatedly signalled that the views of at least some its members have not changed even if it has endorsed the crown prince’s policies.

Saudi Arabia last September suspended Saad al-Hijri, a prominent scholar in charge of fatwas in the province of Asir, for opposing the lifting of the ban on driving because women allegedly had only  half a brain that is reduced to a quarter when they go shopping. Sheikh Saad made his comment after the Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, had approved the move.

By the same token, no public action was taken against Sheikh Salih al-Fawzan, a member of the council, who declared on his website that “If women are allowed to drive they will be able to go and come as they please day and night, and will easily have access to temptation, because as we know, women are weak and easily tempted.” A video clip of Sheikh Salih’s view was posted on YouTube in October. It was not clear when the scholar spoke or whether he had approved the posting.

A main thrust of Prince Mohammed’s drive to return to moderate Islam is the fight against extremism, involving among others the creation of a centre to oversee the interpretations of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings in a bid ensure that they do not justify violence.

There is indeed little doubt that the kingdom is serious about countering extremism. Opposing extremism, however, does not automatically equate to moderation or concepts of tolerance and pluralism. Prince Mohammed has yet to clarify if those concepts are part of his notion of moderation. His track record so far is at best a mixed one.

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

When Mr. Xi comes to town

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photo: Xinhua/Liu Weibing

Pomp and circumstance are important.

So are multiple agreements to be signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week, his first venture beyond East and Central Asia in three years.

No doubt, Mr. Xi’s reception will be on par with the welcoming of Donald J. Trump when he headed to Saudi Arabia in 2017 on his first overseas trip as US president. At the same time, it will contrast starkly with the more downbeat response to Joe Biden’s hat-in-hand pilgrimage to the kingdom in July.

Mr. Xi Jinping and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s timing is perfect.

The visit allows Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia in the lead, to further diversify their foreign relationships and hedge their bets as the world moves from a unipolar to a bipolar, if not multipolar, order.

In addition, Mr. Xi’s visit boosts the positioning of Mr. Bin Salman and his kingdom as undisputed leaders of the Muslim world.

Like when Mr. Trump was in town five years ago, Mr. Bin Salman has ensured that Mr. Xi’s visit will involve bilateral talks and multilateral gatherings with Gulf and Arab leaders.

Even though Mr. Xi and Gulf leaders project the Chinese president’s visit as a milestone rather than the latest of regular high-level gatherings, neither seeks to fundamentally alter the region’s security architecture with the United States as its guarantor.

On the contrary.

While eager to strengthen and expand relations with China, Gulf states see Mr. Xi’s visit as a vehicle to pressure the United States to spell out and formalize its security commitment to the region at a time when America has made China and the Indo-Pacific its main strategic concern and has not lived up to the region’s expectations.

Speaking three weeks before the Chinese leader’s visit, Anwar Gargash, the diplomatic adviser of United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed, insisted that “our primary strategic security relationship remains unequivocally with the United States… Yet, it is vital that we find a way to ensure that we can rely on this relationship for decades to come through clear, codified, and unambivalent commitments.”

Mr. Xi has no problem with that. On the contrary, China is not interested and perhaps incapable of replacing the United States militarily in the Gulf. So while it may want the United States out of East Asia, the same need not be valid for the Middle East.

That allows Mr. Xi and his Saudi and Arab counterparts to focus on the nuts and bolts of their meetings.

High on Mr. Xi’s agenda is the export of its model of authoritarianism, involving one-person rule, a surveillance state, and the ringfencing of the Internet. It’s a model that appeals to men like Mr. Bin Salman and UAE and Egyptian presidents Mr. Bin Zayed and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

The appeal remains, even if Mr. Xi’s proposition has lost some of its shine as a result of his faltering zero-tolerance Covid-19 policy that has slowed economic growth, hindered the country’s private sector that is also hobbled by punitive state interventions, and sparked an anti-government protest that has forced the Chinese leader to abandon core elements of his effort to control the pandemic.

Moreover, Middle Eastern leaders will have noticed that China’s firewall failed to prevent Internet users from discovering that a majority of spectators at World Cup matches in Qatar were unmasked. Nor were Chinese censors able to prevent an avalanche of video clips of nationwide protests against strict Covid-19 rules from flooding the country’s tightly policed social media.

