Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

July 6, 2016

Muslims in Saudi Arabia Stand Shoulder to Shoulder this Eid – but Daesh is a Dangerous New Foe

By Rob L. Wagner

International Business Times

6 July 2016

Following the bombing at the security headquarters next to the Prophet’s Mosque in the holy city Medina on Monday (4 June), a much larger crowd of worshippers than usual flocked to the mosque the next evening to offer prayers.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, and jammed even tighter in front of the Prophet’s Tomb inside the mosque, Medina’s Muslims demonstrated a silent solidarity against the suicide bomber that killed four security men and left five others injured.

The Medina bombing was a special horror for Muslims worldwide and universally condemned. Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based organization listed as a terrorist group denounced the bombing as “a new sign of the terrorists’ contempt for all that Muslims consider sacred”.

In a tweet, Syrian scholar Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi quoted the Prophet Muhammad, noting that “anyone who harms the people of Medina, Allah will make him melt in fire like iron or like salt in water (Bakhari)”.

Writer Aisha Saeed wrote in a tweet, “As a writer I strive to tease out nuance, explore murky gray. But these people? Medina in Ramadan on the cusp of Eid? This is the face of evil”.

The Medina bombing was part of a coordinated attack, presumably by Daesh (it has yet to claim responsibility), that also included a Shiite mosque in Qatif and the United States Consulate in Jeddah. The attacks are believed to be related to the previous suicide bombings at the Istanbul Airport’s international terminal, a restaurant in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and a marketplace in Baghdad. In all more than 200 people have died in the attacks.

Although Saudi Arabia has experienced unrest in the Eastern Province, which has a significant Shiite population, its contention is that violence between Shiites and security forces are the result of “external forces.”

The bombings on Monday pose a much more difficult problem. For the first time in more than a decade the Saudi government is facing an enemy willing to engage in mass murder. And these extremists operate well below the radar, never announcing to their families their intentions or pledging allegiance to a specific country or ideology.

But Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior has considerable experience in eradicating extremist violence within its borders. In 2003 and 2004, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula left a trail of carnage throughout the country with attacks on residential compounds in Riyadh and Al-Khobar, and an almost weekly series of shooting of individual Westerners. The attacks included the kidnapping and beheading of helicopter engineer Paul Johnson in Riyadh, and the December 2004 bombing of the US Consulate in Jeddah that left nine people dead.

The Ministry of Interior aggressively dealt with al-Qaeda, killing its leader, Abdel Aziz Al-Muqrin, and arresting hundreds of suspected terrorists.

Unlike the AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), which often operated as a cell and adopted battlefield-style operations with mostly Arab fighters, Daesh kills by inspiring young men via the internet to carry out suicide attacks. Attackers work independently and depend on Daesh only for limited logistical support, or receive no support at all.

In addition to Saudis, security forces must contend with disaffected expatriates, who feel maligned or marginalised in their host country. Saudi authorities identified a Pakistani driver, who lived in Jeddah with his wife and her parents, as the suicide bomber in front of the US Consulate.

Daesh is also a much more sophisticated foe. It has long recruited Saudis via social media and internet-based computer games to carry out acts of terror against their own families. In February, six men lured their cousin, Sgt. Badr Hamdi Al-Rashidi, to the desert and killed him because they were convinced he betrayed Islam as a member of the government’s security forces. And in September 2015 two Saudis killed their cousin, Madus Al-Anzi, an army recruit.

Saudi Arabia has not announced its intentions to deal with Daesh following Monday’s attacks. But the Medina bombing not only struck at the heart of Islam, but also the soul of the Saudi government. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is directing the war in Yemen and has a reputation as a tough, independent thinker, is likely to take decisive action drawing on the strategy and tactics security forces employed against AQAP.

The challenge facing Saudis, however, is not the security forces’ ability to root out extremists. Its intelligence branch is considered one of the world’s best, but few Western counterterrorism agencies expressed interest in how Saudi Arabia managed to decimate AQAP’s ranks and render it irrelevant.

Given that Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United States is at a low ebb as the Obama administration pursues stronger ties with Iran, and the recent rejection by the US to allow Saudi ground troops to fight in Iraq and Syria, the Kingdom is faced with tackling Daesh alone.

Saudi Arabia’s track record in quashing AQAP is unrivalled by any other country in the region. That experience will go a long way to eradicating terrorist acts, although the Kingdom must realise that AQAP was essentially a farm league operation compared to Daesh. But whatever challenges the Kingdom’s security forces face, it’s likely that they will deal with it without much help from other counter-terrorism agencies.

Rob L Wagner is an American journalist and former managing editor of the Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily newspaper. He is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Tax Aims to Address Housing Shortage

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

26 June 2016

Jeddah – Saudi Arabia has introduced a 2.5% tax on undeveloped property in an effort to jump-start residential con­struction but the key to its success will be how quickly the Min­istry of Housing can issue building permits and guarantee that water and utilities are available for devel­opments.

Large tracts, particularly in Ri­yadh, remain undeveloped as many people buy land as investment in­stead of building on it. As a result of this speculation, as much as 30% of land in urban areas is vacant and the city, as well as Jeddah and the Eastern province, are experiencing a severe housing shortage.

