Over on the Solomon’s House blog, the writer (who frequently comments here) makes a mistake in interpreting a speech by Saudi King Abdullah given to editors and publishers of Saudi media. The King tells this audience why he is going to the UN Interfaith Conference and why it is important for Saudi Arabia. [Full text is below.]

Solomon seems to think that the King’s admission that ‘dialogue has never happened here’ means that efforts to date have failed. I think the phrase means that dialogue is not a traditional part of Saudi society. He is not remarking on the success or failure of his own efforts, beginning with the series of National Dialogues which he started while still Crown Prince and is continuing today.

Saudis do have a tendency to jump to conclusions, to assume beyond what the facts verify, to not bother checking facts. They assume, for instance, that all Muslims must believe exactly the same things they do, large or small, material or trivial. They assume that the only ‘good Muslim’ must be a Salafi Muslim. There conclusions, of course, are erroneous but they are acted upon by groups like the religious police and far too many clerics.

This set of hidebound beliefs is exactly what the dialogues—internal and external—are intended to disrupt. He is asking Saudis to behave properly in listening to others and giving them the benefit of the doubt so far as their intentions are concerned. That alone is an enormous step for the traditionalist, xenophobic mass that represents the majority of Saudis.

No, the National Dialogues, the Madrid Conference on Religious Dialogue, the UN Interfaith Conference do not bring about a new age of euphoric bliss, with the lion lying down with the lamb. But without them, Saudi nationals are not going to be changing attitudes and convictions, either.

Even were the King a perfect monarch, with plenipotentiary powers, he could not change the minds of the majority with the wave of a scepter. The task he has taken on is one of long duration. But it needs to start (which it has) and it needs to continue (which the King is doing). Where, when, and how the journey ends is not clear. What is clear is where the King wants it to end.

King receives Minister of Culture and Information, press officials

Riyadh, October 25 , SPA — Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz received here today Minister of Culture and Information Iyad Madani, press officials of the ministry and editors of Saudi local newspapers and magazines.

At the beginning of the audience, the minister delivered a statement in which he expressed thanks to the king for the audience and constant aspiration to such an audience to listen to the king’s directives.
The minister stressed that all workers of the press are always keen on serving this religion and serving the homeland hoping that all will meet the king’s trust and the press will be a tool for strengthening the national unity and social solidarity and will help realize the interest of this homeland in line with the king’s directives.

The Minister of Culture and Information said, “This sector is a productive and fruitful sector and the brothers, God willing, will always shoulder the responsibility.”

Then the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud delivered the following speech:

My brothers, you belong to this country. Whatever you have done, you are asked to do more to serve your religion and homeland. This is the most important thing. You know what is happening in the world, and I like to say to you I believe that the world is now in a covert war and an economic war. You must take this into consideration and consider the interest of religion and the homeland rather than the interest of people as the economy is a foundation of everything.

The King pointed to his audience today with finance ministers and central bank governors of Gulf Cooperation Council states and expressed his pleasure over their responding to the call and the convention of an extraordinary meeting, saying, “May Allah bless this step. We should talk about it as the Gulf is fine, but it is targeted. Do not forget that your country is targeted for destabilization of this blessing bestowed upon you by Allah. We must appreciate, respect and preserve it without recklessness, without alleged nationalism and without useless appearance. You should be fearful of Allah, thank Him, and put the interest of your country before your eyes. This is what we want. You are all good men. There is no doubt about your goal. I do not doubt it and no one can doubt it. The homeland is above all. Your people want to hear from you good words.

Yes, there are mistakes. Yesterday, I heard a report saying that two million Saudis can get kidney failure. Where did this report come from? This is the will of Allah. Two millions! What has prompted you for such a distortion?

We are concerned that your aim is a goal of a hard working Muslim for his homeland and the interest of his country above all. I believe that you all have this. But some people, sometimes are ordered by the evil from themselves. This should be met with reason and faith.

I ask you to be directed towards your religion first and your homeland above all. No one doubts your faith and sincerity. But sometimes, man is conceited. You should correct him. This is not a criticism, but to attract your attention.

My brothers, I belong to you. But the interests of my religion and homeland are above all. I neither bargain nor consider over them not even in dream. There is no doubt about this. This is my belief in you all. But you differ in some views. Some of you want to open a room for them. Open a room and attract their attention.

