Now we’re talking

I know I said don’t expect what happened in Tunisia and Egypt to happen in Saudi Arabia anytime soon. But I also added that things are happening. In addition to the buzz in social media, the past week has seen the release of several statements and open letters demanding reform. There was a statement titled “Toward the State of Rights and Institutions,” and it was signed initially by more than 1500 people, including prominent names such as Sheikh Salman al-Auda. The statement was put up online on a website calling people to sign it if they agree with its premise. The website was blocked few days later, which could be an indicator of how the government feels about this.

Another statement came out around the same time by a group that became known as the “Feb. 23 Youth”. The signatories list is mainly made up of journalists and cyber activists. Mahmoud Sabbagh told Reuters that the group’s demands are “national reform, constitutional reform, national dialogue, elections and female participation.”

However, the most interesting statement so far has come out yesterday. It is called “A Declaration of National Reform”, [UPDATE 2/28 14:51ET: the website has been blocked in KSA] and I have translated it below. The statement is impressive in its content and the names of signatories, most of them considered liberals by Saudi standards, which makes it clear who stands where at this moment of Saudi history. Compared to the first two statements, this one has a much longer and more detailed list of demands directed at the government.

Yes, the ideas in these three statements overlap in some ways, but the diversity of signatories shows how, in the absence of organized political action, how the different individuals identify with each other. We are waiting to see the cabinet reshuffle that will be announced in the coming few days, but I remain pretty skeptical about the possibility of major reforms in the near future. The local papers these days are full of hypocrisy and flat-out lies about how the government has addressed people’s needs through the financial aid package, when in fact people want much more than that. These statements, I think, make it very clear what people really want.


A Declaration of National Reform

It is no secret that the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt, and their aftermath of crises and changing political discourse in many Arab countries, have created circumstances in which we need to reevaluate our situation and do our best to reform before it is too late, and before we are confronted with developments whose consequences we cannot prevent nor predict.

A group of Saudi intellectuals have previously presented the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in January 2003 with a set of specific suggestions in a statement titled “A Vision for the Nation’s Present and the Future.” His Majesty has welcomed it then, and promised to consider it. Moreover, a number of senior officials announced later that the government is determined to adopt a wide range of reform policies in the state apparatus, and in its relationship with the Saudi society.

After a decade of those promises, very little of the promised reforms has been achieved. We believe that the delay in political reform has aggravated the problems which were referred to in the “Vision” document and the other statements that followed it.

The status quo is full of risks and causes for concern. We are witnessing with the rest of the Saudi people the decline of our country’s regional role, the stagnation of the government, the deterioration in the efficiency of the management, the prevalence of corruption and nepotism, fanaticism, and the increasingly widening gap between the state and society, especially the new generation of youth. This could lead to disastrous consequences on the country and the people, and it is something we cannot accept for our homeland and our children.

Addressing this situation requires a serious review and an immediate adoption of large-scale reforms by both the state and society, focusing on fixing the fundamental flaws in our political system, and leading the country to a well-grounded constitutional monarchy.

The people’s acceptance is the basis for legitimacy of the authority, and it is the only guarantee for unity, stability, the efficiency of governance, and protecting the country against foreign interference. This requires a reformulation of the relationship between society and the state, in which the people are the source of power, a full partner in deciding public policy through their elected representatives in the Shoura Council, and that the purpose of the state is to serve society, protect its interests, enhance the standard of living, and guarantee the dignity and honor of individuals and the future of their children.

Thus, we look forward to a royal declaration that clearly underlines the commitment of the state to become a “constitutional monarchy,” and to set a timetable that specifies a date for the beginning of desired reforms, the initiation of applying them, and the date of concluding them. The declaration has to confirm adopting the great objectives of reform, namely: the rule of law, full equality for members of the public, legal guarantees for individual and civil freedoms, popular participation in decision making, balanced development, uprooting poverty, and the optimum use of national resources.

In this regard, we see that the reform program should include the following:

First: The development of the Basic Law into a comprehensive constitution that serves as a social contract between the people and the state stating that the people are the source of power. The separation of the three branches of government: the executive, judicial and legislative; defining authorities, and tying them with responsibility and accountability; the equality of all citizens, the legal protection of individual and civil freedoms, ensure justice, equality of opportunity. Reaffirming the responsibility of the state in guaranteeing human rights, protecting the right to peaceful expression of opinion, and reinforce public freedoms, including the right to form political and professional associations.

