New Canadian Media
Wednesday, 27 September 2017 21:29

Saudi Arabia, Modernity and Counter Terrorism

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Three cheers for Saudi Arabia!  The conservative Kingdom has ruled that women can now drive and no longer need to be accompanied by a mahram (essentially a male guardian) when they are in a car. Many are celebrating this decision although some conservative killjoys have accused the government of ‘bending the rules of Sharia’.  Some have joked that the country has finally joined the 20th century. 

That quip is actually more accurate than might appear at first reading. In many ways – socially, religiously, ideologically – Saudi is stuck not in the 20th century but in the 18th century, and, truth be told, in the seventh century.  The 18th century is a reference to the pact made between the up and coming Al Saud family and a bunch of ultra-conservative clerics headed by Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab whereby the Al Sauds took care of people’s economic and political well-being while the ‘Wahhabis’ looked after their souls. 

By that, I mean, they imposed an austere, joyless interpretation of Islam that they claimed was void of what they saw as all the alterations and aberrations that had entered into the faith since the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the early to mid-600’s.  Wahhabi Islam is rejected by the vast majority of the world’s Muslims and would have remained an insignificant blip on the international stage had it not been for the 1970's oil crisis and the gazillions of dollars that flowed into Saudi coffers, only to be redirected worldwide in the spread – through mosques and schools – of this hateful and intolerant version of Islam.  

There really is no other way to look at Saudi Islam and it is undeniable that the vitriol inherent in Wahhabism is directly responsible for a huge part of the ideology that became Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

So what are the Saudis doing about all this? After all, the Kingdom has suffered from jihadi attacks itself and one would think that the regime does not want or like to be tainted with any association with a violent bunch of terrorists. It is an open debate, though, whether Saudi Arabia really cares what outsiders think in light of its massive wealth and still rather closed society.  Here the news is both good and bad.

On the good side, the government has been cracking down on ‘preachers of hate’ and dismantling their ability to spread their message.  Many have also been arrested and Saudi security forces have successfully foiled many terrorist plots.  The ‘reform’ programme – and I use the term loosely – of King Salman and, probably more importantly, his son and second-in-line for the throne Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is ambitious in scope and must be seen as a move in the right direction. Whether it actually achieves much and how the Wahhabi clerics react to it will bear watching.

The decision to allow women to drive should be seen through this prism.

On the other hand, Wahhabi influence is still growing in places like South Asia and Southeast Asia, as clerics continue to influence the locals, including children in madrassas and pesantren (what they call madrassas in Indonesia).  Saudi economic weight is clearly playing a role here as the Kingdom can offer education and religious instruction to countries where there simply isn’t enough room in the budget to do so.

Saudi Arabia is also incontrovertibly involved in massive human rights violations in Yemen, where it has been mired for years in a civil war that it tries to paint as a necessary struggle to prevent Iranian (read: Shia) infiltration into the Arabian Peninsula. The Gulf kingdom is trying to quash attempts to have independent, neutral observers carry out investigations in Yemen to determine the scale of suffering and point fingers at those responsible for it. 

Speaking of the Shia, Saudi police and the military continue to mount ‘counter terrorism’ operations in the country’s Shia-dominant eastern provinces. While there certainly are violent extremists in the region, a lot of the violence is state-imposed and driven by the Wahhabi belief that the only good Shiite is a dead one.

It is thus a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to Saudi Arabia and terrorism. The Kingdom talks the talk and is involved in some worthwhile national, regional (not Yemen) and international counter-terrorism initiatives. But, as long as Wahhabi Islam is the dominant form of Islam practised in the country and spread through Saudi ‘benevolence’ worldwide, that nation must be seen as both part of the solution and a big part of the problem.

What then do we in the West do?  The unfortunate answer, for the time being, is ‘not much’.  We cannot ignore Saudi Arabia, we cannot tell it what to do, we cannot isolate it and we cannot pretend that it is not behind the contagion of hateful Islamic teachings. In other words, we are damned if we do nothing and damned if we do something (if anyone has a better idea please e-mail me).

