So Long

I’m sad to announce the end of Riyadh Bureau. This has been an interesting experiment. During the past 13 months, the site has become an important source of news and analysis on Saudi Arabia. However, with no clear plan to monetize its content, it was difficult to anticipate how long that experiment could last. While the site will no longer be updated, I will continue to cover Saudi Arabia in the future. Follow me on Twitter for the latest. Farewell and thanks for reading.

Ahmed

KPMG Accused in Saudi Bribery Case

Auditing firm KPMG will possibly face criminal charges for their role in the bribery of government officials in Saudi Arabia by Dutch construction giant Ballast Nedam, according to a report published Monday in de Telegraaf newspaper.

Public prosecutors in the Netherlands suspect that KPMG has played an active role in helping Ballast Nedam win major construction projects by obscuring hundreds of millions of dollars that were paid as bribes to officials, the newspaper said. The investigation focuses on the use of false contracts and secret payments via Switzerland during the period from 1997 to 2004.

Ballast Nedam is the fourth biggest Dutch construction and engineering company and they have been involved in several mega projects in Saudi Arabia over the last 25 years, including building King Fahad Causeway that connects the country to Bahrain and the construction of military bases. Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal owns a minority stake in Ballast Nedam.

Photo courtesy of Line Ørstavik via Flickr

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Short-term Pain, Long-term Gain

Angus McDowall:

Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on foreign workers has thrown millions of lives into turmoil and caused rioting in big cities, but the economy should benefit in the long run as Saudi nationals fill the gaps and cut their dependence on the state.

Nearly a million foreigners have left Saudi Arabia since March, when authorities stopped turning a blind eye to visa irregularities they had tolerated for decades, and tens of thousands more have been detained in raids on offices and marketplaces that began this month.

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‘Uniquely Captive Audience’

Matt Smith reports for Reuters:

The restrictions on Saudi society, where morality police patrol public spaces to enforce approved modes of behavior, has created a uniquely captive audience for web-based news and entertainment, media experts say.

With a population of 28.3 million, Saudi Arabia is now the biggest user of YouTube per capita in the world, and according to analysts Semiocast was the eighth most active country on Twitter as of April, accounting for 2.33 percent of all tweets.

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Will the Crackdown Work?

The Economist on Saudi crackdown on undocumented foreign workers:

All this is meant to lower the kingdom’s unemployment rate, officially 13 percent but believed to be twice as high among the young. Although trimming the foreign workforce will theoretically free up jobs for locals, few Saudis seem likely to seek them, least of all those of the menial kind, which the kingdom’s 19m citizens tend to shun. Still, some economists expect longer-term benefits, as an overall rise in labour costs makes Saudis more attracted to lower-prestige and starting-level jobs, where wages have long been kept down by the abundance of foreign labour.

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Saudi Bargain of Governance

Andrew Hammond:

The forlorn hope that the Saudi ruling family would budge on this issue reveals some misunderstandings – which can be attributed to wishful thinking – about the way the system works. Governance in the country is first and foremost a bargain between the al-Saud family and the religious scholars, or ulama. There are other bargains, such as that with the Hejazi commercial elite, which was replaced by a Najdi elite after the oil boom of the 1970s; but the key alliance for ensuring the social and political peace that al-Saud needs to maintain its rule is that with the ulama.

Saudi Arabia Wins Seat on UN Human Rights Council

Saudi Arabia won a seat on the Human Rights Council, the UN’s highest rights watchdog body, despite objections from independent human rights organizations. The Kingdom was one of 14 new members elected on Tuesday to the 47-seat Geneva-based council.

Six human rights groups sent a letter to the Saudi King on Friday urging him to improve the country’s record ahead of election by releasing all imprisoned human rights and civil society activists.

“Saudi Arabia should make good on its professed commitment to human rights and stop persecuting citizens who call on the authorities to respect these rights,” said Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch in a statement. “Saudi Arabia has a long way to go to improve its human rights record, but ending the crackdown on independent activists would be a start.”

The New York-based group said that Saudi Arabia and four other nations that won seats — Russia, China, Vietnam and Algeria — have denied UN investigators visits to check alleged abuses. Members of HRC will serve for three years and will not be eligible for immediate reelection after two consecutive terms.

