5 march 2007
Foreign Policy, Reform and Terror in the Kingdom of Doublspeak
The Saudi Leadership must feel satisfied at the Iranian president’s visit to Riyad yesterday. Though the outcome is still vague, the mere visit was an acknowledgement by the Mullas regime of the vital regional role of Saudi Arabia. Under pressure from his conservative rivals in Teheran, Iran’s turbulent president had come to acknowledge that Iran cannot stand up to the US while alienting the rest of the Islamic world. The Islamabad conference of seven « sunni » states- Pakistan, Egypt, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey , Jordan and Indonesia- convened one week earlier, had ominously looked like an anti iranian sunni axis. Both Syria and Iran were not invited to the conference.
Lebanese observers seem to think that Iran would now require its Hizbullah proxy to step back from its two month confrontation with Lebanon’s government. A compromise should be possible in the coming weeks to bring Lebanon back to normal life.
It is still not clear, however, how the discussions between president Nejad and the Saudi King would influence Saudi Arabia’s troubled relations with Damascus. Syria’s president shall be present at the coming Arab Summit in Riyadh, two weeks from now. But the obstacles to an improvement in Saudi relations with Syria are many.
According to prominent Saudi journalist, Abdul Rahman Rashid, Syria « would be mistaken if it persisted in its belief that the tension with Riyad was due to personal considerations as claimed by Syria’s foreign minister, Farouk Sharaa. It, rather, touches on vital interests. The introduction (by Damascus) of Iranians to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine is not a trivial matter. It implies a basic change in the regional map and could open the door to a major confessional, regional, security and international wars ». Such language is very unusual from a Saudi « accredited » journalist.
With Teheran showing its unwillingness to confront Riyadh at the moment, Damascus would have to make concessions on three major issues, if it is seeking a reconciliation with Saudi Arabia : the Lebanese crisis (including the International tribunal to try the presumed Syrian assasins of Rafik Hariri) ; Iraq, where Saudi Arabia accuses Damascus of facilitating the passage of Saudi Jihadis to Iraq (Damascus is thought to have freed scores of Saudi al Qaida members from its jails and sent them over to Iraq) ; and, lastly, on the Palestinian front, where Saudis could not fathom an iranian preponderant role in an Arab and Islamic major issue. Short of concessions on these issues, Saudis warn « they could do nothing to help Syria’s beleagred and isolated regime ».
«malaise » on the home front
While King Abdullah could feel satisfied at foreign policy achievements, the situation on the home front looks dubious. Time is running out for Saudi Arabia’s reformist king who has few tangible results to show on the reform front. Which could explain the rebirth of the Saudi reform movemnt which had taken a back seat since its leaders were liberated from jail as soon as King Abdullah acceeded to the throne in August 2005.
Saudi reformers are not in jail anymore, yet they are banned from travelling abroad. Even though King Abdullah seemed to have subscribed to their reform agenda, no constitutional changes have been adopted to further the objective of a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia. The establishment of a «(ruling Saudi) family council », last year, could be considered a reformist step, in the sense of turning the meetings of the most influential princes into a transparent constitutional organ, yet it is far from satisfying reformists requirement for basic constitutional reforms.
Vague arrests in Djeddah
A series of events in February seemed to confirm the rebirth of the reform movement in the country. Things started with a communique by the ministry of interior confirming the arrest of seven Saudis in Djeddah for for their role in financing terrorism. Fundamentalist sources in London, contacted by us, confirmed that two or three of the detainees were, indeed, sending donations to their « brothers » in Iraq, Chechnya and elsewhere. Yet, they were adamant the detainees had absolutely no links to al Qaida. Which was confirmed to us by reformist sources inside Saudi Arabia who claim that at least one of the detainees had been, since 2004, an official emissary on behalf of the Saudi government to carry financial and material help to the « sunni triangle » in Iraq (Ramadi, Tikrit and part of Mossul). His missions included the opening of a medical clinic in Latifiyyah. While it is possible that the emissary, Sheikh el Hashemi, has gone further than his official mission, it looks certain that the other detainees are what Saudi public opinion would refer to as either « patriotic » or « reformist » elements. Conclusion : the minister of Interior, Prince Nayef, had arrested both reformers and fundamentalis and labelled the whole lot as elements linked to al Qaida !