Second: To emphasize the principle of the rule of law, and that everyone — statesmen and citizens — are under the law equally and without discrimination; and to incriminate improper handling of national resources or using them outside the framework of the law.

Third: the adoption of general election as a way to form municipal, provincial, and the Shoura Council; and the participation of women in nomination and election.

Fourth: The adoption of the principle of administrative decentralization, and granting local administrations in regions and governorates the necessary powers to establish effective, local government that can interact with the demands of citizens in each region.

Fifth: To activate the principle of the independence of the judiciary, by canceling all the bodies that play parallel roles outside the framework of the judicial system, and to have the courts presiding over the investigation with the accused and the conditions of prisoners, and public prosecution; and to cancel all the instructions and regulations that limit the independence of the judiciary and its effectiveness or limit the immunity of judges, or open the door to the interference in judiciary. The codification and standardization of provisions must be accelerated. ‘Tazir’ must be regulated. The international charters on Human Rights that our government has signed must become part of the judicial system. All of this to ensure justice, equality and discipline in the application of the provisions. The system of criminal procedures and legal defense system must be activated, preventing any action or conduct outside their framework or a breach of their limits.

Sixth: Accelerating the issuance of the non-governmental organizations law, which was approved by the Shoura Council, and opening the door to establishing civil society institutions in all forms and for all purposes, as a channel to rationalize and shape public opinion, and increase popular participation in decision-making.

Seventh: Despite widespread debate on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, the government had failed to take adequate action to fulfill the requirements of this pressing issue. Ignoring or postponing the rights of women contributes to deepening the problems of poverty and violence, and undermines the contribution of the family in improving the quality of education. What is required is to take legal and institutional measures to empowering women to attain their rights to empower women in order to gain their rights in education, ownership, work and participation in public affairs without discrimination.

Eighth: The issuance of legislation banning discrimination between citizens, for any reason and under any justification. The legislation must criminalizes any practice that involves sectarian, tribal, regional, racial, ethnic or any other type of discrimination. The law must also criminalize hate speech for any reasons, religious or otherwise. Implementing a strategy for national integration that explicitly recognizes the social and cultural diversity of the Saudi society, and affirms respect for this diversity and considers it a source of enrichment for national unity and social peace. We need an effective strategy for national integration to that can rectify the situation of groups that suffer from exclusion, marginalization and denial of rights due to any of the above reasons, and to compensate them for what they have undergone.

Ninth: King Abdullah’s decision to set up the Human Rights Commission and the National Society of Human Rights was a promising step. But we find now that both HRC and NSHR have turned into what looks like a bureaucracy with a limited role in the defending the rights of citizens. One of the reasons for this decline is the government’s interference in the appointment of these bodies members, as well as the refusal of many government agencies to deal with them. Guarding the rights of citizens and residents, and protecting them against injustice, must be at the top of the priorities for the government and society. Therefore, we demand the removal of restrictions imposed on HRC and NSHR, and to ensure their independence within the framework of the law. We also call for legalizing the right to form other non-governmental organizations for the defense of human rights.

Tenth: There is no dignity without decent living. Our country has been blessed, but a large segment of our citizens complain of poverty and neediness. We have witnessed the slowness of the government in addressing the problem of unemployment and housing, and improving the quality of life, particularly in rural areas and suburbs, and among the retired and the elderly. There is no justification for the failure to develop solutions to these problems. We believe that not raising these issues for general debate, ignoring the role of the private sector and civil society when thinking about such problems, and to see it from a purely commercial perspective, had turned these problems into dilemmas, and it has become one of the reasons and to humiliate citizens and restricting them.

Eleventh: the past years revealed the aggravation of tampering with public funds, which requires the elected Shoura Council to use its powers to monitor government agencies and keep them accountable. The Council can establish structures and independent bodies capable of carrying out monitoring functions, the declare their findings to the people, especially those related to the administrative corruption, misuse of power, and mismanagement of public funds by government agencies. We reaffirm the need for the adoption of the principle of transparency and accountability, and the establishment of an institutional framework to ensure these principles by a) establishing a national for integrity that enjoys independence and declares the results of its investigations to public opinion; b) enabling the citizens to obtain access to the use of public funds by government agencies, and abolishing restrictions that prevent the press from exposing transactions suspected of being involved in corruption.

