Lebanon’s plunge into political crisis raises specter of war with Israel

The Washington Post reports: Even for a country often used as a battleground by regional powers and their proxies, the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri has opened a new period of political uncertainty and fear in Lebanon.

The tiny nation has often been caught between the political agendas of more-powerful countries. But it now appears more vulnerable to conflict as Israel and Saudi Arabia try to isolate their shared enemy, the Iran-backed movement Hezbollah.

Hariri, a Sunni politician backed by the Saudis, cited Iranian meddling in Lebanese politics as the reason for his decision to step down.

But the fact that he made his announcement in a televised speech from Saudi Arabia left little doubt that his regional patron must have played a role in a move that caught even his aides off guard. [Continue reading…]

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Deep in Yemen war, Saudi fight against Iran falters

Reuters reports: At a hospital in the Yemeni city of Marib, demand for artificial limbs from victims of the country’s war is so high that prosthetics are made on site in a special workshop.

A soldier with an artificial arm hitches up his robe to reveal a stump where his leg once was. He is angry that authorities have done little to help him since he was wounded.

“I was at the front and a mortar exploded near me. We fought well, but now I get no salary, no support from the government or anyone. They just left us,” said Hassan Meigan.

More than two years into a war that has already left 10,000 dead, regional power Saudi Arabia is struggling to pull together an effective local military force to defeat the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that has seized large parts of Yemen.

The dysfunction is a reminder to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that his campaign to counter arch-enemy Iran in the Middle East, including threats against Tehran’s ally Hezbollah, may be hard to implement. [Continue reading…]

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UN official warns of world’s biggest famine in Yemen

BBC News reports: Yemen faces the world’s largest famine in decades “with millions of victims” if aid deliveries are not resumed, a senior UN official has warned.

Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, urged the Saudi-led coalition to lift its blockade of the conflict-torn country.

On Monday, the coalition shut air, land and sea routes into Yemen after Houthi rebels fired a missile at Riyadh.

The ballistic warhead was intercepted near the Saudi capital.

Saudi Arabia said the blockade was needed to stop Iran sending weapons to the rebels.

Iran denies arming the rebels, who have fought the Saudi-led coalition since 2015. [Continue reading…]

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The Saudi royal purge — with Trump’s consent

Robin Wright writes: The Trump Administration supports the sweeping changes that have redefined the kingdom—and the royal family—over the past two years. En route to Asia, just hours before the purge on Saturday, the President spoke with the king from Air Force One to praise him and the Crown Prince for making statements on “the need to build a moderate, peaceful, and tolerant region,” which is “essential to ensuring a hopeful future for the Saudi people, to curtailing terrorist funding, and to defeating radical ideology—once and for all—so the world can be safe from its evil,” the White House reported in an unusually detailed statement.

Trump also said that he is personally trying to convince the kingdom to list the first offering of shares in Aramco—one of the world’s most important oil companies—on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. “It will be perhaps the biggest going-public ever,” Trump told the reporters flying with him. “Right now, they’re not looking at it, because of litigation, risk and other risk, which is very sad.”

Trump did not mention the risk involved in listing the shares in the U.S. but they include the prospect that any Saudi assets in the United States could be seized as a result of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) passed by Congress, in 2016. It allowed the families of 9/11 victims to pursue a civil suit against Saudi Arabia—in a lower Manhattan court—for alleged involvement in the plot. If there is a verdict against the kingdom, the law would also allow a judge to freeze the kingdom’s assets in the United States to pay for any penalties that the court awards.

“That means Saudi Arabia would be extremely vulnerable for listings on the New York Stock Exchange,” Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A., Pentagon, and National Security Council staffer, told me. “And they know that.”

Ironically, Trump supported the JASTA bill—and condemned President Obama for vetoing it. “Obama’s veto of the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act is shameful and will go down as one of the low points of his Presidency,” Trump said, during the campaign. Congress overturned Obama’s veto—the only time Congress ever overrode him, and in his final months in office. Trump, now, is critical of the bill.

As part of its lobbying efforts against the bill, Saudi Arabia spent more than a quarter of a million dollars at Trump’s new hotel in Washington—for lodging, catering and parking—the Wall Street Journal reported in June. The lobbying included bringing in military veterans to speak on the Hill against the JASTA legislation.

