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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

Post Trump Palestine

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.

Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.

As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.

While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.

Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem.  But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries.  Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.

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An Enemy Among Us

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The upcoming talks regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, that are due to take place on January 25, should not disillusion us from the dangers of Turkey’s unilateral aggression on all fronts. Erdogan has made no real efforts to improve ties with the EU, except for the occasional vain promise of turning over a new leaf. Since October, he has urged the Muslim world to boycott French products, continued gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, blatantly ignored the arms embargo in Libya and has aided Azerbaijan in committing war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite the numerous warnings issued by the EU and the many failed attempts at resolving the crisis in the East Med diplomatically, the latest EU summit concluded with an anti-climactic promise to sanction certain Turkish officials regarding the East Med. This minimally symbolic promise could only be described as a mere slap on the wrist that will prove unsuccessful in deterring Turkey’s belligerent tendencies. Turkey’s increasingly hostile attitude, its callous use of the refugee crisis and its clear violation of international law in the East Med, Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh represent a danger to European values, identity and security.

We are witnessing before our eyes a dictator in the making who dreams of a return of the Ottoman empire and seeks to destroy the democratic and secular legacy of Atatürk. He is a fervent supporter of political islam – particularly the muslim brotherhood – and he relentlessly accuses the West of wanting to ‘relaunch the crusades’ against Islam. In fact, since 2014, Erdogan and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have continuously facilitated cross-border movement into Syria and shipped illegal arms to a number of radical jihadist groups. The Turkish government also uses SADAT Defense, an islamist paramilitary group loyal to Erdogan, to aid groups that can be considered as terrorist organizations such as Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham in Northern Syria and use their jihadi fighters to send to Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and, most recently, Kashmir in order to bolster Turkey’s foreign policy.

Erdogan uses a mixture of islamism and nationalism to expand Turkey’s influence around the world and to consolidate power within. The two most influential factions in Turkey are the radical islamists and secular neo-nationalists, who despise each other but share a deep disdain for the west. Courtesy of neo-nationalist and former Maoist terrorist leader Dogu Perinçek, the NATO member has also enjoyed warmer ties with Russia and China over the past 5 years. As a result of these shifts in alliances and growing anti-western sentiments, Turkey is becoming increasingly at odds with the West. 

Furthermore, the growing discontent at home pushes him to adopt more aggressive tactics, divisive policies and his behavior mirrors that of a panicked authoritarian leader. Erdogan is desperately looking for a conflict to distract the Turkish population from the fall of the lira, the spread and mishandling of COVID-19, and the overall declining economy that predates the pandemic. Turkey’s future will most likely be determined by the upcoming general election that is set to take place within the next three years. If Erdogan wins the next election, it will solidify his power and bring him one step closer in turning Turkey into a dictatorship. During his stay in power, he has already conducted a series of purges to weaken and silence dissidents. Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists in the world. 

Yet, the loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the last municipal election of 2019 demonstrate his declining popularity, and offer a glimmer of hope for the opposition. Political figures like the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, or the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, represent a brighter future for Turkey. Erdogan currently finds himself in a position of weakness, which represents a rare window of opportunity for the EU to strike. Unfortunately, the EU remains deeply divided on how to handle a situation that continues to deteriorate. It seems that some member states, particularly Germany, are holding on to the naive belief that Erdogan can still be reasoned with. 

Our reluctance to impose the slightest sanctions against Turkey demonstrates our division and weakness, which emboldens the neo-sultan. A strong and united response from the European Union is the only way to curb Erdogan’s expansionist agenda. This should include renegotiating the migrant pact, imposing targeted sanctions against SADAT Defense and its leader Adnan Tanrıverdi, imposing an arms embargo, suspending the EU-Turkey customs union and finally suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO. 

Ultimately, Erdogan’s bellicose foreign policy and his contentious nationalist-islamist rhetoric makes it impossible to consider Erdogan’s Turkey as our ally. As the EU reaches out yet another olive branch, Erdogan has his eye on the wars to come. 

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Is Erdogan’s Obsession with Demirtas a Personal Vendetta or a Calculated Strategy?

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber ruled that the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş must be immediately released. The Court ruled that his years-long detention “had pursued the ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly reacted to the ECHR’s ruling and characterized the decision as hypocritical’ and accused the Court of defending a ‘terrorist.’

