by Jonathan Spyer
On a recent reporting trip to Iraq and northern Syria, two things were made apparent to me — one of them relatively encouraging, the other far less so. The encouraging news is that ISIS is currently in a state of retreat. Not headlong rout, but contraction.
The bad news? Our single-minded focus on ISIS as if it were the main or sole source of regional dysfunction is the result of faulty analysis, which in turn is producing flawed policy.
Regarding the first issue, 2015 was not a particularly good year for ISIS. In the course of it, the jihadis lost Kobani and then a large area to its east, bringing the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the YPG and their allies to within 30 km of the Caliphate’s “capital” in Raqqa city.
In late December, the jihadis lost the last bridge over the Euphrates that they controlled, at the Tishreen Dam. This matters because it isolates Raqqa, making it difficult for the Islamic State to rush reinforcements from Aleppo province to the city in the event of an attack. Similarly, the Kurdish YPG advanced south of the town of al-Hawl to Raqqa’s east.
In Iraq, the Iraqi Shia militias and government forces have now recaptured Ramadi city (lost earlier in 2015) following the expulsion of ISIS from Tikrit and Baiji. The Kurdish Pesh Merga, meanwhile, have revenged the humiliation they suffered at the hands of ISIS in the summer of 2014. The Kurds have now driven the jihadis back across the plain between Erbil and Mosul, bringing them to the banks of the Tigris river. They have also liberated the town of Sinjar.
The city of Mosul nestles on the western side of the river. It remains ISIS’s most substantial conquest. Its recapture does not appear immediately imminent, yet the general trend has been clear. The main slogan of ISIS is “Baqiya wa’tatamaddad,” “Remaining and Expanding.” At the present time, however, the Islamic State may be said to be remaining, but retreating.
This situation is reflected in the confidence of the fighters facing ISIS along the long front line. In interviews as I traversed the lines, I heard the same details again and again regarding changing ISIS tactics, all clearly designed to preserve manpower.
This stalling of the Islamic State is the background to its turn towards international terror, which was also a notable element of the latter half of 2015. The downing of the Russian airliner in October, the events in Paris in November, and the series of suicide bombings in Turkey since July attest to a need that the Islamic State has for achievement and for action. They need to keep the flow of recruits coming and to maintain the image of victory essential to it.
Regarding the second issue: seen from close up, the Islamic State is very obviously only a part, and not necessarily the main part, of a much larger problem. When talking both with those fighting with ISIS and with those who sympathize with it in the region, this observation stands out as a stark difference in perception between the Middle Eastern view of ISIS and the view of it presented in Western media. The latter tends to present ISIS as a strange and unique development, a dreadfully evil organization of unclear origins, which is the natural enemy of all mainstream forces in the Middle East.
ISIS has the same ideological roots and similar practices as other Salafi jihadi groups in Syria.
From closer up, the situation looks rather different.
ISIS has the same ideological roots and similar practices as other Salafi jihadi organizations active in the Syrian arena. ISIS treats non-Muslims brutally in the areas it controls, and adheres to a rigid and fanatical ideology based on a literalist interpretation and application of religious texts. But this description also applies to Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria.
Nusra opposes ISIS, and is part of a rebel alliance supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. In March 2015, when Nusra captured Idleb City in northern Syria, the city’s 150 Christian families were forced to flee to Turkey. Nusra has also forcibly converted a small Druze community in Idleb. The alliance Nusra was a part of also included Muslim Brotherhood-oriented groups, such as the Faylaq al-Sham militia, which apparently had no problem operating alongside the jihadis.
ISIS is not a unique organization; rather, it exists at one of the most extreme points along a continuum of movements committed to Sunni political Islam.
Meanwhile, the inchoate mass of Sunni Islamist groups — of which ISIS constitutes a single component — is engaged in a region-wide struggle with a much more centralized bloc of states and movements organized around the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is committed to a Shia version of political Islam.
The Middle East — in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent Lebanon, all along the sectarian faultline of the region — is witnessing a clash between rival models of political Islam, of which ISIS is but a single manifestation.
The local players find sponsorship and support from powerful regional states, themselves committed to various different versions of political Islam: Iran for the Shias; Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Muslim Brotherhood-supporting Qatar for the Sunnis.
The long awakening of political Islam as the dominant form of popular politics in the Middle East started decades ago. But the eclipse of the political order in the region, and of the nationalist dictatorships in Iraq, Syria, Egypt (temporarily), Tunisia, and Yemen in recent years, has brought it to a new level of intensity.
States, indifferent to any norms and rules, using terror and subversion to advance their interests, jihadi armed groups, and the refugee crises and disorder that result from all this are the practical manifestations of it.
This, and not the fate of a single, fairly ramshackle jihadi entity in the badlands of eastern Syria and western Iraq, is the matter at hand in the Middle East.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
from the International Press Institute (Vienna, Austria, based) – Saturday, 21 February 2015.
A screenshot of the Al Monitor website featuring a video marking the news organisation’s first anniversary. Established on Feb. 13, 2012, the site provides reporting and analysis by prominent journalists and experts from the Middle East and draws from more than two dozen media partners.
VIENNA, Feb 26, 2014 – Opens external link in new window Al-Monitor, an edgy news and commentary site launched in the aftermath of the Arab Spring that brands itself as “the pulse of the Middle East”, is the recipient of this year’s International Press Institute (IPI) Opens external link in new windowFree Media Pioneer Award, IPI announced today.
“Al-Monitor’s unrivalled reporting and analysis exemplify the invaluable role that innovative and vigorously independent media can play in times of change and upheaval,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said. “Al-Monitor’s editors and contributors produce a must-read daily overview of a complex region in a coherent, introspective and independent way. Its team includes some of the best minds and analysts from around the world who cut through the daily chaff and give readers an insightful summary of what is happening.”
Al-Monitor is scheduled to receive the award at the Opens external link in new windowIPI World Congress, which takes place April 12 to 15 in Cape Town, South Africa. Also in Cape Town, IPI will present its World Press Freedom Hero award to Iranian journalist Opens external link in new windowMashallah Shamsolvaezin, the former editor of the banned Iranian newspapers Kayhan, Jame’eh, Neshat, and Asr-e Azadegan. He was jailed numerous times for his criticism of government policies.
With civil war engulfing Syria, turmoil in Egypt and political upheaval across the Middle East, Al-Monitor stands out as a one-stop source for diverse news and viewpoints. Recent features include a report on female journalists in the front lines of regional conflicts and an article highlighting the arrest of an Egyptian filmmaker, who – like numerous journalists in Egypt – was detained for spreading “false news”.
The 2014 Free Media Pioneer award marks a departure from past winners by honouring a regional news organisation.
“We believe this is where Al-Monitor stands out, providing an important bridge of information to a region where many of the individual nations face major press freedom challenges,” Bethel McKenzie said. “Its ability to draw on many voices from the region is unmatched in the Middle East.”
For the past three years, the award has been sponsored by the Argentinean media company Infobae Group.
Do ‘Syria,’ ‘Iraq’ and ‘Lebanon’ Still Exist?
based on the original article by Jonathan Spyer that was posted by the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum and that we re-post with a series of changes that are mainly of editorial nature.
For almost a century, the Middle East has been defined by the nation-states that emerged following the Allied Europeans – British and French – victory in World War I which was the end of the Ottoman Empire, and followed later by the unraveling of the resulting colonial era. Since then, strategic analyses of the region have concentrated on the relations between these states, created by bureaucratic lines drawn by the interim colonial powers, and diplomatic efforts have generally attempted to maintain their stability and the integrity of these borders. As a result, the current map of the Middle East has remained largely unchanged over more than nine decades.
But these actually never made sense and do so much less now. The old maps do not reflect the reality on the ground, and the region is now defined not by rivalry between nation-states, but by sectarian divisions that are spilling across the old borders and rendering them irrelevant. Today, there is a single sectarian war underway across the Middle East, one that threatens to engulf the entire region.
