Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

November 14, 2015

Saudi Women Seek More Employment Opportunities

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Private businesses are discovering that female applicants are less likely to accept jobs that re­quire long hours and low wages.

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

13 November 2015

Jeddah – Bassma al-Harbi had what she thought was a dream job. A rising star in a ma­jor Saudi Arabian private company that owns and operates a string of high-profile restaurants and department stores, she was groomed for quick ad­vancement.

Harbi, 25, and a university gradu­ate, rapidly moved up and became a regional supervisor but her dream soured almost as quickly. Her work­load doubled to two shifts daily, six days a week. Although she worked as a regional supervisor for a year and had significant responsibilities, a salary increase never material­ised.

It became clear, the Medina wom­an said, that she was one of many women who were being exploited in the private sector.

“By hiring women the company is making tonnes of money because more and more conservative wom­en trust us (female sales representa­tives),” Harbi said. “These custom­ers stay longer in the shop because they are dealing with knowledge­able saleswomen and not leaving quickly because they must talk to men. Revenue is up because they are hiring more girls.”

Harbi said she quit after three years of exhausting work and no prospect of a salary that reflected her management skills and educa­tion. She remains unemployed.

Her experience serves as a warn­ing that business practices in the private sector have not caught up with the explosive growth in the number of women working in Saudi Arabia.

Long accustomed to hiring com­pliant expatriates, mostly who work in retail and restaurants at modest salaries, the private sector is under pressure from the Saudi Ministry of Labour to hire Saudi women to maintain quotas of Saudi employees under the government’s Nationalisation Programme.

Now in the position where em­ploying women is a consideration to maintain nationalisation numbers or face fines, private businesses are discovering that female applicants are less likely to accept jobs that re­quire long hours and low wages.

Businesses have been slow to ad­just to the new dynamic of the fe­male employee.

“I see frustrations on many lev­els,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi women’s rights activist. “They need women to work but don’t know how to negotiate their salary.”

Harbi said Saudi employers are not considering the difficulty wom­en face in taking a job.

“A woman taking a job is a family decision and usually not everyone in the family agrees to the job,” she said. “The family’s priority is mar­riage. If you’re working two shifts and have time for nothing else, no one in the family will agree to you taking a job.”

In many instances, Saudi wom­en are desperate to find employ­ment because it means financial independence. Many work long hours for low pay and do not com­plain. According to the Saudi Press Agency, the Labour Ministry re­ported there was a 76.08% increase in female employment in private business in the previous year. The year before that, the increase was 23.92%.

During the previous year, an es­timated 174,827 Saudi women were working in private business in the Riyadh region while the Mecca re­gion had 114,173 women and East­ern Province employed 68,000.

The increase in female employ­ment is a step in the Labour Minis­try’s attempt to reduce the 34% un­employment rate cited by the Saudi Central Department of Statistics and Information.

The increase in privately em­ployed women is also due to the Labour Ministry’s aggressive cam­paign to reduce the number of male expat workers in lingerie and beauty shops. Virtually every mall in Saudi Arabia’s urban centres now employ all-female staffs.

Fassi cautioned that the Labour Ministry’s statistics may be mis­leading. She said the increase in the number of women entering the workforce is likely in the retail sec­tor with significantly fewer univer­sity-educated females finding work in professional fields.

“It’s a good number because it shows a need for low-income wom­en to find work. It’s filling this gap,” Fassi said. “But the high number in the Labour Ministry’s statistics are explained by women entering retail jobs and not reflective of women’s contributions to the economy. We still need a stronger level of protec­tion.”

One weakness in the govern­ment’s efforts to employ women in the private sector is the lack of enforcement and follow-through on a wide range of rights the La­bour Ministry granted to women. Rights granted include women are no longer required to obtain per­mission from their male guardians to work. The ministry also gives women maternity leave, mourning periods up to four months and ten days if a husband should die and paid leave for marriage.

“The Labour Ministry should be stronger in implementing its rules that protect women and preserve their dignity,” Fassi said. “The re­ligious police still breach some of these laws by harassing these wom­en by coming into shops and just standing there because they don’t like the way they dress.”

