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Astronomy: The outer frontier of Mohammed bin Salman’s liberalization

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s investment of $1 billion and option to pump a further $480 million into Richard Branson’s ventures in space, confirmed during the prince’s recent visit to the United States, was more than just another headline-grabbing move.

By focusing on space sciences, long a field rejected by ultra-conservative Islamic scholars, some of whom insist that the earth is flat, Prince Mohammed was setting the outer limits of his top-down redefinition of Saudi Arabia’s austere interpretation of Islam.

In doing so, Prince Mohammed was seeking to end the dampening effect Islamic scholars have had on the kingdom’s technological and scientific development for both civilian and military purposes.

As recently as 2014, a Saudi astronomer complained that the kingdom’s “general culture,” a reference to religious ultra-conservatism, had resulted in a “lack” of teaching and study of astronomy.

Islamic scholars rejected astronomy as contradicting religious precepts as well as a form of astrology despite the fact that space research could help them calculate prayer times and the dates of religious holidays.

“The Salafis  as you know, have no mercy,” Saudi physicist Haisham Abad told Jorg Matthias Determann, author of ‘Space Science and the Arab World, Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East,” a recently published history of Arab exploration of space.

Mr Abad described how he felt he had to publish his efforts to reform the Islamic lunar calendar on a lunisolar basis outside of the kingdom even though he had garnered support from some within the religious establishment.

Similarly, when he wanted to give a public lecture at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, which is chaired by Prince Turk al Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to Britain and the United States, who at times publicly articulates views that Prince Mohammed shares but prefers not to air, Mr. Abad was rejected because his research was “outside the Salafi line.”

Space science threatened the long-standing religious status of scholars who each year determine the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan by sighting the moon. The Jeddah Astronomical Society opted in 2012 to halt its statements on moon sighting after the Abu Dhabi-based Islamic Crescents’ Observation Project (ICOP) declared that astronomical calculations indicated that a sighting of the moon in countries like Saudi Arabia Iraq and Syria was not possible.

“People who see the new moon with the naked eye, are the same people who have been seeing it for the past 20 years or so. With all this technology, astronomers and experts, we have special telescopes directed to the moon and then traditional moon sighting people say they saw the moon. I believe it’s time to trust science,” said ICOP president Mohammed Odeh in justification of the group’s conclusion.

Religious opposition to endeavours of scientists like Mr. Abad and groups such as the ICOP and the Jeddah society as well as past international sanctions against some countries like Iraq had stymied or prevented the development of space research but was unable to force a complete shutdown.

Government-sponsored scientists and institutions as well as independent scholars remained looped into the science through activities under the auspices of the United Nations, collaboration with European research facilities or because of their involvement in US research program, including an association with American universities in Beirut and Cairo.

Astronomy remained, however, a touch-and-go proposition. Authorities in Algeria, for example, were forced to back down from taking a compulsory astronomy course designed to enable religious scholars to apply the science to Islamic jurisprudence to the next level when they had to cancel plans to establish an institute of astronomical sciences and a planetarium.

As a result, students made their way to universities in the west while scientists migrated to the Gulf. “Astronomy, like the rest of Algerian science culture, and education, is in total disarray,” Mr. Determann quoted Nidhal Guessoum, a scientist who returned to Algeria after completing his doctorate at the University of California and working for NASA.

In a separate interview, Mr. Guessoum asked whether “Muslims (were) still in the dark ages.” He warned that without “a review of the education given to Muslim youth today…the future will be very dark.”

Writing in Gulf News last year, Mr. Guessoum noted that professors at the sciences faculty of the University of Sfax in Tunisia had allowed a PhD student to submit a thesis declaring the earth to be flat, unmoving, young at only 13,500 years old, and the centre of the universe.

Mr. Guessoum said the PhD was the result of an “adherence to religious, scriptural literalism, in other words taking the meanings of religious texts literally and blindly, at the cost of rejecting all knowledge that appears to contradict it, no matter how much evidence supports it.”

He warned that “we are not only failing to educate the public (that is manifest in the trendy ‘flat earth’ and ‘Nasa lies’ memes on social media) but also our brightest students.”

