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February 5, 2016

Little Impact Seen on Saudi Economy from US Fed Rate Hike

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

5 February 2016

Jeddah – As Saudi Arabia grap­ples with implement­ing radical measures to boost its economy in the wake of plunging oil prices, economists cast a wary eye to whether the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike in December will have an effect on the kingdom’s economy.

The likely answer is it will have little or no immediate impact on the Saudi economy but that does not mean there will not be fallout by the end of 2016.

“Right now there will probably not be a strong effect but we will have to see what happens in the second half of 2016,” said Turki H. Fadaak, a research and advisory manager for Albilad Investment Company in Jeddah.

The Fed raised interest rates 0.25% in December, the first in­crease in nearly a decade. The agency rejected an increase on January 27th but has indicated that there might be “gradual” increases ahead.

The rate hike could play a role in the Saudi economy because the riyal is pegged to the US dollar and Saudi banks traditionally fol­low Fed action with their own rate hikes. In December, the Saudi Ara­bian Monetary Agency increased its reserve repurchase rate from 0.25% to 0.5%, matching the Fed rate hike.

Fadaak said he was cautiously optimistic the hike would have minimal repercussions on the Sau­di economy.

“Implementing the repurchase by the monetary agency is just an adjustment to go along with the rate increase on the American dol­lar and will have no direct effect on investments or attracting invest­ments from foreigners,” Fadaak said.

However, there is a ripple ef­fect. The US dollar is exceptionally strong with the euro losing about 1.1% of its value and the British pound about 0.5% against the dol­lar since January 1st. A strong dol­lar, coupled with the rate hike, is affecting US manufacturers export­ing products, which have become more expensive and thus more dif­ficult to sell.

Ehsan M. Ahrari is adjunct re­search professor for the Strategic Studies Institute, Army War College in Pennsylvania and tracks Saudi domestic policies. He said low oil prices and a rising Fed rate may force Saudi Arabia to choose be­tween reducing oil output and re­moval of the riyal-dollar link, which is an extreme long shot.

“First, (Saudi Arabia) might have to at least trim oil production,” Ah­rari said. “Second, it will have to consider de-pegging the riyal from the dollar. The latter option would send shock waves through the world economy and will also have deleterious effects on the Saudi economy. Trimming oil production appears most promising and least harmful but I have doubts that the Saudis would take that route.”

Ahrari said the problem was “the decision to flood the oil market is taken by Saudi Arabia to compete with Iran, which is “devoid of eco­nomic rationality”.

In other words, a strong US dol­lar, a higher interest rate and low oil prices could wreak havoc on the economy of Gulf countries with shrinking liquidity. If the cost of funding loans by banks increases due to this combination, then for­eign and Saudi investors would stay away because funding projects would become cost-prohibitive.

Fadaak, however, said the econ­omy region-wide was growing, which reduces the threat.

“The rate increase will not affect local consumption in a great way because the economy (in the Gulf region) at this stage is expanding and there are no fears of a shortage of liquidity or from the negative ef­fects of decreased government spending, especially in relation to bank loans,” Fadaak said.

It is difficult to determine the role Saudi Arabia plays in this scenario but the timing is awkward as the government embarks on its auster­ity programme to make up a 2016 budget deficit of about $97 billion, about 15% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). It has al­ready raised gasoline and electric­ity prices, a sales tax is planned and Riyadh is likely to privatise govern­ment hospitals.

Although Saudi Arabia is facing new challenges in closing the budg­et deficit, it does have experience in dealing with oil gluts. In 1986, crude oil prices fell to less than $10 per barrel — about $22 in 2016 dollars — due largely to reduced demand. Initially the kingdom cut production and tried to keep prices up. By the mid-1980s, it reversed and increased output while cutting prices. The result was a slow but steady recovery that lifted Saudi Arabia out of debt.

Saudis are using a similar strate­gy today. “I believe the decreases in oil prices were the main motives for today’s economic reforms,” Fadaak said.

Ahrari noted that the opposite strategy is needed today. “Trim­ming oil production might push the price of oil closer to $50 per barrel but it will take a while,” he said. “I am not certain whether the Saudis would do that barring any politi­cal agreement with Iran to do the same. However, it does not look like there is any public move in that direction from either side.”

January 29, 2016

Medical Staff Shortages Spur Saudis to Act

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

29 January 2016

Jeddah – Female pre-med and nurs­ing students at the King Saud bin Abdulaziz Uni­versity for Health Sciences spend classroom time lis­tening to professors’ lectures while surreptitiously going over their notes for the next class.

