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A road to change in Saudi Arabia?

The arrest and continuing imprisonment of Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi woman who was filmed at the wheel of a car, has been attracting a lot of media attention outside the kingdom – and rightly so. From an international perspective it is ludicrous that women's driving should still be a contentious matter, and of course this is just one aspect of a much bigger debate about gender equality in Saudi Arabia (or the lack of it).

But beyond that there is an even more fundamental question about the difficulty – and, in some cases, the near-impossibility – of implementing change at a pace that can satisfy the needs of the moment. The lesson from recent events in the region is that Arab governments will have to reform drastically, and quickly, if they want to avoid the fate of those in Tunisia and Egypt. 

The Saudi establishment, of course, is not totally oblivious to this but it still seems unwilling or unable to grasp the nettle. Though King Abdullah leans mildly towards reform, he is wary of making any decision that might be considered socially divisive – and especially any that would inflame conservative religious scholars, since his throne's legitimacy rests on religious credentials.

The issue of female drivers looks like becoming a major test of the king's commitment to reform. It has been brought to a head by the threat of direct action by a group known in English as Women2Drive. They have said that from June 17 their female supporters will take to the roads using international driving licences (since they can't obtain Saudi licences even though there is no specific law forbidding women from driving).

This, in effect, is forcing the Saudi authorities into a choice they would rather not make: either to suppress the right-to-drive campaign, casting serious doubts on the prospects for more generalised reform, or to embrace it and risk a backlash from traditionalists.

Faced with a dilemma such as this, the usual government response is to stall and procrastinate. In an article last week, Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, said there is "nothing fundamentally wrong with women driving" but the issue should be dealt with "calmly" and not politicised. "However," he continued, "we must also take into account an important point, namely that the issue of women driving is not something that can be resolved immediately".

Alhomayed therefore proposed setting up a committee to look into it – the classic way of kicking an issue into the long grass.
Among the ideas the committee might consider, he said, was a pilot scheme "allowing Saudi Arabian women, of a certain age, to drive in certain cities".

"Later the age limit can be reduced, and the experiment extended to other Saudi cities," he added. "This is in order to observe the logistical conditions, from the traffic department and other issues, as well as ensuring decency with regards to appearances."

But even a pilot scheme might be too much for the system to take without other safeguards. "Before all of this," Alhomayed wrote, "there must be a strict and firm law in place to ensure that women drivers are not subject to any forms of sexual harassment or insult."

That in itself is a mind-boggling proposal: that women should be protected from sexual harassment, but only when driving.

The fundamental problem, though, is that in the current climate Alhomayed's overall approach – which is typical of the Saudi establishment – is both patronising and complacent: reform, yes, but all in good time and please don't make a fuss.

Saying that the issue must not be politicised and reducing it to a series of questions about practicalities is simply a way of avoiding any clear-cut decision. 

It has been a similar story regarding women's right to vote. When Saudi Arabia held municipal elections in 2005, women were not excluded by law but by supposed administrative difficulties. It ws claimed that there had not been enough time to organise separate voting facilities for women as would be required by Saudi custom. Nevertheless, there were strong hints that this would be resolved in time for women to take part in the next elections, four years later.

No elections were held in 2009 but they have been rescheduled for later this year and, once again, women are being barred from registering to vote. And so it goes on, with more hints about letting them vote next time.

Treating these things as administrative rather than political issues is never going to bring substantial reform – at least, not in the time frame required. Besides that, though, Saudi Arabia lacks most of the usual mechanisms for resolving them politically. The only insitutionalised mechanism for seeking reform is to send an obseqious petition to the king, and even then there is a risk of arrest if he doesn't like the idea.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 May 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 31 May: Manal al-Sharif was released on 30 May.

Yemen's military turn against Saleh

President Saleh's position in Yemen was looking extremely precarious on Sunday amid signs that the military is beginning to turn against him.

The Associated Press reported that a brigade of the Republican Guard (commanded by Saleh's son, Ahmed) has defected to the opposition.

