The September 11, 2001 attacks on the US continue to be ground in the mills of the American courts. My local newspaper reports on a local suit to obtain information from the FBI concerning its investigation of a Saudi family that had been living in Sarasota, FL prior to the attacks. The article also notes ongoing suits in New York trying to find a lever to sue the Saudi government and some of the charities it established. Congress, meanwhile, is seeking the release of 28 pages that had been redacted from the official report on 9/11.
Judge waits for FBI’s Sarasota Saudi documents
Michael Pollick | Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Relatives of 9/11 victims are eagerly watching the legal struggle over information held by the FBI concerning a Saudi Arabian family in Sarasota with possible ties to terrorists, even as calls in Congress ramp up for more disclosure about how the attackers were funded.
On Friday, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale was expected to receive FBI documents pertaining to the agency’s investigation of the Saudi family that abruptly left Sarasota just before the September 2001 attacks.
Late Thursday, the government asked for more time to submit the records, saying the materials that need to be searched comprise 23 boxes totaling 92,000 pages in the agency’s Tampa field office.
Government lawyers proposed a May 2 deadline.
The Saudi public — and the World Health Organization — are taking note of a sudden increase in the number of cases of MERS-CoV being reported. A Malaysian Umrah pilgrim died following his return from Saudi Arabia and two Filipino health workers have been diagnosed with the disease in the Philippines.
There are still no specific cures or vaccines for the viral disease, but both monitoring and research continue. Because the most recent outbreaks have involved medical staff, the Saudi government is taking steps to reassure those workers that they will be taken care of.
Rising MERS raises alarm
JEDDAH: P.K. ABDUL GHAFOUR
The rising number of fatalities from MERS infections in the Kingdom is causing alarm in the public.
The Health Ministry reported another fatality in Jeddah Wednesday, bringing the total number of MERS victims across the country to 71 from 205 infections. It said five more people were infected with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, including two medics, all in Jeddah. It identified the latest victim as a 52-year-old Saudi man.
The ministry said 35 percent of MERS patients in the Kingdom have died.
There were 37 confirmed cases in Jeddah in less than a month, including 21 medics.
Health Minister Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah promised that he would press for special allowance for medics dealing with infectious diseases.
Saudi Gazette also reports on the new cases and deaths attributed to the disease:
A new mayor and a new commissioner of police have led to changes in which the New York Police Department operates. The controversial “Demographics Unit”–or “Zone Assessment Unit” as it had been renamed–of the NYPD is being disbanded as an inefficient means of detecting terrorist activity, Associated Press reports in an article carried by Saudi Gazette. The move has been welcomed by American Muslim groups who believed they were being ethnically profiled purely on the basis of their religion. The program, set up in 2003 with assistance of the CIA, has been the subject of several suits, some still ongoing, that claim violation of constitutional rights to privacy, assembly, and freedom of speech and religion.
NEW YORK — Muslim groups and civil liberties advocates applauded the decision by New York Police Department officials to disband a controversial unit that tracked the daily lives of Muslims as part of efforts to detect terror threats, but said there were concerns about whether other problematic practices remained in place.
The Demographics Unit, conceived with the help of a CIA agent working with the NYPD, assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Plainclothes officers infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued Muslims in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames. NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis confirmed Tuesday that detectives assigned to the unit had been transferred to other duties within the department’s Intelligence Division.
Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said she was among a group of advocates at a private meeting last week with police at which the department’s new intelligence chief, John Miller, first indicated the unit — renamed the Zone Assessment Unit — wasn’t viable. She applauded the decision but said there’s still concern about the police use of informants to infiltrate mosques without specific evidence of crime.
The problem of female orphans lacking mahrams, male guardians, as noted earlier this week, is being addressed, Saudi Gazette reports.
Female social workers could be used as guardians of the female students studying abroad, a spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs, says. It’s not made clear who would pay for this, but I assume it would come out of the budget for the scholarship program. Here again, costs are doubled because of Saudi distrust in women and a hyper cautious concern for their moral well being. Instead of the money being spent to educate female students, it’s being spent on preserving an outdated social ethic.
Women social workers can be mahrams for orphans
Saudi Gazette report
AL-KHOBAR — The assistant deputy minister of social affairs said women social workers at the protection home could act as a mahram (a man whom the woman cannot marry) for orphaned women if they are sent abroad on scholarships.
During the first symposium of women university students at protection homes, Lateefah Abunyan said the Ministry of Social Affairs treats orphans as families in society and whatever applies to families also applies to orphans.
This comes as many orphaned women complained that they are deprived of the opportunity to be sent on scholarships abroad because they do not have mahrams to accompany them.
Abunyan added this condition is according to regulations that aim to protect women and there are many orphaned women who have traveled abroad with their families or husbands.
Being an orphan in Saudi Arabia isn’t a fun thing. Strict interpretation of the Quran leads Saudis (and other Muslims) to have very restricted views of adoption — though fostering is acceptable. Saudis also have a view that women must be accompanied by male protectors or guardians to ensure their moral and physical safety.
