Bad, Bad Al-Watan (Updated)

UPDATE II 21/6/09: Jamal Khashoggi was not fired. He wrote an editorial today about the incident, saying “maybe what the Prince wanted to tell us is that there are many good things that you can do to serve this nation, and that is what we are going to do.”

UPDATE 21/6/09:There are conflicting reports regarding Khashoggi. Some sources confirm that he was fired, and some other sources deny it. I’m told he is unreachable because he is outside the country on vacation.

UPDATE 20/6/90: It has been confirmed that Jamal Khashoggi, the editor-in-chief of al-Watan, has been fired after the incident. This is the second time Khashoggi is fired of this job; the first one was in 2003.

For a long time I made no secret of my frustration with the policy of closing shops for prayer time, and also the fact that some government employees use prayer as an excuse to neglect their jobs. Actually, I posted about this more than four years ago. As the margin for freedom of expression is slowly increasing, the local press is finally getting the courage to discuss this matter, with a few articles appearing here and there. Here’s one of these articles that was published in al-Watan last week. Since the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is the body responsible for enforcing this policy, I don’t think this will change anytime soon.

But speaking of the Commission and al-Watan, something interesting happened a few days ago. The Commission held an event in Riyadh last Tuesday to celebrate launching a strategic plan for the Hay’a. The ceremony was under the patronage of Prince Naif, the Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Interior, and after the ceremony there was a press conference where reporters had a chance to ask him about all kinds of issues.

The last questions in the press conference was by Mohammed Nasser al-Asmari, who writes a column for al-Watan. He asked the minister to explain why Riyadh has more Commission centers than police centers. Prince Naif said this is untrue, “and may God increase [the Commission centers],” he added, and then he went on to criticize the newspaper saying they have bad intentions, and that they attract writers against the faith and against the nation.

Al-Watan, which is considered one of the more liberal Arabic-langauge newspapers in the country, has strangely omitted the criticism from their coverage of the event that was leading their front page on Wednesday. Some observers have expressed their fear that the relative freedom al-Watan enjoyed since its inception might be coming to an end.

Adwan al-Ahmari, the reporter whose name appears in the byline of the story, told me the newspaper did not include that question in their coverage because al-Asmari is an opinion writer who does not represent the newspaper and that he was speaking for himself only. While I understand the choice the editors made here, I’m not sure if this was the best choice. Ignoring that comment raises questions about their transparency and credibility at a time when they really needed to emphasize such values.


28 thoughts on “Bad, Bad Al-Watan (Updated)

  1. It is an issue of bad timing more than anything else from the part of AL Asmari.
    This event is Al Hayaa’s. What did you expect?
    Plus the fact that Riyadh is completely covered by the security forces for obvious reasons.
    So, the question is essentially meritless!
    I agree with Ahmed that AL Watan is a bit more liberal than others. Being so used to our old ways, it would take sometime to get used to the new ones.

  2. from the Saudi Gazette article on strategic planning for the Hay’a:

    “Dr Khalid Al-Sultan, KFUPM Rector, said the plan is primarily aimed at developing the administrative and technical work of the Hai’a.”;

    ” “We have been encountering these people [terrorists], but it is a pity that we find some people inside our country who extend assistance to terrorists instead of fighting and confronting them. We have been working to reform the youth,” the minister said. ”

    More of the same only with better technology and organization? The standard security/terrorism rationale?

    Perhaps if Al-Watan feels threatened it is better to “choose its battles” and not unnecessarily rankle the powers that be. Similar experiments with greater press freedom have resulted in a testing of limits, and reprisals (especially for indulging in Western style comments about the Queen.

    For readers of French, TelQuel, an online news magazine is a model of high end constructive criticism. It too has been threatened. Perhaps one of it’s greatest public services has been to publish free online a how to pamphlet of how to negotiate Moroccan bureaucracy (including how to name your children what you want and get around the illegal but in effect proscription of certain names, most of which happen to be Berber). It is simultaneously funny, informative and an accurate step by step guide.

  3. As for forced piety, perhaps the lesson of Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story “L’enfance d’un chef”, “The Childhood of a Leader”–how you can force the symbolic trappings of respect, but not true respect–would be apropos.

  4. The newspaper has neglected, I believe, an important set of interviews.

    In contrast with an interview of a governmental leader, the newspaper would be well to interview average citizens, and form an estimate of the public opinion on this issue.

    Public opinion would be likely to have an effect on governmental policies affecting this aspect of the clerical establishment.

  5. Sorry, my first comment makes more sense with the following edit:

    Similar experiments with greater press freedom in Morocco under Mohamed VI have resulted in a testing of limits, and reprisals (especially for indulging in Western style comments about the Queen), including shutdowns, confiscations, and jail time.

    And, while I’m at it:
    …its [TelQuel’s] greatest public service…

    Andrew–Would public opinion count that much for the Saudi government, particularly vis-a-vis the clergy?

