There are no obvious candidates for the next president and a transition of power is likely to favour the heavyweights who have made the pre-emptive strike against him. One way or another, Hamid al-Ahmar, Mr Zindani and Gen Ahmar will wield considerable influence over whatever happens next.
Through a clever system of disincentives, according to a US Embassy cable from Riyadh:
20. (S/NF) Although all chief editor positions in Saudi Arabia must be approved by the Minister of Information, it is the job of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to take action against editors and writers who refuse to follow government directives and policies. In the past, the MOI played a largely reactive role in this regard through its Supreme Information Council, which would discuss questionable material and order editors to be scolded or fired, or at times ban publication of the paper for a certain period of time.
21. (S/NF) According to our contacts, however, a more effective system is in place. Instead of being fired or seeing their publications shut down, editors now are fined SR 40,000 ($10,600) out of their own salaries for each objectionable piece that appears in their newspaper. Journalists, too, are held to account. Instead of the Supreme Information Council in Riyadh taking the lead in tracking what journalists write, there are now MOI committees in each Saudi city that know their community well and have a keen ear for who is talking about what. If these MOI operatives detect a problematic pattern in a journalist’s writing (or even hear through channels that he or she is heading down a certain line of inquiry), they will invite the journalist for a chat, during which they will discuss the origin of these perspectives, suggest alternative approaches, ask after the family, etc.,.. These mechanisms, our contacts say, have been very effective in reining in media opinion that the SAG doesn’t like.
SAG, by the way, is the very appropriate shorthand for "Saudi Arabia Government." There's more in there about media ownership, Rupert Murdoch's plan to launch an Arabic version of the Wall Street Journal, and a softer touch on religious channels.
Update: Commenter Alexandra points out that this cable has mostly gotten attention for its claim that Saudis are being mellowed by shows like Friends and Desperate Housewives. It's true that Saudi-owned channels show a remarkable range of American TV culture, usually the worse of the range (the reality shows about fat people, wanna-be celebrities, incredibly vapid teen sitcoms, etc.) that exists in the You Ess of A. I suppose that there might be a soporific benefit from this, or at least an effect whereby such shows slowly melt the brain cells of those who watch them.
But, watching them from time to time as I do, I am shocked at the extent to which a) these shows and that TV and mall culture appear to be becoming a substitute for indigenous culture for foreign-educated middle classes and others; b) much of the material shows America in a poor light; and c) much of it must reinforce the ultra-conservatives' view that America and the West are culturally and socially doomed and will end up something like the movie Idiocracy. A show like Desperate Housewives, in fact, could induce some people to have their very own Sayyid Qutb moment, without ever having to visit Greeley, Colorado or Wysteria Lane.
The backwardness of the religious and political leaders of the Gulf Arabs, combined with their vast wealth, has been the undoing of the contemporary Arab world — perhaps even more so than all the wars with Israel. From HRW:
Saudi judges have repeatedly granted fathers the right to interfere arbitrarily in their adult children's private lives, in serious violation of their right to privacy and to establish families freely, Human Rights Watch said today. Fathers have imprisoned their adult daughters for "disobedience" and prevented their marriage, and have been granted custody over a grandchild without valid reason, all with the support of the courts.
A decision by the United Arab Emirates Federal Supreme Court upholding a husband's right to "chastise" his wife and children with physical abuse violates the right of the country's women and children to liberty, security, and equality in the family - and potentially their right to life, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling, citing the UAE penal code, sanctions beating and other forms of punishment or coercion providing the violence leaves no physical marks.
Rather funny self-contradiction by the editor of the Saudi rag Sharq al-Awsat, who wants the Americans to force Malaki out in Iraq because he's undemocratic:
For all the American talk about the democratization of Iraq, and the necessity of the Iraqi people managing their own national issues, this is nothing more than beautiful talk that is a good excuse for the ugly reality, for what is the difference between Saddam and al-Maliki?
But later, in the same editorial:
Post-Saddam Iraq was not in need of superficial democracy, but rather it was – and continues to be – in need of a strong ruler, from the army, in the ilk of a benevolent autocrat or an Iraqi Ataturk.