This war has a number of fronts, some more intense and active than others, but it is everywhere defined by sectarian conflict – especially the divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims. It is most intense in the area encompassing the current states of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; but has also spread further afield—to Bahrain, northern Yemen, and to some degree Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia.
The core power on the Shia side is the Islamic Republic of Iran, the world’s leading state that accepts terror as a means to implement its plans. Iran was the founding patron of Hezbollah, which even before 9/11 had killed more Americans than any terror group in the world. The Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Maliki government and assorted Shia militias in Iraq, the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, are all allies or proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is capable of rendering substantial assistance to its friends through the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – a powerful military and economic force that possesses substantial expertise and experience in building proxy organizations and engaging in political and paramilitary warfare.
On the Sunni side, the dominant power is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has been wary of Tehran, but also has struggled since 9/11 – on and off - against the Islamists of Al Qaeda. Its allies include various groups among the Syrian rebels, the March 14 movement in Lebanon, the military regime in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, and sometimes Turkey. The Saudis, however, are at something of a disadvantage. They possess no parallel to the IRGC, and have problematic relations with the extreme Sunni jihadists of al-Qaeda, who have played a prominent role in the fighting on all three major fronts and who are an outgrowth of the Saudi Wahabbi movement – the kind of Islam on which the Saudi throne is based. (Here we have a clear different approach to the issue then we found in the original article – that seemed to be over friendly to the Saudis – possibly because of the way Washington is siding with the Saudis.)
How did this situation come about? Is there evidence of a clear linkage between the various forces on the respective sides? Why is this conflict so extreme in certain countries—like Syria and Iraq—where it appears to be leading to the breakup of these states? How dangerous are these changes for the West?
Focusing on the areas of most intense conflict—Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon—can help us answer these questions.
This war is a result of the confluence of a number of circumstances. First, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are all home to a host of different sectarian and ethnic communities. The stark divisions that exist in these societies have never been resolved. In Syria and Iraq, they were suppressed for decades by brutal dictatorial regimes. The Assad regime in Syria and Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq – were family dictatorships based on minority sectarian communities – the Alawis in Syria, and the Arab Sunnis in Iraq – while claiming to rule in the name of pan-Arab nationalism. In service of this ideology, the Syrian and Iraqi regimes ruthlessly put down ethnic and sectarian separatism in all its forms; in particular, Shia Islamism in Iraq, Sunni Islamism in Syria, and the Kurdish national movement in both countries. All were treated without mercy.
Lebanon, by contrast, is a far weaker state, which was ruled by a power-sharing arrangement between ethnic and religious groups that collapsed into civil war in 1975. The issues underlying that war were never resolved; instead, between 1990 and 2005 the Syrian army presence in Lebanon ended all discussion of basic issues of national identity. (Here we must add something the original article has completely left untackled – the fact that in Lebanon the French colonial power has sponsored a Christian – mainly Maronite – minority and allowed for its governing over the Sunni and Shia parts of the population in a prearranged structure that fell apart with the influx of Sunni Palestinian refugees. These refugees ended up being supported by the Shia backed Hezbollah and eventually got attacked from the outside by the Israelis). Lebanon thus developed a different dynamics that is still tripartite in its Arab make up. Lebanon’s Maronite families with their French backing did not become dictators like in the cases of Iraq and Syria.
Over the last decade, the once ironclad structures of dictatorship and suppression that kept ethnic and sectarian tensions from erupting, have weakened or disappeared.
The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq destroyed the Saddam Hussein regime. A sectarian Shia government, based on the Shia Arab majority and conditionally accepted by the Kurds, took its place. In Syria, a brutal civil war has severely curtailed the power of the Assad regime, which now rules only about 40 percent of the country’s territory. The Sunni Arab majority and the Kurdish minority have carved out autonomous sectarian enclaves in the 60 percent that remains.
Western hopes that a non-sectarian identity would take hold in the areas formerly ruled by Saddam and the Assads are persistent but proven illusory. Remarks about Iraq made by then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in 2004 sum up these hopes and the tendency to self-delusion that often accompanies them. “What has been impressive to me so far,” Rice said, is that Iraqis—whether Kurds or Shia or Sunni or the many other ethnic groups in Iraq—have demonstrated that they really want to live as one in a unified Iraq…. I think particularly the Kurds have shown a propensity to want to bridge differences that were historic differences in many ways that were fueled by Saddam Hussein and his regime… What I have found interesting and I think important is the degree to which the leaders of the Shia and Kurdish and Sunni communities have continually expressed their desires to live in a unified Iraq.
This faith is expressed also by the Obama Administration, and as a result, it has continued to support the Shia-dominated government in Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It sees Maliki’s opposition to Sunni insurgents in western Anbar province as an elected government’s opposition to extremist rebels. This fails to take into account the sectarian nature of the Maliki government itself, and the discriminatory policies he has pursued against the Sunnis of western Iraq.
The reemergence of sectarian conflict so evident in Iraq has also emerged in Syria and is, in turn, showed up in neighboring Lebanon.
Lebanon was first drawn into the Syrian conflict as a result of the significant and highly effective intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime by Iran’s Lebanon-based terrorist army, Hezbollah. This quickly led to retaliation against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon by elements among Syria’s Sunni rebels. Supporters of the Sunni rebels have succeeded in attacking Hezbollah’s Dahiyeh compound in south Beirut five times. The bombing on January 2, 2014, was carried out by a young Lebanese member of an organization called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) named Qutaiba Muhammad al-Satem; ISIS are Islamic extremists who have been operating as a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.
While Hezbollah’s decision to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria and the subsequent Sunni reaction is partially the result of the divided nature of Lebanon, and Syria, and their unresolved questions of national identity, larger regional conflicts, also of a sectarian nature, are a driving force behind the violence.
Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war came not as a result of automatic sentiments of solidarity, but because Hezbollah forms part of a regional alliance headed by Iran, to which the Assad regime also belongs. When Assad found himself in trouble, Hezbollah was mobilized to assist him. On the opposing side, the Syrian rebels have benefited from the support and patronage of Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia, and other states along the Arabian peninsula, including the United Arab Emirates.
This rivalry is long standing and not just rooted in theological differences. It is about power. Iran is controlled by a revolutionary regime whose goal is to become the hegemonic force in the Middle East. Although the Iranians certainly regard the Saudis as an enemy and as unfit custodians of Islam’s most holy sites, Tehran’s main goal is to assert control over Arabian Gulf energy supplies, replacing the U.S. as guarantor of resources upon which world is dependent. Tehran understands that the real source of power in the region is the Gulf itself, with its enormous reserves of oil and natural gas that are essential to the global economy. To achieve its goals, Iran must tempt or coerce the Gulf monarchies away from U.S. protection and toward an alliance with Tehran, and ironically, American perceived weakness in the face of Tehran’s nuclear pursuit makes that all the more possible.
Riyadh has emerged as the principle opponent to Iran’s regional ambitions, mainly because the former guarantor of the current regional order, the United States, has chosen to leave the field. Until 2011, the Middle East appeared to be locked into a kind of cold war, in which the Iranians, along with their allies and proxies, sought to overturn the U.S.-dominated regional order, which was based on U.S. alliances with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. Events over the last five years, however, have created the impression that the U.S. no longer wishes to play this role: America failed to back its longtime Egyptian ally, Hosni Mubarak, when he faced domestic unrest in early 2011. It failed to support the rebel forces fighting the Iran-backed Assad regime. And it failed to back Bahrain against an Iran-supported uprising in the same year. Now, the U.S. appears to be seeking a general rapprochement with Iran.
As a result of all this, Saudi Arabia has begun to take a far more active role in the region. Riyadh and its Gulf allies have certainly helped to finance and stabilize Egypt after the military removed Muhammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government from power. It began to take a leading role in supporting the Syrian rebels. It has well-documented relations with the anti-Syrian March 14 movement in Lebanon. In December 2013, the Saudis pledged $3 billion to the official Lebanese army. They also support anti-Maliki elements in Iraq. In addition, they are seeking to create an alliance among the other Gulf states in order to oppose Iranian ambitions, with some success.