The two precepts clash when it comes to female orphans who would like to take part in Saudi Arabia’s foreign scholarship program. The program, you see, requires female students to be accompanied by brothers, husbands, or some other responsible male. Single, female orphans are unable to meet the requirement.
As a result, Saudi Gazette reports, these women are being forced to find someone to marry in order to carry out their studies. The Kingdom may be paying tuition, but this is a pretty high price to demand from the student. And never mind that orphans are considered poor marriage material!
Mahram rule shatters dreams of orphan girls
Saudi Gazette report
MAKKAH — Many Saudi orphan girls see no way to continue their higher studies by taking advantage of the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program due to their inability to meet the condition of mahram (male guardian). Some of them resort to marriage as the only way in front of them to overcome this hurdle.
Reacting to this issue, a senior woman official in the Ministry of Social Affairs said the ministry was exploring the prospect of allowing orphan girls to benefit from the scholarship program without a mahram, Makkah daily reported.
Muna Abdul Qader, an orphan girl, said the condition that a woman can travel only in the company of a mahram has forced several girls to get married to take advantage of the foreign scholarship program.
Khaled Al-Maeena, now Editor-at-Large at Saudi Gazette, writes about the abysmal state of English-language teaching in Saudi Arabia. He finds it ‘rudimentary’ at best. He’s right, of course.
Most Saudi students, even those who have completed the full curriculum of English at Saudi schools, find it impossible to jump into coursework at universities where English is the medium of instruction. Those attending universities in the US find that rather than four years — the normal duration of undergraduate work — they need five, with the first year consisting of nothing much beyond remedial English language instruction. Graduate students face a harder task as they’re cut very little slack in coursework due to language limitations and the fact that graduate schools do not generally offer English language courses.
Al-Maeena notes the lack of training as well as ability in those assigned to teach English in Saudi schools. With poor instruction, students cannot magically acquire language skills.
Why isn’t English taught properly in our schools?
The Education Department in the Riyadh region has pointed out several deficiencies in the teaching of English language in the nation’s schools.
To me this is a good sign. To admit that there is a problem is a sign that solutions are possible, if there is a will to find and implement these solutions.
Among the negative aspects in the teaching of English outlined by the Education Department were poor and incorrect pronunciation, the use of Arabic in teaching English, no homework, carelessness in writing and no practical use of English writing skills.
There was also little or no utilization of books that assist in teaching the English language to those whose mother tongue is not English and no stress on elocution, dialogue or conversation.
In fact the teaching of English in our schools is done in a basic and rudimentary manner. Added to that is the weakness and the inability of Saudi English language teachers to improvise.
Saudi Gazette reports that the Saudi government has finished its studies concerning the change of shopping hours so that they close earlier. A 9:00PM closing time has been approved and is expected to take effect before the start of Ramadan, which occurs in early July this year.
Commenters to the piece express varying degrees of credulity about whether this will actually happen and continue the arguments about whether it’s a good thing.
JEDDAH — A government committee, assigned to study the closing down of shops by 9 p.m., has completed studying all aspects of the project, specifying all its pros and cons. Sources close to the committee expected the closure of shops to be effective before the advent of Ramadan in early July. The committee has exempted pharmacies, gas stations, coffee shops and restaurants with special permits from the decision. According to sources, the committee has decided the working hours for retail shops to be 15 hours starting from 6 a.m. The committee is composed of representatives from the ministries of commerce, municipal and rural affairs, Islamic affairs and electricity.
Asharq Alawsat reports that Saudis, like their GCC neighbors, still prefer to use cash when they buy things. In fact, the use of credit cards has dropped since 2008, the paper says.
The issue is not over interest charged on credit card transactions. Saudi Arabia has Islamically compliant cards where no interest — forbidden by Islam — is charged. It appears to be more a matter of social inertia. People are happy enough to pay cash. I suspect the larger purchases, like cars, are dealt with a little more gracefully than in the days when one buying a car, or several cars, would show up at the dealer with paper bags full of banknotes, but for most transaction, 98% of them, cash is still the way to go.
Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Credit card use in Saudi Arabia has been on the decline since 2008, according to recent data released by the country’s central bank, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency.
The figures show that credit card revenues in the Kingdom, which stood at 9.4 billion Saudi riyals (2.5 billion US dollars) in 2008, have fallen 22.3 percent between then and 2013.
Total revenues fell from 2008 to 2009 to reach 8.6 billion riyals (2.3 billion dollars), and then to 8.3 billion riyals (2.2 billion dollars) in 2010, and 7.7 billion riyals (2 billion dollars) in 2011, rising slightly in 2012 to 7.9 billion riyals (2.1 billion dollars), and then dropping again to the lowest level during the five-year period to 7.3 billion riyals (1.9 billion dollars) in 2013.
Despite having one of the largest economies in the Arab world and rising individual spending power, Saudi Arabia remains dominated by a preference for cash, with 98 percent of transactions in the country still being made using notes and coins, according to the McKinsey Global Payments Map.
