Pilgrims at Heart
By Ebrahim Moosa

AS the pilgrims in Mecca complete the annual ritual of pilgrimage today, Muslims across the globe will begin the Id al-Adha, the three-day Feast of Sacrifice, in solidarity with them.

For Muslims seeking to make sense of the annual pilgrimage, a question arises: is the hajj only an elaborate ritual?

Hajj literally means, “to continuously strive to reach one’s goal.” The rite of visiting the sacred sites need be completed only once in a lifetime, but its meaning ought to be enduring. Yet, no pilgrim can claim strictly to imitate the Prophet Muhammad in this ritual. Such despotic literalness would only invest the observance with fraudulence. Is the imagination not at the heart of pilgrimage?

This is a good piece, appearing in The New York Times about the meaning of the annual Haj to Mecca.

The writer notes how the Haj is not just empty ritual, but a recapitulation of the history of Man, from Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden to the life of the Prophet Mohammed. It’s worth reading, too, for the way it points out subtle differences between Islamic and Judeo-Christian tellings of the stories of the Old Testament.

Definitely worth taking a moment to read.

January:10:2006 - 14:42 | Comments Off | Permalink

Training for Saudi women planned

JEDDAH — Nearly 500 Saudi women will be trained by the Saudi education and training establishment to work as saleswomen in lingerie shops, as security guards and electrical and electronic maintenance workers, according to an Arabic daily Al Watan.

The establishment finalised its plan during a meeting held recently at the Prince Salman Social Centre in Riyadh with Princess Jawhara bint Faisal bin Turki, the honorary president of the establishment, in the chair.

Female prisoners, patients at Amal Hospital and Nakaha Hospital would also be provided training with the support of the Al Nahda Women’s Charitable Organisation.

In another step designed both to find employment for Saudis in general and to legitimize women’s role in the job market, this is a necessary step. It’s good to see that the jobs are not just “traditional” jobs for women, but also include jobs held exclusively by men, til now.

January:10:2006 - 12:48 | Comments Off | Permalink

Saudi Woman Continues Driving After 20 Years Despite the Odds

By Aid bin Marzuk

Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat – In the desert near this western Saudi city, lives a woman named Ghalia, aged 60, in severe natural conditions that make her an exception to the rule. She competes with men in order to enable her family to lead a respectable life, just like those who create a house from a sticks and a palace from stone.

Ghalia has been driving for more than twenty years. She tells the story of a difficult life and continues to labor until this day. Her wrinkly face tells the observer that there is more than life than mere subsistence. Speaking about her driving, Ghalia says, “I did not encounter any opposition but no one encouraged me. My support came from within.” Necessity made her break all the barriers and stand up for herself. Ghalia rejected inequality and the dominance of men. Instead, she inaugurated an eternal partnership.

This is an nice human interest story from the Asharq Alawsat Arabic daily. Some Saudi women do drive. But even they are not sure about driving in the cities, seeing them as too dangerous, both on the road and morally. Take a look at the piece, at least to see where one Saudi woman is coming from… and going.

January:09:2006 - 16:39 | Comments Off | Permalink

Saudis Urge Syrian Leader to Cooperate With U.N.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 8 – President Bashar al-Assad of Syria rushed to Saudi Arabia and Egypt on Sunday for surprise meetings with their leaders.

The meetings occurred a day after he was quoted as saying that he would not cooperate with the United Nations investigation of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

Within hours of a meeting in Damascus with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, Mr. Assad flew to Jidda, Saudi Arabia. There, he joined a meeting and banquet with top members of the Saudi ruling family, including King Abdullah; Prince Naif, the interior minister; Prince Miqren, the chief of general intelligence; and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the secretary general of the National Security Council, the government-run Saudi Press Agency reported.

He then continued on to Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, where he met with President Hosni Mubarak.

In wording clearly meant to encourage Mr. Assad to cooperate, the Saudi royal family released a statement saying that at the meeting, King Abdullah “affirmed the kingdom’s desire for stronger relations between Syria and Lebanon in all fields, so that the interests of both countries and security of the region are protected.”

Mr. Assad had apparently been seeking a face-saving solution.

It is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has prodded Syria to ease relations with Lebanon and the United Nations…

Saudi Arabia has long been a friend of Lebanon. Rafik Hariri, who was killed by a car bomb last year, held Saudi citizenship as well as Lebanese, so the Saudis took his death personally. They were angered by his death and, informally at least, blame Syria. They don’t want to cut Al-Assad’s government any slack here and want the situation cleaned up quickly.

