TIME Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama Unveiled in Saudi: A Style Statement, Not a Political Statement

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama participate in a delegation receiving line with new Saudi Arabian King, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, right, in Riyadh, Jan. 27, 2015.
Carolyn Kaster—AP President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama participate in a delegation receiving line with new Saudi Arabian King, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, right, in Riyadh, Jan. 27, 2015.

Correction appended Jan. 29

There is nothing quite as contentious as the headscarf issue when it comes to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, at least where western observers are concerned. So when U.S. first lady Michelle Obama went to pay her respects after the death of Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh with her hair uncovered, social media lit up with both praise and opprobrium. “Michelle Obama shouldve stayed in Airforce One as a sign of boycott rather than flouting rules of another country #Michelle_Obama_NotVeiled” tweeted @Random_Arora. “She was a guest in another country &culture. She should make no judgements, but show proper respect at a funeral.2 #Michelle_Obama_NotVeiled,” wrote @MonaBadah.

The thing is, Obama wasn’t really flouting any rules when she chose not to wear a headscarf. While foreign female visitors to the Kingdom are expected to wear long, loose fitting garments as a sign of respect — Obama obliged with a long coat over dark trousers — the headscarf is optional. The muttawa, or religious police, might growl menacingly, but there is nothing legally wrong with going uncovered for non-Muslims. Doing so may draw unwanted attention, and the ire of conservatives, but most Saudis treat the headscarf as a sign of piety, or at least feigned piety for public consumption.

When it comes to women’s rights in the kingdom, the headscarf is the least of any Saudi activist’s worries. She is more likely to be concerned about the right to drive, the right to vote, the right to keep her children after asking for divorce and the right to travel, marry and work without express permission from a male guardian. So maybe if Obama had driven to the funeral herself, it would have been worth a stir. Instead, she did as several other notable female visitors to the Kingdom, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among them, have done before: dressing respectfully without compromising their own personal sense of style. It’s not like Mr. Obama decided to don a thobe and shemagh for the occasion.

Correction: The original version of this story mischaracterised Obama’s visit to Riyadh. It was to offer condolences for the Saudi King.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s New King Refused to Intervene in a Controversial Beheading

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud looks on during a meeting with China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
Lintao Zhang—POOL/Reuters Saudi Arabia's King Salman looks on during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 13, 2014

An alleged rapist was executed Monday but many Saudis believe the case against him was shaky

A Saudi man accused of raping young girls was beheaded on Monday in the first execution under the administration of Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman.

Teacher Moussa al-Zahrani, 45, was beheaded in the western city of Jeddah, the Associated Press reports. The execution drew an unusual amount of debate on Saudi talk shows and social media, with citizens and relatives pointing out inconsistencies and gaps in evidence.

Al-Zahrani repeatedly maintained his innocence throughout his trial and appeals, and pleaded to the late Saudi King Abdullah to intervene in a video, which circulated widely in social media. The video featured al-Zahrani’s allegations that police framed him, eliciting a Twitter hashtag in Arabic “We are all Moussa al-Zahrani.”

However, King Salman, like his predecessor, chose not to intervene in the execution. Saudi Arabia continues to apply the death penalty to cases of rape, murder and other offenses according to the theocratic kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islamic law.

[AP]

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: January 24

Capitol
Mark Wilson—Getty Images The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

Fuel’s Paradise

A majority of Americans are paying less than $2 per gallon for gas for the first time since 2009, and the ever-cheapening fuel is helping put more money in consumers’ pockets and bolster the economy

NASA Finds ‘Super Earths’

NASA’s Kepler Mission has found many planets in the “Goldilocks zone,” where it isn’t too hot or cold for water to exist

McDonald’s CEO Asks for Time

McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson cited a litany of actions the company is taking to reverse steep declines in sales

Federal Judge Strikes Down Gay-Marriage Ban in Alabama

A U.S. district judge ruled Friday in favor of two Mobile women who sued to challenge Alabama’s refusal to recognize their marriage performed in California. The judge said a state statute and 2006 amendment to the Alabama Constitution violated the U.S. Constitution

Big Storm Headed for the East Coast

A nor’easter could wreak havoc all along the East Coast this weekend, with a mix of rain and snow that will likely cause airline and traffic delays along the I-81 and I-95 corridors. Up to a foot of snow could accumulate in some locations