The Ministry of Housing hopes that imposing a tax will encourage landowners to build homes. The kingdom suffers from an estimat­ed housing shortfall of 1.5 million units. The ministry is betting that by encouraging residential hous­ing development, the percentage of Saudis owning their own homes will increase from about 47% to 51%. In 2015, the average cost of a home was about ten times the gross salary of a typical Saudi wage earner.

Jamil Ghaznawi, head of the Ri­yadh office of Jones Lang Lasalle, which specialises in commercial real estate, said the success of prodding landowners to develop their land rests with how effective the Housing Ministry runs its permit-processing programme.

Ghaznawi said landowners worry about lack of services, such as water and utilities, and delays in issuing permits if they develop their prop­erty. The ministry has promised to smooth the paperwork.

“The Ministry of Housing has cre­ated a new gateway or platform to expedite the permits and make it easier for development,” Ghaznawi said.

Property owners could, however, choose to shoulder the cost of the tax and hold onto their undevel­oped land, he said.

“The tax could be a cost justifying holding the land but the fundamen­tal structure of holding land in ur­ban areas has changed. It’s not nec­essarily a means of storing wealth like it once was but should be held for development. The upper hand today in urban areas is to develop the land,” Ghaznawi said.

By implementing the plan, the Saudi government hopes to see the property sector’s annual growth rate increase from 4% to 7% over four years. The government also hopes to spread land ownership and encour­age competition.

Housing Minister Majid al-Huqail said in a statement that vacant land in urban centres has been “monopo­lised by investors in the real estate sector”, becoming an acute prob­lem. The tax is expected to “stimu­late the creation of appropriate housing at appropriate prices for all citizens”, he said.

The programme is expected to be applied in five stages with plots 500,000 sq. metres or more to be taxed first and plots of 10,000 sq. metres by the last stage. The Hous­ing Ministry is further encouraging residential development by striking partnerships with foreign residen­tial and commercial developers.

Not all property owners may be hit with the tax, Ghaznawi said.

“We have to be very clear the tax is meant to be an incentive to land owners,” he said. “Once they close the gap and supply and demand are met, the government may hold the tax on other owners when the short­age is no longer a problem.”

The cabinet also approved a meas­ure to allow foreign investors to own up to 100% of retail businesses, up from the previous permissible own­ership of 75%. There is a caveat: For­eign companies must invest a mini­mum of $53 million in the first five years of ownership to be eligible to obtain a licence giving 100% owner­ship.

Ehsan Ahrari, an independent foreign affairs consultant and chief executive officer of Strategic Para­digms in Alexandria, Virginia, said attracting private investors, at least from the United States, to assume 100% ownership in retail and whole­sale operations may be difficult.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz recently visited the United States and lob­bied officials, including US Presi­dent Barack Obama.

“But how much of that will filter into lucrative business deals? I can­not say that I am very hopeful,” he said. “The fear of (the Islamic State) ISIS is so pervasive in official circles and the business community here.

“That feeling, at least in my judg­ment, trumps Americans’ notorious love for money.”

The announcement of the new tax follows the launch of Prince Mo­hammed’s Vision 2030 plan to wean the kingdom off oil revenue and en­courage other types of investment. Saudi Arabia has a $98 billion budg­et deficit for the 2016 fiscal year.

Taxes, long an anathema to the Saudi government, which offers subsidies to its citizens, are expect­ed to spur the economy. The govern­ment is also expected to implement a “sin tax” on soft drinks and ciga­rettes and privatise some govern­ment entities, including hospitals.

The cabinet said in a statement: “The decision is in line with Vision 2030 to ease restrictions on owner­ship and foreign investment in the retail sector to attract regional and international brands and contribute to the creation of job opportunities for citizens in this sector.”

June 14, 2016

Ramadan’s Night of Power in Mecca

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

12 June 2016

Jeddah – The first time Abdullah Muhaaraq performed umrah, the lesser pil­grimage to Mecca, while fasting during Ramadan he fainted. When he regained his senses, he resumed his rituals as if nothing had happened.

“I was overconfident and not really prepared,” said Muhaaraq. “This time I will be smarter about how to do it.”

Muhaaraq said he hopes to per­form umrah again during Rama­dan. Umrah can be performed at any time of the year independently of haj, which is considered the ma­jor pilgrimage.

With the exception of haj, per­forming umrah during the last ten days of Ramadan is the most crowded period at the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Laylat al-Qadr — Night of Power — holds special meaning for the faithful because performing umrah on that night promises forgiveness of all their sins.

Millions of worshippers perform tawaf — circling the Kaaba seven times counter-clockwise. They then rapidly walk between the hills of Marwah and Safa seven times to re-enact Ibrahim’s wife’s desperate search for water. The shaving of men’s hair or clipping women’s hair at the end of umrah symbolises submission to Allah and concludes the rituals.

Even under the best weather conditions and smaller crowds, umrah can be a challenge for the el­derly or for people with disabilities. Performing umrah while fasting, or even in the evening after breaking fast, presents its own challenges because worshippers often have difficulty balancing fasting, eating and the physical exertion of the rituals.

