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

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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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When is usury usury? Turkish fatwa casts doubt on Erdogan’s religious soft power drive

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Turkey’s state-controlled top religious authority has conditionally endorsed usury in a ruling that is likely to fuel debate about concepts of Islamic finance and could weaken President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to garner religious soft power by projecting Turkey as a leader defending Muslim causes.

The ruling, issued by the Directorate of Religious Affairs or Diyanet that is part of Mr. Erdogan’s office, stated that interest-based home loans were exempted from the 1,400-year-old ban on interest as a form of usury, provided they were extended by a Turkish state bank for the purchase of real estate in a government housing project.

The ruling is widely being seen as serving the interests of Mr. Erdogan’s government rather than a reform of Islam.

“The fatwa is likely to be a hot discussion for a number of weeks or months… We’ll have to see if the fatwa will really increase Islamic mortgage markets. I assume that is the main reason why they made such a controversial fatwa… It will strengthen those opposed to Islamic finance,” said Indonesian Islamic finance scholar Fauziah Rizki Yuniarti.

The fatwa was issued in the wake of reports that Mr. Erdogan had pressured commercial banks to continue granting cheap loans to boost the construction industry. Responsible for the construction of affordable housing, the government’s Housing Development Administration has become an important driver of the Turkish economy that has fuelled an increase in home sales.

The fatwa came days before Mr. Erdogan rattled financial markets by reverting for the first time in two months to his tirade against high interest rates that he asserts bankrupt businesses and fuel inflation. In a surprise move, Mr. Erdogan appointed in November a new central bank governor and promised to adhere to more orthodox monetary policies that would include higher interest rates in a bid to stem a slide of the Turkish lira.

The fatwa, much like Mr. Erdogan’s hesitancy to criticize China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang, is likely to cast doubt on Turkey’s religious soft power efforts that involve not only voicing support for Muslim causes but also the construction of mosques in far-flung places across the globe as well as efforts to shape the religious and political beliefs of Turkish diaspora communities in Europe.

Turkish diplomats are likely to use the fatwa to counter mounting criticism in Europe from French President Emmanuel Macron and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who have been leading a crackdown on political Islam and pointing fingers at Turkey because it supports groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

After swiping insults in recent months, Messrs. Macron and Erdogan have sought to dial down tensions. Mr. Macron last week responded positively to a New Year message in which Mr. Erdogan expressed condolences for several violent attacks in France last year.

The message was part of Turkish efforts to take the sharp edge off its multiple regional disputes that involve European nations as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia. The moves were in anticipation of US President-elect Joe Biden taking office and in advance of European Union and NATO summits that could censor Turkey.

“Turkey is an ally, that in many ways… is not acting as an ally should and this is a very, very significant challenge for us and we’re very clear-eyed about it,” said Anthony Blinken, Mr. Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, during his Senate confirmation hearing on Monday.

A Turkish plan to open three schools in Germany has run into opposition from conservative and left-wing politicians. Turkey argues that the schools would be responding to community demands that students have an opportunity to opt for Turkish as an elective alongside other foreign languages.

Markus Blume, general secretary of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), asserted that “we don’t want Erdogan schools in Germany.”

Left Party member of parliament Sevim Dagdelen charged that “it is fatal for the government to negotiate the opening of private schools in Germany while the Turkish autocrat drives the critical intelligentsia of his country into prison or exile.”

The school controversy came amid a heated debate about a plan to train imams of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), one of Germany’s largest Muslim associations that maintains close ties to Mr. Erdogan’s religious affairs directorate.

The training would compete with a similar course at the University of Osnabruck that has been endorsed by Germany’s Council of Muslims whose 15-20,000 members include Muslims of German and Arab as well as Turkish descent.

The government has pressured DITIB, which operates close to 900 of Germany’s 2,600 mosques and employs 1,100 Turkish-funded and trained imams, to opt for German-educated clerics who in contrast to their Turkish counterparts are fluent in German.

The government stopped subsidizing DITIB in 2018 while Germany’s intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, reclassified the group as a nationalist rather than a religious organisation.

It will take more than a fatwa on interest to counter increasingly deep-seated Western distrust of Mr. Erdogan even if Western elites may read the ruling as an indication that the Turkish president potentially is mellowing.

