Saudi Diplomat in Tehran Not Drunk, Foreign Ministry Says

Saudi Arabia denied media reports that a Saudi diplomat was intoxicated when his car was involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of one man in northeastern Tehran, the daily al-Watan reported Wednesday. “It is untrue that he was intoxicated,” said Osama Nugali, a spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The diplomat has left the hospital and is being treated according to normal diplomatic practices.”

Iran’s PressTV reported the accident Monday and said four bottles of alcoholic beverage have been found in the car. A spokesman for Iran Foreign Ministry told the television channel that the government is following up on the case. “The Foreign Ministry immediately followed the issue through judicial and diplomatic channels after being informed [of the accident] and has taken the necessary measures in this regard,” spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said on Tuesday, according to PressTV.

Late on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia announced that 18 people, including one Iranian citizen, had been arrested for spying. Interior Minister spokesman Gen. Maj. Mansour al-Turki told state television it was “an espionage case” and that the suspects had been “involved in a spying cell for a state.” The spokesman did not name the foreign state, but local media reports pointed to Iran. The case is likely to heighten the tension between the two countries that are locked in a struggle for influence across the region.

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Saudi Arabia Arrests 18 for Spying

Saudi Arabia arrested 16 citizens and two foreigners for spying, the state news agency reported Tuesday. The official Saudi Press Agency quoted the Ministry of Interior Spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki as saying authorities have arrested 16 Saudis, one Iranian and one Lebanese in a coordinated security across four different regions in the country.

Al-Turki said those arrested were collecting information about vital locations and installations and communicating about them with intelligence agencies in that foreign country. Asked on state television what foreign country these alleged spies worked for, al-Turki refused to name it saying it is in the interest of investigation not to identify that foreign country.

However, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi told Al Arabiya television shortly after MOI released the statement that the alleged spying network is connected to Iran. Khashoggi said those arrested include a Shia cleric in Jeddah, a doctor and an employee of Aramco. Local Shia news site Rasid reported Monday that a number of Shia citizens in Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca and the Eastern Province were arrested for unknown motives. Now it appears that the arrests were related to today’s announcement.

AFP published a story earlier today identifying some of the arrested:

The arrests include Dr Abbas Al Abbad, who works at the Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, university professor Ali Al Haji and banker Ahmad Al Nasser, said the activists.

The three who were arrested in the capital are originally from Al Ahsa city, in the Eastern Province, where the kingdom’s Shiite minority is concentrated.

Security forces also simultaneously arrested Ebrahim Al Humaidi in the capital, and his brother Hussain in the town of Sihat, also in the Eastern Province, the sources said requesting anonymity.

In the western city of Jeddah, police arrested Shiite cleric Mohammad Al Attiyah, while cleric Badr Al Taleb, from Sihat, was arrested in Makkah, also in the Western Region, activists said, adding that another Shiite Abdullah Khamis was arrested in Ahsa.

‘Full of His Bloated Ego’

It was unlikely that Salman al-Odah’s open letter to the government would receive an official response, but pundits in the government-controlled newspapers were quick to react with what one outside observer described as a smear campaign. Former editor-in-chief of the semi-official Asharq al-Awsat Tariq Alhomayed wrote a strongly worded article Sunday where he accused al-Odah of “revealing his blatant Muslim Brotherhood agenda.” He says:

It is strange that Ouda speaks about Saudi Arabia as if the country is a volatile powder keg, whereas the truth is that his open letter is shameful, almost like blackmail, and full of his bloated ego. Ouda says, “With mounting anger, Saudi Arabia’s social, political, and legal symbols are losing their value, and leadership is falling into the hands of the street.” He adds, “Amid such anger, calls for calm are replaced by accusations of treason or weakness, and this will only lead to a more aggressive and divisive scene, given the current conditions.” Simply put, Ouda is calling on the Saudi state to consecrate him as a ‘symbol’ or a ‘guardian’ in order to calm the anger on the street and placate the masses. Yet this is contrary to the very concept of institutions, systems, and reform that the Saudis are demanding. The Saudis themselves refuse to revive those harmful symbols that have damaged Saudi society since the 1980s, one of whom is Salman Ouda. He has forgotten that Saudi Arabia will not be led by a guide!

