Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has dazzled international media and public opinion by lifting some restrictions on women’s rights, holding out hope for the abolishment of others, and a vow to return the kingdom to a vague form of moderate Islam that many believe is defined by the social reforms he has already implemented and his curbing of the powers of the country’s ultra-conservative leadership.
No doubt, Prince Mohammed’s reforms have benefitted women and created social opportunity with the introduction of modern forms of entertainment, including the opening this month of Saudi Arabia’s first cinema as well as concerts, theatre and dance performances. Similarly, anecdotal evidence testifies to the popularity of Prince Mohammed’s moves, certainly among urban youth.
Yet, Prince Mohammed’s top-down approach to countering religious militancy rests on shaky ground. It involves a combination of rewriting history rather than owning up to responsibility, imposition of his will on an ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim establishment whose change of heart in publicly backing him lacks credibility, and suppression of religious and secular voices who link religious and social change to political reform.
Prince Mohammed has traced Saudi Arabia’s embrace of ultra-conservatism to 1979, the year that a popular revolt toppled the Shah and replaced Iran’s monarchy with an Islamic republic and Saudi zealots took control of the Great Mosque in the holy city of Mecca.
While there is no doubt that the kingdom responded to the two events by enhancing the power of the kingdom’s already prevalent ultra-conservative religious establishment, Prince Mohammed appears to brush aside Saudi history.
The power of the establishment and the dominance of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia dates to 1744 when Mohammed bin Saud, the founder of the Al Saud dynasty, concluded a power sharing agreement with Islamic scholar Mohammed bin Abd al-Wahhab that lent Bin Saud the religious legitimacy he needed to unify and control Arabia’s warring tribes.
Similarly, Saudi global propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism significantly accelerated in the wake of the events of 1979 but predates them by almost two decades.
Prince Mohammed’s uncle, King Faisal, who ruled Saudi Arabia from 1964 until his assassination in 1975, embodied the export of ultra-conservatism as a pillar of Saudi diplomacy and soft power. Faisal saw it as a way to create a network of supporters capable of defending the kingdom’s strategic and economic interests while simultaneously catering to the outlook of Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment.
Both the Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s primary vehicles for the funding of its global campaign, and the Islamic University of Medina were founded in the 1960s. The university served as a citadel of ultra-conservative learning and thought, including the notion that Islamic law dictates unquestioned obedience to the legitimate ruler.
Prince Mohammed has exploited that view to put the religious establishment in its place and legitimize reforms it condemned for decades. In doing so, he not only undermines the credibility of ultra-conservative scholars but also enhances that of both more militant ones and those he has either imprisoned or silenced because they advocated not only social but also democratic reforms like free and fair elections, release of political prisoners and respect for human rights.
Prince Mohammed’s assertion that Saudi Arabia propagated ultra-conservatism as part of countering communism during the Cold War is not inaccurate but ignores the fact that Saudi Arabia felt threatened by Arab nationalism, not simply because countries like Egypt and Syria aligned themselves with the Soviet Union, but also because they questioned the legitimacy of monarchs. Aligning Saudi Arabia with the West, moreover, ensured that the United States had a greater stake in the survival of the Al Sauds.
Born 14 years after the events of 1979, Prince Mohammed’s projection of a kingdom whose liberalism was hijacked by Cold War-inspired policies and errant Islamic scholars jars with that of Saudis who are generation older. They recall a process in which post-1979 ultra-conservative social mores were codified into rules, regulations and laws.
“I was a teenager in the 1970s and grew up in Medina… My memories of those years…are quite different… Women weren’t driving cars. I didn’t see a woman drive until I visited my sister and brother-in-law in Tempe, Ariz., in 1976. The movie theatres we had were makeshift… You would pay 5 or 10 riyals (then approximately $1.50-$2) to the organizer, who would then give a warning when the religious police approached. To avoid being arrested, a friend of mine broke his leg jumping off a wall. In the 1970s, the only places on the Arabian Peninsula where women were working outside the home or school were Kuwait and Bahrain.” said Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who last year went into self-imposed exile because he feared arrest.