Mr. Erdogan may, however, have to explain his apparent willingness to opportunistically break with religious norms to a Muslim world in which he ranks as one of the most popular figures despite widespread elite hostility towards him.

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The leading causes behind today’s unstable Iraq

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Nawshirwan Mustafa, Southern Kurdistan’s leader, writer, historian and a prominent head of the region’s leading opposition party who passed away four years ago had in one of his books portrayed Iraq to be “The museum of nations”. In the book “Rotating in circle, the inner side of the events: 1980-1984”He inscribed that the country is a hub of numerous nations including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians as well as numerous religious groups as of Sunnis, Shiites, Yazidis, etc. In other words, he believes that Iraq was initially comulsively constructed irrespective of the intentions of who lived in it in a manner that met the economic and political interests of the superpowers of that era. By era, he is referring to post ottoman period that was succeeded by the creation of a number of states incorporating Iraq in 1932.

Those various nations and groups have always caused clashes and challenges for the country known as an Arab state to an extent that since it’s inappropriate formation, It has never had a long term political, security and economic stability if we are to ignore social aspects. The country had always hosted war, coup d’état and crisis, conquered countries and countries conquered it.

Surpassingly, if we now encounter someone from any ethnic and/or religious folk, they would reveal their keen on owning a state, a region with its parliament, president and military. We should therefore wonder how come in a such non-homogenous country, with multiple ethnicities (each owning their cultural and accentual traits), and multiple religions, their people can be tolerant, preserve peace, embrace diversity, thereby become democratic for which the United states invaded it.

In a state where is forcefully annexed, we should not be astonished that it will always remain divided, living together will be a serious challenge, and worse than all, external powers will utilize the diversity of the ethnicities as they had always done and the outcome of these are what we are witnessing now.

Consequently, we notice that in Iraq occurs sectarian conflicts, Al-Qahida emerges, ISIS appears, almost each party is associated with a foreign agenda (the latter phenomenon somehow is in Kurdistan as well based on analytical descriptions). On the other hand, a recognized US think tank believes that Iran has always been intervening in Iraq alongside bolstering different militias.

Moreover, according to political analysts, Turkey is also a recognized player in the country. In the excuse of Turkmens, securing borders and ties with a few political factions, it treats Iraq as if it is still a former colony of their elder empire. The United States in addition will never evacuate it as it invested in it with a war that estimates its cost to be four trillion dollars. We may not have space to highlight other industrial western countries as well who consider Iraq as a tray covered with cakes due to its unique natural resources, each trying to take a peace from it.

Among numerous evidences for the geopolitical divisions of the country, the most recent one to be spotted is those soldiers of the Militia group known as “Hasaib Ahl Alhaq”, an externally backed and trained group whom in a recorded video threatened the government of Iraq to release their soldiers who were caught by the administration of the new Iraqi premier Mustafa Kadhmi. The soldiers the group was calling their freedom were five men caught and incarcerated by the Iraqi government following the strategic agreement signed between the United States and the Iraqi government, a deal that limited the authority of the paramilitary groups in Iraq and contained some other military and security points.

The aforementioned fighters were caught for their involvement in an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad on December 20 of last year. In the video they shouted, called for the freedom of their friends and revealed that they were religious fighters, fought against American imperialism and is now ready to fight as well. They also spoke out that “any touch on a religious fighter is a touch on every one of them, they are only awaiting order from their leader ‘Qais Xaz Ali’.” Qais is the leader of the group ‘Hasaib Ahl Alhaq’.

That incident was huge in Iraq, took the attention of the mass media outlets, social media and the people to an extent that same night the prime minister went out to the streets of Baghdad driving a car himself, giving the message that Iraq is safe and they save the security of the country.

The stability of any country relies on the security and military forces. Lack of stability can ruin life and the people pay huge prices. The toughest challenge of the series of the post 2003 Iraqi governments were their failure in spreading security and stability for the country. As a result, the region became a stadium of civil war, the birth of terrorist groups as well as the international interventions. Kadhmi’s government has been enormously repeating that they would secure the country, and bring about a stable and calm life for Iraqis, but they are yet to do so.

