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Surrendering a Brussels mosque: A Saudi break with ultra-conservatism?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Arabia, in an indication that it is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, has agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels.

The decision follows mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators as well as social reforms in the kingdom introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a lifting of the ban on women’s driving, the granting of women’s access to male sporting events and introduction of modern forms of entertainment.

Relinquishing control of the mosque reportedly strokes with a Saudi plan to curtail support for foreign mosques and religious and cultural institutions that have been blamed for sprouting radicalism. With few details of the plan known, it remains unclear what the curtailing entails.

It also remains unclear what effect it would have. A report published last month by the Royal Danish Defence College and three Pakistani think tanks concluded that madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan, a hotbed of militant religious education, were no longer dependent on foreign funding. It said that foreign funding accounted for a mere seven percent of the income of madrassas in the country.

Like with Prince Mohammed’s vow last November to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined “moderate” form of Islam, its too early to tell what the Brussels decision and the social reforms mean beyond trying to improve the kingdom’s tarnished image and preparing it for a beyond-oil, 21st century economic and social existence.

The decision would at first glance seem to be primarily a public relations move and an effort to avoid rattling relations with Belgium and the European Union given that the Brussels mosque is the exception that confirms the rule. It is one of a relatively small number of Saudi-funded religious, educational and cultural institutions that was managed by the kingdom.

The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s four decades-long, $100 billion public diplomacy campaign, the single largest in history, aimed at countering post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal, operated independently.

By doing so, Saudi Arabia has let a genie out of the bottle that it not only cannot control, but that also leads an independent life of its own. The Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative environment has also produced groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that have turned on the kingdom.

Relinquishing control of the Brussels mosque allows Saudi Arabia to project itself as distancing itself from its roots in ultra-conservatism that date back to an 18th century power sharing arrangement between the Al Saud family and Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, a preacher whose descendants are at the core of the kingdom’s religious establishment.

The decision, Prince Mohammed’s initial social reforms, and plans to cut funding notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia appears to be making less of clean break on the frontlines of its confrontation with Iran where support for ultra-conservative and/or militant groups is still the name of the game.

Saudi Arabia said last month that it would open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen was sparked by its conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, that dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s and early this century.

Saudi militants reported in the last year that Saudi nationals of Baloch origin were funnelling large amounts of money into militant madrassas in the Pakistani province of Balochistan on the border with Iran. Saudi-funded ultraconservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate the region’s educational landscape.

The money flowed, although it was not clear whether the Saudi donors had tacit government approval, at a time that Saudi Arabia is toying with the idea of seeking to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its multiple minorities, including the Baloch.

A militant Islamic scholar, who operates militant madrassas in the triangle where the borders of Balochistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet, was last year named a globally designated terrorist by the US Treasury while he was fundraising in the kingdom.

Algerian media reports last month detailed Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as the representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

The decision to relinquish control of the Brussels mosque that in 1969 had been leased rent-free to the kingdom for a period of 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin followed a Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed. The inquiry advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism, estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported that “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith.”

Saudi Arabia has worked hard in the last year to alter perceptions of its Islamic-inspired beliefs.

Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister and secretary general of the World Muslim League, the group that operates the Brussels mosque and has served for half a century as a key funding vehicle for ultra-conservatism insisted on a visited last year to the Belgian capital that Islam “cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect.

Mr. Al-Issa, in a first in a country that long distributed copies of the Protocols of Zion, an early 20th century anti-Semitic tract, last month, expressed last month on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates Nazi persecution of the Jews “great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”

Mr. Al-Issa’s comments no doubt also signalled ever closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, who both bitterly oppose Iran’s regional influence. Nonetheless, they constituted a radical rupture in Saudi Arabia, where Islamic scholars, often described Jews  as “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.”

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.