Last week, I was a guest lecturer in a graduate course on terrorism offered by my friend Thomas Juneau at the University of Ottawa. The class was discussing the nature of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and the consensus seemed to be that Washington has no choice but to guarantee the Kingdom’s existence and remain a close ally because all the alternatives are worse (if Saudi Arabia decides to move closer to Russia or China, going in an even more radical direction, etc.). 

That is what has been termed Sophie’s Choice – where either decision is unbearable.  And that is seldom a good place to find oneself. 

Phil Gurski has worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). His latest book The Lesser Jihads is now available online and in bookstores. 

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

My late mother had a lot of great advice for me, much of which I followed and much of which has helped me immensely in life.  One maxim that she shared with me has been ignored however.  That would be the time she said it is a good idea never to engage in conversation on religion or politics, as both topics tend to lead to argument and acrimony.

Sorry mom, that one I have ignored in my career as an intelligence analyst and my post civil service activities as an author and public speaker.

Religion is obviously a sensitive issue and one that many people take seriously to heart.  As a matter of faith and not fact, it is hard to speak objectively and dispassionately about religion and easy to offend and insult the deeply-held feelings of believers and practitioners.  Furthermore, there are often significant differences within a given creed: how can we expect to gain agreement as holders of different religions when those who on the surface subscribe to the same fundamental convictions cannot?

The 'true' interpretation of Islam

One thing is certain: there is no monopoly on what is the 'true' interpretation of Islam.  There are several reasons for this.  First, it should surprise no one that a faith that is over 1,400 years old has spawned different views.  Second, as a global religion Islam has been and is practiced by billions of people from different cultures, histories, language families and experiences.  Furthermore, over a millennium and a half a few dominant sects have arisen: the majority Sunnis, the minority Shia, and a few others (Sufis, Ahmadis, Ibadis, etc.), each of which with their own traditions.

When it comes to the link between religion and terrorism no faith dominates the headlines like Islam.  Opinions on the role Islam plays in violent extremism range widely from 'Islam is a religion of peace' to 'Islam is inherently violent'.  As with most things in life the truth is somewhere between the extremes.

At the risk of gross oversimplification one particular brand of Islam has become very problematic.  That brand goes by several names – Salafi, Wahhabi (the latter is a subset of the former) – and one state in particular has been very active over the past few decades in exporting this ultraconservative, intolerant and hateful version around the world: Saudi Arabia.  Countries with long moderate traditions – Bosnia, India, West African nations, and Indonesia among others – have seen their citizens enveloped by a faith that is foreign to their lands.  There is a very real connection between Salafist Islam and violent extremism: no, one cannot be reduced to the other but there is a link.

Making a change

Thankfully, at least one nation is hitting back. The youth wing of the Indonesian group Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic mass movement on the planet, is seeking to re-interpret Muslim laws and practices from the Middle Ages to have them better conform to the 21st century.  This move should be welcomed and supported.

NU has a tough road ahead of it. The Saudis and their allies have a decades'-long head start and oodles of cash.  Nevertheless, this is indeed good news. 

There is a battle for the soul of Islam and we should all hope and pray that the majority moderates (i.e. normative Islam) comes out on top.  The further marginalisation of Salafi jihadism will suck some (but not all) of the oxygen from the terrorists and perhaps lead to better relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.  Besides, I think we can all agree that seeing less of the self-styled yet clownish preachers of hate like the UK's Anjem Choudhury on our screens and tablets will be a very nice change indeed.

I wish the Indonesian efforts every success.  The world certainly needs less hate.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at 

Published in Commentary

by Melissa Shaw in Vancouver 

The latest instalment of the Institute of Ismaili Studies’ Muslim Heritage Series aims to provide a deeper understanding of Shia Islam, the Muslim religion’s second-largest community. 

About 100 people gathered at the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, B.C., for the launch of the series’ fourth volume, The Shi'i World: Pathways in Tradition and Modernity. 

