US Embassy Launches Online Visa Service
M. Ghazanfar Ali Khan, Arab News

RIYADH, 1 June 2006 — The US Embassy has announced a new 24-hour online visa information and appointment service to help visa applicants in Saudi Arabia. The new service will also help to fix time slots for interviews of visa applicants, while giving the latest information about American visas, eligibility criteria and other details relevant for visa seekers.

According to this Arab News article, the US Embassy in Riyadh has instituted a new on-line visa interview request service to help speed up the lengthy process. It still takes 12-14 weeks to get an appointment, but applicants can now avoid telephone queues by setting up their appointments directly on-line.

The Embassy’s website (not yet updated to note this new program) contains the requirements for applying for a visa. It notes that once the interview has been conducted, it will still take at least a week to issue the visa–and possibly much longer. Interviews continue to be held only in Riyadh; the Consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran are not processing visa applications at this time.

May:31:2006 - 19:16 | Comments Off | Permalink

Sultan Launches Alfaisal University
Naif Al-Shehri

RIYADH, 31 May 2006 — Crown Prince Sultan launched Alfaisal University, a world-class institution of higher learning with advanced academic facilities, here yesterday. It will have four faculties for science, business, medicine and engineering and will have a capacity to accommodate 4,000 students…

Alfaisal offers bachelor’s degree courses in different specializations of engineering, science, medicine and administration technology in the first phase. In later phases it will provide master’s and doctoral degrees, Bandar said. Prince Sultan donated SR20 million to the university — SR5 million to each faculty. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, managing director of King Faisal Foundation (KFF), which launched the university project, said Alfaisal would provide 40 scholarships to outstanding students annually. The scholarship program is named after Sultan.

Prince Khaled, who is also governor of the Asir region, said the university would apply modern methodology of teaching and encourage students to conduct research by themselves and improve their skills. English will be the medium of instruction at the four faculties.Textbook reform is the aspect of Saudi education reform that draws the most publicity. In many ways, though, it’s the easiest of the problems that need to be tackled.

Textbook reform is the aspect of Saudi education reform that draws the most publicity. In many ways, though, it’s the easiest of the problems that need to be tackled. This Arab News article addresses a more serious problem–methodology–as well as a non-traditional way of solving it.With the exception of the University of Petroleum & Minerals in the Eastern Province (now King Fahd University), Saudi universities have tended to follow an old system. The professor professes; the students take notes and then regurgitate them, unquestioned, to get a passing grade. There’s no room for dialogue as the professor is absolutely correct, 100% of the time.That system may have worked well and for a long time, but its time ended somewhere just prior to WWII. Now, students (and parents) demand that students become able to deal with the modern world, where answers are less static. By creating a private university, operating largely outside the remit of the Ministry of Higher Education–and thus outside the influence of various political actors–the new university can break cleanly with the old system.I wouldn’t anticipate this university’s being a “hotbed of social reform,” at least at first. The focus is on the educational system being used and the subject matter of the courses. Other issues, like coed classrooms, simply aren’t on the agenda for now.

May:31:2006 - 00:14 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Media Should Provide a Balanced Voice
Khaled Almaeena,

The importance of the media in today’s world simply cannot be underestimated. “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe,” said Thomas Jefferson the third president of the US and author of the country’s famous and much-quoted Declaration of Independence.

In today’s world, the fact is that the press is freer and journalists are more articulate and aware than Jefferson could have foreseen. This is not of course due to any sudden outbreak of tolerance and goodness on the part of the authorities in many countries. Rather it is the result — foreseen or not, wanted or not — of the Internet, modern technology, citizen journalism and the near impossibility of concealment.

…Yes, the need for government certainly exists but its purpose should be less to control than to fulfill the needs and expectations of society. It is at this point that the role of a free and independent press becomes important, vital and necessary. And here is also where the judicious exercise of power and responsibility of those in authority can be measured.

In the Arab world, this last has normally not been a possibility. For years the media in Arab countries have been either state-owned or government-controlled. The classic situation of six of one and half a dozen of the other! The Arab people, however, are also human and they too have access to technology and the Internet. They have watched with great interest the unfolding of events around the world during the last two decades — the breakup of the Soviet Union, the arrival of freedom in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the opening up of China, the aspirations of the peoples of Latin America and the reflection of these aspirations in newly-elected governments. And along with all their awareness and observations naturally came a deep yearning for a media that did more than hail and praise the status quo, one that would focus on — and write sympathetically about — their needs, their desires and their aspirations.

