As the municipal elections for the Central Region of Saudi Arabia approach, candidates are starting to announce their platforms. The Arab News is running a series of articles and interviews with candidates. Here’re two…

A Giant First Step Toward Reform, Says Candidate
M. Ghazanfar Ali Khan, Arab News

RIYADH, 1 February 2005 — The municipal elections should be looked upon as “a giant first step” in the direction of political reforms and the Saudi government should be commended for this bold initiative, one of the candidates said yesterday.

Addressing a press conference here, Dr. Ibrahim ibn Hamad Al-Quayid, a moderate reformist who is contesting for a seat in the Riyadh municipal council, said he was committed to serving the people.

“I was offered better positions in higher bodies in the Kingdom, but I declined to accept and preferred to run for the municipal poll, which is the beginning of a new phase for Saudi Arabia,” said Al-Quayid.

…Asked about his reasons for contesting the poll despite holding high positions in academic and business spheres, Dr. Al-Quayid said “for a country like Saudi Arabia, it is a historical process and I am participating in the elections for the sake of reforms. I have been promoting the cause of political participation throughout my life. Now the time has come to contest the elections, which are an extremely modest affair.”

The elections are a “real breakthrough” in the Saudi context, said Dr. Al-Quayid, who calls himself a moderate. He said the pressure for change has been building for years. Nearly all countries neighboring Saudi Arabia already practice one form of electoral participation or another.

Another candidate is running to achieve different ends:

RIYADH, 1 February 2005 — In one of the boldest campaign platforms chosen by a candidate contesting the forthcoming municipal elections, Dhafer Al-Yami has pledged to combat corruption in Riyadh Municipality.

“For the sake of the country… No to corruption” is his campaign slogan.

Al-Yami, who is an attorney and legal consultant, promises citizens visiting his campaign tent set up in the Al-Rawdah district constituency, that their hopes and concerns would be conveyed to the highest decision makers. He is a candidate in the third precinct in Al-Rawdah.

Among the points he highlights in his election plank in seeking the support of voters are:

• It is a priority to combat administrative and financial corruption in municipalities… How is public money spent by the heads of municipalities?

• Fair and accurate budgeting and financing of projects and municipal services.

• The need to reduce fees and increase municipal fines to create a balance between public interest and private interest according to the Royal Decree issued on 21/2/1397 H.

• Where is the share of youth in the distribution of land and houses? And what is the role of the municipality in real estate offerings?

• Shall we continue to turn a blind eye to real estate brokers and businessmen who are developing sprawling real estates horizontally into residential plots, thus creating a serious burden on urban and municipal utilities?

• Will south Riyadh continue to suffer from infestations of pests and foul odors emanating from deprived and neglected districts?

• The plight of people in Al-Naseem and Al-Natheem should be addressed as long as these districts are nothing but bazaars replete with livestock markets, slaughter houses, workshops, trenches, open sewages, and deserted streets.

• People in downtown and old districts in Riyadh have the right to work out practical solutions to access their houses and businesses easily.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Gazette has its own coverage, looking both at candidates and potential voters.

January:31:2005 - 23:45 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Regulate Haj Arrivals
Abdul Waheed Al-Humaid, Al-Riyadh

Our hearts are in our throats every year before Haj lest something unforeseen happen during the time when millions of pilgrims are performing the rituals. Our unease is not because we have not prepared for Haj or because our planning has been less than it should have been. The unease is simply because of the nature of Haj and the nature of the people involved. Haj is performed once a year in one place at a specific time; there is no way to change the time or move the place to somewhere else. People are eager to perform Haj because it is the duty of every Muslim once in their life. Some people, in fact, perform Haj every year as long as they are able to do so.

This article, translated from the Arabic daily Al-Riyadh presents a paradox.

It is an obligation upon all Muslims that–if their finances permit–they should make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetimes.

But, as the author points out, Mecca is a finite entity. It is only so big; religious sites are identified in the Quran and fixed in their distances from one another. One can’t move them around to make more space. Nor can the dates of the pilgrimage be spread out; they’re fixed in the calendar.

In the face of ever-growing numbers of pilgrims, the holy sites become overcrowded, and overcrowding, coupled with the quirks of human behavior, can lead to disaster.

