Arab News carries this report about flooding in the holy city of Madinah following heavy rains. The ‘Desert Kingdom’ doesn’t get much rain, but when it comes, it tends to turn into flash floods. No Saudi city has a developed rainwater drainage system and between hard pan soils and paving, water tends to just flow to its lowest point. That, unfortunately, can mean water depths of three or more meters in some low-lying areas and highway tunnels.

173 Trapped by Floodwaters Rescued
Yousuf Muhammad, Arab News

MADINAH, 1 September 2007 — Civil Defense officers rescued 173 people, including 150 workers, trapped in floodwaters here yesterday evening, a Civil Defense spokesman said.

The workers of different nationalities were stuck inside a project of the General Organization for Grain Silos and Flour Mills on Tabuk Road, north of Madinah. “We dispatched rescue teams, including divers, to the area,” said Khaled ibn Mubarak Al-Johani, the spokesman.


August:31:2007 - 21:52 | Comments Off | Permalink

The case of the four Indonesian maids—two of whom were beaten to death—continues to evolve. This Arab News report quotes the Saudi Ambassador to Indonesia as saying that government regrets the incident but that the case is now tied up in bureaucratic formalities. That doesn’t explain, however, why the two survivors are being detained by the police.

Kingdom Wants More Time to Resolve Case of Maltreated Maids
Mohammed Rasooldeen, Arab News

RIYADH, 1 September 2007 — The Kingdom has sought more time from the Indonesian government to resolve the case of four Indonesian housemaids who were assaulted in Aflaj, a town 320 kilometers south of the Saudi capital Riyadh.

Two of the maids died from the attack when a family member beat them to death, accusing them of witchcraft. Saudi police have since detained seven male suspects from the family.

The vicious attack resulted in the death of Siti Tarwiyah Slamet, 32, and Susmiyati Abdul Fulan, 28. The bodies remain in the RMC morgue.

Ruminih Surtim, 25, and Tari Tarsim, 27, were left severely injured in the incident. They were treated at the intensive care unit of Aflaj General Hospital and then were transferred to the Riyadh Medical Complex (RMC), where they were under 24-hour police guard.

On recovery, the two survivors were taken into police custody for further questioning. Some reports said they were placed under witness protection. However the Indonesian Embassy has reportedly been denied access to their citizens.

…“The Saudi government will soon settle the case where two maids were fatally maltreated and two others were subject to severe beatings in Saudi Arabia,” Abdulrahman Mohammed Amen Al-Khayyaf, Saudi ambassador to Indonesia, said after a meeting with Teguh Wardoyo, director of Indonesian Citizens and Legal Entities Protection at the Foreign Ministry in Jakarta on Wednesday.


August:31:2007 - 21:48 | Comments Off | Permalink

According to this article from Khaleej Times, the Saudi religious police are starting up a campaign to raise awareness about how Islam supports and promotes human rights. If the past is anything to go on, it’s going to be a very narrow interpretation of human rights, particularly when it comes to things like religious freedom. But if this move does work to decrease violence against women and children, against expat laborers, then it will have a measure of good to it.

Saudi commission drive to raise awareness on human rights in Islam
Habib Shaikh

THE Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Guidance, and Endowments has agreed with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the kingdom’s governmental human rights body, to begin an awareness campaign to promote the ideals of human rights in the teachings of Islam.

According to the HRC, Minister of Islamic Affairs Shaikh Saleh Al Asheikh, has agreed to the proposal made by the commission in an official letter sent to the ministry.

The campaign will focus on creating awareness among Saudis and residents in the kingdom about the teachings of human rights in Islam through Islamic propagation (dawa) symposiums, training courses, as well as publishing brochures on human rights in Islam and distributing them in the kingdom.

The awareness campaign will also include Friday sermons, as imams will take part in spreading the culture of human rights when they address faithful in mosques on Fridays.

Recently, Interior Minister Prince Nayef summoned hundreds of imams and preachers in the kingdom in a gathering held in the capital to stress the importance of combating extremist ideas.


