The New York Times‘s Sunday Magazine has an excellent article by Jeffrey Rosen, a Law professor at George Washington University, in Washington, DC. He discusses how the conflicting goals of Google and other global Internet services try to walk the line between free speech and local laws that heavily restrict just what kinds of speech can be free. As Google grows by purchasing services like YouTube, Blogger, and the social network Orkut (which is banned in Saudi Arabia), the company finds itself enmeshed in dealing with local laws—many with popular support in various countries—that run counter to the idea of free speech.

Google and its competitors like Yahoo are in a tough position. They are being pressured by governments, including the US government, to act in particular ways. The problem is that there is no universally accepted concept of free speech. Each country draws its lines differently. In Turkey, and in Turkey alone, it is illegal to make fun of the founder of the country, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, or of ‘Turkishness’. In Thailand, one cannot insult the King. In Islamic countries, there are myriad pitfalls that need to be avoided. In several European countries, it is illegal to sell Nazi memorabilia or to deny the reality of the Holocaust. How do companies, whose goal is to make a profit, after all, deal with laws that completely contradict each other? Is it even the role of private companies to promote and protect human rights? Or can it simply avoid violating those rights itself?

I recommend the article, strongly.

Google’s Gatekeepers
Jeffrey Rosen

In 2006, Thailand announced it was blocking access to YouTube for anyone with a Thai I.P address, and then identified 20 offensive videos for Google to remove as a condition of unblocking the site.

‘If your whole game is to increase market share,’ says Lawrence Lessig, speaking of Google, ‘it’s hard to . . . gather data in ways that don’t raise privacy concerns or in ways that might help repressive governments to block controversial content.’

In March of last year, Nicole Wong, the deputy general counsel of Google, was notified that there had been a precipitous drop in activity on YouTube in Turkey, and that the press was reporting that the Turkish government was blocking access to YouTube for virtually all Turkish Internet users. Apparently unaware that Google owns YouTube, Turkish officials didn’t tell Google about the situation: a Turkish judge had ordered the nation’s telecom providers to block access to the site in response to videos that insulted the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which is a crime under Turkish law. Wong scrambled to figure out which videos provoked the court order and made the first in a series of tense telephone calls to Google’s counsel in London and Turkey, as angry protesters gathered in Istanbul. Eventually, Wong and several colleagues concluded that the video that sparked the controversy was a parody news broadcast that declared, “Today’s news: Kamal Ataturk was gay!” The clip was posted by Greek football fans looking to taunt their Turkish rivals.


November:30:2008 - 09:32 | Comments & Trackbacks (7) | Permalink

Yesterday, King Abdullah’s comments in Kuwait that $75 per barrel seemed a reasonable price for oil touched off a mini-firestorm among gasoline-consuming bloggers in the West. Why, the bloggers asked, was Saudi Arabia looking for a price around 50% higher than its own costs to produce oil? Clearly, this was intended to screw the West and find funding for ‘global jihad’.

Today, Saudi Oil Ministry Ali Al-Naimi gives an answer, as reported by Reuters and published in Asharq Alawsat: Because oil production is a global enterprise, prices cannot be based on the lowest production costs, but more aptly on the cost of bringing new oil into production. A price of $75/bbl, he said, represents the margin cost of producing oil, what it would cost to bring a barrel of, say, Canadian oil derived from oil shales. This, he says, would be the ‘fair’ price.

Whether that price is even attainable in today’s markets is an entirely different matter, of course. It seems that oil is reaching its own price now, around $50/bbl, when speculation can tweak the price slightly higher. Major production cuts by OPEC could push the prices considerably higher, but that would still create problems for certain countries—as Libya, Venezuela, and Iran—who have created budgets based on prices of $130+.

Saudi Targets “Fair” Oil Price at $75

CAIRO (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia on Saturday cited $75 a barrel as a “fair price” for oil, the first time in years that the world’s biggest exporter has identified a target for crude prices.

Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said oil prices needed to return to $75 to keep the more expensive new projects at the margins of world supply on track. His comments may come as a relief to consumer nations fearful of a return to $100-plus oil. U.S. crude was valued at $55 late on Friday.

