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Motorbikes: a moral dilemma for Saudi Arabia

Is it right for Islamic scholars to ride motorbikes? To most people, this is a question of no consequence whatsoever – though not in Saudi Arabia.

During the recent hajj, Sheikh Salman al-Ouda (a somewhat controversial figure) was seen vrooming around on two wheels in an effort to avoid the traffic jams. True to form, this Islamic equivalent of the Trendy Vicar Syndrome has been causing a stir in the conservative kingdom.

In a column for Asharq Alawsat, Dr Hamad al-Majid defends Ouda's behaviour:

"This has aroused stark controversy amongst the social networkers, between those who view this as a form of overcompensation and unworthy of a religious scholar and student, and those who viewed this as normal activities. 

"The latter talk eloquently about the Sheikh and view his actions as being wise and an attempt to break the halo that has been forcibly placed around sheikhs and religious scholars, particularly as this goes beyond the line of appreciation. 

"In other words, this is a situation that is based on customs and traditions, but ultimately not supported by the guidance related by Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, and his Companions and the first generation of the noble Muslims."

Of course, the Prophet never expressed a view on biker sheikhs and Dr Majd's column seems to be a plea for Muslims not to be too rigid when trying to work out what he might have thought of them. He continues: 

"Religious scholars and students are being embarrassed by some actions or behaviours that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, did not find embarrassing. This is perhaps due to a lack of "public understanding or general ignorance. 

This includes some Islamic scholars being [embarrassed] to meet with representatives of other religions, from priests to rabbis, to achieve interests or prevent corruption, such as protecting ethical values and fighting homosexuality ..."

Dr Majd is a former member of the official Saudi National Organisation for Human Rights.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 October 2012. Comment.

Bahrain embarrasses its friends (again)

Less than two weeks after attracting international derision by arresting four young men for "insulting" the king on Twitter, the government of Bahrain is digging itself into another hole – this time by imposing a blanket ban on demonstrations.

A statement from the interior minister said:

"Many Bahrainis are fed up with the violence and lawbreaking that occurs under the heading of 'protest' or 'rally'. Therefore, the government will take legal action to stop all unauthorised rallies until general peace and order returns. This is aimed at restoring national unity, repairing the social fabric and fighting extremism ...

"[Whoever] calls for an illegal rally or gathering, be it an individual or an organisation, will be held accountable for the criminal acts of violence and lawbreaking that occur at the event."

This also follows a mini-lecture from Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority (IAA) at the weekend in which it described freedom of expression as a "catch-phrase" used by activists who don't understand what they are talking about. 

The IAA was responding to an article by Brian Dooley of Human Rights First which began: 

"The Bahraini government seems to understand freedom of expression a bit like Lance Armstrong understands clean cycling. Like Lance, it prefers to play by its own rules and attack critics rather than accept normal standards."

Whether the ban on demonstrations will actually change much on the streets of Bahrain remains to be seen, since most protests in the kingdom are already illegal. A report in IBTimes says:

Activists and academics on Bahrain stress that over the past year there has been a de facto ban on protests.

A permit must be obtained by societies to protest – which the government has made it very difficult to obtain. Strict rules were put on place on what can be done during protests and what can and cannot be said.

"Protests permits are rarely granted in places that would make civil disobedience effective," Marc Owen Jones, member of monitoring and advocacy group Bahrain Watch, told IBTimes UK. "For example, they are prohibited in the nation's capital, Manama."

The main effect of announcing a blanket ban will be further damage to Bahrain's international reputation (a reputation that it has been seeking to improve by employing British and American PR companies).

Western governments, most notably the US and Britain, view Bahrain as a useful ally in the Gulf. Though not totally uncritical of the regime, they try to be "understanding" and accentuate the positive – urging it to press ahead with reform rather than directly condemning its behaviour.

A statement from British foreign secretary William Hague on 11 October after a meeting with the crown prince in London was typical of the usual tone:

"We ... had an open and honest exchange about political reform in Bahrain, which confirmed to me the Crown Prince’s personal commitment to an inclusive political dialogue. I welcomed the recent commitments made by Government of Bahrain last month at the Human Rights Council, in particular to consider ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, and encourage them to take this forward as soon as possible.

