Saudi weekly magazine Majalla runs a story on the Salafist war against arts and culture in Egypt. Not only are actors and directors being arrested for supposed ‘crimes against Islam’, but the hard-line conservatives are also calling for bans on the books of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz and the covering of statues of the pharaohs in wax. At least they’re not calling for them to be destroyed or the Pyramids torn down.

Egyptian artists note that these are actions and ideas proposed by Salafists, but also note that the ‘more modern, more moderate’ Muslim Brotherhood says nothing about them, only claiming to ‘support culture’. Today’s Egypt is a far cry from the expansive cultural environments of its past, even as recently as the 1960s.

Islamists on Art
Ati Metwaly

When Asran Mansour, a Salafi lawyer, filed a case against Adel Imam, renowned Egyptian actor, for “defaming Islam” in his films, no one expected that the verdict issued on 24 April 2012, by Judge Mohamed Abdel Aty would sentence Imam to three-months hard labor and a fine. Though the case was dropped on 26 April afternoon, the news outraged Egypt’s artists and equally angered international supporters of freedom of expression and creativity.

Adel Imam’s case is one of the many indications that Islamists are implementing limits on culture and freedom of expression. Also on trial with Imam were directors Nader Galal, Sherif Arafa, and Mohamed Fadel, and writers Wahid Hamed and Lenin El-Ramly, who faced the same charges of “defaming Islam.” Their cases were also dropped on 26 April.

The arts and culture scene will not be silent regarding Imam’s sentence—just as it will not remain passive when challenged by many other limitations posed on culture. The fight against such religious-based censorship is expected to be a long and painful one for all of Egypt’s creative minds.

April:30:2012 - 07:46 | Comments & Trackbacks (11) | Permalink

Is there really any question about why people believe that women in Saudi Arabia have little in the way of protection? Even in a society that claims to see the protection of its women as one of its foremost obligations? From Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya:

Saudi man divorces wife during live radio talk with religious scholar
Al Arabiya — DUBAI

A Saudi man accepted the advice of a prominent religious scholar on Saturday and divorced his wife during a live radio program tackling marital issues.

The man phoned the program to complain to Sheikh Ghazi al-Shammari that his wife disobeyed him by travelling without his approval from the Saudi port city of Jeddah to the capital Riyadh for a business conference.

The unnamed man said his wife “offended his manhood.”

He told Shammari that before his marriage he had accepted his wife’s demands to work on condition that work would not interfere with their marital life.

Shammari advised the man to divorce his wife as a punitive measure for “committing such a mistake against her home and husband.”

The husband immediately heeded the advice and divorced her during the live program although Shammari advised him to remarry her if she repents.

April:30:2012 - 07:34 | Comments & Trackbacks (5) | Permalink

Women and sports is a volatile combination in Saudi Arabia. Many see sports or athletics of any kind as incompatible with society’s ideal of womanhood. As a result, government tends to pussyfoot around the issue. It says it’s not against women’s taking part in athletics, but doesn’t do much of anything to encourage it, even while noting that active lifestyles are important to the nation’s health. Now, Saudi Gazette reports, the earth groans and starts to deliver. A state school in the Eastern Province city of Al-Khobar has installed basketball hoops and is encouraging girls to get active. Too, the government is ‘forming a committee’ (yes, yet another ‘committee’) to study the issue of formal sports clubs for women.

The Saudi Olympic Committee make itself a laughing stock when it said it would permit Saudi women to take part in this year’s Summer Olympics in London, but then said that it wouldn’t support them at all. Whatever women wanted to participate would have to pay their own way and would get no support once in London.

Arguments against women’s participation in sports are vague and chaotic. Even in the face of issues of fairness or health or national economy, society just doesn’t see that women are equal to men. They instead seek ways to define women as categorically different and insist on putting them on a pedestal of social construction. Perhaps something will come of the new committee, perhaps not. That a public school is finally getting around to encouraging activity is likely the better indication that change is coming to Saudi Arabia, even if it moves at a snail’s pace.

Committee studying sports clubs for women

RIYADH — The government has set up a ministerial committee to consider allowing and regulating women’s sports clubs, a senior official has said.

Abdullah Al-Zamil from the General Presidency of Youth Welfare, the top Saudi sporting body, was quoted by local media as saying that the committee was formed to end the “chaos” surrounding women’s sports clubs which are unregulated.

