Asharq Alawsat runs an interview with former US Ambassador Mark Hambly. Hambly, who had a reputation as one of the best “Arabists” in the State Dept., ran the Regional Media Center in London during and following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the interview, he explains why the Center was established in London.
The Center, in fact, was an expansion of the program I established in 1996-97 while I was the Information Officer at the embassy. I hired the first Arab support personnel for that office because it was abundantly clear that the pan-Arab media based in London — both print and satellite broadcast — was critically important and needed full-time attention. My job was to deal with the British media, a more than full-time job itself, but I was able to convince Washington that the Arabic media needed to be addressed as well. With the Iraq war, this became even more obvious, so the new Center was created. I was in Riyadh by then.
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Thanks to the presence of a number of pan-Arab newspapers and media outlets (including Asharq Al-Awsat) in London, for the last decade the US Embassy in the city has played host to one of the State Department’s Regional Media Hubs which aims to conduct ‘public diplomacy’ in the Arab World, engage with Arab and Iranian journalists, and monitor the Arab media.
Mark Gregory Hambley—a former US ambassador to Qatar and Lebanon—was appointed its first director when it was set up in 2003, after a decades-long career as a diplomat in the Middle East. Since retiring from the State Department in 2005, he has acted as an occasional advisor and consultant to the US government. Asharq Al-Awsat recently spoke to Ambassador Hambley about his time as director of the Hub and American efforts to engage with Arab media over the past ten years.
Saudi Gazette/Okaz report on an attempt by a group of Saudi graphic artists to bring graffiti in from the wilds of its association with vandalism. They’re doing it by focusing on the beauty of individual letters of the Arabic alphabet. The group is named “Dhad“. This is particularly apt as Arabic is sometimes known as “the language of the Dhad”.
The group is having trouble getting grants and governmental recognition, however. I don’t find this particularly surprising as graffiti is usually associated with vandalism and the defacing of buildings… not something government’s usually support. They may find an art patron, however, who will ease their way.
The power of a single letter graffiti
Abdullah Al-Mansouri | Okaz/Saudi Gazette
Many young Saudi graphic designers brush up on their talents by creating single letter graffiti art, and one of the most popular Arabic letters to do this is the letter ? (dhad). But graffiti artists in the Kingdom are struggling to gain acceptance in society due to the general view that graffiti is a public nuisance and not a form of renegade art.
Artist Ous Ghazzal created a group with several other young Saudi artists whose sole purpose is to decorate streets and cars with Arabic letters in multiple graffiti styles and colors. They went on to open a store but the group, however, has faced problems securing financing for their projects, marketing them and navigating bureaucratic red tape.
“From the very beginning, we have faced numerous hurdles. We knocked on the doors of several government departments and private companies to get some financial support but to no avail. Our store is the first of its kind in the Arabian Gulf for promoting the art of graffiti. We are proud of creating miracles with the language of our fathers and forefathers. We want to elevate the position of Arabic letters, especially the letter dhad, which is a distinguished one, in the art of graphic design and graffiti,” he said.
Gulf News from Dubai carries a story that explains how YouTube has become an alternative — and preferred — source of information for young Saudis. It reports that Google, which own YouTube, complies with government requests to shut down videos for which there is a valid legal reason, but that the Saudi government has been sparing in that regard. It notes, too, that YouTube has been offering support for new video channels produced in the region. Some of those channels are earning millions of dollars for their creators and producers. A new medium indeed.
Why Saudis are world’s biggest YouTube fans
People in Saudi Arabia watch more hours of YouTube content per capita
than anywhere else in the world
Dubai: Google has launched a campaign to develop online videos in the fast-growing market of Saudi Arabia, where residents watch more hours of YouTube content per capita than anywhere else in the world.
Over the past year, time spent on YouTube in the conservative kingdom has increased fivefold, persuading Google to hold a seminar in the oil-rich kingdom to foster closer relationships with producers of Arabic-language web videos.
About 60 per cent of the 350 million people in the Arab world are younger than 25, with internet penetration in the region at about 70 million users — over 300 per cent growth in the last five years, according to numbers from UAE-based entrepreneurship research portal Sindibad Business. Internet penetration is expected to reach 150 million users by 2015.
