Commission Makeover? Good Luck with That

The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has a new president. Abdul-Latif Al-alsheikh is a descendant of Mohammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, the preacher whose pact with Muhammad bin Saud helped to establish the first Saudi state more than 250 years ago. But the first time I heard of Al-alskheikh was in 2010 when he joined a heated debate in the country about gender mixing.

On that debate, Al-alsheikh took what many considered a moderate stance when compared to the official stance taken by the Commission. “Gender mixing is here by need and necessity,” he told al-Jazirah daily. “Such practice was not born today or in this age, but rather has existed for a very long time, including the early days of Islam.” Al-alsheikh went on to say that Sharia did not ban gender mixing, but rather allowed it within certain limits.

Other notable names who took this side of the debate included Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamdi, former head of the Commission in Makkah, former judge Eisa al-Gheith and the current Justice Minister Mohammad al-Eisa. On the opposite side of the debate you had more traditionalist clerics who warned that any easing of gender segregation rules will lead to dangerous consequences such as sexual promiscuity and complete social disintegration.

At the time, the Commission was welcoming a new president to its ranks. Abdul-Aziz al-Humayyen was appointed for the post as part of a major cabinet reshuffle ordered by King Abdullah on Valentine’s Day 2009. Al-Humayyen was hailed as a reformer, and he promised to fix the Commission and end transgressions. That did not happen. Five months ago, he was replaced by Al-alskheikh.

Before being appointed as a new head of the Commission on January 13, 2012, Al-alsheikh served as an assistant general secretary of the Council of Senior Ulema as well as an advisor to the former governor of Riyadh Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz. He is married and has four children.

Like his predecessor, Al-alsheikh came to the new job with promises of change and reform. On his first few weeks he made the headlines when he announced that the Commission patrols will no longer chase suspects in the streets. The decision was well-received because several people have been killed or injured in high speed chasing incidents in recent years, but also made some conservatives uneasy as it indicated that the new president seemed more than willing to limit the powers enjoyed by his feared men.

Al-alsheikh has had some quiet months on the job since then, but that did not last for long. The Nail Polish Girl affair came and forced him to speak up.

The typical response to stories like this in the past was usually very defensive. Typically, the Commission president or spokesman man would come out to defend and justify the aggressive behavior of their staff in the field, and accuse the media – local and international – of targeting the Commission and being biased against it.

However, things went a bit differently this time. Instead of defending them, Al-alsheikh attempted to play down the story and instead directed criticism at his own men saying Commission members who abuse their power would be fired immediately.

That was unusual, to say the least.

Are we finally going to see change in the Commission? Is Al-alshiekh serious about reform? And even if he has a true desire to fix it, can he actually do that? The Commission annual report for last year offers some numbers that could help us answer the aforementioned questions.

According to the report, most of the employees in this government body are not very educated. The Commission employs 4389 men: 60% of the these employees do not have a college degree, and half of those did not even finish high school. It is safe to assume that most of them are field officers, the ones you usually see in malls and patrolling streets in white GMC trucks.

The report indicates that the Commission field offers have arrested 392,325 persons for two types of offense: religious and moral. That number translates to 1.5% of the country’s population, and it shows a 20% increase over the previous year

The news items that I have read summarizing the report’s conclusions do not provide more details regarding the nature of the offenses, but based on history we can probably guess that the definition of what actions count as offenses depend on the interpretation the Commission field officers. The very same officers who severely lack education and who seem to act as if they are entitled by God to perform their job, even if that meant infringing on citizens’ rights and invading their privacy.

Looking at the numbers, history and the status quo in the country, fixing the Commission might seem like an impossible mission. There are very few reasons to be optimistic, and so many ones to be pessimistic. Abdul-Latif Al-alshiekh has to turn it around and somehow make it work in a modern country where citizens know their rights and fight for them. He will probably need a magic wand. Would his men let him have one?

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So You Want to Be a Saudi Journalist?

With government’s blessings or against its wishes, the margin for freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia has been gradually expanding over the last few years. Some topics that used to be taboo are now regularly discussed on the pages of newspapers, though other taboos remain, but the number of those is decreasing.

