The report in the UK’s Sunday Express claiming that Saudi Arabia and Israel had reached agreement that the Israeli Air Force would be permitted to overfly Saudi territory on its way to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities—and which I flagged as bogus immediately—is being firmly denied by Saudi sources. It’s simply a nutty idea.

The Israeli daily Haaretz has this to say…

Saudi Arabia denies it offered Israeli jets flight path to Iran
Jack Khoury, Haaretz Correspondent

Saudi Arabia denied Wednesday a report in Britain’s Sunday Express that said the Kingdom offered the Israel Air Force flight paths to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

The Sunday Express reported this week that the Saudis had agreed to turn a blind eye and not interfere should Israel and the United States attack Iranian nuclear facilities via Saudi air space.

A senior Saudi official said Wednesday morning that the report was baseless, adding that his country would demand that the newspaper print a retraction and apology.

Saudi Gazette runs the statement issued by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) denying the British paper’s report:

Report in UK paper baseless – Kingdom

JEDDAH – An official source Tuesday denied a report published in British Sunday Express on Sept. 27 alleging that the head of British External Security Agency accompanied by the chief of the Israeli Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (Mossad) held a meeting with Saudi officials in London and that, during the meeting, they agreed that should Israel attack the new Iranian nuclear facility, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would overlook the Israeli fighters flying over the Kingdom’s territories.

The source described the report as absolutely baseless and untrue, demanding that the editors of the British newspaper deny the false news in compliance with press credibility. – SPA

September:30:2009 - 09:51 | Comments & Trackbacks (15) | Permalink

Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, is also the month in which many Muslims seek to perform Umrah, the lesser, non-obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. The entry of millions of people into the country during a global epidemic of swine flu had seriously worried Saudi authorities. New regulations were implemented that set upper and lower age limits on pilgrims and many were refused visas.

The precautions seem to have paid off as few cases, and only three deaths (all Saudi) were reported, as this article from Saudi Gazette notes.

Three more swine flu deaths in the Kingdom
Saudi Gazette report

RIYADH – Swine flu in the Kingdom has claimed three more lives, the Ministry of Health announced here Tuesday raising the overall death toll in the country from the epidemic to 29.

Two men and one woman, all Saudi, died of swine flu, the ministry said in a statement offering condolences to the families of the deceased, Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.

On Monday, the ministry said only a few cases and no deaths were reported among millions of Muslim pilgrims during the holy month of Ramadan despite fears of a massive outbreak. Just 26 cases of the deadly flu were reported in Makkah and Madina during Ramadan which ended on Sept. 20, the ministry said.

Several million Saudis and foreigners had descended on Islam’s two holiest cities to perform Umrah or minor pilgrimage.

Saudi Arabia is not in the clear, however. The greater, obligatory Haj will be starting in November. Another two million will be arriving. These, though still restricted by the age and health regulations, are likely to be older on average and in worse health. As the Haj is something that should, if at all possible, be performed at least once in a Muslim’s lifetime, many have put it off to the last minute while saving the significant sums of money required. Too, November will be more properly in ‘flu season,’ where people’s natural vigor lessens with the change of daylight, falling temperatures, and more crowded living conditions. We’ll have to hope that Saudis and world health organizations have done their best to mitigate the worst possible scenarios.

September:30:2009 - 09:41 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Arab News has two articles today on efforts to reinvigorate the inter-religious dialogues called for by Saudi King Abdullah. Marked by his visit to the Vatican last year and several conferences he has called, both internationally and within Saudi Arabia, the effort is one that needs to be kept going.

This article identifies the major participants in the dialogue being held in Geneva today and tomorrow. Some suggest that King Abdullah should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. That’s easily done: nearly any of the senior participants is qualified to make a nomination. Being awarded the prize, however, is something else.

Of note, in addition to the Abrahamic faiths, this conference also includes religions that many Muslims believe to be paganism: Buddhism, Shinto, Jainism, etc. Getting Muslims across the globe, and particularly in the Gulf States, to recognize the humanity and common values of their South Asian and South East Asian workers would be a major accomplishment.