One day later, however, the Islamic current of the reform movement published a « petition » in favour of a « constitutional monarchy » in Saudi Arabia. The petition, known as the « al Hamed petiton » was not endorsed, nor opposed, by the « liberal » elements in the reform movement. Liberals were not satisfied with the intellectual premises of the «Muslim Brotherhood » inspired petition, though they fully adhered to its objectives. Secular liberals differed on two points : first, the unprecedented harsh frontal attack on the ministry of interior in the so called islamic reformist petition, which, daringly, questioned the preponderent role of the ministry and called for the dismantling of the ministry which, in reality, represents the second center of power in Saudi Arabia, immediately after the King (The moroccon ministry of Interior had played a similar role under Idriss el Basri). This looked like a reflection of the power struggle between the King and his al Faisal branch supporters, on the one hand, and his Sudairi rivals. Yet, the second problem with the Hamed petition seemed, precisely, to be its « islamic » character. Pretending that the ideology on which the Saudi regime is built does require a modern parliamentary and constitutional regime which respects basic Human Rights is, simply, a nonsense. More important, probably, is the fact that « islamic reformers » who sincerely call for a parliamentarian regime and an independent judiciary would not go as far as calling for a « civil code » of Law in the country, as that would mean the « codification of the Sharia », a «red line » for the Wahhabi religious establishment.
The same schizophrenic discourse was evident in another Saudi petition signed, a few days later, by over 150 Saudi professors, businessmen and writers, which warned of the perils of Sunni-Shia confessional strife, putting the blame on the US and Israel. Apparently, it did not occur to the signatories that Sunni and Shia jurisprudence alike were probably, at least, as reponsible for confessional hatreds as the US, Israel or any other scapegoat.
The return of the Constitutional Monarchy slogan to Saudi politics has not lead to arrests as in 2003. Prince Nayef does not have a free hand to go back to his coercive methods. The Saudi king probably believes in containing the reformists, rather than detaining them. Saudi reformers claim the authorities have been « hiring » prominent journalists to spread the myth that the Saudi regime would have implemented radical reforms had it not been for the oppositon of the « religious establishment » in the country.
Meanwhile, both reformers and the minority Shias point out to the fact that no irreversible change has been achieved by the « reformist king ». Once Prince Sultan succeeds King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia would have wasted a few more years.
The assasination of four french citizens near Medina came on top of this general « malaise » in the kingom of doublespeak. As it happened, two of the French citizens were muslims, including a 17 years old boy who had recently converted to Islam. In a show of national indignation at the terrorist attack, authorities organized a public prayer for the « two french martyrs » !
Not only prayers did not include the other two french «infidels ». The worst part was the identity of the member of the clergy chosen for this noble task. Sheikh Hazifi, who led the prayers for the «French martyrs » is the official imam of the Medina grand mosque. Against Bin Laden’s call to expel Christians and Jews from the Arabian Peninsula, this Wahhabi member of the clergy had called, in 1998, for all Christians, Jews and Shias (probably 10 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia) to be expelled from the Arabian Peninsula ! He had made that call during his Friday sermon which was attended by Iran’s president Hashemi Rafsandjani, during his first visit to Saudi Arabia ! Saudi authorities, at the time, banned him from making Friday sermosn. He seems to have been rehabilitated since.
Needless to say, Saudi and Arab press did not pick such interesting details about the clergyman who « denonuced terrorism » and prayed for its victims. That was the topic of an article published on Middle East Transparent Arabic language page, including the full text of the speech calling for cleansing Saudi Arabia of all Christians, Jews and Shias.