Saudi Arabia has long relied on foreign workers to fill millions of low-paying construction, clerical and service jobs, in many cases illicitly. But as the government cracks down on illegal workers, tens of thousands of Filipino and Indonesian migrants are being forced to leave the country by November 3, or face up to two years in jail.
In response, senior Philippine officials flew to Saudi this week to negotiate the repatriation of 5,000 Filipino laborers who still have not been issued exit permits five days before the deadline, while Vice President Jejomar Binay wrote to Saudi King Abdullah pleading for more time. Indonesia, meanwhile, expects to repatriate 18,000 migrant workers, only 4,000 of whom have obtained exit permits. The repatriation process is costly for both governments and workers: The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has offered to shoulder penalties and fines imposed upon their citizens in Saudi, and opened a temporary shelter in Jeddah for undocumented mothers and children; the Indonesian government is trying to facilitate low-cost flights for its citizens.
The Saudis' crackdown on foreign workers is part of a broader push to create more jobs for its own citizens. The government began prioritizing job creation in 2011, in an effort to stave off popular unrest (At the time, 25 percent of Saudi youths were unemployed), and instituted a "Saudization" policy. Now, fewer firms are allowed to employ foreign workers and, because migrant laborers require employer sponsorship to obtain work permits, many lost their legal right to remain in the country. (Some were already in the country illegally, having entered with the help of recruiters who operate outside the regulatory system). Since then, more than 800,000 migrant laborers have been deported.
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Saudi authorities have found a novel way of punishing women who defy the country's driving ban: jailing the men who support them.
Around 50 women got behind the wheel on Oct. 26, in an act of civil disobedience. While some of the women were stopped and fined, none were arrested. Instead, police apprehended Tariq al-Mubarak, a male columnist who worked closely with organizers and who had penned an op-ed promoting women's rights.
"This time they are not after women, they are after men who supported the women," women's activist Manal al-Sharif told Foreign Policy. "They're too afraid of people's reaction."
Women have organized against the driving ban twice before, each time eliciting swift and heavy-handed responses from the government. In 1990, authorities suspended women from their jobs and restricted their ability to travel outside of the country. Following a 2011 protest, police inciting international outrage when they jailed Sharif for nine days, and sentenced another woman, Shaima Jastaina, to 10 lashes (Jastaina was later pardoned by the king).
The latest demonstration was the largest and most widely publicized, as women uploaded YouTube videos of themselves driving, and supporters broadcast the event on social media. "The whole country went into an emergency state on Saturday," Sharif said, "As if it was in a war - just because of women drivers."
Yet, the government's official response was markedly tamer than in years past -- in part, perhaps, because of the verbal lashing Saudi delegates received at a U.N. Human Rights Council session last week. Following the demonstration, women reported being followed by secret police, and were criticized for choosing October 26 (Hillary Clinton's birthday) for their protest, but Mubarak remains the only person in custody.
Human Rights Watch characterized his detention as a retaliation against supporters of women's rights.
But the government's focus on Mubarak may bear more pernicious implications: By making one man responsible for the protest, authorities invalidate the women behind the campaign -- implying that the movement will come to little without male support. It's par for the course in a country where women are regarded as the legal minors of male guardians -- unable to marry, go to college, or undergo certain medical procedures without the permission of fathers, husbands, brothers or even sons.
Sharif argues that, since the 2011 protest, public perceptions of women are rapidly changing.
"I see men commenting on the movement," she said. "They say, ‘Oh my god, we never thought a single woman would have the bravery of 1,000 men. You go online, they say, ‘if you want to get your rights, listen to women.'"
The women's driving campaign enjoys broad support, bolstered by the ease and availability of social media. An online petition circulated before the October 26 protest collected nearly 17,000 signatures in one week. Just two years ago, a similar petition only garnered 3,000 signatures. "It showed that the society - and even men - was fed up," Sharif said. "This is huge, because women are realizing how powerful they are."
The next women's driving day is scheduled for November 30.
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's ban on female drivers has prompted some pretty outrageous justifications -- and that was before this weekend's demonstrations, in which 60 women got behind the wheel in a rolling protest. One leading Saudi cleric argued that women ran the risk of damaging their ovaries and pelvises when they drove cars, increasing the possibility of giving birth to children with "clinical problems." But perhaps none of these reasons are more ludicrous than the one charging that female drivers would increase car accidents. The Kingdom's actually has one of the planet's worst safety records. Indeed, the biggest argument against the ban could be Saudi drivers' atrociously high road accident death toll, consistently rating among the highest in the world.