Although the exact day is un­known, Islamic scholars say Laylat al-Qadr occurs on the 27th of Ramadan (expected on July 2nd this year). It is the time in which the first verses of the Quran were revealed by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. Many pilgrims stay up all night to offer prayers, blessings and ask forgive­ness for their sins.

Most worshippers revel in the fact that they are fasting and simul­taneously performing umrah.

“What’s hunger? It only brings me closer to Allah,” said Navi Hus­sein, who plans to leave Jeddah for Mecca on June 22nd to spend the last ten days of Ramadan in the holy city. “The benefits are impor­tant to me and to my wife. The best thing for Muslims is that by doing umrah on Laylat al-Qadr. It unifies us and strengthens our coopera­tion among each other.”

According to the Quran, Allah said: “We have indeed revealed this (message) in the Night of Power. And what will explain to thee what the Night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months (83 years). Therein come down the agents and the spirit of Allah’s permission, on every er­rand: Peace! This until the rise of Morn.”

To Hussein, whatever discom­fort he may endure by perform­ing umrah during Ramadan will be washed away by the Prophet’s words: “Whosoever offers volun­tary prayers during the Night of Power out of belief and expecting its reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven.”

Irfan Mohammed said he often sees worshippers get the wrong idea about performing umrah on Laylat al-Qadr and having their sins eliminated to start anew.

“Sometimes I see or hear my co-workers or friends commit sins thinking that all is forgiven be­cause they repented on that special night,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. Yes, their failings in the past will be made good but it also leads them to disregard God in the future and that is forbidden.”

Mohammed, who performs um­rah during the last ten days of Ram­adan about every two years, said he almost weeps with joy when he walks shoulder to shoulder with his brothers and sisters to perform the rituals. “There is no feeling like it in the world,” he said.

June 6, 2016

Halal Welcome for Gulf Tourists in Europe

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

5 June 2016

Jeddah – When all else fails, adapt.

European hotels learned perhaps the hard way that if they are going to maintain a list of repeat guests during the peak season then maybe museums, art galleries, pris­tine lakes and snow-capped moun­tains are not enough for Arab visi­tors. Sometimes touches of home go a long way towards getting families to return to the same hotel year af­ter year.

Aziz Awlya, 34, who manages a hotel in Mecca, thinks of it as cul­tural ambiance to banish homesick­ness and offer Arab guests services that remind them of home.

“It’s important to receive guests a certain way and Arab guests can be particularly demanding,” Awlya said. “It is more and more impor­tant that hotels train their staff to understand the cultural differences of their guests and respond accord­ingly.”

By understanding cultural differ­ences, Awlya said he expects ho­tel management to respond to the cultural and religious preferences of Arab guests. The preparation of halal food is imperative to ensur­ing that Arab guests are comfort­able and the hotel management has made their stay a success. If hotels understand the nuances of the cul­ture — such as offering Arabic coffee and dates on arrival at the reception desk — he said, then that guest will return.

European hotels have seen a surge in Arab guests, particularly from Saudi Arabia, as middle-class fami­lies have taken advantage of low airfares and special travel packages. The standard among many hotel op­erators was simply to offer guests a room, good service and good food in their restaurants in a one-size-fits-all scheme.

That has changed in the past two years as Swiss hotels in particular have seen a tremendous increase in the numbers of Arab guests. More than any other foreign traveller, visitors to Europe from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates spend the most money on their holidays — about $3,200 per visit — and gener­ally take the longest trips of about two weeks, according to a study of Arab tourists in 2015 by ITB Travel Trends report, which tracks global tourism. Middle East tourist traffic to Europe increased 9% in the first eight months of 2015, according to the report.

Awlya said European hotels have discovered that guests from the Middle East are a different sort of tourist with priorities on nice weather. Visiting museums and culture centres are far down the list of things to do. A special empha­sis is placed on satisfying religious needs and to respond to customs and traditions of foreign guests that range from extended families book­ing multiple rooms to making sure the direction of the Qibla is clearly marked in each room.

As a result, European hotel man­agers had to rethink their marketing strategy to respond better to their guests’ wants and needs. They rec­ognised that tourists from the Gulf Cooperation Council place high value on the comforts of home to make their stay in a foreign country enjoyable.

Today, most hotels in Switzerland, for example, market halal-friendly services and provide cultural amen­ities. Arab guests account for nearly 10% of all guests occupying hotels during the peak season, according to the Switzerland Tourism Office.

Daniela Manteuffel, assistant marketing and events coordinator for Hotel Metropole in Interlaken, said the hotel offers “halal food served separately in its restaurant and in the dining hall during Rama­dan”.

She said that halal food is served for iftar during Ramadan and meals are also served before Fajr prayer shortly before sunrise. Always available to Arab guests are cultural amenities, such as Arabic coffee, tea and dates, prayer rugs and a sepa­rate prayer room. The front desk provides directions to the Interlak­en’s only mosque.

To further make their guests com­fortable, some hotels partition bar­bershops to separate men and wom­en customers. Most Swiss hotels in Zurich and Lucerne offer amenities including separate spa facilities for men and women, Arabic-speaking staff and special offers for local tours for Arab guests.

