Moving!!

Dear readers,

After 1 year and 17391 visits, “Life thru Dusty Lenses has moved to it’s new home: KhanSerai-a rest stop for netravelers (http://serai.strategicsynapse.com). The blog will change from being focused solely on life in and around Saudi Arabia, to a more global nature.

Since centuries past, travelers have rested at serais to break their journey. These were places of rest, water, shelter and trade. People from all over broke their journeys and stories were exchanged.

KhanSerai is a 21st century version of the same, a brief respite in our collective journeys.

All old posts and comments have been moved and archived at the new location. Please change your bookmarks and rss readers to point to KhanSerai.

Insulting Royalty- Saudi Arabia and Beyond

Many countries with royal families tend to be extremely protective about defending their honor. Thailand was recently in the news because of the jailing of an Australian writer for insulting the monarchy and his subsequent pardon. A few weeks later a British professor ran from Thailand with similar charges against him. Several years ago Spanish magazines were pulled off the shelves for depicting insulting images of the royalty.

Saudi Arabia is similar to many of these countries regarding the high regard for the royal family, with an additional aspect- the Saudi monarchy are the ACTUAL rulers of the country, not just figureheads! This seems to elevate them to an even higher standard where criticism is not allowed at all and makes people very sensitive about the topic. Blogs that criticize the Saudi royals are blocked in the country as are several human rights web-sites.  Defacing the currency is a big no-no as it has images of the royalty on it. People discuss issues like corruption off the record in “safe” settings with trusted friends only. 

These cultural sensitivities were highlighted last week when the coach of the Al-Hilal football (soccer) team was fired and told to leave the country because he threw down his shirt that had the picture of Crown Prince Sultan on it. This happened right after his team won at the Crown Prince Cup. The organizers of the match did not allow the whole team to come to the podium; in anger the coach did not go to the podium and threw his shirt. The next day he was fired. His apology was not accepted.

Change in Saudi Arabia- Short and Long Term

As we have all read by now, Saudi Arabia has made some changes in its government and brought in more moderates. Some changes were expected, some were nominal while others are profound.

A lot of people focused on the first woman appointee as it heralds something new, however bringing in women is an inevitable change. No matter how much certain segments of society fight this change, it will happen – and within a generation. The reasons are obvious in a country where women will be majority business owners within a decade: demographics, telecommunications and education. By the way, a week or so before these changes, the first female Saudi cultural attache was announced for Canada.

Some are talking about the change of the Justice minister which is in line with the judicial reform that started a few weeks/months ago. Plans to overhaul the system were put into action several months ago.

Others are talking about the changes in education. This is aligned with the changes in curriculum that have already been started, as well as some of the “experimental” programs that have been tried out.

Changes in SAMA, Health and Info/Culture (along with all the other changes) were necessary for stability. The word is that several people maintained their positions/ranks however they have been reformed by internal pressure- better to reform yourself than be replaced!

The next big area is of course the change in the Hayy’a head (Commission for Promotion of Virtue and  Prevention of Vice). This is where it starts to get really interesting, not because of the change in person but because of the change in status quo in the ongoing tussle between the reform agenda of the administration and the religious right. There is a constant thrust-and-parry dance between society and the Hayy’a; the King has come down on the side of society.

The most profound and long term changes are the ones in the Shoura Council. Changing the head is of  course newsworthy. However this is the first time that all four Sunni schools of thought are being represented in the Shoura Council, not just the Hanbali school. Avoiding a history lesson, Wahabbism/Salafism is an off-shoot of the Hanbali school.

Including the other schools of thought on the Shoura Council dilutes the impact of Hanbalism/Wahabbism/Salafism. This is a long term change that has the potential to change the country in unprecedented ways; it effectively weakens the alliance between the House of Saud and the idealogues of  Ibn Abdul Wahab. There are different extreme end points that can come out of this (over the next few decades):

  • the door can be opened to move from a direct monarchy towards a constitutional monarchy
  • the religious right can feel threatened and destabilize the legitimacy of the monarchy
  • the country moves in the direction of becoming the next Dubai

Reality will probably lie somewhere between these extremes. The reign of King Abdullah has initiated the internal reform process. Crown Prince Sultan will have the choice of continuing on this path or reversing its course.

Several news story that cover the recent government changes are given below:

Punishment for Gang Rape Victim- Saudi Style

Many Saudis feel that their country is unfairly represented in Western media. There are biases for sure and some journalists/media outlets undoubtedly unfairly focus on KSA.

Part of problem however are the incidents that actually happen. Child marriages have recently been getting international attention but “Saudi-style justice” is not limited to children.

A story from the Saudi Gazette is posted below in its entirety (bold added for emphasis).

Girl gets a year in jail, 100 lashes for adultery

By Adnan Shabrawi

JEDDAH – A 23-year-old unmarried woman was awarded one-year prison term and 100 lashes for committing adultery and trying to abort the resultant fetus.
The District Court in Jeddah pronounced the verdict on Saturday after the girl confessed that she had a forced sexual intercourse with a man who had offered her a ride. The man, the girl confessed, took her to a rest house, east of Jeddah, where he and four of friends assaulted her all night long.
The girl claimed that she became pregnant soon after and went to King Fahd Hospital for Armed Forces in an attempt to carry out an abortion. She was eight weeks’ pregnant then, the hospital confirmed.
According to the ruling, the woman will be sent to a jail outside Jeddah to spend her time and will be lashed after delivery of her baby who will take the mother’s last name. – Okaz/SG

What the article delicately calls “forced sexual intercourse” is called rape by everyone else. Five people “assaulted her all night long” is called gang rape by everyone else.

