Movie on Pre-Oil Boom Kingdom in the Making

JEDDAH, 1 February 2007 — Saudi actor Abdul Ilah Al-Sinani will begin shooting a new film “Sinin Al-Rahmat,” in a few months. The story is of the Kingdom in the days before oil came to play a major role in Saudi life. Saleh Al-Fauzan is the director and scriptwriter of the film, which will be produced by Saudi Television in collaboration with MBC, Al-Sinani told the daily Al-Watan yesterday.

Al-Sinani is currently in a film about an ancient Arab king, Abu Jaafar Al-Mansour which is being shot in Syria and Jordan.

The actor’s television serial “Al-Duat Abwab Jahannam,” received unprecedented acclaim throughout the Arab world. The serial, which illustrates how terrorism has spread its evil in the Muslim world, was shown by several Arab TV channels last year.

Saudi Arabs seems to be getting serious about film of late. Not only was the first feature-length Saudi-made film released last year, but several short films have been winning international awards.

If political pressures don’t get in the way, this new film could do a great deal to inform not only the world, but young Saudis of their history. As is par for the course, national histories tend to have some element of fable—’foundation myth’ if you will—that is supposed to instill virtue in those who read it. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it should not be the only history to which one is exposed.

The history of Saudi Arabia is a fascinating one, even if it isn’t always an endless array of heroics or deep religious convictions. Real history, the best that one can determine from documents and testimony, is important as well.

I wish the filmmaker well.

January:31:2007 - 22:37 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Saudi appeals court’s verdict upholding a forced divorce on the grounds that a woman’s husband misrepresented his tribal background—a charge both he and his wife dispute—still commands Saudi media attention.

Today’s Arab News carries these two pieces:

Fatima’s Lawyer Wants Her in Women’s Shelter
Ebtihal Mubarak

JEDDAH, 1 February 2007 — Fatima, the 34-year-old woman who was divorced by a judge in absentia at the request of her half-brothers, has refused to leave prison in Dammam into the custody of her only legal male guardians (mahram), the men who broke up her marriage.

Fearing for her safety, the lawyer in the case said yesterday that he sent on Monday a request to the minister of social affairs asking him to put Fatima in a women’s shelter. He also said prison officials have refused him access to his client. Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, the lawyer representing Fatima and the man she still considers her husband, 37-year-old Mansour Al-Timani, told Arab New yesterday that earlier this week the family asked Alkhobar police to turn Fatima over to their custody, which is the legal procedure…

The Nightmare of Being a Saudi Woman
Abeer Mishkhas,

HERE WE go again and this time, it is official. A woman in Saudi Arabia has no right to choose her husband; she is forced to marry whomever her family chooses and, what is most shocking of all, a Saudi woman can be divorced from her husband against her will if that is the wish of her family. Add to this all the “normal” limitations in her life which if we start listing them, we’ll fall into a vicious cycle of repetition. But repetition or not, a serious crime is taking place in front of us and just because we have gotten used to hearing about it does not make it any less serious.

All our anger and frustration aside, the latest news concerning the much-written about Fatima is very unsettling. She is the woman who was happily married to a husband whom her father approved of; after his death, however, her half-brothers decided she should divorce Mansour since, in their eyes, he was not her social equal. And they set about going to the court and divorcing the couple even though Fatima and Mansour were happily married with two children. The court has ruled in favor of the half-brothers so the couple is now “legally” divorced. There is nothing in Islam or its laws that allows such a thing to happen but nonetheless, the court has issued its verdict…

Saudi Gazette leads its online news coverage today with this story, which also provides background:

Husband Wants Wife; Won’t Accept Court’s Ruling
Suzan Zawawi

Riyadh: A husband who had been forcibly separated from his wife will not acknowledge the court’s ruling.

“She is still my wife and she will always be so,” said the grieving husband, Mansour Al-Timani, who had been forcibly divorced from his wife by the High Court in Riyadh, after an appeal against the same ruling by a court in Al-Jouf. Timani and his wife Fatimah had been married for four years.

