My mother begins a slow, thorny grieving. Time wrinkles around her periodically heaving body. In May, she decides we will make umrah, pilgrimage, in my grandmother’s memory. My immediate family doesn’t do field trips. I can’t remember the last time that we, all seven strong, went anywhere together—we are always too busy or too dispersed. By month’s end, we are flying to Saudi Arabia for the first time in fifteen years.
The bombing and blockade of the Middle East's poorest country, done with US weaponry, accelerates. Tens of thousands have died directly from Saudi bombings, and half of Yemen is malnourished, with the air war and blockade cutting access to 90% of the nation's food supplies and much of its clean water. [more inside]
NYT: Congress Releases Secret 9/11 Document Detailing Possible Saudi Ties to Al Qaeda
The 28-page document (.pdf) is a wide-ranging catalog of possible links between Saudi officials and Qaeda operatives. It details contacts that Saudi operatives in Southern California had with the hijackers and describes the discovery of a telephone number in a Qaeda operative’s phone book that was traced to a corporation managing a Colorado home of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the Saudi ambassador to Washington.[more inside]
Bangladesh Attack Is New Evidence That ISIS Has Shifted Its Focus Beyond the Mideast [The New York Times] Friday night’s assault on the Holey Artisan Bakery in the diplomatic district of Dhaka, in which at least 20 hostages and two police officers were killed, marks a scaling up of ambition and capacity for Bangladesh’s Islamist militancy, which has until now carried out pinpoint assassinations, mostly of critics of Islam and members of religious minorities. [more inside]
In the Atlantic's April cover story, Jeffrey Goldberg interviews President Obama about his foreign policy philosophy and ultimately, its lasting legacy. [more inside]
Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people of "terrorism-related offenses", including Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shi'ite cleric who supported protests against the Sunni government. In response, protestors in Tehran set the Saudi embassy on fire, and the Saudi and Bahraini governments cut diplomatic ties to Iran, ejecting Iranian diplomats and closing their embassies in Tehran. The United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassador to Iran as well. [more inside]
Today (Dec. 12, 2015) marks a few significant milestones for Saudi Arabia: the third time municipal elections have been held in recent times, and even bigger, the first time women could vote, and stand as candidates, though female candidates had to deal with a number of restrictions and rules not placed on male candidates. Despite these limitations and the low turn-out by women, Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi professor and leading women's rights activist, embraces these "baby steps" towards more equal rights and greater democracy. At the same time, the younger generation of Saudi women find more freedom and progress in a new gaming convention for women only.
Raif Badawi's website, Free Saudi Liberals, hosted discussion of the importance of separating religion from politics. It was shut down in 2012 after his conviction on charges of insulting Islam, for which he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes. He received 50 lashes in January of this year, but further flogging has been postponed due to his worsening health. This week, the European Parliament awarded him the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the latest in a string of honors from journalism, human rights, and writers' organizations.
This year’s hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca that is required for all Muslims to make once in their lives if they are able) will probably begin next week, but a pall was cast over the event when a crane collapsed into the Grand Mosque, killing 107 and injuring hundreds more. [more inside]
With oil prices low and unlikely to rise, Saudi Arabia is in severe trouble, facing existential crisis by the end of the decade if the oil futures market is right. [more inside]
Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has fled the country as Saudi Arabia initiates a bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels. A ground invasion by Egypt and other members of Saudi Arabia's 10-country coalition is apparently to follow the bombing. The United States has withdrawn its special operations forces from Yemeni territory with a potential civil war looming. [more inside]
Yemen has fallen. In a striking series of events which has largely flown under the radar except in occasional cable-tv news blurbs -- the nominally pro-Western government of Yemen has been overthrown by Iranian-backed militants. American and British forces have hastily "evacuated" -- an evacuation which may, perhaps, be interpreted as a retreat. Militants have seized abandoned American weapon stockpiles, and a massive defeat for the United States and her allies has gone virtually unnoticed. [more inside]
During the 1980s and ’90s, the historic alliance between the wealthy monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the country’s powerful clerics emerged as the major financier of international jihad, channeling tens of millions of dollars to Muslim fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia and elsewhere. Among the project’s major patrons was Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who last month became Saudi Arabia’s king. [more inside]
How to Defeat the Islamic State. "Over the last thirteen years, America’s foreign policy has consisted mostly of defining what we don’t want: Saddam, Al-Qaida, Qaddafi, Boko Haram, the Islamic State. But we have failed to define what we do want. Rather than pausing to define the ultimate aim of our involvement – the very point of war for military action is just a means to a political end – we have rushed ahead anyway: Ready, Shoot, Aim. Unfortunately, we now have quite the track record of removing one monster only to find a more brutal monster in his place. This global war will never end without a coherent American strategy and we don’t have one for Iraq and Syria at the time of this writing. [...] To defeat the Islamic State and to further American interests, the United States must create a legitimate secular, political alternative for Iraq’s Sunnis."
