Municipal Councils, the result of the first-ever nationwide series of elections in the KSA have turned out to be a practical bust. They may yet have served a purpose, though, in getting people used to the idea of representational government, even if it is ineffectual.

It seems to be that there were no clear rules about how the councils might work. In the absence of guidelines, the members have been left in purely observer status, with no power to actually do anything.

My suspicion is that the elections were held prematurely, before anyone in the central government or even the municipalities had sufficient chance to sit down and decide just what they were about. Perhaps this was in part due to US pressure toward democratization. That is, in fact, entirely feasible. But having the councils end up powerless is not a great move. I do not think, however, that it was intended from the start that the councils be toothless. It is, I believe, a matter of getting the cart before the horse.

The next municipal elections are scheduled to be held in 2009. Perhaps by then—when women are also supposed to be able to vote in the elections—those in authority will have figured out just how and where to draw the lines of power-sharing. Disappointing.

‘Municipal Councilors to Have Role of Observers Only’
Javid Hassan

RIYADH, 1 August 2007 — Municipal councilors who won the 2005 elections that were held Kingdomwide will only play the role of observers in collecting information from their constituencies and reporting back to their respective municipal councils, according to the legislative framework that is currently in the works.

“They will not be able to do anything to redress the grievances of citizens who elected them from their constituencies,” Turki Faisal Al-Rasheed, founder and CEO of the website, told Arab News.

In other words, they will not be able to deliver on their manifesto presented to the electorate in 2005.

July:31:2007 - 19:41 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Saudi Gazette has a short piece about three Saudis—two brothers and a friend—who decided to take a chance on success. One gave up his job as a banker to set up a new car wash. He hasn’t looked back since.

It’s good to see that Saudis themselves are redefining what work is considered ‘acceptable’ and worthy of one’s one dignity. I’m sure, based on my own experience in washing cars, that it’s not the most glamorous work in the world. But the satisfaction of working hard at one’s own business makes the earnings far more enjoyable.

3 qualified Saudis join hands to open car wash center

THREE Saudi youths – Mamdouh, Hazem and Omer – have set an example for those who look for cushioned chairs in managerial posts. These three Saudis left managerial positions in the banking sector to open a car wash center.

Mamdouh, a business administration graduate from Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz University, Hazem, a chemical engineer, and Omer, a student of marketing, joined hands to bring a new Korean car wash technology to the Kingdom. In just 14 months, their business prospered.

They applied the steam technology, which drastically cuts water consumption.

Mamdouh told the Arabic language daily Al-Hayat that he sacrificed his respectable job in a leading bank in Jeddah as a regional manger for branch services to make this venture a reality.

July:31:2007 - 18:44 | Comments Off | Permalink

Huffington Post pulls out its resident Saudi-basher to pick up the slack and catch up with other media reports critical of Saudi Arabia over the past week. The article is so detached from reality that one wonders whether Huffington Post readers are either very dim or the blog thinks that they are.

I am quoting below the various points the writer tries to make and answer them individually.

Saudi Arms Deal: Questions Congress Should Ask
of The “Georgey Come Lately” Administration

Raymond J. Learsy

On July 27 the New York Times reported that the Bush Administration, otherwise somnolent on matters Saudi, was voicing increasing anger at Saudi Arabia’s counterproductive role in the Iraq War, much in the manner of Claude Rains’ disbelieving exhortation to Humphrey Bogart, “I’m shocked, I’m shocked” in that great movie classic, Casablanca. Then, true to form, only two days later the same administration announced plans for a huge arms sale of highly sophisticated weaponry to the very same Saudis. The administration will need the approval of Congress to proceed. I would like to suggest a few question to be asked of the administration before the bill is passed, including:

» Has the Saudi Arabian Government stopped Saudi financing of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq through charity fronts and otherwise, and how will this interdiction be monitored?

Why, yes it has! The Saudi government has completely regulated the collection and distribution of charitable funds. It has worked with both the US and the UN to declare both individual Saudis and Saudi organizations as supporters of terrorism and to freeze their funds globally. Has this completely stopped the flow of money from individual Saudis to terrorist organizations? No, not completely. As I’ve noted before, with most of private Saudi funds being held outside the Kingdom, there is little that the government can do to control money flows occurring outside it reach. It also cannot catch every briefcase filled with cash that may move through its airports, though the government has recently imposed currency restrictions.