The military groups that were highlighted above are known to be one of the essential factors for why we are witnessing an unstable, corrupted and ruined Iraq. They are armed, militarily trained, financially supported and do not obey the government, making it almost impossible for the government to control and disarm them. The Sunni religious groups on the other hand are also to take a great share for the political, security and economic flaws of their country. Sunnis are still seriously concerned for the loss of their power before the invasion and are dreaming of taking it back. More importantly, they have always been marginalized by the majority Shiite based governments, resulting in their backlash of bolstering groups like ISIS and Al-Qaida.

To conclude, to save Iraq from those unfavorable catastrophes and providing it with a structure of a proper, peaceful, and stable country,  we would go back to the beginning of our writing and that is the root from which the country is constructed. Iraq is a forcefully combined country, created without taking into account the real intentions of its diverse ethnic and religious groups. The European colonial powers of that era-post ottoman period- designed its borders with a pen according to their political and economic interests. Therefor, ever since its creation, the country had been hosting political conflicts, coup d’états, civil war, terrorism, anti-homogeneity, conquerence and invasion. The Kurds say whatever you plant, you will cultivate it. Indisputably, it is that annexation and combination that resulted in a such politically, economically and socially unstable Iraq and only recreating the country on a foundation that reflects the intentions and considerations of its own entities can cure it from those challenges. US president elect Joe Biden is known to be the owner of the project of dividing Iraq into three regions: Sunnis, Kurds and Shites. He believes that implementing such a project would save Iraq from those struggles that the country had been suffering from for years!

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Middle East futures: Decade(s) of defiance and dissent

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If the 2010s were a decade of defiance and dissent, the 2020s promise to make mass anti-government protests a fixture of the greater Middle East’s political landscape. Protests in the coming decade are likely to be fuelled by the challenges Middle Eastern states face in enacting economic and social reforms as well as reducing their dependence on energy exports against the backdrop of a global economic crisis and depressed oil prices and energy markets. Complicating the challenges is the fact that youth that often constitutes a majority of the population have lost or are losing confidence in government and religious establishments at a time that social contracts are being unilaterally rewritten by political elites.

Pressure on the Middle East’s autocratic rulers is likely to increase with the departure of US President Donald J. Trump, a staunch supporter of strong man rule and the coming to office of President-elect Joe Biden. In contrast to Trump, Biden has suggested that he would emphasize democratic values and freedoms. In doing so, Biden could contribute to renewed public manifestations of widespread discontent and demands for greater transparency and accountability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Autocrats get some things right

The second decade of the 21st century has been bookended by protest. The decade was ushered in by protest across the globe, from student rallies in Chile to Occupy Wall Street to fuel price demonstrations in Jakarta. The 2011 popular revolts that toppled four Arab autocrats grabbed the headlines and provided drama.

The 2010s ended with similar drama. Protests in Chile resulted in a vote for a new constitution. A coalition of opposition parties challenged the legitimacy of the Pakistani government. Racism and the killing of people of colour by police sparked massive protests in the United States not seen since the 1960s. And like ten years earlier, demonstrators toppled Arab leaders in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq, uncertain whether this would secure the aspired change.

The 2020s promise to be no different, nowhere more so than in the Middle East. A global public opinion survey conducted by Edelman, a US public relations firm, in the United States, Europe, and Asia showed a significant drop in trust in governments as a result of their handling of the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in the worst global economic downturn in decades. Saudi Arabia, alongside Japan, were the two countries that witnessed only a minimal drop.[i][1]

Nevertheless, global mismanagement of the pandemic has hit hard in countries that are wracked by war, like Syria and Libya, nations with perennially weak economies that host large refugee populations, such as Lebanon and Jordan, and Gulf states, which have seen energy prices tumble with prospects dim for a quick recovery of oil and gas markets. Shifts towards greater autocracy in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere bode ill at a time in which populations with a youth majority are not necessarily clamouring for greater freedom but are increasingly gloomy about governments’ ability to deliver jobs and other public goods.