Saudi Sheikh Bandar al-Khaibari told students at a UAE university two years earlier that the earth was stationary and did not orbit the sun.

“Focus with me, this is Earth;” Mr. Al-Khaibari said, holding a cup. “If you say that it rotates, if we leave Sharjah airport on an international flight to China, the earth is rotating, right? So if the plane stops still on air, wouldn’t China be coming towards it? True or not?”

Waving the cup in a circle, Mr. Al-Khaibari argued that “if the earth rotates in the other direction, the plane will not be able to get to China because China is also rotating.”

Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi, a self-styled essayist and short story writer, shared religious leaders’ opposition to astronomy. In one story, entitled Suicide of the Astronaut, Mr. Qaddafi described a man who found nothing of interest when he visited the moon. On his return to earth, the man discovered that his qualifications as an explorer made finding a job impossible. In the end, he commits suicide.

In a twist of history, it was Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman’s voyage in 1985 into space as a payload specialist aboard the American STS-51-G Space Shuttle that constituted a first step in countering religious opposition to astronomy.

The voyage of Prince Sultan, Prince Mohammed’s older brother, and the first Arab and Muslim astronaut, helped set the stage for the crown prince’s more recent push.

“It took the return of a Saudi prince for Ibn Baz to cease his assertions” that astronomy is un-Islamic because the sun moves and the earth is fixed, Mr. Determann reported. He was referring to Abdulaziz ibn Baz, the then head of the Islamic University of Medina and grand mufti of Saudi Arabia whose assertions were taken to mean that the earth is flat.

The fascination with the first Arab and Muslim space explorer may have had a dampening effect on religious resistance but didn’t squash it. Neither did a controversial effort by Saudi universities that started at the turn into the 21st century to kickstart the study of astronomy and boost their international rankings by enlisting prominent western astrophysicists who were offered lucrative packages.

The experience of Mr. Abad and his colleagues fit a pattern. Efforts at the beginning of the 21st century by Saudi scientists, who pointed not only to civilian and economic implications of space studies, including satellite technology that had been embraced by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, but also its national security and military applications, long failed to get the hearing they deserved.

That all is changing with the rise of Prince Mohammed in 2015. There is little doubt that his quest for Saudi advances in space studies as part of his effort to take the kingdom into the 21st century was also driven by Iranian space efforts and inspired by the United Arab Emirates determination to make the development of a space industry “a primary national objective.”

By pumping money into Mr. Branson’s trio of space-focused companies, Prince Mohammed was joining the UAE which already has a stake in Virgin. “The future of Saudi Arabia is one of innovation…and it’s through partnerships with organisations like Virgin Group that we will make active contributions to those sectors and technologies that are driving progress on a global scale,” Prince Mohammed said.

Not someone to play second fiddle, Prince Mohammed’s investment potentially signals a Gulf race into space. The UAE announced that it intended to land a space craft on Mars by July 2021, the country’s 50th anniversary, and would build a $140 million Mars Science City that will cover 176,000 square metres of Emirati desert, making it the largest space simulation city ever built..

The UAE initiatives and Saudi efforts have prompted Kuwait to think about establishing a space agency of its own despite the high cost at a time of depressed oil revenues.

Saudi Arabia’s investment in Virgin follows an agreement with Russia concluded in 2015 to partner in efforts to build a second international space station by 2023.

“The Kingdom seeks through the space and aeronautical technology program to achieve a regional leadership in this vital sector relying on its preeminent position and vital capabilities that will allow the country to obtain its objective,” the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology said at the time the agreement with Russia was signed.

Chances are that Prince Mohammed will succeed in promoting space science. His success is, however, likely to depend on his ability to keep ultra-conservatives in the kingdom in check, groom a generation of more liberal Islamic scholars that enjoy popular credibility and deliver on his economic reforms. The jury on all of that is still out.