According to the most recent World Health Organization figures, Saudi Arabia has the 21st-highest road-related death toll in the world, but that number becomes even more exceptional when you look at the group of countries that are faring worse. The countries with the worst fatalities are overwhelmingly low-income countries, with the South Pacific island of Niue registering the highest number. The fact that a lot of these countries struggle with basic road infrastructure and an inadequate police force to enforce traffic laws makes the number in Saudi Arabia, a wealthy country, even more striking. Saudi Arabia has the highest accident-related death toll among high-income countries.
A 2013 study by the Kingdom's General Directorate of Traffic found that 19 people die per day in traffic-related fatalities in Saudi Arabia, predicting that if current rates continue, by 2030, 4 million people will die annually in a car accident there. The biggest reason for the high rates is simply reckless driving - the report has found in past years that a third of all car accidents in the Kingdom are cause by drivers jumping red lights, and 18 percent were caused by illegal u-turns. In an interview with Arab News in September, the associate vice president and transportation systems director of Middle East Operations at traffic management consultancy Iteris Inc., Glenn N. Havinoviski, said infrastructure wasn't an issue, but "when you see people turning left out of the far right lane and traffic cutting through parking lots and frontage roads, there are clearly some issues with discipline."
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
That the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia (a country with no commercial theaters) was directed by a woman (in a country where women still famously cannot drive) would have been enough to spark a media firestorm. That the film, Wadjda, which hit U.S. theaters last week, also happens to be good -- "a stunningly assured debut," wrote Slate; "sharply observed, deceptively gentle," wrote the New York Times -- has made it, and its photogenic director, Haifaa al-Mansour, irresistible.
Mansour's story about a young Saudi girl's quest to buy a bike -- so she can race her male friend Abdullah -- explores the lives and roles of women in one of the most conservative, traditional countries in the Middle East. It introduces us to the rhythms of daily household life in Saudi Arabia, a world that few outsiders ever see.
Mansour spoke to Foreign Policy this week about losing access to locations hours before a shoot, why it was so hard to recruit actors for her film, and the curious relationship between Saudi women and their drivers. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Samir Naji al-Hasan Moqbel has been held at Guantánamo Bay for more than 11 years. For the past two months, he has been on a hunger strike, which he described in the editorial pages of the New York Times today:
I could have been home years ago -- no one seriously thinks I am a threat -- but still I am here....
The only reason I am still here is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees back to Yemen. This makes no sense. I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one.
I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen's president do something, that is what I risk every day.
Where is my government? I will submit to any "security measures" they want in order to go home, even though they are totally unnecessary.
I will agree to whatever it takes in order to be free.
It's true that, as of his last publicly available assessment, dated March 4, 2008, Joint Task Force Guantánamo considered Moqbel a low security threat and a medium intelligence asset. In recent months, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi has pressed for the release of Guantánamo's 90 Yemeni detainees (more than half of the prison's 166 inmates), calling the imprisonment "clear-cut tyranny." He has demanded that the United States return the detainees to Yemen and blocked efforts to repatriate them to third-party countries. "The United States is fond of talking democracy and human rights," he told Russia Today's Arabic station, "but when we were discussing ther prisoner issue with the American attorney general, he had nothing to say." Still, it's unlikely that Moqbel will be allowed to return to Yemen anytime soon, for reasons that have less to do with Moqbel and more to do with events half a world away.
The United States has tried remanding Guantánamo detainees to Gulf states before, with disastrous results. Beginning in 2006, the United States began passing detainees to the Prince Muhammad bin Nayef Center for Care and Counseling, a government-sponsored rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia. Despite months of reeducation and offers of wives and homes in Saudi Arabia, 11 former Guantánamo prisoners who participated in the program went on to join al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Among them was Said al-Shihri, the organization's resilient second-in-command, who recruited graduates of the program to follow him to Yemen.
Yemen's domestic attempt at a rehabilitation program, which was undertaken in late 2002 with jihadists arrested in Yemen and held in Yemeni prisons, lacked the resources of the Saudi program. Over the next several years, hundreds of prisoners were released, many of whom then traveled to Iraq to join Sunni extremist groups fighting the U.S. occupation. Over time, "the program evolved into a sort of tacit nonaggression pact between the government and the militants," Princeton scholar Gregory Johnsen explains in his book, The Last Refuge. "Prisoners no longer had to disavow violent jihad; they only had to agree not to carry out attacks in Yemen. The state struck a dangerous compromise: don't attack us and we won't attack you." The program finally fell apart in late 2005.
Since then, the country has been plagued by jailbreaks. The February 2006 escape of 23 individuals -- including Nasir al-Wuhayshi, now emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Qassim al-Raymi, who would become his military commander -- heralded the return of al Qaeda in Yemen. These prison breaks have continued with alarming frequency since.