And so here we are, having arrived at the need for a free press. By “free,” I do not mean irresponsible or abusive. Freedom carries with it responsibility, whether of the press or in terms of personal behavior. What I mean in fact is an objective and realistic assessment of those in power, the collection and evaluation of public opinion and finally, pinpointing society’s needs and desires….

Here’s a good op-ed by Khaled Al-Maeena, Editor-in-Chief of Arab News, calling for more freedom in the Arab media. His argument is perfectly sound.

May:30:2006 - 22:24 | Comments Off | Permalink

Two Saudi Al-Qaeda Members in Kurdish Prison
Mohammed Al Shafey

Irbil, Asharq Al-Awsat – Two Saudi most-wanted terrorists currently held in Iraqi Kurdistan spoke exclusively to Asharq al Awsat on Monday and revealed details about their arrest and their life in a Kurdish prison.

Abdullah al Ramiyan and Mohammed al Rashudi, whose names appeared on Saudi Arabia’s list of 36 most-wanted terrorists, were captured in September 20003, as they attempted to enter Iraqi Kurdistan.

Abdul Karim Sinjari, minister of state for the interior in Iraqi Kurdistan, told Asharq al Awsat, “Terrorists want to spread their destructive operations to our secure territories.” However, the strong cooperation between the people of northern Iraq and the security services had thwarted several terrorist attacks. Many individuals maintained direct contact with the Kurdish police and informed them of the presence of foreigners in Kurdish territories, the minister added. One wife even informed the police that her husband had taken part in a terrorist attack. “It is best I hand over my husband to the police than for 50 women to become widows.”

According to the Asharq Alawsat piece, two of Saudi Arabia’s current most-wanted are being detained by Kurdish authorities in Irbil. The interview with them is pretty interesting.

May:30:2006 - 11:05 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

God’s Terrorists

Amir Taheri offers a good review of a bad book on the pages of Asharq Alawsat. He does a creditable job of dissecting a sloppy book, identifying correctly, I think, the ease with with casual assumptions become “facts”.

The place I differ with Taheri is in his dismissal of Deobandi responsibility for terrorism. There are different groups within Deobandism, as indeed there are within Wahhabism. Some of those groups are very terrorist-oriented. The Taleban are acknowledged as being of Deobandi origin. They are, for example, among those who blow up Shi’a mosques as insufferable insults to Sunni Islam. And while Mullah Omar may not count as an international terrorist, he certanily terrorized the population of Afghanistan.

May:30:2006 - 06:15 | Comments Off | Permalink

Three Guantanamo Detainees Released on Bail
P.K. Abdul Ghafour

JEDDAH, 30 May 2006 — The Interior Ministry announced yesterday that it has released on bail three Saudi Gitmo returnees who arrived in the Kingdom on July 20, 2005 after the court sentenced them to different jail terms.“

The three were transferred to court after they acknowledged that they were present in troubled areas without the permission of their parents or rulers. They had also forged documents and exposed the lives of their family members to danger,” a ministry official said.

The court sentenced two of them to one-year jail term while it decided that the period spent by the third in detention was adequate, the official said. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Prince Naif said yesterday Saudi Arabia would continue its efforts to repatriate the remaining Saudi detainees in the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Well, the Saudis being released from Guantanamo are just being sent back out onto the streets. I’ve no way of knowing the quality of the investigation that the Saudis are conducting, but they are conducting them. This Arab News article also notes that the Minister of Interior–a strong supporter of the religious police–is painting the recent reduction in their powers in a favorable light. The fact remains, however, that they have lost power and authority.

May:30:2006 - 00:24 | Comments Off | Permalink

Saudi Arabia and US Host Largest Number of Visitors of Arabic Online News Sites

London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Most viewers of Arabic-language news portals in the region are in Saudi Arabia, while the majority of Arabic-speaking users from outside the Arab world live in the United States. Moreover, the gender gap persists with all portals reporting that most of their viewers are males, according to a report by the Arab Advisors Group.

the 33-page report titled “Arabic Online Portals Featuring News Content” was released to the Arab Advisors Group’s Media Strategic Research Service at the start of the month, and focuses on selected portals that are all regional in their outlook and include major satellite news channel websites, business and financial news portals, and general websites featuring Arabic news. These portals are: Al Arabiya’s news portal, Al Bawaba, AME Info, CNN Arabic, Maktoob, Menafn, Mena Report, Middle East Online and MSN Arabia. The report also features demographic information for Al Jazeera’s news portal.

