Not surprisingly, the Saudi media are starting to pay attention to Pres. Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia, scheduled for Wednesday.
Asharq Alawsat runs a piece on the objectives of Obama’s visit to the region in terms of Middle East Peace:
London, Asharq Al-Awsat- President Barack Obama wants US partners in the Middle East to take positive steps ‘to pave the way and create conditions’ for launching the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis, Informed US sources have revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat.
The sources that spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity explained that “the Obama administration’s approach to peace does not set out from the premise of convening a peace conference and then waiting for the results of the negotiations; rather it wants to create the required conditions first for the success of the peace process, and this requires the states in the region to take certain steps.”
The sources added: “We want regional efforts to go hand in hand with US efforts in order to build trust between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The US does not want to move towards convening a peace conference on the Middle East before talking to its allies in the region about what each party can do to create a better atmosphere for the peace process.”
It also has an opinion piece from Hussein Shobokshi, in which he seems to be doing an awful lot of personal projection.
Obama…Welcome to the Middle East
In a few days, US President Obama will be the guest of the Middle East. He comes to the region clearly welcomed on the official and popular levels. He will come representing a “different” America just as he comes to a definitely “different” Arab world. America is different on the official level. He personally has a state of mind, ideas, and an approach different from that of his predecessor. Bush is now being classified as the worst President in American history due to his arrogance and recklessness in dealing with events and in his naïve simplification of political events. He turned the whole world against him for one reason or another because it does not see things the way he did.
The Obama Administration is not like the Bush Administration. It is a more realistic, more humane, and more deeply and accurately knowledgeable about what is happening in the world. Barack Obama himself succeeded in reading his country well and began to make his selections for the senior Administration posts and launch his political legislations. He realized that the US voter has veered toward the left and become more liberal as he steered away from the convulsive right that was the major characteristic and feature of the Bush era and of his neo-conservative cronies. This gave Obama the self-confidence required to give his decisions and the important weight and impetus. And he is coming to a different Arab world. He is coming to an Arab world where Israel, its occupation of Arab lands, and its constant violation of international laws, agreements, and charters are the biggest problem and the most important calamity. Moreover, the total US inclination on the side of Israel in this dilemma has directly affected the Arab impression (generally positive) of the United States. Obama has forcefully called for the immediate cessation of the satanic settlement construction in the occupied lands that Israel is perpetrating. He called for a two-state solution – a Palestinian state and an Israeli state – but this was rudely and arrogantly rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Lieberman. There is nothing new to tell Obama about the Palestinian-Arab-Israeli affairs. The ball is in Israel’s court and no one can put pressure on them except the American master. The same issues are known to every US President that visited the region before. Proposals were made and followed one another from the step-by-step policies to Rogers Plan to Camp David to the Wye Agreement to the Road Map. They all failed because they were not fair and not binding on Israel.
Arab News, for its part, runs an editorial which reprises the ‘perfidy’ of Israel toward the US, starting with the USS Liberty incident in 1967, through the Pollard affair, to the recent decision to not prosecute an 85-year-old American who had spied on the US for Israel. Other than feeding anti-Israeli sentiments, I’m not sure what the point of this piece is…
The Israelis have never been short of chutzpah — after all, it is their word, meaning cheek of an often-outrageous kind. Thus after the Americans had sentenced a US Navy employee, Jonathan Pollard to life imprisonment for spying for Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term as premier visited President Clinton and asked for the spy’s release.
Pollard had spent years passing the Israelis thousands of pages of highly sensitive material. He had seriously compromised US security. Yet far from expressing any contrition for this betrayal of a trusted ally, the Israelis repeatedly demanded at the highest levels their spy be released. They even bestowed Israeli citizenship on him. Ten years ago an Israeli government minister actually visited Pollard in his jail.
Lebanon’s Daily Star has a more useful editorial looking at why Obama’s going to Saudi Arabia now.
What United States President Barack Obama might say to the Muslim world from the forum of Cairo next month is certainly grabbing headlines and attention. Obama’s Cairo address, ostensibly aimed at 1.8 billion people throughout the world and of interest to many others, will be raked over the coals before and after the event.
