C’mon! 2005 Wasn’t So Bad After All
Amir Taheri

Tired of reading bad news for a whole year? Well, here is some relief: 2005, designated by doomsayers as annus horriblis, is drawing to a close as one of the best years of the new century so far.

Let us start with the good political news…

Amir Taheri, writing in the Arab News, comes up with a good op-ed. At least it’s one that accords well with my own take of the past year. Lots of things have been accomplished to the betterment of many. While partisans like Sidney Blumenthal choose to see things dark and forboding (he calls 2005 “Bush’s annus horriblis), a more realistic assessment, IMO, is that things like Iraqi elections and the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza, are so strongly positive that they outweigh many trivial failures.

In any event, take a look at what Taheri has to say. And have a happy and prosperous new year!

December:31:2005 - 14:57 | Comments Off | Permalink

In a column that was published on December 26, 2005 in the London daily Al-Hayat, columnist Hazem Saghiya harshly attacked Arab and Iranian leaders who denied the Holocaust. Those he singled out included Muslim Brotherhood leader Mahdi ‘Akef, Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The following are excerpts, in the original English:

“Mahdi ‘Akef has joined Khaled Mash’al, who, in his turn, had joined [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in denying the existence of the Nazi holocaust that targeted the European Jews. The issue is no longer tackled or discussed, except in intellectually and educationally retarded milieus. When the denial is being uttered by Arabs and Muslims, this adds another dimension, which is the inability to achieve any progress in reality, then proceed to contest history with myth.

“For the millionth time, the truth must be reiterated: the stance towards the Holocaust is not linked to the stance towards Israel. Those who connect the two are either staunch Zionists who consider that the attitude towards the Hebrew State is automatically the same towards the Holocaust, and vice versa; or Jewish haters who consider that acknowledging the Holocaust is tantamount to supporting Israel, and leave no space for contradicting it.

MEMRI translates an opinion piece from the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat Arabic language newspaper, published in London. The piece spells out clearly the disservice Muslims and Arabs do to themselves and to their aims when they regurgitate anti-Semitic tripe that seeks to deny the Holocaust or to peddle myths like the supposed “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion”.

I consider this an important step in the self-critique of the unthinking acceptance of “common knowledge” that permeates the Middle East. Though overdue, it is welcomed.

Saghiya’s piece continues:

“Most importantly, the ‘culture’ of denying the Holocaust – which is, among other things, the outcome of lack of education – has grown to occupy a dominant position in public Arab and Islamic life. Although the issue was about to come to an end and be confined to narrow margins that gather utter fanaticism with utter retardation, the heavy, poisoned Iranian rain blew on us and was welcomed, quite avidly, by the eager Arab deserts.

“The issue is now no longer restricted to narrow margins. The reason is that [Ahmadi]nejad, regretfully and painfully, is the President of the Republic elected by millions of Iranians. As for Mash’al, he is one of the symbols of the organization that bit at Palestinian municipalities, and may now bite at its Parliament too, in case legislative elections take place, confusing the world over the way to avoid such a stalemate. As for ‘Akef, he is the rising star in Egypt, as his Muslim brethren have secured more than a quarter of the Parliament’s seats. They could even have achieved more in better electoral circumstances.

“Ushered by some writings of the former Syrian Defense Minister Mustapha Tlas, or some letters and instructions of Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the library of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbullah abounds with long excerpts drawn from Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The Jewish Peril, and other yellow pages intermingled with mythical visions about martyrdom and graves.

“This means that we are not to be envied at all. The ailment is swelling up from the heart of the societies to the decision makers therein. It is no coincidence that the elements of the bloc spreading and disseminating the above mentioned ‘ideas’ are those same elements who promise us salvation from occupations and darkness to a brighter and more glowing horizon. It is also no coincidence that the same bloc represents an anti-modern sensitivity coupled with a certain regression to what has [been] tried many times before, in power as well as in opposition…”

December:30:2005 - 14:43 | Comments Off | Permalink

Sending Teens Abroad
Maha Al-Hujailan, Al-Watan

It is obvious these days that the number of Saudis receiving college scholarships to study abroad is higher than ever. This is a positive move.

However, there is a negative side to sending Saudi students abroad to study professions that already exist in our universities. Students not only learn from the university, but also from the host society. And these lessons can be harder than any demanding college course.

This story, from the Abha-based Arabic daily Al-Watan talks about the problems that students face as they move into a new culture, but even more, the problems that culture will be facing with the new stduents! Interesting piece, worth reading.

December:30:2005 - 05:07 | Comments Off | Permalink

Saudi Troops Kill 2 Terrorists Who Gunned Down Police
By VOA News

Authorities in Saudi Arabia say security forces have shot and killed two wanted terrorists, hours after the fugitives gunned down five policemen in a drive-by shooting.

