The New Saudi Diaspora Why MBS Should Worry About Asylum Seekers

Interesting article and of course, we have our examples (e.g., Ensaf Haidar, wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi):

At first glance, it may not seem as though Saudi university students, disgruntled princes, Islamists, and teenage girls have much in common. But members of all these groups are leaving Saudi Arabia and seeking asylum in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Their numbers may be modest compared with those of the refugees who have fled Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria in the past two decades, but these asylum seekers are a political problem for the kingdom—one that its supposedly modernizing young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), can no longer ignore.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 815 Saudi citizens applied for asylum in 2017, a 318 percent increase from 2012. And that’s not counting the unofficial asylum seekers—those living abroad in a state of self-exile, delaying their return to the country for fear of repression. The murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of them.

This new, outspoken Saudi diaspora poses several problems for the kingdom. For one, Saudi Arabia spends millions of dollars on scholarships in order to lessen its dependency on foreign labor; it cannot then afford to lose its highly educated young citizens to exile abroad. The diaspora is also creating an image issue: behind every asylum seeker is a story of injustice and repression that punctures the official narrative about the new, modern Saudi Arabia, flush with economic opportunity. For this reason among others, asylum seekers strain Saudi Arabia’s relationships with their host governments, who are all allies and partners of the regime in Riyadh.

THE RUNAWAYS

MBS has trained particular resources and attention on young Saudis, promoting artistic and entrepreneurial initiatives designed to open the economy and reward youth creativity and talent. He even started an initiative, the Misk Foundation, dedicated to empowering youth to participate in the Saudi economy. But the very demographic MBS courts produces the majority of asylum seekers leaving the country. These newer exiles join the many students who obtained government scholarships to study in Europe and the United States during King Abdullah’s reign from 2005 to 2015 and failed to return to build the “new Saudi Arabia” afterward. By the time MBS had consolidated his power and become the new face of Saudi Arabia in 2017, many of those students were inclined to be skeptical of the crown prince’s promises of creativity, opportunity, and prosperity. They feared repression if they returned to Saudi Arabia—especially if they had taken advantage of freedoms abroad to criticize the regime and expose its shortcomings.

Their fears were well-grounded, as the Saudi regime isn’t hard to provoke. A tweet, a WhatsApp message, or participation in an academic or policy event deemed hostile to the regime is all it might take to wind up on a suspect list in MBS’ Saudi Arabia. The regime maintains tight control over its citizens abroad, watching their every move with developed surveillance technology. The scandal of pervasive surveillance was exposed after the Khashoggi murder, when it became public knowledge that the regime had hacked the phone of a young activist, Omar al-Zahrani, in Canada and recorded his communication with the slain journalist.

Young, educated asylum seekers undermine Saudi propaganda about the new opportunities on offer in the kingdom. And exiled princes challenge the myth of solidarity and cohesion in the royal family. The latter image has eroded since the purge of November 2017, when MBS detained high-ranking princes, including Alwaleed bin Talal and Mutaib bin Abdullah, at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. The flight of a handful of princes who have taken up residence in Europe underlines the fact that under the new crown prince, the regime has changed its strategy from buying off problematic princes to threatening them with humiliating detention.

Young, educated asylum seekers undermine Saudi propaganda about the new opportunities on offer in the kingdom.

Prince Khalid bin Farhan al-Saud is one example of a dissident prince who has eroded the regime’s power from afar. From exile in Germany, Prince Khalid announced his defection in 2013 and started a media campaign to undermine MBS. In interviews with the BBC and other news organizations that the regime considers hostile, Prince Khalid accused the royal family of hypocrisy for enjoying prohibited pleasures such as drinking alcohol and partying while denying them to ordinary citizens, and he characterized King Salman as a “Machiavellian monarch.” After the Khashoggi murder, Prince Khalid announced that he had escaped from a kidnapping attempt in Germany, allegedly ordered by the crown prince.

Exiled princes tend not to come from the core House of Saud lineage that has ruled the kingdom since 1933. But in a family dynasty in which the king is supposed to be primus inter pares, the first among equals, even the defection of a minor prince fractures the foundation of dynastic rule. Now that it is clear that MBS is willing to punish, kidnap, and humiliate defectors, exile has become the only solution for disgruntled princes. Prince Khalid was lucky. Other princes, such as Saif al-Islam al-Saud and Sultan ibn Turki al-Saud, were kidnapped from Europe and returned to Saudi Arabia and have not been seen since.

The newest emerging category of Saudi exiles are the so-called runaway girls. More than 1,000 girls between the ages of 18 and 25 have left Saudi Arabia under MBS, fleeing the strict control—and in some cases, physical and sexual abuse—their guardians impose on them. Their difficult journeys risk bringing even more restrictions and punishments upon them if they are forced to go back to Saudi Arabia.

A recent high-profile case has drawn international attention to the runaway girls. On January 5, 2019, 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun was detained at the Bangkok airport while on her way to seek asylum in Australia. Qunun spent several days in a hotel room at the airport before Canada granted her asylum. Without the support of many Saudi and non-Saudi activists, she might have shared the fate of other, less fortunate runaway girls: repatriation to the kingdom against her will. The regime now acknowledges this problem to the extent that it allowed the airing of debates on the issue in state-sponsored media after Qunun fled the country. Public discussion of the problem may imply that the government is starting to take it seriously; it may also be a way for the government to deflect the crisis and shift the blame to the girls’ parents or guardians.

A UNITED FRONT

Saudi exiles are extremely diverse in their political orientations but united in their grievances against the kingdom under MBS: restricted speech, corruption, the marginalization of women and minorities, and abuses of human rights. The latter concern dominated an opposition conference, hosted by the new forum Diwan London, in December 2018. Among the participants were the Washington-based activist Hala al-Dosari, now Jamal Khashoggi fellow at The Washington Post; the feminist activists Amani al-Ahmadi and Amani al-Issa; the newly exiled Islamists Sultan al-Abdali, Muhammad al-Omari, Ahmad bin Rashid al-Said, and Mohammed al-Qahtani; and the Shiite activist Fuad Ibrahim. They were joined by exiles who had fled the kingdom in the 1990s, such as the physics professor Muhammad al-Massari. All presented their visions for a different Saudi Arabia. Some advocated practical measures to stop repression and detentions; others called for the overthrow of the regime.

