An open door to the Arab world


Country briefing






Special topics


Arts and culture




The blog



The media in Syria

Salam Kawakibi, of the Arab Reform Initiative and the University of Amsterdam, has produced two interesting papers about Syria: one on the media, the other on the internet.

The Private Media in Syria gives a brief history of the official media under the Baathist regime then looks in more detail at the tentative opening-up under President Bashar:

A new publishing law was passed in 2001, which allowed the private sector to re-enter the media industry, having been banned from it since 1963. Since then, over 250 publications have been approved. Few of them appear regularly, with only 25 to 30 being effectively published, which leaves plenty of room for a black market in approval permits. The sums changing hands are close to five million Syrian pounds (330,000 euros) per permit, with the actual cost not exceeding 25,000 pounds (16,000 euros). 

However, the relatively high number of approved publications since 2001 provides the Ministry of Information with an argument in its favour, which it uses every time the media situation in Syria is discussed. 

The media landscape has also been broadened by dozens of radio stations as well as two TV channels. However, even though the new law does not impose censorship as a prerequisite, it does remain very repressive and contains an arsenal of restrictions that complicate the work of journalists. It also affects all other forms of publication in Syria and entering the country from abroad, as well as printing presses, with sanctions ranging from fines to imprisonment.

Kawakibi's second paper, Internet or Enter-Not, contrasts the official policy of promoting internet use with the efforts to prevent its use for political and other non-approved purposes:

In parallel with this proactive policy of spreading computer literacy and widening internet access, all forms of state control over IT have been reinforced. Until 2003 all international sites offering an email service were blocked. This was intended to force users to use only local providers, which made them easier to monitor. 

Since then, with the ban changing day to day seemingly on a lottery basis, it has been a game of cat and mouse. Some IT specialists have managed to bypass bans by using special software. But this has not been a widespread phenomenon that might enable the populace to rid itself of its “fear” of using addresses hosted abroad. 

And yet the business cards of many politicians feature email addresses hosted outside Syria by such providers as Yahoo! and Hotmail – another contradiction.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 August 2010. Comment

Yemen's new deal with Houthi rebels

With mediation from Qatar, the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government have signed an agreement aimed at consolidating the ceasefire announced last February. Reuters reports:

"Among the main points of the agreement, rebels were required to return stolen Yemeni military weapons to their Qatari mediator, while the government would release rebel prisoners – a main rebel demand before the talks.

"Other points called for the removal of land mines throughout the region, a guarantee of safe passage from both sides allowing displaced people to return home, and the release of any schools, government buildings, or homes that had been seized."

According to The National, the rebels view the release of prisoners by the Yemeni government as crucial and say there will be no peace unless that happens.

"We cannot accept any compromise in the question of prisoners. The regime and anyone should understand that there cannot be any peace while there are prisoners in jails. Holding even a single prisoner means that tension is still there," Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam is quoted as saying.

Previous efforts to resolve the six-year conflict in northern Yemen have failed at the implementation stage, and this could easily happen again. However, with a deteriorating situation in the south, the government does have a strong incentive to see it through this time.

In the southern province of Abyan yesterday, armed men ambushed a military patrol and killed eight soldiers. Another patrol was ambushed in Lahej province on Friday, leaving one soldier dead and four wounded.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 August 2010. Comment

A gay ad for Coca-Cola in Egypt?


This ad promoting Coca-Cola in bottles with a twist-off cap is one of a series produced for the Egyptian market by the FortunePromoseven agency and it's causing a stir on the internet, if not in Egypt itself. One (western) blog sees it as "groundbreaking" in a country where same-sex relations are largely taboo.

Groundbreaking may be an overstatement. There have been plenty of Egyptian films with touches of homoeroticism (e.g. those of Youssef Chahine) and some with full-blown homosexuality (Yacoubian Building, Mercedes, etc). But is this the first attempt to sell a product in Egypt with a gay-themed ad?

Zeinobia, on the Egyptian Chronicles blog, thinks not. "I saw this ad and I did not see it slightly homoerotic from near or far," she writes, describing the ad campaign as simply "funny and catchy".

