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Treading water in Bahrain

Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Bahrain on Friday, protesting at the outcome of the government's "national dialogue" which they say will not deliver far-reaching reforms. For news reports, see al-Jazeera, the Daily Star and the Financial Times.

The dialogue – widely viewed as window-dressing for the regime – was established in the wake of large-scale civil unrest in Bahrain earlier this year which was quelled through repression and the arrival of Saudi troops.

Earlier this week, a report from the International Crisis Group warned:

"The regime-decreed 'national consensus dialogue' runs the risk of becoming an exercise in treading water, while creating the illusion of forward movement, mostly for external consumption. The forum is far from being truly inclusive and can therefore not accomplish a national consensus on any of the topics under discussion. Nor does it provide for dialogue."

The ICG also quoted an "informed observer" as saying:

"Ultimately, stability in Bahrain will require social reconciliation and political restructuring. The National Dialogue will not deliver this, and it may in fact work to undermine the prospects for national reconciliation and reform …

"The National Dialogue transforms citizens insisting on their political rights into subjects petitioning the King. It is a parody of the opposition’s key demand: a constitutive assembly to realise a genuine constitutional monarchy, a system where elected representatives in a fully empowered legislative assembly could effectively hold such a 'national dialogue' and actually have the popular legitimacy and political clout to deliver on it."

The ICG's report, incidentally, is probably the most comprehensive account of the recent unrest yet published (running to more than 20,000 words), along with detailed analysis of the political issues and suggestions for a way forward.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 July 2011. Comment.


Misery of the housemaids (15)

This is the time of year when many families in Saudi Arabia are looking for extra help with domestic chores during the month of Ramadan – and many of them will be hiring housemaids from the Philippines or South-East Asia. It's a process that can lead to misery and even tragedy – some of which I have documented in this blog during the last couple of years.

On Wednesday, the Jeddah-based Arab News published a strong editorial calling for "the whole system of hiring maids in Saudi Arabia" to be reformed, along with changes in the attitudes of employers. It's worth quoting at length:

The way some Saudis treat their maids is outrageous and has given Saudi Arabia a bad name. They beat them and force them to work all hours, every day of the week, every week of the year while there have been some cases of sexual abuse too. Such behaviour should be punished with the full force of the law. Yet it seems at times that the legal system favours not the maid but the abuser, especially if he or she is a Saudi.

As for the complaint that some "run away", the very phrase denotes a sense of ownership. It is arrogant. Prisoners and slaves run away, not employees.

Given the way some maids are treated by their employers, it is hardly surprising they flee. They do so because they are abused and/or badly paid ...

Earlier this week, we published an article from a local Arabic paper in which the writer complained that maids were now in a position to demand more than SR2,000 [$533] a month because of disputes with their home countries over their treatment. He also alleged that "most housemaids" vanish after stealing valuable objects. He himself had had two maids "run away". The article has created quite a considerable stir, and rightly so.
There are those who pay their maids far less than a thousand riyals a month for a seven-day week, working from six in the morning till late at night — SR800 is quite common. This is not acceptable. Frankly even SR2,000 a month is unacceptable. How many Saudis would work all hours for that? 

... Maids are not slaves. They are human beings and should be treated with dignity and respect — and part of that respect is a decent salary. As it stands the present system of employing maids is fundamentally rotten, not least the practice of not paying them for the first six months or more in case they disappear. The whole system needs government attention and changes in the law.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 July 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 4 August: The couple were later jailed for one year each.


Can a British PR firm save Yemen?

Yemen's political crisis has taken a strange new turn with the hiring of one of Britain's leading public relations firms – ostensibly in an attempt to end the impasse.

The company, Bell Pottinger, is working for "an unnamed special entity that has been created within the Yemen government to ensure a transition to newly elected government", according to Guardian journalist Robert Booth:

"It is unclear which part of the government the firm [is working for], but the goal of the communications campaign appears to be in line with a proposal by the Saudi-led Gulf Co-operation Council for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to stand down in return immunity from prosecution.

