Meet the US women who have just opened a PR office in Saudi Arabia

  • Kaplan told Arab News that she had a misconception about the Kingdom on her first trip. “Women’s empowerment is really rooted in our mission”

RIYADH: With New York savvy, Miami flair and a Saudi spirit, Gwen Wunderlich and Dara Kaplan took a chance on themselves and entered the ever-changing space of Saudi Arabia’s women empowerment.

With more than two decades of experience and a solid friendship, they launched the Riyadh branch of their first women-led US-based PR firm Wunderlich Kaplan Communications.

“This will be our global expansion and the MENA division, based in Riyadh at Jax,” Wunderlich told Arab News.

“We partnered this time for this division with Noor Taher, she is partners with Good Intentions and she brought us over here and agreed to partner up with us so generously to bring big projects to us, to guide us and to be a lead here to make sure things go smoothly,” she said.

With so much happening in the Kingdom’s capital, Riyadh felt like the right fit as it is the center of the country and a magnet for talent. It is also easily accessible via air or land.

“It just feels right.”


Why can’t non-Muslims visit Mecca and Medina?


Why does Islam ban non-Muslims from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina?


Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum is among the last people Saudi Arabians might want to listen to. Yet he penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month urging Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to end Islam’s longstanding ban against non-Muslims entering the faith’s two holiest locations, Mecca, where the Prophet Muhammad issued the Quran and founded the religion 14 centuries ago, and Medina, where he led the first Muslim regime.

This prohibition hit the news when Gil Tamary, an American Jew and TV journalist in Israel, illicitly slipped into Mecca to record material and broadcast a much-hyped 10-minute travelogue. Muslims have enforced the ban so carefully, Pipes reports, that only 18 non-Muslims are known to have ever entered Mecca, including Tamary and two others in recent decades.

The violation of sacred space provoked an international furor among not only Muslims but Israelis and westerners who feared a rise in hostility. The regime has filed criminal charges against Tamary and his Saudi driver. Tamary apologized and said his intent was to “showcase the importance of Mecca and the beauty of the religion” and thereby foster religious tolerance. Guess again.

But cheerleader Pipes thinks Tamary “boldly challenged an archaic status quo that the world unthinkingly accepts. Bravo to him for breaking a taboo. . . . He deserves respect, not condemnation.” Pipes even wants unspecified international organizations to lobby for open access with the Saudis.

Pipes did not mention another exclusionary policy noted in the U.S. State Department’s 2022 religious freedom report. Saudi Arabia strictly forbids all non-Muslim houses of worship nationwide, though private or secret Christian gatherings are known to occur.


Saudi citizen arrested after non-Muslim journalist sneaks into Mecca

Gil Tamary of Israel’s Channel 13 sparked online fury after he filmed himself in Islam’s holiest city despite a ban on non-Muslims

A Saudi citizen who allegedly helped a non-Muslim enter the holy city of Mecca has been arrested, police in the kingdom said, after an online backlash against a journalist working for Israeli television.

The journalist, Gil Tamary of Israel’s Channel 13, posted on Twitter a video of himself sneaking into Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, in defiance of a ban on non-Muslims.

Mecca regional police have “referred a citizen” to prosecutors for alleged complicity in “transferring and facilitating the entry of a (non-Muslim) journalist”, a police spokesperson said in comments reported by the official Saudi Press Agency on Friday.

SPA did not name the journalist but said he was an American citizen, whose case has also been referred to prosecutors “to take the necessary procedures against him in accordance with the applied laws”.

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Despite growing behind-the-scenes business and security contacts, Saudi Arabia does not recognise Israel and did not join the 2020 US-brokered Abraham Accords that saw the Jewish state establish ties with two of the kingdom’s neighbours, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.


Photos: One million Muslims start Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca

The annual Muslim religious pilgrimage is slowly returning to its pre-pandemic number of attendees.

Pilgrims gathered for dawn prayers and performed the initial rites of the Hajj on Thursday in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca, in the largest Islamic pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic upended the event – one of the five pillars of Islam.

