Exclusive: Nathalie Morin and family in financial distress
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
In an exclusive interview, Nathalie Morin told me that her Saudi husband, Saeed al-Shahrani, has been unemployed since May 2013, and that this has forced them to sell a refrigerator, washing machine, a television set and other household items in order to buy food and pay their bills.
I found out about their unfortunate situation after emailing questions to Nathalie about her relationship with the two Saudi women’s rights activists, Wajeeha al-Howaider and Fawzia al-Ayuni, who were sentenced to ten months in jail each, and a two year travel ban, earlier this month after being convicted of allegedly committing the crime of Takhbib, or inciting a wife against her husband. This sentence was for a visit of the two to the apartment building of Canadian national in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, in 2011, supposedly to give her food supplies. In the interview, Nathalie says she never talked or met Wajeeha.
I discovered that Nathalie does speak good English by visiting her blog called Saudi Real Life (www.saudireallife.blogspot.com), where she has posted several videos of herself speaking in English.
I also found out by watching the videos and interviewing her that Saeed until recently worked for Saudi intelligence services, and that Nathalie first came to Saudi on a wife’s visa even though she was not yet married to Saeed at the time, but already had given birth to their first child in Canada.
She claims that her husband is her best friend, and that they share everything with each other. She complains loudly that all of them are now on some blacklist that does not allow them to leave the kingdom, or for Saeed to find a job.
Here is the text of the interview, with the emphasis put in by Nathalie:
Q: Why has your husband Saeed been stopped from working as an intelligence agent? Does he have any other job in order to earn money? Have his relatives been helping him financially?
A: My husband worked actively for his country in the National Security department from 1995 to 2008. He has been officially off-duties since September 2008, with permission from Saudi government to stop service and to return to his real identity.
From 2008 to May 6, 2013, he had many hidden jobs in many sectors. On May 6, 2013, the Saudi government decided to cut-off his financial resources completely and he cannot work anymore. Also, all charitable societies have refused to help us for some weird reasons and we do not have relatives helping us.
For our survival since May 6th until today, we have sold:
– 3 air-conditioners;
– A washing machine;
– A dryer machine;
– A television;
– Furniture in two living rooms;
– A few electronic gadgets;
– A watch
Q: You say on your blog that the Saudi government has banned all of you from traveling outside the kingdom. Why?
A: Yes, my husband and our children are registered on the Saudi National black list. We’re not allowed to get a passport; to get an ID card without our blacklist data; we’re not allowed to get out of Saudi territories even just for tourism purpose within GCC countries. Why? Ask your question directly to Saudi government.
Q: When Wajeeha al-Howaider and Fawzia al-Ayouni went to your apartment in 2011, did they manage to get to your apartment and speak with you before being arrested? Did they bring you food?
A: No, I never spoke to them and they did not bring food.
Q: How did you first meet Saeed in Montreal? Did you know at that time that he was an intelligence agent?
A: I met him normally in Montreal as many others meet people. He was like an ordinary person and me, how do you want me to know about his work? Intelligence, espionage, spy are NOT subjects that most of people have knowledge. How do you want me to have clues? At the beginning he told me, “My name is Saeed Al Bishi and I’m a businessman from Saudi Arabia.” Me, I believed him.
I NEVER knew about his real identity and real work. I NEVER knew about his involvement with the Saudi government until March 5, 2005.
Q: I am amazed that you were able to get a visa the first time you visited Saudi, as you were not married yet to Saeed. How did he manage to do that?
A: Yes, my husband came back to Saudi Arabia in September 2002 and the Saudi government told him that he would not return abroad anymore. He met in person with the late Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz al Saud and he told his Royal Highness that it is impossible because he has a baby boy with a Canadian woman in Canada. Prince Naif decided to grant my husband a special reward and favor to marry a foreign national woman and to bring me on Saudi soil with a married visa WITHOUT any document of marriage and to bring our baby boy with Saudi nationality WITHOUT any document of paternity. We arrived in Saudi Arabia for a vacation in July 2003 and we met in person with Dr. Ahmed Al Salam in his office of the Ministry Interior Federal Headquarters in Riyadh. He gave us in person our official permission to get married and after that we went to Jeddah and we got a confirmation of marriage document from Jeddah Civil Courthouse.
