The U.S. has seen its third case of the MERS virus this past month. Despite showing no symptoms, an Illinois man was diagnosed with the virus on May 2, his infection proving unique: he is the first person to have contracted the virus in the U.S., which is already prevalent in the Middle East.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already begun to issue public warnings regarding the virus and its prevention methods. Yet while CDC response team leader, Dr. David Swerdlow, sees no immediate threat as the disease has had “no sustained transmission” in the U.S. like other viruses such as the flu, MERS is proving to spread rapidly overseas. According to Reuters, about 30 percent of those infected with the virus have died.

While we still know little regarding the origin of the MERS virus, it is characterized as a “severe, acute viral respiratory illness caused by MERS-CoV, a beta coronavirus,” meaning that, according to the CDC, most people will at some point in their life contract the virus. Spread person-by-person, the illness — for which there is still no vaccine  — is on the rise, and while it has not yet been characterized by the CDC as a global health emergency, the virus is continuing to result in an increasing number of fatalities.

While cases of the virus have emerged in nations of varying degrees of wealth, including Egypt, the Netherlands and Jordan, by far the worst-hit country has been its originator, Saudi Arabia. Deaths in Saudi Arabia as a result of the MERS virus have hit a whopping 163 as of May 17. Yet while the country — known for its vast oil wealth and a relatively strong GDP placement compared to other nations  — may not be the most prime example of impoverishment, a startling 20 percent of the nation’s population is still, almost secretly, living in poverty. Crippled by impoverished conditions, the world’s poor may be among those most at risk of contracting the severe virus.

While the future for the virus is still relatively unknown, appropriate actions by the CDC are being put into place in order to ensure proper combativeness in case of a pandemic. Forced now to wait and see the true effects of the virus characterized as a “deadlier, less transmissible cousin of the SARS virus,” the CDC ensures that they are prepared for whatever the outcome.

– Nick Magnanti

Sources: CNN, Al Jazeera, TIME 1, Washington Post, Public News Service, AL, Boston, TIME 2
Photo: ICCS

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that forbids women from driving vehicles. The Interior Ministry, the head of the traffic police in Saudi Arabia, will not issue driver’s licenses to women. Although there is no formal traffic law that specifically prohibits female drivers, females will get arrested and punished by law enforcement for driving. This strict prohibition on female driving can be traced to Saudi Arabia’s cultural and religious identity.

In Saudi Arabia, a strict branch of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism establishes the laws and rules of the country. Wahhabism segregates males and females in both the private and the public spheres of life. It creates a system that forces women and girls into second-class citizenry confined to the domestic sphere. Females typically rely on the permission of their male guardians (fathers, brothers or husbands) for all activities that they participate in.

They have little independence and agency to make their own decisions and partake in events of their choosing. Professor Jaime Kucinskas at Indiana University argues, “the ideal of feminine piety is associated with home, the need for protection and subsequent seclusion. Driving symbolizes the opposite: freedom in the public sphere.”

Why is this ban on female driving significant? After all, supporters of the ban argue that banning women from driving can protect them from potential dangers on the road and from potential harassment and violence from other male drivers.

However, through this ban, Saudi women have their freedom of movement completely taken away. This ban is only one factor that contributes to the gender disparity in the country and is part of a larger system that makes Saudi Arabia one of the worst countries for women’s rights.

Prohibiting women from driving prevents them from acquiring jobs, contributing to public life and to the formal economy. It preserves women’s dependence upon males and perpetuates the Wahhabism ideal of

There have been some small, but meaningful victories in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. In 2011, Women2Drive started campaigning to overturn the ban by openly driving vehicles in Saudi Arabia. Women are now able to ride bicycles and motorcycles for recreation, but not as a mode of transportation. There is now female representation in the Shoura Council, an advisory body of Saudi Arabia.

Although women’s rights activists are campaigning to end the ban, their larger goal is to transform the social, religious, economic and political systems that oppress Saudi women. Saudi females are taught from a young age of their fragility and of their piousness. National laws and cultural norms prevent Saudi women from becoming empowered and having the freedom of movement and having the freedom to make their own decisions.

– Sarah Yan

Sources: Washington Post, Internations, The Atlantic
Photo: The Telegraph

U.S.-Saudi Relations
Amidst deteriorating popularity in the Middle East and the Arab world, United States President Barack plans to meet with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh next month. The March visit will be Obama’s first to the Saudi capital since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in late 2010 and early 2011.