She said regulations against mix­ing between men and women and fines for women who violate the Islamic dress code target female workers and not men. “It’s accusa­tive of women, a bit hostile,” Fassi said.

“The reforms like [mourning] are a very good step towards more rights,” Fassi noted. “But it’s not very clear companies will follow the rights imposed by the Labour Ministry.”

A Labour Ministry spokesman was unavailable for comment.

Rob L. Wagner is an American journalist based in Saudi Arabia.

Madain Saleh: Saudi Arabia’s Hidden City

Some young Saudis are not avoiding the area because it’s cursed, but because decades of neglect have rendered its history meaningless to them.

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

13 November 2015

Jeddah – If you stood silent among the Nabataean tombs and monu­ments at Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia long after dusk you might hear a baby camel’s faint keening for its mother. The people of Thamud, like spiteful children disobeying their father, slaughtered the she-camel, which had been created as a miracle of God, and the calf escaped into the mountains.

Today, according to legend, the calf haunts Madain Saleh, about 400 kilometres north of Medina. God cursed the area to destroy the Thamuds for their cruelty and idol worshipping.

Whether one is superstitious and believes in ghosts is irrelevant. The wailing often heard could be the wind whistling through nearby mountain passages and the tombs carved in rock. But in many ways Madain Saleh, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, is indeed cursed if one chooses a broad interpretation of what became of the site after its people disappeared. It was ne­glected for centuries, and despite efforts by the Saudi government to promote it as a tourist attraction, Saudis have largely ignored its sig­nificance.

Madain Saleh is Saudi Arabia’s pre-eminent pre-Islamic archaeo­logical site dating to the Nabataean kingdom in the first century. The Thamuds’ presence is dated to at least 715BC. Madain Saleh literally means “Cities of Saleh” after the pre-Islamic Prophet Saleh. Madain Saleh is a necropolis of 131 Nabatae­an tombs cut into massive rocks spread over 21 square kilometres. It was the southern settlement of the Nabataean people, whose capital was in Petra, Jordan.

The area where the Thamud peo­ple once lived is one of area’s most important archaeological sites. Saleh was the prophet of the Tha­mud people who built their homes into the cliffs of the area. They were arrogant and corrupt. They lived long but also worshipped idols carved from stone, refusing to listen to Saleh’s message that there was only one God. When villagers demanded a miracle to prove that an invisible god existed, Saleh obliged, and God created a pregnant she-camel rising out of a large rock and giving birth to a calf. The Thamud people were in awe of the miracle.

A great stone tub was built and filled with milk from the she-camel. Saleh permitted the vil­lagers to share water from a well with the camel by drinking from it on alternating days. But the vil­lagers refused to allow the camel and her calf to drink from the well or to graze. The villagers killed the mother and the calf escaped. God ordered Saleh to leave the region and then shook the villagers’ land with a massive earthquake and lightning. The disobedient villag­ers perished in the disaster.

Today the area is the top Saudi Arabian tourist site for expatri­ates, drawing thousands of visitors each year. But to say that Saudis avoid the area due to superstitions ignores the generational shift in attitudes and religious and cultural history.

“Muslims usually go to places that are blessed,” said Abdul­lah Salama, 41, a former Medina resident living in Jeddah and who never visited Madain Saleh. “There is no reason for anyone to go to a place that was cursed.”

For many years a fatwa issued by the Council for Senior Ulema, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, prohibited visiting the area based on a hadith in which the Prophet Mohammad taught Mus­lims to avoid places subjected to God’s wrath.

According to the hadith, when the Prophet passed by Madain Saleh on his way to Tabuk, he said: “Don’t pass through the dwelling place of those who wronged them­selves without crying.” The crying refers to the regret of sins in deny­ing or violating God’s messages. Mohammad ordered that his fol­lowers throw away the food they got from that area and spill the wa­ter because the site was cursed.

The fatwa has since been lifted. Over the past decade, US, French and German archaeologists have scoured the region to uncover its history. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities has been urging Saudis to visit the site as a means for the poor to earn a living from tourism and to instil pride in Saudi Arabia’s history.

