With a series of new Royal Decrees, Saudi Arabia has taken an amazing step backward from free speech. Directly and indirectly, the newly-amended Press & Publications Law now criminalizes, well, just about anything. Sedition? Check. Lèse majesté? Check. ‘Anything affecting the reputation or dignity’ of anyone? Check. ‘Propagating division between citizens? Check.
That doesn’t leave much to talk about, does it? Maybe the weather is uncontroversial. But if the weather causes floods and people die as a result, this law would prevent talking about who is responsible for the lack of preparation: that would clearly be ‘divisive’. How about sports? No… criticizing a goalie’s poor performance will surely annoy him, his friends, family, and supporters.
Saudi Gazette has the more complete coverage of the announcement made through the Saudi Press Agency. It notes that the law pertains not just to Saudi newspapers, but also to online media, including those of Saudis writing outside the Kingdom.
This is truly both breathtaking in its scope and its stupidity. One does not protect the dignity of people by calling in the cudgel of law, with its power to confiscate newspapers, close their offices, find them heavily, and banning future writings. All that does is push criticism underground while falsely creating a sense that everything is quiet. As I said in an earlier piece, Arab governments have already lost the battle to control media, both professional and personal. They cannot put the genie of the Internet back in the bottle, nor close it down.
The sole redeeming factor in this law is that judgments will be made by new, professional committees. That’s pretty thin gruel. Who will comprise these committees? How will they interpret the law, which is sweepingly overbroad?
It certainly appears that a veil of silence is about to descend on the people and media of Saudi Arabia.
RIYADH: A number of Royal Decrees were issued Friday containing amendments to the Press and Publications Law of Nov. 2000, addressing violations in the content of published materials, the authorities tasked with investigating and ruling on offenses, and the penalties they incur.
The first of the five amendments concerns Article 9 of the law, with the text now reading:
“All officials in printed materials will heed to objective and constructive criticism in the public interest based on facts and correct testimonies, and are barred from publishing in any form whatsoever the following:
1 – Anything that violates Islamic Shariah rulings or laws in force.
2 – Anything calling for breaches of the security of the country or its public law, or anything that serves foreign interests in conflict with national interests.
3 – Anything affecting the reputation or dignity of, or slandering or personally insulting, the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom or members of the Board of Senior Ulema, or dignitaries of the state or any of its employees, or any person of ordinary standing or any legal person.
4 – Inciting and propagating division between citizens.
5 – Promoting or inciting to crime.
6 – Anything damaging to the country’s public affairs.
7 – Details of investigations or trials without obtaining permission from the legally authorized authority.”
The second amendment made in the Royal Decrees concerns Article 36, which now reads:
“The Ministry may – according to need – remove any publication without compensation, if it is found to contain anything barred from publication by Article 9 of the law.”
Saudi Gazette reports on the actions of a Saudi woman to exercise her right to take part in the upcoming Municipal Council elections: She’s taking the ministry involved to court.
In her complaint to the Board of Grievances, Samar Badawi points out the the election law and regulations do not distinguish between male and female citizens. Further, Saudi Arabia, in 2000, Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), binding it through international law to protect women’s rights.
I suspect that the Saudi government would like to see Ms Badawi succeed, actually. Because the responsibility for forcing a non-discriminatory role for women would be the result of law and a judge’s reading of the law, government officials would be shielded. This is a tactic the government has used in the past, as when, for example, it used accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2005 led to changes in many areas of commercial law. The argument, ‘My hands are tied by international law,’ is a useful one in politics.
JEDDAH: Women seeking the right to vote in this year’s municipal elections claimed a small victory Wednesday when the Board of Grievances in Jeddah agreed to hear a complaint from a Saudi woman at being barred from inclusion on the electoral register.
Samar Badawi told Al-Hayat Arabic daily that she filed the case against the Ministry for Municipal and Rural Affairs because “municipal election centers refused to register my name”.