Traditional media in Saudi Arabia, where more than half the population is younger than 35, is failing to engage youngsters who are turning to the internet for relevant drama, comedy, sports and news.
The same trend is sweeping the broader region, where 310m video views a day make the Middle East and north Africa the world’s second-highest online viewership after the US.
That has generated concern among some of the region’s states about the rise in political expression.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior has caused its own little firestorm by announcing a ban on some 50 names that are not to be given to children, Gulf News reports. The ban, issued as a fatwa by some anonymous cleric, is a peculiar one. Some names are banned as being against religious principle; others because they’re foreign. The reason why yet others are banned — like Benyamin (Arabic for ‘Benjamin’) is simply baffling.
Dubai: Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry has banned 50 given names including “foreign” names, names related to royalty and those it considers to be blasphemous.
Saudis will no longer be able to give their children names such as Amir (prince), Linda or Abdul Nabi (Slave of the Prophet) after the civil affairs department at the ministry issued the list, according to Saudi news sites.
It justified the ban by saying that the names either contradicted the culture or religion of the kingdom, or were foreign, or “inappropriate”.
The names fit into at least three categories: those that offend perceived religious sensibilities, those that are affiliated to royalty and those that are of non-Arabic or non-Islamic origin.
Gulf News reports, too, that a member of the Shoura Council, Eisa Al Gaith, isn’t having it. Fatwas are not public laws, he says. A fatwa — a non-binding religious ruling — should not be elevated to the law of the land. According to the follow-up story, large numbers of Saudis agree with him, seeing no reason for the government to be poking its nose into family matters.
Shura Council member rejects ban on baby names
Habib Toumi Bureau Chief
Manama: A member of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council has denounced the decision by the civil authorities to ban 50 baby names on the grounds they clashed with the local culture or were inappropriate.
“The decision by the mufti on the names is an interpretation, so if he is right it is good for him and for those who follow him, but it cannot be imposed on others,” Eisa Al Ghaith said. “There is a serious issue when an interpretation which is just an opinion becomes an obligation for government agencies and for the people. A commitment becomes official only when there is a religious consensus about it. However, if there is no full agreement, there can be no obligation,” he said in remarks published by local daily Al Sharq on Sunday.
Civil authorities last week announced a list of 50 names that cannot be given to new babies, saying that they were alien to the local culture or offended religious sensibilities or were of non-Arabic or non-Islamic origin.
Several people said they were bewildered by the inclusion of some of the names on the list, particularly that they have traditionally been part of the local scene for decades.
UPDATE: I should note that banning names isn’t just some oddball Saudi thing. Portugal has an 80-page list of banned names. The Mexican state of Sonora published a list of 61 names that were impermissible last month. Denmark, instead of a blacklist, has a whitelist from which children’s names must be selected.
UPDATE: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior denies it ever published a list in the first place, but added that religiously or socially improper names, as well as compound names would not be registered in official documents at birth.
It’s not just YouTube videos that contain vile speech, of course. Writing in Asharq Alawsat — though the link goes to Al Arabiya TV — Abdulrahman al-Rashed points out that the copyright to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf expires next year under German law. The book is already banned in Germany, Austria, Poland, Russia and China. Germany wants to keep it that way and is discussing a new law to keep the book from being republished. That’s going to be hard to do, at least with any effect.
As al-Rashed points out, the book is not banned in France, nor is it banned in the US. Nor is it — nor could it be — banned on the global Internet. Anyone who really wants to read it can find a way to do so.
I think al-Rashed gives too much credit to the book. It’s turgid, wandering, and requires a certain amount of dedication to read it. I’ve read the first volume and consider it interesting from the point of view of trying to understand what was going through Hitler’s mind. But it’s hardly coherent. The book, though a ‘best seller’ because it was thought a good thing to have during the Nazi reign, was not widely read. It only mattered that you had a copy of it on your bookshelf in Germany during the 1930s and early 40s. It wasn’t widely read because it was too damn hard to read.