Yarob H. Al-Ali, an archaeology manager for the commission, said that sites such as Madain Saleh provide jobs but equally important is introducing Saudis to their long-neglected history.

“It’s a long commitment to bring the region’s history out into the open,” he said.

While the commission is target­ing all Saudis in its awareness cam­paign, its biggest challenge may be convincing the younger genera­tion of Madain Saleh’s value as an historic site. Some younger Saudis are not avoiding the area because it’s cursed but because decades of neglect have rendered its history meaningless to them.

“Madain Saleh is a place to drive by on the way to another city,” said Manal al-Attiah, 38, a second-generation Medinan. “The fact that it’s cursed doesn’t bother me. Its pre-Islamic history doesn’t bother me either. But the government has done such a bad job of promoting it and the infrastructure is so poor, I just don’t have a desire to go.”

Akram Alyeenbawi, 21, of Medi­na, agreed: “How can I appreci­ate the history of something that I have never been taught in school?”

Attiah complained there are no rest stops, restaurants or adequate accommodations in the immediate area. The Prophet’s admonition not to drink or eat at the site is likely the reason why there are no con­veniences.

However, Attiah said Madain Saleh is devoid of infrastructure that would make a visit comfort­able and interesting.

“It’s not a place I think about,” she said.

Rob L. Wagner is an American journalist based in Saudi Arabia.

October 18, 2015

Saudi Arabia’s Budding Attention to Museums

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

16 October 2015

Tabuk – Standing next to a huge shopping mall in the heart of Tabuk, about 500 km north of Medina, are 13 re­furbished historic struc­tures boasting traditional Hejazi ar­chitecture. The buildings are mostly empty but in a year the Saudi Com­mission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) expects the site to be bus­tling with tourists.

The dusty patch of land was once the promising Hejaz Railway station established in 1906. It was to be part of an important trade and haj rail route from Damascus to Tabuk and on to Medina and Mecca.

However, the nearly 1,500-km distance, the harsh environment and T.E. Lawrence’s Arab army during World War I spelled doom for the railroad. The tracks ended ingloriously in Medina following numerous attacks by Lawrence to disrupt Ottoman attempts to con­trol the region. The railway never operated after 1918.

The SCTA is setting its sights on preserving historic treasures and in­troducing Saudis to the kingdom’s past. Tabuk’s Hejaz station stands testament to Saudi Arabia’s gam­ble that Saudis and foreign visitors will have an interest in events that shaped the kingdom.

Saudi authorities also hope to preserve pre-Islamic sites, particu­larly in the north-west, where there is evidence that Egyptians from the west established trade in the Tabuk region.

It is not an easy task. Yaroub H. al- Ali, manager of archaeology at the Tabuk Antiquities Office, said the commission is working to “slowly introduce Saudis to the concept of museums” and other historic ven­ues.

“We plan to build museums around the country and we have one already under way here in Tabuk,” Ali said.

A testament to the country’s am­bitions is a state-of-the-art, two-sto­rey museum on the Tabuk railway station grounds that is scheduled for completion in October 2016. Ali promises that exhibits on regional archaeological findings will com­plement the Hejaz Railway history.

“We have a (locomotive) and rail­way car housed in one building with exhibits and another railway build­ing is reserved as a handicrafts cen­tre that will have traditional Arab arts and crafts,” Ali said.

The Tabuk project is part of the vision of Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, secretary-general of the Commission for Tourism and An­tiquities. He announced in 2012 that six museums were being construct­ed in Saudi Arabia with six more planned.

“I would like to urge the citizens to preserve this important national wealth,” Prince Sultan said when he inspected archaeological sites in Tayma, 260 km south-west of Tabuk.

Prince Sultan’s statement points to a changing attitude in a country that has long been indifferent to the destruction of historic sites. In re­cent years, Saudi authorities asked German archaeologists to join re­searchers from King Saud Univer­sity to excavate Islamic and pre-Is­lamic sites in Tayma.

In 2010, the commission an­nounced that archaeologists dis­covered an inscription carved in a rock referring to Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III and dating between 1185-1153BC. The discovery points to evidence that Tabuk and Tayma were part of an important route linking the Nile valley with north-west Arabia. About 30 km from Tayma numerous inscriptions be­longing to the pre-Islamic Thamud tribes have been excavated.