The fact that many Saudis began to use the internet as a source of news and a place to express themselves posed a challenge for newspapers who began to lose their readers. But in a way, the internet and the freedom available online was good for the mainstream media in the country because it has put pressure on them to become freer, to stay relevant and to keep at least some of their readership.

The relations between newspapers and the government, however, did not change much. All newspapers remain loyal to the government, which must approve the editors that get nominated by the owners of each paper. Newspapers content is not pre-censored by the government, but editors effectively act as gatekeepers, making sure that anything that gets published shall remain within the accepted lines of the government.

Despite this, the government seems unhappy with the press.

During the weekly cabinet meeting in Jeddah earlier this week, the government made some decisions related to the press because “some unspecialized writers and journalists have made incorrect and fabricated allegations regarding the activities of some ministries looking after public services.”

Most of these decisions has to do with how ministries handle media, such as defining the tasks of spokesmen and “opening channels of contact and cooperation with the media.”

The Cabinet also said that if any government body finds that a media agency has published incorrect news and has not responded in an appropriate manner to the replies of the government agency, then it should immediately report the matter to the official bodies responsible for looking into and resolving these cases besides filing a lawsuit against the erring media agency or journalist.

However, there was one more decision that has sparked controversy: “The Cabinet also confined the practice of journalism to journalists accredited by the Saudi Journalists Association.”

The decision raised many eyebrows because the majority of journalists in Saudi Arabia are not members of SJA.

SJA has been around for almost 10 years now, but you probably have not heard of it until now. Since its inception, SJA has been fully controlled by the government-approved newspaper editors, who have easily won the latest board elections held last week. 440 full members of SJA voted in the elections.

Yes, 440 is the number of full members of SJA who have voting rights. Only full-time journalists can obtain full membership. Freelancers cannot obtain full membership and therefor cannot vote to elect SJA board.

For a country that has 11 daily newspapers, dozens of magazines, television and radio channels, the number 440 is very small. I don’t know the exact number of full-time journalists in the country, but I think it is safe to assume it is more than 440. In addition to those, there are thousands of freelancers (some estimate that 80% of those working in Saudi media are freelancers).

Why aren’t they members of SJA? Probably because SJA has proven to be pretty useless for them. Why pay membership fees when you are not getting anything in return? I personally can’t recall any examples of SJA providing services to their members or to the country’s press. Are they going to register with SJA now after the government latest decision?

The old guard of editors were quick to cheer the decision, as they always do for everything the government does, but others in the media raised their concerns.

Communications consultant Sultan al-Bazie is skeptical, but he said he expects the ministry of information to explain the decision.

“In principle, if SJA were doing a satisfactory job for all journalists then maybe we would have a situation that allows for the decision to be implemented,” he told al-Watan. “But the current situation is not suitable, unless the ‘practice of journalism’ is something else they would later explain.”

In his interview with Sabq, Saudi minister of information Abdulaziz Khoja did not provide much in the way of explanation. He simply said the goal of the latest series of decisions by the cabinet is to regulate the practice of journalism in the country.

Update on Kashgari’s Case

Just a quick update on the Hamza Kashgari case since many people have been asking: The young man is now in detention, his family visited him and he is reportedly in high spirits and being treated respectfully. Several sites and petitions have been set up to support him and call for his release.

Prominent human rights lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem has announced that he will defend Kashgari, arguing that he will push for this case to be handled by a committee in the information ministry instead of a Sharia court.

Meanwhile, several people on the right are claiming that Hamza is a member what they believe is a “sleeping cell” to spread atheism among Saudi youth. Al-Hayat has a thinly sourced story saying public prosecutors are likely to summon people that supported or agreed with Kashgari, which opened the door widely for something like a witch hunt.

People like Mohammed al-Hodaif are accusing Abdullah Hamidaddin of being the cell leader but so far they have failed to provide a strong evidence to support their claims.The two men faced off on TV today where al-Hodaif threatened Hamidaddin, who is currently traveling to the US, to return to the Kingdom for a trial in a Saudi court.