January:09:2006 - 13:14 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Bird flu – Mecca alert for bird flu threat to hajj pilgrims
By William Wallis in Cairo

Saudi Arabia has had to contend with the threat of bird flu as well as heightened security fears at the start of this year’s hajj pilgrimage, which began on Sunday.

Officials in the kingdom have been on high alert after warnings from health experts that the gathering at Mecca, Islam’s birthplace, of more than 2m pilgrims from around the Muslim world could provide conditions for a deadly bird flu pandemic.

Saudi officials have spent 25 million riyals ($6.7m, €5.5m, £3.8m) stocking up on Tamiflu, the drug that can reduce the severity of the disease if taken shortly after symptoms emerge. Regional health officials said Saudi Arabia had also tightened screening of pilgrims at ports and airports and ban­ned imported poultry in an attempt to minimise health risks at the ritual gathering, which has proved a vector for past flu epidemics.

Hamad al-Manei, the health minister, said contingency plans had been prepared in the event of an outbreak and the World Health Organisation (WHO) was ready to provide support.

Ever since the first cases of human deaths from H5N1 bird flu started appearing, the government of the KSA has been on alert. Knowing that 2.5 million people would be entering the country for the Haj–and millions more for Umrah, the “Lesser Haj”–they’ve known that the gatherings could provide a major vector for transmission of the flu. Since large portions of their poultry are also imported live, concern was heightened. This Financial Times article describes some of the measures being taken.

Throughout its history, the Haj has been the scene of different epidemics that result from the gathering of large numbers of people from around the world in one place. Thyphus, meningitis, and cholera have made their appearances.

Saudi measures to avoid entry of the bird flu include banning the hunting of migratory birds, alterting pilgrims and caterers of what they can do, and beefing up health inspections of pilgrims.

January:09:2006 - 12:58 | Comments Off | Permalink

UPDATE 01/08/2006: An excellent op-ed, by Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed appears in today’s Asharq Alawsat. He believes the collapse to be an indication of the lack of responsibility on the part of government and others. It’s a good piece, worth reading.

UPDATE 01/07/2006: Today’s Asharq Alawsat is reporting that the deathtoll has now reached 76. The article notes that the collapsed hotel was 30 years old. It would have been built during the first flush of oil money coming into the Kingdom, when dreams of quick riches often hid sub-standard construction.

The Italian news agency AKI reports Authorities Launch Probe as Death Toll Rises.

UPDATE 01/06/2006:Reuters offers an updated report on the calamity.

Editorial: Building Safety

Tragedy has again struck Makkah at Haj time. At least 15 people have died in the collapse of a multistory pilgrim hostel a stone’s throw from the Grand Mosque. Reports speak of at least 80 injured.

The tragedy is all the greater because the Haj is meant to be a time of spiritual grace, of renewal, a once-in-a-lifetime experience of joy, not an appointment with death. A tragedy during the Haj is more shocking because it is one of life’s pinnacle events.

The building collapse in Mecca this morning is raising questions. While governmental buildings must be built to certain engineering standards, and while private buildings also are supposed to be built to these standards, it’s clear that at least some private buildings are not.

It’s not clear how old this building is. Given its location, a few meters from the Grand Mosque, there’s a good chance that it’s old. But even old buildings need supervsion, as this Arab News editorial spells out.

It’s still too easy for a landlord to get around regulations with a little extra money under the table, or simply to do a favor for a friend who might return it. Clearly, the deaths weren’t intended, but they happened nonetheless.

The paper also carries front-page reporting on the collapse, with many details and eye-witness reports. The photo that accompanies the story lends support to the idea that it was an older building.

January:08:2006 - 20:27 | Comments & Trackbacks (4) | Permalink

Pilgrims Mix Faith, Business at Saudi Hajj – New York Times

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Hawking elegant silk prayer rugs on a back street in Islam’s holiest city, Sarajaeldinne Tartanoglu says he came to the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia to mix business with religion because God helps those who help themselves.

”Earning your living is also worshipping, God will certainly bless you for your endeavor,” the Turkish pilgrim says.

This is a pretty decent, though brief, article about the annual Haj, appearing in The New York Times. It notes that business has always been part of the Haj, even before it became Muslim and one of the “pillars” of Islam.

While the article states “2 million Muslims” take part in the pilgrimage, the number is closer to 2.5 million, a lot of people to descend on any city for a specific event.

The piece also notes that the Saudis earn over $10 million from the Haj. This is money spent by pilgrims for goods and services while they are in Mecca and Medina. The Al-Saud stopped charging pilgrims direct fees to take part in the Haj–a sum which reached tens of millions of dollars annually–after they started collecting serious petro-dollars. But paying for an individual’s pilgrimage, at least in part, through vending one’s own goods has been a part of the pilgrimage process for millenia.

