According to this Saudi Gazette/Okaz report, the Saudi Ministry of Labor is considering permitting women to work in gold shops. Earlier attempts at Saudization of the gold shops failed. Too much work, too little flexibility, and low pay discouraged Saudi men from taking the jobs being performed by S. Asian workers. Putting more flexibility into the jobs might make them more attractive, at least to women, the article suggests. I suspect that there are a number of Saudi women who would be more than happy to take these jobs, if only they were permitted to do so.

Women may get jobs in gold shops

JEDDAH: The Ministry of Labor is considering permitting women to work in gold shops and setting the Saudization rate for gold producers at 10 percent, a meeting of traders heard Saturday.

Karim Al-Enezi of the National Precious Metals and Gemstones Committee told attendees at a meeting at the World Gold Center in Jeddah that working conditions would have to change to encourage Saudis to find employment in the industry.

“Some youths are discouraged by the fact that gold outlets operate seven days a week and shop owners refuse to grant days off because weekends are peak sales days,” Al-Enezi said. “They need to introduce set working hours and grant one day off every week.”

October:31:2010 - 09:29 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Saudi Gazette reports that the Shoura Council committee charged with overseeing education is a bit puzzled. How can teachers who are being rated as ‘excellent’ turn out sub-par students? It’s a good question and one that again goes to the question of ‘Who is guarding the guardians’. Assessment, currently being done within the schools and Ministry of Education, seems to be rewarding non-performance, or at least insufficient performance. Note that this story originates in an Arabic daily newspaper; it’s not something to appease Western readers. Saudi are concerned that their kids are not learning the skills they need to be successful in life.

Shoura criticizes ‘excellent’ teachers

RIYADH: The Shoura Council’s Education Affairs and Scientific Research Committee has raised concerns about the state of education in this country, saying that while 80 percent of teachers are consistently getting excellent performance assessments, their pupils are performing poorly.

The committee criticized the quality of graduates, the role of education supervision departments, teachers and school assessments, describing the latter as “not objective”, Arabic daily Al-Hayat report Saturday. The committee, headed by Prince Dr. Khaled Bin Meshari, the former Vice Minister of Education for Girls’ Education Affairs, called for the establishment of an independent center for the assessment of general education to control and monitor education. The center, he said, should be financially and administratively independent and should be linked to the chairman of the Supreme Council of Education. The committee said that in several advanced, and Arab countries, such centers are mostly governmental or semi-governmental and are completely independent in assessing general education.

October:31:2010 - 09:23 | Comments & Trackbacks (5) | Permalink

The Washington Post reports that the Saudi government helped the US (and others) interrupt a terrorist plot to send bombs to Jewish organizations in the US. It appears that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula sought to use courier services to send doctored ink-jet printers, with their ink cartridges replaced by bombs, to the US through UPS and FedEx. The Saudis were able to provide tracking numbers on the packages which were intercepted in the UAE and the UK.

As plots go, this one is threatening in that it represents a new procedure, but also not terribly smart. Now, all packages originating in Yemen will undergo extra screening. Unfortunately, Yemenis in the US will be looked at with more suspicion, too.

Obama: Suspicious packages are a ‘credible terrorist threat’
Peter Finn, Greg Miller and Anne E. Kornblut

Two packages mailed from Yemen and addressed to synagogues in Chicago contained explosive material and represented a “credible terrorist threat,” President Obama said Friday, as authorities focused their investigation on an increasingly lethal affiliate of al-Qaeda.

U.S. counterterrorism officials suspect that the packages, which were intercepted in Britain and Dubai, were sent by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which had already demonstrated a flair for sophisticated bombmaking in an attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

Obama did not specify any new security measures that would be taken or say that the nation’s terrorist alert level had been raised. But he described the threat as serious and pointed once again to Yemen as the source of a terrorist plot, saying his top terrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, had been in touch with that country’s president.

