In his column for the Saudi-owned Asharq Alawsat, Mshari Al-Zaydi takes a look at identity politics. He launches his piece with a discussion of Amin Maalouf’s 2009 Killer Identities (sold in the US under the title In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong). The book, and the column explore how the quest for a particularized identity poison politics on local, national, and international levels. Al-Zaydi warns that identity politics can ruin whatever positive promise ‘Arab Spring’ might hold.

They are both right. By focusing on only one aspect of identity, individuals and groups forget that they are part of larger identity groups, ultimately, the group known as ‘mankind’. Forgetting that the person next to you is human, has the same rights as you do – including the right to be wrong – leads only to confrontation. ‘Identity’ is important; we cannot act without having a clear idea of who we are. But we have to acknowledge that we have multiple identities at all times. One can be, simultaneously, a member of an ethnic group, a member (or non-member) of a religious group, a citizen of a particular nation, a member of a particular culture or society , male or female, a parent, a child, a brother or sister, a neighbor, a worker, a member of a party, and so on. Each facet of identity has its own obligations, its own expectations. One of these group identities may be more important in a given time and circumstance than in another, but all of them continue to work simultaneously. No element goes away while we focus on another. By forgetting this, by allowing ourselves to be identified or to self-identify by only one facet of identity, we run very serious risks of both dehumanizing others and painting ourselves into corners.

Are these “killer identities”?
Mshari Al-Zaydi

Will the prediction by the famous Lebanese-French Novelist Amin Maalouf – that we are embarking upon an era of wars between “killer identities” – turn out to be true?

“Killer Identities” is the title of a well-known book by Maalouf, a writer and intellectual who focusses on the religious, historical and social intricacies of the East.

Maalouf’s life itself embodies such intricacies. In a recent interview conducted by “Middle East online” with him in Dubai, on the sidelines of the Silver Jubilee of Al Owais Cultural Foundation, Maalouf explained how the multi-layered and complex climate he lived in has had a huge impact on him. Maalouf was born in Beirut; his mother was born in the Egyptian city of Tanta while his maternal grandmother was born in Adana, Turkey. Maalouf was mainly raised in Beirut but spent some of his childhood in Egypt. His mother’s family moved from Tanta to Cairo to live in the Heliopolis district, and up until the age of three, Maalouf spend most of his time residing in Heliopolis. Then he moved to Lebanon where he lived until 1975. He studied in Lebanon and upon graduating he worked in the field of journalism, contributing to the Lebanese daily newspaper “Al-Nahar”. At the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, he moved to France and continued his journalistic pursuits, working for “Economia” magazine and serving as editor-in-chief of “Jeune Afrique”.

March:31:2012 - 07:45 | Comments Off | Permalink

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s government gave permission to young, single males to enter shopping malls. Previously, they had been banned because they caused too much disruption and discomfort by harassing women and girls trying to shop. Banning them did not really resolve the problem of harassment, though, as the men would just hang around the entrances to the malls and do their harassing there.

To get at the issue, there’s going to be more attention paid to the bad behavior, rather than just assuming that all youths will act badly. Saudi Gazette reports that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice will be heightening their patrols and intercede when they see the lads acting up. The paper also runs a letter from a member of the Shoura Council who states that a comprehensive law on harassment is making its way through government channels. The new laws, based on the severity of the infraction, will offer a range of penalties from fine and floggings to jail terms.

Eve teasers in malls to be referred to court

RIYADH – Single men have been granted permission to enter malls and shopping centers but anyone found harassing women shoppers will be referred to the Shariah Court, according to a recent directive issued by Dr. Abdullatif Aal Al-Sheikh, General President of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the Hai’a).

“I gave instructions to the field members of the Hai’a to closely monitor markets and not to be lenient with anyone who harasses families and women. I instructed them to hand those guilty of harassment over to the Shariah Court immediately,” Dr. Aal Al-Sheikh was quoted as saying in a section of the Arabic press Thursday.