The Obama administration’s support for Egypt’s overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power; this is in addition to other policy positions during the series of Arab Spring revolts and uprisings that contributed to the rift that formed in U.S.-Saudi relations.

The meeting with King Abdullah will follow Obama’s attendance at the third Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands, a summit meeting in Brussels and a discussion on income inequality with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The sequence of visits serves to highlight the President’s commitment to global security in a religiously charged world.

Discussion topics between President Obama and King Abdullah will inevitably concentrate on peace in the Middle East; the primary focus will be the conflict in Syria. The horrific civil war that began three years ago threatens security in the region as extremism grows an incubator of hopelessness and strife. If either country wishes to play a helpful role in the situation and not leave Syria to the bidding of Russia and Iran, both will need to acknowledge past mistakes and work together for an improved future.

In addition to improving U.S.-Saudi relations, analysts have speculated that the trip to Riyadh may have to do with the question of the Arab Israeli conflict. With Iran and Saudi Arabia competing for ultimate power in the region, Obama recognizes that Saudi Arabia maintains the potential to facilitate the Arab initiative for peace with Israel. By addressing King Abdullah’s stated commitment to Arab Israeli peace, Obama hopes to earn favor in the region for normalization with Israel.

The Arab world in recent years has experienced a surge of civil and political upheaval. Obama’s visit to Riyadh in March could create a reactionary current of improved leverage and relations throughout the region.

– Jaclyn Stutz

Sources: Huffington Post, Jerusalem Post, Washington Post
Photo: Outside the Beltway

Human rights activists across the globe continue to raise concerns about Saudi Arabia’s new counterterrorism law, which took effect on February 1st. Titled the ‘Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing,’ this new piece of legislation allows the kingdom to prosecute peaceful opposition activists as terrorists.

Previously, the law was published in its entirety for the first time in the government’s official newspaper, Um Al-Qura. It states that any act seen as “destabilizing the society’s security or the state’s stability or exposes its national unity to harm” could be tried as an act of terrorism under the law.

“Offending the nation’s reputation or its position” now also falls under the country’s legal definition of terrorism, preventing many human rights defenders to speak up for what they believe in.

Of the most controversial articles in the counterterrorism law is one that grants the Ministry of Interior broad powers to search and raid people’s homes with little to no judicial oversight. Another article states that terror suspects can be held without charge or trial for up to one year, without the ability to appeal the decision. Many are worried that Saudi women who violate the ban on female drivers could even be considered terrorist suspects under the new law.

This is not the first time that the Saudi Arabian authorities have sought to suppress peaceful political dissent. In 2011, a similar draft was shelved after various human rights groups leaked a copy online. Among these groups was the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights (HASEM), which was subsequently shut down.

Eight of its founding members were imprisoned and one is still awaiting trial. This new law confirms many people’s worst fears about one of the world’s last absolute monarchies.

That is that the counterterrorism law is aimed at keeping the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family in control in the wake of a series of democratic reform protests, including the Arab Spring protests of 2011. 89-year-old King Abdullah is the present ruling monarch, essentially making the majority of the country’s decisions, as there is little written law and no parliament.

Within the past few years, Saudi Arabia has experienced waves of reform movements and political activism that seem to be shaking the nation. Activists have been detained, rights organizations have been shut down, and the Saudi authorities have been increasingly monitoring social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Abdelaziz al-Shubaily, the HASEM activist currently awaiting trial, says, “They characterize you as a terrorist because you ask the kingdom to do something it does not want to do.” Nations across the globe have experienced this same hostility between government and citizen, and as we well know, history tends to repeat itself. The world will be watching to see what Saudi Arabia does next.

– Mollie O’Brien

Sources: Amnesty International, Al-Akbhar
Photo: AJC

In what seems to be a controversial change for women in Saudi Arabia, a tracking system has been suspended that formerly had husbands notified of their wives’ whereabouts. It was put in place by the Passports Department with the purpose of tracking women, specifically when they left or came into the country. The procedure involved sending a text message to notify the husband without any authorization from his wife.

Controversial not in regards to whether or not the suspension of this infantilizing system is something beneficial for women in Saudi Arabia, but controversial in the news as to whether this is a monumental step for women or simply not enough of a change.