"The firm is understood not to be working for Saleh, who is recovering in Saudi Arabia following a bomb attack on his compound last month.

"[Lord Bell, the company's chairman] stressed that the objective of his firm's contract is to assist the government through negotiations and within the Yemeni constitution to achieve a peaceful transition to a new government."

What exactly this means in practice, or whether it will actually help, remains to be seen. 

Bell Pottinger, which has some highly controversial customers among its 600 worldwide clients, promotes its services on the basis of developing "better reputations". 

Its website proclaims: "At Bell Pottinger, we understand how to create, build and protect reputations in the modern age."

Last year it was hired by the Mubarak regime in Egypt "to review the ways in which the government communicates with the international media and to advise on how to get the government's messages better understood internationally".

Earlier this year, the company was working for the government of Bahrain at the time of the crackdown on protesters. Reporting on its activites in February, PR Week said:

"Bell Pottinger chairman Lord Bell said that he felt under no pressure to resign the account following the seven killings [of protesters] ...

"Lord Bell commented: 'We work for the Economic Development Board. Whatever happens, the economy has got to grow. We're nothing to do with the constitution, we're nothing to do with Sunnis and Shiites'."

Nevertheless, according to PR Week, the company took on extra responsiblities during the unrest which included "handling media centre enquiries about the protests".

On February 23, Bell Pottinger issued a statement about a meeting between Lord Astor of Hever, undersecretary at the British defence ministry, and Bahrain's crown prince, Sheikh Salman.

The statement claimed: "The UK backs all initiatives taken by the kingdom's leadership to safeguard the country from extremism and internal division, promote national unity and protect the legitimate ruling system advocated by the Bahraini people."

Next day, the British embassy in Bahrain complained that this was "an inaccurate representation of the conversation". Lord Astor had merely supported "peaceful management of the protests" and welcomed the idea of a national dialogue, it said.

In April, Bell Pottinger announced that it had temporarily suspended "most" of its contracts with the Bahrain government.

In a report last year on London as the world's capital of "reputation laundering", Robert Booth wrote:

The doyen of this business is Lord Bell, the chairman of Chime Group, which runs Bell Pottinger. His firm's political contracts include Sri Lanka, where the government was recently accused of war crimes and Madagascar, where he acts for the former president, Marc Ravalomanana, who was forced out following violent clashes and was sentenced in absentia to four years in jail for abuse of office in buying a presidential jet. Bell's position on the ethics of which contracts to take is simple.

"I wouldn't do anything I would do a bad job on," he said. "It is about the direction of travel. I don't choose to sit in judgment on whether they are going fast enough. If the direction of travel is right then I am perfectly happy to help them."

There are plenty of Arab regimes looking for help at the moment. "Almost certainly all this turbulence will result in more contracts," Lord Bell predicted in an interview last March. And if Yemen is anything to judge by, he could be right.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 July 2011. Comment.


Dubai: 'Illicit sex' in the sea

The foreign housemaids employed by countless families throughout the Middle East exist in a sort of social and sexual limbo. They are expected to work for years on end with little opportunity for leisure or the pleasures of the flesh. Often they are treated as asexual beings, though some households view them warily as a possible source of temptation for husbands and teenage sons. 

A lot of employers are reluctant to give domestic staff adequate leisure time for fear of how they may spend it, Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch told me when I was researching my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East

"When you talk to them about guaranteeing a day off where migrant workers can go and do whatever they would like to do – a real day off, not a day off where they basically accompany their employer to the restaurant to take care of the kids, the reaction is: 'You want them to go out and have sex and come back pregnant?' " he said.

Houry continued:

"I was at a meeting with an official from the [Lebanese] ministry of labour and he kept pushing this point and I said: 'You expect someone to stay in Lebanon and live for eight or nine years – you don’t think at some point they will have a desire to have sex?'

"It brings back some of the images of racism in the States that we saw in the 1950s and 1960s – the idea that you deny someone’s sexuality because you don’t really recognise that they might have desires, while at the same time [imagining] that if you somehow let them loose, if you release your control, they are these uber-sexual beings that are going to go and whore the entire Sunday afternoon."

