‘The Onion’ is an American satirical newspaper. Given the times, it’s also an Internet nexus, with broadcasts of mock TV programs. Always, though, it’s in questionable taste, as mockery rarely succeeds through being polite.

Today, I found a ‘broadcast’ that takes a well-aimed shot at Islamophobia. If it’s not quite to your taste, I apologize, but humor’s funniness is probably the last thing on which there’s universal agreement.

January:30:2011 - 23:49 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Maintaining arm’s-length deniability, Arab News features this story, culled from news agency reports, on political change in Egypt. Saudi Gazette/Okaz do the same, though they claim some original reporting. Changes there have been: Al-Jazeera has been shut down; the US Embassy is arranging evacuation flights for Americans out of Egypt; groups are attacking jails to release imprisoned members of the Muslim Brotherhood; the Egyptian Army is playing it straight down the middle, neither supporting nor opposing protesters or government.

Change is coming to Egypt: El-Baradei

CAIRO: Top dissident Mohamed El-Baradei told a sea of angry protesters in Cairo on Sunday that they were beginning a new era after six days of a deadly revolt against President Hosni Mubarak.

Nobel peace laureate El-Baradei, mandated by Egyptian opposition groups including the banned Muslim Brotherhood to negotiate with Mubarak’s government, hailed “a new Egypt in which every Egyptian lives in freedom and dignity.”

“We are on the right path, our strength is in our numbers,” El-Baradei said in his first address to the protest epicenter on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “I ask you to be patient, change is coming.”

As noted in comments, I think there is a slim chance that Mubarak can survive this storm. He needs to do a handful of things, immediately, if he wishes to remain President or even remain in Egypt. ‘Housecleaning’ cannot stop with sacking only ministers; he needs to get rid of the top few layers of Egyptian bureaucracy in all ministries and government agencies. He needs to re-open doors for media, including Al-Jazeera and the Internet-mediated social media. It is not enough to simply promise more subsidies on food and fuel, though that may be a short term necessity. He needs to find a way to open Egypt to entrepreneurs, Egyptian and foreign, who will create jobs. Apparently, steps are being taken to open discussions with the Muslim Brotherhood. Given the situation, that is necessary and will likely lead to having members in the new government as well as dropping restrictions on it as a political party.

The question, though, is whether Mubarak is clever enough to take the steps, rapidly and definitively. Will his party permit this even though it results in a loss of power to them? Will his ego permit it? We can only wait and see.

Saudi Gazette/Okaz also report on discussions between King Abdullah and Pres. Obama on the subject of Egypt. The report, taken from SPA releases, says that Obama ‘understood’ the King’s viewpoint on stability and security in the region.

January:30:2011 - 23:38 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

The chaos continues in Egypt. The army has been called in to keep the peace after the regular police (and, apparently, many of the special police) were driven off the streets, their precinct buildings burnt down. Prisoners are reported to have escaped from Demu Prison in Fayoum and are terrorizing the neighborhood (scroll down at the link). Pres. Mubarak has sacked his rubber-stamp cabinet and named Omar Suleiman as his new Vice President. The Internet was shut down and remains down; cell phones had but cut off but now appear to be back in service.

King Abdullah made a formal statement, supporting Mubarak and condemning violence. I think he’s right about the violence. About Mubarak, though, no.

Saudi Arabia—and Saudis in general—have a religiously-based belief that rulers are to be both respected and obeyed. That is not a bad method to keep civil peace. It has its limits though. Leaders are respected only so long as they hold the respect of the people they govern. When people feel themselves abused by their leaders, they demand change, often of those leaders. Leaders can go quietly, as did Tunisia’s Bin Ali, or they can go violently. Unjust leaders deserve neither respect nor obedience, as Mubarak is discovering.

Mubarak, though he may believe differently, is not the Government of the Republic of Egypt. He is its elected leader and that alone. If he no longer holds the confidence of his citizens that he can rule justly, then he needs to go. I suspect there’s a guest palace available in Jeddah if he decides to take a short flight east.

The newly named Vice President, Omar Suleiman, seems a mixed bag. He has extensive experience in Egypt’s foreign affairs and is the point man on Arab-Israeli matters. He comes from the military, so that’s a plus-point when it comes to keeping the Army onside. He is also reputed to have been deeply engaged in keeping domestic opponents to the regime in line, however. According to WikiLeaked cables, Suleiman has not drifted far from Mubarak’s ideas of governance, so this may be simply a case of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. How the Egyptian street—and here, the ‘Arab Street’ does count for a lot—sees him will decide whether there’s an easy solution that keep Mubarak at his desk. I don’t think it’s going to work.

