Middle East Ticker

Saudi Women Granted New Rights, Kurdistan Under Pressure after Referendum, Egypt Targets Dissidents and Minorities

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, October 3, 2017, 9:30 AM

Saudi Women Granted Right to Drive

Saudi Arabia’s notorious restrictions on women’s rights will get a bit less onerous. The government announced last Tuesday that, starting in June, it would begin allowing women to drive. The decision will allow more women to participate in the Saudi workforce and will grant greater freedom of movement to women, who previously needed male relatives or hired drivers to travel. Saudi women have protested the ban since 1990, but there is still little room for activism in Saudi Arabia. Reuters reports that at least 25 women’s rights advocates in the kingdom received calls before the announcement telling them not to comment on the lifting of the ban or else they would face possible legal action.

The latest flurry of reforms has the hallmarks of the modernizing agenda pushed by Mohammed bin Salman ... but also follows the introduction of women’s suffrage in municipal elections in 2015.

The royal decree was reportedly made with the support of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Religious Scholars, but it is certain to rankle many of the country’s religious conservatives—especially because it is just one of several reforms. Last week, the Saudi Shura Council also ruled that women will be allowed to issue religious fatwas, and the government said it is working on an overdue law to criminalize sexual harassment. On Monday, Radio Sawa reporter Zaid Benjamin tweeted that Saudi television was broadcasting a music concert, an old performance by legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum, for the first time since the 1980s. The latest flurry of reforms has the hallmarks of the modernizing agenda pushed by Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the young crown prince, but also follows the introduction of women’s suffrage in municipal elections in 2015.

These are positive steps, but it also coincides with a recent crackdown on political dissent. The monarchy has been eager to silence criticism since reshuffling the royal family’s order of succession. MBS’ signature issues—his assertive foreign policy and campaign to overhaul the Saudi economy—are faltering. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen is facing a potential U.N.-backed investigation, and members of the U.S. Congress introduced legislation last week calling for the United States to withdraw its support for the campaign. On the eonomic front, the Saudi government issued $12.5 billion in bonds last week to compensate for low oil prices, and Reuters reported on Saturday that the economy has slipped back into a recession. Part of the issue is limited state spending to protect sectors outside the oil industry—those same sectors the government is trying to boost under the Saudi Vision 2030 plan. The Saudi government is reportedly planning to roll out a stimulus package by the end of the year, but Reuters notes that it is unclear how large it will be or how much it will be tempered by planned austerity measures.

 

Kurdistan’s Neighbors React to Referendum

As predicted, the results from the Kurdish independence referendum showed an overwhelming majority—more than 92 percent—of Iraqi Kurds support secession from Iraq. And while the voting didn’t draw violence the way the Catalonian referendum this past weekend did, other consequences are piling up. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has “demanded that Kurdish leaders annul their independence referendum, commit fully to Iraq’s constitutional unity and cease provocations in areas they have ‘illegally seized,’” Arab News reports. Sanctions are being prepared and Baghdad has demanded that Kurdish authorities hand over control of airports in Iraqi Kurdistan; after Kurdish officials refused to give up the airports, Baghdad cancelled flights to the contested areas.

Tensions are rising along the Kurdistan Regional Government’s borders as well, as Iraq’s neighbors rally to Baghdad’s side. Kurdish officials said Monday that Iran had deployed a dozen tanks to the border crossing at Parviz Khan, and Iraqi and Iranian troops conducted joint military drills in a show of force. Iran has also cut off fuel exports to Kurdistan since the vote last week.

Sistani could be more conciliatory than the alternative: a three-way summit organized by Turkey, Iran, and Iraq...

If there’s a reason for optimism, it’s the possibility of a mediated solution. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most prestigious Shia religious authority in Iraq, has offered to facilitate diplomacy between Kurdish officials and the government in Baghdad, and on Sunday, Kurdish representatives threw their support behind the ayatollah’s offer. “The initiative made by the Grand Ayatollah to return to dialogue corresponds completely to our opinion, which is dialogue as the only way to resolve the outstanding problems and questions,” Kurdish officials said in a statement. Sistani could be more conciliatory than the alternative: a three-way summit organized by Turkey, Iran, and Iraq to coordinate a joint response to the Kurdish referendum. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Iran tomorrow and is expected to discuss plans for the meeting then.

 

With Friends Like Egypt

Saudi Arabia isn’t the only U.S. partner that’s cracking down hard on dissent and minority groups these days. The Egyptian government is considering a proposal that would make it easier to revoke the citizenship of political dissidents. Under the pending legislation, Al-Monitor reports that the government could revoke the citizenship of individuals “convicted of a crime harming state security.” Rights advocates argue that the law is unconstitutional and say they fear it could be used to target a wide swath of critics. They have a strong point: Egypt’s assistant interior minister has already suggested that it could pave the way to revoking the citizenship of former President Mohammed Morsi. “There is a lot of very well-grounded fear that the government will use such a law as a way of really stamping out the last little breaths of dissent and opposition,” the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Amy Hawthorne told Foreign Policy.

Rights advocates argue that the law is unconstitutional and say they fear it could be used to target a wide swath of critics.

Egyptian authorities have also arrested at least 11 gay men over the past couple weeks. The crackdown started after fans of the Lebanese rock band Mashrou' Leila raised a gay pride flag at a concert in Cairo on September 22. (Hamed Sinno, the lead singer of the band, has spoken frankly about his sexual orientation, which has previously caused controversy when they have toured in Jordan. Some outlets have reported that the band was banned from performing in Egypt after the concert last month.) Homosexuality is legal in Egypt, but authorities have targeted gay men with other laws, bringing charges of “promoting sexual deviancy” and “debauchery.” Amnesty International reports that the men arrested have been forced to undergo invasive and humiliating medical examinations that “amount to torture.” One of the men has been sentenced to six years in prison and 17 others went on trial on Sunday.

The Trump administration has been friendly with the Sisi regime in public—Sisi was one of the few foreign leaders Trump met with during the campaign this time last year. But one point of tension, first hinted at in an odd line in the readout of call between the two presidents in July, came to public attention last week when the Washington Post reported that Egypt was caught trying to purchase weapons from North Korea. According to the Post, U.S. intelligence tracked a cargo ship from North Korea to the Red Sea, at which point the United States informed Egypt, pushing Egyptian officials to intercept and search the ship. More than 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades, worth an estimated $23 million, were found stashed under a shipment of loose iron ore. It is now apparent that the weapons were bound for the Egyptian military, and the only thing that prevented them from taking possession of the shipment was the United States forcing Egypt’s hand. The incident reportedly influenced the U.S. decision earlier this year to withhold $300 million in aid to Egypt.