The Saudi English-language media has imported the term ‘Eve teasing’ from South Asia. Many of the editors of these media come from India and Pakistan where the term is common. It amuses me to no end.

March:30:2012 - 06:23 | Comments Off | Permalink

Arab News editorializes in support of Saudi Arabia’s Saher system of speed and red-light cameras put into place a few years ago. The cameras – more precisely, the tickets and fines – have become a debating point in Saudi society. The fines are stiff, but what really upsets people is that, as in many countries around the world, the fines rise incrementally the longer they go unpaid. Clerics have been dragged into the fight to declare that the multiplication of the moneys owed is somehow ‘un-Islamic’. The issue has even been batted around in the Shoura Council, but it remains in effect.

Red-light and speed cameras are an issue in the US as well. Some see them as merely a pretext for local governments to increase their incomes via traffic fines rather than taxes. Some cities, having put in the cameras, are now taking them out. At the same time, others are arguing that the cameras have been so effective in reducing vehicle offenses that they need to be taken out so that the cities can again collect the fines!

There’s no question that Saudi Arabia’s drivers are, on the whole, miserable. The number of accidents and traffic fatalities leads the world. The article cites a figure of SR13 billion (US $3.5 billion) lost annually to traffic accidents, not including economic losses from workers not being able to do their work. Over 6,500 fatalities and half a million accidents is truly appalling. Just about anything that can reduce those numbers is worth having.

And who knows? Perhaps if Saudi streets and roadways became less lethal, they could be safer for Saudi women to drive on them.

Undue protests over Saher

People cannot have it both ways. The Saher traffic system is bringing about long-overdue improvements in the way people drive on the Kingdom’s roads, simply because it is proving expensive to be caught driving badly. This should be a cause for celebration, not complaint.

The fines for breaking the law are steep enough, but if an automatically generated ticket for a traffic offense is not paid immediately, the fine increases incrementally. For people on low or even modest incomes, this is indeed a financial burden. We have already seen cases of individuals who thought they could ignore a fine in the foolish hope that it would somehow go away. But it has not. Rather the amount outstanding has shot up to several thousand riyals as a surprising number of people, it seems, have found to their cost.

Those who are protesting these fines and the way that the amounts increase if they are not settled immediately have only themselves to blame, on two obvious counts. They should have settled the fine straight away, but more importantly, they should not have been violating traffic rules in the first place.

March:30:2012 - 05:47 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink

There’s a nice piece in Asharq Alawsat that takes a look at official Saudi government spokesmen. It finds that more often than not, going to or through the official spokesman is a fruitless exercise. Some seem to believe their role is as a shield for the senior officials at a ministry or agency. Others seem to see themselves as polishing rags, there to buff up the minister, ministry, and their activities, making everything shiny and bright. A few, as in the Ministries of Interior and Justice, seem to be doing it right, providing quick and accurate information to journalists.

The position of spokesman is relatively new within the Saudi bureaucracy. Governments have a tendency to see information as power and keep it close to the vest. Winkling out information sometimes seems as though you are asking for the officials personal bank details. What these officials fail to realize is that information, like water, flows. It can be channeled and, at times, dammed up, but it will always, eventually find its way. Waiting until it has ‘escaped’, though, means that others, who may or may not share interests with the government, are going to be interpreting, shaping, framing the news. By the time the government gets around to giving its own interpretation, it’s often too late. The message has been massaged by others, be it in foreign media, Twitter and Facebook feeds, or the good old rumor mill.

Having been a spokesman, I do have sympathy with Saudi spokesman. It’s often difficult to get senior officials to understand that they cannot completely control the message. That doesn’t stop them from trying, though. I’m embarrassed by the number of times I’ve had US officials, in Congress and in the executive branch, try and pull back awkward statements they’ve made in public, to try to change history.

There’s another deficient school of management that thinks it good policy to keep the spokesmen in the dark about impending events. The fewer people who know that something is about to happen, the fewer there are to leak it, accidentally or not, the theory goes. The theory goes only a short distance, however. When something goes wrong, the message gets out of control while the spokesperson is trying to figure out just what the hell happened. The issue is wrapped up in a public affairs saying, “If you want us there at the crash, you need us there at the take-off.”

