From May 2010

3 Articles: Flash: Obama Administration Slaps Israel on Verge of Netanyahu Visit; More Hope from Turkey; Unfortunately, I Told You So: Who Says Obama is Popular?: Arabs Think America Too Weak: Iran Wars Against US in Afghanistan

From Rubin Reports.Blogspot.Com

Flash: Obama Administration Slaps Israel on Verge of Netanyahu Visit

Posted: 30 May 2010 09:20 PM PDT

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By Barry Rubin

One simply cannot overestimate the Obama Administration’s capacity for–in the words of one of its top officials–“screwing up the message” especially when it comes to Israel. Mere hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington, the U.S. government supported the non-binding final statement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference calling for a nuclear-free Middle East as soon as possible and urging Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and, in effect, to give up its nuclear weapons in the not-distant future.

Iran’s nuclear program wasn’t mentioned.

According to Yediot Aharnot, Israel’s government was “furious” at this reversal of historic U.S. policy in not only failing to prevent the resolution but actually supporting it. The action was “a complete surprise,” said Israel’s largest newspaper. It  reported that U.S. officials had told Israel’s government that the United States would campaign against a resolution singling out Israel and would vote against any resolution that did so.  That promise was broken. The implication is that Netanyahu was not even informed in advance of what was about to happen and that the effect on Israeli interests and U.S.-Israel relations wasn’t seriously considered in Washington.

Haaretz, which represents an Israeli left that would like to be more sympathetic to Obama, angrily stated that Israel had been “sacrificed by the United States on the altar of a successful conference.” The main country pushing for this resolution was Egypt.

At about the same time, by the way, Muhammad El-Baradei, the opposition candidate in the Egyptian presidential elections, came out against any sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. Yet is even the Egyptian government going to be more cooperative and supportive of U.S. policy than it was before because Washington backed its resolution? Of course not.

What was the administration’s motive? The belief that treating Israel and Iran “equally” would win support for sanctions against Iran. Really? Who’s going to change their vote? This step also emerges from the administration’s mania on getting a ban on all nuclear weapons, something which isn’t likely to happen.

The action could be explained as a response to immediate needs, to make sure that there was a final resolution and the conference could be termed a success. The U.S. government was unwilling to risk a failure to achieve a final resolution–something that has happened several times before without the roof falling in–by standing firm on the Israel issue. It did say that it “deeply regrets” that Israel is singled out. It seems that the final draft might also mention India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

This justifies the administration’s action in its own eyes and shows that one should not exaggerate what it thought was being done. One might add what will happen in future when the Obama Administration doesn’t want some conference or negotiation to appear to be a failure and has the option of salvaging it by breaking commitments made to Israel?

All the rationalizations, then, are cold comfort for Israel. Note, for example, the Haaretz reaction quoted above, based on a clear understanding of what has happened. So the signal sent to Israel is once again that this U.S. government is simply not reliable and does not keep its promises. Following on the mistreatment of  Netanyahu during his previous visit to Washington, this behavior now undermines the trip he is making there now at Obama’s request.

Is this going to make Israel’s government more conducive on taking risks and making concessions on the “peace process,” depend on U.S. commitments in exchange for such steps, or try to please a U.S. government that simply doesn’t act like a historic ally? Will it make Israelis more favorably inclined toward Obama and get them to urge their government to take more risks and make more concessions to please Washington and to try to make peace with the Palestinians? Of course not. The exact opposite is true.

Will Israel be offered anything by the Obama Administration to compensate for this action? Not at all. And in a bit more than three months with Israel’s freeze on construction in settlements will end, the administration will demand that it be renewed despite the fact that the Palestinians have made no concession, the talks have gone nowhere, and the United States has not given anything to Israel for going along with its wishes once more.

Am I exaggerating here? I don’t think so. Hasn’t this been the Obama government’s  record repeatedly? Yes it has.

And when the administration loudly proclaims that it has learned its lesson–last October after Israel agreed to the freeze on construction in existing settlements on the West Bank, or in recent months when the administration acted apologetic after an internal policy review and before the November elections–suddenly it reverts to hostile behavior toward Israel.

Are Americans in general and American Jews in particular going to persist in believing that this administration really does view Israel as a good friend and a close ally? It’s hard to believe, though of course many will. Perhaps the next round or the one after that will convince them otherwise.

And here’s a final point for people to think about: As the U.S. government proves unreliable and somewhat unfriendly, Israel has all the more need for nuclear weapons so that it can defend itself against Iran and deter Iran from ever launching a nuclear attack. The Obama Administration itself has subverted any belief that Israel can depend on the current U.S. government in that regard.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

More Hope from Turkey

Posted: 30 May 2010 07:24 PM PDT

By Barry Rubin

A reliable poll shows a dramatic shift in Turkish public opinion. The Sonar company survey shows the left-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP, to use its Turkish initials) narrowly coming in first in elections. The party would get 33 percent compared to 31 percent for the ruling AKP Islamist party. The right-wing Turkish nationalist MHP would get around 19 percent.

The next elections are expected in 2011.

There are two major reasons for this change: a popular new leader for the Republican People’s Party and a bad economic situation. Economic woes were what largely brought the AKP to power in the first place. Back in 2007, the AKP received 47 percent compared to 21 percent for the CHP.

Another poll shows the AKP only very slightly ahead of the CHP.

An interesting question will be how the AKP will try to stay in power. It is going to get dirty.

Unfortunately, I Told You So: Who Says Obama is Popular?; Arabs Think America Too Weak; Iran Wars Against US in Afghanistan

Posted: 30 May 2010 07:33 PM PDT

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By Barry Rubin

Al-Jazeera magazine runs a long and devastatingly critical article about how America is finished and President Barack Obama is weak. The title is: “The American Century Is So Over.” I cite this piece—much of which is about failures outside the Middle East—only to show the perception in the Arabic-speaking world being one of contempt rather than sympathy.

So far, I haven’t seen a single article in the Arabic media extolling Obama. I saw two articles, Saudi and Egyptian respectively, saying that the Arabic-speaking world should give Obama more support but they both admitted that, despite Obama’s efforts, those countries have done almost nothing to assist him so far.

Meanwhile, public opinion polls in Arabic-speaking countries also show that Obama’s standing is much closer to that of George W. Bush than anyone would have expected. I wrote last year that Obama was only one percentage point higher than Bush in polls taken in Pakistan.

Also, Iran is escalating its war against the United States in Afghanistan, as I pointed out some months ago. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, has publicly announced that Iran is increasing the training given to Taliban forces. I have also noted U.S. officials pointing out Iran’s war on the United States in Iraq and in terms of assisting al-Qaida.

So there is no engagement on Tehran’s part, and it doesn’t need nuclear weapons to attack U.S. forces and interests. Yet this conflict remains largely unrecognized in Washington.

Finally, here’s an article in al-Hayat by the editor explaining that Americans don’t understand the Middle East precisely because of the kind of conventional wisdom displayed by Bush and Obama alike. He sounds like the kind of things I’ve been writing for you.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Obama’s National Security Doctrine But Were Afraid to Hear

From Rubin Reports.Blogspot.Com

Everything You Wanted to Know About Obama’s National Security Doctrine But Were Afraid to Hear

Posted: 29 May 2010 03:37 PM PDT

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By Barry Rubin

Yes, children, there is an Obama Doctrine. The administration has now produced a National Security Strategy.

I’m tempted to say that in this document the Obama Administration does a Dr. Kevorkian on U.S. power. The White House wants to prove most of all that it isn’t the George W. Bush Administration but in doing so it also proves it isn’t the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Bush I, or even Clinton administration, too.

Yes, the worldview looks good on paper, at least to those who put it together and the groupthink they represent. The main theme is that America is not a superpower. It is limited, and this circumscribed power requires bringing in lots of partners. Yet is this an accurate description of the situation or a unilateral dismantlement of American power and prestige? A throwing away of its ability to punish as well as reward, to deter enemies through intimidation?

Of course, every power has very distinct limits as to what it can do. The Vietnam and Iraq wars show that. But that has nothing to do with the need to show leadership. And leadership means putting forward a clear position that combines what a situation requires along with what it is possible to get others to support. To obtain the support of others sometimes requires pressure as well as empathy, flattery, and persuasion.

In a sense, the Obama Administration’s strategy for getting sanctions against Iran did follow that pattern. But it also used too little pressure (look at how Turkey and Brazil behaved), too little speed, and a reluctance to move out in front and bid others to follow.

Oh, and a good strategy also involves acting as if you are stronger than you are sometimes. If you keep running yourself down your friends and enemies might believe you.

By understating what the United States can and should do–arguably in an equal and opposite way to how the Bush Administration overstated it–is, to put it bluntly, like placing a big “kick me!” sign on America’s derriere. In relative terms, Reagan got it right for his time, Clinton came relatively close. Obama is getting it wrong at a time when doing so is very dangerous.

“The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone,” Mr. Obama writes in the introduction to the strategy document. “Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power.”

Yet that point is missed. If you don’t want all the burdens to fall on your own shoulders, you have to press others to do their job and pressure them when they don’t do so. By giving up your power to push them, by just asking them politely for help and giving up too much of the initiative, you assure that they do less, not more.

Equally, you don’t overextend precisely so you can concentrate on what’s important, say, pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq to focus on containing Iran in a serious way. You don’t reduce commitments in order to abandon the remaining ones.

A lot of this Obama era world view is intended to counter all the things that the Obamites hate about George W. Bush. Yet while one can certainly argue Bush did not wisely use the resources of American power that doesn’t mean American power itself isn’t there. The remedy for excessive unilateralism isn’t excessive multilateralism, or of going from drawing friend/enemy lines too sharply to seeing them vanish entirely.

While there might be times or situations where such a response did little harm, the present day—with threats from revolutionary Islamism, an aggressive Iran-led alliance, anti-American leftists, and resurgent Russian and Chinese ambitious powers—makes the Obama Doctrine a very dangerous course indeed.

How can one not think of the historical precedent. World War One was bloody and horrible. So Britain and France wanted to avoid another conflict, thus appeasing Germany and ensuring that another world war happened.

Americans were horrified by the Vietnam War and thus became allergic to having a policy that was tough enough, thus leading to paralysis about dealing with the Iranian revolution and ensuing hostage crisis along with other problems.

What’s needed is a smart and balanced policy, not more swings of the pendulum!

Obama argues that America faces no real military competitor at present and global power is increasingly diffuse. Yet these are likely to be temporary conditions. If there’s going to be a vacuum, there are a number of candidates eager to fill it. And his policy makes the emergence of such competitors more, rather than less, likely.

Moreover, Obama’s doctrine calling for bringing in potential competitors (and countries that are either enemies or troublesome) as partners is a case of hiring the foxes to guard the chicken coops. China and Russia, Iran and Syria, Brazil, Venezuela, and Turkey, among others, are naively seen as good buddies. Or, in the words of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes: “We are deeply committed to broadening the circle of responsible actors.”

Think of that sentence. The United States cannot make these countries “responsible actors.” There’s a reason why responsible actors include countries like Britain, France, and Germany. And the fruit of this mistaken policy is the kind of thing we just saw with the Brazilian-Turkish stab in the back over Iran.

We’re going to be seeing a lot more of this.

Moreover, it isn’t just a matter of being “responsible” but of analyzing the nature of regimes, their aims, and their self-perceived interests, too.

But reading this doctrine has allowed me to understand something I never fully grasped before. Why does the Obama Administration focus on engaging enemies? Because it is precisely, according to the Obama world view, the “bad boy” powers which must be appeased. After all, since the United States is conceived as weak and overextended, the ones threatening to disrupt everything are too strong to oppose, they must be coopted.

That is why “appeasement” is a correct word here, more than I ever realized before. These countries are being offered partnership from a standpoint of weakness, a situation in which even if their price is very high they must be paid off because there is no alternative. What saves the United States and perhaps the world here is that the real enemies (and neither China nor Russia belong in that category) are so confident and extremist that–as we have seen in Iran’s case–they will inevitably set the price too high for even the Obama Administration to meet.

Imagine a Western town full of outlaws and with a weak sheriff. The sheriff can deputize the criminals in the belief that this would make them “responsible actors.” Of course, as you probably guess, they would use their badges to rob, rape, and murder even more effectively. Some of them–like China and Russia–will be more restrained. Others–like Iran and Syria–won’t.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, following orders and perhaps biting her lip, explained the doctrine this way: “We are shifting from mostly direct application and exercise of American power to one of indirection, that requires patience and partners, and gets results more slowly….In a world like this, American leadership isn’t needed less, it is needed more. And the simple fact is that no global problem can be solved without us.”

Hillary, judging from the opposition to Iran nuclear weapons’ project, slowly seems to be never or, at best, much too late. How much will you pay your enemies to pretend to be partners? And suppose certain countries don’t want to solve global problems but merely to take advantage of them? Do they still need the United States?

That’s why it is so important to study the words being spoken so closely. Just listen to that sentence again: “No global problem can be solved without us.” Yet isn’t this like saying, to pick an example, a British prime minister in 1938 saying: Peace in Europe cannot be preserved without us. The huge assumption here is that the other side shares your goals.

If Obama and his colleagues feel the United States is overextended, it is partly because they misidentify the threats and reject the best ways of dealing with them. Thus, the Doctrine says that nuclear weapons are the main threat to America, followed by climate change, dependence on fossil fuels, and cyber warfare.

