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Yemeni warplanes 'attack al-Qaeda'

Yemeni warplanes attacked what are described as al-Qaeda hideouts in the Bani Dhabyan territory east of Sanaa yesterday, according to local reports (Yemen Post in English and Mareb Press in Arabic).

Significantly, perhaps, the reported use of Yemeni air power comes in the midst of a debate about the use (or not) of American drones against al-Qaeda – a possible signal to Washington that Yemen prefers to handle these things itself.

However, it is not at all clear what happened yesterday. News Yemen (in Arabic) questions whether the attacks actually took place ("The area is calm and there is no movement or aircraft of al-Qaeda elements," according to one local source) and so far there has been no news of any casualties.

The reported attacks in Bani Dhabyan territory came just two days after an article appeared in the London-based Daily Telegraph under the headline: "Yemen tribal leaders will not hand over al-Qaeda operatives". It quoted Sheikh Ahmed Sharif, leader of the Bani Dhabyan, as saying: "What al-Qaeda are doing is very bad and against Islam. If we had someone from al-Qaeda we would not accept him but we would not give him to the government either."

Could there be a connection between this and the reported airstrikes? The Waq al-Waq blog points to a clue in another 
Telegraph article which appeared a day later:

"How much Mr Saleh can do to recruit the sheikhs to the cause of chasing the West's enemies is the big question. 'He can't control the whole country, but he can put a squeeze on any sheikh he wants to,' claims one senior western official. 'If he wanted to make it not worth their while to shelter al-Qaeda he could'."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 November 2010. Comment.

Egyptian police accused of killing youth

Six months after 28-year-old Khaled Said died while being arrested in Alexandria, there are claims of another death at the hands of officers from the same police station.

The family of 19-year-old Ahmed Shaaban say he was arrested along with several friends for not showing their ID cards to police when returning from a wedding. They allege that he was beaten to death in Sidi Gabr police station before his body was dumped in a lake.

According to the Egyptian Chronicles blog, his family were initially contacted by people who found his mobile phone and jacket at the lake. Later, a letter arrived saying his body was in the mortuary. The interior ministry maintains that he committed suicide.

Egyptian Chronicles says Ahmed Shaaban appears to come from a poor family, so the authorities may be hoping his death won't cause as much of a fuss as that of Khaled Said.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 November 2010. Comment.

Containing al-Qaeda

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph today, the new head of Britain's armed forces, General Sir David Richards, says there will be no "clear-cut victory" against Islamist militancy, though it can be contained.

"In conventional war," he tells the paper, "defeat and victory is very clear cut and is symbolised by troops marching into another nation's capital. First of all you have to ask: do we need to defeat it [Islamist militancy] in the sense of a clear cut victory? I would argue that it is unnecessary and would never be achieved.

"But can we contain it to the point that our lives and our children's lives are led securely? I think we can."

He also argues that the real weapon in the war against al-Qaeda is "upstream prevention" along with "education and democracy" – though he does not predict a quick solution.

The BBC's security correspondent notes that Gen Richards' views reflect a "new realism" and would have been considered outrageous and defeatist a few years ago.

Though the general refers mainly to Afghanistan in his interview, his remarks also seem particularly relevant to Yemen, where the Obama administration in is the throes of a debate – with itself and with the Yemeni government – about the use of drones against al-Qaeda. The outcome of this debate will probably shape the US approach to covert action in other countries too.

According to various reports (for example, Los Angeles Times and AFP), the US has been using drones in Yemen for several months for surveillance purposes but not for strikes against militants. (The US has nevertheless been implicated in some earlier strikes targeting militants but we'll ignore that for the moment.)

Part of the argument about drones in Yemen is an internal American one, about whether they should be controlled by the CIA or the Special Operations Command. This is discussed in some detail by Gareth Porter in an article for the Khaleej Times.

However, the main problem with airstrikes in Yemen is what CNN calls a lack of "actionable intelligence". Overcoming this isn't simply a matter of persuading the Yemeni authorities to be more co-operative as some reports suggest. The Yemeni regime is not necessarily interested in gleaning precise, detailed intelligence about al-Qaeda; it is quite happy to see any of its opponents tarred with the al-Qaeda brush, whether justifiably or not, for its own political purposes.