To many, Erdogan’s reaction to the Court’s ruling should not be a surprise,but his resentment and anger toward Demirtaş are quite shocking. So, why does Erdogan pursue a vendetta against him? Or is it a calculated political strategy? How could Demirtaş’s release affect the political landscape in Turkey? What could be the implications of releasing or not releasing him be on the US-Turkey relations during the Biden era?

Yes, the ECHR’s ruling is a significant and expected development. What is more significant is that Erdogan’s quick reaction shows his deeply rooted frustration with Demirtaş, which dates back to the pre-June 2015 elections. In March 2015,Demirtaş made a short but a spectacular speech at the Turkish Parliament when he said, “we will not make you the President.” He also said, “We are not a movement of bargaining, a party of bargaining. There has never been a dirty deal between us and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and there will never be…” His reference to ‘dirty deal’ was believed to be an offer from the AKP to HDP in exchange for support during the general election. In the June 2015 election, HDP managed to secure the electoral threshold with 13% vote for the first time in the pro-Kurdish parties’ history. Additionally, they secured 80 seats in parliament which made them the second biggest opposition party in Turkey. This was an unprecedented victory for the pro-Kurdish party and a breakthrough in Turkish political history. It is fair to say that, based on the author’s experience, Demirtaş’s rising charisma has become a liability, not only for Erdogan but also for Ocalan, PKK’s once unquestionable leader.  

Erdoğan’s hateful outburst towards the call for Demirtaş’s release is more about Erdoğan’s political self-interest and concerns than his personal vendetta. Demirtaş’s release could likely have far bigger implications on the political calculations in Turkey. They would primarily impact on the future of the People’s Alliance, the coalition between the Justice and Development Party (AK) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), where AKP focuses its efforts to maintain control over the Kurdish issue. For the AKP, having an alliance with the MHP has been beneficial so far but not without major tradeoffs. These includethe MHP’s stance against the Kurdish issue and its eroding voter support nationwide.

AKP’s strategy to maintain power partly relies on its ability to create factions within the existing political parties. The pro-Kurdish parties are no exception. Strategies include consolidating Kurdish votes around AKP or dividing them to create enough division as to not let the HDP run as one single dominant Kurdish party in the next elections.

Demirtaş’s release could pose risks for AKP’s three-fold strategy: Dominate, divide and maintain the status quo. First, by arresting MPs, local politicians, mayors, and activists, AKP aimed to paralyze and dominate the Kurdish voter base. So, preventing Demirtaş’s release could serve to kill the electoral enthusiasm at the party’s voting base and prevent unity among the Kurdish constituency. Demirtaş’s potential release could give rise to his popularity, not only among the Kurdish voters but also the left-wing secularists. Such a scenario could force the AKP towards more pro-Kurdish narratives and policies that could eventually weaken the AKP-MHP coalition.

Second, dividing and deepening fractions; and creating splinter parties would mean that the HDP could not consolidate the Kurdish constituency. Although having a smaller base, an Islamist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par)has supported Erdogan during the 2018 Presidential election. They are a group with alleged ties with the Kurdish Hezbollah, which has committed the atrocities in Turkey in the 1990s and early 2000s.Recently, the leader of Hüda-Par expressed his disappointment with ECHR’s ruling after he paid a visit to Erdogan in the Presidential Palace. Another example is establishing the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), allegedly politically in line with Barzani’s tradition, to divide HDP votes.

Third, by cutting new deals with Öcalan again, they aim to appeal to his supporters to maintain the status quo. Just like during the local elections in 2019, AKP might take another step to re-instrumentalize Öcalan despite his failed emissary role in the last Istanbul local re-run. Öcalan called for HDP’s neutrality, which meant not supporting the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. Öcalan’s message was contradicting with HDP’s former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas’s call for support for Imamoglu. Though AKP’s strategy of revitalizing Öcalan may not produce the desired outcome for AKP, it could buy some time by diverting public attention from the victimhood of Demirtaş and HDP.

While releasing Demirtas could pose challenges for the AKP and its leader Erdogan domestically, not releasing him could prove costly. As a pragmatic leader as anyone could be, to survive politically Erdogan has made several U-turns domestically and internationally. Facing an economic crisis and continuing decline in approval ratings Erdogan could, unwillingly, comply with the Court’s ruling. This could help him have a fresh start with President-elect Biden,  who called Erdogan an autocrat.

Regardless of whether he would be released or not, as a political leader, Demirtaş will dominate domestic politics in Turkey and continue to be a critical actor in the region vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue.

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