Saudi Gazette reports that Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University — Saudi Arabia’s leading university for the teaching of Islamic sciences, is purging its bookshelves of materials that promote extremism. Further, it is refusing to accept research into extremist ideologies and attendance at conferences and the like organized by extremist groups.
As always, the devil is in the details and Saudi media rarely provide details. No names of authors or titles of books are given.
Saudi Arabia also lacks freedom of speech — censorship is pervasive — so actual scholarship is being limited. Academic freedom of professors is equally being denied. This, though, is pretty much the norm for the country. Believing it is facing an existential threat from extremism, it is perhaps wise for the government and university to take these steps, but it comes with a cost, too. Imperfect knowledge does not usually lead to good conclusions.
University removes books with deviant ideologies
Saudi Gazette report
RIYADH — Imam Muhammad Bin Saud University here has begun reviewing the books in its library to eliminate books that spew deviant and extremist ideologies, Makkah daily reported.
The university has set up a special committee to go through all books listed in the library and take improper ones off of shelves so that students do not read them, a source said.
The books and references that contain certain religious content or security issues will also be eliminated and destroyed. The source said the university is keen to ensure that all the books in the library do not have any ideas that encourage extremism and factionalism.
The university has banned the registration of any research dealing with a personality or a society that has any form of ties with extremist groups and organizations unless the research criticizes these groups. Students are not allowed to summarize any audio or written files about extremist groups and persons or distribute them to other members of the university community.
Saudi Gazette runs a brief piece noting that the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has said they’ve identified 100 problematic imams (out of a total of 15,000 in the Kingdom) who exhibit extremist tendencies. These imams are being given a chance to get with the program of condemning extremism or find themselves out of work.
RIYADH — The Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call and Guidance has identified about 100 mosque imams out of 15,000 with extremist tendencies. He said the imams are currently being rehabilitated but will be dismissed if they do not repent, the ministry’s undersecretary for mosque affairs Tawfiq Al-Sudairy announced. He said the ministry is closely monitoring the performance of all imams and their Friday sermons. The undersecretary said following the terrorist attack against a police checkpoint in Sharoorah in Ramadan, the ministry asked all mosque imams to denounce the incident and to criticize any anti-Islamic ideologies. “The response of the imams was excellent. Those who did not implement the ministry’s instructions were given another opportunity to do so,” he said. Al-Sudairy warned that any imam who conveys any extremist ideas in his sermon would be sacked.
The idea of cinemas in Saudi Arabia is a fraught one. While they used to exist, up to the 1960s at least, in some parts of the Kingdom, they have all be shuttered in the name of keeping the sexes separate and avoiding the dispersal of “bad” ideas. They remain unpopular with a large part of the Saudi population for those reasons, but others see not only a desire for cinema, but an economic need.
Saudi Gazette reports that the Ministry of Labor is at least open to the idea of re-opening cinemas. It sees it, tentatively, as a new area in which Saudis can be employed. This would go along with the fact that Saudis are becoming more adept at making films, even if they have to cross borders to do so. Saudis certainly cross borders to view films, as Bahraini theaters are pleased to record in their balance sheets.
The arguments about content seem to now be obviated by the fact of satellite TV and the Internet. Content that was once considered anathema is now common, though filtering and blocking things like obscenity and objectionable religious and political content continue (to decreasing effect). Separating the sexes ought not be a difficult task for a country that has been separating them for a few generations now.
Many see the reintroduction of cinemas in Saudi Arabia as inevitable. At present, though, it’s a matter of “Soon, just not now.”
Cinema is now an economic activity
Saudi Gazette report
THE Ministry of Labor in the Kingdom has included cinema in the economic activities that people can work in. The ministry has included various cinema and other entertainment activities, film production as well as distribution and display of movies among economic activities, a statement of the ministry put on its website said.
In an exclusive report this June, Maaal Arabic newspaper revealed that an investor has officially submitted an application to the Saudi General Commission for Audiovisual Media for a license to set up a movie theater in Saudi Arabia.
Through its website, the ministry did not give more details on these specializations and the possibility of working in them nor did it specify conditions and regulations for someone willing to engage in such activities, according to Al Arabiya website.
Earlier, the audiovisual commission did not object to the idea in principle. It asked the investor to give a full explanation on the project including a future strategy.
If the commission thinks the investment is feasible, it could ask higher authorities to clear the way for movie theaters nationwide, sources reportedly said.
