Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

June 19, 2015

Islamic organisation adjusts position on hate speech

Key conflict between wishes of OIC and countries with unfet­tered free speech laws is defini­tion of hate speech.

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

19 June 2015

JEDDAH – When members of the Organisation of Is­lamic Cooperation (OIC) and Western diplomats promised in 2011 in Istanbul to meet annually to discuss the United Nations’ anti-hate crime Resolution 16/18, few were confident that such sessions would continue.

Yet the OIC recently hosted in Jeddah the fifth such meeting, now known as the Istanbul Process. The Istanbul Process was established to address tension in communities and combat religious hatred and negative stereotypes. The session also focused on strengthening the resolution and bringing creating a consensus among member states for implementation.

Equally important was that the event marked a milestone for the OIC, which had attempted since 1999 to convince the United Nations to pass meaningful anti-discrimi­nation and anti-hate crime resolu­tions.

The UN Human Rights Commis­sion’s (UNHCR) Resolution 16/18 is a starting point for member coun­tries to implement anti-discrimi­nation laws. Its success since 2011 has been incremental with a focus on outreach and interfaith coopera­tion. Implementation of the resolu­tion has become especially urgent since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and the rise of the Islamic State(ISIS), which has sparked a wave of anti-Islam hate speech in the United States and Europe.

While the OIC may bask in its achievement, Marc Limon, ex­ecutive director of the Universal Rights Group, put the resolution in context, noting that it is a “frag­ile achievement” and “difficult to maintain a consensus” among coun­tries. It is also an achievement that falls far short of what OIC members had sought, which was the underly­ing argument among some Jeddah meeting participants.

The OIC each year from 1999 through 2010 sponsored anti-blas­phemy resolutions in the UN Gen­eral Assembly and with the UNHCR. Western nations, particularly the United States, opposed the resolu­tions.

The United Nations wanted a resolution to address religious discrimination and hate speech through education and outreach. The approach protects individuals from discrimination and religious hate instead of punishing people who defame religions.

It was a compromise the OIC was willing to make when it endorsed Resolution 16/18, but to some par­ticipants, it was a less than ade­quate solution.

A key conflict between the wishes of the OIC and countries with unfet­tered free speech laws is the defini­tion of hate speech. Western nations prefer laws that criminalise speech that incites violence and inten­tionally advocates violent actions against specific religions. There is little support outside Muslim coun­tries to criminalise hate speech that offends individuals who may react violently.

OIC Secretary-General Iyad bin Amin Madani acknowledged in comments to told the Jeddah par­ticipants: that,“I recognise that pro­ponents of freedom of expression legitimately argue that prohibition on free expression would lead to a reversal of many of the positive democratic developments in the contemporary world.”

But he noted: “I tend to hum­bly disagree when this freedom is stretched into the realm of hate speech. I fail to understand how the right to offend or to insult, discrimi­nate or negatively stereotype can produce a positive outcome.”

Success in implementing Reso­lution 16/18 has been modest. The United States has conducted work­shops in Greece, Indonesia and Bos­nia-Herzegovina.

Local community programmes in the United States have resulted in quick responses to anti-Muslim events.

Among other incidents, interfaith leaders quickly addressed a recent anti-Islamic protest in Arizona, that easing tensions.

Involving religious leaders is a key component of Resolution 16/18. To most Jeddah participants, co­operation among major religious leaders to foster solidarity during crises, particularly violent incidents of global significance, is an obvious path to solve conflicts. Yet ques­tions remain on how to achieve a balance that best represents peo­ple victimised by discrimination. Few member states agree on what constitutes representative religious leadership.

Marie Juul Petersen, researcher for the Danish Human Rights In­stitute, pointed out that the over­whelming majority of religious leaders are male, meaning there are few female voices. Some sects are not represented at all, she said. In addition, communities at the local level must wrestle with which reli­gious interpretations to accept.

Amira Kashgari, a Saudi journalist and academic, objected to the in­clusion of any religious leaders.

“Religious leaders are not the so­lution because they add fuel to the conflict,” Kashgari said. “The public obeys them, and they should not be the source in solving conflicts.”