On some level, the debate over sanctioning Iran appears to boil down to what China's position will be — another sign of what one might call the slow but steady multi-polarization of Middle Eastern geopolitics.
From Ben Simpfendorder's New Silk Road blog:
China’s foreign policy is at an inflexion point. The country is emerging as a major power, but that will require tough choices.The toughest choices are usually found in the Middle East. The region doesn’t like major powers sitting on the fence, and it’s only time before China will be forced to climb down.It is Iran that will likely force a decision. China has so far maintained its policy of non-intervention─as one Beijing-based policy advisor said to me, “if we intervene in Iran, it would set a bad precedent for our relations with other countries”.Fair enough. But so would a failure to intervene. It would suggest that China isn’t concerned about its other regional partners, especially Saudi Arabia. Let’s not forget. Iran might supply 13% of China’s oil supply, but Saudi Arabia supplies an even larger 20%.
Oh, the joy of this reporter:
A high level Pakistani diplomat has been rejected as Ambassador of Saudi Arabia because his name, Akbar Zib, equates to "Biggest Dick" in Arabic. Saudi officials, apparently overwhelmed by the idea of the name, put their foot down and gave the idea of his being posted there, the kibosh.
Akbar Zib is no newcomer to politics, in fact you could say he's a pretty big deal. This long-ranging high level diplomat has worked with some of the largest members of world governments, players charged with negotiating the outcome of the world's current events.
I came across this interesting blog, devoted in part to Saudi Arabia's economics, by Essam al-Zamel [Ar]. In this post he discusses land speculation in Saudi Arabia and its dampening effect on entrepreneurship. The graphic is from his site.
While on the topic of the Saudi economy, it's worth mentioning a new book by Steffen Hertog, Princes, Brokers, And Bureaucrats: Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia. I got to talk with Hertog about his book at a conference over a year ago, and it sounds fascinating. Hertog conducted participatory observation in Saudi Arabia by working in a state institution for over a year, gaining unique perspective into Saudi administration and society. According the to publisher's page:
In Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats, the most thorough treatment of the political economy of Saudi Arabia to date, Steffen Hertog uncovers an untold history of how the elite rivalries and whims of half a century ago have shaped today's Saudi state and are reflected in its policies.
Starting in the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia embarked on an ambitious reform campaign to remedy its long-term economic stagnation. The results have been puzzling for both area specialists and political economists: Saudi institutions have not failed across the board, as theorists of the "rentier state" would predict, nor have they achieved the all-encompassing modernization the regime has touted. Instead, the kingdom has witnessed a bewildering mélange of thorough failures and surprising successes.
Hertog argues that it is traits peculiar to the Saudi state that make sense of its uneven capacities. Oil rents since World War II have shaped Saudi state institutions in ways that are far from uniform. Oil money has given regime elites unusual leeway for various institutional experiments in different parts of the state: in some cases creating massive rent-seeking networks deeply interwoven with local society; in others large but passive bureaucracies; in yet others insulated islands of remarkable efficiency. This process has fragmented the Saudi state into an uncoordinated set of vertically divided fiefdoms. Case studies of foreign investment reform, labor market nationalization and WTO accession reveal how this oil-funded apparatus enables swift and successful policy-making in some policy areas, but produces coordination and regulation failures in others.
A few months ago I saw an Iranian report that claimed that Prince Bandar — known as "Bandar Bush" for his closeness to the Bush family — was under arrest after having tried to plot a coup. I was skeptical, and emailed a Saudi specialist about it, who dismissed it instantly. Bandar hasn't been seen much since he left the US after being replaced as ambassador, and is probably unhappy with King Abdullah's policies and the rise of Prince Nayef as the most likely successor to the throne. This much is known. The idea of a coup sounded pretty far-fetched.
Yesterday Hugh Miles wrote in the LRB blog that Saudi dissidents claim Bandar and four generals may be held in prison:
According to Saudi opposition sources, Bandar is now in Dhaban Prison, in north west Jeddah, a high security jail where terrorist suspects and political opposition figures are held. Bandar is said to be in a special wing where the other prisoners are four senior generals: one from the army, one from the royal guard, one from the national guard and one from internal security. Bandar’s lawyer in the US denies he is in prison and says he has been seen out and about recently, although he wouldn’t divulge when, where or even in which country.