The Trump Administration has heavily courted the House of Saud; Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, made an unannounced trip to the desert kingdom in late October—his third this year. Officially, the focus was the Middle East peace process, but he has developed a close relationship with the Saudi Crown Prince. (Both are in their thirties.) The royal family’s close ties to the Trump Administration have evidently made the king and his son feel comfortable about taking tough actions against their own people. [Continue reading…]

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A new Saudi blockade could worsen Yemen’s cholera crisis

The Washington Post reports: The International Committee of the Red Cross said Tuesday it was unable to get clearance to ship chlorine tablets used to prevent cholera from Saudi Arabia into Yemen, where a massive outbreak of the disease has affected more than 900,000 people.

Saudi Arabia announced Monday it was temporarily closing all of Yemen’s ground, sea and airports in retaliation for a missile strike on the Saudi capital carried out last week by a rebel group in Yemen. The Saudi government had vowed it would “take into consideration” the delivery of humanitarian aid supplies.

The United Nations on Tuesday urged the Saudi authorities to reopen the air and sea ports, fearing the blockade would sharply exacerbate an already dire humanitarian crisis in a country that has suffered through more than two years of a civil war, according to Reuters news agency.

In addition to the cholera epidemic, roughly 7 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine, aid workers said.

The blockade was part of the continuing fallout from an escalating confrontation between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran that has reverberated across the Middle East in recent days, but landed especially hard on Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country. [Continue reading…]

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Trump undercuts his advisers again with Saudi tweets

Bloomberg reports: President Donald Trump again showed how quickly his tweets can outrun U.S. foreign policy planning, after he backed Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince over the arrests of dozens of officials before the State Department had completed its review of the moves.

While Trump had talked with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about Saudi Arabia as they toured Tokyo together Nov. 5 and 6, there was no formal consultation before he tweeted early Tuesday that King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman “know exactly what they are doing.”


A second tweet said “some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”

The tweets were only the latest time Trump has set U.S. foreign policy in 140 characters. It effectively gave the crown prince the full weight of the U.S. backing despite serious questions remaining about Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the rule of law and its ability to guarantee financial transactions.

“Having the United States in many ways supporting a position that is seen as quite controversial can be problematic for the region,” Raihan Ismail, an associate lecturer at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, said by phone. “Regional instability will continue to spook foreign investors. The Trump administration is seen as erratic.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia charges Iran with ‘act of war,’ raising threat of military clash

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia charged Monday that a missile fired at its capital from Yemen over the weekend was an “act of war” by Iran, in the sharpest escalation in nearly three decades of mounting hostility between the two regional rivals.

“We see this as an act of war,” the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Jubair, said in an interview on CNN. “Iran cannot lob missiles at Saudi cities and towns and expect us not to take steps.”

The accusation, which Iran denied, came a day after a wave of arrests in Saudi Arabia that appeared to complete the consolidation of power by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, 32. Taken together, the two actions signaled a new aggressiveness by the prince both at home and abroad, as well as a new and more dangerous stage in the Saudi cold war with Iran for dominance in the region.

“Today confrontation is the name of the game,” said Joseph A. Kechichian, a scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who is close to the royal family. “This young man, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is not willing to roll over and play dead. If you challenge him, he is saying, he is going to respond.”

The accusations raise the threat of a direct military clash between the two regional heavyweights at a time when they are already fighting proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, as well as battles for political power in Iraq and Lebanon. By the end of the day Monday, a Saudi minister was accusing Lebanon of declaring war against Saudi Arabia as well.

Even before the launching of the missile on Saturday, which was intercepted en route to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, the crown prince had staged another surprise demonstration of the kingdom’s newly aggressive posture toward Iran and Lebanon. The prince hosted a visit from Saudi Arabia’s chief Lebanese client, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who stunned the region by announcing his resignation, via video from Riyadh, in protest against Iran’s undue influence in Lebanese politics.

Even some of Mr. Hariri’s rivals speculated that his Saudi sponsors had pressured him into the statement. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, said over the weekend that the Saudis had all but kidnapped Mr. Hariri. Mr. Nasrallah urged Mr. Hariri to return to Lebanon for power-sharing talks “if he is allowed to come back.”

On Monday, Saudi Arabia released a photograph of Mr. Hariri meeting with King Salman that was widely seen as an effort to contradict the theory that the prime minister was effectively a hostage.

The Saudi claims that Iran had provided the missile could not be independently verified.

