Arab Autocrats are Masking Repression with Religion

Of note:

On March 1, the Abrahamic Family House opened to the public on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Hailed as a beacon of tolerance and modernity in the Middle East, the interfaith complex hosts the Imam al-Tayeb Mosque, St. Francis Church, and Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue.

The complex, part of a UAE government effort marketed as a way to foster interreligious harmony in a region that is regularly depicted as lacking such a quality, began development in 2019, following a visit by Pope Francis to the UAE during which he, along with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed el-Tayeb, signed the “Document on Human Fraternity” with the hope of fostering interreligious unity.

Such government-directed initiatives—marketed as a mechanism to advance peace, tolerance, and moderation—have become increasingly common throughout the Middle East over the past decade, with countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and many others launching various international initiatives focused on interfaith dialogue, countering extremist religious practices and interpretations and promoting so-called “moderate Islam.”

However, despite outwardly projecting an image of tolerance and moderation, many of these same governments simultaneously employ religion to buttress their authoritarian rule, legitimize repression, limit their citizens’ freedoms, and justify aggressive policies abroad. For example, the UAE is not only fiercely repressive at home but is also one of the Middle East’s most interventionist states, pursuing policies that have prolonged the region’s civil wars, created humanitarian crises, crushed democratic aspirations, and fueled the underlying grievances that lead to unrest.

Increasingly, many Middle Eastern governments are wielding religion as a tool of soft power alongside other efforts—including sportswashing, greenwashing, and other PR campaigns—designed to absolve themselves of their culpability in human rights abuses and destabilization of the Middle East while maintaining the support of their Western benefactors.

A considerable proportion of academic and policy analyses examining the relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East tends to focus overwhelmingly on how Islam drives political outcomes in the region. Less attention is devoted to how politics often drives religious outcomes. The government-sponsored project of so-called moderate Islam is an example of politically driven religious messaging.

There are two key elements to this government-sponsored moderate Islam.

First is the promotion of a politically quietist and statist conceptualization Islam that stresses absolute obedience to established authority. Governments depict obedience to the ruler of the state as a religious obligation. These governments embrace an interpretation of Islam that is subservient to the state, incapable of challenging the regime’s legitimacy or policies, while also delegitimizing alternative sources of religious or political authority.

Critical to such a strategy is the portrayal of all forms of Islamism—whether mainstream or more radical—and all forms of political opposition as manifestations of “extremism” and “radicalism” in order to eliminate all independent or dissenting religious and political voices capable of challenging state authority.

Aiding these efforts are strategically constructed anti-terrorism laws that have proliferated throughout the Middle East in two main waves: one following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the other following the 2011 Arab uprisings. The language of such legislation was always designed in a vague manner in order to be capable of targeting almost any challenge to the status quo. This kind of legislation has been used to target all forms of dissent in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and elsewhere.

By painting challenges to the status quo as extreme and casting such opposition as a manifestation of religious radicalism, these governments are simultaneously able to deflect attention from how their authoritarian policies are often the underlying catalysts for regional instability and repress anyone they deem as a threat to their own rule under the guise of countering so-called extremist behavior. Such framing allows these governments to monopolize discussions surrounding Islam, reform, and politics in the Middle East.

Second, in the efforts to brand themselves as moderate, these regimes have also adopted the strategic usage of interfaith tolerance. In particular, outreach by these states to various Christian and Jewish communities, organizations, and figures has proved particularly effective. By framing their actions as in-line with Western initiatives designed to protect religious freedom and encourage interfaith relations, these governments have received regular praise from political leaders and religious groups in the United States. This has allowed them to project an image of tolerance while also currying favor with influential actors in certain key countries.

Engagement with other faith communities and leaders abroad not only advances the image of these governments as tolerant and progressive actors, but also presents an opportunity for these states to project themselves internationally as the sole legitimate representatives of the global Muslim community. The curation of such an image is designed to present these actors as stabilizing forces throughout the Middle East despite their repressive policies at home and aggressive foreign policies that contribute to the underlying sources of regional instability.

The government-sponsored project of moderate Islam is primarily a product of the post-9/11 era. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the West proceeded to construct arbitrary categories of what the scholar Mahmoud Mamdani referred to as “good” and “bad” Muslims. The Islam that autocratic regimes in the Middle East practice and promote is presented to the West as “good” and “moderate,” and is designed to depict these governments as the best—perhaps only—partners capable of working with the West to combat “bad” and “extreme” Islam.

As the United States began pouring money and weapons into the pockets of these governments under the notion of supporting counterterrorism, these regimes were able to harness these resources and utilize them in the widespread repression of any who challenged the status quo. These patterns were accelerated by the 2011 Arab uprisings as ruling elites jockeyed to delegitimize and repress opposition to their rule while maintaining Western support. Presenting themselves as upholders of stability, these autocratic governments have been able to deflect attention away from how their policies and the nature of their rule have contributed to the underlying sources of regional instability.

The project of moderate Islam is directed primarily toward the West, particularly the United States, which remains the security guarantor for many of the governments spearheading these projects. Successfully selling this image on a global scale is a critical component to other complementary soft-power initiatives and efforts to legitimize the domestic and international policies of these autocratic actors.