Delivery was already a daunting task prior to the pandemic. The World Bank reported that the number of people living below a poverty line of US$1.90 a day in a region with the world’s highest youth unemployment had more than tripled from eight million in 2011 to 28 million in 2018 and that the extreme poverty rate had doubled from 3.8 per cent in 2015 to 7.2 per cent in 2018.[ii][2]

Facing significantly dimmed economic prospects, the region’s autocrats, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his UAE counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, have, nonetheless, so far relatively successfully managed the political and social environment they operate in, judging by the responses to recent public opinion polling.[iii][3]

Both men have to varying degrees replaced religion with nationalism as the ideology legitimising their rule and sought to ensure that various countries in the region broadly adhere to their worldview.

“I know that the Saudi government under MbS (Prince Mohammed) has put in a lot of effort to actually do its own public opinion polls… They pay attention to it… They are very well aware of which way the winds are blowing on the street. They take that pretty much to heart on what to do and what not to do… On some issues, they are going to make a kind of executive decision… On this one, we’re going to ignore it; on the other one we’re going to…try to curry favour with the public in some unexpected way,” said David Pollock, a Middle East scholar who oversees the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s polling in the region.[iv][4]

The two crown princes’ similar worldviews constitute in part a response to changing youth attitudes towards religiosity evident in the polls and expressed in mass anti-government protests in countries like Lebanon and Iraq. The changes attach greater importance to adherence to individual morals and values and less focus on the formalistic observance of religious practice as well as a rejection of the sectarianism that is a fixture of governance in Lebanon and Iraq as well as Saudi religious ultra-conservatism.

The problem for rulers is that the moorings of their rule potentially could be called into question by a failure to deliver public goods and services that offer economic prospects. At the same time, social reforms needed to bolster development go hand in hand with the undermining of the authority of religious establishments. Increased autocracy that turns clerics and scholars into regime parrots has fuelled youth scepticism not only towards political elites but also religious institutions.

For rulers like the Saudi crown prince, the loosening of social restrictions – including the disempowerment of the kingdom’s religious police, the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, less strict implementation of gender segregation, the introduction of Western-style entertainment and greater professional opportunities for women, and in the UAE a degree of genuine religious pluralism – are only first steps in responding to youth aspirations.

“Youth have…witnessed how religious figures, who still remain influential in many Arab societies, can sometimes give in to change even if they have resisted it initially. This not only feeds into Arab youth’s scepticism towards religious institutions but also further highlights the inconsistency of the religious discourse and its inability to provide timely explanation or justifications to the changing reality of today,” said Gulf scholar Eman Alhussein in a commentary on the latest Arab Youth Survey,[v][5]

Youth put a premium on reform

Middle Eastern youth attitudes towards religion, religiosity and religious leadership mirror their approach towards material concerns. Their world is one that focuses on the individual rather than the collective, on what’s in it for me? instead of what’s in it for us?. It is a world that is not defined by ideology or politics and does not see itself reflected in the values and objectives espoused by elites and governments. In their world, the lingua franca differs substantially from the language they were raised in.

Two-thirds of those polled by the Arab Youth Survey believe that religious institutions need to be overhauled. They question fundamental religious concepts even if they define religion as the most important constituent element of their identity. “The way some Arab countries consume religion in the political discourse, which is further amplified on social media, is no longer deceptive to the youth, who can now see through it,” Alhussein said.[vi][6]

“Arabs know what they want and what they do not want. They want their basic needs for jobs, education, and health care to be attended to, and they want good governance and protection of their personal rights,” concluded James Zogby an Arab-American pollster with a decades-long track record of polling in the Middle East and North Africa.[vii][7]

Michael Robbins, director of the Arab Barometer, another pollster, and international affairs scholar Lawrence Rubin concluded that the youth in post-revolt Sudan had soured on the idea of religion-based governance because of widespread corruption during the region of toppled president Omar Al-Bashir, who professed his adherence to religious principles. Robbins and Rubin cautioned, however, that religion could return as the catalyst for protest if the government fails to cater to youth aspirations.

“If the transitional government can deliver on providing basic services to the country’s citizens and tackling corruption, the formal shift away from Sharia is likely to be acceptable in the eyes of the public. However, if these problems remain, a new set of religious leaders may be able to galvanize a movement aimed at reinstituting Sharia as a means to achieve these objectives,” Robbins and Rubin warned.[viii][8] It is a warning that is as valid for Sudan as it is for much of the Arab and Muslim world.