Already, the Saudis establish a quota of the number of Muslims from every country who can attend the Haj. There’s a complicated formula, based on the number of Muslims in a population and the number who have gone on previous pilgrimages, but the result is that not everyone can go when they want. Some never make it, even after a life of saving and planning for it.

This author offers a proposal that won’t go down well with a lot of Muslims, but is probably inevitable:
making Haj a once-in-a-lifetime event. Since one gains reward (in the afterlife) for making the Haj, it’ll be a tough sell to tell people that their access to the rewards of God are limited by the acts of man.

January:31:2005 - 23:41 | Comments Off | Permalink

Nomads Survive Flood to Live Another Day
Arab News

MADINAH, 1 February 2005 — The floods that ravaged Madinah last week did not spare anyone, including nomads living in the wild.

Al-Madinah newspaper reported that the nomads are constantly under threat from the vagaries of nature but they would live to see another flood sweeping by. The daily interviewed some nomads affected by last week’s flash floods that hit many parts of Madinah.

This is a story that you don’t see repeated everywhere in the world…

Saudi Bedouins–here called “nomads”–are a disappearing population. Since the 1930s, the government has been trying different kinds of programs to settle them into fixed communities. There, they can more easily received–and the government more easily and equitably deliver–services. For the past 70 years, though, success has been hard to achieve. How do you settle people who don’t really want to settle?

The government has undertaken programs similar to those employed in the US in the 1960s to bring infrastructure and development to rural regions. And while most Bedouin are now settled–if not fully integrated–in town, villages, and cities, there are still a remnant, now mostly elderly, who insist on living in the deserts and barrens.

As ever, though, no matter their ages, they are exposed to the vagaries of the weather. Last week’s floods in Mecca and Medina hit them hard.

January:31:2005 - 23:41 | Comments Off | Permalink

Elections a First Step

Initial indications are that the electoral turnout in Iraq at some 60 percent of potential voters was much higher than expected. Although the election took place in a high-security environment in which cars were not allowed to run on the streets and suicide bombers tried to disrupt events an estimated eight million Iraqis trekked to the polls.

The turnout can be seen as a vindication of sorts for the two Western leaders who staked the most politically on the invasion of Iraq. US President Bush said: The world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Mideast. By participating in free elections, the Iraqi people have firmly rejected the anti-democratic ideology of the terrorists. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the elections a blow right to the heart of global terrorism and called on people – whatever their views about the invasion – to embrace the results.

This Saudi Gazette editorial takes pretty much the same tone as other Saudi editorials: the elections were a huge success and have great meaning for the rest of the Middle East. But there’s still work to be done. A good piece, worth reading.

January:31:2005 - 23:40 | Comments Off | Permalink

Terrorism, not Jihad, in Iraq
By Ahmad Wahaj Al-Siddiqui — The Saudi Gazette

MAKKAH: A PROFESSOR of Islamic philosophy in Iraq took exception to reports that the terrorism launched by militants in the war-torn country is a form of Jihad.

Dr. Abdul Jabbar Rifae, who came here as guest at the Grand Haj Seminar on the invitation by Minister of Haj, Iyad Madani, said in an interview with the Saudi Gazette that it was not correct to call the terrorism in Iraq a Jihad.

That is incorrect, baseless and a mistaken opinion that encourage the factions which do not want Iraq to return to normalcy and take pleasure in ruthless killings and kidnappings to serve their own ends, he said.

Rifae said Islam does not allow anyone to take the law in his own hands and that a fatwa (jurist opinion)could only be given by leaders like a Grand Mufti or a recognized jurist.

This Saudi Gazette article is an interview with an Iraqi professor who points out–for his Saudi readers–that there’s a difference between jihad and terror… and what’s going on in Iraq is terror.

Good article.

January:31:2005 - 23:39 | Comments Off | Permalink

Today’s “Opinion Journal”–an on-line adjunct of The Wall Street Journal –links snarkily to a report just issued by Freedom House entitled, “Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Fill American Mosques”. The report also gets picked up by Instapundit, thus assuring it of wide dissemination.

The report is a serious one that makes serious allegations. I’ve asked the Saudi Embassy for more information and their reaction to the report and will post on what I learn.