It's true, of course, that physical contact between Arab men – even men holding hands in public – does not have the same connotations that it has in the west. But let's look at the ad a bit more closely.

First, it's set in a cinema and cinemas in the Middle East do have a certain reputation as gay meeting places. Then there's the slightly-sensual hand-touching (the older man with a very obvious wedding ring on his finger) and the slightly-suggestive positioning of the bottle. It ends with a glance from the older man towards the younger man, and the younger man shakes his head.

Each ad in the series has the Coke drinker using someone else's hand to open the bottle, and in each one the person whose hand is used ends up disappointed. A girl in a beach bar finds that the object of her affection is more interested in football (and Coca-Cola) than in her. In another (rather cruel) one, a man has sunk into the desert sands with only his hand above the surface. Instead of rescuing him, the Coke drinker uses his hand to open the bottle – then abandons him.

So what is the older man's "disappointment" in the cinema? When the younger man shakes his head, does he mean "No, you can't share my Coca-Cola" or "No, you can't have sex with me?" The answer is left to the viewer's imagination.

This ambiguity is what makes the ad intriguing. The homoeroticism is there for anyone who wants to see it but it's deniable (well, almost) if anyone complains.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 August 2010. Comment. Reader's feedback

King reprimands scholar

The Saudi king has reprimanded a conservative religious scholar for apparently defying a royal decree issued earlier this month imposing restrictions on public fatwas.

The scholar, Yousef al-Ahmad, used a TV programme to call for a boycott of the Panda supermarket chain unless it stopped employing women as cashiers.

Al-Ahmad described boycotting the supermarket as "a noble act" against "innovations in Islam".

"The danger of hiring females in such public places is that it is part of normalising the Western culture and that it is hypocritical and should be stopped," he said.

Under pressure from religious elements, Panda (largely owned by Prince al-Waleed bin Talal), now says it will now remove the 11 women from their posts.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 August 2010. Comment

Thousands flee Yemeni city

Thousands of Yemenis – possibly as many as 80,000, according to al-Jazeera – are reported to to have fled their homes in Lawdar (or Loder) as the authorities conduct a massive house-to-house search ostensibly aimed at rooting out al-Qaeda militants.

Details are sketchy because the city, in the southern province of Abyan, is cut off and surrounded by troops. AFP, citing official and medical sources, says 33 people have been killed since fighting broke out there on Friday: 11 soldiers, 19 al-Qaeda suspects and three civilians.

The German news agency reports:

The Interior Ministry said police raided houses where Islamist militants and armed men believed to be loyal to the separatist Southern Movement were hiding in the town of about 100,000 inhabitants.

It said police were also pursuing injured suspects who were evacuated by fellow militants and who might seek treatment in hospitals in Abyan and the neighbouring provinces of Shabwa and al-Baiydha.

Police seized grenade launchers, assault rifles, hand grenades and ammunition during the raids, the ministry said, adding that some of the gunmen managed to flee the besieged town.

The Defence Ministry accused members of the Southern Movement of backing al-Qaeda linked militants. In a statement, the ministry charged that members of the separatist movement are holed up with the Islamist fighters in some houses in Loudar.

Militants from al-Qaeda linked groups and other Islamist movements are believed to frequently take shelter in the nearby Hatat mountains ...

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 August 2010. Comment

Saudis 'used British planes to bomb Yemen'

Amnesty International says it is "extremely likely" that Saudi Arabia used British-supplied Tornado warplanes to bomb northern Yemen at the height of the Houthi conflict last year.

Saudi forces came to the aid of the Yemeni military against the rebels in November and operations continued until a ceasefire was declared in February. I followed the developments here on this blog at the time.

Amnesty's UK Arms Programme Director, Oliver Sprague, says: 

"Our report points to the Saudis using UK-supplied and UK-maintained arms in secret attacks that have left scores of Yemeni civilians dead.

"The [British] government needs to announce a thorough investigation to get to the bottom of this, reporting the findings back to parliament.

"Meanwhile all current and future UK supplies of arms to Saudi Arabia should be suspended pending the results of this investigation. Lucrative arms sales to Saudi Arabia should not come at the expense of human rights and international law."