The problems discussed in the article are all very real. They are not uniquely Saudi, however. They are problems of bureaucracy. The Saudi bureaucracy will have to fight through the same swamps of power struggles, ineptitude, and egos that infect all bureaucracies. The Saudis will have to come up with their own solutions, pushed by the media and pulled by publics, and of course spun by officialdom. They can at least be thankful that they don’t have to switch directions and gears every few years following an election.

The trouble with official spokespersons in Saudi Arabia
Amal Baqzai

Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat – In recent years the Saudi press has grown accustomed to pursuing official government spokespersons by various ways and means, incurring many hardships in order to obtain a response to their inquiries. It is therefore not surprising that many official spokespersons are committed to utilizing the tactic of “evasive silence” when responding to any questions put to them by the press, whilst also relying on bureaucratic red-tape in this regard.

Such criticisms continue to surround these “silent” official spokespersons today, to the point that some media figures and journalists have begun to actively seek out officials in order to express their displeasure and pass on complaints against their spokespersons, in an attempt to force these official spokespersons to issue statements and respond to press inquiries. In addition to this, the continuation of this state of affairs means that journalists believe that the appointment of an official spokesperson is akin to a “do not approach” warning sign around an official, namely that all inquiries must be made through this official spokesperson.

Editor-in-Chief of Saudi Arabia’s “Al-Madina” newspaper, Dr. Fahd Aal Aqran informed Asharq Al-Awsat that official spokespersons can be split into two camps, those who are very active, and those who play a negative role.

March:30:2012 - 05:27 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Well, railing against the lack of smarts in the general population clearly isn’t limited to the US. Late-night TV host Jay Leno regularly produces cringe-worthy examples on his ‘Jay Walking’ segments where people on the street (the so-called Vox Populi are asked basic cultural questions and fail.

Emad El Din Adeeb at Asharq Alawsat takes a look at Arab Culture and how little the average Arab knows of it. His examples include their knowledge about very basic Islamic concepts – like the Hijri calendar – and suggests that if you want to know about the Arab, Islamic world, you might be better off asking someone who is not Arab, is not Muslim. Logic, even basic logic, seems to not hold much weight.

This isn’t surprising. People talk because they like to talk and hear themselves talk. They often talk, with great authority, about things of which they know little. That’s not an ‘Arab trait’ or a ‘Muslim trait’: it’s a human trait. It does serve as a useful reminder, though, to consider what sources are used to verify information. While the opinion of the average person is important, that does not mean that the opinion has much to do with the facts of the matter.

Right now, there’s a great opportunity to see this in action in the US. President Obama’s health care law has just gone under three days of argument in the US Supreme Court. The American people are divided about the plan. Current polling shows about 65% of the population oppose it. But the argument isn’t about whether people like the plan. The arguments in the court are not about whether it’s a good plan, a necessary plan, a desirable plan. They are about whether the plan is constitutional – whether the Congress, which passed the law, actually had the power, within the limits of power allocated to Congress through the Constitution, to pass the law. In brief, it’s whether the ends justified the means. It’s an issue about which people have opinions, often strong opinions, opinions which flood the newspapers and airwaves. But their opinions don’t actually matter here. They don’t matter because the issue is a technical issue that comes down to the interpretation of law. Even if the program is the best in the world, if it was not passed constitutionally, it is likely to be thrown out. If it is, in fact, unconstitutional, then it needs to be thrown out. One can only reach legitimate ends by way of legitimate means. Arguments based on how good the plan might be, or how worthy its goals entirely miss the point.

The world would be a much better place, of course, if only people who knew what they were talking about were given a public soapbox. But that’s not going to happen. No one will readily acknowledge that they’re speaking with less than perfect authority. Too, that would be the death knell of the Internet, the greatest purveyor of ungrounded opinion in the history of the world.

Pseudo- intellectuals!
Emad El Din Adeeb

If you want to know the true value of a so-called “Arab intellectual” you need only look at the state of Arab culture!