Awlya said that Saudis usually prefer to rent furnished apartments that offer a degree of privacy but it is not always practical in Europe where hotels are in far more abun­dance. “The Arab traveller expects a certain level service that reflects their culture, and hotels, if they want to appeal to a certain demo­graphic or niche, must provide that service if they want repeat busi­ness,” he said.


May 25, 2016

Are Movie Theaters Coming to Saudi Arabia?

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

22 May 2016

Jeddah – The big question on every Saudi’s mind following the formation of the Gen­eral Authority for Enter­tainment is whether Saudi Arabia will allow cinemas, which have been banned from the king­dom for more than 30 years.

The issue remains a mystery but General Authority members are ac­tively discussing public screenings of family-oriented films and sports events, according to a person famil­iar with the new authority’s meet­ings who spoke on the condition that his name not be published be­cause he is not authorised to release details.

“They want to start with outdoor screenings but they don’t want to call it ‘cinema’ yet,” the source said. “They will show family movies and football matches, that sort of thing, but it hasn’t been confirmed.”

Staging public screenings of films in cinemas has been rumoured for years. Malls, since about 2004, have been constructed with extra space — now used for bowling alleys and indoor go-kart tracks — to be trans­formed when cinemas are allowed to open. Family-oriented animated films are occasionally screened out­doors in public areas in Jeddah and Riyadh but not on a regular basis.

The new government body’s dis­cussions are the first tangible evi­dence that some form of cinema en­tertainment is under consideration, even if at the preliminary stage.

Muhammad Murad, who works with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage in Taif to publicise events to attract tourists, said he welcomes the en­tertainment authority but he added that details of its role are vague.

“It’s not clear what kind of enter­tainment they are talking about,” Murad said. “Most people will think that cinemas will be allowed and that other things that have been banned before will be opened again in Saudi Arabia.”

Fawaz Kurdi, public relations and sales executive for Destination KSA, which publishes lifestyle magazines in Jeddah, Riyadh and the Eastern Province, said Destination has been involved in helping the organisation identify what kind of activities are available to Saudis and expatriates.

“We have lots of local events in technology, fashion, culture and food among many other activities,” Kurdi said.

Jou Pabalate, editor of Destination Riyadh, said the authority is estab­lishing an activity calendar. “They want to know what is the ideal en­tertainment for the week,” Pabalate said.

That type of entertainment in­cludes cultural activities, cycling, horseback riding, art exhibits, day-trips and, on some level, live enter­tainment.

Saudi Arabia, particularly in more liberal cities such as Jeddah, has a vibrant underground entertainment network. Private stage plays are rou­tinely performed in north Jeddah, often in a private residence or a low-key restaurant venue. Guests are in­vited via word-of-mouth or tightly controlled distribution of flyers. Concerts and comedy acts are avail­able throughout the city for select, discreet audiences.

The authority’s work has indi­cated that it hopes to bring some en­tertainment out of the shadows and offered through public announce­ments in newspapers and maga­zines.

The motive is financial. Most en­tertainment will generate revenue and keep entertainment dollars in­side Saudi Arabia. An estimated 1.54 million Saudis visited the United Arab Emirates in 2015. Given that Saudi Arabia’s 2016 fiscal budget has a $98 billion deficit, the Saudi gov­ernment is eager to generate reve­nue by encouraging Saudis to spend their tourism money at home.

Felton Alrefaei, a public relations account executive at the Jeddah-based LeGate, which specialises in accommodations for haj and um­rah services, said that a well-pub­licised entertainment programme approved by the Saudi government would be a boon for foreign and do­mestic tourists.

“It will be a very brave move to attract more tourists,” Alrefaei said. “That spending will be kept inside Saudi Arabia.”

The Saudi entertainment author­ity follows the creation earlier this year of the Ministry of Happiness, supervised by Minister Ohood al- Roumi, in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE government established the ministry to streamline govern­ment services to UAE citizens who routinely deal with government en­tities. By making government more efficient the ministry hopes to in­crease customer satisfaction, foster positivity and create public happi­ness.

The Saudi programme differs sig­nificantly. Although Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sal­man bin Abdulaziz promises more government transparency, the en­tertainment authority is less about happiness and more about generat­ing revenue. At the same time, the government is responding to Saudis’ complaints that entertainment op­tions in the kingdom are limited to restaurant dining and visiting malls.

Some Saudis remain sceptical about the new agency and have been taking to Twitter with humour.

One Saudi wrote: “Yesterday I was feeling depressed while walking in Tahlia Street so the Entertainment Authority guys grabbed me and started tickling me until I passed out from laughing!”

Another Saudi on Twitter wrote: “The Authority should punish of­fenders by forcing them to push swings in parks… It is punishment and entertainment at the same time.”

May 15, 2016

Can Saudi Arabia Become an Armament Producer?

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

15 May 2016

JEDDAH – The road to a sustainable arms industry in Saudi Arabia is expected to be a long and difficult slog with the likelihood of the kingdom achieving modest incre­mental success but possibly fail­ing to realise a true industrial base within 15 years.

In his road map for a new Saudi Arabia with a diversified economy not dependent on oil revenue, Dep­uty Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Adulaziz laid out his vi­sion of directing as much as 50% of the kingdom’s military purchases to local industry.