Middle East

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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Middle East

Israel, Ukraine, and U.S. Crack Down Against Press

Eric Zuesse

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On Wednesday, May 16th, Russian Television reported recent crackdowns against the press, on the part of both Ukraine’s Government and Israel’s Government. One headline story, “9 journalists injured by Israeli gunfire in Gaza ‘massacre’, total now over 20”, reported that Israel had shot dead two journalists:

“Yaser Murtaja, 31, a cameraman for Palestinian Ain Media agency, died on April 7 after he was shot by Israeli forces the previous day while covering a protest south of the Gaza Strip. He wore a blue protective vest marked ‘PRESS’.”

And:

“Ahmad Abu Hussein, 24, was shot by Israeli forces during a protest in the Gaza strip on April 13. He died from his injuries on April 25. He was also wearing a protective vest marked ‘PRESS’ at the time.”

The other 18 instances were only injuries, not murders, but Israel has now made clear that any journalist who reports from the Palestinian side is fair game for Israel’s army snipers — that when Palestinians demonstrate against their being blockaded into the vast Gaza prison, and journalists then report from amongst the demonstrators instead of from the side of the snipers, those journalists are fair game by the snipers, along with those demonstrators.

Some of the surviving 18 journalists are still in critical condition and could die from Israel’s bullets, so the deaths to journalists might be higher than just those two.

Later in the day, RT bannered “Fist-size gunshot wounds, pulverized bones, inadmissible use of force by Israel in Gaza – HRW to RT” and presented a damning interview with the Israel & Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch.

The other crackdown has been by Ukraine. After the U.S. Obama Administration perpetrated a very bloody coup in Ukraine during February of 2014, that country has plunged by every numerical measure, and has carried out raids against newsmedia that have reported unfavorably on the installed regime. The latest such incident was reported on May 16th by Russian Television, under the headline, “US endorses Kiev’s raid on Russian news agency amid international condemnation”. An official of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) stated there: “I reiterate my call on the authorities to refrain from imposing unnecessary limitations on the work of foreign journalists, which affects the free flow of information and freedom of the media.” An official of the CPJ (Committee to Protect journalists) stated: “We call on Ukrainian authorities to disclose the charges and evidence they have against Vyshinsky or release him without delay. … We also call on Ukrainian authorities to stop harassing and obstructing Russian media operating in Ukraine. The criminalization of alternative news and views has no place in a democratic Ukraine.” However, as reported by RT, Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General called the editorial policy of the anti-regime RIA Ukraine “anti-Ukrainian” in nature, amounting to “state treason.” So, the prosecutor is threatening to categorize and prosecute critical press under Ukraine’s treason law.

The U.S. regime is not condemning either of its client-regimes for their crackdowns. (It cites Ukraine’s supposed victimhood from “Russian propaganda” as having caused Ukraine’s action, and justifies Israel’s gunning-down of demonstrators and of journalists as having beeen necessary for Israel’s self-defense against terrorism.) In neither instance is the U.S. dictatorship saying that this is unacceptable behavior for a government that receives large U.S. taxpayers funds. Of course, in the U.S., the mainstream press aren’t allowed to report that either Israel or today’s Ukraine is a dictatorship, so they don’t report this, though Israel clearly is an apartheid racist-fascist (or ideologically nazi, but in their case not against Jews) regime, and Ukraine is clearly also a racist-fascist, or nazi, regime, which engages in ethnic cleansing to get rid of voters for the previous — the pre-coup — Ukrainian government. People who are selected individually by the installed regime, get driven to a big ditch, shot, with the corpses piling up there, and then the whole thing gets covered over. This is America’s client-‘democracy’ in Ukraine, not its client-‘democracy’ in Israel.

May 16th also was the day when the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee voted 10 to 5 to approve as the next CIA Director, Gina Haspel, the person who had headed torture at the CIA’s black site in Thailand where Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times and blinded in one eye in order to get him to say that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks; and, since then, Zubaydah, who has never been in court, has been held incommunicado at Guantanamo, so that he can’t testify in court or communicate with the press in any way. “The U.S. Government has never charged Zubaydah with any crime.” And the person who had ordered and overseen his torture will soon head the agency for which she worked, the CIA.