There have been occasional proposals to restart a rehabilitation program in Yemen, but the most persistent advocate for such a program hasn't much helped matters. That would be Abd' al-Majid al-Zindani, whose strange clerical stylings have become a bizarre and uniquely Yemeni institution. An investigation into his ties to the bombers of the USS Cole and role in facilitating jihadists' travel to Afghanistan earned him a "specially designated global terrorist" label from the U.S. Treasury, and the Salafist clerical school he started, Iman University, has produced such famous alumni as Anwar al-Awlaki and John Walker Lindh -- making him a less-than-ideal candidate to reform militants.
In the meantime, the country has other pressing matters: the National Dialogue, which aims to resolve the many political grievances of the country's tribal, religious, and geographic factions while producing a constitutional referendum and elections; a continuing threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its local affiliates, which occupied wide swaths of several Yemeni provinces in 2012; a demographic crisis; a water crisis; an oil crisis. Building the capacity to accept U.S.-held detainees, in other words, has not been a priority. And without a program to accept and reintegrate detainees into daily life in Yemen, the remaining low-risk individuals at Guantánamo will remain in legal limbo.
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It occurred to me that I perhaps pick on Saudi Arabia unfairly on this blog, having previously harped on its nasty habit of beheading and crucifying convicts (now apparently imperiled by a dearth of qualified swordsmen) as well as its record of flogging and executing blasphemers. But then I ran across this story about Ali Al-Khawahir, a Saudi Arabian 20-something who has been sentenced to surgical paralysis for his role in a stabbing 10 years ago, and I realized it's the Saudi government that bring this upon itself.
Amnesty International has more:
Recent reports in Saudi Arabian media have brought to light the case of 24-year-old Ali al-Khawahir, who was reportedly sentenced to qisas (retribution) in the town of Al-Ahsa and could be paralysed from the waist down unless he pays one million Saudi riyals --US$ 270,000 -- in compensation to the victim.
Ali al-Khawahir had allegedly stabbed his friend in the back, rendering him paralysed from the waist down in or around 2003. Ali al-Khawahir was 14 years' old at the time.
Other "eye-for-an-eye" punishments reportedly carried out by Saudi Arabia include tooth extraction, eye-gouging, and, of course, death, according to Amnesty International. But paralysis breaks new ground for insensitivity, even in the gruesome world of Saudi Arabian criminal justice.
When it comes to women's rights in Saudi Arabia, things always seem to move one incremental step (or, in this case, cycle) forward, two steps back. On Monday, AP reported that al-Yawm, a Saudi daily, had cited an unnamed Saudi religious police official as saying that women will now be allowed to ride bicycles in the country, but only for "entertainment" purposes.
The underwhelming story inspired its fair share of sarcasm in the blogosphere. Cartoon images of fully veiled women pedaling on bikes circulated online. Jezebel ran with the headline, "Saudi Arabia Lets Women Ride Bikes for Funzies." Meanwhile, Policymic listed five ways the change doesn't represent progress at all (and accompanied the list with a few can't-miss GIFs).
But, alas, even this modest sign of progress may have been an illusion. The pan-Arab daily al-Hayat spoke to the country's religious police chief who called the matter "funny," adding that because riding bikes is uncommon in Saudi society, officials never considered the practice as something to either be banned or allowed for women. (Al-Hayat also name-checks the outlets that were a little eager in reporting the AP story, including Fox, the Huffington Post, and ThinkProgress).
In light of the ambiguous wording, it remains unclear whether it would be acceptable for women to ride bikes in public if the mood strikes. My guess, for what its worth? Probably not.
(h/t: Riyadh Bureau)
Image entitled "Allowed", by Mohammad Sharaf
Last week, the Saudi daily Al-Youm reported that Saudi Arabia is considering transitioning away from the state's institutionalized method of executing convicts: beheading by sword. Beheading -- the approach to carrying out death sentences in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century -- has long been practiced in the kingdom in observance of its strict interpretation of Islamic law, which seeks to mimic practices at the time of Mohammed. But a committee of Saudi government officials recently ruled that execution by firing squad would also be permissible under the national brand of sharia.
"This solution seems practical, especially in light of shortages of official swordsmen," the committee explained in a statement quoted by the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. The committee also complained that official swordsmen have been known to show up late to executions.
Does this mean those few remaining swordsmen will be out of a job soon? It turns out the Saudi newspaper Okaz asked one of them: Mecca-based executioner Mohammad Saad al-Biishi. He says he's not concerned, citing the fact that he's already received firearms training. In the meantime, he'll keep on with the beheadings.
"I just returned from Ranyah governorate, where one of the judgments was implemented with a blow from a sword," he told the paper.
Even if the transition to firing squad occurs, al-Biishi is optimistic about the future of his profession, and has been apprenticing his son in beheadings. He acknowledges, though, that the government's concerns about a shortage of qualified swordsmen are justified. "This profession is not desired by many," he told Okaz, "despite the salary and personal reward we gain from it."
