An Old Letter from the New Minister

When law professor Mohammad al-Abdulkarim raised some uncomfortable questions about succession in Saudi Arabia in December 2010, he was promptly detained. The message was clear. This matter, the arrest said, is not open for discussion. That’s why the question of succession, while widely discussed by analysts in think tanks and Western media, is seldom talked about publicly in the country and when that happens it is rarely in any certain terms.

Much of the uncertainty and speculation surrounding the question of succession can probably be explained by the nature of the Al Saud royal family which is very private and secretive. The process of making major decisions such as those related to succession is usually limited to a very small circle of senior princes who rarely speak to the media. Even when they speak to the media, it is more often than not to friendly local and regional media who confine themselves to asking softball questions.

After Crown Prince Naif passed away on June 16, it was clear that Prince Salman will be his successor. Less clear was who would be come the next interior minister. Three days after Naif’s death, a royal decree announced that Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz was appointed interior minister.

Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz photo

Prince Ahmed, 71, is the youngest of the Sudairi Seven, the sons of the Kingdom’s founder from his favorite wife Hassa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi. He was born in Riyadh, received his primary and secondary education at Princes School and Anjal Institute. He studied English at the University of Southern California, and graduated from Redlands College with a bachelor of arts in political science in 1968. Two years later he become deputy governor of Makkah, and in 1975 he was appointed deputy interior minister.

As deputy minister, he served in the shadow of the late Prince Naif and was rarely in the limelight that some analysts even speculated that he might be passed over for the position of interior minister in favor of Naif’s son Mohammad, a rising star who spearheaded the fight against al-Qaeda and served as the country’s counterterrorism chief.

However, Prince Ahmed was sworn in as the Kingdom’s new interior minister before King Abdullah at the king’s palace last Friday. After the ceremony, he made a general statement in which he thanked the King for his confidence and “on the people to cooperate with the Interior Ministry to maintain security and stability in the Kingdom,” Arab News reported.

That general statement did not say much, but on the same day, al-Hayat daily published an article that the prince wrote 55 years ago when he was a student at the Anjal Institute and was published in the school’s newsletter. In the article, titled “Social Life in Riyadh,” the prince goes to detail different aspects of life in the capital during the late 1950s.

Prince Ahmed wrote that the law of the land is Quran and Sunnah (the teachings of the prophet), and that no one is above the law “even the King himself.” This emphasis on the importance of Islam and the role of religion in Riyadh’s residents everyday life is repeated throughout the article. The prince described the people of Najd as “the most generous” of Arabs. Their favorite drink is bitter coffee mixed with cardamom, he wrote. “There is no one who drinks alcohol in Riyadh … drinkers of alcohol are very much detestable by the public and considered to be decadent.”

In the conclusion of his article, Prince Ahmed predicted that in less than five years Riyadh would become one of the world’s greatest cities, and prayed that to Allah to “help us all in doing whatever carries virtue to the name of our nation, and might he save our beloved king and makes him an honor for Islam and Arabism.”

It is a very long article, but it offers an interesting look into the prince’s thinking. The letter was written a long time ago when the prince was young, and maybe some of his views have changed or evolved as he grew older, but I think it remains an interesting document nonetheless. Below is a translation of the full article:

Riyadh is the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the seat of the king and all ministries, except for the ministry of foreign affairs which is located in Jeddah. Riyadh has its own governor, whose is Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz, and his government includes the center and south of Najd. Riyadh Province also includes al-Kharj, which is the center of the following: al-Sayih, al-Dalam, al-Hiyatm, al- Yamamh; and Sudair, which is a center for a couple of large villages. Also, Shaqra , Dharma until the borders of Hejaz. Al-Dawaser (which is a district includes a set of villages and oases). Al-Huota, al-Hareeq, and al-Muhmal. In every city or town subordinate to Riyadh Province, there is a local ruler appointed by the king himself after he’s been nominated by Riyadh’s governor.

About Riyadh’s history

Riyadh used to be an area which was covered with desert plants that transform, after rain pours in the seasons of winter and spring, into a number of flush oases, bounded by valleys that slopes down to streams.