Meanwhile, posts on Twitter said Yemen's Military Council has issued a statement attacking Saleh. The council is apparently not in direct command of troops but its stance may have some influence on other sections of the army.

One of the top brass, General Abdullah Ali Elaiwah, reportedly accused the regime of misconduct in "handing over certain governorates to rogue elements". He also reportedly claimed that several of the regime's most senior politicians – the vice-president, the prime minister, two former prime ministers and the foreign minister – have advised Saleh to quit.

If that is true, it's hard to see Saleh surviving in office for more than a few days.

The military seem to be especially angry about the southern town of Zinjibar being taken over by militants who are alleged to be linked to al-Qaeda. They claim that Saleh deliberately allowed this to happen, presumably to reinforce his prediction that the same will happen to the rest of the country if he leaves. If that was the president's ploy, it seems to have backfired badly.

The military's claim is supported independently by a report from CNN which says that security forces "abandoned" Zinjibar without resisting the militants.

A resident quoted by CNN said: "They [the militants] suddenly arrived and in large numbers. There were no clashes when they arrived on Friday night. We tried to complain to security forces but could not find them."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 May 2011. Comment.

Yemen: will Saudis intervene?

Fighting has resumed in the Yemeni capital this morning. 
A report in today's Guardian describes the scenes in Sana'a yesterday and Gregory Johnsen has an excellent analysis of events there over the last few days.

The US has now ordered non-essential diplomatic staff to leave the country and yesterday President Obama urged President Saleh to "move immediately on his commitment to transfer power".

The ability of the US to influence events in Yemen at this stage is rather limited but one Yemen expert suggests it is only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia intervenes. Khaled Fattah, a researcher at St Andrews University said:

"Riyadh will not keep watching for long. They have their own network with tribal leaders in Yemen. The next step will be strong intervention from Riyadh to defuse the tension... They will interfere to [secure a] ceasefire and then the establishment of a council of tribal elders, senior military officers, and representatives of the southern movement.

"The Saudis are very keen to have their hands in the political kitchen of Sana'a. He [President Saleh] has reached the stage when he is unable to defuse the tension domestically and he [is causing more] headaches than before. So I think the Saudis will interfere in the coming few days.

"First there will be a ceasefire between the al-Ahmar family and the Republican guards and central armed forces. Then there will a resumption of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] initiative [for Saleh to stand down]. We are talking about days not weeks... I am simply aware that Riyadh will not tolerate such unrest to escalate."

Meanwhile, on the Armies of Liberation blog, Jane Novak outlines a 12-month programme for Yemen once Saleh leaves:

"The day after Saleh... Yemeni revolutionaries must begin the arduous work of building the civil democratic Yemen of their demands. Once the revolution has succeeded, it must be protected. One way is to disperse power at the local level...

"The re-balancing of power that is required is not among various groups and power players, but between the people and all their institutions. Self-determination on the national level can only be accomplished by empowerment on the local level."

The plan's emphasis on local action and public participation based on equal rights for all is exactly what Yemen will need. However, it is not an idea that will appeal much to Saudi Arabia, and if the Saudis do try to assume control of Yemen's politics the activists are likely have a continuing battle on their hands.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 May 2011. Comment.

Yemen on the brink of catastrophe

Battles between Yemen's most powerful tribal group and sections of the military have resumed in Sana'a this morning, and tribal fighters appear to control part of the capital, including the interior ministry building.

Tom Finn, who is on the spot, reported yesterday's events for the Guardian. Jane Novak, on the Armies of Liberation blog, adds some more details.

The picture is still very confused and a lot of unconfirmed and probably unreliable information is circulating on Twitter. It is beyond any doubt, though, that the situation in Yemen is now extremely grave.

After refusing to sign the GCC's "transition agreement" on Sunday (which required him to step down), President Saleh warned of civil war and now seems bent on fulfilling his prophecy.