US-Egyptian relations are important to both countries. Since the time of Sadat, the US has seen Egypt as a power in the Middle East that can, and often does, play a role in maintaining peace. As Henry Kissinger once said, ‘Without Egypt, there is no war.’ To encourage cooperation, the US has been providing Egypt with $1.3 billion in aid annually, since the 1970s. How well Egypt has used that aid is a fair question. The answer, I think, is ‘not at all well’. For a while, Mubarak was a good ruler, easing government controls on business, opening the country to tourists (and their dollars) even from Israel. His government, again for a while, eased constraints on Islamist political parties, but then started reining them in with an iron fist.

The big question, of course, is ‘After Mubarak, what?’

I’m sure Mubarak feels, as did Louis XV, Après moi, le déluge. It’s possible that he’s right. I am not at all confident that were Mubarak to fall his replacement would be liberal, far-sighted, or even very democratic at all. There is some truth in the saying about familiar devils being preferable to new, but strange ones.

Meanwhile, there’s turmoil in Yemen and Jordan, with people taking to the streets to denounce government failings and calling for change. On the streets of Jeddah, a group gathered today to protest the failing of the municipality and the national government to establish sufficient infrastructure to abate floods. On the videotape I saw, it appeared to be about a hundred people or so protesting. It’s not comparable to what’s going on in Egypt, nor is it likely, I think, to act as a fuse toward any kind of explosion. I’m seeing quite a bit of talk about it doing that, but so far that chatter seems to be coming from stock market ‘advisors’ who see easy money being made as the price of oil rockets on fears of just such a thing. It’s all to their financial benefit to promote such rumors, but it doesn’t make it true.

Saudi Arabia is in dire need of its own reforms. There’s no doubt about that. High unemployment, low salaries, ill-educated youths with degrees that do nothing to put them into jobs, half the potential workforce—the female half—is arbitrarily excluded from most work, poor infrastructure… the list goes on. To date, though, those problems have not reached a critical level. They can and, unless changes come more rapidly, they likely will. But not today and not tomorrow.

January:29:2011 - 22:16 | Comments & Trackbacks (55) | Permalink

It appears, from a few thousand miles away, that the flooding in Jeddah was far more serious than first reported. Now, Arab News is confirming that 11 people died as a result of the floods. Earlier reports that underpasses had not flooded are contradicted by photos of those underpasses completely filled by water.

I’m actually impressed by today’s coverage of the floods by Arab News. Not only is there an editorial (Lessons not learned) complains about the lack of progress in dealing with water since the flood of 2009. It criticizes the lack of an overall emergency plan for the city and compares Jeddah’s infrastructure—unfavorably—to a third world country. It also points out that while billions of riyals are being spent to develop new ‘economic cities’, not much is being spent to preserve the country’s already existing economic center.

The editorial is backed up by a slide show presentation of photos of the flood. Many of them are reminiscent of the pictures we saw coming out of Australia recently.

For its part, Saudi Gazette runs several photos from the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) in a far less elegant manner. The photos, however, do show the widespread destruction. It also carries a story in which Pr. Khaled bin Faisal, the Emir of Mecca (in which province Jeddah falls), blames all city planners for the devastation. Given that the 2009 floods should have given ample warning, he’s likely right. But the central government as well as provincial government hold some of the blame as well. They, too, were aware of the potential for disaster. Why were they not putting fires to the feet of the planners and local officials?

Perhaps it’s time for Saudi Arabia to step back from ‘newer!-faster!-better!-bigger!’ for a while and spend serious money on fixing the infrastructure, not only in Jeddah, but in all major cities. When I was on my last assignment in the KSA, I was shocked by the deterioration of building put up in the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps it was shoddy construction; perhaps it was shoddy maintenance, but building—ranging from Ministries to universities—were crumbling. The streets in Saudi cities are nothing to brag about, either. Constant construction and deterioration leaves the roadways in worse condition than the rough land outside the cities. Yes, there are showpiece roads and buildings, but they are the exception.

Now, it may be that I’m a bit conservative by nature, but I can levy the complaints about Jeddah to the US and many European cities as well. Infrastructure maintenance seems far down the list of ‘desirable’ government projects. My cynical self says that US Congressmen, for example, would rather see their names attached to shiny new airports—which have no flights arriving or departing—than to a road or bridge repair project. Infrastructure is not of secondary importance. It is the skeleton upon which neighborhoods, cities, provinces, states, and entire countries depend.