Mein Kampf has been available in the US as long as I’ve been alive. And while there is an American neo-Nazi movement, it is on the fringe of the fringe. Most people coming across it do not start goose-stepping and shouting Seig Heil!. At best, it’s a curiosity.
The problem of neo-Nazis is not Mein Kampf. It is a combination of social and educational failures. Rather than worrying about the effect of a ludicrous book (or obnoxious video), states should be concerned about how they can change the situation so that every one of their citizens can appreciate how awful some materials available to them are and why they should be avoided. They could also take a useful step in not themselves promoting hatred in the way too many Arab states do in republishing and distributing pap like “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a late-19th C. fraud.
Mein Kampf and other books of hatred
There is one year until the rights to the book Mein Kampf (My Struggle) by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler expire. Afterwards, the rights to the book become available to whoever wishes to publish it. According to German copyright law, a book enters the public domain 70 years after the author’s death. The book’s copyright was registered again in Germany in 1945 was written by Hitler 20 years before that. Hitler ensured that the book was very popular among Germans, so much so that a quarter of a million copies were sold in 1933. Part of that wealth, no doubt, allowed him to buy his new Mercedes. When his party won and he took over as chancellor, he ordered that his book be distributed for free to soldiers and newly-weds. Germany, which owns the rights to the book until the end of next year, plans to ban selling and distributing the book under its anti-terror law.
The ban is planned for Germany, Holland and Poland, but the book is still available in France. The law allows for publishing it and selling it in the U.S. as well. Racists and fascists, including Nazis, are in general allowed to distribute their publications and books. Two rare copies of Mein Kampf were sold in Los Angeles in an auction a week ago.
Al Arabiya TV reports that three Arab films are competing for the Oscar, symbol of the Academy Awards this year. Interestingly, they’re competing in three different categories.
Three Arab films to compete for Oscars
Shounaz Meky | Al Arabiya News
Arab cinephiles will have three regional films to cheer for when the 86th Academy Awards, the film industry’s highest honors, opens Sunday at a ceremony in Hollywood.
Palestinian film “Omar,” directed by Hany Abu Assad, will compete against “The Hunt,” Italy’s “The Great Beauty,” Belgium’s “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” and Cambodia’s
“The Missing Picture” for the best foreign-language Oscar on March 2 in Los Angeles.
An interesting piece from Al Arabiya TV. Professor and media analyst Joe Khalil writes that the ubiquitous ‘man on the street’ interviews in the Arab world — the vox populi, may not quite be as ‘populi’ as one might expect.
He writes that increasingly, Arab media are being deft in finding the voices they want to hear from, the voices whose message they can assume. Rather than collecting the opinions of Arabs-at-large, they are focusing more on their own nationals — not necessarily a bad thing — but also picking them out in places where people of certain tendencies are likely to be found. You can be sure of getting a particular, narrow range of opinions if you’re pulling your interviewees out of a crowd of university students, just as you can be sure of getting different ones if you conduct your interviews as a country club or outside a religious establishment.
This practice — while hardly limited to Arab media — distorts the information we receive. Not only to media consumers tend to go to the media that will confirm or reconfirm their own preferences, Khalil notes, but by using only selected voices to stand for the ‘voice of the people’, the range of opinions narrows.
Since the 1990s, there has been a constant flurry of interest in investigating what Arabs think about, and how and what their likely collective actions might be. This trend of pulsing “Arab public opinion”- if it can be measured empirically – was strongly embedded in Western constructs of polling, understanding the public, the impact of media on audiences and some assumed shared principles of human behavior. Such trends have accelerated as an immediate policy response to the events of 9/11 and as a way of estimating Arab popular reactions about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the United States’ repeated case for “war on terror” and “democratization.” Similarly, a second major wave of interest in Arab public opinion emerged with a particular focus on discovering how and why young people, or Islamists, were mobilized in popular uprisings during the so-called “Arab Spring.”