Saudis empathetic to protests

Asked in a recent poll conducted by The Washington Institute whether “it’s a good thing we aren’t having big street demonstrations here now the way they do in some other countries,” a reference to the past decade of popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan, Saudi public opinion was split down the middle. 48 per cent of respondents agreed, and 48 per cent disagreed.[ix][9] Saudis, like most Gulf Arabs, appear less inclined to take grievances to the streets. Nonetheless, the poll indicates that they may prove to be empathetic to protests should they occur.

Saudi attitudes towards protest take on added significance in an environment in which governments in the energy-rich Gulf have seen their ability erode to invest in infrastructure and cradle-to-grave welfare states. The need to diversify economies away from dependence on oil and gas exports to create jobs against the backdrop of depressed energy prices and markets as a result of the global economic downturn means changing expectations and rewriting social contracts that offered economic security and well-being in exchange for the surrender of political and social rights. In May 2020, The Dubai Chamber of Commerce provided a foretaste of problems to come. Based on a survey of 1,228 CEOs, the chamber warned that a staggering 70 per cent of businesses in the emirate expect to close their doors within the next six months.[x][10] Analysts added to the gloomy prospects by reporting that non-oil growth in the UAE pointed toward a contraction of the economy.[xi][11]

The challenges Gulf and other Middle Eastern states face are compounded by the pandemic and a painful, protracted and complex road towards economic recovery, coupled with the toll of debilitating regional conflicts. They are also complicated by an apparent conditional willingness to accept belt-tightening and the unilateral rewriting of social contracts.

“If it’s temporary, one or two years, I can adapt. My concern is that more taxes will be permanent – and that will be an issue,” said Saudi government worker Mohammed according to a report by Bloomberg after his USD 266 a month cost-of-living allowance was cancelled and sales taxes were tripled as part of painful austerity measures announced by finance minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan.[xii][12]

Mohammed’s words were echoed in a rare pushback against the government by columnist Khalid Al-Sulaiman, writing in the Okaz daily newspaper, one of the kingdom’s tightly controlled media outlets, who wrote: “Citizens worry that the pressure on their living standards will outlast the current crisis. Increasing VAT from 5% to 15% will have a big effect on society’s purchasing power and will reflect negatively on the economy in the long term,”[xiii][13]

The surveys leave no doubt that even before the economic crisis sparked by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic the Middle Eastern youth was first and foremost concerned about its economic future. Asked what had prompted the wave of protests in 2011, 2019 and 2020, respondents pointed to unemployment, personal debt and corruption. 35 per cent of those polled in the latest Arab Youth Survey reported that they were mired in debt compared with 15 per cent in 2015.[xiv][14] A whopping 80 per cent said they believed Arab regimes were corrupt.

“This evinces a realization that the past decade of revolutions has borne rather bitter fruit: civil war, humanitarian distress, the rise of powerful extremist elements, and the collapse of governing restraints… Today, rather than seeking to change the world, most Arabs (especially the younger generation) demonstrate that mere improvements in their material condition would suffice,” said Middle East scholar Michael Milstein.[xv][15]

Voting with their feet

If the surveys suggest one thing, the streets of Algerian, Sudanese, Lebanese and Iraqi cities suggest something else.[xvi][16] Protesters in those four countries appeared to have learnt lessons from the failed 2011 revolts in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In contrast to 2011, protesters in 2019 and 2020 refused to surrender the street once a leader was forced to resign. Instead, they maintained their protests, demanding a total overhaul of the political system,[xvii][17] which led to the formation of a governing transitional council in Sudan and a referendum on a new Algerian constitution.