It is difficult to imagine what Saleh's game plan might be – assuming that he has one. Viewed from outside, his chances of re-establishing his authority and restoring order are virtually nil, so we may simply be watching the flailings of a desperate man.

Alternatively, he may be hoping to persuade Yemenis that he is the only person who can save them from catastrophe (a catastrophe, incidentally, that is largely of his own making). Whether they will buy that, after all that has happened, remains to be seen. If they don't, the turmoil could be bloody and prolonged.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 May 2011. Comment.

Saleh's childish antics

Despite intense diplomatic pressure from the Gulf Cooperation Council, the United States and the EU, and despite verbal undertakings that he would finally sign the Yemen "transition" deal, President Saleh battled through Sunday without letting his pen touch the paper.

Instead, he brought his own thugs and supporters on to the streets to protest against the agreement. Roads were blocked, citizens were intimidated by armed men and a number of foreign ambassadors, including those of the US and Britain, were temporarily beseiged by a mob at the UAE embassy. When it became clear that Saleh was not going to sign, the GCC's mediator flew back to Riyadh empty-handed – for a second time.

Meanwhile, Saleh insisted that he would only sign the document if opposition parties came to his palace to sign it in his presence (they had already signed it, very publicly, the day before).
Saleh then made a speech suggesting that the result of this impasse could be civil war – and if that happened it would be the fault of the opposition parties.

The next moves are anybody's guess, but the childish presidential antics on Sunday demonstrated – very visibly – that Saleh cannot be trusted and further diplomatic efforts will have to proceed on that basis. It is to be hoped that there will be no more attempts to salvage the "transition" plan. The idea of a phased resignation process for Saleh always looked unworkable and he has demonstrated beyond any doubt that he has no intention of going through with it. 

It is also obvious that the longer he stays in office the worse the situation in Yemen is likely to get, and diplomatic processes should now be re-focused towards securing his immediate departure.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 May 2011. Comment.

Yemen: a fresh start or more of the same?

Today is the 21st birthday of the Republic of Yemen, formed when the separate northern and southern states agreed to merge. May 1990 was a brief moment of hope in Yemen's history. Newspapers and new political parties proliferated, unhampered by government restrictions, and shortly afterwards Yemen became the first country in the Arabian pensinsula to hold competitive elections under universal suffrage.

Needless to say, those early hopes were not fulfilled. Politics aside, Yemen today is on the brink of becoming a failed state and its economic predicament is dire. By no means all of Yemen's problems can be laid at the door of President Saleh – even at the best of times it is a difficult country to govern – but many of them can. During the last few years especially, he has become increasingly domineering and more focused on clinging to power than on governing properly. Even if he served a useful purpose at one time, he clearly doesn't now.

On Saturday, opposition parties signed the "transition" deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council which provides for Saleh's departure, and there are expectations that Saleh himself will sign it today.

Saleh has balked at signing once before but this time, under pressure from the US, it seems likely that he will do so, despite his wild protestations that the result will be a takeover by al-Qaeda. There also seems to be sufficient international pressure now to ensure that once he has signed he will have to go through with his resignation; he will not be able to wriggle out of it as he had probably hoped.

Apart from the disgraceful inclusion of immunity from prosecution in the GCC deal, the most contentious issue is whether Saleh's resignation on GCC terms will actually amount to regime change. Protesters on the streets are accusing the official opposition of betrayal and on Twitter the deal has been described as "a coup for Saudi Arabia".

There is a lot to be said for that view. The Saudi-dominated GCC, while accepting that Saleh must go, is determined to ensure that it happens with minimal upheaval – and without drastic changes in the way the country is run it is difficult to see how Yemen's problems can be seriously tackled.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 May 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 10.00 BST, 22 May: Tweets from Yemen say Saleh is prevaricating again. Apparently he will not sign unless opposition parties come to the palace and sign again in his presence. The opposition parties are refusing, since they have already signed.

Saleh's antics at this stage will not do him any good. They are simply going to annoy the GCC and the US, leading to more international pressure for him to go.