The two dead men are said to have been involved in the al-Qaida terror network’s operations in the kingdom.

One of the suspects, Mohammed bin Abdel-Rahman al-Suwailmi, was fatally wounded in a shootout with government forces that broke out after the initial attack on police Tuesday.

An Interior Ministry official says the second suspect, Abdel-Rahman al-Mutab, made his escape after the original gunbattle, but was caught and shot to death north of Riyadh, Wednesday.

Both men were on Saudi Arabia’s list of most-wanted terrorists. Authorities say they killed five officers in a drive-by shooting in Qassim province.

Saudi Arabia launched a massive crackdown on Islamic militants in 2003, following a series of deadly attacks on foreigners and oil facilities in the kingdom.

This report, from the Voice of America, updates yesterday’s story. Al-Suwailmi died as a result of his wounds and a second was shot to death during later police action.

More on this story, and an editorial putting it into Saudi context can be found at:

Security Forces Gun Down Most Wanted Terrorist

Editorial: War Against Al-Qaeda

THE considerable satisfaction that everyone in the Kingdom must feel at the slaying of another of the most wanted terrorists must be tempered by the knowledge that five members of the security forces gave their lives during the operation. Their senseless murder while they did their duty protecting the public underlines the great evil with which society as a whole is still confronted. Therefore as we congratulate the forces of law and order for notching up another triumph, our hearts must go out to the families and the colleagues of five dead policemen.

Mohammed Abdul Rahman Al-Suwailmi was No. 7 on the list of the 36 most wanted terrorists. His capture near Buraida, capital of Qassim province, was undoubtedly another considerable blow to Al-Qaeda’s terror network in Saudi Arabia and his subsequent death from his wounds may have been a relief to his fellow terrorists. The war against Al-Qaeda is being won by intelligence, much of it gained from captured terrorists. The knowledge that the authorities take a generous view of terrrorists who recant has undermined the determination of some of the most hardened terrorists. The suspect who escaped when Suwailmi was being captured may yet lead the latest police dragnet to other members of his terror cell, as once more Al-Qaeda’s adherents in the Kingdom find themselves on the run.

No one, however, should be under the slightest illusion that the serpent of terror is close to being slain in the Kingdom. Encouraging though each police success may be, the struggle is going to be a long and difficult one. From each defeat they suffer, the terrorists will draw lessons. Their cell structure means that there are only a few senior individuals in a position to know more than what is happening in a particular team of criminals. Terrorists, meanwhile, always enjoy the advantage of choosing when and where to strike next and knowing when and where that strike will be…

Read the whole thing.

December:29:2005 - 14:54 | Comments Off | Permalink

Most Wanted Terrorist Arrested
Samir Al-Saadi, Arab News

JEDDAH, 28 December 2005 — Five Saudi policemen were killed and a most wanted terrorist was captured yesterday in the bloodiest gunbattle in the Kingdom in three months, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

Two police officers were killed by gunfire from a car east of Buraidah, capital of the Qassim region, 300 kilometers north of Riyadh, outside a camp intended for pilgrims to take rest on their way to Makkah.

Three more policemen died when the car’s driver opened fire on a roadblock near Madneb to the south of Buraidah in the same region, the Saudi Press Agency quoted the spokesman as saying.

The security forces then gave chase to the car, damaging the vehicle and wounding and arresting the driver. Security sources later identified the driver as Mohammed Abdul Rahman Al-Suwailemi, who ranks No. 7 on a list of 36 most wanted terrorists issued by the ministry.

The Saudis are continuing their fight against terrorists, as this Arab News story reports. Buraidah is known as one of the centers of the deepest fundamentalist tendencies. It’s unfortunate that it took five police officers’ lives to get Al-Suwailemi, who is on the latest most-wanted list.

December:28:2005 - 14:59 | Comments Off | Permalink

First-Degree Boycott of Israel to Continue

JEDDAH, 22 December 2005 — Saudi Arabia announced yesterday that it would maintain its first-degree boycott of Israeli products despite joining the World Trade Organization (WTO).

An official at the Commerce and Industry Ministry denied reports that the Kingdom had lifted the boycott. “The Kingdom has lifted only the second and third degree boycott of Israel in accordance with a decision taken by the GCC summit 10 years ago,” the official said, adding that the Saudi accession to WTO was not linked to the lifting of the boycott.

This Arab News item, clearly from a governmental press release, clarifies the situation of Saudi Arabia in terms of trade with Israel.

