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Saudi #MeToo: International Models and Pressure for the Kingdom

Saudi artist Ms Saffaa stands before a mural she co-created by Australia. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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The Saudi Women’s Rights Movement is still fighting to attain more freedom for women and girls. In 2016, the #IAmMyOwnGuardian hashtag started trending in Saudi Arabia. A petition to end the male guardianship system was also started – nearly 15,000 Saudi women signed the online petition and another 2500 sent telegrams to the Saudi government calling for its abolishment.(Mangla, 2016)The next biggest struggle remaining for Saudi women is to abolish the male guardianship system. The Human Rights Watch organization cites this system as the “the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.” (Hincks, 2019)In order for Saudi Arabia to fully benefit from the untapped potential of its women, it must not just reform the guardianship system, it must end it. Early studies have proven that the nation as a whole is benefitting from reforms that have given Saudi women more autonomy and equality to their male counterparts. Future, long-term trend analysis will only further prove these early studies to be the truth. Saudi women have more than proven their worth as individuals and their resolve to gain equality.

The Saudi women’s rights movement has made clear strides over the last decade. How do they keep their movement going? How can the global community help foster their efforts? Saudi women achieved these improvements through the shrewd use of traditional media – newspapers, radios, and tv. Most recently though, the leaders in their movement have effectively used social media to fight for equality and to bring much needed attention to the plight of Saudi women. Despite all of the positive results they have achieved through their efforts, there is still a major that still faces them. They need to ensure that the improvements that have been made, become permanently enshrined in their constitution and their social and cultural landscape. These achievements cannot remain as simple policy changes that can be reversed instantly by the next king or crown prince.

“The male guardianship system is the most significant impediment to realizing women’s rights in the country.” (Human Rights Watch, 2016) Saudi women can vote, drive cars, travel without a guardian’s permission. But they still need permission to marry or divorce, access healthcare, enroll in school – including higher education. The Saudi women’s rights movement has to focus on changing the Basic Law. It needs to be amended to include protections for women. The Basic Law only mentions men and uses masculine pronouns, women and feminine pronouns are not found within the document.(Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 1992) Simply adding the word woman/women would be an important first step; although the true goal should be adding a few lines stating that these laws apply equally to all citizens regardless of their race, religion, sex, or gender.

Just three years after launching the 2011 Arab Spring Movements, Tunisia adopted its current constitution. It expressly states that “men and women have equal rights and duties and are equal before the law without any discrimination.” Tunisian politics is leading even the U.S. with 36% of parliamentarians and almost 50% of local politicians who are women. By comparison, after the 2018 U.S. mid-term elections which saw record numbers of women running and elected to political office, the U.S. still only has 21% of Congressional and 25% of state legislative seats held by women. (Yerkes & McKeown, 2018)The Tunisian people were able to achieve this level of success through constitutional changes and through quotas that were designed to boost the representation of women throughout their political system. The Tunisian population has become normalized to the idea of women as equals and the idea that women are just as capable as men.

Tunisia, as the model for the Saudi women’s rights movement, is a perfect example of how equality can be achieved in a majority Arab Muslim nation without turning away from their religion. Tunisia’s population is 98% native Arab and 99% of its citizens are Sunni Muslims. By comparison, Saudi Arabia has a more diverse population with 38% of the population being immigrants. It’s citizen population is (including immigrants) 90% Arab and 85% Sunni Muslims. (Central Intelligence Agency, 2020) Saudi women’s rights leaders should push for amending Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law in a similar manner to the Tunisian constitution. Using Tunisia as their example, Saudi women’s rights leaders can stress that equal rights can be extended to all citizens without dishonoring or abandoning their Islamic traditions and Arab heritage.

It is not just enough that the Saudi women’s rights movement push for policy changes on its own. The international community must help them achieve their goals by applying diplomatic pressure on the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Last year, the Saudi Arabian government was rebuked by 36 of their fellow council member nations, including all EU members, for their “aggressive crackdown on free expression” and their “treatment of Saudi women who have challenged the kingdom’s strict rules.”(Cumming-Bruce, 2019) It is not just enough to officially rebuke them. Saudi Arabia’s actions to curb freedom of expression and to oppress Saudi women violate the essence of what the UNHRC is trying to accomplish. The UNHRC should vote to remove them from their position if they continue to violate the human rights of their women.

Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Under the agreement, the Saudi government committed to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” (Kutesa, 2015)Failure to achieve its commitments under this program should constitute grounds for international economic and/or trade sanctions until the Saudi government complies with its obligations to institute changes that protect the rights of women and girls to freely participate in public life as equals to men and boys. Failure to meet this program would also be irrefutable proof of Saudi Arabia’s unfitness for continuing to participate as a member of the UNHRC.

