Two recent reports documenting significant Saudi progress in countering ingrained religious anti-Jewish, anti-Christian and anti-Shiite supremacism as well as anti-Western and other xenophobic attitudes suggest the kingdom’s receptivity to external pressure as it endeavours to position itself as the leader of a vaguely defined ‘moderate’ form of Islam.
So does the fact that several Saudi government websites, including the Saudi defence ministry’s English and Arabic site, have been inaccessible for several days, reportedly to remove supremacist and racist content that would call into question the sincerity of the Saudi effort.
The scrubbing includes the deletion of past anti-Semitic sermons by Mohammed al-Issa, the kingdom’s former justice minister, who as head of the Muslim World League has become the face of projected Saudi religious moderation, pluralism, and tolerance. The League was in the past one of Saudi Arabia’s main vehicles in the global funding of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim religious and cultural institutions.
The reports suggest that steps taken to achieve progress were initiated before the electoral victory in November of US President Joe Biden, who has promised to make human rights a central plank of his foreign policy and to adopt a less embracing approach towards Saudi Arabia than his predecessor, Donald J. Trump.
The steps have been paired with hesitant attempts to shore up Saudi Arabia’s badly bruised image as a result of repeated human rights violations as part of a brutal crackdown on all dissenting voices.
They are as much designed to bolster the kingdom’s leadership ambitions as they are intended to facilitate foreign direct investment needed for the implementation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic diversification plans that include futuristic mega-projects.
In the latest move, authorities this week conditionally released from prison prominent women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul who had become a focal point of international criticism of Saudi abuse of human rights.
Convicted in December to almost six years in prison, some three of which she served in pre-trial detention, Ms. Al Hathloul reportedly remains on parole for the next three years and, together with her family, is banned from travel abroad for five years.
An as yet unpublished report, one of several produced by the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs, as well as a study by Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, praised the kingdom for the removal of much of the hate speech in Saudi schoolbooks.
Impact-se described the move as a “significant improvement and an encouraging development, understood as representing a step toward moderation.”
The Institute of Gulf Affairs noted that “public and private highlighting of glaring bigotry and incitement in official Saudi platforms has recently led to specific improvements…. These latest positive steps reaffirm the effectiveness of shining light on specific problems and pushing for accountability and reform.”
Beyond education, the Institute has also reported on supremacist attitudes propagated in Saudi military institutions as well as in sermons of prominent religious figures.
The Institute reported that among content being scrubbed from the defence ministry website is a sermon in which Ibrahim bin Saleh Abdul Aziz Al-Ajlan, a King Saud University lecturer who reportedly delivers sermons at Riyadh’s Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz mosque, warned that “the danger of these (Shia) is by God greater and more harmful than the danger of Jews and Christians because their animosity is hidden and their hatred of the people of Sunnah is stronger and longer.”
Mr. Al-Ajlan also features as a contributor to Al-Jundi Al-Muslimi, The Muslim Soldier, a Saudi defence ministry magazine.
The report asserted that six past anti-Semitic sermons by Mr. Al-Issa, including one entitled “The Obstinacy of the Jews & the Harshness of Their Hearts” broadcast on Quran Radio, had been removed in September after they were called out by the Institute.
Mr. Al-Issa, despite never having retracted his past statements or apologized for them, has become a darling of American Jewish groups eager to promote closer engagement between Israel and Arab states, first and foremost among which Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Al-Issa cemented his position in January 2020 when he led a group of Muslim religious leaders on a visit, facilitated by the American Jewish Committee, to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp in Poland.
Few would argue that the Saudi effort to remove supremacism and hate speech from the cultural infrastructure of Saudi institutions alongside major social reforms such as the lifting of the ban on women’s driving, greater social and professional mobility for women and the expansion of leisure opportunities, constitute significant progress.
They also highlight the limitations of Saudi Arabia’s shift toward moderation. Saudi reforms are driven by the building blocks needed to diversify the economy rather than a genuine determination to wholeheartedly break with the kingdom’s ultra-conservative past.
