Hamza Kashgari Released

Agence France-Presse:

A Saudi journalist accused of making Tweets deemed insulting to Islam’s Prophet Mohamed was on Tuesday freed from detention after 20 months, a human rights activist said.

Hamza Kashgari fled Saudi Arabia to Malaysia in February 2012 after receiving death threats for Tweets he made on the occasion of the prophet’s birthday.

Saudi Government Reaffirms Women Driving Ban

Saudi Arabia warned that it will take measures against women who plan to defy the driving ban on October 26 after activists called on women to get behind the wheel.

Following confusion after a statement that was published on Wednesday, Ministry of Interior spokesman Mansour al-Turki told several media outlets today that women driving is banned.

“It is known that women in Saudi are banned from driving and laws will be applied against violators and those who demonstrate in support” he said according to AFP.

This was the first time for the government to say explicitly that women driving is banned. Saudi official used to say in the past that women driving is a social matter and that laws in the kingdom do not ban it.

Activists also said that they have received phone calls on Thursday from another ministry official warning them against driving.

“My wife has received on her cellphone a call from the Interior Minister’s office warning her against driving tomorrow and that if she does they will enforce the laws against her,” activist Waleed Abu Alkhair said on Twitter.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International called on the Saudi government to respect the right of women to drive.

Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the organization, said in a statement “it is astonishing that in the 21st century the Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny women the right to legally drive a car.”

“The driving ban is inherently discriminatory and demeaning to women and must be overturned immediately,” he said.

Saudi Interior Ministry Issues Warning Ahead of Women Driving Day

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior warned against “disturbing the public peace” ahead of a campaign organized by women activists to defy the ban on driving on October 26.

The statement released Wednesday and carried by the state news agency reads in full:

The security spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior issued a statement on rumors exchanged over social networks and some media outlets calling for congregations and marches against an alleged day of female driving. The laws of the Kingdom prohibit activities disturbing the public peace and opening venues to sedition which only serve the senseless, the ill-intentioned, intruders, and opportunity hunters, the statement said. The Ministry of Interior assures all, the statement added, the concerned bodies will fully and firmly enforce the laws against violators. At the same time, the Ministry values what many citizens have voiced concerning for the importance of keeping the peace, stability, and avoidance of what leads to disunity and stratification of society.

The vaguely worded statement appeared to have given both sides on the women driving debate a reason to celebrate.

On social media, opponents of the campaign tweeted under the hashtag “MOI statement represents me,” saying the statement sends a clear message against the calls for driving. Meanwhile, supporters of female driving said the statement is on their side as it does not explicitly say that it is banned for women to get behind the wheel.

To add to the confusion, the original Arabic text of the statement and its English translation seemed to say contradictory things. In the Arabic version, the Interior Ministry refers to “congregations and marches under the pretext of an alleged day of female driving.” The English translation published by the Saudi Press Agency that appears above says “congregations and marches against an alleged day of female driving.”

The statement by MOI comes only few hours after 150 conservative clerics went to the Royal Court to express their objection to what they called “Westernization” and “the conspiracy of women driving.”

There is no law that bans female driving, but authorities do not issue licenses to women. In recent weeks, several women have been driving their cars in different cities around the kingdom and publishing videos of themselves as they drove in support of the October 26 campaign. No arrests have been made.

Saudi Clerics Protest Women Driving at the Royal Court

A group of more than 100 conservative Saudi clerics gathered Tuesday at the Royal Court in Riyadh to protest against what they called “the conspiracy of women driving.”

“The clerics came from around the Kingdom to meet the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and officials to indicate the serious risk facing the country,” Sheikh Nasser al-Omar said in a video uploaded to YouTube.

The King and most senior officials remain in Jeddah, but photos posted on social media appeared to show that the clerics were allowed inside the Royal Court.

Saudi clerics have held similar protests earlier this year after the King announced appointing 30 women to the advisory Shoura Council. Before that clerics also swarmed the Ministry of Labor over women employment in retail stores, warning Minister Adel Fakieh that they would pray to God to give him cancer if he does not reverse that policy.

But unlike previous protests, this latest visit to the Royal Court on Tuesday features some prominent names like al-Omar who is known to be a staunch opponent to any changes that cleric perceive as threatening to the Kingdom’s conservative principles. The visit also comes few days before a scheduled day of protest when Saudi women plan to defy the ban on women driving on October 26.

“We came here for many issues, most importantly to combat Westernization and particularly women,” said cleric Abdulrahman al-Mahmoud in another YouTube video.

Prince Bandar Says Riyadh to Shift Away from US

Ellen Knickmeyer reports:

Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief told European diplomats this weekend that he plans to scale back cooperating with the U.S. to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest of Washington’s policy in the region, participants in the meeting said.

Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud’s move increases tensions in a growing dispute between the U.S. and one of its closest Arab allies over Syria, Iran and Egypt policies. It follows Saudi Arabia’s surprise decision on Friday to renounce a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Saudi Arabia Rejects UN Security Council Seat

Saudi Arabia on Friday rejected a seat on the UN Security Council only few hours after it was elected to the body, saying the Council has failed in its duties toward Syria and other international conflicts.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency that the Kingdom “announces its apology for not accepting membership of the Security Council until the Council is reformed and enabled, effectively and practically, to carry out its duties and responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security.”

