Voices from the Arab press: Conspiracy theories won't stop Saudi reforms

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

 GLASS CUBE: Apple’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue, New York City. (photo credit: ANGELA WEISS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
GLASS CUBE: Apple’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue, New York City.

Conspiracy theories won't stop kingdom's reforms

Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt, February 22

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In July 2006, a piece of news circulated in online forums, a precursor to social media platforms. It claimed someone was deliberately mocking Islam by building a replica of the Kaaba (sacred Muslim shrine in Mecca) in New York City and using it as a nightclub that would be open 24/7.

As a young reporter for Asharq al-Awsat newspaper at the time, I was tasked with uncovering the truth of the matter. Upon further investigation, it became clear the building was neither a nightclub nor a replica of the Kaaba, but, rather, a cube shaped flagship Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

It later emerged that the entrance to the store was composed of glass; however, initial photographs featuring the glass exterior covered with a black protective layer caused false news to spread like wildfire due to its resemblance to the Kaaba.

In the wake of 9/11, passions ran high and religious extremists issued numerous controversial fatwas against the West. Some even used false news to advance their agendas and stir up anti-Western sentiment.

It is remarkable that, after 17 years, incitement and extremist ideas remain prevalent. Technology and our access to information have progressed greatly, yet reactions on social media about the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s announcement of a new downtown project in Riyadh demonstrate the similarities that persist.

 A YOUNG boy in colorful attire takes part in a festival opening in the Libyan town of Ghadames, Feb. 1 (credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES) A YOUNG boy in colorful attire takes part in a festival opening in the Libyan town of Ghadames, Feb. 1 (credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

An immense cube at the project’s center sparked much discussion, particularly on Twitter. This structure, which will be used for entertainment, restaurants and commerce, has raised questions due to its size and height, which surpasses that of Islam’s holiest shrine in neighboring Mecca, the Kaaba.

Of course, it is not necessary to explain how absurd the claim is that the design of the Apple Store was inspired by Islam. To begin with, Islam does not have a monopoly over items in the shape of a cube. It is highly unlikely that the Star Trek producers or Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik had Mecca in mind when designing the Borg Cube or 3D puzzle, respectively.

Moreover, it is ridiculous to think that such intentions could have been the inspiration behind the design of this landmark. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose king is the custodian of the two holy mosques, does not require any external validation of its commitment to serving the Islamic faith. The kingdom’s efforts to serve millions of pilgrims, build and restore mosques, and provide billions in humanitarian aid to Islamic countries, attest to its dedication. An interesting comparison can be drawn between the story of the Apple Store and the story of the cube.

The United States of America has long been viewed as an infidel in the eyes of many extremist Muslims. Recently, however, attention has shifted to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Extremists within the kingdom and abroad are attempting to distort the progressive reforms undertaken by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, casting doubt on their efficacy.

But the truth is that women have been liberated from restrictive guardianship laws and are now empowered to drive cars and serve as ambassadors, lawyers and doctors.

The reforms are indeed making a positive impact on the nation. Extremists in Saudi Arabia want to impose a lifestyle similar to that of the Taliban, where women are denied the opportunity to receive an education or work, and are treated as second-class citizens, having to remain in their homes for the majority of the time.

Music and parties are also considered abhorrent to their fundamentalist views.

The Prophet Muhammad – may God bless him and grant him peace – was welcomed with singing and drumming when he migrated from Mecca to Medina, a reminder that these views are in stark contrast to the religion’s true spirit.

Additionally, they reject the use of a foreign term, such as “downtown,” to refer to the new project, claiming it to be a way of “Westernizing” the nation. Despite the absurdity of this notion, extremists have overlooked the fact that many “Western” terms actually stem from the Arabic language.

Consider, for instance, the word “algorithm,” which derives from the name of al-Khwarizmi, a scientist who made major contributions to the fields of mathematics, astronomy and geography. He was a Baghdad-based astronomer during the Abbasid period. Can you imagine what the world would have become if the West had been so myopic as to preclude its scholars from studying and benefiting from Arabic research and knowledge?

