MOCI Failwhale

The Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) is at it again. There is a new directive signed by Ahmad al-Hout, (get this) the acting assistant undersecretary for domestic media affairs, that bans journalists from pretty much doing anything without getting permission from the ministry first.

Al-Hayat daily reports that, based on the new directive, Saudi journalists cannot accept invitations or attend events or training organized by foreign parties working in the Kingdom or abroad. The directive also says that journalists must not do any interviews with these parties or invite their members without coordinating with the ministry and getting their approval first.

I have never heard of Mr. al-Hout before, but a quick search on Google reveals that he probably should not be in this position. He did not go to regular schools: he attended the Scientific Institute, a religious school, starting from seventh grade to the end of high school, and then went to study Sharia at Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.

His dream, he said, was to become a football referee. But somehow he started his career at the censorship office of Riyadh airport and then made his way up at the ministry to reach the office where he is today. He recently gave an interview on a site called Tareeb News (with some shots of his house), in which he revealed some juicy bits of information such as: what is his speciality (boiled eggs) and what is his favorite holiday destination (northern Italy).

However, the most interesting statement in this interview came when Mr. al-Hout was asked about how he deals with his family. The principle in his dealings with the family, he said, is “sharing in decision-making” and that “freedom of speech is guaranteed to all.”

I’m not sure why Mr. al-Hout seems to think that the democratic principles he says he practices at home do not apply to journalists. Double standards much?

UPDATE 9/2/2011 9:30 ET: when al-Hayat contacted a source at MOCI about how did this new directive, the source simply said: “the directive is based on instructions from higher authorities.” I have asked the minister Abdulaziz Khoja on Twitter about this but he never replied. That’s not surprising, though, the man has not tweeted in six weeks.

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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.

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.

On Being Hashtagged

Adhwan al-Ahmari seems to think that there is some kind of war raging between Saudi journalists and activists. He said the revolution in Egypt has produced a divide between the two groups. This war is taking place in Twitter and in newspaper columns.

First, let’s get some facts straight. There is a lot of broad-brush statements and sweeping generalizations being thrown around here.

For example, Adhwan says activists are demanding the immediate release of all detainees and apply the criminal procedures law to them even for terrorism suspects. This statement is not entirely true. I never heard any activist say they want all detainees released. What most activists want is simply to have the criminal procedures law applied to all detainees, because indefinite detention is illegal and violates their basic human right to a speedy and fair trial.

The activists I have been talking with tell me that keeping detainees in prison for prolonged periods will backfire because these individuals who feel they have been locked up unfairly will leave prison — if and when they do — with a good reason to hate the government, and to act on it. The government needs to respect the law and present the detainees to a court of law, activists said, where they would get charged or acquitted.

Adhwan disagrees. He thinks that activists are exaggerating the numbers of detainees and their grievances, and even lying to promote their cause. Moreover, Adhwan thinks terror suspects should not enjoy the legal protections provided by the criminal procedures law because terrorists have killed innocent people, bombed buildings, and attempted to overthrow the government. That’s why the government, he argues, is not bound by the law when dealing with them.

Of course Adhwan is not the only one of this opinion. Other people, in the media and outside it, agree with him. Recently, some journalists who share this opinion have grown fed up with the activists rising calls on the government to respect the law. Since such topics are still sensitive for mainstream media in the country, activists have turned to social media and the international press to make their voices heard. This did not set well with some local journalists like Adhwan, who seems to have a lot of pride in his profession.

Adhwan’s colleagues, as I have written earlier this week, decided to take on what they called the “New Activism.” Activists, and their supporters, don’t have newspaper columns. They have Twitter. There, they denote their tweets about a specific topic using a hashtag. When someone says something controversial and what they said becomes a topic of discussion on Twitter, we commonly say that he has been hashtagged.