The regime’s worst nightmare is a critical mass of dissidents abroad—especially high-profile, articulate ones.

So far, neither Saudi Arabia nor the host governments have taken asylum seekers seriously as a political force. But as their numbers grow and they begin to form a united front, these exiles will become an increasing embarrassment to the regime and its allies. Many are now regular commentators for the global news media, analyzing Saudi affairs in ways that are bound to shift public opinion against the regime. For example, the detained Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul has a brother, Walid, in the United States and a sister, Alya, in Belgium, both of whom campaign for her release and regularly inform the news media about the abuse and torture to which she is subjected. Vigorous reporting by human rights organizations, UN agencies, and the global news media makes it harder for host countries to deny these Saudis asylum.

In the past, Saudi Arabia depended on its allies to deport its exiles. It considers granting them asylum an act of betrayal. Take Canada, for example, whose diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia suffered owing to its criticisms of the regime’s human rights abuses and its hosting of outspoken exiles such as Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and several years in prison for setting up a liberal Internet forum. Zahrani is also in Canada, together with almost 200 other young asylum seekers. The regime fears that exiles who gain asylum will encourage others to flee. Its worst nightmare is a critical mass of dissidents abroad—especially high-profile, articulate ones. Khashoggi’s murder attests to the policy of zero tolerance for such critical voices abroad: they are treated not as nuisances but as national security threats. The more exiles arrive in the lands of the crown prince’s best allies and supporters, the more Riyadh will pressure the host governments to play down their numbers and deny them refuge.

Even after the global outrage following the murder of Khashoggi, Saudi repression remains fierce, and MBS continues to make enemies. He will not be able to buy off, intimidate, or eliminate all of them, and the diaspora will continue to grow. But he may try to stem the exodus, for example, by banning activists and dissidents from travel—keeping his friends close and his enemies closer.

Source: The New Saudi Diaspora

Gurski: Why Canada should not be in a hurry to re-embrace Saudi Arabia

Good piece by Gurski:

I never worked in foreign affairs or for Foreign Affairs (or Global Affairs Canada, as it is now known, having once been designated External Affairs and many other names), but I know a little about the subject. After all, you cannot work in intelligence for three decades without picking up a thing or two on how nations manage their relations with other states.

I do know that at times a country has to hold its nose when engaging with a foreign partner whose actions are seen as, at a minimum, distasteful or, at a maximum, grotesque. In this light, I cannot imagine how the current crew at the Lester B. Pearson Building in Ottawa are handling Canada-U.S. ties, given the present occupant of the White House.

There are also those who maintain that some level of relationship is better than none. A complete cut in ties removes any form of influence or dialogue, although there are other fora (the UN for example) where national representatives can grab a coffee and chitchat about all things statecraft.

On the other hand, there are times and circumstances where a government has little choice but to close doors. Sometimes a state will engage in activities that are truly heinous and no country should allow such to go unpunished.

Saudi Arabia is now in that club. Canada has chosen, at least under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to criticize the kingdom over a variety of incidents; ranging from its treatment of women activists, to its disastrous war in Yemen, which is directly causing a massive humanitarian crisis. The event that overshadows everything, however, is last year’s murder and dismemberment of a Saudi dissident, Jamal Kashoggi, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Everyone knows that he was killed on orders from the very top of the Saudi royal family, their incredulous denials, notwithstanding. In return, the Saudis have suspended relations, booted our ambassador in Riyadh out and recalled their own man from Ottawa. There has not been a lot of movement on this file in some time although Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her Saudi counterpart have been “discussing ideas to de-escalate.”

Into this mix comes the Conservative Party, whose foreign affairs critic, Conservative MP Erin O’Toole, has said that a government led by Andrew Scheer will try to “win some trust” with the Saudis by focusing on improving business links. O’Toole acknowledges that for some Canadians re-establishing ties with Saudi Arabia will be a “tough sell.”

Ya think?

I fail to see why so many states are still fawning over Saudi Arabia, and especially over the king-in-waiting and international star Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS as he is called: some say the acronym stands for “Mister Bone Saw,” a reference to how Kashoggi was cut up). Yes, yes, it is all about oil and MBS’ plans to modernize his nation and the need to have a stalwart ally against the real menace: Iran.

Except that the crown prince’s words are probably just that: words. Saudi Arabia remains a heavily conservative Wahhabi Muslim state that has exported its hateful strain of Islam worldwide for decades and crushes any internal dissent forcefully. True, there has been some crackdown on the more egregious religious hate-mongers, but this leopard is highly unlikely to change its spots any time soon.

I find it hard to believe that many governments, including the U.S., have been giving the kingdom a pass in the post 9/11 period. Recall that 15 of the 19 hijackers that fateful day on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudis, bred on Saudi Wahhabi Islam. And for all the noises about a mellowing of Islam in the desert kingdom, there is ample evidence that Saudi-trained imams are continuing to spread Wahhabi poison around the world. And this is what an ally does?

I realize that money trumps values a lot of the time. In this regard, there is a lot of money to be made by having a robust relationship with Saudi Arabia, particularly in the defence sector. But what is more important: trade or the values Canada stands for?

So O’Toole, if your party indeed gains power in October, have a re-think over going cap in hand to the Saudis. We really don’t need them. Their actions are antithetical to who we are. I’d like to suggest that you be a little more Canadian yourself and ditch this idea.

Source: Why Canada should not be in a hurry to re-embrace Saudi Arabia

Saudi Kingdom Tries To Prevent More Women From Fleeing

Not surprising:

After an 18-year-old Saudi woman, who said she feared death if deported to Saudi Arabia, arrived in Canada, she directed some of her first public commentsback home. Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun encouraged other women to flee family abuse and the oppressive controls imposed on them by the conservative kingdom.