Further, the U.S. has the ability to apply their own sanctions against the Saudi government until they choose to implement policies that extend equal rights to all Saudi citizens. The Saudi government has been locked into a proxy war with Iran through the Yemeni Civil War. The U.S. is the main supplier of the military hardware – F-15s – and munitions that the Saudi military has employed in Yemen.(Walsh & Schmitt, 2018) The U.S. should make any future arms sales contingent on the Saudi government implementing policies that support its obligations to fight against human rights violations and to provide equal rights to Saudi women and girls. Additionally, the U.S. Saudi foreign relations have revolved around their common security goals in the Persian Gulf/Arabian Peninsula. They have cooperated on policies to become an effective counterbalance to Iran in the region. The U.S. and Saudi governments have also cooperated on counter-terrorism efforts in the region. (Alyas, 2018)The U.S. should use the continuation of security relationships as additional leverage points to encourage Saudi Arabia to implement equal rights policies.

Saudi Arabia, of course, is a major exporter of oil to the European Union. It is also a major import nation because of the lack of natural resources on the Arabian Peninsula. Three of Saudi’s top ten import partners are EU member nations – Germany, France, and Italy. EU member nations have also been the source of military arms that have been used by Saudi in Yemen. (Global Edge, 2020)The European Union has been a long-time supporter of equal rights on the basis of sex and gender identification. The EU adopted its Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union in 2000. Article 23 states – Equality between men and women must be ensured in all areas, including employment, work and pay. (European Commission, 2000)Both the EU and Saudi governments have expressed the desire for trade and security agreements; instead of the bilateral agreements that exist between Saudi Arabia and individual EU member nations.(Oppenheim, 2019) The EU could stipulate adherence to UN standards for equal rights and fulfilling obligations under the Sustainable Development program are required to be met before the EU enters into any agreements with Saudi Arabia.

Realistically, the US and EU are unlikely to use their positions to help the Saudi women’s rights movement. The US and EU desire to continue trading with the Saudi government is too great to jeopardize over supporting a single issue that is essentially internal to Saudi Arabia.  The Saudi women’s rights movement should continue to push for further internal reform. It should appeal directly to the UN if the Saudi regime continues to resist further efforts to roll back the male guardianship system. The UNHRC should stop ignoring Saudi Arabia’s demonstrably poor record on human and women’s rights and push for its immediate removal from the UNHRC. The UN should also impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on the Saudi government until it becomes compliant with its obligations as a UN member and signatory to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Saudi women should heed the words of Iranian women’s right activist Shaparak Shajarizadeh, “Don’t wait for anyone to hand you your rights.” (Mahtani, 2020)

Paula Mallott is nearly finished with her graduate degree in International Security and Intelligence Studies at Bellevue University and works as a Senior RC-135 Training Specialist with Leidos, Inc. She is a retired Air Force Linguist specializing in Russian and Arabic (Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan dialects).

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Middle East

Will Oman Succeed In What The UN And US Envoys Failed In Yemen?

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Since taking office on January 20, US President Joe Biden has made a priority for Yemen and appointed Tim Linderking as the US special envoy to Yemen to seek an end of the war that has been going on for more than six years, which made Yemen live “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, as described by the United Nations.

Nearly four months after his appointment as a special envoy to Yemen, and after several visits to the region, and several meetings through Omani coordination with representatives of the Houthi movement in Muscat, Linderking returned to the United States empty-handed, announcing that the Houthis are responsible for the failure of the ceasefire to take hold in Yemen. The US State Department said “While there are numerous problematic actors inside of Yemen, the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict that has brought unimaginable suffering to the Yemeni people”.

Two days only after the US State Department statement, which blamed the Houthis for the failure of the peace process in Yemen, an Omani delegation from the Royal Office arrives in Sana’a. What are the goals behind their visit to Sana’a, and will the Omani efforts be crowned with success?

Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdul Salam said that “the visit of a delegation from the Omani Royal Office to Sanaa is to discuss the situation in Yemen, arrange the humanitarian situation, and advancing the peace process”. However, observers considered that the delegation carried an American message to the Houthi leader as a last attempt to pressure the Houthis to accept a ceasefire, and to continue the peace efforts being made to end the war and achieve peace, especially after the failure of all intensive efforts in the past days by the United Nations and the United States of America to reach a ceasefire as a minimum requirement for peace.

Oman was the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council that decided not to participate in what was called “Operation Decisive Storm”, led by Saudi Arabia following its consistent policy of non-interference. Due to its positive role since the beginning of the crisis and its standing at the same distance from all the conflicting local and regional parties in Yemen, it has become the only qualified and trusted party by all the conflicting parties, who view it as a neutral side that has no interest in further fighting and fragmentation.

On the local level, Oman enjoys the respect and trust of the Houthis, who have embraced them and their negotiators for years and provided them with a political platform and a point of contact with the international parties concerned with solving the Yemeni problem, as well as embracing other political parties loyal to the legitimate government, especially those who had a different position to the Saudi-Emirati agenda during the last period.

At the regional level, Oman maintains strong historical relations with the Iran, and it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and this feature enables it to bring the views between the two sides closer to reach a ceasefire and ending the Yemeni crisis that has raved the region for several years as a proxy war between the regional rivalries Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman now possesses the trust and respect of all local, regional and international parties, who resorted to it recently and they are all pushing to reach a ceasefire and ending the crisis, after they have reached a conviction that it is useless. So the Omani delegation’s public visit to Sana’a has great connotations and an important indication of the determination of all parties to reach breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis.