Q: Do you have contact with the female relatives of Saeed’s family? Are they nice to you? Do they help you?
A: No, I do NOT have any contact with the female relatives of my husband and the last time I saw them is in 2010. They do not like me, because I have foreign roots, in my blood, from a western country.
Q: Does your husband allow you to go to the supermarket every week to buy food?
A: My husband allows me to do anything I wish to do. He is open-minded and we are in mutual agreement together. But, since May 6th, the Saudi government has cut off all our financial resources and so, we do NOT have any money to go supermarket.
Q: Do your children go to school? What are their names and ages?
A: Samir, 11 years old, has completed the 4th elementary grade. Abdullah, 7 years old, has completed the 1st elementary grade. Sarah, 4 years old, has not gone to school yet.
Q: Do you have any Canadian friends in Dammam or Riyadh?
A: No, I do NOT have any friend, Canadian or of any other nationality.
Bahrainis stripped of citizenship
The decision to make prominent dissidents stateless ratchets the political crisis to a new level, reports Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Shock and dismay were the reactions of the 31 Bahrainis who were stripped of their citizenship by the Bahraini government on 7 November for allegedly breaching national security and damaging the supreme interests of the country, according to Information Minister Samira Ibrahim bin Rajab.
All are Shia and figures active in the opposition to the ruling Al-Khalifa family. Included in the 31 are two brothers, Jalal and Jawad Fairouz, both of whom are former members of parliament with the Al-Wefaq movement, Said Al-Shihabi, head of the Bahrain Freedom Movement, and three Shia clerics, Hussein Mirza, Khaled Mansour Sanad and Alawi Sharaf.
The Interior Ministry said the revocation of their citizenship was done based on Article 10 of the citizenship law that allows the “re-evaluation of nationality”. All public demonstrations were banned a few days later, further limiting a key method that the opposition had to press its demands.
Bahrain has been in the grip of a long-running battle between the majority Shia population, who are demanding more rights and a constitutional monarchy, and the Sunni ruling Al-Khalifa family. Around 4,000 Shia were fired for participating in demonstrations last year, and many opposition figures have been jailed after being sentenced to long prison terms in trials that have been deemed unfair.
“The move is part of a broader crackdown on the opposition, led by hardliners who seem to think they can solve the country’s political problems through security means alone,” said Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow on the Middle East at Chatham House in London. “It has particularly targeted Shia Bahrainis of Persian ancestry, who face both sectarian and ethnic prejudice.”
Indeed, the information minister told BBC Arabic that all of the 31 belonged to banned political groups, and claimed that all of them were members of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB), a group that was active in Bahrain in the 1980s.
“The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain is a thing of the past. It had links to Iran but the group and those links ceased to exist. The IFLB became the Amal political society in Bahrain. Its supporters were known as Shirazis, but many of those stripped of their citizenship are not ‘Shirazis’, but rather supporters of other Shia political groups in Bahrain,” explained Toby Matthiesen, research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University in England.
The Bahrain Youth Society and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights expressed their grave concern in a joint statement over the move to strip the 31 of their citizenship. “This move is reminiscent of government crackdowns in the 1980s when the past emir, Salman bin Eissa Al-Khalifa, revoked the citizenship of a number of citizens. It is apparent that the action taken by the authorities is intended to punish them for expressing peaceful dissent and thereby intimidate others from exercising their right to freedom of expression,” they said.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also deplored the decision to strip the 31 of their nationality, and both groups asked that the Bahraini government reverse its decision.
Human Rights Watch pointed out that at least 10 of the affected have lived outside Bahrain for years, and that only about six of the 31 have other citizenship, meaning that the government decision will leave most of the people involved stateless.
“Bahraini authorities have been increasingly targeting opposition activists and this decision takes it to a new level,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW, in a statement. “The government should immediately rescind this decision, which denies people a fundamental connection to their own society.”