October:30:2010 - 07:11 | Comments & Trackbacks (23) | Permalink

I know Carol Fleming, ‘American Bedu’, from her blog, our e-mail correspondence, and a phone call or two. We’ve discussed whether we’ve ever met in person, while we were assigned to S. Asia (Carol in Pakistan, I in India) but still can’t reach a solid conclusion. I’ve learned much about Saudi society and its mores from Carol’s blogging conversations. Arab News‘s weekend supplement ‘Life.Style’ teaches me a lot about Carol, about bravery in the face of calamity, and her struggles with cancer, her own and that of her late husband, Abdullah Al-Ajroush. The article is definitely worth reading.

American Bedu: Fighting cancer with faith

Carol Fleming Al-Ajroush — aka American Bedu, the American blogger — is a recognizable name in the Kingdom. Her bold and true portrayal of Saudi Society and expats’ issues in her blog (which she started in 2006) make her an outstanding writer and a human right activist. What makes her more outstanding is her courage of fighting cancer for the past three years — her breast cancer and her husband’s leukemia.

Since the world is observing October as Breast Cancer Awareness month, Arab News corresponded with Carol via e-mail to know how the life of a breast cancer patient is. Her story is that of courage, love and hope.

Carol is a 51-year-old ex-US diplomat (for 20 years) and widow of Saudi diplomat, Abdullah Othman Al-Ajroush.

Due to the extensive family history of cancer of all types in both her maternal and paternal sides, Carol was aware of cancers, particularly, breast cancer.

“By the time I reached my 40s, however, I guess I naively considered myself safe,” she said, given that she is the youngest of four daughters of whom none were diagnosed.

Today’s Arab News carries a story that has to be anomalous for Saudi Arabia: a Guiness World Record set by a group of women. They formed a 5,000-person pink ribbon in commemoration of the effort to raise breast cancer awareness. In the photo that accompanies the article, I don’t see a single male, not a guardian to be found. How could this happen and the world not end?

Saudi pink ribbon breaks Guinness record

October:29:2010 - 08:06 | Comments & Trackbacks (4) | Permalink

Here’s an interesting piece from the Carnegie Endowment’s ‘Arab Reform Bulletin’. It looks at the recent decree forbidding all but approved scholars from issuing fatwas. Boucek finds this to be a manifestation of a strong and confident government intent on pulling back to itself control over issues such as justice, education, and family matters. These concerns had been in the purview of the religious establishment, particularly after the calamitous year of 1979.

Saudi Fatwa Restrictions and the State-Clerical Relationship
Christopher Boucek

Saudi King Abdullah’s decree that only officially approved religious scholars would be allowed to issue fatwas is the latest example of how the state is working to assert its primacy over the country’s religious establishment. According to the August 2010 royal edict, only clerics associated with the Senior Council of Ulema (clerics) are now authorized to issue fatwas. Much of the commentary that followed was focused on Abdullah’s attempts to take on the ulema and reform the clerical establishment. Such restrictions have been in place since at least 2005 but were seldom enforced; the August decree is about bureaucratizing and institutionalizing state control.

In the text of the decree delivered to Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul Aziz al-Ashaikh, Abdullah wrote: “As part of our religious and national duty we want you to ensure that fatwas are only issued by members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars and other permitted people.” It continued, “Individual fatwas on personal matters such as matters of worship, dealings, personal matters are exempt from this ruling, but they should be between the questioner and the scholar. There should be a total ban on any topics involving strange or obsolete views.” Abdullah stated that it is a violation of Islamic law when unqualified individuals issue fatwas, and such actions undermine the official state institutions and cross into “state jurisdiction.” The decree also instructed the Grand Mufti to identify those scholars qualified to issue fatwas. A number of senior figures, including Minister of Islamic Affairs Shaikh Saleh bin Abdel Aziz al-Ashaikh and chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council Shaikh Saleh bin Humaid have voiced their support for the new restrictions.

October:28:2010 - 09:50 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

I just noticed a new feature at Saudi Gazette. It a digital image of the entire newspaper. I find it interesting and useful to see where particular articles are placed in the paper and what stories or photos run alongside them. Even the advertisements can be interesting.

I do not know if this feature is accessible to readers in Saudi Arabia. Several paper restrict access to the websites to either foreign readers or Saudi-based subscribers.