“There is a good logic for $75 a barrel,” Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi, OPEC’s most influential voice, told reporters in Cairo, where the producer cartel was meeting.

“You know why? Because I believe $75 is the price for the marginal producer. If the world needs supply from all sources, we need to protect the price for them. I think $75 is a fair price,” he said.

Saudi King Abdullah announced $75 as a fair price in an interview with Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Seyassah.

Naimi’s comments stopped far short of suggesting OPEC adopt a new formal price target to guide policy. But the unexpected break from his customary refusal to cite any sort of preferred price will give markets a new reference point when world oil demand recovers from the current recessionary slump.

For the time being $75 is out of reach.

Without tougher cartel action following two rounds of output curbs that have failed to rally prices, some OPEC delegates question the strategy for getting back to $75.


November:30:2008 - 08:49 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

I came across the website of a photo agency that sells copyright-protected photographs by Franco Pagetti. There are two slide shows that may be of interest.

One focuses on the development of King Abdullah Economic City, outside of Jeddah. The show has photos of Jeddah, maquettes of KAEC, Pr. Khalid Al-Faisal, Governor of Mecca Province, and the Governor’s Palace.

A Booming Saudi Economy

The other looks at Saudi efforts to rehabilitate young extremists. It includes photos of the Care Rehabilitation Center, inmates, their program, some of the less salubrious neighborhoods of Riyadh, and the Haier/Hayer Prison.

Fighting Militant Islam


November:29:2008 - 10:10 | Comments Off | Permalink

Tourist visas for Americans appear to available, according to this report from Saudi Gazette/Okaz. The article reports that a group entered from Egypt to tour the area around the old Hijaz Railway. It doesn’t say if they had a chance to visit the (relatively) nearby ruins at Madain Saleh.

Credit: Saudi Gazette

Credit: Saudi Gazette

38 American tourists discover historic Tabuk
Ali Bidair

TABUK – A group of 38 tourists from the US arrived in Tabuk Friday from Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. The tourist trip has come as part of the ongoing cooperation of the Saudi Supreme Commission for Tourism and local tourism companies.

The American tourists will visit the archaeological heritage sites in Tabuk including the old Hejaz Railway and historic Tabuk Fortress.

This trip is one of 68 scheduled tourist trips from the US and Europe to the Kingdom, said Hasan Al-Harbi, head of a local tourist company.

The government passed a law in 2007 allowing domestic travel agencies to bring in foreign tours.

The Kingdom is trying to develop the country as a tourist destination, first for domestic travelers and later for international ones through the Discover Saudi Arabia program.

Westerners are starting to visit the country in small group tours, a process that has become easier with relaxed visa rules. – Okaz/SG


November:29:2008 - 09:11 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Yesterday, I saw several blogs noting, with derision, that Arab (i.e., Muslim) media had not deigned to report on the murder of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg in Mumbai. An Orthodox Jew who went to India to serve the needs of both Jewish foreigners doing business in Mumbai and the indigenous Jewish population, Holtzberg was from the very conservative Lubavicher or ‘Chabad’ movement.

This article from Saudi Gazette does not go into the scope of Holtzberg’s life or work, but does single his death out for attention among the reports of the murders of others in Mumbai. But yes, at least one Arab paper has reported on the Rabbi’s death, and a Saudi paper at that.

Bloody end at Jewish center

MUMBAI – Indian security forces’ war against terrorists in Mumbai narrowed down early Saturday morning to at least “two or three” militants who were still roaming the charred corridors of the Taj Mahal Hotel.

By Friday evening, the security forces routed the terrorists in the Trident-Oberoi, freeing hostages held inside, and from a Jewish community center, ending the conflicts there.

More than 150 people have been killed since gunmen attacked 10 sites across India’s financial capital starting Wednesday night, including 22 foreigners – two of them Americans, officials said.

A rabbi from Brooklyn, New York, Gavriel Holtzberg, and his wife, Rivka, were among five hostages killed by the terrorists at the Jewish community center, Nariman House as Indian commando units stormed the building, the military said. Commandos slid down ropes from a hovering Army helicopter on Friday morning as they closed in for the final assault, killing two terrorists inside.