However, because we as a society are not used to critical thinking and open debate, this practice makes some people uncomfortable. I’m not saying Twitter is perfect for every kind of discussion. Sometimes people will use the hashtag to attack the person instead of discussing his ideas. Is that good? No, but I think it comes with the territory and I can live with it. Plus, in a country where frank debate of our most pressing issues is still laden with political, religious and social mines, Twitter is providing a great window into the psyche of the nation where people can freely talk about these issues

Again, I’m not saying that unchecked personal attacks are okay. All I’m saying is that if you decided to publish an opinion then get ready to be not just criticized but to take whatever you get. If you are too sensitive and can’t take criticism then you probably should not put your opinions out to the public.

If getting hashtagged hurts your feelings.. well, tough shit. Grow up. Welcome to the Internet.

Some people downplayed the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Now some local columnists like Salman al-Dossary are trying to do the same. But even if the number of Saudi users on these sites is still not very big, I think tools like Twitter and Facebook have become mainstream enough to offer a good representation of society.

Al-Dossary says it is “laughable” that anyone would take Twitter seriously when there is only 115,000 Saudi users of the service. However, when you consider that many of these users have more followers than the daily circulation of his paper, you wonder who should be laughing.

The New Activism

It is rather sad that at a time when peoples are toppling dictators and changing regimes, we are still stuck talking about women driving, underage marriage and the right of prisoners to get a speedy, fair trial. I’m not saying these issues are unimportant, but let’s face it: their importance pales quickly when compared to other countries’ struggles to change their reality.

So, what’s up in Saudi Arabia?

The latest Saudi story to make international headlines was about a proposed anti-terror law that the interior ministry has been aggressively pushing through the Shoura Council. Amnesty International somehow obtained a copy of the draft and published it on their website.

Amnesty said the proposed law would strangle peaceful protest, and asked the King to “reconsider this law and ensure that his people’s legitimate right to freedom of expression is not curtailed in the name of fighting terrorism.”

The draft, probably leaked by a member of the Shoura Council, contained comments made by the Council’s security committee. Based on the copy, they seem to have made very few and minimal changes on the text prepared by the ministry. These changes, however, do not touch on the articles that caused concern to Amnesty and activists in the country like Article 29, which says: “Anyone who doubts the king or crown prince’s integrity will face punishment of at least 10 years in jail.”

The Saudi embassy in London responded to Amnesty’s leak by saying the concerns of the human rights organization were “baseless and mere assumptions.”

Local media did not report much on the news, but newspaper columnists made a point of attacking Amnesty and activists who raised their concerns about the proposed law on social media sites. “Amnesty have committed a crime by interfering [in a domestic matter] and publishing confidential documents,” wrote Ahmed al-Towayan in Okaz daily. “They proved that they are an organization that includes a group of ignorants, rebels and people who have interests; an organization morally and financially bankrupt seeking money any way they can.”

But the most severe and sinister attacks were saved for local rights activists, who have gotten increasingly vocal in their criticism of some government practices lately. In the same week, the Saudi edition of Al-Hayat daily carried two columns calling activists “erotic dancers” and outlaws.

“There is no doubt that the new activism has become a dangerous phenomenon,” Saud al-Rayes wrote, “because it aims to challenge the state and its organizations.” Al-Rayes linked local activism to the Iranian influence in the region, a bold statement for which he did not bother to provide any evidence, then called activists to support the National Society of Human Rights instead of questioning government policies.

The article understandably angered activists who turned to Twitter (where else?) to release their fury. Al-Rayes, as we now say in Saudi Arabia, has been hashtagged.

His fellow columnist in the same paper Hani al-Dhaheri could not just stand their while his colleague gets ripped up by the kids in social media. Few days later, he penned this column in which he called rights activists khawarij who use social media to incite people against the government.

After getting a slap on the wrist for signing one of the reform petitions earlier this year, al-Dhaheri has learned his lesson and conformed.

“How could a whiner in Twitter, Facebook or YouTube assert that someone is innocent or oppressed unless they have an ulterior motive beyond this cause which they use to cover their agenda,” al-Dhaheri wrote today. He kept repeating a line about targeting the “legitimate leaders” of the country, despite the fact that none of the local activists actually question the legitimacy of the royal family.