The execution business in Saudi Arabia is booming. Human rights groups estimate that approximately 70 people were beheaded in the kingdom last year, and 14 so far this year. The January execution of a Sri Lankan national, who was accused of the murder of a 4-year-old in her care as a maid while still a 17-year-old minor, prompted Sri Lanka to recall their ambassador from Riyadh last month.
Marya Hannun contributed to this post.
HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images
For the time being at least, the Saudi Arabian jewel thieves slated for execution Tuesday appear to have dodged a bullet -- or multiple, for those who were sentenced to go before a firing squad. In the case of Sarhan al-Mashayeh, the lead defendant in the case, the news that the executions would be delayed by at least a week meant avoiding a three-day crucifixion.
Ironically, it may have been the grisly practice itself that bought the defendants their extra week, as the flurry of media attention no doubt played into the Royal Court's last-minute decision to stay the executions. After all, the entire story of the thieves' conviction -- which involved the alleged torture of minors -- is not one the Kingdom wants to see plastered on broadsheets all over the world. Topping it all off with a three-day crucifixion was only asking for a media drubbing.
So how exactly does Saudi Arabia typically carry out its crucifixions? Back in 2009, the Telegraph's Damian Thompson explained what fate awaited a similarly unlucky subject: "he will be beheaded first, and his head will be stuck on a pole separately from his crucified torso."
Sends a message, I guess, but not one that wins King Abdullah many points in Washington. Anyway, hasn't it been a bad enough news day for Saudi Arabia's royal family?
More than 800,000 Americans packed the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Monday to listen to President Obama deliver his second inaugural address, but many more were listening around the world. Here are a few interesting global reactions:
In the Chinese media, Obama's promise to "try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully" and argument that "engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear" than military force was taken as a sign that the U.S.-China relationship will be at the top of his foreign policy agenda for the next four years. Of course, as the state-run Global Times notes, there's a bit of skepticism that the president will live up to his words:
"If the president really lives his words, he would agree that for the sake of the world's peace and prosperity, it is important for the United States and China to foster mutual trust, for trust is the cornerstone for every relationship, no matter between people or between nations...The words also show that he agrees that the two nations should properly solve their disputes, either economic or political."
News agency Xinhua was a little more positive, describing the overall approach Obama outlined in his Monday address as "balanced" and "decidedly progressive."
One Guardian writer described Obama's speech as "urg[ing] Americans to reclaim from conservatives the spirit of the founding fathers" and as "more inspirational than 2009," praising Obama's strong support of climate change and gay rights. Another was more cautious in hispraise, maintaining that Obama's speech was less of a populist manifesto and more of a "to-do list [covering] what he has still to do to make good on the economic promises of his first term."
Peter Foster of the more conservative Telegraph granted that Obama's speech was well-received
by the spectators on the Mall, he reminded readers just how deeply divided the United States still is: "It was apparent," writes Foster, "that only half of the nation had showed up to listen
to [Obama's] call...Overwhelmingly, the crowd of 800,000 people was filled with
the faces of the young, female, urban, African-American coalition that ensured Mr. Obama's re-election for a second term last November. They were Obama's people, and they
were there to celebrate their victory."
In his article for the Australian, Troy Bramston praised Obama's rhetoric, but argued that Obama cannot rank amongst the truly great American presidents until he "translate[s] a presidency of promise into a presidency of action."
That may be hard to do, claims Janet Hook in another article for the Australian, in which she points out that Obama's speech made little effort to readch out to the GOP.
After the inaugural address, the headline of Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat read "The decade of war is over," referencing a line from Obama's speech. Yet in an op-ed for the same paper, Abdul Rahman Rashed, though praising Obama's experience in Middle Eastern affairs, was not so sure about peace in the coming decade. "Obama's second term will possibly be reconciliatory, particularly after John Kerry and Chuck Hagel join his administration...but who can tell if the region will be in a reconciliatory mood?"
In his article for Palestinian-run, London based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi (translated into English by the Times of Israel), Abdel Al-Bari Atwan writes that Obama "completely shut the door on any military intervention, stressing that a decade of wars has ended and that the only way to peace is dialogue." "President Obama's message is very clear," the article continued. "In short, he said that he does not intend to militarily intervene in Syria; will not wage a war on Iran, succumbing to Israeli pressure; and will focus on rescuing his country from its crippling economic crisis."
Atwan continues: "Obama disappointed many of his allies in the Middle East by neglecting to mention any of them in his speech." (Obama didn't mention any foreign countries by name in his address.)
Obama's equal opportunity rhetoric made news in Mexico. In its coverage of the inaugural address, El Universal highlighted Obama's commitment to immigrants, women, and gays. The article quoted Obama's statement promising immigration reform:
"Our trip (as a nation) will not be complete until we find a better way to welcome the hopeful, striving immigrants in the U.S. are still the land of opportunity, until the brightest students and engineers are listed on our strengths work instead of being expelled from our country."