Riyadh borders

It is bordered by Hanifah vally on the the west, Alison valley on the northwest, pnetrated by Abu-Rafi’s valley which is known nowadays as al-Batha. Its first inhabitants were some traveling bedouins, then Dahham bin Dawas lived there and buili a big city, which is Riyadh apparently. However, the first to take Riyadh as a capital for Al-Saud was Turki bin Abdallah Al-Saud.

Population

Riyadh population was a mixture of Najdi tribes and others since its foundation, a lot of them belonged to tribes from central Najd and its south, north and east, as well as from Hejaz and Yemen.

Disputes and how they were solved

Disagreements which occur between individuals are usually resolved by the judge or the king based on Islamic law, that is to say that the country’s law is governed by Quran and Sunnah, and no one can do anything but yield and give in to whatever the judge says even the king himself.

There was a trial between one of the citizens and king Abdulaziz, may God have mercy upon him, and the judge ruled against the king. After they left, the man told the king: I didn’t request to take you to the judge to humiliate you, but to let people know that you are fair and loving to your subjects and to let history record that. The king thanked him for that.

Intermarriages, and engagements and weddings

The people of Riyadh, like most of the population of the Kingdom, like to maintain compatibility between spouses. If this rule was violated, serious outcomes could not be avoided. Also, the man cannot see his fiancé except what Allah’s permitted which is the face and the hands. After marriage contract is signed, the relatives of the groom and his friends gather before evening prayer to drink coffee and beverages, and after prayer they wed the groom to his bride, and the next day a feast is hosted at the bride’s family house.

The care for Islam

The people of Riyadh and the rest of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia are very interested on following the teachings of Islam. Because of that, they don’t celebrate any holiday but Eid Al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, as they are affirmed in Islamic law. In these two holidays – after performing prayer – everyone goes to his home, congratulates his family for Eid and overwhelms them with joy then they would visit one another for occasion. Not so long ago, people took whatever they prepared of food to the souk so that they would arrange it on special tables to serve the wanderer whether poor or rich. When the city of Riyadh got expanded, this custom was broke off recently, but the rest of the villages of Najd kept this good custom.

Parties

The Arabs were distinguished from other nations by their generosity, and the people of Najd were particularly the most generous, by their undefiled Arabism throughout the ages. That’s why you always see them – especially the people of Riyadh – detest parsimony, wherefore, as soon as you see one of them, he invites you over for coffee, and food, everyone according to his ability. And you can never escape the invitation but by accepting it. And it’s been customary in eating food to put a rug on the floor so that people sit around it and eat using their hands as stated by the Sunnah, no difference in that between the ruler and its subjects. If you knew that the people of Najd are from Arab of Qahtan, you would be amazed by how genuine is their hospitality that it became one of their merits.

Birth and death

Whenever a baby is born, whether male or female, no ceremony takes place initially, but after seven days, the baby is named by his father choice, and on this occasion a feast is held where animals are slaughtered, and sheep and meat are distributed to the poor.

In case of death, their habit is what is stated by the Islamic law. The first thing they do is washing the dead and shrouding him by the Islamic shroud which is white, and they carry him to his final home on his gibbous coffin which has for hands. Four men carry him alternately, with humility just as stated in Shariah, then, when they reach the grave which was dug for him, they put the corpse in it, throwing soil and grass and filling the wholes with adobes. The soil must be around 30 centimeters high, and a stone is placed near his head, another near his feet, so that the grave’s features aren’t hidden. No difference is taken in that between the grave of the king, prince or anyone of the people, and I’ve seen the grave of the late King Abdulaziz in this shape. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not build on their dead domes or memorials, because the prophet – PBUH – forbade that, as what benefits the dead is only his deeds and nothing else. And the royal family don’t have a private cemetery which they prevent common people from, and their graves never came out of the general cemetery.

Hunting

When winter comes and the rain pours heavily, princes go for hunting, both from the royal family and other rich families, to enjoy themselves. This trip usually takes a month or so, most of what they shoot are the Houbara Bustard using their falcons and guns. They also hunt wild animals like rabbits and deer. When the winter is over, the spring comes with its more frequent rain and the earth overgrows its green dress from green grass to other kinds of spring’s plants. After that, Riyadh becomes a true riyadh [garden], then, the wealthy people and the well-off set up tents near Riyadh city where they live along with their families and whoever has work in Riyadh can carry out his business then come back to his tent easily, and some of them build their tents far away from the city, spending a lot of days there.