Two states in particular lead the enterprise that is moderate Islam: Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, hailedby many as a long-awaited reformer, made headlines upon his vow to return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam. Domestically, the crown prince has made several changes, including attempts to distance official Saudi Arabian history from ultra-conservative Wahhabism; allowing women to drivelive alone without male permission, and travel without a male guardian; limiting the religious police’s powers; permitting public entertainment venues such as cinemas and concerts; and arresting religious clerics and scholars labeled as extremists by the regime. State religious figures and institutions continue to praise Mohammed bin Salman as a “modernizer” and “renewer,” and the Council of Senior Scholars, the preeminent religious body in Saudi Arabia, regularly endorses his controversial domestic and foreign policies.

Internationally, the crown prince has overseen the projection of moderate Islam to Western audiences. Institutions such as the Saudi-based Muslim World League, led by Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa and representing a virtual extension of the Saudi state, have spearheaded such efforts, particularly outreach to Jewish and evangelical Christian communities. In November 2018, Saudi Arabia hosted a delegation of evangelical Christian leaders from the United States, who were received by Mohammed bin Salman and Issa. A similar delegation visited the kingdom again in September 2019. In January 2020, al-Issa led a delegation of Islamic scholars in an unprecedented visit to the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, accompanied by representatives of the American Jewish Committee. A year later, Pope Francis received Issa at the Vatican.

Likewise, the UAE under the leadership of Mohamed bin Zayed has projected an image of the Emirates as a beacon of tolerance, modernity, and stability in the Middle East. The UAE embassy in the United States stresses that “values of inclusion, mutual respect and religious freedom have been ingrained in the UAE’s DNA since before the country’s founding in 1971.” It notes the Emirates “has a forward-looking vision for the Middle East region—a path that promotes moderate Islam, empowers women, teaches inclusion, encourages innovation and welcomes global engagement.”

After the Arab uprisings, the UAE created a series of new institutions to cement this image domestically and promote it abroad, such as the Muslim Council of Elders, the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, and the UAE Fatwa Council; and in 2016, it established an official minister of tolerance position, currently held by Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak al-Nahayan. The year 2019 was proclaimed the “Year of Tolerance” in the Emirates, further advancing this image of the UAE as a source of stability and prosperity in the Middle East.

Internationally, the number of interfaith initiatives spearheaded by the UAE or involving institutions based in the Emirates is considerable. Programs such as the UAE’s Alliance of Virtue seek to “bring together religious leaders of good-will for the benefit of humanity”; the alliance’s steering committee is composed of leading Muslim, Christian, and Jewish individuals from around the world. The newly formed Jewish Council of the Emirates serves as the representative body of Jews within the UAE and, in 2019, New York University Chaplain Yehuda Sarna was named the country’s first chief rabbi.

More than any of the other interfaith efforts the UAE has pursued, the crowning jewel remains the Abraham Accords. The accords were marketed as a way forward for the Israel-Palestine conflict and a broader framework for Middle Eastern peace. When the Abraham Accords were announced, signatories emphasized how this historic declaration would be a tool for “maintaining and strengthening peace in the Middle East and around the world based on mutual understanding and coexistence.” The UAE described the accords as “catalyst for wider change in the Middle East” and a mechanism to “promote regional security, prosperity, and peace for years to come.”

Yet, despite these initiatives, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the most autocratic governments in the world. Bothcountries are engaged in widespread human rights abuses at home and support a wide array of autocratic actors throughout the region engaged in similar abuses.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the vanguards of the authoritarian resurgence taking place across the Middle East. At home, they are fiercely repressive, forcibly silencing any form of dissent or opposition to the policies pursued by the government. Both states are witnessing a strengthening and intensification of personalistic rule whereby Mohammed bin Salman and Mohamed bin Zayed have sought to eliminate institutional constraints and amass an unprecedented amount of power.

Abroad, these two leaders spearheaded an ongoing military offensive in Yemen that has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, continue to pour financial and military resources into supportingallied authoritarian actors engaged in gross abuses, and are engaged in sophisticated campaigns of transnational repression and surveillance targeting activists and dissidents around the world. Additionally, they have played critical roles in supporting China’s repression of its domestic Muslim communities, and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to engage in illegal activities within the United States.

Despite many of the interfaith initiatives being marketed as a way to promote moderation, tolerance, and peace, they have increasingly paved the way for expanded cooperation and collaborationon strategic issues. For example, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have increasingly coordinated their lobbying efforts in Washington to advance mutually-shared objectives in the Middle East and across the globe, namely the preservation of the prevailing illiberal status quo and regional balance of power.

The Abraham Accords in particular did not represent a breakthrough for peace in the Middle East, but rather the solidification of a top-down, imposed regional order designed to advance the interests of political elites. Instead of a mechanism to promote peace, interfaith initiatives for Middle East actors are often steeped in shared political objectives between actors with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Interfaith initiatives and the promotion of religious moderation and tolerance are themselves not problematic and should be encouraged. The problem is autocratic regimes are using the government-sponsored project of moderate Islam as a mechanism to whitewash their repressive, aggressive domestic and foreign policies while projecting a false image to their Western benefactors. The initiatives pursued by these regimes are inherently political, designed to support the domestic and geopolitical objectives of these autocratic governments instead of actually countering specific religious interpretations or practices.