That, in turn, adversely affects the battle for public opinion inside Yemen. Many Yemenis, with good reason, suspect the extent of the threat from al-Qaeda has been greatly exaggerated.

The scepticism is further increased when flawed intelligence leads to airstrikes that kill innocent civilians (as has already happened in Yemen several times). Such blunders, of course, are music to the ears of al-Qaeda.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 November 2010. Comment.

The blame game in Yemen

Writing in the Waq al-Wag blog, Gregory Johnsen refers to the case of eight men who were apparently arrested by mistake during a raid against al-Qaeda in Yemen. After almost two months in detention they have now been released, thanks to the efforts of a tribal sheikh.

Incidents like this are not at all unusual in Yemen and they highlight a wider problem. Johnsen comments:

This case illustrates, yet again, the difficulties even for the Yemeni government of conducting counterterrorism raids in Yemen. Often the government is unaware of who exactly it holds. It is much easier to just arrest everyone than it is to assign blame and determine who is a militant or who is a member of al-Qaeda. After all, it is not like these guys carry cards – (there are no "card carrying members of al-Qaeda"). 

In practice what this means is that by arresting the wrong people the government often invites tribal retaliation that then gets chalked up as al-Qaeda violence, further muddying the waters of an already murky conflict. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 November 2010. Comment.

France 'aided Saudi war on Houthis'

An article in the Washington Post by David Ignatius reveals previously unreported French involvement in Yemen's Houthi conflict last year.

It says that the Saudis asked the US for imagery from surveillance satellites to assist their bombing of rebel positions in Yemen, but this was blocked by the State Department who feared that it "could violate the laws of war".

France, which has its own satellites, then stepped in and provided imagery, the paper says. The deal was reportedly sealed when President Sarkozy visited Riyadh on November 17 last year: "By the first night of Sarkozy's visit, detailed pictures of the Yemeni battle space began to move electronically to the Saudis."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 November 2010. Comment.

Palestinian arrested for atheism

The extraordinary tale of Walid Husayin, a quiet barber from the West Bank who dutifully went with his family to the mosque every Friday – while secretly posting atheist rants on Facebook – is reported by various news websites this morning, including al-Arabiya.

Among other things, he is said to have posted spoof Qur'anic verses urging people to smoke marijuana, and to have written that the God worshipped by Muslims has the attributes of a "primitive Bedouin".

His postings on Faccebook are said to have attracted 70,000 followers – mainly from Arab countries.

When his mother found out, she cancelled his internet subscription but Husayin, 26, continued his atheist postings from an internet cafe where he would sometimes spend seven hours a day – which is how he got caught.

He is now in the hands of the Palestinian Authority who will presumably be dithering over what to do with him, since this is thought to be the first case of its kind in the West Bank. 

Husayin's family have reportedly disowned him, saying he should spend the rest of his life behind bars. Others think prison is too good for him:

"He should be burned to death," said Abdul-Latif Dahoud, a 35-year-old Qalqiliya resident. The execution should take place in public "to be an example to others," he added.

The old cliché about sledgehammers and nuts comes to mind. Don't the Palestinians have bigger things to worry about? Apparently not. According to the reports, officials spent several weeks monitoring his activities in the internet cafe before finally arresting him.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 November 2010. Comment.

Saudi Arabia: champion of women?

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia was elected to the executive board of UN Women, a new body which merges the activities of four previously separate UN agencies – with a vastly increased budget of at least $500m a year.

Saudi Arabia's inclusion in the 41-member board of an organisation that will promote "gender equality and the empowerment of women" is obviously controversial, since the kingdom probably discriminates against women in more ways, and more systematically, than any other country.

However, the election to the board was notable mainly for a campaign – ultimately successful – to exclude Iran. Iran also has a bad record on women's rights, but somewhat less bad than that of Saudi Arabia. If the Iranians deserved to be kept out, so did the Saudis, and the targeting of Iran clearly rather than Saudi Arabia clearly had a lot to do with international politics.

The question now, though, is whether Saudi Arabia's membership will actually damage the work of UN Women. Eman al-Nafjan of Saudiwoman's Weblog favours inclusion rather than exclusion. She writes

"I don’t believe much can be accomplished by rejecting Saudi Arabia. All over the world women are treated unequally and abused in differing degrees ... Yes Saudi Arabia is on the extreme side of the spectrum but that’s all the more reason to include it."