In brief, the reports says that there is a lot of hate-literature available through the Saudi embassy, mosques and “cultural centers” that receive Saudi support. Much of that material was published by Saudi authorities, employees, or individuals holding some relationship to the Saudi government. This is all true, and it is reprephensible.

I will wait until I hear back from the Saudi Embassy to get their side of the story before making a definitive comment.

In the meantime, though, I recognize a couple of very serious weaknesses in the report. Whether by accident or design, I can’t yet tell.

One weakness is that much of the material discussed is actually out-of-date. The Presidency for Girls Education, for instance, which is cited as the publisher of one piece of literature, was shut down in 2002. The book in question is no longer used. Abdel Aziz Bin Baz, former Grand Mufti, died in 1999. Other materials are from textbooks no longer in use in Saudi schools.

The report dates these materials with both their publication dates–when available–as well as the date they were obtained by the report’s writers. The dates of publication range from the 1960s to one title published in 2002; the majority are from the 1980s or early 90s. The collection dates are current, late December 2003 or 2004.

Seeing the disparity in dates and based on my 25 years’ experience with and in American Cultural Centers, I can identify one issue that goes unremarked in the report: bureaucratic inertia. The home offices of all foreign affairs agencies, around the world, send out materials that are of huge importance to the government or administration then in power. Sometimes these are good materials that can be easily disseminated. Other times, the materials are worse than useless, being already out of date or so specifically agenda-driven that the best one can achieve is limited distribution. Often, the materials sit on a shelf, unused, until someone asks for them.

Sometimes, a rocket comes from headquarters inquiring about how well the pet project went over, how widely the masses clamored for the wisdom on hand. With a drug on the market, the field office does what it can. Out-and-out lying isn’t appropriate, professional, or safe. Safer by far is to send the materials–in as big a dose as you think the recipient will swallow–to anyone who will accept them. In the case of USG documents, that can be NGOs, schools, think-tanks, essentially anyone they can be fobbed off on.

An American example of this would be the expensive, beautifully-printed report on how Saddam Hussein was diverting oil-for-food money to build extensive palaces.

Sounded like a real scandal to Washington: Despot Despoils Country! Thousands Starve as Saddam Celebrates! It was such a good idea, that thousands of copies were printed up and sent to US embassies abroad.

By American moral norms, this was a scandal. But it wasn’t a big news flash in the region. Despots are expected to behave that way, using whatever they can get their hands on to enhance their honor and glory. “Of course Saddam diverted funds to build palaces, where else could he get the money?” people in the region asked.

When I arrived in Riyadh, nearly four years after the publication of this report, there were hundreds of these pamphlets stacked on the shelves. They were impossible to distribute because they were of zero interest. Luckily for me, the report was a product of the Clinton Administration. No one in the Bush Administration was going to be inquiring about the distribution pattern. They ended up in the trash, along with a load of other materials, dating back to the 70s, on then-cutting-edge political issues.

I suspect the Saudi Embassy in Washington is subject to the same bureaucratic laws. They get pallets’ worth of materials for which there are very limited possibilities for distribution. They sit there until someone–such as the report’s authors–ask for them. Or they’re sent out–in bulk–to anyone who might possibly find a use for them. And then the materials sit on the next rung down the ladder, until someone asks for them or they end up occupying expensive shelf space and finally get thrown away.

My point is that the availability of materials–never mind their content–is not a good indicator of their actual use. Better would have been to see what was actively being distributed by the various organizations, not just was was available. The authors might have sent a blind request for materials–not collected them themselves–and seen what was sent to them, a better measure of what was being promoted.

Even if the presence of these materials can be at least partially explained away, I don’t believe it excuses their presence. Saudi Arabia has changed greatly since the 1960s. Changes within the last two years, in fact, have made most books about Saudi Arabia terribly out-of-date. Government-produced materials that have passed their “sell-by” dates don’t belong on any bookshelves, for whatever reason, particularly when they no longer reflect reality. The reality is that the Saudi government is demanding moderation in the mosques and schools; textbooks have been rewritten to exclude the objectionable material the report notes.

As I noted above, I’m working to get official comment and reaction to this report. I’ll pass it on as soon as I get it.

January:31:2005 - 21:46 | Comments & Trackbacks (13) | Permalink

Voting, Not Violence, Is the Big Story on Arab TV

AMMAN, Jordan, Jan. 30 – Sometime after the first insurgent attack in Iraq this morning, news directors at Arab satellite channels and newspaper editors found themselves facing an altogether new decision: should they report on the violence, or continue to cover the elections themselves?