‘Interfaith dialogue now needs clear direction’
P.K. Abdul Ghafour I Arab News

GENEVA: Bava Jain, secretary-general of the World Council of Religious Leaders, has described the interfaith dialogue initiative of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah as historic and bold, adding that it would have tremendous impact on world peace and stability if effective measures were taken to implement it.

“His Majesty King Abdullah has done his part in paving the foundation for this historic initiative by visiting the Vatican, meeting the Pope, organizing the Madrid conference and bringing together world leaders at the UN General Assembly to discuss the initiative. Now it is our duty to build upon this initiative to make it a big success,” he told Arab News.

In its second piece, Arab News talks with Abdullah Al-Turki, head of the Muslim World League (MWL), one of the Saudi efforts to spread Islam throughout the world. I’ve worked with Al-Turki before and he’s a tough cookie. So when he says that the extremists who decry dialogue don’t know what they’re talking about, he is going to have a respectful audience. He notes that there are great similarities among the world’s religions, particularly when it comes to human values. There, he says, is the ground on which mutual understanding can be built. Interesting piece.

MWL to organize interfaith forums around the world
P.K. Abdul Ghafour I Arab News

GENEVA: Abdullah Al-Turki, secretary-general of the Makkah-based Muslim World League (MWL), announced on Monday the MWL’s plan to hold an international interfaith conference in Southeast Asia within a year. He also disclosed plans to hold similar conferences in North America, Latin America and Africa.

“We have not yet decided on the country where the interfaith conference in Southeast Asia would be held,” Al-Turki told reporters at Geneva Inter.Continental Hotel, where a two-day international conference on the Impact of the Interfaith Initiative of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah opens on Wednesday.

He said King Abdullah’s initiative, which began from the holy city of Makkah, is having a great impact on world peace and stability.

UPDATE: A reader pointed out that I’d errantly used ‘intra-religious’ in my text above (which I’ve corrected). As I think about it, perhaps both inter-religious and intra-religious should be used. There’s still great difficulty with the Sunni majority in several Muslim states finding common cause—not to mention common decency—in dealing with their Shi’ite brethren. As conflict within the Muslim community isn’t the direct focus of this Geneva program, I’ll leave it as ‘inter-religious’… for now.

September:30:2009 - 09:20 | Comments & Trackbacks (9) | Permalink

Today seems to be ‘Saudi law’ day…

Here’s an update on the case of Mazen Abdul Jawad, the 30-something guy who went on satellite TV and bragged about his sexual accomplishments. Not only are three companions being hauled into court with him, but according to this Arab News piece, two Saudi journalists—female journalists—have been ‘invited’ as well. What that is about, I fear to even hazard a guess. Might they have been producers for the LBC TV show? Nothing else seems to make sense with the available information. The piece ends with the ominous ‘others are yet to be called before the court’.

Court arraigns sex braggart
Muhammad Humaidan I Arab News

JEDDAH: Judge Muhammad Amin announced on Tuesday the charges against Mazen Abdul Jawad who boasted about his sexual adventures on LBC’s weekly program “Bold Red Line”

Abdul Jawad and his three unnamed accomplices faces charges of publicizing and promoting vice for comments he made in July on the program.

The court asked the two Saudi women journalists, linked to the case, to be present at the hearing next week after they failed to attend Tuesday’s session.

September:30:2009 - 08:53 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Still in the realm of Saudi crime and punishment, we again cross paths with Faisal Al-Otaibi, aka ‘Abu Kab,’ the Saudi naval officer who accidentally killed three younger men while performing ‘drifting’ stunts. While he had avoided the death penalty—contrary to the wishes of the father of two of those killed—he has been harshly sentenced and the Saudi Supreme Court has rejected his appeal for a lighter sentence.