The reforms are shaped by an approach framed by a rewriting of rather than a reckoning with history as is evident with the incarceration and legal pursuit of activists that support and fought for the reforms.
The limitations are also apparent in the government’s choice to respond to anticipated US human rights policies with gestures rather than structural change.
Finally, the limitations are on display in the kingdom’s refusal so far to allow public practice of religions other than Islam or the building of non-Muslim houses of worship, even though it turns a blind eye to discreet expatriate religious activity by Christians and adherents of other religions.
Evangelical author and preacher Joel Richardson chuckled when the State Department warned him in 2019 to “be careful” as he read aloud from the Bible to 25 American Christians who he had brought to Jabal al-Lawz, a mountain in northwestern Saudi Arabia believed to be the real Mt. Sinai.
Mr. Richardson, like US officials before, him was rebuffed when he asked Prince Mohammed in a two-hour meeting when he would allow the building of a church in the kingdom. “Not now. This would be a gift to al-Qaeda,” Prince Mohammed replied.
Men like Mr. Al-Issa and organizations like the Muslim World League under his predecessors created the basis for the crown prince’s response.
They successfully convinced Muslims and non-Muslims alike, including US officials pressing for a lifting of the ban, that the kingdom was different from any other Muslim-majority state because it was the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.
Few doubt that more religious Saudis may object to the presence of non-Muslim houses of worship and public adherence to religions other than Islam but, like in the case of other reforms introduced by Prince Mohammed, downplay the spectre of potential violent resistance.
Said Ali Al-Ahmad, director of the Institute of Gulf Affairs: “There will be no violence. It’s a Saudi excuse. Other Muslim countries like Qatar and Kuwait have churches and that is not an issue.”
Iranian Strategic Patience: Israel and the Soft Wars
Unfortunately, by tracking the pattern of strategies of many countries based on exaggerated interest in human rights, women’s and democracy issues in Iran (such as the case of the death of the Iranian girl Mahsa Amini), it is no longer possible to ignore the extent of the political, security and cultural exploitation that is taking place. This pattern was adopted previously in Syria, which led to its entry into the quagmire of war since 2011. Therefore, based on the presence of Iran in the same political direction, the same pattern was followed, as the issue is linked primarily to confronting Iran’s rising power.
In principle, there is a strategy that has become clear and known, it is based on cultural backgrounds whose main goal is to fragment societies from within (soft wars). As many countries (Israel in particular) cannot accept at all the reality of Iran’s presence as a major regional power. Where, despite all the sanctions policies pursued to isolate and marginalize Iran during the past 45 years, Iran was able to build its own strength and consolidate its regional influence.
Consequently, those countries that are hostile to Iran have no choice but to move towards exploiting some controversial issues within Iranian society related to human rights, women and democracy, in order to destabilize and weaken it. Accordingly, these countries moved towards the option of soft war through:
- Cultural penetration within Iranian society to tear apart its political structure.
- Supporting terrorist movements, including trying to reproduce a new ISIS.
In this context, there is a lot of evidence confirming these external interventions aimed at plunging Iran into internal conflicts and wars, including but not limited to:
- Seizing arms shipments coming from abroad, which coincided with the internal riots.
- Dismantling terrorist cells that were planning to assassinate figures of Arab origin and carry out terrorist operations in religious places in order to ignite a civil war.
- Arresting terrorist groups linked to foreign intelligence working to smuggle weapons.
Based on these facts, it seems that the main goal is to destroy the societal structure, exaggerate political polarization, and undermine security stability. So that Iran becomes more fragile and subject to division. Practically, the Iranian Republic is facing a hybrid war, whose political goal is based on confronting Iranian influence, where this influence is based on:
– Sticking to the nuclear program.
– Supporting the resistance movements in their confrontation with the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
– Being present in Syria and assisting the Syrian army in its war against terrorist movements.
– Supporting the Houthis in Yemen permanently.
– Consolidate influence in Iraq at all levels.
– Strategic rapprochement with both Russia and China.