Saudi Writer Hamza Kashgari Flees Country After Controversy on Twitter

UPDATE 2/12/12 03:09ET: Hamza Kashgari has been deported to Saudi Arabia by Malaysian authorities, several news agencies reported. Malaysian human rights lawyers say they had a judge order to stop the deportation, but by the time they reached the airport the plane already took off.

Hamza Kashgari, a young Saudi writer, caused a firestorm when he posted a series of tweets on the birthday of Prophet Mohammad last week. In his tweets, Kashgari imagined a conversation with the Prophet in which he said they are equal, and that although he admires many of the Prophet’s characteristics there are also others that he disliked.

Saudi users on Twitter erupted with outrage, posting nearly 30,000 tweets on the topic in less than 24 hours. Many people believed that he insulted the Prophet by addressing him and speaking about him like that. They accused Kashgari of blasphemy, atheism and apostasy. Many said he must be punished and some said he should be killed. Others even went as far as threatening to kill him or offer money for his head.

The outcry resulted in a full U-turn by Kashgary, who deleted the controversial tweets and published an apology saying he has sinned and that he has now repented. He explained that what he wrote earlier was “feelings I erred in describing and writing, and that I ask God for forgiveness, but they don’t really represent my belief in the Prophet.”

The apology was not enough for many people, especially the religious conservatives who demanded that Kashgari be tried in a Sharia court. One of these people is a cleric named Nasser al-Omar, who appeared in a YouTube video weeping because he said he could not bear to see the Prophet insulted.

“These people [like Kashgari] should be put to trial in Sharia courts,” al-Omar said. “It is known that cursing God and his Prophet is apostasy. And the fact that he has repented with cold words will not probably save him in the court.”

Al-Omar and others insist that even if Kashgari has repented he should still be sentenced for apostasy, effectively calling for his death by sword. Al-Omar called on his followers to send telegraphs to the King, Crown Prince and the Grand Mufti to punish Kashgari.

Yesterday, several websites said that the King has ordered the arrest of Kashgari and today news came that he has fled the country. According to Al Arabiya’s sources, Kashgari had flown to Jordan then the UAE before reaching a country in southeast Asia.

The 23-year-old writer used to write a column for the Jeddah-based al-Bilad daily, but yesterday the information minister Abdul Aziz Khoja ordered all newspapers not to carry any article by Kashgari. “I have instructed all newspapers and magazines in the Kingdom not to allow him to write any thing and we will take legal measures against him,” Khoja said.

How a couple of tweets by an obscure writer reached the King and resulted in an arrest order and a possible death sentence in the matter of three days is nothing short of astonishing. Saudi Arabia being a conservative Muslim country, the outrage over Kashgari’s tweets was expected. Remember the Danish cartoons? Nevertheless, this case escalated rapidly.

While I understand how many Muslims would take offense at anything that touches the prophet, I don’t think it explains the whole story. Yes, many feel strongly about such matters and therefor they reacted accordingly. However, it is clear that many on the right decided to take advantage of the incident to score points and make political gains. It was a low hanging fruit.

While some may perceive religious conservatives defending the Prophet’s honor simply as piety, others say there is more behind it, that this is actually part of a long-term plan.

“This is not spontaneous,” a friend of Kashgari’s told me. “Hamza has had people marking him since the Marriott affair and before.”

There is a disturbing “bloodthirstiness” about the conservatives’ reaction, the friend said, adding that Hamza is “just the first in a list they’re targeting.”

Ironically, Kashgari had a conservative upbringing. He was part of the many “circles for memorization of Quran” in Jeddah, and according to one source familiar with the matter, his old preachers helped convince him to delete his controversial tweets and apologize. However, these very same preachers refused to come to his defense publicly in the face of the rabid attacks by the conservatives.

Contrary to reports circulating in Twitter and some sites, Kashgari was not detained upon his arrival to the airport in southeast Asia. He is free, his friend told me, but remains worried about being extradited.