Food and drinks

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is very intensely religious and adheres to the teachings of Islam, that is why there is no one who drinks alcohol in Riyadh, and this was originated from people’s strong faith. Also, drinkers of alcohol is very much detestable by the public and considered to be decadents and so, widely rejected. The most preferred drinks to the people of Riyadh – and the rest of the areas of Najd – is coffee with cardamom, without sugar. The elderly prefer this coffee more as they inherited it from their ancestors. But now, the tea dominated over coffee and it became more widely used. In addition, there are other kinds of beverages coming in cans from abroad, but there are also soda factories in Riyadh. However, the popular food in Riyadh is almost ordinary. The most popular local dishes are: jerieesh, murgug,and qursan, all made from grains. In winter, people make other local dishes like: al-Heneeni and al-Muhliee, and they are made by mixing brown wheat flour with sugar. Also, another popular dish is the rice with meat.

Their adherence to religion and Islamic traditions

What distinguishes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from the rest of the countries is its strong observance of religion, and its extreme care on executing its orders, no difference in that between the ruler and the ruled, and this is very well known that no one can dispute it. And the people of Riyadh and the rest of the Kingdom are very adhering to their religion and Sunnah, including that they let their beards grow in obedience with the Islamic law which prohibits the shaving of beards, but they don’t leave it as it is, but clip it to look better. But, when it comes to the clergy, elderly, and the religious, they prefer to let their beards grow naturally. Women are always covered, one could never see unveiled woman in the streets or inside the cars. A woman isn’t allowed to lift her veil except when with her husband and her close male relatives or when with women, and mixing of men and women is a taboo in every place other than the family.

Wardrobe of men and women

The clothes of men and women are different –in its own specific way- than other places in the world. That is to say, men cover their heads with the gutra (which is a large square of cloth) which they place over the taiga (a small white cap that keeps the gutra from slipping off the head) and then, they put on the igal (a doubled black cord that holds the gutra in place). The white gutra is the most common while the red is usually worn by sheiks and bedouins as it represents modesty.

The apparent clothes are made of cotton if it was to be worn in summer and wool if it was to be worn in winter. The bisht (mishlah) is made in a particular way from wool, and its thickness or lightness differ based on whether it was to be used in summer or winter. Yet, the underwear is conventional.

Women in old times used to wear al-Darra’h, which is a long dress covering the whole body, this dress is still worn in the less fortunate classes. Now, the modern costume is the Shila, which covers the head, the shoulders, and the back other than the face. And a long dress with long sleeves made of cotton, silk, and modern fabrics.

The occupations of people and businesses

People of Riyadh are proficient in trade. Also, they work in government, factories and companies. But, the agricultural business which was the old craft of the public since ancient times, changed now and got replaced by the trade business. Some of the people are practicing teaching, also, in Riyadh, all what the human needs of luxuries and comforts is available. Riyadh merchants are known to be honest in their dealings.

Education

Since Riyadh became a city, the education started there in mosques on the hands of sheikhs, so that the student learns how to read and write in addition to some of the religious sciences and grammar of the language. Years after King Abdulaziz opened Riyadh, the government established along with the people Al-Katatib, where students learn the previous subjects as well as mathematics which is no more than division, and 10 years ago, primary, intermediate, and secondary public schools were introduced where students get to learn all kind of necessary education.

In the past six years, the schools were transformed to be exemplary, their system in line with the most modern educational methods. These kinds of schools are increasing and upgrading one day after another that public high schools were founded in Riyadh. Also, night schools, industrial schools, an orphanage , teachers’ institution, and a college for Islamic law were installed. In 1377 AH, a Saudi university was established which is King Saud University. The first college in the university was the College of Arts, then in 1378, the College of Sciences was added, and so, all other colleges were completed year after another. This rapid progress is what promises a bright future for Riyadh by completing its concentrated educational renaissance.