Despite the hurdles, including ob­taining better representation among the OIC’s 57 members at future Is­tanbul Process sessions, the OIC has fared better had more success in its task to combat hate speech since it recognised that its anti-blasphemy stance had become too controver­sial because of the limits it puts on free speech.

By abandoning that position, Madani of the OIC said Istanbul Process participants now use “a consensual approach that shuns the ideological divide and suggest an action-oriented policy framework”.

The Seven Mosques of Medina

Holy city of Medina, perhaps more than any other municipality in Saudi Arabia, treasures its historic sites.

By Rob L. Wagner 

The Arab Weekly

19 June 2015

MEDINA- Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Medina, perhaps more than any other municipality in the kingdom, treasures its historic sites. Guests can­not only make their religious jour­ney, but also take in the city’s his­tory. This is particularly true due to Medina’s significance in Islamic history and the city’s efforts to pre­serve landmarks exemplifying tra­ditional Turkish architecture.

The Seven Mosques is one such landmark, site of the Battle of Trench, or Ghazwa-e-Khandaq, found on the western edge of Sela mountain. Here, outnumbered Muslims dug a trench to defend Medina from Quraish tribes. The mosques are today important sites for Muslims to visit during Umrah and Hajj.

On a recent visit to the Seven Mosques, Ibrahim Alyeenbawi, a native of Medina, guided his visi­tor through the history of the six ancient mosques and the seventh modern structure as dozens of tour buses bringing the faithful from In­donesia, Malaysia and South Asia filled the car park.

“These mosques are closed now for restoration, but people continue to come from all around to under­stand how Muslims from long ago performed their prayers,” Alyeen­bawi said.

The most significant of the six historic mosques is al-Fath mosque on the side of Sela mountain. Con­structed between 705 and 711, it was refurbished in 1179. Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid I rehabilitated it in 1851. At the entrance, visitors scribble the names of family and friends on the wall while giving prayers for them, although Saudi authorities strongly discourage the practice.

Twenty metres south of al- Fath is the Salman Al-Farisi mosque, named for the Prophet Mohammed’s companion, Salman, who suggested that Medina residents dig the trench to defend the city against Quraish invaders.

A striking feature of the mosques is their small size, indicating a sparse population of the region during the time of the Prophet. The Salman Al-Farisi mosque has just a single 7-metre-long hall that measures only 2 metres wide. Its construction began in 1179 and also underwent refurbishment under Sultan Abdul Al-Majid, according to Alyeenbawi.

The Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq mosque is 15 metres southwest of the Sal­man Al-Farisi mosque, and named after Abu Bakr, the first caliph who made his Eid prayers there.

Just a few metres south lay the Omar bin Al-Khattab mosque. The details of its origins are vague, al­though its name indicates that Omar bin Al-Khattab, the second caliph, may have had prayed there. The mosque features the same ar­chitectural characteristics as the Al-Fath mosque, indicating they were constructed during the same period. The mosques, in fact, are utilitarian and without adornment.

High on the hilltop above these structures is the Ali bin Abu Talib mosque, which is in poor condition and measuring only 8.5 metres long and 6.5 metres wide. A short dis­tance to the west is the Fatimah Al- Zahra Mosque. Its distinction is it is even smaller — 4 metres by 3 me­tres. The centrepiece of the Seven Mosques historic site is the modern Al-Khandaq mosque at the base of the mountain. It boasts a central court and twin minarets.

The Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs began renovation of the six old mosques in 2009, but only the $7 million Al-Khandaq mosque renovation was completed yet.

How to get there

Flights from London to Medina via Jeddah start at about $700. If driving from Jeddah, take Route 4050 north to Medina about 410 kilometres. The drive is about four hours.

What to do

It’s recommended that Muslim visitors stop at the Quba mosque when first arriving in Medina to per­form two raka’as before continuing into the city. Visitors are encour­aged to visit Masjid Al-Qiblatain and the Grave of Hamzah after they pray at the Prophet’s mosque (Mas­jid An-Nabi). The refurbished Otto­man railway station, housing the Hejaz Railway Museum, is a perfect example of Ottoman architecture that has influenced Saudi building designs in surrounding neighbour­hoods.