This is dangerous claptrap. Without denying a threat posed by any of these, one could point out that there is no big threat from nuclear weapons (especially compared to the 1950-1990 period); that climate change as a threat is not yet proven nor is the ability of countries to do anything about it given the realistic options they have; that a combination of drilling and technology can deal with the energy problem; and that cyber warfare is still a very speculative threat.

Compare that with Iran taking over much of the Middle East; Russia rebuilding its empire, terrorism spreading in scope and intensity; and China gaining hegemony over large parts of Asia. I’m not saying those things are going to happen but they are greater threats than Obama’s list.

In a move that fully qualifies him for the Nobel Prize for Chutzpah, Obama warns that the high budget deficit is a major threat to U.S. strategic power. Since his policies have been so responsible for creating this problem and his administration shows no real sign of changing those policies one can only gasp at the audacity of this statement.

There’s a lot more of interest. The paper says:

“While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction.”

Sounds great. But how about the use of power politics, threats, leverage, sticks? Well, once you assert America is weak and overextended, how are you going to convince anyone that they better do what you want? Obama’s posture makes the idea of containing Iran, for example, unthinkable. Once you announce you have no teeth, your enemies will naturally conclude that your bark is worse than your bite.

“Indeed,” Obama writes, “our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power.”

Yes, but those adversaries are equally happy to see you voluntarily throw away America’s strength by denying it and hiring them to run the nursing home for what you see as a pitiful, helpless giant.

One day there might be another president who is neither a Bush nor an Obama, who will stand up straight, get rid of the wheelchair and canes, and say–to paraphrase Mark Twain–reports of America’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Command Me

Isaiah 45:11
Thus saith the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, Ask Me of things to come concerning My sons and concerning the work of My Hands command ye Me.

Two Commands to Israel:
Ask Me to show you things to come concerning My sons;
Command Me concerning the work of My hands.

This literally means that men have the authority to pray in such faith that they can direct the Almighty to do for them those things which they want and need.

God would rather do things for His people than to withhold from them.

To command God is an expression of highest relationship, friendship, and co-operation to the same end in life.

It is a rare privilege to command Him, and if exercised properly in fervent respectful petition, there is nothing that will be impossible to the believer.

Seven Examples of commanding God:

Moses commanded frogs to die. [Exodus 8:3]

He commanded flies to be removed. [Exodus 8:31]

He caused God to repent. [Exodus 32:12-14]

Joshua commanded the sun. [[Joshua 10:12]

Elijah commanded fire from heaven. [1 Kings 18:36-38; 2 Kings 1:10-12]

Jesus Christ commanded the winds and waves to obey, and water to turn to wine etc. [Luke 4:35; John 2]

Apostles and others commanded men to be free from infirmity. [Acts 3:6: Acts 5:16; Acts 9:34; Acts 9:40; Acts 13:11; Acts 14:10; Acts 19:11-12]

(Source: Dake King James Bible: Page 475 Column 1 & 4.)

Your Vision: Your Destiny

Proverbs 29:18
Where there is no vision, the people perish: But he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

Prophetic Word by the Spirit of Grace:-

Where there is no vision or consciousness of responsibility regarding keeping the law, My people perish for its lack of enforcement, but the one who, in such times keeps the law is blessed and happy.

Little one, heed My Word, for your vision and the keeping of My Law goes hand in hand; you cannot have the one without the other, they meld together and are inseparable.

Alas, some go through life with no vision [THEIR REASON FOR BEING], no dreams, no desires, no aspirations: merely existing, never satisfied; performing their duties listlessly, a formality to be dispensed with as rapidly as possible, or worse still, because it is demanded of them, in the area of work, household duties, parenting; routine obligations, all left undone, incomplete, stored for some obscure time in the future.

Never knowing, or seemingly to care, about their very existence, the effort of rising in the morning a burdensome task, the futility of life and drawingof every breath overwhelming.

Others have visions obliterated by the fast pace of life, forgotten and stored in some dark recess of their mind.

But now, Behold, if you have never had a vision, or if your vision has become obscured, I, even I, will rekindle it with an unquenchable fire, giving you new fervor, zeal, and the ability to see beyond the seen, the power to “see” with the eyes of faith that which does not yet exist materially: to reach out into the future and bring into being that which is not as though it already is.

This vision will set you free and empower you to see the unseen, with a new freedom and the very essence and reason to live: ETERNITY PLANTED IN YOUR HEART AND MIND, A DIVINELY IMPLANTED SENSE OF A PURPOSE, which only I can satisfy.

You will rise, at the dawning of each new day, with a new purpose and resolve; enabled to do mighty feats, accomplish your life-long dreams…….. And most important, the realization that for one more day I breathed life into you, and said ‘LIVE’, and that Christ Jesus dwells within you.

This vision will empower you to use your natural talents, that which you have, in a creative way to change your circumstances and fulfill your divine destiny.

With every vision, I have the provision.

When you use what you have and release your faith, I will release My Power and equip you to achieve your goals, your spiritual aspirations, your marriage and loved ones, your church, your nation. NOTHING WILL BE IMPOSSIBLE FOR YOU, for I am the God that makes the impossible possible.

Little one, look with the eyes of faith into the future with new confidence, and reach out, strive to attain all My promises, and draw it into the present: IT WILL BE, if your mind can conceive it, you will receive it, says the Lord. – Sage

Cheating is Stealing: Their consciences will be filled with horror and amazement

Proverbs 21:7
7 The robbery of the wicked shall destroy them; because they refuse to do judgment.

See here, 1. The nature of injustice. Getting money by lying (v. 6) is no better than downright robbery. Cheating is stealing; you might as well pick a man’s pocket as impose upon him by a lie in making a bargain, which he had no fence against but by not believing you; and it will be no excuse from the guilt of robbery to say that he might choose whether he would believe you, for that is a debt we should owe to all men.

2. The cause of injustice. Men refuse to do judgment; they will not render to all their due, but withhold it, and omissions make way for commissions; they come at length to robbery itself. Those that refuse to do justice will choose to do wrong.

3. The effects of injustice; it will return upon the sinner’s own head. The robbery of the wicked will terrify them (so some); their consciences will be filled with horror and amazement, will cut them, will saw them asunder (so others); it will destroy them here and for ever, therefore he had said (v. 6), They seek death.
– Matthew Henry Commentary

Evil men have evil ways

Proverbs 21:8
8 The way of man is froward and strange: but as for the pure, his work is right.

This shows that as men are so is their way.
1. Evil men have evil ways. If the man be froward, his way also is strange; and this is the way of most men, such is the general corruption of mankind. They have all gone aside (Ps. 14:2, 3); all flesh have perverted their way. But the froward man, the man of deceit, that acts by craft and trick in all he does, his way is strange, contrary to all the rules of honour and honesty. It is strange, for you know not where to find him nor when you have him; it is strange, for it is alienated from all good and estranges men from God and his favour. It is what he behold afar off, and so do all honest men.

2. Men that are pure are proved to be such by their work, for it is right, it is just and regular; and they are accepted of God and approved of men. The way of mankind in their apostasy is froward and strange; but as for the pure, those that by the grace of God are recovered out of that state, of which there is here and there one, their work is right, as Noah’s was in the old world, Gen. 7:1.
– Matthew Henry Commentary

Profession plus Possession

2 Timothy 2:19
The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are His.

What, really, is a Christian? I think a Christian is a person who has a conscious experience of belonging to Jesus Christ. I believe that when you cherish that consciousness, something infinitely precious comes into your experience.

The seal is really an earnest or a foretaste that the Holy Spirit gives you, of a blessedness that is yet to come. You are feeling here and now with glad surrender the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ upon your whole being; and it gives reality to your profession in the eyes of the world, for the image of God is imprinted on the seal, and the world senses that you belong to Him. Your discipleship is tested and proved by the reality of your profession.

You remember that when the Lord Jesus Christ was before His examiners, they asked Him concerning His disciples and His doctrine. Now that would be your method of approach, perhaps; you would ask concerning the doctrine and then the disciples: but the world approaches it in the reverse order. They are interested first of all in our discipleship; and if our discipleship does not stand the test, the world is not interested in our doctrine.

It is our discipleship that gives reality to our doctrine; and I am perfectly sure that in our own experience these two go together – His possession, my profession. It is His possession, the consciousness of His possession that gives freshness and beauty to my profession of Him.

The one, indeed, gives permanence to the other, for God’s seal is the pledge of God’s faithfulness. How long, you say, will I go on professing Christ? As long as He goes on possessing you! My perseverance is only His perseverance for me. Were He to repudiate His ownership, then my profession of Him would wither and fade and perish. – R.A. Finlayson: A Foundation and Its Seal, 1956.
– Daily Thoughts From Keswick

All I want is Equality with Girls: Gender and Social Change in the Twenty-First Century Gulf

From Gloria-Centre.Org


This article explains how women in the Gulf states have harnessed political and socioeconomic changes over the last decade to alter their standing at home and abroad. It argues that Gulf women have benefited from investments made by Gulf governments in higher education since the 1970s, the war on terrorism, the ever higher costs of employing expatriate workers, and the inability of their male colleagues to fill either skilled or unskilled positions. It also argues that the position of women today is consistent with their position historically in Gulf society, and that questions of gender are not limited to women.


In January 2004, Lubna Olayan stepped up to the lectern to deliver a speech to the Jeddah Economic Summit. She was a natural choice to be the first woman to address the forum in the Saudi port city because she headed one of Saudi Arabia’s best-known conglomerates, the Olayan Financing Group. Lubna was a daughter of Sulayman Olayan, who had risen from humble circumstances to become one of Saudi Arabia’s most successful businessmen. Yet the organizers of the conference might have rethought their decision to let her speak had they known what she would say and the controversy it would spawn. Throughout her speech, entitled “A Saudi Vision for Growth,” Olayan outlined a vision of a Saudi Arabia that was at odds with what the kingdom’s religious elites sought (and still seek) to project to the outside world. For nearly twenty years, they had rigidly enforced social norms that aimed to exclude women from virtually all public settings and to create a workforce that was overwhelmingly male, even if that meant importing thousands of expatriate workers. Instead, Olayan argued that any Saudi, “irrespective of gender,” who was serious about working should have the opportunity to “find a job in the field for which he or she is best qualified.”[1] The reaction of the audience, which was composed of Saudi and foreign men and women, was enthusiastic and electric.

Olayan did not wear the full hijab (headscarf) and covering traditionally worn by women in Saudi Arabia in public settings. Pictures of her and other businesswomen, many of whom wore no veils and freely interacted with men in public, appeared on the front pages of Saudi newspapers. Olayan and her colleagues had broken social taboos and challenged the authority of Saudi religious elites.

It is not surprising that the reaction of these elites was one of profound shock and anger. The highest religious figure in the kingdom, Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd a-l Aziz bin Abdullah al-Shaykh, immediately released a statement in which he condemned the summit, especially the public mixing of men and women. He argued that such behavior was the “root” of every evil and catastrophe, along with the sins of decadence and adultery. He also expressed his bewilderment and sorrow that “such shameful behavior” could have ever taken place in Saudi Arabia. Although he did not mention Olayan or the conference organizers by name, he nonetheless made it clear that he felt that they should be reprimanded. The mixing of men and women, he said, “is highly punishable” and “prohibited for all.”[2]

These were not idle threats. Fourteen years earlier, in November 1990, the government delivered swift retribution against 45 elite educated women who deliberately dismissed their drivers and drove through the streets of Riyadh—an act that at the time was legal under Saudi law but frowned upon by the religious establishment. The government immediately dismissed the women from their jobs, confiscated their passports, and sought to shame them and their families by labeling them infidels. Some were even forced into exile. It took years for the 45 women to regain their rights and privileges in Saudi life. To make clear how seriously the government had taken the act, it formally outlawed women from driving in the kingdom. Those women who contemplated driving would now face the wrath of both the state and the religious authorities.[3]

Because Olayan had violated social taboos and challenged religious elites in the same way as the 45 female drivers, one would have expected the grand mufti’s words to bring a swift retribution against her. Quite the opposite occurred: the Saudi government did not take action against Olayan, who has continued to this day to advocate for women’s rights and to appear at home and abroad without the traditional Saudi covering and hijab.

This article seeks to explain how Ms. Olayan and other women in the Arab Gulf states have harnessed political, economic, and social changes since 2000 to alter their standing at home and abroad. It contends that women are well-positioned to take advantage of these changes, owing to their advanced educations, the ever-higher social and financial costs of employing expatriate workers, and the inability of their male colleagues to fill either skilled or unskilled positions. It also argues that questions of gender are not limited to women. Just as women are expected to dress and act according to established social norms and obligations, men are also expected to adhere to social expectations. It is ironic that as women gain a greater role in Gulf life in coming years, they will attain a position that will be closer to that of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers in the 1920s than to that of their mothers in the 1970s and 1980s.


To understand contemporary Gulf society and the gender relations that will shape it in the future, one must start in the period before the 1930s. During that time, women, like men, lived in very poor societies, in which pearling was the chief means of livelihood. Within that milieu, the tribal, clan, or socioeconomic status of the women’s husbands or male relatives defined their freedoms and horizons. Women had limited social freedoms everywhere in the Gulf. They could not choose their husbands and were generally expected to wear the veil and the long cloak (abaya). Significantly, the use of the veil in coastal communities reflected the presence of Iranian and South Asian merchants, both of whom saw the veil as a symbol of female decency and propriety.[4] (Veiling was far less common in rural and other areas of the Gulf, where these groups did not exist in large numbers.) Male relatives had considerable power over women and were allowed to use capital punishment if one sufficiently dishonored her family.[5] Dowries were modest and it was not unheard of for families to limit women’s inheritances, thereby violating a chief tenet of Islamic law.

