The Egyptian uprising in the balance

In time the reasons why the Egyptian uprising took place and the reasons for its success will appear ever clearer and perhaps some elements will jump out that we cannot discern now. Civil disobedience could be traced back, ironically, to the period from 2003 to 2005 when the Bush administration pressured governments in the region to take some steps, however slight or meaningless, towards “democratization”. Mubarak himself ordered constitutional amendments that would allow competitors to challenge him at the ballot box for the first time in the presidential election of 2005; Saudi Arabia allowed men to vote for male candidates to half of the seats on municipal councils. They were indeed slim pickings. But opposition activists took advantage of the moment to begin a street protest movement aimed against the ascent of Mubarak’s son Gamal who his father had placed at the head of his National Democratic Party’s policy committee, and that was widely seen as the prelude to installing Gamal one way or another as his father’s successor. The Kifaya movement endured police brutality in the streets and was not able to keep up the momentum itself, but it showed the public that it was possible to mobilize. The centre of activism largely shifted to labour movements in Mubarak’s final term in office, and 6 April 2008 stands out for the strikes over wages and conditions staged by textile workers in al-Mahalla al-Kubra which police met with brute force. That day led to the creation of the 6 April Youth Movement Facebook page, which became a vibrant forum for discussing political and economic rights.

During that time though, two events seemed to have hardened attitutes towards Mubarak’s regime. On foreign policy, Mubarak’s position on the Gaza war of December 2008 and January 2009 took Egypt’s Palestinian policy into new territory with a clearer alignment with Israeli positions than seen previously. Egypt’s opposition to Hamas rule in Gaza and closure of its border with the territory was extremely controversial in the Arab world and played badly on the leading Arab news Continue reading The Egyptian uprising in the balance

Gulf angst over Egypt’s policy shift

Word is Egypt’s post-uprising prime minister will be in Riyadh next week meeting King Abdullah. One would like to be a fly on the wall at that one. It’s not been a good year for the Gulf dynasties. The regional discourse was merrily All About Iran until a Tunisian fruit-seller called Mohamed Al-BouAzizi set himself alight in December 2010 and the era of revolutions was upon us. Al Saud watched in horror as the Obama administration, grudgingly and in stages, endorsed the protest movement against Mubarak’s rule and then decided to ride the wave by echoing the street’s demand for Mubarak to go, in the desperate hope – but the best it could do at the time – of being able to regain the initiative and work with the military junta on making sure the post-Mubarak era was as pro-American as possible. The uprising spread to Yemen, where Ali Abdullah Saleh is fighting back, and to Bahrain, where Saudi forces were sent in after Al Khalifa faffed around and even considered giving this dialogue and democracy drivel a chance. It’s pretty clear Iran will feature on the Saudi agenda. Saudi-owned and influenced media has put the word out that Egypt is going too far in its shift towards What The People Want. Egypt sees itself more in the mould of Turkey when it comes to foreign policy – a country whose weight will derive from the fact that its policies on Israel and the Palestinians have some kind of connection with public opinion. Continue reading Gulf angst over Egypt’s policy shift

As-Safir Newspaper – غسان بن جدو يستقيل من «الجزيرة»

As-Safir Newspaper – غسان بن جدو يستقيل من «الجزيرة». This was just waiting to happen. The article says Ben Jiddo feels the dream of Al-Jazeera is over as an independent serious Arabic channel because it has become a source for “incitement and mobilization”. It certainly has. Also its cases of omission. Bahrain has been erased from the story of the Arab uprisings while Qatar has turned Al-Jazeera into a blatant tool of its foreign policy goals and delusions on Libya. The article mentions al-Jazeera’s “incitement” on Yemen, Libya and Syria. But I wonder if Ben Jiddo’s concern is specifically Syria; perhaps it reflects the disappointment of Hizbollah and others who appreciate Syria’s role in jibhat al-mumana3a, the bloc resisting Western policies on Palestine.

New critique of Munif’s Cities of Salt

I had the good fortune to receive a copy of a rare and arresting critique of Abdelrahman Munif’s classic Cities of Salt novels. It is by Elias Nasrallah, a London-based Palestinian writer, and just came out in Arabic last year under the title السعودية والتأريخ البديل: قراءة نقدية لخماسية عبد الرحمن منيف  (Saudi Arabia and the Fiction of Alternative History: A Critical Reading of Abdelrahman Munif’s Five-part Cycle). Munif’s cycle of five novels quickly came to be considered literary milestone for its pioneering, exhaustive and very direct depiction of the creation of the 20th century Arab petrodollar state. It was very clearly the history of Saudi Arabia with the names simply changed to maintain the fiction – Abdelaziz bin Saud is Khureibet, King Saud is Khaz’al, Faisal is Fanar, the kingdom is named the Hudeibi Sultanate, etc.. Critics of Arab nationalist, leftist and Islamist persuasion loved it for exposing the enigmatic and rather outrageous political entity that Saudi Arabia is and which all ideological trends in the Arab world love to hate. But Nasrallah is the first to hold up to real scrutiny Munif’s version of the famous rags-to-riches story of a nation ruled by a monopolistic dynasty and a school of fanatical Sunni religious scholars, protected and cradled by British imperialism before the baton was passed on to the Americans once the black stuff was found in monstrous quantities under the desert sand (of the Shi’ite zones in the east, no less). Since Munif is relating the history of Saudi Arabia, where does his story veer from the facts as known, where does he use literary licence and what purpose might it be intended to serve? Continue reading New critique of Munif’s Cities of Salt