“In God’s eyes she is my wife and I will never leave her,” said Timani.

The verdict came as a shock not only to the 37-year-old Timani, but also to the majority of Saudi public, who have been keenly following the highly-publicized case. People had specific questions on their minds: What will the couple do? Will Fatimah go back to her family, or will she choose to stay in prison in protest of the verdict?

“I don’t accept the verdict,” said Timani. “This is not an Islamic verdict (that is) based on Shariah law, so how can we accept it as law?”

January:31:2007 - 22:28 | Comments Off | Permalink

Shoura Members Urge Legal Support for Vice Police

RIYADH, 1 February 2007 — During a discussion of a report about the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Shoura Council members demanded that provisions be made to provide the commission with legal support.

Shoura members requested that a legal division be established with lawyers and legal consultants defending commission members and taking court action against people who defame the institution and its members, according to Al-Madinah newspaper. The members also urged the Ministry of the Interior to expedite applications filed by the commission and called for a review of the commission’s rules.

Arab News carries this interesting article on a debate within the Shoura Council—the appointed consultative group which functions somewhat as a parliament in Saudi Arabia—on just what it is that the Mutawwa’in are supposed to be doing, how they do it, what legal authorities and protections they have, how they are held to account for their actions, and even their dress.

It’s clear that there’s no great momentum to disband the Commission; not many senior politicians could survive such a call. But there is interest in professionalizing them, educating them, and training them. Right now, there seem to be a too large number of men bringing their own interpretations of what is permissible into the equation.

Western law is based on punishing the evil actions of people; Sharia law—at least as interpreted in Saudi Arabia—also seeks to act on what people might do. That is hard to determine, of course, as no one has yet found a way to get into the minds of others to discover their intentions.

January:31:2007 - 22:18 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) runs an interesting two-part analysis on the frictions between Saudi Arabia and Iran:

The Middle East on a Collision Course (1): Recent Saudi-Iranian Contacts to Resolve the Lebanon Crisis

The Middle East on a Collision Course (2): The Saudi Position

MEMRI is an organization that originally focused exclusively on the outrageous, stupid, and intolerant positions of Arab leaders as reported in Arab media. Over the past several years, it has widened its brief to include coverage of reformist Arabs. MEMRI is most definitely an Israeli-oriented group and tends to pick and choose stories to report based on its assessment of Israeli interests. I know that MEMRI widely distributes its materials throughout ‘Official Washington’, i.e., to the desks of US Congressmen and their staffers, as well as to Executive agencies. How widely its materials are read in Israel, I simply don’t know.

I offer the above commentary for the purpose of alerting readers to the fact that what MEMRI chooses to report may not be the whole story.

January:31:2007 - 12:19 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

American Road Trip Through Arab Eyes

“On the Road in America” looks, on first viewing, like the sort of television show that Al Jazeera and MTV might produce if they could be coaxed together in front of an editing terminal. A 12-part reality series, currently being broadcast throughout the Middle East, “On the Road” features a caravan of young, good-looking Arabs crisscrossing America on a mission to educate themselves and the people they encounter along the way.

The New York Times runs this article on an Arab reality-TV series about group of young Arabs traveling through the US and talking about what they see, do, and think. The group, comprised of a Saudi, an Egyptian, and a Lebanese (along with their Palestinian-Lebanese interpreter), is frank in its commentary. Currently, the program is being broadcast only on MBC, a Saudi-owned corporation which was among the first of the Arab satellite TV channels. There are discussions about making the series available in the US. I sincerely hope it finds a distributor. It’s very good, though, that it’s being seen by millions of Arabs in the Middle East, though.

January:31:2007 - 12:03 | Comments Off | Permalink

Pressures build on Saudi media
Sebastian Usher

The media in Saudi Arabia has begun to broach topics such as religious extremism, women’s rights and unemployment that were once strictly off limits.