Prince Mohammed seemed to acknowledge ultra-conservatism’s long-standing and deep-seated shaping of Saudi culture when he was asked about abolishing the kingdom’s system of male guardianship that forces women to get approval of a male relative for most major decisions in their lives. “We want to move on it and figure out a way to treat this that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture,” Prince Mohammed said.
Mr. Khashoggi traces the formalization of existing social restrictions on women’s rights not to an edict issued by the religious establishment but to an attempt by a 19-year-old princess to elope with her lover. The couple’s drama, ending in public execution in 1977, was described in ‘Death of a Princess,’ a dramatized 1980 British documentary that strained relations between Britain and Saudi Arabia.
The incident marked the kingdom’s first major effort to use its financial and energy muscle to thwart freedom of the press beyond its borders and shape its international image. It also spurred codification of the suppression of women’s rights.
“The reaction of the government to the princess’s elopement was swift: The segregation of women became more severe, and no woman could travel without the consent of a male relative… MBS would like to advance a new narrative for my country’s recent history, one that absolves the government of any complicity in the adoption of strict Wahhabi doctrine. That simply isn’t the case.,” Mr Khashoggi said, referring to Mohammed bin Salman by his initials.
Liberals warned already in the 1970s that the restrictions would tarnish the kingdom’s image. A celebrated poet and novelist, Ghazi al-Gosaibi, who served as minister of industry and electricity, urged King Khalid in a handwritten letter in 1980 to shy away from banning the projection of women’s images in the media “so we would not be made an example of rigidity and stagnation in front of the whole world.”
Mr. Al-Gosaibi’s warning fell on deaf ears then but has been heard loud and clear by Prince Mohammed. To put his reforms on solid footing, Prince Mohammed will, however, have to acknowledge and confront his country’s demons and pursue structural reform, including a revamping of religious education that currently is limited to shaving off raw ends like hate speech, and the grooming of a more independent and critical class of Islamic scholars rather than whitewash his family’s role, whip its former allies into subservience, and suppress any expression of dissent.
“Strangling moderate independent Islamic discourse may succeed in silencing democratic voices within Islam in Saudi Arabia, but it will also create a vacuum for the less moderate discourse that the state has shown it tolerates,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, a post-doctoral fellow in Islamic Law and Civilization and the son of Salman al-Odah, a Saudi scholar imprisoned since September for calling for social as well as political reform.
Qatar World Cup offers lessons for human rights struggles
It’s a good time, almost 12 years after the world soccer body, FIFA, awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup hosting rights and five months before the tournament, to evaluate the campaign to reform the country’s erstwhile onerous labor system and accommodate fans whose lifestyles violate restrictive laws and/or go against deeply rooted cultural attitudes.
Ultimately the balance sheet shows a mixed bag even if one takes into account that Qatari autocracy has proven to be more responsive and flexible in responding to pressure by human rights and labour groups than its Gulf brothers in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
On the plus side, the initial wave of condemnation of the country’s repressive kafala labour system that put employees at the mercy of their employers persuaded Qatar to become the first Gulf state, if not the first Arab state, to engage with its critics.
Engagement meant giving human rights groups and trade unions access to the country, allowing them to operate and hold news conferences in Qatar, and involving them in drafting reforms and World Cup-related model labour contracts. This was unprecedented in a region where local activists are behind bars or worse and foreign critics don’t even make it onto an inbound flight.
The reforms were imperfect and not far-reaching enough, even if Qatar introduced significant improvements in the conditions for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.
Furthermore, on the plus side, the hosting rights sparked limited but nonetheless taboo-breaking discussions that touched on sensitive subjects such as LGBT rights and the granting of citizenship to non-nationals.
Qataris openly questioned the granting of citizenship to foreign athletes so they could be included in the Qatar national team for the 2016 Olympics rather than medical personnel and other professionals who had contributed to national welfare and development.
Hosting the World Cup has further forced Qatar, albeit in a limited fashion, to come to grips with issues like LGBT rights that do not simply violate the country’s laws but go against its social grain to produce an inclusive tournament.