Allah willing, I will go to America for the dialogue of followers of religions currently under way. I pray to Almighty Allah to help us. The dialogue of followers of religions is a duty on every male and female human being. At the same time, it came in a time when the world is criticizing Islam. You are all the sons of Islam and you must preserve it. It is regrettable that some of our sons are tempted by Satan or brothers of Satan. And it happened what happened. And I thought what is the solution? I’m not the only one who wants this, but you all and every correct Muslim want that Islam’s reputation remains pure. I thought that nothing can purify it except for the extension of Muslims’ hands to their brothers in other religions and this can deter a little bit. This is a humanitarian duty of convergence, advice, guidance to any creed, religion or others, and dialogue.

As you know, dialogue has never happened here. The matter will be so, either difference or doing anything else. No my brother, if I differ with you, this does not mean that I am your enemy. If you differ with me, you either convince me or I convince you. That is what made me call for a dialogue which took place in Madrid. I took this step after I took the green light from our Muslim scholars. This is in the interest of the world, not only in our interest. It demonstrates that Islam is a religion of dialogue, not a religion of force and violence. It is a religion of dialogue.

Islam reached China after fifty years of the Prophet’s mission. At that time, there were no aircraft or others. Now, in spite of the pressure on Islam, every day you find people who want to convert to Islam. The duty of the people of Islam, you and others, is to serve it with a good word as the good word conveys the clear right and it is impressive. I hope that you use the good word in the service of religion and the homeland.

Now, the role of economy and the good word comes. And the role of the faithful position comes. Do not depend on your reporters. Start removing these bad ideas which undoubtedly come only from enemies, suspicion, fear and mistrust.

Then the Chief Editor of Riyadh newspaper Turki bin Abdullah Al-Sudairi delivered speech in which he stressed that the relationship of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques with the press is not new, noting that journalists had been listening to the King’s ideas and visions when they were his guests at the National Guard exercises for a long time, then in trips and events until the King enabled the local press to jump to the Arab distinguished level, to strengthen their relations abroad in a satisfactory manner, and to develop them at many levels including the levels of capabilities, publication and a number of their workers.

The audience was attended by a number of princes and officials.

October:31:2008 - 21:32 | Comments Off | Permalink

Here’s an interesting review of a book by a Saudi author who writes knowledgeably about Jewish contributions to the development of Western civilization. The full text of the review is available either in the print copy of Foreign Affairs magazine or to on-line subscribers, unfortunately.

The reviewer notes that the books existence is remarkable in several regards: a) the book gives a favorable look at Jews, b) the author is Saudi, c) the book is in Arabic and is published and available in Saudi book stores. He notes, too, that the book’s existence must be seen as ‘tacit support for such projects from the Saudi government.’ He sees it as another demonstration that King Abdullah is serious in his attempts to create more tolerance for religious differences. I hope the book is translated, but it’s probably more important that it exist in Arabic, in Saudi Arabia.

In Other Words: An Arab Study of Jews
Robert Silverman

Al-Mukawwin al-Yahudi fi al-Hadharah al-Gharbiyyah

(The Jewish Component in Western Civilization)

By Saad Al-Bazei

423 pages, Beirut: The Arab Cultural Center, 2007 (in Arabic)

Whenever I visit the Middle East, curiosity leads me into bookstores so I might gain some insight into the opinions and interests of local readers. Among my recent discoveries on the region’s bookshelves is the existence of Judaica sections, just like in the United States or Europe, but with one major, distinguishing difference. As one might expect, store shelves in Muslim countries are heavy with translations of well-known anti-Semitic tracts, like the notorious screed “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Imagine my pleasant surprise then, during a recent stay in Riyadh, to discover a book by a prominent Saudi writer that aims to inform Arab readers about Jewish culture and promote tolerance and understanding. The Jewish Component in Western Civilization, by the pro-Western literary columnist and university professor Saad al-Bazei, was easy to find. During my stay in Riyadh, the international Arabic daily al-Hayat reviewed it on page one, announcing a new book on the positive cultural contributions of “enlightened” Jews. I suspected that it was a slow news day in the Arab world and that this publicity was intended to boost the reputation of Bazei (who writes a regular column for a sister publication of al-Hayat). Surely a book of this sort would not pass Saudi censorship, much less be distributed in Riyadh. I was wrong. There it was, at my local Riyadh bookshop, next to the Arabic translation of Bob Woodward’s latest…

October:31:2008 - 10:42 | Comments & Trackbacks (9) | Permalink

The Washington Post has this story about how Islamic banking principles are finding favor these days, even in the Western banking community. First off, of course, is the fact that many Muslims really prefer to keep within religious dictates that forbid usury. As there’s a lot of money in the oil-producing states, catering to the customer is not a bad business decision.