Feeling outmanoeuvred by the military and political elites, Algerians voted with their feet. While the new constitution won in the referendum with a two-thirds majority, less than a quarter of eligible voters cast their vote.[xviii][18] “Algerian youths do not see the ‘New Algeria’ that lives in the president’s speeches. Activists are jailed for social media posts and memes, and the entire nation feels abandoned by both the political establishment and the traditional opposition,” cautioned Algerian scholar Zine Labidine Ghebouli.[xix][19] In Sudan, the jury is still out on whether the council will satisfy popular demand. In Lebanon and Iraq, the protesters also insisted on the removal of the sect- and ethnic-based political structures that underpin the two countries’ political systems.[xx][20]

Like in Algeria, protesters in Lebanon and Iraq confronting police violence and the impact of the pandemic was at an inflexion point. That was graphically visualised in late October 2020 with the reopening of a key bridge in Baghdad and the clearing out of tents from a sit-in in Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the anti-establishment protest movement that erupted a year ago to demand basic services, employment opportunities and an end to corruption.[xxi][21]

Few doubt that the combination of repressive law enforcement, politics rather than engagement and a public health crisis at best buys elites a reprieve. The writing is on the wall, with intermittent protests erupting in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Iran and war-ravaged Syria. “For political transformation to happen, you need a generation,” noted Lina Khatib, head of London-based think tank Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme.[xxii][22]

The question is not whether another wave of protest will occur, but when and where.

“The most dangerous people in any society: “When you look at the poor economic growth, when you look at the very high demographic growth, what you see is a region that has a lot of challenges ahead of it. There are very few things that are true for every country in the world. But one of those is that the most dangerous people in any society are young men. Testosterone is a hell of a drug. There are lots of young men in this part of the world that don’t have avenues to channel their innate aggression into productive, constructive forms. They are attracted to destructive avenues,” said former CIA acting director Michael Morell.[xxiii][23]

“The essential situation is that this mass of citizens has reached the point of discontent but (of) desperation and therefore has done the only thing it sees as available to it other than immigrate, which is challenging their state openly in street protests. Something has to give between these two forces,” added veteran journalist and Middle East scholar Rami Khouri.[xxiv][24]

Give and take seems, however, for now, a way off. The immediate reality is a stalemate. Protesters have demonstrated their ability to topple heads of government but have so far failed to force elites, determined to protect their perks at whatever cost, to address their fundamental concerns, let alone surrender power. Aggravating the stalemate is the breakdown in trust between significant segments of youth populations and governments as well as traditional opposition forces fuelling demands for reforms that replace existing elites rather than exploring ways of finding common ground.

“Arab governments’ long suppression of the development of inclusive, democratic, and effective institutions has left a vacuum of leadership among regime and opposition forces alike. That vacuum is acutely felt today… with no trusted institution in the region who could carry out people’s rightful demands for more effective management of their countries, the endgame is unclear,” said Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan.[xxv][25]

In a swath of land that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa into Central Asia, trends and developments no longer are sub-regional. They reverberate across what increasingly looks like the Middle East’s expanding borderlands as was evident in the 2020 Caucasus war between Armenia and Turkey- and Israel-backed Azerbaijan with Iran walking a fine line despite its empathy for the Armenians. Russian security forces and analysts predict that the fallout of the war is likely to compound a combustuous mix that will spark social unrest in the North Caucasus.

Aslan Bakov, a prominent political analyst from the Kabardino-Balkaria region, warned that Muslim civil society groups were likely to lead anti-Russian protests, taking local authorities as well as the government in Moscow to task for mismanaging the pandemic and reducing financial support of the North Caucasus. As a result, the region suffered a higher Covid-19 related death rate per capita of the population and has seen employment rates soar as high as 40 per cent. Muslim non-governmental organizations have stepped in where increasingly authoritarian local governments have failed to deliver, fuelling widespread lack of confidence in state authority. Describing the situation as “ideal conditions for a social explosion,” Baskov cautioned that the unrest could escalate into ethnic and border conflicts in a region in which frontiers have yet to be definitively demarcated.[xxvi][26]

A catalyst for reinvigorated protest?

Much like US President Jimmy Carter’s support for human rights in the 1970s boosted popular resistance to the Shah of Iran and helped pave the way for the Islamic revolution,[xxvii][27] President-elect Joe Biden, with his emphasis on democratic values and freedoms,[xxviii][28] could contribute to renewed public manifestations of widespread discontent and demands for greater transparency and accountability in the Middle East and North Africa.

Supporters of a human rights-driven foreign policy juxtapose the emergence of an anti-American regime in Iran with the rise of post-revolt democratic leaders in Chile, the Philippines and South Korea. US President Barack Obama and his Vice-President Biden struggled almost a decade ago with how to handle the 2011 popular revolts.