Nitiqat is the most recent iteration of “Saudization,” the effort to convert jobs held by expat workers into jobs held by Saudis. The programs has seen considerable succes, Nathan Field writes for the Saudi-US Trade Group. Structural reforms in employment have taken place — though other changes are still necessary. Employers are now facing real consequences when they try to skirt employment law; salaries have risen; companies whose existence depended on hiring low-wage, low-skill expats have been shuttered.
Over the past three years, the number of Saudis employed in the private sector has doubled; the number of women working has increased by a multiple of seven. Attitudes about manual labor seem to be changing as well. Saudis are beginning to accept jobs that were once — with no factual reason — deemed to be beneath them. This is helped by increases in salaries paid to those doing those jobs.
The factors that have led to the problems of employment developed over decades. Their solutions will, hopefully, not take as long. Those problems absolutely need to be solve, though, so what improvements have happened should be embraced.
Nitaqat Three Years On: A Summer 2014 Report Card
Four years into the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has been an oasis of relative calm and stability in an otherwise tumultuous Middle East region. This is partially because the perceived social, economic and political dysfunction resulting from Arab Spring reform movements has had a sobering effect on Saudi perceptions. In fact, many Saudis consider the chief consequence of the Arab Spring to be unprecedented “Fowda” (chaos). As a result, the government’s Edmund Burkian message that sudden, radical reform leads to traumatizing political and economic instability is widely accepted.
However, the sobering reality of regional instability has not been the only brake on pressure for political reform in Saudi Arabia. Meaningful domestic reform undertaken by the government since 2011 has also had an effect.
In particular, the Ministry of Labor has been leading an aggressive labor reform campaign that has begun to re-balance the labor – employer relationship in ways that are more favorable to normal, average Saudis. In December 2012, the Saudi-US Trade Group (SUSTG) published Nitaqat: Towards a Saudi New Deal, my analysis of the Nitaqat initiative up to that point. My assessment was that, based on the available information at the time, some significant results had been achieved in Year One following the Arab Spring. This article will evaluate the progress of the labor reform program based on the data that has emerged in the ensuing eighteen months.
As of summer 2014, three years into what must be understood as a long-term project, the available evidence suggests the Ministry of Labor is progressing towards its goals, meaningful progress is occurring and that the foundations of longer-term sustained success are in place.
Today’s Arab News carries several articles that bear on the Nitiqat process:
Over at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Anthony Cordesman offers a critique of Pres. Obama’s announced policies concerning ISIS. As Cordesman says, while there’s much in accord with what he has suggested in the past, it is not risk-free. Those risks must be understood.
The “Best Game in Town” – Five Key Risks of the President’s Strategy
It may seem unusual to criticize a strategy you have both suggested and endorse, and it is important to stress from the outset that President Obama has almost certainly chosen a strategy that is the “best game in town” — if he fully implements it, gives it the necessary resources, and sustains it over time. The President has had to choose a strategy based on the “rules of the game” in the United States, in Iraq, in Syria, and allied states. They are rules that place major constraints on what the United States can do.
The Limited Choices That Shape the “Best Game” in Town
The United States had no choice other than to depend on regional allies for ground forces, training, bases, improvements in unity and governance, efforts to limit the Islamic State’s funding and its volunteers, and efforts to highlight its lack of religious legitimacy and horrifying departures from Islam.
On the Question-and-Answer website Quora, Saudi national Osama Natto points out the problems Saudi would-be entrepreneurs face in trying to start up a business. Part of the problem is generational, but the biggest issue is that those with money to invest are very conservative and risk-averse. It’s an interesting read, complete with infographic.
Why Start-ups Don’t Get Funding in Saudi Arabia
If you have ever wondered why it’s so difficult for Saudi start-ups to find funding, this infographic is about to open your eyes.
Based on one of my more controversial blog posts, Why Start-Ups Don’t Get Funding in Saudi Arabia, this infographic includes extra information on some of topics covered in that earlier article, all presented in a fun visual format.
The full text of the infographic is available below for those who prefer text.
Syrian writer Ghassan Al Imam has an interesting opinion piece in Asharq Alawsat. He’s right, but for the wrong reasons.
Al Imam rattles on about the pipe dream of “Arab unity.” There has not been Arab unity since the first century Hijra, when the Battle of Karbala defined the first major split among Arabs and Muslims. The idea has its philosophical charms, but has been disproved in reality for over a millennium. Dreams have a value of their own, of course, but they rarely convert into useful plans of action.
What is not a dream is that by declaring itself the new Caliphate, ISIS has led to a sort of unification among the Arab states, if not precisely among Arabs. Arabs, after all, are engaged on all sides of a multifaceted conflict.