What you should know

Central Medina is open only to Muslims. However, non-Muslims have access to the outlying areas of the city marked by specific zones. A favourite venue for non-Muslims is Mada’in Saleh, a pre-Islamic ar­chaeological site dating to the first century. Mada’in Saleh is about 375 kilometres north of Medina via Route 328, about a 4-hour drive from the city.

Saudi women prepare for August elections

Female voters encouraged to vote but some sceptical about impact

Presence of women at polls is expected to have little im­pact on make-up of coun­cils with perception being that they have little political power.

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

19 June 2015

JEDDAH – A grass-roots effort has sprung up to register women to vote in Au­gust municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and to address challenges facing first-time voters.

But the presence of women at the polls is expected to have little im­pact on the make-up of the coun­cils with the perception being that they have little political power and are not responsive to females’ con­cerns.

King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud granted women the right to vote in 2011 and the next year it was announced that they could do so and run as candidates in the 2015 elections.

One Saudi university academic, who spoke on the condition of an­onymity, said she has no plans to vote, though, because there was little evidence that councils would be representative of her and other women.

“Will my council in Jeddah build parks and clean up the trash in my neighbourhood? They haven’t so far,” she said. “Will they build li­braries and make neighbourhoods family-friendly? There is no trans­parency and no evidence that they are responsive to my needs.”

Fatin Bundagji, co-founder of the Baladi Initiative, an advocacy group that helps women win positions in public office, said she sympathises with those who view voting as a hopeless exercise.

“I totally understand where they are coming from,” she said. “In a closed society like ours this is the perspective they have. It doesn’t mean we keep quiet even if it’s true. We need a shift in mindset to be proactive and more responsive as citizens. I think it will take time.”

Saudi Arabia has a chequered his­tory when it comes to voting. It had its first municipal elections in 1939 and again beginning in 1954. These early efforts ceased in 1962. Follow­ing an initial burst of enthusiasm in 2005, voter participation fell, particularly after the 2009 contests were postponed until 2011.

In the September 2011 munici­pal elections about 1.2 million Saudi men were eligible to vote for 5,323 candidates vying for 2,112 council seats. But in Riyadh, only about 300,000 of the men both­ered to register, a sharp drop from 800,000 registrants in 2005. Many Saudis cited a lack of transparency by municipal councils, access to public meetings and the perceived ineffectiveness of councils to im­plement policies for the decline in interest.

In a 2011 poll by the English-language newspaper Arab News, Saudis said they were dissatisfied with the performance of the Jed­dah Municipal Council. The survey found that 71.6% of the 387 polled Saudis described the council’s per­formance as “very bad.” Only 15.2% said the council’s conduct was “good.”

And therein lies a challenge for both male and female voters: There is little confidence in local govern­ance.

Still, there have been successes for women. In the Eastern prov­ince, 80 women are running for city council seats in ten municipalities this year.

Eman al-Nafjan, a writer and aca­demic who is working with the Bal­adi Initiative to help women with online support to get out the vote, said the poor council performance should not discourage women from voting.

“Voting is very symbolic,” Nafjan said. “Yes, this is democracy at an extremely low level but we must still practice it. Democracy is com­ing and it’s a basic principle of exer­cising your right. It’s not about win­ning, but practicing your rights.”

She also noted that while the number of men vying for council seats may vastly outnumber female candidates, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a lock on the elec­tion.

“(Men) are ready, especially the younger generation and the older generation,” Nafjan said. “Men in their 30s and 40s have a real issue with misogyny but the younger generation, those in their 20s, are advocating for women. As for the older generation, they also support women. My grandmother had a shop in a souk and never had prob­lems. She was considered the ma­triarch of the family.”

May 16, 2015

The Arab Weekly, 15 May 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 10:42
Click on image to view article.

Click on image to view article.