"Ahead of the anniversary of the report by the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry, I stressed the importance of implementing its remaining recommendations and urged more progress on political dialogue. It also remains crucial for all political societies in Bahrain to enter into a constructive dialogue, without pre-conditions.

"To ensure the right climate for this, all sides need to condemn violence unequivocally and take steps to reduce tensions. I fully endorse the Crown Prince’s call for an end to the violence and for Bahrainis to unite together to ensure long-term peace and security, and I welcome the steps taken by the King of Bahrain to initiate political dialogue.

"The UK is ready, as a friend and ally of Bahrain, to assist the Bahraini authorities in this process, building on the support we are already giving on judicial reform."

In the light of the ban on demonstrations, and the earlier "Twitter arrests", though, it's becoming ever more difficult to keep up the official pretence that the regime is sincere about reform. Junior Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt seemed to be struggling not to sound ridiculous yesterday when he said:

"I am concerned that the government of Bahrain has decided to ban all rallies and public gatherings until further notice.

"We understand the government's concerns about maintaining law and order, especially when faced with increasingly violent protests, but a blanket ban of this nature is excessive. 

"Peaceful protest is a democratic right. I hope the Bahraini government will rescind this measure as quickly as possible. I also call on protesters to desist from violent protest. Violent acts should be condemned publicly by prominent members in society."

It's hard to imagine the British government using similar language about repressive measures in less UK-friendly countries.

Interestingly, news of the ban on demonstrations coincided with 
the Guardian's revelation that Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, is working with Bahraini government and opposition figures to train them in "negotiation and conflict resolution techniques".

The Guardian says Powell, who now runs an NGO called InterMediate, "was asked to undertake the work when Bahrain approached the UK Foreign Office for help with implementing the recommendations of an independent report on the Gulf state's unrest last year".

The recruitment of Mr Powell looks like – and most probably is – a charade. The cause of Bahrain's problems is not a lack of "conflict resolution techniques" but a lack of will to sort them out. That goes to the very top. Progress will come either when the king decides to let it happen or is removed from his throne. In the meantime, there is no real prospect of reform apart from some tinkering around the edges.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 October 2012. Comment.

Poetic justice, Qatari style

Verbal duelling between poets is an ancient Arabian tradition dating back to pre-Islamic times. Saad Abdullah Sowayan describes its customary form:

"A duelling match involves two poets ... The first poet steps forward and improvises two verses in which he greets the assembled audience and ... at the same time asks a challenger to step forward and face him ...

"The second poet steps forward, returns the greetings, and answers the challenge with two verses of his own, strictly following the rhyme and metre established by the first poet. 

"The first poet in turn retorts with two more verses, the second poet answers back with two new verses, and so on until the end of the match. 

Such contests were not merely displays of linguistic virtuosity. Duelling poets were often real-life antagonists, each representing his own tribe or district, and – since this was entertainment – they were given licence to say things that would not be acceptable in everyday speech. Taunts, insults and even obscenities were part of the genre.

Sowayan adds:

"To prevent any fight that might result from such sharp exchanges of words, a distinguished man of prestige and honour was chosen from every group [in the audience] to guarantee that no harm would be inflicted by any member of his group upon the opposing poet, and he would give his headdress as a token of countenance, wajh, and sincerity. Yet squabbles, even serious fights, could not be avoided on some occasions."

Modern forms of the poetic duel continue in some parts of the Middle East today. One example, last year, was an exchange of verses between two Qatari poets, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami and Khalil al-Shabrami.

Shortly afterwards, Ibn al-Dheeb was arrested on charges of "inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime" and "insulting the Emir". He has now been in jail for almost a year – in solitary confinement according to some accounts.

Under Qatar's penal code, he could face the death penalty on the incitement charge or a five-year sentence for insulting the Emir.