With the sense of immortality that affects young men of all nationalities, Saudis still engage in stunt driving on public roads. It’s not safe, for them or for the public, but the young aren’t particularly noted for forward thinking, nor of the consequences of their actions. This case, which has been bouncing back and forth in the courts for two years now, might put a dent into that kind of thinking, but given the exuberant—and potentially fatal—driving I saw in Jeddah on National Day, I think it’ll take more than just an exemplar case to change behavior.

Abu Kab loses appeal
Muhammad Humaidan I Arab News

JEDDAH: The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a verdict of 3,000 lashes, 20 years in prison and a lifetime ban on driving issued by a Jeddah court against Faisal Al-Otaibi, a Saudi naval officer found guilty of causing the death of three minors in a stunt-driving accident in 2005.

The court rejected an appeal by the plaintiff to reduce the sentence pronounced by Judge Muhammad Amin Mirdad. Mirdad had reduced an earlier death sentence issued in November 2007.

Al-Otaibi, known in the media by nickname “Abu Kab” — which means roughly “the guy with the baseball cap” — fought a two-year highly publicized legal battle in a Jeddah court to avoid execution for the deaths of three young passengers accompanying him in his vehicle.

September:30:2009 - 08:44 | Comments Off | Permalink

Arab News reports on the flogging given to the miscreants who rioted in Al-Khobar on National Day. The thoughtful article conveys the mixed feelings of Saudis about the affair and the punishment. Both bad parenting and society’s failure to provide entertainment opportunities to youth are blamed, naturally enough. Some thought that community service might have been a better punishment, but most agree that the humiliation of a public flogging would convey society’s disapproval of the youths’ acts.

Dozen teens flogged for role in rampage
Siraj Wahab & Molouk Y. Ba-Isa I Arab News

ALKHOBAR: Twelve teenagers involved in the Sept. 23 rampage on the Alkhobar Corniche each received 30 lashes during a public flogging Monday night.

Eastern Province police spokesman Brig. Gen. Yousuf Al-Qahtani told Arab News that all the rioting vandals who were flogged were Saudis and that four of them were below the age of 18.

“These were the ones who confessed their roles in the riots,” Al-Qahtani said, noting that this was only the first group to be punished. “They are still incarcerated, and investigations are still not complete.”

September:30:2009 - 08:35 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Reuters reports that justice came swiftly for the young rioters in Al-Khobar, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. A group—surely not all the rioters, just those who got caught—were publicly flogged. I do sympathize with the young men who are barred from many of the few opportunities for fun in the country. Even going to shopping malls is off limits, and that’s not generally where you find young guys looking for entertainment.

The article, which cites Crossroads Arabia, points out that the government has to find safety valves for young exuberance. At present, young men are simply excluded from anything that has any appeal. This does not excuse their behavior, of course… trashing restaurants because you’re bored is something you might expect of a three-year-old. They do have a legitimate need for something to do, though…

Saudi Arabia flogs teens after riots
Ulf Laessing — Riyadh — Reuters

Saudi Arabia flogged a group of teenagers after a rare riot in the eastern region of the Islamic kingdom in which shops and restaurants were ransacked, a witness and local newspapers said today.

Human rights activists and liberals condemned Monday’s flogging, which Saudi newspapers said happened after groups of young people smashed windows of restaurants and shops in Khobar on Saudi national day last week. Analysts and diplomats say the case shows the challenge for the government to offer social space for a young population in one of the most conservative states and birthplace of Islam.

Newspapers such as al-Hayat and al-Watan said some 20 teenagers had received at least 30 lashes each. They showed pictures of police readying a square for the public lashings. “The flogging was carried out last night in public,” said a local journalist who witnessed it. Papers said some of the 20 youths were flogged in nearby Dammam.

