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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.

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Saudi oil attacks put US commitments to the test

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States is rushing to retaliate for a brazen, allegedly Iranian attack that severely damaged two of the kingdom’s key oil facilities.

That is not to say that Saudi Arabia and/or the United States will not retaliate in what could prove to be a game changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Yet, reading the tea leaves of various US and Saudi statements lifts the veil on the constituent elements that could change the region’s dynamics.

They also shine a spotlight on the pressures on both countries and shifts in the US-Saudi relationship that could have long lasting consequences.

With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting the kingdom to coordinate what his office described as efforts to combat “Iranian aggression in the region,” Saudi Arabia and the United States will be seeking to resolve multiple issues.

These include collecting sufficient evidence to convincingly apportion blame; calibrating a response that would be appropriate but not drag the United States and the Middle East into a war that few want; deciding who takes the lead in any military response and managing the long-term impact of that  decision on Saudi-US relations and the US commitment to the region.

A careful reading of Saudi and US responses to the attacks so far suggests subtle differences between the two. They mask fundamental issues that have emerged in the aftermath of the attacks.

For starters, Mr. Pompeo and President Donald J. Trump have explicitly pointed the finger at Iran as being directly responsible, while Saudi Arabia stopped short of blaming the Islamic republic, saying that its preliminary findings show that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Iran has denied any involvement.

The discrepancy in the initial apportioning of blame raises the question whether Saudi Arabia is seeking to avoid being manoeuvred into a situation in which it would be forced to take the lead in retaliating against the Islamic republic with strikes against targets in Iran rather than Yemen.

Political scientist Austin Carson suggests that Saudi Arabia may have an interest in at least partially playing along with Iranian insistence that it was not responsible. “Allowing Iran’s role to remain ambiguous could reduce Saudi leaders’ need to appear strong… The Saudis are reportedly unconvinced by shared US intelligence that attempts to link the attacks to Iran’s territory. Some experts suggest this may reflect a more cautious approach to escalation,” Mr. Carson wrote in The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to unambiguously blame Iran may have a lot to do with Mr. Trump’s America First-driven response to the attacks that appeared to contradict the Carter Doctrine proclaimed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.

The doctrine, a cornerstone of the Saudi-US relationship, stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf.

Mr. Trump’s apparent weakening of the United States’ commitment to the defense of the kingdom, encapsuled in the doctrine, risks fundamentally altering the relationship, already troubled by Saudi conduct of the more than four-year long war in Yemen and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Signalling a break with the Carter doctrine, Mr. Trump was quick to point out that the attacks were on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States, and suggested that it was for the Saudis to respond.

“I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them,” Mr. Trump said without identifying what kind of support the US would be willing to provide.

Despite blustering that the United States was “locked and loaded,” Mr. Trump insisted that “we have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now.”

Mr. Trump’s response to a tweet by US Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend of the president who favours a US military strike against Iran, that “the measured response by President @realDonaldTrump…was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness” was equally telling.

No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand.” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump further called into question the nature of the US-Saudi defense relationship by declaring that “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

The Saudi foreign ministry maintained, with the attacks casting doubt on the Saudi military’s ability to defend the kingdom’s oil assets and Mr. Trump seemingly putting the onus of a response on Saudi Arabia, that “the kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks.”  

Only indisputable evidence that the drones were launched from Iranian territory would incontrovertibly point the finger at Iran.

So far, the Saudis have stopped short of that while US officials have suggested that the drones were launched either from Iran or by pro-Iranian militias in southern Iraq.

Holding Iran responsible for the actions of a militia, whether in Iraq or Yemen, could prove more tricky given long-standing questions about the degree of control that Iran has over various groups that it supports, and particularly regarding the Houthis.

The argument could turn out to be a slippery slope given that by the same logic, the United States would be responsible for massive human casualties in the Yemen war resulting from Saudi use of American weaponry.

Military retaliation may not be immediate even if the United States and Saudi Arabia can produce convincing evidence that Iran was directly responsible.

No knee jerk reactions to this – it’s very systematic – what happens with patience is it prevents stupid moves,” a US official said.