"His trial in Doha's criminal court has been marred by irregularities, with court sessions held in secret," Amnesty International says. "His lawyer reportedly had to provide a written defence of his client after being barred from attending one of the court sessions."

Human Rights Watch says there is no evidence that Ibn al-Dheeb's poetry went beyond the legitimate exercise of his right to free expression, though there were passages that "could be construed as insulting to the Emir". Even so, it points out that criminalising criticism of the Emir violates freedom of speech standards under international law. 

Qatar’s laws, it says, are not only out of step with the international law on freedom of opinion and expression, they are at odds with Qatar’s aspirations to serve as a center for media freedom in the region. 

"International law is unequivocal on the importance of public officials being required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than ordinary citizens. This distinction serves the public interest by making it harder to bring a case against persons for speaking critically of public officials and political figures, thereby encouraging debate about issues of governance and common concern."

Despite the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria, this is a point that the surviving Arab autocrats still fail to grasp. They still think those is power should be more protected from criticism than ordinary citizens, not less.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 October 2012. Comment.

Update: On 29 November Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Update 2: On 25 February 2013, Ibn al-Dheeb's sentence was reduced to 15 years.

Syria and Iraq: the spillover effect

Syria is increasingly becoming a battleground for Iraq's internal politics as Sunni and Shia elements from Iraq join the fray on opposite sides.

The influx of Sunni militants into Syria from across its eastern border has been widely reported, but we have heard far less about their Shia equivalent who are fighting in support of the Assad regime.

A report in the New York Times compiles some of the evidence:

"Dozens of Iraqis are joining us, and our brigade is growing day by day," Ahmad al-Hassani, a 25-year-old Iraqi fighter, said by telephone from Damascus. He said that he arrived there two months ago, taking a flight from Tehran.

According to the report, Iran is facilitating this influx and, to some extent, encouraging it:

According to interviews with Shiite leaders here [in Baghdad], the Iraqi volunteers are receiving weapons and supplies from the Syrian and Iranian governments, and Iran has organised travel for Iraqis willing to fight in Syria on the government’s side.

Iran has also pressed the Iraqis to organise committees to recruit young fighters. Such committees have recently been formed in Iraq’s Shiite heartland in the south and in Diyala Province, a mixed province north of Baghdad.

While some recruits fly to Damascus via Tehran, others arrive in Syria on "pilgrimage" buses. "While the buses do carry pilgrims, Iraqi Shiite leaders say, they are also ferrying weapons, supplies and fighters to aid the Syrian government," the report says.

Abu Mohamed, an official in Babil Province with the Sadrist Trend, a political party aligned with the populist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, said he recently received an invitation from the Sadrists’ leadership to a meeting in Najaf to discuss a pilgrimage to the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, a holy Shiite site in Damascus.

"We knew that this is not the real purpose because the situation is not suitable for such a visit," he said. "When we went to Najaf, they told us it’s a call for fighting in Syria against the Salafis," ultraconservative Sunni Muslims.

A senior Sadrist official and former member of parliament, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that convoys of buses from Najaf, ostensibly for pilgrims, were carrying weapons and fighters to Damascus.

These fighters probably see themselves as defending Shia interests in Syria rather than directly supporting Assad. Juan Cole writes on his blog:

During the Iraq War, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria, and Shiite Iraqis congregated around the shrine. They have largely been ethnically cleansed by hard line Sunnis, seen as foreigners supporting the al-Assad regime, and there are concerns that Wahhabi-influenced Salafis might raze the shrine [of Sayyida Zeinab]. 

By way of background, Cole adds:

Saudi Wahhabis, like early militant Protestants in 16th-century Europe, are iconoclasts who despise the cult of saints, shrines and relics, insisting that only God is holy, and no intercession is possible with Him by third parties. Shiite Muslims, in contrast, are all about saints related to the Prophet Muhammad, and their tombs and shrines, and do believe they will intercede for believers.

Meanwhile, in Iraq itself, AP reports that at least 40 people died on Saturday in a series of attacks primarily directed at the Shia community. Although sectarian violence of this kind is nothing new in Iraq, Cole thinks "it may be continuing in force in part because of the new struggle over the future of Syria".

