Saudi Economic Performance

In September 2004 Brad Bourland, Chief Economist of the SAMBA Financial Group in Riyadh, was a member of a distinguished panel discussing commerce, economics and energy at the annual Arab-US Policymakers Conference in Washington. He began his presentation with an economist’s reality check:

You know I thought long and hard how I can add some value this afternoon to what really is a very simple story about the performance of the economies of the Arab world. That simple story is that oil prices are $44 per barrel today.

This month Mr. Bourland’s office released its report on the performance of the Saudi Arabian economy in 2004 and its forecast for 2005 (see link). It concluded that 2004 showed the best “balanced performance” in Saudi economic history. Not only was the strong performance buoyed by the high-flying oil prices he noted in September, but the non-oil private sector also showed strong growth in most segments.

We are pleased today to present a conversation with Brad Bourland who provides his perspective on these developments. This exchange was conducted with Mr. Bourland in Riyadh via email on February 27, 2005.

Above is the introduction to a conversation between Brad Bourland, Chief Economist of the Saudi-American Bank Financial Group and the Saudi-US Relations Information Service, an American non-profit working to improve US-Saudi relations.

The entire piece is very interesting, discussing the overall growth in the Saudi economy. Particularly noteworthy is what’s going on in the non-oil sector. It’s here that Saudi Arabia is going to have to look to find the job for its exploding population.

February:28:2005 - 22:48 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

5,537 Tourist Visas Issued
Abdul Aziz Ghazzawi, Al-Eqtisadiah/Arab News

JEDDAH, 1 March 2005 — The Foreign Ministry has issued 5,537 tourist visas to help Americans, Europeans and Africans visit the Kingdom this year under a Saudi Arabian Airlines program titled “Discover Saudi Arabia.”

Yousuf Abdul Qader Atiyya, the airline’s assistant vice president for customer services and supervisor of the program, said the Saudia program was aimed at promoting domestic tourism. The first group of tourists under this program came in the end of January from the Italian city of Milan. “We also brought tourists from France and Taiwan during February,” he pointed out.

More than 5,000 Americans, Europeans and Japanese have visited the Kingdom since the program was first introduced in 1996, Atiyya said. Some 1,100 Japanese came from Osaka on Saudia flights, he added.

The tourists came on one- to two-week package programs organized by Saudia agents abroad and were taken to resorts and heritage sites in Jeddah, Riyadh, Abha, Dammam, Najran and Madain Saleh.

While it’s far from the top of most tourists’ “must-do” list, the kingdom is opening for tourism. Last year, there was a considerable flap when some idiot put up a web page saying that Jews were not eligible for tourist visas.

That was immediately repudiated by the government as that is not their policy. But the anti-Semitic remark had it’s impact, nonetheless.

February:28:2005 - 22:48 | Comments Off | Permalink

When in Doubt, Blame Syria
Linda Heard,

Those who want to get with the latest US program must put the blame on Syria. What for? Doesn’t matter in the least. Whether it is for the two world wars, the demise of Elvis or sinking the Titanic, Syria makes a handy and eminently fashionable punching bag. Even if Syria’s accusers get it wrong, no matter. Syria’s friends are one by one deserting an apparently sinking ship.

That ever-silly Linda Heard is back to her humorous hi-jinks once again! She declares herself “a specialist writer on Middle East affairs”, but she’s really just a typical wet Brit who is blinded to reality by her hatred for America. I suspect it’s jealousy on her part, but really dread the thought of trying to analyze what her problem are.

I’m citing her piece, not to praise it, but to mock it. Why the Arab News bother to publish her is a real mystery. Maybe she works more cheaply than a Guardian syndication?

February:28:2005 - 22:45 | Comments Off | Permalink

Shiites See an Opening in Saudi Arabia
By Scott Wilson — Washington Post

QATIF, Saudi Arabia — As thousands of Iraqis braved the threat of attack to vote last month, more than a dozen men gathered in Mohammed Mahfoodh’s spacious salon here. Lined with sofas and lit by a glass chandelier, the room is a frequent meeting place for the leaders of a Shiite Muslim community that for decades has been subjected to government neglect, religious persecution and job discrimination.

Recalling the scene later, Mahfoodh said his neighborhood was noisy with celebration that evening as many people returned from the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in the west. But the main event was on the television screen in his living room, which remained on most of the night.

“There was something there that appealed to us here,” said Mahfoodh, 38, who edits a cultural magazine called the Word that can only be distributed here underground. In Iraq, he said, “they are struggling to build a new state, with equal rights for all, while radicals are trying to defeat them. This idea, this kind of struggling, is happening here.”