Buildings and urban advancement

The architecture in Riyadh was simple. Houses were built using mud and adobes, and ceiled with tamarisk wood which grows in Riyadh, and over it, people put palm frond and mud. The buildings were only one floor, and their walls were painted with white plaster, and inside the house, places for fire and for animals to sleep. This continued to be the case until it was opened by King Abdulaziz. After his settlement, the two floors governmental housing was established and buildings were expanded. The cement was introduced for paving the walkways and rooms, but then it was used along with stones as a base for buildings, however, the old design stayed unchanged until 10 years ago. After that, the urban renaissance took place and modern buildings equipped with amenities were built. Also, restaurants and stores were opened and roads were paved. When King Saud came to power, he paid a lot of attention to Riyadh city and established its municipality. Also, he laid a special budget and organized administration to it and called it the Capital Municipality. This municipality paved roads, organized lands, and built the most modern buildings and villas for employees as well as for all citizens. It took extreme care on fixing, planting, and lightening the roads. It also did public gardens which have beautiful fountains in the middle. It also brought drinking water to al-Hayer, which is 40 kilometers away from Riyadh. In addition, it established a lot of mechanical garages for car repair and refreshments’ factories. In fact, this fast development promises a very bright future for the city of Riyadh. Five years won’t pass before it competes with the greatest cities of the world in terms of capacity, coordination, and excellence.

Finally, might Allah help us all in doing whatever carries virtue to the name of our nation, and might he save our beloved king and makes him an honor for Islam and Arabism.

Special thanks to Fatma al-Zuabi for the translation.

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Covering Up

Niqab-less Norah al-Faiz

Norah al-Faiz is supposed to be a symbol of progress in Saudi Arabia. She was appointed deputy minister of education by King Abdullah in February 2009, making her the kingdom’s highest-ranking female official. At the time, many observers hailed the move as a sign of reform.

But controversy has dogged Faiz since the beginning of her tenure. Continue reading at Foreign Policy

Update 6/27/2012: Saudi state press agency published this new photo of al-Faiz, reportedly taken in Riyadh last night during her visit to an Aramco cultural event. She is the first from the left in the black abaya.

Norah al-Faiz in Aramco cultural event in Riyadh

Saudi Govt Accused of Using Judiciary to Silence Activists

Three prominent Saudi human rights activists are facing serious charges in a series of court cases that took place over the last few weeks. The latest of these cases was brought against Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a founding member of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), and someone who has been tirelessly working to promote human rights in the country and bravely criticizing government’s record on the subject. Al-Qahtani appeared in court in Riyadh earlier this week.

The public prosecutor accused him of eleven charges related to his activism. Here is a link to the public prosecutor’s memo (Arabic PDF); below is a translation of the charges against him:

  1. Attempting to plant the seeds of discord and strife, breaking allegiance to the ruler and his successor, questioning the integrity of and insulting state officials.
  2. Questioning the integrity and piety of the members of the Senior Ulema Council by – falsely – accusing it to be a tool that approves government policies in return for financial and moral support as in the case of forbidding street protests.
  3. Accusing Saudi judiciary in its regulations and applications of being unable to deliver justice for breaching the standards set by Islamic Sharia.
  4. Accusing Saudi judiciary of being unjust by allowing torture and accepting confessions extracted under duress.
  5. Accusing the Saudi regime – unfairly – of being a police state built on injustice and oppression veiled in religion, and using the judiciary to legitimize injustice to continue its systematic approach to violate human rights.
  6. Inciting public opinion by accusing security bodies and their senior officials of oppression, torture, assassination, enforced disappearances, and violating human rights.
  7. Antagonizing international organizations against the Kingdom, and instigating them to focus on criticizing the Kingdom’s civic, political, economical, social and cultural fundamentals.
  8. Co-founding an unlicensed organization and making it appear as a reality by which he attempts to oppose state policy, spread divisiveness and disunity, spread accusations against the state’s judiciary and executive institutions and senior officials of injustice and transgressions; engaging in specialities that affect others’ rights and freedoms and the encroachment upon the specialties of governmental and non-governmental organizations (Human Rights Commission, National Society for Human Rights) and participating in writing statements released by them and publishing it on the internet.
  9. Preparing, storing and sending what could affect general order which is punishable by Section 1 in Article 6 of the E-Crimes law.
  10. Describing the General Intelligence body [mabaheth] as illegal militias.
  11. Providing false information as true facts and delivering them to official international bodies (UN Human Rights Council) which includes statements he delivered to these international organizations about proceedings regarding suing individuals that he gave which contradicts the truth and reality documented in official papers.