September 26, 2014

Archive update

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 07:31

You have reached the article/image archive of Rob L. Wagner. From November 2013 through February 2015 I served as managing editor at the Rumman Co., which publishes Destination Jeddah and Destination Riyadh magazines. I have since become associated with the London-based The Arab Weekly, a news analysis and cultural publication covering the MENA region.

For inquiries, please contact me at leicester17@gmail.com

November 5, 2013

Life hit hard by labor raids

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 10:45

By Rob L. Wagner and Abdullah Al-Bargi

Arab News

5 November 2013

Labor inspectors on Monday swept up thousands of illegal workers in a series of raids across the Kingdom as the amnesty period for expatriates to legalize work status expired on Sunday.

According to Jeddah police spokesman, Nawaf Al-Bouq, 3,918 undocumented expats were arrested in and around Jeddah on Monday.

In Madinah, police raids netted 300 illegals.

Anticipating the sweeps, hundreds of business owners shuttered their shops. In addition, commercial activity at the Jeddah Islamic Port dropped and food prices spiked.

The rush-hour commutes in Jeddah and Riyadh were less congested, as undocumented expats stayed home. Some school administrators closed their campuses because their teachers’ legal status remains unresolved. 

On Palestine Street at Prince Majed Road in Jeddah, at least 3,000 Indonesians gathered to protest their inability to obtain legal status.

“We had tried for weeks to regularize our status, but officials are insisting we bring our original passports and other documents which we are unable to do,” one illegal worker told Arab News.

Abdulmeneem Al-Shehri, head of the Jeddah Labor Office, told Arab News Monday that labor inspectors began targeting commercial business. 

“The Ministry of Labor has a strategic plan for its inspection mission,” Al-Shehri said. “The mission has started and will continue to be conducted by highly qualified staff displaying their official badges.”

He said he expects business owners to cooperate and “uphold the new law” for the public interest and growth of the local economy. 

“Business owners and workers who are found to be in violation will be immediately referred to the Ministry of Interior,” he said.

The Labor Ministry’s campaign to rid the country of illegal workers followed a seven-month grace period, which allowed foreigners working illegally in Saudi Arabia to obtain the proper iqamas. The Saudi government gave workers a three-month amnesty period that was scheduled to end July 3, but extended it to Nov. 3. The government did not provide a third grace period.

Workers in unskilled positions, part-time office workers under the sponsorship of their parents and international schoolteachers have been particularly hard hit. However, undocumented teachers have been given reprieve by the Ministry of Education, which issued a statement that no raids would be conducted during the first semester of school.
Many small shops and restaurants, which commonly hired undocumented workers, were closed throughout Jeddah. 

In Riyadh, the usually bustling Al-Batha shopping complex in the city center appeared deserted, with many shops either empty or closed altogether. 

The Ministry of Labor offices will continue to help workers who had already applied for sponsorship transfer to complete the process this week, according to Al-Shehri. Legalizing workers’ residency status shall also continue. 

In addition, the ministry has launched an employment service to allow legal expats to hold part-time positions while employed in full-time jobs. 

Workers must hold valid iqamas and have permission from the original sponsors to work. In addition, they must register their labor information at www.ajeer-sa.com and have a sound attendance record.

‘Girls of Riyadh’ author honored in US for stem cell research

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 10:42

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

5 November 2013

Rajaa Al-Sanea, the Saudi author of “Girls of Riyadh,” or “Banat Al-Riyadh,” which sparked controversy in 2005 for its frank depiction of Saudi women’s lives, has been honored for her research in stem cell science in the US. 

Al-Sanea, 31, is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. The university honored her last week for significant achievements. She received the award for distinctive research in stem cells and her work in neurology. The university also recognized her literary efforts, singling out “Girls of Riyadh,” which had sold 3 million copies and was translated into 40 languages.

Al-Sanea could not be reached for comment late Monday.

The honor follows Al-Sanea’s rocky start as a novelist. In 2005, two men named the Ministry of Information and Al-Sanea in a lawsuit alleging that the ministry gave permission to Al-Sanea to publish a book that “tarnished” the image of Saudi women. Literary critics, however, considered the novel as the Saudi version of the American television show “Sex in the City.”
The Saudi Court of Grievances rejected the lawsuit in October 2006.