  6. Let’s be honest Ahmad, the criticism should not go for Al-Watan newspaper, who can afford to criticize the authority around here?

  7. Chiara:

    Public opinion does have an effect, although not the linear effect that it would have in a different society.

    However, it must be said that the clerical establishment is unlikely to be much affected by public opinion.

  8. Andrew–Thank you. I would imagine all monarchies must at some point keep the good will of the people even if they don’t wish to be seen as ruled by the people.

    Clergy seem to have more independence from this (witness the Pope’s beliefs on family planning as opposed to the actual practice of most Catholics). At times of major change the clergy does need to revise its earthly relationship to the members of the faith. eg. the Roman Catholic’s Vatican II recommendations such as making the mass more accessible by conducting it in local languages, etc.

    I realize the notion of clergy in Christianity and Islam is different, but still in Islam contemporary scholars, and local Imams, have an impact (as most certainly does any religious police force)Please correct me if I am wrong.

  9. I think Al-Watan was just being cautious about which battles to engage in with the powers-that-be, especially with powerful Prince Naif.

    Remember that Jamal Khashoggi is the editor of Al-Watan again after being fired from the same job a few years ago when the paper criticized the religious police. I think he’s doing a great job, and that his paper is still the most liberal and progressive voice in Saudi right now.

  10. FACT: Traffic Accidents increase as shops are about to close for prayes time.The reason is that everyone is rushed to buy something before shops are closed for prayer .I wish the Muttawaeen dicuss some common sense for the matter but I doubt they do !

  11. and now Jamal Khashogji was fired “again” from his post, that tells you something about the freedom of expression or ability to criticize the religious institution in KSA…

  12. Its a sad sight to see.. just when I had faith that the kingdom is opening up.. this amount of intolerance towards a newspaper just leave me in a spiral of dreadful thoughts about the future Saudi Arabia.

  13. Mark my words that this path will only need to violence.. the more power given to the Vice police, the more bloody it will turn…

  14. Wallah by Naif being appointed as second deputy, I lost every hope of change in SA. I do not know when was this interview and when Jamal Khashoggi was fired but I bet there was one or two days difference. If this to tell us something it tells us how deep the decision was studied before it was made :( . A prince was asked a question by a journalist, he did not like it, the editor of the newspaper, the most popular newspaper in the country, was fired. What a wise prince and a wise government. I GAVE UP.

  15. It seems like a completely extraneous piece of nonsense to put into law mandatory prayer closings.

    Why aren’t the various muezzin, who have done their jobs for ages, good enough? I mean, they have electronic speakers now. Nobody old enough, who have lived in any predominantly Muslim country, doesn’t know what that means.

    And as it is, enough devout people stop what they are doing anyway, to do their prayers, simple social peer pressure would go into affect on those not so devout and they would follow suit.

    There is not one real religious need for the law. The law is in affect to annoy the piss out of people, because it doesn’t take into account that sometimes it is inevitable in the unpredictable thing we call life, where a person is just not going to be able to just stop and pray. (And one great big giant example of this to me is a woman in labor. Her nurses/doctor/midwife/etc. had better be with her during her labor. It’s important. And the baby is not going to wait)

    When I visited Italy, the midday closing of shops for the traditional nap time for up to two or three hours every day was annoying. But perfectly understandable; it was just the way things were. People were of the habit. And sometimes, if a shopowner wasn’t feeling sleepy, you were lucky enough to get what you needed. It was that chance that made it all bearable. If it were law that people had to take naps? Ridiculous.

    And finally, journalists are supposed to ask questions. Otherwise, what are they getting paid for? If the authorities don’t want messy questions, they should just quit with the illusion of journalism all together and just issue prescreened proclamations through loudspeakers at every street corner… Like in North Korea.

  16. I think if they change the law in Saudi so shops will not close for prayer,the Imam of any nearby mosque will be annoyed at first because only few people will come to his mosque,but then again those few people are really “genuine” people( at least according to his standards ) .He will be happy again to have “genuine” people pray with him .So what what the heck The Muttawa has to worry about if everything goes well for him and for the army of others !!.A point to ponder..

  17. I’m glad Jamal Kashoggi is either reinstated or not fired. Perhaps floating a firing rumour, or a temporary threat of firing was a scare tactic to make a point?

    Norvegica–I like your analogy to the Mediterranean shop closings, which are more a function of climate (pre-air conditioning; and the closings are longer in summer) than religion–but indeed forced naps would be a nightmare (so to speak), especially for those of us who have never been able to manage a full nap since the age of 18 months, despite years living in the Mediterranean region.

    Ahmed–impressive blogsmanship!!!

  18. This is not surprising at all especially considering what has been going on in Iran. I’ve no doubt that the King directed Prince Naif for Khashoggi to be reinstated.

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