Jon Hoffman is research director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). Twitter: @Hoffman8Jo

Source: Arab Autocrats are Masking Repression with Religion

Saudi Arabia amends citizenship laws to include foreign nationals

Slow liberalization, but decision of the King, not public servants:

Saudi Arabia has announced it will grant citizenship to certain to selected foreign nationals, following the passing of a law, allowing Prime Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to do so, upon the proposal from the Minister of Interior earlier this year.

The decision was made public on the official Twitter account of the Makkah Al-Mukarramah, quoting the Ministry of Interior. The amendment was published in the official gazette Um Al Qura on Friday. In January, a royal decree was issued to approve the amendment of Article Eight of the Saudi Nationality Law, becoming law on 13 March.

According to the amendment, a person born to a Saudi mother and a foreign father may apply for citizenship upon meeting the following criteria: they must be over the age of 18, must be fluent in Arabic language, must have “good conduct and behaviour”, and should not have been imprisoned for a period of more than six months.

However, some activists have already expressed concerns over the changes to the law, arguing that it will make it even more difficult for Saudi women to attain naturalisation for their children with more legal hurdles. Currently, children whose father is a Saudi national are automatically granted citizenship, which is the case for most states in the region.

In November 2021, the kingdom passed a royal decree granting citizenship to “experts and exceptional global talents,” becoming the second Gulf state after the UAE to introduce a formal naturalisation programme for foreigners with specialised skills.

Source: Saudi Arabia amends citizenship laws to include foreign nationals

Saudi Arabia amends criteria to grant citizenship – World

Of note:
The Saudi Arabian Nationality System has undergone a recent changeA change to Article 8 of the Saudi Arabian Nationality System was made, which gives the Prime Minister (PM) the power to confer citizenship. It has been authorised by higher authorities in the Kingdom.

The term “by decision of the Minister of Interior” in Article 8 was changed to “by an order of the Prime Minister based on Minister of Interior proposal” post revision.

According to Article 8 of the Saudi Arabian Nationality System “A person who is born in the Kingdom to a foreign father and a Saudi mother may be granted Saudi citizenship if certain requirements are met.”

The requirements are that he must be fluent in Arabic, have the status of permanent residency in the Kingdom when he reaches legal age, be of good behaviour and sound character, and should have never been convicted of a crime or sentenced to more than six months in prison for an immoral act.

Source: Saudi Arabia amends criteria to grant citizenship – World

Momani: Biden’s futile trip to Saudi Arabia

Of note. Pivoting to address new circumstances has consequences:

American President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia this past weekend was bad theatre. At best it gave the impression of him addressing American consumers’ woes and at worst reaffirmed every skeptic’s view of hypocritical U.S. foreign policy. Make no mistake – this trip would not have happened were it not for Mr. Biden’s dwindling approval ratings at home, attributed in part to rising inflation and growing fears of a recession. Both economic woes are tied to high energy costs caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Biden administration officials provided a laundry list of reasons for the President’s trip, from the long-time favourite of “promoting peace in the Middle East” to getting the Saudis to increase oil production to ease prices on American consumers. But geopolitical and oil market experts had rightly assessed that nothing substantive would come from this trip when it came to either issue. Despite Israeli-Saudi commercial, defence and intelligence ties being at an all-time high, the frail and elderly King Salman was not expected to sign a formal peace treaty with the Israelis. He will instead leave this to his son, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), to ink when he becomes king.

On oil, Saudi Arabia is already pumping crude at record levels and has very little spare capacity for export. Saudi Arabia’s scorching summer heat also means it has high energy needs of its own to power its air conditioners. Hence while Saudi officials paid lip service to providing the world with a stable supply of crude oil, few expected any substantive change to its output levels. Unsurprisingly, oil prices have not decreased since Biden’s Saudi trip.

Yet, this trip’s futility highlights a recurrent issue in U.S. foreign policy. It was only a few short years ago that Mr. Biden, then on the presidential campaign trail, said he would make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” for its involvement in the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi democracy activist, Jamal Khashoggi. There has been little change in U.S. foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia during Biden’s time as President, but at minimum the soon-to-be ruler of the oil-rich kingdom was seen as persona non grata in international forums. At G20 meetings, most Western leaders went to great lengths to avoid being pictured with the ostracized monarch.

Of course, leaders of China and Russia have been quite happy to be seen with MBS. They have continued to make lucrative deals with the world’s largest oil exporter and weapons importer. For much of the world, business and realpolitik sadly eclipses any notion of a human rights-based foreign policy. While many may have scoffed at Donald Trump’s transactional foreign policy during his time in the presidential office, it can at least be said that he was transparent about courting Saudi Arabia for its money alone. He boasted at having encouraged them to buy more U.S. arms and to allow further American investment in the Kingdom.

Mr. Biden claimed U.S. foreign policy would change from the Trump era. Yet there was Mr. Biden this weekend giving MBS a fist-bump and proceeding to sit across the table from the man who, for ordering the dismemberment of Mr. Khashoggi’s body, was dubbed Mr. Bone Saw. Saudi media reported that MBS used the meeting with Biden to point out the U.S.’s own human rights failures, from the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison abuses when the U.S. occupied Iraq to the most recent whitewashing of the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

There are consequences to this U.S. hypocrisy. When the West asked for support in condemning Russia for its brutal war and occupation of Ukraine, it was no wonder that so many long-time U.S. allies declined to support a UN resolution condemning Russia. Across the world, states have rebuffed the U.S. and the West, instead choosing to continue to do business with Vladimir Putin’s regime despite the horrors it inflicts on Ukraine. They have rejected the West’s normative framing of the war on Ukraine as one of Western values of democracy versus autocracy.

