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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Saudi Arabia

ARABIAN PENINSULA: Majority of Persian Gulf Arabs too afraid to protest against their leaders, new poll says

6a00d8341c630a53ef014e5fc3d324970c-320wi Many Persian Gulf Arabs are frightened and pessimistic about the uprisings and revolutions that are sweeping the Middle East and are too afraid to speak out against their rulers.

According to a new opinion poll commissioned by the Qatar-based public forum The Doha Debates, that's the current mood among many gulf Arabs.

The online study, conducted by YouGov in June in which over 1,000 respondents were polled in 17 different Arab states, said an increasing number of gulf Arabs view the so-called Arab Spring with pessimism and fear. 

And more than more half of those polled in countries in the Arabian Peninsula said they would be be "too scared" to go out in the streets and protest against their leaders.

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SAUDI ARABIA: Woman accuses driver of rape amid growing campaign against women's driving ban

3200701517Over the last weeks there has been a growing campaign to allow women to drive for themselves in ultraconservative Saudi Arabia -- the only country in the world which prohibits women from driving and where women are forced to hire male drivers or taxis to move around.

Saudi authorities have responded to the call by clamping down on those allegedly behind the campaign and blocking a Facebook page that promoted allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia.

The campaign for lifting the women's driving ban in Saudi Arabia is likely to intensify after a Saudi businesswoman accused her driver of raping her at gunpoint.

According to an article published in the Saudi daily Okaz on Wednesday, her driver pulled over the vehicle in an industrial area of the holy city of Medina in western Saudi Arabia and raped her while pointing a gun at her. The woman, whose name was not disclosed in the report, reported the attack and the driver has been arrested.

The news comes as activists have called on women who have international driving licenses to get behind the wheel and drive their cars on June 17 in protest of Saudi Arabia's ban. The activists insist that the driving ban is based on conservative traditions and call for a change in the law so Saudi women can obtain licenses and drive themselves instead of having to rely on male drivers.

The campaign quickly gained momentum after its launch, attracting thousands of supporters on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter last month. Several Saudi women came out driving their own cars, including a woman who drove her car around for several days in the Red Sea port city of Jidda.

Then came the case of 32-year-old Manal Sharif, who posted a video of herself driving her car in the eastern city of Khobar. In the clip, posted below, she talks about the issues and complications that result from banning female drivers and presents her arguments for why women should be able to drive.


A day after Sharif posted the clip to YouTube, she was arrested by Saudi authorities on May 22 on the accusation of inciting women to defy the driving ban. She was detained for 10 days and was released earlier this week.

Sharif's lawyer told Agence France-Presse that his client had called upon Saudi King Abdullah to release her and said he hoped her case would be closed.

Thousands of people joined Facebook groups set up in support of Sharif.

--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: A Saudi woman gets out of a car after having been given a ride by her driver in the Saudi capital Riyadh in May. Credit: Agence- France Presse.  Video credit: YouTube

SAUDI ARABIA: Security forces clamp down on those allegedly behind campaign to defy ban on women drivers

Picture 2Saudi Arabian authorities have clamped down on women's rights activists after a bold call by a group of women in the ultra-conservative kingdom on social media sites on the Internet to break a ban on women driving.

Saudi police arrested at least two people linked to the campaign and shut down a Facebook page meant to promote civil disobedience, according to the Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper the National.

Saudi security forces loyal to King Abdullah, whose family has ruled the kingdom for 80 years, arrested Manal Sharif, a 32-year-old computer security consultant, and her brother, the National reported.

On Facebook and Twitter, activists had launched a campaign calling on women in Saudi Arabia who hold international drivers' licenses to get behind the wheel on Friday, June 17, and drive their cars to protest the country's ban on women driving.

Their call is a daring initiative. Women who have defied the ban in the past have lost their jobs, been banned from travel and denounced by members of the country's powerful extremist religious establishment.

The women say their planned move is not a protest nor an attempt to break the law, but rather a bid to claim basic rights as human beings.