Simon Fraser University (SFU) Department of History professor Derryl MacLean said the essay collection explores the memory of tradition, present influences, and implications for the future. 

Dr. Bashir Jiwani, honourary secretary for the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for Canada said the book helps fill a knowledge gap. 

“[The book aims] to enliven the idea of Shia Islam in particular and the multiplicity of ways in which it is expressed,” Jiwani said. 

Reinventing old traditions 

The Shi'i World's cover features a painting depicting a music lesson from a Persian book of philosophical ethics, the Akhlaq-i Nasiri. One of the book’s co-editors, Dr. Amyn B. Sajoo, said this image was chosen because religion and culture are entwined. 

Sajoo said the observance of Ashura, a day of mourning for the murder of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Husayn during the Battle of Karbala in the seventh century, is an example of how culture can be linked to religious expression. 

“[The book aims] to enliven the idea of Shia Islam in particular and the multiplicity of ways in which it is expressed.”

Caribbean Muslims have a culture of celebration and observe Ashura through private recollection followed by a party involving Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians and atheists. In parts of Europe and North America, Shia Muslims commemorate the martyrdom through a blood drive, he said. 

MacLean introduced Pomona College religious studies professor Zayn Kassam's essay, “Remembering Fatima and Zainab”, as an example of Shia identity linked to memory. 

Sajoo said after Saddam Hussein's repression in Iraq, Iraqi women in Norway, Sweden and Denmark formed mourning circles, similar to the ceremonies held during Muharram to remember the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a relative of two female figures in Islam, Fatima and Zainab. 

“They imagine what Zainab must have felt when she lost her family at Karbala,” said Maclean. “So you are now going to empathize with her and then you will mourn what you lost in your country because of the dictator in Iraq.” 

Challenging stereotypes 

“We have to acknowledge that it's easy to box Iran as Shia and box Saudi Arabia as Sunni.”

In The Shi'i World, University of Edinburgh Persian and Film Studies professor Nacim Pak-Shiraz analyzes how religious themes challenge society through film. 

The 2001 film Baran tells the story of a girl who dresses as a boy to work on a construction site in Tehran. 

Pak-Shiraz argues that the scene where a boy accidentally sees the girl's long hair has the spiritual meaning of unveiling and accessing the individual behind the screen. Sajoo said the film is a comment on women's roles in Iranian society. 

He said another example is the 2004 Iranian film Marmoulak, which is a comedy about a prisoner pretending to be a priest who fools the guards into listening to his fabricated sermons. 

Sajoo said the film was banned in Iran a week after its release due to its “tough social commentary,” which contributed to its popularity amongst the Muslim diaspora. 

“[Globalization is] empowering the periphery. It doesn't work anymore to say the centre is Iran and Lebanon and so on, and everybody else is out there in the margins,” Sajoo said. 

According to a 2009 study from the Pew Research Centre, 10 to 15 per cent of the world’s total Muslim population are Shia Muslims, while 87 to 90 per cent are Sunni Muslims. Over 60 per cent of the global Muslim population lives in Asia and about 20 per cent live in the Middle East and North Africa. 

SFU student Shazia Nanjijuma said events like the book launch engage with the history of Islam, addressing the knowledge gap and challenging people's assumptions and stereotypes about the faith. 

“We have to acknowledge that it's easy to box Iran as Shia and box Saudi Arabia as Sunni,” said Nanjijuma. “That makes it easy for us to kind of grapple with it, but the truth is there's so much more behind that.” 

Addressing centuries-old rifts 

Shias are a minority and should embrace “cosmopolitanism.”

Sajoo's essay in the book discusses the creation of Aligarh Muslim University in India. He said the community criticized a Shia imam, Aga Khan III, for advocating and fundraising for the creation of a university instead of a Shia college. 

“He was arguing, ‘Why don't you make the case for respecting pluralist Muslim identity within Aligarh?’” Sajoo said, adding that the Aga Khan expressed similar thoughts during his speech to Canadian Parliament in 2014. 