I was reminded of this by the case of a 26-year-old Filipina maid (identified only by the initials MM) who is accused, along with her lover, of having illicit sex in Dubai.

According to a report in The National, MM used to wait until the family were asleep, then sneak out of the house and head off to a nightclub. She met a 25-year-old Pakistani man (identified by the initials GE) and they had sex several times in the sea, where they hoped they would not be caught.

Their affair came to light when MM was found to be pregnant and her sponsor reported her to the police. The court hearing has been adjourned until next week.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 July 2011. Comment.


Lebanese musician arrested over song

  
Lebanese musician Zeid Hamdan was arrested on Wednesday for allegedly defaming President Michel Suleiman in a song. If convicted, he could be jailed for up to two years.

Most Arab countries have laws against insulting – or, in some cases, merely criticising – the head of state. In Egypt, for example, an amateur poet was jailed two years ago for writing verses which were said to have insulted President Mubarak but such cases have generally been rare in Lebanon. In the region's new political climate Hamdan's arrest is being widely viewed as an attack on freedom of speech, and a worrying sign.

Last year, three people were detained in Lebanon for using allegedly slandering the president on Facebook, AFP says, though they were released without charge after 11 days.

According to AFP, Lebanese law requires the general prosecutor to take action over any case of defamation against the president or any "sister state" regardless of whether anyone complains.

Writing in the Daily Star, Emma Gatten says the case was instigated by interior minister Marwan Charbel "after Lebanon's General Security viewed the video of the song ... and determined that it caused offence to the president".

Hamdan was reported to have been released on Wednesday evening and it is unclear if the case will be pursued through the courts.

The song itself (see video above), which has been on YouTube for about 18 months, complains about militias, warlords and corruption but does not appear to insult President Suleiman. It thanks him for his efforts but ends by telling him to "go home".
in an interview last year, Handan said:

"I'm not attacking General Sleiman in particular, on the contrary, at the time I wrote the song, he represented real political neutrality. The only sarcastic thing I suggested in my song is about his effective role, a way of saying 'thank you, you did the job, you can go home now'. He was praised by all when they needed him and today he is attacked, like in the song."

Hamdan, described as the godfather of Lebanese trip-hop, performed at Shubbak, the Arab cultural festival in London, earlier this month.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 July 2011. Comment.


Call to allow civil marriages in Egypt

The thorny issue of religion, marriage and divorce has resurfaced in Egypt. This is something the Mubarak regime promised to sort out last year (but didn't) through a reform of the personal status law for non-Muslims.

Following Mubarak's departure the ruling military council is looking at it again, though it remains to be seen whether this attempt will be any more successful.

The obvious solution – but a contentious one for Egypt – is to allow civil marriages for any couples who prefer that option. On Wednesday, the head of Egypt's Evangelical Church declared himself in favour of civil marriage, though disputes continue within other churches.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 July 2011. Comment.


Assad, the party pooper

Syria's official news agency has released some details of the draft law for political parties which was approved by the cabinet on Sunday. Though hailed by the information minister as "modern" and laying the foundations for a new era of pluralism, the law looks remarkably similar to those found in other Arab states where parties are allowed but strictly regulated by the government. 

According to the draft, Syrian parties must meet various requirements:

1. Commitment to the constitution, principles of democracy and the rule of law, respecting liberties, basic rights, world declarations of human rights and the agreements approved by the Syrian Arab Republic.

2. Preserving the unity of the homeland and bolstering society's national unity.

3. Making public the principles, goals, methods and funding of a party.

4. A party cannot be based on religious, tribal, regional, denominational, or profession-related basis or on the basis of discrimination due to ethnicity, gender or race.

5. A party's formation, selection of leadership and commencement of activities must be carried out using democratic basis.

6. A party's methods must not include establishing public or covert military or paramilitary formations, nor must it use violence of any kind, threaten with it, or instigate it.

