15 February 2009

* KSA.. King Abdullah's Bold Move

Saudi Arabia announced Feb. 14 massive Cabinet changes, replacing conservatives with more liberal officials. The new composition of the government is the boldest move by King Abdullah in his modernization efforts. The Saudis seem to have things under control; but at a time when the kingdom is fast approaching a period of transition, these changes could trigger a backlash from the country's ultraconservative elements.

The changes are as follows:

Norah al-Fayez, currently an official at the Saudi Institute of Public Administration, was appointed deputy education minister for female education affairs.
The ultraconservative head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, was replaced by Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Humain, who was quoted as saying that the religious police would strive to be closer to the hearts of the public.
Sheikh Saleh al-Lihedan, chief of the kingdom's highest tribunal, the Supreme Council of Justice, who made headlines in September 2008 for his edict that it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV channels broadcasting immoral programs, was replaced by Saleh bin Humaid, who was head of the Consultative Council (the Saudi equivalent of a legislature); the Consultative Council will now be headed by Sheikh Abdullah al-Sheikh.
The monarch's son-in-law Prince Faisal bin Abdullah -- a senior official in the country's elite military force, the Saudi National Guard -- was given the job of education minister.
The former Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Abdul-Aziz al-Khoja, has become information and culture minister.
Legal expert, Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, was named justice minister; and Bandar al-Iban, a liberal senior official of the Saudi Human Rights Commission, was appointed as the head of the commission.
Lt. Gen. Hussein was appointed Deputy Chief of General Staff, and Maj. Gen. Abdul Rahman was made commander of ground forces.
Mohammed al-Jasser, the vice governor of Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency, replaced outgoing central bank chief Hamad Saud al-Sayyari, who had held the position since 1983.
The Supreme Administrative Court got a new chairman, Mohammed al-Dossari; and Ibrahim al-Huqail was named of head of the Bureau of Public Grievances.
The membership of the Council of Ulema (the highest clerical authority in the kingdom) was expanded to 21 -- to include, for the first time, representatives of all four Sunni Islamic schools of jurisprudence. Until now, only those from the Hanbali school of thought (upon which Wahhabism is based) had representation on the council.

It should be noted that the most-powerful Cabinet portfolios of oil, finance, foreign affairs, interior and defense -- which are held by the elite of the ruling al-Saud family -- remained unchanged.

That said, the reshuffle is highly significant in terms of the changes taking place in the kingdom, as King Abdullah tries to steer the country away from its deeply conservative past at a time when the country is at the cusp of a major transition, given that the Crown Prince is thought to be terminally ill.

The king, though quite healthy, is himself in his mid-80s, and the next three in line are in their 70s. Given the probability of a major change in the Saudi hierarchy over the course of the next five years, the moves toward reform and these sweeping changes are risky. The fact that Saudis have historically held a risk-averse attitude toward change makes the ongoing changes even more daring.

However, the Saudi leaders at critical moments in their history have shown their resilience through their ability to make the difficult decisions. Abdullah, therefore, would not have embarked on changes of this magnitude if he wasn't reasonably certain that his government would be able to live with them. He is responding to a significant demand for a more open society from a growing cross section of the public.

But the changes affecting social and religious norms carry with them, to a certain degree, a risk of backlash -- particularly, given that the kingdom only recently began an anti-extremism and de-radicalization campaign to combat Islamist terrorism. Since this project will be a work in progress for the foreseeable future, the ultraconservative elements within the kingdom -- especially those in the religious establishment -- are bound to be unhappy.

Long resistant to change, Saudi's ultraconservative elements are not going to accept the direction in which the country is headed. Thus, they might become more open to the criticism from al Qaeda and other radical Islamist tendencies that the Saudi leadership is now openly tampering with the religious character of the country rendering it a secular state in order to please the West. Consequently, the possibility of conflict within the world's largest producer of oil remains large -- and this would come at a bad time, given the external threat in the form an emergent Iran and its Arab Shia allies.

Therefore, these cultural and leadership changes designed to move Saudi Arabia toward a relatively more liberal society at a time of transition could lead to unrest within the country.


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.