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New rules may curb internet freedom in the kingdom

The king convalesces. Imams face pressure from extremists. Reformers charged with terrorism. A strong economy attracts foreign firms to the oil producer. A plea to buy our Boeings. And for your flying pleasure, here’s an upgrade.

Saudi Arabia

Top News: King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz left New York Presbyterian Hospital Dec. 22 after two surgeries on his back, moving to an official residence where he will undergo physical therapy, the state news agency said. His daughter, Princess Adelah, told a Saudi paper that he was recovering nicely. But there’s no official word yet on how much longer the king will be absent from Saudi Arabia, which he left Nov. 22. Meanwhile, it appears that Prince Nayef, the powerful Interior Minister and second deputy prime minister, is handling much of the government’s top administrative chores as his brother, Crown Prince Sultan, is not up to the task because of his own ill health.

In a long-threatened move, the Ministry of Culture and Information on Jan. 3 issued new regulations for online communications. The rules are breathtaking in their expanse, covering not just e-newspapers and magazines, but also blogs, forums and personal websites. They also apply to publishing and advertising on mobile phones. The rules are most severe for electronic journalism, requiring a license and state approval of editors-in-chief. Bloggers, and creators of forums, personal websites and chat rooms “may be registered,” the rules say, implying that they are not required to get a license. 

In order to register a site, a person “must be of a Saudi nationality, over 20 in age, and must have a high school or higher qualification aided with a good record of appropriate behavior … and a license from the ministry.”

Ministry officials insist that the new regulations are not intended to censor or restrict freedom of expression. A ministry spokesman said failure to register would not have adverse consequences. However, the guidelines do call for fines for non-compliance, and as Saudi blogger Ahmed al Omran notes, they give prosecutors a cudgel to use when content upsets the government.

It is difficult to see the ministry’s move as anything but a sweeping attempt to control online content emanating from the kingdom. Whether it will succeed is another question. As Al Omran told Al Arabiya: “It is impossible to fully control and centralize what is going on online.”

Saudi security officials announced that a long-sought Saudi militant linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was killed in a shoot-out with traffic policemen at a Riyadh checkpoint on Dec 24. He was dressed as a woman, a government spokesman said.

Meanwhile, for the first time, a Saudi imam, or mosque prayer leader, has complained publicly about threats against him because he had criticized Al Qaeda. It is likely that he is not the only imam being threatened. Such threats might be one reason why security officials sometimes complain that many Saudi imams are not doing enough in their preaching to condemn extremist thinking.

In another blow for Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the head of the group’s media operations has been killed during fighting with Yemeni security forces. The death of Nayef bin Mohammed Al Qahtani, who had long been on Saudi Arabia’s most-wanted list, was announced online by the terrorist organization. It did not give the date or location of his death.

The government has filed terrorism charges against more than a dozen men detained for almost four years, their Jeddah-based lawyer disclosed in early December. The men, who include businessmen, a physician and a lawyer, were widely known for demanding political reforms in Saudi Arabia. They were arrested in February 2007 but the charges were filed secretly only last summer. The men’s trials will take place in a special court that was established for terrorism offenses. The lawyer said his clients deny the charges.

Money: General Electric announced it has won $500 million worth of contracts to provide equipment and services to the kingdom’s Shaybah oil fields. And seven international engineering firms, five of them U.S. companies, have submitted bids to design a new crude oil refinery in Jizan. The project is part of Saudi Arabia’s plans to diversify its economy by expanding its national refining capacity.

Meanwhile, the government offered up its latest annual budget of $154 billion for 2011 amid strong trends in the Arab world’s largest economy: Growth was higher than expected in 2010, and revenue from oil exceeded expectations.

Elsewhere: King Abdullah wanted to have his personal plane outfitted with the same high-tech communications and defense equipment that is on the U.S. presidential airliner, Air Force One, the New York Times reported. His request came in response to a letter from U.S. President George W. Bush urging Saudi Arabia to buy lots of Boeing jets for its civilian fleets. A State Department official said “upgrades” had been authorized for the king’s plane, but would not go into details for security reasons.