The changes have provided new insight into what has long been one of the most closed and conservative societies in the world.

In speeches broadcast on Saudi television, King Abdullah has repeated what is now the dominant message of his reign – Saudi Arabia must stamp out the threat of home-grown Islamic extremism.

It is a complete switch after decades of denial that Saudi Arabia had any such problem. It was the involvement of Saudi citizens in 9/11 that forced the reversal. The Saudi media changed, too – as for the first time it began to examine issues that had once been hidden.

“Journalists and newspapers have begun to tackle taboo subjects – like unemployment, crime, the issues of women’s rights and security forces’ battles with Islamic extremists,” says Joel Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists who has spent months assessing these changes.

Good piece from the BBC on the plight in which Saudi journalists find themselves. I’d differ in my assessment of the turning point for Saudi journalists in becoming more aggressive toward the religious establishment, though. The article puts that point at the May, 2003 bombings of residential compounds in Riyadh. Actually, it was the March, 2003 fire at a girls’ school in Mecca that outraged both the media and Saudi society.

Of note, too, are the comments of the Committee to Protect Journalists about the progress Saudi journalists have made in kicking open the doors of censorship. You can read more about that progress—limited though it may be—at the Committee’s report “Princes, Clerics, and Censorship”.

January:31:2007 - 11:31 | Comments Off | Permalink

Middle East: Religious TV Channels Experiencing Financial Crunch
Huda al Saleh

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- The last few years have witnessed a rapid increase in the number of religious-themed television channels based in the Middle East, including 11 in Saudi Arabia.

The channels, despite their popularity in the Arab world, are not enjoying the financial benefits of advertising revenue that usually comes with popular programming because of what the channels proprietors and advertising agencies see as a conflict of interest.

The conflict of interest is a two-way street between these religious channels and advertising firms, with the agencies shying away from advertising on religious programming because the do not regard such channels as appropriate for their products.

This has left these channels with very few alternatives in regards to financing their operations with the majority depending on donations from loyal viewers and charities to stay afloat.

Interesting piece in Asharq Alawsat on how the religious satellite TV programs—whose number is quickly expanding throughout the Middle East—are not finding ways to make themselves self-supporting through advertising. The article notes that those who watch the religious channels tend to be rather touchy about things like music, women, singing and dancing, all of which are commonplace in Middle Eastern TV ads. The ad agencies don’t like to do boring ads, nor do they want to get caught in a cultural crossfire. So for now, the TV channels are looking for other ways to support themselves, with SMS text messaging apparently a leading source of funds.

I’d appreciate a Saudi reader’s comments on how this SMS project works.

January:31:2007 - 10:45 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Real Idiocy
Mshari Al-Zaydi

How interesting, yet sad, was the Iraqi Vice-President’s dubbing of the US “invasion” of Iraq and overthrowing of Saddam Hussein’s regime an “idiot decision!”

Should we regard this as a moment of confession and revelation on the part of Sayyed Abdul Mahdi, or rather is it a crude “demagogical” moment?! But how can it be a demagogical, plebeian moment considering that he spoke from the “elite” platform at the World Economic Forum in Davos last Thursday?

Adel Abdul Mahdi is Abdul Aziz al Hakim’s man, the Shia cleric who is at the helm of the Shia political leadership in Iraq; or rather, let us say that he is the “guide” of the Iraqi revolution! Had it not been for the “idiot” US decision according to Abdul Mahdi’s words, he would not have been able to sit comfortably in Davos and deliver these sermons as Iraq’s Vice-President. We should remind Abdul Mahdi of his “guide’s” trip to Washington to encourage the Americans — the idiot Americans — to stay in Iraq rather than leave!

Actually, this is an ironic and bitter paradox in Abdul Mahdi’s statement. It indicates the extent of undermining people’s minds and to what extent Bush’s “dispraise” bank has become a lucrative one for those who are bankrupt in the field of political achievements.