Twelfth: Oil revenues have jumped over the past five years to high levels, providing the government with huge funds that should have been used and spent wisely, rather than squander them in expensive, cost-ineffective projects. We call for a review of the foundations used as basis for the five-year development plans, and to adopt a long-term strategy for overall development, focusing on expanding the base of national production, building the base for alternative economic sources, creating jobs, and including the private sector in deciding economic policies.

In conclusion, we reiterate our call for the political leaders to adopt the reform proposals.

In order to show the goodwill and determination to reform, four steps must be taken immediately:

  1. A royal declaration that confirms the government’s intention to introduce political reform, and to set a timetable to initiate it and apply it.
  2. the immediate release of political prisoners, and to present those who committed crimes to trial without delay, while ensuring the necessary judicial guarantees for each of the accused.
  3. Lifting the travel ban orders that have been imposed on a large number of people who expressed their opinions.
  4. Removing the restrictions imposed on the freedom of publishing and expression, and to enable the citizens to express their opinions publicly and peacefully. And to stop prosecuting those who express their opinion in a peaceful manner.

As we make this declaration to our political leaders and the citizens of our country, we reaffirm the solidarity of all, the people and the government, in the face of the dangers facing us, and to avoid any unexpected surprises. We trust that all of us have learned the lessons from what happened in brotherly Arab countries.

Facing challenges can only be achieved through serious, comprehensive and immediate reform that embodies popular participation in decision-making, enhances national cohesion, and meets the people’s aspirations in a glorious homeland

Three anonymous sources

Arab News, the newspaper that calls itself “The Middle East’s Leading English Language Daily,” published this piece about the lack of lack of cultural and recreational activities available to women in Saudi Arabia. While I don’t question the premise of the story, I do have a problem with how the story is written. The piece quotes three women who decided to hide their identities. The first is a PE teacher, the second is a university professor, and the third is a “Saudi girl.” Two things: a) how could the editors pass a piece with three anonymous sources and not raise a flag? b) no offense to the three women, but I see no reason why they refused to be identified. I could cut the girl some slack, but not the the teacher and the professor. The way they put it makes you think they were revealing state secrets or something. Sheesh.

Egypt uprising, Wahabi numbers, Khashoggi, women in municipal elections, and other stuff

  • The uprising continues in Egypt, where protesters in Tahrir Square remain defiant. Sandmonkey, one of the demonstrators, has two good blogposts that you should read. Many people have been asking me if what happened in Egypt could happen in Saudi Arabia. The short answer is no. Saudi Arabia, and the other five GCC countries, are politically and economically more stable. That doesn’t mean things are not happening in the magic Kingdom. With more than 3.5m people on Facebook, and a rise of Twitter usage by more than 400%, young Saudis are becoming more engaged than ever in the effort to reform.
  • Blogger Saeed al-Wahabi has this really interesting post about the generational divide in Saudi Arabia between the leadership and the population. Al-Wahabi did some simple math to calculate the average age for officials in different parts of the government, and these are some of his findings: the average age of ministers is 65; the average age of governors is 61; and the average age of Shoura Council members is 61. Similar numbers are found when we try to see the ages in the Supreme Judicial Council, the Supreme Ulema Council, and even members of King Abdul-Aziz Center of National Dialogue. Now compare the aforementioned numbers with these two numbers: 70% of the population is under 30, and average age of Saudi citizens is 19 years old.
  • Arab News reports that a group of Saudi women has launched a Facebook campaign calling the government to allow women to participate in the upcoming municipal elections. Arab News, being the dead tree paper that they are, failed to link the group. Here is a link. This is not the first time we hear of such calls. Problem is, the elections that were originally scheduled for 2009, have been indefinitely postponed. The paper says the elections will be held this year. I see no signs of that happening.
  • Jamal Khashoggi, the former editor of Al Watan daily, is working with Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, the Saudi billionaire and country’s richest man, to launch a news channel. No word on when the new channel will start, but from what I heard they are still in the very early stages of planning and they have not hired anyone yet. Contrary to rumors that surfaced earlier, there won’t be a partnership with Fox News. That makes sense. A source close to Khashoggi told me that they are seeking to partner with Bloomberg, but no deal has been signed yet.
  • New Scientists: “Almost two thousand potential archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia have been discovered from an office chair in Perth, Australia, thanks to high-resolution satellite images from Google Earth.” I wonder what Sultan bin Salman and his friends at SCTA have to say about this.
    Having your first name as your handle on Twitter, like I do, is cool. But it comes with a cost: you get a lot of random replies that are not necessarily directed to you.