However, the commission must sell history as an educational pro­cess and family activity to Saudis. Visiting museums is not a concept typically ingrained in Saudis, whose sense of history and place rarely extend to before the birth of the Prophet Mohammad.

Saudi Arabia since 2010 has be­gun promoting domestic tourism followed by a push to encourage Muslims from neighbouring coun­tries to visit. Although efforts to attract non-Muslim foreign tour­ists have been inconsistent, tourist company owners are hopeful that visa regulations will loosen to draw more tourists and boost the regional economy.

Tabuk officials see tourism as part of the solution as Saudi Arabia at­tempts to wean itself from oil as a major source of revenue. In 2013, about 392,000 people were em­ployed in the country in tourism-related jobs, including employment indirectly supported by the tourism industry. An estimated $6.4 billion were invested in the Saudi tourism industry. Investments are projected to reach $10.6 billion by 2024, ac­cording to a 2014 World Travel & Tourism report.

Hatim Al-Jalawi owns a private museum and operates Tabuk Tour­ist Sights, which provides bus tours of the region. His museum features an eclectic collection of Arabian peninsula artefacts ranging from 18th- and 19th-century firearms to antique household items. He dis­plays artefacts from a Jewish com­munity believed to have existed near Tayma. On the grounds are a restored mud brick house and dio­ramas of Saudi households from the past.

“Private museums could use some help in cataloguing and pre­serving collections like these,” said Jalawi, who indicated that he would welcome government expertise in handling his collection.

Still, Jalawi has forged a relation­ship with the Antiquities Office to bring visitors to the Tabuk Castle, which was restored in 1992, across the street from his museum. He has a special interest in giving Western­ers the VIP treatment by offering them Arabic coffee and dates while visiting the castle to introduce them to Saudi culture and hospitality.

Wael Alkhalid, a tourism com­mission guide who takes videos of the Tabuk region and posts them online, said the new museum and railway station, nearby archaeo­logical sites and restoration along Prince Fahd bin Sultan Road in the Old Quarter of the city puts Tabuk in a position to be a major tourist destination.

“Tabuk has a lot to offer,” Alkhalid said. “It’s a remote city but it has many things that other cities don’t have. Tabuk people are very warm and friendly. They would welcome visitors from anywhere.”

The Haj: A unique experience for Muslims

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

18 September 2015

Jeddah – Kharizada Kasrat Rai, his body thin and his skin darkened by the sun, per­formed in 2013 what so many men and women endured before him over the centu­ries: He walked from his homeland through dangerous territory to per­form the haj in Mecca.

Rai, at 37, walked 6,387 km from Karachi through Pakistan, Iran and Jordan to reach Saudi Arabia. In Jor­dan he took the old western route, a path worn deep from the foot­steps of millions of the faithful be­fore him, south to Tabuk. He then moved on to Medina and Mecca.

“My determination to reach Mecca and witness the marvels of Medina only added to my resilience to complete my journey,” Rai said.

Probably few pilgrims are pre­pared for the hardships of such a journey. In previous centuries, it took a lifetime of saving and some­times a year to make the trek. Pil­grims performing haj numbered in the thousands.

Cheap air travel and tour compa­nies now have enabled just about any Muslim to perform the most important religious duty of his life. An estimated 2.5 million worship­pers are expected to perform the rites in 2015.

The fifth pillar of Islam, haj is a ritual Muslims should perform at least once in their lifetime. To per­form the rite one must be a Muslim and an adult with a sound mind and possess the physical ability to perform the rituals. The worship­per must also have the financial re­sources to make the pilgrimage and still provide for one’s dependents at home. Successfully completing haj, usually over five days during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Is­lamic calendar, gives the worship­per a place in paradise.

Given that haj is performed in Mecca, where the weather can be inhospitable and the terrain rocky and unforgiving, the ritual can be difficult for the elderly.

Men must wear the Ihram, a plain white garment that eliminates the appearance of wealth and status and allows all worshippers, now standing in purity, to appear as equals before Allah.