“Lots of women have tried to do the same but have been met with refusal by officials from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs despite the fact that there is nothing in the law barring women from registering as voters or election candidates,” Badawi said. “It (the refusal) is in breach of municipality law and municipal council election regulations. The law and regulations give all citizens the right to take part without discrimination by gender, and there is nothing in the conditions set for candidacy or voting barring women from talking part in the elections.”
She added that in the year 2000 Saudi Arabia approved an agreement to end all forms of discrimination against women, reserving its approval of two conditions only.
“Neither of those reservations is related to discrimination against women in participating in elections,” she said.
Arab News reports on concerns within Saudi Arabia that television coverage of conflicts throughout the region are having an ill effect on children. The images of violence and death are upsetting children (and their parents) as they view street actions and governmental responses. On the one hand, reality is reality—insofar as media can be relied upon to do unbiased reporting. Yes, people are dying to support what they believe in or to oppose those who would unfairly hold them down. The messiness of it is not hidden by decades of time or editorial pens in history books.
There is nothing preventing parents, however, from exercising their powers as parents. They can simply turn the TVs off. When my son was little, we would simply avoid watching TV news while he was about. After he was in bed, there was plenty of time to catch up on the news. Rarely, outside of emergencies, is there a need to be on top of every breaking news event. If parents lack the ability to turn off a television set, there are problems far more serious than what’s happening in a neighboring country.
Parents voice concern at violence shown on news channels
DIANA AL-JASSEM | ARAB NEWS
JEEDAH: Some parents in Jeddah have started preventing their children from watching Arabic news channels due to the abundance of violence that is being broadcast from ongoing conflicts within the Middle East and North Africa region.
Parents are so concerned that some of them have placed passwords on Arabic news channels to ensure their children are not exposed to violent scenes on television. Such scenes never used to be seen in the Arab world until the advent of satellite TV and the Internet in the late 1990s.
“We can’t deny the fact that the media have a deep impact on the behavior of people,” said Buthina Khoja, a psychotherapist who works at a private clinic in Jeddah. “Although the new generations … are exposed to violence in Western movies and violent cartoons, the situation is different when they watch actual scenes of violence and blood. It is more harmful when they know that this is what is happening in their own countries or in their neighboring countries,” she added.
Some Saudis, particularly labor recruiters, are having themselves a good whine. Faced with increased demands by the Indonesian government for information to protect its citizens who work as domestics in the Kingdom, they are seeking a ‘fitting response.’ Actually, they’re seeking some sort of vengeance for the affront to their dignity. They appear to think that making it even more expensive to recruit and hire Indonesians, that will solve the problem.
There are some basic facts they seem to be overlooking. Indonesian domestics are highly-desired in Saudi Arabia. They’re competent, they’re Muslim, they used to be cheap to hire. But after several notorious cases of abuse, the Indonesian government decided to not only insist on minimum wages, but to gather information on the hirers so that if something untoward happened, there would be no question about who was responsible. Further, the new requirements would go far in stopping the under-the-table transfer of the servants’ visas, something that led to frequent confusion about who was, in fact, the employer.
Now, Saudi recruiters want to set up some sort of expensive bonding system for the servants to ensure that they don’t run away or get tempted into crime. I think that treating servants well would pretty much take care of the problem: things like paying salaries on time and as promised; not abusing the servants, either physically or mentally; treating them as mature human beings imbued with all human rights… those sort of things would keep servants ‘loyal’.
But if it’s necessary to make the hiring of Indonesian servants even more expensive, well, that’s okay. If they represent the Rolls Royce of domestic servitude, then those who have the money will go ahead and procure their services. Others may have to settle for Kias, as seems to be what’s happening as new pools of servants, from Nepal or Ethiopia are being exploited.
RIYADH: Several foreign manpower recruitment offices in the Kingdom have urged the authorities to protect their interests and impose tighter regulations on the recruitment of Indonesian workers. They were responding to the Jakarta government’s decision to introduce rules to protect Indonesian workers in the Kingdom.
The recruitment companies demanded the Saudi Embassy in Jakarta to draft a new bilateral agreement with new conditions for hiring domestic staff.