The novel was published in Lebanon in 2005. The US-based Penguin Group published an English version in 2007. It is sold in Saudi Arabia and has also earned positive reviews in the United States.

Al-Sanea earned her bachelor’s degree in dentistry in 2005 at King Saud University. She performed her residency at the National Guard, King Khalid University and King Faisal Specialist hospitals.

August 27, 2013

KSA implements sweeping domestic violence law

By Rima Al-Mukhtar & Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

27 August 2013

In a landmark decision, the Cabinet on Monday passed a law making it a crime to commit domestic abuse. The law also provides treatment and shelter to victims of violence.
For the first time, public and private sector workers have been encouraged to report abuse cases to law enforcement authorities or the Ministry of Social Affairs.
The legislation now holds law enforcement agencies accountable for investigating and prosecuting domestic cases. Previously, police treated violence against women and children as a private domestic matter with few legal consequences.
Abuse victims also will have access to psychological treatment, health care and shelter. “All civilian or military employees and all workers in the private sector who learn of a case of abuse — by virtue of their work — shall report the case to their employers when they know it,” the Cabinet said in a statement. “The employers shall report the case to the Ministry of Social Affairs or police when they know it.”
The Cabinet did not provide specifics of penalties for convictions of domestic violence.
Suhaila Zain Al-Abideen Al-Hammad, a social activist and member of the National Society for Human Rights, said she has reservations about the new law because it doesn’t resolve the male guardianship issue. Many abusers are the guardians of the victims, she said.
“I wish this will change how the Ministry of Social Affairs treats women when it asks them to bring their male guardians when filing domestic abuse complaints,” Al-Hammad said. “They also ask their male guardians to pick them up after the report is done and ask the abusers to sign pledges to never do it again.”
Walaa Mohammed is a 55-year-old stay-at-home mother who divorced her abusive husband. She said the police were powerless to help her.
“My husband used to drink late at night and attack me,” she said. “One day, he locked me in the house and left to meet with his friends and I couldn’t leave the house for days. I called the police who informed me that they cannot come inside if my male guardian was not here.”
Mohammed Al-Harbi, general manager of Social Protection at the Ministry of Social Affairs, said urgent domestic violence cases now can be handled quickly.
“Urgent investigations will be launched and action will be taken in the cases where the abusers are under the influence of drugs or alcohol and those who suffer from psychological conditions,” Al-Harbi said.
Domestic violence awareness is a relatively new concept in Saudi Arabia. Only recently have studies been carried out to examine the issue.
In a 2009 study of women seeking services as primary health centers in Madinah, 25.7 percent of the 689 women surveyed said they were victims of physical abuse. Only 36.7 percent of the abused women in the study notified their doctors.

