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:


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The Good news, the bad news, and the ugly news

  • The good news is: Samar is free. Social media and new activism FTW! Now that she has been released, we should keep up the momentum and direct our energy to another person who has been imprisoned for the past four months: Mukhlif bin Daham Al-Shammary, a human rights activist in the EP.
  • Also good news: a tip by Saudi intelligence officials helped Americans discover a terrorist plot to send explosives from Yemen to the United States by courier.
  • The bad news is: Sand Gets in My Eyes, one of my favourite blogs by expats living in Saudi Arabia, has been blocked last week. I’m not sure exactly how the censors think, but I don’t see why would they do such thing. Not that they are particularly smart and/or selective about what they choose to block. You can help by filling the unblock form here.
  • Since no knot is being tied, I will consider this bad news, too: Asmaa has a nice post on the dilemma of young Saudis who want to get married. Well, she specifically talks about her cousin, but I think many of us can relate to what is happening with him. Probably most of you already know how I feel about the way people get married back home.
  • Finally, here is the ugly news: the Saudi religious establishment issued a fatwa today saying it is not permissible for women to work as cashiers in supermarkets. Apparently, female cashiers are haram.

The female terrorist, freedom to cover, and walking in Riyadh

  • Eman al-Nafjan has written a very good post about Heila al Qusayer, the female member of al Qaeda who was arrested earlier this year. I find it astonishing that Heila managed to collect more than $650,000 to support al Qaeda before she was caught.
  • I agree with Hala on this: “I told her also that being totally against their choice of dress code even if they believe in the righteousness of what they do is not different from the religious clerics forcing everyone back home to adhere to the black Abaya and scarf regardless of free will.” The freedom of choice, as Diana pointed out in the comments, is a concept that is absent here. As a conformist society, we are taught that there is only one way to do things, and that this way is the right way.
  • I have always said that Riyadh, as well as most Saudi cities, is not pedestrian-friendly. A Canadian in Riyadh has recently discovered this, and she would like everyone to know that she is not amused by the constant honking of taxi drivers who think she needs a ride. Been there, done that. Sigh.

Mohammed bin Nayef Escapes Assassination Attempt

Saudi Arabia was rudely awaken to some very disturbing news last night. A wanted terrorist blew himself up in an attempt to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the assistant interior minister who has been spearheading the country’s war on terror. The Prince escaped with minor injuries, and was treated in a hospital, where he was visited later by King Abdullah. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, claimed the assassination attempt.

This is the first known assassination attempt against a senior member of the royal family since 1975, when King Faisal was killed, and it could be a pivotal point in Saudi Arabia’s antiterrorism efforts. I’m truly glad that Prince was not hurt. I just hope that this incident won’t be used as a fuel to the already raging debate battle between conservatives and liberals in the country. This is a time for solidarity and national unity, let us not ruin it.

Nothing Changed

In November 1979, Juhayman al-Otaibi and his fellow zealots occupied the Grand Mosque in Makkah. After a bloody siege that lasted for two weeks, they were eventually captured and shortly beheaded. Following this event, Saudi Arabia experienced a scary rise of conservatism and the social liberalization that had begun in the 60’s and 70’s was halted or even rolled back. Women were no longer allowed on national TV, and restrictions on their employment and participation in public life became so harsh.

It is July 2009, more than 900 suspects were charged with participating in terrorist attacks in the country over the past few years. In landmark trials, more than 330 people in 179 cases had been tried and one given the death sentence. While these trials are still in progress, several restrictions to a freer access to culture and entertainment have been put in place, including a ban on cinema and cancellation of the Jeddah Film Festival.

What a difference 30 years make?

Wanted: A Fake Iqama

I’m done with shopping malls in Riyadh. I used to complain all the time about the ban on single men there, but after four years in this town I guess I have come to accept the sad reality of human relationships here. These days there is something else that bugs me. It bugs the hell out of me, actually.

In the northwestern part of the city, you can find the Diplomatic Quarter, aka the DQ, which is basically a nice clean area where most of embassies and consulates are located as well as a group of government offices and other businesses. Most diplomats and embassies’ staff, and also some Saudis, live in the residential part inside the DQ.

Following the terrorist attacks in the country, security on the DQ gates has been much tightened. Entering the DQ has come to mean long waiting lines and slow check points. In other words, it’s become a hassle and such a crappy experience. That is, if you are a Saudi. For the most part, foreigners don’t have much trouble getting inside the DQ.

If you have some friends (Saudis or expats) who work or live in the DQ, then you can expect that every time you need to visit them that the security guards at the gates would give you shit for merely trying to enter what has become a walled garden.

Without a trace of a smile on his face, the guard would ask you: “What?!” You, trying to speak as politely as you can, would tell him the reason of your visit, which is either to see friends or for a meeting at some embassy or something in between, like a dinner with foreign visitors at Scallini, the only restaurant in the DQ.

First, he would ask you to show an invitation. But in this era of email and mobile phones, it is rather the exception to carry printed invitation letters, unless it was a very formal occasion. If you fail to produce the invitation letter that he most probably won’t read because he can’t understand English, he will tell you you can’t enter.

You tell him that you have an appointment and people are waiting for you inside but he is not buying any of it. If he is in a good mood, he would tell you that your host must come to pick you up from the gate. If he is in a bad mood, which is the case more often than not, he would say, “You are not allowed to enter.” If you dared to ask why, the answer could be “Just like that,” “These are the instructions,” or the dreaded “Mamnou3 dukhool al-3izab” (no single men allowed).

I understand the security concerns, but this crap we as Saudis face every time we need to enter the DQ is ridiculous. I don’t mind waiting in a long line at a check point. I don’t mind being a subject for any security procedure with any device as they damn well please. But being treated in this demeaning manner is unacceptable and conveys a bizarre discrimination. Imagine being discriminated against in your own country simply because you happen to be a native citizen?

Is it time to get a fake Iqama?