The United States is likely to attempt to first leverage that evidence in meetings on the sidelines of next week’s United Nations General Assembly to convince the international community, and particularly the Europeans, to drop opposition to last year’s US withdrawal from the international nuclear accord with Iran and the harsh economic sanctions that the Trump administration has since imposed on Iran.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia will also want to use the opportunity of the UN gathering to try to ensure that the fallout of any military response is limited and does not escalate into a full-fledged war that could change the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

Said foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook: “How the Trump administration responds will indicate whether U.S. elites still consider energy resources a core national interest and whether the United States truly is on its way out of the Middle East entirely, as so many in the region suspect.”

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Growing Tensions on the Road to Persian Gulf Security

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The 14 September 2019 drone attacks on oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia have dimmed hope for U.S. – Iranian discussions aimed to reduce tensions and potentially end the armed conflict in Yemen.  Tensions have increased, and oil prices have risen. Certain hopes created by the initiatives of the French President during the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France and the forced departure of John Bolton as U.S. National Security Advisor have lessened.  In fact, the aim of the attacks may have been to lessen the possibility of Iran – U.S. discussions which might have taken place during the start of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later in September.

There is a good deal of speculation as to who fired the drones and from where.  The Ansar Allah Movement (often called the Houthis) has taken credit, but some specialists doubt that they have  the technical knowhow to send drones from Yemen to the targets in Saudi Arabia.  Some speculate that the drones were sent from southern Iraq, possibly by Iranian-backed militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces or by units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in Iraq.  The Revolutionary Guards are nearly “a state within the state” and could take initiatives without orders from the Iranian President or the Foreign Minister.  The Revolutionary Guards could have motivations to prevent fruitful U.S. – Iranian talks at the U.N.  There is also speculation that the drone attacks could be linked to increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates concerning the future of south Yemen where the two countries support different factions.

Whatever the locations from which the drones were launched and whomever pulled the switch, the consequences are clear.  At a time when governments were speaking of a possible path to reduce tensions a “No Exit” sign has been put up near the start of the road.  The road leads to ever-greater tensions which may slip out of the control of governments.  Thus, in addition to the French proposal at the G7, there was an earlier Russian government proposal.

On 23 July 2019, the Russian Government’s “Collective Security for the Persian Gulf Region” was presented in Moscow by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov.  The Russian proposal for Collective Security for the Persian Gulf follows closely the procedures which led to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.  Bogdanov stressed multilateral ism as a mechanism for all involved in the assessment of situations, the decision-making process, and  the implementation of decisions.

It is not clear how the Russian proposal for a Helsinki-type conference will progress.  Russia does not play a leading role in the Middle East today as the USSR did in Europe in the 1970s.  In the lead up to the Helsinki Accords of 1975, non-governmental organizations had played an active role in informal East-West discussions to see what issues were open to negotiations and on what issues progress might be made.  There is a need for such non-governmental efforts today as the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East are growing ever-more tense.

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Algeria’s political impasse: What is next?

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Seven months after a wave of protests began in Algeria; people are still pilling onto the streets of the Algerian capital “Algiers” and other cities nationwide every Friday, reiterating their main demands: the departure of the regime and its symbols and the application of Articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution stating that the constituent power belongs to the people.

The demonstrations have gained a familiar rhythm and worldwide admiration since tens of thousands of Algerians first took, peacefully, to the streets on 22 February. Thousands of students turn out on Tuesdays and there are larger protests each Friday revolting against former opaque group of power-brokers that have run the country for decades.
After weeks of mass demonstrations, President of the Republic Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, ceding power after 20 years of rule and abandoning his re-election bid. The protesters pressured the authorities, again, to cancel presidential elections originally scheduled for April.
Despite the postponement of the election, the public anger continued to mount. Thus, Army chief Gaid Salah emerged as the key powerbroker positioning himself in favor of El Hirak “Popular movement”. He publicly disavowed the former leader and called for his impeachment, winning legitimacy in the streets.

Purging Corruption

Gaid Salah responded favorably to protesters’ demands, launching a sweeping anti-graft campaign targeting high-ranked officials that have served the Bouteflika government as well as influential tycoons and businessman.

Two Prime Ministers, namely; Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, the deposed President’s brother Said Bouteflika, tens of ministers, leading industrialists, tycoons, key businessmen, Governors,  and two former Intelligence chiefs, have been remanded in custody for accusations ranging from money laundering, embezzlement, misuse of public money to using officials posts to influence industrial and commercial contracts and granting undue privileges, affiliation to suspicious parties that plot to destabilize the country, plotting against the army, and instigating the opposition to call for a transitional phase before holding any election.