The government says all 31 have the right to appeal the decision, though few observers believe that any appeal will be successful.
“In the short term, I doubt it,” said Kinninmont. “This has been done unilaterally on supposed security grounds and it’s unlikely the courts would be strong enough to overturn it without a deal being struck with government insiders.”
But Toby Jones, a professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says that some may be successful in reversing the decision. “I would not be surprised to see a reversal of some of these on appeal. It is customary that the regime steps in at a certain moment to lighten the collective punishment. But, the message will stand,” he explained.
“We are studying the case with our lawyer as there has never been another case like this before,” said Jawad Al-Fairouz in a phone interview from London, which both he and his brother Jalal were visiting when the announcement was made that they were among the 31 who had been stripped of their citizenship.
Jawad was previously imprisoned for three months and seven days for his work with the opposition. He is a board member of the Al-Wefaq movement and said that when he was in parliament he regularly questioned government ministers linked to the Al-Khalifa family about corruption allegations. This, he says, made him a target for the government hardliners.
“Our judiciary is not that independent, so we are not that hopeful about it,” said Jawad. “The ones who took this decision should be the ones who have to go to court to support their action judicially, or at least get a ruling to back it,” he added. “We don’t think it is the job of the victim to have to do so.”
Asked if he and his brother were going to apply for political asylum in the UK, Jawad said, “It is one of our options.”
In an earlier interview with the International Business Times the Fairouz brothers said that they had been targeted by the government because of their work within the opposition, and that the ruling had surprised them. “I was so surprised,” said Jalal Al-Fairouz, who is a university lecturer and consultant. “I was never interrogated. No one said I was breaking any laws. All of a sudden I am stateless — and now the country where I was born is kicking me out. So now, where should I go?”
The danger now with the government increasingly unwilling to talk, is the further radicalisation of the opposition, especially of the youth who have been demonstrating in the streets. “There will continue to be protests. We are seeing, however, a turn to more dangerous methods, including greater confrontation,” said Jones.
The US administration of Barack Obama is seen to have taken sides with the Al-Khalifa regime, especially after Saudi Arabia sent in troops last year to bolster the regime, leaving little hope that outside pressure will convince the rulers to share more power with the people. “I don’t see the US or the UK changing their positions in the near future. If the region as a whole changes, or if any of the other Gulf states sees more mass protests and genuine political reform, that could change the equation, but we are far away from this,” said Matthiesen.
No Arab Spring for Bahrain
Torture and death lurk behind the return of Bahrain’s glitzy Formula 1 race, writes Rasheed Abul-Samh
THE government of Bahrain was sure that hosting the Formula 1 race again last Sunday, after it was cancelled last year because of the violent clashes between mostly Shia protesters and police, would surely be a sign that things were improving and that the nation was finally healing.
But the island-state went into a virtual lockdown to produce an event that was devoid of many spectators, while violent clashes occurred in the villages surrounding the capital Manama, with many injured and at least one death.
The now 14-month long civil war between the majority-Shia, who want more rights and a constitutional monarchy, and the Al-Khalifa ruling family, who are Sunni, had dropped off the radars of most international media, who had been much more attracted by the other revolts of the Arab Spring such as the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the ongoing fighting in Syria. Now, the media attention returned, if only for one weekend and for all the wrong reasons.
The hunger strike of Abdel-Hadi Al-Khawaja, a prominent 50-year-old human rights activist, who has not had any solid food for more than two months, came to symbolise the desperation that so many of Bahrain’s Shia feel towards a government that despite cosmetic attempts at reform, has obstinately refused to share power, release hundreds of political prisoners, or reinstate those sacked from their jobs after taking part in anti- government protests that started on 14 February 2011.
A Bahrain court heard appeals on Monday from defence lawyers for Al-Khawaja and seven other Shia activists, who were all sentenced to life in prison last year following their involvement in the protests, and want to have their sentences overturned. Unfortunately, the court adjourned to 30 April, leaving Al-Khawaja’s family deeply worried that he may not survive until then. One of his daughters, Mariam, told the Danish TV2 channel that doctors predict he has only two or three more days to live.