Of course, without algorithms, these tech-savvy individuals would not have been able to access the social media platforms which they have embraced and so frequently utilize.

What the kingdom should do is to persist with its reforms, while espousing progressive changes and executing ambitious development projects. After all, a cloistered cuboid structure is not the most menacing threat to Islam. The most pernicious threat lies in the closed mind that overlooks the fact that Islam did not reach its zenith until it was welcoming of all cultures, and promoted the research, philosophy and architecture which it employed fully and disseminated to the West. – Faisal Abbas

Path toward a solution in Libya?

Al-Ittihad, UAE, February 23

There remain numerous impediments to resolving the Libyan crisis. Despite the UN-brokered Libya Political Agreement birthed in December 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco, none of the subsequent agreements have been able to set the country on a path toward a solution. Thus far, no solid starting point for a peaceful resolution has been identified.

However, there is some optimism that the resolution of the so-called constitutional rule disputes may offer a glimmer of hope. This has led to a renewed focus on these issues among the movements that have been active since the start of the year, following months of stagnation and inactivity.

There have been recent efforts to reach a consensus on remaining contentious points concerning the conditions for candidacy in the elections. Most notable, the eligibility of military personnel and dual nationals to run for office has been a source of dispute.

A purely legal approach, free from political conflict, reveals that the solution to this issue is simple, as international experience and expertise demonstrate.

For over two centuries, retired and independent soldiers have held office, won general elections and even assumed the presidency in numerous countries. George Washington, the first US president, led the army in the War of Independence against Britain. Thus, there is no need to reinvent what has already been accomplished.

Many American presidents have had a military background, such as Franklin Roosevelt, who served as assistant commander of the Navy to develop the American fleet at the beginning of the 20th century; Harry Truman, who achieved the rank of captain in the artillery; and Dwight Eisenhower, who served as general commander of the Allied forces in World War II. Not to mention Winston Churchill, the most renowned British leader of the last century, who was an officer in the cavalry; and Charles de Gaulle, the most renowned French president, who graduated from the prestigious Saint-Cyr military school and led his country’s resistance against Germany in World War II.

It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of presidents and heads of government with a military background since the inception of elections. This is why retired military personnel and independents have become firmly established and indisputable candidates.

When examining the current state of affairs in Libya, it is evident that the national army and the joint military committee have attained notable success in recent years. UN envoy Abdoulaye Bathily commended the members of the committee in a press conference on January 16, encouraging politicians to “emulate the work of these men in military uniforms.”

With regard to dual nationals, there is no universal decision on their eligibility to run for office; the constitution of each country decides this matter on a case-by-case basis. The candidacy of dual nationals in Libya has long been a source of contention. As conditions change, these individuals can find their candidacy approved one moment and denied the next. If there is any suspicion of divided loyalties, their candidacy is prohibited. However, if it is determined that their original national affiliation is more significant than any others, they are allowed to run.

These unpredictable fluctuations should not serve as an added impediment to resolving the crisis that the Libyan people are currently facing. – Waheed Abdul Majeed

The House of Saud: Looks like us, we look like it

Okaz, Saudi Arabia, February 20

When one delves into the history of the Arabian Peninsula, an important question arises: How many states have held dominion over the region or a large part of it in the past 5,000 years? Why has it never been ruled by an external nation?

The likely answer lies in the Arab people’s deep-seated resistance to outside domination. This resistance is due in part to the harsh climate and scarcity of resources in the area.

Two distinct political entities stand out in the region’s history. The first is the Islamic state established during the prophet’s era and first caliphate, which existed for about 40 years. The second is the Saudi state, founded in 1727 and continuing to the present day.

The Saudi state, founded by Imam Muhammad bin Saud, provided the Arabian Peninsula with a previously unseen form of institutional government. Spanning the entire region, this state had its own central leadership, military body and political outlook. It created religious institutions, spread knowledge, collected charity, upheld law and order and provided social justice. Governors were appointed to oversee each region, such as Tami Bin Shuaib Al-Muthami in Asir, Othman Al-Madhaifi in Al-Taif, and Bakhroush Bin Alass in Al-Bahah.