Saudi woman arrested for driving

Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old Saudi activist campaigning for women's right to drive, was detained by traffic police and the religious police on Saturday after being spotted driving in Khobar. She was released after six hours but there were reports early on Sunday that she had been arrested again, along with her brother, when police arrived at their home.

Sharif is one of the founders of a group called Women2Drive which has more than 12,000 supporters on Facebook and more than 6,000 followers on Twitter.

The group's YouTube page says:

"On June 17th, 2011 ... We women in Saudi Arabia, from all nationalities, will start driving our cars by ourselves. 

"We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities, we are here to claim one of our simplest rights.

"We have driver's licence and we will abide by the traffic laws.

"We started teaching ladies how to drive, and we'll help them get international driver's licence until we are able to get Saudi driver's licence.

"We are collecting signatures from both genders to inform King Abdullah of this initiative.

"Enough with the talk ... we are here to walk the talk and just do it ... it's about time!"

There is no law against women driving in Saudi Arabia. Some women do drive in rural areas but it is almost impossible for women to obtain a licence in the kingdom – hence the plan to use international licences.

The Saudi authorities generally say that women's driving is 
a social issue rather than a political or religious one, since the objections come mainly from male traditionalists.

For more discussion, see Saudiwoman's Weblog.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 May 2011. Comment.

Syria: a defining moment

On Thursday, President Obama called on the Syrian government to "stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests". President Assad has a choice, he said: to lead the country through transition "or get out of the way". 

On Friday, Assad gave his reply. His forces continued to fire on demonstrators and as many as 30 may have been killed (though estimates vary).

Assad's answer could not have been clearer. He has made his choice and will now have to be treated, by the US at least, as beyond redemption. In that respect, Friday's events can be viewed as a defining moment in the Syrian uprising.

But they were also a defining moment in another sense because, just as it appeared that the regime might by gaining the upper hand, the street protests showed renewed vigour. Details, along with several video clips, can be found here

Considering all the previous killings and the mass arrests, this is remarkable. What it shows is that the protests in Syria are not going to die down, as in Bahrain. Suppression has failed and the regime will now have to contend with expressions of public discontent for as long as it remains in power.

It is difficult to envisage how the regime will cope with that. Repression is the only tool that it uses with any efficiency, and it has always been slow to adapt to changing circumstances. The realisation that it is incapable of maintaining control in the way that it used to do may take a while to sink in. When it finally does, we can expect cracks to appear among the regime's elite.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 May 2011. Comment.

Youth, 17, faces execution in Egypt

One regressive trend in Egypt since the overthrow of President Mubarak is that civilians are increasingly being tried by the military. Military courts have "almost entirely supplanted the civilian judiciary for criminal prosecution", according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

On Monday, the Supreme Military Court issued death sentences against for people accused of kidnapping and assaulting a young woman. One of the four sentenced to death is a minor aged 17 – which, as EIPR points out, contravenes both Egyptian law and international law.

"The death sentence issued against the minor ... illustrates the ignorance of the military judiciary in civil and criminal law alike," a legal officer for EIPR said.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 May 2011. Comment.

Reflections on the Arab protests

Michael Hudson, Professor of International Relations at Georgetown University, has written a lengthy essay reflecting on the current wave of Arab protests. It ends with a series of challenges for Middle East analysts: five points of "conventional wisdom" that need to be re-examined. They are:

(1) The "durability of authoritarianism". How valid now is the argument that mukhabarat states can keep several steps ahead of societal opposition through better access to and use of new technologies of information and repression? 

(2) Democratisation is an inappropriate goal and impossible to achieve in the Arab world. Were the so-called "demo-crazy" analysts really so blinded by their presumed liberal preferences? 

(3) Populations are passive – anaesthetised by the opium of the rentier state or bowed down by the burdens of daily life or cowed by fear of the mukhabarat. How then to explain the extraordinary massive popular protests? 

