I’m now in Jeddah, eager to attend the groundbreaking for the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology, to be held Sunday. The university is noted in the following piece which I somehow missed in the on-line-only content of the Summer issue of ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine.

The writers are both experts on the Gulf. What they found during their most recent trip challenges the stereotypes most Americans have of the Kingdom. Reform is both happening in the country and may not be able to be sustained. A very encouraging sign, though, is that the Deputy Prime Minister, Prince Sultan, is becoming publicly identified with the idea of serious reform. Pr. Sultan and his brother Nayef, the Interior Minister, are strongly identified with the traditionalists in Saudi Arabia. I’ve not see similar statements coming from Nayef—and perhaps never will—but Sultan, who will succeed King Abdullah in due time, is the more important right now.

As neither Seznec nor Molavi are Pollyannas, their assessment of changes in Saudi Arabia are worth noting. I recommend reading the entire piece.

The Magic Kingdom’s Wild New Ride
Jean-François Seznec, Afshin Molavi

Everywhere you look, it seems, the Middle East is in flames. Yet, almost unnoticed by outside observers, the most conservative country in the region has embarked on a historic journey of reform

Last week, a senior official in one of the world’s wealthiest states suggested that one third of all government jobs should go to women.

Switzerland? Denmark? France?

Wrong, the country is Saudi Arabia, and the senior official is Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the crown prince. In a state that has embraced the most misogynous readings of the Koran and a society that remains deeply patriarchal, Prince Sultan’s statement was truly revolutionary.

As Sultan’s older brother, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, visits Spain, Poland, and France this week, it may not be obvious that Saudi Arabia is undergoing a substantive transformation, but it is. Although the Kingdom’s diplomatic exploits capture the headlines—its efforts to counter Iranian influence in the Arab world, support for peace in Lebanon, and the Saudi-sponsored Arab League peace initiative to name just a few—its domestic changes are likely to be more far-reaching, durable, and consequential.

The Saudi monarch is pushing forward a surprisingly reformist domestic agenda, but his task is delicate. Five key actors will determine how this drama plays out: The 20 or so senior princes (including the king), the civil service, the merchant class, younger princes, and the religious establishment. King Abdullah can win this fight, but he can’t do it alone. By seeing Saudi Arabia as more than just a place to sell arms, buy oil, or fight terror, Europe and the United States can tilt the balance of power toward more reformist elements and marginalize the forces of religious reaction. The stakes couldn’t be higher: King Abdullah is battling not just stubborn conservatives and parts of his own family who are resistant to change, but Saudi history itself.


October:19:2007 - 12:57 | Comments Off | Permalink

For some reason, the Internet disappeared in Saudi Arabia today. When I first tried to get online at around 0700 local time, nothing but DNS errors were popping up. Around 1800 today, some sites started to become available—like this blog—but others are still lost—like my Yahoo! e-mail account.

I’ll be asking around to see if I can find out what happened and report. That’s a little hard at present, though, as I can’t get any e-mail out!


October:19:2007 - 11:00 | Comments & Trackbacks (5) | Permalink

There’s been a recent furor in the US media over the Saudi Academy in Norther Virginia after a report [13-page PDF document] by the congressionally funded U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The report is strongly critical of the Academy but strangely, according to the Arab News piece cited below, never bothered to contact the Academy directly, instead relying on second- and third-hand reports.

The USCIRF report Much is made of the allegation that the Academy is, in fact, an element of the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Only by the narrowest interpretation—one that neglects reality—could this be true. International Schools, including American schools abroad—are usually linked to an embassy. The American schools in Dhahran and Riyadh, for instance, operate as they do because they are under the sponsorship of the US Embassy. They all show the Ambassador as holding the senior-most position on the School Board. The US government, however, is rarely the sole source of funding, instead charging tuition from the non-USG dependents attending the school. I don’t see any material difference between how the Saudi Academy relates to the Saudi Embassy and how the American schools in Saudi Arabia relate to the US Embassy in Riyadh.

