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Public decency law puts Saudi reforms in perspective

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A newly adopted Saudi law on public decency helps define Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vague notion of ‘moderate Islam.’

It also lays bare the pitfalls of his social reforms as well as his preference for hyper-nationalism rather than religion as the legitimizing ideology of his rule and his quest for control of every aspect of Saudi life.

In an indication that Prince Mohammed is walking a fine line, Saudi media reported that the government was still weighing how to implement the law almost two months after it was adopted.

“This (law) is an effort to balance the pressure from conservative elements of society that accuse the (government) of allowing things to go ‘out of control’. Effecting social change is an art form — you want to push as fast as possible without provoking a counter reaction. Not easy!” Ali Shihabi, founder of Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based, pro-Saudi think-tank, told Agence France-Presse.

The law comes on the back of a series of reforms in recent years that were designed to facilitate Prince Mohammed’s plans to streamline and diversify the Saudi economy and project the crown prince as a reformer.

The reforms included the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, relaxation of gender segregation, enhancement of women’s professional opportunities, the introduction of modern forms of entertainment and the curbing of the powers of the kingdom’s feared religious police.

Prince Mohammed also vowed to revert the inward-looking, ultra-conservative kingdom to a form of moderate Islam he claimed existed prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Ultimately, Prince Mohammed’s short-lived reformist image was severely tarnished by the kingdom’s devastating war in Yemen;  the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; the mass arrest of clerics, activists, journalists and academics; his failure to lift the kingdom’s male guardianship system; and the mushrooming number of people fleeing the kingdom, including dissidents as well as women seeking to escape repressive and abusive families.

Sparking ridicule on social media, the new law defines limits of Prince Mohammed’s social reforms and creates one more anchor for his repression of any form of dissent.

The law bans men’s shorts except for on beaches and in sports clubs. It also bans garments with questionable prints that like shorts “offend public tastes.” It forbids the taking of pictures or use of phrases that might offend public decency as well as graffiti that could be interpreted as “harmful.”

The bans packages public decency as representing Saudi “values and principles” in a nod towards Prince Mohammed’s promotion of a hyper-nationalist Saudi identity.

Yet, various of its restrictions are more in line with the kingdom’s long-standing austere interpretation of Islam while others reinforce the crown prince’s repression of anything that does not amount to an endorsement of his rule or policies.

The restrictions on clothing and this month’s closure on opening night of the kingdom’s first-ever alcohol-free ‘Halal’ disco constitute an apparent effort to cater to ultra-conservatives who oppose liberalisation of gender segregation and public religious rituals such as the muted lifting of rules that force businesses to close during prayers times.

The reforms, while significant in and of themselves, stop short of dismantling what politics scholar Brandon Ives terms ‘religious institutionalism’ or the intertwining of religion and state through a “plethora of institutions, policies, and legal codes.”

Religious institutionalism complicates Prince Mohammed’s attempt to replace religious legitimization of his rule with hyper-nationalism because of its success in fusing religion with Saudi culture.

“Religion and culture are now so intertwined in what it means to be Saudi that it is hard to separate the two,” said Eman Alhussein, author of a just published European Council of Foreign Relations report on Saudi hyper-nationalism.

As a result, some nationalists have joined religious conservatives in calling for limitations on what is deemed acceptable entertainment and media content.

Ms. Alhussein noted that some online critics were cautioning that the promotion of hyper-nationalism stripped Saudis of their values in a manner that weakens their loyalty to the regime.

“Nationalism in this increasingly strident form could eventually become a Trojan horse that undermines the state,” Ms. Alhussein warned.

Nationalism’s double edge is enhanced, Ms. Alhussein went on to argue, by the undermining of the buffer function of the kingdom’s traditional religious establishment. “The state will now be more accountable for its credibility, and potentially much more exposed,” she said.

Prince Mohammed’s refusal to tackle religious institutionalism impacts not only his attempts at consolidation of his power but also his effort to project the kingdom as an enlightened 21st century state.

The crown prince, in a bid to alter the kingdom’s image and cut expenditure, has significantly reduced spending on a decades-long, US$100 billion campaign to globally promote anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.

Prince Mohammed has at the same time ordered state-controlled vehicles that once promoted religious ultra-conservativism to preach tolerance, mutual respect and inter-faith dialogue instead.

Mr. Ives’ analysis suggests, however, that the kingdom’s U-turn is unlikely to lead to a clean break with support abroad of ultra-conservatism without the dismantling of religious institutionalism.