MOCI new law, women’s driving, marrying (and cheating) foreigners

  • One thing that I failed to mention in my last blogpost about the new online media law is that MOCI has broken one of their promises. Back in March 2010, Abdulrahman al-Hazza said the ministry has no plans to pre-approve the editors of news website like they do with newspapers. The text of the law that came out on Saturday listed the approval of the editor-in-chief by the ministry as one of the conditions to register an “electronic newspaper.” MOCI keeps saying that they are extending a hands to us and we should trust them, but how are we supposed to trust them when they can’t even keep their word?
  • Over 100 Saudi citizens signed an open letter to the Shoura Council, asking the Council to discuss the issue of women’s driving. I know, I know. It is indeed sad that we are still discussing this, but that’s Saudi Arabia for you. The signatories suggested a trial period for women’s driving, where women are only allowed to drive in a certain city during a certain time of the day, among other conditions and restrictions. I see what they are trying to do, which is to find a practical approach to implement this, but honestly I hate this gradual oh-let’s-consider-the-feelings-of-our-super-senseitive-society way to do things. A basic right is a basic right. Let’s get this over with and move on.
  • American Bedu has a nice interview with Tariq al-Maeena, columnist for Arab News. I met Tariq in Jeddah during the Saudi BlogCamp. I find it strange that despite being married to an American, he does not encourage Saudis to marry foreigners and thinks the government should have some stringent demands before approving a Saudi’s request for a foreign partner.
  • It rained in Jeddah again, and again it was pretty bad.
  • During my time in Riyadh I had a chance to closely watch the expat community there. One fascinating aspect of that community, of course, was the relationships between men and women. The interaction between the expats and the social restrictions of the city creates an interesting dynamic, although I have to admit that listening to their gossip sometimes felt like watching some lame soap opera. But if this is your thing, then you should read orchidthief’s blogpost about cheating among the expat community.

Saudi Gov Releases New Law for Online Media

It’s finally here.

After months of uneasy waiting and gestation, the Saudi ministry of culture and information (MOCI) has bestowed its new law for regulating online publishing upon us. According to the state news agency, minister Abdulaziz Khoja has approved the addition of a new set of rules and guidelines to the current publishing law concerning the new forms of publishing on the Internet and mobile phones.

Before delving into some of the highlights of the new old law -new in its terminology, old in its spirit- allow me to congratulate the ministry on their exquisite sense of timing. Although the law has been in the works for months, the first few signs were made public on the country’s national day back in September, and now the details of the law are released on new year’s day. The ministry knows this is exactly how we want to start the second decade of the millennium.

The ministry of culture and information, being on the cutting edge of all things tech, has made the new law available for download as a Word document on their website here. If you have not been following this story, here is some background.

Now let’s take a look at some of the articles in the law. Some of the expressions and sentences may sound very clunky, that’s because I’m trying to stick to literal translation.

The first article is basically a list definitions. Boring. The second article details the forms of electronic publishing that the new law covers, and those include:

  1. Electronic journalism
  2. Websites of traditional media (tv, radio, newspapers, magazine, etc)
  3. Forums
  4. Blog
  5. Websites displaying audio and visual material
  6. Electronic advertisement
  7. Broadcasting via mobile phones (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  8. Broadcasting via other messages (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  9. Personal websites
  10. Mail lists
  11. Electronic archive
  12. Chat rooms
  13. Any other form of electronic publishing that the ministry may choose to add

Obviously, MOCI wants to extend its control over everything. No surprise here; government bodies in general are well known for their obsession with control. The weird thing is that they also want to regulate advertising online, plus two other things that I don’t really understand: broadcasting via other messages and electronic archive. What are they talking about?

