The National Council on US-Arab Relations (NCUSAR) held the first part of its 15th Annual Conference today at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, DC. This year’s program was head and shoulders above last year’s. Congratulations go to Dr. John Duke Anthony, President and CEO of NCUSAR for the work he and his staff put into making this program a meaty one.

There were four sessions in the first day’s program, along with a luncheon with Saudi Ambassador, Pr. Turki Al-Faisal as the keynote speaker.

The first session addressed Taking Stock of the Saudi Arabian-US Relations, with Abdallah A. Alireza, Minister of State of the Saudi Council of Ministers taking the lead. He focused on Saudi Arabia’s needed to develop intellectual capital and how the new King Abdullah University for Science & Technology is intended to do just that. The school—now in planning stages—seeks to have 50% of its students coming from abroad and hope to include Americans in that number. Rather than a typical liberal arts school, it is intended to be more like the King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals in its emphasis on hard sciences, though not petroleum oriented. It intends to develop students capable of walking out of the classroom and into the world or entrepreneurship.

Alireza also noted, with dismay, that US imports into the KSA had declined 13% over the last year and blamed it on the extraordinary difficulty Saudi businessmen have in getting visas to visit the US and make deals. He also pointed out that US-Saudi relations need to move beyond “the industrial age” where commodities are the only issues at stake. As the KSA develops its economy to get beyond oil, the US needs to recognize the changes and take advantage of them. New opportunities are being created daily.

Three panelists then spoke: Ambassador Robert Jordan (for whom I worked 2001-2003) presented a “balance sheet” on the relationship. Among other issues, he noted that the war against terror and, more recently, concerns about a nuclear Iran have drawn the US and Saudi Arabia closer together. It seems that this issue is even starting to pull the KSA and Israel together, though whether or not that can be parlayed into something wider remains to be seen.

He pointed out that the developing relations with China are natural for Saudi Arabia and should not be seen as any sort of repudiation of the US. As the Saudi economy diversifies, its markets will diversify—China now exports more to the KSA than the US does, with India not far behind.

Saudi concern over Iraq’s stability is a major issue. If the country’s problems cannot be solved promptly, they risk dragging in neighboring countries, including the KSA, something it would entirely prefer to avoid. Saudis (as other Arabs) are watching the upcoming US elections, too. They don’t know what a change in Congress might mean for them and are concerned about any radical change of US policy direction.

Dr. Khalil Al-Khalil, Member of the Majlis Al-Shoura and Professor at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Univ. spoke next about educational reform in the Kingdom. He gave a history of education in the KSA, noting that its first curriculum and textbooks were Egyptian (this in the 1920s and 30s) and provided statistics about the numbers of schools and students in the KSA. He pointed out that the United States remains the first choice for Saudi students who wish to study abroad, even with the hassles over visas.

Education reforms are real and they are really taking place, he said. But reforms take time; they don’t happen overnight. He said that it would take 3, 4, even 5 years before their effect is felt.

Dr. Eleanor Abdella Doumato spoke next on “Teaching Islam”. She noted that there are still problems in the texts used in teaching religion. Curiously, though, she said, the textbooks used to teach “civics” (oddly, only to male students), is far more global in its lessons, telling students that they need to work on cooperative behavior, they need to work hard, and they need to work with kindness. Textbooks used in the 10th Grade discuss relations between countries and the need for tolerance. She found these texts to be a strength upon which the Ministry of Education could build and certainly should be teaching in the girls’ schools as well.

Dr. Doumato took exception to some of the widely published reports on Saudi education that have run through the American media, singling out the Freedom House report of 2005 (recently rehashed in 2006). She found misreprentation and factually false statements, as when the report said that Saudi texts don’t recognize Israel when, in fact, they do. On the same page the report criticized, she found both caption to a map and text on the page that acknowledged Israel.

The final panelist was Dr. Bandar Al-Aidan, who basically reprised the history of US-Saudi relations. Of particular note, though, was his comment that Saudi Arabia not only had cooperative programs with the US concerning Soviet expansion in the Gulf region, but also in Europe. I certainly want to get more detail about that.