However, another part of the president’s itinerary is just as important. The White House has added the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Obama’s itinerary, one day before the more high-profile address on June 4. No public appearances are scheduled to take place in Riyadh, just a series of crucial meetings between Obama and America’s long-time ally in the region.
To put this visit by Obama in context, we should note that Saudi Arabia’s role in the region has been wanting. It hasn’t demonstrated the required creativity to lead the region in the direction of its interests, such as stability and reform. The Saudi style is, unfortunately, played too close to the vest. Saudi officials are more comfortable with hiding behind a wall of silence, and should abandon this style in favor of creative, political engagement.
Saudi Gazette/Okaz report that two new, minor earthquakes in the Al-Ais region have led to a postponement in the return of the villagers who had been evacuated. Water temperatures in the area’s wells, however, is reported to be normal, further suggesting that the seismic activity earlier this month is slowing, if not stopping.
2 tremors postpone homecoming of evacuees
Muhammad Talib Al-Ahmadi
MADINA – Authorities have postponed plan to facilitate returning home of Al-Eis residents after two new tremors were recorded in the area on Saturday, General Saleh Al-Muhawas, Director General of Civil Defense here, said.
His statement came as two new tremors measuring 3.1 and 3.4 degrees on Richter scale with 6.88 km and 6.2 km depth were recorded late Friday and early Saturday in the region.
As many blogs have noted, Suzie’s Big Adventure, written by an American woman married to a Saudi and living in the Kingdom, has for some reason been blocked to readers in the KSA. Just why is a puzzle—though there’s tons of speculation, of course.
I don’t understand the censoring—and censorship is exactly what it is. She’s not revealing deep secrets of powerful figures, nor is she threatening national security. In my view, she has been posting about everyday life in the Kingdom, with its paradoxes, puzzles, mysteries, and ambiguities in a truthful manner. It would be interesting to know who got her site banned, but that’s probably unknowable.
I do hope the censoring authorities come to realize that their blocking her site puts the country into a far darker light than anything she’s written. I hope, too, that the person responsible comes to understand the damage he has done to the reputation of Saudi Arabia and all Saudis by giving the Saudi-bashers another datum on which to base their bashing. Lastly, I hope this ban is lifted quickly.
MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) runs this fair summary of the debate within Saudi Arabia over women and sports. It covers issues ranging from women’s gyms to physical education in the schools and is worth reading.
Recently, the Saudi public, government, and religious discourse has been engaged in a debate over women’s sports, particularly women’s gyms, physical education instruction in girls’ schools, and competitive sports clubs for women.
The issue of women’s sports clubs has reemerged on the public agenda following the International Olympic Committee’s threat to suspend membership of any country that has not established sports frameworks for women by 2010.  Nevertheless, when discussion of this issue took place, in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics,  some senior Saudi officials, including the deputy head of the Saudi Shura Council, opposed the idea, while others supported and even promoted the idea of women’s sports. A well-known Saudi businessman, Prince Walid ibn Talal, even organized a reception honoring the country’s first women’s soccer team, Ittihad Al-Muluk. 
Another issue making headlines recently was the closure of women’s gyms in several cities, on order of the Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs – on the grounds that the centers were operating without proper medical supervision.  The Saudi English-language daily Arab News commented that the General Presidency for Youth Welfare and Sports (GPYWS), the only institution authorized to license gyms, had been granting licenses only to men’s gyms while ignoring women’s.  The Saudi daily Al-Madina reported that Saudi women had launched an Internet campaign protesting the closures, under the slogan “Let her be fat!” Members of the Parliamentary Social, Family, and Youth Affairs Committee demanded that the GPYWS implement the existing Shura Council order and open gyms for women. 
As to physical education in girls’ schools, this has been a topic of public debate for a number of years now. GPYWS deputy head Nawaf bin Fahed announced at a Shura Council session that in the near future the GPYWS would allow this in girls’ schools. 
An Al-Riyadh article, titled “Women’s sports: The Minority of Opponents Has Prevailed over the Majority of Supporters,” presented data from a public survey on women’s sports, which was conducted by the SaudiCenter for Statistical Research. According to the survey, 89% of the population think that sports are important for women; 10% think that they are important to some degree; and only 1% hold that sports are not important for women at all. Furthermore, 48% supported gyms for women; 44% supported them provided that they were designed in accordance with the unique nature of Saudi society; and only 4% were categorically opposed to gyms for women. 