Al Imam is correct in noting that Arab audiences are ill-prepared to deal with ISIS propaganda. This is the fault of those Arab states. Each, for its own reasons, spent the bulk of the 20th C. in trying to create one “truth” for its citizens. Controlling media; controlling what could and could not be taught in schools; forcing particularized interpretations of history in the service of the state have all led to ignorance and confusion among Arabs. Intolerance of religious differences and political differences has led to people’s now finding conflict between what they’d been assured was true and what the actual world shows them to be true.
It’s not too late for the states of the region to break with the past and start promoting the value of tolerance to different views. Arab unity cannot be forced upon the citizens of 20-odd countries. But a common core of values — especially the adoption of toleration of differences — can arise, if and only if the governments permit it. These states, including Saudi Arabia, need to squelch the promotion of sectarian differences that they themselves promote.
Opinion: ISIS and Arab Unity
Ghassan Al Imam
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claims to have achieved in a few months what other projects seeking Arab unity have failed to do since Mustafa Kamal Atatürk abolished the Ottoman Islamic caliphate in 1924. In a blink of an eye, ISIS has called on 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide to move to the new “land of Islam” after they have “purged” it from Shi’ites, Christians and Yazidis, and beheaded journalists and slaughtered “crusaders.”
ISIS has called for divine governance and has taken it upon itself to ensure it is applied. It has imposed the burdens of allegiance, obedience and absolute loyalty on people in territory under its control. Without dialogue, institutions, or political parties, silence has descended on the “Islamic State.” The “caliphate” denies the need for politics, culture, or freedom.
It has modified school curricula and banned the teaching of the humanities, physical education and music. It has shut down girls’ schools and banned women from working or traveling, lest it distracts them from their domestic chores. It urges believers to receive the afterlife with satisfaction and joy, following the gloom of their temporary abode in this world.
ISIS has abolished the colonial borders between Arab countries, and declared “jihad.” It has killed more Muslim civilians than Westerners and slaughtered captured soldiers. It has arrested people from all religions and creeds. Its actions have provoked the world against it, with religious and sectarian wars breaking out on our lands.
This view of ISIS which I have just given is not mine. It is a summary of the propaganda the group itself broadcasts extensively via electronic media to reach broad segments of Arab society, given that the Arab media is reeling under ever-stricter censorship.
In 2002, a fire at a girls school in Mecca claimed the lives of 15 students. An investigation into the event identified several contributing factors. Among them was the fact that many girls schools were being operated, not out of purpose-build schools, but in rented facilities that had been constructed for other purposes, often as apartments.
The situation hasn’t changed a great deal over the past decade, according to a report in Saudi Gazette. Parents of girls attending schools in Jeddah are pointing out the sub-standard buildings into which they entrust their daughters. They’re not happy about it, reasonably enough. The schools may have desks and blackboards, perhaps even computers, but they’re sorely lacking in even basic safety measures.
2,000 girls in Jeddah face danger of school collapse
Saudi Gazette report
JEDDAH — There are concerns that a two-story rented building in north Jeddah that has been converted into a government school poses a serious threat to the lives of the 2,000 girls that use it, reported Makkah daily.
The building in the Hamadaniyah area looks perfect from outside but inside it lacks all safety measures, parents and teachers claimed.
Though the building bears a signboard saying it is the 96th elementary school for girls, in fact it has also been made into an intermediate and secondary school.
The 800 elementary students come to school early in the morning and leave about at 11 a.m.
The 1,200 intermediate and secondary students will come immediately after that and remain until around 6 p.m. There is no other government school for girls in the neighborhood, which is why it looks after so many students.
The King Fahd Causeway, a 25km/16mi. combination of bridge and roadway connects the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia with the island state of Bahrain. Annually, some 12 million people use the road to travel between the two countries, often to take advantage of their different legal and social situations. The current volume of traffic is at the point of breaking the system of customs and immigration and hour-long backups are not infrequent.
Now, approaching 30 years after the causeway first opened, a second, parallel causeway is being planned to handle the large and increasing amount of traffic. According to this Asharq Alawsat report, the new causeway will include railroad lines, part of a GCC-wide effort to develop a rail network linking all member countries.
Manama, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have announced plans to construct a second cross-sea bridge linking the two Gulf kingdoms.
The announcement was made following a meeting on Friday in Jeddah between the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, and Bahrain’s King, Sheikh Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa.
Bahrain’s Minister of Transportation Kamal Bin Ahmad told Asharq Al-Awsat the 15-mile-long (25-kilometer-long) bridge will run parallel to the King Fahd Causeway—the existing bridge linking the two countries—but will, in addition to a lane for cars, also include two rail lines: one for passengers and another for cargo.