Amnesty says that in one attack, on the town of al-Nadir in November, which was reportedly conducted by Saudi forces, so many people were killed in just one extended family that witnesses say the family "had to create a cemetery for themselves". 

The British-made Tornado fighter-bomber, supplied under the controversial al-Yamamah deal – Britain's most lucrative arms deal ever – forms the backbone of the Saudi air force.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 August 2010. Comment

Taxation and representation

I wrote a short article for Comment Is Free yesterday linking low taxes and rentier states to the lack of government accountability in the Middle East. I wouldn't claim it's an original argument, though it's rarely discussed outside a fairly specialised field and it seems to have annoyed the western anti-tax brigade.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 August 2010. Comment

Yemen, the land of jihad

After spending two months among the jihadists in southern Yemen, Iraqi-born journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad presents the 
first of two reports for the Guardian. Choice quote:

At Faisal's house, I asked him what he thought of the government's attempt to crack down on al-Qaida.

"Don't believe the government when they say we are fighting the jihadis," he said. "The government gives them money, the government negotiates with them, the government uses them to fight its enemies, and then they tell the Americans: give us money so we can fight al-Qaida."

He closed his eyes and sighed. "It's a comedy," he said.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 August 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 24 August: The second report is here.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

If you've never sampled the delights of freshly-caught Yemeni salmon, don't worry. Neither has anyone else. Yemen has no permanent rivers and, consequently, no salmon.

'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen' is the title of a comic/satirical novel by Paul Torday which won a couple of awards and was serialised on BBC radio after it was published in 2007.

Now, work has begun on a film version starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, with scenes shot in London, Scotland and Morocco (though not Yemen).

It's the story of an impossible project, inspired by the wealthy "Sheikh Muhammad ibn Zaidi bani Tihama" (Egyptian actor Amr Waked) who owns a Scottish estate and dreams of introducing salmon fishing into Yemen. 

Unfortunately, the British prime minister and his spin doctor hear about the idea too – and like it. They decide that it's just what is needed to improve east-west relations and provide a "positive" news story to divert attention from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Dr Alfred Jones, a scientist played by Ewan McGregor, is given the unenviable task of implementing it.

The book is predominantly a satire on British politics during the Blair era though, as Tim Mackintosh-Smith pointed out in his review, the Yemeni sheikh comes from a long line of literary characters – "wise men from a wise east" who "showed up the social absurdities and spiritual shortcomings of the west". 

At a deeper level, the book also raises questions about belief in the impossible. In the words of Mackintosh-Smith: "If much of post-Christendom has ceased to believe in the impossible, some of it has also ceased to believe in belief itself and, worse, has come to fear the belief of others. That fear today is big and very dangerous business."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 August 2010. Comment

Complaints about Jordan's cyber law

With the Jordanian parliament dissolved since last November, the cabinet is continuing to issue "provisional" laws – a practice that is allowed by Article 94 of the constitution so long as the laws relate to "necessary measures which admit of no delay".

One of these – though it is difficult to justify on the grounds of urgency – is the new Information Systems Cyber Crimes Law. The Committee to Protect Journalists and a group of Jordanian news websites are protesting about it.

The law seeks to deal with some familiar problems such as hacking but, as often happens with legislation in Arab countries, it is loosely drafted, giving rise to fears that it could restrict freedom of expression and the ability of journalists to do their work. The CPJ says:

In all, the law provides authorities with sweeping powers to restrict the flow of information and limit public debate.

Article 8 penalises "sending or posting data or information via the Internet or any information system that involves defamation or contempt or slander," without defining what constitutes those crimes. 

Article 12 penalises obtaining "data or information not available to the public, concerning national security or foreign relations of the kingdom, public safety or the national economy" from a website without a permit. 

Article 13 allows for law enforcement officers to search the offices of websites and access their computers without prior approval from public prosecutors.

Earlier this month, the authorities cracked down on internet use by government employees while at work. Access to almost 50 websites has been blocked, including the official news agency and other local news websites. The aim is allegedly to "boost the performance of public employees".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 August 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 3 September, 2010: Reporters Without Borders said "some of the most repressive provisions" have now been withdrawn but the revised law "still grants the authorities arbitrary restrictive powers".