September:29:2009 - 07:46 | Comments & Trackbacks (12) | Permalink

The American think-tank, Brookings Institute, has a new report out that focuses on Saudi Arabia, its economy, and its role in global economics. The report is part of its ‘Middle East Youth Initiative’ that tries to understand the various factors affecting youth and the economies of the region. Among the areas explored are unemployment, human resource development, agricultural independence, oil prices, and the critically necessary diversification of the Saudi economy. Definitely worth reading.

[Link goes to a 10-page PDF document]


The Drive for Competitiveness, Skills and Innovation

Introduction to the Series

As leaders from the Group of Twenty (G-20) nations prepare to gather in Pittsburgh to take stock of the global economy, the countries of the Middle East will not be represented in great numbers. Nonetheless, economic performance in the region is increasingly connected to global trends and policies. The region has experienced the economic slowdown through a variety of channels, including commodity price and export market volatility and declining tourism and investment. While specific policy priorities during the global recovery will vary across the Middle East, nearly every country in the region must meet the challenge of diversifying its economy to stimulate new, innovative markets and sources of growth. As this entails moving toward greater competition in new global markets, it is certain that the Middle East will play an increasingly significant role in future global economic stability.

Following from our successful online interview series which began last fall – “Food, Fuel, and Finance: How Will the Middle East Weather the Global Economic Crisis?” – the Middle East Youth Initiative (MEYI) turns once again to our network of scholars to ask how the region is faring. Have chronic unemployment challenges in the region been exacerbated by the economic slowdown? Has the global crisis forced a rethinking of development strategies in the region? Have ambitious programs been put on hold due to declining revenues from commodities, investment, exports and tourism?

Part 2: Diversification and Development in Saudi Arabia

An edited transcript of a discussion between the Middle East Youth Initiative and Hassan Hakimian on the economic situation in Saudi Arabia follows. Hakimian is a specialist in development economics with a special focus on the Middle East and Gulf countries. He is the incoming director of the London Middle East Institute at SOAS, University of London.

September:29:2009 - 07:33 | Comments Off | Permalink

Asharq Alawsat reports on the media presence at the inauguration ceremonies for KAUST.

Over 100 Media Bodies Compete
to Cover KAUST Opening Ceremony
Ali Sharaya and Amal Baqzi

Thawal, Asharq Al-Awsat – Over 100 local and foreign media bodies competed to cover the opening ceremony for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology [KAUST] that was held last Wednesday. KAUST is the largest research university in the region, and its opening ceremony coincided with celebrations of the 79th Saudi National Day. All of these media representatives sought to produce the best reports and footage of the event.

Farouk al Zoman, a project manager at Attariq Communications, which is working in coordination with KAUST, said that 200 media ID cards were issued to media figures covering the KAUST opening ceremony. The 200 media representatives visited the KAUST campus in Thuwal over the past few days, and are transported there daily in a convoy of buses.

Mr. al Zoman also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the plan of the media representatives to cover the opening ceremony means leaving the Meridian hotel in Jeddah in two batches.” He also revealed that the organization committee offered the visiting delegations and the media representatives the opportunity to visit the university on Thursday, allowing them access to the KAUST campus, including its laboratories, classrooms, and exhibitions.

The links below go to photos of KAUST, Jeddah, and various parts of the program. The first set is from Scott Merrill. The others, my own snapshots.

September:29:2009 - 07:06 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Arab News reports that the case of Saudi sex braggart Mazen Abdul Jawad has opened with hearings the court with a list of charges and depositions being read out. I think it’s too early to even guess how this will end, though I strongly suspect that Abdul Jawad and his friends will regret their participation.

Hearings begin in trial of sex braggart

JEDDAH: A Jeddah court on Sunday started the trial of Mazen Abdul Jawad, the 32-year-old Saudi who in July boasted about his sexual escapades on LBC’s “Bold Red Line.” Three unnamed accomplices, the men who also appeared on the program, are also on trial.

The court listened to depositions for three hours and heard the list of charges against the four men presented by a representative of the Prosecution and Investigation Commission. The charges were not provided to the press.