“The mission of the committee is focused on building a system for these clubs,” Al-Zamil was reported as saying.

Last week, a public girls’ school in the Eastern Province introduced physical education to its students by installing basketball hoops for them to use at break time.
The school in Al-Khobar thus became the first public school to openly encourage sports for girls.

April:29:2012 - 06:40 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

The media report on the recall of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Egypt and the closing of the Saudi Embassy and consulates in Alexandria and Suez. This follows demonstrations in front of the Embassy in response to the Kingdom’s arresting a noted Egyptian civil rights lawyer on drug charges. The lawyer, who goes by the name Al-Gizawi, had made comments critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices, particularly in regard to Egyptians.

Is it possible that Al-Gizawi was arrested for insulting King Abdullah? It’s possible. Is it possible that Al-Gizawi was attempting to smuggle drugs (21 Xanax tablets) into the country? That’s possible, too. His claim that he was just delivering some luggage for an unnamed friend, though, is not compelling.

In any event, Saudi-Egyptian relations are at a low point. The Kingdom has been providing emergency funding, to the tune of better than US $4 billion so far. With its economy in shambles, Egypt really cannot afford to alienate its benefactors. But it also cannot be seen as ignoring human rights. Egypt is in a tough position here, with not a lot of good options.

KSA recalls envoy to Egypt, closes diplomatic missions
Muhammad Al-Ahmadi | Okaz/Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH/CAIRO — Saudi Arabia Saturday recalled its ambassador to Cairo and closed its diplomatic missions in Egypt.

An official spokesman, quoted by Saudi Press Agency (SPA), said the measures were taken in response to demonstrations outside the Kingdom’s missions in Egypt and threats following the announcement of arrest of Egyptian lawyer Ahmad Muhammad Al-Sayed, known as Al-Jizawee, in Jeddah.

The spokesman described the protests as unjustified.

“There were unjustified attempts to storm Saudi diplomatic missions threatening the security and safety of its personnel of both Saudi and Egyptian nationalities,” the spokesman said.

The Saudi Embassy in Cairo and consulates in Alexandria and Suez were closed for an unspecified period.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi made a telephone call to King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and expressed hope that the Kingdom will reconsider its decision of recalling its ambassador and closing its missions, reported SPA late Saturday.

April:29:2012 - 06:23 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink

Arab News runs an interview with Abdullah Naseef, former deputy chairman of Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council. In the interview, Naseef makes some startling comments about the Council and, inadvertently, about Saudi society.

His first assertion is that only the King is capable of selecting the ‘brightest and the best’ to positions on the Council. With no disrespect to the King’s judgment, I’m sure there are more than 150 Saudis competent to hold Council positions. Unlike Obi Wan Kenobi, the King is not in an ‘Only you can save us’ situation. He will have successors. Those successor may or may not make wise decisions.

Might elections result in less than the best? Yes, they might. But it is not only brains and competence that are necessary to provide leadership. Contact with and understand of the various communities is also important. I’m not suggesting that the stupid should be elected – though the US Congress shows that even they can win elections – but that a more diverse Council would be more representative.

That brings up his second misstatement. The Shoura Council is not ‘exactly like a parliament’. It is similar, but differs in one major regard: The members are not elected as representatives. Nor does the Council’s action have force of law. In no way does it serve as a check on executive power. It can suggest laws; it cannot make them.

The Shoura Council is somewhat representative, but again with a major defect: There are no women on the Council. That’s better than half the population left unrepresented or, at best, represented by those who think they know what women want.

Inevitably, the Shoura Council will transform into a true parliament. While it has managed so far to escape that conclusion, Saudi Arabia cannot continue forever as a paternalistic state where the ruler knows best. Individuals and their political wishes will have to be incorporated into governance at some time if the Saudi state is to survive. It won’t not be tomorrow, certainly, but the time will come when Saudi citizens have a real voice in their government. It’s better to start practicing and getting the systems of civil society working now, when there’s the opportunity to fail without catastrophe, than to run into the chaos we see now in Egypt, Libya, or Iraq.

Elections may not send qualified members to Shoura, says Naseef

Dr. Abdullah Omar Naseef, former deputy chairman of the Shoura Council, has supported the present system of appointing qualified members to the Saudi consultative body.

