Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Prophet's Mawlid: Have you cut its heart open to find out about blasphemy!

Today is the birthday of the Prophet Muhammed and I observe the #Mawlid by reciting the imagined conversations between the Saudi writer and poet Hamza Al Kashgari and the prophet Mohammed.

Conversation 1: "On Your birthday, I will say that I love the revolutionary in you, who has always inspired me. But I do not like the halo. I do not pray to you"

Conversation 2: "On Your birthday, I see you wherever I look. I have loved certain aspects of you, hated others, and have not understood many"

Hamza's tweets (conversation) in Arabic

I recite these words from dawn to dusk because my prophet would have never allowed the deportation and ultimately the arrest and the imprisonment of Hamza without a fair trial for almost two- year. I will recite these word of wisdom from dawn to dusk because my prophet would have embraced Hamza as a critical thinker and a friend and not more than that!

My prophet would have never incited hatred against another brother. My prophet would have never called upon shedding Hamza’s blood. On the contrary, he would have cried out in the face of extremists who rallied to kill and blasted them “Have you cut [Hamza’s] heart open to find out [about blasphemy]" 

Conversation 3: "On Your birthday, I will not kneel down before you and I will not kiss your hand. Instead, I will shake it as equals do, and I will smile at you while you smile at me. I will speak to you as a friend and not more than that"

Monday, November 13, 2017

Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS): The Young Face of Neoliberal Totalitarianism

The Saudi Kingdom of “Bread and Circuses"