...the reality of ISIS and what this group seeks is opaque to the public, and to policymakers not clued into the private salons where the details of secrets can be discussed. Even among those policymakers, the compartmentalized national security establishment means that no one really grasps the whole picture. The attempt to get the US into a war in Syria a year ago was similarly opaque. The public cannot make well-informed decisions about national security choices because information critical to such choices is withheld from them. It is withheld from them at the source, through the classification-censorship process, then by obfuscations in the salons and think tanks of DC and New York, and then finally through the bottleneck of the mass media itself.The Solution to ISIS Is the First Amendment by Matt Stoler [more inside]
From his time in Cairo, Lawrence was aware of the extravagant promises the British government had made to Hussein in order to raise the Arab Revolt: full independence for virtually the entire Arab world..............His first act of sedition — and by most any standards, a treasonous one — was to inform Faisal of the existence of Sykes-Picot.....The True Story of Lawrence of Arabia . Previously and Previously
Dave Eggers takes a Long Ride To Riyadh.
In any case, it’s a result of a gradual evolution. When I first travelled, I was naive, sloppy, wide-eyed, and nothing happened to me. That’s probably where the dumb luck came in. Then I began to read the guidebooks, the State Department warnings, the endless elucidation of national norms, cultural cues and insults and regional dangers, and I became wary, careful, savvy. I kept my money taped inside my shoe, or strapped to my stomach. I took any kind of precaution, believing that the people of this area did this, and the people of that province did that. But then, finally, I realised no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. Anyone could do anything, in theory, but most of the time everyone everywhere acts with plain bedrock decency, helping where help is needed, guiding where guidance is necessary. It’s almost weird.
Forty maps that explain the Middle East. Includes sections on Middle East history, the region today, Israel-Palestine, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and oil, Iraq and Libya, and "points of light." [more inside]
The Sunni Islamic monarchy/theocracy's restrictive laws on political expression have become even stricter this year. This is in response to potentially dangerous dissidents returning to Saudi Arabia from the Syrian civil war. But the categories of offenses are so broad as to define virtually any non-Muslim as a terrorist, and to ban all independent political expression. [more inside]
Saudi Arabia's royal family are planning to demolish a library sitting on the remains of Prophet Muhammad's birth home to make way for the imam's residence and a presidential palace. The Saudi royal family are adherents of Wahhabism, a radical branch of Islam; by their beliefs, they have destroyed many Islamic heritage sites as they consider the preservation of relics of Muhammad's life to be akin to idolatry.
Women in Saudi Arabia may not drive. Today, many take to the road in protest, despite grave risks. Even cyber support may be grounds for arrest and the movement's primary website has been blocked. It's been an issue for decades; here's a writer remembering women donning disguises to drive and the sad case of a mother unable to take her injured child to the hospital. Driving may be the point of a sword aimed at securing other freedoms and attaining more autonomy.
The Saudi Arabian government has been tight-lipped about the spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a disease first discovered in 2012 that has "killed more than half of those who contracted it", "responding slowly to requests for information and preventing outside researchers from publishing their findings about the syndrome. [more inside]
Since the end of March, the Wall Street Journal's new Middle East Real Time blog has written about Turkey's "unstoppable" export boom in soap operas, Saudi Arabia's "life after jihad" rehab program, the persistence of obviously fraudulent bomb detectors across Iraq, YouTube branding discussions among Syrian rebel factions, a rising media star Sunni cleric in Lebanon, a post-revolutionary Cairo arts festival, and attempts to overcome conservative objections and change the Saudi Thursday-Friday weekend to match the rest of the business world. Previous non-paywalled WSJ Real Time blogs include Korea, China, Canada, India, Brussels, Emerging Europe, Japan.
