Writing at Foreign Policy, Caryle Murphy — who has spent considerable time in Saudi Arabia — reports that the fundamentalist view of Islam promoted by the state and supported by large parts of the population, is coming under pressure.
On both social and political fronts, the most conservative aspects of the “authorized” Salafist interpretation of Islam is being questioned by Saud youth. They do not, of course, have the field to themselves. There are those who continue to see the government as too liberal, too inclined to “succumb to foreign influence.” The government itself has vested interests, of course. But increasingly, individual Saudis are willing to question the assertions that have been drilled into them since early school years. Some, indeed, are willing to acknowledge their agnosticism or atheism, knowing that they could be legally punished for expressing such views.
The article is worth reading in its entirety.
Questioning the Faith in the Cradle of Islam
In Saudi Arabia, a new generation is pushing back against the government’s embrace of fundamentalism. But is the kingdom ready for nonbelievers?
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Ahmed al-Ghamdi’s long, bushy beard and red-checked headscarf are emblems of his conservative approach to Islam, which is no surprise for a man who once supervised the Saudi religious police in the holy city of Mecca.
But it was something surprising about Ghamdi that brought me to his apartment in a scruffy, low-income section of Jeddah in the sweltering summer of 2011. I wanted to know why he had announced that, after extensive research, he could find no Islamic basis for Saudi society’s most distinctive feature: its strict gender segregation.
As his wife, sister, and mother listened in with obvious pride, Ghamdi explained that he could no longer take “at face value” religious rulings that gender mixing is haram — that is, religiously prohibited. “I wanted to go to their underpinnings, so I began collecting all the texts relating to this matter from the Quran and the Sunna [examples from the life and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed],” he said. “My conclusion was that not a single text or verse in the Quran and Sunna specifically says that mixing is haram. The word ‘mixing’ is not even in the Quran.”
Instead, he said he found plenty of texts “that proved that mixing happened at the time of Prophet Mohammed” and that “it is just another part of normal life.”
Saudi nationals are not permitted to hold dual citizenship, Arab News reports, except in some circumstances. That’s a bit baffling as the circumstances (other than that the citizen must obtain prior permission) aren’t made clear, nor are what purposes the regulations are meant to address. Every country, of course, has the right and duty to decide who it deems a citizen. Why permission might be granted will have to remain a puzzle until someone says something.
The Kingdom does not allow dual nationality, said Mohammad Jasser Al-Jasser, spokesman for Civil Status. However, the citizenship of a Saudi female will not be revoked if her husband alone obtains a foreign nationality.
“The Kingdom will cancel the citizenship of any Saudi citizen who obtains a foreign nationality without prior permission of the Interior Ministry,” Al-Jasser said.
He added that Saudi citizenship will be taken away from any Saudi citizen who is in the ranks of military in any foreign government, without the authorization of the Saudi government. The same applies to citizens who work for foreign governments in a current state of war with Saudi Arabia.
“According to the nationality system of Saudi Arabia, dual nationality is not allowed in compliance with Article 11, which stipulates that no Saudi citizen is allowed to obtain a foreign nationality without prior permission of the Council of Ministers. If a citizen obtained a foreign nationality before acquiring the permission, the government still retains the right to revoke the person’s Saudi citizenship in accordance with Article 13 of the nationality system,” he explained.
Just a few years ago, the idea of physical education for girls was one that led to huge arguments in the Saudi population and, consequently, one the Saudi government preferred to avoid.
That’s changed. Not only is physical education becoming part of the curriculum in girls schools, but the government is establishing 1,000 “fitness and social clubs” around the country, Arab News reports.
The wars over what’s acceptable for women are hardly finished. There are still many Saudis who find the idea morally dangerous and fight against it. For now, though, they’ve lost the battle.
Ministry plans 1,000 fitness clubs for girls
JEDDAH: FOUZIA KHAN
The Ministry of Education plans to launch 1,000 fitness and social clubs for girls around the country by the end of 2015.