Saudi Arabia announced ‘Vision 2030’, a policy aimed at reducing dependency on oil and implementing economic reforms. The tax-free Kingdom privatised and on the path to privatising key state-owned utilities, including the world’s biggest energy company, Aramco. The Absolute Monarchy has formed an anti-corruption committee and issued a royal decree to detain dozens of the powerful royal elite, former and current Ministers, civil servants, and business tycoons. Together, they have been charged with nepotism and corruption. The Gulf country – at last – lifted the ban prohibiting women to drive.
These varied and unprecedented news stories have been emerging from Saudi Arabia since Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) de facto ascension to the Saudi throne via the rule of his ageing father. Such changes have been widely received by different analysts and some media outlets as signalling progress and reform. But is reform what we are actually witnessing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? The short answer: no. The blueprints proposed for economic and societal change do not reflect a genuine willingness for reforms but are instead symptomatic of dynastic intrigue - the result of internal power struggles within the sprawling Al Saud dynasty. In this essay, I stipulate that MBS is not reformist – as it outwardly and ostensibly appears – but instead, he is the face of the neo-totalitarian state.
Throughout my discussion, I strive to dismantle the following myths and claims of ‘blueprint reforms’ in the Kingdom, by examining Economic Reforms (Vision 2030), the question of women, and the latest anti-corruption committee.
In April 2016, MBS surprised the ruling elite and Saudi intellectual community by announcing Saudi vision 2030. The economic plan was drafted by the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. the consulting firm is known as the most secretive, and most high-priced firm. Its consultancy has been subject to criticism. The plan has been met with dissatisfaction among some of the ruling elite and Saudi intellectuals, who express “soft” discontent for not being consulted or involved in crafting the vision.
VISION 2030 is a package of economic and social policies aimed at curtailing “oil addiction” and boosting the private sector. MBS’s publicised vision contains ostensibly transformative steps, such as increasing the percentage of women in the workforce from 12% to 30% by 2030, the privatisation of a portion of the public sector, including listing around 5% of the shares of state-owned oil company Aramco.
Given the inevitable decline of the oil industry, and the impact this will have on Saudi Arabia’s welfare spending, diversifying the Kingdom’s economy appears to be a wise course of action. At first sight, the plans seem progressive, bold, and seductive. However, the economic blueprints are festooned with issues. The Saudi state has moved towards privatising public services, like hospitals and schools, and has reduced the salaries of state officers and civil servants, with exception of the salaries of princes.
These changes have sent shockwaves among the middle class, who have been dependent for generations on state largesse. Saudi Arabia’s middle class will soon struggle to survive under the mercy of a fluctuating, private market.
Part of MBS's plan is the commitment to some form of tax payment, including - among others - a value-added tax of 5%. These radical plans are indeed dismantling the state "rentier" distribution of wealth to Saudi subjects to maintain loyalty for the house of Saud. In spite of imposing taxation, the regime is unwilling to rewrite the political and social structures that govern the state relation to subjects so that it becomes compatible with the major economic changes. Moreover, the plan does not promote incremental change to allow families adapt to the transformation of economic policy. Furthermore, these dramatic changes take place in an authoritarian state that lacks an independent civil authority which could monitor and protect the impact of neoliberal economics on the fragile segments of the society.
The Saudi state has repeatedly refused to openly recognise the existence of poverty. Recognising poverty implies the recognition of income inequality and the unfair distribution of wealth, hence the political stance held by the state. The government has barely addressed the realities of poverty in its ‘Vision’, and will not disclose actual data on poverty rates. Nevertheless, the estimated figure of those living below the poverty line stands between two and four million native Saudis. In the era of mass privatisation in Saudi Arabia, - of increasing the role of the private sector up to 70 percent, - it is highly likely that rates of poverty will increase, perpetuating inequality and injustice. This is precisely what has occurred in the United Kingdom, and the United States. The neo-liberal market is driven by consumer demand – not by social or ethical principles – which means that business tycoons will invest in the ‘centre’, leaving the periphery to perish.
Every Saudi intellectual who has questioned or refused to approve MBS’s branded vision has either been imprisoned or forced into exile, like the case of Essam al-Zamel, Saudi-Arabia’s well-known economist and entrepreneur who criticised privatising the only natural resource in the Kingdom. In sum, the vision of MBS is not a plan for reform, but rather a plan for political survival.
This plan is likely to usher in a new oligarchy loyal only to profit and the de-facto King. Vision 2030 cannot be considered a holistic and a genuine blueprint for reform because it is impossible to achieve drastic economic reforms without political reforms. It is dangerous to implement privatisation in lieu of a new democratic social contract between state and citizen, civil society NGOs and unions that monitor corruption, and protect employees’ rights and marginalised groups. This blueprint serves the interest of the powerful inner circle of MBS, not the people.
Saudi women ran as candidates and voted for the first time during the municipal elections in 2015. This summer, a royal decree was issued allowing women access to state services without the consent of a male guardian. The decree does not do away with the system altogether, as women are still acquired to obtain the consent of male relatives and even the permission of their teenage son – if necessary – to study, travel, work and request official papers. Recently, women have been given the legal right to obtain driving licences.
These recent milestones to prompt women's rights are, by and large, a move of pragmatism. The Saudi state treasury has encountered significant economic pressure since 2014, which is exacerbated by having half of the population inactive, and where unemployment rates among women are very high. Therefore, removing former obstacles such as the ban on women driving is an attempt to boost the productivity of the economy by encouraging women’s participation in the work-force. While it may be paraded as ‘gender equality’, the reasons behind this are far more pragmatic.
The rights of girls to access education was not initially granted by the Saudi monarch, but was championed by some elite members from the region of Hijaz and the wife of the third former Saudi King Faisal Bin Abdulaziz, Queen Effat Al-Thunayan Al-Saud. Half-Turkish, half Saudi royal, Queen Al-Saud was born and raised in Istanbul and spoke minimal Arabic. King Faisal backed his wife’s initiative in spite of the widespread social rejection of the 1940s.
Despite the state’s issuing of royal decrees to improve the situation for women – although limited – it continues to claim that society is not ready for such sweeping changes. By contrast, I would suggest that this proves that it is the state, and not society as a whole, that is ‘not ready’, and that the state is only interested in empowering women for the sake of satisfying and achieving its own political masculine goals. “The rejection of society” rhetoric reflects the misogynist regime mindset, unwilling to emancipate women from political, social, economic and cultural shackles.
Prior to Al Saud conquering the Arabian Peninsula, the area was beset by clan infighting, divisions and instability. The founder of the house of Saud, King Abdul Aziz came back from exile in Kuwait, fought, conquered and united different regions by overseeing the marrying of a daughter of every tribal chief in Saudi Arabia. Under Islamic jurisprudence, polygamy is permitted. Thus, Muslim men are allowed to marry up to four women. When I asked my Saudi teacher in secondary school in Jeddah, “How come the founder was allowed to marry innumerable wives and make around 45 sons?”. “I do not talk politics”, she shrugged in reply. Abdul Aziz’s case of intermarriage demonstrates that the Saudi state uses women as a tool to control large swathes of land for the purpose of consolidating power.
In my opinion, this established a masculine and patriarchal regime. 85 years have passed since Saudi Arabia was founded, and yet, the management of women’s issues continues to be through a political patriarchy cloak. Women should be granted rights by patriarchal royal decrees. Women who challenge the norms and the power of royalty are likely to be severely punished by the political patriarch. This was the case of 47 Saudi women – academics, doctors, business women, civil servants and students – who took to the street of Riyadh in 1990 and drove their families’ cars in the first protest against the ban on women driving cars. Later, those courageous women were arrested, imprisoned, and had their passports confiscated. Some lost their jobs, others were expelled from schools, and all of them faced defamation and smear campaigns. The prince who oversaw their punishment was Salman Bin Abdulaziz, the former governor of Riyadh and the current King of Saudi Arabia since 2015.
Saudi women-elite that are elected to municipal councils and appointed members in the Saudi Consultative Assembly is operating in toothless positions and have no power to influence or improve women’s rights. The Saudi elite, such as Saudi Arabia's representative to the UN and the first female spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC, are examples of figures coaxed into government to enable the state to defuse potential feminists and social unrest, like the 1990 car demonstration.
The decision to allow women to drive, yet maintaining guardianship, is fraught with difficulty. One the one hand, women are allowed to drive, but on the other, they remain legal minors. In practice, they might not be allowed to drive anyway; given the patriarchal guardian has the legal right to ban her. If the regime is genuine on improving the lot of women’s rights, it would not have called Saudi feminists and demanded their silence on critiquing the government for not ending a system that hinders women’s free mobility and independency. One such silenced voice is women’s right activist Aziza Al Yousef, who is a leading figure in the campaign to end male guardianship over women
MBS last year asserted that Saudi women need more time to acclimate to the idea of work and full participation in the society. Such a patronising discourse confirms that MBS is no different from his octogenarian father nor grandfather; as he is using women’s rights to serve his political branding image as the young modernist prince. Hence consolidate his power by pragmatic moves. Saudi royal decrees to empower women are cosmetic, and mainly strive to appease Western allies. It is worth mentioning, that MBS model is not new, different dictators across the Middle East and North Africa embarked on policy and legislation which liberated women.
For these reasons, royal decrees on women should not be perceived as a step towards gender equality and democratising, because the Saudi government is a masculine state that operates in a political patriarchal system.
Saudi Arabia ranks 62 in the Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International (2016). Corruption is rife within an autocratic state with no pluralism and independent civil society. Furthermore, the state has been aware of kleptocrats and elite abuse of power. The state's recognition of this is reflected through a state bank account called IBRAA ALTHIMMAH, or Disclaimer before God, for the purpose of clearing the guilty conscience of the corrupt elite before death. Thieves are welcomed to repay – anonymously – the stolen sum into the "disclaimer" bank account, thereby granting immunity from prosecution. Moreover, the thief need not pay the entire amount, and it is considered irrelevant if profits or interest has been made from the stolen money. The bank account has received more than 300m Saudi Riyal (SAR), since its establishment. which is around 79,970,300 (USD).
The newly established MBS-initiated anti-corruption committee, which was followed by arresting a number of a powerful elite with charges of corruption on the 4th of November, has little to do with the genuine cleansing of nepotism but is more an attempt to cement MBS’s power and his future position as the next king.

