By Rob L. Wagner
28 May 2013
Carol Fleming Al-Ajroush, the popular American blogger who chronicled Saudi society and covered expatriate issues as American Bedu, died yesterday following a battle with breast cancer. She was 53.
American Bedu was widely read in Saudi Arabia and the United States for its insight of the Kingdom through the eyes of Al-Ajroush, an American expat married to a Saudi. Her stories and observations about the lives of expats in a closed and conservative country won legions of followers who respected her frank, but fair commentary on Saudi issues. Al-Ajroush was particularly eloquent in writing about Saudi women’s issues, including the right to seek employment, to drive an automobile and to live full lives.
In addition to her coverage of Saudi issues, she also blogged about breast cancer awareness after she returned to the United States for treatment. She participated in public service campaigns and served as a speaker at cancer awareness events. She was a member of the Lake Norman Breast Cancer Support Group.
Many of her stories of her Saudi experiences were published in “Bridges: An Anthology.” Her work was also published in Oasis Magazine.
Carol A-Ajroush had been a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, at the time of her death.
Al-Ajroush was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. Her family had a long history of cancer. In an interview with reporter Amber Shahid for Arab News, she openly discussed her illness.
“My grandmother, aunts and cousin died of breast cancer,” she said. “My cousin was only 31 years old and she had two young children. These thoughts ran through my mind when I learned of my diagnosis. By the time I reached my 40s, however, I guess I naively considered myself safe.”
A native of Espyville, Pennsylvania, Al-Ajroush was born on Oct. 9, 1959. She graduated from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Following graduation, she served as an American diplomat for 20 years, including an assignment in Pakistan where she met her husband, Saudi diplomat Abdullah Othman Al-Ajroush. They moved to Saudi Arabia in 2006 after a long courtship in several countries. She resigned her post to get married.
Abdullah Al-Ajroush died in 2010. She is survived by a son, Jon Carmichael; a brother, Michael C. Lebhaft; and a nephew, Matthew Joseph Wells.
By Rob L. Wagner
17 April 2013
When the twin explosions struck near the finish line of the Boston Marathon Monday afternoon, Saudi pharmacy student Shatha Jameel Mufti did what everyone else did. She ran.
She didn’t flee immediately because her first reaction was that a bomb didn’t go off.
“I didn’t see it, but it was something like a big pipe had fallen,” she told Arab News in a telephone interview. “But then I felt the impact and we all just started running.”
The explosions left three people dead and more than 170 injured. Other eye witnesses described the blasts as a “sudden shock.” Medical personnel said injuries included serious limb and head injuries and ruptured eardrums.
The 22 year-old, a fourth-year student at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, watched the marathon on Boylston Street with about a dozen of her friends and fellow students. The day started perfect. Temperatures hovered around 18 C, pleasantly warm and dry after a brutally cold winter.
But as she watched the runners cross the finish line, the impact of the explosion jolted her. “It was to my right and about a mile away,” she said. “My first instinct was that it was an accident.”
She then saw runners falling and police pushing people away. She began running from the explosion. She saw many people injured and blood covering the street.
“There was a lot of young children crying and screaming,” she said. “I tried to calm some children down until a mother came and found her child.”
Emergency personnel were immediately at the scene and aiding the injured. Fully staffed medical tents serving marathon participants had been converted into instant triage areas, so her medical training was not necessary.
Many of the people running with her began to fill nearby shops and restaurants in a bid to find safety. “I went into a Starbucks,” she said.
She headed for the train station to get home. “They had stopped the trains and people were gathering at the station. It became overwhelming for me and I started running home.”
She ran a good 45 minutes until she was home in the Longwood area of Boston.
She said she became separated from her friends. City authorities shut down the mobile phones and everyone was in the dark about what had happened to each other. The first thing she said when the phones opened up was to call her mother in Saudi Arabia. “She was trying to reach me, and I told her when I called that I was all right.”
The bombings had a lingering effect on her, but returning to her normal schedule is the only option.
“To be honest, all of us were scared about going back to school,” Mufti said. “But school opened today and there is grief counseling available for those emotionally impacted. I plan to go to school today.”