“What he was saying is, you are not more or less Canadian if you are a Muslim or Shia. That your Shia identity essentially has to be part of your Canadian identity and vice-versa.” 

Sajoo adds that Shias are a minority and should embrace “cosmopolitanism.” 

“It's a genuine acceptance of other people's ways, ethical ways, of looking at the world,” he said.

Editor's Note: This is an updated version of the story as the previous one contained factual errors. NCM regrets these errors and apologizes for any inconvenience.

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Published in Books
Saturday, 20 February 2016 16:31

Iraq is a Quagmire and Trudeau Knows It

Commentary by Firas Al-Atraqchi in Cairo, Egypt

Despite the partisan brouhaha and accusations of weakness and betrayal directed at the Liberal government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision last week to withdraw jet fighters from the international anti-ISIS coalition was the correct one. 

True, the Liberals may not have been particularly bright or assertive in how they sold the idea of the CF-18 pullout, but the facts on the ground support Trudeau. 

In fact, his decision was the sanest yet in a conflict that no longer makes sense. 

The coalition’s campaign of bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria has produced little. It has failed to significantly cripple ISIS’s military capacity or its ambitious recruitment drive. 

The extremist group not only still controls Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and much of the north and centre, but it has expanded into Libya and Afghanistan. 

Coalition airstrikes had even failed to fully dislodge ISIS fighters from all of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, until earlier this week. 

Then there’s the collateral damage. 

Coalition air raids have, as claimed by many Iraqi and Syrian civilians in the past 18 months, led to a number of civilian casualties 

That’s not exactly protecting civilians from ISIS, is it? 

Canada does not need to have blood on its hands, whether directly or by association. 

Canada does not need to have blood on its hands, whether directly or by association.

Other types of war brewing 

While the war for hearts and minds has not been particularly successful, there’s also the war of perceptions which rages in the Middle East and on social media. 

And the U.S.-led coalition appears to be losing that one, too. 

For more than a year, various Middle Eastern voices have accused the U.S.-led coalition of actually aiding ISIS 

On social media, various videos purport to show airdropped U.S.-made supplies falling into the hands of ISIS fighters. Whether these were seized from the Iraqi army or not is largely a moot point. 

Canada does not need the negative publicity that accompanies accusations of aiding ISIS. 

It’s also rather confusing. The U.S.-led coalition is comprised of predominantly Sunni states who are opposed to the Alawite (Shia) rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. 

Assad is supported by Iran. 

Iran is in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Yemen. 

Elements within these Sunni states are accused of supplying the Islamist rebels, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS, with weapons and funds – whether directly or not. 

And it could get messier. 

And it could get messier.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged to send up to 100,000 troops to remove Assad’s government. 

They already moved their air force assets to Incirlik air base in Turkey. 

Why does Canada want to get caught in the middle of a proxy sectarian war 

It doesn’t, but Canada cannot stand on the sidelines. 

A country with a tradition of humanitarian global assistance, Canada will up its efforts to host refugees and assist others left in the Middle East. 

In the meantime, it is boosting its military advisory role in Iraq, increasing the number of trainers and experts who will help the Iraqi army enhance its capabilities and reach from 69 to 207. 

Strengthening Iraq’s core 

By stating that airstrikes alone do not produce long-term stability, Trudeau is not only drawing on lessons from Canada’s moral experience in Afghanistan, but also correctly reading the situation on the ground. 

Iraq has been bombed, re-bombed and over-bombed more than any other country since World War II. 

The country has gone from bad to worse, sinking into a medieval state of disrepair. Despite shock and awe and tens of thousands of sorties – using the most advanced smart and dumb technology of warfare – the country has failed to stabilize. 

[Iraq] has gone from bad to worse, sinking into a medieval state of disrepair.

There are more than 60 organized, battle-hardened and fully-equipped militias operating beyond the scope of the government in Iraq.  

They have wreaked havoc throughout the country, adding to the sectarian tensions already about to burst. 