Noah Shachtman of Wired has published Bing/Nokia satellite maps that shows what appears to be a previously unknown US drone airbase deep in the desert in Saudi Arabia. [more inside]
The London Olympics has been billed as a notable step forward in gender equality. It is the first Olympics with female representation from all countries despite the many and several barriers to female sport participation that still exist in some countries (including developed ones). These Olympics have female boxers, female athletes from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Brunei and male medal bearers But despite Jacques Rogge's declaration in his opening ceremony speech, some are more equal than others. Australia and Japan are reviewing their athletes' travel arrangements after women were given second class tickets and there is a small, but growing campaign to see male synchronised swimming form part of the program (one of two sports, the other being rhythmic gymnastics, with no male competition). [more inside]
"The fertile Wadi Hanifah valley running through part of Riyadh was for years a rubbish dump and a public health hazard, but now it's been transformed into a vast park, with lakes that attract cool breezes. It's an oasis so large it's hard to police - making it a place for Saudi citizens to relax, in more senses than one." [more inside]
For more than a decade, questions have lingered about the possible role of the Saudi government in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, even as the royal kingdom has made itself a crucial counterterrorism partner in the eyes of American diplomats. Now, in sworn statements that seem likely to reignite the debate, two former senators who were privy to top secret information on the Saudis’ activities say they believe that the Saudi government might have played a direct role in the terrorist attacks.
Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari was arrested in Kuala Lumpur and deported to Saudi Arabia for at the behest of Interpol. Mr. Kashgari faces the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for a series of tweets insulting the prophet Muhammad, including 'I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don't understand about you I will not pray for you.' (BBC, Al Jazeera) [more inside]
Mohammed el Gorani, the youngest prisoner held at Guantánamo, has written a memoir of his time there, the lead up to his imprisonment, and subsequent release years later.
This weekend marks the time of the Hajj, a core pillar of Islam in which great tides of humanity venture to the ancient city of Mecca to honor God. Predating Mohammed's birth by centuries, the pilgrimage comprises several days of rites, from congregation like snow on Mount Arafat and the ritual stoning of Shaitan to the circling of the sacred Kaaba (the shrouded cubical monolith Muslims pray toward daily) and kissing the Black Stone (colored by the absorption of myriad sins, and believed by some to be a fallen meteorite). While the city has modernized to handle this largest of annual gatherings -- building highway-scale ramps, gaudy skyscrapers for the ultra-rich, and tent cities the size of Seattle -- it remains mysterious, as unbelievers are forbidden from entering its borders. Richard Francis Burton became famous for touring the city in disguise to write a rare travelogue, but contemporary viewers have a more immediate guide: Vice Magazine journalist Suroosh Alvi, who smuggled a minicam into the city to record The Mecca Diaries [alt], a 14-minute documentary of his own Hajj journey. Browse the manual to see what goes into a Hajj trip, or watch the YouTube livestream to see the Grand Mosque crowds in real time.
On July 13, 2010, a cargo container arrived in Genoa, Italy from Saudi Arabia. It was emitting torrents of radiation. No one knew what was inside. And no one knew what to do next.... [more inside]
Following a months-long investigation, the Department of Justice has announced the existence of a well-funded plot "conceived, sponsored and directed" by "high-ranking members of the Iranian government" to assassinate Saudi Arabian ambassador Adel Al-Jubeir on U.S. soil in conjunction with informants in Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas. The "Hollywood" plot, revealed in an afternoon press conference and described in a detailed 21-page complaint [PDF], is alleged to have involved an attack on the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, D.C. One suspect, naturalized American citizen Arbab Arbabsiar, has been arrested, while co-conspirator and Quds Force member Gholam Shakuri remains at large. Iranian officials were quick to label the charges a "fabrication" intended to distract from America's economic troubles.
A series of emails released through a Freedom of Information Act request shine light on collusion between the United States government and TransCanada, a corporation building a controversial pipeline from the Canadian Athabasca oil sands into its southern neighbor. The controversy extends beyond the currently poor safety record for delivering oil between the two countries, and beyond the environmental and health consequences of the oil extraction process for locals and the cost of climate changes it will contribute to, all the way to legal wrangling between Canadian media and Saudi Arabia over the "death panels"-like term "ethical oil", based upon a conservative group's advertising that argues that the purchase of Canadian-sourced oil is a morally superior act, because of oppression of women and human rights violations by the Saudi kingdom.