Allowing the ruling regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria to kill its own people by chemical weapons without taking action against it, the statement said, is “irrefutable evidence” that the Council needs reform in order to be able to carry out its responsibilities.

The statement also said the Council has failed to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the past decades and has failed to transform the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

After Saudi Arabia was elected on Thursday to become one of the 10 nonpermanent members on the Council, the country’s UN Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi said Saudi election was “a reflection of a longstanding policy in support of moderation and in support of resolving disputes by peaceful means.”

The dramatic difference in tone between his statement and the Foreign Ministry statement today suggests that the Saudi Mission to the UN was in the dark about the ministry’s decision to reject the seat.

The Mission had spent a considerable time and effort to lobby for the position. A dozen of Saudi diplomats were also sent to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York to take a special program designed to train them to work in the Security Council once Saudi Arabia is elected.

Saudi rejection of the seat is a strong indication of the country’s frustration with the Council’s record on Syria. Last month the Saudi foreign minister canceled a speech to the General Assembly citing the same reasons.

In February 2012 the Saudi king gave a rare speech criticizing Russia and China for vetoing a resolution on Syria at the United Nations Security Council. “We are going through scary days and unfortunately what happened at the United Nations is absolutely regrettable,” King Abdullah said in a brief address aired on state television.

Photo courtesy of Zack Lee via Flickr

Saudi Image Falters Among MidEast Neighbors

Pew Research Center:

Saudi Arabia’s standing has slipped substantially among key Middle Eastern publics, including in Lebanon where favorable opinion has plummeted 31 percentage points since 2007. In contrast, opinion of Saudi Arabia has not soured in other predominately Muslim countries outside of the region.

This is unsurprising considering Saudi involvement around the region in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.

Saudi Arabia Elected to UN Security Council

The Associated Press:

Saudi Arabia and Chad easily won coveted seats on the U.N. Security Council Thursday, despite criticism from human rights groups that their rights records are abysmal. Nigeria, Lithuania and Chile also won seats.

The five candidates endorsed by regional groups faced no opposition because there were no contested races for the first time in several years.

According to Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press, Saudi Arabia got only 176 votes out of the 191 states present. The kingdom lost 10 votes as a protest, Lee said.

Double Life of Saudi Artist

Garth Harris on Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem:

What makes Gharem’s status as a leading exponent of Middle Eastern conceptualism even more startling is the fact that he has another, more conventional, career – as a lieutenant- colonel in the Saudi army. Surely this dual existence has, at times, rubbed his peers up the wrong way?

“My military experience feeds into my artistic vision 100 per cent. I’ve been in the army for more than 21 years and, yes, in the beginning it was complicated. But after 18 years as an artist, I have the confidence of the senior figures in the army.”

Gharem’s first major solo exhibition was opened in London this week.

Saudi Shoura Councilwomen Want to End Driving Ban

Three female members of Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council on Tuesday introduced a recommendation to lift the ban on women driving. Councilwoman Latifah Ashaalan said on Twitter that she, along with her colleagues Haya al-Manea and Mona Masheet, recommended giving women the right to drive cars in accordance with Sharia and traffic regulations.

This step comes about 3 weeks before a planned day of protest on October 26 when women activists will challenge the ban on driving by getting behind the wheel in different cities around the kingdom.

However, Ashaalan told al-Hayat daily that the recommendation in the Council has been in the works for months and has nothing to do with the protest campaign. Ashaalan told the newspaper it is “shameful” that Saudi women are not allowed to drive even after many of them reached senior positions in government, adding that the ban has become an “embarrassment” to the country on the international level.

King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shoura Council for the first time last February. The King told American journalist Barbara Walters in 2005 that it will be possible to lift the ban on women driving but said that the “issue will require patience.”

As soon as the female members joined the Council, many of them expressed their desire to push the driving ban issue under the dome of Shoura. Prominent conservative cleric Nasser al-Omar criticized these female members and questioned their motives.

“Corrupt beginnings lead to corrupt results,” he warned on Twitter in February. “Wait for more Westernization.”

Last month women activists launched a new online campaign calling for an end to the ban and asking women to drive their cars on October 26. Saudi authorities blocked the campaign website, but more than 14,000 people have already signed the petition published by the organizers.

This will be the third time for Saudi women to challenge the ban on driving. In November 1990, 47 women drove their cars in protest on some major roads in the capital Riyadh. That daring act was forcibly stopped by the police, and women who participated were prohibited from traveling outside the country, fired from their government jobs and denounced in mosques by conservative clerics.

In June 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, Saudi women made a second attempt to lift the driving ban. After weeks of campaigning on social media, more than 50 women drove their cars in different parts of the country. The police appeared to ignore the female drivers. There was no mass arrests, and only two women who were stopped but they were shortly let go after signing a pledge.

As activists are gearing up for their third attempt, some women have already begun driving in Riyadh and Jeddah and posting videos of themselves behind the wheel over the past two weeks.

“I’m driving my car in a street near my house,” said a veiled woman in this video that was uploaded to YouTube on Monday. “People are looking without disapproval, as if we have been driving for quite some time.”