The tracking system is one of the many limitations placed on Saudi women. In fact, women in Saudi Arabia need to have a ‘guardian’ who makes key decisions for them about their lives. This ‘guardian’ is often a male relative and can go as far to decide whether the woman should go to college. It is also illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, strengthening the power this monitoring system has had over women in the past.

The tracking system has been argued by the spokesperson of the Passports Department, Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad al-Laheedan, to be beneficial in helping individuals know where family members are. In rebuttal to this, some Saudi women have protested saying that men should have to be tracked as well if the purpose is just to provide useful information rather than just control the actions of women.

Al-Laheedan also released a statement saying “The system has been suspended due to some observations and will undergo amendment… In the past, the system included all the names that were registered. However, in the next phase, it will be optional. The amendments seek to make it better and fulfill all its objectives.”

Since this is only a suspension, this does leave the door open for the tracking system to be put back in place. If not, it seems that the system will be ‘optional’, yet the question remains who will be able to decide who opts in or out?

The publication Foreign Policy has taken the stance that this is hardly monumental, to say the least, as other restrictions and regulations placed on women will dictate a Saudi woman’s ability to travel more so than the monitoring system did. Even though it is suspended, a woman’s ‘guardian’ can stop her from traveling anyway.

On the other hand, Reuters has posted an article indicating that they are of the belief that this is the start of major changes for women in Saudi Arabia and women are celebrating.

Whether or not this is a major step should be left to personal opinion. Either way, there are protests happening against other limitations which are worth commemorating. Certain Saudi women have been defying the driving ban by uploading YouTube videos that portray them behind the wheel driving without a male in sight.

Could radical changes for Saudi women be on the rise? There is a chance once the suspension is lifted that the new ‘optional’ system will still restrict women, but if done away with completely, maybe women can start to expand their horizons and ditch their guardians.

– Danielle Warren

Sources: Foreign Policy, RT News
Photo: Jeddah Beauty

Bayan Mahmoud Al-Zahran
The first all-female law practice has opened in Saudi Arabia, marking progress for women in a nation that has historically not afforded even many basic rights to women.

Bayan Mahmoud Al-Zahran, the first woman in Saudi Arabia to be issued a law license, along with Jihan Qurban, Sarra al-Omari and Ameera Quqani, opened the firm on January 1, 2014. While they will provide services for both genders, the stated objective of the new law firm is to advocate for the rights of Saudi women and to bring cases centered on women to court.

Al-Zahran officially became Saudi Arabia’s first female lawyer on November 2013 when she defended a client at the General Court in Jeddah. She had worked for many years as a legal consultant, the only legal position previously open to women, and had represented clients in dozens of court cases.

In a strictly sex-segregated society such as Saudi Arabia, it can be hard for men and women to speak openly and understand the issues put forth by an opposite-sex client, she says.

With more female lawyers in Saudi Arabia, this hurdle for women could be alleviated.

Al-Zahran asserts, “I believe women lawyers can contribute a lot to the legal system. This law firm will make a difference in the history of court cases and female disputes in the Kingdom. I am very hopeful…”

She also states her desire for the number of female lawyers to rise in the future.

At the opening of the firm, the vice president of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, Mazen Batterjee, congratulated the new lawyers, but cautioned them to remain true to Sharia law in their practice and in their personal lives. He reiterated that the women should always wear their hijabs to court.

Batterjee’s tentative praise and caution are outshined by the enthusiasm of Al-Zahran’s father, Sheikh Mahmoud.

He calls the move an important step for women’s rights and affirmed his complete support his daughter. “We are very proud of our daughter who stands firm for [the] protection of women’s rights,” he states.

The issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia has long been a contentious one.

Women living in the Kingdom still must have a male guardian who can decide if a woman can travel, work, marry or go to school—for their entire lives.

Women are also expected to fully cover themselves in public spaces and are forbidden from driving.

In October 2013, over 60 women drove cars in protest of the law, a move that earned global attention and praise while pointing to a growing, though still small, movement in Saudi Arabia toward increased rights for women.

If it is up to her and her firm’s lawyers, Al-Zahran plans to see the dream of women rights in Saudi Arabia fully realized.

Kaylie Cordingley

Sources: Arab News, Feminist, International Business Times
Photo: The Art of 12

Haifaa al-Mansour First Female Saudi Director
Haifaa al-Mansour has a lot of which to be proud. Not only is she the first female Saudi director, she is also the first person to shoot a film entirely in Saudi Arabia. The film, called “Wadjda,” was also submitted for the Academy Award for best foreign language film, the first time Saudi Arabia has entered the category.