Whether the U.S. regime will soon start similarly to treat its own critical press as “traitors” isn’t clear, except that ever since at least the Obama Administration, and continuing now under Trump, the U.S. Government has made clear that it wants to seize and prosecute both Edward Snowden and Julian Assange for their journalistic whistleblowing, violations of “state secrets,” those being anything that the regime wants to hide from the public — including things that are simply extremely embarrassing for the existing rulers. Therefore, the journalistic-lockdown step, from either Israel, or Ukraine, to U.S., would be small, for the United States itself to take, if it hasn’t yet already been taken in perhaps secret ways. But at least, the Senate Intelligence Committee is strongly supportive of what the U.S. Government has been doing, and wants more of it to be done.

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Middle East

JCPOA in Post-US Exit: Consequences and Repercussions

Nisar Ahmed Khan

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The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal signed by the P 5+1 in 2015 was widely hailed as a landmark achievement made possible by sincere dialogue and diplomacy. Indeed, the agreement is to a greater extent an achievement of the nuclear non-proliferation regime that helped checked the increasingly disturbing power symmetry in the Middle East which in return has managed to contain the transformation of low intensity conflicts into all out wars. A relative stability is the hallmark which resulted from JCPOA in the Middle East which is extremely volatile region of the world. A vital question is: how these achievements are going to be affected by the US withdrawal from it?

The US withdrawal from JCPOA will adversely affect the aforementioned three areas of its accumulative achievement with variant degree. First, it has negative consequences for the norm that negotiated settlements in international arenas has the potential and lasting credibility to minimize violence or other coercive means led by war. The momentum and confidence the diplomatic means have garnered in post- JCPOA scenario will come to the crushing halt. The sealed and mutually agreed upon agreements in international arena especially in which the US is the potential party, will come under extreme scrutiny leading to an environment of gross trust deficit. Therefore, on the first instance this withdrawal has negative lasting consequences for the diplomatic norms in itself.

Secondly, US exist from the deal does not augur well for the nascent nuclear non-proliferation regime. This regime has a dearth of good precedents like the JCPOA which has deterred a nation from acquiring and operationalizing nuclear weapons as is the case with Iran. Keeping in view this backdrop of this institution, JCPOA has been its glaring example wherein it has managed to successfully convince a nation to not pursue the path which leads towards the nuclear weapons. Therefore, the US withdrawal has shaken the confidence of the non-proliferation regime to its core. It has engendered a split among the leading nations who were acting as sort of de facto executive to enforce the agreements on the nuclear ambitious states. Therefore, this US withdrawal has undoubtedly far reaching repercussions for the non-proliferation as an institution. This development may affect the nature and its future development as an institutional mechanism to deter the recalcitrant states to change their course regarding the nuclear weapons.

Thirdly, in relation to the above mentioned negative consequences on diplomacy and nuclear non-proliferation regime, the US withdrawal from the deal has far serious security ramifications for the volatile and conflict ridden Middle East. It has multiplied the prospects of all-out war between Iran and its regional rivals on one hand and Iran and Israel on the other hand. Just tonight the announcement of Trump exiting JCPOA and the Israeli aggression on Syrian military bases substantiates the assertion that there exists a correlation between this US withdrawal and the Zionist regime`s regional hegemonic designs. It has extremely positive message for the Saudi Arabia. The impulsive and overambitious Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) went on extended tours in the US and Europe to convince Western leadership that Iran should be contained.  Therefore, element of stability in the region – contained low intensity conflicts – got serious motivation to turn into all-out-wars  with non-exclusion of nuclear options at the disposal of Zionist regime in the Middle East. The Middle Eastern region with this exit of the US is going to observe substantial turmoil in the months to come which will have some extra regional ramifications.

As a conclusion it could be argued that the US exit has some far reaching repercussions for the diplomatic norms, non-proliferation regime and above all for the volatile Middle Eastern region. All these ramifications resulted from the US withdrawal will also in return have some serious consequences internally and externally. The status of the US as the sole super power of the world will be diminished with this decision. It will create an unbridgeable gap in the West. Henceforth, the EU foreign will be more autonomous, integrated and autonomous in her conduct.

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