Here, it must be recognized that the internal Iranian tensions are a winning card that the United States and Israel have tried to exploit to incite the Iranian people against the regime and clash with it. This new situation or challenge required the Iranian government to adopt a different vision on how to deal with such developments. Where the Iranian government and its security institutions followed a policy of restraint and not taking any provocative step that might lead to a clash. On the contrary, work has been done to:
1- Absorbing the anger of the people and allowing demonstrations.
2- Closely monitoring the security situation and controlling terrorist cells.
3- Revealing to Iranian society the dirty policies of mobilization and media incitement.
4- Evidence that many opposition movements are linked to the agenda of foreign countries.
5- Linking the internal events with the pattern based on the implementation of the Syrian model in Iran.
In this context, and regardless of the extent of the Iranian government’s ability to confront these soft wars, there are very serious political, cultural and internal security challenges that can no longer be ignored, and they require a reconsideration of many policies that were thought to have become axiomatic, including:
– It is no longer possible to pursue a policy that is based on holding Iranian governments accountable and neutralizing the Supreme Leader of the Revolution or the institution of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist(Guardianship of the Faqih), from any responsibility.
– The existence of radical changes linked to security threats, which are no longer confined to the Israeli threat, but have extended to include terrorist movements.
– Increasing the complexities associated with foreign plans that seek to undermine the foundations of the Iranian state.
– Internal crises appear to be the most dangerous, and may lead to making strategic concessions at the level of the nuclear file, the Palestinian cause, and the relationship with Syria and the resistance movements.
In sum, the exaggerated interest in human rights issues comes in the context of the pressures that Iran has been exposed to for decades, to achieve geopolitical goals. However, according to how Iran faced the previous challenges, it seems that it is able to overcome the current difficulties, as the pillars of the state are still solid at all levels.
Furthermore, Iran’s ability to reassess its foreign relations should not be underestimated, based on the equation that Iran’s security is linked to the security of the region. Iran has many options that enhance this equation. There are multidimensional entitlements linked to the Iranian reality, whether in terms of the nuclear program or an increase in the intensity of the collision with Israel or energy security. For example, it is no longer possible to always rely on Iran’s continued restraint in Yemen, the resulting regional and global strategic repercussions, at least on the level of global energy security balances.
Not to mention that if Iran’s strategic patience runs out, it is not at all unlikely that Iran will directly target Israeli interests. Perhaps at some point the confrontation may be direct within occupied Palestine itself. As Iran is fully aware that all attempts to destabilize it cannot be separated at all from the reactions of Israel, which faces an existential danger after losing all its wars with the axis of resistance that is fully and unlimitedly supported by the Iranian Republic.
From our partner RIAC
Resumption of Saudi-Iranian relations, motives, and repercussions on the Middle East region
After 7 years of diplomatic estrangement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, recently announced in a joint statement between Tehran, Riyadh and Beijing that the two countries agreed to turn the page on their differences and normalize relations that have witnessed many tensions over the past decade. The two sides agreed to respect the sovereignty of states and not to interfere in their internal affairs, to resume relations and to reopen their embassies within a maximum period of two months. Tehran and Riyadh also agreed to the activation of their 2001 security cooperation agreement as well as their 1998 general agreement for collaboration in the areas of economy, commerce, business, technology, science, culture, sports, and youth.