Saudi Arabia is the third largest military spender in the world, yet beyond some small manufacturing plants it has no military industrial base. The country’s defence spend­ing in 2015 grew to $87.2 billion, an increase of 5.7% over the previous year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Insti­tute.

“We spend more on military than the [British], more than France, and we do not even have a local mili­tary industry,” Mohammed said in a recent interview with Al Arabiya, noting that only 2% of Saudi mili­tary purchases are directed to local manufacturing.

“We have a strong demand inside the kingdom for the development of a localised military industry. If we raise the local industry pur­chases to between 30% and 50%, we will be able to develop a new massive industry, which will boost the economy largely and create many jobs.”

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plan has been met with scepticism from Western military analysts and cau­tious optimism from Saudi observ­ers.

Kenneth M. Pollack, senior fel­low for foreign policy at the Brook­ings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy in Washington said a vi­brant arms industry would be elu­sive for Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia has no capacity to build an arms industry,” Pollack said. “Could they start out doing pieces of production and it might lead to something more substan­tial? Sure they could but they must start modest before doing some­thing more sophisticated.”

Pollack said Saudis are missing two key elements in building an arms industry: a sophisticated in­dustrial base and an educated la­bour force.

Pollack said a look at Egypt’s military-industrial base could be a window to Saudi Arabia’s future, noting that Egypt requires in its military contracts that sellers pro­vide help in developing an indus­trial base.

“The United States technically has plants in Egypt but all they do is assemble tanks from kits,” Pol­lack said. “It certainly creates jobs for Egyptians and gives workers a certain amount of sophistication but it adds very little to the local economy.”

Japan and South Korea have built true industrial military bases that have taken decades to achieve, he said. “Japan builds tanks that are pretty darn good,” Pollack said.

One Saudi political analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonym­ity, said it does not matter. “If we can accomplish even 10% of what the prince wants, then we have succeeded. We have to start some­where,” the analyst said.

The issue facing Saudi Arabia is whether creating jobs is the only goal. This can be accomplished by Saudis aggressively pursuing their offset obligations, which have been underutilised, by demanding for­eign arms manufacturers provide jobs and training associated with their products. The alternative is to establish an industrial base capable of manufacturing weaponry that provides jobs and also helps protect the kingdom and generate revenue by exporting military hardware to its neighbours in an increasingly unstable region.

“I am not one of those who envi­sion Saudi Arabia as a major military power,” said Ehsan M. Ahrari, an independent defence and foreign affairs consultant and chief execu­tive officer of Strategic Paradigms in Alexandria, Virginia. “The fight­ing spirit… is virtually absent from the military of the Gulf States.”

Although there is little doubt that Saudi Arabia wants to create jobs and, indeed, lacks an educated workforce ready to tackle building a military industry, the Saudi analyst said the need for educated workers to help build a thriving base is over­stated.

“There are nearly 200,000 Sau­dis studying for their graduate and postgraduate degrees abroad,” the analyst said. “When they come home they will need jobs. If we were to build a military industry, we will need high-level and mid-level managers. That’s not a huge number of workers and can be eas­ily filled. The remaining workforce — and that involves thousands of jobs — doesn’t need a university education.”

If the Saudi government envi­sions a sustainable military indus­trial base by 2030, then Iran’s arms industry may be a good reference point. Following the 1979 Islamic revolution, an international arms embargo forced the Iranian gov­ernment to develop its own arms industry. Although Iran’s industry is not particularly sophisticated, it produces its armoured personnel carriers, tanks and missiles and ex­ports weapons to nearly 60 coun­tries.

“Iran has been developing its own arms industry for 30 years and it gives you a sense of what time re­quirements are involved,” Pollack said.

The Struggle to Prepare for College in Saudi Arabia

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

15 May 2016

Jeddah – University professors in Saudi Arabia invariably place incoming fresh­men students into two categories: students educated in private or internation­al schools and those young men and women taught in Saudi state schools.

The disparity between the two groups presents special challenges for university administrators and professors. Privately educated stu­dents generally are placed in ad­vanced streamlined classes. Fresh­men educated in state schools are often directed to remedial instruc­tion. Major weaknesses among state school graduates include Eng­lish language and critical thinking skills.

“I can hardly motivate my stu­dents who just don’t want to be in class,” complained one English language department supervisor at a Jeddah university. “They don’t even belong here.”

It is a harsh assessment and not always fair. The Saudi Ministry of Education has taken steps since 2007 to overhaul the education system. Many graduating seniors are fluent in English and eager to engage with instructors at the uni­versity level but overall the system remains mired in outdated teaching methods and lack of supervision of teachers.

The result is that students often score less than 3 when they need at least 6.5 to 7.5 on English skills tests — known by the acronyms IELTS and TOEFL — to qualify for admis­sion to Western universities.

Abdullah Murjan, an English teacher at a Jeddah secondary pub­lic school, said he is assigned to teach gifted students. His students speak English well but struggle with writing.

“Most of the teachers are not well-prepared,” Murjan said. “There is not enough knowledge with pronunciation and grammar. The whole subject is taught in Ara­bic.”

Murjan referred to the Grammar-translation method, conceived to teach Latin in the 16th century. The US military uses the technique to teach soldiers foreign languages be­fore overseas postings.