“Al-Khawaja’s fate will have considerable impact on what happens in Bahrain, at least in the short run,” said Toby Jones, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, and who has been closely following developments in Bahrain. “A move to have him retried in a civilian court would be a positive development, but I suspect most Bahrainis would see such a move as too little, too late. And given his grave condition, there are serious concerns that he may not live long enough to see a new trial through. His death will unleash a new round of protests and based on past regime responses, will lead to more anti-protester violence.”
King Hamad bin Eissa Al-Khalifa formed an international investigation panel last year, led by Sherif Bassiouni, which was tasked into looking at the abuses committed when thousands of Bahraini protesters were arrested, jailed and tortured. The result was an impressive report that documented many abuses and recommended several reforms. The king has taken none, and as Mariam Al-Khawaja told a meeting of activists in Cairo this month, not a single high-ranking official was fired or punished for the abuses.
A main reason for the reluctance of the Al-Khalifas to implement any significant reforms is the fact that its rich benefactor neighbor, Saudi Arabia, has taken a hardline against the protesters, insisting that they are being instigated by Iran in order to create a Shia-ruled nation on its doorstep. The United States, which has its 5th Navy Fleet based in Bahrain, looked the other way in March of last year when Saudi troops rolled across the causeway into Bahrain, under the guise of being part of a Gulf Cooperation Council force that King Hamad had asked to come in. But Bahraini Shia have gone to great lengths to remain independent of Iran, and no credible evidence of any Iranian involvement in the unrest has been presented.
“There is no evidence of Iranian involvement. Their insistence is meant to justify their crackdown,” explained Jones. “The Saudis would view the loss of Bahrain as a vassal state as a strategic calamity. Even without Iranian involvement, it would result in a significant dent in Saudi hegemony in the Gulf.”
Jones also believes that the Saudis want to maintain the US military presence in Bahrain as a deterrent to what it sees as the Iranian threat.
“While the Saudis don’t want the Americans on their territory, they do want a US military presence nearby. Bahrain’s opposition have not said they would kick the 5th Fleet out of Manama, but Saudi Arabia certainly worries that that could be one result of a successful revolution there,” said Jones. “The Saudis also know that the American geopolitical priority in the Gulf is to contain Iran. By repeatedly insisting that Iran is behind the Bahraini uprising, Riyadh seeks to appeal to American anxieties. Even though the claims of Iranian meddling are wholly manufactured, they seem to be working. We have neither heard criticism nor seen constructive engagement by the US in Bahrain.”
Bahrainis remain deeply split between those who want to keep the royal family as is, those who want it reformed and made more democratic, and those who want them gone completely.
“Some Bahrainis are saying: ‘We do not want the Al-Khalifa regime,’ and others are saying, mostly the political societies, that we need a constitutional monarchy first. So there is a difference in opinion,” Zainab Al-Khawaja, another daughter of Abdel-Hadi, said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly late last year.
“If you ask me personally, I want to see all the top members of the royal family on trial. I don’t want a constitutional monarchy where the same people who are responsible for killing our children, for torturing our fathers, for beating our sisters, remain on their thrones and live peacefully and happily ever after. It’s not the way that this is supposed to happen,” she said.
Yet with the government not releasing political prisoners and unwilling to even talk about sharing power, the situation in Bahrain seems to be grim and is already slipping into more violence, with protesters using more Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs against security forces, much like their counterparts in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province.
“Bahrain is on edge. The regime clearly thinks it has a winning strategy. But it has in fact sown the seeds of permanent conflict and resistance. The regime has sealed Manama off from the worst of the violence, but in order to sustain that it is forced to carry out a permanent wave of oppression and brutality in the country’s villages,” concluded Jones.
Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2012/1095/re1.htm
The struggle of Saudi women
This is a translation of my April 20, 2012, O Globo column:
The winds of change were blowing in Saudi Arabia long before the uprisings of the Arab Spring, and I’m seeing this mostly in the streets and shops of Jeddah. Last year a handful of women at the wheel of cars drove through the streets of several cities of this conservative and sexist kingdom. They filmed themselves doing it, and posted the resulting videos on YouTube for the world to see, but mostly so that other Saudi women could see that, yes, women can drive a car, and the world did not end.
I went to the house of one of these women in Jeddah. Najla Hariri, 48, mother of three children, had lived for 25 years outside Saudi Arabia. She told me she got two driver’s licenses — the first in Beirut, Lebanon, and the other in Cairo, Egypt. Back in the kingdom now for two and a half years, she repeatedly found herself forced to take to the wheel to get a child to school, or to buy food and medicines. “We have a driver, but sometimes he or my husband were busy with other things, and I found myself needing to drive my car to do my chores,” said Hariri.
She estimates that she drove at least 20 times last year, and that all who saw her behind the wheel gave signs of support, smiling, honking and giving her the thumbs up. But Saudi police, unaccustomed to seeing women driving, were annoyed: “I was stopped three times by police. The first two times, they released me, and they even said that they supported what I was doing and that they wanted their wives and sisters to drive in the future.”
“But the third time,” Hariri told, “My car was surrounded by three police cars, and the sergeant insisted that I go to the police station with them.” Her husband was called to the police station and she was released. A month and a half later, both were summoned by a public prosecutor and pressured into signing affidavits that they would not repeat the alleged infringement. “I signed because I did not want to trouble my family,” she said. There is no law that forbids Saudi women from driving. Nor is there any passage in the Holy Qur’an about it. “This ban on women driving is based on Saudi traditions and nothing more,” she said.
Unable to drive for now, Hariri is now focusing her efforts together with a group of women around the country — linked by Twitter and Facebook — on the issue of male guardianship which every woman in the kingdom is submitted to. “For me this is the key issue for our independence and freedom as women,” said Maha Akeel, a journalist and writer. “To do anything from opening a bank account, traveling abroad, to undergoing certain types of medical operations or even work, a Saudi woman needs the written approval of her male guardian,” Akeel said.
In practical terms, this means that a woman must have her father’s permission to marry, work and travel, among other things. When married, she needs the permission of her husband to do all these things. If widowed or never married, and her father has passed away, the woman becomes the hostage of a brother or an uncle.
While Saudi women face the challenges of living in an ultra-sexist society that infantilizes them, universities have produced a steady stream of female graduates, but with little hope of employment. This has generated an enormous social pressure to find jobs for these women, and the government is finally responding to the situation, letting them work in shops as saleswomen.
Just recently, I was approached by a saleswoman in a Jeddah perfume store offering to show me the latest in men’s fragrances. Just two years ago this would never have happened because only men were allowed to work in sales, even in lingerie stores for women. But a Saudi woman, outraged at having to give her intimate measurements to male store clerks, started a campaign on the Internet a few years ago to only allow women to work in lingerie shops. The government responded and a royal decree banning men from working in lingerie shops was enforced this year. A spillover effect has been felt in perfume shops that cater to both men and women. Now, even in supermarkets most cashiers are Saudi women, usually covered from head to foot in black abayas, with only an opening for their eyes.
These are positive signs for Saudi society, but much remains to be done. If Saudis remain steadfast, the country will be on a path of justice and freedom for all, regardless of gender.
Who will investigate the use of Brazilian tear gas in Bahrain?
This is a translation from Portuguese of my column that appeared in the March 9, 2012 edition of O Globo:
The Brazilian foreign ministry Itamaraty and Condor Non-Lethal Technologies must find us naive. After my report on the misuse of Brazilian-made tear gas against pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain (O Globo, 9/1), the Folha de S. Paulo reported (11/1) that the foreign ministry would investigate whether there was breach of contract in the use of gas in Bahrain.