This year’s Hajj is larger than the pared-down versions staged in 2020 and 2021, but is still smaller than those held before the pandemic.

In 2019, some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world participated in the annual event.

The Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey.

Pilgrims spend several days carrying out a series of rituals intended to bring them closer to God, walking the path traversed by the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.

That includes praying around the cube-shaped Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam.

At the centre of the Grand Mosque’s open courtyard on Wednesday, thousands of unmasked pilgrims circled the Kaaba.


A Million Muslims Are Preparing for the Hajj, and New Saudi Requirements

There is a 100% increase in the costs of performing the fifth pillar of Islam

One million Muslims are preparing to perform the hajj, which begins on July 6 – or Dhul-Hijjah 8 on the Islamic calendar – and lasts through July 12 (Dhu al-Hijjah 14). The pilgrims to Mecca include 850,000 from outside Saudi Arabia, according to official numbers. It is the first time that Muslims from outside of the country have been permitted to undertake the pilgrimage since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, as the hajj season during the past two years was limited to pilgrims from inside Saudi Arabia.

The number of participants in this year’s hajj is less than half the number of pilgrims in 2019, when it reached nearly 2.5 million pilgrims according to most estimates, while Saudi Arabia seeks to increase the number of pilgrims to nearly 5 million in the coming years.

Pilgrims gather outside Masjid al-Haram in Mecca ahead of the hajj, June 30, 2022. (Rani Kashkoosh)

According to the Islamic religion, hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam, and it is “for those who are able to make a way.” This means that a Muslim is required to perform the hajj once during his lifetime, but if he is unable to because of his financial circumstances or because he did not obtain a permit for hajj or due to a health condition, he is excused.

These rites take place on specific days and places according to Sharia, or Islamic law, which makes the hajj the most densely populated event in the world.

The costs of performing the hajj have risen significantly in 2022 compared to 2019, with increases ranging from about 20% in the Gulf countries that rely on private sector campaigns, and 50% in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, to an increase of 100% in countries such as Egypt, Algeria, and Pakistan.


Saudi Arabia And Indonesia: Clashing Visions Of ‘Moderate Islam’ – Analysis

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) watches as former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and her daughter Puan Maharani, a minister in his cabinet, take a selfie with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman (C)

Two diametrically opposed visions of moderate Islam have emerged as major Muslim powers battle to define the soul of their faith in the 21st century in a struggle that is as much about geopolitics as it is about autocratic survival and visualisations of a future civilisation and world order.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Yahya Cholil Staquf, the newly elected chairman of the central board of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement, expressed their duelling visions in separate but almost simultaneously published interviews.

While the timing of the interviews was coincidental, they neatly laid out the parameters of a rivalry among major Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority powers to dominate the discourse of Islam’s place as the world transits into an as yet undefined new world order.

Unsurprisingly, the visions expressed by the two leaders mirror the struggle epitomised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine between an autocratic, civilisationalist, and a more democratic and pluralistic vision of the world in the 21st century.


Salafis, Sufis, and the Contest for the Future of African Islam

For centuries, most African Muslims observed their faith according to Sufi practices. Syncretic, mystical, and emphasizing experiencing God, Sufism was well suited to thrive on a continent where traditional religions often had a flexible cosmology that emphasized the supernatural. The fact that illiteracy or a lack of formal theological training was no barrier to fully participating in, or even leading, Sufi rites likely contributed to the practice’s popularity as well.

With its insistence on adherence to the written precepts of certain Islamic holy texts, its ultra-exclusivist worldview, and its strong association with foreign cultures and traditions, Salafism appears as ill-suited for the African context as Sufism is well-suited. Yet today, Salafism dominates the practice of Islam in parts of the continent. In some cases, it has displaced the centuries-long observance of Sufi rites in the span of a few decades.

A confluence of local dynamics that made parts of Africa amenable to Salafi appeals, and the rise of a global Salafi movement supported by wealthy Arab benefactors, explains much of the phenomenon. Those dynamics remain largely the same today, suggesting that Salafism will continue to grow, often at the expense of Sufism. Its expansion will likely follow the same pattern it has followed so far: irregular, falling well short of dominance in many areas, and at times taking on the flavor of the surrounding culture even while the core ideology remains exclusivist and Islamist.