Saudi Arabia (along with other Muslim countries such as Pakistan) has often played an obstructive role on women's rights at the UN, but UN Women is not really a policy-making body but a support body. One of its main aims is "to provide coherent, timely and demand-driven support to UN member states, at their request, in their efforts to realise equality for all women and girls."

It does appear from this that the scope for obstruction by individual board members will be rather limited. But we shall have to wait and see.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 November 2010. Comment.

Blogger completes sentence ... re-arrested

More information has emerged about Kareem Amer, the Egyptian blogger who remains in detention despite completing a four-year jail sentence last Friday.

The Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) says he was transferred from Burj al-Arab prison on Saturday to the State Security Intelligence in Alexandria – apparently to undergo release formalities. However, he has not been released and it is unclear why he is still being held. al-Masry al-Youm newspaper says he has been re-arrested but not charged.

ANHRI alleges that on Tuesday he was beaten by a junior State Security officer.

Kareem Amer was sentenced in 2007 for "spreading information disruptive of public order and damaging to the country’s reputation", "incitement to hate Islam" and "defaming the president of the republic". He was the first Egyptian to be convicted and jailed purely for his blogging activities. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists is calling for his immediate release, saying there is no legal basis for his continued detention.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 November 2010. Comment.

UPDATE, 16 November: Kareem was eventually released on November 15.

Fatwas and supermarkets

I have written an article for Comment Is Free which pulls together various strands from the Saudi story of the fatwa against female cashiers in supermarkets (which I reported here earlier). My Cif article adds some analysis and discusses the wider implications of the affair for Saudi Arabia.

As usual, the question of cultural relativism is raised by some commenters in the article's discussion thread, with the suggestion that "If Saudis wish to resist western culture in their own country then that's their business."

Aside from the fact that large numbers of Saudis do NOT want to ban women from working in supermarkets, it's interesting how selectively the "resistance to western culture" argument is used. If it can be applied to denying women their rights, why not also apply it to supermarkets?

Supermarkets themselves are a western invention and completely foreign to Arab culture. But you never hear of scholars condemning supermarkets per se – only those that have women working on the tills.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 November 2010. Comment.

Child marriage: a cure for gayness

I really didn't mean to keep going on about Saudi Arabia but sometimes it's difficult to stop. 

The Jeddah-based Arab News has been talking to a Saudi woman who was married at 13 to a man she had never seen (though, helpfully, her mother and sisters were allowed to describe him to her). The woman, identified by the pseudonym Sabeeha, thinks this is a wonderful idea and recommends it for others.

According to Sabeeha, one of the major benefits of early marriage (and by "early" we're talking here about early teens) is that it preserves you from getting into illicit romances or – heaven forbid – turning gay.

"Human nature does not wait for marriage," she tells the paper. "An unmarried girl will start developing an interest in men many years before she reaches her 20s. She might get tempted and have a relationship with a boyfriend who will sleep with her and never marry her ... Even if a girl only has a romantic chat with a man on the phone, it is still a sin."

Sabeeha continues:

"I see so many students who are lesbians, and they are very open about it. If the parents of these girls had married them off when they attained puberty and began to have sexual feelings, these girls would have been living clean lives without sin with their husbands.

"A girl can continue her education after marriage. What is the wisdom in allowing your daughter to remain unmarried so she can study and become a mature woman, while on the side she has boyfriends or becomes a lesbian?

"Even boys, how many young teenage boys are having physical relations with other boys? Go to the malls and you will see so many boys who are not normal. Some even pluck their eyebrows and wear light makeup and expose their underpants. If these boys were married, wouldn’t that stop them from becoming gay?"

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 November 2010. Comment.

Libyan in-fighting

More signs of political in-fighting in Libya. Twenty journalists working for al-Ghad publishing company – run by Colonel Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam – have been arrested by the Internal Security Agency during the last few days, though according to AFP, the Libyan leader has now ordered their release.

Last week, publication of Saif al-Islam's Oea newspaper was suppressed on the instructions of the prime minister after it called for a "final assault" on government corruption.