August:31:2007 - 08:58 | Comments Off | Permalink

Middle East Online runs this article about the Saudi economy, as well as that of other GCC states. High international oil prices have a deflationary effect on countries reliant on oil. It has the opposite effect on those who produce it. The tripling of oil prices over the past several years has put a lot of money in the Gulf economies, but it has pushed prices up. The equation is further complicated by the fact that the Gulf States, excepting Kuwait, peg their currencies to the US Dollar. This inhibits them from taking certain actions to control inflation that they might. And as is usual in the case of inflation, the pinch is felt the hardest at the lower income levels. Saudi papers are already starting to publish articles noting the negative effects.

Saudi economy haunted by inflation
Economic growth powered oil prices, pushes cost of living to seven-year high

DUBAI – Saudi inflation hit a seven-year high of 3.83 per cent in July as rents rose at their fastest pace since at least 2004, and a currency pegged to the weak dollar helped drive up the cost of food imports.

Inflation is accelerating across the Gulf region as governments invest more of their windfall oil revenue in tourism projects and infrastructure.

With exchange rates pegged to the dollar, most Gulf central banks have to track US monetary policy, constraining their efforts to contain prices.

The Saudi cost of living index rose to 105.6 at the end of July, from 101.7 a year earlier, data from the Central Department of Statistics showed yesterday. It was biggest increase since 2000 for the index, based on 1999 prices.

Rents rose 9.8pc compared with 6.7pc in June when the inflation rate was 3.06pc.

It was the fastest increase in rents since at least 2004.


August:31:2007 - 07:48 | Comments Off | Permalink

Mshari Al-Zaydi, as usual, has an interesting piece in Asharq Alawsat. He writes about the geopolitical mess of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the area where Usama Bin Laden is believed to be hiding. He notes that as much trouble as that area causes Pakistan’s Musharraf, it also represents for him a last-ditch reserve against India.

He notes, too, that the mess that is Waziristan and the mountains of Tora Bora could be a model for Iraq if the US were to pull out precipitously. The article is definitely worth reading.

The Never-ending Story
Mshari Al-Zaydi

The latest news on ‘Sheikh’ Osama Bin Laden is that he is currently seeking refuge in a huge white cave in the Tora Bora Mountains. The cave is said to be connected to a series of caves and protected by some armored cars and a group of ever-loyal suicide bombers.

Last June the Saudi daily ‘Al-Watan’ stated that US intelligence detected “al Qaeda messages sent during the night urging Afghans to fight against the foreign forces.” Meanwhile, investigations on the ‘Tora Bora front’ led to the arrest of Bin Laden’s doctor and another person whose task was to protect him. Both of them confessed that they were a part of the 500-member al Qaeda organization which had fled Waziristan to the Tora Bora region.

Tora Bora and Waziristan; the first is Afghan territory while the latter is Pakistani. However, they are neighbors that share the same borders. The two cities are inhabited by the Pashto tribes, which are extremely rigid and volatile, in addition to the prevalent tribal culture that is not governed by the state and in which powerful tribesmen exhibit their clout, impose levies and recruit new combatants.

…Indeed, what would happen if the whole of Iraq; or its western region at least, transforms into another Waziristan?! This is especially since we are witnessing a profusion of fundamentalist groups that bear al Qaeda traits, and the emergence of an ‘Islamic emirate’ affiliated to Abi Omar al Baghdadi î º all while the numbers of combatants and suicide bombers is on the rise!

Imagine if an al Qaeda emirate were to rise in west Iraq, while a Shia ‘Imamite’ that follows a Khomeini-inspired discourse were to emerge in south and central Iraq?! Can it even be envisaged?!

So what’s preventing this from happening? Primarily, it is due to the presence of the US forces, or rather the embroilment of the American forces  same difference.

The American presence in Iraq has become a reality and the oft-repeated talk about a fast withdrawal is futile. According to the US military’s vision, as some of Bush’s opponents have reiterated both in the United States and abroad, the cost of withdrawal will be steep. It’s enough to imagine what would happen if the scene was left to al Qaeda, the al Sadr militia and the rampant gangs in Iraq.


