On June 17

  • Saudi women did drive on June 17. More than 50 of them drove, and the day went by peacefully for the most part. Check out my post for NPR’s Two-way blog to read more and hear from some of the women who got behind the wheel and defied the ban.
  • I somehow made Foreign Policy’s Twitterati 100 list for the most influencial people on Twitter, and what’s great about it is that I’m in good company.
  • Speaking of Foreign Policy, they published a good piece by Ebtihal Mubarak looking into the historical background of the demands for women driving in the country.
  • Remember when I asked if there was hope for Saudi Arabia? ColdRevolt thinks there is none. She says, “Our society is not only backward for debating a basic human right, but looking at its reaction to the revolutionary movements across the Arab world, and the uprisings in Bahrain specifically… it’s absolutely hopeless.”
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Press freedom ranking, arms, doctors, genies, he’s back!

  • At least 20 Saudi medical doctors wanted to show the world what kind of ignorant idiots they are, so they went and joined an ongoing campaign calling for special government hospitals for women in order to prevent mixing of genders. Carol Fleming, who worked for hospitals in Riyadh, comments.
  • The recent US-Saudi arms deal, with an estimated $60bn price tag, was marked by the unusual absence of any opposition by Israel and its lobby in Washington DC. Dov Zakheim, blogging at Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog, says this is “In part because the Israelis do not expect such an attack [from the Saudis]; in part because they will be receiving the more advanced F-35 the same year that the Saudis begin to take ownership of the F-15s…” At the end of his post he mentions one more reason: “Riyadh is the biggest prize and the Israelis are ready to go to great lengths to win it over — and if that means silence in the face of a massive purchase of American arms, so be it.”
  • Speaking of Foreign Policy, they have this aptly titled article by Simon Henderson about the return of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of the National Security Council, after two years of being AWOL. Elaph had the scoop on this one a couple of weeks ago.
  • RSF released their 2010 Press Freedom Index. Saudi Arabia, unsurprisingly, is at the bottom ranking 157 out of 178. Last year we were 163. Can we call this progress? As a journalism student, I’m not quite sure how to feel about this.
  • Everybody back home is laughing about this. I don’t want to talk about it.

Now Walk the Walk

President Obama’s speech was better than expected, but less than what I was hoping for. We know that he can give a good speech, and he certainly did that in Cairo. However, I think that in his attempt to be balanced, he came out sounding too balanced, especially on democracy and human rights.

Probably he was trying to be careful not to offend his hosts, but as I said in my New York Times op-ed, I was hoping that he would speak directly to the leaders in the same way that he did in his inaugural speech when he said: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

However, I understand why he was cautious when he talked about democracy and human right, and I can’t blame him. He obviously wants to distance himself from the rhetoric and policies of the previous administration, and I guess that’s why he also did not use the word “terrorism” at all in his speech. Still, I think that in the few words he said on democracy he made several good and important points:

America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away (…)

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

In any case, he had too much ground to cover, and therefore it was only normal that he would choose to focus on some issues more than others. I think the way he talked about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was different than what we usually hear from American presidents. Yes, he said the bond with Israel is unbreakable, but for the first time we hear a US president talk about “Palestine,” not just the Palestinian people, and use words like intolerable and humiliation to describe their suffering. It was also good that he dedicated parts of his speech to religious freedom and women’s rights, two issues where there is much to be done, especially here in Saudi Arabia.

Over all I think the speech was a good start for a frank dialogue between America and the Muslim world, but now those words must be matched with deeds so we can move forward. “And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world,” Obama said at the end of his speech. Count me in. I, for one, want to remake this world, starting from here.

UPDATE 6/6/09: David Brooks described the part on democracy as “stilted and abstract — the sort of prose you get after an unresolved internal debate”:

But many of us hoped that Obama would put a gradual, bottom-up democracy-building initiative at the heart of his approach. This effort would begin with projects to create honest cops and independent judges so local citizens could get justice. It would make space for civic organizations and democratic activists. It would include clear statements so the world understands that the U.S. is not in bed with the tired old Arab autocrats.