On Sunday, the state printing press issued its own lookalike version of Oea (though with a slightly different title) – a tactic sometimes used against opposition newspapers by the government of Yemen, where it is known as "cloning".

The Guardian adds that two websites run by Libyan exiles in London have also suffered extensive hacking in recent days.

The paper quotes a London-based Libyan journalist as saying: "This is a new level of conflict between Saif and his opponents and it looks as if the father is enjoying the match."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 November 2010. Comment.

Sentence completed, blogger stays in jail

In 2007, a 22-year-old Egyptian blogger known as Kareem Amer was given a four-year prison sentence for "spreading information disruptive of public order and damaging to the country’s reputation", "incitement to hate Islam" and "defaming the president of the republic". He was the first Egyptian to be convicted and jailed purely for his blogging activities. 

Kareem (full name: Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman Amer) became eligible for release on November 5 last year, after completing three-quarters of his term, in accordance with Egyptian law that permits prisoners to be released early for good behaviour. His lawyer sent an appeal to President Mubarak, but the request was denied. 

Last Friday, he completed his full four-year sentence but so far there is no news of his whereabouts. His supporters and his 
lawyers believe he is still being held in jail – beyond the end of his sentence.

Maybe this is just an administrative bungle (which would not be very surprising in Egypt). Or maybe not. We shall see. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 November 2010. Comment.

Shortage of Saudi Qur'an teachers

Considering the general preoccupation with religion in Saudi Arabia, you might think the kingdom has more than enough people willing and able to teach the Qur'an. Not so, according to Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Hanafy, chairman of the Charitable Society for Holy Qur'an Memorisation in the Mecca region.

"Saudis show no interest in teaching the Qur'an because we only pay SR1,000 [$265] per month," he told Arab News

"Qur’an lessons also start in the afternoon, which is when most Saudis have their siestas," he continued. "There are other sessions that are held during the evening, but Saudis usually refuse to attend them because this is the time when people usually socialise."

The society has only about 100 Saudis teaching tahfiz (Qur'an memorisation) and has been supplementing these with 1,240 non-Saudi teachers. It has now been instructed by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to get rid of the foreigners but is struggling to replace them.

A report by the ministry recently accused the foreign teachers of committing "violations", though Mr Hanafy says he has no idea what the violations were.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 November 2010. Comment.

Saudi media challenge Grand Mufti

It looks as though Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti and other top religious scholars in the kingdom have done themselves more harm than good by rushing out a fatwa last week which forbade women from working "in a place where they intermingle with men" (i.e. at the tills in supermarkets).

As I mentioned earlier, the scholars cited no scriptural evidence to support their ruling, and now their opinion is being openly challenged in sections of the Saudi media. There was a time, not very long ago, when a Saudi journalist who disputed the word of the Grand Mufti would probably have been out of a job, but fortunately things are changing.

In an article for Okaz (translated into English by Arab News), Khalaf al-Harbi highlights the muddle that the gender segregationists have got themselves into. If it's OK for a woman to beg in the street, why is it not OK for her to work as a supermarket cashier? If it's forbidden for a woman to collect money from men at the checkout, why is it not forbidden for men to work at a checkout collecting money from women?

In Asharq Alawsat, Mshari al-Zaydi asks "Doesn't evidence constitute a solid basis for argument?" and offers six arguments to refute the fatwa. Among other things, he points out that there is no way a woman working in such a public place as a shopping centre, under the eye of surveillance cameras, can be considered "indecently" secluded with members of the opposite sex.

The real debate here, of course, actually has next to nothing to do with religion. It's about a bunch of reactionary men who simply want to keep women "in their place" – stuck in the house all day.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 November 2010. Comment.

Setbacks for civil society

Freedom of association – the right of people to get together and organise for a common purpose – is one of the essential building blocks for a free and open society. In most of the Middle East, though, governments seek to restrict civil society activity, as I discussed here and in my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East.

A report published last week by the EU-funded Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network reviews the current situation for NGOs in 11 countries of the eastern and southern Mediterranean, from Turkey to Morocco – and it's a generally bleak picture.

"Freedom of association has experienced setbacks in the past few years and there has been very little positive development worth mentioning," the report says (full text here). It continues:

Since 2007, some countries have amended their laws on NGOs (Jordan) or have announced changes (Egypt, Syria), while others have recast their legislation in ways that have a direct impact on NGO activities (Israel, Tunisia).

