Al-Khazen Says Western Media Over-Reporting Qatif Unrest

Jihad al-Khazen is unhappy about Western media coverage of Saudi Arabia. He says the country is getting more coverage than it deserves. Trying to explain the alleged Western media obsession with Saudi Arabia, al-Khazen writes:

I can perhaps argue that this is because of envy from a wealthy country with limited problems, but one must not underestimate major international news sources as such. What is more proper is to say that they chose to make mountains out of molehills, and overlooked the most important aspects of the issue.

In particular, he does not seem to understand why Western media outlets like the Washington Post would publish “lengthy” articles about Qatif. Shia are a minority in Saudi Arabia, he says, and if one or two of them were killed, what’s the big deal?

“There is no massacre taking place there,” al-Khazen writes, “and the number of those killed in traffic accidents is much more than that.”

He says he is “not writing to justify or downplay the killing, but only to say that the incidents in the Eastern Province are extremely limited in scope.” The Western media must have ulterior motives to report these killings.

Al-Khazen accuses Iran of standing behind the unrest in Qatif. The Saudi government has accused protesters of serving the agenda of foreign parties, but never mentioned Iran by name. He also accuses detained cleric Nemer al-Nemer of “inciting against the regime, and encouraging and supporting armed confrontations.” He goes on to say that he knows the Eastern Province better than “these tourist reporters do,” citing his knowledge of efforts undertaken by the governor and his former deputy, both members of the royal family.

Those who follow the Arab press will probably not be surprised by al-Khazen’s views. The Lebanese columnist does not hide his close ties to the Saudi royal family. The pan-Arab al-Hayat daily where his columns appears is owned by Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the Saudi deputy minister of defense.

Khaled bin Sultan bought the paper in 1988 from the Lebanese Mrowa family who founded it in the late 1940s. “Its ownership by Prince Khalid has meant that the paper treads softly when it comes to disquieting news about Saudi Arabia,” the New York Times reported in January 1997.

Last year al-Khazen pulled an article because it was said to threaten the political future of Prince Khaled. The article about the first Muslim caliphs led to a backlash by Saudi conservatives and reportedly prompted some readers to end their subscription to the newspaper.

But let’s go back to al-Khazen’s most recent column, where he claims that the Qatif unrest story is being over-reported by Western media. The unrest there has been ongoing for over 18 months now. 15 people has been reported dead since March 2011. Has it been over-reported?

A search in the LexisNexis database for stories on Qatif returns a total of 55 articles from the past 12 months in US, UK, Canadian and Australian media.

Another important factor to consider here is access. How often are foreign journalists allowed to visit Qatif and report on the ground from there? Based on conversations with journalists covering the region, not very often. Actually, several correspondents for major international outlets have been kicked out of the country because of their reporting on Qatif.

Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, called the unrest in eastern Saudi Arabia “the Middle East’s most under-reported conflict.”

So, just out of curiosity: when was the last time Jihad al-Khazen visited the Eastern Province? How recently did he speak to the people there? Probably al-Hayat should ask him to visit Qatif as, you know, a journalist, not a tourist or a guest of their royal highnesses.

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Dozens Killed in Abqaiq Wedding Fire

At least 24 people and 30 wounded in a fire at a wedding in a village near the city of Abqaiq, eastern Saudi Arabia, according to local media reports.

A high-voltage power line reportedly fell down after it was hit by celebratory gunfire, causing a fire in the courtyard of the home where the wedding was taking place.

Al-Riyadh reported that the fallen power line touched a metal door at the only exit from the courtyard, leading to many of the victims being electrocuted.

The small local hospital in Abqaiq was overwhelmed with the number victims. The hospital morgue can only taken 13 bodies. Many dead and wounded were taken to hospitals in nearby cities like Dammam and Qatif.

Al-Odah Warns Against Jihad in Syria

The Associated Press:

A Saudi cleric has advised Muslim youth against joining Syrian rebel fighters in the 19-month civil war against President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Salman al-Audah warns that their presence among the rebels might serve the Assad regime’s claim that the rebellion is the work of terrorist groups.

He told the Al-Jazeera satellite channel Monday that the Syrian rebels need money, weapons and prayers.

There have been reports that there are already some Saudi jihadists fighting with the rebels in Syria, but it is good to see al-Odah, a moderate voice with a sizable following among young Saudis, speak up against it.