August:30:2007 - 23:55 | Comments Off | Permalink

I came across an American blog commenting on the First Amendment to the US Constitution and its importance to the case of Rachel Ehrenfeld, her book Funding Evil, and Saudi financier Khalid Salim Bin Mahfouz. Bin Mahfouz successfully sued Ehrenfeld in a British court which found her guilty of libel, assessed penalties, and prohibited the distribution of her book in the UK.

The First Amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This amendment, the first in what is called the “Bill of Rights’, has been interpreted by courts over the 200 year period in which it has been in effect. (See a good timeline of the development of the First Amendment here.) There has been a great deal of debate on the extent to which the First Amendment applies. Some believe it to be absolute, that is, that there can be no limit put on the freedom of speech. Others note that there are reasonable limits—the case of preventing ‘falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater’ is frequently used as an example of proper limitation.

As the timeline linked above shows, the US understanding of freedom of speech has developed from British law. The two laws, however, diverged over time. Now, when it comes to a case of libel, US law requires the person who claims to have been libeled to prove a) that the statement made against him is false, and b) that it was made with malice. British law, conversely, requires that the one making the statement prove its truth.

While the blog piece discussing the issue (Rachel Ehrenfeld v. Khalid Salim Bin Mahfouz) believes these two legal systems to be ’180° opposite’, I’m not sure. They certainly differ, but their purpose—to prevent a person’s reputation from being damaged by false allegations—is the same.

In a footnote to the blog article, the author cogently discusses the issue of ‘comity’, a legal concept that means that one country will generally recognize the decisions of a foreign court, if the legal systems are sufficiently similar. The question is, are the US and UK systems sufficiently similar.

There’s no question that an American trial would have worked differently. Would it have reached a different decision, though?

Ehrenfeld lost several court cases in the US seeking to have the British decision held null, or to at least prevent its having effect on her in the US. Her case in the New York courts,was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. She appealed that decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Second District. That court’s decision was to send the case to New York Court of Appeals, where it was accepted for argument on June 28 of this year.

You can read the brief made by Ehrenfeld’s attorneys here [this is a 57-page PDF document]. Note that this is—properly—a one-sided telling of the story. It seeks to put forward the best arguments favoring Ehrenfeld. I cannot find on-line the equivalent brief from Bin Mahfouz attorneys, but am seeking one.

Ehrenfeld is not the first person to raise allegations that Bin Mahfouz and other members of his family have been supporters of terrorism. Bin Mahfouz has strenuously argued in various courts that he and his family condemn terrorism in all its forms. So far, he has won his cases. (See this page at the Bin Mahfouz website that links to the various decisions and apologies.)

US courts will have to decide about whether they have jurisdiction to affect a decision made in a British court. They will have to decide whether a British court’s decision is enforceable in the US. To date, no US court has addressed the issue of the truth or falsity of the allegations against Bin Mahfouz. In all cases brought before British courts, Bin Mahfouz has been found to have been libeled. He does have the right to protect his name and reputation against false allegations.


August:30:2007 - 11:57 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Financial Times carries this piece about the Saudi ban on the distribution of Al-Hayat newspaper within the Kingdom. The article correctly notes that there is a no-man’s land of ‘red lines’ that govern what kinds of stories are taboo and what kinds of coverage are not permitted. This presents a combination of state censorship—as the banning of Al-Hayat—and self-censorship on the part of writers and editors.

Anything critical of Islam is strictly forbidden, as are insults to the heads of foreign governments (Bush and Blair, apparently are exempt from this prohibition; at times, Assad and Qadhafi, too). Criticism by names of Saudi government officials isn’t acceptable. Publishing the names (or photos!!) of women, without their permission, is another red line.

These attempts to control media are, of course, misbegotten, but they have a long history in the third world. In this, and several other ways, Saudi Arabia shows that it is, at heart, still a third world country.