October:28:2010 - 08:24 | Comments & Trackbacks (4) | Permalink

Arab News reports that two years since the requirement that all domestic workers in Saudi Arabia be covered by health insurance, many employers and employees alike remain ignorant of that requirement. The article notes several schemes to pay for the insurance, though in my opinion they put a significant burden on the employees’ income. The story also notes that insurance companies don’t seem over eager to step in and pick up their responsibilities even when coverage has been obtained.

Sponsors unaware of health insurance requirement for domestic workers

RIYADH: Many Saudis are unaware of the regulations and provisions of the health insurance scheme that was made compulsory for domestic workers two years ago, according to a report in Al-Riyadh newspaper.

For many Saudi sponsors, acquiring health insurance is a procedure that they only complete to process their workers’ paperwork such as renewing or issuing iqamas. The sponsors blame insurance companies for giving them incorrect information with an eye on maximizing their own financial benefits, and say they do not fulfill the provisions of signed contracts.

Due to an overwhelming number of the Kingdom’s seven million expatriate workers being domestic staff, the problem is widespread.

October:28:2010 - 08:12 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

It’s not just fathers, uncles, brothers, and other ‘guardians’ who need to be watched in Saudi Arabia. Mshari Al-Zaydi, writing in Asharq Alawsat, points out that judges need someone to keep an eye on them. He notes a few recent cases of judges caught in strange or corrupt practice and commends the work the Supreme Judicial Council does in its oversight. That’s not enough, though. It still leaves a situation of judges watching judges and that might not be for the best. He suggests the creation of an outside body—which surely could include a few judges—that would serve as guardians of the judicial system. This body would answer the question of ‘who guards the guardians’.

The Observer and the Judge
Mshari Al-Zaydi

According to a recent report in the Saudi Arabian “Okaz” newspaper, the chief justice of one [Saudi Arabian] region has called on a cleric who specializes in the Islamic practice of Ruqyah [reciting the Quran as a means of treating sickness and other problems] to prepare a letter for the court which details information that he obtained from a “jinn” that he contacted with regards to a corruption lawsuit that a judge has reportedly been implicated in.

The Supreme Judicial Council in Saudi Arabia has issued a statement regarding the local newspapers’ claims, confirming that the authorities are investigating a case of financial and administrative corruption, and that some members of the judiciary have been placed under arrest. The Supreme Judicial Council also clarified that it is monitoring the judicial work in accordance with its jurisdiction and authority, as stipulated by the judicial system in the supervision of the court and the judiciary, as part of their periodic inspection of judges in order to ensure their competence, the “Al-Eqtisadiah” and “al-Riyadh” newspapers reported. According to Monday’s edition of the Okaz newspaper, the judge who has been implicated in this corruption case had previously said that he was “put under a spell” by a financial partner, who is a co-defendant in this case.

The question here is not about judicial immunity or its prestige, for this is something that is safeguarded in any country; nor is it about judicial independence, for this is protected and untouchable. The question is also not about whether this story involving jinn and the occult is true or not, or whether jinn are responsible for other crimes. For example, the al-Riyadh newspaper published a story in which a woman claimed to have betrayed her husband after being bewitched. We cannot examine the phenomenon of jinn in the same manner as others.

October:28:2010 - 08:02 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice do not act with total impunity, Asharq Alawsat reports. They are subject to the influence of public opinion of their actions. Because of their concern over negative publicity, the Haya report to the Shoura Council that their activities are down 20% compared to last year. I’m still of a mind that the entire concept of ‘religious police’ is one whose time has passed, if it ever really existed. But less activity on their part is definitely better than more.

I do recognize that many Saudis believe that there is not only a role for religious police to be playing, but an actual, religiously mandated duty to do so. I disagree. Criminal behavior can be handled by the police; a second layer of authority assessing the morality of people’s behavior does not change that behavior: it just sends it deeper underground while opening the door to more instances of improper behavior by the Haya, thus diminishing respect for Islam. Moral behavior is not something that can be effectively controlled by authority; too often it turns into an excuse for expanding authority and authoritarianism.