Troops die in south Yemen attack

In the latest fighting in southern Yemen, a dozen or more soldiers and several civilians were killed during a battle near the marketplace in Lawdar, Abyan province, yesterday.

The ruling party's website blames "terrorist elements from al-Qaeda and some outlaw elements cooperating with them". In other words, the culprits could be al-Qaeda, southern separatists, or both.

There have been several other attacks during the last few days. On Thursday, four soldiers died in clashes with gunmen in Abyan, according to Reuters. Also on Thursday, the "chief investigator" in al-Dhali' was injured by a bomb planted on his vehicle.

Around midnight on Wednesday, a motorbike rider threw a grenade at a police station in Jaar, Abyan province, seriously injuring five policemen.

Add all this to the list of recent attacks on intelligence officers that I compiled on Tuesday, and there is a clear pattern of harassing – and trying to demoralise – the state's security forces. 

As for who is behind it ... that is a more difficult question. The government has an incentive to blame al-Qaeda (which helps to attract foreign aid, etc) and to smear the separatists by claiming they are in cahoots with al-Qaeda. However, allowing for the fact that al-Qaeda does not actually issue membership cards, this might not be far from the truth.

Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for at least some of the attacks, and Abyan, a hotbed of separatism, has long been a centre of jihadist activity too – even before the days of Abu Hamza and the Islamic Army in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, Tariq al-Fadli (of Fadhli), one of the leading southern movement figures, also has jihadist connections going way back.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 August 2010. Comment

A war on Yemen's intelligence officers

The assassinations of intelligence officers in southern Yemen continued yesterday with the shooting of Abdulkarim al-Dalei in Zinjibar. It was the seventh such attack in just over two months (see below), and there is clearly a pattern here: individual officers are being picked off – often by gunmen on a motorcycle.

Al-Qaeda is widely believed to be responsible, though some of those killed have also been investigating the southern separatists. 

Presumably the intention is to demoralise the intelligence service and hamper its work. It sends a signal that the militants know who they are, and protecting them when off duty or out in the field is extremely difficult for the authorities.

August 16: Intelligence officer, Abdulkarim al-Dalei, shot dead in Zinjibar, Abyan province. In a separate incident in the same province, another officer was slightly wounded when gunmen opened fire on his car.

August 13: Colonel Ali Abdul Kareem al-Ban, director of intelligence for Tuban, Lahej province, shot dead outside his home.

August 5: Three "members of security forces", Nasser Ahmed Al-Faqih, Hadi al-Ramadi and Alau al-Rabahi, shot dead by motorcycle gunmen in Zinjibar, Shabwa province.

July 6: Security officer, Ali Khanbash, survived an assassination attempt at his home in Zinjibar. Another person was injured.

July 3: Body of an army officer, Colonel Abdallah Al-Metri, found in Khanfar region of Abyan province. He had been shot. 

July 1: Senior intelligence officer, Colonel Saleh Amtheib, shot dead outside his home in Zinjibar, Abyan province, by motorcycle gunmen.

June 12: Former intelligence director of Abyan province, Jalal Uthman, shot dead in Zinjibar, Abyan province, while leaving a mosque.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 August 2010. Comment

Yemeni officer shot dead

A Yemeni intelligence officer, Colonel Ali Abdul Kareem al-Ban, was shot dead outside his home in Lahej late on Friday. Reuters quotes an unnamed official as saying that al-Qaeda is  suspected.

However, AFP implies that he may have been targeted by southern secessionists. It points out that the colonel survived several assassination attempts in the past few months after interrogating numerous provincial Southern Movement leaders, and says that after the killing security forces arrested up to eight supporters of the Southern Movement.

Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for several previous assassinations of security officials in the south.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni defence ministry said on Saturday that Jumaan Sufian, regarded as the leader of al-Qaeda in al-Jawf province, has surrendered to the authorities along with "a number" of others.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 August 2010. Comment

Saudi king seeks to restrict fatwas

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has ordered that the issuing of public fatwas in the kingdom should henceforth be restricted to scholars of his own choosing.