US to access Americans’ GCC finances

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 13:50
Tags: , , , ,

By Rob L. Wagner

Arab News

13 August 2013

The United States Internal Revenue Service is inching toward implementing a tax law targeting US taxpayers holding unreported foreign financial assets. The law will have a far-reaching impact on American expatriates who have accounts with financial institutions in the GCC. 
The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010 and which becomes effective on July 1, 2014, is intended to find US citizens avoiding their tax obligations by requiring foreign financial institutions to report their bank details.
Saudi Arabia has already signed agreements with accounting firms Ernst & Young, Pricewater-houseCoopers and KBMG to participate in the implementation.
The law requires that foreign financial institutions report the name, address, account number and financial activity of US taxpayers who have assets exceeding $50,000 to the IRS. Foreign banks and other financial institutions that do not sign the agreement will have a 30 percent tax withheld on US-source income deposited in their accounts.
US expats earning income from foreign employers and living at least 330 days out of the year in a foreign country already pay income taxes, although some exemptions apply. However, FATCA requires all foreign financial institutions to provide full financial details of any foreign-employed American living abroad to the IRS.
There have been unintended consequences for some expats.
Adnan Yousef, a member of the Union of Arab Banks, told the Arabic-language daily newspaper Al-Eqtisadiah that at least one Gulf bank terminated the accounts of two Americans. The details of the account closures were not provided. However, some foreign financial institutions — identified as banks, insurance companies, brokerage firms, trust companies, mutual fund companies and retirement plan administrators under the new law — rather close Americans’ accounts than provide customer data because of the costs incurred to comply with the regulations.
One American expatriate civil engineer living in Jeddah said he was denied an account at Saudi financial institution. “They said it was too much trouble to open an account because my government had too many regulations and demands,” said the engineer who asked not to be identified.
Yet most GCC banks are ready to comply with the IRS regulations.
Yousef said he expects the UAE will be the chief source of tax collections due to the large number of Americans earning high wages. Saudi Arabia has the second highest number of earners followed by Bahrain and Kuwait, he said.
In all, an estimated SR1 billion could be collected as taxes from American expats, he said.
“Gulf banks will apply the new law to subject the accounts of US citizens to gradual tax detection to make sure US citizens do not evade any taxes on his income in any state,” Yousef told Al-Eqtisadiah. 
A US expat in the aviation industry said he is not worried about the new law. “I already report my income and I have nothing to worry about,” he said on the condition of anonymity. “The ones who should worry are the guys who are investing a lot of money in Saudi Arabia, using offshore accounts to keep their money, and not reporting it as income.”
Meanwhile, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency advised the Kingdom’s financial institutions to prepare to implement the new regulations.

Saudi students encouraged over US ‘green card’ plan

By RIMA AL-MUKHTAR & ROB L. WAGNER

Arab News

13 August 2013

Saudi university students studying in the United States say an offer of a residency permit from the Obama administration would increase employment opportunities for young Saudis and even provide leverage as a means to find work in the US.

As Washington legislators debate immigration reform, a persistent position among Democrats, President Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden are encouraging foreign students to remain in the United States after earning their post-graduate degree by offering a legal residence permit, called a green card. A green card serves as a pathway to US citizenship.
The US government is particularly interested in students with a master’s degree or Ph.D in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — called STEM degree programs — because of their potential to contribute to the American economy.
Israa Saleh, a Saudi MBA student in Boston said the idea of working in the United States is appealing because of the lack of jobs in Saudi Arabia.
“This would be a great opportunity for Saudis who do not find good job opportunities in the Kingdom because many graduates cannot find a job offer and the ones who do are underpaid,” Saleh told Arab News. “If we stay here and work here I believe it will give us a great working experience and develop our knowledge.”
Khalid Jan, a Saudi banking and finance student in Tampa, Florida, told Arab News that obtaining a green card can help eliminate the stereotyping of Saudis by Americans.
“We have been called many names but no one actually made an effort to know us better outside the school campus,” Jan said. “This will also show that Saudis can be good at what they do especially in jobs related to the economy.”
The US Department of Homeland Security, long the source of irritation for Saudis traveling to the United States because the department is often perceived as unnecessarily intrusive, has expanded its list of degree programs. The list broadens the pool of eligible graduating foreign university students for the US government’s Optional Practical Training program in science and technology fields.
Among the perks of the program is allowing qualified student visa holders an extra 17 months to remain in the United States.
Talal Mujeeb, an engineering student in Phoenix, Arizona, said the program should send a signal Saudi businessmen who refuse to hire Saudis.
“We are glad this came now because this can help us as students from having to apply for a visa and not be afraid to leave the US fearing a rejection,” Mujeeb said. “This is also a way to teach greedy businessmen who refuse to see us as a great investment and would rather invest in foreigners.”
However, some Saudi students are not ready to accept the US government’s offer.
Lama Al-Amri, a psychology major in Miami, said Saudis remaining in the United States defeats the purpose of the university scholarship program. “Why would someone even consider living in the US when we are all here for a mission and will be leaving?” she said.
She said the Ministry of Higher Education sent Saudis abroad to improve the job and social skills of the next generation of young people
“We are supposed to bring our knowledge back home and work on improving the economy and work on developing the life there.”
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