The trend observed in the past three years is that new restrictions have been put in place in the name of public order, security and the fight against terrorism. These restrictions have led to arbitrary denials of registration for many organisations, in particular those active in the human rights field (Libya, Syria, Tunisia), including in promoting diversity and minorities (Greece, Morocco, Syria, Turkey). 

The restrictions have also taken the form of ever-growing interference in NGO activities by the authorities, for example by impeding their right to peaceful assembly (Algeria, Israel, Egypt), intervening in the affairs of their boards (Syria, Tunisia) or dissolving organisations on arbitrary grounds (Palestine). These measures contradict both the spirit and the letter of Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

These developments have left human rights activists in a deplorable situation, marked by physical and psychological attacks, smear campaigns and restrictions on the freedom of movement of many activists in a number of countries of the eastern and southern Mediterranean. Sentences imposed on NGO activists, in some cases by military tribunals, also provide distressing evidence of the trend towards more restrictive policies observed over the past three years.

The one bright spot in all this seems to be Lebanon, which has the most liberal legal framework for NGOs in the region. "In practice it may be considered the only Arab state with hardly any real restrictions to the right to freedom of association," the report says – though it adds that there are still obstacles for organisations supporting LGBT rights.

Why Lebanon? I'm not sure it's due to a natural tolerance, more an enforced kind of tolerance which is partly the result of government paralysis and the political/sectarian stalemate where all elements recognise that none can permanently gain the upper hand.

Despite all the restrictions and the governmental backsliding, the number of associations is growing gradually in most of the countries surveyed, but the numbers are still well below European levels:


Number of associations per 1,000 inhabitants
  2007  2009-10




































Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 November 2010. Comment.

Al-Qaeda and the Dubai plane crash

Various news reports today mention that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is claiming responsibility for the crash of a UPS cargo plane at Dubai on September 3, as well as the more recent incidents involving parcel bombs.

The Boeing 747 aircraft had taken off from Dubai 45 minutes before it crashed and was attempting to return after the pilot reported smoke on board. 

However, US officials are sceptical about al-Qaeda's claim, saying that the sound of an explosion on board would have been picked up by the cockpit voice recorder – and there is no evidence of that.

Could it have been an incendiary device instead of a bomb? Again, US investigators seem doubtful. CNN says a review of the cargo manifest found the plane was carrying a small number of packages that originated in Yemen, but it quotes an official as saying "They (investigators) have a basic idea of what part of the plane the fire started and these were nowhere near there."

Investigations so far have focused mainly on some lithium batteries that the plane was carrying.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 November 2010. Comment.

Gaddafi's son censored

Colonel Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, has become the latest victim of censorship in Libya. Printing of his weekly newspaper, Oea, has been suspended after it called for a "final assault" on government corruption.

The suspension order came from prime minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi, though the paper's electronic edition is still available on the internet.

Reuters notes that Oea and another paper published by Saif al-Islam's Al-Ghad media group disappeared from the news-stands for six months earlier this year but resumed publishing in July.

The latest move is seen as part of a battle over reform between Saif al-Islam and Libya's political establishment.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 November 2010. Comment.

Human development and the Arab states

This is the time of year when various organisations publish their annual international league tables. During the last three weeks we've had the Global Gender Gap, the Press Freedom Index and the Corruption Perceptions Index – in which Arab countries generally performed badly.

Yesterday there was better news when the UN released its 2010 
Human Development Index (a measure of "well-being" derived from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita GDP. Nine Arab countries were ranked "very high" or "high".

Here is the list. Rankings (out of 169 countries surveyed) are shown in brackets.

Very high human development

United Arab Emirates (32)
Qatar (38)
Bahrain (39)

High human development

Kuwait (47)
Libya (53)
Saudi Arabia (55)
Tunisia (81)
Jordan (82)
Algeria (84)

Medium human development

Egypt (101)
Syria (111)
Morocco (114)

Low human development

Yemen (133)
Mauritania (136)
Comoros (140)
Djibouti (147)
Sudan (154)

(Iraq, Lebanon, Oman, Somalia and Palestine were omitted because of incomplete or unreliable data.)