He said the new bridge would be named the King Hamad Bridge, after Bahrain’s monarch, a “generous gesture” from King Abdullah as a sign of the continued friendship and cooperation between the two countries.
He added that the Saudi and Bahraini ministries of transport and finance, as well as the King Fahd Causeway Authority—the joint Saudi–Bahraini body overseeing the bridge—had carried out, alongside an outside consulting firm, initial technical and environmental studies for the project last July.
In its report, Arab News focuses on the US $5 billion price tag for the new causeway:
Several years ago, there was talk of building an Egypt-Saudi causeway across the northern part of the Red Sea. I’ve not heard anything about that recently, but given the recent disruptions in Egyptian politics, that doesn’t particularly surprise me.
Arab News reports that Saudi courts have set prison sentences for four Saudis who had left the country to fight in Syria alongside ISIS and Al Nusra Front. They received jail terms of up to six years and travel bans following their release. The cases cited involved the use of false documents to travel.
A court has sentenced four Saudis to prison for up to six years and prevented them from traveling for participating in fighting in Syria with ISIS and the Nusra Front. The convicts impersonated other people and left Saudi Arabia with fake passports through land ports. One of them participated in guarding a terrorist camp.
Another was imprisoned and banned from traveling for five years. He was accused of traveling with others to take part in the fight in Syria by stealing the passport of his brother and leaving the Kingdom through the Al-Rigi land port to Kuwait, and from there to Turkey. Smugglers later helped him slip into Syria.
Some months ago, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah issued a royal decree criminalizing fighting abroad or belonging to extremist or religious groups.
Anyone found guilty could be jailed for up to 20 years. Punishments apply to organizations that are classified as terrorist either locally, regionally or internationally. People who offer any form of material or moral support to such terrorist groups or organizations or promote their thoughts are liable to the same punishment.
While they can’t drive cars in the Kingdom, Saudi women drive themselves toward success, a report from Oxford Strategic Consulting says. Al Arabiya TV extracts this from a press release by the group that notes Saudi women’s achievement in academics, but also their uphill struggles against societal barriers. An interesting data point pulled out of the study is that Saudi men are more motivated by religion or beliefs than by achievement for its own sake.
Neither link goes to the study itself. Just how questions were phrased and interpreted is not made clear. The overall results, however, confirm my own experience with Saudi women: they are truly interested in showing that they can manage for themselves and they do — when given the chance.
A considerably larger proportion of Saudi females are more likely to “strive to achieve” than their male counterparts, a survey found earlier this week, putting the figures at 35 percent and 20 percent of respondents respectively.
The survey, which was commissioned by Oxford Strategic Consulting, and released by the UK/Dubai-based HR consultancy, and polled nearly 1,000 Saudi nationals living in kingdom, asked respondents to list three things that most motivated them and three things that most discouraged them.
The survey indicated that Saudi women were also markedly more prone than men to feel discouraged by their own negative feelings (49% cf. 35%) and lack of personal achievement (24% cf. 14%), the report said.
Saudi media report that an American citizen is among a group of 24 who have been sentenced for taking part in a terrorist organization within the Kingdom. The articles, all based on a release from the Saudi Press Agency, typically exclude much useful information such as noting the specific crimes committed and the names of the individuals.
US citizen among 24 jailed over terror plots
Saudi Gazette report
RIYADH — The Special Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced 24 people, including an American, to prison terms of up to 27 years Wednesday for forming a terrorist cell and plotting to attack Saudi and Bahraini interests, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
The defendants, sentenced to at least two years in prison, also include one Yemeni national, while the rest are all Saudi citizens, SPA said. The American, who was not named, was jailed for 17 years.
The court ordered the Saudi defendants to be placed under a travel ban and deport the foreigners after their release from prison.
The special court found them guilty of forming a terrorist cell that plotted attacks against oil pipelines and some citizens and disobeying the Kingdom’s rulers, with some of them traveling to join fighting abroad.
A Reuters report has a bit more information though. It notes that the American has been held for six years already, pre-sentencing. That six years is being deducted from his 18-year sentence as “time served.” Again, though, details are lacking. The Reuters reports obliquely suggests that there was some sort of involvement in protests in the Shi’a-populated Easter Province, but doesn’t actually say that. The border between “protest” and “supporting terrorism” is notoriously thin when it comes to Shi’a matters in Saudi Arabia, though. As a consequence, we really don’t know anything other than that an American has been sentenced. Perhaps the question will be raised in a US State Department press conference…