Saudi Gazette, oddly, has been unchanged online for going on two weeks. Whether it’s due to a change in the paper’s policies or simply that its online editor is on holiday, there’s nothing to report since Sept. 16.

UPDATE: Arab News reports that two of the men who were with Abdul Jawad in his apartment at the time of the taping of the broadcast have also now appeared before the court. Their names have not yet been released, but some versions of the story have at least one of them being Abdul Jawad’s brother:

2 more suspects in LBC scandal appear in court

September:28:2009 - 10:29 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

During the doldrums of summer, the so-called ‘Dog Days’, media around the world seems to somehow fall into a ‘silly season’. Any story—the more outrageous the better—can find its way into the newspapers and onto TV screens. By the end of summer, though, those stories tend to die back, perhaps scorched by the heat of the slightest investigation into them.

Not so for this gem of nonsense, here proffered by the Iranian TV channel ‘PressTV’. It picks up the canard that first popped up in July in the London Times, alleging that the Israelis and Saudis had reached an agreement. The agreement would permit Israeli warplanes to overfly the Kingdom on their way to attacking Iran, presumably Iranian nuclear facilities.

Well, the story’s back, substantially unchanged, though attribution this time goes to the British conservative paper, Daily Express:

Riyadh ‘offers airspace’ for Israel attack on Iran

Israeli fighter jets have been allowed to use Saudi airspace to launch go-it-alone air strikes on Iranian nuclear installations, says a recent report.

The issue ahs been discussed in a closed-door meeting in London, where British Intelligence Chief Sir John Scarlett his Israeli counterpart, Meir Dagan, and Saudi official have been present Daily Express.

According to the report Scarlett has been told that Saudi airspace would be at Israel’s disposal should Tel Aviv decide to move forward with his military plans against Iran.

The British daily added the likelihood of an Israeli attack against Iran has increased significantly after the country announced plans to launch its second enrichment facility in the central city of Qom.

Now, does anyone honestly believe that Saudi Arabia would prefer Israel to win a war against, even attack a Muslim state? The Saudis have their issues with Iran, but are generally able to finesse those problems through diplomacy. Allowing Israeli aircraft to use Saudi airspace, though, would make the Kingdom a participant in a war it assuredly does not want. And while the Kingdom calls for a denuclearized Middle East, it is not about to help create a situation where Israel is the sole nuclear power in the region.

I find the article, coming from an Iranian semi-official source, to be rather provocative and wonder why this article, now?

One thing the article gets right is that a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran would result in the deaths of millions.

September:28:2009 - 10:03 | Comments Off | Permalink

Here’s something interesting from Arab News. Last Wednesday, National Day and the day upon which KAUST was inaugurated, saw exuberant crowds around the country. The roads in Jeddah were certainly packed with cars from which celebrants were hanging, waving Saudi flags, blowing horns, and generally having a good time.

In Al-Khobar, in the Eastern Province, though, things went a bit differently. There, according to the article, the crowds turned into mobs, trashing numerous businesses in protest against society’s lack of provision of any sort of entertainment for youths. While families are given a variety of entertainments, from circuses to family-friendly restaurants and clubs, young males are shunted to the streets, with nothing to do and no place to go.

I doubt, however, that destruction of property is going to catch government attention in the right way to effect change.

Rioters caused huge losses, Alkhobar businesses claim

DAMMAM: The rampage by a large group of Saudi teenagers in Alkhobar last Wednesday, destroying restaurants, showrooms and shops, caused losses worth millions of riyals, press reports said quoting owners of businesses.

Witnesses said the rioting during the National Day celebrations started after one youth pointed at a fast-food chain, saying, “It’s a supporter of Israel.”

The youths then broke the windows in the restaurant before ransacking nearby showrooms and shops.

Al-Watan Arabic daily said the youths targeted mostly shops of international brands.

UPDATE: Through Chiara, a link to photos of the destruction:

NidalM Photography

September:27:2009 - 08:14 | Comments & Trackbacks (12) | Permalink
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