It’s encouraging, though, to see the Shoura Council insisting on a higher degree of professionalism, starting with enforcing the requirement that the religious police wear uniforms and ID tags when they’re on duty.

20 Pct Drop in Saudi Religious Police’s Operations
Turki Al-Saheil

Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat – The General Presidency of the Saudi Arabian Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice [CPVPV], in a report presented before the Shura Council yesterday, acknowledged that its operations were down 20 percent from last year. This was as a result of the CPVPV’s fear of the consequences of negative media reports on its operations.

This report revealed that the CPVPV recorded 55,000 cases during the past year, which represents a 20 percent decrease from the number of cases recorded by the CPVPV during the previous year.

CPVPV officials justified the decrease in the number of recorded cases as being due to “fear of negative media portrayal.” This statement was met with surprise by Shura Council member Dr. Abdullah al-Zufairi, whilst Shura Council member Major General Abdullah al-Saadoun defended the media, saying that it was only doing its duty.

The report revealed that the CPVPV recorded 16,650 cases had against Saudi citizens, and 39,301 cases against non-Saudi citizens.

October:27:2010 - 08:26 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Saudi Gazette/Okaz have a couple of stories on the issue of guardianship and child marriage. In both cases, the very people who are expected to protect young women are alleged to have played major roles in damaging them.

The first concerns a 32-year-old woman who was jailed for ‘disobeying her father’. Ludicrous as it is, it’s even more shocking that it took six months to get her out of jail! There is something very, very wrong in a system that permits this kind of thing to happen. I’m pleased to see that there is a call out for the judge who ordered the jailing to be investigated. Judges, too, play an important role in guardianship and if one can twist logic to find the jailing of a divorced mother, on her father’s say so, then at the very least he needs to be educated. Perhaps his spending six months in jail himself would speed the learning.

‘Disobedient’ daughter finally freed: Lawyer
Associated Press

JEDDAH: A Saudi woman jailed for disobeying her father has been freed after more than six months in prison, her lawyer said on Tuesday.

Samar Badawi, who was thrown in prison without formal charge or trial by a Jeddah judge, was released on Monday after a 12-day concerted media and internet campaign on her behalf by human rights activists inside and outside Saudi Arabia, said lawyer Waleed Abu Alkhair.

The activists had petitioned King Abdullah to intervene in the case, which they said was an example of the abuses of the country’s rigid guardianship system for women.

“The release came after judges saw the 12-day campaign, which made a lot of people pay attention to the case,” Alkhair said.

Badawi was released into the guardianship of her uncle but was seeking hospital treatment for an unidentified ailment, the Jeddah-based lawyer added.

“She told me, ‘if you didn’t write about me in the newspapers and internet, I would still be in jail,’” he said. Under the guardian system, a Saudi woman must have the permission of her official “mahram” or male guardian – her father, husband, son, or another close male relative – for matters such as travel, work and marriage.

The second case is the all-too-familiar case of a father ‘selling’ his young daughter into marriage. This case is a bit different as marriage of the 14-year-old girl to a man in his 70s was halted. The girl was removed from her father’s custody and placed with an uncle. (I don’t have any philosophical problem with a minor being under guardianship, per se.) The Saudi National Society for Human Rights is calling for a criminal investigation into the father, the judge who authorized the marriage, and the marriage official who performed the marriage. That sounds right.

Human Rights body to probe teen’s marriage to septuagenarian

JEDDAH: The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) is to investigate how a 70-year-old man was allowed to marry a 14-year-old-girl, seemingly without her consent.

Ahmad Al-Bahkali of the NSHR in Jizan said that the 14-year-old Noura’s father, the marriage official who conducted the union, and the judge who approved the marriage all face allegations of violations.

“No marriage can be declared legal without the bride’s consent and her taking receipt of the dowry,” Al-Bahkali said. “Girls and women are not to be viewed as commodities for sale because Almighty Allah has decreed they have the right to accept or reject a suitor.”

He said that scholars, sociologists and the media have been debating the subject, while numerous studies have asserted that women have the right to choose their spouses.