Obama to Cut Short India Trip to Visit Saudi Arabia

The schedule change, announced shortly before Obama left for India, means the president will skip plans to see the Taj Mahal, and instead pay a call on an influential U.S. ally in the volatile Mideast. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah died Friday at age 90

An Asteroid Will Fly Close to Earth on Monday

It doesn’t sound like a close shave, but in astronomical terms, it is. An asteroid will fly within 745,000 miles of Earth on Monday, NASA said, the closest a space rock will fly to Earth until 2027

Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks Dies at 83

Ernie Banks, the Hall of Fame slugger and two-time MVP who always maintained his boundless enthusiasm for baseball despite decades of playing on miserable teams, died Friday night. He was 83

Emma Watson Launches New Anti-Sexism Initiative

Harry Potter star and U.N. Women Global Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson unveiled the the HeForShe IMPACT initiative, a one-year pilot project geared toward advancing women by working with governments, companies and universities

Ebola Vaccines Get Tested in Liberia

The long-awaited vaccine for Ebola is heading to clinical trials in Liberia. Two vaccines, with the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) support, will start efficacy testing in Liberia in the beginning of February

SkyMall Files for Bankruptcy

The parent company of in-flight shopping catalog SkyMall has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing an increased prevalence of mobile devices on planes as the primary reason for the company’s flagging sales

Apple Store Chief Gets the Big Bucks

How much does Apple care about its retail stores? Enough to pay more than $70 million to the woman heading them up, making her the highest-paid exec at the company. Angela Ahrendts earned $73.4 million in 2014, almost all of it in stock awards

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TIME energy

New King In Saudi Arabia, Same Old Oil Policy

Whether it is Abdullah or Salman, the Saudi royal family’s preeminent concern is to ensure the longevity of its petrol kingdom

The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah made international headlines on January 22, raising questions about the future of the Middle East. News of his death briefly rattled the oil markets, but the media attention paid to the event outstrips the significance: it is business as usual in the Arabian Peninsula.

The outpouring of praise for King Abduallah was bizarre. The Washington Post labeled him a “reformer,” and The New York Times said he was a “force of moderation.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took to Twitter to pay his respects. “King Abdullah was a man of wisdom & vision. US has lost a friend & Kingdom of #SaudiArabia, Middle East, and world has lost a revered leader,” he tweeted.

Sure, King Abdullah fought Al Qaeda and joined the World Trade Organization. But he also maintained an iron grip over his monarchy, a country in which women cannot legally drive and risk being beaten by religious police if they go out in public without facial covering.

So in many ways, King Abdullah was more of the same. And his successor, King Salman, will continue conservative geriatric leadership over his oil kingdom. This is evidenced by his speech earlier in the month, on behalf of the late King Abdullah, that Saudi Arabia will face the challenge posed by low oil prices with a “firm will.”

But in reality, the question of what happens to Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi – and with him, Saudi oil policy – was in some ways much more important than which specific successor takes the throne. For now, Al-Naimi appears set to stay on according to the AP, at least through OPEC’s next meeting in June.

The Saudi government quickly assured the world that its oil policy will remain unchanged. The smooth succession and adherence to current policy calmed the oil markets, which saw prices retreat after briefly jumping by nearly 2 percent.

As a result, Saudi Arabia will continue its pursuit of market share – oil output will remain steady in the face of depressed prices.

The Saudi budget breaks even at somewhere around $63 per barrel, suggesting they will run a significant deficit this year. That is something the kingdom is willing to take on, given the $800 billion in cash reserves it has stashed away for a rainy day.

Will Plunging Oil Prices Crash The Stock Market?

When oil crashed in 2008 all hell was breaking loose. Lehman Brothers went up in smoke and stocks were in a nosedive. Oil has once again crashed -50% in only 6 months but equities haven’t followed – at least not yet! Will stocks hold up going forward? You might find it hard to believe just how much wealth could have been created last time this happened. If we learn from the past, this could be a second chance to make an absolute fortune.

The November 2014 decision to maintain output, followed by the collapse in oil prices, fueled some rather triumphalist speculation about how U.S. shale killed off OPEC. Yet the strategy Saudi Arabia laid out in November, which will be continued by King Salman, demonstrates full well Saudi Arabia’s influence over oil markets. As the only significant source of spare capacity in the world, it alone has the ability to voluntarily ramp up or down several million barrels of oil per day. For now, it is keeping the taps open, forcing a contraction from others.

