by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 9, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1443)
There is seldom any good news from Saudi Arabia but last month was particularly grim. Two news items caused deep concern among committed Muslims worldwide.
First, on October 16, it was reported that the prominent sheikh and activist, Musa al-Qarni had “died” in Jeddah’s notorious Dhahban prison. The second news related to the launch of huge concerts in Jeddah on October 19 that will last until March 2022.
The two stories, both emanating from Jeddah, speak to the direction of regime policies. On the one hand, it claims to be moving toward “moderation”. It is a clear admission that the medieval kingdom’s enforcement of Wahhabi ritualistic strictures in the past did not sit well with most Saudis or Muslims worldwide.
Now, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, at least as far as social mores are concerned. From full body coverings for women and no mixing of sexes, the regime is allowing no body coverings and free mixing. Concerts where music and wild dance parties are becoming the norm, the message seems to be, let it all hang out.
On the other, dissidents, especially scholars continue to suffer torture in Saudi Arabia’s notorious prisons. There are thousands of political prisoners in Saudi jails. Given that there is no codified law in the country, the whim of the presiding judge based on his perception of what the ruler wants, passes for law. Sentences are handed down through caprice. They are often harsh and completely out of proportion with the alleged crime which may be no more than disagreeing, however mildly and politely, with the ruler’s policy.
Take the example of the regime’s sanctions policy against Qatar that was launched in June 2017 within weeks of former US president Donald Trump’s visit to the kingdom (May 2017). The regime’s de facto ruler, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) demanded that ulama condemn Qatar and issue statements supporting to siege. Sheikh Salman al Awdah instead, prayed for the reconciliation of the hearts of the people and rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This landed him in prison in September 2017 with prosecutors demanding the death penalty. Sheikh al-Awdah continues to languish in prison although in January 2021, the Qatari emir was invited to the kingdom and MbS kissed and made up with him.
The circumstances of Sheikh Qarni’s death are particularly troubling. His family was barred from visiting him for more than a month. The UK-based Saudi rights group ALQST said on its Twitter account that he “was subjected to brutal torture, and the Saudi authorities deliberately harmed him by giving him unsuitable medication.”
Another report said Sheikh Qarni was beaten to death by takfiris. Adel al-Subhi, director of Dhahban prison, deliberately put him in the section with the takfiris whose propensity for violence is well known. The medical report about the sheikh’s death said he had severe injuries on his face and head.
Sanad Organization for Human Rights, which monitors human rights violations inside the kingdom, said on October 12 that Sheikh Qarni, 66, had died in the notorious Dhahban Prison. The rights group further revealed that he had died on October 9 but the authorities did not inform them of his death until October 12. The regime buried the sheikh’s body without allowing his family to see it, clearly indicating it was hiding something.
Arrested in February 2007 in Jeddah along with a number of other activists, Sheikh Qarni was accused of ‘disobeying’ the Saudi king and plotting to oust the regime. Together with his colleagues, he was brought before the Specialized Criminal Court in 2011 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Another accused, Saud al-Hashimi, was sentenced to 30 years in prison, allegedly for being the ‘ring leader’. He remains in prison, suffering mistreatment and lack of proper medication, clearly putting his life at risk. Fourteen others were sentenced to between five and 25 years.
The torture and killings of scholars goes on unabated as the regime diverts people’s attention through concerts and dance parties. The message is clear: indulge in the pleasure of the flesh but do not open your mouth about what the rulers are doing. In this, the Bedouins from Nejd are competing with their Emirati cousins. Dubai is little more than a huge brothel, leaving behind such dens of vice as Paris, London and Rome.
The Saudis call their U-turn from Wahhabi literalism to vulgarity as the new ‘moderate policy’. On October 20, a massive concert was launched in Jeddah which English Al Arabiya proudly announced was attended by ‘750,000 people’. Speaking before the opening parade, Chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority Turki Al al-Sheikh said, “In the first season, our motto was ‘Imagine’ and in the second season our motto is ‘Imagine more’.” So, there you have it.
Let us get the context right. Jeddah is a mere 50 miles from Makkah, that houses the holiest site and masjid in Islam: the Ka‘aba in al-Masjid al Haram (the Sacred Sanctuary). Millions of Muslims perform the Hajj and Umrah every year although for two seasons (2020 and 2021) Hajj was restricted to locals only because of the pandemic. Allah has forbidden every kind of lewd conduct, altercation or fighting in Makkah (22:43?). Yet within ear-shot of the most sacred place for Muslims on earth, concerts with ear-shattering music are organized in which every kind of vulgarity is allowed.
Saudi Arabia launched its concerts in 2019 and since then, they have grown in size as well as the number of artists invited to perform. In July 2021, multiple Arab artists participated in the Jeddah Summer Concerts. They included Mohamad Abdo, Egyptian singer Amr Diab, Lebanese singer Yara, Nancy Ajram, Assi El Helani, Mohammad Hamaki, Angham, Tamer Ashur, Mohamed El Sharnouby and Syrian singer, George Wassouf.
The participation of Syrian singer raised some eyebrows. For more than 10 years, the Saudis in conjunction with other conspiratorial regimes have been trying to overthrow the government of Bashar al Asad. They also cut off diplomatic ties with Damascus yet inviting Syrian singers to concerts is no bar to their political shenanigans.
The just-launched series of concerts will go on till March 2022. Justin Bieber is expected to appear in one of the concerts on December 5 and 6, 2021 in Jeddah.
Welcome to the “moderate” Saudi kingdom where vulgarity is promoted next to the most sacred place in Islam, while ulama and scholars are tortured to death!