She has just showed them how to do it.

Alqunun was offered asylum in Canada in January after she barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room, from where she mounted a sophisticated social media campaign that sparked international headlines and sympathy.

But in Saudi Arabia, Alqunun’s successful escape from a prominent family spurred harsh media attacks and a social media narrative accusing Western nations of using Saudi women to undermine the kingdom. Still, the domestic campaign is unlikely to deter other young women from fleeing the kingdom, say activists who are in touch with women planning to run.

The high-profile story is “going to set off copycat scenarios,” says Bessma Momani, a Middle East specialist at Canada’s University of Waterloo. “I think women will feel more emboldened.”

She explains that Alqunun’s story has provided a virtual road map for others and revealed a network of groups willing to work out logistics and offer escape strategies. “Rahaf’s story showed there is a quasi-organized group that is willing to help,” Momani says.

Alqunun’s asylum in Canada comes as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, portrays himself as the leader who is steering the country toward a more secular modernity.

Movie theaters have reopened. Saudi women can now drive cars and attend sports events. The kingdom says it has made it easier for women to enter the workplace.

“Any way you slice it, MBS has done more change than anyone in the last 50 years,” says Ali Shihabi, who heads the Arabia Foundation, a pro-Saudi think tank in Washington, D.C. Reform is “an art rather than a science,” he says, “and being an art, there are going to be mistakes. He can’t let the snowball get too big.”

The crown prince is also behind a harsh crackdown on political dissent. That includes jailing more than a dozen women’s rights activists who were vocally pushing for an end to Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, which allows male relatives to control most aspects of a woman’s life.

“When MBS came, he made it clear: ‘You either listen to me, or you go to jail,’ ” says Yasmine Farouk, a visiting scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“He is that much of a dictator that he is able to impose measures that other kings were too scared to impose on society. We are talking about a regime that wants to do everything under its control.”

But the growing number of Saudis seeking refuge abroad undermines Prince Mohammed’s international image as a leader bringing new personal freedoms to the kingdom, says 30-year-old Samah Damanhoori. She was granted asylum in the United States last year after she accused her family of abuse and declared she was no longer a Muslim.

“OK, we are going to let you drive — happy now? Stop running away,” she says, to explain her views on reforms introduced by Prince Mohammed. “But more women are running away. We have to do that to get them full rights.”

In Saudi Arabia, men wield vast powers over women. The guardianship system gives male relatives control over women’s travel, education, medical treatment and marriage. An app called Absher allows Saudi men to specify when and where a woman can travel. The service includes a message alert when a woman uses her passport at an airport or a border crossing.

Fleeing even an abusive home is a crime. If caught, a woman can be jailed or housed in a government-run shelter until her guardian permits her release.

Alqunun’s success was a “huge shake,” Damanhoori says, because she comes from a prominent family, the daughter of a powerful governor.

“The more powerful the family, the harder for a woman to escape, because of family connections. But she made it.”

Alqunun’s family status may explain why the Saudi government has ramped up a campaign to stem the flow. In recent weeks, the General Department for Counter Extremism released an online video as a warning. The animated message compares women who flee the country to young men who join terrorist groups — and blames a vast international conspiracy that it says is aiming to damage the kingdom’s image through its youth.

“Everyone who tried to escape, they compare her with ISIS — it’s horrible,” complains Damanhoori.

“This is not going to end,” says Hala Aldosari, a Saudi activist and writer based in New York. “It will get worse.”

Aldosari says the government blames “agents of the West” and “women activists” as the culprits of the alleged global plot to destabilize Saudi Arabia, “rather than the grievance of the women.” She says the common denominator among those trying to flee is that they are “women who come from controlling or abusive families” and who believe that running is the only way to survive.

The rise of social media has opened a window for people to compare Saudi women’s rights with women’s rights in other Gulf nations. “Saudi women are now more aware of the restriction they live with, and they take higher risks to escape,” Aldosari says.

Reliable statistics in Saudi Arabia on these escapes are hard to find. Some families don’t report a missing daughter for fear of social stigma in a society where a family’s honor is tied to the behavior of women.

Figures on Saudi asylum-seekers abroad, however, are known to have increased. Saudis made 815 asylum claims worldwide in 2017, compared with 195 in 2012, according to the latest tallies published in the United Nations Refugee Agency’s database. Their destinations include the U.S., Canada, Germany, Sweden, the U.K. and Australia.

In 2011, Manal al-Sharif was jailed for nine days in Saudi Arabia for protesting driving restrictions. Her activism cost her the custody of her son, she says. Now she is living in self-imposed exile in Sydney.

“These proclaimed reforms are just refurbishing a huge cage,” al-Sharif says of the changes in Saudi Arabia. “We can’t run a country when half of it is depending on the other half.”

But inside the kingdom, the crown prince is largely viewed as trying to change that equation, says Farouk at Carnegie. “It really is a paradox. It’s the strong man who is able to impose reforms without being afraid of the consequences.”

But Saudi officials know the consequences of the continued flight of women. That undermines the international message that Saudi Arabia is modernizing and that Prince Mohammed has opened a new era of freedoms.

Alqunun’s father, who is a governor, released a statement in January saying that the family had disowned the runaway and calling her “the mentally unstable daughter who has displayed insulting and disgraceful behavior.” That prompted the 18-year-old to drop her family name, she told reporters.

Her father reportedly denied physically abusing her or trying to force her into marriage, according to The Associated Press.

So far, Farouk says, the domestic response, even among women, is to condemn Alqunun’s escape as reckless.

“They don’t care,” Farouk says. “Things have changed in their daily life: They can drive to work, they can go to concerts, play sports. As long as their daily life has been made easier, why care about politics?”