The haj ritual dates to about 2000BC when Allah commanded the Prophet Abraham to leave his wife, Hajar, and son, Ishmael, in the Mecca desert. Hajar ran be­tween the hills searching for water for her son but found none. Just when she had given up hope, Ish­mael scratched the ground with his leg and a spring erupted under his foot. Afterwards Allah commanded Abraham to build the Kaaba to in­vite people to perform pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage consists of Tawaf by circumambulating the Kaaba and walking between the Safa and Marwah hills to re-enact Hajar’s search for water. The ritual is fol­lowed by standing on Mount Arafat, the most important act of haj, from morning to sunset to pray for Allah’s forgiveness. Pilgrims also climb the Mount of Mercy for prayers.

The last significant act requires pilgrims to stop at Muzdalifah to collect seven small stones to carry to Mina. Once they arrive, and over three days, they move along a wide pedestrian walkway to cast the stones at three stone pillars, which represent Satan. Here, the worship­pers praise Allah while rejecting Satan.

At the end of haj the faithful cir­cle the Kaaba seven times in fare­well and have their hair shaved to signify the end of the rituals.

Jeddah resident Irfan Moham­med, who performed his pilgrim­age in 1997 and had an opportunity to be in Mecca on business during the haj in 2014, said the Ministry of Haj has made tremendous improve­ments in increasing the comfort to worshipers.

“There are a lot less illegal pil­grims in Mecca in recent years,” Mohammed said. It makes for a more comfortable haj because there is more space and better lodging. Sanitation has improved. Eighteen years ago it was very ugly but the hygienic conditions have improved.”

He noted that safety has been the government’s top priority. Be­tween 1990 and 2006 nearly 2,500 pilgrims died in stampedes, due mostly to crowding, particularly at the stone pillars representing Satan and Jamaraat Bridge. The bridge and pillars were demolished and replaced by a multi-level bridge and large columns.

Just before the 2015 haj, on Sep­tember 11th, a crane accident re­sulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.

“It was very hectic before,” Mo­hammed said. “Now the entrance points are better organised and the crowd movement is orderly.”

The holy days of the Eid al-Ad­ha follow haj and begin with the slaughter of a goat or a sheep to honour Allah. The slaughter stems from Allah’s test of Abraham to slaughter his son, Ismael, as a ges­ture of submission. God intervened in the sacrifice.

The meat from the animal is supposed to be divided into three parts: one-third for charity, a third for extended relatives, friends and neighbours and one-third for the family. It’s a period when families may fast or increase their worship­ping.

Technology has dramatically changed how pilgrims arrive in Mecca to perform haj. Better or­ganisational methods have made it possible to safely accommodate millions but the rituals remain identical to the time of Abraham. On rare occasions pilgrims, such as Rai, continue to emulate Mus­lim ancestors by making the diffi­cult journey on foot as an expres­sion of honouring those who have achieved paradise.

September 12, 2015

The Red Sea Diving Experience in Saudi Arabia

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

4 September 2015

JEDDAH – Any diver possessing a Professional Associa­tion of Diving Instruc­tors (PADI) licence and a sense of adventure can spout off a list of top dive sites around the world. Kona Mantas in Hawaii comes to mind, as does Cod Hole at the Great Barrier Reef and Elephant Head Rock on the Similan Islands off Thailand.

Rarely making the top ten, or even the top 50, lists of best world­wide dive spots is the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt often gets a nod but Saudi Arabia is turning out to be the best-kept secret in the diving world.

It comes as no surprise. Saudi Arabia is notoriously difficult to get into. One can’t simply obtain a visa at the airport but must be invited and usually have business in the kingdom.

That’s changing as the country is beginning to offer tourist visas, usually to large groups and more likely from South and East Asia. But Westerners have discovered that, with a little pluck and persis­tence, they, too, can dive in the Red Sea if they book their trip through a Saudi-approved tour agency.

The diving scene has mush­roomed over the past decade as ex­perienced underwater enthusiasts have drifted away from Jeddah, long the central dive location, to venture to Yanbu to the north and the Farasan Islands to the south.