In addition, Gulf efforts to diversify their economies and reduce dependence on fossil fuel exports centre on a free-market economy and a private sector driven by innovation and creativity rather than the kind of state-controlled capitalism envisioned by Mr. Xi.

That has not prevented China from advancing its control and governance systems with investments and partnerships in Middle Eastern telecoms, corporate communication systems, cybersecurity, and smart cities in countries stretching from Morocco to the Gulf.

Chinese involvement runs the gamut from building 5G systems and data centres to providing cloud services and developing artificial intelligence systems.

Investments in technology and knowledge transfers enable Arab autocracies to enhance their surveillance capabilities and Internet control.

Furthermore, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have looked for inspiration in China’s restrictive cybersecurity legislation.

Days before Mr. Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, China’s foreign ministry released a report on ‘Sino-Arab Cooperation in a New Era’ that, according to Chinese media, misleadingly asserted that China “never seeks any geopolitical self-interest.”

China probably meant to say that it is not seeking to challenge the US position in the Gulf any time soon but intends to be the region’s major partner economically and in terms of technology, a focal point of US-Chinese rivalry.

Speaking last month at a regional security conference, senior Pentagon official Colin Kahl spelt out limits to Gulf-China technological Cooperation that the United States would seek to impose.

“If our closest allies and partners cooperate too deeply with China on the security side, it’ll create security risks for us. Getting into certain networks that create real cyber vulnerabilities and risks for us. Infrastructure that generates real intelligence risks for us, and networks that touch our military networks that create real risk for us, or a presence in certain countries that allow surveillance of our forces and what we’re doing in ways that presents a threat to us,” Mr. Kahl said.

Although Chinese 5G projects in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and elsewhere in the region have progressed despite US objections, Mr. Kahl left unaddressed whether they threatened to cross his threshold.

The Chinese foreign ministry report identified technology, agriculture, and investment as focal points of Chinese-Arab economic cooperation.

During his visit, Mr. Xi was likely to also angle for construction contracts for Mr. Bin Salman’s US$500 billion futuristic Red Sea city of Neom, as well as involvement in developing a Saudi defense and automotive industry.

For its part, Saudi Arabia will want to attract Chinese investment in its mining sector. Khalid Al Mudaifer, the kingdom’s deputy mining minister, said he is seeking US$170 billion by 2030.

In a bid to exploit strains in Saudi- and potentially UAE-US relations and uncertainty about America’s reliability as a security partner, the Chinese report asserted that “China has always believed that there is no such thing as a ‘power vacuum’ in the Middle East and that the people of the Middle East are the masters of the future and destiny of the region.”

Mr. Xi arrived in the kingdom as a US district court in Washington dismissed a lawsuit against Mr. Bin Salman and 20 others for the 2028 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The court based its decision on a finding by the US government that Mr. Bin Salman enjoyed sovereign immunity.

On another note, the Chinese report predicted that China and the Arab world would continue to support each other’s counterterrorism and deradicalisation policies.

In stressing counterterrorism and deradicalisation, the report suggested that Gulf silence, and in the case of Saudi Arabia, endorsement of Mr. Xi’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang, reflected a more complex balance of power in the Chinese-Gulf relationship.

In other words, Gulf acquiescence is more than simply wanting to ensure that the region stays on China’s right side or seeking to shield autocracy from criticism as the preferred political system in both parts of the world.

Because the crackdown targets Islam as a faith, not just Turkic Muslims as a minority, Gulf support offers China badly needed Muslim endorsement, particularly from Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. In doing so, the support enhances Gulf leverage in relations with China.

At the same time, China’s framing of the crackdown as a fight against extremism, terrorism, and separatism legitmises the clampdown by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on any expression of political Islam.

For Mr. Gargash, the UAE diplomatic advisor, the Gulf’s ties to the United States and China fit neatly into a box. “Our trade relations increasingly look to the East, while our primary security and investment relations are in the West,” Mr. Gargash said.

The official did not mention increasingly close political ties to China, like in the case of Xinjiang or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that is where things potentially get messy.