They are the new breed of health care students: conscientious, ambi­tious and allergic to wasting time. Female pre-med and nursing stu­dents of 2016 are a sharp contrast to women a decade ago who shunned nursing, which was deemed shame­ful because of the proximity to male patients.

Today, Saudi women with a broader worldview are turning to the medical field in increasing num­bers to take advantage of good sala­ries and a chance at independence.

The Saudi Ministry of the Na­tional Guard and the Education Ministry have embarked on an am­bitious programme to establish a Western model of high academic medical training standards to boost the numbers of Saudis graduating with bachelor’s degrees in nursing and medicine.

It’s not an easy task. Only 812 Saudi nurses graduated from pri­vate and government universities in 2014. Saudi Arabia requires at least 7,000 nurses each year to fill the needs of government and private hospitals, according to the consul­tancy firm McKinsey and Company. An estimated 82% of the doctors and 74% of the nurses are foreign­ers, McKinsey said. There are 16 physicians and 36 nurses per 10,000 people in Saudi Arabia, far lower than 30 doctors and 58 nurses per 10,000 in neighbouring Bahrain.

Dr Taqwa Omar, dean of the Saudi National Guard’s College of Nursing, said Saudi Arabia has 26 government nursing colleges and 21 private institutions. However, student admissions are limited be­cause colleges lack the faculty to teach. Only three of the 47 colleges have teaching hospitals.

“We are struggling to recruit fac­ulty,” Omar said.

Health care officials must con­tend with these challenges against the backdrop of the recently an­nounced government fiscal auster­ity programme and the intention to privatise hospitals to reduce gov­ernment expenditures on health.

Expat doctors and nurses are fill­ing the kingdom’s health care ranks at a time when there is a significant demand for more hospital beds due to a sharp increase in cases of heart disease and diabetes stemming from an obesity rate twice the aver­age of other countries.

“The problem in Saudi Arabia is that they have been training nurses for some time but they are not fill­ing the needs,” said Helen Ziegler of Helen Ziegler and Associates, a Toronto recruiting company that sends medical professionals to for­eign countries.

Ziegler said recruitment agencies can’t meet the demand for Western-trained nurses and doctors in Saudi Arabia. “Hospitals want very specif­ic people and want people to work in (the emergency room),” Ziegler said. “We send about 120 nurses from North America to Saudi Arabia every year.

“The salary is good at about $60,000 a year. It’s tax-free and some hospitals offer up to seven calendar weeks off each year. Many people go over there for five, six, seven years.”

To reverse the trend of hiring foreign nurses, Saudi government universities have pushed for higher academic standards that require fluency in English and at least a bachelor’s of arts or science degree instead of a simple diploma.

The National Guard has estab­lished a two-year pre-professional programme that introduces English and basic science courses to nursing students before they go on to nurs­ing and medicine curriculum. The programme is especially vital for Saudi students educated in public schools where rote learning is the method of teaching and English-speaking skills may be mediocre.

“We try to change the learning process and we want them now to be more critical thinkers,” Omar said.

There is less societal pressure on Saudi women to take nursing jobs. An estimated 60% of Saudi univer­sity graduates are women and have the potential to earn significant sal­aries. But higher academic stand­ards and competition with expats have added considerably more pro­fessional pressure.

One Jeddah university professor who teaches in the medical field said nursing interns tend to fall into two categories: One who wants a career but remains unsure how her job fits socially; they worry that a potential husband would balk at marriage if she works 12-hour night shifts. The other is enthusiastic and wants to pursue further education to specialise in one area or engage in research. Those nurses often strug­gle working under foreign supervi­sors who are not always helpful in training.

“Some expat nurses feel the Sau­dis may take their job away from them,” the professor said.

Omar said she is confident that Saudi Arabia will fill 75% of the medical positions with Saudis. “We can accomplish a reversal in the Saudi versus expat ratio,” Omar said. “It’s coming, but we just need time.”

December 18, 2015

El Asira’s Sharia-Compliant Sensuality

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

18 December 2015

Jeddah – Never did entrepreneur Abdelaziz Aouragh think he would be iden­tified as a purveyor of halal sex products. But Western news reports, based more on froth than fact and a profound misunderstanding of marketing female luxury products, pushed Aouragh to educate his customers on the distinction between sex and sensuality.