“We get a lot of people up here in Yanbu,” said Ahmed Al-Saidi, man­ager at Dream Diver in Yanbu.

It’s no wonder. Of the Red Sea’s 1,932-kilometre Saudi coastline, much of it featuring coral reefs, Yanbu offers perhaps the most pris­tine dive venues in the country.

Yanbu is an industrial town of nearly 300,000 residents with a reputation that rests on petro­chemical production. As recently as 2010 it had little to offer domestic and foreign tourists. That changed, however, as private, family-friend­ly resorts began to pop up and pro­vide diving lessons and excursions. One can still drive several miles between the handful of resorts dot­ting the coast but the real plus is the waters are virgin territory.

The Seven Sisters coral reef chain off the coast of Yanbu is perhaps the cleanest and most visually stunning venue in the kingdom. Marker No. 39 on the southern area of the chain features hard and soft corals and is populated with squirrelfish, pick handle barracuda and red snapper. Marker No 41 features bigeye, dog­tooth and bonito tuna while Marker No. 32 is a soft coral reef that tanta­lises divers with its vibrant colours. It’s an underwater photographer’s paradise.

All-day excursions with two sep­arate dives generally start at about $100 per person with open-water lessons starting at about $470 per person, Saidi said. Many dive shops, including Dream Diver, offer advanced courses in deep-sea, res­cue and maintenance diving.

Fitzpatrick, 38, an American ex­patriate, said he has been diving for about ten years.

“I earned my PADI certifications in Jeddah and had been diving there for some time before I came to Yan­bu,” he said. “Believe me, Yanbu is the place to be. I still dive in Jeddah but Yanbu is a special treat.”

Yassir Sayti, who operates a dive excursion service at Al Ahlam Mari­na north of Yanbu, said he has seen an increase in Jeddawis exploring Yanbu’s dive sites. “The divers want something different and Jeddah is familiar to everybody,” he said.

Expat and Saudi divers have expressed frustration with water conditions in Jeddah. Pollution remains a problem with the south­ern portion of the Jeddah coastline polluted with domestic waste and the northern areas with domestic waste and petrol spills. Along the entire coast are nearly 200 species of coral with some damaged due to pollution.

In addition, overfishing — an estimated 8,000-10,000 fishing boats operate in the waters — have depleted some species, especially sharks. Yet the region’s large reef habitat and the relatively low coast­al population give Saudis hope that the Jeddah waters will recover. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology’s Red Sea Center and Reef Ecology Lab have made significant progress in iden­tifying problem areas to implement plans for cleanup.

Although Jeddah remains the most popular and accessible dive sites, the southern region also pro­vides abundant locations. About 210 kilometres south of Jeddah and 40 kilometres off the Jizan-Yemen Highway is the Farasan Banks, not to be confused with the Farasan Islands. The banks have depths reaching 500 metres to the east and west of the islands and as shallow as 10-40 metres on some plateaus.

At Farasan Islands, a group of coral islands, about 79 species of coral exist along with nesting areas for the hawksbill sea turtle and the green turtle.

By opening the country to for­eign tourists, Saudi Arabia can pro­mote its roses in Taif, its history at Mada’in Saleh, and the richness of the Hejaz and Najdi cultures. But for the adventure bound, diving at Yanbu, Jeddah or Jizan is virtually uncharted territory.

How to Get There:

Direct flights from London to Jed­dah aboard Saudi Arabia Airlines start at about $700. Non-Saudi citi­zens must have a visa to enter the country. From Jeddah, Yanbu and the Farasan Islands are accessible by bus or car rental. There are daily flights from Jeddah to Yanbu.

When to Go:

Scuba diving is a year-round ac­tivity but late fall and early winter offer the best conditions.

Before You Go:

Contact a Saudi-approved tour agency to help secure proper doc­umentation for the trip. Among the approved agencies are Zahid Travel Group ( and Al Mousim Travel and Tours (al­ of Riyadh.

When You Get There:

There are numerous dive shops that offer lessons and PADI certi­fication starting at about $470 per person. If you are certified, then daily dive excursions start at about $100.