By Rob L. Wagner
7 April 2013
Employers and expatriate workers face steep fines and jail time if they violate iqama and visa laws established by the Ministry of Interior, according to the ministry.
Saudi businessmen and women responding to the Ministry of Labor’s raids over the past week have gone to social media to promote and discuss the Interior Ministry’s “Iqama System Violations & Penalties” web page that outlines Iqama and visa violations, and their consequences.
The ministry outlined 34 violations ranging from expatriates failing to provide proof of residency to forgery to employers hiring workers on a visitor’s visa. Fines range from SR 1,000 to SR 50,000 depending on the violation, according the MoI.
Ibrahim Muhammad, who is retired from the Ministry of Interior, said yesterday that the Ministry of Labor should emphasize the guidelines every time an expatriate renews or replaces his Iqama. “More light should be placed on the issue by the media and business people to make sure there is no misunderstanding of what can happen to people who violate the law,” Muhammad said.
Expatriates found violating routine regulations, such as failing to renew an iqama three days before its expiration date, face relatively light fines. Those fines may include paying double the Iqama fees. A resident failing to prove that he holds an Iqama faces a SR 1,000 fine for the first violation, SR 2,000 for the second offense and SR 3,000 for the third violation.
But agents who help expatriates obtain forged documents or employers who harbor overstayers or employ an undocumented worker face much more severe penalties. Saudi citizens who help an expat obtain a forged Iqama face fines of up to SR 15,000 and three months in jail. Expats who forge Iqamas or visas face up to three months in jail or a SR 10,000 fine. Individuals sheltering overstayers can expect to pay as much as SR 30,000 in fines and have their names published in the local press. Fines are multiplied for each overstayer involved.
“That’s what I call justice,” said a Saudi sponsor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It should not just be expats who are fined or put in prison.”
The Ministry of Interior also targets Haj and Umrah pilgrims who refuse to leave after their visas expire. Haj and Umrah pilgrims who remain in the country and become self-employed could be imprisoned for one month and receive a SR 10,000 fine. Haj company owners who transport pilgrims outside established routes face up to SR 30,000 fines and six months in jail.
The stiffest penalties are reserved for employers “allowing his employees to work on their own account or in return for payment to the sponsor.” Penalties range from SR 5,000 fines and one month in jail up to SR 50,000 and three months in jail for the third offense. Employing undocumented workers could also mean a SR 50,000 fine and three months in jail.
By Rob L. Wagner
17 December 2012
PASADENA, Calif. — The Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Christian church that provided the council with a venue for its conference devoted part of the event on Saturday to confront critics who alleged the church is unwittingly furthering an Islamic agenda against American values.
An invitation to MPAC by senior pastor Edwin Bacon, rector All Saints Episcopal Church, to host the conference sparked a flurry of hate mail and national attention in the United States from conservative Christian and anti-Muslim hate groups. Bacon said he saw an opportunity to confront religious bigotry. Although Bacon said, “Christians can be hateful,” the All Saints congregation was “unconditional and enthusiastic” in its support to host the MPAC event.
The conference focused on MPAC’s efforts to join Christians in developing interfaith dialogue to promote better understanding between all religions. The conference was not directly tied to King Abdullah’s interfaith dialogue programs and the interreligious center that recently opened in Vienna. However, Haris Tarin, MPAC’s Washington DC office director, said his organization shares the same goals.
“We want the world to see an example of how all faiths can come together,” Tarin told Arab News. “What we wanted to do in the church will show a good sign for what we are doing in the community.” Bacon said, “We have always been open and hospitable to Jews and Muslims, so what we are doing is not really notable for us. All Saints is deeply committed to interfaith. This is an opportunity to teach American Christians about Islam.”
As Bacon spoke to Arab News in front of the church, a handful of protesters shouted anti-Muslim epithets.
“We pray for them and hope they will be transformed from their violent rhetoric,” he said.
While the conference covered a wide range of topics that address American Muslim issues, the backlash from conservative Christian groups over MPAC’s presence at All Saints set the tone for most of the discussions throughout the day.
Salam Al-Marayati, president of MPAC, said “political extremists” see Muslims through the lens of the Middle East, specifically the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as a litmus test on how all Muslims are viewed. Often ignored, MPAC members say, is that American Muslim issues do not necessarily reflect what is occurring in the Middle East. American Muslims’ concerns generally coincide with non-Muslims, such as employment and health care.