Noura Al-Fayez, deputy minister of education for girls, said on Wednesday that the aim is to ensure these clubs are for members of the community, particularly young people, to develop a range of skills.
Al-Fayez made the comments on Wednesday during a tour of a club in Riyadh.
Al-Fayez was welcomed by Samira Sheaibi, assistant director of the girls education department in Riyadh; Nadia Al-Ghyshian, assistant general supervisor of the program; Nora Alkanaan, director of the Shifa education office; Nora Budaiya, director of the club; and several supervisors and management activity directors.
Most of Saudi Arabia’s efforts toward solving its unemployment programs have gone toward finding jobs for men. But not all of them.
The Saudi government has “feminized” lingerie and women’s accessories shops, permitting only Saudi women to work in them and limiting the access to those shops by males. Now, Saudi Gazette reports, gold and jewelry shops are coming into focus as a women-only domain. New regulations are being kicked around that will see women as the primary employees of these shops, though details are still to be worked out. The women will replace mostly expat employees, most of whom come from S. Asia.
I’m not sure that 100% of jewelry and gold shops can work with only-female staff. Saudi men do buy jewelry and not always in the company of their wives. Some sort of accommodation will have to be found for them. Whatever the solution, the cost of jewelry will go up as shop owners have to make changes to make their shops suitable for female employees. The government might offer one-time financial assistance in making these changes, but that will have to be addressed in the regulations.
Move afoot to employ women in jewelry shops
Naheel Abdullah | Saudi Gazette
JEDDAH — The Ministry of Labor is working on a new regulation to employ Saudi women at jewelry shops, according to Fahd Al-Tekhaifi, deputy minister for special programs.
The ministry will soon post the draft regulation on its electronic gate of “Together We Improve” in order to have feedback from businessmen, jobseekers and members of society prior to finalizing the regulation.
Al-Tekhaifi said the ministry considers that jewelry shops are one of the major areas that can provide jobs for a large number of young women jobseekers. He noted that jewelries and gold market are one of the key areas designated for Saudization as per a royal decree issued three years ago. Owners of jewelry shops will be instructed to employ Saudi women after meeting all the terms and conditions put forward by the ministry in this respect, he said.
Al-Tekhaifi said the conditions will vary in accordance with the location of jewelry shops, which are either inside indoor commercial centers or outdoor souks or separate locations. The conditions are aimed at guaranteeing safe and suitable work environment for women.
Saudi Gazette/Okaz report that for the first time, Saudi women are now working in the slaughterhouses that provide the sacrificial animals to mark the end of Haj. While the jobs are seasonal, they are valid employment. The women work as managers overseeing quality control; as an interface between female customers and the house; and in distributing the meat to the poor.
Slowly, the conceptual barriers between “men’s work” and “women’s work” are being broken down.
For 1st time, Saudi women work in slaughterhouses
Abdullah Al-Dhhas | Okaz/Saudi Gazette
MINA — For the first time ever, 15 Saudi women are supervising the slaughtering of sheep, cattle and camels at Al- Moaissim Model Slaughterhouse, near Mina during this Haj season.
Bandar Al-Suhairi, chairman of the company operating the slaughterhouse, said the women are supervising the slaughtering of animals, assisting other women who want to use the slaughterhouse and distributing meat among the poor and needy.
He said the women employees were assigned the task of supervision and control and they prevent other women from entering the place where animals are being slaughtered.
“These are seasonal workers. The women are being employed for the first time at a slaughterhouse during the Haj,” he said.
In a culture where the idea of sexual purity can reach the level of pathological obsession, it doesn’t take much to set off an explosion.
Saudi Gazette translates a piece from the Arabic daily Al-Jazirah commenting on the most recent hullabaloo. A schoolgirl recites a poem for the visiting Minister of Education. The Minister, in a perfectly normal act, kissed the girl on her head. Not on her lips, on her head. And the result is a firestorm alleging sexual and moral improprieties. This is nuts and the writer isn’t reluctant to say so.