This controversy emerges as an equally contentious case is finally coming to an end.

Local media reported this week that the King has pardoned Hadi Al Mutif, a man who was sentenced to death in 1996 after being convicted of allegedly insulting the Prophet. King Abdullah did not confirm the death sentence as required under Saudi law and Al Mutif remained in jail for 18 years. He is expected to walk free later this week.

UPDATE 2/9/2012 15:25ET: According to Malaysia state news agency BERNAMA, Hamza Kashgari has been detained.

Riding the Wave

For some reason, the government here finds itself compelled to get involved in organizing cultural events even when they suck at it. Why? Maybe because they don’t allow non-governmental organizations that usually play such roles in other countries. Or maybe because they want to keep the matters of arts and culture under control. Anyway, they keep organizing these events and it is very rare that anything good comes out of them.

Recently, the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) organized in Riyadh what they called the second intellectual forum. The word ‘intellectual’ here is a vague term used to describe a diverse group of people who work in the fields of arts and culture: writers, novelists, columnists, artists, journalists, etc.

This forum that took place in the Marriott hotel included discussion panels and meetings with senior government officials. It was also a chance for these so-called intellectuals, many of them have known each other for years, to meet and talk. Like most of these events, the forum almost passed unnoticed. That is, until al-Watan daily columnist Saleh al-Shehi tweeted this:

Translation: What happened in the Marriott lobby on the margins of the intellectuals forum is a shame and a disgrace.. I believe that the so-called cultural enlightenment program in Saudi Arabia is centered on women

That tweet generated some angry responses by other people who attended the forum. Author Abdo Khal, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction aka the Arabic Man Booker, tweeted: “Your allegation has crossed the line. Either you prove it or face trial for libel. You should apologize before things get there.”

Abdul Aziz Khoja, the minister of information and culture, and whose this event is happening under his auspices, also took to Twitter to make his feelings clear:

Translation: For criticism to cross its goals and ethics and reaches the stage of libel and slandering, that is what’s shame. And I will say no more.

Al-Shehi was unapologetic. He insisted that as a good Muslim there was no way he could remain silent about what happened at the Marriott lobby. He also said that he plans to sue Khoja. This kind of talk struck a chord with the conservatives, who took his tweet and ran with it because it reaffirms their view of the so-called liberal intellectuals as a group of immoral men and women.

During a talk show on Rotana TV, Khal pressed al-Shehi to say what did he see exactly that he deemed too scandalous. The latter kept refusing to answer, but at the end of the show he agreed to provide one example: some women there did not cover their hair.

The horror. Seriously? All this fuss over a few strands of hair? People thought al-Shehi saw some orgy going on or something. I mean look at these photos: some really hardcore stuff, no?

Some people think the government must be thrilled to see the elite of society bickering over trivialities like this instead of demanding political reform. For a government that paid billions in money handouts and made some merely symbolic concessions to prevent the Arab Spring from reaching their shores, a controversy like this one is certainly a welcome distraction.

The past few months have seen a wave of conservatism that al-Shehi and his supporters seem more than happy to ride. Hardliners are on the rise, and that shows in the heavy-handed manner in which authorities are dealing with recent calls for reform.

Earlier this week, the interior ministry ordered the arrest of 23 citizens wanted in connection to last October’s unrest in the city of Awwamiya in Qatif in the eastern part of the country. The ministry held a press conference to make the announcement and released a list of names and photos in a way that eerily similar to how the government dealt with Al Qaeda cells few years ago.

Few days later, the organizers of an event for arts and culture in Riyadh were ordered to cancel all the musical segments in their program, and two days ago long-time activist Mohammed Saeed Tayeb was stopped at the airport when he tried to board a plane to Cairo to attend his daughter’s wedding there.

In July 2010, Saleh al-Shehi wrote about meeting Abdo Khal in a Parisian cafe, where “girls of all nationalities and ages were flying around us like butterflies in the Spring season.” Why is he now all worked up about some Saudi women not covering their hair? Halal in Paris, haram in Riyadh?