But all of the above will not work for the Saudis unless they also stretch out a friendly hand to Israel and do a “SADAT” – that is – backing the right of Israel provided it settles with the Palestinians and do this in a pro-active way by showing their readiness to bankroll a solution of the Palestinian conflict. We say this is the cheapest way for the Saudis to wrestle the region from the Iranians – but we found no such conclusion in the original article. This might be too revolutionary for the conventional mindset that believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just another Middle East intractable conflict like the one in the article. The trick is to see how an opportunity is created when trying to go about two seemingly intractable problems in tandem!
The original article follows instead by saying - “increasingly violent rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, intensified by American withdrawal from the region, has helped turn a conflict that was once cold into an increasingly hot cross-border sectarian war.”
There is considerable evidence of links between Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and their respective allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, on the other.
On the Iranian side, Tehran no longer makes any serious attempt to deny the enormous assistance they have given the Assad regime in Syria. Indeed, the Iranians have effectively mobilized all their available regional assets in order to preserve it. The commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, Qassem Suleimani, went to Syria himself in order to coordinate these efforts. Perhaps most notably, in mid-2012 the Iranians began training a new light infantry force for Assad. Called the National Defense Force, it was necessary because Assad was unable to use much of his own army, which consisted of Sunni conscripts whose loyalty was unreliable. Iran has even sent its own IRGC fighters to fight in Syria; a fact revealed by footage taken by an Iranian cameraman who was later killed by the rebels, the testimony of Syrian defectors, and the capture of a number of IRGC men in August 2012.
In April 2013, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was summoned to Iran and instructed to deploy his own fighters in Syria. Up to 10,000 of them are now on the ground in Syria at any given time, and they played a crucial role in retaking the strategic town of Qusayr in August 2013. Hezbollah fighters are also taking a prominent role in the battle for the Qalamun area near the Lebanese border, as well as the fighting around Damascus.
Iranian financial donations have also been vital in keeping the regime alive. In January 2013, Iran announced a “credit facility” agreement with Syria that extended a $1 billion line of credit to Assad. Later the same year, an additional credit line of $3.6 billion was announced.
Iraq has also played a vital role in supporting Assad, mainly by allowing Iran to use Iraqi territory and airspace to transfer weapons to Syrian forces. At first glance, this appears to be a strange policy. Relations between Iraq and Syria prior to the civil war were not good, with Maliki openly accusing Assad of supporting Sunni insurgents. But this has now changed. Indeed, Maliki has openly supported Assad since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. This reflects his increasing closeness to Iran, which helped ensure Maliki’s emergence as prime minister after the 2010 elections and pressured Assad to support him as well. Relations between Iraq, Iran, and Syria have only improved since.
In addition to government support, Iraqi Shia militias are now fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad. The Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, Ktaeb Hezbollah, and the Ahl al-Haq group all have forces in Syria. They are playing an important role, given that one of Assad’s major weaknesses is his lack of reliably loyal soldiers. The eruption of violence in Iraq’s western Anbar province has further cemented this alliance, since the insurgency is a direct result of advances made by Sunni jihadis in Syria.
As a result of all this, the Iranian-led side of the regional conflict has emerged as a tightly organized alliance, capable of acting in a coordinated way, pooling its resources for a common goal, and fighting effectively from western Iraq all the way to the Mediterranean.
The Sunni side of the conflict is more chaotic and disjointed. Saudi Arabia is its main financier, but it lacks an equivalent to the Qods force and the IRGC, who are world leaders in subversion and irregular warfare.
Only the most extreme jihadi elements appear capable of clear coordination across borders. For example, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as its name suggests, is active in both countries and controls a contiguous area stretching from the western Anbar province in Iraq to the eastern Raqqa province in Syria. ISIS regards itself as a franchise of al-Qaeda, although it does not take orders directly from the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. Another al-Qaeda group, Jabhat al-Nusra, is active in Syria. In Lebanon, a third branch of al-Qaeda, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, has played a role in the attacks on Hezbollah. In addition, both the ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are active in Lebanon.
But there are also less extreme groups opposing the Syrian-Iranian axis. Saudi Arabia has backed the March 14 movement, which is the main Sunni opposition party in Lebanon, as well as providing financial support to the Lebanese army. In Syria, the Saudis have fostered the Islamic Front, an alliance of eight Islamist groups unconnected to al-Qaeda. It includes some of the strongest rebel brigades, such as Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Islam, and Liwa al-Tawhid. It is now emerging as the key bloc among the rebels. The Saudis also dominate the Syrian opposition in exile, with Ahmed Jarba, who has close links to Riyadh, recently reelected chairman of the Syrian National Coalition.
There are no indications that the Saudis are backing Sunni insurgents in Iraq, but the larger Sunni community is certainly looking to Riyadh for help. Relations between Saudi Arabia and the current Iraqi government are very bad. The border between the two countries is closed except during the Hajj pilgrimage, there is no Saudi embassy in Baghdad, and commercial relations are kept at a minimum. Some of the Sunni tribes in western Anbar have close links to the Saudis. While they are hostile to al-Qaeda, they are also opposed to the Maliki government, which they regard as a sectarian Shia regime.
There is a third element to this regional conflict that is something of a wild card: The Kurds. A non-Arab people who have long sought an independent state, the Kurds have succeeded in creating a flourishing autonomous zone in northern Iraq that enjoys most of the elements of de facto sovereignty. Since July 2012, another Kurdish autonomous zone has been established in northeast Syria. These two areas occupy a contiguous land mass, but are not politically united. The Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani, while the autonomous zone in northeast Syria is controlled by the PYD (Democratic Union Party), which is the Syrian branch of the Turkish-based leftist PKK movement.
These movements are rivals, and each sees itself as the appropriate leader of the Kurds. But while there is tension between them, each appears to be securely in control of its respective areas. The Kurds do not enjoy the support of any state in the region, and both the Iranians and the Saudis regard Kurdish national aspirations with suspicion. Nonetheless, the Kurds have managed to accumulate sufficient organizational and military strength to ensure the survival of their self-governing enclaves.
All these factors indicate that two rival alliances are clashing for hegemony over the region. There are myriad practical links between the various combatants, and their activities have long since spilled across the borders of the various states involved in the fighting; as indicated by the presence of Iranian fighters, ISIS, and Hezbollah in Syria; Syrian rebels in Lebanon; and many other examples. Iran is the leader of one side, Saudi Arabia is the main backer of the other, while the Kurds are concerned with maintaining their areas of control and are trying to stay out of the conflict.
The most significant result of the analysis is that the continued existence of Syria and Iraq as unified states is now in question. Practically speaking, Syria has already split into three areas, each controlled by one of the three elements listed above. Iraq has also effectively split into Kurdish and Arab zones, with Sunni and Shia groups fighting over the latter.
In many ways, Lebanon ceased to function as a unified state some time ago; since Hezbollah essentially functions as a de facto mini-state of its own. The Lebanese Sunnis lack a military tradition and have proved helpless in the face of Iran’s support for Hezbollah. But now, the emergence of the Syrian rebels and the growing popularity of Islamism among the Sunni underclass may be altering this balance. This appears to be borne out by the recent surge in Sunni violence against Hezbollah, which is the result of an attempt by Syrian jihadis and other rebels—in concert with their local allies—to bring the war to Lebanon.
Taken together, this indicates that a massive paradigm shift is underway in much of the Middle East. The eclipse of Arab nationalist dictatorships in Iraq and Syria, the historical failure to develop a unified national identity in these states, their mixed ethnic and sectarian makeup, and the U.S.’s withdrawal from its dominant position in the region—with the resulting emergence of a Saudi-Iranian rivalry—have all combined to produce an extraordinary result: A region-wide sectarian war is now taking place in the areas still officially referred to as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
For the West, as in the region itself, this has very serious implications. Dealing with it effectively will required an equally massive paradigm shift in strategic thinking on the Middle East, one that is capable of dispensing with previous illusions and admitting that sovereign borders once regarded as sacrosanct are swiftly becoming meaningless.