Persistent criticism of MPAC from the Christian religious right focuses on the Muslim group’s alleged connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is attempting to push through a constitution opposed by secularists and liberals in Egypt’s fledgling democratic government.
Critics of the new constitution fear that women and non-Muslims will not gain full rights and that it will dilute efforts to attain full democracy.
Dr. Maher Hathout, a senior adviser to MPAC and often a target by American religious conservatives for his connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, told the conference of about 200 people that he was a member of the Ikhwan when he was 17 years old as part of an effort to rid Egypt of British colonialism. He said he has not been involved with the Muslim Brotherhood for 60 years and has not been part of any foreign organizations during the last 40 years.
Tarin said in an interview that he is optimistic that American political extremism is waning. He pointed to the defeats of Florida Republican Congressman Allen West and Illinois Republican representative Joe Walsh, who are both Tea Party firebrands. West once said that, “Islam is a totalitarian theocratic political ideology, it is not a religion” while Walsh advocated the deporting Muslims from the US.
“I’m optimistic that the negative perceptions will decline,” Tarin said. “(The voters said) we don’t want that kind of extreme rhetoric.” Yet the lion’s share of the work to change the perception of American Muslims will rest on the shoulders of Muslim teens and young adults, Tarin said.
Tarin pointed to himself as a young Muslim 20 years ago unburdened by an Islamic identity because few non-Muslims knew of Islam nor did they have the negative perceptions of Islam before 9/11. Today, any young person with an Islamic name carries the burden of explaining himself to non-Muslims.
“Younger (non-Muslim) people get it,” Tarin said. “Those who have personal relationships with Muslims are less likely to have negative feelings. The challenge is how to get to those people not touched by Muslims.”
He said second and third generation American Muslims are joining the political process, noting that many young adults are engaged in voter registration drives and activism on a local level. He noted that that voters in Teaneck, New Jersey, elected their first Muslim mayor, Mohammed Hameeduddin, through grassroots campaigning.
“We are slowly progressing toward tolerance,” Tarin said.
By Rob L. Wagner
Arab News/Al Arabiya
26 November 2012
My Saudi wife has warned me on more than one occasion not to tell her brothers in Madinah that she can do anything she pleases and go anywhere she wants. And if she wasn’t so lazy to get her driver’s license while in the US last summer, she could drive the car through the streets of Jeddah for all I care.
She tells me they would look at her with pity because her husband is not man enough to protect her and keep her out of trouble.
So I keep my effeminate Western ways to myself. Whenever her brothers visit, I keep her busy serving Arabic coffee and sweets. I then have her sit at my feet and look up at me wondrously as I speak of things I know nothing about (read: American).
The payback is I get a month’s worth of dish-washing and laundry duty. I will also sit in mall parking lots with the other drivers while she goes inside to meet her girlfriends for coffee and a Cinnabon.
But I am supposed to get the last laugh, at least in theory. Last April, the Saudi government implemented a new policy to send text messages to male guardians when their wives, daughters or whatever leaves the country. The text is meant as an electronic version of the piece of paper that male guardians sign to allow Saudi women to board flights when traveling outside the Kingdom. It was supposed to be voluntary, but it seems it is now compulsory. The policy even extends to all dependents that may wish to leave the country.
Saudi women — for reasons unknown to any man — claim this is Big Brother and an insult to every woman. The new policy treats women as children and second-class citizens.
I say hooey.
As an expat who desperately wants to assimilate into Saudi society, I think it’s a great idea. It’s almost as good as getting the Saudi citizenship.
Alas, the Saudi government has disappointed me. Not long ago my wife traveled without me to England on business. I know this because I bought her airline ticket. I helped her pack her bags to ensure there were a dozen or so photos of me among her things. I drove her to the airport. I didn’t kiss her goodbye, but I did give her a firm handshake. I watched her wave at me as she left for the departure lounge. She seemed pretty happy about the whole thing.
