On 10 August, after days of intense fighting, secessionist forces of the Southern Transitional Council in Yemen seized control of Aden, deposing the internationally recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The STC and the Hadi government are nominally allies in the war against the Houthis. The two senior partners in the war’s disintegrating coalition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also found themselves on opposite sides in the battle for Aden. The Saudis strongly favour the Hadi government; the Emiratis have long-standing ties with the STC.
Eleven people have gone on trial in Riyadh, accused of murdering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate-general in Istanbul in October. The defendants have not been named, but they do not include Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, generally believed to have ordered the killing. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said the trial is ‘not sufficient’. According to an opposition report on Twitter, the prisoners are being difficult: some mutinous, some suicidal. One unpredictable consequence of the affair has been a radical change in the way all things Saudi are reported in the media, above all the mainstream US media.
With audiences stretching from Poland to Kazakhstan and throughout the Middle East, Turkey has in recent times become a large exporter of soap opera. There is more than a touch of TV melodrama to the way the Erdoğan government has unfolded the story of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, engineering a rare deceleration in the pace of the world media, hooking global audiences on a drip feed of slow news. Nothing in the timing has been left to chance. Word that Khashoggi's remains had been found, and evidence of the act itself – three weeks ago now – was released to coincide with the opening day of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Future Investment Initiative, a.k.a. ‘Davos in the Desert’.
Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on the afternoon of 2 October and did not come out. The local police think that Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist writing regularly for the Washington Post, was killed inside the consulate building and his body smuggled out by car.
On 9 August, a Saudi Arabian air strike on a school bus in Yemen killed 40 children aged betweeen six and eleven, along with eleven adults, wounding a further 79. The 500-pound bomb had been supplied by the US. It might just as easily have come from the UK. Around half the Saudi air force consists of British-built planes, which have played a significant role in the war.
Saudi Arabia has lifted its ban on women driving. But the guardianship system, which requires that every Saudi girl and woman be under the authority of a designated male relative throughout her life, remains in place. Without the permission of her guardian – her father, husband, brother, son, uncle, cousin – a woman cannot marry, travel abroad, or be released from prison. A guardian's permission is no longer required for a woman to see a doctor, get a job or report a crime, but many hospitals, employers and police stations still ask for it. Women are supposed to ask their guardian's permission to leave the house, an informal requirement occasionally upheld by the courts. A guardian can file a complaint on the Ministry of Justice website to 'demand submission from those under his guardianship' or to have a woman under his guardianship returned to him. Some guardians are liberal, lenient and supportive, and let women work and travel – but their permission is still required. ‘I’m lucky,’ a student told Le Monde Diplomatique. ‘My father trusts me, but it's not like that for my friends. Every time they beg their guardians to let them go out, they say no, and often they beat them.’ Classical Athens, routinely described as the cradle of Western democracy, had a similar system.
Last November, the International Labour Organisation closed its case on a complaint about working conditions in Qatar. Reforms meant that some two million workers now enjoyed better protection. ‘Qatar has set a new standard for the Gulf States,’ the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation said, ‘and this must be followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE where millions of migrant workers are trapped in modern slavery.’ In April, the ILO inaugurated its project office in Doha, its first in the Gulf, to support a programme on working conditions and labour rights in Qatar.
A year ago today, a boat carrying about 145 people, almost all of them Somalis with official refugee documents, was on its way to Sudan from Yemen. It was passing through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait when it came under fire. The shots, a confidential report to the UN Security Council confirmed four months later, were ‘almost certainly’ fired from a machine-gun mounted on a helicopter. Only ‘the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces,’ it added, ‘have the capability to operate armed utility helicopters in the area.’ (They are Apache helicopters, made in the United States.)
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, came to Downing Street on Wednesday, having had lunch with the queen. Yesterday evening he dined at Chequers. A petition against his visit, just passing the 10,000 signatures at which the government must respond, elicited a statement assuring the public that British values would be stressed during the visit, and that UK arms export licences were subject to the highest standards of scrutiny concerning their eventual targeting. There are guests at Yemeni funerals who would no doubt beg to differ.
The King Salman World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships took place in Riyadh at the end of December. They got more publicity than chess competitions often do, but most of it was bad publicity, mostly because the Saudi government had refused to issue visas to competitors from three countries with which it doesn’t have diplomatic relations: Qatar, Iran and Israel. This would appear to be in conflict with the statutes of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), which say that ‘FIDE events may be hosted only by federations where free access is generally assured to representatives of all federations.’
At least three prominent Saudi clerics, Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni and Ali al-Umari, have been arrested in the last few days. They are not part of the state-backed clerical establishment. Saudi Arabia has always had problems with clerics whose loyalties are not to the royal family, going back to the revolt of the Ikhwan which was ruthlessly suppressed by Ibn Saud in 1929. Nowadays the problem has a new dimension: large online followings. Nearly 60 per cent of the Saudi population are said to be active on social media; al-Awda has more than 14 million followers on Twitter. Le Monde describes him as a defender of individual liberty and one of the most popular challengers of authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia.