» Continue Reading

July:31:2007 - 13:12 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

International Herald Tribute carries this Associate Press story reporting that the Saudi religious police in Riyadh had had the criminal charges against them dropped. That is not quite the acquittal that the headline reports. The family of the deceased has promised to appeal the decision. Given that no testimony was heard from witnesses, nor did the court review medical testimony, the dropping of the case will not go down well with the Saudi public. The court did accept written submissions from the accused, however, making the decision seem even more unbalanced.

UPDATE: Arab News carries an article on this story. It focuses on the family’s refusal to accept the dismissal of charges quietly: Family Vows to Fight Acquittal of Commission Members

Saudi religious police acquitted in
case involving the death of a man in custody

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia: A Saudi court has dropped charges against three members of the religious police and a regular police officer accused of involvement in the death of a man in custody, a relative said Tuesday.

Their trial was the first against the powerful force long resented for intimidating people as it enforces Saudi Arabia’s strict version of Islam.

The judge presiding over the case did not question witnesses or review the medical report spelling out how Ahmed al-Bulaiwi died shortly after his June 1 arrest by the religious police, according to Audah al-Bulaiwi, a cousin of the deceased who acted as the family representative during the trial.

“The ruling is unacceptable,” Audah al-Bulaiwi told The Associated Press. “The right of a person who walked into (jail) on his feet and left as a corpse has been lost.”

Al-Bulaiwi, a retired border patrol guard in his early 50s, was arrested in the northern city of Tabuk for being alone with a woman who was not a relative — an act considered an offense in the kingdom.

July:31:2007 - 12:19 | Comments Off | Permalink

Fascinating piece from Reuters, published in Asharq Alawsat. Even Muslim employers, in the region, prefer not to have women wearing niqab—full face veils—in positions where they need to interact with the public. This stance puts the employers squarely in the same position of several European states that prohibit the veil in certain public situations. It also raises the question about whether Islamic practice (actually cultural practice) is a matter of what someone says or what people actually do.

Definitely worth a glance.

Face Veils an Impediment Even to Gulf Jobseekers

DUBAI (Reuters) – Aysha Obeid is hoping that job prospects in a Muslim country will improve for her now that she’s decided to abandon the veil which usually covers her face.

The 22-year-old says several potential employers in the United Arab Emirates have turned her down because she wore the niqab, a face veil that usually leaves only the eyes uncovered.

Obeid, a national of the UAE, now only wears the head scarf more commonly worn by Muslim women around the world.

“No one takes women with niqab in the retail sector,” said Obeid who unsuccessfully applied for jobs at two retail outlets. She is now looking for back office administrative jobs where she believes she may have more chance of being employed.

Many devout women in the conservative Arabian Peninsula wear the niqab, but most Muslim clerics say women are only required to wear a head scarf.

While objections to the niqab have stirred up controversy outside the Muslim world, women who cover their face in the region also say they have trouble getting jobs, particularly those requiring them to interact with the public.

“Women in niqabs do not sit at the counter. They take administrative jobs,” said Abdullah Naser, a manager at a Dubai post office. “Clients need to know who they are talking to.”

Face veils have been a hot political issue in Europe and parts of the Middle East over the rights of wearers to attend schools in secular societies or become policewomen, teachers and take other jobs which interact with the public while wearing the niqab or similar face-covering veils.

July:31:2007 - 10:06 | Comments & Trackbacks (4) | Permalink

Asharq Alawsat runs two columns looking at the recent parliamentary elections in Turkey which saw a moderate Islamist party (Justice and Development Party – AKP) win a majority. Both see the result as hopeful, but the product of Turkey’s unique form of secular government. Both also note that the tactics used by the AKP are largely inapplicable to the Arab Muslim world at the present time.
Both pieces are worth reading.

Hussein Shobokshi:

The Turkish Experiment

I do not know if the Islamic world should rejoice or grieve following the victory of [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and his party [Justice and Development Party – AKP] in recent Turkish elections.

The reality of the situation shows that the Turkish case is an absolute ‘exception’ because the general picture in the Islamic world is one of despotic tyrannies embroiled in corruption, ignorance and extremism.

Even parties and movements bearing Islamic slogans  in fact, those parties in particular are primarily political movements that have separative and extremist discourses that are far removed from the moderate and balanced rhetoric that characterizes Erdogan and the AKP’s discourse. As such, it is difficult to convince objective observers that all these groups adopt the same approach. There is a huge discrepancy between a party that unifies between the homeland and the religion on a moral basis, and another that spreads dissension, death and destruction.