But I received no text from the government warning me of her departure. Complete silence. How did I know she went to England and didn’t switch planes in Paris to head for the sun-soaked sandy beaches of the Caribbean? Did she really meet her sisters in Newcastle? I saw a video of her in England, but how do I know it wasn’t staged like those fake videos of US astronauts walking on a sound stage made to look like the moon? These are questions that nagged at me during her two-week absence.
Last weekend, she took another trip (that’s twice in less than six months) for a conference. As I drove home from the airport after dropping her off, I waited for a text to let me know the Saudi government had my back. Nothing. I’m still waiting.
I am confident that sooner or later the government will catch on and log my mobile phone data into their system. The days of my wife blithely waving bye-bye at the airport knowing she can go anywhere and do anything without me aware will be a distant memory.
In fact, I don’t think the text message system goes far enough. Text messaging male guardians should be expanded to other areas, such as shopping malls.
The next time my wife goes shopping without me, this is the kind of text I prefer to see: “Michael Kors shoulder bag: SR 1500. Please reply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ via text.” Or “Location: La Costa, Corniche. Spouse, five females smoking shisha. Break it up? Reply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ via text.”
In the end, though, the Saudi government will have the last laugh. As it stands, I now must give my wife permission to leave the country. Yet, by a quirk with my Iqama, I also must receive permission from my wife to leave the country. So on our next trip outside the Kingdom, my wife and I will each be handing permission slips, with each other’s signatures, to the immigration officer at the airport.
By Rob L. Wagner
19 November 2012
Back in the old days it used to be that military commanders kept their mouths shut about their objectives in war.
American Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his staff, for example, went to great lengths to keep Germany guessing about the D-Day Normandy invasion. It worked out pretty well for the Allies, not to mention every living soul in Europe.
But Twitter and Facebook bring out the 14-year-old kid in all of us who have a tendency to brag, with a dose of snark, about our achievements great and small. Now, Israel Defense Forces’ inner adolescent has reared its head with a relentless series of tweets about its military offensive in Gaza. IDF continues to update its tweets on its military successes with braggadocio. It trivializes war with its eye toward garnering as many “likes” and “shares” as possible.
Twitter has only been around since 2006, but imagine if it was available when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. We would see announcements like these: “Chased Saddam out of Baghdad, now on with the search for WMDs #IraqiFreedom” or “100,000 civilians dead and counting. #SupportDemocracy.”
Waging a propaganda war alongside the guns, tanks and rockets is standard fare among nations. But unlike distributing leaflets by air or using radio, social media cheapens just about everything it touches. And it’s even more apparent when it comes to wartime boasting.
The IDF has been reeling for years from bad publicity. From its custom T-shirts displaying Palestinians in the crosshairs to its callousness over the disproportionate number of Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks, the IDF is courting public opinion in an attempt to remake its image and gain support.
The IDF urges Twitter users to support its cause with retweets. For example, the @IDFSpokesman Twitter account wrote, “More than 12,000 rockets hit Israel in the past 12 years. RT if you think #Israel has the right to defend itself.”
Nearly 6,000 people retweeted the message. On its Facebook page, the IDF posted an image of slain Hamas military commander Ahmed Al-Jabari with the word “Eliminated” stamped in all capital letters underneath. Accompanying the post was the IDF’s statement, “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.” The post earned more than 16,000 “likes.”
It should come as no surprise that Israel has adopted the same propaganda tactics employed by Hamas, which often publicized its victories with gusto whether they were real or not. But Hamas is not the IDF, which is a highly trained army that should not be taking a page from the war playbook of its less-than-disciplined opponent.
The reason is obvious. Israel has lost considerable credibility in Europe in the past decade with its aggressive campaign against the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Rather than presenting itself as a country defending its borders, its military — with a reputation for being indifferent to civilian collateral damage in its airstrikes and assassinating suspected terrorists without due process — comes off as bragging about its bloody triumphs.
In the short term, Israel gets thousands of “likes” for its military prowess but loses with the international community that more than ever views Israel simply as an aggressor.
The tweets have drawn strong responses from both Israelis and Palestinians. According to the Washington Post, Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington D.C. wrote on Twitter that the IDF’s tweets were “extremely damning: IDF cheerily live-tweets infanticide” in an apparent reference to a child killed in an airstrike.