The royal decree, sent to the kingdom's grand mufti (with copies to the interior and justice ministers) says:

"We have noticed some excesses that we can't tolerate, and it is our legal duty to stand up to these with strength and resolve to preserve the religion, the dearest of our belongings.

"We urge you ... to limit fatwas to the members of the High Scholars Authority and to advise on those among them who are wholly ... eligible to be involved in the duty of fatwa so that we allow them to carry out fatwas ...

"All those who violate this order subject themselves to accountability and punishment, whoever they are, because the interests of the religion and the nation are above anything else" 

The decree applies to public fatwas, not those issued privately to individuals for personal guidance. 

According to the official news agency, scholars are banned from "tackling any subject that is considered of strange views or obsolete".

Initially, the issuing of public fatwas will be confined to the High Scholars Authority – a body with about 20 members, all appointed by the king – though selected scholars from the Research and Iftaa committee (which is affiliated to the High Scholars Authority, may also be authorised to issue public fatwas.

No penalties have been specified for disobeying the order, and it is difficult to see how it will be enforced – especially when "unauthorised" fatwas can so easily be posted on the internet.

Government attempts to control fatwas raise free speech issues, just as they do with attempts to control the media, and I have argued before that this is not a solution. For one thing, using government-approved scholars to counter extreme views tends to be ineffective because the government connection damages the credibility of the fatwas.

More widely, it reinforces the importance attached to fatwas in general and further entrenches the authoritarian tendencies in Islam. The real need is for Muslims to rely less on fatwas and move towards a situation where ordinary believers can make their own informed choices on ethical and religious matters.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 August 2010. Comment. Reader's feedback

Nasrallah and Hariri

Some reactions to Nasrallah's press conference in Lebanon on the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. 

Writing in the Daily Star, Rami Khouri says the Hizbullah leader had four related aims when he made his statement accusing Israel:

  • Deflect attention from the widely expected accusation that Hizbullah or some of its members will be indicted for the murder by the UN-mandated Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL); 

  • Provide evidence that would make Israel a credible suspect in the crime; 

  • Question the legitimacy or fairness of the STL investigation during the past five years; 

  • Prod the Lebanese government to undertake its own analysis of the credibility of available evidence and witnesses related to the crime investigation.

Khouri goes on to contrast this questioning of the UN investigation with Hizbullah's behaviour on previous occasions when it felt itself under threat:

In the past five years, when the Lebanese government took decisions that Hizbullah disliked or found threatening, Hizbullah responded by occupying parts of the downtown area or militarily taking over selected symbolic buildings in West Beirut. 

Today, when Hizbullah feels threatened again, it responds (for now) with … a multimedia show on primetime television. It challenges and rejects the ongoing STL investigation but also offers evidence for the court to consider. Its suggestion that the Lebanese government launch an honest investigation into the issues and evidence it has put on the table is, like the evidence offered Monday night, intriguing but not fully convincing.

Serious crime investigators explore all possible leads, however dubious they may feel about some of them. Hizbullah’s evidence may be merely a diversionary or delaying tactic, or, it could hold some important credible leads. The Lebanese government, the STL and Hizbullah are involved in a life-and-death dual political and legal process. The credibility of the political dimension requires absolute professionalism and impartiality in the quest for justice sphere, which means that all "reasonable doubt" issues must be addressed firmly and quickly.

The key word here is "doubt" rather than "evidence". Nasrallah is seeking to construct an alternative narrative of the Hariri assassination. Whether it can be proved or not is beside the point, so long as it is sufficient to cast doubt on the credibility of the special tribunal. 

For those who are worried about the internal tensions the tribunal is creating within Lebanon (and there are many who do worry), pointing a finger at Israel – whether rational or not – also provides an easy way out of the impasse.

Writing in al-Akhbar (in Arabic), Khalid Saghiyyah says:

The question is not, therefore, whether Israel killed al-Hariri. The question is whether the accusation can be directed against Israel. This is the question that Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah responded to ... And perhaps this was what he meant when he said that what he was offering was not evidence but data. 