“Analyzing the demographic breakdowns of the web portals’ visitors, it appears that most users in the Arab world are in Saudi Arabia, while many Arabic-speaking users from outside the region live in the United States. Additionally, males consistently outnumber females as viewers of Arabic news on the web,” Arab Advisors Group’s media analysts wrote in the report.

Asharq Alawsat offers an interesting look at the demographics of news portal users from the Arab world.

May:29:2006 - 10:58 | Comments Off | Permalink

Two Saudi Students in America
Mohammed Al-Jazairy

In the past two weeks, internet forums have been flooded with comments on the incident of two Saudi students in American universities who were charged with trespassing after they jumped aboard a school bus instead of using public transport.  A simple mistake like this could happen to anybody even in their own country, however, it seems that mistakes are unacceptable if committed by people of Middle Eastern background. Even their weakness of grasping the English language was a reason to arrest them, for the courts to detain them for longer, and to refuse them bail.The most regretful aspect of this story is that the sending of Saudi students to the United States based on American political reassurances was introduced only recently; however, one week does not pass without hearing stories about what actually happens to Saudi students in the United States.

A columnist for the pan-Arab Asharq Alawsat, Mohammed Al-Jazairy is usually pretty astute. In this piece, he talks about how Saudi exchange students to the US live under a rather different standard of scrutiny than other foreign students. He cites another example that’s even more telling:

Samir, a Saudi student in America relates one of his experiences saying, “Four months ago, a friend and I went to a car showroom as he intended to buy a Hummer to send to Saudi Arabia for his brother. When it was time to actually hand over the car as we were about to leave, police forces took us by surprise as they stormed into the showroom and arrested us. We were taken to the police station and given some bizarre explanations for our arrest. We were told that the owner of the showroom suspected us because we paid for the car in one installment and because we asked the car dealer to complete the transaction as soon as possible. This is a completely normal request. However, we were not released until a day and a half had passed and after our bank accounts and our financial sources were checked. They only released us after they had ensured that the amount of money we used to buy the car was transferred from my friend’s father’s account.”

This strikes me as a truly over-the-top performance on the part of local officials.

The fact is that due to 9/11, Saudis are operating and are going to be operating under conditions of enhanced scrutiny, deserved or not. That can be chalked up as one of the terrorists’ victories.

But Al-Jaizry is wrong if he sees actions like these as some sort of US government oppression of Saudis. The items he notes were all taken by local authorities. The school bus matter was clearly something of local interest, and local protection of children. The “Hummer” story is a little harder to justify other than that someone in the car dealership was dealing with something outside his comfort level and called the cops. Why that led to the jailing of the students is bizarre.

Saudi Arabia remains a country that uses cash far more than credit. In the country, it’s not strange to see someone walk into a car dealership with paper bags full of banknotes (the largest denomination Saudi bill is equivalent to about $37.55Saudi blogger Rasheed informs me that there’s now a SR500 note, equivalent to $133). That’s not the norm in the US, of course, and would raise suspicions. But suspicion doesn’t equal guilt.

May:29:2006 - 10:55 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink

‘First’ Saudi feature film aims high

A film launched at the Cannes Film Festival this week is, say its producers, the first Saudi Arabian feature-film – although it was actually filmed in Dubai.

Keif al-Hal (How are you?) stars the 25-year-old Saudi actress Hind Muhammad and its producers say they hope it will be instrumental in opening up Saudi Arabia to film culture.

The BBC has a decent story about the new Saudi film. What’s most interesting are the motives for the film. As it explains:

The motives behind Keif al-Hal are unusually complex.

There is certainly a desire to squeeze more profits out of the wealthy middle classes of Saudi Arabia.

There is a long-term desire to get more film into the kingdom and a belief that Saudi society may finally be ready to accept cinema-going as a social activity.And those behind the film also clearly hope it will help loosen some of the social restrictions in this highly conservative nation.