It is also about to show tangible results. For the first time in 70 years, the Shiites of eastern Saudi Arabia, the only part of the kingdom where they are a majority, are preparing to win a small measure of political power. Inspired by the Shiites’ success in Iraq’s elections, Shiite leaders here say they intend to sweep to victory in municipal voting scheduled for Thursday and begin using the authority of elective office to push for equal rights. The voting also will likely result in at least some Shiite representation on two nearby councils.

This is a really good article about how the municipal elections are seen in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, home of the bulk of Saudi Shii. There’s a very different dynamic in the Eastern Province that this piece captures well. Highly recommended reading.

February:28:2005 - 12:24 | Comments Off | Permalink

No Reason Why So Many Saudi Women Go Without a Job
Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

Samia is a very frustrated girl. Her father is old and retired and her only brother lives in another town with too many responsibilities to spare much of help. Her mother is sick and needs medical attention while her younger sisters are still in school and need daily transportation, as she does. All her problems begin and end with money. She can’t have enough of her teaching salary to satisfy all these needs. Her pay of around four thousand riyals is hardly enough to cover food, medicine and accommodation expenses. Much could have been saved if she could drive to take her sisters to school and on to hers. Later, she could take them back home and run other errands. Besides grocery, she has to take her father to the three-days-a-week physical therapy, her mother to hospital or her grandmother’s home. Every now and then the family needs to go to social events and join family gatherings.

This is an interesting article that I originally missed in the Sunday Arab News Someone in Saudi pointed it out to me today, calling it a “must read”. That it is. Batarfi, Editor of the Arabic Al-Madina, makes a very clear case that it is cultural values, masquerading as religious imperatives, that are the real issue here.

One point in the article may need some explanation for western readers, though. In the piece, the subject is seen to complain about her “maid escaping”. To many, this immediately draws a picture of a quasi-slave breaking the bonds of servitude. Among Saudis, though, “escape” usually means a servant breaking a contract to get a better paid job. The problem is in the breaking of the contract, which it tied up with work permits and visas that carry legal obligations for both the worker and the employer. For one thing, a runaway domestic means that the position cannot be refilled readily, through legal procedures. There’re limits placed on how many people can come in on domestic work visas. It also leaves the initial employer legal responsible for the actions of a person no longer under any sort of responsible control.

There have been documented cases of abuse of servants, many of them. This isn’t about that. And most of us would not care to do that kind of work under the prevailing conditions. But abuse is not the norm among the tens of thousands of Saudi households that employ domestic workers. It’s unfortunate that Batarfi included this “throw-away” line in the article as it will distract readers not aware of exactly what he’s talking about. But it also shows that this is a translated piece that originally appeared for a Saudi readership, who understands the context of the remark.

February:28:2005 - 10:52 | Comments Off | Permalink

Editorial: Reforms in Egypt

All nations which aspire to a genuine democracy must have at the forefront free and fair elections. They must, of their choosing, elect representatives who will be of the people and for the people. Any country lacking a genuine ballot box can only pretend to be democratic.

In the Middle East, pretenses are now being pushed aside for the real thing. We have seen unprecedented elections in Iraq and Palestine and nationwide municipal elections in the Kingdom. Now Egypt is also to be added to the list of countries participating in democracy in the Middle East.

This is a solid Arab News editorial commenting on the recent announcement out of Egypt that multi-party competition would be permitted in the next general elections. While the article is “about” Egypt, is is also about expectations for Saudi Arabia.

That’s one of the “fun” things about reading Arabic papers. They always say what they say, but they’re also usually saying something else, too.

February:27:2005 - 22:46 | Comments Off | Permalink

American Liberals Have Lost Touch With Reality
Steve Darnell, Arab News

Gen. George S. Patton once said, “Watch what people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack.”

Those on the left seem to be cynical about everything to do with the war on terrorism. I think if Patton were alive today he would say liberals lack the courage to fight the enemy and would slap a few of them around.

It’s rather refreshing to see a piece like this in the Arab News. It serves as sort of an antidote to the usual pap that drips from the pens of The Guardian. For a while, it was beginning to look like Arab News had been bought out by that British paper!

While Mr. Darnell may go over the top a bit, I’m sure he snapped a few eyes open over breakfast this morning. Very amusing piece.