"We women in Saudi Arabia, from all nationalities, will start driving our cars by ourselves," read a statement posted on the group's Facebook site, I will Drive Starting June 17, before Saudi censors took it down. "We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities. We are here to claim one of our simplest rights. We have driver's licenses and we will abide by traffic laws."

Their Facebook group had garnered more than 11,000 supporters and around 3,000 people follow the group's account on Twitter.

Critics say Saudi, a staunch U.S. ally and largest exporter of oil in the world, has a horrific record on human rights and women's liberties. In addition, it's said to be pumping cash into global Islamic organizations that promote extremist Islamic thinking across the Islamic world, including the nascent democracies in Egypt and Tunisia.  

But some Saudis themselves are trying to challenge the conservativism of their own country.

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YEMEN: Qatar withdraws support for GCC agreement; expert warns of violence


Qatar has pulled out of the Gulf Cooperation Council's effort to negotiate an end to Yemen's political crisis, blaming the country's embattled president for the stalemate.

Qatar was among Gulf nations pushing a deal for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after 32 years in power in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Three months of massive street protests have demanded the autocratic ruler's immediate departure, and a government crackdown has killed about 150 people.

The six nations of the regional alliance known as the Gulf Cooperation Council are worried that Yemen's growing instability could destabilize other parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Timeline: Conflict in Yemen

Yemen's official news agency said Friday that Saleh's party accused Qatar of siding with the protesters and welcomed its withdrawal from the talks.

Benedict Wilkinson, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute based in Cairo, talked Thursday about what was expected Friday.

Q: So it seems the big question is whether there will be major violence Friday and if so, what that will mean for the Saleh regime and the GCC?

A: I think there is widespread and, increasingly, entrenched anger (particularly in urban areas) at the repeated acts of violence carried out by government forces against its own citizens. The wounding and killing of the protesters is actually fueling the resolve of the protesters rather than diluting it.

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BAHRAIN: GCC troops to remain, face increasingly radicalized youth


Sunni monarchs determined to maintain control after crushing opposition protests in the kingdom of Bahrain may soon face a new threat from increasingly alienated youths in the majority Shiite nation.

On Thursday, Bahrain’s state news agency reported that troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council are expected to stay on even after the country’s state of emergency is lifted June 1.

Sheikh Khalifa Al Khalifa, head of the Bahrain Defense Force, told the state news agency that the forces, known as the Peninsula Shield, were sent to Bahrain after protests erupted in February to defend against foreign threats, including Iran. He said Iranian, Iraqi and western agents helped orchestrate the anti-government protests.

Timeline: Repression in Bahrain

Earlier this week, the GCC, a group of six Persian Gulf nations formed in 1981, invited Jordan and Morocco to join in what some analysts have called a consolidation of power by the “Sunni Kings’ Club” in the face of popular Shiite uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.

Salman Shaikh Picture Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre, said gulf leaders, led by Saudi Arabia, have become a “club of counterrevolutionaries” trying to reestablish an old order, with some resistance from Qatar and Kuwait, which is home to a sizable Shiite minority.

So far, gulf leaders have achieved an “uneasy calm” in Bahrain, he said, but have been unable to broker a political agreement there or in Yemen that would transform the states into constitutional monarchies.

“If you don’t come to some sort of political agreement, you’re going to have a young generation of Shiite youth who will not forget this and will be radicalized,” Shaikh said. “The danger is that they won’t be listening to anybody except maybe Iran.”

Already, he said gulf leaders may have missed their chance in Bahrain, where the government’s violent suppression of protests and alleged torture of political dissidents and medical staff, reported this week by Al Jazeera, has weakened their ability to negotiate with the opposition.

“A lot of young Bahrianis I talk to now dismiss those people, especially young Shiite Bahrainis, and seem to be moving on,” Shaikh said of the government.

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MIDDLE EAST: 'Arab Spring' has yet to alter region's strategic balance


Editor’s note: This post is by Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. Neither the Los Angeles Times nor Babylon & Beyond endorses the positions of Carnegie's analysts, nor does Carnegie endorse the positions of The Times or its blog.

Salem_color_medium3 (1) Despite their sweeping repercussions for both domestic and international players, the Arab uprisings have not led to a dramatically new regional order or a new balance of power. This could change, particularly if developments in Syria continue to escalate.