Asharq Alawsat reports that the MERS-CoV flu virus, which had primarily affected the elderly, particularly those with pre-existing medical conditions, is starting to affect a younger population. Since it was first reported in 2012, the virus has been very slowly spreading in Saudi Arabia, with reports of infection coming from all parts of the country. Recent research has linked the virus to camels, but direct contact with camels is not required. The most recent cases involved medical workers in Jeddah.
MERS infecting younger people
Jeddah and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As two more people were reported dead on Wednesday in Jeddah from the MERS coronavirus, as a high-level source in the Saudi Health Ministry reported that the average age of people being infected is dropping.
The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. According to the last statistics from the Saudi Health Ministry, approximately 180 people have been infected since September 2012, with at least 66 dying. The relatively high fatality rate of the virus is due to patients often being elderly or suffering underlying medical conditions.
A Health Ministry source, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, said that the average age of those being infected by the virus is decreasing, adding that over the past four months the average age of those infected was between 35 and 40 years of age.
Just days after becoming second in line to succeed King Abdullah to the Saudi throne, Prince Muqrin has set the Saudi social media atwitter with his negative remarks about banking, Arab News reports.
During a press conference at a charity group, the prince suggested that banks behave predatorily, separating the citizen from his money without giving much — if anything — back to society. Many on Saudi social media chimed in to agree. I’m sure the prince would find an agreeable audience in some sectors of the US as well.
Royal criticism of banks sets social media abuzz
JEDDAH: ABDULLAH AL-BARGI
Saudis on social media Wednesday praised Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin for saying the nation’s banks are not doing enough for the poor.
Prince Muqrin questioned the banks’ commitment to social development, despite making record profits, at a press conference on Tuesday during a ceremony organized by the King Khaled Charity Foundation in Riyadh.
Abdulkareem Alneqez said: “Prince Muqrin has hit the nail on the head with this irritating question, which our banks would like to pretend they didn’t hear. This question will shut them up, and echo in bankers’ ears.”
Fahd Alestaa commented: “Regardless of who’s responsible for the poor in our country, banks have come up with various tricks to empty people’s wallets.”
Tamim Al-Zahrani remarked: “The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency should enact a law committing banks to charitable community services across the country.”
Waleed bin Saud said: “Prince Muqrin has pressed the right buttons. SAMA can control banks and order them to contribute to the development of our society.”
Islam is a practical religion. It has its rules and rituals, but recognizes that life sometimes makes the ideal impossible to reach. Fasting during Ramadan, for instance, is a religious obligation, but can be avoided if health, for instance, would gravely suffer as a result of fasting. Washing with water to perform ablutions before prayer is required, but if there’s no water, sand can substitute. If something gets in the way of a scheduled prayer, the prayers can be said at a later time.
Contemporary medicine relies to some degree on the use of animals, some of which are considered haram, forbidden to Muslims. Here again, for most Muslims, practicality is seen to take precedence over following religious rules by the letter. Heart valves are sometimes replaced with those taken from pigs. This is not an ideal situation for Muslims, but in extremis, it is permitted.
Currently, several vaccines are developed through techniques that involve swine. Again, the use of the vaccines is permitted as there is no practical alternative.
This is about to change, Saudi Gazette reports, as a Saudi company, working with an Indonesian concern, is working to develop non-swine-based vaccines for meningitis (which can have several causes), hepatitis, and at least one form of menginococcus disease. A halal vaccine, though redundant insofar as effectiveness and efficiency goes, does serve a purpose. There are Muslims who avoid vaccinations because they are concerned about their use of pigs in their development. Halal versions remove an excuse for non-vaccination and serve to improve public health.
JEDDAH – Three halal vaccines being produced by a Saudi corporation in collaboration with Malaysia’s Halal Industry Development Corporation (HDC) are expected to be ready in three years, reported Malaysian news agency Bernama on Wednesday.
HDC Chief Executive Officer Datuk Seri Jamil Bidin said the vaccines that are the focus of local and international scientists and Shariah experts, are meant to treat meningitis, hepatitis and meningococcal.
“We are finding ways to convert the vaccines to make it halal and hope to complete it as soon as possible,” he told the media after the official opening of the World Halal Week 2014 here on Wednesday.
If Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council has its way, sports, athletics and physical education will become part of the curriculum for girls, according to Arab News. The Council has recognized that a sound body is as important as a sound mind.
In its statement, though, it leaves enough conditions and qualifications that those bent on preventing the step will be able to delay it or make it prohibitively expensive for individual schools to implement. The Council could do better.
Shoura green light for girls’ physical education
JEDDAH: IRFAN MOHAMMED
The Shoura Council has approved the introduction of physical education for girls at public schools across the Kingdom.
Classes will be conducted according to Islamic principles and traditions, said sources.
The issue has been the subject of much debate, especially after some notable scholars, ruled that physical education, including swimming, was permissible as long as it was practiced in strict privacy.
The Ministry of Education had since allowed some private schools to teach sports to school girls.
The Ministry of Education will soon allow physical education classes for girls in public schools under qualified instructors, according to sources. The decision will be made after taking into account logistical issues, such as space, privacy and the availability of qualified female instructors.