I’ll continue with reports on the following sessions…

October:31:2006 - 00:13 | Comments & Trackbacks (5) | Permalink

Violence Against Children
Hala Al-Qahtani • Al-Watan

The seven-year-old girl was not the first one that was insulted for baseless reasons, beaten and slaughtered. She will not definitely be the last as long as officials in the Kingdom continue trying to prove to the public that the parents were mentally ill. Do not try to convince us that the parents were crazy; such people never revisit the scene of a crime — criminals do.

Until when will small defenseless girls suffer under the hands of abusive fathers? There are hundreds of girls and boys suffering from such parents and I have received many e-mails from them. Do we have to wait until half the girls in one area die, having been abused by their parents, before the authorities take any proactive steps? Do we have to wait for them to issue a new law?

This article, translated from the Arabic daily Al-Watan is to the point: abusive fathers need to be jailed, not coddled.

Hala Al-Qahtani notes that the abuse inflicted by some Saudi fathers on their daughters (and wives) far exceeds anything being reported out of Guantanamo or Israel, but the government tries to deal with the fathers as mentally ill, not criminal. She wants a change. Do read the whole piece.

October:30:2006 - 22:05 | Comments Off | Permalink

Beirut (AKI) — ‘The Girls of Riyadh’ a novel whose themes including sex outside marriage have stirred scandal in the Arab world may soon air as a television series. The book’s Saudi-born author Raja as-Sani is negotiating a deal with a Lebanese television channel for a film adapton of the book, entitled ‘Banat Riydh’, in Arabic.

The 25-year-old as-Sani, a trained orthodontist, has been repeatedly accused by conservative critics of casting Saudi women in a bad light since her book was first published in Lebanon in 2005.

“The book is one written by a young Saudi woman who shares her thoughts and convictions. All the themes are drawn from the environment in which I live,” as-Sani has said defending her work in an interview.

According to a report on Thursday on the satellite channel al-Arabiya, as-Sani is seeking to sell the film rights to an undisclosed TV Lebanese channel for one million dollars. She is also negotiating to write the screenplay, the report said.

Local sources have tokd Adnkronos International (AKI) that the likely buyer of the film rights is the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), a TV channel linked to the Saudi-Lebanese Prince Walid ben Talal.

Italian news agency AKI carries this report on the possibility that the novel Girls of Riyadh (available in English translation next spring) will make its way to film! With the controversy that the book has already raised in Saudi Arabia, broadasting the film will cause even more uproar. If nothing else, this is a good indication that Arab satellite TV channels are truly performing as ‘agents of change’ within the region.

October:30:2006 - 09:04 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

It’s More Delicious With Osama

WITH an audience of television viewers that runs into millions, Chef Osama is a household name in the Arab world. His live daily shows such as “Ma Osama Atyab” or “It’s More Delicious with Osama” and “Bilhanna Wa Shiffa” or “With Joy and Good Health” promote the art of healthy cooking to the public.

The fifth edition of his Arabic cook book, “Bilhanna Wa Shiffa” is now on sale all over the region. It contains 18 new recipes with each one presented in an appetizing, full-color photograph. Along with Chef Osama’s personal recipes, the book features holiday favorites for Ramadan and othere special occasions.

Clearly, this Arab News piece is talking about another Osama. This one got his start working at the Serbian Crown restaurant in Great Falls, VA, a Washington, DC suburb. He then went on to work in Maryland at a food processor for home meal replacements (frozen meals a step up from pizza and pot pies). And now he’s the bees’ knees in Arab food cookery!

There’s no question that Middle Eastern food can be delicious. I begin to worry, however, when “fusion” ideas start creeping into the menu. Why mess around with something that perfectly good already?