The international community, led by the United States, is now looking forward to stop the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also is looking for an end to the war that cost the kingdom a lot and it is already presented an initiative to end the Yemeni crisis, as well as Iran’s preoccupation with its nuclear program and lifting of sanctions.

Likewise, the conflicting local parties reached a firm conviction that military resolution is futile, especially after the Houthis’ failed attempt for several months to control Marib Governorate the rich of oil and gas and the last strongholds of the government in the north, which would have changed the balance of power in the region as a whole.

Despite the ambiguity that is still surrounding the results of the Omani delegation’s visit to Sana’a so far, there is great optimism to reach a cease-fire and alleviate the humanitarian crisis and other measures that pave the way for entering into the political track to solve the Yemeni crisis.

The situation in Yemen is very complicated and the final solution is still far away, but reaching a ceasefire and the start of negotiations may be a sign of hope and a point of light in the dark tunnel of Yemenis who have suffered for years from the curse of this war and its devastating effects.

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Saudi Arabia steps up effort to replace UAE and Qatar as go-to regional hub

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Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to outflank the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the Gulf’s commercial, cultural, and/or geostrategic hub.

The kingdom has recently expanded its challenge to the smaller Gulf states by seeking to position Saudi Arabia as the region’s foremost sport destination once Qatar has had its moment in the sun with the 2022 World Cup as well as secure a stake in the management of regional ports and terminals dominated so far by the UAE and to a lesser extent Qatar.

Saudi Arabia kicked off its effort to cement its position as the region’s behemoth with an announcement in February that it would cease doing business by 2024 with international companies whose regional headquarters were not based in the kingdom. 

With the UAE ranking 16 on the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index as opposed to Saudi Arabia at number 62, freewheeling Dubai has long been international business’s preferred regional headquarters.

The Saudi move “clearly targets the UAE” and “challenges the status of Dubai,” said a UAE-based banker.

A latecomer to the port control game which is dominated by Dubai’s DP World that operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, the kingdom’s expansion into port and terminal management appears to be less driven by geostrategic considerations.

Instead, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, said it was targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports such as those related to food security.

PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports each bought a 20 per cent stake in RSGT in January.

The Chinese investment fits into China’s larger Belt and Road-strategy that involves the acquisition regionally of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where China has a military base.

RSGT Chief Executive Officer Jens Floe said the company planned to invest in at least three international ports in the next five years. He said each investment would be up to US$500 million.

“We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” Mr. Floe said.

Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on sports, including a potential bid for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup serves multiple goals: It offers Saudi youth who account for more than half of the kingdom’s population a leisure and entertainment opportunity, it boosts Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s burgeoning development of a leisure and entertainment industry, potentially allows Saudi Arabia to polish its image tarnished by human rights abuse, including the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and challenges Qatar’s position as the face of Middle Eastern sports.

A recent report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group that focuses on Saudi Arabia and China, estimated that the kingdom has so far invested in US$1.5 billion in the hosting of multiple sporting events, including the final matches of Italy and Spain’s top soccer leagues; Formula One; boxing, wrestling and snooker matches; and golf tournaments. Qatar is so far the Middle East’s leader in the hosting of sporting events followed by the UAE.

Grant Liberty said that further bids for sporting events worth US$800 million had failed. This did not include an unsuccessful US$600 million offer to replace Qatar’s beIN tv sports network as the Middle Eastern broadcaster of European soccer body UEFA’s Champions League.

Saudi Arabia reportedly continues to ban beIN from broadcasting in the kingdom despite the lifting in January of 3.5 year-long Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and ween it off dependency on oil exports “has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals… The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington.

The increased focus on sports comes as the kingdom appears to be backing away from its intention to reduce the centrality of energy exports for its economy.

Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother, recently ridiculed an International Energy Agency (IEA) report that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply” as “the sequel of the La La Land movie.” The minister went on to ask, “Why should I take (the report) seriously?”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Saudi Arabia intends to increase its oil production capacity from 12 million to more than 13 million barrels a day on the assumption that global efforts to replace fossil fuel with cleaner energy sources will spark sharp reductions in US and Russian production.

The kingdom’s operating assumption is that demand in Asia for fossil fuels will continue to rise even if it drops in the West. Other Gulf producers, including the UAE and Qatar, are following a similar strategy.

“Saudi Arabia is no longer an oil country, it’s an energy-producing country … a very competitive energy country. We are low cost in producing oil, low cost in producing gas, and low cost in producing renewables and will definitely be the least-cost producer of hydrogen,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

He appeared to be suggesting that the kingdom’s doubling down on oil was part of strategy that aims to ensure that Saudi Arabia is a player in all conventional and non-conventional aspects of energy. By implication, Prince Abdulaziz was saying that diversification was likely to broaden the kingdom’s energy offering rather than significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports.

“Sports, entertainment, tourism and mining alongside other industries envisioned in Vision 2030 are valuable expansions of the Saudi economy that serve multiple economic and non-economic purposes,” “ said a Saudi analyst. “It’s becoming evident, however, that energy is likely to remain the real name of the game.”

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Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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