The new agreement would consist of certain conditions aimed at safeguarding the rights of Saudi recruitment offices against exploitation, Al-Riyadh newspaper reported. It would include a provision compelling Indonesian manpower recruitment agents to bear the responsibility for offenses committed by maids they have recruited.
Yahya Maqbool, head of the committee of foreign manpower recruitment offices at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the offices were awaiting the signing of a bilateral agreement in the wake of an exorbitant increase in recruitment fees for Indonesian labor.
State-controlled media in the Arab world are the walking dead, says the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. They’re right. State-controlled media is dead, but as they continue to collect paychecks, they refuse to lie down and give up the spirit completely.
Once upon a time, information could be controlled. A government could manage to suppress news it didn’t like. I saw a traffic accident in Syria, for example, in which dozens were killed (the accident involved a bus and a gasoline tanker). Even though it took place on the main highway linking Damascus with Aleppo, it went unreported in all media. Saudi Arabia withheld news of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait for days while it figured out what its political stance should be. Even now, government try—in vain—to filter or block websites they deem politically incorrect, however they’re defining ‘incorrect’ today.
The attempt to control information, though, is futile. No state can control media that originates outside its borders. A state can try to influence media. Sometimes it’s through subsidies that can be granted or withheld at the whim of rulers. Sometimes it can punish media by imprisoning writers and editors, withholding publishing permits, or blocking distribution. In extremis, it can try to jam radio and TV signals. These measures, at one time effective, have lost their power to new technologies whose channels lie beyond the grasp of government. The only way to stop them is to condemn the country to living in a pre-Information Revolution state and that is to commit economic suicide.
Trust is the issue here and Arab audiences and readers no longer trust their governments to tell the truth. They no longer wish to be consumers of partial information and be kept ignorant of inconvenient truths. Arab governments can save themselves serious money by simply giving up on trying to control the message. At best, they can only try to influence it through transparency in their actions and truth in their statements. They don’t need TV and radio stations to do that. They only need the will.
Future Bleak for State-Owned Arab Media
Experts say that Arab Spring will weaken government mouthpieces
Zoe Holman – The Arab Spring
The future of the state-run media in the Middle East and North Africa has been called into question by the social and political upheaval in the region, observers say.
Government-controlled media outlets look likely to become ever more of an anachronism as people in the region increasingly turn to social media as well as satellite television channels.
“There is no future for Arab state media,” said the London-based Huffington Post blogger and social commentator, Faisal Abbas, speaking at an event organised by the Frontline Club last week.
The legitimacy of outlets like Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper, Abbas argued, had long been undermined in the eyes of Egyptians by the regime’s continued, ill-disguised interference with editorial content, as was evident last year when the title printed a doctored photograph showing then president Hosni Mubarak walking down a red carpet ahead of US president Barack Obama and the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders.
Financial Times reports on the struggle within Saudi Arabia to reform its education system. While the government is largely forward thinking, its plans meet resistance from conservatives, primarily on religious grounds. While conservatives of any kind are resistant to change (that’s why they’re called ‘conservative’, after all), by making it about religion, they have the ability to derail reform. The battle, in fact, can stand as an exemplar of why religion and government must be separate.
Government relies on making rational decisions. Religion, by definition, is arational, not capable of being fully understood through reason, nor capable of being disproved as irrational. The two values are going to go crosswise often and education reform in the Kingdom is a stellar example of the conflict. Saudi Arabia needs competent people; no one will disagree with that. Competence comes from many sources, but one of the principal sources is education. If the time necessary to teach skills such as mathematics, history, or economics is taken up by other teaching, those studies must suffer. Religious values are important in life, at least to those who hold them. They are not critical to survival, however, as in its quest for survival ranging over hundreds of thousands of years, religion has been present only over the most recent tens of thousands. Religion may nourish the spirit, but it does not nourish the body. Without bodies, there are no members of religious congregations. Right now, conservatives acting against reform are acting against the survival of Saudi Arabia as a viable nation, filled with living and productive people. Perhaps, by focusing on the afterlife, they see this as a good thing. Following that train of thought just a few steps, however, and you end up with suicides and suicide bombers. These are antithetical to Islam, we’re told, Islam values human life. Both things cannot be true at the same time.