Yet the wives of wholesale or retail merchants from the Iranian side of the Gulf, where social mores regarding gender were more relaxed, did not face the same social restrictions and often received some education. The wives of pearl divers, fishermen, grocers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other skilled traders had even more freedom. From Unayzah in the Najd to Dubai in the Trucial Coast, women bought and sold a host of products with men and women.[6] The central role of women in the Gulf economy is well-illustrated by the public reaction to a decision by the Dubai legislative council in 1931 to ban women from selling fish.[7] Much to the surprise of the legislators, male fishermen, who presumably would have benefited the most from the new law, called for it to be repealed. Male fishermen argued that they could not simultaneously catch fish and sell their goods in markets—a clear indication of the importance of women in the local economic life. The law was repealed, but as Fatima al-Sayegh notes, the fishermen’s protests had little to do with time and everything to do with money, because women could sell fish at far higher prices than their male colleagues.[8] They simply had a better understanding of the market than did their husbands. Since fishermen would want to strive to get the best price for their fish, they understood that the best people for the job were their women.

Throughout the Gulf, women also worked as seamstresses, shop keepers, and Koranic instructors. There had been schools and tutors, known as mutuwah, for both boys and girls in Gulf communities since the 1890s,[9] while daughters of merchants in the Hijaz studied in elite British schools in Egypt.[10] Older women were midwives, folk healers, or senior practitioners of Zar, a religious tradition akin to voodoo. By contrast, rural women worked in agriculture and animal husbandry. Bedouin women often wove clothing and produced small-scale craft goods. Many of them were the chief commercial agents for their tribes or managed tribal or family life for extended periods.[11] Some women, such as Dubai’s Shaykha Husa, wielded political power, owned land, were leading merchants, and hosted their own weekly majleses (councils in which politicians field requests from ordinary citizens).[12]

The collapse of the Gulf’s pearl industry and the rise of Saudi Arabia in the 1930s transformed the position of many women (and men) for the worse. Almost overnight, a chief source of foreign exchange dried up, export earnings plummeted, boats were laid ashore, and divers returned home permanently. Within this environment, many individuals lost their savings, investments, businesses, and social status. Following the establishment of Saudi Arabia in 1932, the elites of the newly formed kingdom sought to eliminate ethnic differences in their new state by imposing strict social, religious, and sartorial regimes on men and women. Saudi Arabia’s first king, Abd al-Aziz al-Saud, decreed in 1932 that all Saudi men serving in government must wear the Najdi Bedouin thob or dishdasha (a
full-length, usually white, garment), which is the attire still seen widely in the kingdom today.[13] Old regional and more colorful male dress disappeared. Over time, women’s freedoms to practice Zar and other similar traditions were severely curtailed, and the abaya emerged as the national Saudi female equivalent of the thob.[14]

Besides the sheer size of Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis its neighbors, a significant factor in the kingdom’s ability to shape the culture and politics of peoples beyond its borders was the discovery of massive oil deposits in the 1930s. This discovery brought wealth into the kingdom, especially after the international price of oil quadrupled in 1973. Flush with unprecedented revenues, the Saudi state came to dominate the socioeconomic and political structures of the kingdom as never before via infrastructure projects, direct cash payments, and social services. As large oil deposits were discovered in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia’s neighbors from Kuwait to Oman adopted very similar development strategies.


For men and women of the Gulf, the events of the 1970s marked a transition as important as the disappearance of the pearling industry decades earlier. Gulf states invested the proceeds from their newfound wealth in infrastructure, including education, and sought to build robust modern economies. Gulf women and men lived in cities and steadily gained access to every level of education. Women, for the first time, began to surpass men in school enrollment, literacy, and even educational achievement. Yet they were also encouraged to have large families in order to swell the indigenous workforce—which was still tiny, compared to the expatriate workforces from Europe and Asia that were transforming the Gulf states into modern societies.[15]

These new policies reflected the desire of Gulf governments to check the ability of socialist, Marxist, religious, and Arab nationalists from influencing the indigenous national populations and to appeal to Islamic groups.[16] Islamist groups had gained influence in Gulf societies after Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and the events of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, where the Shah’s secular government could not check a mass popular movement headed by a Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini. The seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a month later reinforced the position of Islamic groups in Gulf society. By 1980, many Sunni Gulf Arabs had come to believe that their fellow Muslims were under assault and that Islam offered the best hope to address the challenges of late-twentieth-century life in the Gulf and the rest of the Islamic world.

No state in the Gulf was more acutely aware of these trends than Saudi Arabia. At the heart of the Saudi program in the 1970s was a vision of a society that was technologically advanced but that rigidly upheld conservative Islamic values. This vision was without precedent in either Saudi history in particular or in Islamic history in general. A critical benchmark for the success of this new society was the absence of women in public settings. Banning women from public places allowed the government to provide tangible proof that it was addressing the concerns of many conservative Saudis. To reinforce its commitment to these values, the Saudi government gave wide latitude to the religious police to enforce Muslim morality regarding women in all public settings.[17]

Under this new arrangement, once gender-integrated institutions, such as buses, offices, and recreational areas, were rigidly segregated. A whole set of parallel buildings and sections of communities arose just for women. Pictures of Western women in newspapers and other publications, as well as on public signs, were edited to conform to Islamic norms. In 1982, the Saudi government curtailed opportunities for single Saudi women to study abroad.[18] The Saudi state also rigidly enforced the mahram regulation, by which women could not travel abroad without a close male relative. A royal decree in 1985 forbade women from working in all sectors of the economy outside of education and health. Nor could women manage businesses even if they owned them. In such cases, they had to prove that they had a male guardian or administrator. In addition, the Saudi ulama issued a fatwa announcing that a Saudi woman had to be accompanied by a male guardian to travel anywhere.[19]

Now confined to both private and gender-specific places, women focused on what the state saw as their two primary tasks: having very large families and helping to educate Saudis to replace foreign workers. Because salaries in the Gulf were far higher than those in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the other states that provided expatriate labor to the kingdom, Riyadh could easily keep those foreigners until its own population had produced enough educated technicians to run the kingdom’s modern society on their own.

These changes in Saudi Arabia were especially important because they coincided with the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981—an alliance of six Arab Gulf states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This new organization, based in Riyadh, helped to create a new pan-Gulf social identity modeled on the social mores of the council’s largest member state, Saudi Arabia. Personal status laws in various Gulf states began to mirror those of Saudi Arabia. Expatriate laborers dominated the economies of other GCC states—just as they did in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the tensions from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, which pitted an Arab-Sunni government in Baghdad against a revolutionary Shi’a government in Tehran, further intensified conservative Sunni sensibilities throughout the Gulf. Many GCC states supported Iraq and used the war as an excuse to tighten controls over their Shi’a populations.

The example of Bahrain is instructive. Starting in the 1950s, Bahrainis of all ages began to wear Western clothing, and Bahraini men, as a Christian missionary noted at the time, “left the Arab gown” for “foreign clothes.”[20] However, when Bahrain joined the GCC in 1981, Bahraini men switched back, adopting the thobs worn by their fathers and grandfathers. It was now important for Bahrainis to look a certain way and to signal that they had joined the community of Gulf Arabs.[21]

Bahraini women were no exception to this trend. In the early 1980s, close to 95 percent of the female students at Bahrain’s National University wore the veil, and those who chose not to were under constant pressure to do so.[22] Bahrain’s government announced in the mid-1980s that it would regulate all aspects of women’s work. Furthermore, the island’s government established a semiofficial policy of blocking the hiring and promotion of professional women, even if they were better qualified and had more experience than men or expatriate workers.[23]

From the start, the Islamic facade had important and tangible limits. Wealthy Gulf Arabs of both genders often wore Western-style clothing behind closed doors at home or at embassies, and men and women mixed freely. At the ARAMCO complex in Dhahran, Saudi women often worked side by side with Western women (and men) and wore Western-style clothing. Saudi women regularly drove on the compound as well (although without licenses), and the Saudi government issued official driver’s licenses to both male and female drivers from Western nations. Furthermore, the female drivers on ARAMCO compounds were not the only women who drove in Saudi Arabia: Bedouin women drove trucks and other farm equipment. There were so many female Bedouin truck drivers in the 1970s that a Saudi prince, Bandar bin Sultan, half jokingly predicted to the Washington Post in 1978 that the “spearhead of the Saudi women’s movement will come from the Bedouins of the desert.”[24]

The restrictions on unmarried Saudi women’s traveling abroad for education arose at the same time that the Saudi government offered to pay the college tuition of any Saudi wife who married before she traveled abroad. Such incentives were meant, in part, to control the behavior of Saudi men abroad by encouraging them to marry Saudi women instead of foreigners. However, the government would never have extended its tuition offer if officials did not believe that many Saudi men wanted to marry educated women,; that many Saudi women wanted to be educated abroad; and that many Saudi families viewed the higher education of their daughters as a viable reason for marriage.[25]

These insights take on greater importance when one bears in mind that Saudi society looks at marriage as a socioeconomic alliance between families or between tribes. Within this arrangement, brides have substantial say in marriages and wide latitude to reject potential spouses. Furthermore, when it comes to picking marital partners, families expect young men to defer to the judgment of others in their family, including their mothers and other female family members. The comparative weakness of Saudi men of all ages appears in Saudi novelist’s Raja’a al-Sanea’s 2006 work, The Girls of Riyadh. Throughout the novel, the male characters, including the most powerful and educated, cannot overcome their families’ various objections to their desire to marry the Saudi and non-Saudi women they love. Commenting on the state of Saudi men, one female character notes that they are “passive and weak…just pawns their families move around the chessboard.”[26] Even in the most conservative of Gulf societies, Saudi Arabia, Islamic patriarchy clearly can have limits.[27]

Other states more directly exposed the limits of patriarchy and retained their commitment to Western notions of equality and female education. In Kuwait, for example, Islamists discovered that their influence had significant limits in the 1980s, especially in regard to women. An excellent example of this occurred in 1986, when Islamist deputies sought to establish an authority to enforce Islamic law in Kuwait, including severe restrictions on women’s liberties. The government responded to this initiative first by indirectly hindering or ignoring it and then by dissolving the government. Although Islamists and liberal and secular groups often found common ground to oppose repeated government efforts to check parliamentary power, the two groups parted ways on many social and political issues. To divide the opposition, the Kuwaiti government sometimes forged alliances with secularists and at other times with Islamists.[28]


In August 1990, Kuwait became the centerpiece of a debate regarding women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf when Iraq invaded the tiny Gulf state. In response, the Saudi government invited the United States to deploy military forces to defend the kingdom and its strategic oil fields. Riyadh then expelled nearly 1 million Arab expatriates from Yemen and other countries that supported Iraq and also sought to free up Saudi men for military service. In September of that year, the Saudi government issued an edict that encouraged government agencies to accept female volunteers for social and medical positions. The significance of the edict was reinforced by the presence in Saudi Arabia of female U.S. and Kuwaiti soldiers, many of whom drove their vehicles openly in public. In one widely told story, a member of the Saudi religious police used his stick to taunt a U.S. female soldier, who had just driven her car to a store in the kingdom’s Eastern Province. In response, she drew her pistol and forced him to flee for his life.[29]

The 1990 edict and the presence of armed foreign soldiers renewed the public debate about the role of women in Saudi life and may have prompted one of the most audacious challenges ever to the kingdom’s separation of genders: the incident alluded to above, when 45 women drove through the streets of Riyadh. No one in Saudi Arabia had ever seen anything quite like that, and the protest generated headlines around the world. Iraqi propagandists sought to frame this event, as well as the offer to allow women to volunteer in government agencies, as proof that the Saudi government was really an agent of the West and Israel.

For a government already worried about its Islamic credentials after it had invited tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers into the kingdom, the only response was swift retribution.[30] Aside from losing their jobs and being publicly humiliated, some of these women received harassing phone calls accusing them of sexual immorality and promoting Western vices and goals. The Saudi government then produced a children’s television show to emphasize the point. Set to a chorus of singing children, the show contrasted correct Islamic behavior with the infidelity of women who wish to drive cars. Again and again, the girls sang, “I am a Saudi woman, and I don’t drive a car.”[31]

In Kuwait, the picture was quite different. Kuwaiti women’s efforts in the war, both at home and abroad, were welcomed (at least until the war was over). During the occupation, Kuwaiti women outside the country mobilized support against Iraq, and some of them received military training at Fort Dix in the United States alongside their male Kuwaiti colleagues.[32] Women inside Kuwait launched the first mass public protests against the occupation, some of them paying for their actions with their lives. By the end of the Iraqi occupation in February 1991, women were such an important aspect of civil society in Kuwait that the country earned the nickname “the city-state of women.”[33] Kuwait’s women had seemingly come of age. Many expected that they would achieve full political rights after liberation.

However, as Mary Ann Tétreault has pointed out, their hopes were soon dashed. Wartime female activism had taken place within occupied Kuwait but faded from view shortly after the war. In the struggle for who would define the memory of the war between insiders and outsiders—that is, between those who had remained in Kuwait and those who had fled—the outsiders emerged victorious. In particular, Kuwait’s Islamists framed the invasion and war to fit their own agenda, contending that the events signaled God’s displeasure with the Kuwaitis’ lavish lifestyle. Only by returning to Islam (including the control of women), they argued, could Kuwaitis guard against further divine retribution. This argument resonated with the people and won government support. Consequently, Kuwaiti Islamists performed well in parliamentary elections in the 1990s, successfully segregated Kuwait University by gender, and intimidated professors there who did not share their views.[34]

The success of the Islamists in the 1990s also significantly reflected technological and political changes in the Gulf. Among the most important of these changes were the rise of Arab satellite news networks, the seemingly permanent deployment of Western military forces in the region, a steep decline in oil prices, the rise of opposition groups at home and abroad, and the erosion of the societal benefit from petroleum income due to population growth. All of these factors raised questions about the ability of governments and societies in the region to maintain their values and traditions. Within this transitional environment, women, like other elements in Gulf society, suddenly found new political and socioeconomic opportunities.