Others commenting on the report focus on the fact that one student (Ahmed Omar Abu Ali), convicted of providing support to and receiving support from Al-Qaeda, conspiracy to assassinate the president, conspiracy to hijack aircraft, and conspiracy to destroy aircraft, attended the Academy. He did. But the thousands of other graduates of the Academy have not been charged, indicted, or convicted of anything. Whatever may have turned Abu Ali into a terrorist, it cannot be the Academy on its own.

The report also neglects to notice any of the changes in practices affecting religious freedom that State Department reported in its annual Report on Religious Freedom issued last month. [My summary is here.]

Also missing from the USCIRF report is the fact that there are Christian and Jewish teachers and students at the Academy. There are actually more Christian students at the school that Muslims. That sounds very discordant to the allegations of extreme denigration of other religions.

Saudi Arabia does have a serious problem when it comes to dealing with religions other than Islam. But the Academy in Virginia does not actually seem to be part of that problem.

That said, the headline of this Arab News article is over the top in its own right. The Academy is not about to close or be closed. The legal grounds suggested by the USCIRF report are specious.

Saudi School in US Faces Closure
Barbara Ferguson, Arab News

WASHINGTON, 19 October 2007 — A federal advisory panel has recommended that an Islamic school supported by the Saudi government should be shut down until the US government can ensure the school is not fostering radical Islam.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has released a report that criticizes what it calls a lack of religious freedom in Saudi society. The report also says Saudi schools promote religious extremism.

Particular criticism is leveled at the Islamic Saudi Academy (ISA), a 23-year-old private school serving nearly 1,000 students in grades K-12 on two campuses in northern Virginia’s Fairfax County.

“Significant concerns remain about whether what is being taught at the ISA promotes religious intolerance and may adversely affect the interests of the United States,” the report says.


October:19:2007 - 10:51 | Comments & Trackbacks (20) | Permalink

Last week, I noted that the Saudi ulema had launched a website intended to put legitimate fatawas in one place that would also provide a portal for Muslims to request rulings on issues of individual concern. This article from Saudi Debate points to the weaknesses that make such a website desirable. Worth reading.

Saudi ‘suicide youths’ suffer from the “chaos of official interpretations”
Abdulaziz Al-Khedr

Some weeks ago the Saudi Jihadis in the Palestinian Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon were the focus of the ‘Tales of the Gulf broadcast by the al-Hurra television channel.

A young Saudi who works in the media and is a specialist on the issue of terrorism and al-Qaida, raised a point which merits consideration and yet has not been given due attention in the debate. His point is that, according to statistics, young Saudis are more likely to embark on suicide missions than are youths from other Arab countries.

On 29 August the newspaper Al-Hayat raised the issue of Saudi participation in the confrontations between the Lebanese army and the ‘Fatah al-Islam’ organization in Nahr al-Bared. The article spoke of the shock this caused many people, including the fathers of these youths and quoted a Saudi citizen, Ali al-Wahabi (50) who buried his son Abdullah (21) two weeks ago in the cemetery of al-Naseem in eastern Riyadh, after his son’s body was returned to him in a coffin from Beirut.

The father, psychologically traumatized, has sought to understand why his son went to Beirut. In the interview he asks himself, with the bitterness that can only come from a father who has just lost his eldest son: “How can my dear, sweet, loving boy, adored by all who knew him and in the prime of his life, have decided to leave us without showing any signs of extremism? How can he have been brainwashed when we always had faith in his maturity and sound judgment?”


October:17:2007 - 07:40 | Comments Off | Permalink

I’m now en route to Saudi Arabia to attend the groundbreaking ceremonies for the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) which will be conducted this coming Saturday-Sunday. I hope to have the opportunity to look into a few of the myriad changes now taking place in the Kingdom. Blogging may be a bit sporadic, but I plan to have new materials up daily.

The King Abdullah University is something new for Saudi Arabia. It’s to be a research university, offering only Masters and Doctoral degrees in Engineering, with no undergraduate students at all. It is different, too, in that it will not be organized according to departments, but instead as four interdisciplinary schools or institutes.