MOCI are kind enough to tell us of the goals behind this new law:

  1. Supporting benevolent electronic media
  2. Regulating the activity of electronic publishing in the Kingdom
  3. Protecting society from malpractices in electronic publishing
  4. Declaring the rights and duties of workers in electronic publishing
  5. Protecting the rights of individuals to create and register any form of electronic publishing
  6. Protecting the rights of individuals to petition concerned authorities in the case of grievance
  7. Support and patronage of the ministry for electronic websites and their employees by facilitating their work

This is MOCI’s rationale for why they think this law is such a great idea. It is not, according to most people I’ve talked to. Protecting society? I don’t recall hearing the society screaming for help. Protecting individuals’ rights to publish online? Hey, we kind of have been doing this for a while now, and we really don’t need your protection and/or permission. Instead of trying to support the newly born online media, why don’t you try to improve the state news agency and television channels? They have been barely surviving on life-support for a long time.

The fifth article lists the forms of online publishing that need permission:

  1. Electronic journalism
  2. Websites of traditional media (tv, radio, newspapers, magazine, etc)
  3. Electronic advertisement
  4. Websites displaying audio and visual material
  5. Broadcasting via mobile phones (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  6. Broadcasting via other messages (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)

The sixth article lists the forms of online publishing that may be registered:

  1. Forums
  2. Blogs
  3. Personal websites
  4. Mail lists
  5. Electronic archive
  6. Chat rooms

Apparently this is the distinction that Abdul Rahman al-Hazza was talking about in September of last year. Bloggers do not need permission, but they may register if they want. Why would any blogger do that is beyond me, but if I understand this correctly, the distinction does not mean anything because whether you register or not you would still be operating under this law. That means the government, or anyone else, really, can use the law and its stretchy articles and loopholes against you in court if they believe you have violated any of them, and the punishment can be very severe.

The seventeenth article of the law details the penalty of violating any part of this law, which includes monetary fines and blocking your website, partially or completely, temporarily or permanently.

I have no plan to register my blog with MOCI, but if you are considering that choice you probably want to know that not anyone can do this as they please. To register, a Saudi citizen must be at least 20 years old with a high school degree or above, and if you plan to launch a so-called “electronic newspaper,” the ministry must approve of your editor-in-chief, just like they do for dead tree newspapers. The law says the editor is held accountable for all content published on the website, but says nothing readers’ comments. Is the editor also held accountable for those?

Another worrying piece in the law says those who get permission must provide the ministry with the information of their hosting company. We can conclude from this that MOCI won’t simply block your website for readers inside the country, but they can also deny access to your website from anywhere by forcing the hosting company to take your site offline altogether. Scary.

What do you think about all of this? Discuss.

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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!

Law professor held, Saudis all atwitter

Mohammed al-Abdulkarim, a Saudi law professor, was arrested Sunday after publishing an article about the royal succession and the possibility of a power struggle inside the ruling family. The article was firs published on al-Abdulkarim’s Facebook profile, and later republished on Royaah magazine website.

Four men, variously wearing civilian clothes and uniforms, arrested him at his Riyadh home, the Human Rights First Society of Saudi Arabia (HRFS) said. Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, head of HRFS, told AFP that al-Abdulkarim’s arrest was illegal on two counts: he was taken without a court warrant for his arrest, and has been held for 24 hours without charge.

As usual, local media in Saudi Arabia has ignored the story, but the social web was quick to pick it up. Not too long after the arrest, the news was flying all over Twitter and Facebook. Users on Twitter used the hashtag #FreeDrAbdulkarim to denote their reactions. Most of them expressed anger and frustration at the arrest. “I, and many others, believe in every word Dr. al-Abdulkarim said in his article. Are you going to arrest us too?” Abdulrahman Alnasri said.

However, the most intense exchange of the day on Twitter was between Abdulrahman al-Enad, member of the Shoura Council, and Waleed Abulkhair, the lawyer of Mohammed al-Abdulkarim. Al-Enad said al-Abdulkarim has made a mistake and should be punished. Some of what al-Enad said did not set well with Abulkhair, who demanded the Shoura Council to apologize for what he considered impoliteness. Al-Enad refused to apologize and told Abulkhair in a relatively salty language to shut up.

http://twitter.com/#!/aalenad/status/11937528332423168

I was momentarily startled by al-Enad’s choice of words and thought it was a slip of the tongue, but the Shoura member stood by what he said. That prompted the creation of another hashtag, #koltebin, which people are using now to discuss the issue of al-Abdulkarim and the kerfuffle between Abulkhair and al-Enad.

Last week I told you that Twitter is big in Saudi Arabia, but did not elaborate on why is that. This is why.

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