The headline of the article read, in Spanish, "Obama calls for welcoming immigrants."
The president's inaugural address was a chance for Canadians to pat themselves on the back, the Ottowa Citizen snarkily reports:
"On the key issues that President Barack Obama pledged to dedicate his second term to in his inaugural address, Canada has already made substantive progress: on supporting democracy around the world; on providing equal rights to gays and lesbians; on creating an aspirational immigration system."
It doesn't stop there either. The column went to on say that Canada has also beat Obama to the punch in securing a budget deal and repairing its economy.
When Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird hosted a largely American gathering at the Canadian embassy on Monday, he was more tactful. "This is not a time for long speeches," he said. "We have very different systems, so we don't exactly want to be bragging," a Canadian embassy spokesman said.
Rob Carr-Pool/Getty Images
Paris Hilton, darling of tabloid papers and the star of a notorious sex tape, has opened a new store in the most bizarre of locales: the Islamic holy city of Mecca. What could go wrong?
"Loving my beautiful new store that just opened at Mecca Mall in Saudi Arabia!" Hilton tweeted on Nov. 14, causing disgruntled tweeps to engage in a heated discussion about the implications of the starlet's decision to open her store in a city that is considered the holiest site in Islam.
"R u kidding?" was one person's response, while others commented on the absurdity of such a controversial female celebrity marketing her goods in a country where women aren't permitted to drive cars. Here are some more reactions posted by folks on Twitter:
NO JOKE: Paris Hilton store just opened at Mecca Mall! O, 'tis most sweet,When in one line two crafts directly meet- parishilton.com/loving-my-beau…— Hussein Ibish (@Ibishblog) November 17, 2012
Shiite Muslims considered infidel Officially in Saudi Arabia and not welcome in kingdom But Paris Hilton’s new storein Mecca gets welcome.— Syed Haider (@haiderworld) November 18, 2012
So Paris Hilton opened a handbag store in MECCA? The world is a corrupt place at the moment. Someone please send me to Mars.— Brown Power Ranger (@OfficialEtty) November 19, 2012
Hilton has tried her hand at many careers, with varying success, including acting and singing. However, her notoriety has helped her fashion brand triumph in the global marketplace. The Mecca store is Hilton's fifth in Saudi Arabia, bringing the grand total of Paris Hilton shops to 42. "So proud to keep growing my brand!" Hilton tweeted. The store will sell perfumes, handbags, and footwear, along with other items in the hotel heiress's fashion line.
One thing's for certain -- it seems doubtful that Hilton will be invited to Saudi Arabia to promote the opening of her new store. She might have some problems with the dress code.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
On Tuesday, Al-Watan, a Saudi newspaper, quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to step down after months of trying to quash the Syrian uprising. It's not unusual for public figures to take back inflammatory statements after they make them. But in this case, the Russian foreign ministry is denying that the interview happened at all.
According to Al-Arabiya, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a public statement on Tuesday:
"We would like to point out that this report does not correspond with reality, and the Russian special envoy gave no such interview."
Zakharova also claimed that there was a "propaganda war" being waged over Syria and accused media outlets of disseminating "blatant disinformation."
In an attempt to defend its credibility, Al-Watan published a recording of the alleged interview on its website. The speaker, who identifies himself as Bogdanov, also claims (in remarkably fluent Arabic) that Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, had lost his legs in the July bombing of a key government headquarters in Damascus and was "fighting for his life." According to the AFP, the voice on the recording "sounded different from the voice of Bogdanov in videos available online."
The Al-Watan story was picked up by quite a few news outlets, most of which have since amended their reports after the Russian statement. A few Israeli and Arab news outlets continue to post their original stories on the incident.
On another front of the Syrian misinformation war, the Reuters blogging platform was hacked yet again on Wednesday. This time, the hackers falsely posted a report stating that Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, had died.
As Foreign Policy posted earlier this month, hackers supporting the Syrian opposition had previously hijacked one of the Reuters blogs on August 3, posting false reports of rebel gains in Syria. In a separate incident, pro-regime hackers fought back on August 5 by commandeering a Reuters Twitter account, which they used to tweet about a rebel collapse in Aleppo and accuse the White House of providing arms to al-Qaeda militants in Syria.
All this lends at least some credibility to the Russian claim of a propaganda battle over the Syrian uprising. If there is a war of disinformation, it would seem that the worst casualties are the media organizations whose reputations have been damaged, sometimes by cyberattacks, sometimes by failure to thoroughly verify information.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Some Saudi Arabian officials evidently feel that their country's blasphemy laws -- which treat transgressions as hudud or "limits," punishable by death in some cases -- are too lax. To rectify the situation, Reuters reports, the government is considering regulations that would criminalize insulting Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, or elements of Sharia:
'Within the next two months the Shura Council will reveal the outcome of study on the regulations to combat the criticism of the basic tenets of Islamic sharia,' unnamed sources with knowledge of the matter told al-Watan, adding that there could be ‘severe punishments' for violators.