During the effort to liberate Anbar capital, Ramadi, three months ago, the Iraqi government – at least on the surface – appeared to acquiesce to Western pressures not to use these militias in the campaign. 

That these militias were heavily used 10 months earlier to liberate predominantly Sunni Tikrit is a testament to the weakening of the country’s centre; Baghdad has had a token fledgling national army since the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi military in 2003. 

Many see this as having been a mistake with deadly consequences, which ultimately led to the rise of sectarian militias that now dominate the landscape. 

By training Iraqi national forces, Canada will be strengthening the country’s core and signalling that the international community backs a united country led by the government in Baghdad.

Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Canadian journalist of Arab descent who has covered the Middle East since 1992. A former senior editor with Al Jazeera's English-language website, he currently teaches journalism at the American University of Cairo as an associate professor. He is a member of New Canadian Media's editorial advisory board. 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to


Published in Commentary

by Alireza Ahmadian in Vancouver 

In this piece, journalist Alireza Ahmadian discusses Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia with Cesar Jaramillo, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares, a non-governmental organization working in Canada and abroad to advocate for policy reform to prevent war and armed violence. 

The deal, valued at almost $15 billion, is the largest arms export contract in Canadian history and was awarded during the 2013-2014 fiscal year. It will see the shipment of an undisclosed number of light armoured vehicles, manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems, based in London, ON, to Saudi Arabia. 

Why should Canadians be concerned about an arms deal between their government and Saudi Arabia, a country that both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) say violates human rights? 

It is not just HRW and AI who condemn the abysmal human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Every authoritative organization in the world consistently ranks Saudi Arabia among the worst human rights violators [on] the planet. 

There is a widespread and well-documented pattern of violations of virtually every category of human rights in Saudi Arabia, so Canadians should definitely be concerned about the possibility that Canadian-made goods might be used to sustain a repressive regime and enable the further violation of human rights of civilians. 

What do we know about how Canadian arms are being used in Saudi Arabia? Are there any safeguards or ways of ensuring these weapons will not be used to violate human rights? 

We certainly know about the proclivity of the Saudi regime to systematically target civilians. In 2011, there were reports of Saudi forces using armoured vehicles, such as the ones Canada is set to ship to Saudi Arabia, to crush peaceful civilian protests in neighbouring Bahrain. 

The primary safeguard to ensure Canadian goods are not misused should be Canada’s own military export control policy, according to which the government must first determine that “there is no reasonable risk” that Canadian-made military goods might be [used] against civilians. 

Given what is widely known about the Saudi dire human rights record, it is hard to comprehend how there can be “no reasonable risk” of misuse. But so far the government has resisted calls to explain how the Saudi arms deal can be reconciled with the human rights safeguards of existing exports controls. 

"[W]hat’s to stop a country from selling weapons to ISIS or North Korea or organized criminals halfway around the world?"

Former foreign affairs minister, John Baird, also said that this deal has economic benefits for Canada. For instance, the arms deal supports “3,000 unionized workers in London, Ontario." What’s wrong with an arms deal that hires 3,000 Canadians? 

Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with job creation … However, we must recognize that this is a special case that merits special scrutiny. Valued at $15 billion, this is by far the largest military exports contract in Canadian history. And, as stated above, it is widely accepted that Saudi Arabia is a human rights pariah. 

So, while job creation is a legitimate pursuit of any government, in a case as egregious as this, we must assess as a society what is the real value we place on the protection of human rights. 

If economic gains are taken as the sole justification for arms exports authorizations, what’s to stop a country from selling weapons to ISIS or North Korea or organized criminals halfway around the world? 

The Harper government did not sign the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that seeks to regulate international arms trade and prevent military exports from fuelling armed conflict and human rights violations. Canada is the only country in North America, the only member of the G7 group of industrialized nations, and the only one of the 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that has not signed the treaty. 

It is worthwhile to note that countries such as Syria, Pakistan, North Korea and Saudi Arabia are also non-signatories. 

Do you think that signing this Treaty would address concerns over lack of transparency in Canada’s arms deals with other countries? How so? Do you think the new government will sign the treaty? 