(4) Arab nationalism is dead; people are reverting to their primordial affiliations. But how then to explain the so-called "contagion effect" of the Tunisian and Egyptian upheavals? Facebook alone did not cause them. 

(5) The Middle East regional system is essentially stable; states still are the prime units; the regional balance of power is stable; and the system is still encased in American hegemony. But how then to explain the strategic setback suffered by the United States and Washington’s apparent inability to manipulate the new situation.

These are important questions that readers may like to reflect upon. I won't comment on them myself just now, except to say that we should be wary of trying to fit things into old frameworks. For example, I think it's fair to say that Arab nationalism, in the old anti-colonial sense, is pretty much dead and that people are probably not "reverting to their primordial affiliations". Instead, we are seeing a revival of Arab consciousness, with a stronger feeling of shared identity. Call that nationalism if you like, but it's different in character from traditional Arab nationalism.

Meanwhile, I shall be presenting some of my own reflections on the Arab uprisings in a talk at York University on Wednesday and I'll also post them here later in the week.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 May 2011. Comment.

Jordan: the failure to reform

It was in February 1999 that King Abdullah II came to the throne in Jordan. The following July, Mohammed VI became king of Morocco, and a year later Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as president of Syria.

At the time, all three were hailed as a new generation of modern Arab leaders but, more than a decade later, those hopes seem badly misplaced. Of the three, the Moroccan king has probably fared best, though even he is still promising reforms that ought to have been accomplished years ago.

The king of Jordan has never been short of reform initiatives either. He has been announcing them, one after another, throughout his reign but they have delivered very little. In some areas – such as corruption and civil liberties – the country is probably worse off now than it was in the beginning.

In a new paper for the Carnegie Endowment, Marwan Muasher (a former deputy prime minister of Jordan) examines the various initiatives and explains why they failed. His conclusions, though, are relevant way beyond Jordan: they highlight familiar obstacles to reform throughout the region.

One important point is that Arab regimes are not good at managing change or dealing with the inevitable resistance to it from vested interests. Muasher writes:

"It is clear that Jordan’s political establishment has no interest in implementing the king’s explicit orders to move ahead on political reform and, in most cases, took measures that set the process back ...

"The king’s own policies on political reform – often aimed at striking a balance between the traditional elements and the reformers – have not borne fruit, and almost always resulted in appeasing traditional elements at the expense of reform. 

"Reform needs reformers who are cognisant of the need for an orderly, gradual process but are also committed to a serious roadmap that would lead to true power-sharing through strong legislative and judicial bodies. 

"The selection of several prime ministers did not lead to serious progress on reform, precisely because they were neither true believers in its value, nor did they have a critical mass of reformers inside their governments able to counterbalance the traditional elements who wanted to preserve the status quo at all costs."

Muasher quotes King Abdullah, in an interview last year, lamenting the lack of progress:

"Sometimes you take two steps forward, one step back. There is resistance to change. There is a resistance to ideas. When we try to push the envelope, there are certain sectors of society that say this is a Zionist plot to sort of destabilise our country, or this is an American agenda. So, it’s very difficult to convince people to move forward."

My own view of this is that when people think reform is a Zionist plot, the government has only itself to blame: if it had made the case properly, the public would ridicule such ideas rather than believing them. The trouble is that most Arab regimes don't take the public into their confidence about what needs to be done and why, or allow the public to discuss it openly amongst themselves – with the result that weird conspiracy theories go unchallenged. 

This is not helped in Jordan's case (or most other Arab countries for that matter) by restrictions on the media and non-governmental organisations. To manage change successfully, you need open and informed debate: conspiracy theories will always flourish in the absence of credible information.

Muasher also argues that attempts to put economic liberalisation in Jordan ahead of political reform (as various other countries such as Syria and Egypt have done) did not succeed either. He writes:

"While it is easy to argue that citizens want bread before freedom, economic liberalisation took place without the development of a system of checks and balances and resulted in the benefits of economic reform being usurped by an elite few. To the average citizen, neither bread nor freedom was attained. 