Well, according to Abdul Mahdi’s interposition, if the Americans have committed “many mistakes that fueled violence in the country,” and most of “these mistakes and acts of violence were avoidable,” what is the role of the new Iraqi ruling class? Is it less careful with regards to its country than the Americans? To what extent is it responsible for these mistakes?

Al-Zaydi, who writes about religious fundamentalism for the Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat has an angry piece today. He acknowledges that the US government made serious mistakes in Iraq after it overthrew Saddam Hussein. Worse, though, are the unacknowledged mistakes (and crimes) committed by Iraqis against Iraqis since then. He notes the tendency to accept praise when things are going well, but also the tendency to blame someone else—anyone else—when things go badly.

Iraqis, he says, have wasted the opportunity given them by American intervention. Instead of choosing to be ‘great and constructive’ they have chosen to be ‘small and destructive’. Definitely worth reading the whole article.

January:31:2007 - 10:35 | Comments Off | Permalink

In Legacy of a Revered Martyr, Saudi Shiites Find Sustenance
Lessons From Killing of Hussein in 7th Century Define Lives, Ambitions of His Followers Today
Faiza Saleh Ambah

QATIF, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 30 — Fawzia al-Hani dropped her black veil over her face and wept softly on Sunday, enveloping herself in the sadness of the last days of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad and Shiite Islam’s most tragic and revered martyr.

The women in the packed community center commemorating Ashura, the anniversary of Hussein’s death in A.D. 680, watched on a projection screen as a turbaned cleric described how Hussein set out with a small band of family and followers to confront a large army, then was filled with anguish when his favorite son was slaughtered before he himself was killed.

Beside the cleric, men huddled on the floor with their heads bowed, dabbing at their eyes with tissues.

To many of the region’s historically persecuted Shiites, the death of Hussein in what is now Karbala, Iraq, the event that triggered the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, remains central to their lives. Shiite belief that Hussein and his descendants were robbed of their rightful succession as rulers of the Islamic world heightens their sense of persecution and victimization.

As did every other media service with reporters on the ground in Saudi Arabia, The Washington Post sent its reporter to Qatif, in the Eastern Province, to observe the rites of Ashura. This article is a good one, worth reading.

The article quotes Saudi Shi’ites who say that the conflict in Iraq is already spilling over the borders. Sunni clerics in the Kingdom have recently taken up cries against the Shi’a. Saudi Shi’a leaders try to remind their people that Iraq’s problems are not their own and that they are not under any obligation to pick up the Iraqi Shi’a fight for their own.

January:31:2007 - 09:58 | Comments Off | Permalink

Philippines’ Loss is Vietnam’s Gain
Shahid Ali Khan

RIYADH: DEMAND for domestic helpers from Vietnam, a new found market for Saudi employers, has heavily increased after the Philippine government decided on a minimum wage of $400 for Filipina domestic workers.
Walid Al-Swaidan, chairman of the Riyadh branch of the Saudi Arabian National Recruitment Committee (SANARCOM), said Saudi families are opting to change visas from the Philippines to Vietnam to recruit domestic helpers, particularly housemaids.

Vietnam is the new market, and Saudis have already started to accept Vietnamese as domestic helpers, Al-Swaidan told The Saudi Gazette.

Saudi families are reluctant to pay a minimum of $400 a month to Filipina maids, as announced by Manila recently. Saudi families are willing to change or have already started changing visas which have already been issued for the Philippines to Vietnam, he said.

“Around 3,000 Vietnamese domestic helpers, mostly housemaids have already arrived in the Kingdom during the past four months and demand is still increasing,” Al-Swaidan said.

He lambasted the Philippine government, saying it would be ludicrous to think decision-makers there decided to set the $400 minimum wage for Filipina housemaids, which is equivalent to what Saudi teachers are paid here.

“Well qualified Saudi teachers working in private schools in the Kingdom are paid a basic minimum salary of SR1,500 a month,” he said. “By making such a decision the Philippines is set to lose its domestic helper market in Saudi Arabia.”