U.S.-Saudi “crisis” (again)

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy wants to tell us that  “U.S.-Saudi relations are in crisis” ( We’ve heard this one many times before and quite frankly who’s buying it. The “conflict” over the U.S. administration’s rhetorical commitment to democracy and freedom to choose your ruler in the Middle East is miniscule in the larger scheme of agreement on shared interests. There was also “conflict” over the issue in 2003-4 when the Bush administration – oh so deluded – was pressing Arab governments on democratic reforms in the wake of its Iraq invasion. Saudi Arabia got votes for men to elect men to half the seats of ineffective municipal councils, which produced a victory for Islamist candidates that Riyadh held up to Western governments as an example of what happens if you let the natives out of the cage. In any case, this time round Obama’s government dragged its feel on backing the uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt. It was the perservance of ordinary people facing the vicious security apparatus of arrogant rulers smug in the knowledge of Western support that eventually forced the U.S. government’s hand. And Bahrain? The Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey D. Feltman was in Manama the week that Saudi Arabia forced Al Khalifa to quit kidding around with this pro-democracy lark and give these Shia riffraff what they deserve. “Washington is upset about the king’s alleged offer to bail out Egypt if Hosni Mubarak had decided to cling to power,” WINEP tells us. More like a lovers’ tiff, nothing more.

Saudi judicial reform, 2009

Reading Lohaidan in Riyadh: Media and the struggle for judicial power in Saudi Arabia

Arab Media & Society, Issue 7, Winter 2009, 

Along with a reported one in seven viewers across the Arab World, Saudis were glued to their television sets during 2008 watching a Turkish soap opera called Noor.[1] The show was dubbed into Levantine Arabic and broadcast three times daily during Ramadan by MBC, a pan-Arab satellite network owned by Walid al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of the late Saudi king Fahd bin Abdelaziz Al Saud. Starring an economically independent, unveiled female lead and her tender Casanova of a husband, Noor was so popular that it spurred a large number of Gulf Arab tourists to visit Turkey, including the Saudi first lady Princess Hissa Al-Shaalan, and its blonde and blue-eyed star Kivanc Tatlitu became a heart-throb for Saudi and other women. The drama had a particular grip on the public because, unusually, it was dubbed into colloquial rather than classical Arabic, and its Turkish milieu had a familiarity for Arab audiences that other foreign soaps lack. Continue reading Saudi judicial reform, 2009

Saudi Arabia’s ‘liberal enclaves’

“Liberal enclaves: A royal attempt to bypass clerical power”, in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 1979-2009: Evolution of a Pivotal State, published by The Middle East Institute in Washington DC in Oct 2009.

Liberal enclaves: A royal attempt to bypass clerical power 

Within the first months of Abdullah’s term as king, the Saudi government pursued a number of policies to improve the kingdom’s economic profile. Saudi Arabia became a member of the World Trade Organisation, the limits were raised on foreign stakes in sectors such as banking, telecoms services, wholesale, retail and franchising. These reforms were intended to answer economic priorities of diversifying from dependence on oil revenues, finding jobs for young Saudis and opening up foreign investment. But they had another function too, one that was more transparent in a centrepiece of the early period of Abdullah’s reign: the establishment of “economic cities” where, freed from the influence of the Wahhabi clerics, Saudis would live, work and study as productive members of a modern economy. Continue reading Saudi Arabia’s ‘liberal enclaves’

Saudi Arabia’s media empire

Saudi Arabia’s Media Empire: keeping the masses at home

Arab Media & Society, Issue 3, Fall 2007, 

Since the 1990-1 Gulf crisis when the United States used Saudi Arabia as a launchpad for a campaign to evict occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia has used the Arab media as a key area for responding to perceived threats to the leadership’s legitimacy and stability such as challenges to its alliance with the United States and criticism of its political system, decision-making processes and image in the Arab world. The immediate Saudi response to the Gulf crisis was launching the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), established as a private television enterprise by a brother-in-law of King Fahd, Walid al-Ibrahim. Subsequently, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, leader of Saudi forces in the 1991 war and son of current Crown Prince Sultan, consolidated his control over London-based pan-Arab daily newspaper Al Hayat while sons of Riyadh governor Prince Salman consolidated their control over Al Hayat’s London-based competitor Asharq al-Awsat. A minor Saudi prince set up the Orbit entertainment TV network in 1994 and businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and business partner Saleh Kamel established the Arab Radio and Television entertainment network (ART) the same year. In recent years these three networks, MBC, Orbit and ART, have saturated Arab viewers in Arab and Western entertainment, led by Hollywood movies, American sitcoms and talkshows. Continue reading Saudi Arabia’s media empire