There are new borders taking shape, defined by sectarian divisions that the West ignores at its peril. Despite fantasies of withdrawing from the region, the security of global energy supplies and the maintenance of regional stability are still essential to Western interests. The West has as large a stake in the outcome of this sectarian conflict as the regional players involved. If it cannot adapt to the new Middle East that is swiftly taking shape, it will find itself on the losing side.
FROM THE AL MONITOR OF FEBRUARY 15, 2014
Published Beirut, Lebanon Established 1974
Bahraini opposition holds conference in Beirut.
“Ongoing violations and constant impunity”: such was the cry adopted as a slogan this year by the Third International Conference on Human Rights in Bahrain. This was a cry addressed to the international community, following three years of unending suffering for the people of Bahrain. Tomorrow [Feb. 14], Bahrainis are commemorating the anniversary of the start of their uprising with protests that will fill the streets of Bahrain. These protests were called for two weeks ago by opposition political organizations. The conference began its activities yesterday [Feb. 12] at the Coral Beach Hotel in Beirut, in the presence of political and human rights dignitaries, with a short film that recounted the story of the “Bahraini revolution” from Feb. 14, 2011, until today. The film illustrated the peaceful nature of the movement, despite the continued repression exercised by the government.
Summary? Print As the third anniversary of the Bahrain uprising approaches, opposition activists are holding a conference in Beirut to draw the attention to the human rights abuses carried out by the Bahraini regime.
Author Ali Shukair Posted February 13, 2014
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The first speaker was conference Chairman Youssef Rabih, who’s also the head of the Bahrain Forum for Human Rights and who substantiated the continued violation of Bahraini human rights and the arbitrary arrests of activists. He criticized the government for its violation of the Convention Against Torture, to which it was one of the first signatories.
In an interview with As-Safir concerning the practical measures that the conference will adopt to limit such transgressions, Rabih said: “The Bahraini rights dossier will be the subject of added focus at this stage. The Bahraini government was forced to acquiesce and allow a visit by the United Nations assessment team to Bahrain.” He also indicated that “the presence of the assessment team will mean better monitoring of and more pressure on the Bahraini regime in the coming phase.”
He added, “The open dialogue in Bahrain today is the culmination of international pressure exercised on the Bahraini government, which must be held accountable for its crimes against humanity.”
Concerning the Bahraini crown prince’s call for holding negotiations, Rabih asserted to As-Safir: “Inside the Bahraini regime, there exist competing factions. It would seem that the crown prince received support from non-Arab countries to open up to the opposition; this, in addition to him receiving a prerequisite Saudi green light. In this coming phase, Bahrainis must continue [their movement], and so they shall.”
At the conference, several Bahraini, Arab and foreign jurists took to the podium in succession. Most prominent among them was the principal partner in the conference, lawyer Mohamed al-Tajer, the head of the Bahraini Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. Tajer expressed surprise at the manner by which the international community was dealing with the Bahraini [opposition] movement, and that international parties were turning a blind eye to the violations against prisoners of conscience, children and women.
Tajer spoke with As-Safir about the practical measures that will be undertaken by people concerned with the Bahraini situation, to mark the third anniversary of the movement. He said, “Preparations are ongoing and varied, to combat the government’s abuses. In addition to this conference, we have colleagues in Britain, Washington and Geneva who are attending symposia, presenting papers and cooperating with international organizations and lawyers sympathetic to the Bahraini cause. This is to put pressure aimed at holding accountable those responsible for these crimes and violations.”
Tajer reiterated the demand for an international controller from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to deal with the Bahraini issue. “We demand that this controller be given the widest authority, not only to offer technical aid — as the government desires — but to combat the violations, submit reports about them and put a stop to them.” He also demanded that “a special session be held by the Human Rights Council, to condemn the Bahraini government, as was the case in other countries.”
During the conference, a speech was given on behalf of the high commissioner of the United Nations, as well as Amnesty International. Noteworthy was the presence of two prominent foreign personalities interested in the Bahraini cause, namely British lawyer Pete Weatherby, and American lawyer Abby Jules. The latter strongly criticized the political arrests carried out by the regime, and affirmed that she would be presenting this issue before the American court of public opinion, as well as Congress.
At the end of the conference, the “always present absentee” lawyer and human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, whose brainchild the event was, was presented with a shield of honor that a representative accepted — and a video clip dedicated to him was shown.
It’s worth mentioning that the conference continues today, from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., where several issues will be addressed. In addition, there will be interactive sessions with several activists, followed by a final statement and recommendations.
Sudan opposition: Bashir hosting Egyptian Brotherhood leaders.
Alaa el-Din Abdel Rahman, leader of the Tamarod movement in Sudan, said, “Sudan’s Tamarod movement existed before Egypt’s Tamarod movement, which was recently in the spotlight.
The movement in Sudan was in fact formed five years ago, before the Arab Spring revolutions, and it included youth groups that were created in the streets and resembled a popular revolution. However, we did not get much attention due to the lack of media coverage. This resulted from the tyranny of the regime, which imposed censorship on the media, thus pushing the leaders of the movement to go to Egypt.
“There, we called ourselves the Sudanese Tamarod movement for our name to echo in the Arab and Islamic worlds. We also took with us to Cairo the media and foreign relations files and coordinated with the opposition. When the September incidents took place, we were not expecting the regime to be this violent with the protesters. Over three days, the regime killed 350 people and arrested 2,150 others, not to mention the ones who ‘disappeared.’”
Abdel Rahman told Azzaman that everyone agrees on toppling the regime, uniting the opposition, forming a consensual transitional government and bringing back the 1956 constitution. In response to a question about the mechanisms adopted to achieve these goals, he said, “We will take it to the streets, protest and coordinate with the reliable people of some political parties. We will steer clear of parties like the Democratic Union Party and the Umma Party, which concluded deals with the ruling regime to share the pie, irrespective of the interests of the Sudanese people.”
Abdel Rahman clarified, in statements to Azzaman, “Some of the youth in the movement asked to carry weapons, in response to the regime’s oppressive measures led against us. Yet, we refused and insisted on maintaining the peaceful aspect of our protests so as not to give the regime the chance to distort our image.”
Some believe that the Sudanese Tamarod movement is not really present in the Sudanese street. Abdel Rahman denied these statements and said that they are constantly repeated by the ruling regime or by the opposition that is allied with this regime.
“In fact, our youth have been in the streets for 10 years. They protested in the streets in September 2013, and most of them were the movement’s youth. Unfortunately, the media sides with the regime in its coverage,” he added.
Abdel Rahman confirmed to Azzaman that they are coordinating with the Egyptian Tamarod movement.
“When I arrived to Cairo to escape the tyranny of the Sudanese government, we contacted the Egyptian Tamarod movement, which offered us moral support. The movement allowed us to use its headquarters, and we are still coordinating,” he noted.
Regarding rumors that the Egyptian organizations are supporting the Sudanese Tamarod movement to pressure the Sudanese government, Abdel Rahman told Azzaman, “These are lies repeated by the regime to distort our image. We do not have any capacities to do so. The best proof is that we did not have cameras during the September protests, and we relied on our mobile phones to take videos. Where would we get the funding from?”
He also revealed that the Sudanese regime had strong relationships with former President Mohammed Morsi’s regime. When the June 30 Revolution took place, the regime hosted several Brotherhood leaders. Sudan became a route for smuggling weapons to Egyptian members of the opposition. There are, indeed, arsenals that are funded by Iran, as the Sudanese regime has strong relations with this country. The latter supplies Sudan with weapons and provides huge investments. The Sudanese regime is also working on implementing Iran’s agenda in the Horn of Africa
Week in Review
Sunday, December 1, 2013
The “joint plan of action” agreed on by six world powers and Iran on Nov. 24 is in a short time proving to be a catalyst for a regional trend toward diplomacy and realism.