January:29:2011 - 09:45 | Comments & Trackbacks (7) | Permalink

The early history of the Arabian Peninsula is still being discovered. This article from the ‘LiveScience’ website discusses a new find in the United Arab Emirate that sheds new light on man’s first steps out of Africa. The location may be in the UAE, but the people whose culture is being uncovered got there by crossing what is now Saudi Arabia.

To date, paleontology has tended to focus on the people who came ‘out of Africa’ and turned left, north into Asia and Europe. For many reasons, most of them perfectly valid, little has been done to investigate those who turned right, into Arabia. Or, as the article notes, simply went East, across a then-narrow Bab al-Mandab strait.

Even just a few miles outside of Riyadh, there are ancient stone structures and Stone Age tools, not buried, but laying on the surface. No one is entirely sure just what these structures are—houses or burial spots—or when they were built, but stone arrowheads and spear points are there to be found.

The article dismisses the possibility that the UAE site, at Jebal Faya, could have been a Neanderthal site as the nearest Neanderthal finds are ‘a thousand miles away’ (in Israel/Palestine, in fact). I think that’s premature. Neanderthal traveled much farther than a thousand miles.

Still, I find this discovery exciting and look forward to much more research on the Peninsula. Saudi society seems to be becoming more comfortable with investigating its own, pre-Islamic past. New generations of Saudis interested in—and professionally trained in—Archeology and Paleontology are popping up. I wish them the best of luck.

Ancient Arabian Artifacts May Rewrite ‘Out of Africa’ Story
Charles Q. Choi

Arabia was a legendary crossroads between East and West for centuries. Now scientists find it might have been pivotal at the dawn of history as the launching point for modern humans leaving Africa to expand across the rest of the world.

Artifacts dating back at least 100,000 years unearthed in the Arabian desert might be evidence of the first step our lineage took in our march across the globe. These new findings suggest modern humans first left Africa by at least 40,000 years earlier than researchers had expected, which could rewrite our understanding of ancient sites elsewhere on the planet.

Anatomically modern humans first arose about 200,000 years ago in Africa. When and how our lineage then dispersed out of Africa has long proven controversial, but past evidence had suggested an exodus along the Mediterranean Sea or Arabian coast some 60,000 years ago.

The UK’s New Scientist magazine takes a look at the story, too. Its coverage adds details missing from the earlier-cited report.

January:28:2011 - 09:50 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Things seem to be heating up in Egypt. While the government has forbidden protests today, the ban seems not to have been heeded. In a very unwise move, the government also appears to have shut down Internet communications and all the social media that travel through that medium. I say, ‘unwise’, because all that does is stop communications among the young and technically oriented, while doing nothing to hinder other groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood and various religious extremists groups that have already established underground communications due to government pressures over the past 30 years. One set of voices may be quieted while another keeps its hidden channels open. I don’t think that’s what the government should be hoping for.

It may only be an artifact of where reporters are, but demonstrations are being reported only out of lower Egypt, the northern part of the country. That is where the greatest number of Egyptians live, but it’s far from the whole of the country. I’m curious about what’s going on in cities like Asyut, a place where religious tensions have been heated for decades.

I realize that this unrest is not, in itself, religiously motivated. It is primarily a popular repudiation of a government that has not met the needs and demands of a society on many fronts, from employment to basic standards of living. It’s been my observation that the Egyptian people set a pretty low bar for government performance—or are only permitted to set the bar low. Egyptians are extraordinarily patient with government and its (non)performance. But things seem to have reached a tipping point, spurred by events in Tunisia and other Arab countries. There are reports that protests have broken out in both Yemen and Jordan now.

Governments failing to live up to expectations, to promises, to potential will, eventually, be met by push-back from those they govern. Particularly when governments allow high levels of corruption, they will be met by anger. The anger may stay—or be kept at—at the whisper stage due to government pressure and attempts to rein in channels for protest. But when those reins break, there’s always hell to pay.

Mass Anti-Government Protests Rock Egypt

Tens of thousands of protesting Egyptians flooded into the streets after Friday prayers in mounting demonstrations calling for an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters in central Cairo, where some of the larger demonstrations were held. Trucks of police armed with water cannons lined Cairo avenues as government forces attempted to disperse crowds.

The Associated Press says Egyptian authorities also fired water cannons at Mohamad ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate who has become a leading Egyptian opposition figure and returned to the country from Austria Thursday. The news agency says police confronted ElBaradei and his supporters Friday as they attempted to join protests in Cairo. He is described as being soaking wet and trapped in a mosque that is surrounded by riot police.