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The Popular Uprisings and unfulfilled achievements

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From the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing in 1989 to the Arab Uprisings in 2011, to the demonstrations and anger in Iran that exceeded a month and a half after Iranian security killed Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman in Tehran in mid-October, which triggered protests that are the most dangerous, longest, most widespread, and threatening to the regime since the revolution in 1979. It claimed the lives of more than 400 demonstrators and protesters, according to an Iranian human rights organization – since 1,500 people were killed in 2019-2020.

The eruption of popular anger and the expansion of the area of angry protests led to the deterioration of living conditions and the dominance of the regime and its tools and reversed priorities, and led to a decline in the standard of living and a blockage of horizons for millions of young people. Improving the standard of living of citizens in the face of high rates of unemployment, inflation, high prices, and the collapse of the value of the riyal, which led to the loss of hope and the accumulation of popular frustration.

As we witnessed in the Arab Uprisings(a media term related to the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968 in response to the repression of the Soviet forces), I prefer to call them the uprisings of freedom, dignity, and a decent life. They did not, in their entirety and on their own, change the regimes from their roots, their old guard, and the deep state. Rather, it kept its pillars who returned to lead the scene and turn the clock back, as in Egypt and Tunisia, or to slide towards chaos and internal conflict, Libya and Yemen, or the militarization of the uprising and the summoning of foreign powers from inside and outside the region and the loss of sovereignty, as in Syria.

We witnessed the failure to bring about change in October 2019 in Lebanon, after tumultuous demonstrations that swept across its cities, under the slogan “All of them means all of them.” Despite the resignation of the Saad Hariri government, the economic and social conditions continued to collapse, the banking sector in Lebanon collapsed, the national currency (the Lebanese pound) lost 90% of its value, Lebanon approached the Venezuelan bankruptcy model, and the banks seized the deposits and accounts of Lebanese citizens (and age transfers), and some depositors deliberately stormed Banks by force of arms to recover their deposits and money withheld due to the arbitrary decisions of the Banque du Liban to withdraw money by dropper! So to live and to pay for treatment! This led to an increase in the number of Lebanese who are below the poverty line to 80 percent! Today, they have mercy on the days before the uprising or bypassing the “October Revolution” whose slogan is change for the worse, and they elected “change-making” deputies. The middle class has disappeared, and the phenomenon of mass brain drain has expanded with tickets without return!

Iraq also witnessed the October 2019 revolution. Protests swept the capital, Baghdad, and major cities and governorates of Iraq due to the deteriorating financial and economic conditions, high rates of unemployment and high prices, rampant corruption and Iran’s interference. The protesters demanded the dismissal of the Iraqi government and early elections, and later elections took place in October 2021, and only a president was elected and a new government formed. More than a year after the parliamentary elections, the parliament elected Kurdish President Abdul Latif Rashid, who commissioned Mohammed Shia al-Sudani last October to form a new government. This was after confrontations and the resignation of the largest al-Sadr bloc in the parliament, and the sit-in of his deputies in parliament and the divided system. What is remarkable, however, is the high death toll, which exceeded 750 dead and 17,000 wounded, and for the first time the protesters shouted, “Baghdad is free – free, and Iran is out, out!” Burning the Iranian flag and the Iranian consulate in Najaf, and pictures of Qassem Soleimani.

We are witnessing the expansion of the protests in China, in its second week, in rejection of the strict measures of closure and strict quarantine to prevent the spread of the Corona virus, which has returned to spread violently in several Chinese cities, including the capital, Beijing, and major cities, Shanghai and Guangzhou, due to anger at the policy of the ruling Communist Party regime. To confrontations and clashes with the security forces and even demands for political reforms, and in the precedent of calling for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to step down.

But the question is: Why did those uprisings and protests fail to impose a fait accompli and succeed in achieving the change for which they arose and the masses who were moved by the hope of change gathered around them to thwart and return the countries against which they revolted, and even in a position more capable of dealing with the protests.

