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.

Runaway woman, La Yekthar, Wikileaks, censorship, sectarian violence, and more

  • In a story that would probably work perfectly for a Saudi action movie, a woman in her twenties has fled her husband and lived for two months in the guise of a man, mixing in male company, driving a car, and praying with males in the mosque.
  • Meanwhile, my good friends Fahad al-Butairi and Ali al-Kalthami continue to impress with their comedy show La Yekthar. Below is the second episode. Can’t wait to watch the next one.

  • Wael says “It is no wonder that Saudis moved into the cyberspace to vent out their frustrations and dreams; nowadays, they are all over the social networks talking about their daily lives, sharing links with friends and even organizing some kind of virtual remonstrations on twitter, Facebook and blogs.”
  • Faisal Abbas: “You see, what this cable is telling us is that an American informer based in Riyadh actually sent back classified information to his superiors in Washington DC to say that Saudis watch and enjoy American television programs. Seriously? Did it really require an informer to “discover” this? What’s next, a team of American anthropologists revealing that Saudis eat at McDonalds? Drive GMCs? Or Wear Levi’s?”
  • The holy city of Medina has witnessed some sectarian violence last week on Ashura. I was sad to hear the news, but I couldn’t wait to see how local media would cover the event considering its sensitive nature. Not surprisingly, none of the local papers wrote about the real reason behind the violence. This kind of censorship can lead to a hilarious form of reporting, if we can call it such. Take this gem from al-Riyadh daily for example:

    Informed sources have asked the authorities to shut down some websites that have continued to instigate the two parties at certain times by historically linking them to ancient events and demanding to retaliate from the grandchildren under banners that incite differences to serve suspicious parties that aim to shake the stability in the land of security and safety. Some imapassioned young men from the neighborhood who were dressed in ‘black’ have followed these banners, broken into doors, and frightened the people, which made them resist and call the security forces who remained in the neighborhood until dawn.

    Here is an idea for Saudi media: if you can’t cover a story properly, don’t bother covering it at all. Okay?

  • Speaking of censorship, columnist Abdullah al-Maghlooth, who wrote a profile of yours truly a couple of months ago, is reportedly banned from writing after al-Watan daily published his latest article which posed an interesting question: “Who is the youngest official in Saudi Arabia?” I guess an old official didn’t like that question.
  • Apologies for the hiatus. Last week was the last week of the semester, which means I had a lot of work to finish, and I was also moving from my place in the Bronx to a new one near Columbia. A lot to catch up on. Here we go. Scroll up!