The last official sighting of Bandar in public seems to have been on 10 December 2008, when he met the king in Jeddah. Since then he has missed a string of important events, and no one will say why. In September 2009, when his position as head of the Kingdom’s National Security Council was renewed for another four years, he didn’t appear in public to profess his allegiance to the king, as is customary. No official explanation was forthcoming. The same month, Bandar missed the Dallas Cowboys’ first home game against the New York Giants in their new stadium. Bandar has been a Cowboys fan since he flew as a fighter pilot instructor in Texas in the 1970s. He normally sits next to his friend Jerry Jones, the team’s owner. Then in October Bandar failed to show up as one of the official delegation accompanying King Abdullah on his landmark visit to Damascus, which ended the four-year estrangement between Saudi Arabia and Syria that began with the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005.
But the most significant event Bandar missed was in December 2009 when his ill father, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, returned to the Kingdom after months convalescing in Morocco. As usual, the event was shown live on TV and Prince Sultan received many members of the Saudi royal family. Some senior figures – such as Princes Talal, Muteb and Abdulrahman – weren’t there for known reasons. But Bandar’s absence hasn’t been accounted for.
The lack of any official explanation of Bandar’s whereabouts is especially puzzling since he is supposed to head an important government agency. When he returned from Washington in 2005 after his 22-year stint as ambassador, his appointment as secretary-general of the newly formed National Security Council was meant to signal a return to the family fold and a higher domestic profile. In the months before his disappearance he travelled frequently to Moscow, both to negotiate arms deals and to try to persuade the Kremlin to halt its military co-operation with Iran. There’s been speculation that his activity in Russia could be connected to his disappearance: some blogs claim that Bandar’s supposed abortive coup was exposed by Russian intelligence.
That would be quite huge. Miles speculates that whatever the truth of the matter, Bandar's era of influence is over. This also means one of the major advocates of a strong relationship with the US is now absent, at a time when the next king of Saudi Arabia is likely to be Prince Nayef, who is less sanguine about Amreeka. And so, little by little, US dominion over the Middle East is being eroded.
The original post on the LRB blog has updated to say:
The blog has just received an anonymous email announcing that ‘Prince Bandar is at his home in Aspen Colorado, he has been there for about 3 weeks.’ Mystery solved then.
Egypt said it would prevent their passage because of the "sensitive situation" in Gaza and warned Monday of legal repercussions for anyone defying the ban. Around 1,300 international delegates from 42 countries have signed up to join the Gaza Freedom March which was due to enter Gaza via Egypt during the last week of December.✪ Exclusive excerpt from Joe Sacco’s groundbreaking new book: Footnotes in Gaza | I'm awaiting my copy of this book from this great cartoonist. ✪ Sic Semper Tyrannis : Men on Horseback | Pat Lang on the Afghan policy war inside the Obama administration. ✪ Ardebili's laptop - Laura Rozen - POLITICO.com | Iran holding hikers and others because US holding Iranians? ✪ Anis Sayigh: and Israeli history of letter bombs | Angry Arab has an interesting post on the Israeli use of letter bombs against civilians. ✪ Officials Point to Suspect’s Claim of Qaeda Ties in Yemen - NYTimes.com | Rather suspicious, this Yemen angle at a time when people are trying to confuse the Huthis and al-Qaeda... ✪ The Lives They Lived - Ben Ali - The Chili That Shaped a Family - NYTimes.com | Sausages and chilli, served to Obama by an Indian Muslim Trinidadian. ✪ Mainstreaming the Mad Iran Bombers | Marc Lynch | Lynch on NYT op-ed's call for war. ✪ The Nevada gambler, al-Qaida, the CIA and the mother of all cons | The Guardian | "Playboy magazine has revealed that the CIA fell victim to an elaborate con by a compulsive gambler who claimed to have developed software that discovered al-Jazeera broadcasts were being used to transmit messages to terrorists buried deep in America."