Clerics’ opinions on this issue were diverse; some categorically opposed all sports activities for women, while others sanctioned them under certain conditions.
Following are excerpts from relevant articles in the Saudi press:
Earlier this month, The Boston Globe ran this article about the efforts of HAMSA (Hands Across the Middle East Support Alliance: Hamsaweb.org) to bridge the gap between Americans and the Arab/Muslim world.
Boston builds bridges in the Arab world
James F. Smith
Several Boston-area human rights activists are in Morocco for an unusual set of workshops over the next five days that they hope will help build bridges among Arabs and improve skills for creating interfaith community programs in their own countries.
Leaders of Hands Across the Middle East Support Alliance, or HAMSA, a Boston-based non-profit, are taking part in the workshops at Al Akhawayn University, an English-language school in Morocco. Also participating are staffers from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, the international human rights organization based in Cambridge (Disclosure: my wife works for UUSC).
One of the facilitators will be Fatema Haji-Taki, a program associate for civil liberties issues at UUSC. Before departing for Morocco, she told me that the program will bring together 10 young people from Morocco and another 20 from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and other Arab countries. The participants are all involved in working for civil liberties in their own countries.
Although they have failed at each of the lower courts in which they’ve tried to take their case, the families and insurance companies who suffered losses in the 9/11 attack are trying to take their case to the US Supreme Court. They seek to get judgments against senior Saudi princes declaring them responsible for the attacks through either direct or indirect funding of Al-Qaeda.
The New York Times reports that the US Justice Department has filed a brief to the Supreme Court advising that the Court should not take up the case, that there is no legal case to be made because the individuals named are immune through the legal principle of sovereign immunity and what incidental effects their charitable contributions may have had are outside the scope of the law the appellants cite.
This, of course, displeases some of the family members who are quoted in the piece. The article also notes that the timing of this brief—a few days before the President is due to arrive in Riyadh—is due to the deadline for filing brief and is not related to the visit. I find that reasonable.
Justice Dept. Backs Saudi Royal Family on 9/11 Lawsuit
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is supporting efforts by the Saudi royal family to defeat a long-running lawsuit seeking to hold it liable for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Justice Department, in a brief filed Friday before the Supreme Court, said it did not believe the Saudis could be sued in American court over accusations brought by families of the Sept. 11 victims that the royal family had helped finance Al Qaeda. The department said it saw no need for the court to review lower court rulings that found in the Saudis’ favor in throwing out the lawsuit.
… The lawsuit, brought by a number of insurance companies for the victims and their families, accuses members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia of providing financial backing to Al Qaeda — either directly to Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, or indirectly through donations to charitable organizations that they knew were in turn diverting money to Al Qaeda.
A district court threw out the lawsuit, finding that the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act provided legal protection from liability for Saudi Arabia and the members of the royal family for their official acts.
Solicitor General Elena Kagan said in the brief to the Supreme Court that her office agreed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit “that the princes are immune from petitioners’ claims,” although she pointed to somewhat different legal rationales in reaching that conclusion.
On this slow-news Friday, I’m going back through archives to see what stories I may have missed. This one, a two-part series from Saudi Gazette on Islamophobia, is one that I should point out.
While not a thorough refutation, it does provide useful information. It would have been vastly improved had it addressed more of the concerns of non-Muslims about Shariah law and about Islamic practice, whether or not authentically Islamic. Highlighting only the positive is great for cheering on people who already agree with you. It does nothing positive for those who are ignorant, frightened, or overtly hostile.
Some of those holding hostile opinions may never been convinced of their error. Others, particularly the fence-sitters, need to have their concerns addressed if Islamophobia is to be diminished.
Islamophobia’s impact on the world
“It just seems now that all we ever get in the media is Muslims and Islam. The working class seems to have been forgotten. (Some) 25 years ago, I didn’t know what a Muslim was or that Muslims followed Islam. Now we can’t escape hearing about Muslims.”