October:27:2010 - 08:14 | Comments & Trackbacks (5) | Permalink

Arab News translates an op-ed piece from the Arabic daily Al-Madinah in which the writer complains that wages, instead of going up, are going down. Hiring Saudis, the goal of ‘Saudization’ cannot work when salaries offered to Saudis are too low to meet even basic needs. As long as Saudi employers will always seek to minimize labor costs—usually by hiring foreign workers at minimal wages—there is no way that Saudization will ever be met.

Trading in human beings

OFFICIAL statistics released by the Labor Ministry recently reveal that the average monthly salary in the private sector has decreased by about 26 percent in 2009 to less than SR1,000, compared to SR1,353 in 2008.

The report stated that the monthly pay packet for men has dropped to less than SR1,000 in 2009, a fall of 27 percent. Pay for women decreased by 11 percent to SR1,657.

According to the statistics, the number of workers in the private sector is close to 6.9 million in 2009, an increase of about 10 percent. However, Saudis account for only a tenth of this number.

Numbers never lie. They do not twist the facts as some officials do. The figures reveal the truth for whoever wants it. The reason why Saudi youths prefer government jobs is not to seek the luxury of sitting in a big office as some critics say. This theory is nullified by the very fact that young Saudis in security companies are working directly under the sun.

Our youths are keen to be employed by the government because many private companies and establishments will suck their blood by paying them measly wages of SR1,000 or SR1,500, not enough to buy them food even if they were single. How can a young man build a future or have a family on this low pay?

October:25:2010 - 08:33 | Comments & Trackbacks (15) | Permalink

Here’s another case at the intersection of religion and US law from Volokh Conspiracy. The issue is whether a trucking company has an obligation to accommodate the request of a driver, based upon his Muslim beliefs, to not transport alcohol or tobacco. The law requires a company to accommodate religious concerns if it can do so with minimal interruption to orderly business and at minimal cost. That, the complaint requests, should be decided by a jury, not just by the employer.

As Prof. Volokh points out, this kind of accommodation is made regularly, but is very much ‘fact dependent’. In this case, I suspect that the driver will lose his claim. His employer isn’t just a local company, moving products to stores in a single city, but an international trucking concern. Thus, rearranging the schedule to accommodate this driver is not a trivial matter as it could involve changing the routes and schedules of hundreds of other drivers.

Again, comments to the piece are useful. They raise the question of (and confusion about) how courts determine ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’.

Does Trucking Company Have a Legal Duty
to Accommodate Muslim Employee’s Religious Objections
to Transporting Alcohol or Tobacco?
Eugene Volokh

That’s the argument made in Reedy v. Schneider National, Inc. (E.D. Pa. filed Oct. 15, 2010). Vasant Reddy says that he has “a sincerely held religious belief that he cannot consume, possess, or transport alcohol or tobacco,” and that he informed Schneider National of this. He also says that “less than 5% of the loads Defendant transported contained alcohol and/or tobacco,” which means that it would not have been an “undue hardship” for Schneider to accommodate him. Nonetheless, he says, he was ordered to transport a load with alcohol, and was fired because he refused to transport it. (See the Philadelphia Inquirer for more.)

As I’ve argued before, there’s nothing legally novel about most religious accommodation demands from Muslims. They are in many ways quite similar to such demands brought by adherents to other religions, and under well-established American religious accommodation law some such demands must be accommodated and others need not be. I summarize some of the general rules imposed by federal religious accommodation law here, but the brief summary is this: An employer must give religious employees special exemptions from generally applicable job requirements if (1) the requirements interfere with an employee’s sincerely felt religious obligations and (2) such an exemption doesn’t impose “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j); TWA v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63 (1977).

It seems likely that Reddy satisfies element 1 of the test; whether he satisfies element 2 depends on how costly it is for the employer to accommodate him. Even a modest cost might be seen as an “undue hardship” on the employer, but if the cost is very slight — perhaps because indeed there are very few loads that contain alcohol or tobacco, and those loads could easily be parceled out to others without substantial expense or substantial unfairness to Reddy’s coworkers — then the employer could be liable for failing to accommodate Reddy.

October:25:2010 - 08:25 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink
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