But there is still a limit to personal freedoms. “They will care when they try to contest a policy at work,” she says. “They will be jailed or interrogated, or their fathers will have to get them out of the police station. They will care, but it will take time.”

Source: Saudi Kingdom Tries To Prevent More Women From Fleeing

Five Saudi Students Accused of Rape and Murder Have Vanished Before Trial: Updated with Canadian case

Yet another example of bad behaviour by the Saudi government:

New legislation introduced by Oregon senators aims to punish Saudi Arabia following shocking allegations that the kingdom has whisked as many as five young men facing criminal charges, ranging from rape to murder, out of the country from that state alone.

Speaking publicly for the first time Thursday, the parents of Fallon Smart, a 15-year-old victim of a hit and run by Saudi student Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah in 2016, said they were horrified to learn their daughter’s alleged assailant had disappeared two weeks before his trial with the help of the Saudi government. Noorah was charged with manslaughter, felony hit-and-run, and reckless driving in the teen’s death. He faced a minimum prison sentence of 10 years.

Federal investigators confirmed to the Oregonian/Oregon Live that a private lawyer hired by the Saudi consulate posted $100,000 of a $1 million bail for the 21-year-old and apparently arranged for a dark SUV to pick him up shortly after he left jail. His severed electronic bracelet was found at a nearby gravel yard. Authorities believe he was given a forged passport, since his was sequestered by Oregon authorities, and flown back to Saudi Arabia on a private jet. He was seen back in his home country a week after he disappeared.

“It’s like the laws of physics go out the door,” Fallon’s mother, Fawn Lengvenis, told Oregon Live on Thursday. “And it all starts from the beginning again.”

The teen victim’s father, Seth Smart, said he cannot help obsessing about his daughter’s killer. “The imagination runs wild,” he said. “Is he just leading his normal life somewhere? Does he even think about it? Does he even care?”

The cases of Saudi students disappearing from Oregon justice are hauntingly familiar. In 2014, Abdulaziz Al Duways was arrested on accusations that he drugged and raped a classmate in Monmouth, Oregon. He, too, disappeared after the Saudi consulate helped secure bail. Four of the young men who vanished have been represented by the same attorney, Ginger Mooney, according to local court documents.

The new legislation introduced by Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden would allow the federal government to actively investigate alleged disappearances and make it more difficult for foreign nationals to be granted bail arranged by consulates.

“When anyone within our nation commits a crime, they need to be held accountable—especially when that crime results in the death of an innocent teenager,” Sen. Merkley said in a statement “Saudi Arabia’s blatant disrespect for international norms cannot be allowed to stand. We should all be able to agree that any nation that helps their citizens escape from the law needs to be held fully accountable.”

Around 1,000 of an estimated 60,000 Saudi students currently studying in the United States live in Oregon, according to a recent report in Gulf News, which estimates that only 8,272 are self-sponsored. The rest are on stipends provided by the Saudi kingdom. Disappearances of Saudi nationals facing criminal justice have also been reported in Ohio and California as well as Canada.

Source: Five Saudi Students Accused of Rape and Murder Have Vanished Before Trial

Information on the Canadian case can be found here: Saudi embassy helped accused rapist flee Canada | Toronto Sun

Chris Selley: What — and who — comes after Rahaf Mohammed?

Appears the government overplayed its hand in its communication strategy, both with respect to the Ministerial welcome (all too tempting) and the ongoing (and understandable) gap between the welcoming rhetoric and actual numbers.

However, Ms. Alqunun’s social media sophistication and poise in her CBC interview is impressive:

If Canada were a proud and principled beacon unto the world’s most downtrodden, as so many so often claim, then one might have expected Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun to arrive at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Saturday with relatively little fanfare.

Canada resettles tens of thousands of refugees every year, after all, and many are fleeing circumstances just as horrific as the Saudi teenager’s abuse by her family. Canadian government officials are guarding Alqunun’s current whereabouts partly on grounds she might still be in danger even halfway around the world — an idea given credence by Dennis Horak, who was Canada’s ambassador in Riyadh until he was expelled over the summer.

Indeed, Saudi-Canadian relations are not in terrific shape just at the moment, thanks to our public rebukes of its treatment of activists, and granting immediate asylum to the world’s highest-profile Saudi refugee seems unlikely to help matters. One might very reasonably not give a damn about the House of Saud’s amour propre, but Ottawa would clearly prefer to repair those relations. Quite apart from anything else, it would give Canada more-than-zero leverage in lobbying on behalf of those activists — including imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife is a Canadian citizen.

There were no good reasons to make a big show of Alqunun’s arrival, in other words, and plenty of good reasons not to. Furthermore, Justin Trudeau has been very clear about what he thinks of using refugees as political props. He was at his most thespian back in 2015 when it was alleged Stephen Harper’s office had been sifting through applications from Syrian asylum-seekers in search of potential photo ops.

“That’s DIS-GUST-ING,” Trudeau hissed at a campaign stop in Richmond, B.C. “That’s not the Canada we want; that’s not the Canada we need to build.”

In the end, though, there was Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland with her arm draped around Alqunun, announcing that this “brave new Canadian” would not be taking questions. Luckily, Freeland herself had arrived equipped with some crimson talking points.

“I believe in lighting a single candle,” she said. “Where we can save a single person, where we can save a single woman, that is a good thing to do. … And I’d like to also emphasize, this is part of a broader Canadian policy of supporting women and girls in Canada and around the world.”

“Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights, to stand up for women’s rights around the world,” Trudeau chimed in.

It would be well-nigh impossible to argue against hearing, at the very least, Alqunun’s claim for asylum. But at this point, she is certainly also a political prop — a living symbol of the Liberal view of Canada’s place in the world, and an always-welcome opportunity for self-congratulation.

“We are demonstrating our moral leadership on the issue of gender equality,” University of Waterloo professor Bessma Momani wrote in The Globe and Mail. “It was another proud moment for Canada,” gushed Catherine Porter, The New York Times’ Toronto correspondent. It “further cement(ed) the country’s status as a bastion of refuge in a world where Western nations have become increasingly hostile to refugees,” the Times’ Twitter account effused.