While Saudi governance depends on support from many sectors, including the religious establishment and conservative Muslims, it cannot allow any group to veto necessary reform. Merchants don’t like paying import fees and taxes, yet they must pay them. Social liberals don’t like the constraints on individual behavior placed upon them by traditional Saudi social values, but they must abide them until they can change those values. Religious conservatives needs to find new ways to keep the essence of their religious views in the face of a rapidly changing world.
Saudi education reforms face resistance
Few topics excite more passion in Saudi Arabia than education reform. Critics in the business community and in liberal circles bemoan an uneven commitment by the authorities to developing a curriculum that prepares young Saudis for work.
With unemployment at 10.5 per cent, and estimated at 39 per cent among Saudis aged 20-24, the kingdom sees job promotion as a national security imperative, particularly as unemployed young people have fuelled the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
But conservatives, important allies of the ruling Al Saud family, see changes such as devoting more time to mathematics and science or introducing sports into girls’ schools as a western plot to secularise the kingdom, a dangerous charge in the birthplace of Islam.
In spite of resistance, efforts to shift the tenor of the debate have started. Since taking office in 2009, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, education minister, has launched “dialogue workshops” with teachers, parents, students and clerics to explain the plans. “Resistance to change happens when people do not understand what we are doing,” Faisal al-Muaammar, deputy education minister, tells the Financial Times.
Asharq Alawsat provides a useful article updating the search to arrest or kill members of the Saudi ‘most wanted’ list. It quotes NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan saying that a Saudi member of Al-Qaeda, Saleh Naif Eid Al-Makhlafi was killed in the course of ISAF military action following Al-Qaeda attacks on provincial government leaders and civilians on the same day. It notes that Al-Makhlafi was a senior figure, responsible for many support, supply, and financial functions. His death, however, is yet to be confirmed by Saudi authorities.
The article goes on to describe how the original Saudi list of ’85 most wanted’ has been reduced to 70, listing who has been killed and who has turned himself in or been arrested by Saudi security personnel. While it does not provide an aggregate figure, it does point out that the list continues to grow, with 47 new members assigned this year. The global war on terrorists continues…
Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat – NATO’s International Security Assistance Force [ISAF] has announced that a high-ranking member of Al Qaeda, Saudi citizen Saleh Naif Eid Al-Makhlafi, has been killed in Afghanistan. Al-Makhlafi, who went by several aliases including Abu Hafs al-Najdi and Abdul Ghani, was number 35 on the list of 85 most-wanted terrorists issued by the Saudi Ministry of Interior in 2009. The Saudi Interior Ministry has said that it is seeking confirmation of his death.
Saudi Interior Ministry security spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki informed Asharq Al-Awsat that they are working to obtain confirmation on the identity of the killed Al Qaeda member. He said “we are seeking to obtain evidence confirming his identity.”
Information about Al-Makhlafi is scarce, although he is thought to have been 29 years old, and to have left Saudi Arabia 7 years ago via the United Arab Emirates. ISAF described Al-Makhlafi as being a “senior leader” in Al Qaeda who “operated primarily from Kunar [in Afghanistan] and traveled frequently between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He directed Al Qaeda operations in the province, including recruiting; training and employing fighters; obtaining weapons and equipment; organizing Al Qaeda finances; and planning attacks against Afghan and coalition forces.”
Saudi media are reporting on the repatriation of the remains of a Saudi student who lost his life while trying to save an American man and his son during a boating accident in the state of Ohio. While he was able to save the son, he and the father drowned. His family points to the incident as proof that there is no automatic enmity between Saudis and Americans, which is true.