In some ways, that may have been more difficult than reforming the labour regime if one considers the difference between standing up for democratic freedoms that may have broad public support and the recognition of LGBT rights. In contrast to democratic rights, opposition to LGBT rights is deeply engrained in Qatar and other Muslim societies. It would likely be socially rejected, even if they were enshrined in law.
The difference means that the defense of LGBT and other socially controversial rights forces activists and human and LGBT rights groups to rethink their strategies and adopt alternative, more long-term approaches.
It also means that they will have to embrace less Western-centric attitudes frequently prevalent in the campaign to reform Qatar’s labour system. Those attitudes were evident in debates that were also often skewed by bias, prejudice, bigotry, and sour grapes.
Moreover, the criticism often failed to consider the context. As a result, achieving results and pushing for reform was, to a degree, undermined by what appeared to be a ganging up on Qatar and a singling out of the Gulf state.
Labour is an example. Human rights groups and trade unions treated onerous labour conditions in Qatar, even if the World Cup turned it into a prime target, as uniquely Qatari rather than a global problem that manifests itself in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and even Western democracies like Britain. Recent reporting by The Guardian showed that expatriate medical and caregiver personnel face similar curtailing of rights and abuse in Britain.
By the same token, Qatar was taken to task for being slow in implementing its reforms and ensuring that they were applied not only to World Cup projects but nationwide.
The fact is that lagging enforcement of policies and legal changes is a problem across the broad spectrum of Qatari policies and reform efforts, including the Gulf state’s high-profile, fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy.
Qatar’s handling of illegal recruitment fees paid by workers is a case in point.
The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the Qatari organizer of the World Cup, has obliged companies it contracts to repay the fees without workers having to provide proof of payment. Companies have so far pledged to repay roughly USD$28.5 million to some 49,000 workers, $22 million of which have already been paid out.
It is a step the government could apply nationally with relative ease to demonstrate sincerity and, more fundamentally, counter the criticism.
Similarly, in response to complaints raised by human rights groups and others, the government could also offer to compensate families of workers who die on construction sites. Again, none of these measures would dent Qatari budgets but would earn the Gulf state immeasurable goodwill.
‘Effort and patience’ required to restore Iran nuclear agreement
Despite diplomatic engagements, restoring the so-called Iran nuclear agreement continues to be hindered by political and technical differences, the UN political and peacebuilding chief told the Security Council on Thursday.
In the landmark accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – reached in 2015 between Iran, the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom – Iran agreed to dismantle much of its nuclear programme and open its facilities to international inspections in exchange for sanctions relief.
In 2018, then-President Trump withdrew the US from the agreement and reinstated the sanctions.
“Achieving the landmark JCPOA took determined diplomacy. Restoring it will require additional effort and patience,” said UN political affairs chief, Rosemary DiCarlo.
Although the landmark Joint Commission to restore the Plan resumed in November 2021, she acknowledged that despite their determination to resolve the issues, the US and other participants are yet to return to “full and effective implementation of the Plan, and [Security Council] resolution 2231”.
Appealing to both
Together with the Secretary-General, she urged Iran and the US to “quickly mobilize” in “spirit and commitment” to resume cooperation under the JCPOA.
They welcomed the reinstatement by the US in February of waivers on nuclear non-proliferation projects and appealed to the country to lift its sanctions, as outlined in the Plan, and extend oil trade waivers.
Together they also called on on Iran to reverse the steps it has taken that are inconsistent with its nuclear-related commitments under the Plan.
While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to verify the stockpile of enriched uranium in Iran, it estimates that there is currently more than 15 times the allowable amount under the JCPOA, including uranium enriched to 20 and 60 per cent, which Ms. DiCarlo called “extremely worrying”.
Moreover, on 8 and 20 June, IAEA reported that Iran had started to install additional advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz and began feeding uranium into advanced centrifuges at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Fordow.
In his latest report, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, informed the Council that the UN agency’s ability to verify and confirm the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities are key to the JCPOA’s full and effective implementation.
Iran’s decision to remove site cameras and place them and the data they collected under Agency seals, “could have detrimental implications”.