“Any woman from Saudi Arabia should be able to make a credible case for asylum in this country based on the human rights abuses they endure there,” the Toronto Star’s editorial board averred. And on and on and on.

Saudi Arabia is a country of 33 million people. So no, not every woman there can claim asylum in Canada. I suspect the Liberals might balk at five high-profile claims in rapid succession. That’s what they do. The Liberals made a big show of resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees while various European nations accepted many multiples of that; now they brag about how accepting Canadians are of refugees relative to Europe, as if one didn’t largely explain the other. They denounce any worries about asylum-seekers crossing the border illegally as rank intolerance, while waving the new arrivals into an interminable and disastrously under-resourced queue.

There are millions upon millions of displaced people around the world in whom you might expect a giant, wealthy and mostly empty country that prides itself on resettling refugees to take an interest. They aren’t even on the radar. NDP MP Charlie Angus has a more realistic take on what Canada is: “Thousands languish in camps and Chrystia Freeland promotes sale of death machines to Saudis as children die in Yemen,” he tweeted in response to Freeland’s airport press conference. “Foreign policy must be more than smug theatre,” he added.

Well, there’s the rub: Must it?

Canadians of all political stripes take inordinate pride in objectively modest contributions to all manner of global problems. There is nothing inherently disreputable in feeling pride when your country does the right thing — but only if you insist that your country does the right thing continually, coherently and consistently once the warm, fuzzy feeling fades away. Once she’s settled, if she is inclined to remain in the public eye, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun might be the ideal person to hammer that point home.

Source: Chris Selley: What — and who — comes after Rahaf Mohammed?

Two Saudi families buy 62 Maltese passports

Perhaps one of the more glaring examples of the corruption of citizenship by investment programs:

Sixty-two members of two of the richest families in Saudi Arabia became ‘Maltese and EU citizens’ last year after paying millions of euros to buy Malta passports, Times of Malta learnt.

According to the 2017 list of new Maltese citizens, published in The Government Gazette a few days ago, the Al-Muhaidibs and Al-Agils became fully-fledged Maltese citizens last year, even though most of them are minors and might have never set foot on Maltese soil.

The Al-Muhaidibs and the Al-Agils are not only two of the wealthiest business clans in the Saudi kingdom, they are also mentioned by Forbes as among the wealthiest families on the planet.

The Al-Muhaidib Group was established in 1946 and mainly deals in building material and foodstuffs. Group chairman, Sulaiman Al-Muhaidib, who, according to Forbes, has a personal wealth exceeding €3 billion, acquired a Maltese passport last year together with 34 other family members, including his brothers, spouses and their families.

The Government Gazette list, which gives details on a  first name alphabetical order rather than the normal surname module, making it more difficult to distinguish passport buyers from purely new Maltese nationals, indicated that the Al-Agils, who control the Jarir Group business empire, worth over €1.5 billion, procured 27 Maltese passports.

The Jarir Group, which is listed on the Saudi stock exchange and trades in many areas, is controlled by brothers Mohammed, Abdulkarim, Abdulsalam, Abdullah and Naser, all appearing as new Maltese citizens.

Most of them are minors and might have never set foot on Maltese soil

Very little information is given about Malta’s controversial cash for passports scheme, launched in 2014, despite the fact that those who pay large sums of money and buy/rent property on the island are entitled to a Maltese passport, citizenship and the right to vote.

The government has always resisted calls to publish the list of those acquiring Maltese passports through payment and, instead, publishes the names of the new ‘Maltese citizens’ together with hundreds of other names who acquire Maltese citizenship every year through a long legal process, normally through naturalisation.

Read: Henley boasts of cash-for-passports scheme in Malta

Various government spokesmen, including ministers and officials of Identity Malta, have repeatedly shot down calls to make the names of passport buyers’ public, arguing that would jeopardise the scheme’s popularity.

Identity Malta sources told Times of Malta that those buying Maltese passports would not usually be very interested in making such a fact known, especially to their own governments.

A major share of Malta’s passport buyers’ hail from Saudi Arabia as well as other gulf states and far eastern countries. People living in former Soviet republics have also been attracted by the so-called Individual Investor Programme.

More than acquiring Maltese passports, those who fork out €650,000 for every passport and another €25,000 for each dependent would be seeking freedom of movement within the EU since they would also attain EU citizenship as a result.

Although the EU does not look at these schemes positively, it has, so far, tolerated them. This is also due to its limited powers in this area because citizenship rights fall under the direct jurisdiction of member states.

Source: Two Saudi families buy 62 Maltese passports

Saudi Arabia Declares War on America’s Muslim Congresswomen

Of note:

Ever since the midterm election, conservative media in the United States have targeted with special zeal Ilhan Omar, an incoming Somali-American Democratic congresswoman and a devout Muslim who wears hijab. In response to Democrats’ push to remove a headwear ban on the House floor to accommodate Omar, conservative commentator and pastor E.W. Jackson complained on a radio show that Muslims were transforming Congress into an “Islamic republic.”

The Democratic Party has several rising political stars with Arab or Muslim backgrounds, all of whom have become objects of such conspiracy theories. But it’s not only American conservatives who have been indulging in this culture war. The organized attacks have also been coming from abroad—specifically, from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The midterm elections have amplified an existing suspicion in Middle Eastern media of Muslim political activism in the United States. Academics, media outlets, and commentators close to Persian Gulf governments have repeatedly accused Omar, Rashida Tlaib (another newly elected Muslim congresswoman), and Abdul El-Sayed (who made a failed bid to become governor of Michigan) of being secret members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are hostile to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. On Sunday, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya published a feature insinuating that Omar and Tlaib were part of an alliance between the Democratic Party and Islamist groups to control Congress. The article accused the two of being “anti-Trump and his political team and options, especially his foreign policy starting from the sanctions on Iran to the isolation of the Muslim Brotherhood and all movements of political Islam.”