Aouragh is the founder of Am­sterdam-based El Asira, which is Arabic for “The Society” or “The Tribe”. His company sells luxury body care products to enhance the sensuality of the love lives of Mus­lims and non-Muslims. El Asira’s marketing plan provides “a unique blend of Agarwood and Argan cos­metics for body and soul” for wom­en to “feel admired. Feel loved. Feel sensual.”

So, no, the image of seedy adult store does not apply. Think of the intimacy of Victoria’s Secret rolled into pharmaceutical-quality body oils and creams.

“We have leisure and body care products and some items are for intimacy like cooling and warming creams,” Aouragh said. “Our brand­ing fits perfectly for Muslims living a certain lifestyle.”

Aouragh said he was in negotia­tions with a group of potential in­vestors to open a concept store in Saudi Arabia. He consulted with Saudi religious authorities to en­sure his products are sharia-com­pliant. The ingredients are halal and his products’ uses are permit­ted under Islamic law. He already has a distributor for his products to retail shops in the United Arab Emirates, Maldives and Malaysia.

“We are interested and we have the ambition to open a concept store in Mecca or another Saudi city,” Aouragh said.

By opening such a store, El Asira makes its appeal to a specific life­style. Aouragh can draw on his ex­perience of producing female luxu­ry products and put that experience to practical use to test the reactions of his customers on a micro scale, he said.

Aouragh sees the typical El Asira consumer as reflective of all demo­graphics. “Muslims and non-Mus­lims appreciate our philosophy and our experience,” he said. “They are enthusiastic and a logical follow-up would be that they will talk about us in a positive way. It’s hard to pin­point a specific demographic.”

Aouragh may be reluctant to say so, but his customer base is pretty clear. An estimated 52% of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide are un­der the age of 25, making young women potentially the largest con­sumer of El Asira’s halal cosmetics and body care products. According to Trade Arabia, a business news­letter covering the Middle East, Muslim consumer spending is ex­pected to hit $2.6 trillion by 2020, a significant increase from $1.8 tril­lion in 2014.

To develop a strong customer base Aouragh is focusing on Islamic branding that targets the untapped Muslim buyer by offering products that adhere to sharia principles. Halal products are free of pork by-products and alcohol in make-up, shampoos, lotions, oils and creams.

The Halal Industry Development Corporation reported that halal-certified beauty product sales have reached $5 billion annually. Multi­national companies such as Avon and Colgate-Palmolive are making forays into Muslim countries. In Saudi Arabia, the body care market is expected to reach $7.5 billion in 2018, according to analyst Euro­monitor International.

For many companies, Islamic branding may be the next best thing to attract new consumers but it’s actually been practiced since at least the 1980s. The chocolate com­pany Nestlé was an early pioneer in using sharia-compliant prod­ucts with about 20% of its facilities producing halal Kit Kat chocolate bars and Nescafé. Wal-Mart in the United States has been selling halal products since 2008.

Although El Asira’s ambitions are big, it remains a small compa­ny only 6 years old. “In 2011-12 we were offered a store but we were too fresh, too young and too small to open a retail store,” Aouragh said. El Asira, which has no employ­ees other than Aouragh, remains a minor player among the multina­tional companies that have more resources. To open a retail shop, companies must provide a line of products up to 200 items. El Asira has about 20 products.

Aouragh has solved that problem by working with Beate Uhse AG, a German company that specialises in erotica with a focus on women’s fashion and style. Aouragh said that he has the logistical support of Beate Uhse’s 700-member staff.

El Asira’s newcomer status has not intimidated Aouragh. He sees Durex, the United Kingdom-based company with an extensive range of body products, as his direct com­petitor. Admittedly, Aouragh says he has his work cut out for him. But he is slowly expanding his line to include lingerie and perhaps con­doms, which is Durex’s signature product.

Aouragh’s goal is to carve a niche in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries with his emphasis on Is­lamic branding.

Ehsan Ahrari, a foreign affairs consultant on the Middle East for the Virginia-based Strategic Para­digms, said Saudi Arabia’s relative­ly new membership in the World Trade Organisation would make it easier for multinational companies to do business in the kingdom.

“There are enormous benefits for Saudi Arabia’s economy stemming from its newly acquired member­ship in WTO,” Ahrari said. “Howev­er, the chief problems will revolve around its ability and willingness to open its economy, invite global cap­ital… and most importantly mini­mise the conflicts between Islamic laws and laws of global economic community.”

With the religious community’s blessing, Aouragh doesn’t see that as a problem. He is charting an open path to Saudi Arabia. The country, he said, has a special place in his heart. An outlet in the kingdom would serve Saudi consumers well, he said.