Critics accuse Obama of enabling the Muslim Brotherhood to gain executive power in the aftermath of the revolts. The rise of the Brotherhood sparked a counter-revolution that led to a military coup in Egypt and civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

“The cases of Chile, South Korea, and the Philippines, along with a few others, are often cited…by foreign policy elites arguing that American human rights advocacy needn’t come at the expense of American interests. And yet, as we can see in…harsh Monday-morning quarterbacking of Obama’s policy toward the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak, for example, this argument still faces a steep uphill climb,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East scholar who coordinated US democracy and human rights policy as the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. Cofman Wittes was referring to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader who was forced to resign in 2011 after 30 years in office.

Biden has pledged to “defend the rights of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence. Jamal’s death will not be in vain.” Biden was referring to Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist.[xxix][29] Biden has also said he would convene a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office as part of an effort to confront authoritarian regimes and promote elections and human rights. The summit would be attended not only by political leaders but also including civil rights groups fighting for democracy.[xxx][30]

Campaign promises are one thing, enacting policies once in office another. As a result, the jury is out on how a Biden administration will handle potentially sustained protest in the Middle East and North Africa. To be sure, taken together the most recent surveys of public opinion paint a picture of a youth that has shifted in much of the region from optimism at the time of the 2011 revolts to deep-seated pessimism if not despair about its future prospects and a lack of confidence in the ability and/or willingness of most governments and elites to cater to its social and economic needs. That makes predictions of civil unrest all the more real.

Fact is also that the lesson of the last decade for the coming one is that political transition sparked by waves of protest is not a matter of days, months or even a year. It is a long, drawn-out process that often plays out over decades. 2011 ushered in a global era of defiance and dissent, with the Arab uprisings as its most dramatic centrepiece.

The 2020s is likely to be a decade in which protests may produce at best uncertain and fragile outcomes, irrespective of whether protesters or vested interests gain an immediate upper hand. Fragility at best and instability at worst is likely to be the norm. To change that, protesters and governments would have to agree on economic, political and social systems that are truly inclusive and ensure that all have a stake. No doubt, that is a tall order.

Author’s note: An earlier version of this article appeared in Orient.


[i] [1] Edelman, 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, January 2021, https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2021-01/2021-edelman-trust-barometer.pdf

[ii] [2] World Bank Group, Poverty and Shared Prosperity  2020: Reversals of Fortune, 2020, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/34496/9781464816024.pdf

[iii] [3] ASDA’A BCW, Arab Youth Survey, 2020; Arab Center Washington. https://www.arabyouthsurvey.com/findings.html / Arab Opinion Index 2017-2018, 2018, http://arabcenterdc.org/survey/2017-2018-arab-opinion-index-executive-summary/

[iv] [4] Interview with the author, 14 October 2020.

[v] [5] ASDA’A BCW, A Voice for Change, 2020, 2020, p. 44, https://www.arabyouthsurvey.com/pdf/downloadwhitepaper/AYS%202020-WP_ENG_0510_Single-Final.pdf

[vi] [6] Ibid.

[vii] [7] Interview with the author, 24 August 2020.

[viii] [8] Michael Robbins and Lawrence Rubin, Sudan’s government seems to be shifting away from Islamic law. Not everyone supports these moves, 27 August 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/27/sudans-government-seems-be-shifting-away-sharia-law-not-everyone-supports-these-moves/

[ix] [9] David Pollock, Saudi Poll: China Leads U.S.; Majority Back Curbs on Extremism, Coronavirus, 31 July 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/saudi-poll-china-leads-u.s-majority-back-curbs-on-extremism-coronavirus

[x] [10] Natasha Turak, 70% of Dubai companies expect to go out of business within six months due to coronavirus pandemic, survey says, 21 May 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/21/coronavirus-dubai-70percent-of-companies-expect-to-close-in-six-months.html

[xi] [11] Al Jazeera, Egypt and Saudi business conditions improve, while UAE’s worsen, 3 November 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/3/bbegypt-and-saudi-business-conditions-improves-while-uaes-wors

[xii] [12] Vivian Nereim and Sylvia Westall, Crisis Austerity in Oil-Rich Gulf May Test Political Balance, 2020.