Prior to the birth of the first Saudi state, the region was characterized by disunity, conflict and tribal or clan rule, with individual local emirates belonging to greater regional states.

This region, stretching from Al-Jawf in the north to Najran in the south, and from Al-Uqair in the east to Jizan in its far southwest, has had its own destiny. This destiny accurately reflects the relationship between the people of the Saudi state and its ruling family. Only its inhabitants knew the secrets of its keys. But if someone unwelcome entered, the people resisted and vocalized their dismay. This is what happened in the short periods between the first and second Saudi states, and between the second and third states.

For nearly 1,000 years, efforts to create governments in the various regions of the Arabian Peninsula were unsuccessful in realizing the dream of a centralized state. 

Then, in 1727, bin Saud achieved success and galvanized the masses through the necessity of his project. This was a dream that the Arabian Peninsula had awaited for centuries, and the land and people willingly joined forces with him and his sons and grandsons, who went on to become the rulers of the three Saudi states. They identified with him, as he was one of their own.

It is clear that the Arabian Peninsula was not content with its unforgiving geography, which has kept it isolated for so long. Furthermore, the Arab central states of Damascus and Baghdad neglected the ambition of foreign powers to impose hegemony and tutelage on the region or parts of it. This ambition can be traced back to Persia’s failed attempt to take control of Al-Ahsa and Najd under the leadership of Shapur the Great, as well as the failed attempts of the Portuguese Crusaders, the Safavid allies and the Ottomans.

These failed attempts to take control of the region can be attributed to their lack of understanding that the Arabian Peninsula is a land made for resistance, and its people are naturally resistant to any outsiders. Ibn Saud was able to understand this, ultimately leading him to successfully create the Saudi House under one banner and one family. – Mohammed Al-Saed

Absurdities of Kuwaiti bureaucracy

Al-Qabas, Kuwait, February 25

Maz Jobrani, a renowned American stand-up comedian, recently performed in Dubai. During his show, he recounted his experience of performing in Kuwait a few months prior. He described the affair as “highly amusing” due to the censorship of his materials.

He was surprised to learn that the chief censor in Kuwait wanted him to present the jokes in writing for approval. This was a difficult task for Jobrani, as he usually improvises his jokes on stage and believes the humor is lost when written. Furthermore, the censor did not understand English, so the jokes had to be translated into Arabic. The situation became rather absurd in Jobrani’s eyes.

The sarcasm reached a fever pitch when the censor asked the comedian to perform a show or rehearsal for him. When the comedian objected, citing the official’s lack of English comprehension, the reply was that it didn’t matter – he was following instructions to the letter.

It then became apparent that the ministry had no license that would accommodate someone who “tells jokes standing,” so they issued him a license as an actor. Jobrani was reminded of an old anecdote that he heard about Kuwaiti censorship. The joke tells the story of a contractor who was hired by a company to install electric poles along a desert road. He divided his workers into three teams: the first to dig the holes, the second to carry and set the poles in place, and the third to backfill the holes. Due to the simplicity of the work, the contractor was absent for two days. When he returned to the job site, he was stunned to discover one crew digging and the other immediately backfilling each hole. He asked them what they were doing, and they responded that they merely followed his instructions to the letter.

The sad joke is that these absurdities indeed happen in Kuwait. Kuwaiti hotels need to obtain a license from two separate ministries in order to have a piano played in their lobby. Strangely, the license has to be renewed every month, with a special emphasis on the month of December. Amid our wise government’s desire to prevent any hotels or restaurants from playing the piano during the Christmas and New Year periods, licenses for the month of December are designed to expire on the evening of December 23. This ensures that the playing stops and is not renewed until January 1. As a result, no one is able to hear any Christian carols from December 24 to January 1. – Ahmed Al-Sarraf

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.