In another example, a talk show on Saudi-owned station MBC discussed the Muslim congresswomen and more broadly the implications of Democrats taking the House. Prominent Arab anchor Amr Adib debated the matter with Egyptian political scientist Moataz Fattah, who suggested that Trump’s successful combating of Islamists would be undermined by the Democrats’ victory. The attacks have become so ubiquitous in the Persian Gulf that the trend itself is the subject of debate, both online and on television.

Occasionally these attacks have been made by officials of those governments, in apparent anxiety that their countries’ expensive public relations and lobbying efforts might be undermined. Just hours after Omar won her election, for example, a staffer at the Saudi Embassy in the United States accused her of following the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he said has permeated the Democratic Party. “She will be hostile to the Gulf and a supporter of the political Islam represented in the Brotherhood in the Middle East,” tweeted Faisal al-Shammeri, a cultural advisor at the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the United States, which is part of the embassy, and a writer for Al Arabiya.

El-Sayed, an American born to Egyptian immigrants, noticed the attacks from the region during his campaign. Media in the Middle East amplified accusations by a Republican candidate for governor, Patrick Colbeck, that El-Sayed had links to the Brotherhood. Egyptian newspaper Youm7, for instance, reported that El-Sayed likely lost the election to his link to the “radical” Nation of Islam, and his relationship with Muslim-American activist Linda Sarsour, “known for her radical views.”

El-Sayed told me that political elites in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE felt threatened by American politicians who are also Muslim. For average Middle Easterners, his story is inspiring. (The clearest instance of Middle Easterners drawing such inspiration, ironically, was the first presidential election victory of Barack Obama, who faced false accusations of being a Muslim.)

The rise of politicians like El-Sayed, Omar, and Tlaib also undermines a core argument advanced by dictators in the Middle East: that their people are not ready for democracy. “People would not have access to power in their countries but they would if they leave; this destroys the argument by Sisi or bin Salman,” El-Sayed said, referring to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “What’s ironic is there is no way I would aspire to be in leadership in Egypt, the place of my fathers.”

American allies in the region also fear that the Democratic Party’s new Arab leaders will advocate for political change in their countries. Having spent millions of dollars for public relations campaigns in Western capitals, the Persian Gulf countries feel threatened by any policymakers with an independent interest in and knowledge of the region. They have thus framed these officials’ principled objections to regional violations of human rights and democratic norms as matters of personal bias. One commentator, who is known to echo government talking points and is frequently retweeted by government officials, recently spread the rumor that Omar is a descendent of a “Houthi Yemeni” to undermine her attacks on the Saudi-led war on Yemen.

The most common attack online by the Saudi-led bloc on the Muslim-American Democrats has been to label them as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, or more generally as ikhwanji, an extremist catch-all term. These attacks started long before this year’s elections. In 2014, the UAE even announced a terror list that included the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for its alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The attacks attempting to tie Omar and Tlaib to the Muslim Brotherhood started in earnest after CAIR publicly welcomed their election to Congress. One UAE-based academic, Najat al-Saeed, criticized Arabic media for celebrating the two Muslim women’s victories at the midterms, and pointed to CAIR’s support for them as evidence of their ties to the Brotherhood.

The attacks on Omar have also indulged in racism. While Tlaib and Omar have both been the targets of smears, it’s been easier for Gulf Arabs to single out Omar for insults because of her African heritage. Negative stereotypes about Africans— who serve as poorly treated migrant workers in the Gulf’s oil economy— are widespread throughout the region.

This was evident in the social media campaign launched last month against Omar by Ahmad al-Farraj, a Saudi writer and researcher with UAE-based Trends Research and Advisory—a firm founded by a former Dubai police official and consultant. He attacked Omar for criticizing Trump’s muted response to the CIA assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely directed the murder of former U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. “These miserable beings coming from the underdeveloped worlds are more hateful to their race and to you than any enemy,” Al Farraj tweeted to his more than 60,000 followers. A steady stream of racist attacks followed in response. One person tweeted a picture of Omar accompanied by the caption “whenever you buy a slave, buy a stick along with the slave. The slave is miserable filth.”

Other than the flurry of racist comments, Omar was trolled based on two false accusations: that she was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and that she had married her brother. Hashtags also began trending with dozens of anonymous accounts tweeting slightly different variations of the same language, and echoing known government-affiliated accounts. The pattern is typical of Twitter troll armies that seem to be used regularly by Mohammed bin Salman to silence the kingdom’s critics.

It should be little surprise that America’s authoritarian allies have responded with panic and fear to voices like Tlaib and Omar. These regimes have always benefited from the false choice they present to policymakers in the West—in Muslim countries, they say, extremists are the only alternative to dictators. That argument is eloquently undermined by American politicians who share those regimes’ religion, but not their cynicism about democracy.

Source: Saudi Arabia Declares War on America’s Muslim Congresswomen

ICYMI – The Saudi-Moroccan spat: Competing for the mantle of moderate Islam

Interesting:

Lurking in the background of a Saudi-Moroccan spat over World Cup hosting rights and the Gulf crisis is a more fundamental competition for the mantle of spearheading promotion of a moderate interpretation of Islam.

It’s a competition in which history and long-standing religious diplomacy gives Morocco a leg up compared to Saudi Arabia, long a citadel of Sunni Muslim intolerance and ultra-conservatism.

Saudi Arabia is the new, baggage-laden kid on the block with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman asserting that he is returning the kingdom to a top-down, undefined form of moderate Islam.

To be sure, Prince Mohammed has dominated headlines in the last year with long-overdue social reforms such as lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening restrictions on cultural expression and entertainment.

The crown prince has further bolstered his projection of a kingdom that is putting ultra-conservative social and religious strictures behind it by relinquishing control of Brussels’ Saudi-managed Great Mosque and reports that he is severely cutting back on decades-long, global Saudi financial support for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative educational, cultural and religious institutions.