In a post on the Syria Comment blog, Joshua Landis goes further and suggests that spillover from Syria is affecting Iraq much more than its western neighbour, Lebanon.

As far as Lebanon is concerned, Landis argues plausibly that "spillover" events in Lebanon get more media coverage because there are more western journalists in Beirut than Baghdad. Also, he says, "the threat of spillover in Lebanon is minor compared to Iraq because the sects in Lebanon all acknowledge that none can rule the country without the others". 

Even the most powerful, the Shiites, readily confess that they have no chance of turning Lebanon into an Islamic republic because Lebanon has a form of democracy and the majority is against it. Not only do all the sects buy into the notion of power-sharing, they also know that in Lebanon it is impossible for one group to dominate on the others. They learned these simple truths from decades of barbaric fighting ...

Unlike Lebanon, the various sects of Iraq have not found a modus vivendi. Relations between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq are becoming more vexed as Kurdistan takes ever more steps to assert its independence from Arab Iraq.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 October 2012. Comment.

Saudi Arabia: 'good' protesters, 'bad' protesters

While encouraging the uprising against President Assad's dictatorship in Syria, the Saudi authorities remain very wary of any demonstrations on their own soil.

Small anti-Assad protests popped up last week during the hajj and there were also occasional glimpses of pilgrims waving Syrian revolutionary flags. 

A Syrian revolution flag seen among the umbrellas during the hajj. Hat tip: Nora Basha

At least one demonstration by several hundred pilgrims was dispersed by police, Reuters reports:

Protesters held up rebel flags and marched toward the Jamarat Bridge in Mina, east of the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, where more than three million Muslim pilgrims congregated for the annual hajj.

No one was hurt when two police vehicles drove slowly in the direction of the protesters with the sirens on as the officers asked the crowd through loudspeakers to leave the area. The protesters swiftly dispersed and merged with thousands of other pilgrims in the area, the witness said.

The hajj, of course, is a religious occasion and there are good reasons for keeping politics out of it – though one of the protesters quoted by Reuters argued that their purpose was not political: "It's more of a humanitarian demonstration because the Syrian question has become a humanitarian one." Even so, in Saudi Arabia it's not allowed.

While the Assad regime went through the charade of issuing a law to "license" demonstrations (under conditions that are almost impossible to meet), the Saudi regime hasn't made the slightest move in that direction.

Last year, the Saudi interior ministry announced a total ban "on all kinds of demonstrations, marches and sit-in protests as well as calling for them" – though that still doesn't deter some people from protesting.

Despite this blanket ban, the authorities seem to be making a distinction between "good" and "bad" demonstrations. The anti-Assad protesters at the hajj were treated more gently than might have been expected – presumably because they were expressing a view that accords with Saudi government policy.

It's a different matter when people protest against the government's policies. Here's the latest example documented by Human Rights Watch:

On October 17, 2012, the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution charged 19 men with "instigating chaos and sedition" and "gathering illegally" after they participated in a peaceful protest on September 23 outside Turfiya prison, in Qassim province in central Saudi Arabia. 

They were seeking the release of family members, some of whom have been held for years without charge. On October 18, a criminal court sentenced 15 of the men to between three and 15 days in prison, along with suspended sentences of between 50 and 90 lashes and suspended jail terms of between two and five months. The trial of the remaining four is scheduled for November 4.

"Instead of addressing the protesters’ concerns, the Saudi government has used the judicial system to punish them," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The sentences handed to these men are part of a wider effort to target and harass activists across the country."

The authorities have not alleged that the protesters engaged in or called for violence, HRW says – adding that in video footage said to show the September 23 incident police are seen beating demonstrators.

However, cracking down on street protests has done little to stop public criticism of the government, with many Saudis outspokenly expressing their views on Twitter.

"Prominent judges and lawyers issue fierce public broadsides about large-scale government corruption and social neglect. Women deride the clerics who limit their freedoms. Even the king has come under attack," an article in the New York Times noted earlier this month.