"The high-achieving Arab countries can attribute their success largely to impressive long-term improvements in health and education, the non-income dimensions of the Human Development Index," Jeni Klugman, lead author of the Human Development Report, says in a note accompanying the latest figures. The note explains: 

"Life expectancy in the Arab countries generally increased from 51 years in 1970 to almost 70 today, the greatest gain of any region in the world, while infant mortality rates plummeted from 98 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1970 to 38 in 2008, below the current world average of 44 per 1,000.

"School enrolment in the Arab states nearly doubled over the past four decades, rising from 34% in 1970 to 64% today. The average years of education for the current adult population of the Arab countries is now estimated at 5.7 years; less than the world average of 7.4 years, but significantly above the levels of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with 4.5 and 4.6 years, respectively."

The note adds that military conflicts have had an adverse effect on human development: "On average, the Arab region has suffered almost three times as much as any other region in the world in terms of years of conflict; over an 18-year period – from 1990 to 2008."

Behind the headline figures, though, there's a more disturbing picture. This year, for the first time, the UN has tried to take inequalities into account – and it's an area where the Arab countries, taken as a whole, perform especially badly.

In the inequality-adjusted index, Arab states suffer a loss of 28%. "Only sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia had greater losses due to inequality in general," the UN says, adding: "The Arab countries collectively had the highest overall loss of any region in the education dimension: 43%."

This is largely due to gender inequality. Only 32% of women in the region over the age of 25 have completed secondary education, compared to 45% of men, the report says. University enrolment however, shows the reverse pattern, with 132 women for every 100 men.

The Arab states also perform far worse than any other region of the world in terms of gender inequality in the labour market (table 5.5).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 November 2010. Comment.

Saudi scholars clash with government

Saudi Arabia's most senior religious scholars have set themselves at odds with government policy – perhaps deliberately – by issuing their fatwa about working women last Sunday.

The fatwa, signed by the Grand Mufti and six other top clerics, forbids women from working "in a place where they intermingle with men" – at a time when the government is trying to encourage female employment.

"There is some sort of a clash now between the political society and the religious society, a clash over an important issue," Khalid al-Dakhil, who teaches political sociology at King Saud University, told AFP. "The government is now in a very difficult position."

This is the kind of situation that King Abdullah was apparently trying to prevent when he issued a decree last August which restricted the issuing of fatwas to officially-authorised scholars. But it looks as if the authorised scholars, in their first politically important fatwa since the decree, have responded by kicking sand in his face.

Saudiwoman's Weblog has the full text of the fatwa, in English and Arabic. It was written in answer to a question, though as AFP points out, the source of the question was not given (as it usually is) – implying that the scholars posed the question to themselves because they wanted to raise the issue.

The reply, also unusually, cited no scriptural sources to justify the scholars' ruling. The resulting fatwa was also issued to the media with unusual speed.

"It's a planned thing ... to hinder the progress of women," Reem Asaad, a Jeddah economics professor, told AFP.

The fatwa is not legally binding on the Saudi government, and Saudiwoman's Weblog notes that the Council of Senior Scholars has previously forbidden things things that remain legal, such as music and non-Islamic satellite TV channels. 

Nevertheless, judges in the kingdom's sharia courts will be able to base rulings on it.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 November 2010. Comment.

Readers' favourites

I started this blog in July last year with the general intention of highlighting events and trends in the Arab countries that I  personally find interesting or deserving of more attention than they get. You often learn more about the region by looking into the nooks and crannies than the big headlines.

What I don't know, of course, when I start to write about something, is whether readers will find it interesting too. On a typical day, al-bab gets around 5,000-6,000 unique visitors (including 600-900 returning visitors) across the whole website.

As far as the blog section is concerned, some readers will know that I tweet each item as it appears (I now have almost 1,000 followers on Twitter). Looking at the tweets where people clicked on the links to my blog or re-tweeted them, I now have a picture of the most popular items last month:

1. Middle East gender gap  Oct-17
2. Free speech for some  Oct-06
3. The Chilean way and the Arab way  Oct-16
4. Marriage official's child bride  Oct-09
5. Despotic benevolence  Oct-05
6. Saudi morality queen  Oct-27
7. Destination gay Beirut  Oct-23
8. Egypt cracks down on text messages  Oct-13
9. Kareem's story  Oct-05
10. Fracas at Kuwaiti TV station  Oct-18

Based on that, and some earlier observations of Twitter activity, it's clear that stories about gender, women's rights and sexuality have the biggest following, along with stories about censorship and freedom of speech.