After writing 457 words, al-Dhaheri concludes in the last paragraph that this “suspicious project run by activists ‘from their homes’ is not new,” and that those activists will either end up distracted by fame and money or leave the country to join the opposition in London. Again, al-Dhaheri does not bother to tell us how he reached that definitive conclusion. Maybe he has a magic ball?

Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani, co-founder and president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, noted what he called an “attack campaign” on human rights activists.

“My message to all #saudi columnists who ridicule and humiliate people that one day you will be held accountable in people’s court,” he tweeted.

One day.

Is there hope for Saudi Arabia?

Exciting times in the Middle East. Winds of change are sweeping across the region, giving hope to scores of frustrated youths after decades of stagnation. The Arab Spring was blossoming at alarming pace to the geriatric rulers who found themselves resisting an inevitable fate. No where was this clearer than in Saudi Arabia, which was, and still is, at the forefront of the counterrevolution. They welcomed Tunisian despot Ben Ali and gave him refuge, they supported Mubarak to the end even after the people of Egypt denounced him, and they sent their army to Bahrain to help crush the uprising there.

Domestically, the Saudi government took several measures to block the revolution from reaching their shores. They gave away financial aid packages worth $133 billion. They tightened restrictions on media. And when calls for protest spread in the country, security forces were heavily deployed in all major streets. The intimidation worked. The streets remained empty on March 11, except for one man, Khaled al-Johani, who is still missing after he showed up for the protest in Riyadh and spoke to journalists what many people have been thinking about but never dared to say in public. The government announced it will hold municipal elections later this year, but half of the members of the municipal councils will be appointed, and women are still excluded for participating.

Women played a crucial role in the Arab revolutions, and Saudi women have taken notice. In addition for not allowing them to vote or even work without their male guardians’ permission, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bars women from driving.

Women have been working on an online campaign in social networks to start driving their cars on June 17. The past week has witnessed several incidents of women driving in different parts of the Kingdom. The latest incident involved Manal al-Sharif, one of the organizers of the online campaign. Al-Sharif drove her car in the eastern city of Khobar. She was detained briefly then released, before being detained again from her house in the Aramco camp in Dahran at the wee hours of Sunday.

Al-Sharif is an information technology specialist with the state-owned oil giant Aramco. Behind the walls of the Aramco camp, women are allowed to drive and free to move without their abayas. Typically, Saudi police are not allowed inside the camp except in cases of crime or national security matters. Al-Sharif was arrested by members of the secret police (mabaheth), an eyewitness said. Al-Sharif’s brother was also detained, but he was released later on Sunday.

Her lawyer Adnan al-Saleh told the New York Times yesterday that al-Sharif will be held for up to five days on charges of disturbing public order and inciting public opinion. Today, the local al-Watan daily reported that al-Sharif had a meltdown and repented of her actions according to unnamed sources. But activist Samar Badwai who visited al-Sharif in her detention said the latter denied the news reported in local media and quoted her saying: “I’m still steadfast and strong thanks to your support.”

The support comes from more than 1,000 Saudis who signed a petition on Facebook asking the King to end al-Sharif’s detention. Human Rights Watch also demanded the government to release her. “Arresting a woman who drove her family around in a car and then showed it online opens Saudi Arabia to condemnation – and, in fact, to mockery – around the world,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at HRW.

It is certainly an embarrassing situation. The lessons of the recent popular uprisings should be fresh in our minds. Throwing money at problems does not solve them. Intimidation can only take you so far, and half measures are not the answer. Saudi Arabia is in severe need for political and social change immediately, because the status quo is simply unsustainable. But most of the recent indications point to the opposite direction. Is there hope for Saudi Arabia?

Read more:

My op-ed in the Guardian

I wrote an op-ed for the Guardian today that was published as part of their coverage of the Middle East unrest. You can read it here. They misspelled my first name, though. They used an a in the middle instead of e, which is a common mistake. I asked them to correct it, but I have not heard back from them.