7. A party cannot be a branch of a non-Syrian party or political organisation, not can it be affiliated to one.

Although some of these rules may seem unobjectionable in themselves, stipulations of this kind conflict with basic democratic principles since it is the task of voters, not the authorities, to determine whether a party is suitable for election.

Any opposition party worth its salt would fall foul of Requirement No 1 – "commitment to the constitution" – which appears to say that they must accept the constitution as it stands. The Syrian constitution desperately needs overhauling, and especially Article 8 which says "The leading party in the society and the state is the Socialist Arab Baath Party." No other party can reasonably be expected to accept that.

Similarly, the obligation on parties to "bolster society's national unity" is extremely vague and open to abuse. Parties that oppose the government could easily be accused of damaging national unity – and shut down as a result.

Requirement No 4 seems designed to keep Islamist and Kurdish nationalist parties at bay. While parties based around religion or tribes are definitely not a good idea (in my opinion), voters should still be given the right to accept or reject them. Prohibiting them serves no useful purpose because, as experience elsewhere has shown, Islamist will simply operate in disguise if necessary or stand as "independent" candidates.

(Incidentally, as an article in The National points out, this rule could also make the ruling Baath party illegal unless it drops the word "Arab" from its full title and amends its constitution.)

As in other Arab countries, Syrian political parties will need a permit from the authorities in order to function. The registration process was described by the justice minister in the official news agency's report:

"On applying for establishing a party, the minister said that the application should be referred to the committee with the signature of 50 of its members, adding that the members should be of Syrian nationality for more than 10 years, over 25 years old, not convicted of an offence or felony, and not a member of another Syrian or foreign party.

"He indicated that the minimum number of any party members should be 1,000, and that they should belong to at least half of the Syrian governorate with each governorate represented by at least 5% of the overall number of members.

"The minister pointed out that the committee will decide, within 60 days from receiving the application, whether to accept or reject the application, and that rejection will be accompanied by an explanation.

"He added that in case the committee fails to decide within that period, the application will be considered accepted, and in case the application is rejected, the applicants can object within 15 days and the court will have 60 days to reach a decision."

Again, this broadly follows the practice adopted in other (unreformed) Arab countries. The requirement to be "not convicted of an offence or felony" clearly applies to common criminals but it appears also to prevent former political prisoners from establishing parties.

Most established democracies have systems for registering political parties but registration is often voluntary and confers certain benefits, such as protecting the party’s name and logo from imitations. Registration in these countries is normally a straightforward and apolitical process: in Britain, all it requires is some basic information such as the party’s name and address, and the name and address of its leader and nominating officer. 

There is nothing to suggest that registration of parties formed under Syria's proposed new law will be automatic. It seems that the authorities will be at liberty to reject any application, so long as they give reasons. 

The principle of registration by default (in the absence of a reply) is also found in several other countries in connection with the registration of NGOs. It's an odd practice, which seems designed to give the authorities the option of kicking organisations into a legal limbo rather than rejecting their applications outright.

This is what happened with Helem, the Lebanese LGBT organisation. In the absence of any response from the authorities to its application, it became technically registered but without a registration number. Among other things, the lack of a registration number meant it was unable to open a Lebanese bank account. 

In Tunisia, under Ben Ali, officials would circumvent the legal time limit by refusing to give receipts when NGOs applied to register. A report by the US State Department described this as routine practice: "Without such a receipt, NGOs were unable to counter the government’s assertions that they had not applied to register and therefore were not allowed to operate. In such cases NGOs could be shut down, their property seized, and their members prosecuted for 'membership in an illegal organisation'."

In Syria's case, all this may be somewhat academic because unless circumstances on the ground change very dramatically the party law is unlikely ever to become operational. What it shows though, as with the earlier new law permitting (but restricting) demonstrations, is that President Assad's idea of "reform" is to introduce outdated measures that other Arab countries adopted years ago and which are now increasingly being rejected by their citizens.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 July 2011. Comment.


Saudi citizenship campaign

There's a new campaign in Saudi Arabia to tackle yet another form of discrimination against women – this time relating to nationality.