Unlike other media, Twitter has allowed Saudis to cross social boundaries and address delicate subjects collectively and in real time, via shared subject headings like "Saudi Corruption" and "Political Prisoners," known in Twitter as hashtags.

With so many people writing mostly under their real names — there are some 2.9 million users in the kingdom, according to one recent study, and it is the world’s fastest-growing Twitter zone — the authorities appear to have thrown their hands up.

"Twitter for us is like a parliament, but not the kind of parliament that exists in this region," said Faisal Abdullah, a 31-year-old lawyer. "It’s a true parliament, where people from all political sides meet and speak freely."

Ominously for the regime, the article says Twitter reveals "a striking depth of anger at the royal family that cuts across the political spectrum and has led some Saudis to wonder how long this deeply conservative and seemingly placid society can survive without serious reform."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 October 2012. Comment.

Lebanese peril

On Friday morning Lakhdar Brahimi, the international envoy who is trying to broker a truce in Syria, warned: "This conflict, label it as you wish, if it continues, will not be limited to the Syrian borders."

By Friday afternoon it appeared that Brahimi's prophecy was being fulfilled when a bomb ripped through a very ordinary residential street in the Lebanese capital, killing eight people and wounding dozens more.

Regardless of who actually triggered the explosion, given the political context, few had any doubt that the Damascus regime ultimately lay behind it. 

Coming in mid-afternoon when the streets are usually jammed and with no apparent target other than the inhabitants of Ashrafiyeh, a largely Christian district of Beirut, the bombing at first looked like a crude attempt to inflame tensions and drag Lebanon into the Syrian conflict.

Almost four hours later, though, news seeped out which changed that picture significantly. While the bombing had been carried out with general disregard for civilian lives, in fact it had a very specific target: Brigadier-General Wissam al-Hassan, the intelligence chief for Lebanon's internal security service, who had been driving through the street at the time.

Hassan's assassination places the Friday bombing within a very familiar pattern – though one that had been in abeyance for several years. It is a pattern where high-profile Lebanese figures who become a "problem" for the Damascus regime have to be eliminated. Blowing them up as their vehicle passes by has often been a feature of the pattern, and that appears to be what happened in Hassan's case.

The assumption is that Hassan had crossed a fateful red line (as far as Damascus is concerned) by pursuing former Lebanese information minister Michel Samaha – a well-known ally of the Assad regime – who has been accused of plotting terror attacks in Lebanon and against whom there is substantial prima facie evidence..

Knowing that a security chief was the target rather than the Lebanese population in general makes the attack slightly less alarming. But only slightly. It suggests the attack was one more example in a long history of Syrian meddling rather than a deliberate attempt to embroil Lebanon in Syria's current internal conflict. Even if not intended, though, there is still a risk that it will do so. 

It would not be the first time that the Assad regime's calculations in Lebanon have gone awry. In 2005, for example, Assad badly misjudged the Lebanese public's reaction to the killing of Rafik Hariri (who had also crossed Damascus's fateful red lines) and was forced to withdraw his troops as a result.

The public's reaction this time remains to be seen. There are certainly many Lebanese – across the sectarian spectrum – who know enough of civil war never to want to become embroiled again. There are also many who would be glad to see the Assad regime gone once and for all and, on the other side, also many who sympathise with it.

And then there's the question of Hizbullah which is widely believed to be providing a degree of military support for Assad in Syria. But Hizbullah has divided loyalties. On occasions, it also plays the "Lebanese patriotism" card. It has to, because its main rationale for retaining its weapons is to defend Lebanese soil from Israeli threats (since the Lebanese army is incapable of doing so on its own).

Hizbullah's position vis-à-vis Syria is controversial even among some of its own supporters and looks increasingly untenable. A strong reaction from the Lebanese public to General Hassan's assassination could force it to shift decisively one way or the other.