The mood is already shifting in the Gulf, where there had been resistance if not downright opposition at times to the negotiations with Iran. UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Tehran this week for meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, while the Kingdom of Bahrain invited Zarif to participate in the Manama Dialogue Regional Security Summit, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, to be held Dec. 6-8, as reported by Ali Hashem for Al-Monitor.
In perhaps the most substantial shift, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia released a statement on Nov. 25 welcoming the joint plan of action, saying, “Saudi Arabia views the agreement as a primary step toward a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear issue provided it leads to a Middle East and Gulf region free of all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.”
In Israel, despite a skeptical public and statements of alarm by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there is also awareness among national security leaders that the deal with Iran may have its advantages, and that Israel is poorly served by putting itself at odds with the international coalition that forced Iran to negotiations.
Akiva Eldar captured the broader context of the Iran deal for Israel, writing, “The agreement with Iran was signed a short time after the agreement between the United States and Russia that brought about the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. Thus a much more concrete and immediate threat than the Iranian one was removed from the borders of Israel. The decision of the powers to wave a stick instead of landing a blow on the Iranian protectorate in Damascus should have signaled to Netanyahu that this would also be the route they chose to take in the talks with Tehran. It stands to reason that Iran will now be invited to contribute to a renewed effort to end the cruel civil war in Syria. We are witness to the beginning of Iran’s emergence from the international solitary confinement it entered following the revolution in 1979.”
Ben Caspit reports from Jerusalem, “There’s no panic at all among Israel’s professional military echelons. Nobody talks about a catastrophe or an imminent second Holocaust. People discuss the merits of the agreement with levelheadedness and discretion. After all, doomsday prophecies are not their thing. For this, we have Netanyahu.”
Dan Meridor, a member of the Likud Party and former deputy prime minister and minister of intelligence and atomic energy under Netanyahu, told Al-Monitor’s Mazal Mualem this week, “It’s a mistake to pick a fight with partners when we’re in the midst of a campaign against Iran, in which the Americans have the main role. Embarking on an offensive of attacks, criticism and scorekeeping harms the common struggle of large parts of the world, the United States, Europe and the Arab countries. The disputes do not help the struggle, but just give the Iranians a reason to gloat. Nothing is achieved by public disputes. The alliance between Israel and the United States is an important component of our powerful image. … Israel needs to be part of the world, to be a partner in this campaign.”
In the United States, there is popular support for the agreement with Iran. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week revealed that 44% of Americans support the interim agreement with Iran and only 22% oppose.
In Congress, while there is still skepticism about the deal, there also seems to be a trend toward legislation that emphasizes a congressional role in Iran’s compliance with the terms of the deal, rather than the introduction of new sanctions, during the six-month negotiation period. The Iran Nuclear Compliance Act of 2013, introduced Nov. 21 by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is now pending before the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which has Senate jurisdiction on sanctions bills.
As reported here last week, the man to watch is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who told NPR’s Diane Rehm that the interim agreement is an “important first step” and that he will look to both Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, on whether the Senate should hold hearings and consider more sanctions.
The conversations that have begun about Iran’s nuclear program are already having consequences beyond the nuclear file, including the Gulf, Turkey and Syria. While Kadri Gursel writes that the Turkish “reset” from its failed sectarian policies may require even deeper political changes, Ankara’s shift, which is a work in progress, is already good news for a political solution in Syria, especially with the Geneva II conference to be held on Jan. 22. A real peace process in Syria would mean relief for Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, those countries most affected by the spillover of the war, the spike in terrorism and the flood of refugees.
A stable Syrian government, resulting from a successful Geneva II political process, perhaps following elections, would offer a chance for an Israel-Lebanon-Syria peace process. This would mean the eventual demilitarization of Hezbollah, whose raison d’etre is resistance to Israel’s occupation. The reintegration of Hezbollah forces into the Lebanese army and the normalization of Hezbollah solely as a Lebanese political party, and not an armed resistance force, would be a giant step toward solving Lebanon’s perpetual national crisis.
Any deal on Hezbollah would run through Damascus and Tehran, via Moscow’s good offices, en route to Jerusalem, as this column reported last week. While the United States cannot broker this deal, the future of Hezbollah is directly connected to the nuclear negotiations with Iran. For Iran to get relief from US oil and financial sanctions under the Iran Sanctions Act, the president must certify to Congress that Iran no longer seeks weapons of mass destruction, is no longer a state sponsor of terrorism and no longer represents a significant threat to US national security interests and allies. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist group by the United States. So questions about Iran’s nuclear program and its role in the region, including support for Hezbollah, are the endgame in any discussion of a comprehensive agreement.
An amazingly convoluted article in As-Safir (Lebanon) by Mustafa al-Labad seems to attribute all sorts of goals to Saudi Arabia except the one clear conclusion that Saudi and Israeli aims converge these days. UPDATED
The article we looked at is at: www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics…
Then today’s Opinion Column by Roger Cohen: www.nytimes.com/2013/10/29/opinio… that starts:
” DUBAI — Here’s how the Saudis see it: President Obama has sold out the Syrian opposition, reinforced President Bashar al-Assad after having called for his departure, embarked on a dangerous duet with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, played the wrong cards in Egypt, retreated from initial criticism of Israeli settlements that promised a more balanced American approach to Israel-Palestine, tilted toward the Shiites in the growing regional Sunni-Shiite confrontation, and generally undercut the interests of the kingdom.”
Both columns seem to forget that the real world is not based on heart feelings – not even when at the helm of a country sits a 89 year old monarch.
Nevertheless, Cohen notes “The Saudis, of course, always talk a good line and are happiest when others — read the United States — do the heavy lifting for them.” So now the Saudis will have figure out for themselves what heavy lifting their oil money can do for them. That for a start.
Then he says: “”But it is over Iran that the Saudis are most exercised — and it is not the Iranian nuclear program that has them so upset. Rather, it is the idea that the pre-revolutionary relationship between Iran and the United States could somehow be revived, extending Iranian influence in the region and relegating Saudi Arabia to being, as it once was, the lesser party of America’s “twin pillar” policy in the region.
The Saudis have already watched with concern as the U.S. invasion of Iraq served Iranian interests; they see Iran’s influence and military presence growing in Syria. What they fear above all is an Iranian irredentism aimed at stirring up of the Shiite populations in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
It was not lost on Saudi Arabia that Rouhani wrote in The Washington Post in September that, “We must join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue, whether in Syria or Bahrain,” just a few days before Obama spoke at the United Nations of working to resolve “sectarian tensions” in Syria and Bahrain.
Nothing can set Saudi alarm bells ringing quite like that: U.S. and Iranian presidents speaking to each other on the telephone, having aired similar sentiments on Bahrain, where the Saudi-backed Sunni monarchy has engaged in fierce repression of an opposition led by members of the Shiite majority, which is pressing for broader rights and political inclusion.
It is hard to say whether Israel or Saudi Arabia is more anxious today over the possibility of an American-Iranian breakthrough. That possibility remains extremely remote. The right deal — one that prevents the Islamic Republic from going nuclear while drawing it back into the community of nations — is in the U.S. interest, but current Saudi fury is one measure of the difficulty and of a U.S. Middle Eastern policy that is falling short.“”
Trying to reach conclusions from above we observe:
(a) The Saudis are yet to announce officially to the UN that they give up their UN Security Council seat – and we ask why should they? Is it not much more forceful to let there an empty seat that they can fill whenever they decide to do so, and in the mean-time force the UN to start reviewing its procedures in order to have a way to handle such an unprecedented situation when a state does not participate for a longer period at the meetings?
(b) The oil weapon has lost its power somewhat – so there are obvious repercussions when talking about the stand of Golf Community members.
(c) Everybody has a wish list and can tell the Saudis what to do – but after all the Saudis will find out that they know their self interests best.
UPDATED from an October 29, 2013 posting.
THE UPDATE IS FROM OCTOBER 30, 2013 NEWS:
Allies in Revolt
Published: October 29, 2013 27 Comments
It is not every day that America finds itself facing open rebellion from its allies, yet that is what is happening with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. The Obama administration has denied there are serious problems. But there are clearly differences, some perhaps irreconcilable.