Israelis have adopted the IDF’s hashtag #PillarOfDefense to retweet posts while people sympathetic to Palestinians have initiated the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack.
The IDF’s social media campaign is an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the international community. But it’s a slippery slope that any military organization should think twice about engaging. Twitter is ripe for abuse and has an unforgiving memory. Sloppy tweeting during the heat of battle could result at worse a military disaster and at best a publicity nightmare.
It’s unlikely, though, that a Twitter and Facebook campaign will have any real impact on public opinion of whether Israel is taking the right path to attack Gaza. In the end there is no upside for Israel to engage in such a publicity campaign. It simply reinforces the public perception, especially in the Arab world, that Israel does not have peace on its agenda.
By Rob L. Wagner
12 November 2012
IF reports out of Jerusalem are to be believed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running scared following Barack Obama’s re-election to a second term as president.
Netanyahu, whose confidence as a leader and faith in the United States as an ally to Israel got the best of him, committed three political sins during the US presidential election season: He openly courted the Republican Party, endorsed Mitt Romney as the next president and presumed to lecture Obama on how to handle Iran.
Now Netanyahu is thinking that perhaps his brazen insults to Obama were not politically astute. Netanyahu called Obama following the president’s re-election to congratulate him on his victory and to emphasize that Israel’s relationship with the US is “rock solid.”
The prime minister is hoping to shore up some of his lost capital with Israeli citizens who complained that Netanyahu was too quick to hitch his wagon to the Republican Party and consequently jeopardize Israel’s longstanding alliance with the US.
Netanyahu’s meddling in the US elections may very well leave Obama cold to offering any support for an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, especially since the American public has little appetite in engaging the US military in another attack on a Muslim country.
Bar-Ilan University’s Eytan Gilboa, who is an expert on US-Israeli relations, told the Washington Post recently that Netanyahu may face tough opposition in the Jan. 22 Israeli election.
“Netanyahu is vulnerable on national security and foreign policy, because the opposition will argue that given his bad relationship with Obama and given the need to make critical decisions about Iran in the spring or the summer, he should be replaced,” he told the Post.
That said, Netanyahu shouldn’t worry too much. The US is still committed to Israeli interests and Obama is not going to throw out a 64-year relationship because Israel attacks Iran. The US will have no choice but to support Israel, even if it must hold its nose to do so.
The more important reason that Netanyahu doesn’t have much to worry about during Obama’s second term is the president’s commitment to domestic issues.
Judging from Obama’s post-election comments, Israel doesn’t even register on the White House’s radar. Obama has backed off any attempts to have the US play a serious role in the region’s affairs following his failure to engage the Israelis and Palestinians in meaningful negotiations to pursue a two-state solution and for Israel to cease its expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
Indeed, Obama winning a second term didn’t mean he received a mandate from the American people that his domestic and foreign policies were spot on. No, he received a mandate to fix the economy as unemployment hovers around 8 percent, get out of Afghanistan, stay out of Syria, reform immigration laws and develop a functional relationship with Congress.
Israel? That’s far down the president’s to-do list.
And that is bad for Israel. Netanyahu may have sabotaged his future with the United States by placing his faith in white American Christian conservatives to put pressure on the White House to support his ambitions against Iran and to support his resistance to engage the Palestinians.
But if the presidential election has told us anything this past week it’s that the influence of white Christian conservatives is waning and a new American demographic is emerging. Blacks make up 13 percent of the registered voters with Obama winning 93 percent of their votes. Latinos account for 10 percent of the registered voters, with 71 percent voting for the incumbent. That’s up from 67 percent for Obama in 2008. And Asians made up 3 percent of the registered voters in the presidential election with 73 percent voting for the president. In addition, 55 percent of all female registered voters cast ballots for Obama.
Poll after poll show that Latinos want Obama to address jobs and revive the economy. Domestic issues, not foreign policy, was the driving force behind the president’s victory. In one poll, 59 percent of American registered voters said the economy was the country’s top issue. Eighteen percent of the voters said that health care was the second most important issue. The federal deficit was third among 15 percent of the voters. Foreign policy trailed badly as an important issue among just 5 percent of the voters.
Latinos remain the fastest growing minority in the United States. In 2010, it consisted of 16 percent of the population and is projected to rise to 30 percent by 2050.