Saudi state schools use the meth­od to teach English. It streamlines explaining words and phrases and allows instructors to explain the subject in their native tongue. How­ever, the method teaches about English rather than teaching the language itself. It also prevents stu­dents from classroom participation and curbs spontaneous conversa­tion.

“There is little practice and teach­ers don’t force students to speak English,” Murjan said.

The Ministry of Education rec­ognised that students were unpre­pared for university-level courses. In 2008, a royal decree was issued to establish the Tatweer Education Holding Company to develop an education system on par with other countries.

Maryam Albilaly, a coordinator assigned to implement the Tatweer project and run the professional de­velopment programme for teachers in Medina, said it established 25 fe­male and 25 male secondary “smart schools”.

Smart schools use advanced tech­nology as teaching tools. White­boards and projectors were stand­ard equipment and each student in the programme received a laptop computer. It was a first for students in Saudi public schools but the ini­tial phase was short-lived, Albilaly said. The equipment needed regu­lar maintenance but technicians could not keep up with the demand for service. Administrators aban­doned the equipment.

The teachers’ professional de­velopment programme ran better. Tatweer was faced with reversing a culture in which schools had no coherent plan to implement cur­riculum or evaluations to assess teacher professionalism. School ad­ministrators more or less evaluated themselves without established criteria. Evaluation of students’ progress was minimal.

Tatweer developed a programme to assess schools’ progress and the role of administrators and teachers in the school’s educational mission.

“Schools don’t know how to as­sess their own situation,” Albilaly said. “Now (administrators) know they should depend on them­selves to change their schools. The programme is a model for leader­ship. They know exactly what they should do. It’s like a map for them to plan.”

The Tatweer programme has proved to be a success at the ex­perimental stage and the Educa­tion Ministry wants to copy it for other schools. The Tatweer plan has mushroomed from the initial 50 schools to about 900.

While Albilaly said changing the teaching and administrative cul­ture in public schools will lead to better education for students, she acknowledged that she has been unable to chart students’ progress.

Traditionally, Saudi public schools had focused on memorisa­tion with little interaction between student and teacher. Saudi publica­tions were the textbooks of choice, which limited students’ view of the world. Much of that has changed with the introduction of computers, access to the internet and use of in­ternational textbooks. Students are more engaged with their teachers. Laptops encourage performance tasks that can be measured by in­structors, although data on success rates continue to be elusive.

“Before, nobody was trained to deal with cooperative learning,” Albilaly said. “That has changed as students respond to teachers now.”

Educators such as Albilaly argue that a primary goal to boast student performance is to change the infra­structure of school administrations but methodology in teaching Eng­lish remains an obstacle.

English reading comprehen­sion, writing and even the ethics of learning are tough nuts to crack, ac­cording to Murjan.

“Students don’t always do the work,” he said. “I ask them to write something and they go to Google translate and then copy and paste their work.”

Once public school administra­tors have established a thorough method of reviewing teachers’ performances, Albilaly said she ex­pects student progress evaluations to follow. It will lead to better Eng­lish instruction.

“The first step is for administra­tors and teachers to learn how to evaluate themselves,” she said.

May 11, 2016

Mohammed bin Salman: What Does Saudi Arabian Youth Think of Their Prince?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 17:27
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By Rob L. Wagner

International Business Times

11 May 2016

JEDDAH – When Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed his post last year, visitors to his office noticed something unusual. Prince Salman, also appointed the new minister of defence, often came to the office and occasionally attended business meetings without his headgear, the iqbal and lightly starched ghutra that is virtually every professional Saudi’s uniform to complement his white thobe.

This suggested an air of informality and subtle disregard for tradition, signalling to the older establishment that Saudi Arabia was about to enter a new era.

The median age of Saudis is 26 years old, and Prince Salman, at 34, embodies the new generation of Saudis who have little patience with institutions that have no transparency and have done little to improve their lives. He is equally comfortable discussing the nuances of social media with young people at a recent conference as he is outlining the kingdom’s strategy for a diversified economy with foreign journalists.

In fact, the prince is one of just a few royal family members – the late foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal is the only other that comes to mind – that can pull off with aplomb an interview in English with a Western journalist.

Yet Prince Salman isn’t quite a rock star thanks largely to the ingrained scepticism of many Saudis who have seen promises disappear into the government’s infamous opaque system in which rules are changed depending on the day of the week. “What is Saudi vision anyway?” one 57-year-old complained to me the other day. “It’s only a vision. Nothing else.”

A 43-year-old Saudi schoolteacher, without elaborating, said he views the prince’s proposals as lacking substance. The teacher expressed the common cultural urge in the kingdom to “clip the wings” of a fellow Saudi who has ambitions for success.

But Prince Salman instils more hope than scepticism among the younger generation, because he came along at the right time and he is the right age. With the exception of the first Gulf War, patriotism has never been the strength of Saudi Arabia as a nation. Ask any Saudi their priorities, and they would identify as a Muslim first and Saudi second. And that remains the case today.

The subtle difference is that the new generation of Saudis came of age during the reign of King Abdullah, who implemented incremental social reforms that provided more jobs and a free university education for young men and women. Women, in particular, are excelling in the Western university environment.