After all, it only took Mr. Biden two years for an about-face on an autocratic Saudi Arabia. How long will it be before the West capitulates and imports Russian oil and grain, or calls the occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea and the Donbas “facts on the ground.” The consequences of Mr. Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia is an affirmation of what has long been skeptics’ view of U.S. foreign policy: self-serving and hypocritical.

Bessma Momani is professor in the department of political science at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Source: Biden’s futile trip to Saudi Arabia

Trichur: Cirque du Soleil walking an ethical tightrope in Saudi Arabia

Valid questions and questionable ethics and values:

Send in the clowns.

Don’t bother. They’re here.

Cirque du Soleil is defending its decision to deepen its business ties with Saudi Arabia despite concern about that country’s human-rights record and the fate of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi – whose family lives in Quebec.

The Montreal-based entertainment company recently signed an agreement with the Saudi Ministry of Culture to bring more of its shows to the kingdom, including The IllusionistNow You See MePaw Patrol Live – Race to RescueTrolls Live! and Blue Man Group World Tour.

The agreement also sets the stage for Cirque to create an original performance for Saudi Arabia and to collaborate with its officials to establish a regional training academy and office.

Although Cirque is eager to generate new revenue after emerging from bankruptcy protection, its new owners are walking an ethical tightrope by doing more business with Saudi Arabia. The company has had six shows there since 2018, and some of those performances prompted a backlash from employees and ordinary Quebeckers. So it is baffling that it is risking a new controversy while there is widespread worry about Mr. Badawi’s case.

“Through our shows, our goal is always to inspire the local population and our presence in any market should not be interpreted as a political and moral stance,” Cirque spokeswoman Caroline Couillard wrote in an e-mail. “As a private company, we do not believe it is appropriate to interfere in the domestic and foreign affairs of the governments of the countries we visit.”

Let’s get real. This is where the rubber meets the road on corporate social responsibility. Cirque’s seemingly apolitical stance isn’t in keeping with its pledge to act “as a responsible agent of change.”

Saudi Arabia is talking a good game about cultural transformation these days, but it is still very much a repressive regime. Despite relaxing some social norms, the kingdom has made no substantial progress on human-rights issues since the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Its track record on human rights is already a sore spot with Canadians. We’ve learned that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) allegedly sent a hit squad to Canada in a foiled attempt to assassinate former Saudi intelligence officer Saad Aljabri not long after Mr. Khashoggi’s murder. And much to our collective horror, Canadian arms are fuelling the worsening conflict in Yemen (effectively a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran).

Now, with Ottawa calling on Riyadh to release Mr. Badawi from prison, offer him leniency and allow him to reunite with his family, Cirque’s new agreement comes at a particularly sensitive time for Canadian-Saudi relations.

Although Mr. Badawi is a Saudi citizen, his wife Ensaf Haidar and three children are Canadian. He was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for criticizing Saudi clerics on his blog. According to the Islamic calendar, Mr. Badawi’s prison term ends Feb. 28, but his release is far from certain. Even if he is liberated, he still faces a 10-year travel ban.

Perhaps that’s why the Cirque agreement caught the eye of Ms. Haidar, who congratulated MBS for it in a recent letter, written in French. She took the opportunity to urge him to release her husband and lift his travel ban.

“We believe that this gesture would be in perfect harmony with the reforms you are undertaking,” Ms. Haidar wrote.

Her tone was remarkably polite given the circumstances, but when the potential penalty for offence is to be cut into pieces like Mr. Khashoggi, it’s understandable.

Separately, Mr. Badawi’s supporters are urging Ottawa to grant him Canadian citizenship.

“The Government of Canada is very concerned by the case of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia,” said Jeffrey MacDonald, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. “We have consistently advocated on his behalf and will continue to use every opportunity to do so. His well-being is foremost in our minds.”

That’s why it’s unfathomable that Cirque would sign an agreement like this. And yet Ms. Couillard frames the deal as coming “on the heels of announced reforms and social changes in the country, as well as the announcement of business deals to build an entirely new entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia.”

However, Canadians are unlikely to buy into Saudi Arabia’s propaganda campaign, given how some of Cirque’s previous performances in the kingdom also generated controversy. Not only did Cirque’s own artists voice their concerns back in 2018, but so, too, did co-founder Guy Laliberté, according to a published report from Radio Canada International.

Cirque’s most recent performance in the country was Messi10, named after Argentinian soccer player Lionel Messi, which was held in 2021. Perhaps it should instead take its cues from entertainment heavyweights, such as rapper Nicki Minaj, who have cancelled shows there over human-rights concerns.

The company is twisting itself into a pretzel to justify this new agreement, but its mental gymnastics only risk courting more controversy.

Source: Cirque du Soleil walking an ethical tightrope in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and China are accused of using sports to cover up human rights abuse


What do China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have in common? The answer might not be as obvious as you think. But all three countries are accused of human rights violations, and all three are also playing host to some of the largest and most lucrative sporting events in the world.

China is hosting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Qatar is putting on next year’s soccer World Cup and Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in staging high-profile, international sporting events.

