Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

Iran’s clever waiting game as the Middle East realigns

Brilliant article from the ever-excellent MK Bhadrakumar on Asia Times Online on Iran’s role in the Middle East uprisings, particularly Bahrain. He argues that Iran is too clever to ‘walk into the trap’ of getting its hands dirty by providing any material support to the Bahraini protestors, knowing that the US and allies will be picking over the debris to find any sign of Iranian involvement, which would doubtless be used to ramp up rhetoric, or action, against Iran. Instead, they’re pursuing a far more subtle strategy which hinges on persuading the general public (the so-called ‘Arab Street’, an Orientalist term I can’t stand because it simply does not exist) that this is not a religious, Sunni-Shi’a issue, and that Saudi is defying its mandate as Custodian of the Holy Places (Mecca and Medina) by killing Muslims in a foreign country. That Iran can condemn the attacks on protesters while brazenly attacking its own protesters is of course the height of irony; but then again, foreign policy is rarely without irony.

The Middle East is being remade now, as I type; the geopolitics of the region is changing forever, and all the major players are desperately tying make sure they’re at the top of whatever the new alignment is going to be. So far, Iran’s looking like it is well-placed to come out of this even more powerful than when it all began.

VERDICT: The Islamic Republic goes forth, with or without an appreciation of irony.

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Why Mubarak isn’t warming Idi Amin’s spare bed – yet

It’s tempting to see what’s happening in Egypt as a repeat of what happened in Tunisia. In both countries, a simple and powerful narrative has emerged  – the oppressed masses, living in the shadow of a venal, cruel and autocratic regime, finally throw off their shackles through waves of popular protest which are broadcast live on Al-Jazeera. The revolution will be televised. Egypt, being bigger, and Mubarak being more cynical, is taking a little longer and provoking more violence; but in essense, Egypt is mirroring Tunisia’s experience.

In the subtleties, the situations are a little more complicated. Perhaps the most interesting question of all is why, in the face of seemingly overwhelming pressure, has Hosni Mubarak clung onto power so vociferously, whereas Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali took flight at the first sign of trouble and now apparently finds himself living in the very same Saudi villa where Idi Amin passed the years of his exile. Perhaps one day it will be a museum.

Mubarak has shown no signs of flight.Here’s why. Tunisia, for all the hyperbole, is a significantly richer and significantly less oppressed society than Egypt. There is scope for the country to adopt some kind of unity government – which it has done already – and muddle through the reforms it desperately needs. Crucially, while proximity to Ben Ali has tainted his key ministers and advisors, it has not proved fatal to their lives or their livelihoods; the government remains largely intact and many of the anicien regime appear to be part of the foundation of the new one. So when the demonstrations got out of hand, and they saw the writing on the wall, they knew they still had a future – or at least a possibility of one –as long as Ben Ali was out of the way. So he got out of the way. Did he jump or was he pushed? I suspect the latter. He left power suspiciously quickly, with a suspicious lack of fight; I’d expect autocratic dictators in his mold to try a bit harder.

Egypt is different. Mubarak personalised his rule to such an extent that an entire class of society came to depend almost entirely on his grace and favour. He came to define patriarchy. And in a much larger and poorer society, the difference between the people who benefitted from having Mubarak in power, and those who didn’t, was much greater than in Tunisia.

The people closest to him stand almost no chance of continuing in his absence, for they are too closely associated with the figurehead. And so whereas the Tunisian elite were happy to see Ben Ali go – well not happy, perhaps, but in a bad situation for them it was the best option – the Egyptian elite cannot afford to be without Mubarak, for then they too will lose everything. They have no option but to stand and fight, and I imagine they aren’t going to allow Mubarak to escape to a desert holiday home while they take all his flak.So, I have no idea if Mubarak would like to join Ben Ali in exile – perhaps Ben Ali could let him have the guest bedroom? – but even if he did want to go, I’m not sure he would be allowed to. This is, I think, why Mubarak has no choice but to cling to power with everything he has.

VERDICT: Hosni Mubarak goes fourth; Idi Amin’s villa goes forth.

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A picture worth a thousand words: Saudi Arabia goes forth

The picture everyone is talking about: could this picture of Saudi King Abdullah surrounded by women be the start of a new era? (Photo courtesy of Guardian)

It may seem like a small thing, but this picture has been a subject on the lips of many since it was taken last week at a conference on health and the community. Why? Because it shows Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan posing with a group of women who are (mostly) showing their faces and are unrelated to the men. This may not matter much in many other countries, but in Saudi Arabia, this photo is groundbreaking.

By law, unrelated men and women are usually kept strictly segregated and women are expected to be covered from head to toe at all times. So for the King to allow himself to be in this photograph is of huge symbolic importance. Reform, particularly in the arena of women’s rights, has long been on the agenda in Saudi Arabia, but has also long been the subject of intense controversy.

Many have hailed this photo as a major step in the government beginning to recognise further equality between men and women, and the levels of criticism King Abdullah has received from religious hard-liners for the picture show just how seriously this one picture is being taken. But will it actually lead to anything? We can only hope that this picture will actually lead to a thousand words (and more!) being spoken on this issue…

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Saudi housewife goes forth

Merely being allowed out in public is a feat for a woman in Saudi Arabia: permission from a husband, father or brother must be obtained, one of these must then be willing to drive her to wherever her errand takes her, and the constant worry of an encounter with the Mutaween for any minor transgression she might make is never far. Which is why appearing on TV in front of millions throughout the Middle East is something of a coup for Saudi housewife Hissa Hilal, who has made it to the finals of a major Arabic reality show. The competition involves the reciting of an ancient type of Bedouin poetry to advance through stages before a winner is declared. The conservative Muslim equivalent of American Idol or the X Factor. Not only did she come third in the competition but she did so after facing the criticism of Saudi’s religious establishment. She remained steadfast and recited poetry that criticised the religious extremism Saudi Arabia is known for, earning her a few death threats and reams of criticism and anger both on the internet and in real life. Ironically, the other main critique she faced was from others who felt she should have removed her niqab before appearing on television. Can’t please anyone these days.

Despite all this, Hissa is supported by her husband and family and has won over many millions who watch the show throughout the Gulf, getting them to listen to her message without even showing her face. And that’s progress we think deserves a little recognition.

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