‘Massive’

AFP:

Saudi Arabia will build a massive Islamic center complete with a university and a mosque in Afghanistan, an Afghan minister said Monday, describing the project as “grand and unique”.

Estimated to cost up to $100 million, the center on a hilltop in central Kabul will house up to 5,000 students, Dayi-Ul Haq Abed, the acting Hajj and religious affairs minister told AFP.

Um, why are we spending 100 million dollars in Afghanistan when the official unemployment rate is above 10.5 percent? (via SQ)

Can Saudi Arabia Accommodate 50 Million Religious Tourists?

Abdul Rahman al-Rashed writes:

The Kingdom knows for sure that the number of pilgrims will not increase, although it has increased the area to the extent that it has gone beyond Makkah and the holy sites. It has taken numerous steps to accommodate three million pilgrims in the holy city; to ensure their transportation to and from the holy sites and also to make sure that they perform Haj rituals easily and comfortably. There are no more steps left to be taken for Haj and not more than 3 million pilgrims will be able to perform this holy duty. Even if the capabilities were doubled it is impossible that their number will exceed four million.

Though much has been said about Umrah, little has been executed. Umrah is not the alternative to Haj, but a good solution if the Kingdom cannot come up with solutions to accommodate more pilgrims coming for Haj. With Umrah, the Kingdom can boost its capacity from 5 million pilgrims for Umrah to 50 million people.

Al-Rashed is of course not alone in calling for umrah to be more accessible, but there are no signs to suggest that the government is seriously considering this. For all the talk about developing tourism in the country by Sultan bin Salman and co., religious tourism is notably absent. Plus, many of the important historic sites that tourists could visit have already been, or are in the process of being, bulldozed. The house of the prophet’s first wife Khadijah, for example, was razed to make way for public toilets.

It is heartbreaking, especially for people like Sami Angawi, founder of the Hajj Research Centre who spent decades of his life researching and documenting the historic buildings of Makkah and Madinah. “They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment,” he told the Guardian recently.

HRW Asks Saudi to Stop Prosecuting Protesters

Saudi Arabia should stop using the judicial system in the country to prosecute peaceful protesters and human rights activists, Human Rights Watch said today. The watchdog group said the lack of a clear and predictable criminal law violates international human rights standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights ratified by Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi authorities detain and punish individuals for doing nothing more than peacefully expressing legitimate grievances,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Saudi government should stop using the judicial system to punish peaceful dissidents, and recognize that peaceful assembly is not a crime.”

Saudi authorities dispersed a protest by hundreds of Syrian pilgrims in Mina, outside Makkah yesterday, according to Reuters. The protesters were calling for the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Saudi government has said that they want a politics-free hajj, and urged pilgrims to focus on performing the rituals. However, it seems that the Saudi Grand Mufti did not get the memo. Addressing pilgrims in Makkah earlier this week, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Alsheikh criticized calls for democracy in the region.

The right to protest would be protected in a civil, democratic state. Saudi Arabia does not claim to be one, and protests are banned by the country’s law. But despite the ban, the Guardian’s Brian Whitaker notes that “the authorities seem to be making a distinction between “good” and “bad” demonstrations. The anti-Assad protesters at the hajj were treated more gently than might have been expected – presumably because they were expressing a view that accords with Saudi government policy.”

The Saudi government has supported that uprising against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria. Protests against the Saudi government, like the ones held frequently in the eastern region of Qatif, are usually not treated in the same way. 15 people have been killed there since last November.

Head of Morality Police Speaks to the Journal

The Wall Street Journal interviews the head of the Commission for Promotion Virtue and Prevention of Vice on the proposed reforms for the morality police force:

Mr. Sheikh said individual members of the religious police will be held accountable for their actions when they violate the new guidelines. “The Hia’a was created as a guidance body and we want to make sure it is just a guidance authority,” he said. “If a member of the public does not comply with the Islamic law and a member of committee wants to stop this behavior, he will have to act in accordance with our laws and revert to the regular police for any further action.”

Some observers are skeptical of the durability of Mr. Sheikh’s reforms, predicting he will meet tough opposition from rank-and-file members of the Hia’a.

Count me as one of the skeptics.