After close to two years of providing up-to-the-minute images of explosions and mayhem, and despite months of predictions of a bloodbath on election day, some news directors said they found the decision surprisingly easy to make. The violence simply was not the story this morning; the voting was.

This New York Times article is a surprisingly positive one about both the Iraqi elections and the way in which Arab media covered them.

Of particular interest is the coverage of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya network,

The daylong reporting of the election process, details on the personalities and almost step-by-step guides to the voting were a significant departure from what the Arab news media has produced in some time.

Perhaps the most ambitious effort came from Al Arabiya, which had eight satellite trucks broadcasting from across Iraq, as well as numerous video phone links from Mosul, Baquba, Ramadi and elsewhere, and live feeds from neighboring countries. To give particular emphasis to elections coverage, Al Arabiya also built a special studio for the event. Al Arabiya executives did not disclose the total outlay for the effort, but said it was significant.

“We think this is a very important event, not just in Iraq but in the Arab world,” Mr. Hage said. “It’s the first real democratic event in the whole region and it deserved the attention.” Giving the event such special attention, Mr. Hage said, would help build Al Arabiya’s brand as a critical news source, if not expand its viewership.

Al-Arabiya is the second-favorite satellite TV channel in Saudi Arabia (after Al-Jazeera TV). It reaches millions of viewers and has an influence. Its positive coverage of the elections is sending a message; that message is being well-received.

If you think the messiness of Iraq is without positive consequence throughout the region, you’re simply wrong. Read the article to see the direction Arab media went in its coverage of the elections. Very good piece.

Thanks to Belgravia Dispatch for the pointer. [Note: the link to the NY Times article will, unfortunately expire in a week or so.]

Donna Abu-Nasr, reporting for the Associated Press from Riyadh, also has a very good piece, interviewing a cross-section of Arabs about the elections. I’ve worked on stories with Donna and consider her exceptionally professional. Of particular note are the comments from Saudi Shi’i:

Some of Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors have expressed fears a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq could join with Iran to form a Shiite crescent, threatening traditional Sunni dominance of the region and inspiring potential political claims by other Shiites.

Al-Hamad, who lives in the Eastern Province, said Saudi Arabia will only fear a Shiite government in Iraq if it allies itself with Iran, which had called for exporting its 1979 Islamic Revolution beyond its borders.

A Shiite government in Iraq will not inspire unrest among the kingdom’s Shiites, he said.

“They are not demanding self-rule or an alliance with Iran. They just want rights that citizens in any country expect,” he said. “A Shiite government in Iraq will give them the confidence to lobby more persistently for those rights.”

January:31:2005 - 13:08 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Editorial: First Step

Iraq is now busy counting ballots. Election day was nowhere near as bloody as Al-Zarqawi had said it would be. No doubt there were many who stayed at home out of fear but fortunately, there were many more who wanted their voices heard and so they voted. How many actually voted will not be known for several days, but indications are that the turnout has been relatively high — even in areas where it was feared there might be boycotts. So many conditions for a free and democratic election are lacking in present-day Iraq which is why many have been moved to declare victory by arguing that if Iraqis are voting after years of Saddam’s brutalities and after months of a bloody insurgency, that is in fact success.

And this is true. Being brave enough to vote when there is a distinct chance of not returning home is genuine patriotic heroism that fortunately very few people in very few countries are called upon to emulate.

This Arab New editorial again comes out strongly, declaring the Iraqi elections a success, even if not perfect.

Something that caught my eye is a line in a later paragraph:

This is what we have been waiting for — not appointments but an election by and for the people in which the people choose. It is what so many all over the world have died for and that should not be forgotten.

While this is about the Iraqi elections, I’m sure it was written with Saudi elections in mind. With half of the municipal council slots to be appointed, there’s room to grow democracy within Saudi Arabia.

January:30:2005 - 23:34 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Scholars, Intellectuals Urged to Join Hands in Anti-Terror Fight
P.K. Abdul Ghafour, Arab News

JEDDAH, 31 January 2005 — Saleh Al-Asheikh, minister of Islamic affairs and endowments, yesterday called upon religious scholars, intellectuals, academics and writers to stand together with the government in its fight against terrorism and extremism.