[xiii] [13] Khalid Al-Sulaiman, Will the Finance Minister Do It?  (هل يفعلها وزير المالية ؟!), Okaz, 1 September 2020, https://www.okaz.com.sa/articles/authors/2026288, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-03/austerity-experiment-in-oil-rich-gulf-may-falter-post-crisis?sref=3XwG50X1

[xiv] [14] ASDA’A BCW, 7th Annual ASDA’A Burson-Masteller Arab Youth Survey, 2015, http://arabyouthsurvey.com/pdf/whitepaper/en/2015-AYS-White-Paper.pdf

[xv] [15] Michael Milstein, Ten Years Since the ‘Arab Spring’: Despair Has Not Become More Comfortable, 27 October 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/arab-spring-despair-comfortable

[xvi] [16] James M. Dorsey, The Tumultuous Decade: Arab Public Opinion and the Upheavals of 2010–2019, 2020, New Books Network, 5 September 2020, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2020/09/the-tumultuous-decade-arab-public.html

[xvii] [17] James M. Dorsey, 2019 was a decade of defiance and dissent. The 2020s are likely to be no different, 1 January 2020, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2020/01/2019-was-decade-of-defiance-and-dissent.html

[xviii] [18] Al Jazeera, Algerians back constitutional reforms amid low voter turnout, 2 November 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/2/low-voter-turnout-hits-algeria-referendum-amid-boycott-calls.

[xix] [19] Zine Labidine Ghebouli, Requiem for a Revolution, , Newlines Magazine, 1 November 2020, https://newlinesmag.com/essays/requiem-for-a-revolution/

[xx] [20] James M. Dorsey, Countering civilisationalism: Lebanese and Iraqi protesters transcend sectarianism, 1 November 2019, https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.com/2019/11/countering-civilisationalism-lebanese.html

[xxi] [21] Al Jazeera, Baghdad’s Tahrir Square cleared, Jamhuriya Bridge reopened, 31 October 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/31/iraq-clears-tahrir-square-a-year-after-mass-protests-began

[xxii] [22] Jared Malsin, Middle East Protesters Try to Avoid Mistakes of Arab Spring, 2020.

[xxiii] [23] CBS News, Biggest factor in U.S.-Middle East relations is perception that U.S. is withdrawing, 6 January 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biggest-factor-in-u-s-middle-east-relations-is-perception-that-u-s-is-withdrawing/

[xxiv] [24] Wilson Center, Ten Years of Pan-Arab Protests: Understanding the new Dynamics of Change, The Wall Street Journal. 20 January 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/middle-east-protesters-try-to-avoid-mistakes-of-arab-spring-11579530280

[xxv] [25] Marwan Muasher, Is This the Arab Spring 2.0?, 30 October 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/30/is-this-arab-spring-2.0-pub-80220

[xxvi] [26] Paul Goble, Year 2020 in Review: Pandemic Exacerbated Problems Across North Caucasus and Set Stage for More Conflict, Eurasia Daily Monitor, 5 January 2021, https://jamestown.org/program/year-2020-in-review-pandemic-exacerbated-problems-across-north-caucasus-and-set-stage-for-more-conflict/

[xxvii] [27] Tamara Cofman Wittes, Iran’s revolution and the problem of autocratic allies, Brookings, 24 January 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/01/24/irans-revolution-and-the-problem-of-autocratic-allies/

[xxviii] [28] Joss Harrison, There are signs that as president, Joe Biden could adopt a proactive human rights approach similar to Jimmy Carter’s, LSE US Centre, 3 July 2020, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2020/07/03/there-are-signs-that-as-president-joe-biden-could-adopt-a-proactive-human-rights-approach-similar-to-jimmy-carters/

[xxix] [29] JoeBiden.com,  Anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder – Statement by Vice President Joe Biden, 2 October 2020, https://joebiden.com/2020/10/02/anniversary-of-jamal-khashoggis-murder-statement-by-vice-president-joe-biden/#

[xxx] [30] JoeBiden.com, The Power of America’s Example: The Biden Plan for Leading the Democratic World to Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century, Undated, https://joebiden.com/americanleadership/

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