Among the earliest signs of the increasing tensions involving women in the Arab Gulf states were the large antigovernment protests in Bahrain, where the U.S. military’s presence was especially visible. Starting in 1994, violent street protests accompanied ever bolder religious and political challenges to the monarchy’s authority. Women from both the Sunni minority and the Shi’a majority actively participated in all phases of these protests. They formed professional, charitable, and other organizations that forwarded the opposition’s agenda and resisted government crackdowns. These women made up a quarter of the 25,000 signatories to a national charter, issued in October 1994, that outlined the chief demands of the opposition, particularly the restoration of democratic institutions on the island. The petition also demanded that women be integrated into Bahrain’s political life and that the island reduce its dependence on expatriate workers.[35]

Yet the most cogent opposition to the status quo in the Gulf came in Saudi Arabia and from a very different direction. Two organizations were especially important in this. The first, al-Qa’ida, was composed of former soldiers who had fought in Afghanistan under the leadership of Usama bin Ladin, who framed his arguments in a Salafi tradition in which women’s social role was to uphold the dignity of Muslim families. This theme was central to an al-Qa’ida-produced video that was widely distributed in the Middle East shortly before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Throughout the tape, graphic images of sickly children, demolished homes, battles, and soldiers beating elderly women are juxtaposed with calls to uphold male Arab-Muslim honor.[36]

The second organization, the Committee for Defense of Legitimate Rights, shared al-Qa’ida’s view of women and their place in society. The CDLR’s founder, Muhammad al-Mas‘ari, issued a statement in 1996 in which he argued that granting equal rights to women violated Islamic law and that his group opposed any diminution of laws that governed women’s Islamic dress or lessened patriarchal power.[37]

One of the key factors contributing to the rise of opposition groups throughout the Gulf was Arab satellite television, especially al-Jazeera. Not only did unveiled female anchors and journalists appear on air, but Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and other religious scholars used the networks as platforms to present their views on issues long repressed in the Gulf and other parts of the Arab world, including gender.[38]


These debates had a tangible and immediate impact on Gulf society. In 1999, Crown Prince (later King) Abdullah, asserted that “we will leave no door…closed to women…as long as it involves no violation of our religion and ethics.”[39] Hinting at a new future for Saudi women, Abdullah added, “Issues like driving cars by women, and women [obtaining] ID cards are comparatively simple. The most important thing is their full participation in the life of the society.”[40] Two years later, Saudi women were issued their own identification cards, so no longer would they be listed as dependents of their male relatives on family cards. The new identification cards for Saudi women included pictures of their uncovered faces.[41] In 2006, Saudi information minister Iyad Madani encouraged women to apply for driver’s licenses when he observed that there was “nothing in the Saudi legislation that forbids Saudi women to apply for a driving license.”[42] The minister’s comments hinted that urban Saudi women could look forward to driving in much the same way that rural and Bedouin Saudi women had driven for years. And there was a financial logic to Madani’s argument: women held half of all car loans in the kingdom, but females accounted for only 46 percent of the total population in 2004.[43]

Other Gulf rulers were even bolder than those in Saudi Arabia. In 2002, Bahrain’s emir drafted and helped win passage of a new constitution, which allowed women, who make up 43 percent of the total population, to vote and run for office in national elections.[44] The percentage of women in the Bahraini legislature’s upper house, or Shura Council, was higher than that of the U.S. Senate by 2010. Qatar approved a new constitution in late April 2002 and held elections in 2007 for a Central Municipal Council, in which all Qataris—men and women—were allowed to vote.[45] In 2003, Oman’s government extended the franchise to all Omanis, regardless of gender.[46] Kuwait permitted women to vote in 2006. Since the election in 2007 in the UAE, nine women have been serving in its 40-seat mixed (elected and appointed) Federal Legislature, a percentage of 22.5 percent, which is slightly lower than the percentage of females in the UAE’s population (32 percent).[47]

This trend has already had an impact on politics in the Gulf. Although Kuwaiti Islamists opposed extending the franchise to women, their candidates courted female voters during the 2006 elections. They provided materials geared especially toward women, including cassette tapes of candidates’ speeches for women unwilling to travel to public rallies or other campaign events. These materials and strategies were critical, given that more than 50 percent of the eligible Kuwaiti voters were women. The fact that Islamists polled well in elections and have won the support of many Kuwaiti women bodes well for their continued political success.[48]

Since 2003, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia have appointed women to cabinet-level positions.[49] Among the most noteworthy of these new ministers is Lubna al-Qasimi, who founded, a successful UAE technology company. She has also regulated Emirati stock markets and has regularly dined with such leading high-tech figures as Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Hewlett-Packard’s former chief executive officer (CEO), Carly Fiorina. In Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, women work as police and customs officers.[50] In Saudi Arabia, thousands of women serve as security guards in banks, hospitals, and women’s prisons.[51] Kuwaiti, Bahraini, and Qatari women have been senior diplomats. For example, in 2008, Bahrain’s government appointed a Jewish woman, Houda Nonoo, as ambassador to the United States. Nonoo was, in fact, the third woman to become a Bahraini ambassador, the others being Shaykha Haya al-Khalifa to France and Bibi Alawi to China.[52]

Women have also assumed leading roles in education and other cultural fields in the Gulf. Several Western-trained female members of Gulf ruling families have important social, religious, and cultural roles in the Gulf and represent their nations at international forums. These include Shaykha Moza of Qatar, a graduate of Texas A&M University and Shaykha Latifa
, the wife of the former Kuwaiti emir, who heads an official women’s organization, the Islamic Care Society, and speaks frequently at global conferences related to women.[53]

In business, the presence of women is even more pervasive. Here women have benefited from family connections, their own wealth (Saudi women own much of the real estate in Jeddah and Riyadh),[54] and a work environment that generally stresses merit and competence. Again, Lubna Olayan heads one of Saudi Arabia’s largest businesses, the Olayan Group. Another Saudi, Nahed Taher, directs Bahrain’s Gulf One Investments, which has $10 billion in assets. Vidya Chabria oversees the Jumbo Group, a $2 billion Emirati multinational company that operates in 50 countries. Raja’a Easa Saleh al-Gurg manages the al-Gurg group, an Emirati conglomerate with 29 manufacturing and trading companies and an annual revenue of $2 billion. Maha al-Ghunaim founded Global Investment House, a Kuwaiti investment firm with $7 billion of assets. Shaykha al-Bahar directs the Corporate Banking Arm of the National Bank of Kuwait. Mohsin Haider Darwish holds senior management posts in more than half of the ten major trading houses in Oman. [55]

Even more impressive has been the ability of women to transform their prominence into a type of sociocultural power far more significant than either the right to vote or the right to drive. Olayan and her colleagues are increasingly setting the socioeconomic agenda for their societies, outshining figures who have long promoted religious and patriarchal worldviews. Despite the grand mufti’s vocal protests against Olayan’s Jeddah speech (itself a sign of his desire to make up for his diminished power), she has continued to promote her ideas at home and abroad, encouraged other women in her company to promote women’s rights, and has been photographed unveiled in public settings with men.

The power of Olayan and other women reflects a conscious decision on the part of Gulf decision-makers to form an implicit alliance with educated Gulf women and to reduce the influence of groups that wish to preserve the patriarchal structures established in the 1970s and 1980s. Gulf monarchies and their politics are interconnected sets of communities, federations, and coalitions that are constantly in motion. Although there is little doubt that King Abdullah and other Gulf leaders are idealistically committed to promoting equality between the genders, the decision to ally with women also serves the political and socioeconomic needs of Gulf rulers.

Women are a natural political base of support for regimes in their ongoing struggle with violent Islamic opposition groups, many of which voice their grievances in patriarchal terms, seeking to impose strict controls on women. Educated women in particular also provide the regimes with a more cosmopolitan, softer, and less austere vision of the Gulf to the outside world. This is not a minor issue for the Gulf states politically or economically. Usama bin Ladin is a Saudi, and all but two of the hijackers who perpetrated the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were from the Gulf.[56] Citizens of Gulf states stand accused of financing and participating in extremist violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and other areas around the world. Because of the close ties of Gulf governments to the international economy, and because of their desire to win foreign investment, these governments care more than ever about how investors in London, New York, Tokyo, and elsewhere look at their states. This explains, in part, why Nahed Taher was chosen in 2005 to lead a Saudi Arabian trade delegation to the United States to obtain more foreign investment in the kingdom.[57]


Because of critical changes in the economies and population dynamics of the Arab Gulf states, Taher and other educated women are positioned to solve two problems far greater than terrorism: expatriate labor and the dearth of qualified indigenous male workers. Both problems originate in failed policies and in changes within the global economy. Despite decades of programs promoting male indigenous workers in every sector of the economy, such workers have been unable to obtain the skills necessary to compete with expatriate workers, who fill as much as 90 percent of the workforce in some sectors of the Gulf economy.[58] The numbers of expatriate workers rose sharply in the Gulf in the 2000s, as the region’s economy boomed. The new workers contributed to population growth rates of 3 percent or higher in the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait in the 2000s—growth rates that put enormous pressure on the region’s already limited natural resources.[59] By 2008, nine out of ten residents in Dubai were foreigners.[60] Indeed, the presence of the foreign workers has led some Gulf Arabs to fear that their culture may be overrun and eventually disappear from the region.[61]

If these problems were not serious enough, expatriates send much of their incomes home and are increasingly expensive to employ. As the U.S. dollar has depreciated since 2003, Gulf currencies, which are closely tied to the dollar, have declined relative to the value of the home currencies of many expatriate workers.[62] For the first time, salaries and wages in India and other regions of Asia have been competitive with those in the Gulf and forced GCC employers to raise wages in order to retain foreign workers.[63]

By contrast, indigenous Arab Gulf women offer an alternative solution to employing expatriates, especially those with skills. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait, female enrollment in higher education significantly exceeds that of men, sometimes by as much as 24 percent.[64] Women dominate a variety of disciplines in the liberal arts and journalism, in which they represent as much as 90 percent of the students.[65] Female students work far harder than their male counterparts and regularly outperform them in secondary and postsecondary institutions. In Kuwait, women’s success at the college level has been a political issue, with Islamist politicians claiming that it is unfair and demoralizing for Kuwaiti men to have to compete with female students.[66] In Bahrain, female high school students have a long tradition of outperforming their male counterparts. In 2007, for example, the girls graduated at a rate of 74.36 percent, compared to only 53.37 percent for the boys.[67]

Nor is this situation likely to change anytime soon. Even though, in 2007, equal numbers of girls and boys attended middle school in Bahrain, 828 girls achieved a score of at least 90 percent on their middle school exams, compared to the 263 boys who made the mark.[68] The World Bank reported in 2004 “that for every Qatari man aged 25 and graduating from university, there are two women graduates of the same age.”[69] In Qatar and other Gulf states, the school dropout rate of males is double that of females.[70] By 2007, the literacy rate of women between the ages of 15 and 24 in the Gulf states was consistent with that of women in developed nations.[71] This is an especially remarkable achievement when one remembers that there were no schools for women in some Gulf states as recently as 1970.