In an editorial published Sunday, the Washington Post said countries that abuse human rights should be kept off the Council. “Saudi Arabia wants to be on the council, even though it has routinely thrown people into prison without charge or trial, and refuses to allow women to drive on their own,” the newspaper said.

Saudi win comes less than 3 weeks after the country rejected a seat on the UN Security Council citing its failure to resolve the crisis in Syria and other international conflicts.

Photo courtesy of UN Photo Geneva via Flickr

Victims of Saudi Crackdown on Undocumented Workers

Abdul Rahman al-Rashed:

The campaign to correct illegal workers’ status has been successful so far, but it has created victims. Some were born and have lived in Saudi Arabia for decades. Many countries across the world give citizenship to people like these. Some of them have lived in Saudi Arabia for 40 years and became Saudis, though not in the legal sense of the word. We do not know how many there are, but regardless I do not think it is a big number compared with that of contemporary violators.

Those who have lived with us and worked tirelessly should, along with their families, at least be granted the right of residency—or simple documentation acknowledging a right they have enjoyed. These residents deserve their status to be corrected because we are confronting an issue that recurs a lot in society as citizenship becomes a fait accompli.

NSA Spied on Saudis in OPEC

Der Spiegel:

A review of the section reserved for the OPEC secretary general documented that the Saudis were using underhanded tactics, even within the organization. According to the NSA analysts, Riyadh had tried to keep an increase in oil production a secret for as long as possible.

Saudi Arabia’s OPEC governor is also on the list of individuals targeted for surveillance, for which the NSA had secured approval from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The documents show how careful the Americans were to suspend their surveillance when the Saudi visited the United States. But as soon as he had returned to Riyadh, the NSA analysts began infiltrating his communications once again.

Saudi Justice Ministry Suing Lawyers Over Critical Tweets

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Justice is suing 3 lawyers who used Twitter to criticize the ministry, local news site Alweeam reported Sunday. The ministry accused the lawyers of posting tweets that “damage the reputation of the justice apparatus” and retweeting cartoons and articles that mock the judiciary and judges.

A copy of one of the cases legal documents obtained by Riyadh Bureau shows that that the original lawsuit has been filed under the name the the ministry’s spokesman Fahad al-Bakran, but his name was later crossed off and replaced by the name of the Ministry of Justice.

The 3 lawyers targeted by MOJ lawsuits are Abdulrahman al-Rumaih, Abdulrahman al-Sobaihi and Bander al-Nogaithan.

MOJ spokesman al-Bakran told Dammam-based al-Sharq daily last September that the ministry has been monitoring the tweets of lawyers, a statement that was condemned by several lawyers who said the ministry should focus on improving its performance instead of wasting resources on monitoring what they say on Twitter.

Al-Nogaithan, a graduate of Harvard Law School who tweets under the handle @SaudiLawyer, commented on Twitter at the time that “such juvenile threats by MOJ do not scare us and we will continue to expose its transgressions and its major failure to achieve King Abdullah’s dream” to reform the judiciary.

The King announced a big project in October 2007 to overhaul the legal system, including the allocation of $2 billion for training judges and building new courthouses. Even though the decision was hailed as “one of the most significant reform moves King Abdullah has made so far,” the ministry has been criticized for failing to implement the reforms.

Critics of MOJ say the ministry have flooded the media with empty promises on which they repeatedly failed to deliver, creating an image different from the reality on the ground where citizens often complain that cases take years to be resolved due to the small number of judges who sometimes issue controversial sentences based on their own interpretation of Sharia in the absence of a written penal code.

In their lawsuits against the critical 3 lawyers, MOJ is seeking maximum punishment because, the ministry says, as lawyers they should be aware of the consequences of what they have done. According the Publications Law cited in the lawsuit, the maximum fine is SR500,000 that can be doubled in the case of repeated offense and also banning the accused of publishing in media.

The first hearing in the case before a legal committee from the Ministry of Culture and Information is scheduled to take place on Monday, November 18, 2013 in the capital Riyadh.