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This is notwithstanding the tentative episodes of Salafi-Sufi toleration and even cooperation that in a few communities has interrupted the hostility that usually exists between the two groups. Those episodes becoming more than an occasional exception would require an unlikely rethinking by Salafis of foundational beliefs that reject any deviation from a narrowly defined conception of correct Islamic practice, and that view correction of those deviations as imperative.


Attempt in Saudi Arabia to restore and reform Islamic law is welcome

There can be no doubt that these reforms signal a major theological shift, and if implemented successfully, will prove to be a watershed moment in the history of Sunni Islam.

It would appear from recent reports that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is making good on his 2017 promise that he would return the country to a moderate Islam and “eradicate promoters of extremist thoughts.” Last month, The Washington Post disclosed that the kingdom had started purging its textbooks of anti-Semitic and misogynistic content, and this month Reuters revealed that four new laws — the personal status law, the civil transactions law, the penal code of discretionary sanctions and the law of evidence — are being finalised with the ultimate aim of codifying the entire Muslim law in consonance with the principles of shariah and best international practices. Saudi women have welcomed the move, with lawyer Dimah Al-Sharif expressing the hope that it will empower both women and society in general.

There can be no doubt that these reforms signal a major theological shift, and if implemented successfully, will prove to be a watershed moment in the history of Sunni Islam. The crown prince’s announcement is also a courageous attempt to break the state-ulema nexus that has been the cause of Muslim intellectual and economic backwardness for centuries — a fact convincingly exposed by scholar Ahmet T Kuru in his new book Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment. It was this nexus that buttressed the post-Prophetic Muslim expansionism started by Muawiya in 661 CE with the launch of the Umayyad Caliphate. Questionable traditions (hadiths) were fabricated in the name of the Prophet to scripturally entrench the dynastic ambitions of the ruling family. These hadiths otherised rival tribes and communities, and marginalised women.


Inside the evangelical mission to build the first church in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam where preaching the Bible can land you in jail

  • Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam, has outlawed churches and punished Christian worship for decades.
  • The kingdom’s 1.4 million Christians meet in secret, but authorities are signaling more openness.
  • This is the inside story of the American mission to woo MBS to build the kingdom’s first church.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On a sunny, cloudless October morning in 2019, twenty-five American Christians gathered at the base of Jabal al-Lawz, an umber-colored mountain in northwest Saudi Arabia.

Their leader, the evangelical author and preacher Joel Richardson, took out a Bible he’d brought from back home in Kansas, and started to read out loud.

Soon after, he and his congregation began singing hymns, while their hired Saudi tour guides pulled out their smartphones, and started to film.

Richardson was leading the first-ever Christian tour to Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam where the public practice of any other religion is famously forbidden.

Still, the preacher was taken aback when his phone rang that evening. It was the State Department with a message: “Be careful.”

Richardson is to this day bemused. “I guess some of the videos went viral on Saudi social media or something,” he told Insider in a recent interview.


Saudi Arabia has been scrubbing its textbooks of anti-Semitic and misogynistic passages

Saudi students sit for their final high school exams at the end of the school year in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, June 19, 2010.

BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia has been sharply criticized over the decades for school textbooks that preach women’s subservience to men, anti-Semitism and a general enmity toward religions other than Islam. But those textbooks have been slowly scrubbed of much of this objectionable content, with particularly significant revisions made in the fall.

Gone is a section on sodomy that was supportive of capital punishment for homosexual relations. Gone are most adulations of extremist martyrdom and its characterization as the highest aspiration of Islam. Anti-Semitic references and calls to “fight Jews” are now far fewer, with the latest edition of a 10th-grade textbook having removed a passage quoting the prophet Muhammad as saying, “The [Day of Judgement] will not come until Muslims fight the Jews, and the Muslims will kill them [all].”

The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), an Israel-based group that monitors school curriculums, welcomed the changes. The group’s chief executive, Marcus Sheff, called them “quite astonishing.”