– A disgruntled reader commenting on a recent Guardian piece
NEGATIVE coverage of Islam and Muslims in the media is no secret and it’s making people averse to Islam, not to mention the amount of hassles innocent Muslims are facing with authorities in non-Muslim countries. The revelations of how MI5 is blackmailing British Muslims; the case of award-winning Pakistani writer, Mohammed Hanif, being detained for over two hours at New Zealand airport last week; the case of Indian actor Mammootty being grilled for two hours at New York airport earlier this month; and the dramatic arrest and subsequent release of 12 Muslim students in Britain over suspicion of terrorism last month are examples of what is happening everyday around the world.
Further, communities are totally disconnected from the reality and truth about Islam and Muslims. A joint survey by Gallup and Coexist Foundation published in the first week of May 2009 found that European Muslims are more loyal than other citizens to their respective countries. But only a small percentage of non-Muslim citizens trusted Muslim citizens for their loyalty. For example, 76 percent of British Muslims believed in the integrity of the justice system as opposed to 55 percent of the general populace and 82 percent of them said British Muslims were loyal citizens, but only 36 percent of their neighbors believed Muslims were loyal citizens. What a total disconnect!
Do read the second part of the article, too:
Every country is sovereign and has the right to develop its own laws and punishments. That’s simply a fact of the world in which we live. The case reported by Arab News in the article below, however, suggests that Saudi law needs to be reviewed.
The story is of a man who was sentenced to nine months in jail for standing by as his wife abused a servant and eventually killed her. The wife, yet to be sentenced, is likely to be jailed for two years. Because the victim’s families accepted ‘blood money’, the killer avoids the possibility of being executed.
Now, I don’t object to removing the death penalty from the table, but a two-year sentence for committing murder seems rather cavalier. Would most Saudis stand for such leniency if one of their family members had been the victim? I don’t think so. Nor do I think a nine-month sentence adequate to punish the husband’s role in standing by while the abuse was going on, even had it not lead to death.
I think the sentences here point to a level of racism within Saudi society and the Saudi legal system that does the country little credit…
Man jailed for failing to stop abuse of maid
Ghazanfar Ali Khan | Arab News
RIYADH: A Saudi employer whose wife tortured the family’s Indonesian housemaid to death has been sentenced to nine months in prison for failing to intervene and save the maid’s life.
The man has already served six months in prison awaiting trial, while his wife, who has been in an Abha prison for the last 11 months, is scheduled to be sentenced for manslaughter on July 14 by a court in Khamis Mushayt.
… In the Khamis Mushayt case, the court has already found the man guilty of negligence and disregard for the maid who refused to eat in protest at the beatings she suffered at the hands of his wife. Lawyers expect the wife, a teacher, may receive more than two years in prison.
The maid’s family has accepted blood money in compensation for the death.
Here’s a strange story from Saudi Gazette. It concerns a woman whose inheritance from her grandmother’s estate has come to be challenged by an unknown ‘relative’. The case demonstrates that Saudi women enjoy less than full rights under laws administered by individual judges. This judge, apparently, found the mysterious stranger’s documentation adequate. According to the story, however, that documentation is sketchy, to say the least.
‘Mysterious’ kin denies inheritance to Saudi woman
Abdul Aziz Al-Rubaiee
TAIF – A Saudi woman says she is being denied inheritance property worth SR6 million due to a man claiming to be a relative but who she never knew existed until the case went to court. Now she faces jail if she fails to pay the man the one million riyals ordered by the court as compensation.
The woman said the man claims to be her nephew and has obtained deeds from the Shariah Court in Makkah which contain “breaches,” adding that the testimonies of his three witnesses – a Pakistani man and two Chinese men – and their sources of information are “dubious.”
“There is also forged information in the Pakistani witness’s passport, including the stamp and signature,” the woman said.
“I don’t know where this claimant came from,” the woman said at the sudden appearance of the man demanding a share in her grandmother’s legacy.
In its compilation of wire service reports, Saudi Gazette reports that Saudi Arabia is content with the current level of oil production within OPEC and would not support a production cut. The current level, already the result of earlier cuts, is providing a price above what Saudi Arabia deems necessary for its own economy. Further, prices continue to rise. While countries like Iran and Venezuela would like to see prices in the $90/bbl range, the Kingdom believes that such prices would drive down demand.