This is why it is revolting to witness a significant number of tycoons and the advocates of extremism congratulating one another and spreading the news about the Turkish “victory” while attributing it to themselves. They are completely forgetful of the fact that they are actually against most of the ideas that the Turkish party proposes, in addition to the hundreds of fatwas [religious edicts] issued by the Turkish party on doctrinal matters  which they completely reject. Today, with full audacity they ride the wave to exploit the situation in the cheapest of ways.

Islamic movements and states must realize that what happened in Turkey has created a platform for measurement and a test for merit. The Islamic world will not be measured against a ceiling that stands lower than the Turkish level. Based on that, everything below that threshold is deemed aberrant and unacceptable.

Sayyed Wild Abah:

Turkish Islamists: A Model or the Exception?

Many are questioning if what we are witnessing today in Turkey can be regarded as a model that can be applied by Islamist movements, or whether it is an exception that bears the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of a unique experiment that cannot be generalized?

However, it is important to point out that Islamic trends have split over the Turkish experiment. The majority were inclined towards rejoicing and commending the great gains achieved by the Justice and Development Party [AKP], which is an offshoot that emerged out of the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party); a predominantly Islamic-inclined party.

Such movements did not regard Erdogan’s government as one that was trying to Islamize public life, or fight against Atatürk’s secularism, or freeze relations with Israel, but rather as one that followed a similar approach to the former secular governments that have preceded it – in terms of internal issues and foreign policy. As such, the AKP’s experience in governing can be regarded as a viable model since it can be characterized as Islamic.

It is noticeable that the leadership of the party is extremely cautious to deny the charges of ‘fundamentalism’ and even the ‘Islamic’ trait, which is leveled against it by its adversaries from traditional secular parties. It has preferred to use the term ‘conservative trend’, which is a popular one in Europe. But moreover, the AKP does not regard its Islamic propensity as one that surpasses the cultural and civil scope in its broad sense, and furthermore, one that does not have any direct repercussions on the political, social and developmental choices regulated by Atatürk’s secular principles.

July:31:2007 - 10:00 | Comments Off | Permalink

[UPDATE 07/31/07: Secretary of State Rice, en route to the region, held an on-the-record briefing for journalists accompanying her. Her comments about the arms sales, as something of mutual benefit to both the US and the Arab states, not just a quid pro quo is worth noting.]

[UPDATE: Amb. Khalilzad, whose earlier statement set off much of the anti-Saudi media flash, has retracted his most critical comments. I am confident that there are those who will assume he was strong-armed into doing so. I doubt that they're right, however.]

How much of the commotion about Saudi Arabia in the news over the past week is related to proposed US arms sales to the country, how much is related to general animus on the part of former military officials who had less-than-happy times while assigned to the KSA, and how much is simple reporting of serious policy differences between the US and the KSA are all worth considering.

The fact is, Saudi Arabia is getting a lot of negative press of late.

The New York Times took the lead, with its piece on 7/27. That has been picked up by other media organizations, from USA Today to the BBC isn’t really surprising.

A bit more surprising is the Israeli media. Some seek dark shadows in the proposed arms deal. Others think it makes reasonable sense, at least the Israeli arms part of the deal.

Iran appears not to think much of the deal.

The US Secretary of State has her own parsing of the issue: Assistance Agreements with Gulf States, Israel and Egypt

I think what’s going on are several things:
» Continue Reading

July:31:2007 - 07:30 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

The Arab News has two stories concerning the religious police today, one positive, the other not so much. Both are worth reading.

The positive one discusses summer youth programs being conducted by the Commission in Madinah. Other than broad platitudes, there’s really nothing said about the content of the different programs. As we’re taught, however, ‘the devil is in the details’ and the Commission has been the object of past complaints about inappropriate materials being introduced for children.

Of interest perhaps to American readers is the timing of these programs. Those for children run from sunset to 11:00pm; those for teen, until 03:00am. Rather than being a tool of coercion, these hours do reflect the effect of hot summer days and the quest to avoid their misery. While you’ll find businessmen and somewhat fewer government workers in their offices during the day, life doesn’t really start happening until the temperature cools down a bit.

Virtue Commission Reaches Out to Young Saudis
Yousuf Muhammad, Arab News

MADINAH, 31 July 2007 — The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Madinah began this week a series of summer activities aimed at reaching out to the youth and teaching them Islamic principles.