Yemen, which I also write about a lot, attracts little interest on Twitter. That doesn't really surprise me, but I'm not planning to cut down on the coverage. There's far too little discussion of Yemen except – as we have seen during the last few days – when something happens there that directly affects the west.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 November 2010. Comment.

Date set for maid's execution

Rizana Nafeek, the Sri Lankan maid who was convicted of murdering a four-month-old child in Saudi Arabia, has just over two weeks to live. Arab News reports that she will be executed after Eid al-Adha (November 16).

Ms Nafeek, who is reportedly unaware of her death sentence, was 17 at the time of the alleged crime. By executing her, Saudi Arabia will be in breach of its commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 November 2010. Comment.

Faifi and the parcel bombs tip-off

According to numerous reports yesterday, the initial tip about the "parcel bombs" plot came from Jabr al-Faifi, who was released from Guantanamo five years ago for "rehabilitation" in Saudi Arabia but then "escaped" to Yemen and joined al-Qaeda there.

Later, Faifi reportedly became disillusioned with al-Qaeda, handed himself in to the Yemeni authorities in Abyan province on September 9 and was transferred to Saudi Arabia. 

However, this may not be true because al-Qaeda had already issued a statement on September 4 announcing his arrest. Perhaps, also, we should not discount the possibility that Faifi's "escape" to Yemen and his subsequent arrest/surrender were staged, and that he had been sent there by the Saudis to spy on al-Qaeda.

Either way, Faifi has clearly been in Saudi hands since early September. This raises questions about how much Faifi could have known, so far in advance, about the parcels plot and, as the Waq al-Waq blog wonders, if he did know about it, why al-Qaeda didn't abandon the plan on the grounds that it had probably been compromised.

Another snippet of news points to a possible answer: there was a "dry run" with innocent packages to Chicago in September. These were intercepted by US intelligence but allowed to continue to their destination. Presumably this reassured al-Qaeda that the method was working and that its plans had not been compromised.

It's plausible, therefore, that Faifi did give general information about al-Qaeda's intentions and perhaps about the dry run.

The more specific tip about last week's bombs, though, seems to have come from a different Saudi source. According to ABC News, it was not until last Thursday night that Saudi intelligence provided the US with tracking numbers for the explosive parcels (which by then were already on their way).

Some interesting details have emerged about the addresses on the packages sent last week. The New York Times reports:

An American official said that the addresses on the packages were outdated addresses for Jewish institutions in Chicago. But in place of the names of the institutions, the packages bore the names of historical figures from the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, the official said. The addresses are one reason that investigators now believe the plan may have been to blow up the planes, since there were no longer synagogues at the Chicago locations.

Yesterday, Britain announced that it will not be allowing unaccompanied cargo from Yemen and Somalia, while Germany announced it is suspending all passenger flights from Yemen. Along with the US, Canada, the Netherlands and France have also suspended cargo flights.

Meanwhile, CNN says the US Transportation Security Administration is expected to establish a "long-term presence" in Yemen: "In addition to providing more equipment and coaching of Yemeni authorities on how to screen cargo, the U.S. personnel will also be working with the Yemen's interior ministry to vet new hires."

Regarding gaps in Yemen's cargo and passenger security system, CNN adds:

These gaps are related less to technology and more about corruption and capacity within the Yemeni government, officials said.

"It's not just about people and cargo," one official said. "You can have all the X-ray machines you want, but if someone is paid to turn the machine off at the right time, that doesn't do one bit of good."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 November 2010. Comment.

New fatwa against women cashiers

Back in August, the Saudi king issued a decree banning unauthorised fatwas. In future, the only fatwas allowed would come from scholars of his own choosing. The idea, as stated at the time, was to put a stop to "strange" and "obsolete" fatwas.

Well, the official, royally-approved scholars charged with issuing sensible fatwas have delivered their verdict on women working as chashiers in supermarkets – and it's not good news:

"It is not permitted for a Muslim woman to work in a mixed environment with men who are not related to them, and women should look for jobs that do not lead to them interacting with men which might cause attraction from both sides."