Yes, I believe the new government will accede to the Arms Trade Treaty. It was an election pledge of Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau, and was a specific priority of foreign affairs minister [Stéphane] Dion’s mandate. This is a position to be welcomed and encouraged. 

The ATT entails increased expectations of transparency around arms deals and greater vigilance in regards to the end users of military exports. 

At the same time, Canada may find itself sending a mixed message about its willingness to live up to the ATT’s heightened expectations of transparency when legitimate concerns about the human rights implications of the Saudi arms deal remain unaddressed. 

It has been reported that in May 2015, Martin Zablocki, the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Commercial Corporation, the crown corporation that brokered the arms deal with Saudi Arabia, said that the Middle East is a “strategic region” for Canadian arms sales. How does this deal serve Canada’s strategic interests? What would you say to those who argue that other countries are selling arms to the Middle East? 

It is a strategic region from a purely business perspective, of course. It is no secret that the previous government made economic diplomacy a cornerstone of its foreign policy. In this context, the Canadian [Commercial] Corporation has acted as an active facilitator in the pursuit of these deals, not just as a passive intermediary. 

“Everyone else is doing it,” sounds like an argument void of any ethical considerations and undermines the credibility of Canada’s military export controls — which Ottawa calls “some of the strongest in the world.”  

The Canadian public has a right to know that the economic well-being at home is not being tied to the suppression of human rights elsewhere.

The Liberal government said that it would honour the arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Why do you think the Liberals decided to follow through with this deal even though they are trying to undo other aspects of the Conservative’s legacy? 

This deal would present a complex policy challenge for any party in power. There is a real confluence of economic, strategic and human rights dimensions that must be taken into consideration. But, again, Saudi Arabia isn’t a case of a handful of unconfirmed human rights violations. The human rights situation in the autocratic kingdom is absolutely abysmal. 

In a case where red flags are so apparent one would hope that the government would recognize, at a minimum, the need to publicly explain how this deal can be justified in light of existing export controls. 

The Canadian public has a right to know that the economic well-being at home is not being tied to the suppression of human rights elsewhere. 

How would you suggest the new government pursue future deals like this? 

There are specific human rights safeguards that are part of Canadian military export controls. Of course, however strong they might be on paper, they are only as effective when implemented. 

Beyond the need to abide by domestic and international regulations (including the Arms Trade Treaty, following accession) there is a need for greater transparency and oversight around the process by which arms exports authorizations are granted. 


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A row over the execution of a Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia is deepening sectarian tensions in the Middle East.

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Tuesday, 05 January 2016 21:49

Historic Election for Saudi Women

Commentary by Ghadah Alrasheed in Ottawa

This year was marked by important elections around the world. Here in Canada, the Liberals leaped to a majority government, bringing Stephen Harper’s decade of power to an end.

And last month, in Saudi Arabia, women voted for the first time in municipal elections, not long before the nation made international headlines for increased tensions with Iran.  

The 2015 municipal elections were the third in the history of the kingdom; previous elections were held in 2005 and 2011, and were open only to male voters and candidates. The polls for 2,100 seats at 284 municipal councils across Saudi Arabia ended with roughly 47.4 per cent voter turnout.

The most prominent feature of this year's elections was the presence of women as voters and as candidates.

Giving women a chance to vote may not only increase women’s participation, but also the wider society’s propensity to engage in politics.

A historic day for Saudi Arabia

Thousands of Saudi women headed to polling stations across the kingdom, from the largest urban centres to smallest rural areas, in order to give their voices.

Twenty women won seats in the Saudi councils, some in what are known to be the most conservative areas of the kingdom, such as Qassim.

Although the 20 candidates represent just one per cent of the total seats across the 284 councils, this is seen as a significant step for wider women’s suffrage and democracy in Saudi Arabia.

Out of 130,000 registered female voters, 82 per cent cast ballots in comparison to approximately 50 per cent on the male side. This reveals Saudi women’s determination to take opportunities to prove their presence and influence on the level of politics and civic participation.