Al-Mansour was born in Saudi Arabia in 1974. Although there are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, her father fostered her interest in movies by keeping a collection at home. She went to film school abroad which is where she made her first shorts and later her documentary “Women without Shadows,” chronicling the lives of hidden women in the Gulf. “Wadjda,” her latest film, focuses on a young girl who wants to buy a bike so she can race with a boy in her neighborhood. Girls are not generally allowed to ride bikes in Saudi Arabia, so she tries to save her money to buy the bike herself by entering a Qur’an recital competition.

Filming a movie in Saudi Arabia is no easy task, and is even more difficult if you are a woman. The film actually took nearly five years to make due to issues with procuring funding and getting permission from the government to film on location. Al-Mansour was insistent on filming in Saudi Arabia to preserve the authenticity of the story. Once funding and the permission to film were secured, more roadblocks followed. For example, since women are not allowed to travel outside unattended, she worked from inside a car with a walkie-talkie, driving from location to location. Al-Mansour referred to this particular problem as “tough but rewarding.”

The movie also focuses on what Saudi society expects of girls and interpersonal relationships between friends and family. Al-Mansour said of the main character, “I think she’s a kid and she’s just discovering the society around her. She’s discovering what she can do and what she cannot do. And I think she wants to race a boy, she wants to—you know how kids are, competitive — she wants to win. She wants to assert herself and be heard. But she’s not trying to be aggressive as much as assertive. She’s trying to find herself, to enjoy life, and for me that was a very important theme in the film.”

– Colleen Eckvahl

Sources: NPR, New York Times

When we think of ruling families in a monarchist state, the pre-modern design points to the United Kingdom and Vatican City as “successful” post-modern governance. The UK employs what we call a Constitutional Monarchy, in which the title of King or Queen undertakes various ceremonial and diplomatic duties, while an elected Prime Minister holds most executive power.

The Vatican as we know constitutes an Absolute Monarchy in the form of an appointed Catholic Church official declared as Pope, meaning father. Western media gives heavy precedence to these forms of monarchist states, one being religious, the other hereditary, while dissipating the absolutist power of several other governing states in the Eastern world. The monarchy wielding the most absolutist power for the past 80 years has been the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia became a kingdom in 1932 as King Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud, conquered most of Arabia following his capture of Riyadh in 1902. This led to the Saud family regaining power and controlling Arabia until this day. Unlike the UK, which has about 50 hereditary options in the line of succession for King or Queen, Saudi Arabia’s House of Saud has an estimated 15,000 members of the royal family vying for the throne. 2,000 of these family members control a vast majority of the wealth and power in Saudi Arabia. Here, the king holds absolute political power.

In most political states, corruption occurs in the form of politicians taking advantage of the state and, in a sense, stealing from the state. Here, the king is the state, so he does not have to “steal” from what is already under his power and ownership. This leads to corruption being a part of the inherent structure of its monarchist system, as opposed to a form of political undertaking.

Estimates of the royal net worth are around $1.4 trillion, which the over 10,000 princes use as a means for political influence to keep the commoners at bay, while there is a new form of dissension brewing between the state and the people. The inevitable attack against the state is being constantly postponed by paying commoners to favor the state, while distrust among the people grows even larger.

Given the exorbitant amount of wealth Saudi Arabia possesses, poverty should not be an issue.  However, about a month ago, a twitter campaign with the Arabic hashtag,  #الراتب_مايكفي_الحاجة, meaning “The salary does not meet my needs,” reached over 17 million tweets in the first two weeks. At its peak, it reached 1.2 million tweets a day and was the 16th most popular hashtag around the world, while being the most popular hashtag in Arabic.

This is a massive online demonstration that shows Saudi Arabia’s wealth (precisely allocated to the royal’s) is not allowing for its common citizens to live a genuinely comfortable life. Meanwhile, the House of Saud is paying handouts that amount to about a third of the government budget to countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia, while also paying for the new Riyadh Metro “mega project.”

The online protests against the disparity of wealth distribution are a sign of small demonstrations that have already been taking place in Saudi Arabia against the House of Saud. People are realizing the more they delay this process of rebellion, the more self-destructive this so-called revolution could be.

Change is occurring in Saudi Arabia, and a paradigm shift in this absolutist monarchy is seemingly shifting, albeit gradually.