“Shoura is an important system and it needs people of experience and wisdom to run the show. I think people who call for elections have not taken this important point into consideration,” he said.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News at his office in Jeddah, Naseef said the Shoura Council is equal to any parliament in the world. “Our Shoura members are highly qualified academics and technocrats and the Shoura decisions are based on the Qur’an and Sunnah. This makes our Shoura Council different from other parliaments,” he pointed out.

Dr. Naseef described Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah as a charismatic leader who is loved not only by Saudis but also by foreigners.

Following is the full text of the interview:

April:27:2012 - 06:49 | Comments & Trackbacks (11) | Permalink

Arab News reports that Riyadh is to become a city of urban transportation. A massive scheme is to launched that will combine electric rail and a widespread network of buses to clear the dangerous clutter that now fills the roadways.

Riyadh may not be the worst place to drive in the world – I’d put Indian highways after dark in first place – but it is a major hassle. There are too many cars for the roads and driver discipline, well, leaves something to be desired. By making public transport available, the roads could be better utilized. The plan foresees a daily reduction of 2.2 million car trips and a saving of 800K driving hours. Annual savings to the economy could reach SR8 billion (US $2.37 billion).

Just having a new system, though, doesn’t mean that people will use it. Currently, public transportation is underused because of perceptions. Saudis tend to see it as something for foreign workers, not themselves. The government will have to sell the idea, but the idea will have to have real savings visible to those they hope to tempt to use it daily.

I think, too, that there’s going to be massive disruption as 42 kilometers of rail lines are set down, a short-term addition to driver misery until construction is done. Particularly in the downtown areas, there’s going to have to be a lot of destruction before the construction begins.

New transport system aims to generate major savings

The approval of the Council of Ministers on Monday of the implementation of the Public Transport Project (PTP) in Riyadh came after the High Authority for the Development of Riyadh (HADR) had formulated a comprehensive plan.

This plan stipulated the establishment of road networks for public transport using buses and electric trains. The authority also completed the engineering designs, technical specifications and blueprints for the two projects.

In the first phase of the plan a rail network would be constructed on the axis of King Abdullah Road with a length of 17 kilometer. It would start from King Khaled Road on the west to Khaled bin Al-Waleed street to the east, and include 11 stations. The network would also run on the axis of Al-Olaya-Al-Batha Street with a length of 25 kilometer, extending from the northern to the southern ring road. When the train would reach its final destination at the headquarters of the department of public transport it would have passed 25 stations.

This phase would also include the establishment of a road network for buses covering the entire city to ensure people with safe transport.

April:25:2012 - 07:37 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Saudi Gazette runs a piece noting that as much as they want jobs, not all Saudi workers bring what it takes to do the job. Particularly absent is a work ethic, where people stick to the job, giving it their all. Instead, some are simply slackers. Others find an office a great place to do their own business or that of their part-time jobs. In any event, simply showing up to work does not equate with doing good work or work that should receive a salary.

Workers can agree that self-discipline is critical, but point to managers for creating stifling environments where no matter how well one works, there’s no recognition for it. They seem to believe that having a job and getting a salary should be motivation enough. For some, that might be true. For others, though, they need to feel that their works has some importance and is appreciated.

Physical presence of employees is not enough!
Amal Al-Sibai | Saudi Gazette

Nader Ali was elated when he got his first job at a government organization. He was keen on arriving at his office on time, meeting deadlines, and impressing his managers. But eventually, his enthusiasm started fading; he became bored of his job and the routine work he had to go through every day. His energy level went down, which showed in his work.

Although work is not always a bed of roses, there is no excuse for an employee to become careless or lose interest in his/her job. Both men and women want salaries on time, apart from craving for bonuses, increments, and allowances, but they do not think once of doing justice to responsibilities given to them.

Amjad Al-Qahtani said that many of her coworkers at the government organization preoccupy themselves with other distractions and do not fulfill what is expected of them. “Many people in our society lack strong work ethics and they suffer from an absence of conscience when it comes to working hard to truly earn the paycheck they receive at the end of the month. It is not uncommon to find governmental employees also working part-time in private marketing companies, to gain a supplementary income. These types of jobs pay the employee a certain percentage for each sale, so women obviously spend more time on part time jobs as it gives them more money. They neglect their duties at their regular job. Can you believe that they carry out such activities on the computer in their offices that their full-time government job has provided them with?”