"As a result, the public has come to view liberalisation and globalisation negatively. Economic reform must be accompanied by political reform, such that institutional mechanisms of accountability are developed to monitor excesses and ensure benefits are made available to all."

Muasher's final point is that Arab regimes have been trying to embrace reform – or at least talking about doing so – without ceding any of their power:

"The political elite must recognise that the only way they can retain power is by sharing it, and governments will have to acknowledge that substituting serious implementation with reform rhetoric fools no one. 

"The choice in Jordan seems to be similar to that of other countries around it: either lead a reform process from above in a gradual, orderly, and serious way, or watch it take place in the streets below with uncontrolled consequences."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 May 2011. Comment.

Renewed pressure on Yemeni president

President Saleh came under renewed pressure on Friday to accept the Yemen "transition" plan proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The US and several EU countries have now declared their backing for the plan. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Friday:

"We call on the parties to sign and implement the terms of the agreement now to ensure an orderly, peaceful transition of power.

"This transition must begin immediately in order for the Yemeni people to realise their aspirations for a brighter and more prosperous future."

Saleh had been expected to sign the agreement – which requires his resignation – at the end of April but he prevaricated at the last minute. Given the additional western pressure now, the withdrawal of Qatar from the mediation process (whose involvement Saleh had been objecting to) and reports of a rapidly worsening economic situation inside Yemen, he may be finally induced to sign.

The "transition" plan itself leaves a lot to be desired (see previous blog post) and provides considerable scope for Saleh to further delay his departure. 

Controversially, the plan also includes granting Saleh immunity from prosecution. On Thursday, Human Right Watch issued 
another statement objecting to immunity "in light of repeated, lethal attacks by his security forces on peaceful protesters".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 May 2011. Comment.

Gaddafi, Assad or Salih: who will go first?

Following the comparatively swift exits of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, we now have three Arab leaders who face serious challenges to their power but are proving more much difficult to dislodge: Gaddafi in Libya, Salih in Yemen and Assad in Syria. Which of them, I wonder will be the next to go – and when?

The Syrian uprising is the most recent – it began in the middle of March – and my gut feeling is that it will not succeed quickly. The Assad regime could easily survive into next year, if not for longer, though it is unlikely ever to recover from the blow to its authority.

"The regime will dig in its heels and fight to the end," Joshua Landis writes on his blog. But he continues:

"The Syrian opposition has successfully established a culture of resistance that is widespread in Syria and will not be eliminated. Even if demonstrations can be shut down for the time being, the opposition will not be defeated. Syria’s youth, long apolitical and apathetic, is now politicised, mobilised, and passionate. All the same, the opposition remains divided and leaderless, which presents great dangers for a post-Assad Syria."

In Yemen, where protests directed specifically against the president began during the second half of January, Salih has been playing his usual wily game. he has already agreed to go, but he keeps finding reasons why he should stay a bit longer. Protected by his Republican Guard, he seems to have decided that street protests alone – even if millions take part in them – are not going to dislodge him.

This has led to many predictions that the result will be armed conflict. But there is also a possibility that the economy will bring him down.

The Chinese news agency, Xinhua, has a grim report today which quotes the Yemeni oil minister as saying economic collapse is "imminent".

The report says Yemen's oil production "has been halved in recent weeks after producers pulled out their staff and halted output, which led to the closure of the country's sole refinery in Aden". 

The minister, Amir Salim al-Aydarus, blamed this mainly on "sabotage", though he also acknowledged the role played by "political deadlock".

"The sabotage and destruction by outlaws on oil and gas pipelines as well as electricity lines exacerbated the economic situation," Aydarus is reported as saying. "If the problem persists, the government will be unable to meet the minimum needs of the citizens. The situation will pose a catastrophe beyond imagination."

In Libya, where the rebellion began in mid-February, there has been much talk of a prolonged stalemate – though I'm sceptical about that. Judging by recent reports, the rebels are gradually consolidating their position while the Gaddafi regime is being slowly worn down by the Nato bombing and other factors. When the time comes, it could collapse quite suddenly.