October:30:2006 - 05:38 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Saudis Spend SR600m on Oud Products During Ramadan and Eid
Sarah Abdullah | Arab News

THE bouquet of Arabian Oud provides a sense of spirituality with its elegant, robust, lingering fragrance. The popularity of which has become a traditional staple of both the holy month of Ramadan as well as the Eid Al-Fitr holiday. Oud is something experienced throughout mosques, banks, homes and shopping centers alike.

According to latest market research statistics, Saudi nationals spend approximately SR600 million during the holiday season alone. With other data supporting that the fragrance industry, in general, is rapidly growing annually at a rate of 6.75 percent.

“Every Ramadan proves to show an increase in demand more than that of the previous year. As a result, this is our most active season with a rise in sales by 25 percent. The overall revenue of Oud products, both solid and liquid, equal about SR2.5 billion per year with distributors supplying tens of tons of quality Oud including sought after rare brands,” said Abdul-Aziz Al-Jasser, chairman of Arabian Oud Company in Riyadh.

“Consequently we have just opened another branch outside Saudi Arabia, while still making progress in the Kingdom and the Gulf drawing international investors to Saudi Arabia worth SR3.8 billion,” he added.

The Oud market has become an increasingly profitable business as a result of its thriving popularity and lofty price tag with a 12 gram bottle of Oud oil selling for as much as SR15,000 ($800) and a 1 kg piece of incense selling for up to SR45,000.

You know you’re in Arabia once you start smelling oud. Oud is both the wood of the agarwood tree, burned as incense, and an extract made from its resin, worn as a perfume or scent. The scent of agarwood is unmistakeable and, to most noses, very nice. As this Arab News article notes, it’s also very expensive.

But burning incense is a long-held social custom showing both a host’s honoring his guests and the fact that the host can afford it in the first place! There are, of course, various grades of oud, but as with most things, the difference in quality isn’t hard to tell.

This article is worth a glance, even if for just a giggle as the writer consistently confuses “gratified” with “grated”.

October:30:2006 - 05:24 | Comments Off | Permalink

Committee vs. Humanity
Abdullah Al-Mutairy • Al-Watan

It’s true that people who criticize the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice usually receive warnings. Mosques always praise the committee for the noble work they do, yet watching a child’s tears today was moving and perhaps worth the trouble I may possibly get myself into.

A 10-year-old boy started crying after being picked up by some committee members in the middle of Riyadh. The men put him in their vehicle while he was continually crying. They did that because he was wearing a rap-star like bandana on his tiny little head and those people felt he was trying to imitate the West — an unforgivable sin.

Because of this tragic scene, many painful and sad questions came to my mind. These were questions about humane traits and tolerance, issues without which life can never be possible. I asked myself what happened to the simplest of human rights concerning dignity and value even when the authorities are involved? I questioned how humans behave when they are given endless power without being asked or taken to account about their actions. I also had doubts about the world we are living in; is it really the 21st century or have we been taken back hundreds of years? When did the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice become an excuse to abuse and humiliate people?

Translating from the Arabic daily Al-Watan, Arab News prints this article.

The writer questions the extent of power with accountability that is now accorded the mutawa’in, finding it excessive. He’s willing to put himself in jeopardy to complain in the hope that complaints may bring about some limitation. A good article.

October:29:2006 - 23:19 | Comments Off | Permalink

Gulf War Games Target Nuclear Smuggling
Nasser Karimi & Jim Krane

TEHRAN, Iran — A naval training exercise led by the United States and aimed at blocking smuggling of nuclear weapons began Sunday in the Persian Gulf.

The six-nation maneuvers off the coast of Iran are the first of their kind since North Korea’s Oct. 9 nuclear test and U.N. sanctions that called on the international community to conduct searches at sea to ensure the reclusive communist nation is not secretly expanding its nuclear program.

The Washington Post carries this AP piece about an upcoming naval exercise. The article notes that the exercise is periferally related to the recent threats againt Gulf oil facilities, though its intentions are global in focus.