The question still remains: Can women dominate the professions and even the working classes of the Gulf states? In the UAE and Qatar, in particular, there are already reasons to believe this might occur. For example, in the UAE, women’s share of the labor market jumped from just 9.6 percent in 1985 to 13.0 percent in 1995, and up to 22.4 percent in 2004.[72] In 2007, Emirati women became pilots for Bahrain-based Gulf Air and other regional carriers.[73] By that time, they had become as much as 60 percent of the employees of the government workforce in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.[74] In Qatar, it is commonly accepted among middle-class and even elite nationals that it is now an economic necessity for both spouses to work.[75] Qatari men have also largely accepted the fact that they may play the role of junior income earners.[76] Qatar is an important test case because it and Saudi Arabia are the only states in the world in which Wahhabism is the official interpretation of Islam and because Qatar is facing many of the same financial challenges as Saudi Arabia. An average middle-class woman in Saudi Arabia will pay nearly half her salary to a male driver (invariably an expatriate) to get her to and from work.[77]

At the same time, one must bear in mind that there are significant barriers to women’s filling the future labor needs of the Gulf states. Although it is true that women dominate higher education, they are often not earning the types of technical degrees desired by employers—that is, in engineering, math, and various sciences. In part, this discrepancy reflects a broad preference among Gulf nationals of both genders to earn degrees in the humanities, religion, and social sciences. It is also indicative, however, of the scarcity of technical and vocational institutions and instructors for women in several of the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, where the top jobs desired by employers in 2001 were in medicine and computer technology. Thus, in 2001, there were nearly 50,000 Saudi women looking for work; and in 2007, the Saudi government estimated that unemployment among Saudi women stood at 37 percent.[78]

Even those women who have the right sets of skills and experiences face two additional constraints. First, strong cultural and familial pressures for women to remain close to their families can limit their ability to travel to regions in which jobs are available or to assume positions for which they would otherwise be qualified. Second, Gulf employers do not necessarily perceive indigenous women as workers. For instance, when social critics repeatedly warned about the dangers to public morality from allowing expatriate males to work in lingerie stores, the Saudi government announced in April 2006 that it would ban expatriate men from working in those stores and that Saudi women would take their place by June. At that point, nearly 10,000 women applied for the new positions, forcing the Saudi government to announce, on June 1, 2006, that it would extend the deadline for changing over to female workers indefinitely.[79]


However Saudi Arabia eventually resolves the question of workers in lingerie stores, it remains clear that many indigenous men cannot play a tangible role addressing the Gulf’s private sector labor needs. Although this is not a new problem, it has taken on greater social significance in recent years. With bleak career prospects and ample time on their hands, young men (and even some older ones) have gravitated toward antisocial behavior, including truancy, petty crime, drug abuse, religious extremism, and “drifting,” a form of car racing in which drivers perform complex and dangerous maneuvers at extremely high speeds. Drifters throughout the Gulf post their performances on YouTube, where they are celebrities who are said to have their pick of young male sexual partners. Drifting has become so popular that Chevrolet and the energy drink Red Bull have begun to sponsor “drifting” races in Middle Eastern cities.[80]

Yet the dangers of drifting to Gulf society have been clear for many years. In 2005, three young boys died in Jeddah in the car crash of a Saudi naval officer, Faysal al-Utabi—better known as Abu Kab (or the One Who Wears a [Baseball] Cap)—who wrecked his car while attempting to perform a stunt-driving maneuver. Abu Kab’s trial caused considerable public outcry, especially after it was revealed that he had more than 60 speeding tickets. There have been similar deadly accidents in Jeddah and other cities in the Gulf. One of the most dangerous of terrorists was a drifter: Yusuf al-Ayyeri headed al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula until he died in a shootout with Saudi security forces in 2003.[81] Al-Ayyeri’s successors continue to train terrorists, including
Umar Faruk Abd al-Mutallab, who attempted to detonate a bomb on a U.S. jetliner on December 25, 2009.

Nor are drifting and a dearth of educational and work opportunities the only things holding men back. Many Arab Gulf men, like women, face class, ethnic, religious, and familial barriers in education, employment, marriage, and sociopolitical freedoms. In some states, Shi’as and expatriates of both genders have substantially fewer rights than some Sunni women. Even some Arab Sunni men face barriers that do not hold back indigenous women. A Saudi college dropout told the Washington Post in 2007 that young Saudi men yearn to be equal with young Saudi women and many face severe restrictions: “Young men are oppressed here [in Saudi Arabia]…All I want is equality with girls.”[82]

Drifting, especially when linked to other dangerous antisocial problems and resentments of young men, suggests that future “gender questions” in the Gulf will no longer focus exclusively on women, the veil, and other related issues—as they have for generations. Instead, they will revolve around how to integrate young men (including those in their twenties and thirties) into society and make them productive individuals before they engage in behavior that is dangerous to themselves and others.

Finally, it is significant that the problems of men in Gulf societies are analogous to those faced by men in the United States and elsewhere during the current economic downturn. A white paper produced by the Georgia Department of Labor in July 2009 called for the state radically to alter how it delivers social services to men, a significant percentage of whom are in grave danger of becoming “structurally unemployed.” The report noted that men in Georgia and in other parts of the United States—much like men in the Arab Gulf states—lack basic modern skills and lag far behind women in educational achievement. The report also noted the striking statistic that the percentage of students who are female in Georgia’s universities, colleges, and technical institutes is approximately 60 percent, a number that is in line with the percentages in the Gulf.[83]


How women use their growing social power in the future and engineer social changes for both themselves and their educated and undereducated male colleagues remains to be seen. Olayan and a host of other well-placed professional women throughout government and business advocate a social vision that is consistent in many ways with Western social norms. In recent years, Olayan has continued to link the vision she outlined in Jeddah with a call for a society that is less dependent on expatriate workers. She and other educated Gulf women know that they are the only cost-effective option to fill the Gulf states’ future needs for skilled and unskilled labor. What is more, Gulf women are in a unique position to “rebrand” the conservative patriarchal image of Gulf states in the world community, to win needed foreign investment, and to forge new political alliances at home and abroad.

Gulf governments and Saudi popular culture have already begun to accommodate women’s growing socioeconomic and political influence, promote their goals, and seek their support. Saudi Arabia’s first feature-length film, Keif al Hal? (How’s It Going?), deals with the desire of some young women to have a career instead of marriage after finishing their education. Throughout much of the film, the lead character, Hind, and other women, frequently appear unveiled, and Hind herself has multiple scenes in which she is driving—with her father’s consent, no less.[84] Hind is also educated and works for a Saudi newspaper. Tash Ma Tash, one of Saudi Arabia’s most popular television programs, regularly shows women driving.[85] In an interview with the New York Times, Abdullah Samhan, the producer of Tash Ma Tash, explained why female characters are so often seen driving in his show. “A woman,” he said, “cannot be separated from society, and women will be driving, whether it’s now or fifty years from now.”[86] Nor are Samhan’s views radical: polls have shown that nearly two-thirds of Saudis favor allowing women to drive and work.[87] In today’s Saudi Arabia, women already drive tractors, water tankers, and cars in rural communities.[88]

Nonetheless, not all women support Samhan’s vision. Islamic parties in Kuwait have polled well among women, and young Gulf women have yet to abandon the hijab or other traditional symbols of patriarchal power. There is, of course, precedent for this type of conservatism among women in other parts of the world and in the Middle East. Images of veiled women holding assault rifles were a powerful propaganda weapon for Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

It is ironic that women’s place in the Gulf may evolve into something reminiscent of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A Saudi female activist,
Wajeha al-Huwaider, argues that the past provides Gulf women with a possible future social model. “Our parents,” she said, “had the right of movement; our grandparents had it too…But we ladies of the cities lost the old ways and got nothing in their place.”[89] In the past, as now, one can find women in positions of authority and power. Women have been successful in commerce, medicine, education, and government. They have also been religious leaders, who received both social and cultural respect for their knowledge and power.

Future generations of women in the Gulf will most likely live in societies that resemble those of al-Huwaider’s grandparents and great grandparents more than they do the Gulf states since the 1970s. Women will be integrated into virtually every aspect of public and private life at home and abroad and will have an increasing say in how their societies are managed. Once this happens, earlier female experience will be reinterpreted and reevaluated.American songwriter Cole Porter made a point that applies strongly to women of the Gulf: If you want a future, darling, why don’t you get a past?

* Sean Foley is an Assistant Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University. He specializes in the Middle East and religious and political trends in the broader Islamic world.  Previously, he taught at Georgetown University, where he earned an M.A. in Arab Studies in 2000 and a Ph.D. in History in 2005. Foley held Fulbright fellowships in Syria and Turkey in 2002 and 2003. He has published widely on Middle Eastern history, Sufism, Persian Gulf politics, and Muslims in Euro-American history. His first book, The Arab Gulf States: Beyond Oil and Islam, will be published by Lynne Rienner Press in March 2010. His website is http://website–


[1]“Saudi Arabia’s Top Cleric Condemns Calls for Women’s Rights,” New York Times, January 22, 2004.

[2]Robin Gedye, “Unveiled Women Are Root of All Evil, Says Saudi Cleric,” Daily Telegraph (London), January 22, 2004.

[3]The women drove for at least an hour before they were stopped by the Saudi police. Donna Abu-Nasr, “Stunning Saudi Car Ride Celebrated 18 Years Later,” Associated Press, November 14, 2008.

[4]Fatima al-Sayegh, “Women and Economic Changes in the Gulf: The Case of the United Arab Emirates,” Domes, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2001), p. 3.

[5]Haya al-Mughni, Women in Kuwait: The Politics of Gender (London: Saqi Books, 2001), p. 46.

[6]For more on these issues in Unayzah, see Soraya Altorki and Donald P. Cole, Arabian Oasis City: The Transformation of ‘Unayzah (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989).

[7]Al-Sayegh, “Women and Economic Changes,” pp. 5–6.


[9]Louay Bahry and Phebe Marr, “Qatari Women: A New Generation of Leaders,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2005), pp. 104–05; Ahmad Suba’i, My Days in Mecca, trans. and ed. Deborah Akers and Abubaker Bagader (Boulder, CO: First Forum Press, 2009), p. 35.

[10]Phebe Marr, “Girls’ Schools—The Hijaz,” April 8, 1961, William Mulligan Papers, Georgetown University Library Special Collections, Box 3, Folder 6.

[11]Abeer Abu Said, Qatari Women: Past and Present (London: Longman Group Limited, 1984), pp. 24–25.

[12]Raymond O’Shea, The Sand Kings: The Experiences of an RAF Officer in the Little-Known Regions of Trucial Oman, Arabia (London: Methuen and Co., 1947), pp. 62–63.

[13]Mai Yamani, “Changing the Habits of a Lifetime: The Adaptation of Hejazi Dress to the New Social Order,” in Languages of Dress in the Middle East, ed. Nancy Lindisfarne-Tapper and Bruce Ingham, pp. 57–58 (Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 1997).

[14]Eleanor Doumato, Women, Islam, and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), pp. 176, 182–83.


[16]Shafeeq N. Ghabra, “Balancing State and Society: The Islamic Movement in Kuwait,” in Revolutionaries and Reformers: Contemporary Islamist Movements in the Middle East, ed. Barry Rubin, pp. 106–08 (Binghamton: State University of New York Press, 2003).

[17]Eleanor Doumato, “Gender, Monarchy, and National Identity in Saudi Arabia,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1. (1992), pp. 34–39; Eleanor Doumato, “The Saudis and the Gulf War: Gender, Power, and Revival of the Religious Right,” in Change and Development in the Gulf, ed. Abbas Abdelkarim (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), pp. 184-210.

[18]Doumato, “Gender, Monarchy, and National Identity,” p. 41.

[19]Munira Fakhro, “Gulf Women and Islamic Law,” in Feminism and Islam, Legal and Literary Perspectives, ed. Mai Yamani (New York: New York University Press, 1996), p. 257.

[20]Ida Patterson Storm, “Bahrain,” Arabia Calling, Vol. 244 (Autumn 1956), p. 10.

[21]Bruce Ingham, “Men’s Dress in the Arabian Peninsula: Historical and Present Perspectives,” in Languages of Dress in the Middle East, ed. Nancy Lindisfarne-Tapper and Bruce Ingham (Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 1997), pp. 40-54.

[22]May Seikaly, “Women and Religion in Bahrain: An Emerging Identity,” in Islam, Gender, and Social Change, ed. Yvonne Haddad and John Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 178.

[23]For more on these issues, see Munira Fakhro, Women at Work in the Gulf: A Case Study of Bahrain (London: Kegan Paul International, 1990).

[24]Bandar added that Bedouin women “had started driving trucks” in the desert and emphasized the seriousness (and veracity) of the observation by adding “and I’m not kidding.” Richard Harwood, “Change Is Slow for Saudi Women,” Washington Post, February 12, 1978.

[25]Eleanor Doumato, “Saudi Arabia: The Society and Its Environment,” in Saudi Arabia: A Country Study, ed. Helen Metz (Washington, DC: Library of Congress Federal Research Division, 1993), p. 103.

[26]Rajaa al-Sanea, Girls of Riyadh, trans. Rajaa al-Sanea and Marilyn Booth (New York: Penguin Press, 2007), p. 270.

[27]For its part, the Saudi state recognized these limitations and sought to encourage women—at least indirectly. In 1989, it awarded its highest award, the King Faisal Award in Islamic Studies, to the Egyptian scholar Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali, who had taken a strong stand that year in an article in a Saudi daily newspaper on allowing women to earn an education and work. Youssef M. Ibrahim, “Saudi Women Quietly Win Some Battles,” New York Times, April 26, 1989.

[28]Ghabra, “Balancing State and Society,” pp. 107–08.

[29]Youssef Ibrahim, “Amid Crisis, West Meets Mideast in Saudi Arabia,” New York Times, August 25, 1990, (Historical New York Times), p. 1.

[30]Eleanor Doumato, “Women and the Stability of Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Report, Vol. 171 (July–August 1991), p. 37.

[31]Doumato, “Gender, Monarchy, and National Identity in Saudi Arabia,” p. 32.

[32]Mary Ann Tétreault, “A State of Two Minds: State Cultures, Women, and Politics in Kuwait,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3 (May 2001), p. 211.


[34]Mary Ann Tétreault, Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait (New York: Columbia University Press), pp. 110–31.

[35]Munira A. Fakhro, “The Uprising in Bahrain: An Assessment,” in The Persian Gulf at the Millennium: Essays in Politics, Economy, Security, and Religion, ed. Gary G. Sick and Lawrence G. Potter (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 181.

[36]Sean Foley, “The Naqshbandiyya-Khalidiyya, Islamic Sainthood, and Religion in Modern Times,Journal of World History, Vol. 19, No. 4 (December 2008), p. 535.

[37]Eleanor Doumato, “Women and Work in Saudi Arabia: How Flexible Are Islamic Margins?” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Autumn 1999), p. 577.

[38]Sean Foley, “Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE,” in Guide to Islamist Movements, ed. Barry Rubin (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2010), p. 309.

[39]Hamad bin Hamid al-Salimi, “Where Is the Saudi Woman?” Al-Jazeera (Riyadh), May 3, 1999.


[41]Kathy Sheridan, “They Mean Business: How Saudi Women Are Making a Breakthrough,” Irish Times, February 18, 2006.