Yet, Prince Mohammed has also signalled the limits of his definition of moderate Islam. His recurrent rollbacks have often been in response to ultra-conservative protests not just from the ranks of the kingdom’s religious establishment but also segments of the youth that constitute the mainstay of his popularity.

Just this week, Prince Mohammed sacked Ahmad al-Khatib, the head of entertainment authority he had established. The government gave no reason for Mr. Al-Khatib’s dismissal, but it followed online protests against a controversial Russian circus performance in Riyadh, which included women wearing “indecent clothes.”

The protests were prompted by a video on social media that featured a female performer in a tight pink costume.

In a similar vein, the Saudi sports authority closed a female fitness centre in Riyadh in April over a contentious promotional video that appeared to show a woman working out in leggings and a tank-top. A spokesman for the royal court, Saud al-Qahtani, said the closure was in line with the kingdom’s pursuit of “moderation without moral breakdown.”

Saudi sports czar Turki bin Abdel Muhsin Al-Asheikh said “the gym had its licence suspended over a deceitful video that circulated on social media promoting the gym disgracefully and breaching the kingdom’s code of conduct.”

Mr. Al-Sheikh’s sports authority moreover apologized recently for airing a promotional video of a World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., event that showed scantily clad female wrestlers drawing euphoric cheers from men and women alike.

To be sure, the United States, which repeatedly saw ultra-conservative Islam as a useful tool during the Cold War, was long supportive of Saudi propagation of Islamic puritanism that also sought to counter the post-1979 revolutionary Iranian zeal.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia’s more recent wrestle with what it defines as moderate and effort to rebrand itself contrasts starkly with long-standing perceptions of Morocco as an icon of more liberal interpretations of the faith.

While Saudi Islamic scholars have yet to convince the international community that they have had a genuine change of heart, Morocco has emerged as a focal point for the training of European and African imams in cooperation with national governments.

Established three years ago, Morocco’s Mohammed VI Institute for Imam Training has so far graduated 447 imams; 212 Malians, 37 Tunisians, 100 Guineans, 75 Ivorians, and 23 Frenchmen.

The institute has signed training agreements with Belgium, Russia and Libya and is negotiating understandings with Senegal.

Critics worry that Morocco’s promotion of its specific version of Islam, which fundamentally differs from the one that was long prevalent in Saudi Arabia, still risks Morocco curbing rather than promoting religious diversity.

Albeit on a smaller scale than the Saudi campaign, Morocco has in recent years launched a mosque building program in West Africa as part of its soft power policy and effort to broaden its focus that was long centred on Europe rather than its own continent.

On visits to Africa, King Mohammed VI makes a point of attending Friday prayers and distributing thousands of copies of the Qur’an.

In doing so Morocco benefits from the fact that its religious ties to West Africa date back to the 11th century when the Berber Almoravid dynast converted the region to Islam. King Mohammed, who prides himself on being a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, retains legitimacy as the region’s ‘Commander of the Faithful.’

West African Sufis continue to make annual pilgrimages to a religious complex in Fez that houses the grave of Sidi Ahmed Tijani, the 18thcentury founder of a Sufi order.

All of this is not to say that Morocco does not have an extremism problem of its own. Militants attacked multiple targets in Casablanca in 2003, killing 45 people. Another 17 died eight years later in an attack in Marrakech. Militants of Moroccan descent were prominent in a spate of incidents in Europe in recent years.

Nonetheless, protests in 2011 at the time of the popular Arab revolts and more recently have been persistent but largely non-violent.

Critics caution however that Morocco is experiencing accelerated conservatism as a result of social and economic grievances as well as an education system that has yet to wholeheartedly embrace more liberal values.

Extremism is gaining ground,” warned Mohamed Elboukili, an academic and human rights activist, pointing to an increasing number of young women who opt to cover their heads.

“You can say to me this scarf doesn’t mean anything. Yes, it doesn’t mean anything, but it’s isolating the girl from the boy. Now she’s wearing the scarf, but later on she’s not going to shake hands with the boy . . . Later on she’s not going to study in the same class with boys. Those are the mechanisms of an Islamist state, that’s how it works,” Mr. Elboukili said.

Mr. Elboukili’s observations notwithstanding, it is Morocco rather than Saudi Arabia that many look to for the promotion of forms of Islam that embrace tolerance and pluralism. Viewed from Riyadh, Morocco to boot has insisted on pursuing an independent course instead of bowing to Saudi dictates.

Morocco refused to support Saudi Arabia in its debilitating, one-year-old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar but recently broke off relations with Iran, accusing the Islamic republic of supporting Frente Polisario insurgents in the Western Sahara.

Moroccan rejection of Saudi tutelage poses a potential problem for a man like Prince Mohammed, whose country is the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities and who has been ruthless in attempting to impose his will on the Middle East and North Africa and position the kingdom as the region’s undisputed leader.

Yet, Saudi Arabia’s ability to compete for the mantle of moderate Islam is likely to be determined in the kingdom itself rather than on a regional stage. And that will take far more change than Prince Mohammed has been willing to entertain until now.

Source: The Saudi-Moroccan spat: Competing for the mantle of moderate Islam

Detained Saudi womens’ activists branded as traitors – The Globe and Mail

So much for MBS’s efforts to present an image of reform:

Just weeks before Saudi Arabia is set to lift its ban on women driving, the kingdom’s state security said Saturday it had detained seven people who are being accused of working with “foreign entities.” Rights activists say all those detained had worked in some capacity on women’s rights issues, with five of those detained among the most prominent and outspoken women’s rights campaigners in the country.

Pro-government media outlets have splashed their photos online and in newspapers, accusing them of betrayal and of being traitors.

The women activists had persistently called for the right to drive, but stressed that this was only the first step toward full rights. For years, they also called for an end to less visible forms of discrimination, such as lifting guardianship laws that give male relatives final say on whether a woman can travel abroad, obtain a passport or marry.