“Saudi Arabia for me is a beau­tiful country — Ardh al Tawheed (Land of the unity of the Shahada),” he said. “I respect Saudi Arabia very much and my products are inspired by Saudi Arabia.”

December 17, 2015

Saudi women elected in historic vote

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

18 December 2015

JEDDAH – At least 20 female candi­dates captured munici­pal council seats in Sau­di Arabia in stunning victories despite restric­tive campaign rules and criticism from the religious establishment.

The victories accounted for a fraction of the 2,100 council seats on 284 councils nationwide and were seen by Western critics of the kingdom as modest gains at best. But the victories mark a significant repudiation of religious conserva­tives, including the popular cleric Abdul Aziz al-Fawzan, who argued that only men should vote and that having elections imported Western values.

“The religious conservatives are fully aware that the days of hav­ing their unlimited say in sustain­ing the obscurantist nature of their polity are numbered,” said Ehsan M. Ahrari, adjunct research profes­sor at the Strategic Studies Insti­tute, Army War College in Penn­sylvania, and who has researched Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Middle East. “But they, under no circumstances, will not go down without a fight.”

Women candidates faced huge disadvantages. Only 130,637 fe­males registered to vote in contrast to 1.35 million men. Abdullatif al-Shaikh, minister of Rural and Mu­nicipal Affairs, said that 979 wom­en ran among 6,917 candidates. In all, 702,542 voters cast ballots, rep­resenting an overall 47.4% voter turnout, according to Shaikh.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that many female winners won seats in traditionally conservative rural areas such as Tabuk in the remote north-west, where 80% of the registered female voters cast ballots and 44% of the registered men voted. Indeed, Saudi results reflected elections worldwide in which large voter turnouts, spurred by well-organised cam­paigns, could sweep in candidates often not favoured to win.

Among the newly elected coun­cil members were Salma Al-Oteibi in Madrakah; Hinuwf Al-Hazmi of Al-Jouf and Mona el-Emery and Fadhila al-Attawy, both of Tabuk. In Jeddah, where 80% of the reg­istered women voters cast ballots, Rasha Hefzi and Lama al-Suleiman won council seats in separate dis­tricts. Elected members will com­prise two-thirds of all councils.

Saudi journalist Maha Alqeel said the keys to the rural victo­ries were the candidates’ well-run campaigns and knowledge of their communities.

“The wins have been in small towns and big cities,” Alqeel said. “Despite the media problems of getting out the vote, they are known in their local communi­ties. Voters probably know them or know of them. In the end the vot­ers looked at the person.”

Preliminary returns indicated that Hefzi claimed 131 votes in a field of eight women and ten men in the second district in Jeddah. She said her experience and name recognition swayed voters.

“Voters from previous elections know their communities and usu­ally vote in groups and vote for people they know,” Hefzi said. “The most difficult part was enter­ing those communities and pro­moting our programme and cre­dentials and who we are.”

Municipal council campaigns are highly regulated, making efforts to spread candidates’ messages diffi­cult. A tent is set up in a commu­nity and candidates have ten days to host events. Candidates also use street advertising, door-to-door canvassing, call centres and mar­keting techniques to get out the vote.

Rima al-Mukhtar, a social media and public relations specialist in Jeddah, said Hefzi and Suleiman have strong reputations in the community.

“Rasha is a big volunteer and she is a good reflection of the com­munity she represents and Lama is very experienced and has worked in the Jeddah Chamber of Com­merce. She will represent entre­preneurs,” Mukhtar said.

Election observers, both in the West and in Saudi Arabia, were sceptical that women would make much of a showing in the election. But Saudi women have come a long way in gaining male allies to run for public office since a 2005 poll by the Riyadh-based Asbar Centre for Studies, Research and Commu­nications reported that 59% of the surveyed Saudis opposed women voting and 72.5% said they didn’t want them on municipal councils.

But a decade has made a differ­ence. Hefzi said her strongest sup­porters were men. “Most of my votes were from men,” she said.

Municipal councils possess lit­tle power and have no control over funds. Councils serve in an adviso­ry role to municipalities, which are responsible for garbage collection and park and road maintenance among similar tasks involving in­frastructure.

The involvement of local mu­nicipal councils in keeping neigh­bourhoods maintained vary greatly from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.

Candidates argued that if wom­en fit anywhere in the decision-making process in Saudi Arabia it’s at the municipal level in their own neighbourhoods where their children play and they shop for the family.