Data is enough to save the country. The documents that were presented ... say, simply: "Yes, it is possible to re-direct the accusation towards Israel." And this alone represents a suitable exit for everyone. An exit for the fabricators of false witnesses. An exit for those who are rightfully accused. An exit for those wrongly accused. An exit for the descendants of the victims.

Meanwhile, Elias Muhanna wonders how Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated leader and current prime minister of Lebanon, will respond. Noting that Saad "has been the primary champion of the STL's mission to find and punish his father's killers", Muhanna writes in Foreign Policy:

On the eve of an indictment, the tribunal that helped [Saad] Hariri build the political movement that he leads today now threatens to place him in an impossible position. Far from strengthening his hand in Lebanon and promoting the interests of his international allies, Hariri is faced with the possibility that the multi-million dollar, five-year investigation will deliver a verdict that he must publicly denounce, or else risk losing control of the country.

Muhanna explores Hariri's options in more details in his Qifa Nabki blog:

If Hariri simply ignores Nasrallah or dismisses his demands, he will be increasing the likelihood that this government will not last the year, throwing the fate of the STL itself into question ... 

On the other hand, if Hariri takes the initiative now to form a Lebanese investigating commission, he will force the spotlight back on to Hizbullah and its claims that Israel killed Rafiq al-Hariri ...

Hariri should not hesitate to launch such an investigation. If the materials [provided by Hizbullah] are unconvincing, this will surely become clear when they are subjected to intense scrutiny. If there is something actually there, we will be one step closer to discovering al-haqiqa [the truth].

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 August 2010. Comment

Nasrallah and the Israeli drones

Hassan Nasrallah's statement tonight was every bit as dramatic as his broadcast during the 2006 war when he announced than an Israeli naval vessel, hit by Hizbullah, was ablaze off Beirut.

The drama this time came from his revelation that for a number of years Hizbullah has been able to intercept the signals from Israel surveillance drones flying over Lebanon. Intelligence gained in this way allowed Hizbullah to set a trap for the Israelis in Ansariyah in 1999 – causing the Israelis to suspect that they had been betrayed by a spy in their own camp. 

But it appears that Hizbullah was not alone in being watched by Israeli drones. Nasrallah (as reported in Qifa Nakbi's live blog of his statement) continued:

9:46: I will now move to discuss the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. I was asked by the Hariri family if Hizbullah could help in the investigation, shortly after the killing.

9:50: Hizbullah formed a team to go through all of the films leading up to the 2005 assassination so as to determine whether there was indeed evidence that Israel was preparing an operation. We are still in the process of this, after hundreds of hours, and yet we have come to very important conclusions.

9:53: The footage that we will show is from Beirut and from the road that leads from Beirut to Hariri’s residence in Faqra.

9:58: [Shows presentation of footage of the route that Hariri took when he was killed. There is a special focus on street corners, because those are the places that are favored for car bomb attacks against politicians (because the convoy has to slow down).]

10:05: In all of these places that we showed you (in Ras Beirut, etc.) does the Resistance have control centers or offices, etc.? No. Is it just coincidence that the Israelis were surveilling these areas in such detail before the assassination?

10:07: [Shows a presentation of footage of the road to Faqra, which is the only way to get there from the coastal highway. This was the road that Hariri used to take to get to his resort.]

10:09: No one from Hizbullah, to my knowledge, lives in Faqra. Now we will show you surveillance footage focusing on the highway into Saida, leading all the way up to Shafiq al-Hariri’s house (the brother of the victim).

If what Nasrallah claims turns out to be true, then Israel certainly has some explaining to do. My first reaction to this information, though, is that it's intriguing but we need to know a lot more detail before it becomes anywhere near persuasive. 

I'm still very dubious about Israel's motive for supposedly wanting to kill Hariri and, as far as I'm concerned, the political context at the time still points strongly towards Syria. (The US and the Hariri investigators have since backed off from blaming Syria, but of course the political context has changed again and now it's be-nice-to-Syria time.) 