– Sagar Jay Patel

Sources: CNN, Independent, Royalty, Borgen Project
Photo: Kings of the World

On June 15th, activists Wajeha Al-Huwaider and Fawzia Al-Oyouni were sentenced to 10 months in jail and a two year travel restriction thereafter. The women were found guilty of “takhbib” or interfering in a marriage. On July 12th, Ms. Al-Huwaider and Ms. Al-Oyouni filed an appeal.

Ms. Al-Huwaider and Ms. Al-Oyouni are prominent women’s rights activists in the country. Some believe the arrests and convictions are a result of Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on prominent rights activists. Ms. Al-Huwaider gained notoriety in 2008 when she posted a video of herself driving a car in Saudi Arabia, a criminal activity in that country. She was also listed in the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women of 2012. Ms. Al-Huwaider is also the co-founder of the Saudi women’s rights group the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights.

Joe Stork, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch believes Saudi Arabia is cracking down on rights activists. While King Abdulla has appeared supportive, reforms supporting women’s rights have not been as far reaching as some would like to see. He has appointed thirty women to serve on the Shura Council and women will be allowed to participate in municipal elections. These milestones mark the first opportunity women have had to hold public office in Saudi Arabia.

However, these are very small reforms. The Shura Council advises on legislation but does not make laws. It is yet to be seen how municipal elections turn out and whether any women are able to garner enough votes or even run. The elections are scheduled for 2015.

While Saudi women have experienced a leap forward in the workforce; there is still progress to be made. King Abdullah announced that stores catering to women (jewelry, lingerie, clothing etc.) will not be staffed by females. Even though only 17 percent of Saudi women participate in the workforce, 60 percent of college graduates are female. Mr. Khalid AlKhudair launched Glowork in 2012, the first all-women online recruitment company in the Kingdom. Mr. AlKhudair recognizes the benefits of being a man campaigning for women’s rights rather than a female in this position. As a man his company and his voice is taken more seriously in the country.

Despite these reforms, Ms. Al-Huwaider and Ms. Al-Oyouni are unlikely to have their appeal granted. Gaining grassroots support for the two women is difficult given the restrictions on female movement and communication in the country.

– Callie D. Coleman

Sources: Global Post, Inter Press Service, BBC
Photo: Foreign Policy

Human Rights Activists Jailed in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is continuing to uphold its notorious reputation for imprisoning human rights activists. On June 17th, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Mikhlif al-Shammari to five years in prison with an additional ten-year travel ban for the crime of “sowing discord.” Al-Shammari joins the company of many other Saudi activists who have been punished for speaking out against governmental injustices.

Al-Shammari has been working to improve relations with Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority. He spoke out publicly against the government as well as religious leaders, creating contempt amongst the Saudi power hierarchy. He was also held from 2010-2012 for charges of “annoying others.”

Other prominent human rights activists were also sentenced to prison for questionable crimes. Abdulkarim al-Khader was a founder of the Saudi Political and Civil Rights Association, also known as the ACPRA. He was recently sentenced to eight years in prison after his group attempted to campaign for a constitutional monarchy and elections in the country. However, it was reported that he will only serve three years in jail provided once he is released he does not resume his activism.

Other members of the group, Mohammad Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah Hamad were each sentenced to ten years in prison for sedition and damaging Saudi Arabia’s reputation. Ironically, the ACPRA has been declared an illegal group for accusing the government of human rights abuses such as torture, jailing political activists, and detaining people without trial or after the expiry of their sentences.

Saudi law is based on the prosecutor’s and judges’ interpretation of Islamic Law. The country lacks any official criminal law. However, international human rights standards guarantee individuals a fair trial and freedom from arbitrary detention. However, neglect of these standards is often commonplace in Saudi Arabia.

The United States has done little to stop the Saudi government from punishing these activists. The U.S. has continued to demonstrate political and military support for Saudi Arabia despite its grim human rights record. The Specialized Criminal Court has received broad criticism, however, this criticism seems unable to move the United States to act against the human rights violations occurring.

The U.S. continues to count Saudi Arabia among its closest allies in the Middle East, and as such, is politically motivated to turn a blind eye to human rights violations. Interestingly, many of the top political and governmental positions in Saudi Arabia are held by the al-Saud family, known as the world’s top oil exporter.

– Caitlin Zusy
Source: Reuters, PolicyMic
Photo: Press TV