I was waiting for a report from the so-called investigation. Then came an article entitled “Brazil, Producer and Exporter of Arms”, published by the Brazilian investigative site A Publica, on Jan. 27, which said the following: “Itamaraty itself acknowledges that it has no power of investigation: after the scandal of Bahrain, the office of the Itamaraty spokesman said that the ministry was only ‘watching with interest’ as the story unfolds…. ‘It is a contract between private parties. It may even involve a foreign government, but responsibility for its product lies with its manufacturer,’ said the foreign ministry.”
I sent six questions to Itamaraty on the use of Brazilian tear gas in Bahrain, my main question being: “It seems that the Brazilian government is washing its hands of any responsibility for the misuse of Brazilian-made tear gas in Bahrain. Why? Does Brazil not think it is important to safeguard the human rights of civilians in a civil war situation, or are Brazilian economic interests more important than human rights? ”
I also asked if Brazil had sent a diplomat to Bahrain to investigate. This was the non-response I received: “This office states that the jurisdiction of the ministry and other public administration bodies on the matter in question is clearly defined by the National Policy on the Export of Military Equipment.”
This policy, known by the acronym PNEMEM in Portuguese, is not very demanding. A Brazilian exporter needs to submit just three things: 1. An import permit from the importing country; 2. An End User Certificate 3. In the case of countries in which the import of these materials is unregulated, a statement from the Brazilian diplomatic mission in importing country or from the importing country’s diplomatic mission in Brazil, is needed.
I called Condor in Rio de Janeiro and talked to their marketing manager, Massilon Miranda, who repeated the statement made in December that his company had never sold tear gas to Bahrain, but may have sold the gas to neighboring countries. Perhaps one of the armed forces of one of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, which were deployed in Bahrain last year to help the Bahraini royal family quell the demonstrations, had used the gas made in Brazil? Perhaps, but the way things are going, I do not think we will ever know for sure. Certainly not if we depend on Itamaraty or Condor for confirmation.
It is striking that Condor has the inability to admit that its tear gas could have been used in Bahrain. “There was never any confirmation that any person has died a victim of tear gas — even more so Brazilian gas — in Bahrain,” said Miranda. “Maybe activists are doing this campaign [against gas] to limit the means that police have to use against them. Is all that smoke actually from tear gas?”
The photo of a used canister of tear gas manufactured by it, emblazoned with the Brazilian flag, released by activists in Bahrain; the two deaths caused by Brazilian gas as reported by Zainab al-Khawaja, and miles of video showing security forces in Bahrain throwing thousands of canisters of tear gas against protesters, are not enough to convince the spokesperson of the Condor that it became involved in a civil war, whether it likes it or not?
The Brazilian government has a policy to help the export of arms manufactured in the country, and President Dilma Rousseff signed a provisional order in September exempting Brazilian manufacturers of armaments from taxes. Brazil has a long history of exporting heavy and light weapons to areas of conflict areas since the 1970s. The country sold many weapons to the regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s when Iraq was at war with Iran for eight years.
Not surprisingly, Itamaraty is in the difficult position of wanting to help Brazilian exports of weapons, but at the same time must feel a certain discomfort in seeing Brazilian-made tear gas, supposedly non-lethal, being used against children, women and old people. There is a responsibility on the part of Itamaraty and Condor to investigate, ascertain and possibly even suspend arms sales to Arab countries, since the end use of the exported tear gas was not in the country of the government that bought the gas from Brazil. It’s the least we can do to rescue the reputation of Brazil as a country that cares about human rights — not only of Brazilians, but also of other people with a thirst for more freedom and dignity.
The limits of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia
This is a translation of my column that appeared in the Feb. 24, 2012 edition of O Globo:
The young Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari could not have dreamed that his comments posted on Twitter on the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, on February 4, would have such shrill and dangerous consequences for him.
“I have loved things in you, and hated others,” wrote Hamza, 23, on Twitter, in an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Muhammad, who died over a thousand years ago. “If I saw you, I would not kiss you, but extend my hand to you as any other friend, and would smile at you. But I will not pray for you.”