CNN has a constantly-updated report from Egypt, covering the protests. Through its iReport function, it also has photos and videos sent in from people around the country.

The Washington Post correspondent David Ignatius reports on reactions from the Davos Conference, now taking place in Switzerland. Among those with whom he talks is Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who find the revolt, ‘overdue’.

Warily watching the Arab revolt

January:28:2011 - 09:21 | Comments & Trackbacks (47) | Permalink

Gulf News has this piece about a move by the Saudi Human Rights Commission to include interference by a guardian to stop a marriage as a human rights crime. The Commission notes that marriage is a fundamental human right, guaranteed by Shariah law, and that anyone who prevents a marriage for no justifiable reason creates a danger for society as well as misery for individuals.

A 15-year jail sentence ought to deter vindictive or greedy guardians, I would think. Even better, though, would be to scrap the entire concept of ‘guardian’ for adult women.

Saudi rights body to treat Adhl as human trafficking crime
Human Rights Commission working to include practice of Adhl as a human trafficking crime punishable by 15 years in prison
Abdul Nabi Shaheen, Correspondent

Riyadh: The government-created Human Rights Commission (HRC) has said that it is seriously working for including the practice of preventing women by their guardians from getting married, known in Islamic sharia as Adhl, as a human trafficking crime. Violators will get 15 years’ imprisonment.

Cases of fathers or direct males guardians preventing women from getting married in order to get their salaries are on the rise in Saudi Arabia. The phenomenon has led to high rate of spinsterhood.

Though no accurate statistics are available on spinsterhood in Saudi Arabia, legal activists and sociologists are saying that it is the highest rate at the Arab world level. In the past few years there are a number of cases where male family members obtain court approval to prevent, force, or seek to dissolve marriages.

HRC said this is a dangerous crime, adding that it is studying this phenomenon from its Islamic and social aspects in a bid to solve it through education and awareness and at the same asking courts to alleviate the sufferings of women who are victims to such behavior.

January:27:2011 - 08:15 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

There are no reported fatalities due to the flooding in Jeddah, but people are annoyed. Actually, angry. Arab News reports that the rainfall accumulation yesterday was actually greater than in the killer floods of 2009, so the Jeddah Municipality must have been doing something right, but is it enough? Commenters here, located in and near Jeddah, are noting the problems that the current floods are producing.

King Abdullah, recuperating in Morocco, has sent a message that government action is to be taken, effectively and quickly. He warns against negligence and appears to be calling for accountability. While the King always is quick to come to the assistance in the time of disasters, this year, with the popular demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, I suspect that an urgent government response was even more important.

The reasons behind these floods are both identifiable and not. It’s clear that the planet’s climate is changing from what it has been over the past few hundred years. That is likely part of the cause. It’s a cause, however, for which there’s actually very little to be done until its cause is better understood. Saudi infrastructure is not ‘first world’, and that’s for a variety of its own reasons. First, floods just aren’t all that common in recent Saudi history. Second, cities like Jeddah grew—’like Topsy’—and were not well-planned a keen eye paid to local geography and topography. Then there’s the problem that Saudi infrastructure just isn’t up to where it should be in a fully-developed nation. A tendency toward selecting cheap over good in contracting has consequences. And then there’s always the possibility of corruption, with sub-par materials and methods being accepted in return for cash or favors.

If the weather can’t be ‘fixed’ in the short term, that leaves fixing infrastructure. That will mean, as I suggested some time ago, a serious look at the city of Jeddah, its neighborhoods, its roads, and its next-to-non-existent drainage systems. Much has been done, but much more needs to be done still.

King orders urgent action to mitigate floods, warns against negligence

JEDDAH: Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah urged the authorities on Wednesday to take immediate action to tackle problems caused by the heavy rains, warning that those who show negligence would be severely punished.

A statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said the king has instructed the finance minister to allocate necessary funds for this.

“Those who show negligence in implementing this order will face severe punishment,” the king said. “As a result of heavy rains causing dangerous damage to people and installations and Jeddah facing the danger of drowning in many areas, all necessary action should be taken immediately without delay,” he said.

The king, who is now convalescing in the Moroccan city of Casablanca following back surgery, said such measures should be taken immediately in light of weather reports that there will be more rains in coming days.

January:27:2011 - 00:07 | Comments & Trackbacks (5) | Permalink

Arabic daily Al-Riyadh posts pictures and a video of the effects of heavy rain in Jeddah. The article notes that underpasses were not flooded, but it seems enough of the streets were awash to make life miserable. There are no reports of fatalities.