[42]Christian Chaise, “Saudi Arabia Discreetly Presses Ahead with Reform,” Agence France-Presse—English, March 1, 2006.

[43]Donna Abu-Nasser, “Women Can Now Sell Cars in Saudi Arabia, but the Ban on Female Driving Remains,” Associated Press, December 3, 2006; “Women Received 1,848 Auto Loans,” IPR Strategic Business Information Database, December 26, 2006; “Saudi Women Receive 11% of Total Credit,” Global News Wire—Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, December 26, 2006.

[44]Sean Foley, “The Gulf Arabs and the New Iraq: The Most to Gain and the Most to Lose,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 7, No. 2 (2003), p. 34,



[47]“Woman Wins Seat in First UAE Poll,” Financial Times Information Limited, December 17, 2006; “Chosen People of the UAE,” Financial Times Information Limited, October 23, 2007.

[48]For more on this issue, see Foley, “Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE,” p. 308.

[49]Sobhi Rakha, “New Woman Minister Cracks Saudi Glass Ceiling,” Agence France-Presse—English, February 15, 2009.

[50]Bahry and Marr, “Qatari Women: A New Generation of Leaders,” p. 110.

[51]“Saudi Women Brave Stares to Carve a Niche,” Financial Times Information Limited, April 17, 2007.

[52]“Bahrain Names Jewish Woman as Ambassador to US,” Agence France-Presse—English, June 8, 2008.

[53]Al-Mughni, Women in Kuwait, pp. 104–11, 164–65.

[54]John Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 130.

[55]Information taken from the following sources: Greg Levine and Zina Moukheiber, Al-Olayan Leads Forbes’ Top Arab Businesswomen List,” Forbes Magazine, March 28, 2006; Elizabeth MacDonald and Meghan Bahree, “The World’s Most Powerful Women: Muslim Women In Charge,” Forbes Magazine, August 30, 2007; Elizabeth MacDonald and Chana R. Schoenberger, Special Report: The 100 Most Powerful Women,” Forbes Magazine, August 30, 2007; Elizabeth MacDonald and Chana R. Schoenberger,The 100 Most Powerful Women,” Forbes Magazine, August 31, 2006; Hassna’a Mokhtar, “Women’s Empowerment a Must,” Arab News, March 20, 2007; “Special Issue: The Time 100,” Time, April 10, 2005.

[56]The exceptions were Muhammad Atta, who was from Egypt, and Ziad al-Jarrah, who was from Lebanon.

[57]“Saudi Arabia: From Banking to Racing,” Saudi-US Relations Information Service Newsletter, February 12–18, 2006.

[58]There are many examples of this phenomenon, but perhaps the most infamous was in 1995 in the UAE. During that year, the country’s private sector created 50,000 jobs; just 30 were taken by Emirati nationals. Gary Sick, “The Coming Crisis,” in The Persian Gulf at the Millennium: Essays in Politics, Economy, Security, and Religion, ed. Gary Sick and Lawrence Potter (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 18.

[59]“Kuwait’s Population Reaches 3.4 million,” Agence France-Presse—English, March 30, 2008; “Kuwait Population to Reach 5.63 Million by 2030,” Middle East Financial News Wire, February 6, 2008; Central Intelligence Agency, World Fact Book, “Kuwait,” “Oman,” and “UAE” (available at

[60]Robert Worth, “Laid-Off Foreigners Flee as Dubai Spirals Downward,” New York Times, February 11, 2009.

[61]Jamal al-Suwaidi, who directs the Center for Emirates Studies, a top GCC policy institution in Abu Dhabi, articulated this angst in a series of articles published in the UAE media from 2006 to 2008. His views are worth noting because he is a leading Emirati academic and adviser to Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Shaykh Muhammad bin Zayid al-Nahyan. In 2006, he noted in al-Itihad, a major Arabic daily in the UAE, that he and his fellow Emiratis no longer existed socially or politically. “Our country,” he lamented, is now “filled with various nationalities to such an extent that there is no longer any place left for us.” Although al-Suwaidi failed to define what the consequences of this situation might be, he implied that indigenous Emirati culture might soon vanish in a society comprising people who are neither Arabs nor Sunni Muslims. The minister of labor of Bahrain, Majid al-Alawi, echoed al-Suwaidi’s words in 2008, observing that the presence of 17 million South Asians and other foreigners was “a danger worse than the atomic bomb or an Israeli attack” to the future of the Gulf. Abdullah Khalaq, “UAE’s Demographic Imbalance,Gulf News, April 14, 2007; “Bahrain Labour Minister Warns of Asian Tsunami,” Agence France-Presse—English, January 27, 2008. The al-Itihad article is cited in Abdelbari Atwan, “The Gulf’s Momentous Challenges,” Mideast Mirror, May 11, 2006.

[62]“Value of Indian Workers’ Wages in Gulf May Fall Further,” Indo-Asian News Service, April 2, 2008.

[63]Habib Toumi, “Bahrain Minister Pushes for New Law,” Gulf News, December 26, 2008.

[64]World Bank, The Status and Progress of Women in the Middle East and North Africa (Washington, DC: World Bank Press, 2007), pp. 129, 135, 139, 140, 141, 144.

[65]“Bahraini Women Fail to Make It to the Upper Echelons of Journalism,” Financial Times Information Limited, July 6, 2007.

[66]Tétreault, Stories of Democracy, pp. 160–64.

[67]“Girls Outshine Boys in Graduation Exams,” Financial Times Information Limited, June 13, 2007.


[69]Barbara Bibbo, “Qatari Women Find Key to Greater Emancipation,” Gulf News, March 24, 2007; World Bank, Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Women in the Public Sphere (Washington, DC: World Bank Press, 2004), pp. 31–33.

[70]World Bank, Women in the Middle East and North Africa, pp. 31–33.

[71]World Bank, Status and Progress of Women, p. 10.

[72]Bahgat, “Education in the Gulf Monarchies,” p. 134; al-Sayegh, “Women and Economic Changes, p. 9; World Bank, Status and Progress of Women, p. 144.

[73]“UAE’s First Female Pilot,” United Press International, June 17, 2007; “First Bahraini Lady Pilot Gains Her Wings with Gulf Air,” al-Bawaba, February 5, 2007.

[74]Al-Sayegh, “Women and Economic Changes,” p. 9.

[75]Bahry and Marr, “Qatari Women: A New Generation of Leaders,” p. 112.

[76]Ibid., p. 109.

[77]Hassan Fattah, “Saudis Rethink Taboo About Women Behind the Wheel,” New York Times, September 28, 2007.

[78]For more on employment issues, see John R. Calvert and Abdullah S. al-Shetaiwi, “Exploring the Mismatch Between Skills and Jobs for Women in Saudi Arabia in Technical and Vocational Areas: The Views of Saudi Arabian Private Sector Business Managers,” International Journal of Training and Development, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2002), pp. 112–24; “Saudi Arabia: Fewer Women Employed in Private Sector,” Financial Times Information Limited, May 17, 2007; “Women Rising in the Ranks in Middle East Job Market,” Middle East Newswire, April 30, 2007.

[79] “10,000 Chase KSA lingerie jobs,” AME Info FZ, LLC—Middle East Retail and Leisure News Wire, April 22, 2006; “Saudi Suspends Lingerie Plans,” AME Info FZ, LLC—Middle East Retail and Leisure News Wire, May 15, 2006; Alexandra Pironti, “Saudi Women Obliged to Discuss Underwear Size with Men,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, May 31, 2006.

[80]Tom Whitwell, “This Week: The Arab Drift,” Times, August 16, 2008; Robert F. Worth, “Saudi Races Roar All Night Fueled by Boredom,” New York Times, March 7, 2009.

[81]Fatima Sidya, “Verdict in Abu Kab Case Today,” Arab News, February 2, 2009 and Worth, Saudi Races Roar All Night Fueled by Boredom.

[82]Faiza Saleh Ambah, “Bored Young Saudis Find Outlet in Graffiti,” Washington Post, October 31, 2007.

[83]Michael Thurmond, “Georgia Men Hit Hardest By the Recession, December 2007 to May 2009,” Georgia Department of Labor: White Paper on Georgia’s Workforce, July 2009, p. 7.

[84]Hassan Fattah, “Riyadh Journal: Daring to Use the Silver Screen to Reflect Saudi Society,” New York Times, April 28, 2006; Hassan Fattah, “Saudi Arabia Begins to Face Hidden AIDS Problem,” New York Times, August 8, 2006.

[85]The name Tash Ma Tash comes from a game played by Saudi children in the 1960s where they would “pop” the tops off soda bottles by shaking them hard. It roughly translates as “you either get it or you don’t” or “make or break it.” Neil MacFarquhar, “Riyadh Journal; Seeing the Funny Side of Islamic Law, and Not Seeing It,” New York Times, November 24, 2003; Pascal Ménoret, “‘State Television Has Guarded Us Against Cretins’: Saudi TV’s Dangerous Hit,” Le Monde diplomatique English edition, September 16, 2004.

[86]Fattah, “Saudis Rethink Taboo.”

[87]Sheridan, “They Mean Business.”

[88]Donna Abu-Nasr, “Saudi Ban on Women Drivers May Be Eroding,” Associated Press, August 22, 2008.

[89]Fattah, “Saudis Rethink Taboo.”

[90]Cole Porter, “Let’s Misbehave,” Paris, in The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, ed. Robert Kimball (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), p. 104.

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The Middle East: Well-Intentioned Conciliatory Policy Meets Revolutionary Islamist Threat

From Gloria-Centre.Org


For a half-century, Middle East politics were dominated by Arab nationalist regimes and movements, defined by the struggle among them for regional hegemony. Now the area has moved into a new era in which the central feature is the struggle between Arab nationalist regimes and revolutionary Islamist forces. Yet many Western policymakers have failed to understand this transformation. This article discusses the nature of the central conflict, including the identity of the Islamist side and the balance of forces.

The problem at present is not just that the Middle East may be heading for disaster and the Western strategic situation could be moving toward collapse, but that such an unfavorable outcome is made more likely by the fact that Western governments don’t seem to comprehend this situation and are following policies that make it worse. There are five main critical developments which threaten the region’s already fragile stability.

First, and most basic, is the rise of revolutionary Islamist movements everywhere in the region. While in 2000, the Islamists were bogged down, unable to seize power in any country (except Afghanistan) 20 years after Iran’s revolution, a number of events perceived by them as victories have given a big boost. Whether or not these are real successes, they are credibly portrayed as such to their constituencies.

These include: Hamas’s electoral success followed by its takeover of the Gaza Strip in a coup; Hizballah’s “victory” in the 2006 war with Israel and electoral gains in Lebanon; the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and inroads in Pakistan; Iran’s nuclear weapons project; the development of an Islamist insurgency in Iraq; the integration of the non-Islamist Syrian regime into an Iranian-led Islamist bloc; a brief seizure of power in Somalia followed by an insurgency there; the opening of a new, Iran-backed Islamist rebellion in Yemen; continued periodic international terrorist attacks, most notably the September 11, 2001, assault on the United States; the political success of a neo-Islamist regime in Turkey, which has promulgated a pro-Islamist foreign policy; and a growing Islamist movement among immigrants in Europe; among other developments. Equally important in this mix is the belief that the West is weak and uncertain in responding to these situations.

The belief that revolutionary Islamism is on the march brings new recruits and makes existing ones bolder. Certainly, the most important development in the Middle East would be the Islamist ability to seize power in additional countries. While this is not an immediate prospect, it has already made the existing regimes bend their policies to avoid antagonizing or to appease those who might otherwise be recruited by revolutionary Islamist movements.

Meanwhile, Western countries persist in acting as if the sole problem were al-Qa’ida. They, and especially the Obama administration, have not taken on the job of building a coalition against revolutionary Islamism but have spent more time–except regarding al-Qaida–in trying to engage Islamist forces and “proving” their friendliness toward Islam.

Second, Iran’s nuclear drive is continuing without seriously effective international opposition. After years of negotiations conducted by Britain, France, and Germany failed, higher sanctions were supposed to be imposed in the autumn of 2007. As of 2010, nothing has been done.

After the failure of an almost year-long attempt at engagement with Tehran, the Obama administration has already missed two deadlines set by itself (September and December 2009) and has made clear that if any higher sanctions are to be imposed, they will be narrow and defined to avoid damaging Iran’s economy. Meanwhile, a number of European states–and notably Italy–continue to do large, profitable business with the Iranian regime.

For Tehran, then, the opposition has been a joke, only reinforcing its conclusion that the West–and especially the United States–is a paper tiger.

What will happen if Iran does get nuclear weapons? The most often-discussed scenario is an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel, a possibility for which the likelihood seems reinforced by the statements of Iranian leaders. In the face of such a threat, Israel may well at some point attack Iranian nuclear facilities, setting off a crisis that Western passivity in confronting Iran has made far more likely.

Yet this is far from the only problem posed by Iran possessing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons that can be fired on them. Other outcomes would include a high level of Arab and European readiness to appease a powerful nuclear Iran accompanied by fear of opposing it on any issue. To cite only one example, no Arab country will act to help an Arab-Israeli or Israel-Palestinian peace process that they know Iran opposes. Oil costs would likely go high, due both to fear of Iran’s hawkishness on prices and fear of crisis in the Persian Gulf. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, revolutionary Islamists (both pro- and anti-Iranian) would reap tens of thousands of recruits from the belief that Iran proved Islamism was a success and provided a powerful patron.