Publicity materials for the university describes the four institutes:

Institute 1: Resources, Energy and Environment Energy research (e.g., carbon sequestration, hydrogen and fuel cells, process design, combustion, solar energy) and water/sustainable development (e.g., desalination, water use management, “green” planning and construction for desert climates).

Institute 2: Biosciences and Bioengineering Industrial biotechnology (e.g., microbial bioremediation and bioprocessing for petrochemicals), agricultural biotechnology (e.g., sustainable aquaculture), regional environmental bioscience (e.g., Red Sea marine environmental science and bioengineering), and health science and technology (e.g., regional epidemiological studies and population genomics).

Institute 3: Materials Science and Engineering Polymers and membranes, nanomaterials (e.g., carbon and bioprocessed nanomaterials, photovoltaic applications), catalytic chemistry, and materials for high stress environments.

Institute 4: Applied Mathematics and Computational Science Language software technologies and computational linguistics (e.g., voice recognition, extraction of meaning), scientific computing (e.g., computational chemistry, reservoir and regional environmental modeling), and information and communications technology (e.g., IT security, network communication, and health care informatics).

The university sees itself with unique characteristics for a Saudi university, as outlined below. I think the most important aspect here is that it will be independent of any government ministry—e.g., the Ministry of Higher Education. The government’s role will be to write the check for the multi-billion dollar endowment and to recognize the degrees awarded by the university. Not having to keep looking over one’s shoulder to see if anyone’s being offended and not having to worry about funding being cut because a vocal minority disapproves of the course curricula is an enormous amount of freedom in the Saudi context.

1. An independent university governed by a self-perpetuating Board of Trustees and supported by a multi-billion dollar endowment
2. An explicit emphasis on research that applies science and technology to problems of human need, social advancement, and economic development
3. A quality of campus life, respect for diversity, and the highest standards of merit-based opportunity intended to attract students and faculty of exceptional talent, of all nationalities and religious beliefs
4. Advanced research institutes as the primary organizational units of the university; boards of study with responsibility for educational activities and degree-granting programs
5. Granting only graduate degrees (master’s and doctoral) with applied research training as a major element in the degrees granted; a relatively small number of “coursework” master’s degrees
6. Collaborative research centers, visiting research programs, and an adjacent innovation center and research park to link the activities of KAUST with private-sector research and economic development
7. Substantial external research funding and collaborative educational programs to involve KAUST faculty and students closely and directly with first rank institutions around the world in areas related to KAUST’s mission
8. A commitment to work productively with other educational institutions in Saudi Arabia and to play a role in setting new, world-class standards for academic excellence in the Kingdom
9. A world-class faculty that will work with KAUST’s leadership to guide the University’s development, and a high-quality, international student body
10. A campus designed and constructed for low environmental impact, with an emphasis on energy efficiency, sustainable development, and conservation of historical/cultural sites and sensitive ecosystems.


October:16:2007 - 14:59 | Comments & Trackbacks (4) | Permalink

The ‘Adventure Rider’ blog has an entry about a day trip into the red sand dunes southwest of Riyadh. The entry is primarily good photos with captions that capture the landscapes of this part of Saudi Arabia, from the hardpan desert to towering dunes. The pictures accurately portray the colors that make this region so stunning. And yes, there are camels! Definitely worth a visit.

Day trip in Saudi Arabia


October:16:2007 - 09:18 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

King re-forms Supreme Council of Oil and Mineral Affairs

Jeddah, October 16 , SPA — A royal order has been issued by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, re-forming the Supreme Council of Oil and Minerals Affairs. It will be headed by the king for a period of four years starting from 14/10/1428 H. The Council will be re-formed as follows:

Deputy Prime Minister, Pr. Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Deputy President of the Council
Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Foreign Minister, Member
Dr. Ghazi bin Abdulrahman Al-Qusaibi, Minister of Labor, Member
Dr. Matlab bin Abdullah Alnafeesah, Minister of State, Member
and Secretary General of the Council
Dr. Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani, Minister of Commerce & Industry, Member
Eng. Ali bin Ibrahim Al-Naimi, Minister of Petroleum & Mineral Resources, Member
Dr. Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz Al-A’ssaf, Minister of Finance, Member
Mr. Khalid bin Mohammad Al-Qusaibi, Minister of National Economy & Planning, Member
Dr. Mohammad bin Ibrahim Al-Suwaiyel, Governor of Communications & IT Commission, Member
Mr. Abdullah bin Salih Jumah, CEO Saudi ARAMCO, Member


October:16:2007 - 09:09 | Comments Off | Permalink

Arab News reports on a scandal that is upsetting Muslims both in Saudi Arabia and the UK: the sale of water purported to be from the Zamzam spring in Mecca. The water of this spring which, according to the Quran, rose from the ground to save Haggar and her son Ismail from dying of thirst, is not supposed sold under any circumstances, as Quran’s are not supposed to be sold. But bottles of so-called Zamzam water are being peddled around the UK, primarily to S. Asian Muslims.

Worse than being simply counterfeit, the water is suspected of being noxious as well. Saudi authorities are working with their British counterparts to try and counter the trade.

Scale of UK Zamzam Racket Raises Alarm
Roger Harrison, Arab News

JEDDAH, 16 October 2007 — Allegations that poisonous Zamzam water is being smuggled into Britain are exercising the minds of UK Muslims. The containers, which sell for the equivalent of SR25 each, are purporting to come from Makkah on their labels.

Containers that have been analyzed by UK health and safety officials have been found to hold water that contains raised levels of arsenic and nitrates that, if consumed over extended periods of time, could prove fatal.

Saudi Arabia forbids the sale of Zamzam. The holy water is freely distributed at its source. Its bottling and distribution is strictly controlled and monitored by the government and commercial export is illegal. Each year, however, millions of foreign pilgrims carry containers home as private export.

Genuine Zamzam, analyzed in 1971, contains greater quantities of calcium and magnesium salts than most other waters. It also contains fluorides that strengthen teeth’s enamel.

However, some of the fake Zamzam has been analyzed and found to contain almost three times as much nitrate and twice as much arsenic as the World Health Organization believes is safe. Children under six months and elderly people are particularly vulnerable to excessive nitrate while regular consumption of arsenic in water is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths a year in southeast Asia.


October:15:2007 - 22:42 | Comments & Trackbacks (4) | Permalink

Interesting piece in Financial Times on how the film ‘The Kingdom’ is being received by audiences in the United Arab Emirates. In addition to audience reaction, the article talks about how the Abu Dhabi, one of the Emirates, is competing with Dubai, another Emirate, for influence in international media. Worth reading.

Kingdom’ draws mixed reactions
Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Hollywood’s The Kingdom blockbuster has been banned by some Gulf states for tackling the politically sensitive topic of terrorism in Saudi Arabia.

But the film is being run in cinemas in the United Arab Emirates, in a sign of a drive by Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital, to become a cultural and creative hub.

Criticised by some for a one-dimensional portrayal of Saudis as American-hating terrorists, the film was shown over the weekend, one of the busiest times for cinemagoers as Muslims celebrated the end of Ramadan.

The audience cheered as actress Jennifer Garner stabbed an Islamist militant in the neck, though there was a tense silence as the film’s terrorist mastermind called for infidels to be driven out of Muslim lands.

One young UAE national, Mohammed Ahmed, said the film was sensitive to both sides of the story, an investigation into a bombing in Saudi Arabia and the relationship between an FBI investigator and his Saudi counterpart.

However, the production illustrates one difficulty facing Gulf states as they attempt to develop film industries: Hollywood is interested in them mainly when it wants to make films about Islamic militancy.

Dubai, one location in the George Clooney-produced Syriana, was stung by some uncomplimentary scenes, leading to the authorities turning down requests for the The Kingdom to shoot in the city. Into the void stepped Abu Dhabi, turning the city’s top hotel into a Saudi palace.