The activities, which are entitled “Discover Happiness by Yourself,” began earlier this week and will run for 10 days. “They are taking place in the Al-Sultana District of Madinah. The activities include lectures, quizzes and fun events,” said Sulaiman Al-Tuwaijri, head of the commission in Madinah.

He added that activities begin after Maghrib prayers. Children’s activities end at 11 p.m. and youth activities end at 3 a.m. Al-Tuwaijri also encouraged parents to bring their children to the events. He added that gifts are distributed to participants.

The second piece talks about the funeral of Salman Al-Huraisi, the man allegedly beaten to death while in the custody of the Commission. The article notes that while police and Commission members usually keep photographers and cameras away from funerals in the country, there were many cameras present in this instance. (The paper includes one such photo.) The article also quotes the man’s father as saying that after seeing his son’s body, he is even more adamant in his desire to see those responsible on trial for murder.

Family Members Bury Al-Huraisi in Riyadh
Raid Qusti, Arab News

RIYADH, 31 July 2007 — In previous situations where the body of a person involved in a high-profile case is interred, police and some pious members of the community have been known to grab cameras of photographers and smash them. This was not the case yesterday when the body of Salman Al-Huraisi, the 28-year-old Saudi who was allegedly beaten to death by members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice when they stormed his house on suspicion of selling alcohol, was laid to rest yesterday in the capital.

Apparently the public is a little more sympathetic to putting this body on display: “Let them take shots,” one bystander said. “They tortured him.”

After remaining refrigerated in the morgue of Al-Shumaisi Hospital for two months since the incident took place in late May, authorities pressured the family to receive the body at the morgue and bury it.

July:30:2007 - 19:27 | Comments Off | Permalink

Islam needs to both drop the concept of ‘ahl al-dhimma’ (the according of second-class status to ‘People of the Book’) and its judicial attitudes toward slavery, according to Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azm. Italian news agency AKI carries this interview with him in which he argues that Islam has made changes in the past to accord with the reality in which it found itself. It’s time for more modification and clarification, he says. Definitely worth reading.

Islam: ‘Conflict with democracy’ centres on non-Muslims’ status

Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azm spoke to AKI ahead of the publishing in Italy of the second edition of his book ‘Enlightened Islam’ by Di Renzo Editore

Rome, 26 July (AKI) – Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azm believes that while “there exists a conflict between Islam, in its original form, and democracy, this problem can be solved easily”.

“To do this Islam needs to jettison certain laws, first and foremost the concept of ‘ahl al-dhimma’” the so-called ‘protected’ status granted to followers of the only two other religions recognised by Muslims – Judaism and Christianity, “Al-Azm said in an interview with Adnkronos International (AKI).

In practice, ahl al-dhimma, which is gaining popularity in an increasingly Islamised Iraq, allows non-Muslims, and only Christians and Jews at that, to follow their religion, while effectively stripping them of their political rights and privileges.

Abolishing ahl al-dhimma “paves the way for the concepts of citizenship and equality of all people before the law” Al-Azm , who lectures at universities in Lebanon, Syria and Germany, told AKI.

Similarly, the Syrian philosopher argues that Islam must reappraise its stance on slavery, which he says is at best ambiguous.

“Islam fails to address in a direct and fundamental manner the issue of slavery from a judicial level”.

July:30:2007 - 08:35 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Italian news agency adnkronos (AKI) quotes a piece from the Saudi Arabic daily Al-Watan reporting that in many Saudi mosques, the qibla—the section of a mosque which indicates the location of Mecca, to which all prayers are to be directed—is not correct. Until the advent of satellites which provide clear pictures of the geographic reality, ascertaining the correct direction of the qibla was a matter of complicated mathematics, subject to easy error. With the satellites, however, it seems that a lot of mosques will need to be corrected, and not just in the KSA.

Saudi mosques ‘not facing Mecca’

Riyadh, 27 July (AKI) – Many Saudi imams have discovered that the direction of Mecca indicated to the faithful in their mosques is off-course.

Thanks to the images provided by Google Earth, some Saudi scientists have been able to monitor the main mosques in the kingdom, discovering that many of them have the qibla (the niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca) placed incorrectly.

According to Saudi researcher Abelaziz al-Ghamidi, quoted by the daily ‘al-Watan’, in the area of al-Baha alone 15 mosques have been identified where the qibla does not correspond correctly to the direction of Mecca, the most holy site in Islam.