Mourners hail Saudi’s heroic act in US
MUHAMMAD AL-SULAMI | ARAB NEWS
JEDDAH: A large crowd attended in Jeddah on Monday the burial of Mashari Abdul Mohsen Al-Siraihi, a 21-year-old who drowned in a lake in Ohio last week after rescuing an American child.
Al-Siraihi, born in 1990, was studying electronic engineering in the University of Akron. His body arrived at King Abdulaziz International Airport on Sunday.
Al-Siraihi and his friend George Raresheid III, 46, of Lake Township drowned in a cold water reservoir in West Branch State Park, Ohio, in a weather-triggered accident on April 17.
Though saddened by the untimely death of the young Saudi man, mourners were proud that he gave his life for another and described him as a real hero.
Arab News reports that the Saudi government, and an array of economists, are concerned that high oil prices could knock the legs out from under a recovering global economy. It quotes both the head of Saudi ARAMCO and the Minister of Petroleum & Minerals and repeats allegations that speculation, not supply and demand, are behind current prices; demand is low, they say, and the market is oversupplied. Saudi Arabia does not set oil prices. It does, through its membership in OPEC, play a role in determining output. But unless OPEC were to flood the market with oil, I don’t see how OPEC could drive oil prices down. OPEC is not going to do that as ‘hawkish’ countries like Venezuela and Iran want every penny of profit they can find as their own economies are under stress.
Of interest, the article also says that two-thirds of Saudi oil production is now going to Asia.
Kingdom uneasy with high oil prices
KHALIL HANWARE | ARAB NEWS
JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia is uneasy about the high oil prices and concerned about their impact on the global economy, Saudi Aramco Chief Executive Khalid Al-Falih said on Tuesday. Al-Falih’s comments at an industry event in South Korea weighed on crude early Tuesday, but the weak dollar helped oil recover.
Brent crude for June rose 27 cents to $123.93 a barrel by 4:09 p.m. GMT, having reached $124.40.
US crude for June dipped 15 cents to $112.13. While Tuesday’s intraday peak was $112.64, US crude reached $113.48 on Monday, the highest intraday price since September 2008, before the contract ended the day down 1 cent.
“We are not comfortable with oil prices where they are today … I am concerned about the impact it could have on the global economy,” Reuters quoted Al-Falih as saying at an industry gathering in South Korea. There was no tightness in global oil markets, Al-Falih said. His comments echoed those of Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali Al-Naimi, who said last week that the Kingdom had cut oil output in March as the market was oversupplied.
The Saudi reluctance to name those accused of criminal behavior, even when they are official found to be guilty, shows itself again. Here, it’s a bizarre article in Saudi Gazette/Okaz, which reports that the government has named the names, but the newspapers don’t. It can’t be fear of being sued for defamation, as the papers are only reporting what government says. It’s both frustrating and a little irritating when newspapers point out a problem, but then hide the useful information.
Companies identified for violations in ’09 floods
JEDDAH: A number of companies have been identified for violating tenders and failing to carry out projects of the Jeddah Mayoralty and the National Water Company (NWC), in connection with the 2009 flood disaster.
Informed sources told Okaz/Saudi Gazette that the companies were listed by a committee comprising the Ministry of Finance, General Auditing Bureau (GAB), Control and Investigation Board (CIB), Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution (BIP) and Makkah emirate.
The companies found guilty will be required to pay compensation and will have to be involved in revising the design of the projects. Consultancy firms that drew up the designs will be forced to bear the costs of rectifying the errors.
In this editorial, Arab News seems to have come to the conclusion that the dependency on foreign domestic workers Saudi society has created must come to an end. The issues surrounding maids have become so negative—from abuse of maids to abuse by maids—that it’s time to break the habit.
The writer correctly points out that if your children are raised solely by foreigners, there’s little likelihood that those children will be absorbing local values. In the case of Saudi Arabia, that might not be an utterly bad thing as some Saudi values are certainly ready to be discarded. Xenophobia, an unwarranted superiority complex, and an over-devotion to ‘tradition’ could certainly be replaced. Then there’s the fact that young people—both men and women—are growing up without even minimal life skills, like cooking or changing a tire. Other values, including Arabic language skills, a sense of belonging to a unique culture, and a reasoned national pride are worth keeping, something made difficult when the primary care givers for children do not share those values.