Arab culture is in the gutter thanks in no small part to our intellectual elite!

Our cultural output in recent years, according to human development reports, confirms that in a single day, American publishing houses produce the same number of books as all publishing houses – both private and public – in the Arab world in one year.

Illiteracy in general, Arabic cultural illiteracy in particular, reveals the state of cultural deterioration in the Arab world.

Arabs under 21 years of age receives 68 percent of their information from television, the rest from the internet, and only 3 percent from the press!

We are a people who do not read; we watch, listen, and forward rumors, rather than relying on available knowledge and scientific research.

March:29:2012 - 08:51 | Comments & Trackbacks (4) | Permalink

The new head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is taking the reins of control into hand. Saudi Arabian media report that he is pulling the religious police back from some of the powers they had exerted in the past, including car chases over petty offenses, hectoring women about their makeup, and generally harassing the public over behaviors the individual muttawa believed sinful. Undercover patrols out looking for bad behavior (as opposed to actual crimes) are also being stopped.

This is all a good step. The next step is to get rid of the Haia entirely, allowing citizens to lead their own lives by their own moral guidance. That’s not likely to happen soon, however, as a majority of the Saudi public still believe the religious police have a valid role to play.

Haia will stop undercover patrols and car chases

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice intends to stop its undercover patrols, said President Abdullatif Aal Al-Sheikh on Monday.

At the opening of a training program for the commission’s field staff in Riyadh, Aal Al-Sheikh said that commission’s agents practice to chase cars in the streets “is a matter that is coming to an end”. He called on citizens to complain to the commission’s branch director if they were harassed by agents. “If the matter is not solved, the complaint can be filed with the commission’s president,” he said. Asked about the issue of banning young bachelors from malls, he said, “The ban is wrong and it created a problem out of nothing.” The commission has no right to prevent anyone from entering malls, he added.

Saudi Gazette reports a bit more extensively.

March:28:2012 - 09:31 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink

Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Alawsat catches Al-Jazeera TV in a bit of a contradiction. He applauds the network for choosing not to broadcast video of the killings in Toulouse, France. He applauds the reasoning behind the decision. He questions, however, whether the standard the network says it is applying is actually it’s moral standard in the first place.

Perhaps Al-Jazeera has changed its standards, but in the past is seemed more than happy to broadcast images that supported terrorism, that in fact seemed to praise it. If this is actually a change, then it should be applauded. It would show a marked move away from sensationalism toward serious, objective reporting.

Thank you Al-Jazeera…But
Tariq Alhomayed

Of course we must say “thank you” to the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera, which announced yesterday that it would not broadcast the images filmed by the terrorist Mohamed Merah, of the crimes he committed in the French city of Toulouse, where among those killed were young children. However, regardless of our gratitude to Al-Jazeera on this occasion, we must pause and think about where we stand on the subject of broadcasting images of murder, and how the media deals with terrorism.

Al-Jazeera, as quoted by a German news agency, said that it had decided not to broadcast the footage of Merah’s terrorist crimes, when he attacked a Jewish school in Toulouse, because the images contained no new information, and because broadcasting them would not be line with the channel’s moral standards. The truth is that this is not entirely accurate, and here is the simple proof: while I was searching the [Arabic] Al-Jazeera website for its statement declaring it would not broadcast the French terrorist’s footage – after the French President had asked television stations not to broadcast the images – I found, by chance, a previous Al-Jazeera press release under the “statements” section, entitled “Notice” and without a date, saying: “Al-Jazeera aired a news story last Thursday depicting alleged executions in the city of Karbala, Iraq. We subsequently found out that these images were false and that Al-Jazeera had broadcasted false news, as we discovered that the images accompanying the news story were not images of executions in Karbala, or anywhere in Iraq. It should be noted that Al-Jazeera immediately suspended the broadcast of this news item, having aired it only twice, after it was discovered that the footage was false. Accordingly, we have issued the necessary correction”. End quote!