VIENNA – As oil prices rose to six-month highs, Saudi Oil Minister Ali-Naimi suggested Wednesday that OPEC will opt to keep production steady at its upcoming meeting.
Even before he spoke, the recent jump in oil prices was working against OPEC members advocating for even costlier crude. But Al-Naimi’s comment reinforced expectations that OPEC oil ministers would decide to continue pumping oil at present levels.
“There is no need to cut production,” Al-Naimi told reporters, adding that the group should “stay the course.” He said that oil prices would likely reach around $75 a barrel by the end of the year on the back of growing demand in Asia.
Benchmark crude for July delivery was up 67 cents to $63.12 a barrel by midday in Europe Wednesday in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Earlier in the session, the contract reached a peak of $63.45, its highest level since mid-November.
The Kingdom has said it can live with oil at $50 a barrel, while supporting the general view of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries that prices of $75 to $80 are needed over the longer term. Price hawks Venezuela and Iran, the No. 2 OPEC producer, have been the most vociferous in support of those levels ahead of the meeting.
Following the first confirmed case of swine flu (A/H1N1) in the Gulf States, people in the other states, such as Saudi Arabia, are getting very worried. It’s not reached a state of panic yet, nor need it.
Arab News reports that traffic across the King Fahd Causeway that links the two countries has slowed:
MANAMA: Bahraini authorities yesterday assured members of the public that all of the country’s entry and exit points were being closely monitored to prevent swine flu from entering.
This follows reports that several Saudis canceled or postponed their trip to Bahrain after news that the island’s first confirmed case of swine flu was detected on Monday.
“We have stepped up vigil at all of the island’s entry and exit points. Officials at the King Fahd Causeway are also taking all precautionary measures such as wearing gloves and masks,” a Health Ministry spokesperson said.
Many Saudi families who planned to visit the island during the weekend have canceled or postponed trips. “When I heard about swine flu in Bahrain on the radio, I canceled my trip. There are several other Saudis who retuned to Dammam immediately after the news broke,” said Nasser Salim.
Saudi Gazette/Okaz report that the Saudi government has heightened its surveillance of in-bound travelers:
Swine flu: Preventive measures at Causeway
DAMMAM – A King Fahd Causeway official has said that the Ministry of Health is working with Bahraini authorities to prevent a transmission of the swine flu virus between the two countries.
The source said that the Causeway Authority had set up a quarantine facility at the crossing point to isolate any persons suspected of carrying the virus.
Most persons leaving the Kingdom for the neighboring country were, according to the source, of Bahraini nationality.
The head of the Transport Committee at the Eastern Province Chamber of Commerce said that truck drivers carrying exported goods had been given strict health guidelines to follow in order to ward off the threat of swine flu.
As of now, the flu seems to be very treatable and neither particularly virulent nor easily transmitted. That could change with further evolution of the virus—something very much of concern to the WHO and CDC—but at present, should not require dramatic measures.
Here’s a nice human interest story from Asharq Alawsat, about Joseph Grant, now 101 years old, who brought and flew the first airplane to Saudi Arabia. [Whether the British used military aircraft in/against Saudis in the 1920s is another matter!]
Grant was awarded the King Abdulaziz Medal earlier this year, and is now in Jeddah on his second trip to the country since leaving the King’s service. You can read more about him here:
Captain Joseph Grant: Remembering King Abdulaziz
Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat-”He was a King who loved and respected his people, and worked for their sake, in addition to [believing in] transparency, which is a basic and simple philosophy that has brought the Saudi state to where it is today, and made him [King Abdulaziz] the greatest man of all ages.”
This is how Captain Joseph Grant remembers King Abdulaziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, may his soul rest in peace. Captain Grant was King Abdulaziz’s pilot, and served in this position for two full years after President Roosevelt gifted the founder of Saudi Arabia with a Douglas DC3 plane during a meeting aboard a warship in the Suez Canal following the end of World War II in 1945.
Joseph Grant is now 101 years old, and although his face is not devoid of wrinkles, he has the same smile as he had when he began his flight career in the 1930s when he flew for some of the world’s most important figures, including the President of Iceland and a number of important figures in Washington. Yet Captain Grant considers the period of time that he worked for King Abdulaziz as the time that he learnt the most.