That is scarcely a step forward, and it's not very different from what an unauthorised scholar said a couple of months ago before being reprimanded by the king.

The Crossroads Arabia blog comments:

I continue to be amazed that religious authorities continue to treat the country’s population as a group of hyper-sexed adolescents. Isn’t self-control a part of Islamic doctrine? Isn’t maturity the ability to discern when certain actions are appropriate and when and where not? If the sight of women is so inflammatory to some men, perhaps the lesser evil would be for those men to pluck out their eyes in order to avoid sin.

There are also new developments in the great Saudi debate about men serving women in lingerie shops. A Saudi woman called Fatima Qaroob has launched a Facebook campaign against male assistants under the name "Enough Embarrassment". It reportedly has 6,500 supporters.

Describing how embarrassing it is for a woman to be served by a man in these shops, Ms Qaroob complains to Arab News that one salesman asked her "intimate questions" about her size and preferred colours.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 November 2010. Comment.

'Parcel bomb' student released

Hanan Mohamed al-Samary, the 22-year-old student arrested in Yemen on Friday in connection with the parcel bombs affair has now been freed. The move followed protests in Yemen over her detention.

As I suggested here yesterday, it appears that she was the victim of identity theft. She was released after the shipping agent in Yemen was asked to identify her and said she was not the woman who had signed the documents for sending the parcels.

However, according to a Yemeni official, whoever did send the parcels was in possession of her name, address and phone number. If earlier reports are correct, the bombmakers also had her SIM card.

It now appears that Ms Samary is a student of computer engineering, not medicine as reported earlier.

Meanwhile, US officials have identified Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri as the key suspect behind the manufacture of the bombs.
The BBC, citing President Obama's counter-terrorism adviser, says both bombs were made by the same person who made the "underpants" bomb that failed to explode on a Detroit-bound plane last year. 

"Asiri is also believed to have built the bomb his brother, Abdullah, used in an assassination attempt on the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Mohammed Bin Nayif," the BBC adds. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 November 2010. Comment.

Government hails Yemen's 'progress'

Still in Yemen, the government's 26 Sepember website is celebrating the country's "progress" against corruption. This is based on the fact that Yemen has moved up eight places, from 154 to 146, in Transparency International's latest annual
Corruption Perceptions Index.

In fact, the change is insignificant. Yemen's actual score (out of 10) was 2.2, compared with 2.1 last year – an "improvement" of one percentage point. Yemen's apparent progress in the rankings is due to the fact seven other countries had the same score this year so they are all ranked equally at 146. The next position immediately below them is 154 – the place held by Yemen last year.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 November 2010. Comment.

Previous blog posts




November 2010

Wikileaks: Oman, US missiles and Iran

Wikileaks: Egypt, an obstacle to peace

Wikileaks: The Arab media dilemma

Wikileaks: Salih-Petraeus meeting in Yemen

Election-rigging in Egypt

Military trial for Facebook man

Second car bomb in northern Yemen

Fear of photography

Syrian nuclear impasse

Hard times for MEMRI

Many dead in Yemen car bombing

Amr Khaled arrives in Yemen

All the president's family

Another dose of democracy?

Cinema returns to Saudi Arabia

Are drones really the solution?

Falconry: a worthy heritage?

Yemen conspiracy theories

Royal families: British and Arab

Ahmed Shaaban update

Yemeni warplanes 'attack al-Qaeda'

Egyptian police accused of killing youth

Containing al-Qaeda

The blame game in Yemen

France 'aided Saudi war on Houthis'

Palestinian arrested for atheism

Saudi Arabia: champion of women?

Blogger completes sentence ... re-arrested

Fatwas and supermarkets

Child marriage: a cure for gayness

Libyan in-fighting

Sentence completed, blogger stays in jail

Shortage of Saudi Qur'an teachers

Saudi media challenge Grand Mufti

Setbacks for civil society

Al-Qaeda and the Dubai plane crash

Gaddafi's son censored

Human development and the Arab states

Saudi scholars clash with government

Readers' favourites

Date set for maid's execution

Faifi and the parcel bombs tip-off

New fatwa against women cashiers

'Parcel bomb' student released

Government hails Yemen's 'progress'


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



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Last revised on 16 November, 2010