The Saudis will continue to prohibit imports of Israeli goods, or dealing directly with an Israeli company. (First degree boycott)

They will no longer prohibit business that deals with Israel through an intermediary. (Second degree)

They will also no longer prohibit business that do business in Israel from doing business in Saudi Arabia. (Third degree), though this has already been the case, generally, since 1991 and the Gulf War.

Apparently, the Saudis are exercising their sovreign right to choose with whom they will do business. Under WTO, this is permitted. Extended boycotts are prohibited, however, so they will drop those.

I suspect that it will take diplomatic relations with Israel, under the terms outlined by Abdullah in 2003 and accepted by the Arab League, before the First Degree boycott goes away.

December:22:2005 - 08:32 | Comments & Trackbacks (7) | Permalink

Police Stop Play over Man Dressed as Woman

Riyadh, 21 Dec. (AKI) – A theatre performance organised by a group of young Saudis came to an abrupt halt when it was banned by the religious police because one of the men taking part was dressed as a woman. The president of the Dammam youth club told the Arab newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat that the police intervened and censured the comedy solely because one of the actors was playing the part of a woman.

“The performance had been authorised by the Culture Ministry in the context of our cultural activities and it was in the script that a man would have to play the part of a woman,” one of the young organisers of the event explained.

In a statement, the local department of the religious police said: “The play clearly violated the principles of the Sharia [Islamic law]. It is certainly not allowed for a man to play the part of a woman.”

Culture clashes appear within Saudi Arabia as well as between it and the outside world. Here’s a great example. This situation also needs to be seen in the context of the breaking up of a Gay beauty pagent last month.

December:21:2005 - 17:29 | Comments Off | Permalink

Saudi Women See Changes, and Reasons to Expect More – New York Times

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia – Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi journalist in this Red Sea city, was in Manhattan when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. She scrambled to contact her editors and send reports, but was rebuffed because they did not trust the work of a woman.

Ms. Sharif, who has since been promoted to a midlevel editor position, said it would be different today because much has changed for Saudi women – and Sept. 11 is one of the reasons. Wrapped in black, still paid less than her male counterparts and still barred from driving, Ms. Sharif sat in her office inside the cramped “ladies section” of the newspaper Al Watan, sighing about the difficulties someone like her faces.

Nonetheless, she ticked off numerous substantive changes, beginning with something that happened recently. Two women were elected to the 12-member board of directors of the Jidda Chamber of Commerce, the first time that women were elected to, or even permitted to run for, such a visible post in the kingdom.

There is more….

Here’s a very good article about what Saudi women are doing–and what they’re being permitted to do–from The New York Times. [The story will disappear behind a pay-wall soon, so read it while you can.]

It seems clear that Saudi women are making progress, even if it is, as the writer says, often a matter of two steps forward, one step back. There are strong arguments being raised by both traditionalists and religious conservatives, but Saudi women are using their culture and religion to make their arguments. So far, they’re winning, but it’s not a done deal by any means.

December:21:2005 - 15:19 | Comments Off | Permalink

Work Starts on Economic City

Jeddah, 21 Dec. (AKI) – Construction work began on Wednesday on the King Abdullah Economic City on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, to the north of Jeddah. The 26.6 billion dollar project is expected to create 500,000 jobs. Some 55 million square metres of land and 35 kilometres of shoreline have been earmarked for the residential and commercial complex, which will also have one of the world’s biggest sea ports.

Good piece from the AKI News Service on a project to build, from the ground up, a major economic development. Two things are noteworthy here. First, this is not a typical “mega-project” in that it’s being done through private investment, not the government. Second, it’s a clear effort to move away from oil as the sole motor for the economy. Read the whole thing for the details.

[Clarification: Up-front money is being provided by the quasi-governmental Saudi Arabian Investment Authority (SAGIA), who will later sell public shares in the enterprise. Not all funding is coming from private investors. 12/21/05]

December:21:2005 - 13:37 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Saudi Arabia to introduce new education curricula:
Interview with Dr Saud bin Hussein Al-Zahrani
By Omar Al-Okaily

Dr. Saud bin Hussein al Zahrani, director general of school curricula and educational development at the Saudi Ministry of Education revealed the ministry’s plans to introduce new curricula for girls, under the name of female education and female health education. This will take into consideration the position of women in Saudi society and form an equivalent to the physical education subject for boys.

In an interview with Asharq al Awsat, Dr. al Zahrani said, “The change in education curricula has not come as a result of outside pressure or the September 11 attacks. It was decided a long time prior to these events. Everyone came under pressure from a number of sides. However, under no circumstance will this lead us to change our values and customs.”