But human rights organizations and others have been voicing concerns that behind this seemingly innocuous trend is a concerted effort by these and other nations to use sports as a way to cover up their poor human rights records.

“They are using and increasingly seeing sport as an opportunity to launder their image,” Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s head of campaigns, told NPR.

The human rights group even uses a recent term to describe this practice: “sportswashing.”

“It’s the process whereby a country or regime with a particularly poor human rights record uses sport as a way of creating positive headlines, positive spin about their countries,” Jakens explained.

Saudi Arabia dabbles in English soccer and Formula One racing

Last month, the rights group criticized Saudi Arabia’s takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle United. According to news reports, the Saudi government-owned Public Investment Fund purchased an 80% stake in the English soccer club for 300 million pounds ($400 million).

“Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football,” Amnesty International UK’s CEO Sacha Deshmukh said in a statement.

The Newcastle United buyout is just the latest sports-related investment by Saudi authorities. In recent years, the kingdom has spent more than $1.5 billion to stage elite sporting events, according to a report by Grant Liberty. This includes staging the annual Spanish Super Cup soccer match, international men’s and women’s golf tournaments and professional wrestling, among many others.

Next month, global racing series Formula One will host its race in Saudi Arabia for the first time. The Grand Prix event will take place on Dec. 5 at a brand-new racetrack in the port city of Jiddah. F1 — which is owned by U.S.-based Liberty Media Corp. — signed a 10-year deal with the kingdom worth a reported $650 million.

The Saudi F1 event will also feature a number of musical performances. Pop star Justin Bieber, who is headlining the off-track entertainment program, is facing growing calls to cancel his show.

In an open letter published by The Washington Post, Hatice Cengiz — the fiancée of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — urged the Canadian singer to “send a powerful message to the world that your name and talent will not be used to restore the reputation of a regime that kills its critics.”

The kingdom says it’s reforming

The Saudi government rejects all accusations of sportswashing. Fahad Nazer, the spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., says that those investments are part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to diversify the country’s economy, which depends heavily on oil and gas.

“The notion that the transformative reforms currently underway in the kingdom are simply an attempt to improve the kingdom’s image are widely off the mark,” Nazer told NPR.

He said that the country aims to establish a sports industry under its Vision 2030 plan, which not only calls for a more diverse economy but also a vibrant society.

But the 2018 killing of the journalist Khashoggi, the imprisonment of rights activists and the ongoing bombing campaign in Yemen cast doubt over how transformational those reforms really are.

Despite ushering in some limited newfound freedoms for Saudi citizens, the crown prince has made the country more autocratic than before, says Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“There are more freedoms for women, just to pick a very important example. But there is less tolerance even of limited political dissension,” he says.

A spokesperson for Formula One, which has been accused of enabling sportswashing in the past, did not directly respond to the question of whether the series considers a country’s human rights record in its decision to host a race there.

“We take our responsibilities on rights very seriously and set high ethical standards for counterparties and those in our supply chain, which are enshrined in contracts, and we pay close attention to their adherence,” the spokesperson said.

This past weekend, F1 made its debut in Qatar — another country with a less-than-stellar track record. Seven-time world champion and race winner Lewis Hamilton raised the issue of human rights and equality in a news conference ahead of Sunday’s Grand Prix.

“As sports go to these places, they are duty-bound to raise awareness for these issues. These places need scrutiny. Equal rights is a serious issue,” said the British driver, who wore a rainbow-colored race helmet in a show of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.

China faces an Olympics boycott

China has also been accused of using sports to polish its public image. With the 2022 Winter Olympics only a couple of months away, the Biden administration is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Games over the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims living in the country’s Xinjiang region.

The issue of sportswashing has even reached the halls of Congress. Last year, Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida introduced a resolution calling on the International Olympic Committee to strip China of its Olympic hosting rights.

“I don’t believe a country that is committing genocide against its own citizens, that’s building a military to dominate the world, that steals jobs and technology from all over the world, denies basic rights to its own citizens should be hosting an Olympics,” Scott told NPR in a recent interview.

China has repeatedly denied accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

He further criticized U.S. Olympic broadcast partner NBC and Olympic sponsors for not being more vocal about China’s alleged human rights violations.

His Democratic colleague, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, argues that sports leagues need to take more responsibility when it comes to rights issues. He says they are “selling out their integrity for profits,” effectively helping to rehabilitate the reputations of human rights abusers.

Using sports for spin goes way back

The practice of countries using sports as a smoke screen is not new. Many nations, including Great Britain, saw sports as a way to distract from oppression during colonial times. Nazi Germany used the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an opportunity to show off its alleged racial superiority and, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union used sports as a soft power.

But the word sportswashing came into use later. By one account, according to British sports journalist Sam Cunningham, the term emerged in 2015 when Azerbaijan hosted the European Games, and Amnesty International brought it back to the spotlight a few years later.

Whatever the origins, whether sportswashing can have a lasting effect remains unclear. But according to Simon Chadwick, a sports industry expert at Emlyon Business School in France, it can provide temporary relief.

“If we look at the 2018 World Cup, there was widespread criticism of Russia,” he says. “But what we saw upon people’s return from the Russian World Cup is that now their view of Russia was much changed, they saw the country in a much more positive fashion.”

