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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The “New Terrorism”

The situation in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province has been tense for months. At least six people have been killed since November. The government repeatedly said the unrest in Qatif is backed by an unnamed foreign power, widely understood to mean Iran. The government refuses to acknowledge the protests in Qatif. Instead they call them ‘riots.’

“We do have evidence of a relationship with somebody else abroad,” Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki told a news conference last month when he announced that the ministry ordered the arrest of 23 men in Qatif who it said were responsible for unrest.

Some people noted how the government used to make similar announcements during the confrontations with Al Qaeda few years ago. While this announcement was very similar in style and presentation, the government kept referring to the recent unrest as “riots” but stopped short of calling it “terrorism.”

Until today.

The state news agency published a statement by an unnamed source at the Interior Ministry this morning saying “what is being committed by this small minority is new terrorism that the government has the right to confront like it has done before” with Al Qaeda attacks. A reporter for Arab News tweeted that the unnamed source is actually al-Turki.

Saudi MOI. Photo credit: Paul Tupman

This statement comes as a response to a Friday sermon by Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, the most prominent Shia leader in the country. In his sermon, al-Saffar said he rejects the use of violence by protesters against security forces, but at the same time he condemned the excessive use of force by the police. “Those are citizens, Muslims and humans. Their souls are dear and their lives are precious. The state is responsible for their lives and blood,” he said.

Obviously, the government could not accept this kind of language even coming from a moderate like al-Saffar and felt compelled to send a strong message. Security forces will confront the situation “with determination and force and with an iron first,” the statement said.

Al-Saffar has played in important role in mediating between the government and the Shia community since he returned to the country in the early 1990’s after years in exile. However, it seems that his role has been marginalized as young people decided to take matters into their hands by taking to the street, and also because the government chose to deal with the unrest heavy-handedly.

The Interior Ministry dismissed al-Saffar’s comparison of the situation to what is happening in neighboring countries, where governments are killing their own people. Saudi security forces are simply “acting in self-defense,” the ministry said.

So the ministry is basically saying the killings in Qatif happen when security forces defend themselves against terrorist attacks incited by foreign parties. Haven’t we heard this line before? Help me here: Was it Syria? Or Bahrain?

But the above questions are not important. The important questions are: How can this escalation in rhetoric by the government help to ease the tension? How do they plan to do that without allies like al-Saffar? Will the iron fist option work?

I don’t know the answers, but Toby C. Jones and Madawi al-Rasheed, two academics who wrote extensively about Saudi Arabia, had this interesting exchange earlier today on Twitter:


Municipal fail, World Cup ministries, MOI can haz HR dept

  • The Municipal Council in al-Ahsa has failed to achieve the hopes of its members and the citizens who elected them, member of the council Hejji al-Nejaidi admitted. In a brief interview with Okaz daily al-Nejaidi accused the municipality of transferring SR17m that were allocated to develop Prince Meteb bin Abdulziz Road to some unknown project. He also accused the municipality of ignoring the council and not taking it seriously. “Eighty percent of the council’s suggestions and requests to the municipality have not been addressed.” Oddly enough (or maybe not) the head of the municipality also heads the municipal council, of which half members are elected and the other half are appointed. I have voted for al-Nejaidi back in 2005.
  • Khalaf al-Harbi likens the different government ministries to the football teams playing in the Wold Cup: “he Ministry of Culture and Information is like the USA team: it can relax in the knowledge that its mere presence at the World Cup is achievement enough, and more so given that its would-be audience is otherwise engaged watching baseball and basketball. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is like Italy: a solid defense and prepared to rough things up, with a preoccupation for not conceding in order to snatch the trophy on penalties…”
  • Today’s picture comes from a meeting between the deputy minister of education Norah al-Faiz and senior officials at the education department in al-Zulfi. Where is the deputy minister? Was she cut out of the picture like last time? No. This time she is not actually in the picture. No, she was not videoconferencing from her lofty office in Riyadh. She was in another room nearby, probably in the same building. The meeting was conducted using what al-Riyadh daily called an “audio circuit.” Al-Faiz has emphasized the importance of prayer rooms in girls schools, and instructed teachers to watch their students to make sure that they are praying on time.

    Norah al-Faiz meeting

  • File this under the FYI category. The Ministry of Interior said they launched a human rights department. The department will receive remarks and complaints from the public about the performance of security personnel. They have toll free telephone numbers, 989 from inside the Kingdom and 0096612928888 from outside the Kingdom, for members of the public to express their opinions or report those security officials who have broken the law. The department also aims to ensure that the public is made aware that security officials are not above the law and that justice will take its course against those who abuse their powers. The service allows the public to send their remarks in Arabic and English. The ministry said it has sent some staffers on scholarships to the US and Canada where they attended crash courses in English and computer terminology.

Beautiful Mess

I hear that officials at the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) are forging ahead with their dumb idea to regulate so-called electronic media. Asbar, a research center based in Riyadh that includes several members of Shourac Council on its board (conflict of interests, anyone?), has been working on a draft for the new law.

This Saturday, they hosted a discussion panel about the proposed law where they met with representatives from MOCI, CITC, KACST, and the Ministry of Interior as well as some government and media consultants.

Ironically, some owners of news websites are actually pushing for this law. They argue that it would make it easier for them to get funding and make money from advertising. What about their independence and freedom that could be threatened by the new law? Well, apparently these things are not high on their agenda.

I previously said regulation by the government is not the answer, and I stand by that opinion. News websites should operate under the same laws that regulate traditional media. If these laws are old and outdated, then they should be amended, updated, or even overhauled and rewritten altogether if necessary.

Although I find the government’s obsession with control hard to understand, I have to say it is not unusual. Someone should tell them that their constant attempts to police the internet are useless, really. Why get yourselves into this mess? Yes, it is a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess. Just leave it that way.

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