The course of events in Libya is now largely in the hands of outside forces, unlike Syria and, to a lesser extent, Yemen (where the GCC countries are involved diplomatically), and my reading of the situation is that western powers are in no great hurry to see Gaddafi go. After more than 40 years in power, another few months is neither here nor there, so it's better to keep him pinned down in Tripoli until the rebels have properly got their act together and are capable of running the show.

One way or another, all three regimes – in Libya, Yemen and Syria – are on the slide. In any of these countries, unforeseen events such as assassination or a coup could hasten their demise but as things stand at the moment it looks like a toss-up as to whether Salih or Gaddafi will be the first to go.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 May 2011. Comment.

Licensed to discuss literature

Will the Saudi regime ever understand that this is not a legitimate role for governments? The Ministry of Culture has just approved a set of rules for the "licensing" (i.e. control) of literary clubs, Arab News reports:

"The bylaws stipulate that a literary club should be licensed by the ministry and should have the primary goal of promoting Arabic literary and cultural activities with a stress on highlighting cultural and literary production and history in the region where the club is working in particular and of the kingdom in general."

Along with other stipulations about how such clubs should conduct their activities, the new rules require any club to have 10 board members and set the annual membership fee for voting members at 300 riyals ($80) for voting members.

It goes on:

Board members will elect their chairmen, deputy chairmen, administrative managers and finance managers under the supervision of the ministry. The chairman of the board should be at least 30 years old and the board’s term will be for four years.

With the resignation of half of the members, including the chairman, at a single go and with the permission of the ministry the board will be dissolved.

Why on earth should anyone need a licence to discuss literature? And why can't literary clubs organise their affairs themselves? The answer, presumably, is that nanny – in the shape of the Saudi culture ministry – always knows what's best for you.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 May 2011. Comment.

UAE's 'preventive' crackdown

Since the Arab uprisings began, the United Arab Emirates has seen little or no popular unrest – and the authorities seem determined to keep it that way by cracking down on possible sources of dissent.

In the words of Human Rights Watch, "The government is reacting to domestic criticisms by banning websites, detaining peaceful activists, and intensifying its chokehold on civil society."

On April 12, the social affairs minister dissolved the elected board of the Jurist Association and replaced them with government appointees. This was done under a law (of a kind which a lot of the other Arab countries also possess) restricting the activities of civil society organisations.

The Jurist Association is a prominent and long-established body in the UAE, set up in 1980 to promote the rule of law and raise standards in the legal profession. 

The dismissal of its board came just a few days after it signed a petition, along with three other NGOs, calling for political reform.

On Monday, it was the turn of the Teachers' Association – one of the other organisations that had signed the petition. Again, the social affairs minister dismissed its board and replaced them with government appointees.

There have also been a number of arrests of individual activists. On April 25, the attorney general announced that five people had been taken into "preventive custody" for misbehaviour that included "opposing the government system, and insulting the President, the Vice-President and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi". 

The five are: Ahmed Mansoor, a blogger and rights activist who was arrested on April 8; Nasser bin Ghaith, an economics lecturer who had criticised the UAE authorities for failing to make significant political reforms, and three other online activists – Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis, and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 May 2011. Comment.

Yemen 'transition' deal is a non-starter

The Gulf Cooperation Council said on Sunday that it will send its secretary-general, Abdul-Latif al-Zayani, back to Yemen for more talks following the aborted mission on Saturday when he was publicly snubbed by President Saleh.

Saleh has been refusing to sign a "transition" agreement negotiated by the GCC (with American and EU backing) which would involve him stepping down eventually in return for immunity from prosecution.

It is to be hoped that the GCC will not waste much more time over this, because the sooner the agreement is abandoned, the better it will be for everyone. 

As it stands, the agreement is virtually unworkable and Saleh is now adding all sorts of conditions which cannot be met – thus providing a pretext for him to stay in power.