As the founder of Islam, more than 1,400 years ago in Mecca, all Muslims revere Muhammad as an almost sacred person, that can never be criticized or have his teachings put into doubt. So it’s not so difficult to understand the fury of the reaction that exploded on Twitter and Facebook. More than 30,000 tweets about Hamza’s comments flew through cyberspace, mostly attacking the young former columnist for the daily Al-Bilad, with many calling him an apostate, which can lead to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.
A group formed on Facebook, with over 8,000 members, asking for his death. Stunned by the backlash of believers across the Islamic world, Hamza removed his comments and then deleted his Twitter account altogether. He fled the country on February 9, but a few days later he was arrested in Malaysia when he tried to board a flight to New Zealand, where he planned to seek political asylum. The king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz, had ordered his arrest and the kingdom had allegedly activated Interpol to detain the young wherever he was in the world. Soon after, he was sent back to the kingdom, where he remains in detention awaiting trial.
Studious, Hamza grew up in a family of great faith, and memorized the entire Holy Qur’an, not an easy achievement. But, with his inquisitive mind, he began to devour books and, according to his mother, habitually locked himself in his room to read books and did not talk much with his family.
Days after he was arrested, she called a local religious TV program and pleaded for her son, crying while insisting that her son was a good boy, and that he had repented having made those comments. But that was not enough for Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, a religious leader and scholar, who cried in a lecture, that was filmed and later posted on YouTube, over the words that Hamza had dared to say about Prophet Muhammad.
“His repentance was said with cold words,” Sheikh Nasser said. “He’s being disingenuous, he should be executed. We must not engage in debates with atheists. But instead, we should warm up our swords to fight them.” He ended by repeating that Hamza should be tried by a Shariah court for apostasy and sentenced to death despite having repented.
But do not think that all of Saudi Arabia is in the Middle Ages. Thousands of Saudis shocked by the outpouring of intolerance against Hamza urged calm, good judgment and tolerance of a young man whose only sin was exposing the doubts of his faith on the Internet. Even Princess Basmah bin Saud al-Saud, a daughter of the late King Saud, wrote an open letter to King Abdullah and Crown Prince Naif, asking them to give a royal pardon to the young Hamza.
It is perhaps ironic that in a country where there is no freedom of expression, we find the largest number of Twitter users per capita in the Middle East, and where the billionaire Prince Alwaleed ibn Talal recently bought $300 million in shares of Twitter, which will give him a 6% stake in the company. But this is the other side of a society that few outside the region see: A predominately young and educated population, with 100,000 Saudis currently studying in the US on scholarships from the Saudi government. Religious, yes, but most moderate and wanting things that all young people want: Jobs, a less corrupt government and a voice in their future endeavors.
It is interesting to see how the Internet is being used by many young Saudis to express themselves and to hold leaders accountable for their actions. Twitter has an anonymous account that regularly denounces various excesses of princes, ranging from those who earn huge commissions on government contracts, or those who have huge palaces. And it is revealing that some of the princes have even responded to the accusations, defending themselves on Twitter, something that would never happen in traditional media that is tightly controlled by the government. On YouTube, several rookie filmmakers are gaining thousands of followers with their mini-series, of 15-minute episodes, which they post regularly, dealing with a wide variety of topics ranging from urban poverty to young love.
I do not think Hamza will be executed. He is being used as a scapegoat by the ultraconservatives in the country who do not like modernity. If the government can have him be tried by the Ministry of Information, he will likely just be fined and banned from writing for a few years. If tried in a Shariah court, he might be condemned to death. But then the king will intervene and forgive the young man. What I do know for sure is that the Internet, despite being heavily censored by the government, has changed forever the relationship between the Saudi people and their leaders, and is a channel of expression and communication that the government can never close.
To end the bloodshed in Syria
This is a translation from the Portuguese of my column that appeared in O Globo newspaper of Rio de Janeiro on 10/02/2012
The relentless violence that has spread in Syria since March of last year, with demonstrators calling for more freedom being violently suppressed by government forces, in recent days has reached unacceptable levels in the city of Homs. Hundreds of men, women and children are being brutally murdered by gangs of pro-government militias, or victims of the relentless bombing of the air force that dropped more than 200 bombs on the city Monday in only four hours.