Improved relationships ‘key’
Bilateral and regional initiatives to improve relationships with Iran remain “key” and should be encouraged and built upon, according to Ms. DiCarlo.
Additionally, Member States and the private sector are urged to use available trade instruments to engage with Iran and Tehran is requested to address their concerns in relation to resolution 2231 (2015) on its nuclear issues.
The senior UN official also drew attention to annex B of the resolution, updating ambassadors in the Council on nuclear-related provisions, ballistic missiles and asset freezing.
We hope that diplomacy will prevail – UN political chief
Triumph for multilateralism
“The JCPOA was a triumph for non-proliferation and multilateralism,” said the UN political affairs head.
However, after many years of uncertainty, she warned that the Plan is now at “a critical juncture” and encouraged Iran and the US to build on recent momentum to resolve remaining issues.
“The Secretary-General is convinced there is only one path to lasting peace and security for all Member States, and that is the one based on dialogue and cooperation,” she said. “We hope that diplomacy will prevail”.
In Iran’s best interest
Olof Skoog, Head of the European Union Delegation to the UN, speaking in his capacity as the Coordinator of the Joint Commission established by the JCPOA, to the Security Council, recognized the negative economic consequences that the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA has had on Iran but affirmed that restoring the agreement is “the only way” for the country to reap its full benefits.
He reminded that the Plan would comprehensively lift sanctions, encourage greater international cooperation, and allow Iran to reach its “full economic potential”.
“It is, therefore, important to show the necessary political will and pragmatism to restore the JCPOA,” said Ambassador Skoog who, while acknowledging the sense of urgency, counselled against “escalatory steps” and to preserve sufficient space for the diplomatic efforts to succeed.
Dynamic diplomacy: From SCO to BRICS
The tree of Iran’s balanced foreign policy approach is on the verge of being a one-year-old child. Stronger than before, Iran is pursuing dynamic diplomacy in a variety of cities such as Doha, Ashgabat, and other capitals. Baghdad will also join the list soon.
While Iran’s top negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani is engaged in intensive negotiations in Qatar with the United States through the European Union delegation, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and his oil and foreign ministers are in Ashgabat pursuing transit diplomacy as well as the legal regime of the Caspian Sea with the littoral states.
Prior to his departure for Ashgabat on Wednesday, Raisi spoke to reporters about the purpose of his visit to Turkmenistan.
“This visit is taking place at the invitation of the esteemed president of the brotherly and friendly country of Turkmenistan in order to attend the Caspian Sea littoral states summit,” he remarked.
The President called the Caspian Sea a common heritage and capital for the littoral states with more than 270 million people.
“We have good relations with the littoral states of the Caspian Sea, but in addition to reviewing the legal regime of the Caspian Sea and peaceful use of the sea for the purpose of improving security at the sea, what will be discussed at the sixth summit of the Caspian Sea littoral states is cooperation between countries in the fields of transport, transit, trade, management of marine living resources, environment, as well as preventing the presence of outsiders in the sea, which is also agreed upon by all coastal countries.”
Prior to the beginning of the summit, Raisi met Serdar Berdimuhamedow, Turkmenistan’s President, as well as Chairman of the People’s Council of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.
During the meeting with the President of Turkmenistan, Raisi pointed out that the implementation of the memoranda of understanding and cooperation documents signed by the two countries during Berdimuhamedow’s recent visit to Tehran will accelerate promotion of cooperation between the two countries.
Later, Raisi met with the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev.
During the meeting, Raisi reminded Aliyev that the presence of the Israeli regime in any part of the world undermines security there.
The president also had a brief meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit.
There’s little doubt that Tehran has not put all its eggs into the basket of the JCPOA revival, as it actively seeks to establish trade relations with the neighbors. It’s short-sighted thinking to assume that Iran has to wait for the United States to return to the JCPOA, while it can enjoy the benefits of regional alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
On Monday, Iran’s former Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, who was holding his last presser, told the Tehran Times correspondent that Tehran has submitted a membership request to the BRICS secretariat via Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian. While dynamically trailing balanced and active diplomacy with the neighbors, Tehran is awaiting Washington’s serious political decisions to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Source: Tehran Times
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