Hefzi said she sees her role as a council member to provide bet­ter communication between the council and their constituents. “We want to create an advocacy with a new structure on the coun­cil to hopefully have better plans,” she said. “I hope to have a very key role in developing better service and contact with the community. As an advisory council we should represent the voice of the public.”

December 4, 2015

Blended Learning Finds a Home in Saudi Arabia

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

4 December 2015

Jeddah – When Professor As­sad Jawhar gives his petroleum econom­ics class at King Ab­dulaziz University in the Saudi Arabian commercial hub of Jeddah, he teaches students he has never met and has never seen. His students are just names on a roster.

It is the downside of blended classroom instruction at Saudi Arabia’s universities in which pro­fessors use web-based software, such as Blackboard, to teach online courses and combine those classes with face-to-face instruction.

“There is no charisma from the professor, no eye contact, no inter­action,” Jawhar said. Yet he is a fan of blended classroom instruction. “I’m a believer,” he said.

The lack of interaction between professor and student almost sank online instruction programmes when the King Abdulaziz Uni­versity e-Learning Deanship in­troduced online courses in 2005. Student participation was under­whelming.

According to a study by Sulaiman Alshathri and Trevor Male for the London Centre for Leadership & Learning, online courses and tradi­tional classroom instruction were initially separate programmes in Saudi Arabia. The programme re­ceived a poor reception from stu­dents who preferred face-to-face classes.

Jamil Ahmed, general manager of Image Systems Est. for the Mid­dle East region, has been focusing on implementing e-learning pro­grammes in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade. He said Saudi edu­cation officials attempted to fully immerse online learning into the curriculum, but met with little suc­cess. Those initial struggles with online courses, however, gave birth to blended learning.

“There were initiatives in Saudi Arabia to have 100% content deliv­ered on e-learning portals starting in 2005 under the King Abdulaziz University e-Learning Deanship,” Ahmed said. “The success of these initiatives were not encouraging and hence the shift to blended learning… but its effectiveness is something that has to be meas­ured.”

Ahmed said that strictly tak­ing online courses is not practical. “Blended learning is a more effec­tive method,” he said. “E-learning cannot be the only solution to mul­tiple modes of learning.”

It was not until about 2009 that blending learning emerged in Saudi universities. In 2011, growth ex­ploded worldwide making the pro­gramme “the new normal in higher education”, according to the Lon­don Centre study.

Jawhar said the online bug has bitten him because e-learning classes streamline his schedule and give students easier access to his classes. Online classes are conveni­ent for students and instructors and there is no loss of classroom quality if one puts aside the lack of human interaction. Students still must be disciplined enough to complete their assignments but the only time they need to be on campus is to take final examinations.

Jawhar noted that although blended learning has progressed at Saudi universities over the last five years, the programme remains in its infancy. Only five out of the 200 students the professor teaches take his online courses. For now, he sees online learning as a supplement to live classes.

In the United States, the number of online degrees offered to stu­dents has mushroomed with virtu­ally every major higher education institution, including the California state university system, offering some version of an online degree. About 62% of US universities of­fered online degree programmes in 2012, up from 32.5% in 2002.

Saudi universities’ blended learn­ing programme requires students to also take live classroom instruc­tion. Universities employing the twin-course approach include Al- Baha, Taibah, King Khalid, Qassim and King Abdulaziz universities. Medina’s highly regarded Islamic University also uses a combination of online and live teaching. Many more, such as Umm Al Qura Univer­sity in Mecca, offer distance-learn­ing programmes, including Islamic studies.

While blended instruction is be­coming more common across the Middle East, it is particularly popu­lar among Saudi women who strug­gle with transportation issues. It is also important to students living in rural areas, such as the Qassim and Tabuk regions where universi­ties may be hundreds of kilometres from students’ homes.

Ahmed said another important benefit to blended learning is that online instruction is more cost-ef­fective for the student.

“The best resources can be made available to both genders from a central or remote location,” he said. “The e-learning mode will be the best fit. However, it has to be coor­dinated with a good learning meth­odology.”

Marwa Al-Asmari, 19, a student at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh, said trans­portation to the campus is always a problem because she does not use taxis and her driver is not always available.

She is taking only one online class but said she wants to add more to her schedule.

“I download my online courses on my iPhone and do my reading from anywhere,” she said. “Some­times I will be at a coffee shop wait­ing for my friends, so I will read the assignment on my phone and then follow up at home with the actual work.”

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

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 05:35
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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

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 05:25
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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

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 09:37
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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.

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