While Iran has welcomed uprisings against Western-backed regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, it dealt harshly with its own protesters and has been worried about recent events in Syria. Moreover, countries that threw out pro-Western dictators are not moving closer to Iran.

Egypt's and Tunisia’s future foreign policies are more likely to resemble Turkey's in becoming more independent while remaining allied with the West. And Iran's soft power has decreased as its regime looks increasingly repressive and new models of revolutionary success have emerged in Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the Arab world.   

Carnegie logo Turkey, for its part, bungled the opportunity to take advantage of this historic shift to bolster its influence in the Arab world. The Arab uprisings are effectively calling for the Arab world to be more like Turkey: democratic, with a vibrant civil society, political pluralism, secularism alongside Islam, and a productive and fairly balanced economy. However, after expressing clear support for Egyptian protesters, Turkey has hedged its bets in Libya and Syria.

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BAHRAIN: King announces early end to emergency rule as opposition stands trial


Bahrain's king announced plans Sunday to lift the Persian Gulf state's emergency rule on June 1, two weeks earlier than the official end of the three-month rule, imposed March 15 in an attempt to halt anti-government unrest.

The announcement by King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa appeared timed to distract a world audience from the trial of activists accused of attempting to overthrow the monarchy amid protests by the country's majority Shiite population.

At least 30 people have been killed since protests began in February in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

In a speech last month, the country's crown prince defended the government crackdown.

"We were immensely concerned that some of our youth were pushed toward a destructive path and that the nation was drawn along with them," Prince Salman ibn Hamed Khalifa said, according to an official transcript.

"We took necessary action to preserve lives and the livelihood and interests of all the people, based on our commitment to Islamic and Arab values," he said.

King Hamed's declaration that he would suspend martial law early gave no details of what would take its place, including whether the nighttime curfew would end or the numerous checkpoints be dismantled, according to the Associated Press.

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SAUDI ARABIA: Muted response to Osama bin Laden's death

Bin laden saudi reax 

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, expressed hope Monday that the death of its most notorious native son would help the battle against terrorism. 

“An official source expressed the hope of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that the elimination of the leader of the terrorist Al Qaeda organization would be a step toward supporting international efforts aimed at fighting terrorism," the state’s official news agency said, Reuters news agency reported.

The muted reaction underscored Saudi Arabia’s complicated history with Bin Laden.

As a young man in the 1980s, Bin Laden helped Saudi efforts in funding Arab fighters battling the Soviet-backed Afghanistan government.

Eventually, Bin Laden turned against the Saudi royal family over its decision to allow U.S. troops on the Arabian peninsula during Iraq’s 1990-1991 invasion of Kuwait. He was stripped of his citizenship in 1994, but his family retained privileged status in Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden’s radical politics continued to hold sway with some Saudi youth as Al Qaeda carried out attacks in the desert kingdom mainly in 2003. With an internal crackdown against Al Qaeda, Saudi fighters headed to Iraq to battle the US military and Iraq’s Shiite-led government through 2007.

Only after concerted pressure from the Americans, did the Saudi royal family make a serious effort to try to stop the the migration of young Saudi radicals to Iraq.

— Ned Parker in Cairo

Photo: Saudi men watch a TV broadcasting a report about Osama bin Laden in Riyadh. Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP


Osama bin Laden: From privilege to pariah

Timeline of Bin Laden raid

Photos: Death of Bin Laden

Full coverage of Bin Laden death

KUWAIT, IRAN: Iranian diplomats to be expelled over spy ring row in latest spat in Arab Gulf-Iranian relations

201133123587817368_20 Kuwait is reportedly ready to boot out a number of Iranian diplomats for alleged links to a spy ring working for Tehran in the latest spat in ties between Sunni Arab Gulf states and Shiite Iran.

According to Kuwait's foreign minister Mohammed Sabah, a number of Iranian diplomats are to be expelled for alleged spying that reportedly dates back to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"There will be action against a group of Iranian diplomats.... They will be considered persona non grata and expelled from Kuwait," he was quoted as telling reporters in Kuwait on Thursday.