The censorship is futile in this day and age. While the physical paper Al-Hayat was unavailable to Saudi readers, the on-line version was available. While the paper could not be bought at a Saudi news stand, it could be and was bought at news stands across the Arab world. Sufficient readers of the problematic articles had e-mail, assuring that the pieces had wide distribution within the Kingdom.

If the articles could not be blocked from reaching Saudi readers, what was the point of banning distribution?

Likely, the paper was banned for symbolic reasons. Someone, somewhere—probably within the Ministry of Information—believed that he could score political points by standing up against information that was harmful to one interest or another. That interest was important to the censor, for political, economic, or personal reasons. He earned a certain amount of ‘credit’ by his stance and will expect to be rewarded. He sought to protect someone who could be of benefit at some future time.

Gulf News, from Dubai, carries an AP piece stating that the ban on Al-Hayat is ‘indefinite‘.

Saudi Arabia continues ban on newspaper
Andrew England in Cairo

Saudi Arabia banned the distribution of al-Hayat, a leading Arab newspaper, for a third consecutive day on Wednesday as the government attempted to pressure the paper into dropping a columnist who has criticised the administration, journalists said.

A source at al-Hayat’s office in Riyadh said the government had been upset by recent columns criticising the agriculture ministry’s handling of the mysterious death of some 2,000 camels – so far blamed on poisoning rather than an infectious disease – and articles critical of the health ministry following the death of a young girl after a medical operation.

The paper, which prints a Saudi edition with a circulation close to 200,000 inside the kingdom, had been told it had “crossed a red line,” the source said. Al-Hayat was discussing the issue with government officials and was standing by the columnist, Abdelaziz al-Suwaid, the source added.

Journalists say the move is a setback for the media in the highly conservative kingdom, particularly as some increase in press freedom had been cited by reformers as one of few positives as they push for change.

The Saudi media has recently covered the arrest of reformers, abuses by the kingdom’s powerful religious police and encouraged debate about other social issues.

However, there are still “red lines” the press does not cross, including criticism of the royal family and religious issues, and self censorship is common.


August:30:2007 - 10:45 | Comments Off | Permalink

Writing in Arab News, Saudi journalist Abeer Mishkhas is angry both that Saudis abuse people in positions inferior to them and that no one seems to take any responsibility for fixing the problem. She details a list of abuses for which laws—which do exist—appear to have been ignored when it came time to punish wrong-doers. The abuse of power is a shame on the country, she writes. She calls for the abusers to be publicly named and for the laws to be enforced. Worth reading the whole article.

It’s Time to Talk About Our Social Conscience
Abeer Mishkhas, abeermishkhas@arabnews.com

So what — I want to know, I really want to know — is being done to stop people from abusing domestic staff? The reports of abuse, murder and harassment seem never to stop and very little, if anything, is being done to stop them. Our officials, despite numerous public statements that they are dealing with the situation, clearly are not. The recent case of the two Indonesian maids who were beaten to death by their employers for whatever reason they choose to provide is simply incredible. It is not enough to hold the women’s employers and question them; we need to see some action taken against them and to see them publicly shamed for what they did.

People have not forgotten the Noor Miyati case, and the fact that this poor woman lost her fingers and suffered without seeing justice done is again unbelievable. So what are we waiting for? Up to now, no matter what the Human Rights society or any official body says, words mean nothing. It is no longer about individual cases and it reflects badly on every one of us. These horrible stories are reported around the world and as far as tarnishing our reputation, nothing could tarnish it more. The official reaction so far has been to try to calm things down and then to do nothing.