Scientific studies have proven that the chances of popular protests against non-democratic regimes succeeding are slim due to the policy of repression and the employment of censorship, eavesdropping, and monitoring devices, and thwarting the protesters’ ability to intimidate, infiltrate, and disperse. Totalitarian autocratic regimes also succeed in maintaining the cohesion of the ruling class, preventing its weakening. As in the case of China, with its experience in containing protests, it has resorted to easing strict lockdown and stone restrictions!

The studies also indicated that since the first decade of the twenty-first century, the pace of protests increased, but this was accompanied by a decline in their success rates, as in the Arab Uprisings. At the end of the first decade, the success rates of the uprisings declined to one in three. As for the beginning of the second millennium in the twenty-first century, the success rate declined to one in six uprisings. Because of the loss of leaders and the ability to change, and the ability of the regimes to confront them with hacking measures, spreading fake news, and arresting their leaders. China, also has advanced technological capabilities for monitoring and eavesdropping, and even exporting this technology to countries around the world.

The regimes that came to power through revolutions live for a long time and gain experience in dealing with challenges and threats such as the Bolshevik revolution in the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1991, the Chinese revolution of 1949 and the Iranian revolution of 1979.

In the end, as in the bloody protests of the Arab Uprisings, in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and China, none of the revolutions and popular uprisings, due to counter-revolutions, security measures and the iron fist, failed to achieve their hoped-for goals of improving and changing the difficult reality. The results remain either the survival of the status quo, or further deterioration of the living conditions of the frustrated citizens, which generates uprisings.

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Why Israel should support the establishment of the Middle Corridor

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The governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan earlier in the year signed a declaration on improving the transportation potential throughout the region.   Following that, the Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Georgian and Turkish foreign and transport ministries decided that there should be accelerated transport routes throughout the region, which will include the development of the Middle Corridor, a rail freight and ferry system that will link China with Europe.  

It starts in Southeast Asia and China, and runs through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey before reaching southern and central Europe.   This will permit trains to travel from China to Europe within 20-25 days, thus helping to reconnect the former Silk Road.  As a former Israeli minister, I believe that Israel should be supportive of the establishment of the Middle Corridor, as it will help to strengthen the Abraham Accords if it is expanded to include Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region.

The entire Middle East region used to be connected by train under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.   There are a number of remnants of this wonderful train system in Israel, including the Ottoman train stations in Beersheba, Jaffa, and Jerusalem.    These Ottoman train stations are historic landmarks from a bygone era when train travel across the Middle East was possible. Ottoman-era trains used to travel from Jaffa to Jerusalem, Haifa and other areas of the former Ottoman Turkish Empire, such as Medina and Damascus.

However, since Israel was declared to be independent, there has been no train travel between Israel and the Arab world.    This was one of many causalities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.     Yet in the wake of the Abraham Accords, this all has the potential to change, as the Arab countries no longer view Israel to be the pariah that they once viewed it to be.   If anything, the Persian Gulf countries now view Israel to be a partner in the struggle against Iran, as do the Turkic republics like Azerbaijan, who greatly disdain how the mullahs are treating the Azerbaijani population in the Islamic Republic.   

Thus, if this Middle Corridor is built, we Israelis can try to connect onto it as well, as it will help to counter the mullahs in Tehran by creating a stronger connection between the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab world.   We can connect to it via Turkey by ferry, and then from there, have another set of trains going from Israel to Jordan and Saudi Arabia and from there, to the United Arab Emirates.   In our times, this is within the realm of the possible.   

This will thus help to greatly expand trade between China, the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab countries.   Already, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan know that it is necessary to have a train that crosses from Israel to the Gulf states.  They are talking about it and thinking about it.  They are starting with trucks with containers that I arranged, where they bring containers from Abu Dhabi to Israel crossing from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Haifa.  They could continue from there to Turkey via ship and from there to Europe and anywhere else. 

That means that we can have a train traveling from Europe to Turkey and from there, ships can go to Haifa, and from Haifa to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and from there, to the Gulf states, and they can go back in the opposite direction.    I am in Bulgaria now to check how I can make it more relevant.  After that, a Saudi Arabian agreement with Israel can start with a new train, like what existed in the Ottoman times with the Hijaz Railway.   The people of Hijaz want to make it happen again. This is in the plan of the Abraham Accords Agreement and it will happen in the future.    

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