For much of the Second World War, Isaiah Berlin worked at the British Embassy in Washington DC, where he carried out intelligence gathering for both the Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office. I recently came across a file in the archive of the Political and Secret Department of the India Office, now held at the British Library, which gives a fascinating glimpse into the nature of Berlin’s work in Washington, and into the history of US-Saudi relations.
Qatar, unlike the other Gulf states, is tied to Saudi Arabia by its adherence to the form of Sunni Islam described by everyone else (but not themselves) as Wahhabism. The family of Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia, known as the Al ash-Shaikh, has been the partner of the House of Saud and guarantor of religious orthodoxy since the state was founded. The Qatari royal family, too, claims descent from bin Abd al-Wahhab. But it has declined to join the Saudi-led anti-Iranian and anti-Shia crusade. Like Kuwait and Oman it has important shared interests with Iran and has kept the door open to diplomacy.
Abdullah al-Ibbi is a barber in the city of Sa‘dah, a Houthi stronghold in northern Yemen. He lost two wives, ten sons, 17 daughters and daughters-in-law, and eight grandchildren, including a six-month-old baby, in a Saudi-led airstrike on 5 May. In the qat fields of al-Sabr valley, a few kilometres from Sa‘dah, at least 30 children were among the 53 civilians killed by warplanes on 3 June. ‘They say in the media they targeted a military camp,’ Hammoud Abdullah told me. Seven of his relatives, including four brothers, died in the attack. ‘But what happened is that they have killed our children.’
When Abdullah Mando flew to Montreal in 2004, he promised himself he would one day return to Jeddah. No one believed him: he was on his way to Concordia University to study film production, and going back to Saudi Arabia, where there aren’t any cinemas, seemed absurd. He grew up watching bootleg copies of Western movies, but ‘American films didn’t speak to me,’ he says. ‘They didn’t ask questions young Saudi people were asking.’ And so, along with Anmar Fatheldeen and Omar Murad, Mando set up UTURN Entertainment, an online television network.
People sometimes ask me why I moan on so much about the royal family. Aren’t there more important things to worry about, like war, political repression, man-made climate change or Arsenal’s exit from the Champions League? To give the short answer, yes. But in a funny way, no. As constitutional monarchists never tire of saying, the sovereign is a ﬁgurehead. A ﬁgurehead symbolises or stands for something else. In the UK, the queen bears the same relation to the state as the Michelin man does to the tyre company, or the golden arches do to McDonald’s Corporation. Brand protection is big bucks; symbols matter.
The story so far, in case you missed it, is that US authorities have announced that an Iranian-American car salesman, Manssor Arbabsiar, tried to enlist a DEA informant to commit mass murder in the mistaken belief that he was a hitman working for a Mexican drug cartel. One of the crimes Arbabsiar is alleged to have had in mind was the murder of the Saudi envoy in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir.
The patriarch has spoken. In a slow short speech on 25 September, the king of Saudi Arabia said that women will be able to vote and run for political office. But not for at least four years: the announcement was conveniently timed to be just too late for them to join in last week's local elections, which even the men couldn’t get too excited about. They showed their disappointment with very low voter turnout, blank ballots and all-out boycotts.
Pressure is building on the Saudi regime as opposition forces inside and outside the country are planning a Day of Rage on Friday. Precise details haven't been released, for obvious reasons, but demonstrations are likely to start around 4 p.m. in cities across the Kingdom. Opposition activity on the internet is at fever pitch and widespread civil disturbances are expected. In recent days at least three different public statements calling for reform have been issued, each with hundreds of influential signatories. Several new political movements have been launched including the Islamic Umma party, led by ten well-known clerics; the National Declaration of Reform, headed by the well-known reformer Mohammed Sayed Tayib, with Islamist, liberal, Shia and Sunni members; Dawlaty, an amorphous online movement with several thousand signatories and thousands more accumulating every day; and the Al Dustorieen movement of lawyers, linked to Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, who are calling for a response from the king on a petition they submitted in 2005.
On 9 June a letter appeared on the internet purportedly written by Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia. It warned of a coup within the Saudi armed forces and said that if the royal family does not step down soon they risk ending up like Nicolae Ceauşescu or the Shah of Iran. The note had no letterhead, was unsigned and there was no accompanying press release. But it quickly spread across the internet, and is the subject of much discussion on Facebook and other sites.">http://www.wagze.com/talik3.html" target="_blank">a letter appeared on the internet purportedly written by Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia. It warned of a coup within the Saudi armed forces and said that if the royal family does not step down soon they risk ending up like Nicolae Ceauşescu or the Shah of Iran. The note had no letterhead, was unsigned and there was no accompanying press release. But it quickly spread across the internet, and is the subject of much discussion on Facebook and other sites.
Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, has disappeared. In the absence of any official news about his health or whereabouts, the rumour mill has been working overtime. As is often the case with Saudi affairs, the truth is elusive. Those who know won’t talk and those who don’t know talk a lot.
Last August the Iranian media reported that Bandar had been put under house arrest, allegedly for plotting a coup to try and ensure the Kingdom would continue under the rule of the Sudairi branch of the Al Saud family. But Iran isn’t the most reliable source: al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia’s news network, gibes Iran hourly over its ongoing political turmoil; Iran’s al-Alam and Press TV hit back at Saudi Arabia whenever they can.