Arab News also runs the editorial.

March:28:2012 - 09:22 | Comments Off | Permalink

In the first definitive statement I’ve seen in the media – with the caveat that not all media reports are accurate – Saudi Arabia has decided to go ahead with the development of its own nuclear power. Before, there had been statements and international agreements that would lay the groundwork, that is, expressions of intent, but no clear indication that the choice had been made.

Saudi Gazette reports that that a Saudi official attending a conference in Seoul announced the Kingdom’s desire while emphasizing that it will not only abide by all regulation to ensure that it is a peaceful program, but will also fund UN efforts to fight proliferation. It cites the Kingdom’s adherence to UNSCR 1540, signed in 2004.

KSA strives to avoid nuclear accidents

SEOUL – Saudi Arabia confirmed its keenness to exert all possible efforts to avoid nuclear risks and accidents and said that it has signed the most important international conventions and treaties on the peaceful and safe uses of nuclear energy.

Addressing the Nuclear Security Summit here Tuesday, the Head of the Saudi Delegation to the Summit and President of King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy Dr. Hashim Bin Abdullah Yamani said that the Kingdom has announced its desire to adopt an ambitious program for the peaceful use of nuclear energy in line with its strategic objectives to diversify its energy sources and achieve sustainable development.

March:28:2012 - 09:11 | Comments Off | Permalink

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it was found that terrorists were using Saudi Arabia’s charities to raise and then divert funds toward ends other than claimed. The government cracked down on this in several ways, including the prohibition of sending charitable contributions directly abroad. Contributions were forced to go through a limited number of government channels.

It’s not just terrorists who abuse Saudi charity, though. Arab News reports on a conference that discussed the way Saudis themselves are gaming the system by seeking support from two or more organizations at the same time and either pocketing the cash or selling on goods given as support.

Greed is a human vice and Saudi Arabs are no more immune to it than any other national group. As always, it’s the few who spoil things for the many.

Charity calls for database to curb double-crossing

Published: Mar 27, 2012 01:45 Updated: Mar 27, 2012 01:45

Double-crossing charity organizations is a rapidly increasing phenomenon and Saudi media are to blame for encouraging cheaters, said Samirah Al-Ghamdi, head of the board council of Hemayah, a nonprofit charity organization under the Ministry of Social Affairs.

She was addressing mediapersons, social experts and businesswomen who are interested in the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) concept at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The event “CSR is our message” was organized by Hemayah. It focused on the importance of businesses taking care of the less fortunate through participating in voluntary work.

… “Many women try to benefit illegally from charity organizations. Some Saudi women claim they are suffering from poverty only to receive financial aid. Actually, we helped many of them, only to discover later they were lying,” she said.

“During the flood catastrophe, we visited a Saudi elderly woman in south Jeddah. The flood damaged her furniture, so we gave her a fridge, an oven and a washing machine. After we left, her neighbor met us at the entrance of the building and said she already got electrical appliances from other charity organizations and the Islamic Development Bank. He also said his neighbor hid the appliances in the building’s attic to sell them later,” said Al-Ghamdi.

March:27:2012 - 06:34 | Comments Off | Permalink

Saudi Arabia, like other GCC countries, is trying to get a handle on the recruitment of domestic workers. The current system involves individuals who want to hire a maid or driver to work through any of a number of small recruitment firms which have connections in countries from which the labor comes. One step to coordinate this is that the government is moving toward permitting only a few, large firms to handle overseas recruitment. This, it is believed, will regularize the process and would-be employers will not have to negotiate the details of individual contracts.

Saudi Gazette reports that the government believes that the up-front costs of recruiting will run to SR17,000 (a bit over US $5,000) for each employee hired. This does not include the workers’ salaries, a separate expense set in the contract terms. This strikes me as an oblique attempt to reduce the number of domestic servants being brought into the country. The up-front costs are close to two or three times the average monthly Saudi salary. With more and more source countries starting to demand reasonable minimum salaries, it’s getting to be expensive to hire servants.