April:24:2012 - 08:21 | Comments Off | Permalink

Here’s a match made in Heaven… Australia feels itself overrun with feral camels that destroy crops and cropland. Saudi Arabia likes camels, finding them quite tasty, among other things. So now, the two governments are entering negotiations to ship the Aussie camels to the Kingdom. The sticking point seems to be in guaranteeing that the camels are healthy enough to suit the Saudi table.

Australian camels may soon find their way into Kingdom
Ahmad Abdullah | Okaz/Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH – The Ministry of Agriculture has entered into negotiations with its Australian counterpart over importing Australian camels into the Kingdom according to specific standards and conditions, said Dr. Khalid Al-Fuhaid, assistant undersecretary for livestock affairs at the ministry.

“We’re still negotiating with Australian officials. We’ll import live camels from Australia according to certain quarantine measures because Australian camels live in the countryside far away from cities. They will be imported for human consumption purposes,” the ministry official said.

Saudi importers and Australian exporters entered into talks following the Australian government’s decision to cull camels which have caused a lot of damage to countryside homes and crops and have multiplied over the past years. Australians do not like consuming camel meat or milk, therefore the government is considering exporting camel meat to the Kingdom when and if Saudi consumers show interest.

Australian farmers and cattle owners formed teams to cull camels that have eaten a large quantity of their crops in the northern region and destroyed water reservoirs and pumps and wreaked havoc.

April:24:2012 - 08:14 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Saudi Arabia’s oil company, Saudi ARAMCO, is a pretty smart investor, it seems. Not only does it make a profit from the oil it produces, but it will also make a profit on oil – no matter its source – that is refined in its half-owned refinery in Port Arthur, Texas.

Within a Month, Which Refinery Will Be the Largest in the US?
Eagle Ford Shale Project, Seaway reversal, and other factors favor expansion of Saudi-Shell’s Port Arthur refinery in Texas
Ashim Midha

While US Northeast refineries such as ConocoPhillips’ (COP) Trainer as well as Sunoco’s (SUN) Girard Point and Marcus Hook are on the verge of shutting down if a buyer is not found, the historic Port Arthur refinery near Sabine Lake in East Texas is about to complete a massive expansion.

Continually improving exploration and production technology will allow for significantly greater oil recovery from the Eagle Ford shale and Permian Basin in Texas – aggregate flow from these regions is expected to multiply several times over within the next few years. Increased flow from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and Athabasca Oil Sands near Alberta, along with the reversal of Enbridge (ENB) and Enterprise Products Partners’ (EPD) Seaway Pipeline, will also add to the vast quantity of oil moving toward Gulf Coast refineries such as Port Arthur.

After the Port Arthur project is completed within the next month, the 110-year-old facility’s throughput capacity is expected to more than double to 600,000 barrels per day (“bpd”). It will rank as the largest in the United States (measured by operable capacity) and among the top 10 in the world. Following expansion, it will surpass the largest US refinery, ExxonMobil’s (XOM) Baytown, by approximately 40,000 barrels. The Port Arthur refinery currently handles 285,000 bpd and is the 15th largest in the country. For the sake of scale, the world’s largest is Reliance Industry’s 1.24 million bpd facility located in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India.

The operation is owned by Motiva Enterprises, a joint venture of Saudi Refining, Inc. and Shell (RDS.A). Each entity owns a 50% share of the JV. Saudi Refining is a subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian national oil company, Saudi Aramco.

April:23:2012 - 09:29 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

London’s The Independent reports on a Wikileaks release from 2009 in which US Secretary of State Clinton says that Saudi Arabia was still a problem when it came to terrorist financing. The Saudis, she noted, lacked sufficient control over the flow of money out of the Kingdom and that the money was ending up in terrorist demands. Both Saudi nationals and foreigners in Saudi Arabia were channeling funds toward improper ends. The fact that Saudi Arabia has difficulty in monitoring the millions of people who come in for Haj was highlighted in several cables, including one from the late Richard Holbrooke, then Special Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This matter seems to have been the target of the recently-announced anti-money laundering program. While that program will greatly reduce slippage among financial institutions, there still remains the problem of cash. The country does have laws that require the documentation of large amounts of cash moving in or out of the country, but enforcement of those laws is difficult. They are particularly difficult when it comes to pilgrims who, indeed, bring large amounts with them to pay for their keep while in Mecca and Medina. Too, many pilgrims still look to Haj as an opportunity to sell goods in order to defray their costs, often resulting in a profit. I’m not sure how the government could address these issues beyond requiring that all expenses be pre-paid and banning pilgrims from any sort of trade. That’s more easily said than done.