Criticism penalised under the law would include that of the Prophet, early Muslim figures and clerics, it said.
‘The (regulations) are important at the present time because violations over social networks on the Internet have been observed in the past months,' the sources said.
What is puzzling about the proposed legislation is what exactly it would fix. Saudi officials do not appear to be hamstrung by the existing legal apparatus, which metes out justice to dozens of blasphemers every year. In fact, Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code, meaning that judges already issue rulings based on their own interpretation of the Quran. According to Human Rights Watch, this means that blasphemy convictions are often handed down without citing any legal basis. As a result, anything from insulting the Prophet's companions, to mocking religion, to using "un-Islamic terminology" can get you convicted of blasphemy.
Nor do lily-livered judges or lenient sentences appear to be the problem. In 2008, for instance, a Mecca appeals court upheld the death sentence for Sabi Bogday, a Turkish national, who allegedly insulted God during an argument. In this case, the testimony of two witnesses was sufficient to prove Bogday's guilt.
In fairness, the death sentence for blasphemy seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Flogging and prison time are more standard fare. Still, the argument that Saudi's blasphemy laws are too permissive has a decidedly hollow ring.
Indeed, even the charge that social media is frustrating efforts to keep Saudi's public sphere squeaky clean doesn't hold water. Earlier this year, for instance, 23-year-old Hamza Kashgari was extradited from Malaysia to stand trial after he tweeted that the Prophet was merely inspirational, not divine.
The rumblings in Riyadh, then, probably have less to do with a perceived blasphemy pandemic and more to do with the ruling family's growing unease with the democratic transitions now underway in much of the Middle East. Although it has historically kept the country's religious establishment at arms-length, recent events have convinced the royal family to take all the support it can get.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's "Barbie" is striking back. In a far call from the extravagant upbringing that earned her the nickname, Princess Sara bint Talal bin Abdulaziz publicly filed a request for political asylum in Britain on July 6, claiming a threat against her freedom. As the granddaughter of Saudi Arabia's founding king and the daughter of the influential Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Princess Sara is the first high-ranking Saudi to seek refuge abroad.
In a royal family renowned for its control, the princess is no stranger to controversy. After breaking from her father over an unknown dispute, she moved to Britain in 2007, where she successfully sued for full custody of her four children. Despite pleas from the regime to return to Riyadh to discuss the matter in private, she remains engaged in a brutal inheritance battle with her older brother, Prince Turki bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, over their deceased mother's fortune.
These legal battles pale, however, in comparison to her current claims. Her British visa expired and her application for a new passport denied, the princess now faces the threat of deportation. Though initially willing to consider a return to the kingdom, a February 2011 incident during a meeting with Saudi officials heightened her fear of kidnapping. Malicious rumors have circulated, challenging the princess's mental stability, political loyalty and -- in an accusation she fervently denies as "baseless and malicious" -- collaboration with Hezbollah and Iran against the regime. She recently told the Sunday Telegraph:
"I've been physically abused. I've been mentally abused. My assets have been frozen. They've accused me of being in opposition...they haven't left anything. I've been crucified in every way."
Though a Saudi Embassy official reminded the Telegraph that the visa issue was a personal, not political, matter, the princess's claims reveal the extent of broader problems facing the House of Saud. As Michael Stephens argued in FP last month, the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud on June 16, 2012- an uncle and close ally of Princess Sara who shared her animosity toward her father -- has challenged the kingdom's stability. The dangers of royal succession have been exasperated by growing economic and political tensions, and the kingdom's crown princes will have to suppress domestic and familial fractures in order to survive. In a time of uncertainty, Sara's request defies more than her father's wishes: "They know I can't go back now. There is a threat. That's a slap in the face of the kingdom," she said.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
A man named Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded in Saudi Arabia this week after being found in possession of spell books and talismans. Beheading is "God's punishment" for "sorcerers and charlatans," according to a statement that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued in March.
Al-Asiri's execution was the latest accomplishment of Saudi Arabia's Anti-Witchcraft Unit, an elite police force specifically trained to track down and arrest practitioners of magic. The Anti-Witchcraft Unit was part of a larger campaign to exterminate sorcery from the kingdom which began in 2009 and has included a hotline for reporting witch sightings, raids on suspected houses, and lectures to inform the public about the dangers of magicians -- "key causers of religious and social instability in the country," according to the Commission's statement.
Among other things, the trouble is that magic is a broadly-defined category in Saudi law, as Uri Friedman recently explained in FP. It's not unusual for prosecutors in Saudi courts to use "witchcraft" or "sorcery" as catch-all labels for all manner of offenses -- and for defendants to use the same terms as excuses -- because the kingdom is swift to mete out punishments for this kind of deviance.
