The Winds of Change. by P.N. Bernfeld

Posted on Saturday, 19th May 2012 @ 02:17 PM by Text Size A | A | A

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Are they a  fully blown hurricane of a mere zephyr?


I decide to remain, metaphorically speaking, in the Middle East for this article because although interesting events are unfolding in Europe, it’s still too soon to make any assumptions about what may or may not arise phoenix-like from the ashes. Make no mistake though, the European project is in tatters. It will survive in some shape or form, of that I am certain, but for the moment, as they used to say on a childrens TV program, ‘anything can happen in the next half hour’.

Most of the news concerning the Middle East tends to be reported from a ‘Western-centric’ perspective, so I thought that it might be instructive to take a slightly sideways look at what’s happening in the region, seen from a variety of Middle-Eastern sources. Dominating the Western media is of course the upcoming presidential elections in Egypt, so why don’t we start there?

One aspect that has received some comment in the Western media is the fact the Islamist candidates are suffering a backlash at the moment. Ostensibly this has been caused by a demonstration organised by the Salafists, ultraconservative Islamists, outside the Egyptian Ministry of Defence building in Cairo, which resulted in the death of one soldier and injuries to others. Footage of gunmen seemingly firing from the minaret of a mosque at the soldiers was broadcast on Egyptian television and has received much negative comment. Predictably the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in effect the current Egyptian Government, has been using this footage to tap into the average Egyptians respect for the army and promptly and loudly blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence. In point of fact they weren’t involved in that particular demonstration and reportedly disbanded one that they had organised. However several Egyptian commentators have expressed the view that the Egyptian electorate doesn’t distinguish between Islamic organisations. That might be so and as we all know the outcome of revolutions can turn on a single event, but I suspect there is more to this than is immediately apparent. Perhaps what we are seeing is the Egyptian electorate realising exactly who, or what, they did elect to parliament and are having second thoughts about the desirability of Sharia law and all its implications.

Related to this is a decision by Egypts highest administrative court which ruled that the presidential elections must proceed as scheduled on may 23rd. Additionally they upheld the right of the Election Commission to challenge a law barring some former members of the Mubarak administration from standing for president. The same Election Commission had previously barred the Muslim brotherhood’s preferred presidential candidate from standing in the up coming election, which sparked off the protests outside the Ministry of Defence buildings. The Military Government of course appointed the Election Commision, so predictably and possibly quite accurately the Islamist parties who form the largest group in the recently elected parliament have accused the Military of trying to retain power. Also predictably, Israeli commentators in particular and Western commentators in general are focussing on the fact that the Islamists will control the parliament no matter which candidate wins the presidential election, but in the rush to be concerned they have missed a few interesting ‘straws in the wind’.

The first straw that blew passed my window had one Mahmoud Zahar clinging to it. Zahar, described by various sources as a ‘top Hamas official in Gaza’, has just taken an interesting step that possibly has wider-reaching implications. He’s claimed Egyptian citizenship under a law allowing the children of Egyptian mothers to obtain an Egyptian passport. This law has been either in existence for some time but the Mubarak regime wouldn’t allow such claims or it’s been passed since the fall of the former regime, the background is a little unclear. Zahar has proudly announced his intention to vote for an Islamist presidential candidate who he feels will be more pro-Palestinian than the Mubarak Government was. Well that’s fine, he’s entitled to vote now that he is an Egyptian citizen, and he’s not alone. Several hundreds of Palestinians with Egyptian mothers have also been granted citizenship and reportedly there are thousands of Egyptian families with Palestinian children. This does mean of course that they are no longer refugees and they have a country of residence. Nobody is making much of this at the moment, but sooner or later somebody will ask an embarrassing question about UN funding for the now former refugees. That might lead to a look at the number of Palestinians on the West Bank who hold Jordanian passports. Previously, these individuals could claim that Jordanian law discriminated against them in the matter of land and property ownership in Jordan, but following recent legislation in that country this is no longer the case. So in effect, they are no longer refugees either. Anybody say anything about unforseen consequences? Remember you read it here first folks.