The Saudi-Iranian agreement is considered the most important diplomatic event in the region during the past years, if it is adhered to, and it will have many repercussions and indications on the conflict-ridden Middle East region. After numerous unresolved rounds in Iraq and Oman in the years 2021–2022, the announcement of the agreement from Beijing is an unparalleled success for Chinese diplomacy, with significant repercussions on the international and regional arena. The agreement is a change in China’s strategy and foreign policy and an important geopolitical breach in the Gulf region, which will enable it to play an important and major strategic and pivotal role with the decline of the American role, which was the main player in the region.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have grown more aware of the necessity of a diplomatic resolution at this time and are more willing to do so, especially after the entry of China with its comprehensive strategic relations with the two parties, which played a significant role in bringing the parties’ differing points of view closer together following years of protracted negotiations. Each of the parties has its own reasons for reaching this diplomatic agreement. On the Iranian side, Iran is now in need of easing the external international isolation and calmed the situation inside Iran after the deterioration of the situation and the demands of the people to overthrow the regime there. Iran also felt the danger approaching after the halt of nuclear talks with the US side and the constant Israeli threat of a possible military strike to stop its nuclear program, and it is now trying to neutralize the Gulf side and relieve the increasing pressure on it.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia wanted to get out of this dilemma and having any role in the event that Iran will be targeted, which might make it and the rest of the Gulf countries vulnerable to danger. As a result, many Arab and Gulf countries declared their refusal to join any armed alliance against Iran prior to Biden’s visit to the Kingdom.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also recently realized the failure of the United States to fulfill its promises to secure the Kingdom, especially in the wake of the attacks that targeted various important infrastructures in the Kingdom over the past few years. While it was anticipated that Washington would respond forcefully and firmly, Washington removed the Patriot batteries from the Kingdom and demonstrated that it had lost the ability to do anything to stop Iran and its arms in the region, despite the repeated targeting during the administrations of both American parties under Trump and Biden. Therefore, it is possible that Saudi Arabia tried playing it differently and went for a political deal that would spare it the negative effects of the conflict with Iran and the betrayal of its allies.
The relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is clearly deteriorating, and the gap has grown since Riyadh recently refused to increase oil production despite Biden’s visit to the Kingdom, which Washington interprets as Saudi support for Russia in financing its war on Ukraine.
There has also been a discernible shift in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, favoring negotiation over conflict and emphasizing economic growth. As a result, Saudi Arabia has tried to improve ties with the majority of its regional rivals recently, as was the case with Turkey. The political solution with Iran may have been reached after all other options had been exhausted, the most recent of which was direct involvement in Yemen to assist the Yemeni government in its fight against the Iranian-backed Houthis.
It is obvious that there will be many shocks in the days to come. The decline in US-Saudi ties and Saudi Arabia’s openness to China and Russia could change the balance of power in the region and the world. The Iranian-Saudi deal, which was supported by China, was also a serious setback for the United States of America and its ally Israel, which may force the United States to change its foreign policy and rearrange its cards again to restore its influence in the region, after it witnessed a major shift towards East Asia, away from the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf.
The Iranian-Saudi deal, if it is upheld and carried out by both parties, will have great and positive repercussions on the Middle East region, which has been enflamed by conflicts for many years, and will mark the beginning of a political solution to many heated and crisis files in the region such as, the Yemeni, Syrian, and Lebanese crises.
This agreement between the two major regional players in the region will not be the end of all of their conflicts, but it is an important step towards developing common visions for thorny issues in a way that contributes to resolving the internal crises of many countries in the region, which may need a long time to be resolved, due to the lack of trust between the two sides, as well as the existence of International and regional countries which are not satisfied with the agreement and will try hard to thwart it.
The commitment of the two parties to the deal and the impact it will have on the regional and international situation will become more clear in the coming months, as well as whether it will result in stability and security in the region or spark new, more complicated confrontations.
Saudi sports blitz encounters headwinds
Saudi Arabia’s sports blitz is encountering headwinds.
Activists, athletes, and the soccer associations of Australia and New Zealand will celebrate their thwarting of world football body FIFA’s plans to accept Saudi Arabia’s tourism authority as a sponsor of this year’s Women’s World Cup.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino admitted as much at a news conference convened this week shortly after he was re-elected unopposed for a third term, even if he belittled it as “a storm in a teacup.”
Nevertheless, the thwarting sent a rare message that money can buy a lot but not everything.
It constituted the first setback in a string of successful Saudi bids to sponsor or host everything under the sporting sun.
Despite its abominable and worsening human rights record, Saudi Arabia has secured hosting rights for the Asian Football Confederation’s 2027 AFC Cup, the Olympic Council of Asia’s 2029 Asian Winter Games, and the 2034 Asian Games.
A regional human rights group, ALQST for Human Rights, has asserted that at least 47 members of the Howeitat tribe in Saudi Arabia have been arrested for resisting eviction to make way for Neom, a US500 billion futuristic science fiction-like region under development on the Red Sea.