October:29:2006 - 17:12 | Comments Off | Permalink

Coalition forces take terror threat seriously
Anand Sagar

MANAMA — The Coalition naval forces in the region, especially the US Naval Forces Central Command (USNFCC) in Bahrain, are taking the recent Al Qaeda terrorist threat of targeting vital oil infrastructure facilities and installations in the Arabian Gulf quite ‘seriously’. They have responded unanimously by being ‘extra vigilant’ to effectively counter any such eventuality.

The USNFCC spokesman in Bahrain, Kevin Aandahl, told Khaleej Times yesterday, “we are very aware of the possible threat posed by Al Qaeda and all prudent and precautionary measures are being taken to safeguard especially the offshore oil infrastructure facilities and other vital oil installations in the region.”

Aandahl added, “The fact that Ayman Al Zawaheri (Osama bin Laden’s chief deputy within Al Qaeda) had said in a recent videotaped message that his (terrorist) organisation was especially planning to target oil installations in the Gulf, has prompted us all to be extra vigilant and on heightened alert as we patrol the region. We are also focusing sharply on maritime security of all nations in the Arabian Gulf.”

Wire agency news reports from London, it may be recalled, had mentioned over the weekend that Coalition naval forces have been on heightened alert since Al Qaeda issued its threat last month of targeting oil installations in the Gulf. In their sights, it is being speculated, may be Bahrain’s Bapco oil refinery and Saudi Arabia’s Ras Tanura oil export terminal facility. The Al Qaeda threat did not mention any specific targets.

Khaleej Times out of Dubai carries this story today, slightly amplifiying the information available earlier this week.

October:29:2006 - 14:59 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Saudi Constitution: Planting the Seeds of a New Paradigm
Mshari Al-Zaydi

King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz’s royal decree to establish the Allegiance Institution Committee, with the special rules that govern it, to specifically control the process of selecting the king and the crown prince, ensures the unity of the royal family and safeguards the country. As such, Saudi Arabia has widened the circle of political trust and spread reassurance among its people, further stabilizing its constitution. This is the Saudi citizen’s first impression, or what an observer would record as the public reaction to the announcement.

Having said that, we may begin to address the clearly written constitutional ‘ceiling’ that controls the transition of power from one king to another. Although the ruling system under King Fahd in 1992 briefly addressed this subject, this new 25-article system takes into account more possibilities including ones of a rare occurrence such as the simultaneous incapacitation of king and crown prince, or simultaneous deaths. It has also introduced new terminology, enriching the Saudi political dictionary with terms such as ‘Transitory Ruling Council’.

Indeed, we may rest assured that even in the worst-case scenario wherein conflict and differences escalate around matters related to the rule that there exists a reference and a mechanism to set matters straight. There are clear and transparent legal articles that can resolve most anticipated cases without the customary discomfort; situations such as health disabilities or the incompetence of the nominated candidates for king and crown prince as stated in section ‘b’ of Article 7 of the decree, which states: “It is the king’s prerogative to ask the committee to nominate a crown prince at any time. In the case that the king does not approve of the committee’s nominations, in accordance with sections ‘a’ and ‘b’ of this article, the committee will vote between its nominated choice and another candidate nominated by the king. The crown prince will be selected on the basis of gaining the most votes. In the case of a draw, the king’s word overrules.”

Al-Zaydi looks at the changes to the Saudi ‘constitution’ and basically likes what he sees. He notes that the recent announcement of formal procedures to deal with succession are rooted in historical concepts, including the restriction of nomination of monarchs to a specific family; this is nothing new in European history, after all. In going back to early Islamic history—to the rule of the ‘Umayyad dynasty of ruler/caliph–he argues there is nothing demonstrably ‘wrong’ in such a situation, but also that times (and governments) do change.

His discussion of the role of ‘allegiance’ within Arab politics is also worth noting. A very good article.

