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Saudi Arabia’s New Interior Minister and Old Wahhabi Habits

8:19 AM, Nov 28, 2012 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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In the last category, the Saudi female activist Manal Al-Sharif, best-known for leading a campaign against the Saudi-Wahhabi ban on women driving, sent out a tweet noted by the British website for Wired magazine. According to Al-Sharif, the Interior Ministry has introduced a “wife-tracker” system in which a “male guardian”—a spouse or other male relative still assigned to all Saudi women—would be electronically notified if a woman departed from the country. According to Wired, Al-Sharif learned “a wife travelling with her husband had watched as her spouse’s phone went off each time they crossed the border—she was listed as a dependent on his national identity card.”

The Saudi interior ministry denied the claim, “saying the system is not designed to connect women with their guardians.” But accounts of similar episodes circulated as tweets, indicating, as Wired commented, “a new high-tech age of freedom-curbing” by the Saudis.

High-tech monitoring of Saudi subjects is, unfortunately, not a new development. In February 2012, Hamza Kashgari, 23, a Saudi national of Uighur origin, whose parents had emigrated to the Wahhabi dominion from the Chinese-occupied region known as Xinjiang to the Beijing authorities and as Eastern Turkestan to its Turkic Muslim inhabitants, was arrested in Malaysia and deported to Saudi Arabia. He was charged with “blasphemous” tweets. As in other cases, the last heard about Kashgari was that he was jailed.

Manal Al-Sharif told British Wired the interior ministry denied the reality of the “wife-tracking“ scheme because “they are embarrassed.” Al-Sharif had been arrested for operating a motor vehicle in 2011. It is widely-known in Saudi Arabia that women drive cars and trucks in rural areas, away from the gaze of the so-called “religious police,” or mutawiyin, whose powers have been curbed by order of King Abdullah, to whom they report. A key event in the process by which the mutawiyin have seen their control over women’s activities diminished was the story of the “nail polish woman” who used her celphone to film a confrontation with the “morals patrols,” in which she rebuffed their demands that she leave a shopping mall.

As the keystone of his reform campaign, Saudi King Abdullah has created new educational opportunities for women and last year promised them the right to nominate and stand as candidates in municipal council elections scheduled for 2015. Abdullah followed up that decree with an order that women could participate in voting without the permission of a “male guardian.”

Manal Al-Sharif expressed hope that as interior minister, Muhammad Bin Nayef would bring new hope to Saudi women for removal of male-guardianship and other restrictive regulations. She said, “we’re hoping when he comes things will change. He’s reviewing some of the existing laws. We’re hoping we can go and meet him.”

But the electronic system to report the movements of women to their “guardians” has been established with Muhammad Bin Nayef at the head of the Interior Ministry. This suggests that Manal Al-Sharif’s optimism is misplaced. The struggle to normalize Saudi Arabia remains a slow, back-and-forth game in which each move by the protagonists of social modernization, including King Abdullah, who is an absolute ruler, is answered by examples of Wahhabi intransigence, in the royal family, the government and the official clergy.

Notwithstanding educational improvements and pledges of expanded rights, Saudi women, as numerous foreign commentators and human rights monitors have pointed out, must still defer to their “male guardian” for permission to get a job, open a bank account, study in a foreign country, get married or divorced, or be treated at a public hospital.

The Saudi monarchy and the public over which it rules have been fixated on the bloodshed in Syria, which has affected deeply all the Sunni Muslims. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime, backing Syrian mass killer Bashar Al-Assad, speculates that the transfer of the Interior Ministry from Prince Ahmed to Muhammad Bin Nayef contributes to instability at the highest levels of Saudi authority. Facing Tehran, King Abdullah can best unite his subjects by firm commitment to reform and rejection of new Wahhabi schemes for dominance over women.

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