In the case of an Indonesian maid who accused her employer’s son of raping her (Arab News Aug.1), the case was officially closed for “lack of evidence.” Now the maid’s lawyer is trying to reopen it and convince the authorities that a DNA test should be used in the search for justice. To say the least, that is reasonable – especially since the accused’s denial was initially taken as proof that the maid was lying! And now to the recent case of the shepherdess who has been working here for decades without a salary. Had it not been for her goats, she would not have survived. Her employer owes her some SR63,000 in unpaid salary. What was done? Nothing. Nothing at all. He appeared once, stated that he was bankrupt, gave her SR7,000 and disappeared. Did the police do anything about finding him? Do our imams take these matters as subjects for their Friday sermons? If we look into these matter closely, there are two elements to consider. The first is the offender and the second the problem of law enforcement. Pertaining to the offenders, there seems to be a wider problem that has deep roots in our society and customs. Some people get away with mistreating those who are dependent on them — whether the dependents are the women and children of their family or their employees. To hold such unchallenged and unquestioned power is all too often to abuse it to the maximum extent. We have only to look at the records of abuse to see the truth of that statement.

We keep telling the world that we hold Islamic values dear to our hearts and that whatever we do is done according to religious teachings. If we stop, however, and ask ourselves “How many of us actually follow those teachings when one side is weaker than the other?” I am afraid we would find inhumane behavior all too common.


August:29:2007 - 23:19 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink

The deaths of nearly 2,000 camels (with some Saudi papers reporting the number at 5,000) have been determined to have been caused by a toxin, though precisely which one is not yet known. This Arab News article reports that several hundred sheep have also died.

Health Ministry Blames Toxic Chemicals for Camel Deaths
P.K. Abdul Ghafour, Arab News

JEDDAH, 30 August 2007 — A senior Health Ministry official yesterday blamed poisonous chemicals for the death of more than 2,000 camels in different parts of the country. The official also warned the public against eating the meat of sick camels before determining the reason for the disease in these camels.

“According to available information the camels died of poisonous chemicals. As the chemicals cannot be removed by cooking, it is dangerous to eat the meat of affected camels,” Falah Al-Mazroue, director of preventive medicine at the ministry, told Al-Watan Arabic daily.

The Ministry of Agriculture has sent frozen samples of dead camels to France to try to discover the reason for their death.

Saudi Gazette has its report, from Agence France Press, here.


August:29:2007 - 23:08 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) provides a translation of an article appearing August 3 in the Saudi Arabic daily Al-Watan, warning of the dangers of extremism within Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Columnist: Saudi Arabia Must Be Culturally Open,
or It Will Turn into a Taliban State

In an article in the Saudi daily Al-Watan, Saudi columnist Sa’ud Al-Balawi criticized attempts by Saudi religious streams to sabotage the country’s annual cultural events, thereby transforming Saudi Arabia into a Taliban society, isolated from the rest of the world.

The following are excerpts:

“Extremist Tendencies Are Becoming Increasingly Widespread in our Our Midst”

“…Last Tuesday, Al-Watan reported that eight extremists had threatened to disrupt vocal concerts organized as part of the annual Jeddah festival, after trying to persuade the public not to enter the concert hall. Having failed, [the extremists] began to shout, threatening to stop the festivities by any possible means…(1)

“Extremist tendencies are becoming increasingly widespread in our midst. This kind of attitude reminds us of past incidents such as [the disturbances] at the international book fair(2) and at Al-Yamama College… (3)

“If not for the recently implemented security measures, such scenes would be recurring during many [more] cultural events and in different areas. But what do these people actually want? Do they doubt the extent of religious [commitment] in [Saudi] society? Or maybe they want the kind of religious [zeal] that would turn the Saudi society into a Taliban one – i.e. following the Taliban model of Islam, which completely discounts the individual by controlling his freedom of choice within the already limited range of choices available in that eastern Islamic country [Afghanistan].

“No one is forcing them to go to a vocal concert, see a movie, or attend a cultural lecture. Why do they want to compel others to act according to their [extremist] convictions? This is a controlling mentality, stemming from rigid views that do not tolerate either objections or challenge. [Worse still, such people] believe that they have the right to murder in the name of their ideas. It is this kind of extremism that has led to [the emergence of] terrorism, which has brought grief to both our people and our motherland.”