October:29:2006 - 14:57 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Eternal Satellite Channel…
Hussein Shobokshi

The Baath Party, and the way that it occupied neighboring Arab countries and murdered leaders and officials, will be remembered for its “contribution” to “one Arab nation, with an eternal mission”. It accused those who disagreed with the party’s values of betrayal and issued statements charging individuals with treason and affiliating them with “imperialism” and international conspiracies against the nation. Incomprehensible phrases were and still are tantamount to the drugging of the futures of nations.
On the other hand, there is the Muslim Brotherhood that has revived the notions of denouncing individuals as infidels and the politicizing of religion. It seeks to overthrow “disbelieving” regimes and to guide the “misguided” nations and has issued fatwas that permit assassinations and that state that anything goes in the interest of a higher goal.

These two ideologies, that of the Baath and that of the Muslim Brotherhood, have caused much havoc and division in the region. Ten years ago, their goal was realized in the form of a satellite television channel that presents an evil mix that plants ideas into the minds of innocents. Many of the programs and news bulletins are based upon an odd mixture of Baath and Muslim Brotherhood beliefs, the strongest level of Arab secular political ideology on one side and Islamic political extremism on the other.

Writing in Asharq Alawsat, Hussein Shobokshi wonders just what Al-Jazeera TV is about.

He notes that the TV channel is right out there condemning Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but has remarkably little—try nothing—to say about Lebanese imprisoned in Syria. We hear a lot about the US ‘occupation of Iraq’, but nothing about Iranian occupation of islands in the Persian Gulf claimed by the UAE. To pretend that Al-Jazeera speaks for the Arab world is nonsense, Shobokshi says:

The continuous attempt to sell the idea that only one source is presenting the complete truth in the interest of the Arab world and Islamic justice is nonsense and the result of which is extremism, an increasing frustration amongst the public and an unstoppable Arab division.

A Qatari official commented on the Tunisian statement regarding the closure of its embassy in Doha and the suspension of diplomatic ties, saying that Qatar has no authority over the concerned satellite channel, whilst this very channel receives all its support and assurance of its continuation from the Qatari government. Comments such as these have become an old joke….a very bad old joke.

October:29:2006 - 14:49 | Comments Off | Permalink

The meaning of the niqab or veil is currently the subject of great debate throughout the Islamic world, including the US and European countries where Muslims make up a substantial minority population. Arab News carries two articles furthering the debate, one from the The Los Angeles Times, the other from the UK’s The Guardian. Both are worth reading, of course…

Women and the Veil: Hidden in Plain Sight
Zaiba Malik, LA Times

There’s a poster on the wall of an Islamic dress shop in East London showing a young woman in a black “hijab.” Above her is the word “Pure.” The saleswoman who is helping me also has a scarf covering her head.

I’m here to buy a “hijab” too — but that’s not all. I’m here for the full Islamic covering, the complete three-piece suit: The “hijab” that I will wrap around my head, the shapeless robe known as an “abaya,” and the now-terribly-controversial “niqab” — a square of material that goes over one’s face with a slit of about five inches for my eyes.

I buy it for $73 and take it all home, but I don’t put it on until the next morning. When I do, I see myself for the first time in full Islamic dress — and I’m horrified. I have disappeared, and somebody I don’t recognize is looking back at me. I cannot tell how old she is, how much she weighs, whether she has a kind face or a sad face. Even my own mother couldn’t recognize me.

I’ve seen this shrouded figure in news reports from the mountains of Afghanistan and the cities of Saudi Arabia, but she looks out of place here in my bedroom in West London. In fact, I feel so dissociated from my own reflection that it takes me over an hour to pluck up the courage to leave the house.

Muslim Veil as a Symbol of Cultural Identity
Karen Armstrong, The Guardian

LONDON, 28 October 2006 — I spent seven years of my girlhood heavily veiled — not in a Muslim niqab but in a nun’s habit. We wore voluminous black robes, large rosaries and crucifixes, and an elaborate headdress: You could see a small slice of my face from the front, but from the side I was entirely shielded from view. We must have looked very odd indeed, walking dourly through the colorful carnival of London during the swinging 1960s, but nobody ever asked us to exchange our habits for more conventional attire.