What is outrageous is that the women who was gang raped is going to lashed and jailed. The sentencing in this case is similar to the case of the Qatif girl last year. Let’s see if human rights agencies pick up this story or not.

Religious Tolerance in Saudi Arabia

Disclaimer: this post includes references to the following two news articles.  I do not know the veracity of the articles nor the legitimacy of the web-sites.

Saudi Arabia arrests Christian blogger

Pastor flees death threats

Churches, synagogues, temples are banned in Saudi Arabia however people are allowed to practice their religion in private. They are not permitted to practice in public or in large gatherings. Proselytizing is definitely banned, whether direct or indirect.

Last year was one of change. There was talk of negotiations between the Vatican and Saudi Arabia to open the first Roman Catholic church in KSA. Saudi Arabia hosted an interfaith dialogue conference in June, sponsored a 2-day UN conference to promote interfaith dialogue and is actually leading the same UN Faith Forum!

In light of these happenings in 2008 it is surprising that at the beginning of 2009 there would be reports of arresting a blogger talking about how he converted from Islam to Christianity, and death threats against the ex-pastor of a 300 person church (~ 150 members would congregate at his house, not all 300).

It would appear that the tension between the “Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” and the rest of the administration and population is heating up again. There are constant reminders of the different directions the country is being pulled in. Sometimes it is stories about probes into Vice cops raid of British universities fair and sometimes stories about arrests of Christian bloggers.

The situation is not going to get better anytime soon but at least the indicators of change are starting to appear.

Success Factors for Terrorism Rehabilitation

The concept of prisoner rehabilitation is not new. Several European countries, in addition to their regular closed prisons, also have open prisons where prisoners are called clients, there is little security, the living conditions are rather luxurious, they can leave the facility for short periods of time and have provisions for conjugal visits. In some of these countries the open prisons also include rehabilitation programs (e.g. Sweden, Finland, Greenland, Denmark, Norway and Netherlands) whereas in others (e.g. UK) open prisons are just prisons with very limited security.

The difference between the rehab programs in the Scandinavian countries and what Saudi Arabia is implementing is the type of person who ends up going to each. The former tends to house the mildest, least dangerous criminals compared to the latter that are working on people who are intent on killing others based on hatred.

Given the “clientele” of the Saudi rehab program it is imperative that they succeed. As reported by CNN, Libya has implemented a similar program, Yemen will be building a facility (US funded) and Pakistan is considering setting one up as well.

Some issues that need to be addressed include (in no particular order):

  • Program length – this was covered in my previous post on the topic
  • Religious legitimacy- Saudi Arabia is considered the home of Islam by many and thus scholars/professors/teachers educated in KSA have enormous respect and legitimacy across the globe. Having Saudi educated instructors at these rehab programs would actually be helpful as a counter-balance to the militant recruiters who carry similar credentials.
  • Funding- this is a tricky issue as the source of the funding impacts the perception of who is driving the initiative and if it respectable. A US funded program to rehab Muslims to not hate the US after being imprisoned by the US for 5-6 years without charges smacks of pandering to US interests alone. However, countries like Yemen and Pakistan do not have sufficient resources to natively implement such programs without external assistance. Maybe President Obama should send money for relief efforts in Gaza and Saudi Arabia can send similar amounts to Yemen and Pakistan instead!
  • Psychological help- many of these militants have developed mental/psychological issues due to the conditions they have endured and what they have seen. Several of them have attempted suicide. This is a huge red-flag as suicide is considered a major sin in Islam and for a person who was willing to die and kill others in the name of religion, it takes an unthinkable amount of despair, hopelessness and depression to want to commit suicide (it is the opposite end of the spectrum from being a martyr).
  • Post-completion assistance. Prisoners at these programs need assistance to be able to succeed in life after they are released:
  1. Education (literacy)
  2. Vocational training
  3. Job placement
  4. Assistance in getting married
  5. On-going support groups and sessions to ensure they do not fall off the bandwagon again.
  • Phased release. This will be important to ensure that when the prisoners are first released they do not flail around trying to find a place for themselves in society. They need to gradually integrate with society, with support instead of being left to fend for themselves. Part of this could include having working villages that can be manned by prisoners (close to being released) where they can live with their families.

2009 Gloom & Doom Update: Outlook Playing Out- Iceland Govt Collapse

Remember my previous post on what 2009 will look like?  One of the things I had mentioned was growing unrest in Europe.

Yesterday, Iceland’s government collapsed and there are demonstrations across Europe. Spain, Greece, Lithuania, Latvia and Iceland have all seen protests. France, Germany and United Kingdom have been spared the demonstrations- they are also countries that have invested the most in stimulus packages.

As a reminder of what I had said:

2009 will be a year of despair for many.

The upcoming year is going to be hard on many people. The global financial situation is going to get worse before it gets better. SAVE! SAVE! SAVE! Everything you save will be needed later. If you have a miserable job, don’t quit yet. If you do not have a job, grab what you can. It will be worse than many of us remember. None of the indicators are pointing towards anything good.

Expect an escalation in crimes like theft. Expect an increase in riots and protests in various Asian hotspots. Expect growing unrest in Europe. North American social welfare systems will get taxed to their breaking point.

Cracks will emerge that will over the next 5 years result in the changing of some national boundaries.

More of these will be playing out as the year progresses.