Also among the dead were two Americans, a 58-year-old man and his 13-year-old daughter, members of a spiritual community visiting from Virginia, who died in the Oberoi hotel. Two more Americans and two Canadians, traveling as part of the same retreat, were injured.


November:29:2008 - 08:57 | Comments & Trackbacks (22) | Permalink

Divorce, no matter the culture in which it takes place, is usually a painful event. Its burdens tends to fall on women harder than men, particularly so in which women’s rights remain unprotected by both law and society. This piece from Arab News reports on a conference on the rights of women and children following divorce in Saudi Arabia. The conference offered recommendations on how the plight of those women and children might be improved. One of the first steps is to get government and Shariah courts to stop acting as a barrier.

Links to the recommendations [In Arabic only] can be found at the Saudi Divorce Organization website.

Forum suggests measures to protect divorced women
Sara T. Al-Bassam | Arab News

DAMMAM: More than 100 women, officials and legal experts discussed women’s and children’s rights in divorce in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday at a Dammam forum and issued more than 70 legal, social and cultural recommendations.

The conference at the Asharqia Chamber for Business Women in Dammam to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women was held under the patronage of Princess Jawahir bint Naif. Its goal was to examine the legal, institutional, societal, familial and emotional difficulties of divorce for women.

The divorce rate has increased in the Kingdom, reaching 60 percent in 2007, prompting the need for an institutional system to safeguard women’s rights in divorce.

“Divorce is bitter-tasting — even to men who understand the importance of family and care about it,” said Haifa Khalid, head of the Saudi Divorce Initiative and an organizer of the event. “But women and their children are the weaker side in any divorce. There still isn’t a system in place that understands their needs.”


November:28:2008 - 10:43 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

I came across this slide show of pictures from King Saud university, taken by an American visitor. You might find them interesting.


November:28:2008 - 10:28 | Comments & Trackbacks (20) | Permalink

The only Saudi hostage aboard the ‘Sirius Star’ supertanker, hijacked in the Indian Ocean earlier this month, managed a brief phone call to his family in the Eastern Province. He says that the crew is at ease while awaiting further developments, his family reports to Asharq Alawsat.

The story has lots of details about how this young Saudi chose to go to work at sea rather than to university. It makes for interesting reading.

Saudi Hostage on “Sirius Star” Unharmed
Abeed al Suhaimy
Dammam, Asharq Al-Awsat- A three minute telephone conversation took place Wednesday between Hussein al Hamza, the kidnapped Saudi crewman aboard the hijacked Sirius Star, and his family in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, Asharq Al-Awsat has learnt.

The kidnapped crewman, who is currently on the hijacked Saudi Arabian oil tanker, which is anchored off the coast of Somalia, described the crew’s situation as “normal”.

Mousa al Hamza, the father of the kidnapped sailor, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the telephone call was completely unexpected. He explained that Hussein al Hamza spoke to his mother, as his father was seeing to visitors and relatives who were lending their support to the family during this difficult time.

Mousa al Hamza informed Asharq Al-Awsat that his son only described the crew’s situation as “normal” and said that “there is nothing to fear.”


November:28:2008 - 09:34 | Comments Off | Permalink

Here’s an interesting essay, published in the Indonesia Malaysian paper (thanks to reader Popopsma for the correction) The Star (thanks to Saudi Amber blog for the pointer!).

The writer is distressed by fatwa-like noises coming from some Muslim clerics who seek to outlaw the practice of yoga. Yoga, she points out, is a program that seeks to integrate body and spirit through various sorts of exercise. At its root, yoga, of which there are many kinds, is at root a Hindu religious practice and one can certainly take it up as a religious ritual. But for most of the people in the world, this religious aspect has long been lost; people today, outside of S. Asia, practice modern yoga, not classical yoga. Modern yoga is not religious in any but the most general sense of trying to understand oneself as part of the universe.

Muslim clerics are not the only ones concerned about the religious implications of yoga, though. This website, dedicated to Christian apologetics, argues that Christianity and yoga are incompatible. It has links to various articles making the same argument. These, too, miss the point that modern yoga, especially that taught outside S. Asia, is not classical, i.e. religious yoga. It is purely an exercise program.

