King Renders Me Speechless

On the second week of February every year, the international media is usually full of stories about the assault on Valentine’s Day in Saudi Arabia by the infamous Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice aka the religious police. However, the biggest news on V-Day this year wasn’t the Commission and their war against all things red. On the morning of last Saturday, February 14th, the air in Riyadh was filled not with love but rather with rumors about some upcoming changes in the Saudi government. Around midday, news finally began to materialize and royal decrees started hitting the wire one after another.

Considering that King Abdullah has not made any big changes in his government since he ascended the throne in 2005, it was expected that we were going to see some changes this year, although many speculated it wouldn’t happen until the summer. I think the cabinet shuffle was not surprising in itself, but rather in its scale and some of the details.

In areas like education and health care, changes seemed inevitable because despite the massive government spending, both sectors were at the center of negative attention as the public grew increasingly dissatisfied with their services.

The new minister of health Dr. Abdullah al-Rabia is a bright surgeon who has an international reputation, and was the head of the health services department at the National Guard. He has led his medical team successfully in complex operations to separate conjoined twins, but some people have questioned his managerial skills. There is no doubt that he is facing an enormous challenge, especially at a time when the government is trying to implement a new national health insurance scheme.

The picture is more interesting at the ministry of education with three new appointments. The government has been trying to implement a huge plan to reform the educational system through a new vision, and Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, the new minister, is not just a member of the royal family. He is the King’s son-in-law and is said to be very close to him.

It is worth noting, however, that he has no background in education.
He used to work for the National Guard and most recently he worked as Assistant Director of General Intelligence. But he is also the chairman of Al-Aghar Group think tank, which is credited with many of the reform plans in the country, including the aforementioned Tatweer program.

The second change in MOE was the appointment of Faisal bin Mummar, the former SG of King Abdul-Aziz Center for National Dialogue as a new deputy minister.

The third change, and the one that by far grabbed the most attention, was the appointment of Nora al-Faiz as the new deputy minister for girls’ education. It is the first time that a Saudi woman was chosen for a senior position in the government, and many saw this as a sign of reform as well as recognition of the effort of Saudi women who have worked very hard over the years and contributed to the development of the country.

Interestingly, Mrs. Al-Faiz gave a long interview to Al-Watan daily last week where she said she was immensely upset because her photo was published in the media. “It is well known that I am a Saudi woman from Najd and thus I wear a niqab,” she said. She added that she has no intention of visiting men’s office buildings in the ministry. I found her statements strange to say the least, but it could be that she does not want to anger the conservatives on her first few days on the job.

Many observers, including Khalid al-Dakhil believe that the most important aspect of this reshuffle relates to changes in the justice system. We are finally witnessing the end of Sheikh Saleh al-Lhuaidan’s reign (good riddance!), which will pave the way for more fundamental reforms in the judiciary. Establishing the new supreme court is a great step in that direction, and hopefully many other steps will soon follow.

Now coming to the ministry of information, I did not expect to see Iyad Madani shown the door. It is true that the conservatives were very unhappy with what they considered an extreme liberalization of official media, but the word on the street was that Madani is one of the King’s men. Another explanation for the change at MOI surfaced last week, and argues that the decision to give the position to Abdul-Aziz Khoja was made to reward him for his outstanding work as Ambassador to Lebanon during the recent crises, and not due to dissatisfaction with Madani’s performance.

I guess I was not the only to see the irony in kicking out Sheikh Saleh al-Ghaith, head of the Commission, on Valentine’s Day. Al-Ghaith was often criticized for being weak and therefore not able to control his men, which led to many horrible incidents involving the Commission over the past few years. Unfortunately, they were never held accountable for any of their actions, even when the results were very disastrous and included the loss of life. Can the new man, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Humayen, exercise more control and constraint over the so-called lions? Let’s wait and see.

There were also some changes in the Council of Senior Ulama, which will include for the first time scholars from other schools beside the Hanbali school. I even read some speculations that the council might include Shia scholars in the near future, which is expected to be part of larger reforms and will have greater effect on shaping the policies and culture of the country. I have to say that this sounds like a very long shot to me, but who knows?

The cabinet reshuffle was well received by the people here, but I could not help but sense that some people are being overly optimistic about what kind of change these new appointments can bring. It is usually not enough to change faces, because there is only so much one person can do when you have a system that is dysfunctional and has been like that for years. Newspapers have enjoyed their hoopla for a week now, so I think it is time now for all of us to sit back and watch what these new guys (and woman) are going to do over the course of the next few months. As I always say, I’m not holding my breath.

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23 September, Revisited

Today is the National Day of Saudi Arabia. On the same day two years ago, I wrote this, and it has become one of my favorite posts because I felt that it says a lot about myself and the message I’m trying to deliver through this blog. It saddens me to admit though that very little has changed since then. Have things become worse? No, because I don’t think it could get any worse. The country is changing, but at a glacial pace that is leaving me and many others dejected and frustrated. It is just disheartening to move in slow baby steps when we can — and should — take leaps ahead to the future. Here’s hoping our dreams won’t be deferred any longer.

P.S. I will be traveling with my family later this week and I don’t think I will be able to update the blog for two weeks or so. I will be back on the 2nd week of October.