He argues that the domestic pressure that persuades states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran to support co-religionist rebel groups beyond their borders is generated not by religious affinity but by religious institutionalism that creates a political role for religious forces.

Mr. Ives’ arguments appear to be borne out by continued Saudi support for Islamist militants in Balochistan, the Pakistani province that borders on Iran, as well as Algeria and Libya and propagation of non-violent expressions of an apolitical, quietist, and loyalist interpretation of Islam in countries like Kazakhstan.

Saudi Arabia’s new public decency law in effect highlights the limitations of Prince Mohammed’s reforms.

In a private conversation last year with the Archbishop of Canterbury during a visit to Britain, Prince Mohammed reportedly put some flesh on the skeleton of his vision of moderate Islam.

When urged by the archbishop to allow non-Muslims to open places of worship in the kingdom, Prince Mohammed responded: “I could never allow that. This is the holy site of Islam, and it should stay as such.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Middle East

The question with contradictory US human rights policies towards Saudi Arabia and Iran

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A cursory look at Saudi Arabia and Iran suggests that emphasizing human rights in US foreign policy may complicate relations but has little impact on regional stability or the willingness of protagonists to reduce tension and manage conflicts when it is in their interest.

A post 9/11 US emphasis on human rights was not what inspired homegrown popular Arab revolts over the past decade that initially toppled leaders in eight Arab countries but were largely rolled back or stymied by counter-revolutionary US allies.

The UAE and Saudi counter-revolutionary efforts put the two Gulf states on the autocratic frontline of President Joe Biden’s democracy versus autocracy dichotomy. They were motivated by a rejection of democracy as an existential challenge to the absolute power of their ruling families.

Subsequent US administrations effectively let the counter-revolutionary moves pass, although, to be fair, the Biden administration has suspended $700 million in aid to Sudan following a military power grab in October. However, it has yet to do the same with an additional $500 million for Tunisia. Democratically elected President Kais Saied disbanded parliament in July and assumed the power to enact laws.

By the same token, Middle Eastern protagonists, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran, opted to reduce tensions and explore ways of managing their differences to focus on reforming and diversifying their economies, fuelling growth, and stimulating trade.

In other words, they would have sought to reduce tensions even if they had not anticipated that the Biden administration would adopt a more human rights and democratic values-driven foreign policy and would want to focus on Asia rather than the Middle East.

If anything, a contentious relationship with the United States could have provided a further incentive for reducing tensions. Yemen, which figured prominently in Iran’s talks with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, may be a case in point.

As a result, the regional moves raise the question of whether a US refusal to stand up for principle produces the kind of short-term results that outweigh the long-term cost of autocracy as well as the price of undermining US credibility.

The short-term results of abandoning principle for pragmatism were evident in this week’s shift in oil politics.

The shift was prompted by US efforts to assure the kingdom and other Gulf states that the United States was no longer in the regime change business. US officials also insisted that the administration would concentrate on maintaining and strengthening regional partnerships. They signaled that the administration’s lip service to human rights and democratic values would not have policy consequences.

The message was well received in Riyadh. In response, Saudi Arabia reversed its rejection of Mr. Biden’s request to increase oil production to reduce soaring prices at US gas stations.

The de facto leader of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the cartel’s largest producer, Saudi Arabia, said the group and its associates, which include Russia, would increase monthly production by 400,000 barrels a day.

The Saudi concession also came in response to the administration’s willingness to sell the kingdom US$650 million worth of missiles. The sale threatened to further call into question the credibility of the United States as it prepared to host this week’s virtual Summit for Democracy, which some 110 countries are expected to attend.

The administration says the sale is in line with its policy of supplying only defensive weapons to the kingdom as US officials push for an end to the devastating, almost seven-year-long Yemen war that has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Administration officials assert that the missiles would enable Saudi Arabia to shoot down Houthi drones in the air before they hit targets in the kingdom but cannot be used for attacks against the rebels in Yemen itself.

The Senate vote could set the tone for the democracy summit. Anti-Saudi sentiment runs deep in the US Congress. A vote against the sale would force Mr. Biden to cancel it or override the Senate with a veto.

Saudi violations of human rights, the killing in 2018 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the kingdom’s crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression, and its conduct of the Yemen war fueled the anti-Saudi sentiment.