The second straw had a report from that stronghold of liberal thought and progressive social policies Saudi Arabia, tied to it. King Abdullah has just fired Sheikh Abdelmohsen al-Obeikan. Who? Formerly an advisor to the Royal Court and now spending more time with his family, al-Obeikan was very definitely not of a progessive bent and opposed amongst other things the relaxation of gender segregation. I take that to mean that he wasn’t keen on the idea of men and women meeting socially or at work, God forbid that they should actually talk to each other, the women might actually express an opinion or two. According to the former advisor, not actually quoted in the Saudi press but he was elsewhere, there were moves afoot by “influential people to corrupt Muslim society by trying to change the natural status of women”. As one of those ‘influential people’ just happened to be his former boss King Abdullah, there was no way that opposition to this radical, shameful idea was a good career move. So this ‘corruption of Muslim society’ is just a blatant attempt by the Saudi monarchy to prevent another outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’ and hang on to absolute power then? Just possibly not, but you’ll have to follow me whilst I join up the dots. In the meantime, just to prove that al-Obeikan himself is a bit of a closet reformer, this was his vision of how to go about relaxing gender-segregation. Several years ago he issued a decree suggesting that unrelated Saudi men and women could mix so long as the man drank the woman’s breast milk, thus creating a maternal bond between them. He didn’t specify as to whether this should be done before they met and did not propose a method of drinking of the breast milk. And that some people think that men and women shouldn’t shake hands!

King Abdullah is not your average repressive absolute monarch, he has some strange ideas. He thinks that eventually women should be allowed to vote in elections, whatever they are, has opened a co-educational university in Saudi Arabia and has introduced measures against domestic violence, presumably this refers to violence against women and not other domestic animals. Additionally, last January he replaced the head of the Mutawa, the religious police, with somebody regarded as being more liberally-minded. More liberally-minded probably being a comparison and not a comment on the present-incumbents actual views. At this rate, they’ll be allowing Princess Basma Bint Saud back home. Who? A journalist now living in London, she is the youngest daughter of the late King Saud. Taken by her Syrian mother to live in Beirut, when the civil war broke out in 1975 they went to London. Obviously a close-knit family then. She had attended a Christian missionary school whilst in Beirut (which might explain going to London not Riyad) and after finishing her education off in Switzerland at some point returned to Saudi Arabia and married. Despite her early education by French Missionary nuns, she is a committed Muslim. After her divorce and subsequently starting a chain of restaurants in Saudi Arabia, she moved back to London with three of her children. Unusual for a divorced Saudi woman to have custody of her children, nethertheless she managed it. She gave several interviews and wrote articles about the status of women in Saudi Arabia whilst in Saudi Arabia, particularly in favour of the reform reform of divorce laws, and her writing was censured.  She says this had nothing to do with the decision to return to London, where she has also commented publicly on Sharia law, the role of women in Saudi society and perhaps tellingly the relaxation of the rules governing the segragation of men and women. She is careful to not blame the Saudi royal family for any repression; rather she blames ‘govenors and middle managers.’ Such as al-Obeikan perhaps. All in all, her comments are thoughtful and dare one say respectful but critical of certain aspects of the current Saudi interpretation of Islam. If she were to ask my advice I’d say buy a smart new set of luggage but don’t buy the airline ticket home just yet.

So what’s going on? Obviously there’s an attempt to loosen the reins, but I feel there is more to it than that. Most people know, even if it’s not a topic of daily conversation, that the brand of Islam in Saudi Arabia is Wahhabism. This is a very strict branch of Sunni Islam, and doesn’t have many other adherents in the Arabian peninsular. Now it starts to get interesting. The current king, Abdullah, received a traditional religious education but is not known to share the puritanical view of Islam espoused by the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia. He does however have an empathy with the traditional Saudi way of life, and in that context is cautiously embarking on reform, believing that it will prevent internal strife. Another straw in the wind, the ruling Al Saud family, rulers of the area known as the Hejaz, were exiled to Kuwait in 1891 following a power struggle, before returning in 1902 and over a period of time seizing and consolidating power in what would become Saudi Arabia, with the help of the Ikwahan or brotherhood, a sect based on Wahhabism. The sect and the Al Sauds fell out in 1912 and what is happening now is possibly Abdullah finally starting to cut the remaining ties.