With Western democracies increasingly scrutinizing the value of hosting large-scale sporting events, he believes countries with questionable human rights records will continue to use sports to boost their public image.

“What we will see is the likes of Saudi Arabia, China and others continuing to bid for these events, being awarded the rights to stage them and then leaving those in the West to deal with the kind of moral and ideological fallout that we have as a result of their hosting,” Chadwick says.

Most sports organizations defend their decision to stage events in these countries by claiming to be a catalyst for change. But that change has yet to materialize.

The Great Gulf Citizenship Competition

Overview of some of the changes (significant but restrictive in scope):

For years, expats from around the world who flocked to the Gulf could only dream of Saudi or Emirati citizenship, although they made up as much as 33% of the population in Saudi Arabia and approximately 85% in the United Arab Emirates. Neither the construction workers from Egypt nor the maids from the Philippines, the engineers from Iraq nor doctors from India or the UK could get citizenship, even if they lived in the Gulf countries for decades and built their homes there.

Nowadays, when the global and local demand for talent is high, the Gulf petrostates are changing their attitudes and fiercely competing with each other.

This week, Saudi Arabia announced that it will grant citizenship to a group of “outstanding” expatriates including doctors, clerics and academics, becoming the second Gulf Arab state to introduce a formal naturalization program for foreigners with exceptional skills this year.

Back in January, the UAE decided to grant citizenship to “talented” foreign residents that will “add value to the country.”

Currently the opportunity is very limited. According to Saudi media, there is no open application process; citizenship may be awarded by the state to individuals who “meet the criteria.” In the UAE, professionals can only be nominated by Emirati royals or officials as well.

Experts say that for now only a few foreign professionals will be able to take advantage of the offer. However, it’s quite certain that the need for foreign talents will keep growing and the citizenship card will serve as an extraordinary perk for job seekers.

Both the UAE and the Saudi Arabia also encourage “emiratization” and “saudisation” of the labor market in their respective countries in order to combat unemployment and to develop home-grown talents.

“These Gulf states are aiming at the technologies of tomorrow. They worry about the US pullout from the region, about Iran’s attempts to spread its hegemony, and they know that they need the super advanced technological edge,” Prof. Uzi Rabi, the director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.

“The Emiratis were ahead so far, and now Saudi Arabia is stepping ahead as well. They are buying entire systems of knowledge along with the people who operate them, and there are many opportunities for the professionals in Jeddah, Riyadh and other places. Speedy technological development is highly prioritized by the leaders – MbZ  and MbS,” Rabi said, referring to, respectively, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudis see the UAE success and aspire to develop a similar strategy that will also be compatible with the conservative character of the state. Its leadership understands that they will have to open up, but at the same time there is a fear of losing control.

In fact, Kuwait can be considered the pioneer that opened up to foreigners in the 70s and 80s, but during the last three decades it has undone much of its previous success in attracting talent from abroad. Currently, if a Kuwaiti woman is married to a foreigner, even their children are not entitled to Kuwaiti citizenship.

Notably, there is a clear aspect of competition in many areas between the two Gulf states – for tallest buildings, extravagant projects and talented individuals, for example. The UAE began offering citizenship to talented expats in January, and garnered a great deal of media attention, while Saudi Arabia only followed suit in November. Earlier this year Saudi Arabia told international companies to move their regional headquarters to Riyadh or lose out on government contracts. For now, 44 international companies have moved their offices – mostly from glamorous Dubai – and more companies are expected to join them soon.

Source: The Great Gulf Citizenship Competition

Soccer stars, technocrats among those granted Saudi citizenship

Apart from the propagandist language (“wise leadership”) interesting to note Saudi priorities and how they define “exceptional:”

Three leading Saudi football players as well as a number of technocrats and eminent academics are among those who were granted Saudi citizenship following a royal order issued by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman on Thursday, Saudi Gazette has learned from well informed sources. This was in recognition of their outstanding contributions and distinguished services to Saudi Arabia in their respective fields.

Saudi Arabia has decided to grant citizenship to a selected number of expatriates with distinguished talents, unique expertise and specialized skills in a number of key professions such as medicine, industry, energy, agriculture, geology, space, aviation and artificial intelligence. The initiative emanates from the wise leadership’s ambitious drive to attract top world-class professionals to these vital sectors.

Saudi Arabia needs such top standard professions to supervise the Kingdom’s development march in those vital areas where it wants to achieve and consolidate its leadership and expertise par excellence. This will facilitate these professionals to contribute vigorously to the nation’s development march and initiatives to diversify its sources of income and spurring its robust economic growth.

The great initiative is aimed at supporting to achieve the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goal to create an environment that enables attracting, investing in and retaining professionals with exceptional creativity and talent.

The following are the prominent professionals who were granted citizenship. They include three football stars, who all were born in the Kingdom and represented the national team several times.

It is noteworthy that the decision to grant citizenship to those who made outstanding contributions in sports to benefit from the country’s children who grew up on its land and imbibed its culture, after many of them left and started serving countries of their origin.

The list of distinguished persons who were granted citizenship also included some top professionals in the fields of technology and various branches of science.

Abdulfattah Adam

Abdulfattah Adam is a professional footballer who plays as a striker for Al-Nasr Club in the Saudi League, and represented Saudi Arabia’s national team in many matches. Born on Jan. 1, 1995, in Saudi Arabia, he is a famous Association Football Player. Abdulfattah is also listed among famous people born on Jan. 1, and one of the richest celebrities born in Saudi Arabia.