As I noted in a story yesterday, if other labor-exporting countries could agree on a basic standard of employment for their expatriates, a lot of the problems expat laborers face could be avoided.

According to this Saudi Gazette article, no such agreement is likely as Vietnam steps in to fill the Filipina void.

The article does note that the minimum salary expected by the Philippine government is high by Saudi standards. Rather than force third-world workers to accept infinitesimal salaries, perhaps Saudis should be paid more. And perhaps some Saudis should re-evaluate their need for a domestic worker.

Prior to the Second World War, most middle-class Europeans and Americans had at least part-time domestic help, either ‘poor cousins’ or hired. The post-war economy brought such changes to those societies, though, that after the war only the wealthy could afford household help. People learned to do without domestic servants as at least some of the workload was taken up by new machinery like washing machines and modern appliances.

Most Saudis were never in a middle class; what assistance there was within a household came either from relatives or, prior to 1964, slaves. Slavery, of course, is now outlawed. Connections within extended families are breaking down within Saudi society, so that is no longer a viable option. The only choices seem to be between having no servants or having to pay reasonable wages for them. Unless, of course, another country is going to provide cheaper labor.

It strikes me that this is just another of the myriad changes Saudi society is going through these days. It makes life harder and more complicated. It also makes people less happy with the status quo. But that’s just something life does… change constantly.

January:30:2007 - 23:55 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Beyond Baghdad
Richard G. Lugar

Since President Bush announced that he would send more American troops to Iraq, the debate on Iraq policy has reached new levels of stridency. Opponents of the war have rallied against what they see as an unjustified escalation, while the administration has dismissed opposition as defeatism. Vice President Cheney went so far as to say a withdrawal would show that Americans “don’t have the stomach for the fight.”

Military action in Iraq, however, defies orthodox notions of victory and defeat. We are not in Iraq to defend territory or even to destroy an enemy. Rather, we are pursuing the amorphous task of coaxing out of the Iraqi people and government political decisions that will result in a democratic, pluralistic society that is conducive to regional stability.

While the emergence of such a government and society is still worth pursuing, we must recognize that it is an optimal goal. It should not be the focal point of our Middle East policy or the sole measure of success in Iraq…

Richard Lugar, Republican from Indiana, is the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has this op-ed in today’s Washington Post. It’s worth reading.

January:30:2007 - 10:30 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Saudi working to put out ME fires

RIYADH (AFP) – A Saudi offer to broker a deal between warring Palestinian factions is the latest move to contain what King Abdullah has termed an explosive situation in the Arab world, officials and diplomats say.

Rival Palestinian leaders have welcomed Abdullah’s offer to host a meeting in Islam’s holiest city in a bid to end the power struggle between president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah and the ruling Islamist movement Hamas which has left more than 30 people dead in four days.

“The priority must be to stop the fighting between Fatah and Hamas,” a Saudi official told AFP, requesting anonymity.

“The objective of the king’s call to Palestinian leaders to meet in Mecca is to halt the bloodletting first, followed by a meeting in the holy city to discuss the differences between them without the involvement of any other side,” he said.

A ceasefire agreed by Hamas and Fatah came into force Tuesday as international pressure mounted on the two sides to hammer out a power-sharing deal and end the worst factional fighting since the Islamists won an election a year ago.

But the United States gave a lukewarm response to the Saudi offer, casting doubt on Hamas’s commitment to forge peace with Israel.

Saudi Arabia’s Palestinian mediation bid coincides with attempts to resolve the standoff between Lebanon’s Western-backed government and the opposition led by the Iran- and Syria-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah.

The oil-rich regional powerhouse is also preparing to host an Arab summit at the end of March.

This piece from Agence France Presse does a good job in pulling together the different diplomatic initiatives being undertaken by the Saudi government to resolve regional crises.

January:30:2007 - 10:15 | Comments Off | Permalink
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