The UAE’s Gulf News runs a report on the rise of Prince Mohammad Bin Naif, Minister of the Interior, as a replacement for Prince Bandar Bin Sultan as the point-man for Saudi efforts in Syria. Mohammad, who established the Saudi rehabilitation program for returned/captured jihadists, has been working to separate Syrian rebels battling the Al-Assad regime from the extremists who are also fighting, but for entirely different reasons. The mixing of the two groups has been a serious impediment to US efforts in Syria as the US is simply unwilling to provide support if it ends up in the wrong hands.
The article notes that among those looking at Saudi succession issues, Mohammad is rated as being very much in the game.
Riyadh (Reuters): Saudi Interior Minister Mohammad Bin Nayef, perhaps the most powerful younger prince in the ruling Al Saud family, is shaping Riyadh’s new emphasis on protecting the kingdom from a fresh wave of Islamist militancy inspired by the war in Syria.
The United States pulled out the stops for him when he visited Washington last week to prepare for President Barack Obama’s fence-mending trip to Riyadh next month.
Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Central Intelligence Agency chief John Brennan, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey and National Security Agency director Keith Alexander all sat down with the 54-year-old, a veteran of Saudi Arabia’s fight against Al Qaida.
Prince Mohammad seems likely to be a central figure in the world’s top oil exporter for decades to come. Many Saudis say he is a strong candidate to become king one day.
“He’s now playing not only the role of Interior Minister, but also that of a senior diplomat and adviser to the king,” said Robert Jordan, US ambassador to Riyadh from 2001-03.
Prince Mohammad, btw, escaped being killed by a suicide bomber back in 2009 who carried his bomb within his own body.
An interesting opinion piece from Al Arabiya TV. The writer, a Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, ponders the role of modern technology and its intersection with the politics of the Middle East. Questioning whether the Internet and social media were the means or the end of Arab Spring, he goes on to note that governments can — if they chose to do so — exert far more control of the media than they currently do. Just in surveilling the media, they can learn more about its users than the users realize. He concludes with the observation that perhaps the thought of living in an alternate reality — the one provided by the closed chambers of social media — is enough, at least for some.
The Middle East has met the enemy, and he’s online
It all happened so fast. Tunisia was in America’s peripheral vision; we’d read, from time to time, of mounting protests, huge crowds straining the grand avenues of Tunis, the Arab street finally out on the street.
But then the dictator fell, and so did many a pundit’s career. There rose in their place new voices, closer to the ground, more sympathetic to the reality, more optimistic about the possibilities. Everybody had told us this could not happen. Except it did.
On Jan. 25, when Tahrir square became the center of massive protest, you can bet we were all glued to screens of various sizes.
Drunk on the Kool-Aid
The first revolutionaries knew how to sell themselves, and we were primed to buy. We believed in social media. We got drunk on the Kool-Aid. We worshipped at the altar of technology. What had started in Tunisia wouldn’t stay in Tunisia.
After some three weeks, Mubarak was forced to resign, and the crowds went home, for reasons unfathomable today.
There was an almost messianic fervor to the dispatches I’d get. It was young Arabs, not the stodgy Islamists, who’d change things. Political parties were so 20th century.
Social media would free everyone. Google, Facebook, Twitter. Who needed ideologies?
The National newspaper out of Dubai sees Saudi Arabia as the bellwether of renewable energy in the Gulf. The article notes Saudi planning on solar, wind, waste, and geothermal sources. It also gives brief outlines of what the other Gulf states have on the drawing board.
The reasons behind this expanded interest in renewable energy is that the countries of the GCC — with Saudi Arabia again in the lead — are becoming major energy consumers. To date, the countries have met this need through the use of domestically produced oil and gas. The day is coming, though, when domestic demand will outstrip production. This will not only impact those who rely on the energy being produced, but will kill the economies based on the export of oil.
The UAE’s Arabian Gulf neighbours have announced various renewable energy plans aimed at reducing their reliance on oil and gas for power and water generation, with Saudi Arabia leading the way with an ambitious programme, as the drop in solar energy prices encourages governments.
“Governments are well aware that our oil and gas resources are not infinite and require careful management,” said Gus Schellekens, Middle East sustainability leader, and Hannes Reinisch, senior manager for sustainability and renewables, at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “There is a crossover point where our own domestic economies will use more of the hydrocarbon production than is exported, reducing the revenues we can derive from international markets.