With the arms sale on the line, the administration has remained silent about reports that Saudi Arabia and the UAE had used a combination of economic incentives and threats to pressure African and Asian nations to vote for the shutdown of a United Nations investigation into abuses of human rights in the war.

Meanwhile, the administration’s efforts to reassure Middle Eastern nations that its policy emphasis has changed has done little to prevent Iranian negotiators at the Vienna talks on reviving a 2015 international agreement that curbed the country’s nuclear programme from hardening their positions.

Iran believes that the United States and, at least until recently, some of its Gulf allies, aim to encircle the Islamic republic and foment domestic unrest that will lead to the regime’s fall. The US has imposed crippling sanctions in response to its nuclear programme and harshly criticized Iran for its abusive human rights record.

That has not stopped Iran from engaging in separate talks with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which appear to be producing results in Yemen.

As a result of those talks, Saudi and Emirati forces, and their Yemeni allies, were reportedly withdrawing from positions in southern and western parts of the country.

 “These are very likely the opening moves by Saudi Arabia and the UAE as they prepare to fully exit Yemen,” said former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen Gregory D. Johnson.

The war has increasingly turned into an albatross around Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s neck, with much of the international community wanting to see an end to the conflict.

It was not immediately clear if and what Iran may have offered in return for the withdrawals that have allowed the Houthis to move into evacuated spaces. “The latest developments seem to suggest that the Houthis seem on the edge of gaining the upper hand,” said NATO Foundation analyst Umberto Profazio.

In line with that assessment, the Houthis have not indicated that they had become more interested in a negotiated end to the war.

“It is clear that the Houthis intend to try to bring down the Yemen government. The Iranians, I believe, would like to see the same,” said US special envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking.

The Emirati withdrawals, particularly around the strategic port of Hodeida, follow gestures including an effort to return internationally isolated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab fold and an exchange of visits with Iran. Syrian membership in the Arab League was suspended early in the civil war.

Some analysts suggested that the withdrawals in Yemen were part of an effort to build confidence. However, it was not clear why the Saudis and Emiratis would cede strategic territory with no apparent Iranian or Houthi concessions in return unless they were looking for a rush to the exit no matter what.

“The pull-out was unnecessary to open new frontlines, and Hodeida seems to have paid the price for confidence-building with Iran,” said Yemen analyst Ibrahim Jalal.

The withdrawals, including from Mara on the Yemeni border with Oman, help Saudi Arabia put its backyard in order. Saudi operations in Mara irritated Oman that sees the Yemeni region as its sphere of influence.

The withdrawals helped facilitate a visit to Oman by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this week. Mr. Bin Salman may try to reach an agreement during the visit to construct a pipeline from the kingdom’s oil fields to an export terminal in Oman. The pipeline would allow Saudi Arabia is to circumvent the Strait of Hormuz.

In the final analysis of the pros and cons of a values-driven US foreign policy, hardline realists will argue that backing down on rights produces tangible results.

Yet, the United States’ selective and opportunistic hardline emphasis on rights and values in Iran has not prevented the Islamic republic from engaging with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and possibly helping to end the Yemen war. The pressure may have been one factor that persuaded Iran to engage.

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Middle East

Democracy Summit: Excluding countries and igniting the Cold War in the Middle East

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A number of American leaks have appeared at the present time for several American think tanks that have reached a dangerous conclusion, which is: (The United States of America must re-use the influence of the extremist Islamic currents and radical political Islam movements in the Middle East and Africa to confront the rise of China in the first place). Hence, the first practical American application of this through the conference to divide the world democratically, according to the American concept, through the following possible scenarios:

   Washington may have practically started using the game of “rapprochement with extremist currents in the face of communist China”, which can be understood through (the United States of America is currently trying to re-use the strategy of rapprochement with extremist currents and political Islam currents in the face of the Chinese and Russian communist enemy as well), and made them raise  Ideological slogans whose purpose is to “ignite the region sectarianly and religiously and cause chaos and turmoil”, and Washington helps in this the ambitions of some nascent national forces in the Middle East, or perhaps some individuals and civil organizations with narrow, limited interests at the expense and in the face of their homelands.

   The American prominent book, which is called (The Devil’s Game: Political Islam and the United States), which was published by “Robert Dreyfuss”, who is an American scholar, specializing in political Islam, is one of the most academic efforts close to understanding the support of the United States and the West in general for the project of so-called political Islam, as well as presenting, highlighting and analyzing of (all American plans aimed at attracting the extremist currents in the Middle East, bringing them closer and using them by the USA to cause unrest in their regions), by fueling their exploitation in achieving sectarian and religious fanaticism in the Arab world.