Government of Bahrain declares state of emergency. Mixture of Saudi, UAE, and other GCC troops enter Bahrain upon invitation. [more inside]
Reuters Special Report: U.S. cables detail Saudi royal welfare program "The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and reviewed by Reuters, provide remarkable insight into how much the vast royal welfare program has cost the country -- not just financially but in terms of undermining social cohesion. Besides the huge monthly stipends that every Saudi royal receives, the cables detail various money-making schemes some royals have used to finance their lavish lifestyles over the years."
Saudi Clerics Advocate Adult Breast Feeding to circumvent the hanbali law in Saudi Arabia enforcing strict segregation of the sexes. There is some confusion between the clerics regarding whether women should pump or allow adult men to suckle directly from the breast. Such fatwas emanating from Saudi Arabia provide insight into the mentality of the powerful clergy that has been instrumental in spreading Wahhabi thought, throughout the Muslim world.
"It is 146 minutes long...This is an entirely inappropriate length for what is essentially a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls."
I Watched 146 Minutes of Sex and the City 2 and All I Got Was This Religious Fundamentalism - The legacy of the TV show destroyed forever.
Life imitates Python: The Life of Brian's unfortunately-named Roman has a real-life counterpart, and he's been denied ambassadorship to Saudi Arabia due to the fact that his name means "biggest dick" in Arabic.
FBI whistleblower, Sibel Edmonds, has gone on record with her allegations of government corruption and treason. (previously)
Dig out your old Singer sewing machines from the attic and sell them to somebody in Saudi Arabia for a fortune on account of the red mercury they contain. Red mercury allows nuclear bombs to be constructed without the need for plutonium [previously]. Red mercury came originally from Russia. Or from the Nazis. Red mercury was invented to lure terrorists in sting operations. It is a medicine for treating impotency. Red mercury will bring long life. It is cinnabar. It is mercury iodide. It is Lithium 6. It is a Bose Einstein Condensate. It is a ballotechnic mercury compound. It is a codeword. It's a game. It costs $300,000 per kilo.
They cannot perform in public. They cannot pose for album cover photographs. Even their jam sessions are secret, for fear of offending the religious authorities in this ultraconservative kingdom. The AccoLade is Saudi Arabia's "first all-girl rock band."
"It's just like judging a beautiful girl," said Fowzan al-Madr. "You look for big eyes, long lashes and a long neck." The art and science of Saudi Arabian camel beauty pageants. More Riyadh market photos here. Lots of information about Dromedary (Arabian) camels here and here. Listen to Dromedary camel sounds and read about Saudi camel history at this site.
Six new cities are planed in The Construction Site Called Saudi Arabia. "The vision is to turn the kingdom into a major industrial power by 2020. Drawings of these new towns depict a cross of the futuristic “Blade Runner” and traditional Arabic design." The cities will focus on petrochemicals, aluminum, steel and fertilizers, and will together have four times the geographical area of Hong Kong, three times the population of Dubai, and an economic output equal to Singapore’s. [more inside]
Forty years on. After a quick buildup, the Six Day War started 40 years ago today and reshaped the Middle East. At the time, Israel's quick win looked like a triumph, but after 40 years the war is still being fought and it looks like it may have been a pyrrhic victory.
Heard enough about Pain at the Pump? The 24-hour news love to cover the "unreasonable" record gasoline prices, but the real issue is crude oil supply--and this latest installment of Stuart Staniford's highly detailed analysis of the world's largest oil field, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, provides new evidence of sharply declining production. Can Saudi Arabia really increase supply to meet world demand that is surging on growth in India and China? Signs point to no--in the past week they have again voted to maintain OPEC's "voluntary" production cuts, and their petroleum minister commented that there may not be a "need" to increase Saudi production much further.
Mariah Carey album covers in Saudi Arabia. These appear to be genuine, not a hoax (although the album covers on the Megastar website don't appear to have been changed). From the comments on the post: Actually, I think she looks better in the covered up pictures. Via Mini ZuD.
22 basic suggested readings on the Middle East from history professor and informed commenter on Middle Eastern affairs Juan Cole.