Their movement was seen as part of a larger democratic and civil rights push in the kingdom, which remains an absolute monarchy where protests are illegal and where all major decision-making rests with the king and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Some state-linked media outlets published the names of those detained, which include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Najfan.

Rights activists who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion say Madeha al-Ajroush and Aisha al-Manae are also among the seven detained. Both took part in the first women’s protest movement for the right to drive in 1990, in which 50 women were arrested for driving and lost their passports and their jobs.

All five women are well-known activists who agitated for greater women’s rights. Several of the women were professors at state-run universities and are mothers or grandmothers.

The Interior Ministry on Saturday did not name those arrested, but said the group is being investigated for communicating with “foreign entities,” working to recruit people in sensitive government positions and providing money to foreign circles with the aim of destabilizing and harming the kingdom.

The stunning arrests come just six weeks before Saudi Arabia is set to lift the world’s only ban on women driving next month.

When the kingdom issued its royal decree last year announcing that women would be allowed to drive in 2018, women’s rights activists were contacted by the royal court and warned against giving interviews to the media or speaking out on social media.

Following the warnings, some women left the country for a period of time and others stopped voicing their opinions on Twitter.

As activists were pressured into silence, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old heir to the throne stepped forth, positioning himself as the force behind the kingdom’s reforms.

Human Rights Watch says, however, the crown prince’s so-called reform campaign “has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women’s empowerment.”

“The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Last year, Prince Mohammed oversaw the arrests of dozens of writers, intellectuals and moderate clerics who were perceived as critics of his foreign policies. He also led an unprecedented shakedown of top princes and businessmen, forcing them to hand over significant portions of their wealth in exchange for their freedom as part of a purported anti-corruption campaign.

In an interview with CBS in March, he said that he was “absolutely” sending a message through these arrests that there was a new sheriff in town.

Activists say writer Mohammed al-Rabea and lawyer Ibrahim al-Mudaimigh, two men who worked to support women’s rights campaigners, are also among the seven detained. Al-Mudaimigh defended al-Hathloul in court when she was arrested in late 2014 for more than 70 days for her online criticism of the government and for attempting to bring attention to the driving ban by driving from neighbouring United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia.

Those familiar with the arrests say al-Hathloul was forcibly taken by security forces earlier this year from the UAE, where she was residing, and forced back to the kingdom.

In recent weeks, activists say several women’s rights campaigners were also banned from travelling abroad.

Immediately after news of the arrests broke, pro-government Twitter accounts were branding the group as treasonous under an Arabic hashtag describing them as traitors for foreign embassies.

The pro-government SaudiNews50 Twitter account, with its 11.5 million followers, splashed images of those arrested with red stamps over their face that read “traitor” and saying that “history spits in the face of the country’s traitors.”

The state-linked Al-Jazirah newspaper published on its front-page a photo of al-Hathloul and al-Yousef under a headline describing them as citizens who betrayed the nation.

Activists told the AP that some in the group were arrested on Tuesday and at least one person was arrested Thursday. They say the detainees were transferred from the capital, Riyadh, to the city of Jiddah for interrogations where the royal court has relocated for the month of Ramadan.

Activists say it’s not clear why the seven have been arrested now.

via Detained Saudi womens’ activists branded as traitors – The Globe and Mail

Iran’s Leader Is Worse Than Hitler and Wants to Spread Islam to America, Says Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Bit rich given the considerable Saudi funding provided in many countries to support their fundamentalist strain of Islam. Will that stop?:

The heir to the Saudi throne has lambasted Iran, saying its Supreme Leader is the first side of a “triangle of evil” along with the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist Islamist groups like Isis.

In an echo of former U.S. president George W. Bush’s 2002 reference to Iran’s supposed role in an “axis of evil,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told The Atlantic that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was akin to Hitler and headed a regime that wanted to spread “extremist Shiite ideology.”

The crown prince added that if Tehran got its way, “the hidden Imam will come back again and he will rule the whole world from Iran and spread Islam even to America,” referring to the final savior of humankind according to Iran’s Twelver Shia faith.

He said: “The second part of the triangle is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is another extremist organization. They want to use the democratic system to rule countries and build shadow caliphates everywhere… And the other part is the terrorists, al-Qaeda, ISIS, that want to do everything with force.

“I believe that the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good. But the supreme leader is trying to conquer the world. He believes he owns the world. They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East,” he added.

The wide-ranging interview will be seen as the latest move by the royal to present a different image of his country. In November he ordered a crackdown on businessmen and officials accused of corruption, which has reportedly recovered 100 billion dollars in financial settlements, although critics said it was a purge of his rivals to consolidate power.

Women will also be allowed to drive for the first time in the kingdom, although the country’s guardianship laws, which he describes as only “customs,” which restrict women’s freedoms, remain in place.

The crown prince insists his country is part of a group of moderate Muslim nations which include Jordan, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates which are, in his view, countries based on the founding principles of the United Nations whose values are at odds with those of the “evil triangle.”

But Salman puzzled his interviewer when he denied that Wahhabism, the austere fundamentalist strand of Islam which is the bedrock of the country, even existed in Saudi Arabia.

“No one can define Wahhabism. There is no Wahhabism. We don’t believe we have Wahhabism. We believe we have, in Saudi Arabia, Sunni and Shiite. We believe we have within Sunni Islam four schools of thought,” he said, adding that Shiites held many positions of power in government and society.

He said he has no religious objections to the right of Israel to exist, and that his concerns were solely about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and the rights of the Palestinian people.

“I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.

“We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people.

“Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Our Prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman. Not just a friend—he married her. Our prophet, his neighbors were Jewish. You will find a lot of Jews in Saudi Arabia coming from America, coming from Europe. There are no problems between Christian and Muslims and Jews. We have problems like you would find anywhere in the world, among some people. But the normal sort of problems,” said the crown prince.

via Iran’s Leader Is Worse Than Hitler and Wants to Spread Islam to America, Says Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman