Loujain sentenced; latest US-Saudi arms deal; ban on NYE parties; mosque imams sacked

⦙ Breaking: Loujain al-Hathloul sentenced to jail

Prominent Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul was sentenced to five years and 8 months in jail over charges including seeking to change the country’s political system and “execute foreign agenda inside the kingdom using the internet,” local media reported on Monday. The sentence includes a suspended prison term of 34 months “out of consideration for her conditions”. That means the activist is likely to be released in March, shortly after Joe Biden becomes president. More details to come in Wednesday’s newsletter.

US pushes Saudi arms sale

From Bloomberg:

The State Department notified Congress that it’s moving to issue a license for the sale of 7,500 precision-guided, air-to-ground munitions valued at $478 million to Saudi Arabia, according to two officials familiar with the issue.

Democratic members of Congress criticised the deal when they were informally briefed on it earlier this year, but the Trump administration is now moving to finalise the sale before Biden takes over next month. The Trump administration is “trying to ram through even more arms sales to human rights abusers in its last month in office over clear congressional objections,” a Democratic congressional aide told the Washington Post.

The deal includes “Paveway IV” precision-guided bombs made by Raytheon, which under the terms of the agreement would be produced in Saudi Arabia, according to the newspaper. The kingdom is one of the world’s biggest spenders on weapons and the government plans for at least half of its military budget to be spent locally by 2030 as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to diversify the economy away from its dependence on oil revenues.

I have written about the future of US-Saudi relations in the post-Trump era in a dispatch of this newsletter last week. I have also participated in a discussion on NPR about the same topic and you can listen to it here.

Government bans NYE parties

Expats living in Saudi Arabia choose Christmas decorations at a gift shop in the capital Riyadh in early December (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty)

Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority has informed restaurants and cafes that they are not allowed to host any live events between Thursday December 29th and Saturday January 2nd, effectively banning any plans for New Year’s Eve parties. GEA cited health precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus as the reason for the ban, according to local media reports. Restaurants and cafes are required to obtain permits from the authority via GEA’s website to host live events.

GEA’s chairman Turki al-Alsheikh was one of several senior Saudi officials who received the coronavirus vaccine in the past few days. State television on Friday aired footage of the crown prince taking the jab. Health minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said the number of people registered to take the vaccine saw a five-fold jump in the following hours. It is now estimated that more than half a million citizens and residents have used the ministry’s app to sign up.

In neighbouring UAE, the emirate of Dubai is allowing private family and social gatherings of up to 30 people on New Year’s Eve. Party hosts who exceed the capped number of guests will face fines of Dh50,000, while guests will be hit with fines of Dh15,000 each, the National reported.

The Saudi ban on NYE parties will probably be disappointing to some people who had their hopes raised after authorities appeared to relax restrictions on the sales of Christmas trees and other ornaments of the festive season.

There is certainly a sense of relief that celebrating the occasion is no longer prohibited, but Okaz columnist Khalid al-Sulaiman is feigning surprise. He says he had usually enjoyed visiting Christmas markets abroad when he travelled in the past.

“For some people to make it part of our identity just so they would appear open-minded, tolerant and hungry for joy, that’s an exaggeration!” he writes. This raises the question of why he didn’t call on the government to allow such celebrations in the past, especially that he insists “it’s not a religious issue.” The obvious answer is that the official mood was not open to that before and now it is. The way he tackles this is very common among local pundits who strive to show how they have always been aligned with the latest government policy on any issue.

⦙ 9 mosque imams sacked

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs has sacked nine mosque imams because they did not condemn the Muslim Brotherhood vigorously enough in their Friday sermons earlier this month despite instructions from the ministry. Their names were reported to the ministry by monitoring teams sent from regional offices, according to a local newspaper.

The move comes after a statement from the kingdom’s highest religious authority, the Senior Scholars Council, released a statement in November calling the MB a terrorist group. The timing of that statement, just days before Riyadh hosted a virtual summit for the leaders of the G20 group, was puzzling. Some analysts linked it to the result of US elections; others said it is simply a reiteration of a longstanding position and not particularly connected to any specific event.

Abdullatif al-Alsheikh, the minister of Islamic affairs, said he is not proud to fire employees but had no choice. “The ministry has a duty to lay off those who don’t follow instructions that are in the interest of the nation and citizens, and serve pure and true Islam,” he told reporters in Mecca.

According to the latest data from the ministry, there are 79,379 mosques in Saudi Arabia. Friday prayers are performed in 15,134 of them. In the past, imams had the freedom to decide what they wanted to say in the Friday sermons based on their own judgement and what they believe would appeal to their congregation. That has also meant it was not easy to sniff out imams who preach extremist ideas or anti-government sentiments out of this large number of mosques in a vast country like the kingdom.

Some people have suggested that Saudi Arabia should follow the example of their neighbours in the UAE where the government sends the text of the sermon every Friday to mosque imams and they simply read it. The minister has previously dismissed the idea and said he prefers that they only suggest a sermon topic when the occasion arises. Recent topics suggested by the ministry include the aforementioned Muslim Brotherhood, drugs, Saudi National Day and the coronavirus.

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