Mukhtar Ali

Mukhtar Ali is a professional footballer who plays as midfielder for Al-Nasr and the Saudi Arabian national football team. He was born in Saudi Arabia, and was a professional in the English Premier League at Chelsea, and contributed to Saudi Olympic team’s qualification to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In 2008, Ali joined Chelsea and was part of the Chelsea youth side, which recorded back to back triumphs in the FA Youth Cup in 2015 and 2016. Later in 2017, Ali joined the Dutch club Vitesse and later became part of Al-Nasr team.

Haroune Camara

Haroune Moussa Camara is a professional football player who plays as striker for Al-Ittihad in the Saudi Professional League. Born on Jan. 1, 1998 in Saudi Arabia, he represented the Saudi national team at the youth and Olympic level, and was selected more than once for the camp of Saudi national team.

Dr. Manahel Thabet

Dr. Manahel Abdulrahman Thabet is an internationally-acclaimed mathematics and finance expert. She is the youngest and only Arab with a PhD in Financial Engineering. She writes research papers on quantum mathematics. Her work to revolutionize understanding of math and physics is poised to earn her a second PhD at the age of 32.

She is one of the rare Arab women to have entered the field of Quantum Mathematics, and currently her research has been adopted by several American universities for development purposes. In the year 2000 she attained the “Excellence of Global International Environmental and Humanitarian Award.”

She was also recognized as “The Woman of the Year 2000” by “Woman Federation for World Peace.” In December 2010, Dr. Thabet was awarded L’Officiel Women Of the Year, Inspiration Women Of the year award.

Dr. Thabet is the vice president of the World Intelligence Network, and supervisor of the Arabian Intelligence Network. She is an active member of MENSA, Young Arab Leaders, and the International Association of Financial Engineers.

This is all in addition to her day job as President of SmartTips Consultants, a company offering management consultancy, feasibility studies, strategic planning advice and crisis management to the business community. She is also a columnist and an economic researcher in many leading financial publications.

Omar Mounes Yaghi

Omar Mounes Yaghi is in the field of advanced research as a chemist currently working at the famous Lawrence Berkeley Research Center and a chemistry professor at the University of California Berkeley.

Born in Jordan to a Palestinian family, Yaghi pioneered a new field known as reticular chemistry. He is the founding director of the Berkeley International Institute for Science, which offers educational programs to people who would otherwise not have access to them. Yaghi has established several laboratories in different universities.

He has been awarded numerous accolades including the Newcomb Cleveland Prize, the Albert Einstein World Award of Science, and Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal International Prize. He received the US Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Program Award.

Ihab Khalil

Ihab Khalil is an expert in corporate finance and investment strategies and his experience in financial consultancy spans 20 years. He had his higher education at the American University of Beirut. He has experience in closed-end stocks, corporate finance, investment strategies and evaluating and structuring investments. Khalil has been a managing director and partner of management consultant giant Boston Consulting Firm for the last five years.

Asif Sajid

Asif Sajid has held many leadership positions in consulting and financial services companies. His work in the field contributed to the digital strategies of several Saudi ministries and government agencies, including ministries of justice, human resources, and commerce. An expert in digital technologies, Sajid has contributed to the formation of strategic programs for a number of government agencies. He served as the head of the public sector and financial services for the consulting company KPMG. He is currently the CEO of Raz Group in Riyadh

Source: Soccer stars, technocrats among those granted Saudi citizenship

Saudi Arabia Gives Citizenship to ‘Outstanding’ Expats in Shift

Will be interesting to see who qualifies:

Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to an unspecified number of foreigners whose expertise could help the country as it diversifies away from oil, a major shift that follows a similar decision by the neighboring UAE earlier this year.

The program targets people with “outstanding capabilities” and backgrounds in “rare specialties,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported. The kingdom will focus on naturalizing foreigners in fields including Shariah, medicine, science, culture, sports and technology, “in order to strengthen the pace of development” and boost its attractiveness for investment and human capital, the agency said.

Saudi Arabia becomes the second Gulf country to formalize a process aimed at giving expatriates a bigger stake in the economy after the UAE announced its own naturalization program for exceptional foreigners in January.

It also underlines the kingdom’s growing competition with its neighbors for business and talent as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tries to expand non-oil sectors such as tourism and manufacturing.

Immigrants make up a third of the population in Saudi Arabia, but with extremely limited mechanisms for granting permanent residency or nationality, they have little long-term stability.

Even as officials work to attract more highly-educated foreigners, the government has been reserving for Saudis many jobs once occupied by lower-income immigrants from other Arab, Asian and African countries — part of an effort to tackle citizen unemployment of over 11%.

Source: Saudi Arabia Gives Citizenship to ‘Outstanding’ Expats in Shift

How the world’s biggest Islamic organization drives religious reform in Indonesia – and seeks to influence the Muslim world

Of interest:

After its return to power in Afghanistan, the Taliban are again imposing their religious ideology, with restrictions on women’s rights and other repressive measures. They are presenting to the world an image of Islam that is intolerant and at odds with social changes.

Islam, however, has multiple interpretations. A humanitarian interpretation, focusing on “rahmah,” loosely translated as love and compassion, has been emphasized by a group I have studied – Nahdlatul Ulama, which literally means “Reawakening of the Islamic Scholars.”