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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The economic summit in Bahrain won’t be about Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Ksenia Svetlova

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In less than two weeks Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt will present in Manama the first part of the long-awaited “deal of the century”, the peace initiative of president Donald Trump designed to find an ultimate solution for the prolonged Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Iraq and Lebanon will not take part in the event, while Tehran had already accused the participants, mainly Saudi Arabia of “betrayal of the Palestinian struggle”. Following the massive pressure on Arab leaders and promises of significant economic development, the American administration was finally able to secure the participation of Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, and probably Morocco. Israel didn’t receive an official invitation for this event yet. It is, however, clear that it will be invited, and some rumors imply that PM Netanyahu himself might come to Bahrain, a country with which Israel doesn’t have any diplomatic relations.

Yet, it seems that this odd event in Manama will resemble a wedding without the bride. The groom will be there, so are the loving parents who will provide the dowry and the guests, but the bride, i.e. the Palestinian autonomy had already declared that it will not send any official or unofficial delegation to the upcoming economic conference.

The relations between the White House and the Palestinian administration had gone sour since President’s Trump decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The Palestinians are suspicious of Trump’s attempts to promote “a deal” that might not include a reference to a two-state solution. For the last two years, the sole connection between Washington and Ramallah has been maintained by the respective security agencies.  Recent remarks made by the U.S. Ambassador to Israel on Israeli territorial claims in Judea and Samaria and the hints of Israel’s annexation plans intensified Palestinian concerns towards the unveiling of the first part of “the deal”. Palestinian officials had harshly criticized the participation of Arab countries in Bahrain conference, expressing hope that they will send low-key representation, while the Jordanian Kind explained that he decided to send a delegation to the summit “to listen and remain knowledgeable of what is taking place”.

Yet, the most fascinating thing about the economic conference is that it’s not at all about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict despite its title. With only one year left prior to the US presidential elections and considering the political turmoil in Israel and the unwillingness of the Palestinian partner to engage in any plan presented by Trump’s administration, there is little hope in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington that the “deal of the Century” will accumulate in peaceful solution in the current century.

Why, then, the American administration is investing time and energy in the upcoming Bahrain summit? The answer is clear: mostly, to consolidate the alliance of the “moderate Arab states”.  Considering the recent dramatic events at the sea of Oman and the attack on two oil-tankers, it will not be far-fetched to imagine that the growing tensions in Iran will overshadow the official reason for the gathering. In the same fashion, the “anti-terror” conference in Warsaw that took place in February this year, was solely about Iran, while all other aspects of anti-terrorism activities were left behind. The deterioration of the situation in the Persian Gulf is crucial for the hosts and their allies – the Arab countries in the Gulf. Egypt and Jordan were required to be there because they are key American allies in the region who also maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. The plan that is envisaged by Kushner and Greenblatt will include economic benefits and development programs for both Amman and Cairo who are dealing with pressing economic hardships. Would they prefer to stay away from the conference that is being shunned by the Palestinians? Probably. Could these two countries, who receive significant economic help from the US say no to the invitation and not show up at the wedding of the century? Highly unlikely.

Ironically, some 52 years ago in Khartoum, it was the Arab league that had unanimously voted on the famous “three no’s” resolution in Khartoum, declining any possibility of dialogue with Israel. Today, when the Arab states are weakened by the “Arab spring” and preoccupied with growing tensions in the Persian Gulf while the focus has shifted from the Palestinian question elsewhere, they are more prone than ever to go along with practically any American plan, while the only ones who refuse to cooperate with Trump and obediently fulfil his orders are the Palestinians who will be absent from Manama gathering. The support of the Palestinian struggle and its importance in Arab politics had dwindled, while other regional affairs had moved center stage. Considering this dramatic change of circumstances, the odd wedding in Bahrain doesn’t seem so odd anymore. It can be seen as yet another step in American attempts to consolidate an Arab alliance against Iran. The Palestinian-Israel conflict that will keep simmering after the conference just as it did before has nothing to do with it.

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Who benefits most of suspicious attacks on oil tankers, tensions in the Gulf?

Payman Yazdani

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The events roiling the Persian Gulf in recent weeks and days have the potential to affect everything from the price of gas to the fate of small regional states.

A look at the tensions going on around the world including the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, East Europe, Venezuela all indicate that these tensions originate from the US administration’s unilateral unlawful measures.

The White House’s unlawful withdrawal from the Iran’s nuclear deal (JCPOA), designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, reimposing sanctions on Iran and trying to drive Iran’s oil export to zero all are provocative and suspicious moves of the US that have fueled the regional tensions.