All very interesting, but where is this taking us? How about the tribal ties between the Gulf States (excluding Oman) and Saudi Arabia? The inhabitants of the remaining Gulf States, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar and Bahrain share a tribal heritage. Most of the populations originate from either what is now Saudi Arabia or Yemen and as we know, tribal alliegences are still strong in the Arab world. So what? Well you might have heard of the Cooperation Council Gulf for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG). Maybe you weren’t sure exactly what it was called, but now you know. This organisation has been in existence since 1981.

Its major objectives included:

Passing similar legislation in various fields such as economy, finance, trade, customs, tourism, legislation, and administration.

Encouraging scientific and technical progress in industry, mining, agriculture, water and animal resources.

Establishing scientific research centers.

Establishing joint ventures.

Creating a unified military presence (Peninsula Shield Force).

Encouraging cooperation of the private sector.

Strengthening ties between their peoples.

Establishing a common currency by 2010.

The latter objective has fallen by the wayside. Oman pulled out in 2006 and the UAE was miffed when it was proposed that the central bank be located in Saudi Arabia.

The Gulf region had a rapidly growing economy and most of the Gulf countries had an eye to establishing sufficient currency reserves to cushion falling revenues as the oil begins to run out. Unfortunately, when confronted with an economic downturn, most of the countries resorted to what amounted to bribing their citizens to maintain internal stability. A fine example of this occurred in Saudi Arabia itself when the local stock market took a dive, along with every other stock market worldwide. A member of the Royal Family stepped up to the plate and injected several hundred million US dollars into the market by purchasing tanking stock. Predictably the price of the stock rose and everybody’s portfolio recovered in value. Saudis thought their Royal family was wonderful. For now. This is not a workable long-term economic strategy. Most of the Gulf States import cheap labour. This means that citizens either do nothing or occupy senior management positions whilst still enjoying State handouts, based on the oil revenues. Saudi Arabia must have the highest number of Phds in Islamic studies per head of population in the entire world, perhaps good for the spiritual side of life but when you need doctors, engineers and scientists it’s a drag on the economy rather than a stimulant.

Faced with a variety of external and internal problems, the CCASG countries announced in March 2012 that the organisation would be evolving from a regional bloc to a confederation. Now the word confederation has two meanings, but in 21st century political terms it has come to mean a permanent union of several political entities to deal with other political entities. This will eventually lead to a central government, but in the early stages of development will mean joint economic and military endeavours. So purely hypothetically, let’s say that the Gulf States were becoming concerned about, oh I don’t know, Iran, just mentioning a country off the top of my head for no particular reason. Let’s just say that they, the Arab Gulf countries, decided to form a regional power block of Arab Monarchys, some more liberal and quasi-democratic than others, but all enjoying greater or lesser tribal links and similar cultures and the same language. And lets suppose that this regional bloc had had to intervene militarily in a member state, which for the purposes of this article we’ll refer to as Bahrain, to preserve internal order. Or supress a revolt by the oppressed Shia majority, depending on your point of view. Let’s further suppose that the largest of these countries, having control over the holy city of Mecca, regarded itself as the de facto leader of the Islamic World. If you were the absolute monarch of such a country,  the strongest military and economic entity in the evolving confederation, wouldn’t you sit in your desert palace and dream dreams of empire, or in modern 21st century terms, being the strong central government of a confederation? And of course, as an absolute monarch, you might feel moved to make your country more attractive to the citizens of the other confederation members by liberalising certain aspects of day to day life. You might even reflect on the fact that Switzerland is officially a confederation. Hmm, SaudGulfAbia? Switzerland sans cookoo clocks, chocolate and Alpenhorns. Dubai has a ski resort though.

Straws in the wind?


Perhaps not.


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