Here’s a quick summary: Saudi Arabia and Israel are deeply worried about the Obama administration’s decision to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran — their mortal enemy. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are sore at President Obama’s refusal to become militarily involved in ousting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, in particular his decision not to respond with military strikes to Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Mr. Obama instead chose a diplomatic deal under which Syria’s chemical weapons would be dismantled.
The Saudis are also unhappy that Mr. Obama withdrew support for Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian president, and then worked with Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was elected to replace Mr. Mubarak but was later thrown out.
All three countries have resorted to threats and displays of pique to make their points. Saudi Arabia renounced a United Nations Security Council seat it had worked hard to win because, it said, the United States and the United Nations had failed to achieve a Mideast peace agreement or solve the Syria crisis, as if either objective could be easily delivered by America alone. Although it is hard to see how other countries like China and Russia would be better alternatives, Saudi officials have gone so far as to complain that they regard the United States as unreliable and would look elsewhere for their security.
Meanwhile, Turkey, a NATO member, has said it would buy a long-range missile defense system worth $3.4 billion from China because China’s bid was lower than bids from the United States and Europe. The decision may also, however, have reflected Turkey’s annoyance with Mr. Obama’s Syria policy. (It’s a dumb deal, too, and Turkish officials now seem to be reconsidering it; China’s system will be hard to integrate with NATO equipment, thus undermining alliance defenses and Turkey’s.)
As for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing his best to torpedo any nuclear deal with Iran, including urging Congress to impose more economic sanctions on Iran that could bring the incipient negotiations between Iran’s new government and the major powers to a halt.
Much of this anger at the United States is driven by a case of nerves. The Arab Spring uprisings shook the old order, plunged the region into chaos, created opportunities for Iran to expand its influence in Syria and Iraq and threatened to worsen the Sunni-Shiite divide. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority country, in particular, fears an American rapprochement with Shiite-majority Iran.
But Mr. Obama’s first responsibility is to America’s national interest. And he has been absolutely right in refusing to be goaded into a war in Syria or bullied into squandering a rare, if remote, chance to negotiate an Iranian nuclear deal.
In addressing the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama reinforced his intention to narrow his regional diplomatic focus to the Iranian nuclear deal and an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Some have read this as weakness and retreat, rather than pragmatism. We wish he had put more emphasis on Egypt and Iraq. But his priorities make sense. His task now is to reassure the allies that the United States remains committed to their security.
Also, the Iraqi leadership comes to Washington to ask to buy arms – this while having done nothing about uniting their country or alternatively letting it sub-divide to its three components – Shiia – Kurds – Sunni. Without this first Iraq will turn into another Syria with the Maliki, a Shiia, government trying to surpress its Sunni and Kurdish minorities. What should the US President do? He clearly does not want to step back into the Iraqi morass that his predecessor has created.
Wadjda – the new symbol of Saudi hope? Are we seeing the dawn of a new Saudi Arabia with women that can ride bicycles and drive cars? Is there a little “d” for a David that wins over a bloated Goliath?
Wadjda – She is the movie character in the first movie directed by a Saudi Woman and while all she wants is the right to ride a bicycle, today’s Saudi women are already ripe to ask to be allowed to drive their cars by themselves. This while the Saudi Monarchy is ready to forgo sitting on the UN Security Council because the World at large is not ready to allow them to dictate conditions anymore as they used to do when the Oil Barrel was only true king of the World Economy.
Saudi Arabia will come to be sorry that they did not empower their women in time and did not legalize their foreign help either. The Middle East is changing and they refused to see the upcoming change.
This past Saturday, despite strong opposition, some women in Saudi Arabia turned on the ignition in their cars and took a non-chauffeured ride. In Saudi Arabia this is top of Chutzpah.
These women believed that time is on their side. They point to the huge numbers of Saudis who study and travel abroad and return with new perspectives on their culture. They also suggest that the kingdom’s youthful population and the tremendous rise of social media will over time make the country more open to change. By coincidence, me and my wife went to see a Saudi movie co-production that was directed for the first time by a Saudi female. POWER TO HER with the grace of Allah and the lack of understanding of his wardens.
Some opponents of Women’s minimal right to drive a car pointed out that Oct. 26 was the birthday of Hillary Rodham Clinton, implying a foreign hand in the planning. Last week, hackers broke into the campaign’s Web site, posting insults aimed at a prominent activist and a video in which a man identified as a Zionist calls for women to drive — implying that Saudi’s enemies see this as a way to weaken the kingdom.
The MOVIE we saw was WADJDA – named after an 11-year-old girl living in a suburb of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Although she lives in a conservative world, Wadjda is fun loving, entrepreneurial and always pushing the boundaries of what she can get away with. Wajda is a lovely normal girl in a restraining environment that will be very difficult for her growing up as a normal woman if one thinks in Western democracy terms.
After a fight with her friend Abdullah, a neighborhood boy she shouldn’t be playing with, Wadjda sees a beautiful green bicycle for sale. She wants the bicycle desperately so that she can beat Abdullah in a race. But Wadjda’s mother won’t allow it, fearing repercussions from a society that sees bicycles as dangerous to a girl’s virtue. So Wadjda decides to try and raise the money herself. At first, Wadjda’s mother is too preoccupied with convincing her husband not to take a second wife to realize what’s going on. And soon enough Wadjda’s plans are thwarted when she is caught running various schemes at school. Just as she is losing hope of raising enough money, she hears of a cash prize for a Koran recitation competition at her school. She devotes herself to the memorization and recitation of Koranic verses, and her teachers begin to see Wadjda as a model pious girl. The competition isn’t going to be easy, especially for a troublemaker like Wadjda, but she refuses to give in. She is determined to continue fighting for her dreams – wins the competition, but the money is taken away from her when she declares in her purity and innocence that she intends to buy with it a bicycle. Instead the money is given to the Arab Holly Grail – the needy Palestinians – another Saudi center-figure.
That is just the movie center-line, but its great value is in the environment it depicts. The all-girl Madrassa and the depiction of a world that seems organized to suppress any expression of individuality of these girls or anybody else -even the foreign Muslim driver who lives there without documents and far away from his own family – the daughter that he has not sen in five years and became just a photo attached to the dashboard of the car he is driving.
Wadjda’s mother has a job but is dependent on the driver. The is a hint to her having had a difficult labor when giving birth and as she had a daughter now her husband will take another woman in order to get a son. this is a world-caves-in situation for her and it leads her now to focus all her love on Wadjda. This is a bitter-sweet movie loaded with dinamite – rather more then the suicide bomber that is mentioned in passing. It becomes much more when another sentence in passing just says – “Silly girl, You Want to Race a Boy?”
The Saudi-German co-produced movie, the Director, Haifaa al-Mansour, is the eighth (out of twelve) child of the poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, who introduced her to films by video, there being no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia. With his encouragement, she studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo. She later went on to attend film school in Sydney, Australia.
She began her filmmaking career with three shorts, Who?, The Bitter Journey, and The Only Way Out. The Only Way Out won prizes in the United Arab Emirates and in Holland. She followed these with the documentary Women Without Shadows, which deals with the hidden lives of women of the Persian Gulf. It was shown at 17 international festivals. The film received the Golden Dagger for Best Documentary in the Muscat Film Festival and a special jury mention in the fourth Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam. Haifaa al-Mansour was a guest at the 28th Three Continents Festival in Nantes, France.
Her feature debut Wadjda, which she wrote as well as directed, made its world premiere at the 2012 Venice Film Festival; it is the first full-length feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and through 2013, the only feature-length film made in Saudi Arabia by a female director.
Wadjda was selected as the Saudi Arabian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, which is the first time Saudi Arabia has submitted a film for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.
She did not intend that her film work focus on women’s issues, but found them too important to not address. Both Who? and Women Without Shadows deal with the custom of abaya. She has received hate mail and criticism for being unreligious, which she denies. She does, however, feel that Saudi Arabia needs to take a more critical view of its culture.She also received praise from Saudis for encouraging discussion on topics usually considered taboo.