Greatness

More than 100 days have passed and Prof. Matrook al-Faleh is still detained following his arrest last May. His situation remains the same: in solitary confinement and yet to be allowed to meet his lawyer. No official statement has been released on why he was arrested, but it is widely accepted that his detention is related to an article he published online on the poor conditions of Buraida General Prison where fellow activist Abdullah Al-Hamed was jailed for the past six months.

Al-Hamed was serving a sentence by a court in Qassim which found him guilty on charges related to women’s demonstrations last summer. He has completed his sentence and was released few days ago. His friends hosted a dinner to celebrate his freedom earlier this week, and I was lucky to be invited and have the honor of meeting him and other political and social activists.

It was clear that he lost some weight, but his spirits were not shaken at all. He spoke briefly and thanked those who supported him. He also said that we must not forget about other jailed activists, especially the lesser known ones, who deserve to be defended too. Being jailed unfairly for a just cause is not a bad thing, he said, and for this nation to advance, some of us has to pay the price. When I was introduced to him, he talked to me fatherly and gave me some advice. He told me that I should never work alone, and that I must let my family and friends know about my activism so they can help me if something went wrong.

One important note he made and I want to emphasize here is that we, as citizens who want to reform our country, must learn how to work together, regardless of what differences we might have. Yes, we have liberals and Islamists, and they have different views on different issues, but in the end of the day there are also things we all agree on, like the importance of justice, representation and human rights. We should not allow our disagreement over some details drag us to bitterness and enmity.

I have no doubt that Abdullah al-Hamed is one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest men. Abu Bilal, as he is known among his friends, has been actively working for the past 20 years to make this country a better place, and despite all the hardships he has gone through over the this time, including jail and travel bans, he remains determined and committed to his message. His work is absolutely an inspiration to me and many people who share his dream of a brighter future for this nation.

Justice and Common Sense

As the new reforms on the legal system are yet to be implemented, I guess that some judges thought they would use whatever left of time for the current system to demonstrate their misjudgment and lack of intelligence. It was not enough for them to sentence the Qatif girl to 90 lashes a year ago, so they decided to more than double the number of lashes plus six months of jail. The girl is a rape victim, but apparently being raped is not enough to spare her the punishment for something called ‘khulwa’.

Now what kind of ‘khulwa’ that would take place in front of a crowded shopping mall is beyond my comprehension, but that’s just me. I’m pretty sure our esteemed judges and those who support this bizarre ruling have many justifications to present upon request, but then again, who on earth am I to question a court which uses the word ‘sharia’ to legitimize their decisions no matter how absurd these decisions are?

Some people have asked me why I have not written about this earlier, and the reason is because I was angry, disgusted and depressed. Those following me on Twitter have probably seen this, and although I have been discussing the issues with my family and friends who share the same feelings with me, I could not bring myself to write about it without using some kind of language that I’d rather not to use on the blog.

The victim’s lawyer Abdul Rahman Al Lahem has been suspended from the case and faces a disciplinary session because the judge thinks that Al Lahem was using the media to affect the court’s ruling. Now how can the media be used to affect the ruling is anyone’s guess, but why should the judge be affected by the media might be something we should be looking at, because as far as I have been told, our right honorable judges are very wise men who claim to base their verdicts on Qura and Sunna, not some blabbering in the media. Anyway, it is not the first time that Al Lahem faces a problem like this. He has been jailed before for defending reformists but he continued his work as Saudi Arabia’s most important human rights lawyer.

It is up to the appeal court now to confront this unjust ruling and finish the suffering of the girl and her husband who bravely stood up beside his wife. Otherwise, this case might require the interference of the king in order for justice and common sense to prevail. Let’s hope they will prevail in the end.

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Succession and Women’s Driving

I don’t know why, but apparently we get a lot of our important decisions made during the last ten days of Ramadhan. Last year it was the new succession law, and this year we got the judiciary reform as well as the fine details of the aforementioned succession law. I guess our government is always inspired by the spirituality of those holy days.

Speaking of the government, I wonder how/if they are going to react to what Fawzia Al-Oyouni, a founding member of the Society for Protecting and Defending Women’s Rights, told Arab New today. She said they are planning to take field trips in markets, shopping malls and hospitals in order to educate as many women as possible and to spread awareness on women’s driving.

Working on the ground, like dating, is a risky business in Saudi Arabia. The public spaces Al-Oyouni talks about, such as markets and malls, are to a degree or another controlled by the infamous religious police. I can’t imagine they would allow anyone else to use these spaces for a cause that they have no sympathy with.

The King has always pledged his commitment to reform. He wants to make sure that his efforts in changing this country would last and the gains won’t be lost soon, and that the changes he is implementing for the good of the nation are solid and permanent. This is an issue where that commitment can be shown again.

Reforms on the Justice System

My recent visit to the United States has consolidated my views on the importance of an independent, transparent and powerful judiciary system for any modern country. That’s why I was very pleased to see that our outcry for a much-needed reform in the justice system in Saudi Arabia has finally reached the King who issued a royal decree to overhaul the whole thing. It is long overdue, probably, but it is here nevertheless, and thank God for that.

The new system is expected to take many of the powers currently possessed by the Higher Judicial Council. Now this is not going to be an easy transition, I think. Sheikh Al Luhaidan and his fellow clerics have been on the top of our judicial system for a long time, and the notion that they will give up their powers peacefully seems unlikely. But let’s hope we won’t see any of the old faces in the new supreme court.