Third, and clearly linked to the two previous points, is a flourishing of Iran’s strategic ambitions and that of the bloc it leads. Iran, Syria, Hizballah, Hamas, and the Iraqi insurgents–with some support from Turkey–are linked in an alliance that is seeking regional hegemony. The main battlefronts are Iraq, Lebanon, and now Yemen.

While the Iranian-led bloc is fairly coherent, the other side is very much divided. Relatively moderate Arab regimes and Israel do not and cannot cooperate closely. Moreover, the country that could provide them with a powerful patron, the United States, is not doing so due to the Obama administration’s perceptions and policies. Some elements in this potential alignment–notably Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon–are moving toward high levels of appeasement or outright defection.

All of this is happening at a time when Iran’s rulers are the most radical faction. While challenged by an active opposition, the regime is still firmly in control of the country. Its perceptions are based on the belief that they are following the deity’s will and that their foreign rivals are weak, corrupt, and divided. This is a regime most likely to engage in adventurous actions, taking high degrees of risk in a perhaps mistaken belief that victory is inevitable. Such a situation is a recipe for crisis, sponsored terrorism and subversion, confrontation, and war.

Fourth, virtually unnoticed in the West has been Turkey’s switch to the Iranian-led bloc, pro-Islamist camp. While the Obama administration is still engaged in defining the Turkish regime as the very model of a moderate Muslim-majority democracy, the AKP regime is gradually transforming the country from a secular society to a relatively Islamized one, institution by institution.

This does not mean the AKP will succeed in remaking Turkey, but it has been very easy for the government to change Turkey’s historic foreign policy. In the past, Turkey viewed the United States as its patron–trying to prove itself a loyal member of the West in order to facilitate membership in the European Union–and saw Israel as an ally against a threat from Islamism, Iran, and Syria.

Now all this is reversed. Iran and Syria are seen by the regime as allies; Hamas and Hizballah are friends to be promoted; and Israel is portrayed as an enemy. The only reason the Turkish regime has found it easy to maintain good relations with the United States is that Washington has neither demanded Turkey do anything nor criticized Ankara’s statements or actions.

Fifth, connected to all the above points has been the loss of Western credibility. At a time when the main goal of the United States and Europe seems to be to avoid offending any Arab or Muslim-majority state, they have been on the defensive. While moderates have been demoralized, radicals have been encouraged by this perception of weakness and retreat.

Meanwhile, the main priority of U.S. and often European policy has been to promote an Israel-Palestinian peace process that has no chance of working, given the Palestinian Authority’s intransigence, weakness, and fear of its Islamist rival, Hamas. Ironically, even in the unlikely case of progress, any perspective compromise solution would inflame–not dilute–Islamist militancy, which would mobilize against such a “treasonous” outcome.

This is a pessimistic assessment, which does not mean it is not an accurate one. Many or most of these problems can be reversed given the West’s power and the broad range of supporters it could find in the region if only there were a comprehension of these problems and the will to confront them seriously and energetically. Yet that type of thinking and action still seem far from realization.

Perhaps the greatest, most dangerous miscomprehension is the nature of revolutionary Islamism and how it poses the greatest threat to regional, and even global, peace and stability today.

A young American named Ramy Zamzam, arrested in Pakistan for trying to fight alongside the Taliban, responded in an interview with the Associated Press: “We are not terrorists. We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism.”

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who  joined al-Qa’ida and tried to bring down a passenger flight to Detroit on December 25, 2009, wrote his father shortly beforehand that he now had a fervent commitment to what he called “real Islam.”

What these two say is well worth bearing in mind in order to understand the great conflict of our era. First and foremost, jihadism or radical Islamism is far more than mere terrorism. It is a revolutionary movement in every sense of the word. It seeks to overthrow existing regimes and replace them with governments that will transform society into a nightmarishly repressive system.

One might then put it this way: Revolutionary Islamism is the main strategic problem in the world today. Terrorism is the main tactical problem.


Radical Islamism is the doctrine that each Muslim-majority country–its politics, economy, and society–should be ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship guided by the given movement’s definition of proper Islam. What Marxism was to Communism, and fascism to Nazism, jihadism is to Islamism. There are, of course, many versions–including both Sunni and Shi’a varieties–and this is hardly a united movement, which is one of its weaknesses. Yet while the doctrinal differences are relevant and do keep the groups apart, they are of secondary importance for understanding the ideology and movement as a whole.

In some cases, Islamists have a wider ambition to transform the entire world, starting with Europe. While this may seem ridiculous to most Westerners, it does not seem so to the Islamists who hold that view.

Only a minority of Muslims is Islamist, but that sector has grown sharply over the last 20 years and seems to be on the rise. Muslims are also among the greatest opponents of political Islamism, and often its victims. Among those rejecting it are conservative traditionalist Muslims and Arab (or other types of) nationalists, along with a very small group that can be called liberal reformist.

Three places have been under radical Islamist rule so far: Iran and the Gaza Strip, as well as,–temporarily–Afghanistan. An Islamist group using democratic tactics has gained control of the government in Turkey, where it is pursuing a step-by-step attempt to transform the country, which may or may not succeed. Radical Islamist movements have been active in well over 60 countries ranging from Australia and Indonesia in the east to Morocco at the western end of the Middle East, and beyond to Europe and North America.

The fact that radical Islamism relates to a religion, Islam, is very important (see below) but should not blind observers to the fact that this is basically a political movement and not–at least in the modern Western sense–a theological one.

Of course, Islamism is rooted in Islam but a strong opposition to Islamism-a standpoint shared by many Muslims who may motivated by a traditional view of Islam, ethnic or nation-state nationalism, or a different radical ideology (Arab nationalism most likely)-is in no way an expression of bigotry against a religion.

Similarly, the idea that opposition to Islamism is in some way “racist” is absurd since no “race” is involved. Just as opponents of Communism (capitalist, imperialist) and fascism (Jews, Bolsheviks) could be discredited by calling them names, the same is done with those who oppose Islamism.

Very roughly, Islamism is parallel to Communism and fascism as revolutionary mass movements. Analogies should not be carried too far but are useful in understanding certain basic points.

There are a wide variety of Islamist groups. A small but energetic international grouping of local organizations called al-Qa’ida; Muslim Brotherhood branches, Hamas, and Hizballah are the best known. In virtually every Muslim-majority country and throughout Western Europe there are such organizations working very hard to gain state power.


On one hand, some refer to Islam as a “religion of peace” that has nothing to do with violence or terrorism. Yet this cannot account for the fact that the jihadists and radical Islamists can cite writings in Islamic holy texts and well-respected clerics that support their positions. Certain concepts–like jihad as a holy war of violence, the killing of any Muslim who wants to change his religion, and the subordination of non-Muslims in Muslim-ruled society–are well-established in Islam and accepted, at least in theory, by the majority of Muslims.

On the other hand, there are those who say that jihadism, radical Islamism, and the use of terrorism is normative Islam, that they are all the same thing. Yet this cannot account for the fact that Muslim-ruled and Muslim-majority societies for many centuries ignored the precepts cited by the revolutionaries or held other interpretations. In the 1970s, when Islamists began to raise the call for jihad against their own societies–deeming them to be forms of pre-Islamic paganism–these arguments seemed for most Muslims to be crackpot and heretical.

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab said that by joining al-Qa’ida he was embracing the “real Islam,” even his own father and almost all those around him in Nigerian society held another view of Islam. Polls show that large numbers of Muslims today accept revolutionary Islamism as a proper interpretation of their religion. Yet the same polls show that large numbers of Muslims reject that idea completely.

The answer to these apparent contradictions is simple: A struggle of different interpretations is going on. This does not mean that either conservative traditional Islam–or radical Islamism–or the much smaller group of liberal reformers for that matter is voicing the “real” Islam. For all practical purposes (though not theoretical ones), the “real” Islam of this historical period will emerge depending on who wins the battle.

It should be needless to say that outside observers will not determine this outcome, nor can they define any “real” or “proper” Islam, any more than someone during the great wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe could define the “real” Christianity which most closely adhered to the founders’ intentions or the holy texts. Christianity and Judaism evolved while at the same time different interpretations developed within them. Today’s world is defined by history in which a large part is the decisions and actions made by people rather than theoretical theology or texts as the dominant factors.

Islamism grows out of Islam and its advocates easily find widely accepted and very basic Islamic principles that justify their world view and behavior. Yet Islamism is an interpretation of Islam and not the only one possible. Indeed, for centuries there have been different interpretations.

To argue that Islamism is the inevitable or “correct” interpretation of Islam is as silly as it is to argue that it is some external, heretical ideology that has “hijacked” Islam. Perhaps one could make a rough parallel to the relationship between Communism and either liberal or democratic socialism, and of fascism compared to conservatism or nationalism. Yet the link between Islamism and Islam is closer than that since it is not just a spinoff but one “legitimate” claimant to be the normative interpretation of that doctrine.

What Islam “means” can only be interpreted in practice by Muslims in a process of debate and struggle. The decades to come will reveal how this unfolds. For outsiders to claim that Islam is “really” a religion of peace or “really” inevitably aggressive is meaningless. Yes, as history has shown, no matter how powerful a religious text seems to be worded, followers of that religion can always find ways to ignore or reinterpret those texts.

Just as the Islamists can base their case on original Islamic texts, their Muslim opponents can argue from centuries of practice as well as their own interpretations. The reason that the Islamists (who were earlier called “fundamentalists” for precisely this reason) have to go back to the seventh century texts–though of course there are some medieval texts they also use that support their case–is that the intervening centuries did not follow their precepts.

Indeed, that is precisely their complaint. It is important to remember that the Islamist argument is that Islam has not been practiced “properly” for centuries, which is also an indirect admission that there are other interpretations of that religion that have been accepted overwhelmingly both by clerics and by the masses.

What eventually emerged to dominate Islam is the conservative traditionalist version. Far from seeking political control, it subordinated itself to the rulers. It was no longer a revolutionary doctrine. A key point in this approach was the argument that as long as the ruler was a believing Muslim, he should be obeyed.

In addition, conservative traditionalist Islam generally held that no Muslim could judge and condemn as heretical the beliefs or behavior of other Muslims unless they were really obvious and extreme ones. Islamism had to combat these and other tenets of conservative traditionalist Islam. Another principle was that as long as the ruler was a believing Muslim, he was a satisfactory ruler and did not have to be a cleric or to enforce full Islamic law.

This does not mean that there is some statistically dominant moderate Muslim silent majority that wants democracy, equal rights for women, etc. There is a conservative and relatively passive majority that opposes revolution. That is not at all the same thing. Moreover, unless there is a successfully persuasive response from traditionally oriented clerics that “proves” the Islamist brand of Islam is wrong, the conservative constituency will be open to being courted and perhaps won over by Islamists who cite chapter and verse with their own documented interpretation.

To summarize this complex issue in one sentence: There should be absolute honesty by outside observers in understanding how the most sacred texts of Islam appear to validate revolutionary Islamists, but an equal understanding that a struggle is going on among Muslims in which different interpretations are contending. The real question in regard to any political movement is which passages it decides to highlight and how they are interpreted.

There are too many people, whose views tend to dominate the Western media and academia, who simply ignore extremist statements about jihad, the treatment of non-Muslims, the killing of anyone who converts from being a Muslim, and other such matters. They want to brand and destroy anyone who provides an accurate account as Islamophobic, which is an extremely counterproductive response.

At the same time, there are others who point out these passages and insist that the problem is Islam itself as an immutable religion. Both of these conceptions are wrong. Both misconceptions handicap any understanding or response to the contemporary challenge of Islamism.

For example, to call Islam a “religion of peace” because that is supposedly what the word Islam means is quite false. On the contrary, “Islam” means “submission” (to the will of God). The true implication is that peace can only be achieved when all submit to God’s will, which Muslims believe is embodied in Shari’a law. This provides a good example of how the Islamists are on legitimate, but not irrefutable, ground in making their claims.

On the other hand, it is not accurate to claim that because some militant statement is in the Koran that makes Islam inevitably aggressive. The “real Islam” is only the sum total of all Islam’s history and schools of interpretation. Speaking generally, from around 750 when the Umayyads took power to 1979 when Iran had its Islamist revolution, there was virtually never any state ruled by Islam as a religion. That is why there are two distinct words: “caliph” for the leader of Islam as a religious community, and “sultan” for the political ruler. When these were embodied in the same individual, it was almost always the sultan who ruled and the caliph who provided useful reinforcement for a political regime.

True, Saudi Arabia was guided by an extreme Wahhabi interpretation of Islam but it was not a theocracy. The true rulers of the country were the Saud family and its political will, not the ulama (religious clerics). And when the monarchy and mullahs clashed, the former had its way.

Another key factor has been the centuries of religious experts who have interpreted Islam in different ways. Even when they overwhelmingly affirmed “militant” interpretations in theory, it still remained a question as to whether such things were implemented in practice. There were always, of course, limits. The fact that no one explicitly and strongly challenged the idea, for example, that those converting from Islam should be severely punished and killed if they persisted, does strengthen the hand of contemporary Islamists that they represent mainstream views.

Thus, while Islamism is not the only possible interpretation of Islam, its approach is certainly shaped and justified by basic Islamic texts. Unless Muslims and especially qualified clerics among them reinterpret these tenets, Islamism will continue to have a strong advantage in competing with conservative traditional Islam while liberal reformism will remain a tiny, powerless viewpoint.