It seems to me likely, though, that Nasrallah's statement may achieve what was presumably its prime objective: to muddy the waters enough to throw the special tribunal into disarray at a time when it was about to issue indictments implicating Hizbullah.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 August 2010. Comment

Saudis fight sorcery

The Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (the Haia) is to issue "regulations and guidelines" for the practice of ruqya (faith healing) "in an effort to stop the unlawful forms of the treatment often used by sorcerers," Arab News reports:

"Some people earn money by practising unlawful incantations besides resorting to immoral acts such as stripping women patients. Such sorcerers have given the ruqya a bad reputation. Regulations have been put in place to permit only lawful forms of ruqya," said Adil al-Muqbil, supervisor of the Haia’s department that is in charge of tackling sorcery, in a speech on Saturday at a weeklong seminar on the subject in Hail.

Al-Muqbil underscored the Haia’s stance, which distinguishes between charlatans and sorcerers.

"Sorcerers slaughter animals without invoking the name of Allah and utter unintelligible words besides claiming knowledge of the future. They use fingernails, hair and inner clothes for their black arts," he said.

He added that charlatans, on the other hand, do not perform black magic but rather engage in confidence rackets to fool their subjects into thinking they have special powers.

Rip-offs and other forms of abuse by people claiming magical powers are commonplace in the kingdom and sorcery is a crime punishable by death. Last November, Human Rights Watch 
wrote to King Abdullah complaining about an increase in the number of prosecutions for witchcraft/sorcery.

Distinguishing between "legitimate" and "idolatrous" ruqya at an official level may clarify the legal position a bit, but it's unlikely to discourage the superstitious from resorting to these methods. By recognising some forms of ruqya as legitimate, the authorities, by implication, are also giving them a seal of approval.

What the situation really needs is a campaign of public education to show people that magic is rubbish and a rip-off. But there are theological difficulties with that. In line with religious teaching in the kingdom, the authorities are obliged to 
recognise the existence of magical powers. This also means that anyone deemed to be practising the "black arts" (as opposed to merely pretending) cannot simply be prosecuted as a fraudster.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 August 2010. Comment

Security forces attacked in Yemen

The targeting of members of the security forces (here, here and here) continues in southern Yemen. Yesterday, three more were shot dead in Zinjibar near the intelligence headquarters by masked men riding a motorcycle.

In what may be an unrelated incident, a soldier blew himself up in front of the General Security Office in ad-Dhali' on Tuesday. The Yemen Times reports that nine other soldiers were injured, along with a 15-year-old youth who was passing by.

The paper quotes local sources as suggesting the soldier had a grievance over ill-treatment and non-payment of wages. Another suggestion is that he might have been rigged with explosives without his knowledge.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 August 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 8 August: Four men have been arrested in connection with the Zinjibar attack, which is being attributed to al-Qaeda. The Yemen Observer has more details. The paper also gives a different version of the suicide bombing on Tuesday, where a (possibly disaffected) soldier was originally reported to have blown himself up. According to the Yemen Observer, the attacker was another motorcyclist and "the suicide attack bears the hallmarks of al-Qaeda".

The trouble with Islamism

Shortly after the new government took over in Britain, the Quilliam Foundation, a "counter-extremism" thinktank which received around £1m in funding from the previous Labour government, wrote a private briefing paper setting out recommendations for Britain's anti-terrorism strategy. The document has since been leaked and posted on the internet, and the Guardian has a story about it.

The document argues that the problem of politicised Islam stretches beyond terrorism to include Islamist ideology more generally. This is an important point (and one that I made in my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East). But I'm not persuaded that Quilliam's idea of treating Islamism in its non-violent forms as an anti-terrorism issue is the right approach.

The problem with Islamist ideology, as I see it, is mainly a political one: it places the "sovereignty of God" over sovereignty of the people and, no matter how much they try to fudge that, it is ultimately anti-democratic. Even when Islamist movements engage in electoral politics, there is still God (via his self-appointed proxies on earth) lurking somewhere in the background, ready to over-ride the people's will if that is deemed necessary.