October:15:2007 - 13:25 | Comments Off | Permalink

Joining the international trend of repatriating prisoners in foreign jails, the Saudi government is in discussions with the governments of Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon to return Saudis in their jails to serve out their sentences in Saudi jails. None of the jails are fun places, but it makes humanitarian sense to allow the families of the prisoners easier access to their jailed members. Something that needs to watched, though, is that legally convicted prisoners do, in fact, serve their sentences and are not simply released. This Khaleej Times article notes that the Saudi government deferred answering questions about the prisoners’ human rights.

Arab nations study prisoners’ swap
Habib Shaikh

JEDDAH — An agreement to facilitate the exchange of inmates to serve time in their respective countries is being discussed by Arab countries, according to the director of prisons in Saudi Arabia.

“The agreement is currently being discussed,” Maj. Gen. Ali Al Harithi, director of prisons in the Kingdom, said at a Press conference in Riyadh recently, referring to Saudi nationals imprisoned in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.


October:15:2007 - 12:00 | Comments Off | Permalink

Khaleej Times reports that Saudi Arabian Airlines, the state carrier, is pulling away from certain domestic routes in order to let new, private airlines enter the market. The airline will keep its hub in Jeddah, with all of its current routes continuing, but is dropping many of its flights within the Nejd and Eastern Province.

Saudia to reduce domestic flights

JEDDAH — Saudi Arabian Airlines plans to cut its domestic flights by 50 per cent by the end of this month.

According to the plan, Saudia will stop operations in 14 domestic sectors on March 30, 2008. These include Dammam-Hail, Dammam-Bisha, Dammam-Riyadh, Abha-Taif, Abha-Jizan, Abha-Sharourah, Riyadh-Hail, Riyadh-Hofouf, Riyadh-Qassim, Riyadh-Refha, Riyadh-Qaisuma, Riyadh-Wajh, Riyadh-Dawadmi and Riyadh-Wadi Al Dawasser.

The move comes in line with a plan set out by the General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA), the kingdom’s air transport regulator. The reduction is being made in order to allow the two private airlines — SAMA and NAS — to operate flights to new routes.


October:15:2007 - 10:22 | Comments Off | Permalink

This somewhat lengthy article in Khaleej Times notes various facets of the labor law passed into effect back in 2005. The laws substantially improve the lot of foreign and domestic workers, but are only as good as they are observed. Enforcement of the laws is as important as their existence. Something not addressed in the article is what enforcement mechanism exist.

Saudi labour law protects rights of local and expatriate workers
Habib Shaikh

JEDDAH — The Saudi ministry of labour has said that the kingdom’s Labour Law protects the rights of Saudi and expatriate workers and ensures balanced relations between employers and employees.

Quoting excerpts from the law, the ministry said recently that the new law with 245 articles and 16 chapters is an achievement for workers. It increases annual leave from 15 to 21 days and to 30 days for those who have completed five years of service. The law considers amounts due to the worker or his heirs as “first rate privileged debts,” adding that the worker and his heirs shall, for the purpose of settling them, be entitled to a privilege over all the employer’s properties. In the case of bankruptcy of the employer or liquidation of his firm, the aforementioned amounts shall be entered as privileged debts and the worker is paid an expedited amount equivalent to one month wage prior to payment of any other expenses including judicial, bankruptcy or liquidation expenses.

The new law, which was passed by the Cabinet on September 26, 2005, urges employers to pay end-of-service award of a half-month wage for each of the first five years and a one-month wage for each of the following years. “The end-of-service award shall be calculated on the basis of the last wage and the worker shall be entitled to an end-of-service award for the portions of the year in proportion to the time spent on the job,” it explains. If a worker resigns his job, he will be entitled to one third of the award after a service of not less than two consecutive years and not more than five years. It will be increased to two thirds if his service is in excess of five successive years but less than 10 years, and to the full award if his service amounts to 10 or more years. A worker shall be entitled to the full award if he leaves the work due to reasons beyond his control.


October:15:2007 - 08:19 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink
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