Suleiman said Egypt had promised Hamas it would address the terror group's reservations vis-à-vis the reconciliation deal "after they sign and begin to implement it." He said Hamas' concerns "lacked substance," adding that the agreement would not be revised. "If it will (be changed), I'll resign," said Suleiman.
✩ Daily News Egypt - Editorial: The Illusive Metal Barrier | On Egypt's denial that a wall is being built.
✩ BBC News - Egypt starts building steel wall on Gaza Strip border | Video report has some more details, but the whole thing is rather hazy.
✩ Israel National Survey | Survery of Israeli attitudes on various topics.
✩ Libya still jailing dissenters: Human Rights Watch | New HRW report.
✩ 'Egypt is one of the freest states in the entire Arab world' - The Irish Times - Sat, Dec 12, 2009 | Ismail Serageldin engages in apologia.
✩ Palestinian leader speaks from prison - CNN.com | Interview with Marwan Barghouti.
✩ Swiss Man Builds Minaret to Protest Ban - WaryaTV | Good for him.
✩ Israel court: Deported Palestinian student can't return - CNN.com | Everyday misery from Gaza blockade.
✩ ENVIRONMENT: Darkness at Noon Clouds Cairo Skies - IPS ipsnews.net | On the black cloud - which I thought was not as bad this year.
✩ The Language of Food | Ceviche and Fish & Chips | Fascinating on the Persian and Arab origin of escabeche, ceviche, and fish and chips.
✩ The Language of Food | Ceviche and Fish & Chips | Fascinating on the Persian and Arab origin of escabeche, ceviche, and fish and chips.
✩ ‘Sultan wants children to be God-fearing’ | The ridiculousness of the al-Sauds.
✩ No real "freeze" on settlement: Israeli minister - Yahoo! News | No kidding: "JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The population of Jewish settlements in the West Bank could grow by 10,000 in the coming year despite a declared "freeze" on Israeli building in the occupied territory, an Israeli Cabinet minister has said."
✩ On Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Lobby: A response to Peter Beinart | Walt on Obama's Afphan policy and the lobby.
✩ Middle East Report 253 contents: Apartheid and Beyond | New issue.
✪ Israeli Asks Abbas Not to Step Down - NYTimes.com | What a weird headline: the Israeli in question is the president of Israel, Shimon Peres (aka Skeletor, Evil Lord of Destruction). Not that knowing this makes the whole thing any less weird, although it is telling to see how much the Israelis like Abbas.
✪ Fatah al-Islam Connected to Israeli Elements- Lebanese Security Source Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | Really: Fatah al-Islam, connected to the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Americans, the Saudis and now the Israelis. I am beginning to wonder whether it even exists.
✪ The Dark Side of the Bright Side -- In These Times | I love Barbara Ehrenreich's books.
✪ The Associated Press: Islamic critics blast Beyonce on eve of Egypt show | Muslim Brothers attack "nudity concert".
✪ 23 CIA Officers Convicted in Italy, in Abstentia | For extraordinary rendition of Egyptian man.
✪ Middle East Bloggers: The Street Leads Online - Reports - Committee to Protect Journalists | CPJ report on bloggers in MENA, especially the rising use of emprisonment against them: "Individual bloggers face enormous threats; the medium as a whole faces significant challenges. Increasingly, governments are creating new laws to regulate the Internet and amending old ones to encompass online expression. Already authorities are exploiting the isolated nature of bloggers and the lack of institutional protections for online journalists. As the Iranian regime exhibited this year, governments are willing to take severe measures when they perceive a threat to their power."
✪ Holiday sales could launch e-book readers as mass-market must-haves | If you're interested in ebooks, this is a pretty good piece on the state of the industry. Has anyone tried Kindle downloading in Egypt? Is it restricted?
✪ Japanese contractors owed billions by Dubai firms - The National Newspaper | Dubai is a bad debtor.
✪ Waq al-Waq: The Big Question for Saudi Arabia | Who runs Saudi Arabia's Yemen policy?
✪ Obama's Failure in the Middle East | Stephen M. Walt | KA-POW: "I never thought I'd write the following words, but is it possible that Obama's handling of the I-P peace process might actually end up being worse than George Bush's?"