It also helped that social media gave young people an opportunity to express themselves more or less freely as long as they kept their criticisms on religion and the royal family to themselves.

Young Saudis were eager for their country to prove that it was a contemporary, forward-thinking nation. But they had few options to identify with a leader who spoke like them and shared the same values. Prince Salman answered that call because he was willing to take risks. It’s almost beside the point of whether his vision for Saudi Arabia 2030 succeeds.

Young people are attracted to Prince Salman because of his youth, power and vision – a recipe for success to Saudis painfully familiar with unfulfilled promises. And because of his youth, in a culture that values old age and the wisdom that comes with it, the prince managed the almost impossible task of persuading the Council of Ministers to adopt his vision.

His goals of education reform, increased tourism and building cultural centres to teach Saudis their history fall far outside the comfort zone of many government officials. But the Council of Ministers would not have embraced the prince’s future for Saudi Arabia if they perceived him as a political lightweight. His political career started with the Experts Commission under the Council of Ministers and as secretary-general of the Riyadh Competitive Council, which works on economic issues.

Further, most Saudis appreciate that he speaks a language they understand, and who speaks with authority, appears genuine and does not read from a script. He is not reluctant to criticise his own government. When he described Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil revenue as an “addiction”, it was language that no Saudi has heard from a government official, but found it refreshing.

As one, Said, told me recently, “Educated Saudis see the big picture and we find it encouraging, even if we happen to fail on some occasions. There are a lot of uneducated pessimists who don’t understand the prince’s language and they just see another official painting a rosy picture. But the prince is young and has enough time ahead of him to see his vision realised.”



May 1, 2016

Saudi ‘Vision 2030’ Sparks Praise, Skepticism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 04:39
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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

1 May 2016

RIYADH – Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz’s ambitious reforms to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil and turn to investment, manu­facturing and tourism as a major source of revenue have sparked op­timism among the country’s leading economic analysts but also scepti­cism from some market watchers.

Many economists, however, agree that sweeping reforms to shore up Saudi Arabia’s $98 billion budget deficit is long overdue and a major step towards developing other rev­enue-generating industries is vital to the country’s economic survival.

The centrepiece of Salman’s road map that establishes a vision for Saudi Arabia’s future to 2030 is to is­sue an initial public offering (IPO) of 1-5% interest in Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company with a value estimated at $2 trillion, to capital markets. By floating Aramco on the stock exchange and diversi­fying its investments, the deputy crown prince said the Saudi econo­my would be more resilient.

“I think by 2020, if oil stops we can survive,” Salman told al-Arabi­ya television. “We need it, we need it, but I think in 2020 we can live without oil.”

Anwar Majed Eshki, a former ma­jor-general in the Saudi military and president of the Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies, said the plan doesn’t mean abandoning oil as a revenue source by 2020.

“The plan doesn’t mean that the kingdom lives without oil but it means that the kingdom is to get ready after the oil era by exploit­ing oil to create the alternatives in different fields, most important of which are minerals, investments, industries and tourism,” he said.

Not all economists are convinced. Jason Tuvey, a Middle East econo­mist at the London-based Capital Economics, said revenue will still come from Saudi oil.

“In a sense I think they are try­ing to pull the wool over people’s eyes,” Tuvey said. “The revenue still comes from Aramco. In short, Saudi Arabia will be dependent on oil for many years.”

John Sfakianakis, director of the Economics Research at the Riyadh-based Gulf Research Centre, is more optimistic. He said that, while the road map is ambitious, even meet­ing only some of the prince’s goals would be a vast improvement to the country’s economy.

“It surely can be achieved if it brings everybody under one um­brella,” Sfakianakis said. “Even if it’s not achieved, halfway is enough to dramatically change the country’s dependence on oil. You need to be ambitious to rid yourself of (oil) de­pendency. It’s easier said than done but if accomplished by only 50% it’s very good.”

Ahmed al-Jundi, an executive analyst at the Jeddah-based archi­tectural firm Diyar Consultants, said Salman’s plans can be accomplished if private and public employers are committed.

“This is an ambitious goal but, however, achievable to a large ex­tent,” Jundi said. “It can be achieved through real reforms in all sectors. The current revenues should be reinvested into different markets to guarantee annual returns. The Saudi work force should be utilised correctly to truly provide people the environment to grow. It’s possible to change the economic balance if the entire government machinery completely and seriously submits to the vision 2030.”

Government cooperation is the crux to whether the prince’s vi­sion can be successful; perhaps the most important element to achieve at least partial success to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy from oil de­pendency to a diversified industry and investments is to control cor­ruption.

“The government’s focus should be on achieving goals; systemis­ing, restructuring and allowing the private sector to participate in the different sectors,” Jundi said. “This would lead to transparency and introduce a system of automatic checks and balances.”

He added: “Transparency is a key and market participants are encour­aged, but the government’s sub­stantial attention to the economy and its youth is what truly increases participation and the general confi­dence.”

Tuvey said that by making Ara­mco more transparent, it will “im­prove corporate governance, not just Aramco but also the public sec­tor”.

Unexpected in Salman’s road map are plans to develop a military industry. The prince said in his in­terview: “Is it logical that we are ranked the third in world military spending and yet we do not have any military manufacturing capa­bilities?”