Saleh's re-interpretation of the plan, according to the ruling party's newspaper, is that once a national unity government has been appointed, "sit-ins, marches and rebellion" must cease and "elements causing the crisis" must leave the country (plus various other things) before implementation of the agreement can proceed further. These are impossible demands, since basically they require a state of tranquillity that Yemen has not seen for years.

All this prevarication is extremely damaging to Yemen. Aside from the issue of Saleh's presidency, the country faces multiple crises needing urgent attention – not least of them the provision of adequate food and water – and the international Friends of Yemen group, set up last year to provide aid, is currently in limbo.

It has reached the stage where none of these other problems can be tackled properly while Saleh remains in power. The US and the GCC countries are understandably worried about what will happen after Saleh goes, but those fears have probably 
been exaggerated and the longer the current turmoil continues the more difficult it will be to manage the aftermath.

It's time for the US and others to grasp the nettle and tell Saleh they are not going to work with him any longer and that for the sake of his country he should go – now.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 May 2011. Comment.

Saleh quibbles over Yemen transition

The Yemeni "transition" agreement negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council is falling apart even sooner than expected. 
Fearing a coup in his absence, President Saleh is refusing to go to Riyadh with opposition parties for the signing ceremony.

On Saturday, he was visited in Sana'a by Abdullatif al-Zayani, secretary-general of the GCC, who was seeking to persuade him. But according to CNN the meeting was cut short and  Zayani "appeared visibly angry as he passed reporters and refused to answer questions en route to his plane." (The Yemen Times says the meeting never even began, because Saleh refused to see Zayani in person and sent representatives instead.)

Saleh is apparently still saying he will sign it, but only in Sana'a and only in his capacity as head of Yemen's ruling party, not as head of state.

This might seem a technical point, but the agreement is meant to provide a mechanism for Saleh's departure from the presidency, not from his party, and his quibbling about signatures is a further sign that he is looking for any excuse to wriggle out.

This is embarrassing for the GCC, though they don't deserve much sympathy for putting forward such a wretched deal in the first place. It's also embarrassing for the US, which had hailed the agreement as "historic" and urged the protesters on the streets to calm down.

Even if Saleh can be cajoled into signing during the next few days, it's already very clear that Saleh has no intention of seeing the agreement implemented – so it's better to let it fail now than to string out the process.

With luck, the US and other countries will finally realise that the deal was never going to work and that some serious diplomatic pressure is needed to tell Saleh to stop killing protesters – and leave.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 May 2011. Comment.

Readers' favourites

It's the start of a new month, so here are the top 10 readers' favourites from April (based on Twitter clicks):

1. Bahrain: dialogue of the deaf  April 20
2. Foul play in Saudi Arabia  April 10 
3. Egyptian accused of insulting the army April 5 
4. Bahrain newspaper chief dies in custody April 17 
5. Dιjΰ vu in Egypt April 12 
6. Syria: Assad has sealed his fate April 23 
7. Bahrain 'sting' against newspaper April 12 
8. Syria: the neglected rebellion April 2 
9. Syria: the bloody road ahead April 9 
10. Obama on Qatar April 17 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 May 2011. Comment.

Previous blog posts




May 2011

A road to change in Saudi Arabia?

Yemen's military turn against Saleh

Hassan Nasrallah on Syria

Yemen: will Saudis intervene?

Yemen on the brink of catastrophe

Saleh's childish antics

Yemen: a fresh start or more of the same?

Saudi woman arrested for driving

Syria: a defining moment

Youth, 17, faces execution in Egypt

Reflections on the Arab protests

Jordan: the failure to reform

Renewed pressure on Yemeni president

Gaddafi, Assad or Salih: who will go first?

Licensed to discuss literature

UAE's 'preventive' crackdown

Yemen 'transition' deal is a non-starter

Saleh quibbles over Yemen transition

Readers' favourites


Blog archive

All blog posts

General topics

Saudi Arabia 


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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 31 May, 2011