Further, though, is the fact that Islamic banks tend to be safer. They are far more conservative than their Western counterparts and demand higher capital and specific performance while forbidding the use of derivatives (something that really hurt the real estate and financial markets). Lower risks lead to lower profits, but that’s just fine for those who worry about keeping track of where and how their money is used. If you’ve interest in the markets, this is a pretty interesting piece.

Islamic Banking: Steady in Shaky Times
Principles Based on Religious Law Insulate Industry From Worst of Financial Crisis
Faiza Saleh Ambah

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — As big Western financial institutions have teetered one after the other in the crisis of recent weeks, another financial sector is gaining new confidence: Islamic banking.

Proponents of the ancient practice, which looks to sharia law for guidance and bans interest and trading in debt, have been promoting Islamic finance as a cure for the global financial meltdown.

This week, Kuwait’s commerce minister, Ahmad Baqer, was quoted as saying that the global crisis will prompt more countries to use Islamic principles in running their economies. U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert M. Kimmet, visiting Jiddah, said experts at his agency have been learning the features of Islamic banking.

October:31:2008 - 10:05 | Comments Off | Permalink

Good piece from the Game Culture website noting, with irony, that this may be the first time a Western organization is arguing that Saudi laws are too lenient. It also argues that the reason there is so much piracy of computer games in Saudi Arabia is that there is too much censorship. If games were freely available, it goes, there would be less need to obtain illicit copies from illegal sources. Interesting.

Freedom from Choice: Arab Anti-Piracy Chief
Wants Harsher Penalties for Saudi Game Pirates

Rampant piracy in Saudi Arabia is strangling development of the videogame industry in the Middle East. That’s the verdict rendered by the head of the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance at the Dubai World Game Expo this week.

According to Scott Butler, the chief executive of the AAA, piracy rates across the pan-Arab region are near 90 percent. Whereas in Europe and the U.S. eight to 12 games are sold for each console sale, in Saudi Arabia those numbers are inverted. Ten consoles are sold for every legitimate purchase of a single videogame.

Butler, not surprisingly for an anti-piracy official, says the problem is that Saudi is not jailing enough people for stealing games. “In the UAE they are sending pirates to prison a lot, whereas in Saudi Arabia there has never been a judgment like that for any kind of pirate. When they mete out the judgement of imprisonment, that’s when the market will finally crack.”

That might be the first time the Saudi legal system was chastised for being too lenient. And therein lies the absurdity of Butler’s proposal. The problem isn’t that pirates aren’t being dealt with harshly enough; it’s that Saudi censorship laws are too harsh. Censorship in that country has effectively driven the videogame industry underground. The kingdom’s fear of media that challenges its cultural values has created a thriving entertainment black market, of which games are a key segment. Ratcheting up penalties for selling pirated games will only boost the cost of games, potentially hurting console sales in the process.

October:31:2008 - 09:38 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Reuters wire service ‘FaithWorld’ blog has this piece on the two upcoming inter-faith dialogues. The first, sponsored by the Vatican, starts next week; the second, sponsored at the UN through the urging of Saudi King Abdullah, takes place the next week. While Christian-Muslim relations are the focus, apparently, for both, the underlying issue is Muslim relations with Judaism, the piece says. Definitely worth reading.

Pace picks up in international interfaith meetings
Tom Heneghan

November will see an upswing on the interfaith dialogue front with two high-level meetings highlighting different approaches to the challenge of fostering better understanding among the world’s major religions.

