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Showing posts from April, 2018

Astronomy: The outer frontier of MbS’ liberalization

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Credit: SPA
By James M. Dorsey
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s investment of $1 billion and option to pump a further $480 million into Richard Branson’s ventures in space, confirmed during the prince’s recent visit to the United States, was more than just another headline-grabbing move.
By focusing on space sciences, long a field rejected by ultra-conservative Islamic scholars, some of whom insist that the earth is flat, Prince Mohammed was setting the outer limits of his top-down redefinition of Saudi Arabia’s austere interpretation of Islam.
In doing so, Prince Mohammed was seeking to end the dampening effect Islamic scholars have had on the kingdom’s technological and scientific development for both civilian and military purposes.
As recently as 2014, a Saudi astronomer complained that the kingdom’s “general culture,” a reference to religious ultra-conservatism, had resulted in a “lack” of teaching and study of astronomy.
Islamic scholars rejected astronomy as contradict…

Geopolitics magnify sustained political violence in Balochistan

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More than 60 cadets were killed in 2016 attack on Quetta police academy / Credit: Dawn
By James M. Dorsey
Twin attacks earlier this week on Pakistani security forces in the troubled province of Balochistan cast a light on a sustained and violent campaign against police and paramilitary units as well as Shiite and Christian minorities.
The attacks by groups, some of which have had links to Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence apparatus as well as Saudi Arabia, spotlight the Pakistani state’s inability to implement a coherent security policy that makes a clean break with the employ of militants as proxies.
They also raise questions about security in a part of Pakistan that is core to the development of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a China-funded, $50 billion plus infrastructure and energy programme that constitutes a crown jewel in the People’s Republic’s Belt and Road initiative and its single largest project.
Finally, the attacks in which Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an…

Algerian controversy over Salafism puts government control of religion on the spot

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By James M. Dorsey
A controversy in Algeria over the growing popularity of Saudi-inspired Salafi scholars spotlights the risk governments run in a region in which they strive to control religion in a bid to counter militant strands of Islam, often by touting apolitical, ultra-conservative trends.  These efforts are proving difficult to contain within the limits of the government’s agenda.
The controversy over Saudi support of Salafi scholars highlights how state control, frequently exercised through degrees of micro-management of weekly Friday prayer sermons, and/or putting clerics on the government payroll as well as supervision of mosques and school textbooks, often backfires.  For one, the credibility of government-sponsored Islamic scholars is undermined as they become increasingly viewed as functionaries and parrots of regimes.
It also thrusts into the limelight the slippery slope on which governments play politics with conservative and ultra-conservative religion for opportunis…

Saudi engagement in Iraq: The exception that confirms the rule?

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By James M. Dorsey
Stepped up Saudi efforts to forge close diplomatic, economic and cultural ties to Shia-majority Iraq in a bid to counter significant Iranian influence in the country appear to be paying off. The Saudi initiative demonstrates the kingdom’s ability to engage rather than exclusively pursue a muscular, assertive and confrontational policy towards the Islamic republic and its perceived allies. It raises the question whether it is a one-off or could become a model for Saudi policy elsewhere in the region.
The kingdom’s recent, far more sophisticated approach to Iraq is testimony to the fact that its multi-billion dollar, decades-long support for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that at times involved funding of both violent and non-violent militants had failed in Iraq. It constitutes recognition that Saudi Arabia’s absence effectively gave Iran a free reign.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Iraqi charm offensive amounts to a far more concerted and successful effo…

The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism in the Era of MbS – an Update

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by James M. Dorsey
There has long been debate about the longevity of the Saudi ruling family. One major reason for doubts about the Al Sauds’ viability was the Faustian bargain they made with the Wahhabis, proponents of a puritan, intolerant, discriminatory, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam.
It was a bargain that has produced the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history. Estimates of Saudi spending on the funding of ultra-conservative Muslim cultural institutions across the globe and the forging of close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim leaders and intelligence agencies in various Muslim nations that have bought into significant, geopolitical elements of the Wahhabi worldview are ballpark. With no accurate date available, they range from $75 to $100 billion.
It was a campaign that frequently tallied nicely with the kingdom’s deep-seated anti-communism, its hostility to post-1979 Iran, and the West’s Cold War view of Islam as a useful tool against Arab national…

Rolling back militancy: Bangladesh looks to Saudi in a twist of irony

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By James M. Dorsey
Bangladesh, in a twist of irony, is looking to Saudi Arabia to fund a $ 1 billion plan to build hundreds of mosques and religious centres to counter militant Islam that for much of the past decade traced its roots to ultra-conservative strands of the faith promoted by a multi-billion dollar Saudi campaign.
The Bangladeshi plan constitutes the first effort by a Muslim country to enlist the kingdom whose crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined form of ‘moderate Islam,’ in reverse engineering.
The plan would attempt to roll back the fallout of Saudi Arabia’s global investment of up to $100 billion over a period of four decades in support of ultra-conservative mosques, religious centres, and groups as an antidote to post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal.
Cooperation with Saudi Arabia and various countries, including Malaysia, has focused until now on countering extremism in cooperation with defense and security authorities rat…