   Here, the author of the aforementioned book, “Robert Dreyfuss”, presented many of the mysteries and unknown reasons about those (secret and mysterious alliances that the United States of America made with Muslim Brotherhood groups and the other political Islam movements in Egypt and the other countries in the region), over a period of several decades to sponsor and encourage the Islamic currents and radicalism, whether by US secret agreements with them or perhaps by manipulating them as well, so that (the United States of America will use them later in its cold war against China ideologically).

  Perhaps the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister “Wang Yi” to the Middle East in March 2021, who summarized his trip in several words, concerning the Chinese response in the Middle East to the policy of American alliances and polarization, by asserting that:

 “China and the countries agreed on the need to respect sovereign independence and national dignity for all countries, and to promote independent and diversified avenues of development”

   The official Chinese media also supported the speech of its Chinese Foreign Minister, “Wang Yi” and his assurances to all countries in the Middle East region, by confirming that:

 “It was agreed to oppose interference in the internal affairs of the other countries and slander others under the guise of human rights and the protection of the international system, so that the United Nations “UN” would be the core of the international order based on international law, pluralism, fairness and international justice”

   The analyses and the main visions of the Chinese think tanks, which are considered that: the failure of the United States of America to invite the countries of the region to the conference of democracies in the world is (the beginning of the “Joe Biden’s administration” leaving the Middle East for China).

  So, the logic results for the American provocation to the Middle East region, according to the Chinese way of thinking, represents in: (deepening China’s relations with the Middle East countries outside the scope of trade should worry the United States of America), especially since the administration of US President “Joe Biden” has recently taken steps to reduce interest in the region, thus opening the door to Chinese hegemony in accordance with the American vision.

   And perhaps in my viewpoint that (the Conference of American Democracies is the beginning of the American vacuum in favor of China and Russia), which is the same as what was confirmed by a former senior official in American national security, and a close advisor to President “Joe Biden” in a report published in the “American Politico Newspaper”, confirming it frankly by saying:

  “If you were to rank the regions that “Biden” considers a priority, the Middle East is not among the top three. Because, the main top priorities are: the Asia-Pacific region, then Europe, and the Western Hemisphere, and this reflects a bipartisan consensus that the issues of our interest has changed with the return of the great-power competition with China and Russia”

   Hence, we conclude, that with China competing for more international (militarily, economically, technologically and politically) influence, to become the largest power in the world by 2049, according to its stated strategy. So, here we find that (the Middle East is likely to become decisive, whether the United States of America prioritizes it or not).

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Middle Eastern autocrats sigh relief: the US signals Democracy Summit will not change policy

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The United States has signalled in advance of next week’s Summit for Democracy that it is unlikely to translate lip service to adherence to human rights and democratic values in the Middle East into a policy that demonstrates seriousness and commitment.

In a statement, the State Department said the December 9-10 summit would “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.” e State Department said that in advance of the summit, it had consulted with government experts, multilateral organisations, and civil society “to solicit bold, practicable ideas” on “defending against authoritarianism,” “promoting respect for human rights,” and fighting corruption.

Of the more than 100 countries alongside civil society and private sector representatives expected to participate in the summit, only Israel is Middle Eastern, and a mere eight are Muslim-majority states. They are Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Albania, Iraq, Kosovo, Niger, and the Maldives.

US President Joe Biden has made the competition between democracy and autocracy a pillar of his administration policy and put it at the core of the United States’ rivalry with China.

We’re in a contest…with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century,” Mr. Biden said.

Yet, recent statements by the Pentagon and a White House official suggested that, despite the lofty words, US Middle East policy is likely to maintain long-standing support for the region’s autocratic rule in the belief that it will ensure stability.

Popular revolts in the past decade that toppled leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon suggest that putting a lid on the pot was not a solution. That is true even if the achievements of the uprisings were either rolled back by Gulf-supported counter-revolutionary forces or failed to achieve real change.

To be sure, Gulf states have recognized that keeping the pot covered is no longer sufficient. As a result, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have developed plans and policies that cater to youth aspirations with economic and social reforms while repressing political freedoms.

The US appears to be banking on the success of those reforms and regional efforts to manage conflicts so that they don’t spin out of control.