July:30:2007 - 08:26 | Comments Off | Permalink

‘Infotainment’, the misbegotten attempt to make news entertaining, is the subject of Asharq Alawsat‘s Diana Mukkaled. She notes with dismay that Arab media is following the route taken by their American and other western counterparts. Infotainment is bad enough in the West, she says. It’s even worse in the Arab world where, without a strong tradition of the free exchange of information, the news value of the infotainment programs rapidly approaches zero. She doesn’t say it, but it is also the case that when media marginalize themselves as only amusing programs, there’s no need to take what they say seriously. Media need to be playing a far more serious role in a Middle East riven with discord and fighting. There is no higher calling than the attempt to educate people to the real issues that affect them today and will continue to affect them in tomorrows to come.

The Infotainment Era
Diana Mukkaled

Infotainment, the latest portmanteau coined by broadcast media journalists in America, is an expression that correlates the powers of both “information” and “entertainment” to maintain the balance of ideas disseminated. It is as such so that the significance of information can serve the frivolity of entertainment.

This playful description is not the fruit of mere linguistic preciosity. It is, instead, the outcome of a new spectacle that has held American broadcasting corporations captive: to make news entertaining. This is realized by expanding the range of information presented, from news stories to those relevant to art, and lifestyles. It is also realized by enforcing new methods of news presentation whereby hard-news is watered down and programs concentrate on guest appearances and the dramatic aspects of news stories in order to garner viewers’ sympathy and attention. Lastly and most importantly, they conceive such methods of news presentation and interviewing that do not draw on the information provided so much as they do on visual effects and the charisma of presenters.

…Many big media names and reputable programs have recently fallen under the “Infotainment” category which critics have accused of eroding journalistic standards and gravitas thereby confining it to a role of commercialism and superficiality.

I write this in light of the recent Arabization of the phenomenon. Given the media and satellite boom in the Arab world, there appears to be an amazing correlation between information and entertainment in Arab media, as, of course, only Arabs can do it. Examples include such live debates where yelling and exaggerated theatrical performances are commonplace, or where certain media personalities make a farce of their programs, or what is especially prevalent today, where hard news is read by female anchorwomen who look like beauty queens, or what appear to be exotic gypsies as war correspondents, so much that grave mistakes are cast a blind eye.

July:30:2007 - 07:49 | Comments Off | Permalink

The idea of having Saudi women working as maids was mentioned in the Saudi media last month. Some Saudis took great offense at the idea. Arab News runs an article discussing the issue again and still there are Saudis who seem to lack both a sense of irony and a sense of humanity. The articles notes that the unemployment rate for Saudi women is around 26% (a modest guess, in my book). Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of women come to the country every year from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Pakistan, and other developing countries to take the jobs some Saudis think too demeaning for their sisters to take.

The article wryly quotes an Egyptian ad looking to hire a Saudi domestic with both English and IT skills. It also quotes Egyptian officials saying that they would never permit Egyptians to go to Saudi Arabia as servants.

I’m truly amazed by the Saudis quoted arguing against Saudi women taking these jobs. Is the work dignified or not? If it is not, then why subject other nationalities to the work? Is the work not safe—physically or morally—for Saudi women? Then why is it safe for foreign women? Is it better that some save face while others struggle to put food on their families’ table? If not, then what’s the fuss about?

And Saudis wonder why they have a reputation of arrogance and hypocrisy….

The Unfavorable Prospect of Having Saudi Housemaids
Razan Baker, Arab News

JEDDAH, 29 July 2007 — The Ministry of Social Affairs is considering whether to employ Saudi women as housemaids to decrease the rate of unemployment among women which, according to the Ministry of Labor, reached 26 percent in 2006.

The ministry aims to help women support their families, especially since around two million Saudis are poor, said Labor Minister Ghazi Al-Gosaibi. By employing Saudis, MOSA also aims to decrease the number of foreign housemaids coming to the Kingdom.

Although some Saudis sympathize with poor women and support Saudi maids, many others are against the idea and consider such jobs as degrading to the status of Saudi women.

In a recent newspaper interview, a Saudi housemaid said that if people knew where she goes every morning then they would stop her and criticize her. “If they gave me another solution I would accept it, but they don’t. So there’s no need for them to know,” the woman said.

Samira Ismail, a 61-year-old woman, said 30 to 40 years ago her family employed Saudi housemaids. “They were loyal, trustworthy and helped us only during the day because they had families of their own to take care of,” she said. Ismail supports the idea of having Saudi housemaids but only for women who are over 50.

July:29:2007 - 17:56 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink
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