Similar ideas were echoed in an article penned by Salman al-Dosary, editor of the financial al-Eqtisadiah daily. Al-Dosary called al-Odah conceited for allegedly speaking in the name of 19 million Saudi citizens, and accused him of taking contradictory positions over the years. A common theme in the criticism of al-Odah’s letter in local newspapers was to remind readers of his past as a rebel cleric who challenged the government as part of the Islamist awakening movement after the Gulf war. Such reminders appeared to be an attempt to discredit him as he was later jailed for five years. When he was released in 1999, al-Odah has transformed himself into a moderate religious figure which gave him a great influence over the youth in the country.

Knowns and Unknowns

David B. Roberts

Things are not always what they seem in Riyadh. Many assumed that Muqrin’s abrupt removal as head of intelligence in July 2012, coming in the wake of increasing public criticism, was a sign of him losing power. Instead this move was a precursor to assuming the position of second in line to the throne.

Instead of sifting through the minutiae of each candidate’s CV and family linkages or investing too heavily in court gossip, it is more fruitful to seek a set of guidelines and factors that will inform the decision-making.

Saudi to Release Detained Jordanian Activist

Khaled Al Natour, a Jordanian detained in Saudi Arabia for undisclosed reasons since January, is expected to be released soon, a Foreign Ministry official said Saturday.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Sabah Al Rafei said the ministry and Jordan’s embassy in Riyadh “are exerting huge efforts to release Natour and send him home safely”.

Rafei noted that Natour is expected to be released in the coming days upon promises from the Saudi side, without elaborating further about his whereabouts or the reasons behind his arrest.

Saudi Shoura Council to Discuss Lifting Ban on Women Driving

The Saudi Shoura Council has accepted a petition to look into lifting the ban on women driving, local news site Sabq reported Saturday. The Human Rights and Petitions Committee at the council have studied a petition signed by 3,000 citizens and decided that the issue should be opened for debate on the council floor.

“Merely opening the issue for debate would give credibility to the council,” Sulaiman al-Zaidi, former head of the committee was quoted as saying. “The council would win people’s trust as a body that represents them and takes up their issues.”

Abdulla Alami, one of the main bakers of the petition, told Sabq last December that the petition recommended lifting the ban on women driving and asked the council to set a date to discuss it. “More than 3,000 citizens signed the petition, including academics, columnists, intellectuals and students of both genders,” he said. Alami has recently published a book titled “When would Saudi women drive?” explaining how the petition came about and making the case for lifting the ban.

Earlier this year, King Abdullah appointed 30 women as members of the Shoura Council for the first time. The advisory body serves as a quasi-parliament in the conservative kingdom, and the step of appointing women on it angered some hardline clerics. Preacher Nasser al-Omar criticized female members of the council after they said they want to debate lifting driving ban last month.

Three Minor Incidents at Riyadh Book Fair

While the annual book fair in Riyadh has been the stage of some major controversies in recent years, it appears that the event has gone largely smoothly this year, except maybe for three incidents reported in the last few days of the fair that are worth mentioning here.

The first one took place Thursday night when a group of men allegedly barraged into the lobby of a hotel used by the book fair guests. The intruders reportedly went there to protest the mixing of men and women which they described as “the gate to Westernization of the umma,” according to Al Arabiya.

On the same night, four female college students were reportedly arrested for distributing small papers with conservative slogans written on them. Local media reported that the small papers were tied to pieces of candy and carried statements warning Muslim women against the CEDAW agreement. Saudi conservative female activists have for years lobbied against this UN agreement that aims to eliminate discrimination against women. The Saudi government have signed the agreement, but conservative women activists in the country like Norah al-Saad oppose it because they view it as an attack on Islamic traditional values of society.

The third incident happened Friday when cleric Yusuf al-Ahmed visited the book fair with a group of his students to tell female fairgoers to cover up, according to al-Sharq daily. The controversial al-Ahmed was jailed in July 2011 after he criticized the Interior Ministry of lengthy detention of terrorism suspects. He was sentenced in April 2012 to 5 years in prison with a fine and a travel ban, but he was released in November 2012 after the King pardoned him.