Saleh al-Shehi kept repeating the word “shame” to describe what he saw at the now-infamous lobby, but failed to provide any specific examples except for the uncovered hair of some women. If some free strands of hair offend his sensibilities that much, then he probably should not be there in the first place. However, there are many other things in the country that he, and all of us, really, should be ashamed of like injustice, corruption and discrimination.

For shame, Saleh. For shame.

On the Statement and Shameless Apologists

Two stories were the focus of much debate and discussion in Saudi Arabia recently: a) the trial of what the local media likes to call the “Jeddah cell,” a group of reform activists accused of terrorism and plotting to overthrow the monarchy; and b) the tragic events in Qatif that resulted in the death of four young men and injury of two members of the security forces.

On December 5th, a group of activists released a statement condemning what they called the “extremely harsh sentences” against the Jeddah reformers, and also condemning how the government handled the events in Qatif. The list of signatories on the statement included some prominent Sunni and Shia activists such as Mohammed Said Tayeb, Abdullah Farraj al-Sharif, Tawfiq al-Saif, Mohammad al-Ali and others.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is business as usual in Saudi Arabia. Something happens; a statement or a petition is released by a group of people. After all, it is not like there is much more they can do. Street protests are strictly prohibited, and there is no elected parliament where these people can question the government and hold it accountable for its actions.

However, something else happened this time around. Shortly after the statement was released, it was received with an aggressive backlash in the local media, where columnists held no punches in their scathing attack on the statement and those who signed it. Some observers even suggested that the attack looks coordinated and is probably orchestrated by the interior ministry to win public opinion.

But I don’t think the media backlash was coordinated. As Ahmad Abdulaziz said, it is not as if columnists in the local newspapers wait for government orders to open their verbal fire on government critics. “After a long practice, they have come to know very well what they have to do without even getting instructions,” he wrote. Also, let’s be honest here, does the government care all that much about public opinion?

I have read about 50 columns over the past 3 weeks attacking the statement and those who signed it. Some of these columns were penned by editors of the papers. This is fine, I’m all for free speech. If you feel this strongly about the statement and truly feel compelled to defend the official line on these issues, by all means go knock yourselves out.

One little problem though: none of these papers actually dared to publish the statement or report on it. If readers wanted to know what statement the columnists are talking about then they had to go Google it themselves. When the new editor of al-Eqtisadiah Salman al-Dosary was confronted with this fact in a recent TV interview, he said “we don’t publish anything” because they practice responsible freedom and protect national security.

Al-Dosary seems to think that protecting national security is part of his job description. Yay for the independent Saudi press! But I digress. Let me focus here on “we don’t publish anything.” In his column, al-Dosary accused those who signed the statement of “incitement to overthrow the regime and the government.” Nothing in the statement language even remotely suggests this.

It is one thing to choose to take the government side on some issues. It is quite another to lie and distort the facts just to show how patriotic you are and, while at it, imply that those on the the side of these issues are unpatriotic. The problem with many government apologists is that they severely lack any kind of class; they are shameless.

People like Samar al-Mogren, Adhwan al-Ahmari and Saud al-Rayes for example went as far as calling the signatories terrorism supporters. Seriously? But hey, this is a free country as I said earlier, I’m all for free speech. I just think that it is rather a sad day for this country (and boy did we have many of those lately!) when some people, including the grand mufti, try to score points with the government by using false accusations to discredit some national figures like Mohammad Said Tayeb.

Taybe, a long time activist who was repeatedly jailed over the past four decades, used Twitter to defend himself, calling those columnists a “choir” from a bygone era.

After a series of tweets directed at the columnists, he chose to send a message to Crown Prince Naif: “We understand the interior minister’s duties and responsibilities, but we believe that the most important duty of the crown prince is to guarantee the protection of public freedoms and human rights.”

I’ve been putting off writing this post because I thought the period of verbal diarrhea by government apologists would end soon, but the articles kept on coming nonstop like the floods of Jeddah.

Right, whatever happened to holding the corrupt officials accountable in that disaster? Oh, we are not supposed to talk about this? Sorry, my bad.