Saudi Arabia is ‘biggest funder of terrorists’
Rob Hastings

Saudi Arabia is the single biggest contributor to the funding of Islamic extremism and is unwilling to cut off the money supply, according to a leaked note from Hillary Clinton.

The US Secretary of State says in a secret memorandum that donors in the kingdom still “constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide” and that “it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority”.

In a separate diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks last night, the militant group which carried out the Mumbai bombings in 2008, Lashkar-e-Toiba, is reported to have secured money in Saudi Arabia via one of its charity offshoots which raises money for schools.

April:23:2012 - 09:17 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Saudi Gazette reports that women in Saudi Arabia aren’t terribly keen abut taking their business to female service representatives. Those female reps, the article reports, are ill-trained and have a bad attitude about service. Given the option, many women will instead turn to male representatives who will quickly and competently resolve their problems.

I guess part of it is that employers place lower expectations upon their female employees and so don’t bother with intensive training. Another facet could well be that male supervisors are extra cautious about correcting their female employees. In the Kingdom, a female employee can make life pretty miserable for a male supervisor by alleging misconduct. Perhaps the companies should be looking to employ a few hard-as-nails women into supervisory roles.

Women prefer male customer service agents
Mariam Nihal | Saudi Gazette

Most women prefer male customer service agents rather than females in Saudi Arabia. They complain that female customer care agents working in private sector companies like banks and telephone companies are unequipped and untrained to deal with customers on a professional level.

The lack of professional corporate culture in customer service industries that employ women has been a regular problem with female customers. “Whenever I have a quick and urgent transaction at the bank, I walk into the male section because I know I will be guaranteed good service and get my job done.”

Both men and women who spoke to Saudi Gazette believe that the notion of females working in the service sector in the Kingdom is fairly new, women workers do not take their client servicing jobs seriously. The most common reasons listed by women who usually go to men for customer care services were –– that men are comparatively more patient, direct, understanding –– and are easier to relate to than women customer care executives.

Maha Ayub, 38, marketing professor in Jeddah said that women customer care officials are less helpful and less capable of handling pressure than men.” Firstly, women take hours to understand a problem. Then they call up men to ask what to do. I just walk into the men’s branch and tell them I want service not some Barbie who is too scared to work, for the fear of spoiling her manicure. They laugh and help me out minus the drama.”

April:23:2012 - 08:59 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Last month, Saudi Arabia loosened its rules about young, unattached males in shopping malls. There had been a tendency to keep these guys out of the malls because they behaved badly toward women and girls, harassing them in various ways. Now, the government was stating its expectation that the young men would behave themselves if given the opportunity.

The carrot, however, comes with a stick. Saudi Gazette reports that the government will also seek jail terms for the lads who cannot behave. First-time offenders will face five days behind bars; second-time offenders, 35 days. (One person interviewed talks about a possible 5-year sentence, but where that comes from I can’t tell.)

The matter comes down, though, to the questions of whether harassment will be arbitrarily defined and by whom. If the definition is left open, then courts will be filled with questionable cases, resolved by a combination of wasta (or the lack thereof) and how the judge is feeling that day. Here again is an area where codification of law, with clear definitions, is needed.

I think, overall, that this is the right approach. Rather than categorically assuming that all young men are going to behave badly, this turn puts responsibility for their own behavior directly on young men. By behaving themselves, they avoid risk. By being pests, they put themselves in jeopardy.

An interestingly related point raised in the article concerns whether girls who temp young men or provide come-ons ought not also face similar punishments.

Mixed reaction to prison law for harassers in malls
Mariam Nihal | Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH – There was mixed reaction among residents in the Kingdom to a new rule dictating that men will be imprisoned if found guilty of harassing women in shopping centers.

Coming just a month after Saudi Arabia relaxed severe restrictions on single men entering shopping centers, the new rule has come as a surprise to many in the Kingdom.

Jamal Asaad (name changed), a 35-year-old managing director of a local company in Jeddah said he had a few concerns.

April:23:2012 - 08:48 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink
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