“At the Same Time, a Large Sector of the Saudi Population Hopes That Our Social and Cultural Isolation… Will End”

“At the same time, a large sector of the Saudi population hopes that our social and cultural isolation from the rest of the world will end, in particular since we are trying to transform some of our cities into major tourist centers. Tourism, however, is not yet well developed in our country yet, and it will take great effort and numerous decisions to create the foundation for its establishment and to promote it.


August:29:2007 - 10:18 | Comments Off | Permalink

There’s an article that’s been floating around the Internet for the past day or so, originating at DEBKAfile, an Israeli news site, about plans to build pipelines across Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries to avoid the transportation bottleneck of the Straits of Hormuz. If DEBKAfile was uniformly reliable, this would be a very big story to relate. But DEBKA is notorious for getting things wrong, so a small mountain of salt might be required.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the story, other than that its facts might be wrong. I posted here last Spring on a story in The Washington Post on planning for such pipelines, so the idea is certainly out there. Whether what DEBKA reports is accurate, though, is up for grabs. In any event, take a look at this piece. It does make sense and the cost-estimates seem within the ballpark. The economic motivations are certainly there. The assessment of the political drive, well maybe not so much. That seems more DEBKA-spin, as Trey Campbell at the Empty Quarter blog notes.

Trans-al Qaeda Pipline Update
Trey Campbell

Ok, so apparently this is whole thing is comin’ from an old Debka article. I shoulda known. In my mind this just proves the bogusness of the whole thing. I especially like the part about how the new Saudi oil security force will protect the pipeline against “al Qaeda and Iran.” Another gem is how the pipeline will pull Assad away from Tehran…hah. Anyway, this thing has generated a significant amount internet buzz after the announcement of the new Saudi “Petrol Protection Police”. Oh, don’t forget to check out the cute map…those Mosad…err Debka guys spare no expense.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen have launched the vast Trans-Arabia Oil Pipeline project with encouragement from Washington, DEBKA-Net Weekly 313 revealed on Aug. 10, 2007. By crisscrossing Arabia overland, the net of oil pipelines will bypass the Straits of Hormuz at the throat of the Persian Gulf and so remove Gulf oil routes from the lurking threat of Iranian closure.


August:29:2007 - 09:48 | Comments & Trackbacks (9) | Permalink

This Asharq Alawsat human interest piece is worth reading. It tells the story of a Saudi woman, Susan Baaqil, who developed her interest in photography from a hobby, to a career as a portraitist, to a photojournalist for Reuters. Even within the social confines of Saudi culture, she has been able to progress in her skills and talent both in content for journalistic purposes and in style for artistic purposes. The story also shows that there are Saudi women who are able to circumvent the social barriers that keep many of their sisters under-developed.

First Saudi Female Photographer to Join ‘Reuters’
Omaima al Ferdan

Asharq Al-Awsat, Jeddah – Joining the ranks of photographers affiliated to a prestigious establishment such as ‘Reuters’ was the payoff after a long journey that spanned over 25 years in which Saudi photographer, Susan Baaqil, seldom put down her camera.

As an amateur, Baaqil used to collect photographs and cut others out of newspapers and magazines, which was one of the first indicators of her fascination and attachment to photography. This paved way for her to hone her skills taking wedding pictures in various cities around Saudi Arabia. The reserved nature of the community was among the reasons she was able to achieve acclaim among the ladies’ circles, thus attaining fast renown among her female subjects.

Baaqil’s first collection of photographs was titled ‘The Shadow of a Palm Tree’, which she created using her Canon camera and which chartered the beginning of her exploration of light and shadow. Although superficially they were images of palm trees, Baaqil’s eye was able to translate the beauty of the photographed subject whilst conveying the subtle nuances of the language of black and white photography. The subject of her photographs may have been conventional; however the innovation of the eye behind the lens was clear from the start. This original approach led her to set up a photography studio in 1983 in which she only photographed female subjects.

The ambitious photographer’s transformation from amateur to professional came through an academic gateway when she went to the US to study photography. “My relationship with the camera surpasses the moment of the click of the button. This is what prompted me to study the fine art of photography with all its diverse approaches, methods and principles,” she said.


August:29:2007 - 09:30 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink
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