Bouteflika’s resignation puts Abdelkader Bensalah, Speaker of the upper house of parliament, in charge as caretaker Head of State for 90 days until elections are held. However, elections (scheduled for July 4th) have been postponed for a second time and protesters are demanding his departure.

For his part, Bensalah, and in a bid to calm them, set a Panel of Dialogue and Mediation, composed of political actors, the civil society, the representatives of the trade union organizations and many citizens, with the aim to mediate between public authorities and people  and hold a “serious and responsible” dialogue to reach a national consensus which would help resolve the political crisis in Algeria, through the organization of a fair and transparent presidential election, as soon as possible.”

However, the Panel itself is facing rejection by protesters who are taking into the streets denouncing its formation, saying it does not represent them along other claims, such as the departure of Bensalah, a former head of the upper house of parliament, and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, who are regarded by them as part of the old guard.

Despite all these arrangements, Algeria is still at an impasse, with two camps facing each other in seemingly irreconcilable positions.

To resolve this stalemate, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Deputy Minister of  National Defence, Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army (ANP), launched, last week, a call, saying that it would be “appropriate” to convene the electorate on the 15th of September, and that the elections could be held within the deadlines set by law.

In my previous speech, “I have spoken about the priority to seriously launch the preparation of the presidential elections within the coming weeks, and today, based on our missions, prerogatives and our compliance with the Constitution and the laws of the Republic as well, I confirm that we regard as appropriate to summon the Electorate on September 15th and the elections can be held within the deadlines provided for by the law. Reasonable and acceptable deadlines which respond to the insistent demand of the people,” said Lieutenant General.

Theoretically, if the head of state, Abdelkader Bensalah, summons the electorate on September 15, 2019, as desired by the head of the army, the presidential election should take place before the end of the current year (mid-December).  The Organic Law No. 12-01 2012 (Electoral Code) provides in article 25 that “Subject to the other provisions of this organic law, the electorate shall be convened by presidential decree within three (3) months preceding the date of the elections “.

As a response, Algerian street has expressed its rejection of elections in the current political conditions. According to demonstrators, no election should take place as long as Bouteflika-era officials remain in positions of power.

For their parts, the opposition parties and civil society groups have also demanded the resignation of the government which constitutes “a popular demand”, voicing rejection of the holding of the elections.

The people are determined to pursue the hirak until the establishment of a state of institutions, widening gap between them and the power constrained, for lack of serious candidates, to cancel the vote twice.

According to observers, these presidential elections are unachievable for the moment because the approach advocated by Ahmed Gaid Salah ” requires the revision of some texts of the electoral law to adapt to the requirements of the current situation, and not a total and profound revision that would affect all texts, as claimed by the demonstrators. The partial amendment means the holding of elections basing on the same mode of organization. This is likely to trigger the street again as the popular movement with its magnitude unparalleled in the contemporary history of the country will, likely, sabotage the preparations for this election. The political climate also does not allow the organization of such an election with the absence of total trust between voters and the political class.

However, it is imperative to go quickly to a presidential election provided that it is transparent, where the mediation initiatives of the Panel or other organizations, can lead to a consensual platform far from the occult practices of the past which saw the majority of the population sulking the ballot boxes, reflecting the state-citizen divorce, noting that an independent election monitoring commission and the departure of the Bedoui government are two prerequisites for a transparent presidential election.

This necessarily implies the cleaning up of the electoral file, the creation of an independent election supervision body where neither the executive (the government – especially the Ministry of the Interior and the Walis) nor the deputies/senators and representatives of the current APCs denounced by Al Hirak, will be stakeholders. 

Only a democratically elected legitimate president, elected on the basis of a transparent agenda, pledging to include the legitimate demands of Al Hirak including a new balance of power and the moralization of management (fight against corruption and embezzlement), can amend the constitution and carry out the profound political and economic reforms to bring Algeria to the new world and make it an emerging country: a pivotal country regionally and internationally.

Economically, it is imperative to quickly resolve the political crisis before the end of 2019 or at most the first quarter of 2020, to avoid towards a cessation of payments at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022, and prevent Algeria the depletion of its foreign exchange reserves which would culminated in the economic, social, political insecurity.

From our partner Tehran Times

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