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.


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

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

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.

Saudi Women Continue Push to Lift Driving Ban

Campaigners for women driving in Saudi Arabia continue their push for lifting the decades old ban despite mixed reactions to a planned day of protest that fell exactly two weeks ago.

If you ask supporters of the campaign, they will tell you that October 26 was a success. The story dominated the headlines for days and some women drove despite the government warning. Women will keep on driving, they say.

If you ask opponents of the campaign, they will tell you that it was a failure. The campaign prompted the government to come out with a strong statement reaffirming the longstanding ban. The number of women who drove was embarrassingly small, they say.

Probably the most interesting outcome of the campaign was the decision of the Ministry of Interior to take a clear position on the matter. After years of vague statements by Saudi officials who emphasized that driving is a social issue and laws in the country do not ban it, spokesman Mansour al-Turki was forced to explicitly announce that they do not allow women to drive.

“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 told AFP on October 24.

The Interior Ministry also placed phone calls to leading women activists warning them against getting behind the wheel, a warning that was not enough to deter some of them who went ahead and drove anyway. Columnist Tariq Almubarak, a male supporter of women driving, was detained for a week as authorities investigated his links to the campaign.

While the government now-explicit ban may have caused dejection to some activists, it can also be seen as a gain for the cause. Saudi officials can no longer deflect the blame for the driving ban to society when the Ministry of Interior made it clear that they are responsible for enforcing the ban. Campaigners are likely now to focus their effort on changing the government’s position instead of spending time trying to convince observers that society is not against lifting the ban.

This has already started. Several women have tried to send cables to King Abdullah about driving. However, that effort again appears to be hindered by the Ministry of Interior. In one audio recording obtained by Riyadh Bureau, a woman who wants the driving ban lifted is told her message cannot be delivered to the King.

“We have received instructions not to deliver cables on this matter,” the man on the line told the female caller. When she asked why, he replied: “a directive from the Ministry of Interior.”

The demand to end the ban was also included in a petition signed by 14 women rights activists and sent this week to the female members of the Shoura Council, an advisory body that serves as a quasi-parliament. All members of the Council are appointed by the King. The activists asked the councilwomen to tackle issues like male guardianship and discrimination.

“It is clear that women suffer from injustice and subjugation due to the absence of laws that protect them and give them their rights,” the petition said. “In some cases, written and documented laws reinforce discrimination against women which send them to the dark ages.”

The female members of the Shoura Council remain careful about pushing women issues in the chamber that was a men-only club until the beginning of this year. Earlier last month 3 councilwomen introduced a recommendation to lift the ban on women driving, but they stressed at the time that this has nothing to do with the campaign started by activists.

Meanwhile, some activists continue to drive in different cities around the Kingdom in the hope that this would normalize the act and make government and society accept it as a reality. A video uploaded to YouTube on Saturday showed a lady named Azzah al-Shamasi smiling as she drove on some side streets in the capital Riyadh to the tunes of a nationalistic song.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. While international human rights organizations have urged the government to lift the ban, authorities do not appear under high pressure take that step. Speaking in Riyadh earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry said they have no intention to push their Gulf ally on that issue.

“It’s up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure choices and timing for whatever events,” he said.

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.

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 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.”