The first will be the meeting of the Common Word group of Muslim scholars with Pope Benedict and top Roman Catholic experts on Islam next week (Nov. 4-6) at the Vatican. This will be the third conference initiated by the group, following sessions at Yale University in July and the University of Cambridge this month where Muslim and Christian religious leaders and theologians discussed in detail what unites and separates them. Being the supertanker of the Christian world, the Vatican has turned more slowly towards this theological dialogue than the smaller Protestant churches. But it has agreed to institutionalise the dialogue in a Catholic-Muslim Forum and give it a gesture of approval with a papal audience. Let’s see what comes out at the end of the talks next Thursday.

October:31:2008 - 09:33 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Here’s an interesting piece from the Associated Press on how American Muslims—and particularly American Muslim women—are becoming engaged in politics. Not surprisingly, they’re starting on the local level: city councils, staff jobs for politicians, and the like. These are the first steps that groups, ethnic or otherwise, take to insert themselves into the body politic in the United States. The piece is worth reading in its entirety. It’s how groups makes sure that their issues and concerns are addressed and that those issues are ‘framed’ in an honest manner.

On ballots this Nov: More Muslim American women

MIAMI (AP) — Many things have changed for Muslim Americans in the seven years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: Interrogations from FBI and immigration officials. Additional screenings from airport security. The feeling of being targeted by the contentious Patriot Act.

And then there’s this: More Muslims, particularly women, are running for political office, spurred by the perceived erosions of their civil liberties.

The soul searching that followed 9/11 prompted more woman to step into leadership roles, a trend encouraged by the community, said Agha Saeed, founder of the American Muslim Alliance, which has been tracking Muslim candidates since 1996. Before Sept. 11, less than 5 percent were women, Saeed said. Now about one in three are.

Dozens of Muslim Americans of both genders have seats on city councils and work on Capitol Hill, Saeed said, though few hold statewide office. Only two Muslims – Democrats Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana – serve in Congress.

“9/11 had a big impact,” Ellison said. “We kind of came to the conclusion that sitting on the sidelines … was not going to be a successful strategy, and that people needed to get involved.”

October:30:2008 - 15:59 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

The UAE’s Gulf News takes a look at the past and present of Saudi Arabia’s use of satellites. The story focuses on new projects to be done in coordination with Stanford University, in California, including ultra-violet lasers, satellite control systems, and data analysis. The article notes that Saudi Arabia has launched 12 satellites to date, from the Baikonur site in Kazakhstan, primarily for communications purposes.

Saudi satellites to conduct research
Mariam Al Hakeem

Riyadh: Prince Dr Turki Bin Saud Al Saud, Vice President of the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) for Space Research Institute, announced that the Saudi satellites will be ready to carry out research in space by the end of 2010 or in the beginning of 2011.

He made the remarks in a press briefing after signing an agreement with the US Stanford University to establish a Riyadh-based joint centre for space and aviation technology.

Prince Turki said that the agreement involves implementing three projects, the first of which will be bilateral cooperation in analysing information concerned with the satellite, which was launched by Saudi Arabia in 2004, and sending a team from KACST to the university next year for the purpose.

October:30:2008 - 11:43 | Comments Off | Permalink

The global stereotype of Saudi Arabs is that they have far more money than they know what to do with. The stereotype is true to a limited extent as there certainly are Saudis who fit the bill. It fails, however, in that it does not recognize that there is true poverty in Saudi Arabia as well. Saudi media report that as many as 30% of Saudis live below the poverty line. Some Saudis live in conditions no different than those to be found in Brazilians favelas or the Dharavi of Mumbai.

Saudi Gazette comments on one such village in southwestern Saudi Arabia, some 180km (112 mi.) from Jeddah. No gold-plated bathroom fixtures here:

Shanty in village of Laith

Shanty in village of Laith

October:30:2008 - 10:38 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

The inter-religious dialogues promoted by Saudi King Abdullah have been picked up by the United Nations. Later this month, the UN will hold a three-day special session of the General Assembly focused on dialogue between and among the different religions. The Saudi initiative is not a new idea: many groups have attempted similar dialogues in the past. The problem for Saudi Arabia is that it needs to further push its own people into dialogue, into realizing that the other person’s ideas, if not the same as one’s own, are not necessarily noxious, heretical, dangerous. It is not unusual for the Saudi government to promote ideas and change externally in order to point its citizenry’s attention to global standards. I hope this one works as planned.

