The Diplomatic Cables, Saudi Edition (2)

As many people pointed out before, most of the US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks are boring. In the this huge pile of documents, shocking discoveries are rare. Today, I will continue what I began yesterday by looking into the some of the interesting cables from the US mission to Saudi Arabia.

Some of the best cables are those describing diplomatic visits to different parts of the country where diplomats rarely go like Abha or Tabuk. This cable for example details the observations made by US officials during a visit to that northern city. The last paragraph reads, “Tabuk is described as a very conservative Muslim community. This was apparent during the drive from the airport and meetings and tour of the city, when not a single women was seen on the streets, in the hotel, or employed in the government offices. The few men passed on the streets during the afternoon tour glanced at the passing motorcade with looks of surprise and curiosity.”

Photo by Jay-c 2011 on Flickr

Another good cable comes under the title: “MUST LOVE DOGS.” The cable tries to explain the attitudes of Saudis toward pets, especially dogs. It goes into history, religion and culture in its attempt to understand the relationship between Saudis and animals, and finally reaches the conclusion that: It’s complicated! “This contrast between the words of the Qura’an and the Prophet Mohammad, which imply that kindness must be shown to animals, and the general distaste that most Muslims have for dogs is yet another of the many contradictions in Saudi society,” reads the last paragraph, followed by a joke.

Back to serious stuff, here is a cable about a meeting between the US Ambassador and the late minister of labor Ghazi al-Gosaibi. During the meeting, al-Gosaibi told the Ambassador about his efforts to limit the country’s dependence on cheap foreign labor, and admitted that some of the measures he took to achieve that goal were “draconian.” But the most depressing part of this cable comes at the end, where al-Gosaibi sounded pessimistic about enacting laws to cover and protect domestic workers. “He stated that “no one” is interested in passing such a law because everyone is satisfied with the status quo,” it said.

Speaking of laws, this cable from December 2007 attempts to gauge the likely effects of King Abdullah’s plan to overhaul the judicial system of the country that was announced in October of that year. The conclusion in the last paragraph reads, “Overhauling the judicial system is one of the primary ways of any society to achieve progress and modernization. However, Saudi society changes slowly, and the judicial system is no different.” They were right. Years after the plan was made public, we still hear about bizarre cases in our courts like child marriages and detaining people indefinitely without a trial, access to lawyer or even family visits.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in these cables. This cable from April 2008 about the Embassy’s participation at Riyadh Book Fair is overflowing with happy adjectives. I remember that I was not exactly enthusiastic about the book fair that year, but obviously I did not pay a visit to the American booth. Worth noting here that the US Embassy had to go through difficult negotiations with the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) which has a ban on embassies participation at the book fair. Eventually, the Americans did a little trick that worked perfectly: the Embassy would brand itself as the US Information Resource Center (IRC). The cable described the impact of this participation as “huge!” and the largest outreach event of that year. “In a closed society and security-restricted environment,” it concluded, “the book fair underscored the need to continue to identify new and creative opportunities for traditional people-to-people diplomacy.”

The infamous al-Sahat internet forum is the subject of this cable that came out of the Jeddah consulate in May 2006. The cable details controversies surrounding the forum and accusations populated on its pages about American diplomats in the country. “ConGen Jeddah and its officers are regular subjects of commentary, criticism, and the occasional threat from al-Sahat contributors,” it said. Liberal Saudi writers are usually accused of having close relations with the US mission and conservatives use these accusations to smear their liberal opponents. My favorite part of this cable? Using the word “fora” as the plural form of “forum” in the second paragraph.

In addition to these detailed but concise cables, there are other brief ones that caught my attention, like this one listing names of influential women with their contact information. And since we are nearing the end of Ramadan, it is only apt to end the post with this cable in which the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs tells the Embassy that Saudi officials do not receive visitors during the holy month:

The MFA would like to advise all diplomatic missions in the Kingdom that the holy month of Ramadan is nearing. As you know, it is a month of fasting and intensive worship and there is no room during it for visits and meetings. As in previous years, it is not possible for the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and all other officials in the Kingdom to meet official visitors during this holy month.

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The Diplomatic Cables, Saudi Edition (1)

Thanks to hurricane Irene, I’m stuck at home for most of the weekend. So I thought I could use the time to go through the latest dump of US diplomatic cables about Saudi Arabia that was released yesterday.

One cable from January 2006 focuses on the cultural and sports programming by the US mission to Saudi Arabia. The cable says that the “creative implementation of seemingly uncontroversial programs can be extremely effective” especially when it comes to getting access to youth and women, two groups labeled as “hard to reach.” The cable correctly notes the differences between regions when it comes to organizing cultural events. Unsurprisingly, Riyadh is the most difficult due to the conservative nature of the city. Interestingly, the cable adds, “Working with the minority community of Shia is often easier than with the mainstream Sunnis.”

When I was living in Riyadh I used to attend some of the cultural events organized by the US Embassy there like music concerts. But the cable says that “Large-scale performances of musical groups can be difficult, given the security situation, the lack of a strong musical tradition in Saudi Arabia, and the possibility of religious disapproval.” Another problem mentioned here is women ability to access such programming. I still remember how in 2009 a female friend of mine was denied entrance to the Diplomatic Quarter to attend an such event because she did not have her mahram with her. Entering the DQ is a problem to many Saudis, but it was definitely worse for women.