Trojena, a mountainous part of Neom, is where the Winter Games are scheduled to be held.
Saudi Arabia is also bidding to host the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, and, together with Greece and Egypt, the 2030 World Cup.
The World Cup, like this year’s women’s tournament, is likely to produce headwinds. Not only because it involves not one, but two of the world’s most serious violators of human rights, but also because it will encounter stiff competition.
A joint bid by Morocco, Spain, and Portugal could prove to be a serious challenge on multiple fronts to the Saudi-led effort.
It represents a trans-continental bid that, unlike the Saudi-led proposition, is not designed to circumvent FIFA’s practice of spreading out the tournament across continents.
On its own, Saudi Arabia, as a Middle Eastern state, would not stand a chance so short after last year’s World Cup in Qatar.
The circumvention element is borne out by the kingdom’s willingness to fund all of Greece and Egypt’s World Cup-related expenses in exchange for the right to host three-quarters of the tournament’s matches in Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, the Moroccan-Spanish-Portuguese bid is likely to spark less controversy than its Saudi-led competitor.
While Qatar demonstrated that human and migrant rights criticism need not put a serious dent in the reputational benefits of hosting a sporting mega-event, it also showed that once a focal point of attention, always a focal point of attention.
Three months after the Qatar World Cup final, one million people signed a petition demanding the Gulf state compensate workers and/or their families who had been injured or died or suffered human rights abuse while working on tournament-related projects.
For Morocco, winning the bid would have special significance. Coming on the back of its darling status during the Qatar World Cup, a win would amount to payback for Saudi opposition to Morocco’s failed effort to secure the 2026 tournament hosting rights.
Saudi Arabia supported the winning US-Canadian-Mexican bid as a way of punishing Morocco for its refusal to back the 3.5-year-long UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. The boycott was lifted in early 2021.
Perhaps the strongest headwinds the kingdom’s sports effort has encountered emanate from its controversial creation of LIV Golf, a US$405 million, 14-tournament league, to compete with PGA Tour, the longstanding organizer of the sport’s flagship events.
LIV Golf is “an exercise in public relations. A foreign government’s dollars are being used to enhance that government’s brand and positioning here in the United States,” US Congressman Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, said.
Even worse, circumvention was at the core of a ruling last month by a US federal judge ordering Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), to answer questions and produce evidence as part of the discovery process in a legal battle between LIV and PGA. The PIF funds LIV Golf.
The discovery could cast a spotlight on the secretive fund’s decision-making. The fund’s powerful governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, is a Cabinet-level official.
Judge Susan van Keulen’s ruling rejected an attempt by the PIF and Mr. Al-Rumayyan to evade turning over information connected to the courtroom battle because they allegedly enjoyed sovereign immunity as a state institution and official.
Earlier, US District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman, an avid golfer, ruled that the PIF and Mr. Al-Rumayyan fell under a commercial exception to US laws on sovereign immunity.
Some analysts suggest that Mr. Roy’s comment and the judges’ rulings could lead to LIV Golf being deemed a foreign influence campaign.
This would mean that its employees in the United States would have to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA.
The rulings call into question assurances provided in 2021 to England’s Premier League to assuage concerns that the PIF’s acquisition of England’s Newcastle United Football Club would put it under the control of the Saudi state.
The League’s chief executive, Richard Masters, said at the time that the Premier League had been given “legally binding assurances that essentially the state will not be in charge of the club” and that if there was “evidence to the contrary, we can remove the consortium as owners of the club.”
The League has so far refrained from taking the PIF to task in the wake of the US rulings because the Newcastle agreement stipulated that the Saudi state would not exercise control over Newcastle, not that it would not have the ability to do so.
Lawyers for Newcastle said there would only be a case if the Saudi state used its power to intervene in the club’s affairs.
“There’s an unmistakable irony in the sovereign wealth fund declaration emerging in a dispute about another arm of Saudi Arabia’s growing sports empire, but the simple fact is that Saudi sportswashing is affecting numerous sports, and governing bodies need to respond to it far more effectively,” said Peter Frankental, an Amnesty International executive.
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