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Saudi Arabia Under the Lash

King Abdullah, tear off those veils!

12:00 AM, Oct 28, 2009 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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As most of the world has come to know, Saudi Arabia has many unique characteristics. These are not mere tourist attractions associated with date palms and camels. Rather, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world named after its "owners," the Al-Saud family. It is the only country in the world that bars women from driving on its public roads. It is also unique in its policies of cultural vandalism, dictated by the ultrafundamentalist state interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, and which have led to the concealment of its pre-Islamic architectural legacy as well as demolition of monuments from the early period of Islam.

But the Saudi realm is also unique in its system of crimes and punishments, which produces numerous unique mysteries. In the latest such example, a Saudi female journalist, Rosana Alyami, 22, was sentenced on Saturday, October 24, to be flogged 60 times by a sharia court in the commercial capital of Jeddah. Her alleged crime was extremely obscure: she was charged with nothing more than employment by the satellite-TV Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC). Although it also has Lebanese Christian backing, the biggest share in LBC is owned by Saudi prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who is justifiably viewed with repugnance by most Americans--he was the Saudi to whom Rudy Giuliani publically returned a $10 million dollar relief donation after 9/11, and is a donor to the radical Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). But Alwaleed has also publicly aligned himself with the makeshift campaign for reform launched by Saudi King Abdullah.

Two days after her penalty was announced, on Monday, October 26, Rosana Alyami was "pardoned," and the sentence of 60 lashes nullified, by King Abdullah. Yet other, no less curious events lurk behind this case. Alyami was threatened with corporal punishment, according to foreign media, because LBC, although Saudi-owned, allegedly lacked a license to broadcast inside the country. In September, LBC had to close its studios in Jeddah and Riyadh during a less-mysterious, if equally absurd case of Saudi "justice." In that affair, 32-year old Mazen Abdul Jawad, a divorced father from Jeddah and Royal Saudi Airlines sales employee, had discussed his prolific sex life in a July interview by the LBC talk show "Bold Red Line." Jawad was ordered early in October to undergo 1,000 lashes and five years' imprisonment for his candor. In addition, three of his friends were to be punished with two years in jail and 300 strokes of the lash. King Abdullah has left their case untouched.

The LBC cameraman who filmed the interview with Jawad was given two months behind bars. This suggests that the trial of Rosana Alyami, an LBC program producer who was not directly involved in the "sex braggart" episode of the program, as it came to be known in Arab media, was a further reprisal against LBC. Alyami had faced the prospect of 60 lashes stoically, declaring that she would not appeal the decision but adding that she was afraid a second trial would produce a harsher punishment.

All of which indicates to Saudi dissidents that the action against the woman journalist had more to do with steps towards reform of Saudi society than with the spectacle, shocking to the Wahhabi clerics who run the sharia courts, of a middle-aged man bragging about picking up women. LBC is affiliated with Alwaleed's media conglomerate, Rotana, which has tested the repressive "morals" regulations enforced by King Abdullah's half-brother, Crown Prince Nayef, Saudi deputy prime minister and interior minister, and the first Saudi royal to blame 9/11 on Israel. Rotana produced a comedy film, Manahi, which was shown to enthusiastic audiences in Jeddah, also in July, but the so-called Saudi "morals patrols" or mutawiyin, under the authority of Nayef, descended on the city, banned the film, and cancelled the Jeddah Film Festival. Cinema is prohibited in Saudi Arabia, in line with Wahhabi doctrine.

The Saudi kingdom increasingly reveals its internal contradictions, but they seldom have the public impact, or worldwide media coverage, of the opposition protests in Iran. As noted more than two years ago in THE WEEKLY STANDARD here, King Abdullah has tried to hold the "morals patrols" accountable for their wild, vigilante-like assaults on members of the public, and Saudi media have repeatedly proclaimed that the mutawiyin would receive training intended to ameliorate their tendencies toward sadism. Each time such measures are announced, Crown Prince Nayef pushes back, and the mutawiyin seem to emerge with more power and impunity than before.