Zainah Anwar, writing in The Star, argues that instead of simply taking the word of the odd cleric, Muslims should be permitted to–have a duty to–discuss things, to set ideas out in dialogue and open to public examination. I cannot disagree with that.

A flock that grows a-weary
The way to deal with the grievances and injustices over the years which have resulted in open and ugly contestations is not to silence the debate but to sit together and find solutions
ZAINAH ANWAR

WHY is there an obstinate obsession to regulate Muslims in every aspect of our lives: What we do, what we say, how we dress, where we go, who we hang out with, how we celebrate our festivals and the festivals of others, and now how we maintain our health and well-being?

Yet another fatwa to regulate our lives is about to be issued, this time on the practice of yoga.

I take yoga classes. It makes me feel calm and flexible and teaches me to breathe efficiently. Most importantly, it keeps away my lower back pain. I feel good after every yoga class.

Now this source of my well-being is about to be declared haram. Should l consider joining my neighbours in their daily morning qigong exercise at the playground? But I bet qigong will probably be next on the ever-expanding list of the forbidden for Muslims.

I know so many Muslims who do these exercises to keep healthy because of ill-health and stressful living. Many cancer survivors and heart patients find yoga and qigong essential to their healing process. The breathing, meditation and physical exercises in yoga all have scientifically proven health benefits.


November:28:2008 - 09:27 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Arab News reports that the first women’s university sports center will be opening at the Princess Noura University in Riyadh. Conservative Saudi society frowns deeply at women’s taking part in athletics. For reasons ranging from fear of immodesty in dress to potential damage to reproduction, Saudi society has a lot of strange ideas about women and exercise. Now, as the government has taken this step, it needs to take the next: sports in girls’ high schools.

Women’s varsity to get sports center

JEDDAH: A sports and recreation center for women will be established at Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh. Work on the project has already started and will be completed within two years.

“The center will be first of its kind established by the government for women in the Kingdom,” Al-Riyadh daily reported, adding that it would follow Saudi customs and traditions.


November:27:2008 - 10:14 | Comments Off | Permalink

Sometimes you read something and can only shake your head in dismay. Here, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, writing in Asharq Alawsat, comments on the conspiracy theories rising up around the fact of Somali pirates. I really don’t understand why it’s necessary to look for a ‘hidden hand’ behind them. Piracy has proved lucrative, so far, with ransoms in the millions of dollars being paid by ship owners and insurers. Do we really need to look for spooks under the bed? As Al-Rashed spells out, there’s no need to look for an Israeli, Iranian, or even American hand behind the pirates. They have clear motives and the not-very-high technical ability to conduct their own operations.

The Somali Pirates….Another Conspiracy
Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed

Before developing into the threat they are today, spreading terror throughout the region’s oceans, these Somali pirates where said to be Israelis or Iranians.

The thoughts and fears of all sides were brought to the surface, as is customary when facing the impossible or the incomprehensible. Yet, it is still incomprehensible as to how mere gangs of possibly illiterate bandits are able to highjack large sophisticated ships in an area teeming with international naval fleets? The answer to this question is divided between those who said that these operations were carried out by Israeli marine commandos, and others who fear that they were carried out by Iranian marine commandos.

The first group is confident in their belief, stating that the Israelis are looking for a pretext for imposing the Israeli navy on the Mandeb Strait (the entrance to the Red Sea between Yemen and Somalia). Some from the onset promoted the idea that the Israelis were the actual pirates under the guise of the Somalis. And what is their reason for this? They claim that the Israelis want to impose their presence and could find no other regional issue allowing them to do so except to offer Israeli assistance in confronting these pirates. However, the architects behind this theory do not realize that Israel, like all the other countries in the region as well as international navies, are permitted to travel in the Southern Red Sea so long as they remain in international waters 15km off the shores of Yemen and Somalia.


November:27:2008 - 09:36 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

I’d like to wish all Americans, wherever in the world they find themselves today, a very Happy Thanksgiving.

For those who are joining us today in this celebration, my very best wishes.


November:27:2008 - 08:37 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink
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