‘SR17,000 to recruit a domestic worker’

RIYADH – It will cost SR17,000 to recruit a domestic worker once the new mega recruitment companies are set up in the country, according to Saad Al-Badah, Chairman of the National Committee for Recruitment.

Al-Badah was quoted as saying in a section of the Arabic press on Monday that this amount covers the recruitment and travel fees and not the worker’s salary, which will be determined at the start of the recruitment process.

He said the Saudi Company for Recruitment established by a group of investors is scheduled to be operational in June 2012 in Riyadh. The company will only be ready to receive recruitment applications from that date.

He said the ban on workers from Indonesia and the Philippines may be resolved when the new companies start operating. He said no new recruitment markets for domestic helpers have been opened so far.

Al-Badah said the new mega recruitment companies will help to control costs and eliminate brokers who overcharge employers.

March:27:2012 - 06:23 | Comments Off | Permalink

Ah, the joys of the Saudi Arabia’s news media! If you don’t know the story already, the media won’t give you much help. The ‘Who, What, Where, When, Why’ tenets of journalism are called that for a reason, you know…

Today’s Saudi Gazette reports that the Ministry of Culture & Information might shut down a satellite TV channel. It tells us why that is: the channel broadcast a program that seemed to promote sectarian division in Najran Province. What the story completely avoids telling us is just what TV channel is at issue.

Najran is the home of Saudi Arabia’s ‘other’ Shi’ite population. While various sects of ‘Twelver’ Shi’a live in the Eastern Province, Najran hosts populations of Ismaili and Zaydi Shi’a. They are no more popular than their eastern cousins and the government tends to see them as tools – witting or not – of Iran.

Ministry mulls closing TV channel

JEDDAH – The Ministry of Culture and Information is considering shutting down a satellite TV channel which has allegedly provoked sectarianism and harmed the national unity, sources close to Al-Hayat Arabic daily said here Monday.

The channel aired a program that allegedly aimed to divide the residents of a region within the Kingdom along sectarian lines.

Dr. Abdul Aziz Khoja, Minister of Culture and Information, said the Ministry would not accept such a thing from any satellite TV channel, newspaper or e-newspaper.

“National unity is the red line,” he said. “Sectarian statements against a region, tribe or a family are unacceptable. The Ministry will prevent any type of sedition.”

March:27:2012 - 05:54 | Comments Off | Permalink

Saudi Arabia may just be the Kingdom of Contradiction. Saudi Gazette reports on the noteworthy efforts of a Saudi woman in Abha who broke through cultural barriers and opened a bakery. Hurrah! She, through her individual efforts, spread wider the range of jobs for Saudi women.

Her motivation to open the shop was her perception that bakeries were all run by foreign workers. Her effort was one that would put more Saudis into employment.

She hired young Saudi women to help. For whatever reason – hours, pay, working conditions… being a commercial baker is hard work – her Saudi employees quit.

To solve her labor problem, she’s seeking permission to hire foreign workers to staff her bakery.

Woman breaks taboo, opens bakery

ABHA – A woman from Asir, has opened a bakery shop which is the first of its kind in the Kingdom after noticing that the market of organizing banquets for weddings was dominated by foreign labor.

Jamila and her husband rented a shop last year and opened the bakery after fulfilling all the municipal requirements. She said many people supported her and to top them all, Prince Faisal Bin Khaled, Emir of Asir Region, in addition to her relatives encouraged her to launch the bakery.

Jamila didn’t go for a big advertisement as her project took off humbly. “I didn’t distribute pamphlets for fear of being flooded with orders at this time when I don’t have enough labor,” she said.

Within less than a year, she said she achieved half the success and won the support of government agencies such as the Municipality, Civil Defense, Hai’a and the Human Resources Fund.

Jamila is shocked by the lack of interest in business on the part of Saudi women. “I hired some Saudi girls but they quit two months later despite the fact that the work was physically not too demanding,” she said. “I wish the Minister of Labor help would me in issuing visas for female workers so that I can expand my project.”

March:26:2012 - 08:03 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink
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