Because Saudi Arabia does not have a penal code (or a legal definition of witchcraft), it is up to a judge to decide whether someone should be condemned as a witch or a sorcerer. Sometimes all it takes is having a book with foreign writing, items that officers of the Anti-Witchcraft Unit don't recognize, or an accuser with a strong vendetta to lose your head as a convicted magician. In al-Asiri's case, his confession to two counts of adultery may have been the original reason for his arrest.
The Anti-Witchcraft Unit received almost 600 reports of witchcraft in the past few years. Whether or not these are actual cases of people purporting to practice the occult or just a pretext, the government clearly takes the problem seriously.
Saudi King Abdullah has had a busy week. First was his slow-motion legalization of women's suffrage this past Sunday. Today, there's news that the sentence of 10 lashes for a woman convicted of the crime of driving while female has been revoked by the king.
The AFP reports:
Saudi King Abdullah has revoked a sentence of 10 lashes imposed on a woman for breaking the ban on women driving in the conservative kingdom, a Saudi princess said Wednesday on her Twitter account.
"Thank God, the lashing of Sheima is cancelled. Thanks to our beloved King. I'm sure all Saudi women will be so happy, I know I am," said Princess Amira al-Taweel, wife of billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
"In tough times we stand together; in good times we celebrate together," the princess said. "I'm proud to be Saudi. To all Active Saudi women thank u for ur efforts."
Several months ago, a video surfaced on the Internet of a woman protesting the ban by driving and posting her commentary as she did it. While that did not cascade into the wider changes that have been associated with the Arab Spring, the subsequent protests were a cultural earthquake that had many within the kingdom questioning the meaning of this movement. As FP's Simon Henderson reported on Monday, Saudi Arabia is facing multiple challenges in the coming future, one of which is the cultural direction of the country.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
There are mixed reports about the health of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- recovering in Saudi Arabia from an attack on his palace earlier this month -- and whether he's planning on returning home to his embattled country anytime soon.
Reuters quotes a Western diplomat saying, "We believe he was seriously injured.... He is not coming [home] in the coming days, he is not coming [home] anytime soon."
Last week, an aide to Saleh gave CNN a different take, saying the president would return soon, possibly even last Friday. Obviously, that didn't happen, but aides have told other news organizations that his health is improving and "he is receiving guests, giving instructions on day to day affairs in Yemen, including a power cut and fuel shortages."
Saleh is still signing official documents -- he sent a cable yesterday congratulating Djibouti on its national day -- and hasn't officially appointed his deputy as acting president. There have been no public reports of negotiations on a transition, and Saleh's party officials talk about punishing his attackers rather than ending his rule.
Bloomberg News spoke to advisors who have visited the president at the hospital in Saudi Arabia. They said he suffered burns to his face and underwent plastic surgery last week to repair the damage. He's lost weight and his voice is weak, but he is alert and is in physical therapy. He could return to Sanaa by early July, one Yemeni official said.
Ahmed al-Soufi, another Saleh advisor, told al-Arabiya that the president would make a media appearance within the next two days, his first time since the attack.
So is Saleh truly on the mend and planning his return to Yemen?
Don't count on it, says Bernard Haykel, a Yemen expert at Princeton University.
"Clearly he is in very bad shape or you would have heard him speak by now," Haykel said. "But he has a vested interest in showing he's still active."
And the close advisors that keep promising a Saleh return any day now?
"He has a group of people who depend on him for their own survival," Haykel said. "They have a vested interest as well in maintaining the fiction that everything is fine and he'll come back. I don't think we should take at face value what that machine is saying. They are making calculations about their own survival."
If something could be poignant in its banality, the protests today in Saudi Arabia by women defying the authorities and daring to drive would fit the category. Though their act of mass civil disobedience may be small in scale, the women have gotten worldwide attention thanks in part to YouTube, where videos of the defiance were posted. Watching women drive shouldn't be as compelling as it is, but the recordings are quite powerful.
Below are a couple of the posted videos:
And here's an argument for why perhaps the wrong gender is being banned from the road:
R65 -- the Griffon vulture arrested last week on suspicion of spying for Israel because of the Hebrew lettering on its GPS tag -- will soon be released according to Saudi Prince Bandar bin Saud al-Saud:
"These systems are fitted to birds and animals, including marine animals. Most countries use these system, including Saudi Arabia," Saud told Saudi media on Sunday, according to Emirates 24/7. "We have taken delivery of this bird, but we will set it free again after we [have] verified its systems."
Saud insisted he wasn't defending Israel, but called for calm.
"Some of the Saudi journalists rushed in carrying the news of this bird for the sake of getting a scoop without checking the information," he said. "They should have asked the competent authorities about the bird before publishing such news."