If the regime is sincere in ending corruption in the Kingdom and believes that no one is above the law, it would have made a separation of powers to ensure a corruption-free society. It would have investigated the Panama Papers claim that the current King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, implicated in an offshore tax heaven scandal. Moreover, it would have initiated a public and transparent investigation of the accused kleptocrats.

Bin Salman’s family run Tharawat Holding, a private firm specialising in investments in business, technology, food, sports, development and real estate. MBS, the most powerful person in the Kingdom, and is heading the anti-corruption committee. This begs the question: how can MBS maintain his own integrity and that of his family and not fall prey to corruption? Is MBS going to monitor himself and the family business?

The Crown Prince is renewing President George Bush’s infamous vow, "You're either with us or against us". He has incarcerated political dissidents, royalist opponents, reformists, economic/social critics, religious clerics and even neutral voices that do not want to meddle and express opinions about internal and regional fronts fought by MBS (Yemen’s war, Qatar-Saud crisis, Lebanon, the Syrian-war, the regional cold-war with Iran, and rapprochement with Israel).

The de facto Saudi King has created many internal and regional foes so his arch of survival – among others – relies on the creation of a new oligarchy who gives blind allegiance to him. MBS’ is carefully building a loyal inner circle, and the oligarchs of yesterday are being replaced with those of today. Jamal Khashoggi, for example, a well-known veteran Saudi journalist, who was close to the old guard, has been silenced and driven into exile by the Saudi regime.