February:27:2005 - 22:45 | Comments Off | Permalink

Speedy Trial of Prisoners Sought
P.K. Abdul Ghafour, Arab News

JEDDAH — Many prisoners in the Kingdom have been behind bars without trial for long periods, according to Saleh Al-Khathlan, a member of the National Society of Human Rights. He called for the establishment of courts near prisons to speed up judicial procedures.

“There are people detained on various charges whose cases have not been transferred to courts. One third of the prisoners in one region of the Kingdom belong to this group,” Al-Riyadh Arabic daily quoted Khathlan as saying. He said such practices went against the country’s penal code.

When it first started up, many people figured that the Saudi National Society for Human Rights would be as useful as a third wing on an airplane. It’s proved otherwise.

This article points to the organization’s actions to get prisoners to a speedy trial, a rule that’s often been breached.

For those keeping score, note that this story originated in the Arabic daily Al-Riyadh.

February:27:2005 - 22:34 | Comments Off | Permalink

Democracy Is Fine, but First Things First
Amr Al-Faisal

I have been following the news about municipal elections with considerable interest.

The newspapers are full of stories about the election process and advertisements from the various candidates.

I cannot help feeling that all this is like someone who spends considerable time and effort to landscape his garden well, while his house is on fire.

This is a good op-ed from Amr Al-Faisal, calling for major reforms in the Saudi legal system in the name of transparency. As he points out, his case is not unique. Getting uniform rule of law established in the kingdom is going to be a mighty undertaking, however, as Sharia law courts are currently the standard. But, as he also says, “the house is on fire.”

February:27:2005 - 22:34 | Comments Off | Permalink

Changes in the Kingdom — on ‘Our Timetable’

In recent speeches, President Bush has emphasized his goal of spreading democracy around the world, specifically mentioning the need for change in Saudi Arabia. Prince Saud Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister for the past 30 years, sat down last week in London for an interview with Newsweek-Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth about the U.S.-Saudi relationship and the volatile situation in the Middle East. Saud’s own relationship with the United States goes back to the early 1960s, when he graduated from Princeton with an economics degree. He said during the lengthy interview that the kingdom is moving toward reform, especially with regard to women, but that any effort must be “gradual.” He described the Saudi-U.S. relationship as almost back to where it was before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Saud Al-Faisal gives a very interesting interview to the Washington Post. It’s worth clicking the link and reading the whole thing.

Some answers will displease some. Saudi Arabia, for instance, will not make a separate peace deal with Israel, but will wait for all other Arab countries to make peace first.

Others, about the role of the US in Iraq, though, might please them.

You can read the Arab News’ take on the interview here: Saud Rules Out Ties With Israel Before Peace Deal

February:27:2005 - 22:23 | Comments Off | Permalink

Growing Signs of Maturity in Saudi Arabia and Arab World
Hassan Yassin, Arab News

In recent years Saudi Arabia and the Arab world have continually been on the defensive, in response to internal as well as external attacks. Today we can safely say that a new page is being turned, as we enter an era of political maturity and improved relations with the West.

For Saudi Arabia the learning curve has been steep but we have many successes to show for it. Our holding of, and participation in, major international conferences has been inspiring and impressive. Our progress in combating terrorism is recognized by all. Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections have been greeted as a modest but crucial step on the road to more participatory government.

This is a good article by a Saudi businessman, noting the incredible changes that have been going on in the Middle East–including Saudi Arabia–over the past few years. He even sees very hopeful signs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While he doesn’t talk about the causes for the changes, the recognition by Arabs that the status quo is gone and that even more changes are coming is encouraging.

February:26:2005 - 22:52 | Comments Off | Permalink

Scientist Tells Women Students to Hold On to Dreams
Maha Akeel, Arab News

JEDDAH, 27 February 2005 — A leading Saudi medical researcher told women students at Effat College that their determination and resolve to achieve their goals were the keys for career success.

Dr. Hayat Sindi delivered a lecture on her biotechnology research and her sometimes-difficult path to becoming a world-class scientist.

Born in Makkah, one of eight children, Dr. Sindi grew up admiring such scientists as Al-Kindi, Khawarizmi, Ibn Sina, Newton and Einstein. She wanted to be like them and make valuable contributions to society.

This is a great story about not giving up your dreams. It applies to everyone, not just Saudi women, but this Saudi woman makes a compelling case.

Her difficulties only started when dealing with cultural barriers. They continued in the UK, where her English ability and undergraduate education weren’t up to snuff. Read the whole thing to see just how far Dr. Sindi’s determination has taken her.

February:26:2005 - 22:52 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink
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