There may be rental fees for equipment, depending on the dive shop. Dream Diver (dreamdiver. net) among other shops, offer dives at several locations along the coast.

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

Taif: The City of Roses

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

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

15 May 2015

Taif – The adage “stop and smell the roses” takes on new meaning when visitors climb to the highlands of Taif to find a temperate cli­mate and plenty of water that defy the image of Saudi Arabia as a vast inhospitable desert.

It is here that the intense fra­grance of oil-rich roses from the nearly 700 farms startles even the most experienced traveller. Where in the Gulf region can one literally take a break from the hubbub of life and smell the flowers even if none were to be seen?

Taif is the city of roses. It is an oasis that traces its roots of cultivat­ing the damask rose to time of the Ottoman Empire. Taif combines old world history dating to the sixth century with its present-day em­phasis on natural beauty, Arabian horses and luxury tourism. Its in­habitants repelled assaults from the Banu Daws in 630. It fell to the Ot­tomans in 1517 and remained part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 300 years before the Sauds reclaimed the city in 1802.

Today, Taif is a domestic and in­ternational tourist destination for connoisseurs of the 30-petal rose – also known as the Rosa x damasce­na — who seek only the best quality rose oil and rose water. Taif’s an­nual Rose Festival, now in its 11th year, draws tens of thousands of visitors each spring. While roses are the principal draw for tourists, over the past decade Taif has become a destination city thanks largely to its relatively mild climate, excellent ac­cess to water and wide range of his­toric sites and agricultural richness.

“In Al-Hada you can find plenty of resorts and villas as well as rooms which can be rent by hour,” said Mu­hammed Murad, 46, a native of Taif who speaks of his city with obvious pride. “There are also many parks and gardens, public and private.”

In the suburbs, Al-Hada cel­ebrates its environment with gardens and parks that produce grapes, pomegranates, figs and apricots. Visitors clamber onto ca­ble cars at the Al-Kurr village and take a 30-minute aerial journey to the top of Al-Hada mountain to take in the stunning views. Al-Shifa to the south earned is reputation as a centre for honey production. These two districts also offer a vast net­work of trails for ambitious hikers.

“There are no scheduled pro­grammes for hikers by recognised parties but tourists can hike with­out any supervision,” Murad said. “Some Europeans working in the same company where I work often say my country has plenty of places to go and enjoy and one of them are the mountain regions.”

Given visitors’ tendency to fo­cus on the region’s floral heritage and natural environment, perhaps the most underappreciated fea­ture is the Al-Massara International Equestrian Centre, which serves as an auction house for selectively bred Arabian horses, including the Seglawi, Keheilan, Hamdani, Had­ban and Abeyan breeds. The centre is one of the largest horseback rid­ing facilities in the Gulf and offers lessons even for novices. A main­stay of the centre is its horse beauty pageants.

How to get there:

Direct flights from London to Jed­dah aboard Saudi Arabia Airlines start at about $700. Saudi Arabia Airlines also has direct flights from Dubai to Taif Regional Airport start­ing at about $325. Non-Saudi citi­zens must have a visa to enter the country. Many visitors make the 186-kilometre 2.5-hour drive via routes 40 and 15 east from Jeddah, which can be a challenge with nar­row twisting roads rising to nearly 1,900 metres on the slopes of the Al-Sarawat mountains. The scenic drive is worth the cost of a tank of petrol. Murad said the first stop for motorists as they enter the city is “King Fahd Park, which was consid­ered the biggest in the Middle East for many years”

Where to stay:

There are at least two dozen ho­tels in Taif with an average rating of three stars with the InterConti­nental Taif and Ramada Al-Hada among the top ranked. The Ramada atop Al-Hada mountain offers spec­tacular views of the valleys and mountain range.

When to go:

The rose harvest is during April with the festival usually starting around the same time. Then tours of local rose farms can be arranged through a domestic tour company. Temperatures in the spring range from a balmy 26 Celsius to a man­ageable 35.

What to know:

Although Taif has a population of more than 500,000 people, it is rural and conservative. Be sure to take a camera but ask permission when taking photos of people, es­pecially of female sellers in souks and markets. Modest clothing is required.

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

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