Credit: Al-Riyadh

January:26:2011 - 09:42 | Comments & Trackbacks (22) | Permalink

With a rapidly growing population—and nearly 40% of it under the age of 14—getting Saudis into jobs is a high government priority. Of late, the media and society have been taking critical looks at government policy to implement Saudization—getting Saudis into jobs currently held by foreign workers. Today, Arab News translates a piece from the Arabic economics magazine ‘Al-Eqtisadiah’.

Here, the writer says that Saudi society is defective in the way it looks at work. The government made a serious error in first setting up laws about jobs before working to establish a ‘worker mentality’ in youth. I agree.

He offers several ideas about how to start inculcating the idea that work—any work—is honorable and worth doing. I’d suggest, too, that the government might want to start pointing out, perhaps even rewarding, Saudis who create their own jobs and who take jobs that society tends to turn its nose up at. Saudis are no smarter and no dumber than any other society. They have been burdened with an education system that created many barriers, but those barriers were not insurmountable. We do find successful Saudi businessmen and workers who take work seriously. The problem of getting Saudis into jobs can be solved, but it’s going to have to start with attitudes about work.

I find it utterly fascinating that Saudi women, more than men, are willing to take ‘undignified’ jobs. Somehow, the women seem far more practical than the men, recognizing that work is not only a source of income, but is its own reward.

Starting point for Saudization

Despite continuous efforts by government departments to achieve Saudization, targeted results have not been met.

We have to be realistic as there are many government institutions full of people dressed in traditional white Saudi thobes, something that reflects the strong presence of Saudis. The private sector, on the other hand, is full of people of other nationalities; Saudis only exist on paper, a concept that is known as fake Saudization. The private sector is the most important sector in creating job opportunities and reducing the rate of unemployment among Saudis. I am not going to waste time in talking about fake Saudization in this article.

In my opinion, the root cause of Saudization’s failure, especially in the private sector, lies in us enacting laws at a time when we should have thought of forming a new culture emphasizing the value of work. We have been left surprised that Saudi youth have dealt with work as if it is entertainment.

January:26:2011 - 08:39 | Comments Off | Permalink

Saudi-owned satellite TV broadcaster Al-Arabiya is reporting a surge in divorces in the Kingdom. Recently, the divorces seem to be coming in the first year of marriage and are being linked to domestic violence, whether physical or psychological. I think the way Saudi society insists on sexual segregation plays an important role in this as it does nothing to prepare couples to living with each other. Saudi men and women come into marriage with expectations—often unstated—and when reality fails to comport with those expectations, both violence and divorce result.

One divorce case in Saudi every 30 minutes

A surge in divorce rate in Saud Arabia has raised concerns over the role of domestic violence and prompted debate on means to reign in the social problem seen to have damaging effects on families and society.

The number of registered cases of divorces in 2010 reached 18,765, which is one case every 30 minutes, and most divorces took place within the first year of marriage, the Saudi daily newspaper al-Hayat reported Sunday.

On the other hand, the number of marriages in the 2010 reached 90,983, that is five marriages every 30 minutes.

January:25:2011 - 09:04 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

The UAE’s The National reports that Saudi Arabia is ready to sign an agreement with French nuclear plant designer Areva to move forward on both solar and nuclear power production in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia has incredible electrical power demands, demands that grow every year. Whether it’s simply lighting for new homes to house the swelling population, electricity to run desalination plants that provide the bulk of the country’s drinking water, or power to run air conditioning in the desert kingdom, the need for electric power is practically endless.

Saudi Arabia, of course, is endowed with enormous oil supplies. As rich as it is, though, oil is a finite resource with global demand. The solar potential, on the other hand, is near-infinite. The problem with solar energy, though, is that electricity production is not terribly efficient yet. Nuclear power is seen as a reasonable source of energy until solar becomes more practicable.

Saudi Arabia to sign deal with French nuclear firm
Tamsin Carlisle

Saudi Binladin Group and the French nuclear reactor designer Areva are to sign an agreement on nuclear and solar power, advancing Saudi plans for diversifying the kingdom’s electricity supply.

Anne Lauvergeon, the chief executive of Areva, announced the prospective deal in Riyadh on Sunday, saying the companies would sign a partnership agreement to develop both types of power. She declined to give further details.

“We are in a major energy evolution in the region,” Ms Lauvergeon told a conference in the Saudi capital. “In the past it was oil and gas, and that was it. Now it’s oil, gas, renewables and nuclear.

Al-Arabiya TV carries its own report on Saudi energy needs:

Oil giant Saudi Arabia looks to alternative energy

January:25:2011 - 08:54 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink
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