The US and its regional allies including Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s suspicious and provocative move to accuse Iran of being behind the attacks on two ships at Fujairah in the UAE without presenting any document was also foiled by Iran’s vigilant approach and reduced tensions to some extent.

While the Japanese Prime Minister is visiting Iran after 4 decades and many expected even more reduction of the tensions in the region due his visit, in another suspicious and provocative move two oil tankers were targeted in Sea of Oman, a move that can intensify the tensions more than before.

Undoubtedly the US and its proxies in the region as usual will accuse of Iran being behind the incident without any document in hours once again, but the main question is that who is benefiting the most of the tensions in the Persian Gulf region?

Pondering the following reasons one can realize that the number one beneficiary of the tensions and attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East is the USA and respectively Tel Aviv and the undemocratically  appointed rulers of some regional Arab states seeking their survival in following the US policies.

– Contrary to decades ago the US is now one of the biggest oil and gas producers in the world seeking to grab the market share of the other countries in the world. Following US unlawful withdrawal from the JCPOA and its efforts to drive Iran’s oil export to zero under the pretext of different accusations, in fact the US is making efforts not only to grab Iran’s share of the energy market but also to limit Iran’s income to reduce Iran’s regional influence. The US move to create tensions in Venezuela and East Europe and slapping sanctions against Caracas and Moscow can also be interpreted in this line.

– Any tension in the Persian Gulf not only will increase the energy price in global market but also will create enough pretexts for Washington to boost its military presence in the region. This means control of energy routes by the US in order to contain its rivals like China, EU, Japan and new rising economies like India which their economies are heavily dependent on the energy coming from the Persian Gulf and Middle East.

– Tensions in the region besides Iranophobia project will guarantee continuation of purchase of American weapons by some regional countries such as Saudi Arabia. By continuation of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia the US not only creates thousands of jobs for Americans but also keeps its rivals like China and Russia out of Middle East weapon market.

– Tensions and conflicts created by the US in Middle East has resulted in great rifts and divergence among regional states which is vital for Tel Aviv’s security and its expansionist policies.

From our partner MNA

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The odds of success for Japanese PM’s visit to Iran

Payman Yazdani

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US President’s recent retreat from his previous rhetoric stances towards Iran should not be misinterpreted as the White House’s retreat from its policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran.

In line with its maximum pressure on Iran policy, on Friday the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran that target the country’s petrochemical industry, including its largest petrochemical holding group, the Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company (PGPIC).

The main reason behind the changes to Trump administration’s tone against Iran in fact is internal pressure on him. Americans are against a new war in the region. Also opposition from the US allies which will suffer from great losses in case of any war in the region is another reason behind change to Trump’s tone.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is slated to visit Tehran on Wednesday June 12. He hopes to use his warm relation with Iran and the US to mediate between the countries.

Besides Abe’s warm relations with Iranian and the US leaders there are others reasons that potentially make him a proper mediator including Japan’s efforts to have independent Middle East policy and not having imperialistic record in the region which is a good trust building factor for Iran.

Above all, as the third largest economy of the world Japan is very dependent on the energy importing from the region. Japan imports 80 percent of its consuming energy from the Middle East which passes through Hormuz strait, so any war and confrontation in the region will inflict great losses and damages to the country’s economy and consequently to the world economy.

To answer the question that how Mr. Abe’s efforts will be effective to settle the tensions depends on two factors.

First on the ‘real will’ and determination of the US and Iran to solve the ongoing problems especially the US ‘real will’. One cannot ask for talk and at the same time further undermine the trust between the two sides by taking some hostile measures like new sanctions that the US slapped against Iran’s petrochemical section last night on the eve of Mr. Abe’s visit to Tehran. If there is a real will, even no need to mediator.

Second we have to wait to see that how the Japanese PM will be able to affect the US’ decisions. Iran’s Keivan Khosravi spokesman for the Supreme National Security Council said efforts to remove US extraterritorial sanctions against Iran could guarantee the success of Japanese PM’s visit to the Islamic Republic.

From our partner MNA

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