Mr. Jubair, the foreign minister, said the missile had been smuggled into Yemen in parts, assembled in Yemen by operatives from Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran, and fired from Yemen by Hezbollah.

A statement from the Saudi Arabian news agency said “experts in military technology” had determined from the remains of that missile and one launched in July that both had come from Iran “for the purpose of attacking the kingdom.”

Citing allegations of Hezbollah’s role, Thamer al-Sabhan, minister of state for Persian Gulf affairs, said Monday that Saudi Arabia considered the missile attack an act of war by Lebanon as well. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi-led forces close air, sea and land access to Yemen

Reuters reports: The Saudi-led military coalition fighting against the Houthi movement in Yemen said on Monday it would close all air, land and sea ports to the Arabian Peninsula country to stem the flow of arms to the Houthis from Iran.

The move, which follows the interception of a missile fired toward the Saudi capital Riyadh on Saturday, is likely to worsen a humanitarian crisis in Yemen that according to the United Nations has pushed some seven million people to the brink of famine and left nearly 900,000 infected with cholera.

“The Coalition Forces Command decided to temporarily close all Yemeni air, sea and land ports,” the coalition said in a statement on the Saudi state news agency SPA. It said aid workers and humanitarian supplies would continue to be able to access and exit Yemen.

The United Nations, however, said it was not given approval for two scheduled humanitarian flights on Monday and was seeking clarification on the coalition’s announcement.

The state news agency Saba, run by the Houthis, quoted a source in the navy warning against the closure of ports and said it would have, “catastrophic consequences”. [Continue reading...]

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Saudi corruption purge snares $33 billion of net worth in Riyadh

Bloomberg reports: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown on some of Saudi Arabia’s richest and most powerful men has put $33 billion of personal wealth at risk.

The stunning series of arrests has implicated three of the country’s richest people, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who’s No. 50 on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index ranking of the world’s 500 richest people, with $19 billion. Also being held are the kingdom’s second- and fifth-wealthiest people, as well as a travel-agency mogul and Bakr Binladin, a scion of a one of the country’s biggest construction empires.

The arrests, which the crown prince said are part of a fight against corruption, reportedly have led the government to freeze the accounts of the more than three dozen men detained and believed to be held at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton. [Continue reading…]

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A resignation, detentions and missiles: 24 hours that shook the Middle East

CNN reports: When 32-year-old Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman rose to power two years ago, many predicted that change was afoot. The events of November 4 have shown that change would not just be swift, but also seismic, extending unremittingly beyond the kingdom’s boundaries.

A 24-hour sequence of political bombshells began on Saturday afternoon, when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, blindsiding his country’s political establishment. Hours later, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency reported that the country’s military had intercepted a Yemen-borne ballistic missile over Riyadh. Even as images of the blast were flashing on TV sets around the region, similarly dramatic news began to trickle in: Some of Saudi Arabia’s most high-profile princes and businessmen were being sacked and detained in an anti-corruption drive led by bin Salman.
The events serve as an opening salvo for a new period in the region’s crisis-ridden history, analysts say. They represent an escalation in a yearslong proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, threatening to activate new fronts in the region, with the Saudi show of force beginning with a sweeping consolidation of power from within.

On Friday, ISIS’ last strongholds in Iraq and Syria fell. It marked a major milestone in a fight that saw archrivals converge on the extremist group until its so-called caliphate was on its last legs. On Saturday, regional powerhouses appear to have trained their sights on one another.

“I think the end of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, does not really mean the end of geostrategic struggles,” London School of Economics Professor Fawaz Gerges told CNN’s George Howell.

“On the contrary, the dismantling of the so-called caliphate will basically intensify the geostrategic struggles between the pro-Iranian camp led by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and its allies in the region, including the United States.” [Continue reading…]

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Autocracy: Trump finds no fault in Saudi crown prince’s power grab

The New York Times reports: President Trump has spoken with the king of Saudi Arabia to offer a wholehearted endorsement of a drive to modernize the kingdom, as the Saudi authorities arrested scores of prominent business people and ministers in a sweeping anti-corruption crackdown.

In an unusually lengthy and detailed readout of the call made on Saturday, the White House said that Mr. Trump had thanked King Salman for Saudi Arabia’s support in fighting terrorism and for its purchase of military equipment from the United States. And he praised the king’s favorite son and top adviser, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for his recent calls for tolerance and moderation in Saudi society.