Saudi women who are married to foreigners do not automatically pass on Saudi nationality to their children. Their sons can acquire Saudi citizenship at the age of 18 but daughters cannot acquire it unless they marry a Saudi man.

When Saudi men marry foreigners, however, their children – both male and female – are granted Saudi citizenship at birth.

A Facebook campaign was launched earlier this month and two Saudi human rights organisations, the Human Rights Commission and the National Society for Human Rights are also seeking to change the rules.

An article in Arab News gives some examples of problems caused by the current system. Fawziyah Saad, organiser of the Facebook campaign, is a widowed mother of eight children. Her late husband was a Yemeni relative whom she had married with permission from the interior ministry.

Without Saudi citizenship, her daughters are now finding it impossible to obtain work as they grow up.

"My eldest daughter who topped her class at King Saud University was not accepted for a teaching position in the university because she was considered a foreigner. My second daughter who studied economics has not been able to find a job. After the death of my husband, I have been trying to take my daughters under my sponsorship to avoid complications but with no success so far," she told the paper.

Another Saudi woman – a single mother who is terminally ill – said she is worried about the fate of her four daughters who were all born in the kingdom and are now at university. "What will happen to my daughters after my death? Will they be deported to the country of their father of whom they know nothing?" she asked.

Judging by the Arab News report, there seems to be a fair amount of sympathy for the children of mixed marriages, though some have responded by calling for tighter restrictions against Saudi women marrying foreigners.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 July 2011. Comment.


The unstoppable revolution

It's a pity that articles in The Economist are unsigned, because I'd like to congratulate whoever wrote an article last week entitled "Revolution spinning in the wind". It's a useful antidote to the spate of articles appearing elsewhere and suggesting that just because of difficulties on the ground the "Arab spring" is grinding to a halt.

The article also calls it the "Arab awakening" rather than the "Arab spring" – a preference that I share. "Awakening" does seem to me a more accurate expression of what is happening: a long and gradual process that will take years, despite the fact that it started with the swift collapse of two long-standing regimes.

"The fall of dictators," the article says, "represents only part of a longer process in which the unspoken aim is to alter radically the balance of power between citizens and their state." 

This is absolutely right. There has been far too much focus in the media on the fate of Arab regimes and not enough attention paid to the underlying processes which are much more fundamental and which (in my view) will prevent one set of dictators simply being replaced by another.

Even so, The Economist has no illusions about the difficulties ahead:

"... the pertinent question is perhaps not so much who will be next to fall but rather, what follows? The answer is not at all clear. The universal inclination of the revolutionary ferment is to create the more open, pluralist, democratic societies that have emerged in much of the world. But after two generations in a political deep freeze, Arabs face special challenges in getting there. 

"Among these are such essential questions as how to frame relations between Islam and the state, how to incorporate ethnic and religious minorities and how to share oil revenues. Many Arab countries also face burdensome administrative legacies. Years of unaccountable rule have left hugely swollen, often venal bureaucracies, creaky courts, nasty security services spoiled by privilege, and publics addicted to unsustainable subsidies for such things as food and energy."

However, despite likely setbacks along the way, the writer is in no doubt about where this awakening is heading:

"... the overall trend towards democratisation is no more stoppable in the Arab world than it has been elsewhere. 'You have to understand that this is not a bunch of different revolutions,' explains a sunken-eyed Syrian student, taking a breather in Lebanon from weeks of protest-organising in Damascus. 'This is one big revolution for all the Arabs. It will not stop until it reaches everywhere'."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 July 2011. Comment.


Murdoch's Ben Ali moment?

For the last couple of weeks my attention has been divided between the uprisings in the Middle East and an affair much closer to home: the unfolding storm around Rupert Murdoch and News International (part of News Corp).

Murdoch is the most powerful media figure in the English-speaking world, with interests in Britain, the US and Australia plus others elsewhere. Though once regarded as unassailable, he now reminds me more and more of ex-presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak as the growing scandal moves steadily closer to the top.