The influence Israel counts on is the older, wealthy white American population that holds traditional views and unwavering support about its place in the Middle East.
Yet the American voters who flexed their muscles last week — the enthusiastic and newly powerful black, Latino and Asian voter — have a different vision that looks inward. If the progressive trend to focus on domestic issues among minority voters continue, Israel could very well find itself allied with an America no longer interested in Israel’s inability to solve its problems with its neighbors.
By Rob L. Wagner
5 November 2012
IN 2004, naïve little me firmly believed that John Kerry would be elected president of the United States. I had such confidence that Americans would turn out a US president responsible for a two-front war that yielded little results, particularly failing to find weapons of mass destruction.
Oh, how wrong I was. President Bush was re-elected and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians paid the price with their lives. Afghanistan was ignored and its future was left for another president to sort out.
I lost faith in the American electorate. It sounds un-American, but I can’t explain it any other way. The American people had the golden opportunity to help reverse our poor global reputation, not to mention the strength that such a reputation carries in foreign policy. We squandered that opportunity. The conventional wisdom in 2004 was to allow the president to finish the business he started. He didn’t and it’s been a downhill slide ever since as the US continues to hold little sway in events that are shaping the Middle East today.
If conventional wisdom applies, then American voters should allow President Obama to finish the job he started: Supervise the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, find a way to eliminate terrorist threats without killing civilians in drone attacks and continue reviving the US economy, which will help lead to a worldwide economic recovery.
But Americans are fickle people. Obama didn’t live up to their unrealistic expectations. The Republican Party was — and remains — on a suicide mission to wreck the economy with its “no compromise” “no new taxes” and “big government be damned” ideology.
Republicans trashed the concept of compromise — forever the staple of effective governance — and brought the US government to the brink of financial disaster until cooler heads prevailed.
No new taxes really means increasing the Department of Defense budget without the revenue to support it. No new taxes means the wealthy continue to skate free of any responsibility to their neighbors or their country.
Dismantling big government was exposed as a specious argument following the Hurricane Sandy deadly impact on the northeast. Suddenly, Republicans recognized that big government agencies like FEMA are necessary to help states like New York and New Jersey recover. Before Sandy, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was all for giving FEMA responsibilities to states. Now he’s not so sure. Big government worked to bring aid to the victims of Sandy, and it will work to bring health care to millions of Americans as Obamacare was intended.
Certainly, Obama deserves the opportunity to finish what he started. But it’s telling that he has been under so much criticism for failing to engage the Republicans in Congress and the Senate when it was the Republicans that made it clear from the onset that they believed Obama’s presidency was illegitimate and they had no intention of cooperating. Adding to that are the Tea Party’s race-baiting tactics and socialist agenda allegations. We have voters who believe in such hooey because the extremists have been shouting it for so long and so loud.
So tomorrow we are faced with a presidential election with so much of America’s future at stake. A Romney victory essentially means a return to a Bush-era foreign policy: Russia is bad, the Middle East needs to be contained and Israel gets a blank check to do whatever it pleases. His foreign policy advisers are throwbacks to the now discredited neo-conservative circle that controlled the Bush administration: Eric Edelman, Michael Chertoff, Roger Zakheim and anti-Islam advocates John Bolton and Walid Phares.
A Romney victory means big business grows unchecked and the rich get richer. Never mind the trickle-down theory. It hasn’t even come close to working over 30 years now, but at least the Forbes 400 will remain happy.
If Obama is defeated, it won’t because he was a failed president, a 21st century Jimmy Carter who was out of his depth in the ruthless world of American politics. No, it will be hatred, racism and our unrealistic desire to elect another Kennedy that will bring America back to a Camelot that never existed. If Obama loses, it’s because the Republicans waged war on a president for no other reason that they didn’t like what he represented to them: The changing face of America that gave the disenfranchised and the people of color a leg up. The reins of power of the rich and white were slipping out of their hands.
Romney is a safe bet for many Americans. Unthreatening — at least domestically — and representative of the status quo circa 1959. But he’s a complete mystery when it comes to his intentions if he makes it to the White House.