May:29:2006 - 10:35 | Comments Off | Permalink

Probe Calls Ministry And Town Hall to Account for Hotel Collapse

Riyadh, 29 May (AKI) – The committee investigating the deadly collapse of a hotel in Mecca on 5 January this year has indicted the Mecca branch of the Saudi ministry of commerce and industry and the local municipality as those chiefly responsible for the tragedy, local reports said on Monday. King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz on Sunday issued a decree endorsing the final report by the committee and ordering the prosecution of all those implicated. “The building collapsed because of its age as it was constructed 40 years ago using old methods,” said the final report into the accident which killed 76 pilgrims…
After a four-months-long probe, the panel concluded that the building collapsed due to lack of maintainance – it had undergone no renovation works in over 40 years – and because it could not withstand the weight of additional floors which had been subsequently added on top of the roof.

Moreover, the committee’s final report also outlined that the number of pilgrims lodged at the hotel at the time of the tragedy exceeded its capacity.

All those implicated will now be judged by the Investigation and Public Prosecution Commission.

According to this piece from the Italian News Agency AKI, Saudis are starting to impose accountability on those whose actions (and in this case, inactions) cause problems. Overbuilding is a serious problem in much of the Middle East, with building owners casually adding several stories to buildings that simply were not engineered to sustain the additional weight. Collapses are inevitable, though they sometimes take years after the construction to happen.

The point, though, is that those responsible are now starting to be held accountable.

May:29:2006 - 10:27 | Comments Off | Permalink

Development of Jizan Is the Focus of Panel
P.K. Abdul Ghafour

JEDDAH, 28 May 2006 — Interior Minister Prince Naif yesterday chaired a meeting of the high-level committee on Jizan in Riyadh and emphasized the need for the quick implementation of projects to meet the region’s present and future development requirements. The 11-member committee was set up by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to oversee Jizan’s development at par with other regions of the Kingdom, the Saudi Press Agency said.

The meeting studied prospects of establishing a higher authority for the development of Jizan, the agency said, adding that the authority would draft general policies to achieve speedy and balanced development of the region.

The committee, which included nine ministers, also discussed plans to remove qat plants being cultivated in the region.

Jizan [Map], on the border of Yemen, is one of the less developed regions of Saudi Arabia. It has the usual array of the problems of under-development (fewer schools and hospitals than the population warrant, less general infrastructure, higher unemployment, smuggling, border control, and drug production).

This Arab News article notes new efforts to bring up the development level of the region, which is also home to one of the Shi’a minority communities in the country.

May:28:2006 - 05:55 | Comments Off | Permalink

Princes, Clerics and Censors
Saudi Arabia loosens press shackles, but religion and politics are still perilous topics

Joel Campagna

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia: Ahmed Faheed, a 33-year-old newspaper editor, wears faded jeans, a wrinkled T-shirt, and an ever-ringing cell phone. But more than his gear is out of place in a downtown cafe in Saudi Arabia’s austere capital city. Tucked under his arm are issues of his tabloid daily Shams, where splashed across the front page is an eye-catching color photo of a young, unveiled woman proudly showing off a tongue ring. The accompanying story warns of the health risks for Saudi youths who get their bodies pierced secretly and without professional supervision.Since its launch in mid-2005, the paper has pushed the boundaries of social and cultural news coverage in the Arab world’s most religiously conservative society. Owned in part by Prince Turki bin Khaled, Shams has targeted Saudi Arabia’s 18-32 demographic and, despite a modest daily circulation of 40,000, the newspaper has been a hit. “We actually like Shams,” said the country’s information minister, Iyad Madani. “It was the only one that woke up to the notion that we have a young population.”

Shams also woke up the country’s hard-line religious conservatives and, by February, it had apparently gone too far. The government temporarily shut the newspaper after it reproduced one of the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that caused outrage across the Muslim world since first appearing in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. Madani told CPJ that he suspended the paper for two weeks for violating sacred religious strictures.

Faheed tells a more complicated story. Shams, he said, decided to run the cartoons only after the country’s highest religious authority, Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, declared it permissible if the intent was to highlight the offense against Islam. Faheed pointed out that it wasn’t until 20 days after the cartoons ran in Shams that the Information Ministry, whose own censors had cleared the issue for distribution, moved to halt publication of the paper.

What happened in the three weeks between the time the paper hit the newsstands and its closure illustrates the backdoor politicking that often dictates what can and cannot be said in the Saudi press…

The Committee to Protect Journalists  (CPJ) has sent me their latest report on press freedoms in Saudi Arabia. It’s an interesting report. It also contains a list of recommendations for the Saudi government to adopt in terms of freedom of the press. Some of those, though, are simply non-starters for Saudi Arabia at this time. 

May:27:2006 - 11:05 | Comments Off | Permalink
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