There’s also an interesting Asharq Alawsat article, Riyadh Criticizes Iraqi PM Over Hajj Remarks about the number of pilgrims being permitted to take part in the Haj. The Saudis have set a limit on the total number of pilgrims they can accommodate and have had, for many years, country quotas for pilgrimage visas. Here, Iraq is complaining that it should have received a higher quota. The Saudis appear to do annual reassessment of the numbers, but there’s always room for argument. And that’s just what this is.

The Chicago Tribune has a piece on the annual pilgrimage, Trip to Mecca can be ordeal focusing somewhat on American Muslims. It’s worth a look.

January:07:2006 - 13:52 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English)
Saudi Arabia Remains One of the Most Economically Free Countries- US Think Tank

Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, deemed Saudi Arabia “mostly free” in its annual report on global economic freedom.

The report, which was produced for public view this week, places a high value on liberalized trade policies, low levels of government intervention, and privatized economies. At the top of the list were Hong Kong, Singapore, and Ireland, each earning scores of between about 1.3 and 1.5, with a “1″ being the “most free,” and a “5″ being the “least free.”

Saudi Arabia was awarded a 2.84 grading, making it one of the most free countries in the Middle East.

This article from Asharq Alawsat doesn’t point out the the Heritage Foundation study would have been done prior to Saudi Arabia’s joining the WTO. Now that it has, figures should be even more positive.

The study also noted:

“The Saudi government held its first nationwide municipal elections in February 2005,” the report said. “The government has sought to diversify the economy to reduce its dependence on oil exports and strengthen the private sector.”

January:07:2006 - 13:38 | Comments Off | Permalink

Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English)

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Saudi security services arrested on Thursday two Saudis suspected of having connections with the armed terrorists inside the country during a security search campaign in Al-Naqa neighborhood, Unayzah Governorate, Al-Qasim, northeast of Riyadh.

According to Interior Ministry Spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki’s statement to “Asharq al-Awsat”, the security authorities stopped the two suspects during a security campaign they carried out in Unayzah Governorate yesterday.

This operation came eight days after Abd-al-Rahman al-Mut’ib and Muhammad al-Suwaylimi, who were on the list of 36 wanted persons, were killed after they had opened fire at random at five security men in Al-Qasim, killing them all.

No security sources revealed whether the operation in Al-Naqa neighborhood had any connection with the previous one in Al-Midhnib Governorate in the same area. Security observers refused to make a link between the two since the Saudi security services adopt the security campaigns system in the search for wanted persons while others lean toward the possibility that this recent arrest was the result of some information derived from the high capacity storage discs, “flash memory”, that were seized in the vehicle of the two wanted persons, Al-Mut’ib and Al-Suwaylimi.

This Asharq Alawsat article reports on the contuing Saudi counter-terror efforts within the Kingdom. The fact that there’s also technical investigation going on is interesting.

January:07:2006 - 10:20 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Women Now Permitted to Sell at Exhibitions
Suzan Zawawi — The Saudi Gazette

Women are now permitted to sell and rent stalls at international and national exhibitions. And they have already started.

The government announced that women are now allowed to sell merchandise at exhibitions, said Ibrahem Al-Adel, manager of Thawag Exhibition Company. Adel is commissioned to administer the current International Home and Family Exhibition at the Howard and Johnson Hotel in Riyadh. That s why we now have three stalls rented by women.

Due to Saudi Arabia becoming a member of the World Trade Organization last month, businesswomen and businessmen must be treated equally. So we have to allow any woman who applies to set up a stall the opportunity to do so. said Adel.

The first women to sell at the International Home and Family Exhibition in Riyadh are Arab. Saudi women have not yet applied. I think it will take some time until Saudi women rent a stall at the exhibition. Usually Arab and foreign women pave the way first, said Adel. Manal Mustafa, a Sudanese widow and mother of seven, was one of the first women to apply.

This piece, from today’s The Saudi Gazette, reports that Saudi Arabia’s accession to the WTO is already having effects on the way business is done, including business done by women.

The government had hoped to use the leverage that WTO membership provides/requires to help shift social behavior and attitudes. Here, at least, it seems to be working.