This is certainly good news. No innocent bird -- even a vulture -- deserves to be held on trumped up charges. I also hope that R65's colleague, reportedly still circling around Saudi Arabia, will stay safe.
Though given the political realities of today's Middle East, Tel Aviv University might want to consider slightly more innocuous tags for future research subjects. Unlike Israeli gerbils, Israeli vultures do not recognize natural boundaries.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
As a general rule, I will click on any WikiLeaks cable titled "Underground Party Scene in Jeddah." And this account of a Halloween party at a prince's residence in the coastal Saudi city does not disappoint. Here's what one diplomat had to say about what went on beyond the "abaya coat-check":
Alcohol, though strictly prohibited by Saudi law and custom, was plentiful at the party's well-stocked bar, well-patronized by Halloween revellers. The hired Filipino bartenders served a cocktail punch using "sadiqi," a locally-made "moonshine." While top-shelf liquor bottles were on display throughout the bar area, the original contents were reportedly already consumed and replaced by sadiqi … It was also learned through word-of-mouth that a number of the guests were in fact "working girls," not uncommon for such parties. Additionally, though not witnessed directly at this event, cocaine and hashish use is common in these social circles and has been seen on other occasions.
The revelers told the diplomat that they hold such events at the homes of Saudi princes -- an effective method for keeping the religious police at bay.
Omar Salem/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi special forces take part in a military parade in preparation for the hajj in the Saudi holy city of Mecca on November 10, 2010.
MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images
This morning the U.N.'s new umbrella agency for women's rights issues elected its board members. The election had attracted controversy because two of the candidate countries were among the world's most notorious abusers of women's rights, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
This morning, with strong lobbying from the United States, Iran's election to the board was blocked. Human rights groups had strongly opposed Iran's election, pointing in particular to the recent death sentence of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani for the crime of adultery.
The 54 countries who sit on the UN’s Economic and Social Council did, however, accept the membership bid by Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden from driving and barred from many public places.
In fact, according to the U.N. Development Program's own Gender Empowerment Measure, Saudi Arabia is actually a worse country for gender equality than Iran. Neither does particularly well, but of the the 93 countries ranked, only Yemen scores lower than Saudi Arabia.
Iran's candidacy for the 41-member executive board had been part of a slate elected by the Asian region while Saudi Arabia was selected for one of the spots reserved for "donor" nations. Not a particularly auspicious start for an important new body.
HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images
Following the UAE's recent admonition of BlackBerry smartphones, the country will prohibit three of BlackBerry's web operations starting on Oct. 11 -- e-mail, instant messaging between BlackBerry phones, and the web-browsing program -- citing security concerns. Later this month, Saudi Arabia will also ban instant messaging between BlackBerrys.
A Saudi official revealed that the move is intended to strong-arm Research-in-Motion, BlackBerry's Ontario-based company, into conceding information, which it has already done for Russia and China. In 2007, RIM provided its encryption keys to a Russian telecommunications agency, which then passed it to the Federal Security Service. A year later, RIM's handset came out in China, but was delayed because the company "needed to satisfy Beijing that its handsets posed no security threat to China's communication networks."
The ban won't be lifted "until these BlackBerry applications are in full compliance with UAE regulations;" and it comes at a time when countries all around the world, are attempting to restrict the many freedoms provided by the Internet.
The House of Saud is living the dream. While most Middle Eastern regimes make up all sorts of excuses for throwing activists who raise inconvenient issues in jail -- "endangering security" and "undermining national unity" are favorites -- the Saudis are admirably honest. Mekhlef bin Daham al-Shammary, a prominent Saudi human rights activist who has been critical of the kingdom's anti-Shiite policies, was jailed on the charge of "annoying others" on June 15.
No, the crime of annoyance does not appear to be written down anywhere in Saudi Arabia. The charges against Shammary may stem from an article he wrote rebuking another columnist for harsh attacks against the Iraqi Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
More than a month after his imprisonment, Shammary still has not been brought before a judge. If he ever is, one can only hope that he is impolite -- perhaps even annoying.
In a move that is sure to set conspiracy theorists aflutter, former Vice President Dick Cheney popped up yesterday in Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Abdullah. Accompanying him was former State Department diplomat and its top interpreter, Gamal Helal, who recently left the government to form a consulting firm, Helal Associates.
While the Arabic press has caught on to this story, I haven't seen it reported in the U.S. media as of yet. But still, it raises a few eyebrows: Cheney, a private citizen who has reportedly been working on his memoirs, doesn't have any obvious reasons to sit down with the Saudi monarch. The details behind the meeting could go a long way toward unraveling what the former vice president plans to do with his retirement. Here's hoping that the inevitable theorizing about his plans doesn't generate more heat than light.
Saudi Press Agency
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