The two other activists facing similar charges, but in separate court cases, all pressed by the same public prosecutor, are Abdullah al-Hamed and Waleed Abu Al-Khair. In a gesture of support, they both attended the court hearing when al-Qahtani was accused of the charges listed above.

He remains defiant. “History is being written here,” al-Qahtani reportedly told his son after the court hearing, surrounded by 30 activists who were there.

Amnesty International said the case against al-Qahtani is part of part of a crackdown on human rights activists in the country and that it should be thrown out of court.

“The Saudi Arabian authorities’ trial of Mohammad al-Qahtani is just one of a troubling string of court cases aimed at silencing the Kingdom’s human rights activists,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program. The government must end its crackdown against activists, he said.

“This must come to an end and human rights defenders must be allowed to carry on their crucial work to expose human rights violations and call for justice and accountability.”

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?

Protest to Release Detainees in Riyadh Mall

Relatives of political detainees held a small protest in Riyadh Wednesday night, photos and videos posted to social media sites showed. The protest took place inside Sahara Mall in the northern part of the Saudi capital. The videos below show men marching inside the mall as they chant a hadeeth by the Prophet that says “release the distressed.”




The account @e3teqal on Twitter, which identifies itself as a coordinator for the activities of illegal detention victims in Saudi Arabia, posted a number of photos purporting to show the protest:





UPDATE 6/7/2012 1:10: Mohammad al-Abdulaziz said on Twitter that his brother and his family (wife and three children) have been arrested. It is said that more people have been arrested.

Head of CPVPV weeps, Head of NSHR talks

  • Sheikh Abdul-Latif Al-alsheikh, head of CPVPV, joins the growing crowd of weeping clerics, though unfortunately we don’t have a video of the incident. The tears were spilled during a meeting with his staff as he recalled a conversation with King Abdullah. Al-alskheikh said the king asked him to avoid using violence against citizens. Al-alsheikh also commented on the Nail Polish Girl issue, saying the story has been exaggerated. “The world is making airplanes and we are telling a woman to leave the mall because she is wearing nail polish,” he exclaimed.

Nail polish photo

  • Arab New interviews Moflih al-Qahtani, chairman of NSHR, to talk about the society’s latest report that was published yesterday. “Our report is in support of the Kingdom’s efforts worldwide to sustain its positive image among international human rights organizations,” he said. I thought the goal was to highlight the human rights situation in the country in order to improve it. Silly me.

NSHR new report, Crown Prince health, Madawi and Nail Polish Girl

  • The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) published their third report on the human rights situation in the country. Their previous two reports were well received, and this one will probably get the same reception. The report’s main theme is that the government executive bodies have failed to meet the ambitions of King Abdullah. At the end of the report, NSHR provided a list of recommendations including suggestions for partial elections of the Shoura Council as well as limiting transgressions by security forces and CPVPV members against citizens. Full text of the report in Arabic is available here (PDF)
  • Crown Prince Naif left the country last week for “routine medical checkups,” according to the state news agency. His deputy, Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, told local media Saturday that “Prince Naif is fine, I spoke with him last night. He is in good health and will come back soon.”
  • Madawi al-Rasheed says Nail Polish Girl is no hero because her confrontation with the Commission was not “grounded in demands for both personal freedoms and political and civil rights for men and women. Until then, Saudis and the rest of the world will continue to watch YouTube clips of futile disconnected incidents, grounded in sensationalism and imagined heroism,” she says. Rana Jarbou, on Twitter, disagrees: “I highly respect Madawi Al-Rasheed, but I find the ‘Nail Polish Girl’ more relevant to my plight as a ‪Saudi‬ woman.”