On that basis, the United States maintains a policy that is a far cry from standing up for human rights and democracy. It is a policy that, in practice, does not differ from Chinese and Russian backing of Middle Eastern autocracy. Continuous US public and private references to human rights and democratic values and occasional baby steps like limiting arms sales do not fundamentally alter things.

Neither does the United States’ choice of partners when it comes to responding to popular uprisings and facilitating political transition. In dealing with the revolt in Sudan that in 2019 toppled President Omar al-Bashir and a military coup in October, both the Trump and Biden administration turned to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Israel. While Israel is a democracy, none of the US partners favour democratic solutions to crises of governance.

White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk signalled this in an interview with The National, the UAE’s flagship English-language newspaper, immediately after a security summit in Bahrain that brought together officials from across the globe. US officials led by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sought to use the conference to reassure America’s allies that the United States was not turning its back on ensuring regional security.

Mr. McGurk said that the United States had drawn conclusions from “hard lessons learnt” and was going “back to basics.” Basics, Mr. McGurk said, in a nod primarily to Iran but potentially also to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, entailed dumping “regime change policies.” He said the US would focus on “the basics of building, maintaining, and strengthening our partnerships and alliances” in the Middle East.

Mr. McGurk’s articulation of a back-to-basics policy was reinforced this week with the publication of a summary of the Pentagon’s Global Posture review, suggesting that there would be no significant withdrawal of US forces from the region in Mr. Biden’s initial years in office.

The notion of back to basics resonates with liberals in Washington’s foreign policy elite. Democracy in the Middle East is no longer part of their agenda.

“Instead of using US power to remake the region…policymakers need to embrace the more realistic and realisable goal of establishing and preserving stability,” said Council of Foreign Relations Middle East expert Steven A. Cook even before Mr. Biden took office.” What Washington needs is not a ‘war on terror’ built on visions of regime change, democracy promotion, and ‘winning hearts and minds’ but a realistic approach focused on intelligence gathering, police work, multilateral cooperation and the judicious application of violence when required,” he added.

Mr. Cook went on to say that a realistic US Middle East policy would involve “containing Iran, retooling the fight against terrorism, to reduce its counterproductive side effects, reorganizing military deployments to emphasize the protection of sea-lanes, and downscaling the US-Israeli relationship to reflect Israel’s relative strength.”

The United States is in good company in its failure to put its money where its mouth is regarding human rights and democratic values.

The same can be said for European nations and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority state and democracy. Indonesia projects itself directly and indirectly through Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement, as the only major supporter of a moderate interpretation of Islam that embraces human rights without reservations and pluralism and religious tolerance.

That has not stopped Indonesia from allegedly caving into a Saudi threat not to recognize the Indonesian Covid-19 vaccination certificates of pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Media if the Asian state voted for an extension of a United Nations investigation into human rights violations in the almost seven-year-old war in Yemen.

Similarly, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has signed agreements with the United Arab Emirates on cooperation on religious affairs even though the UAE’s version of a moderate but autocratic Islam stands for values that reject freedoms and democracy.

The agreements were part of a much larger package of economic, technological, and public health cooperation fuelled by US$32.7 billion in projected Emirati investments in Indonesia.

The Biden administration’s reluctance, in line with a long list of past US presidents, to do substantially more than pay lip service to the promotion of human rights and democratic values brings to mind Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

President George W. Bush and his then-national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, acknowledged two decades ago that jihadist violence and the 9/11 attacks were partly the results of the United States’ failure to stand up for its values. They bungled, however, their effort to do something about it, as did Barak Obama.

It is not only the Middle East and other regions’ autocracies that pay the price. So do the United States and Europe. Their refusal to integrate their lofty ideals and values into effective policies is increasingly reflected at home in domestic racial, social, and economic fault lines and anti-migrant sentiment that threatens to tear apart the fabric of democracy in its heartland.

The backlash of failing to heed Mr. Einstein’s maxim and recognizing the cost associated with saying one thing and doing another is not just a loss of credibility. The backlash is also the rise of isolationist, authoritarian, xenophobic, racist, and conspiratorial forces that challenge the values in which human rights and democracy are rooted.

That raises the question of whether the time, energy, and money invested in the Summit of Democracy could not have been better invested in fixing problems at home. Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh nailed it by noting that “shoring up democracy is almost entirely domestic work.”

It’s a message that has not been lost on democracy’s adversaries. In what should have been a warning that hollow declaratory events like the Summit of Democracy are not the answer, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told last September’s United Nations General Assembly: “The United States’ hegemonic system has no credibility, inside or outside the country.”

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