When my order was founded in the 1840s, not long after Catholic emancipation, people were so enraged to see nuns brazenly wearing their habits in the streets that they pelted them with rotten fruit and horse dung. Nuns had been banned from Britain since the Reformation; their return seemed to herald the resurgence of barbarism. Two hundred and fifty years after the gunpowder plot which sought to blow up the Westminster Parliament and kill the king, Catholicism was still feared as unassimilable, irredeemably alien to the British ethos, fanatically opposed to democracy and freedom, and a fifth column allied to dangerous enemies abroad.

Today the veiled Muslim woman appears to symbolize the perceived Islamic threat, as nuns once epitomized the evils of popery. She seems a barbaric affront to hard-won values that are essential to our cultural identity: gender equality, freedom, transparency and openness. But in the Muslim world the veil has also acquired a new symbolism. If government ministers really want to debate the issue fruitfully, they must become familiar with the bitterly ironic history of veiling during the last hundred years.

October:28:2006 - 16:16 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Saudi Arabia confirms threat to oil facilities
RIYADH (Reuters) – Top world oil exporter Saudi Arabia said on Friday it was taking measures to protect its oil and economic installations from a “terrorist threat”.

Western naval forces in the Gulf have been deployed to counter a possible seaborne threat to its Ras Tanura oil terminal.

“The terrorist threat to the kingdom’s economic installation exists and it is a declared goal of the straying faction to affect the interests of the Saudi citizen,” an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

“Saudi security forces are cooperating and coordinating with the Saudi navy to take the necessary security measures,” he told Reuters.

Unfortunately, there are very few details available at present on this story. The threat is probably coming from Al-Qaeda in the Gulf—the Saudi-based branch operation. I’ll be watching for more information.

Just found this report from Voice of America:

US Ready to Help Saudi Arabia Defend Oil Facilities
By Meredith Buel, VOA
27 October 2006

The United States says it is ready to help Saudi Arabia defend its oil facilities against terrorist threats, following a statement by the British navy asking merchant shippers to be on alert for suspicious vessels or activity in the Persian Gulf region. The U.S. Navy is supporting the recommendation as we hear in this report from Meredith Buel in Washington.

Britain’s Royal Navy says coalition forces in the Gulf have been deployed to counter a possible threat to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Officials say this has resulted in stepped-up security at Saudi Arabia’s Ras Tanura terminal, the world’s largest offshore oil facility.

On the fifth anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the United States, a videotaped message from al-Qaida’s deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was broadcast.

In the video the terrorist leader warned the Persian Gulf region and Israel would be the group’s next targets. He also accused Western powers of stealing what he called Muslim oil.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says the United States is ready to help Saudi Arabia fight threats from terrorist groups.

“There have been calls by al-Qaida to attack Saudi oil facilities in the recent past,” he said. “These are not new. You go back in the record you can see these threats previously. We will do everything that we can, if there is a request for assistance, both in general terms or specific terms to assist the Saudi government.”

McCormack declined to discuss specific threats to Saudi facilities or whether the United States has received any requests to defend them.

A spokesman for U.S. Navy forces in the Persian Gulf, Commander Kevin Aandahl, told VOA U.S. forces endorse the British recommendation for increased caution in the region.

“We support the recommendation that commercial mariners be especially vigilant while they’re transiting the Gulf,” he said. “Coalition forces, we’re taking prudent precautionary measures and focusing on our bread-and-butter [main] operation, which is maritime security operations in the Gulf, on these possible threats.”

Commander Aandahl, at the Navy’s regional headquarters in Bahrain, says for security reasons he can not discuss any specific threats or intelligence information.

But he says U.S. ships have not taken any special precautions or launched any extraordinary missions.

The commander says threats against oil facilities in the Gulf are nothing new, but need to be taken seriously because terrorists have tried to attack such infrastructure in the past.

“I can’t talk to any specific threat,” he said. “But I can say that we just take any and all threats seriously.”

Authorities say oil export operations in the Gulf region are currently proceeding normally.

October:28:2006 - 01:43 | Comments Off | Permalink
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