UN move proves success of Saudi initiative: Muammar
P.K. Abdul Ghafour | Arab News

JEDDAH: The United Nations has decided to hold a special session of the General Assembly at the level of world leaders in New York on Nov. 12-13 to discuss the interfaith dialogue initiative taken by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah. This was announced yesterday by Faisal bin Muammar, secretary-general of King Abdul Aziz National Dialogue Center while addressing the Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group at the Jeddah Conference Palace.

“This is an international achievement for Saudi Arabia and for those who work for promoting dialogue between various religious faiths and ideologies,” Muammar told Saudi and Russian officials attending the three-day forum.

Saudi Gazette reports that Pres. Bush will attend the UN conference: Bush to attend interfaith conference.

October:30:2008 - 10:27 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Preliminary to the trials of terrorists to begin soon in Riyadh, the Summary Court in Jeddah is hearing the confessions of a number of suspects. Among them are those who have taken part in terrorist activities and who have raised funds for Al-Qaeda (euphemized as ‘deviants’ in the Saudi media). Confessions are likely to lead to lesser sentences when the trials are held.

This report, from the Arabic daily Okaz and translated in Saudi Gazette, notes that several of the targets were senior Saudi clerics. These apparently were not sufficiently extreme in their conservatism for Al-Qaeda. Since 1928, the Saudi government has had to contend with those who have argued that the religious rigor of the ulema has been deficient. Sometimes, it came to war; most of the time, to debate.

Jeddah court hears terror confessions
Adnan Al-Shabrawi and Abdullah Eraifij

JEDDAH – The Summary Court in Jeddah has heard the confessions of a number of terrorist suspects, paving the way for them to be tried in courts in Riyadh.

Sources said the suspects are accused of firearms possession, trying to carry out a terrorist attack in Jeddah, and having links to active cells raising funds for groups promoting deviant thought. One of the suspect, a Chadian, has admitted to shooting at a western male in Jeddah.

October:29:2008 - 11:06 | Comments Off | Permalink

Not all members of the Saudi Consultative (Shoura) Council appear to take their jobs seriously, reports Saudi Gazette. Overall, the group showed an attendance record of 85%, with some there 100% of the time. Some, however, have missed up to 74% of the Council’s sessions.

Given the reasons for absence, I suspect the elderly age of some members is at the base of it. The article notes that attendance records are considered when it comes time to reappoint members, as it should.

Member skips 74% of Shoura Council sessions
Muhammad Al-Ghamdi

RIYADH – A report distributed to members of the Shoura Council on Monday revealed high rates of absence, with one member skipping 31 sessions out of a possible 42, an absence rate of 74 percent for the three-month period of the report.

Three members were absent for the entire three months due to sickness, the report showed.

Other members recorded a 100 percent attendance rate as others ranged between 40 and 95 percent.

October:29:2008 - 09:47 | Comments Off | Permalink

King Abdullah will lay the cornerstone of a women’s university in Riyadh today, reports Saudi Gazette. Interestingly, the university administrators will be 100% Saudi and the teaching staff 74%. This is a vast change since the days when staff and faculty were predominantly foreign.

Abdullah founds women’s university in Riyadh today
Abdullah Obaidallah Al-Ghamdi

RIYADH – King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is scheduled to lay the foundation stone for the University City of the Riyadh University for Girls on Wednesday.

Ibrahim Al-Assaf, Minister of Finance, said the step follows royal directives to improve the contribution of female human resources to the growth of the Kingdom and addressing the needs of the job market.

The university will house three health colleges, namely the College of Nursing, the College of Pharmacology and the College of Physiotherapy, as well as the College of Administrative Sciences, the Computer and Technology College, the Kindergarten College, the College of Science and the College of Languages and Translation. “The Ministry studied similar projects across the world and consulted the world’s best engineering comapnies to set up a university with a capacity for 40,000 students by 2010, the largest of its kind,” Al-Assaf said.

The University City, according to Princess Al-Jawhara Bint Fahd Al-Saud, President of the Riyadh University for Girls, will help qualify Saudi females for a global role.

In a related piece, Saudi blogger Sabria Al-Jawhar writes about her experiences in a women’s university dorm: Are women protected?.

Quite a difference between a Saudi dorm and an American one, I must say. Her fears about the consequences of a fire in a dorm are worth noting. I hope the government takes notice and focuses on the bigger picture, not the small one.

October:29:2008 - 09:35 | Comments Off | Permalink
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