Obama, though, has made it clear his plans for America. We can expect a slow and steady march to economic recovery with no half-baked quick-fix schemes, disengaging our military from Afghanistan and refusing to put boots on the ground on foreign soil. That alone makes him worthy of a second term.
By Rob L. Wagner
29 October 2012
Flying under the media radar recently was a yet another decision by King Abdullah that is expected to have a far-reaching impact on Saudi Arabia’s future.
At a workshop in Dubai, Dr. Saad Nasser Aldwayan, an international cooperation consultant for the Ministry of Higher Education, said that King Abdullah’s university scholarship program will be extended to 2020, according to the Saudi online newspaper Safaraa. The king launched the program in 2005, then extended it for another two years in 2007. It was extended a third time in 2009 for another three years.
Committing the scholarship program through 2020 allows a new generation of Saudis to study at Western universities. It will bring students’ graduate and post-graduate skills home to help transform Saudi Arabia from its dependency on oil to a nonoil producer and exporter of Saudi goods.
My wife benefited from the scholarship program, arriving in the United Kingdom in 2007 to study for her Ph.D and then returning this year to Saudi Arabia to a waiting job as an assistant university professor. During her five-year program, she came across scores of Saudi men and women studying a wide range of subjects. They couldn’t wait to return to Saudi Arabia with their newfound skills and begin serving their country.
If I sound like an enthusiastic supporter of the scholarship program it’s because there is no other reform measure that will have the effect on young Saudis than a free university education.
According to Safaraa, Saudis under the age of 40 account for 79 percent of the total Saudi population. An estimated 36 percent are under the age of 15.
Those 15-year-olds will become eligible for the scholarship program in 2015 and will return home with university degrees before today’s 10-year-olds become eligible to enter the program in 2020 at the age of 18.
An estimated 1.15 million Saudi students are currently enrolled at domestic and foreign universities and colleges with women making up 60 percent of the higher education student population. The scholarship program receives about SR 9 million annually that pays for 125,000 undergraduate and post-graduate students at about 3,000 universities worldwide.
About 23,000 Saudi students are studying at universities in the United States for the 2010-2011 academic year. That’s a 43 percent increase over the previous year. About 20 percent of those students are women. Science, medicine and high-tech fields of study have attracted a large number of Saudi women.
At Saudi universities women can now earn degrees in law, petroleum engineering, political science and journalism, although the reality is that few jobs in these fields are available to women. However, this is a remarkable turnaround for a country that had seen its 5 percent literacy rate in the 1950s climb to 79 percent today. The literacy rate for Saudi females between the ages of 15 to 24 jumped from 81.7 percent in 1992 to 96.5 percent in 2009.
By 2020, at least 1 million young Saudis will have gone through the scholarship program with a majority coming home from Western universities.
Imagine the implications. In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Saudi men attended universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. But in most cases they returned home without using their knowledge to implement more efficient ways to do business in the private and government sectors. As one Saudi told me recently, “It takes a lot of energy to fight the culture. After a while you just want to get along.”
From my conversations with young Saudis today, the attitude is vastly different. Possessing the social awareness and technical knowledge not available to their parents and grandparents, young Saudis are impatient to be part of the global community. They desperately want to serve the interests of their country. They don’t want to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge and a degree. They want to make a difference.
A sign of the changing attitudes among young Saudi students is their willingness to attend Catholic universities such as Catholic University in Northeast Washington and the University of Dayton in Ohio in the United States. It’s common for Saudis not only to acknowledge that Catholic universities offer curriculum that matches their career goals, but those same universities share values similar to those of Islam. Attending such universities strengthens their commitment to Islam and embraces King Abdullah’s vision of interfaith tolerance.
The cultural benefits of attending such universities reflect the global view of the new generation. While it may have been difficult for thousands of Saudi men to effect change in Saudi culture a generation ago, the same can’t be said for the new crop of university students who have a much broader view of the world due to exposure through social media.
As we have seen with this past Haj and with other programs, socially conscious Saudis have volunteered their time to aid pilgrims and the poor. Even before young people are ready to attend a university, social media and the exposure of other cultures through the Internet has primed them to look at their own world with a critical eye. Their expectations will be high when they return from abroad. And it’s up to Saudi society to accommodate those expectations.