“You have a great responsibility in enlightening the youth on confronting deviant thoughts,” the minister said on the occasion of the international anti-terrorism conference in Riyadh and the nationwide anti-terror campaign.

In a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency, Al-Asheikh also urged all Saudis and expatriates to support security forces in their bid to defeat the “deviant group” from realizing its nasty goals. He was referring to Al-Qaeda terror network which has carried out a series of bombings and shootings across the Kingdom since May 2003 killing more than 100 people.

This article is a pretty clear indication, I think, that the Saudi government is making a full-out effort to get to the roots of terrorism that had found fertile soil in Saudi Arabia. The names cited are the big guns: the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Crown Prince.

It will be very interesting to see what comes out of the anti-terror conference starting next Saturday, to which 49 countries (including the US) are sending delegates.

January:30:2005 - 23:32 | Comments Off | Permalink

Poll Draws Mixed Reaction
M. Ghazanfar Ali Khan, K.S. Ramkumar & Sameer Al-Saadi

RIYADH/JEDDAH, 31 January 2005 — Reaction of Saudi academics and businessmen to Iraq’s first free election in 50 years yesterday was mixed, with some saying the poll was deeply flawed and would give democracy a bad name. Others voiced support for the election, saying the move to hold election in itself was important though the timing and mechanics were flawed. They said that internal violence and the poor showing of Sunnis at the polls undermined it.

Dr. Fauzia Al-Bakr, a professor at King Saud University (KSU), welcomed the elections saying: “The poll is a positive move, but the Arabs have been largely dissatisfied with the whole exercise because of violence, the continued occupation and sectarian reasons.” Al-Bakr said some Sunni groups had boycotted the election, saying it cannot be free and fair because of the US military presence and daily bloodshed in the Sunni heartlands of the war-torn country.

As the headline says, “mixed reviews”. Of interest is the difference in opinions–at least as reported–held by those in Riyadh and Jeddah. Jeddah, with a reputation as a more “modernist” city, gives favorable reviews. Riyadh, more “traditionalist”, sees the negatives.

I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in just one article–there are sure to be more over the coming days–but this article is certainly worth reading.

January:30:2005 - 23:32 | Comments Off | Permalink

Candidates Announce Their Platforms
Raid Qusti & Nasser Al-Salti, Arab News

RIYADH, 31 January 2005 — The race is on and excitement is felt everywhere. After the end of the first phase which was registering all male citizens above 21, the second phase has now begun. Candidates are publicly announcing their platforms so that people may decide who will represent them. Half the members will be elected and the other half appointed by the government.

On Saturday morning, candidates had quarter and half page ads in newspapers promoting their ideas. Some candidates concentrated on environmental issues such as cleaner streets and more parks while others emphasized better services for all citizens and residents. One candidate who took out a half-page advertisement in Arab News’ sister publication Al-Eqtisadiah, said: “Your voice = an affordable house a cleaner environment.”

The first nation-wide elections in Saudi Arabia, even though they’re “only” for municipal councils, are a big deal. They are utterly groundbreaking on many counts.

Not least among these changes is an abrupt change in how Saudis will relate to each other. Up ’til now, things had always been done face-to-face, quietly, sometimes secretly. Now, a huge dose of transparency is needed.

It’s interesting, too, that in order to politick, some religious interpretations of “proper behavior” are being pushed aside. Read the whole thing; it’s worth it!

January:30:2005 - 23:31 | Comments Off | Permalink

Editorial: Challenge of Elections

Whatever happens today in Iraq, there can be no doubt that it is a very historic moment in the country’s long history. Iraqis must make two choices. The first is whether they should vote at all and the second, if they do decide to vote, is who they should vote for from the list of some 200 different political parties.

This unsigned Arab News editorial is on target in its discussion of the Iraqi elections. Its conclusion is the right one:

….the very fact that the election is being held, despite all predictions is a defeat for the terrorists and a much needed victory for moderation. The inevitable Shiite majority of legislators must next use their success wisely to plan the future for all Iraqis, regardless of their community. In so doing, they will inflict an even more significant defeat on the men of violence.

January:29:2005 - 23:31 | Comments Off | Permalink
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