To describe the 4th of November as neither coup d’├ętat nor a palace coup is erroneous: this monarch did not experience a classic coup, and Saudi Arabia does not have a unified loyal national military to overthrow the palace. Moreover, the Saudi army lacks the strength to achieve such an outcome, reinforced by the hesitation of the Kingdom to dispatch the army in the morass of the Yemeni civil war lest this unveil its weakness, and the visual failure of the army could lead to a collapse of morale amongst Saud soldiers.
Furthermore, the Royal Family never empowered the military guard and the army, as they consistently feared military/tribal reprisals against them. Therefore, different sections of the Al Saud family have their own private military or security forces to protect them. In sum, the incident does not contain the pillars of a classic coup and should be described as a purge of foes, while also blocking possible assassination attempts against MBS.
MBS was 29-year-old when he came to power in 2015. Bin Salman Jr subverted the tradition of the internal political consensus that kept the house of Saud intact, despite myriad contradiction factors in the politics of governance. The consensus of distributing influence and power among the sons and the grandsons of the founder was greatly undermined by MBS by concentrating power in his and his brothers’ hands; Prince Faisal bin Salman is active figure and has shares in Saudi Arabia’s biggest media group, Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG). Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud is the Minister of state for energy affairs. Prince Khaled bin Salman appointed Saudi ambassador to Washington DC, and he is supported by Salman Al-Ansari, the president of the Saudi newly sat Lobby group in the US (SAPRAC), aimed at influencing US policies and its relations to Saudi Arabia.
In this way, MBS secures natural resources, exerts significant power over the media, and close brother and aide are ensuring the support of the American administration. Since his ascent to power, MBS replaced the cynical policy of “bread and circuses" to keep the masses happy by "Neo-Liberalism and Camel/ Entertainment". He has been waxing lyrical about the young Saudi generations for the aim of branding himself as the young and bold face of Saudi Arabia. This indeed has granted him a degree of popular support among social and economically dissatisfied youth. MBS lacks merits and experience, and he discarded senior royals and jump over the line of succession. He first removed the uncle Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz, the former Crown Prince, in less than three months, has deposed his cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef from the same post and put him under house arrest. This has secured MBS’ position as the next in the line of succession. For the last three years, the de facto King MBS, has, under the signature of the father King Salman issued around 364 decree, mainly on the dismissal and replacement of different state posts, as well restricting and creating new state entities linked directly to the King such as National security apparatus, and the Public Prosecutor entity. MBS has grabbed all major political, economic, security, and royal court portfolios; he is the minister of defence, chairman of Aramco's Supreme Council, first deputy prime minister the president of the council of economic and development affairs, chief of the Royal Court, founder of the Islamic Military alliance to fight terrorism, the general supervisor of the Camel club and the Falcons Club, and head of anti-corruption commission.
In this manner, prominent royal figures are stripped of their power, in an attempt to prevent plots against MBS’ totalitarian-ruling. Furthermore, MBS has planted his men in powerful posts such as appointing Maj Gen Ahmed al-Asiri as the Deputy Head of General Intelligence. The wealthy Khaled Al Falih Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources of Saudi, is the brains behind listing some shares of the state oil company, Aramco on the market. It is worth mentioning that appointing powerful senior state posts to non-royal Saudis like Asiri reflects the deep distrust of MBS to royal cousins.
Every enthroned King in Saudi Arabia stumbles over the question of legitimacy and the survival of the authoritarian state. Therefore, the distribution of oil revenues, Islam, and the holy cities has been a source of legitimacy locally and globally in the Muslim world. Popular branding and stronger internal alliances with “mainly business and media oligarch” and lately, security guarantee provided by its powerful American ally are central pieces for survival.
This is not the first rivalry within the house of Saud: a power struggle ensued between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal and lasted from 1958 – 1964. It was possible for Faisal to remove King Saud due to an internal royal consensus as well as the backup of the religious establishment elite and most important the support of Washington.
Today, MBS has secured the support of Trump, in return for – among others - selling shares of Aramco national oil company on New York Stock Exchange. Nevertheless, MBS lucks internal consensus and has shut the doors on the face of the religious establishment and incarcerated dissidents. In such circumstances, the unilateral actions of the young Crown Prince will likely spark more conflict and regional conflagration.
Lastly, the 4th of November incident is a reminder of the fact that “the greatest threat to the House of Saud is the House of Saud itself”.

Hana Al-Khamri, Analyst and columnist with a background in Peace and Conflict Studies. @hanaalkhamri