There are some striking parallels. Murdoch runs his media empire in much the same way that Arab rulers run their countries: autocratically. News Corp is a public company but, since his family owns a crucial block of voting shares, there isn't much need to worry about what other shareholders think.

Like many an Arab ruler, Murdoch has held power for far too long. He's now 80 years old but, in the hallowed tradition of Arab leaders, has a son – James – waiting in the wings to inherit his throne. 

The Murdoch name inspires both awe and fear. Politicians have often been reluctant to stand in his way and many of his employees live in constant fear for their jobs.

This culture of fear, which kept Murdoch on top for many a year, now looks like becoming his nemesis. Journalists at the News of the World – his British Sunday tabloid – were under such pressure to deliver spectacular stories that some of them, aided by a private detective, began hacking the voicemails of celebrities, as well as paying the police for information.

An affair began in a small way several years ago with the jailing of what was wrongly claimed to be a single rogue reporter has now burst open with a series of arrests and resignations – including two of Britain's most senior police officers – and raising uncomfortable questions about the British prime minister's links with the Murdoch empire. This has since spread across the Atlantic to the US, where investigations are also getting under way.

Rupert Murdoch's behaviour in all this has been more than a little reminiscent of Ben Ali in Tunisia – failing to appreciate either the scale of the problem or the groundswell of public opinion against him. In a recent interview with his own Wall Street Journal, he even congratulated himself on his handling of it.

Could a "Ben Ali moment" now be in store for Murdoch? Two weeks ago it seemed unlikely but, judging by some recent American commentary on the way he runs his businesses, his position is looking more precarious. Perhaps the most significant pointer, as in the Arab uprisings, is the breaking of the fear barrier. In the words of one London broker quoted by the Bloomberg news service:

"We'll see more pressure on Murdoch now. One of the things that’s kept people away is that he has a powerful media presence, and people are fearful of crossing swords with him. Much of that fear is gone now."

Murdoch, it need scarcely be said, has had a powerful and often harmful influence on American discourse about the Middle East – through ill-informed commentary on Fox News, some bizarre opinion articles in the Wall Street Journal by Bernard Lewis and others (despite its generally thorough news reporting), and the neoconservatives' house journal, the Weekly Standard.

It's not surprising, therefore, that Melanie Phillips, one of Britain's most outspoken pro-Israel columnists, should be concerned about Murdoch's fate:

"In a western world whose intelligentsia is consumed by irrational and malevolent hatred of America and Israel and is hell-bent on undermining the west and assisting its mortal enemies, Murdoch has provided the one media voice putting forward a pro-America, pro-Israel, pro-defence of the west position – including support for the Iraq war."

Interestingly, though, Ms Phillips didn't mention that News Corp's largest shareholder outside the Murdoch family is the Saudi billionaire, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Murdoch, in turn, also holds a stake in the prince's Rotana media empire.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 July 2011. Comment.


Saudis challenge 'closure for prayer' rule

As the debate about women's right to drive rumbles on in Saudi Arabia, the Jeddah-based Arab News has raised another contentious issue: the forced closure of businesses at prayer times.

Though many in the kingdom are clearly disgruntled by the practice, it is rarely challenged in the Saudi media and the paper's reason for highlighting it just now is unclear – except that its report says "residents in the kingdom have expressed concern" about the closure rule.

One Jeddah resident quoted in the article argues that pharmacies should be allowed to remain open. Another complains of being "stranded without petrol and being delayed on several occasions" because filling stations refused to serve him.

The article points out that this practice is unique to Saudi Arabia – other Gulf states do not apply a similar rule. Even if the intention is to encourage people to pray, it doesn't necessarily have that result: instead of going to the mosque, many workers just hang around smoking outside their workplace until it is time to reopen.

The article has more than 80 comments, many of them opposing any change. One says:

"Why are we raising [an] issue when it is not called for? Why are we attacking our system of life when religion is concern? Isn't it enough that we are being brutally attacked in the west?"