First Look: Al-Sharq, Newcomer to Saudi Media

The latest player on the Saudi media scene was born this week, and its creators decided to deliver it on a very special date: November 11, 2011, at exactly 11:11 KSA time.

Al-Sharq will also be the 11th general interest national daily newspaper in the country. I say ‘will’ because although the website was launched a couple of days ago, the print newspaper will not hit the stands until December 5. The editor-in-chief is Gainan al-Ghamdi, a veteran journalist who helped start Al-Watan daily in Abha back in 2000, and before that was the editor of Al-Bilad in Jeddah. Al-Sharq will be the second newspaper to be based in the Eastern Province. The first one is Al-Yaum, which has also recently relaunched their site.

I have had the chance to follow Al-Sharq development over the past few months because two leading men behind the site are good friends of mine: Fouad al-Farhan and Hasan al-Mustafa, the head of development and the site managing editor, respectively. Both of them talked with me several times during the development period and I offered them some small suggestions but by no means was I directly involved with the project.

The design of the site is clean and fresh, and it certainly puts them ahead of their competitors, but this should not come as a surprise to anyone. The site has a gray color palette, which some people on Twitter called “dull,” but I personally like it. I also like that the text has a lot of white space to breath, a fresh departure from the crowded condensed look of many news sites. It helps that there are no ads on the site, but I don’t expect that to last for too long.

Fouad says all what he cares about for now is content and traffic. Ads are “the last thing I care about about for now,” he said. “Content, then traffic, then ads. Why have ads placeholders when you have no visitors?”

For Fouad, al-Sharq could be the realization of a dream he has had for years.

In a US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, dated December 17, 2008, he told American diplomats that he and some friends are planning to launch a “new site as a Saudi version of the Drudge Report or the Huffington Post.” These plans never really materialized in the way he described them at the time, but a look through Al-Sharq homepage definitely bears some resemblance to HuffPo, especially the use of one lead story with a page-wide headline and big photo at the top.

The use of one lead story with a big photo HuffPo-style is something that I still can’t bring myself to like. But I like the use of big pictures on the homepage and throughout the site, although the choice and quality of the pics leave much to be desired. Another problem with the homepage is the lack of summaries for stories. A headline with a picture is not always enough, and it does not help with skimming if you are in a hurry.

The technology powering the site is a heavily customized version of the open source WordPress content management system, Fouad explained. Another important piece of the system is what he called “real workflows.” He added that building the right workflows with proper user restrictions was the biggest problem they ran into during the development stage. The target, he said, is “15 minutes max for content from start to finish.”

Content-wise, it is probably too early to judge the site as it’s been less than 72 hours since it went live. But it is worth noting that the Opinion section includes many names that don’t come from the usual journalism and/or academia background. The site also has Video section, but almost all of the content there is produced by TV channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The only Al-Sharq video on the page was not really a video story, but rather a regular story with a video shot on a cellphone by the reporter that doesn’t rally add much.

Hasan al-Mustafa told me that the initial plan was to launch the site and paper together on 11/11/2011, but then a decision was made to delay the print edition launch which affected the site severely. “More than half of our staff were hired as print reporters,” he said. Delaying the print edition debut until December meant that these reporters are not working at full force yet, but the system is ready and tested for full integration between the site the paper product.

Hasan and Fouad have been working closely to ensure that Al-Sharq would bring something different to the market. Hasan has worked in TV and newspapers before; Fouad’s background is in software development and blogging.

“I’m not a journalist and not a media professional,” he said. “But I’m their first customer, and I want to build the news site I always wished to browse as a Saudi media consumer.”

His official title at the newspaper is “Development Manager” but it is clear that his influence goes far beyond that. He told me that they simply want to be different on all aspects: design, content, services and ideas. On Twitter, Fouad said what people see on the site is less than 10% of what they have in mind. “What’s coming will be exciting,” he said.

“Our intention was to send a message that we’re different from any Saudi newspaper or news site. Others here will follow us in few months or years but we’re the first.”