✪ Berman’s Response to Goldstone on House Gaza War-Crimes Resolution « The Washington Independent | The assholes who run Congress reply to Goldstone.
✪ Report: Mossad hacked Syrian computer to uncover nuke site - Haaretz - Israel News | Basic snooping software found super-classified info? Either this is not true or the Syrians are mega-stupid. But since the allegation is that Syria had a secret nuclear research facility, I'll lean towards the former - this was all bullshit from the beginning.
✪ ATTACKERMAN » Somewhere, Khaled Meshal Is Laughing | Obama messed up doubly with Goldstone as well as backing down on settlements. What's a Palestinian leader (any of them outside Hamas) to do?
(AFP) | Cabinet crisis over?
✪ Clinton has 'productive meeting' with Egypt on Mideast peace process - washingtonpost.com | Hosni Mubarak loves nothing more than being made to feel important. Clinton's entire trip to Cairo is about this: "Clinton attributed the apparent softening in Egypt's position as a response to her personal diplomacy, conducted over visits to four capitals in the region over the past five days. "I thought it was a very productive meeting," she told reporters traveling with her after the news conference, adding that it "shows the value of consultation and listening and sharing ideas and hearing the other side and putting forward your views and explaining.""
✪ ‘Abuse’ of Islamic rule lands lawyer in court - The National Newspaper | About time someone stopped Nabih el Wahsh and his ridiculous hesba claims, but this needs to go further: a judicial ruling or new law should declare hesba unacceptable in courts.
✪ Israel FM to tell U.S. envoy no peace deal possible | Lieberman always says what's on his mind.
✪ Mideast sliding into 'darkness': Jordan king | Jordan's king does his Cassandra routine.
✪ Sudan: SLM Warns US Envoy Not to Visit Darfur Areas Under Its Control Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | "The Sudan Liberation Army Movement [SLM] led by Abdul-Wahid Nur who resides in France has warned US Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration not to visit the areas in Darfur that are under its control and where he is expected to hold a conference in the "Darbat" area in Murrah Mountain on 20 October."
✪ Unjustifiable To Lose ‘Goldstone’ Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | "It is not the time for point-scoring. Goldstone’s report marked the beginning of the international justice the Palestinian people need. The issue goes beyond political wrangling between Hamas and the PA, and also goes beyond the assumed price for slip ups. It is about responsibility for people’s lives."
✪ ‘The Times’ lets everyone off the hook on Goldstone | The NYT's continued hasbara on the Goldstone report.
✪ BBC NEWS | Middle East | UN body to debate Gaza 'crimes' | Slated for 14 October.
✪ ei: Abbas helps Israel bury its crimes in Gaza | Ali Abunimah: "Just when it seemed that the Ramallah Palestinian Authority (PA) and its leader Mahmoud Abbas could not sink any lower in their complicity with Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the murderous blockade of Gaza, Ramallah has dealt a further stunning blow to the Palestinian people."
✪ “The Challenge of Moderation in Islam: Egypt’s Religious Institution Versus Extremism.” | POMED notes on speech by Egyptian Mufti Ali Gomaa.
✪ Abbas Cancels Israel War-Crimes Report, Boosting Hamas - Yahoo! News | It's over for Abbas, morally now and politically eventually.
✪ Saudi, Syria agree to 'remove obstacles' to closer ties - Yahoo! News | They also called for a NUG to be formed in Lebanon.
✪ Security Council to raise UN Gaza report next week - Yahoo! News | Libya move to push for discussion of Goldstone report moves ahead, despite Mahmoud Abbas's failure to push for it (and his subsequent reversal.)
✪ All these Abdelazizes | New head of Western Sahara mission MINURSO is Egyptian.
✪ Oren likens Goldstone to… Nazi threat | Israel Ambassador to US Michael Oren: Goldstone = Nazis = Nuclear Annihilation.
✪ Agents arrest dozens for theft scheme in US, Egypt | Egyptian hackers engage in $2m phishing scam.