And it has more staying power than U.S. shale producers. The number of active rigs in the U.S. fell by 209 between December and mid-January 2015. That is the fastest decline since data collection began by oil services firm Baker Hughes, dating back to 1987. Production cuts will eventually follow.

“Everyone tells us to cut. But I want to ask you, do we produce at higher cost or lower costs? Let’s produce the lower cost oil first and then produce the higher cost,” OPEC Secretary General Abdullah al-Badri said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Saudi Arabia is willing to wait out low prices. That means that the pain for U.S. shale producers should continue, and will likely grow worse before it gets better.

Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of Italian oil giant Eni, called on OPEC to cut oil production in order bring supply and demand into balance. “What we need is stability… OPEC is like the central bank for oil which must give stability to the oil prices to be able to invest in a regular way,” he said in Davos, according to Reuters. Descalzi says that OPEC’s failure to cut production could lead to oil prices skyrocketing to $200 because many private oil companies will push off drilling.

But that is exactly what Saudi policy could be aiming for: maintain market share, force others to cut back production, and reap the rewards of higher prices once they do.

Saudi Arabia’s entire economy is based on oil. The government brings in 85 percent of its revenues from petroleum exports. Whether it is Abdullah or Salman, the Saudi royal family’s preeminent concern is to ensure the longevity of its petrol kingdom. For now, that means no change in its current oil strategy.

This post originally appeared on OilPrice.com.

Read more from Oilprice.com:

TIME Saudi Arabia

Know Right Now: Saudi Arabia Has a New King

King Salman is 79 years old

With the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah came the crowning of King Salman.

Salman bin Abdulaziz, who was named crown prince in June 2012, was Abdullah’s third heir to the throne after two elder brothers died in late 2011 and mid-2012. As the new King of Saudi Arabia, home to 28 million people, he will also serve as Prime Minister and Defense Minister.

A longtime governor of the capital, Riyadh, Salman has a reputation as a progressive and practical prince similar in bearing to his late brother.

Find out more about who he is and what his policies are by watching today’s Know Right Now. Or read more about the King here.

TIME Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah’s Death Shows Saudi Arabia’s Declining Clout

King Abdullah, left, with then-Crown Prince Salman, right, in 2010.
AP King Abdullah, left, with then-Crown Prince Salman, right, in 2010.

The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has momentarily grabbed the world’s attention, but the real story is that his kingdom matters less than it used to

Ten years ago, the death of a Saudi king would have sent shock waves through Washington. Today, as the Kingdom recovers from the death of King Abdullah yesterday, Saudis don’t carry the same clout. In part, that’s because the U.S. is much less dependent on Middle Eastern oil than it was a few years ago, as U.S. companies have reinvented the way oil and natural gas is produced. Hydraulic fracturing has opened access to liquid energy deposits locked inside once-impenetrable rock formations, and breakthroughs in horizontal drilling methods have made the technology more profitable.

By the end of this decade, the United States is expected to produce almost half the crude oil it consumes. More than 80% of its oil will come from North or South America. By 2020, the United States could become the world’s largest oil producer, and by 2035 the country could be almost entirely self-sufficient in energy. Relations with the Saudis are no longer a crucial feature of U.S. foreign policy, and the surge in global supply, which has helped force oil prices lower in recent months, ensures that others are less concerned with the Saudis as well.

In addition, outsiders are not worried that King Abdullah’s death will make the Kingdom unstable. Newly-crowned King Salman is plenty popular, and other key players—Crown Prince Muqrin, National Guard head Prince Miteab, and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef—have pragmatic working relations with the new king and with one another. The succession process will appear uneventful from the outside, but Salman will spend the next several months consolidating his authority and building a stable balance of power among factions within the family and across the government.

Another reason the Saudis matter less: They’re now bogged down in the region. Saudi worries that Iran can make mischief even under harsh sanctions only raises fears should a deal be made with the West later this year over its nuclear program, which would ease those sanctions, Tehran would only become a more troublesome rival. But even if there is no deal and sanctions are tightened, Iran will probably become more aggressive to demonstrate its defiance, creating new headaches along Saudi borders.

How will the Saudis manage its local security worries? Along the border with violence-plagued Iraq, the Saudis are actually building a 600-mile wall complete with five layers of fencing, watch towers, night-vision cameras and radar. Terrorist violence in neighboring Yemen and the fall of its government this week add to the Saudi’s sense that their country is under siege. They’re building a wall along Yemen’ s border as well. Fights with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will demand attention and money.