I discussed this in more detail yesterday in an article for Comment Is Free.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 August 2010. Comment

Gardening on the Lebanese border

Good fences make good neighbours, according to an old proverb – the idea being that friction is less likely if those on both sides of the line know exactly where they stand. On that basis, the border fence between Israel and Lebanon is a bad one ... Read my full article at Comment Is Free.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 August 2010. Comment

A burqa for the BlackBerry

With Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a tizz about the evil that might result from unrestricted use of BlackBerry phones, the satirical website, NewsBiscuit, has come up with an idea: BlackBerry burqas. "With the veil in place only a tiny slit remains revealing just the time and date, thus preserving its modesty."

‘The BlackBerry burqa means that people can still use their phones,’ said a Saudi government official, ‘but the tiny niqab that covers the screen will stop them from reading emails or accessing the internet.’

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 August 2010. Comment

BlackBerry: a crucial battle 

The decision by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to suspend BlackBerry data services from October has been widely reported, so I won't repeat the details here. But it's a tussle that has far-reaching implications. The Gulf states, as I've said before, want the economic benefits of modernity (and the image that goes with it) but there's a cultural block which means they try to exclude the bits of modernity that they don't like.

It simply won't work. Freedom to access and share information is part of the package, and you either accept the whole package or you don't. You can't cherry-pick.

So far, Research in Motion, the Canadian company behind BlackBerry, seems to be standing firm. It can probably afford to do so, since its sales in the Middle East and Africa are less than 1% of its global total. Meanwhile, users in the UAE and Saudi Arabia – including visitors to those countries – can direct their wrath against the governments.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 August 2010. Comment

Iraq's other war

The Gay Middle East website has a compilation of attacks in Iraq last month directed against men who are gay or not looking sufficiently "masculine". Some were beaten up, some disappeared and others were murdered, according to the website's sources.

As a report by Human Rights Watch explained last year, these attacks are not only about "sinful" sexual behaviour, but also about compliance with gender stereotypes.

In one incident in al-Kut on 8 July, "two men [who] were well known as gay in the community were surrounded and beaten up by a group of thugs for allegedly wearing trendy clothes," Gay Middle East says.

On 22 July, another pair were beaten up and arrested by the police in Najaf: "Police suspected they were gay due to their hairstyle, but after the authorities learned they were married and had children [they] were released."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 August 2010. Comment

Capture of Yemeni troops confirmed

Following last week's report that the Houthi rebels had captured 200 Yemeni soldiers and a subsequent official denial (of sorts), the picture is clearing.

On Saturday, the Supreme Security Committee admitted that the rebels had "kidnapped" 228 soldiers and tribesmen (including Sheikh Sagheer Bin Aziz, a pro-government member of parliament) after a two-month siege of al-Za'ala army post in the Harf Sufyan district of Amran province. 

Since they were captured, large numbers have been released through mediators, in several batches. News reports (here, here and here) give conflicting versions of the figures which in some cases add up to more than the total said to have been taken prisoner at al-Za'ala.

Whatever the details of the affair, there can be little doubt that it has been a huge military embarrassment for the Salih regime. This may help to explain the president's offer last week to include Houthi representatives in the national dialogue process. The Yemen Times also reports that Qatar, which has previously been involved in mediation, is once again in contact with the Houthis.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 August 2010. Comment

Previous blog posts




August 2010

The media in Syria

Yemen's new deal with Houthi rebels

A gay ad for Coca-Cola in Egypt?

King reprimands scholar

Thousands flee Yemeni city

Saudis 'used British planes to bomb Yemen'

Taxation and representation

Yemen, the land of jihad

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Complaints about Jordan's cyber law

Troops die in south Yemen attack

A war on Yemen's intelligence officers

Yemeni officer shot dead

Saudi king seeks to restrict fatwas

Nasrallah and Hariri

Nasrallah and the Israeli drones

Saudis fight sorcery

Security forces attacked in Yemen

The trouble with Islamism

Gardening on the Lebanese border

A burqa for the BlackBerry

BlackBerry: a crucial battle

Iraq's other war

Capture of Yemeni troops confirmed


Blog archive

All blog posts

General topics

Saudi Arabia 


Your comments

Readers' comments, suggestions and corrections are welcome. Contact details are here and readers' feedback is here.


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



View statistics


Last revised on 03 September, 2010