Of course, Lebanon is already embroiled in the Syrian conflict to some extent. The porous border makes that inevitable and Lebanon's main political divide – the March 14 allaince versus March 8 – is based around attitudes towards Syria.

So far, though, outright conflict has been kept mainly on the margins – places like Tripoli and parts of the Bekaa – but bringing it to the heart of Beirut is a much more serious matter. 

Once again, Lebanon finds itself in a precarious position and it would be a lot easier to steer a safe course through this latest crisis if the country had an effective state and government – which doesn't.

On that front, it looks as if things are about to get worse, with reports this morning that prime minister Najib Mikati's resignation is imminent. It that happens, the country may enter another period where government is not merely weak and ineffectual but non-existent.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 October 2012. Comment.

Twitterphobia in Bahrain

By arresting four young men for "misuse of social media" the Bahraini authorities have embarked on a battle that ultimately they are bound to lose.

The four have been charged (in the words of the interior ministry) with "defaming public figures" – an apparent use of the royal plural since, as the Reuters version of the story makes clear, they are accused of "insulting his majesty the king on their personal accounts on Twitter".

They will now be kept in jail for seven days awaiting what the public prosecutor says will be "an urgent trial".

The most sensible thing the authorities can do is drop the charges and release them forthwith. A prosecution can only bring more bad publicity for the regime, and it is certainly not going to stop people saying rude things about the king on Twitter.

The Bahraini regime (and others like it) needs to understand that social media have given people a voice they never had before. The old order is crumbling across the Middle East and Arabs, more and more, are demanding that their rulers be accountable. The rulers may not like it but they had better get used to it.

They would also be well advised to familiarise themselves with a phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect.

This relates to a court case in 2003 when American diva Barbra Streisand tried to suppress a photograph of her Malibu home which had been posted on a website about coastal erosion.

As a result of the lawsuit, 420,000 people visited the website in the space of a month, whereas previously only a handful had bothered to look at the picture.

The basic principle of the Streisand Effect is that heavy-handed attempts to suppress things tend to have the opposite effect, spreading the suppressed item more widely – especially where the internet is involved.

In fact, there was another example in Bahrain only yesterday. Following the imprisonment of activist Zainab al-Khawaja who had torn a picture of the king, a group of protesters gathered last night to shred pictures of the king and recorded the event on YouTube (see below) for all the world to see.

The mockery has also continued on Twitter under a hashtag #KingsTornPics – which ought to give the authorities second thoughts about the wisdom of prosecuting Khawaja in the first place.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 October 2012. Comment.

UPDATE, 2 November: One of the four men has been sentenced to six months in prison, the BBC reports. The man has not been named. Verdicts relating to the other three are still awaited.

Popular Arab cinema on show

Arab films, if they are shown in Britain at all, tend to be of the "art" variety. But last month, in a refreshing break from that tradition, the Arab British Centre, in conjunction with the ICA, organised a programme of popular films – the sort that ordinary Arabs watch. As the blurb put it ...

"This week-long series of classic and contemporary popular cinema will take audiences on a journey of gripping dramas, subversive comedies and exaggerated melodramas, taking in an array of rarely seen and re-mastered cinematic masterpieces as well as new releases, many never before seen on British screens. An unmissable and irreverent slice of Arab life, full of unexpected surprises."

Along with the films there were also panel discussions and I chaired one of them, talking with Hussein Fahmy, Egyptian screen icon and star of Watch Out for Zouzou (1971), Philippe Aractingi, Lebanese film director of Bosta (2005) and Under the Bombs (2007) and Khalid Abdalla, British/Egyptian actor and star of United 93 (2006) and The Kite Runner (2007).

A video of the discussion is now online - see below.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 October 2012. Comment.

Previous blog posts




October 2012

Motorbikes: a moral dilemma for Saudi Arabia

Bahrain embarrasses its friends (again)

Poetic justice, Qatari style

Syria and Iraq: the spillover effect

Saudi Arabia: 'good' protesters, 'bad' protesters

Lebanese peril

Twitterphobia in Bahrain

Popular Arab cinema on show 


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 25 February, 2013