Day: November 21, 2017

The Kingdom needs to cool it

Atheer Ahmed Kakan of the (Turkish) Anadolu Agency asked questions last week. I replied:

1. What do you think of Trump policy in the Middle East right now?

A: Trump policy in the Middle East seems calculated to push back hard on Iran, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but it is having perverse effects. The war in Yemen is going badly, the blockade of Qatar has driven Doha closer to Tehran and Ankara, and the forced resignation of Saad Hariri has united Lebanon against the Kingdom. Ironically, Trump has done nothing to push back against Iran or its proxies in Syria.

2. What do you have to say about Saudis new developments? Adopting “moderate version of Islam”? Attacking Iran publicly? Aligning with Israel against Iran? Re-engaging with Iraq?

A: No one I know would object to the Kingdom advocating for more moderate Islam. Re-engaging with Iraq is also a good idea. Mouthing off against Iran is not. I’m not sure how far the alignment with Israel is really going to go.

3. What do you think the consequences of Trump letting Saudis hand in the MidEast? Are we witnessing Saudi-Iranian war? New civil war in Lebanon? New opened war in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon beside Yemen?

A: I trust cooler heads will prevent some of those things from happening, but there are a lot of risks. The Kingdom needs to assess its own capabilities and align its actions with those. Hotheadedness doesn’t win wars, or peace.

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Women are driving MENA social change

On November 15, the Middle East Institute hosted “Women’s Activism and Social Change,” the final panel of its annual conference. It brought together speakers Wafa Ben Hassine of AccessNow, Hind Aboud Kabawat of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, Rania Al-Mashat of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Fawziah Bakr al-Bakr of Al Jazeera, and moderator Nafeesa Syeed of Bloomberg. Given recent developments in regard to the status and rights of women in various Arab countries, Syeed prompted the panelists to discuss the reception and impact of the changes, the concept of a “model” country, and how the role of women has changed since the Arab Uprisings.

Ben Hassine emphasized that changes in Tunisia have happened in response to internal developments over the last decade. She mentioned four changes for Tunisian women: the abrogation of Article 274, which had allowed for a rapist to marry his victim, the criminalization of  violence against women, the passage of a law allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, and a change in Tunisia’s inheritance law proposed by President Essebsi that would allow women equal inheritance. These much-celebrated developments have primarily been driven by civil society organizations, but Ben Hassine asserted it is important to contextualize them. Reforms this summer occurred against the backdrop of discussions surrounding Tunisia’s controversial reconciliation law, heightened effects of economic downturn, and the postponement of municipal elections. The reforms, by extension, were an opportunity for the president to reconnect with his “betrayed base” and improve his standing.

Kabawat explained that though Syrian women had freedoms before 2011, these were largely surface-level and did not include political participation. Since 2011, women have had to bear the brunt of the Syrian conflict. Because many men have been imprisoned, killed, or driven out by other factors, women now constitute the majority in refugee camps and have also been drawn into economic participation. Kabawat also noted high enthusiasm among Syrian women to be included in political discussions. After Geneva talks, for example, Kabawat’s team deliver workshops to Syrian women, briefing them on developments. The talks themselves now impose a 30% quota on women’s participation, an achievement that was the result of a two-year struggle for inclusion. Besides being instrumental to meaningful reconciliation and justice, the involvement of women also decreased sectarian barriers. Describing Syria as a “mosaic society,” Kabawat explained that women’s organizations have always intentionally included members from across sects and religions.

Turning to Saudi Arabia, al-Bakr explained that when the Kingdom’s 2030 transformation plan was announced, it was considered unrealistic. With recent developments, however, many feel that they are “living the dream.” Besides the recent lifting of the ban on women drivers, other developments include the opening of the national stadium to women, the dismantling the guardianship law, which currently requires that Saudi women obtain permission from a male guardian to travel or access different services, and the discussion of a law in the Shura Council that would ban any discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or nationality. Unlike other countries where there is more enthusiasm on the social level for the changes proposed, Saudi Arabia is witnessing more government will to take the initiative. Social will, she explained, needs to increase, and value systems need to change. This includes engaging religious institutions as well as men, who presently hold all powerful positions in the country.

The issue of religion as an obstacle was one that all three panelists discussed. Ben Hassine and al-Bakr emphasized the undeniable importance of religion to their societies. Ben Hassine highlighted the importance of religious research and discouraged closing mosques, because it encourages people to turn to less legitimate sources of information. She also proposed that new developments not be presented as clashing with Islamic law. In the case of the inheritance reforms, for example, Ben Hassine suggested that equality in inheritance be considered the legal default, with the Islamic way of dividing inheritance an option for families who wish to follow it. Al-Bakr applauded the Saudi government’s recent efforts to limit the influence of conservative interpretations, saying that this creates safe spaces for women. She also mentioned other efforts to reconcile religion with reform, such as a center established by King Salman to re-study the Hadith, or teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Kabawat stressed that it is not religion that is limiting women, but rather the general refusal of men to include women. Men on both ends of the spectrum–those who are extremely conservative and those who are extremely “progressive”–are to blame.

Al-Mashat noted that women’s participation is an issue that the IMF has labeled “macro-critical,” referring to the immense boost that it would give to global GDP. If women were equal to men in labor force participation, the GDP of Egypt would grow by 34%, the UAE by 14%, and Japan by 7%. Efforts to achieve such gains have been made–take the UAE’s new 30% quota in government boards.The exclusion of women in rural areas is a universal issue, as is the effect of freedom of expression in advancing women’s issues. The challenges are great, but so too is today’s progress across the Middle East in increasing women’s participation and recognizing their importance in creating and advancing social change.

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