“Prices have dropped dramatically over the past year for certain renewable technologies, most notably solar photovoltaic. The business case for pursuing solar projects is now stronger than ever.’’
For example, Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, plans to generate 54,000 megawatts (MW) from renewable energy by 2032, with 41,000MW coming from solar, 9,000MW from wind, 3,000MW from waste-to-energy and 1,000MW from geothermal power.
The kingdom is expected to spend more than US$100 billion to reach these figures over the next two decades and has indicated that it will favour local producers.
A peculiar story in Saudi Gazette — which, following Saudi custom, names no names. The owner of a satellite TV channel is being charged with sedition after he admitted taking direction and money from the government of Qaddafi’s Libya to defame Saudi Arabia. Over the last ten years of Qaddafi’s reign, he was at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia and particularly with King Abdullah.
Providing the person’s name, or at least that of the TV channel would have been most helpful in understanding this piece.
Saudi admits receiving money to spread chaos
Saudi Gazette report
RIYADH — A Saudi who owns a satellite channel has admitted to a court that he received money to spread sedition in the Kingdom, Al-Hayat daily reported.
The prosecutor from the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution (BIP) has called for the strongest penalties against the defendant. He said the accused received $1.8 million from the now overthrown Gaddafi regime in Libya to incite public unrest in the Kingdom.
He claimed the defendant tried to link the Kingdom with terrorism and said Al-Qaeda was of Saudi origin.
The prosecutor said the accused received the money, claiming that it was for a Holy Qur’an contest, and has admitted to broadcasting controversial programs on his channel. The purpose of these programs was to educate the public of their rights, that the country was “kidnapped”, and that the Arab Spring helped people obtain their rights, said the prosecutor.
The prosecutor said that the programs were broadcasted under titles such as “Mental Terrorism”, “The Religious Establishment”, “Administrative Corruption”, “Slavery and Ignominy”, “The Kingdom and Terrorism” and “The Kidnapped Country”.
The prosecutor added the accused has claimed the country has insulted expatriates and deprived them of their rights, and that there is no other nation that deprives expatriates of their rights apart from Muslim countries.
The accused has admitted that he prepared and broadcasted these programs. The judge then asked the defendant to respond to these accusations, but he claimed the investigation procedures were not legal or valid.
He told the court that he felt remorse for his actions. He said that he explained this to the authorities in the Kingdom and he was allowed to return to the country because he was abroad when a warrant was issued for his arrest.
The defendant asked that his case be closed, claiming the time he spent in prison was enough punishment. The judge will announce final decision on the case in the next hearing scheduled next month.
Saudi Arabia has proposed that the Gulf Cooperation Council move to become a more perfect union. Despite Oman’s reluctance to take that step because it believes that its own multicultural status would be deprecated, the urge is there.
The proposal comes on the heels of — and as a response to — US moves toward calming tensions with Iran. The Gulf States, and particularly Saudi Arabia, believe the US to be naive on the issue, ready to give away security for a few minutes of favorable press coverage.
The smaller states are concerned that simple demographics would make them lesser partners to a dominant Saudi Arabia. And while Gulf Arab cultures are similar, there are extremely important differences that they do not wish to see submerged in a sea of conservatism.
Nor do all Gulf States have the same sort of relationship with Iran. All do have tensions, but some, like Oman and the UAE, have warmer trade and political relations than others.
Unification may be a step that will be taken, but the timing does not look right.
People of the Gulf, unite!
Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi
The Arab world is now open to all options and the accelerating developments entail a myriad of dangers. Today, the Gulf States have an opportunity, coupled with risks. As they say, “during times of crises there are chances for new beginnings.” The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are facing major challenges that call upon their leaders to realize their responsibilities while taking decisive decision.
In politics, taking decisions proactively is preferable to making them under the exigencies of circumstances and necessity.
Gulf citizens live in enormous wealth, their countries having a huge gross domestic product (GDP) and political stability that makes them, in light of the anarchy that has swept across the region, an oasis of security and stability.