Finally, the cable notes that sports programming has not been used in the past. This remained to be the case until this year when the US Consulate in Jeddah helped organize the first ever sports exchange between the two countries by inviting six young female basketball players to Washington DC.

Let’s stay in Jeddah, where a cable from April 2006 discusses the infrastructure problems of the city, specifically the infamous “Musk Lake” or the “Perfume Lake” as the cable calls it. In its summary, the cable says that “treatment of 85% of the sewage is at least six years away.” Nature did not wait for six years. Heavy rains and major floods paralyzed the city in late 2009 and again in early 2011 with hundreds of deaths. An investigation was ordered, but it did not go anywhere. Earlier this month, charges were dropped against eight of the major suspects in the case to the dismay of many Jeddawis.

Another cable from the coastal city suggests that Jeddah Economic Forum (JEF) in February of that year has been concluded with a lot of optimism. That is true. Back then, there was a lot of optimism and hope in the air. King Abdullah has just ascended the throne with many promises of reform and change. We all know what happened since then. JEF is no longer the star-magnet it once was, and we’ve heard many calls to cancel it, especially from the conservatives who viewed it as a platform to promote liberal ideas.

Moving to the east coast, there were a couple of interesting tidbits in this “Dhahran Digest” cable.

One item in the cable talks about an AP reporter who was in the country for JEF and wanted to visit the Eastern Province to write about the Shia minority and Aramco. Both stories fell through. He “was not given permission by the Ministry of Petroleum to visit Aramco, in spite of assurances to the contrary.” As for the story on Shia, his editors decided to kill it because AP was negotiating with the government to open a bureau in Riyadh at the time and did not want to compromise their chances. Two years later, AP opened the Riyadh bureaue and appointed Donna Abu-Nasr as bureau chief. But AP could not keep Abu-Nassr happy and she recently left them to join Bloomberg.

Another item offers a glimpse into a lunch between the political officer at the Consulate and an unnamed member of the Al-Ahsa municipal council. I did a little digging to confirm that the member mentioned here is Mohammed al-Owafeir, who also serves as the dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Food at King Faisal University.

During the lunch, al-Owafeir receives a phone call from a female graduate student who needs help. “I feel very sorry for her,” he said after finishing the call, “but I cannot give her the help she needs” because of the strict gender segregation rules. He explained, “She is not even allowed to use the lab at the university and has to use an inferior lab at nearby college for women. It is very difficult for her to work by herself, without guidance in-person.”

Saudi women feature heavily in another cable from the Jeddah consulate, which talks about two new career paths like wedding DJ-ing. The cable also dedicates a paragraph to “Layalina,” a glossy society magazine that is “primarily a collection of photographs featuring prominent royalty, hip upper-class Saudis, and the occasional foreigner” at events and restaurants. It describes the photos of women without abayas and head scarves as “groundbreaking” for the country, but notes “that some conservatives have objected to the (for Saudi Arabia) risqu (sic.) portrayal of couples in public and the “revealing” photographs of women.” If you can read Arabic, you should read this blogpost that Yaser Bakr wrote about the magazine and why it has been a success and also why this success might not last for too long.

Tomorrow, I will follow up with another post looking into more diplomatic cables. Stay tuned.

Jazz Night in Riyadh

Like many Saudis, I have never been to a music concert in my life. We do not have concerts in this country because the religious establishment believe that music is haram i.e. not permissible. Some Saudis go to concerts in Dubai, Bahrain or even Canada to see their favorite artists, but the majority cannot afford the cost of traveling to another country just to listen to live music.

Prince Khalid al-Faisal, former governor of Assir and current governor of Jeddah, supported organizing concerts in the past few years in an attempt to boost local tourism. Only men were allowed to attend these concerts and performers were male artists from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf countries, but this did not stop the conservatives from denouncing the concerts strongly and showing their anger toward Khalid al-Faisal.

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When I went to Egypt for a workshop two weeks ago, I told my friends there that I would really like to go to a nice place where live much is played. My friend Courtney nicely offered to take me to the Jazz Club in Cairo, but unfortunately my schedule was very tight and I didn’t have enough time to do that. “Next time I go abroad, I will make sure to find some time,” I kept telling myself upon returning home.

Few days later, I received a phone call asking me if I would be interested in attending an evening of jazz in Riyadh. I was very, very surprised, but unlike many surprises in this city, this was a pleasant one. I mean, it is not everyday that a prestigious jazz band come all the way from New York to play their music in Saudi Arabia. Actually, how often do you hear about live music events in Riyadh anyway?

So I was one of the lucky select few to be invited to a jazz night at the US Embassy featuring Chris Byars Quartet, a band that has been performing together for two decades, most frequently at NYC jazz club Smalls. This concert comes as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program.

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It was a lovely night and the audience, a mixture of Saudis, Americans and other nationalities, enjoyed it immensely. The band did not stick to the announced program as their visit to the Kingdom has inspired them to play songs by Gigi Gryce, a jazz musician who converted to Islam and adopted the name Basheer Qusim.

After the concert two of the organizers jokingly told me that now they are thinking about bringing Kanye West for their upcoming event :-) The idea left me with this unsettling question: which of these two dreams seems more plausible, a Kanye West concert in Riyadh or a constitutional democratic Saudi Arabia?