Ramadan review edition

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Summit, summit, summit

The last ten days of Ramadan (which started on May 6) are usually a quiet affair in Saudi Arabia as the government and most businesses begin their holiday in the days leading up to Eid al-Fitr. This year is different. The final week of the Muslim holy month is bringing with it a flurry of activity as the kingdom hosts dozens of high-level foreign visitors.

Mecca was already scheduled to host a regular summit for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation on May 31, but after recent attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, the kingdom has also called for emergency Gulf and Arab summits to be held in conjunction with the OIC event.

The summits are seen as an effort by Saudi Arabia to rally regional support against Iran, which was blamed for the attacks, as tensions heightened after the US deployed an aircraft carrier to the Gulf and approved sending 1,500 more troops for the region.

President Donald Trump said this week that he wants to avoid war with Iran. “We’re not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear,” he told reporters during a trip to Japan. “We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.” Both Saudi Arabia and Iran also said they don’t seek war but will defend themselves if threatened.

It remains to be seen if the summits will produce anything beyond the usual statements, but the event highlights a new Saudi approach for using pan-Islamic organisations like the OIC and Muslim World League to promote its agenda and cement its leadership role.

Drama kings and princes

Ramadan also brings with it a lot of drama, as Saudi families spend the evening hours after breaking their fast around television sets to watch the latest series and talkshows produced specifically for this time of the year.

I previously wrote for FT about al-Asouf, which sparked controversy by breaking some taboos in its depiction of life in Saudi Arabia in the early 70s. The second season of the show continued the trend by tackling the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by extremists 1979.

The show producers were praised for how they visually recreated the scenes of a highly emotional moment, but I thought they struggled to tell the story because they could not portray members of the royal family who played central roles in the crisis on the screen, and they had to stick to the official narrative of what happened even though there are several books that have been written about that pivotal event. The one I would recommend is The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has promoted the idea that Saudi Arabia was more tolerant and socially open before 1979, and that the rise of the kingdom’s conservative Sahwa movement, or Islamic awakening, came as a reaction to the revolution in Iran.

When I spoke to Gulf expert Kristin Diwan last year she described this as “dubious history but brilliant messaging,” and Saudi media continued to strongly push that narrative, not just through TV drama but also talkshows where clerics and other figures attempted to distance themselves from the past.

Selective recollections

“In the name of Sahwa, I apologise to Saudi society for the mistakes that have contradicted Quran and Sunnah, and contradicted the tolerance of Islam,” Sheikh Ayedh al-Qarnee told host Abdullah al-Modifer in an interview. “I am today supportive of the moderate Islam, open to the world, which has been called for by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” he added.

Al-Modifer also hosted two special episodes of his show from prison with men serving long jail sentences: Ali al-Fagaasi, a leader of al-Qaeda; and Adel al-Labbad, a Shia activist and poet. Both men used the interviews to offer reassessments of their past and pledge their allegiance to the crown prince and his reforms.

Along the same lines, Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani criticised gender segregation and argued that Saudi society suffers from a “phobia of women.”

The former Grand Mosque imam, who has 6.7 million followers on Twitter, said during his new show on state television that the early days of Islam didn’t have some level of exclusion of women from public life. “In the time of the prophet…men prayed at the front of the mosque and women prayed at the back without any screen or partition between them,” he said.

However, what remains largely missing from most of these programs and conversations is any critical look at the government’s role in these past events, including the rise of conservatism amid official support and sponsorship for decades until recently. Obviously it is hard to expect anything resembling a serious examination of that past in the current atmosphere, but it is something to keep in mind as we follow the debate.

In other news

Four more Saudi women activists have been temporarily released earlier this month as their trials continued. Academic Hatoon al-Fassi posted a short message on social media few days after her release:

But the most prominent woman among the detained activists, Loujain al-Hathloul, remains behind bars. Her siblings based outside the kingdom have continued campaigning for her release, speaking to the media in the US and appearing on stage at the Oslo Freedom Forum. 

“We remained silent for 8 months. And we took all the steps that we were supposed to do, following all the official channels,” her brother Walid al-Hathloul said. “We were not able to get a response from the government.”

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau, brought to you on my 35th birthday. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.