“The king and crown prince’s recent public statements regarding the need to build a moderate, peaceful and tolerant region are essential to ensuring a hopeful future for the Saudi people, to curtailing terrorist funding, and to defeating radical ideology — once and for all — so the world can be safe from its evil,” the White House said in the statement.

The White House statement made no mention of the scores of arrests, including that of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire investor who has held stakes in an array of Western companies, including the News Corporation, Citigroup and Twitter. Prince Mohammed, who has already sidelined rivals to the throne, is viewed as the mastermind behind the crackdown.

Prince Alwaleed sparred with Mr. Trump on Twitter during the presidential election, referring to him as a “disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America.” Mr. Trump fired back, also on Twitter, that he was a “dopey prince” trying to “control our U.S. politicians with daddy’s money.”

White House officials had no immediate comment on whether Mr. Trump’s call should be interpreted as an endorsement of the arrests. But the statement made clear that the White House approved of everything else King Salman and Prince Mohammed were doing in Saudi Arabia. [Continue reading…]

Bloomberg reports: The two leaders did discuss Trump’s request, first issued in a late-night tweet, that the Saudis list the Saudi Arabian Oil Co. – better known as Aramco – on the New York Stock Exchange.

After speaking to Salman aboard Air Force One, Trump told reporters on the plane that he was motivated to send the tweet because the Aramco initial public offering “will be just about the biggest ever” and the U.S. wants “to have all the big listings.” The Saudis were not currently looking at listing on a U.S. exchange “because of litigation risk, and other risk, which is sad,” he said.

The Aramco IPO could be the world’s largest, with the Saudi government hoping to raise $100 billion selling just 5 percent of the company. It is the centerpiece of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” reform plan, intended to diversify the kingdom’s economy and invest more heavily in infrastructure. [Continue reading…]

James M. Dorsey writes: The most recent crackdown breaks with the tradition of consensus within the ruling family whose secretive inner workings are equivalent to those of the Kremlin at the time of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the dismissals and detentions suggest that Prince Mohammed rather than forging alliances is extending his iron grip to the ruling family, the military, and the national guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war.

It raises questions about the reform process that increasingly is based on a unilateral rather than a consensual rewriting of the kingdom’s social contract. “It is hard to envisage MBS succeeding in his ambitious plans by royal decree. He needs to garner more consent. To obtain it, he must learn to tolerate debate and disagreement,” quipped The Economist, recently referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials. [Continue reading…]

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Suspected cholera cases in crisis-torn Yemen near 900,000

UN News Centre reports: Already struggling to cope with a dire humanitarian crisis, war-torn Yemen is now facing the fastest-growing cholera epidemic ever recorded, with some 895,000 suspected cases as of 1 November, the United Nations relief wing reported Thursday.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that nearly have the suspected cases are children. Overall, there have been nearly 2,200 associated deaths since 27 April.

The outbreak is affecting over 90 per cent of districts across 21 of the country’s 22 governorates. Despite the enormous challenges, humanitarian partners have established 234 Diarrhoea Treatment Centres and 1,084 Oral Rehydration Corners in 225 affected districts in 20 governorates, according to OCHA.

Some 3.6 million people have been connected to disinfected water supply networks in 12 governorates. Over 17 million people in all governorates were reached with cholera prevention messages.

OCHA warned today that Yemen is also facing the world’s largest food emergency and widespread population displacement. After more than two years of war, nearly 21 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance, seven million of whom are severely food insecure, staving off the threat of famine. [Continue reading…]

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Lebanese PM Hariri resigns, attacking Iran, Hezbollah

Reuters reports: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on Saturday, saying he believed there was an assassination plot against him and accusing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.

His resignation, a big surprise to Beirut’s political establishment, brought down the coalition government and plunged Lebanon into a new political crisis.

It thrust Lebanon into the front line of a regional competition between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite Iran that has also buffeted Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain. A Saudi government minister said Hariri was in Riyadh to ensure his safety.

Hariri, who is closely allied with Saudi Arabia, alleged in a broadcast from an undisclosed location that Hezbollah was “directing weapons” at Yemenis, Syrians and Lebanese. [Continue reading…]

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Why Saudi women driving is a small step forward, not a great one

Robin Wright writes: On a scorching day in August, 2006, Wajeha al-Huwaider threw off her abaya, the enveloping black cover worn by Saudi women, and donned a calf-length pink shirt, pink trousers, and a matching pink scarf. She then took a taxi, from Bahrain, to a signpost on the bridge marking the border with Saudi Arabia. She got out and, with a large poster declaring, “Give Women Their Rights,” marched toward her homeland. Within twenty minutes, she was picked up by Saudi security forces, interrogated for a day, and officially warned. An intelligence officer, she recounted to me later, had pointed at her mouth and said, “Control this, and we won’t have a problem.”