Eshki said Saudi Arabia has had factories to manufacture light arms in Al-Kharj for 50 years, “but the concentration will be in spare parts and some types of weapons”.

Eshki said the Saudi government will impose a condition on compa­nies selling weapons that they must invest 30% from sales in the spare parts industry.

Saudi Arabia has long struggled to jump-start its struggling tourism industry, which is primarily focused on Muslim pilgrims. But haj pilgrims are limited to visiting the holy cities of Medina and Mecca and umrah visitors have only two weeks to visit.

The Commission for Tourism and National Heritage recently an­nounced “Umrah-Plus,” a plan that extends a pilgrim’s visa to 30 days to allow visits to a broader range of tourist destinations, including Islamic archaeological and heritage sites. Saudi Arabia offers no tourist visas.

Salman wants to go further, not­ing that there are plans to open the largest Islamic museum in the country and allow more tourists into Saudi Arabia. The tourism com­mission has always focused on do­mestic tourists first and then Mus­lims from Gulf Cooperation Council countries. When pressed in his al- Arabiya interview about opening doors to tourist of all nationalities, Salman replied: “Undoubtedly, in line with our values and beliefs.”

Sfakianakis said tourism remains underutilised.

For growth, jobs and recreation, tourism is an untapped potential,” he said. “To be the highest multi­player than all the other sectors, that means (the tourism industry) must create jobs and serve other areas of the economy and generate output. It cuts across a lot of sec­tors.”

The Rationale Behind Tiran and Sanafir Islands Deal

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 04:37
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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

1 May 2016

JEDDAH – It is no coincidence that an an­nouncement concerning a $4 billion bridge linking Egypt and Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea came just before Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “gifted” two islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba to Sau­di Arabia.

The idea of a bridge between the two countries has been talked about for years but proved to be cost-prohibitive. Saudi King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud proposed the idea in 1988 and Egyptian pres­ident Muhammad Morsi suggested in 2012 to revive the proposal.

Acquisition of the islands of Ti­ran and Sanafir may have solved at least part of the costs issues, making construction of the bridge more feasible. Tiran has been con­sidered an anchor point for the bridge and even a railway has been suggested.

Israel and the United States, fol­lowing the protocol established in the 1979 peace accord between Egypt and Israel, approved the for­mal transfer.

Saudi Arabia has provided Egypt with billions of dollars since Sisi assumed power in 2013. The king­dom sees Egypt as a vital partner in establishing a coalition of friendly Sunni Muslim nations.

Yet, even though Israel did not object to the transfer, the acquisi­tion gives a major strategic advan­tage to Saudi Arabia because of its location at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba, a major shipping lane for Israel and Jordan.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Saudi Arabia would honour the agreement that gives Israelis freedom to use the route. He said the Saudis are expected to assume Egypt’s responsibility of the “military appendix of the peace agreement”.

Possession of the islands allows Saudi Arabia to place military per­sonnel there. In addition, the is­lands serve to help build the pro­posed bridge between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“I was not surprised, but puz­zled by Egypt’s decision to transfer the control of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia,” said Ehsan M. Ahrari, adjunct research professor for the Strategic Stud­ies Institute, Army War College in Pennsylvania. “The strategic sig­nificance of this move stems from the fact that Israel said nothing about it. Of course, we know now that Egypt informed Israel in ad­vance of its impending move and at least got a tacit approval of it.”

Ahrari said there should be little dispute that the transfer was ap­propriate.

“Technically, the Israelis could have said ‘no’ based on the fact that it was violation of the transfer of territory agreement from Israel to Egypt,” he said.

The analyst said the transfer bodes well for the region, particu­larly because Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel share the common foe: Iran.

“This action also speaks volumes about the growing trust between Egypt and Israel on the one hand and between Israel and the Gulf states on the other,” Ahrari said. “The unifying factor is the fear of Iran. Perhaps, we are witnessing a major realignment of friendship in that part of the world.”

The transfer signals an effort by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to find alternatives to boosting their re­spective economies. The proposed bridge would slash transit times to move goods.

Egypt has seen an alarming de­cline in tourism since the 2011 revolution and even steeper drops over the last year. About 1.2 mil­lion tourists visited Egypt in the first quarter of 2016, a drop from 2.2 million during the same period in 2015.

Saudi Arabia looks to strengthen its infrastructure to provide more tourist destinations, including building more museums. The Com­mission for Tourism and National Heritage has opened most of its archaeological sites to tourists, in­cluding a number of Islamic herit­age sites available only to Muslims.

Linking the two countries will encourage tourism and if the pro­posed “green card” scheme that would give Arabs and Muslims permanent residency status in the kingdom receives approval, the Red Sea bridge would facilitate the movement of workers.

“Egypt has had a lot of trouble with inbound and outbound tour­ists,” said Fazal Bahardeen, chief executive officer of CrescentRating. com, a company that ranks tourism destinations for Muslim travel­lers. “But connectivity, whether by bridge or by land, is a key compo­nent for tourism. It will most likely encourage tourism between the two countries. The relationship between the two countries and the economies of both countries is bound to improve.”


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