King Salman is 79, and he’s been central to Saudi policymaking for 50 years. One day soon, we’ll see generational change in the Saudi leadership. When that happens, we might see a fresh approach to the Kingdom’s two biggest problems: Its inability to build a dynamic, modern economy to harness the energies of Saudi Arabia’s millions of young people and its growing marginalization as an international political and economic force.

That day has not yet come.

Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His next book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, will be published in May

TIME portfolio

The Best Pictures of the Week: Jan. 16 – Jan. 23

From escalating violence in eastern Ukraine and a thousands strong march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. to priests photographing Pope Francis in the Philippines and a surprising, glowing seascape in Hong Kong, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s Billionaire King to Be Buried in Unmarked Grave

The body of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is carried during his funeral at Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque, in Riyadh, Jan. 23, 2015.
Faisal al Nasser—Reuters The body of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is carried during his funeral at Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque, in Riyadh, Jan. 23, 2015.

While mourning will last for three days during which kingdom's flags will fly at half staff, businesses and shops will remain open

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — There will be no golden carriages.

The funeral of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, whose death was announced early on Friday, is set to be a simple affair in line with the austere form of Islam practiced by one of the world’s wealthiest ruling families.

The body of the former custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, will be bathed according to Islamic ritual. The late ruler, whose net worth has been estimated to stand at around $20 billion, will then be wrapped in two pieces of plain white cloth — the standard shroud for all Muslims.

According to tradition, nothing out of the ordinary will be done to King Abdullah’s body, and after it is prepared it will be taken to the Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque in the capital Riyadh for the funeral prayers at around 3:15 p.m. (7:15 a.m. ET).

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Yemen

U.S. Downsizes Yemen Embassy Staff as Crisis Builds

Houthi fighters ride a truck near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Jan. 22. 2015.
Khaled Abdullah—Reuters Houthi fighters ride a truck near the presidential palace in Sanaa, Jan. 22. 2015.

U.S. officials say that the embassy won’t be closing

The U.S. has decided to reduce its embassy staff in Yemen following the collapse of the nation’s government at the hands of rebel Houthi fighters.

“The safety and security of U.S. personnel is our top priority in Yemen,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement. “We are evaluating the security situation on the ground on an ongoing basis. We call on all parties to abide by their public commitments to ensure the security of the diplomatic community, including our personnel.”

The move comes four months after U.S. President Barack Obama lauded Yemen as a model for “successful” counterterrorism partnerships.

The reduction of embassy staff, mainly in response to the security situation, comes at a time when Washington is trying to secure partnerships in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria while trying to limit Iran’s influence in the region, according to Reuters.

The situation is alarming neighboring Saudi Arabia, which sees Tehran’s military and financial support for the Shi‘ite Houthis as a sign of their growing regional clout.

Former Yemeni President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who resigned Thursday along with a slew of government officials, was seen as a key ally in the war against jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. However, the Houthis, who now control the capital, are said to loathe al-Qaeda as much as they do the U.S., reports Reuters.

Hadi’s resignation will “absolutely” limit drone strikes and counterterrorism operations in the immediate future, a former U.S. official told the news agency.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Global Leaders Pay Respects After the Death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah

President Obama meets King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia
Kevin Lamarque—Reuters U.S. President Barack Obama meets with King Abdullah at Rawdat al-Khraim (Desert Camp) near Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014.

"An important voice who left a lasting impact on his country"

U.S. President Barack Obama paid tribute to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Friday, hailing the late monarch’s contributions to peace in the Middle East and the relationship between the two allies.

“As our countries work together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship,” Obama said in a statement. “The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah’s legacy.”

Former President George H.W. Bush also released a statement calling Abdullah “a wise and reliable ally, helping our nations build a strategic relationship and enduring friendship,” according to CBS News.

Messages came in from leaders around the world, with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi both expressing regret at Abdullah’s demise. Cameron, who visited Saudi Arabia in 2012, said he was “deeply saddened” and expressed hope that the “long and deep ties between our two Kingdoms will continue,” while Modi took to Twitter to commemorate “an important voice who left a lasting impact on his country.”

Abdullah’s spearheading of the Arab Peace Initiative, which was cited by both Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as one of his key achievements, was also included in U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s condolence message as “a tangible legacy that can still point the way towards peace in the Middle East.”

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