Haifaa al-Mansour has been living in Bahrain for some years with her husband, an American diplomat, and their two children.
The movie industry says: Wadjda presents a startlingly assured new voice from a corner of the globe where cinema has been all but silenced.
Saudi Women of substance – RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Hackers defaced their Web site. Delegations of clerics appealed to the king to block their movement. And men claiming to be security agents called their cellphones to leave a clear message: “O, women of the kingdom, do not get behind the wheel!”
But they did anyway. On Saturday, a few dozen women insisted on violating one of the most stubborn social codes in staunchly conservative Saudi society, getting into their cars and driving, activists said. Many posted videos of themselves doing so to spread the word.
“We are looking for a normal way of life,” Madiha al-Ajroush, 60, a psychologist, said in an interview in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, “for me to get into my car and do something as small as get myself a cappuccino or something as grand as taking my child to the emergency room.”
Above is from Ben Hubbard as printed by The Sunday New York Times, October 27, 2013 in:
We are flabbbergasted seeing the note about the defacing of an internet outlet as we have experienced the same after having posted an article about Saudi Arabia – just see our homepage please and you can see the article as well at:
The goal of the women that want to be allowed to drive by themselves is profoundly modest compared with the Arab Spring calls for democracy that have toppled some Middle Eastern governments and shaken others. They have gone out of their way to avoid anything that looks like a protest, remain deeply loyal to the 89-year-old King Abdullah, and studiously avoid confrontations with the authorities.
“We don’t want to break any laws,” said Ms. Ajroush (Madiha al-Ajroush, 60 – a psychologist) who has been campaigning for the right to drive since 1990. “This is not a revolution, and it will not be turned into a revolution.”
But one prominent sheik, Nasser al-Omar, led a delegation of more than 100 sheiks to the royal court in Jeddah to appeal to the king against “the conspiracy of women driving,” as he said in a video posted online.
Another cleric, Sheik Mohammed al-Nujaimi, described the campaign as a “great danger,” saying it would lead to ruined marriages, a low birthrate, the spread of adultery, more car accidents and “the spending of excessive amounts on beauty products.”
“The learned have banned women from driving cars because of the political, religious, social and economic problems it entails,” Sheik Nujaimi warned in a statement.
Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters
What is not normal here is only the fact that these women must cover themselves from top to toe not that this lady sits at the steering wheel.
|In fact it is highly possible that she could be capable not just of running a motor-vehicle for her private use but to run the whole country for the public good.
coincidental trivia about the choice of name Wadjda – which has led to a misspelling as Wajda - leads to:
Andrzej Wajda – a Polish film director. Recipient of an honorary Oscar, he is possibly the most prominent member of the unofficial “Polish Film School”. He is known especially for a trilogy of war films: A Generation, Kana and Ashes and Diamonds.
and we are inclined to think this was not just a coincidence. the added “d” could then stand for David which is the bright figure that wins over the blinded bloated Goliath. This like in Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.”
as they say in the region – Insh-Allah!
Sep 1, 2012 – Uploaded by HUSSAM9551
WAJDA LE FILM SAUDIA LAUREAT VINICIA FESTVAL 2012 DAR AL HUSSAMI PRODUCT.
This Is Definitely a Man’s World: ‘Wadjda’
(W)riter/director Haifaa al-Mansour has more up her sleeve than undermining the ruling regime. (S)he wants us to see Wadjda for what she represents – the possible future of Saudi Arabia
Haifaa Al Mansour
Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd, Sultan Al Assaf, Mohammed Zahir
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 13 Sep 2013 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 19 Jul 2013 (General release); 2012)
This is 2013, right? This is a modern world filled with tireless technological advances, great leaps in scientific understanding, and a growing globalism which allows formerly outside cultures to claim a portion of the global plan, correct? We do try and strive for equal rights, national sovereignty, and a right to self determination? So the social science fiction of something like Wadjda should be seen as nothing short of shocking. It should be viewed as not only a triumph for its filmmaker (the first woman to ever make a movie in the horribly paternalistic theocracy of Saudi Arabia) and film subject, but as a telling window into a world that, supposedly, shouldn’t exist in the 21st century. Sure, religious “freedom” has formed the foundation for such onerous oppression, but by watching our little heroine and the various women around her, we see how Saudi females forge victories out of the diminishing windows of opportunity they are (rarely) given.
All little Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) wants is a bicycle. Her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani) teases her, telling her that girls don’t ride bikes and, besides, she doesn’t have the 800 Riyals it costs to buy one. Little does he know that Wadjda works every angle she can at her all girl’s school, avoiding the constant scowl of her Headmistress (Ahd) while selling mixtapes, candy, and other contraband for her equally repressed classmates. Things are equally dicey at home, with her handsome father (Sultan Al Assaf) constantly chiding her mother (Reem Abdullah) that he will look for another wife is she doesn’t straighten up and act the part. Eventually, Wadjda finds the answer to her two wheeled dreams – a Qur’an recitation contest which pays 1000 Riyals to the winner. Studying as hard as her constantly preoccupied pre-adolescent brain can, she hopes to win. Of course, even if she does, that doesn’t guarantee she’ll get what she wants. This is Saudi Arabia, after all.
Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hampton Synagogue says that Iran’s ambitions have the potential of bringing the Gulf States and Israel together. Bahrain cooperates with the Israeli Mossad and has outlawed Hezbollah declaring it a terrorist organization..
We post the following because we were present in New York City at the first dinner Rabbi Marc Schneier hosted the Bahraini Ambassador to the UN. That was at the time an extension of Rabbi Schneier’s outreach to Muslims in the US – when he organized joint dinners between Jewish and Muslim communities in various places in the US. Eventually common interests will lead the way to the de-Jure acceptance of Israel as well.
photo by Teri Pengilley
Princess Basma Bint Saud Bin Abdul Azizat in her London home in Acton, a suburb of West London as she looks when visiting Saudi Arabia.
Her Royal Highness Princess Basma Bint Saud Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (Al Saud meaning The House of Saud) is an in-house critic of the élite that runs Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was created in a struggle that stretched from 1902 when Al Saud conquered Riyadh – till 1932 when they finally replaced the Hashemites that have been installed with British help. The importance of the Kingdom grew immensely when President Roosevelt was told by Texas oilmen that Saudi oil is needed for the American post-war economy, and in 1945, on his way back from Yalta, Roosevelt met King Ibn Saud on the cruiser Quincy, in the Great Bitter Lake part of the Suez Canal, to seal an oil for security agreement.
The oil country is an absolute monarchy, and the land is viewed as the property of the the House of Saud.
The oil state boasts now a 15,000-strong royal family, but it is rare for a voice from within its ranks to become part of the growing clamor for reform in the desert kingdom.
As the youngest daughter of the country’s second king, Saud the son of Abdul Aziz, and thus only a member of the third generation to the Kingdom since it was established, and niece to its current ruler Abdullah, she is from the highest echelons of the Saudi monarchy. Just as her privileged status gives her considerable authority in the debate about change, so this carefully dissenting royal has much to lose if her actions incur the displeasure of Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative regime.
But then Basma Bint Saud is no ordinary Saudi princess. A 48-year-old divorcee and a successful businesswoman, owning among other enterprises a restaurant in Jeddah and five additional lines of restaurants in progress, she has spent the last five years in the country building as well a career as a journalist and a blogger, confronting head on sensitive subjects from the abuse of women and poverty in the world’s second biggest oil exporter, to the chilling effect of the mutawa, the kingdom’s draconian religious police. Her website is www.basmahbintsaud.com
Her success at shining light on problems in Saudi society (a Facebook fan page has 25,000 followers), led her to conducting her campaign not from her birthplace in the capital, Riyadh, or her previous home in Jeddah, but from a recently-acquired house in the west London suburb of Acton which she shares with three of her five children.
