A new world: the Middle East tries cooperation alongside competition

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has tamed his kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment and made hyper-nationalism rather than religion a pillar of a new 21st century Saudi identity.

But the first beneficiaries of a recent decree granting citizenship to people of high caliber in law, medicine, science, technology, culture and sports suggest that Prince Mohammed, unlike the kingdom’s main competitors seeking to attract foreign talent including United States The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Singapore see religion as an equally important area of ​​competition.

The fact that about a quarter of the 27 new citizens are Sunni and Shia religious figures, some of whom do not reside in Saudi Arabia, shows the importance Prince Mohammed places on the religious rivalry between Muslims in the Middle East and ‘Asia. -Majority states as well as a powerful movement of Indonesian civil society.

New citizens include former Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric; Hussein Daoudi, a leader of the Muslim community in Sweden; Lebanese Shiite scholar Mohammed al-Husseini known for his hostility towards Iran and his advocacy for relations with Israel; Mohammad Nimr El Sammak, Secretary General of the National Christian Islamic Committee for Dialogue in Lebanon; and Lebanese Islamic scholar Radwan Nayef al-Sayed.

The bulk of the new citizens are prominent doctors and researchers, scientists, engineers and historians. Religious scholars, with the exception of Mr. Al-Husseini, were either signatories of the 2020 Mecca Declaration which called for cultural and religious tolerance and understanding and / or members of the Supreme Council of the World Muslim League .

Prince Mohammed has made the League, which until 2015 was the main vehicle for the worldwide dissemination of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative current of Sunni Islam in the kingdom, into his main tool for spreading a message of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

It’s a message that has translated into the infrastructural and economic development of deprived Shiite areas of the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and the appointment of Shiites as CEOs of key companies, including Aramco, the state-owned oil company. .

This did not translate into allowing Shiites or anyone in the kingdom to speak freely or criticize the crown prince or government policy. It also did not prompt the government to allow non-Muslim worship in public or the construction of non-Muslim places of worship.

The naturalization of Lebanese and Bosnian religious figures came at a time when the two countries are in crisis.

Saudi Arabia is leading a boycott of corrupt and bankrupt Lebanon in an attempt to break the grip of Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia, over the country. The boycott pushed the former middle-income country further into an abyss with more than half of its population reduced to living below the poverty line.

Bosnia is also poised on the edge of a cliff with Bosnian Serbs threatening to shatter the federation of Muslims, Croats and Serbs.

Saudi Arabia is the latest state to announce citizenship or permanent residency programs designed to attract global talent. Qatar became the first Gulf state to do so in 2018, followed by Singapore in November of last year and the United Arab Emirates in January.

Various states like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar had already implemented real estate programs, while Qatar also granted citizenship to foreign athletes to bolster its performance in international tournaments.

Saudi Arabia, in a gimmick that sparked discussion as well as mockery, in 2017 granted citizenship to Sophia, a robot in the shape of a woman. Mimicking a human, Sophia told a high-profile investor conference that she was honored to be the first robot to acquire Saudi citizenship.

The symbolism of the gadget was reinforced by the fact that the robot, despite imitating a woman, was not wearing a headgear or clothing that covered the shape of its body. Dress codes for women had not yet been significantly liberalized at the time.

The United Arab Emirates have taken the initiative to socially liberalize in their efforts to remain attractive to expatriates, allowing them to counter Saudi efforts to force companies wishing to do business with the Saudi government to set up their headquarters in the kingdom. rather than Dubai and projecting the country as a beacon of moderation.

Leading the kingdom, the United Arab Emirates drew up plans last year that give residents time to look for new jobs if they find themselves unemployed rather than forcing them to leave the country immediately, allow parents to sponsor visas for their children until the age of 25 and ease visa restrictions for freelancers, widows and divorcees.

The Emirates also ended lenient sentences for “honor” crimes, lifted the ban on unmarried couples living together, and decriminalized alcohol. He also reformed personal laws to allow foreigners living in the Gulf state to follow their home country’s divorce and inheritance laws, rather than being forced to adhere to UAE-based law. on Islamic law.

Saudi Arabia has yet to adopt similar reforms. In the meantime, the government hopes to strengthen businesses by warning that it will not award contracts to companies that have not transferred their regional headquarters to the kingdom by 2024.

More than 40 companies are expected to move to Riyadh in the coming year, according to Fahd al-Rasheed, chairman of the Royal Commission for the city of Riyadh. Al-Rasheed hopes to have attracted 480 companies by 2030. Saudi authorities are reportedly trying to persuade some 7,000 foreign companies to locate in the kingdom.

Competition for foreign talent raises potentially explosive demographic issues, especially in citizen-deficit Gulf states where more than half of the population is foreigners. To some extent, the Gulf states’ efforts to attract foreign talent respond to questions raised several years ago by Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, a scholarly Emirati intellectual and art expert, at a time when the discussion of the subject was taboo.

No wonder Al-Qassemi sparked controversy by advocating rethinking restrictive UAE citizenship policies that risked exacerbating rather than alleviating long-term problems related to the demographic deficit. Echoing a growing sentiment among internet-savvy youth, Al-Qassemi noted that foreigners without rights have, over decades, contributed to the success of the UAE.

“Perhaps it is time to consider a path to citizenship for them that will open the door for entrepreneurs, scientists, academics and other hard-working individuals who have come to support and care for the country as if it were the their, “he argued.

Likewise, a controversy erupted when Qatar granted citizenship to 23 athletes from 17 countries ahead of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. They made up the majority of the 39-member Gulf State squad that won. won Qatar’s very first gold medal. This debate has made it clear to Qataris that there are no easy solutions to a demographic deficit that could prove unsustainable in the long term.

Qataris feared that naturalized citizens might upset their carefully constructed apple cart. Qatari identity was strengthened when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt declared a diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state, which was lifted earlier this year.

“Even though we have a problem,” said a Qatari businessman. “Giving citizenship will only make things more difficult. “

One group whose citizenship claims should be resolved relatively easily are the Bidoon or Sans in Kuwait and some other Gulf states. A stateless nomadic minority who did not apply for citizenship at the time of independence, the Bidoon are denied access to public services and often live in relative poverty.

A student using the handle @_Itsaja_ on Twitter said she and other students were kicked out of Al-Jahra High School in Kuwait last Sunday when it was discovered they were Bidoon. Several students sent almost identical tweets.

“I’m a final year science student, I study at night, I got 98% last year, and today I’m kicked out because I’m from # البدون (#TheBidoon) even though all the required documents are complete., “Adin Shamseddin tweeted, echoing the exact words tweeted by others.

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