Two years later, on International Women’s Day, Huwaider went out in the Saudi desert and, illegally, drove. She made a three-minute video of it—coaching women to claim their rights—and posted it on YouTube. “The problem of women driving, of course, is not political,” she said, as the car bumped along a rural road. “Nor is it religious. It is a social issue.” The video, in Arabic, was viewed by almost a quarter million people. Thousands more watched with various translations. Again, she got in trouble.

Huwaider may finally be able to drive legally next year. On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman ordered that women be given licenses. The country is the last in the world—by many, many years—where women are forbidden to drive. In April, Saudi women launched a social media campaign—with the hashtag #Resistancebywalking—that posted films of them walking in the same streets where they can’t drive. The ban has long been a barometer of the oil-rich but ultra-conservative kingdom’s human-rights abuses, constantly referenced in the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report. The shift, on Tuesday, was sufficiently striking that the Times sent out a breaking-news e-mail about the king’s decree.

There are, however, caveats. The ruling will not go into effect until June, 2018. Women may have to get the permission of their male “guardians” to drive, as they do for many major activities in their life. The biggest issue may be winning the approval of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clerics, the most conservative of the Islamic faith. The decree stipulated that new regulations must “apply and adhere to the necessary Sharia standards,” a reference to Islamic law. What that means was left unanswered. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia will allow women to drive next year

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that it would allow women to drive, ending a longstanding policy that has become a global symbol of the repression of women in the ultraconservative kingdom.

The change, which will take effect in June of next year, was announced on state television and in a simultaneous media event in Washington. The decision highlights the damage that the no-driving policy has done to the kingdom’s international reputation and its hopes for a public relations benefit from the reform.

Saudi leaders also hope the new policy will help the economy by increasing women’s participation in the workplace. Many working Saudi women spend much of their salaries on drivers or must be driven to work by male relatives. [Continue reading…]

 

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Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable

Jamal Khashoggi writes: When I speak of the fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds, and then I tell you that I’m from Saudi Arabia, are you surprised?

With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and economic reform. He spoke of making our country more open and tolerant and promised that he would address the things that hold back our progress, such as the ban on women driving.

But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests. Last week, about 30 people were reportedly rounded up by authorities, ahead of the crown prince’s ascension to the throne. Some of the arrested are good friends of mine, and the effort represents the public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to express opinions contrary to those of my country’s leadership. The scene was quite dramatic as masked security men stormed houses with cameras, filming everything and confiscating papers, books and computers. The arrested are accused of being recipients of Qatari money and part of a grand Qatari-backed conspiracy. Several others, myself included, are in self-exile and could face arrest upon returning home. [Continue reading…]

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The contradictions of hajj, through the lens of a smartphone

Wajahat Ali writes: Is it permissible to take a selfie in front of the Kaaba during hajj? With spotty internet, I was unable to Google the answer. Forced to call an audible fatwa, I decided, “Yes, if indeed my intention is pure.”

Fourteen hundred years ago, the Prophet Muhammad and his companions definitely didn’t have to decide between Clarendon and Gingham filters to document the hajj pilgrimage that is recreated by Muslims each year. But then again, they didn’t have Instagram as I did when I went to Mecca to satisfy the pillar of my faith during the last days of August and the beginning of September. They didn’t have access to the air-conditioned tents that I used for shelter. And when they gazed at the Kaaba — the austere black cube that represents God’s house on earth — it certainly wasn’t dwarfed, as it is now, by the enormous luxury hotel and bling-covered clock tower that the Saudi government added to the landscape in 2012.

Awe-struck by the privilege of participating in this tradition while often agitated by the contradictions that surround it today, I made sense of the experience by sharing it — filtering the pilgrimage through the lens of my smartphone.

The most painful aspect of hajj wasn’t the physical toll that came with navigating cramped space with my two million diverse fellow pilgrims, or the intense spiritual concentration. It wasn’t the hiking-induced blisters and chafing. It was witnessing the erasure and razing of my religion’s culture, history and narrative by the House of Saud. [Continue reading…]

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