After the veto of Russia and China at the UN Security Council in New York on Sunday of a resolution condemning the Syrian government for the violence in the country and demanding the beginning of a dialogue with the opposition, supporters of the defeated resolution were reduced to cursing the two Eastern powers. The US closed its embassy in Damascus, and Britain and France, among others, called back their ambassadors for consultations. The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia, withdrew their envoys in Syria and expelled all Syrian diplomats from their territories.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the violent and sadistic streak of his father, the bloody Hafez, constantly gives speeches accusing the protesters of being foreign spies, mobilized to ruin the country. In his mind it is all a plot to end his reign as ruthless dictator. Indeed, Syria became a police state in 1970 when Hafez al-Assad came to power in a military coup. All his opponents were killed, imprisoned and tortured, or pushed into exile abroad. A network of informants across the country instilled a fear of criticizing any government measure or leader in public. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the massacre of Hama, which occurred in February 1982, when Hafez ordered the army to end an Islamist revolt in that city. The whole city was demolished by a brutal bombing that killed up to 40,000 people.
Unfortunately, leftists in the West were left starry-eyed when Bashar (and his wife Asma) inherited the leadership of Syria after Hafez’s death in 2000. They were seduced by the two young professionals, good-looking, charming, educated in London modern and secular in outlook. Many had hopes that Bashar was going to change things in the country, opening the economy and allowing a space for political opposition. And he did liberalize the economy, allowing neighboring Turkey to invest in many areas, a radical change from the past when the economy was centralized and state-controlled, a legacy from the era when the Soviet Union was the great ally of Syria. The problem here is that most contracts went to his Alawite allies, followers of the same obscure offshoot of Shiism, of which Bashar is a member.
For a long time Syria was considered the leader of Arab nationalism, especially because of its hatred for Israel, to which it lost the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War. But with the Arab Spring uprisings sweeping the region, Syria was not immune to the revolutionary wave, and here we are almost a year after the first clashes between protesters and supporters of Bashar, with 6,000 dead in Syria and the country in a brutal civil war. The dilemma we face is this: Must we invade Syria to end the cowardly massacre of innocent civilians in Homs, or do we have to pursue diplomacy? I think it’s more than clear that the time has come to use force against Bashar, because talking with him has led to nothing, and has given him the opportunity to kill more of his countrymen.
In a very interesting article published in The National of Abu Dhabi, on February 5, an Emirati military analyst, Ahmed Al Attar, and William J. Maloney, argued that a force composed of troops of the GCC countries, Jordan and Turkey could invade Syria from the south and north to establish liberated zones where forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and refugees from cities under government attack such as Homs and Hama, could seek refuge. NATO (of which Turkey is a member) and the US would help with their air power to destroy the air defense systems of the Syrian government, and maintain a no-fly zone over the entire country.
It is clear that the invaders would have to enter Syria with clear and public defensive goals to only protect civilians and create a safe space for the opposition to negotiate the exit from power of Bashar and ensure the transition to a democratic future with honest and open elections open to all parties.
The American academic Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is the former director of planning at the US State Department, believes that following the doctrine of “responsibility to protect”, which was used in 1999 when NATO bombed the former Yugoslavia to end the genocide of Muslims in Kosovo, an invasion of Syria to protect civilians being brutally killed there, could be supported by the UN.
It is true that there is little stomach now in the US and Britain for an air campaign over Syria like what was done in Libya. But it is precisely here that rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar can provide the money to finance such a military campaign in Syria, and use its latest generation fighter planes bought from the West. Syria forms an axis of Shia allies starting in Iran, going through Iraq and Syria, and ending with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Taking Bashar out of power would weaken this Shiite alliance, which threatens the political and economic interests of the GCC and the West.
Syria and the world would be much better places without the “monster” of Bashar al-Assad. We cannot allow his forces to continue to kill thousands of innocent Syrians, who are clamoring for more freedom, and keep our arms crossed waiting for diplomacy to save them. The time to act is now.