✪ Pew Forum: Mapping the Global Muslim Population | Pew report says there are 1.57bn Muslims, analysis and breakdown through maps and more.
A few day's worth...
✪ Orientalism’s Wake: The Ongoing Politics of a Polemic | Very nice collection of essays on Edward Said's "Orientalism" from a variety of supporters, critics, academics including Daniel Varisco, Robert Irwin, Roger Owen, etc.
✪ The Sources of Islamic Revolutionary Conduct | I have not read in detail this small book by a US Air Force analyst, but scanning through it I see rather odd choices. For instance there are long chapters comparing Christianity and modern secularism to the Islamist outlook, except that it's never quite clear whether the latter means the outlook of engaged Islamist activists or ordinary Muslims. There is also copious quoting from Sayyid Qutb's "Milestones" as if it was representative of all Islamic thinking. Someone should give this a detailed look (and I'd be happy to post the result.) [PDF]
✪ Al-Ahram Weekly | Egypt | A clean break | On Cairo's garbage collection crisis.
✪ Irving Kristol, Godfather of Conservatism, Dies - Obituary (Obit) - NYTimes.com | Leaving behind a disastrous intellectual, social, economic and political legacy: alleged liberalism on social issues that shirks from real change, supply-side economics, and of course an imperial war doctrine.
✪ Are Morocco And Algeria Gearing Up For Arms Race? « A Moroccan About the world around him
✪ Big mouth - The National Newspaper | Bernard Heykal on how the strength of al-Qaeda is impossible. Which makes sense, at least if you try to do it from the Bin Laden tapes as all the silly pseudo-analysis of last week showed.
✪ Ikhwanweb :: The Muslim Brotherhood Official English Website | Very much like the new look of the Muslim Brothers' English website, which I hadn't checked in a while. They have a very useful "today's news" feature that can also be used for archives by date.
✪ Al-Ahram Weekly | Economy | Depleting Egypt's reserves | A good article with details on the Egypt-Israel gas deal and why it may be a bad idea in terms of resource management, never mind political and financial sense.
✪ Al-Qaradawi's Fatwa Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English) | The alleged liberal paid by intolerant Islamists in Riyadh attacks the alleged moderate Islamist paid by Doha:
A news item reported in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper revealed that Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi had issued a fatwa prohibiting Iraqis from acquiring US citizenship on the grounds that this is the nationality of an occupier nation. However this fatwa has nothing to do with the reality on the ground, and contains more political absurdity then it does religious guidance. Sheikh al-Qaradawi himself is an Egyptian who possesses Qatari nationality, which was given to him after he opposed the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. However when an Israeli office was opened in Doha, al-Qaradawi did not renounce his Qatari nationality.
| "His brother Uday told Reuters: "Thanks be to God that Muntazer has seen the light of day. I wish Bush could see our happiness. When President Bush looks back and turns the pages of his life, he will see the shoes of Muntazer al-Zaidi on every page.""
✪ BAE to axe 1,100 jobs and close site | Business | guardian.co.uk | So Tony Blair quashed the Yamama inquiry to save jobs (or so he says) but BAe still carries out layoffs?
✪ Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen and Natalie Portman slam Toronto Film Festival protest - Haaretz - Israel News| Some stars come to Israel's side in the tiff over TIFF.
✪ GDC | Economist Conferences| Economist infographic shows public debt around the world.
✪ FT.com / Middle East / Politics & Society - Investors seek to revive faded glory of Cairo | On investment in Downtown Cairo properties and plans for gentrification. Look out for another article on this soon.
✪ No concrete proof that Iran has or has had nuclear programme – UN atomic watchdog | Just a reminder that the press reports have spinned things wrongly - this comes straight from the UN: "17 September 2009 – Refuting a recent media report, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) today reiterated that the body has no concrete proof that Iran has or has ever had a nuclear weapons programme."
✪ Egypt Islamic Authority Says Women Can Wear Trousers - International News | News of the World | Middle East News | Europe News - FOXNews.com | The world is going to hell -- what next, capris?
✪ BBC NEWS | Middle East | 'Many killed' in Yemen air raid | Serious turn in Yemen's trouble -- bombing a refugee camp!?