Reforms will be implemented according to a new approach with the Ministry taking equalitative steps to ensure that students enjoy their lessons. Instead of being passive listeners, students will become active participants, Dr. al Zahrani said. Concepts such as human rights, development and economics will be incorporated in the curricula while making sure the number of subjects remains the same. “A number of subjects such as geography, history and citizenship will be combined into one subject, which is national and social education. The five Arabic subjects will also merge into one, Quran and recitation, the biography of Prophet Mohammad and the study of Hadith.”

This Asharq Alawsat interview with the person responsible for the Saudi primary and secondary school curricula is interesting both for what it says and how it says it.

It’s clear that Zahrani is under considerable pressure from traditionalists as well as reformists. He has to make clear–early–that reforms are not being done as a result of foreign pressure, but as a responsible reaction to a changing world.

He dances around a question about whether or not some of the curriculum is going to be taught in English–fascinatingly, the subjects in question are sciences and sex! He says this is part of an experiement that is gradually being withdrawn. I suppose having sex education being taught in a foreign will enhance student dedication to the language…

Something a bit more problematic is this:

Q: In light of developments in society at large, will human rights be added to the curricula?

A: Human rights will not feature as an independent subject but will be included in the new curricula. The concept of Human rights will be integrated into the school curricula, in addition to several programs relating to international agreements which conform to the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights in Cairo, also known as the Cairo Declaration.

This is good in some ways, not so good in others–at least for a Western observer. It is certainly to the good that human rights will be fully integrated into the curriculum. It belongs there, not as a one-course, one time subject. What’s difficult, however, is that the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights differs in some important ways from a Western understanding of human rights. In the former, for instance, both religion and society-as-a-group receive different values. Shari’a law is given absolute preference, which gravely limits Western concepts of religious freedom. Equally, individual human rights are diminished in favor of social cohesion.

In any event, do read this piece. Reforms, both in the curriculua and the teaching methodology are being made. And they seem to be in the right direction for the most part.

December:21:2005 - 13:01 | Comments Off | Permalink

A Case of Mistaken Identity? Really!
Khaled Al-Masri, LA Times

The US policy of “extraordinary rendition” has a human face, and it is mine.

I am still recovering from an experience that was completely beyond the pale, outside the bounds of any legal framework and unacceptable in any civilized society. Because I believe in the American system of justice, I sued George Tenet, the former CIA director, last week. What happened to me should never be allowed to happen again.

This story, originally appearing in The Los Angeles Times and reprinted in Arab News is one that should be read.

I’ve no idea of the merit of the case being made. If matters are as described, then it’s clear that an unjustice has been commited.

The story, true or false, will certainly be believed by an audience that has lost its faith in the truth-telling of the American government, though. Read it yourself and see what you think.

December:20:2005 - 20:18 | Comments Off | Permalink

Love Blossoming
By Hesham Khadawardi

SAUDI society is witnessing an emerging phenomenon regarding the concept and institution of marriage. Unsatisfied with the traditional method where mom and dad search for and choose the right mate, girls and boys nowadays are venturing to search for their lifetime partner.

Taking advantage of nascent communication opportunities in Saudi society, the sexes can now correspond freely with each other.

Through online-chat rooms, integrated work places, and/or cell-phones capabilities, youngsters are spending ample time discovering the opposite sex, and such casual meetings could contribute to stronger relationship leading to a lifetime commitment.

This emerging trend of expecting marriage to be built on emotional attraction, mutual interest, and personality matching reflects how many youths envision marital relationship as something other than the traditional husband-wife binding where the couple strives hard to procreate, raise children, and build a secure home.

Simply put, marriage is expected to become an embodiment of love.

Here’s a fascinating article by Hesham Khadawardi, an assistant professor at King Abdulaziz University, appearing in The Saudi Gazette.

In the piece, Khadawardi describes situations not uncommon in the West, but quite alien to Saudi culture. Marriages made by the free choice of the participants are not guaranteed to succeed. The failure rate is high–as it is for arranged marriages–but seems more notorious when “only” the bride and groom are making choices, not relying on the wisdom of their extended families, clans, and tribes.

Because young Saudis are now demanding a change in the way in which marriages are contracted, they are fulfilling some of the worst fears of the conservatives who have been trying to limit the reach of “imported” technologies. Text Messaging is far more prevalent in Saudi Arabia than it is in the US–let’s say it’s ubiquitous. It completely circumvents the social controls that have been developed over the past 1,400 years. The internet, with web-cams, has blown open most of the remaining of those controls.

But the reality is that decisions made with poor or inadequate information are always more dangerous than those made with full knowledge. The trick–in the West as in the East–is deciding when one has sufficient knowledge.

December:20:2005 - 05:44 | Comments Off | Permalink
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