The issue was also discussed on al-Arabiya television last October, when a number of businessmen said that closing for prayer has a negative effect on productivity and causes economic damage.

As with the ban on women's driving, there appears to be no Saudi law that says businesses must close at prayer times: it is simply a custom enforced by the religious police and there seems to be significant public resistance to it. According to al-Arabiya:

"Recent statistics reveal that the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice [the religious police] has 23,710 reported cases of people not praying or not closing down their shops, and the number of detained for violating the these two criteria reached up to 25,000.

"After four warnings if violations [are] found, shops will be closed for 24 hours, and 48 hours if the shop owners were warned for the fifth time. In very rare cases, continuous violations will reach [the] courts."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 July 2011. Comment.


Morocco: how many really voted?

The new Moroccan constitution, endorsed by a referendum on Friday, has had a generally warm and uncritical reception from the US and the EU.

A joint statement from the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and commissioner Stefan Fule described it as "a significant response to the legitimate aspirations of the Moroccan people" while urging "swift and effective implementation of this reform agenda".

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton welcomed it "as a step toward the fulfilment of the aspirations and rights of all Moroccans".

The Moroccan interior ministry is claiming a 98.5% "yes" vote, with voter turnout put at more than 73%.

Although there was never any doubt that the new constitution would be approved, the turnout is important as a general indicator of how much enthusiasm there is for the changes among ordinary voters.

The official turnout figure is strongly disputed by the Moroccan Coalition for Parliamentary Monarchy, according to a report in The National. Based on reports from polling stations, it estimates maximum voter turnout at only 20% in cities and 40% in the countryside, and also claims that some stations were instructed to send blank tally sheets to the interior ministry.

More anecdotally, the Angry Arab blog quotes impressions from a reporter on the ground in Morocco:

"Today I drove through 470km of Morocco in order to have a good look of the referendum. ALL places I passed where people ought to cast their votes were empty, and I'm talking about these places: Driouch, al-Hoceima, Bni Boueyash, Imzouren, Guercif, Taza, Oudamlil and Khmessat. 

"People I talked too were quite indifferent. I listened to the radio all day in the car ... and everyone on air was excited, as if Morocco is at the threshold of a new democratic era. All people interviewed by the various radio stations went to the polls or were about to go and all were unanimously in favor of the new great constitution which will put Morocco at par with 'advanced' countries such as Spain, Brazil, Holland and Great Britain ..."

The official turnout figure does look implausibly high, especially since the outcome was not in doubt, and a rigged tally would not augur well for the sincerity of the king's proposed "reforms". Just for comparison, turnout in the recent Egyptian referendum on amending the constitution was put at 41%, with 77% voting in favour. 

As I noted earlier, the new constitution (full text here in French) does have some good points, though it remains to be seen whether the referendum will really amount to a vote "to curb the king". The test will be how it is applied in practice – and some are extremely dubious about that.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 July 2011. Comment.


Readers' favourites

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

1. Syria and the Gay Girl mystery June 11 
2. Rise of the Muslim Sisterhood? June 16 
3. Royal charity fights homosexuality in Qatar June 24 
4. Medical intervention in Yemen  June 5 
5. 'Gay Girl' unmasked as a hoax June 13 
6. Yemen: Family rift over Saleh's resignation June 26 
7. Morocco: King maps out a new constitution June 18 
8. Jordan: Anti-corruption journalist jailed June 2 
9. Saudi Arabia: reclaiming the roads June 17 
10. A bird’s-eye view of Saudi Arabian theatre June 2 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 July 2011. Comment.


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July 2011

Treading water in Bahrain

Misery of the housemaids

Can a British PR firm save Yemen?

Dubai: 'Illicit sex' in the sea

Lebanese musician arrested over song

Call to allow civil marriages in Egypt

Assad, the party pooper

Saudi citizenship campaign

The unstoppable revolution

Murdoch's Ben Ali moment?

Saudis challenge 'closure for prayer' rule

Morocco: how many really voted?

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


  

 
 
 
 
 


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Last revised on 04 August, 2011