The princess underlines that she was not forced to leave Saudi Arabia and goes out of her way to emphasise that her criticisms do not relate to her octogenarian uncle, King Abdullah, or the other senior members of the monarchy. Instead, the focus of her anger are governors, administrators, and plutocrats, who run the country day to day.
Amnesty International, January 2012, accused the Saudi authorities of conducting a campaign of repression against protesters and reformists following the revolutions that swept the Arab world, during which Riyadh sent troops into neighbouring Bahrain, so calls for greater political freedom from Shi’ites were stamped out. The impression of increased authoritarianism was not allayed by detention in October of three young Saudi film makers who posted on the internet a documentary about poverty in Riyadh.
Princess Basma insists she is no “rebel,” nor an advocate of regime change. She says – “The problems are because of the ruling ministers. We have ministers who are incapable of doing what has been ordered from above – because there is no follow up – because there are no consequences.
“We have 15,000 royals, she said, and around 13,000 don’t enjoy the wealth. You have 2,000 who are multi-millionaires, who have all the power, all the wealth and no-one can even utter a word against it because they are afraid to lose what they have.”
Speaking fluently with a neutral English accent picked up as a teenager in the UK – Basma admits she is the product of a not only a privileged upbringing, but on top of this an atypical one, for a Saudi princess.
She is the 115th – and last – child of King Saud, the eldest surviving son of Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch Abdul Aziz.
King Saud was overthrown in 1964 by his brother, Faisal, and left for exile in Europe. Basma’s mother, a Syrian-born woman who was chosen for her future husband when she visited Mecca on the haj at the age of 10, took her children to the Middle East’s then most cosmopolitan city, the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where the young princess was schooled by French nuns among Christians, Jews and Muslims who did not adhere to the austere Wahhabi branch of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.
When Lebanon’s civil war broke out in 1975, the family fled for Britain, where she attended a Hertfordshire girls’ school, and an international college in Oxford, before spending two years studying in Switzerland. It was a very different existence from the closeted upbringing normally led by young Saudi royal girls.
She explained how, at the age of 17, she joined one of the first visits to post-Mao China by foreign students, describing vividly how her group were taken to a farm and treated to a delicacy in the form of the brains of a live monkey chained and slaughtered at the table. She said: “Some girls screamed and fainted. Others were sick. I went to the car and refused to go back into the building. China was like visiting the moon.”
Equally alien was the land of her birth when she returned in early 1980s. Upon entering the royal court (“I was very careful, very nervous to behave correctly”), she found a cut-off society which, paradoxically, was more relaxed than present-day Saudi Arabia.
She said: “If China was like the moon, then arriving in Saudi Arabia was Mars. At least you can see the moon from Earth. It was a completely secluded society, but I wouldn’t say backward – not as backward as it is now. It was much more open and tolerant. You wouldn’t hear people saying ‘go to prayer’, ‘go and do this and that’.
“This is the atmosphere you have now. It is such a non-tolerant atmosphere, even of other sects. Any other sect that doesn’t actually belong to our community is thought to be – I’m not going to be sharp but very specific – not the true Islam.”
It is an intolerance which she claims pervades Saudi society, fromented by the mutawa, otherwise known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, ironically founded by her father to act as a check on traders charging inflated prices.
“Our religious police has the most dangerous effect on society, she said – the segregation of genders, putting the wrong ideas in the heads of men and women, producing psychological diseases that never existed in our country before, like fanatacism. The mutawa are everywhere, trying to lead society to a very virtuous life that doesn’t exist. Everthing is now behind closed doors.”
Amid regular accounts of executions – Amnesty International last week described as “truly appalling” the death penalty carried out on a Saudi woman for “sorcery and witchcraft – Basma makes the point that human rights abuses happen to both genders but fall disproportionately on women.
As a result, she is slightly bewildered by the focus on the continuing prohibition on Saudi women, who cannot go to university or take a job without a male guardian’s permission, to being allowed to drive.
“Why don’t we actually fight for a woman’s right even to complain about being beaten up. That is more important than driving.
“We are overlooking essential rights of a human being – the right to mix between the sexes, to talk and study freely… We have got human rights but they are paralyzed. They are completely abstract, for the media and the western world.”
The princess, who divorced from her Saudi husband six years ago and went into business setting up a series of restaurant chains in Jeddah, which she wants to expand into Britain, has not been afraid to air such views in Saudi Arabia, writing in newspapers and websites on issues from the mutawa, to women’s prisons and clothing.
She eschews what she describes as the expected “sleep by day, live at night” leisured life of Saudi princesses and rather preoccupies herself with setting up a charity to fight poverty in the Arab world by offering a Fair Trade-type deal to artisans which will include access to education and health care.
But in a country where doctrine and adherence to orthodoxy can be everything, Princess Basma is aware of the hostility generated by a woman speaking out. She has studied Islam in depth, becoming a scholar of the faith’s great texts to give her the authority to challenge the teachings of Saudi imams. Armed with the evidence of scripture, she has rebuked the authorities in writing on issues from driving to the doctrinal basis for the requirement that women cover up in public.
But the eruption of democracy movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria has brought an abrupt end to her reporting from Saudi Arabia. This summer, officials began to suggest she “edit” her work. She said: “The first time they took out some sentences. The second time, paragraphs. The last time, they told me to change the whole article or the editor who published it would go to prison. I didn’t want to send anyone to prison on my behalf.”
Even though she insists her work was carried out until recently with the blessing of King Abdullah, here is a princess treading a narrow line.
Following the death in October of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdel Aziz, the 86-year-old heir to the throne, Saudi Arabia is still ruled by the ageing and conservative generation of her uncles, who she says have given her “very strong hints” that her criticisms are not currently being met with approval.
Sitting close to a photomontage of the Saud dynasty which shows her father as a young man next to her grandfather and beside the boy Prince Nayef, the 78-year-old head of the interior ministry, who is de facto ruler, Basma underlines her respect for her father’s ruling brothers.
She said: “I am still an obedient citizen and I will always be behind the royal family. But I will never be quiet about what is happening on the ground. The unfairness of the distribution of wealth, about the power that has been unevenly given to people because they have complete obedience to those above them.
“I owe my uncles everything and what I owe them most is to tell them the truth. My mistake, my ruin is going to be insisting on telling the truth even if they don’t like it. Because I think they need to hear it, especially from one of their loyal, royal own.”
As for now, having started in Jeddah a Restaurant business, the princess has now in the works six different lines of restaurants in the West. This in itself being an amazing feat for a Saudi woman who at home in Saudi Arabia would not have been expected to act on her own, literally, on anything. But this is only the beginning.
Her Royal Highness is involved in a Western style preoccupation with philanthropies. In her interest in the fate of women and the upbringing of their children, she is involved in projects that help women develop an economic base for their well-being. She has the correct instinct that you do not give a fish to a hungry person – but you ought to teach him or her to fish in order to have an independent life. As such she is involved in development projects in Africa and is all ears about opportunities all over the globe – be it even here in the United States. Important that success stories get known, and that some of these activities reach her own home country and the Middle East in general. She looks at the refugee camps and wants to see there positive developments to replace the money waste that did not lead to results. She wants to explain to her own family at large the importance of empowering Saudi women in order to improve the lot of all Saudis – this in order to create a State that is not just dependent on one commodity – oil. At Gloria’s home here in Manhattan, she was listening to other women involved in this sort of philanthropy, or in outright business, and in many cases expressed interest to follow up with them.
Based on a January 3, 2012 article by Cahal Milmo of the Guardian and on my having had the honor to meet the Royal Highness in New York, February 18, 2013 at the home of Society and Diplomatic Review Publisher Ms. Gloria Starr Kins.
The initial article by Cahal Milmo was “Royal runs campaign for change in her homeland from a suburb in west London” and was published by the Guardian of the UK.
please see also the excellent video interview article of July 4, 2011 posted by MEMRI (Arabic spoken with English written translation):
|www.memritv.org/clip/en/3014.htmJul 4, 2011
#3014 – Saudi Columnist Princess Basma bint Saud bin Abd Al-Aziz Aal Saud Describes the …