Who has victimized Janah?
Abdul Rahman Al-Shlash | Al-Jazirah
Janah Miteb Al-Shammari is a 12-year-old schoolgirl from Hail. Education Minister Prince Khaled Al-Faisal visited her school. She insisted on reciting a poem in his presence on the occasion of the National Day. The Prince was impressed by the promising talent of the young girl. In appreciation, he kissed her in a fatherly fashion on the forehead.
The kiss was from a top official, a father and an education leader to a young talent who needed support and encouragement. This historic moment will forever be imprinted in the memory of the young girl throughout her life. It is not very often that a boy or a girl student has the opportunity to meet with the man in charge of education in the country.
Regretfully this spectacular scene was marred by some sick-minded people, who linked the moment to stagnant conceptions in their brains.
Citizens with normal minds did not see anything wrong in a little girl reciting a poem and a top education official appreciating her talent with a kiss on the forehead. They only saw in the situation a kind gesture by a father towards one of his creative and talented daughters.
Saudi Gazette reports on a divorce case before the Personal Status Court in Jeddah that wrapped several issues that almost always accompany divorces in the Kingdom into one decree. It’s not clear whether this is a result of the ongoing legal reforms in Saudi Arabia or is the result of the action of one judge.
Usually, a woman seeking divorce would have to file several separate actions with the court. The divorce, the issue of alimony, the issue of child custody, and the issue of child visitation would each involve an individual court hearing. Each step could result in untoward and expensive delays. In effect, this would allow one party to use the legal process as a cudgel against the other, regardless of the merits of the case.
I do hope that this is a universal reform in legal process in the Kingdom.
Family case verdicts issued altogether for the first time
Saudi Gazette report
JEDDAH — In an unprecedented move, the Personal Status Court in Jeddah governorate issued last Thursday several verdicts in one go in favor of a woman who was petitioning for a divorce.
The document that was issued to her outlined the various decisions including nullification of her marriage contract, visitation rights to see her children and the right to process her children’s papers at various government authorities if she wins custody of them.
The Yemeni woman claimed her husband beat her up and insulted her. According to an informed source in the Ministry of Justice, early last month the ministry ordered the personal status courts to ensure verdicts from cases that require more than one decision are issued altogether and compiled in one document.
These cases should be given priority and processed quickly. The verdicts were issued following a lawsuit the woman filed in the court against her husband. She claimed he mistreated her and did not want to live with him.
Saudi Gazette runs a story noting that most Saudi university graduates — male and female — are earning degrees in fields that do not lead to jobs.
Some see this as a problem. If your goal is employment or your concern is employment figures, this could clearly be seen as a problem.
It overlooks another facet of education, though: the rounded, developed individual.
Certainly, there are fields of study that are dead-ends for all but a few. There are also majors that lead to fields already glutted with earlier graduates. While this isn’t particularly new, the current unemployment figures around the world do suggest that, if the point is employment, then people should not be flocking into these majors and schools should probably be reducing the number of classes they offer in them.
This is not a Saudi-only problem or issue. American universities turn out graduates in field for which there are no jobs, or only low-paying jobs. It’s hard to say, though, that they’re worthless for the individual student. It can only be said that they don’t lead to employment.
63% Saudis enrolled in majors unsuitable for market
Saudi Gazette report
RIYADH — A majority of young Saudi men and women in colleges study subjects which are not in demand in the labor market, an economist was quoted as saying in a section of the Arabic press here on Saturday.
It is important that high school graduates focus on technical and vocational training, especially in light of the fact that 90 percent of those who signed up for Hafiz Unemployment Aid Program hold degrees with specializations unsuitable for the market, Dr. John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Saudi-Fransi Bank, told Al-Hayat.
Some 46 percent or 290,000 of the Kingdom’s unemployed youth hold bachelor’s degrees. The percentage of unemployed women with bachelor’s degrees stands at 88. Hafiz program has 320,000 applicants in its database.
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:
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.
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.