January:06:2006 - 21:16 | Comments Off | Permalink

There are two pieces in today’s Arab News about Ariel Sharon and his passing from the political scene. The first, an unsigned editorial for the paper, notes:

It is bizarre that the departure of a man whom most Arabs, even many Israelis, regard as a war criminal could somehow be regarded as opening the path to something far worse. Yet the fact is that the man who was the arch-Zionist, the champion of settlements, who was behind the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, who goaded the Palestinians into suicide attacks, became a pragmatist. At the end of a career based on unremitting hostility to the Palestinians, Sharon realized that Israel could not hold on to Gaza and the West Bank indefinitely, that it cannot remain an armed occupying, armed camp forever. Not that in any way he became any less of an arch-Zionist. There is no paradox in what he did. He simply drew in the boundaries to exclude the Palestinians, rather like South Africa’s apartheid rulers did in the 1960s when they set up the Bantustans and hoped to push out as many blacks as possible from their chosen land.

That a war criminal became a pragmatist is no reason to heap praise on him now or to forget the crimes he committed. However, the fact remains that Sharon at a late stage opened the door to change with his disengagement process. He was the only Israeli politician with the political stature to be able to force the Israelis to accept that change, the only one able to force further changes. Without him, at best, everything is on hold; at worst it is thrown into violent reverse. There lies the real paradox.

The second, by Arab-American Maggie Mitchell Salem, spells out in a bit more detail the “Better the Devil You Know Than the Devil You Don’t” sense that’s sweeping the region.

Ghazi Al-Saadi, Palestinian commentator for Al Arabiya, was more blunt, “A live Sharon is better for the Palestinians now, despite all the crimes he has committed against us.”

Why such pessimism when leaders from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to PFLP commander Ahmed Jabril are welcoming the news?

Simply put, there is no other figure on Israel’s political stage who inspires the same confidence and (often grudging) respect among a wide spectrum of Israelis. The architect of the settlements is the only one who could bulldoze them.

While many assail his Gaza withdrawal as impoverished, failing to provide Palestinians control over their hard-won territory, his enemies on the right have a different view.

Her piece notes in passing the imbecilities gushing forth from the mouth of Pat Robertson who sees Sharon’s strokes as messages from God. But she also includes a rundown of likely successors to Sharon. It’s worth looking at.

January:06:2006 - 21:10 | Comments Off | Permalink

Where American Self Loathing Meets Arab Conspiracy Theories

Amir Taheri

The would-be ruler of an oil-rich Arab state is planning a policy reform that includes allowing girls to go to school, and signing an oil contract with China. But days before he takes over he is assassinated when a remote controlled bomb destroys his bullet-proof limousine in the middle of the desert.

But who would want such an enlightened prince out of the way?

The answer given in “Syriana”, the new Hollywood blockbuster starring George Clooney, is simple: the murder was planned and carried out by the CIA, the dirty-tricks arm of the United States of America.

But why would the US want an enlightened Arab leader murdered at a time that President George W Bush is publicly calling for such leaders to emerge in the Arab world?

Again, the answer provided by the scriptwriters is straightforward: the US government is controlled by Texas oil interests that cannot allow any Arab state to sign an oil contract with China.

Amir Taheri has a useful review of the film (reviewed earlier here) that’s worth taking a look at.

Among the things he notes is this:

According to an old saying one can never convince anyone who doesn’t wish to be convinced. The makers of “Syriana” are preaching to the converted if only because an extraordinarily large number of Arabs are comfortable in the certainty of their victimhood. Long before “Syriana” hit the silver screen those Arabs were convinced that whatever misfortune has befallen them is due to some conspiracy by a perfidious Western power.

The film certainly plays upon this aspect of current “analysis” by many in the region. Then he asks,Would it change anything if one were to remind the conspiracy theorists that none of the high profile political murders in the Arab world over the past century had anything to do with the US or any other foreign power?

and answers his question:

The list of Arab leaders murdered since 1900 is a long one. It includes six prime ministers, three kings, a ruling Imam, seven presidents of the republic, and dozens of ministers, parliamentarians and senior military officials. Every single one of them was killed either by Islamist militants (often from the Muslim Brotherhood) or by pan-Arab nationalists or by radical Arab security services.

That many Arabs should welcome the suggestion that their tragedies are due to evil doings by foreigners maybe understandable.

It is less so when so many Americans come together to make a film to portray their nation as evil incarnate.

“Money” may be the simplest reason for making the film, he says. There’s certainly an audience among the “self-loathing,” as he calls them.

But, he cautions, “Adversaries in history often end up resembling each other. So it is, perhaps, not surprising that the Arabs are learning the art of self-loathing from the Americans while the Americans develop a taste for Arab-style conspiracy theories.”

This is a timely warning.

This op-ed also runs in today’s Arab News. That, I think, is helpful as an antidote to the conspiracy theories that too often make their ways onto the editorial page.

January:06:2006 - 13:49 | Comments Off | Permalink
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