Nahdlatul Ulama, or NU, was founded in 1926 in reaction to the Saudi conquest of Mecca and Medina with their rigid understanding of Islam. It follows mainstream Sunni Islam, while embracing Islamic spirituality and accepting Indonesia’s cultural traditions.

Functioning in Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population, Nahdlatul Ulama is the world’s biggest Islamic organization with about 90 million members and followers. In terms of membership, the organization hugely outstrips that of the Taliban – yet this face of Islam has not been sufficiently recognized on the international stage.

In 2014, NU responded to the rise of the Islamic State group and its radical ideology by initiating an Islamic reform. Since then, it has elaborated on this reform that it calls “Humanitarian Islam.”

Humanitarian Islam

During the past seven years, NU’s general secretary, Yahya Cholil Staquf, has organized several meetings of the organization’s Islamic scholars with a reformist agenda. They made public declarations for reforming Islamic thought on controversial issues, including political leadership, equal citizenship and relations with non-Muslims.

The Nahdlatul Ulama declarations include crucial decisions that differentiate “Humanitarian Islam” from other interpretations. First of all, they reject the notion of a global caliphate, or a political leadership that would unite all Muslims. The concept of a caliphate has been accepted by both mainstream Islamic scholars, such as those in Al-Azhar – Egypt’s world-renowned Islamic institution – and radical groups, such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda.

Moreover, the NU declarations emphasize the legitimacy of modern states’ constitutional and legal systems, and thus reject the idea that it is a religious obligation to establish a state based on Islamic law.

Additionally, these declarations stress the importance of equal citizenship by refusing to make a distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims as legal categories.

They call for a deeper cooperation among Muslims, Christians and followers of other religions to promote world peace.

Nahdlatul Ulama has taken practical steps for realizing these aims. For example, it has established a working relationship with the World Evangelical Alliance, which claims to represent 600 million Protestants, to promote intercultural solidarity and respect.

These NU declarations may sound insufficient from a Western liberal point of view, since they do not touch upon some issues such as LGBTQ rights. To better understand the importance of NU’s perspective and its limits requires an examination of the Indonesian context.

Indonesia’s tolerant Islam

My research on 50 Muslim-majority countries finds that Indonesia is notable because it is one of the few democracies among them.

Indonesia’s foundational credo, Pancasila, means “five principles” and basically refers to the belief in God, humanitarianism, Indonesia’s national unity, democracy and social justice.

About 88% of Indonesia’s population of 270 million are Muslim. Both Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, the country’s second-biggest Islamic organization, have been respectful of these principles. Like NU, Muhammadiyah also has tens of millions of followers, and these two organizations often cooperate against radical Islamist groups.

Robert Hefner, a leading expert on Indonesia, documents in his 2000 book “Civil Islam” how NU and Muhammadiyah made important contributions to the country’s democratization in the late 1990s. During this process, the leader of NU, Abdurrahman Wahid, became Indonesia’s first democratically elected president in 1999.

Wahid, who died in 2009, left a religious legacy, too. During my conversations, senior NU members repeatedly referred to Wahid’s reformist ideas as the main source of inspiration for Humanitarian Islam.

Indonesia’s intolerant Islam

Not all Islamic theories and practices in Indonesia are tolerant toward diversity. The country’s Aceh province has enforced certain rules of Islamic criminal law, including the punishment of caning for those who sell or drink alcohol.

Another example of religious and political intolerance is the country’s blasphemy law, which resulted in the 20-month imprisonment of the capital city Jakarta’s Chinese Christian governor, Basuki Purnama in 2017-2018, for a statement about a verse in the Quran.

In January 2021, the story of a Christian female student being pressured by the school principal to wear a Muslim headscarf went viral on Facebook. In two weeks, the Indonesian government responded with a decree that banned public schools from making any religious attire compulsory.

In short, there is a tug-of-war between tolerant and intolerant interpretations of Islam in Indonesia. Even within NU, there exist disagreements between conservatives and reformists.

Nonetheless, Nahdlatul Ulama reformists are becoming more influential. One example is the current minister of religious affairs, Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, a leading NU member and the younger brother of NU’s reformist general secretary. He was one of the three ministers who signed the joint decree banning the imposition of headscarves on students in February.

NU’s Humanitarian Islam movement might be crucial to promote tolerance among Indonesia’s Islamic majority. But can it have an effect beyond Indonesia?

This reform movement’s reception in the Middle East, the historical center of Islam, is important if it is to have a global impact. Humanitarian Islam has been mostly ignored by scholars and governments of Middle Eastern countries, who generally see it as a competitor of their own attempts to influence the Muslim world. As a nongovernmental initiative, Humanitarian Islam is different from Middle Eastern efforts to shape the Muslim world, which are mostly government-led schemes.

With its reformist emphasis, Humanitarian Islam may appeal to some young Middle Eastern Muslims who are discontent with their countries’ political and conservative interpretations of Islam.

In order to reach a Middle Eastern audience, the Humanitarian Islam movement is launching an Arabic-language version of its English website. Whether this Indonesian initiative can have an impact in the Middle East and become a truly global movement for Islamic reform remains to be seen.

Source: How the world’s biggest Islamic organization drives religious reform in Indonesia – and seeks to influence the Muslim world