Tehran slammed the claims as baseless, and Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the Islamic republic was not meddling in Kuwaiti affairs, according to Iranian state media.

Arab Gulf media reports say that Kuwait has recalled its ambassador to Iran for consultations.

Ties between Arab Gulf countries and Iran appear to becoming increasingly strained since the wave of Arab protests reached Iran's Shiite neighbor Bahrain where the Sunni government's security forces crushed the mainly Shiite-led protest movement last month.

The crisis in Bahrain quickly transformed into a regional standoff between Sunni Gulf Arab states and Shiite Iran with both sides throwing accusations at each other.

Authorities in Bahrain have accused Iran of meddling in its affairs, and some Sunni monarchies have sent troops to Bahrain, a move that has drawn stark criticism from Iran.

On Thursday, an Iranian parliamentary panel warned Riyadh that it was "playing with fire" by contributing troops to the joint military force in Bahrain.

The kingdom fired back, urging Iran to mind its own business and to not interfere in the affairs of Gulf states. A Saudi government official called the statement "irresponsible" and condemned it "in the most strongest words," reported the state-run Saudi news agency SPA on Friday.

News about Kuwait planning to oust Iranian diplomats came two days after a Kuwait City court sentenced two Iranian nationals and a Kuwaiti to death for spying for Tehran. All three had served in Kuwait's army at the time of their arrest in 2010. Sabah alleged that the Iranian diplomats were connected to the spy ring.

A Syrian national and a stateless Arab were given life terms at the conclusion of the trial while two Iranians were acquitted.

Salehi dismissed the allegations by Kuwaiti court, saying the death sentence rulings were part of a "plot," reported Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency.

"Focusing on an outdated issue by a Kuwaiti court and attributing it to the Islamic Republic of Iran is a plot being pursued by those who are jealous of Iran's good and friendly relations with Kuwait," Fars quoted Salehi as saying.  

The court heard charges that the spy ring had given secret military information and taken photographs of military sites in Kuwait and spied for the Islamic Republic.

Local media said the men confessed to having taken pictures of Kuwaiti and U.S. military sites for Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, but the defendants reportedly denied the charges in court and stressed they were tortured to confess, according to Agence France-Presse.

Oil-rich Kuwait has a sizaeble Shiite population.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed Sabah. Credit: Agence France-Presse,0,6348665.column

BAHRAIN: Crackdown continues, opposition and human rights groups say [Video]

While regional attention is riveted by the ongoing unrest in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the government of Bahrain has been left in relative peace by the international community to continue its crackdown against the anti-government protest movement there, human rights groups say.

"The last few nights they been raiding houses and beating and arresting people," Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told Babylon & Beyond, adding that approximately 400 people are either missing or in custody. 

"Some people were also arrested at checkpoints controlled by thugs brought in from other Arab and Asian countries -- they wear black masks in the streets," Ragab said.

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IRAN: Protesters slam Bahrain's royal family, U.S. for crackdown on dissidents

Protest iran bahrain More than 1,000 Iranians took part in an officially sanctioned protest Friday against the royal family of Bahrain and its Western allies in connection with a violent crackdown against largely Shiite anti-government demonstrators.

Protesters in Tehran shouted "Death to Al Khalifa in Bahrain" and "Death to America," referring to the close alliance between the Khalifa ruling family and the United States.

"We are all Muslims," protester Ali Asadpour, 58, told Babylon & Beyond. "We should be united against the arrogant power, the U.S., and we want an Islamic system in Bahrain."

Sunni government loyalists in Bahrain have tried to discredit the protest movement there by alleging it has ties with Iran and the Shiite paramilitary party Hezbollah in Lebanon, a claim the protesters deny.

Nevertheless, the Iranian government has been particularly outspoken in its criticism of Bahrain, and the two countries withdrew their ambassadors this week after the intervention of Saudi troops in Bahrain.

Iranian officials have also condemned American support for Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. President Obama has called on the governments of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to show "maximum restraint" but did not condemn the violence or ask Saudi troops to withdraw from Bahrain.

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