Much of this reliance on foreign workers is the result of the perpetual childhood Saudi society imposes on its own women. Not being able to do things most women in the world do as a matter of course (like driving, working in mixed-sex environments, being personally responsible for themselves) necessarily leads to reliance on someone else to do them. Allowing Saudi women to be a fully-functional, equal part of society would do much to reduce the need for servants.
The editorial asserts that Saudi society is the most dependent on foreign domestic workers and I’ve no reason to doubt it. From the cultural costs to the very real monetary costs, Saudi Arabia needs to kick the maid habit.
It is estimated that there are two million working in homes in the Kingdom
Reports about maids all too regularly hit the headlines in this paper and others in the Kingdom. There are stories about maids who are abused, maids who are kept locked up or unpaid for months, even years. There are stories about maids who run away, or who have tricked or cheated their employers. Likewise, there are complaints about the costs of bringing a maid into the country. There are reports, too, of other countries being whipped up into a frenzy of concern about the treatment of maids in Saudi Arabia and their threats to stop them coming in future or imposing conditions about their employment contracts, including demands to know details about the families they are going to, their financial position, a description of the house, the number of rooms, photos of the wife and husband. Regularly, too, there are reports about new sources of maids — from Cambodia, Vietnam, indeed anywhere they can be found.
The fact is that Saudi Arabia has become over-reliant on maids. It is estimated that there are two million working in homes in the Kingdom. There are reportedly 400,000 from Sri Lanka alone. From Indonesia, there are supposed to be even greater numbers while it is reported that 15 percent of the 1.3 million Filipinos in the country are also in domestic service. Add to that the maids from Nepal, from Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, and two million does not seem that excessive. But at two million, they constitute the biggest workforce in the country. It works out at roughly one maid for every nine Saudis, or one for every two households. It is no wonder then that maids are such an issue in Saudi Arabia.
One of the complaints that employers make of Saudi employees is their work ethics, or lack thereof. It’s seen as one of the reasons why Saudization efforts have failed. In this Arab News story, we learn that mangers in both private and government offices are starting to implement biometric ‘time cards’ to register when employees come and go. Instead of punching a time card or signing a time sheet, employees have to log in and out via their fingerprints. This, of course, stops others from singing in and out for them and leaves the time-logging to a computer, arguably less prone to manipulation.
Not everyone is thrilled. Diligent employees feel that management is showing an insulting level of mistrust. Others argue that merely clock-watching does nothing to assess the competent performance of the job. Both are, to some extent, true. I think it a fundamental work value, however, to have people on the job when they’re expected to be there. Away from the job site, they’re not physically capable of doing their jobs. Perhaps some jobs are amenable to ‘tele-commuting’, being done over computer networks with no great importance given to the actual work location. These aren’t those kinds of jobs, though. They’re the ones where you actually have to show up in order to do them.
DAMMAM: Managers in government departments and private companies take strict measures to ensure employees’ attendance, but these are often in vain. Unannounced inspections of some government departments revealed the problem of attendance. Many government workers were found to arrive late, and the majority of them leave work before time. Arab News interviewed several managers, most of whom believe that the fingerprinting system is the answer to ensure work quality.
Currently, the attendance system implemented in government departments is a sheet of paper where the employee registers his name and time of presence. Most employees register to be on time, even in case they arrive late. Some register the names of absent colleagues. A fingerprinting system would record the name and time of arrival automatically, and leave no room for the employee to cheat.
Muhammad Al-Qadi, manager in a construction company in the Eastern Province, said that a large number of employees in the company failed to come to work on time. He said that the company was forced to install the electronic fingerprinting system to ensure that all employees were treated equally. “Any delay of employees is a delay in production. The last thing we want is to treat employees unfair.”