An important step for women’s empowerment, it also has the potential to expand the democratic experience in general and affect citizens’ propensity to engage in politics.

Before the day of the election, for example, a Saudi woman made a video called “Banat Baladi” (“My Country’s Daughters”) that explained the significance and the process of the elections.

Giving women a chance to vote may not only increase women’s participation, but also the wider society’s propensity to engage in politics and awareness of citizen responsibility.

The decision to allow women to participate was made by the late King Abdullah, who also appointed 30 women in the Saudi Shura Council.

Under King Abdullah, women had been given bigger roles, such as sending more of them to universities – some of which are in Canada – and opening more opportunities for employment. Many hailed these steps as part of his legacy.

It is encouraging now to see King Salman fulfilling Abdullah’s commitment to integrate women into the political space, continuing his careful reform of women’s rights.

Saudi women took selfies after they voted.

Challenges to voting

This is not to suggest that the elections were without hurdles: reports of women facing difficulties surfaced.

Bureaucratic measures made providing proof of identity and address challenging. A conservative group distributed flyers renouncing women’s presence in the elections and asking voters to refrain from voting for women.

Other difficulties related to transportation, an issue that prompted Uber, in collaboration with a Saudi women’s empowerment group, to offer free rides to polling stations on election day.

Despite these challenges, many received the elections with celebration. Saudi women took selfies after they voted. Some voters brought their moms and others brought their kids, which made the elections a cross-generational event.

Saudi men and women rushed to the Twitter accounts of the women candidates to congratulate them on winning the elections.

Among the first elected was Rasha Hefzi, who received many congratulatory tweets. One tweet said, “You entered history.” Similarly, another applauded Hefzi’s “entrance into history” stating, “Congratulations to us, to Jeddah. How lucky we are!”

I believe women’s participation in the civic realm is a positive small space in terms of wider women’s participation and empowerment.

Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist, called the women’s elections a historic day for Saudi Arabia.

Canadian and international media also agreed it was a historic and symbolic victory for women in the kingdom.

A victory with substance?

But is it really a victory, taking into consideration the fact that the powers of the municipal councils are limited to local planning and development issues such as public parks and trash collection?

Regardless of the subject of the powers of the councils, I believe women’s participation in the civic realm is a positive small step in terms of wider women’s participation and empowerment.

It provides a healthy model for future generations and normalizes women’s presence on both the social and political levels.

It also reveals, in opposition to the dominant discourse centred on deep-seated cultural impediments to women’s participation in Saudi Arabia, that the Saudi society, like any other, is ready for change.

Ghadah Alrasheed was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She finished her bachelor’s degree at Princess Nora University, Riyadh. She has been in Canada for about 11 years and is currently doing a PhD in communication at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is a contributor to New Canadian Media and Saudi-based Al Hattlan Post and Sofaraa.


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Published in Commentary

Saudi actor Abdul Aziz Al Kassar

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NEW YORK: A Saudi actor, who lives in Kuwait, was arrested by the Saudi moral police from a Riyadh mall where he was found

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Gurgaon (IANS): A diplomat at the Saudi Arabia embassy in New Delhi has been booked for rape while his wife and daughter have been booked for torturing domestic helps in this Millennium City, Haryana Police said Tuesday. But the Saudi embassy, dismissing the charges as “completely false” and “contrary to facts in our possession”, said […]

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TORONTO: Saudi Arabia will go ahead with a sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years of imprisonment given to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi for `criticising’ Islam.

The country’s

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Poll Question

Do you agree with the new immigration levels for 2017?

Yes - 30.8%
No - 46.2%
Don't know - 23.1%
The voting for this poll has ended on: %05 %b %2016 - %21:%Dec

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Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Header Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Mainmenu Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Slider Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Scroller Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Mainframe Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Bottom Scroller Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Breadcrumb Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Bottom Menu Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image

Bottom Wrapper

Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image
Background Color
Modules Title
Text Color
Link Color
Background Image