For non-Muslims to reinterpret Islam to their own specifications, explain what it “really” means, and provide bland reassurances that it is a “religion of peace” that would never countenance terrorism and totalitarianism is ludicrous. When Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, says that the problem is “al-Qaida completely perverting a wonderful, peaceful religion,” he is saying something that fails to explain why the basic ideas held by that organization are supported by millions of people who have every reason to believe themselves to be pious Muslims.

On a political and strategic level, the threat comes from revolutionary Islamist groups. This movement may be rooted in ideas more broadly held among Muslims, at least given many–but by all means not all–contemporary interpretations held by believers in that religion.

Yet Islam is not going to be reformed in the next few decades, nor are Muslim-majority countries going to become paragons of modernized, democratic, Western-style societies with high living standards for all. The task for both the West and the non-Islamist regimes ruling those societies, then, is not to create some utopia there (especially given the differences in vision about what constitutes an optimal society), but by defeating the radical movements. This may involve some increase in representative government and social justice in these countries, but outsiders can do virtually zero in making such changes.

Equally, in seeing the need to support the existing regimes and conservative traditional Islam as a lesser of two evils, it should not be assumed that the main competing viewpoint to Islamism is some kind of moderate, reformist Islam. In fact, the real alternative at present in most Muslim-majority, and certainly Arabic-speaking, countries is conservative traditional Islam. This approach is largely ready to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” that is to accept the idea that the incumbent, dictatorial, government of the land is the ruler.

It does not favor Western-style democracy, modern secular-oriented society, or equality for women. The conservatives oppose Islamism because they oppose change in general. This means that they reject the Western “root cause” argument–which is partly untrue any way–that since Islamism thrives on inequality and poverty, the best way to fight it is to remedy these internal problems.

On the contrary, the conservatives believe that change is destabilizing and democracy is dangerous. Their approach is to defeat the Islamists through a combination of repression, asserting their brand of Islam, anti-Western demagoguery, and rejecting any “reform” of Islam or liberalized society in order to assuage traditional Muslims. Not only do the conservatives oppose Westernization and even large elements of modernization due to their own beliefs but also because they fear this will make much of their own pious subjects appear to be traitors. Their reading of why Iran had a revolution may well be closer to the truth than the Western interpretation.

What is most important from a strategic perspective–that is from the standpoint of outside powers–is that the conservatives do not favor violent revolution at home, clerical or theological rule, or jihad against the West, and are relatively more tolerant (with Saudi Arabia being the sole exception) of different currents of Muslim practice. The Arab conservative-traditional Muslims may oppose peace with Israel but are also aware that attacking that country is likely to lead to defeat. Precisely because they want stability, they are not in search of foreign adventures, though they demagogically use militant rhetoric.

That is the real choice of forces at present, and it is not one whose composition can be altered by the external world to make. The West can be nice to reformers and try to help keep them from being thrown into prison, but it cannot create a third force in this battle. The alternatives are to help the conservatives or–through neutrality, concessions, or a foolish engagement with extremists–to help the radical regimes spread their influence and revolutionaries to seize power.

Regarding Islamism, then, it is not that Islam has been hijacked by it; rather, different forces with a real claim to authority are fighting over control of the steering wheel. An ideal solution is not possible. What is necessary is to use the usual tools of international relations, economic power, and military might to destroy the direct threat of revolutionary extremist groups, aggressive Islamist regimes, and terrorism.


It is also, even when not so visibly state-sponsored, often an instrument of specific states, most notably Iran and Syria. Trying to spread Islamist revolution has been a major goal since the takeover of Iran itself and fits closely with Iranian great power ambitions. Not all leaders have pursued this with equal vigor, but it is a high priority of the current rulers. A wide variety of organizations from barely disguised front groups to powerful Islamist organizations in Iraq, Lebanon, and among the Palestinians are used for this purpose. Most recently this pattern has been extended to Yemen. Some are pure assets, others client groups with a measure of independence.

While itself not an Islamist regime, Syria has understandably calculated that the Islamist side serves its interests very well. Thus, the idea that Syria can easily be pulled away from its alliance with Iran, and backing for Islamist groups like Hamas and Hizballah is a fantasy.

It is quite true that al-Qa’ida has shown that Islamist groups don’t have to be state-backed, but the fact is that many of them still are able to operate because there is a regime behind them.


Like Communist movements in the past, Islamist movements use a wide variety of strategies and tactics. The use of a non-violent tactic–like participation in elections–does not indicate that the group has ceased to be revolutionary. Actually, it is tough pressure by the regime that might force the Islamist leadership to postpone revolutionary activity to the distant future (Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood), repress it altogether (Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood), or get it tied up in electoral knots (Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood).

On the other hand, it is no accident that the most militant Islamist groups have flourished where government is weakest: Hizballah, Hamas, and the Iraqi insurgents.

As for terrorism, this is a strategy and tactic that appeals to these movements for very specific reasons. These include the following points. While the Islamists claim they are only conducting a “defensive jihad”–since there is no caliph, offensive jihad isn’t supposed to happen–they are actually conducting offensive revolution.

The ideas that America is being attacked because jihadists dislike its freedom or that it is being targeted because of its policies are both partly true. Yet precisely the same point could be made about Communism, Nazism, and Japanese imperialism. The problem of American culture and freedom, however, does not relate to what goes on in the United States but the fear that this model will spread inevitably to their own societies.

The complaint about U.S. policy is related to the fact that America is seen as a protector of the regimes the Islamists want to overthrow. The motive here is not that these regimes are tyrannical, but that they are not Islamist. Lebanon and Turkey, the most democratic states in the Muslim-majority Middle East, have especially strong Islamist movements.

Another reason for targeting the United States or others in the West is that killing infidels is popular among the Islamist constituency as a sign of power to defeat the stronger West. The alternative is to focus terrorist attacks on the local governments. However, killing fellow Muslims is less popular and the governments strike back with ferocious repression, while they are more likely to tolerate movements that only attack non-Muslims at home or abroad.

Why is terrorism used as a method in this context?

–It expresses the total and dehumanizing hatred Islamists have toward their enemies.

–It shows their disinterest in any compromise since the use of terrorism will dissuade their enemies from making deals.

–They believe that intimidation works and the history of terrorism shows they are not wrong in doing so.

–Terror, at least against non-Muslims, generally pleases their constituency and thus strengthens their base of support.

–This tactic fits with certain Islamic beliefs and texts while well-known clerics do not condemn terrorism–at least against non-Muslims–strongly, explicitly, and consistently.

It is tempting to say that terrorism is a tactic of last resort when repressive regimes permit no other route. However, in most–though not all–cases, terrorism is used against the less tyrannical societies for a simple reason: The truly repressive ones quickly kill the terrorists. To cite just one example of how a tough regime deals with this problem, when Egypt was fighting an Islamist terrorist insurgency in the 1990s, the government persuaded wanted men to turn themselves in by the expedient of throwing their parents into jail.

Finally, and of the greatest importance, the reason for terrorism in the contemporary world is not due to poverty, to U.S. or Western policies, or to hatred of Western freedoms. Terrorism in and from the Middle East exists because revolutionary Islamist movements are seeking to seize state power in a score of countries, and some of them think that terrorism will be a productive strategy in achieving that goal.


Neither greater democracy nor prosperity provide simple solutions to the Islamist challenge. Many Islamist leaders and cadre come from well-off families. They are driven by ideological, cultural, and religious factors just as left-wing students in the West seek utopian transformations of society. Equally, they are not driven by antagonism to tyranny since their goal is to establish a new, worse tyranny. Both the Nazis and Communists came to power by overthrowing democratic regimes, in part through elections. With Islamism’s strength, the problem is not the lack of democracy by the rulers but the lack of a strong democratic movement to compete with it.

In every Arabic-speaking country, Islamist groups now constitute the main opposition. The governments in Egypt and Jordan, recognizing the need to avoid a higher level of confrontation, allow large Muslim Brotherhood groups to operate in practice (though the Brotherhood is still formally illegal in Egypt), run in elections, and even win some seats. The elections are, however, fixed to ensure that the Brotherhood never wins. Moreover, there are periodic arrests to show the Islamists who is in power and to keep them within certain limits. This is also the situation with the local Islamists in Morocco, Kuwait (where there is relatively little repression), and several other countries.

None of these governments is really democratic and none of them show a strong effort to help the poorest and address grievances. Yet would a drastic change in these policies really greatly enhance stability or is this a result that Western observers mistakenly project on the basis of their own societies and moral preferences?

The Islamist movements will only be defeated by the destruction of violent groups as well as a widespread perception among Muslims that they either cannot take power or are a disaster as rulers.

Better government and higher living standards in their own countries would help to some extent in some countries. Aside from not overestimating this factor, it should be added that the West has no way to make these things happen by overthrowing and replacing regimes (as Iraq and Afghanistan show), by changing its own policies, or by pressuring the incumbent regimes to change.

*Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The The Muslim Brotherhood: The Organization and Policies of a Global Islamist Movement (Palgrave Macmillan), Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

Behind the Axis: The North Korean Connection

From Gloria-Centre.Org

Behind the Axis: The North Korean Connection

May 29, 2010

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North Korean spokesmen reacted furiously last week to claims by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that Pyongyang is supplying weapons technology to Iran and Syria. Representatives of the regime of Kim Jong-Il described Lieberman as an “imbecile.” The official Korean Central News Agency in a memorable phrase accused the foreign minister in an official statement of “faking up sheer lies.”

The indignant denials notwithstanding, recent studies indicate that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially known, is indeed playing a crucial but little remarked upon role in facilitating the arming of the Iran-led regional axis, including in the area of weapons of mass destruction. The North Korean role is multifaceted, and evidence has emerged of direct links to terror organizations such as Hizbullah and extensive strategic relations with both Iran and Syria.

A recent study by Christina Lin, a former US Department Defense official and specialist on China, looked into North Korea’s strategic partnership with Iran. Lin noted that North Korea has been described as the “the most important single leak” in the international anti-proliferation effort in the Middle East.

Iranian-North Korean strategic cooperation dates back to the first days of the Islamic Republic. Its basis is clear. Iran needs access to advanced military technology to underwrite its regional ambitions. Its main suppliers are Russia and China. But both these countries are active members of the international system, and hence are to some degree constrained by international pressures. North Korea, on the other hand, is an isolated country, indifferent to Western attempts to control the access of Middle East radicals to advanced armaments.

North Korean assistance plays a vital role in the Iranian missile program. Its flagship Shihab missile project is a product of the relationship. The Shihab is based on North Korea’s Nodong missile series. Iran is reported to have purchased 12 Nodong missile engines from North Korea in 1999, beginning the development of the Shihab-3. The Shihab-3, which has a range of 1,300-1,500 kilometers, places Israel within range.

More recently, Iranian officials were present at the testing of the advanced Taepodong-2 missile in North Korea in July 2006. This missile is the basis for the Iranian development of the Shihab-6, which has not yet been tested. These are intercontinental, nuclear capable ballistic missile systems, thought to have a range of 5,000-6,000 kilometers.

One report has also suggested that Iran and North Korea are jointly seeking to develop a reentry vehicle for the Nodong/Shihab-3, which would be intended to carry a nuclear warhead.

In addition, an Iranian opposition report in 2008 identified the presence of North Korean experts at a facility near Teheran engaged in attempts to develop a nuclear warhead to be placed on intermediate range ballistic missiles such as the Shihab-3 and the Nodong. The report was cited by Agence France Presse.

The North Korean strategic link with Iran is not limited to Teheran. Rather, evidence suggests that it extends to cooperation with other, more junior members of the Iran-led regional alliance. Thus, Iranian defector Ali Reza Asghari is reported to have confirmed that Iran helped finance the participation of North Korean personnel in the Syrian plutonium reactor at al-Kibar destroyed by Israel in September 2007. Iranian scientists were also present at the site, the goal of which was to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Three North Korean scientists were reported to have been among the dead following an explosion at a Syrian chemical weapons facility near Aleppo in July 2007, suggesting North Korean involvement in other areas of the WMD endeavors of Iran and its allies.

And one must not forget also the extensive evidence which has emerged to suggest a North Korean role in the construction of the Hizbullah underground tunnel network which played a vital role in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. The network, according to the Intelligence Online Web site, was created by Hizbullah militants trained in the construction of underground facilities by North Korean experts. The tunnels in Lebanon are said to bear a striking resemblance to similar facilities discovered by the South Koreans in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.

So despite North Korean official anger at Lieberman’s remarks, the evidence is well-documented and overwhelming. Pyongyang is a vital factor in the arming of the Iran-led strategic axis in the Middle East.

But why is North Korea playing this role? There is, after all, little ideological common ground between the Shi’ite Islamists in Teheran and Baalbek and the servants of the bizarre “Juche” philosophy used by Kim Jong-il to justify his dictatorship.

The factors underpinning North Korean support for Iran and its allies are as simple as they are powerful: common enemies and hard cash. As a known rogue WMD proliferator, and as perhaps the most repressive regime currently on the planet, North Korea faces diplomatic and economic isolation. Like Iran, it is the subject of UN Security Council sanctions because of its nuclear program. Iran is prepared to pay good money for military and scientific assistance, and to underwrite Pyongyang’s own research and development programs, from which it stands to benefit. North Korea and Iran play a similar role in their respective regions of opposition and subversion toward the US and its allies. A cynic might add that the tendency of both regimes to indulge in the faking up of sheer lies is a further point of commonality between them.

These firm foundations mean that – short of action taken to disturb it – the friendship between the Kim Jong-il dictatorship in North Korea and the Iran-led “resistance bloc” in the Middle East is likely to flourish and continue to mutually benefit both partners in the years ahead.

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel