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October 23, 2016

No More Job for Life for Saudi Civil Servants

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

23 October 2016

Jeddah – Saudi government employ­ees, long immune to get­ting fired even for poor job performance, are fac­ing work performance evaluations that include potential penalties. Yet the learning curve towards administering fair and objective assessments is expected to be daunting.

The Ministry of Civil Service announced a programme in April to have the ministries of Justice, Communications and Information Technology, Transport, Social Af­fairs, Foreign Affairs, Culture and Information, and Agricul­ture develop semi-annual job as­sessments for their employees. The programme was formally launched in October and affects 1.5 million Saudis working in the public sector. It is expected to ex­pand to other ministries.

Under the programme, govern­ment workers can be fired if they fail to improve their work perfor­mance after three years. They can lose bonuses after the first year of unsatisfactory employment, face disciplinary action after the second year and risk dismissal after the third year. Future pay increases may be denied to poorly performing workers.

“Three years is a bit long,” said Kamilia Karayyim, a human re­sources consultant who works in the private sector and academia in Saudi Arabia. “What the heck went on before that?”

Karayyim said there are “many good performance evaluation sys­tems” in place but the quality of work reviews vary. She also said Arab culture was not always the right environment to produce fair and objective work assessments.

“We are an amiable culture,” said Karayyim, noting that unfa­vourable reviews are rare in the workplace. “There is nepotism and favouritism in the system. It will be a challenge. In the private sector there is a little more push because there are profits to con­sider but if there is no clear di­rection, no mission and (employ­ers) are working to do something (develop a new programme) from scratch, it will be a challenge.”

The Civil Service Ministry’s plan calls for five categories in an evaluation: Excellent, very good, good, satisfactory and unsatis­factory. Premium bonuses range from 5-6% for an “excellent” rat­ing to 1-2% for “satisfactory” work.

One university professor, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the plan, said his university had a “quota” in which only a specific percentage of employees receive an equiva­lent to an “A” rating, another spe­cific percentage of workers receive a “B” evaluation, and so on.

“How is that fair and equitable?” he asked. “What if everyone in the department did an excellent job but some have to fail according to the quota system? Or if everyone was a poor performer but some employees must receive an ‘A’ rat­ing?”

He also noted that stated poli­cies, goals and missions in the public sector do not reflect the reality of the workplace in which supervisors may prevent an em­ployee from achieving a required goal or task because of time con­straints, expense or shortage of personnel. The supervisor then could give the employee a lower rating for failing to meet the stat­ed goal.

The professor also said the workplace environment under­mines the goal to administer ob­jective reports.

“Let’s face it, there is a political component in performance evalu­ations that is very problematic and difficult to control,” he said. “There are clashes in cultures, nationalities and tribes that mani­fest themselves in the perfor­mance evaluation.”

Naser Chowdhury, 33, a pub­lic sector worker originally from Mumbai, said homeland politics often spill over into the Saudi workplace.

“We have about 20 guys from dif­ferent regions and countries, all in South Asia, and four of them are supervisors,” Chowdhury said. “Things get very messy and con­fusing when one guy supervises another when their families at home are rivals.”

Karayyim said government workers would have difficulty with the new system following years of receiving positive work assessments.

“They won’t be able to handle it,” she said. “They will resign, take sick leave or get kicked out. For older employees, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Very few will shape up, especially the ones that have been there the longest.”

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Negative performance as­sessments allow government em­ployers to weed out poorly per­forming employees and replace them with highly motivated and productive workers with a work ethic. More efficient workers end up helping Saudi Arabia’s strug­gling economy. An objective work evaluation will become an impor­tant tool when some ministries become privatised and workers must reapply for their jobs.

Karayyim said 2017 would be a critical period for the transition. “I think 2018 should be better,” she said.

Chowdhury said there is a silver lining in the programme. “Even­tually, it will work itself out and, at long last, there will be account­ability for those workers who don’t do their job. I am optimis­tic,” he said.

October 21, 2016

Saudi Women Trailblaze into World of Film

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 06:13

By Rob L. Wagner

Gulf News

21 October 2016

Jeddah: When Bushra Al Andijani was a young girl she watched on television a pair of star-crossed lovers jump from the stern of a big boat into cinematic history.

“Jack”, the lead character, didn’t survive the icy Atlantic, but “Titanic” gave birth to Al Andijani’s lifelong dream to create something out of nothing.

“Since I was little and saw “Titanic” I was really moved that everything looked so real,” Al Andijani told Gulf News. “I want to create something realistic like in “Avatar” or “Lord of the Rings.”

Al Andijani will be among the Class of 2017 to graduate in the spring with a Bachelor’s degree in studies of visual and digital production from the Jeddah-based all-women’s Effat University in Saudi Arabia. She belongs to an exclusive membership: the first generation of Saudi university-trained female filmmakers.

It might be a shopworn expression to characterise Al Andijani and her classmates as trailblazing pioneers, but in a culture that generally remains committed to young women marrying first and consider a career second, Al Andijani represents a new breed of filmmaker competing against her male counterparts for coveted studio jobs. A profession once unattainable, Saudi women see producing feature-length movies within their grasp.

Less than a decade ago Saudis were resigned to shooting and screening their films outside the Kingdom. Most filmmakers were amateurs with no academic training, although many cut their teeth producing YouTube videos. Other aspiring directors and writers left the country to attend film school and even remained in Hollywood to pursue their artistic vision.

Saudis developing a reputation for mature themes in movies include Mohammad Al-Turki, who served as executive producer of the Richard Gere vehicle, “Arbitrage,” and “99 Homes” featuring Michael Shannon.

Jeddah native Mahmoud Sabbagh, whose romantic comedy film “Barakah Meets Barakah”, will represent Saudi Arabia in the Best Foreign-Language Film category at the 2017 Academy Awards. It also won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 66th Berlin Film Festival.

Al Andijani, who is studying CGI (computer-generated imagery) animation since starting the programme in 2014, has witnessed opportunities expand for young people with the skills and drive. She recently returned from Springfield, Missouri, where she spent a semester studying CGI at Missouri State University.

“When I was in high school I started looking at my options. I went to Effat to be an architect, but then I saw the animation program I definitely wanted to go there,” said the 20-year-old Al Andijani, who hopes to pursue a master’s degree and perhaps work for DreamWorks or Pixar. “I had to convince my parents; they were a little bit worried because three years ago there was no clear idea of whether there were jobs.”

If students’ interest in the curriculum at Effat is any indication, most filmmakers will make their way into film production. Dr Mohammad Ghazala, author of the book “Animation in the Arab World” and assistant professor and chair of Effat’s Visual and Digital Production Department, said 60 per cent of the students focus on live-action film production, 30 per cent on animation and about 10 per cent in screenwriting. Video game-making is another discipline that is emerging, he added.

Effat’s programme has four tracks: animation, film production, screenwriting and interactive media. It started with 16 students and has since mushroomed to 130.

But aspiring Saudi women filmmakers are an independent bunch.

While Ghazala estimates that about 30 per cent of his students will find employment in commercial studios, many will create their own jobs.

“They have their own stories outside the class and do their own projects,” he said. “The market in this country is hungry. Skilful professionals are expensive, but they are not all that skilful. But our students have the skills and the energy.”

The difficult path to obtaining experience to produce movies has much more to do with the practicalities and expense of filmmaking rather than government or cultural roadblocks. Effat students during the first year of the programme scrambled for whatever equipment was available, which was not much. Today, the department has 30 cameras and the necessary lighting and sound equipment to complete their work.

Ghazala said the Saudi government has paved the way for young filmmakers to establish themselves.

“There are a lot of opportunities for the new generation and they are giving a lot of support to filmmakers,” Ghazala said. “Before there was not much accreditation or support, but now we receive permission from authorities to shoot outside.”

Asem Al-Roumi, a Saudi filmmaker who owns Asem Films and is a graduate of the New York Film Academy, said government support, particularly with the collaboration between the Ministry of Culture and Information and the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and the Arts, is critical to the success of local artists. The Saudi Film Festival held earlier this year in Dammam is a prime example.

“We got a [great] deal of govern­ment support,” Al-Roumi said. “The govern­ment support took shape by allow­ing us to go public.”

The extent of the Saudi government’s commitment to furthering the development of the country’s nascent film industry is evident in its recruitment of the New York Film Academy to conduct workshops at the King Saud University in Riyadh. Earlier this year NYFA instructors helped young Saudis make short films that offered intimate glimpses into Saudi culture.

“The New York Film Academy has been the academic institution of choice to numerous students from Saudi Arabia, many of whom have returned to their country and are deeply attached to the Kingdom’s blossoming creative community,” NYFA President Michael Young said in a statement.

Ghazala said young Saudis are eager to practice their craft in Saudi Arabia because they understand the mood of the country and respect its heritage and identity. He noted that Saudi Arabia possesses the necessary elements for good storytelling.

“When I was in Switzerland I asked someone why there was no filmmaking there and I was told, ‘we have an easy life and don’t have the drama,’ ” Ghazala said. “Countries must have some challenges (to produce good films) and I believe that Saudi Arabia will be the new hub for filmmaking.”

October 16, 2016

Shorter Evening Prayers Considered in Saudi Arabia

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 13:16

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

16 October 2016

Jeddah – An effort to shorten even­ing prayer times in an­ticipation of a potential government regulation to close retail shops at 9pm is gaining traction among con­sumers who could gain an extra hour of shopping.

Officials with the Saudi minis­tries of Social Development, La­bour and Commerce and business leaders met recently to discuss the logistics and ramifications of clos­ing shops and some grocery stores at 9pm. Pharmacies and restau­rants would be exempt under the proposal.

Saudi Arabia is accustomed to the nightlife to avoid shopping during the day when temperatures can be extremely high. Businesses generally remain open until mid­night with restaurants open as late as 3am.

Special exemptions are be­ing considered for the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, which are all-night cities given the heavy around-the-clock influx of umrah and haj pilgrims and Muslim tour­ists. Shops generally would be ex­empted from closing early during Ramadan.

The recommendation, intro­duced in 2014, has been met with criticism from the business com­munity. Business leaders see a po­tential drop in sales, which comes at a time when the Saudi govern­ment is attempting to improve the economy by generating non-oil revenue and encouraging consum­er confidence.

While business owners warily look at the early closure proposal, shoppers appear to welcome the change in how long shops close for prayer.

Abeer, a 31-year-old mother of two boys and who asked that her family name not be published, said her shopping excursions generally begin immediately after Asr — the afternoon prayer — which gives her about a three-hour window to conduct family business without interruption. Every business in Saudi Arabia closes its doors dur­ing prayer times during the day and early evening, generally for about 30 minutes.

Sitting at a coffee stand across from a closed oud shop at the Al- Salaam Mall during Maghrib — the prayer just after sunset — Abeer said Saudis and expatriate workers schedule their lives around prayer times, adapting easily to waiting for business to resume.

“It’s no bother,” she said. “I pray at the women’s mosque here in the mall, have my coffee and wait. It’s time to relax.”

She noted, however, that her two preschool-age boys make it a challenge to arrive at the mall early enough to do shopping. It is always a rush to get shopping completed before the final prayer of the day. “I see nothing wrong with shortened prayer times. It gives me an extra hour to get things done,” Abeer said.

A shop manager in charge of a men’s clothing store at Al-Salaam, who asked not to be identified, said the store could use the extra time to boost sales. “To be honest, most of us don’t need the 25 minutes to go and pray,” he said.

The manager also noted that his two non-Muslim employees are idle for a total of about one-and-a-half hours from Asr, which starts around 3.40pm this time of the year, through Isha, which begins around 7.35pm.

Although consumers may wel­come shorter evening prayer time closures, they are less than enthu­siastic about closing shops at 9pm. The goals of early closing times are two-fold: To boost Saudisation that puts more Saudis in the workplace by making working hours more attractive and to help employees with daytime jobs to get to work on time. The proposal, in effect, would dramatically reorganise the life of workers and shoppers.

“It’s not practical for people to go shopping in the middle of the af­ternoon when it’s the hottest part of the day,” said Irfan Mohammed, 44, an expat worker. “Besides, my colleagues and I get off at 5 o’clock. Even with shorter times for Salat, there would not be enough time to take care of my chores before busi­nesses close at 9.”

Some restaurant owners fear the early closing times will have a rip­ple effect on their businesses be­cause there will be less customer traffic in and around their location once retail shops close. “People naturally go to dinner after they shop,” said one manager of a Chi­nese restaurant just a block off Tahlia Street, Jeddah’s most lively retail centre. “Our dinner rush hour at 11 would disappear.”

One Saudi businessman said stores closing at 9 is no big deal. “Change is hard for people but they will get over,” he said. “We always adapt.”

More Rights for Expat Spouses in Saudi Arabia

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 13:14

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

16 October 2016

Jeddah – Nesreen, a 28-year-old Syrian, always won­dered whether her Saudi husband would ever make good on his threat to send her home.

The couple has been married for two years after meeting through acquaintances. She had arrived in Saudi Arabia from Aleppo with her parents three years ago. She said her marriage was steady and she was happy but occasionally her husband’s temper would get the best of him during a quarrel and he would remind her that he could send her home anytime. The expe­rience put a knot in her stomach.

“He would get his mobile and log on through Absher and say all he had to do was press the final exit visa button and it would be all over,” she said.

But the squabble would be over in a few minutes and they would be looking for a movie to watch on television, she said.

Nesreen attributes the cause of the arguments to two people get­ting used to one another during the early period of marriage. Those kinds of incidents are long over, she said.

But for many expatriates, do­mestic spats and even the threat of a looming divorce is much more than just splitting up and going separate ways. A final exit visa is­sued against their will would have grave financial and emotional con­sequences for someone who gave up their life in their home country to live in Saudi Arabia.

That changed when the Saudi Ministry of Justice made it impos­sible for Saudis to obtain a final exit visa simply to settle a score because they want to punish their spouses or get a divorce.

“There were too many abuses in the law,” said one Saudi newspaper columnist. “This evens the playing field and protects the expat.”

The final exit visa regulation was inherently unfair but widely used among Saudis who saw the sim­plicity and efficiency of the Absher electronic visa system to dispatch someone who was inconvenient in their lives. A legal sponsor of a spouse could log on to Absher, fill out the final exit visa form and hit the button. There was no recourse or appeal process.

Absher is an e-services portal ad­ministered through the Saudi Min­istry of Interior that allows Saudis and expatriates to register and log into their account to take care of issues ranging from passports and traffic to importing labour from for­eign countries. Even job postings are listed.

The electronic system eliminat­ed the need for most paperwork and time-consuming visits to lo­cal government offices to process exit visas. By using Absher, Saudi sponsors or expatriates simply log on, enter the expat’s residency per­mit number, sponsor identification number, visa number and passport number. Exit visas are then auto­matically processed.

With what is in effect the repeal­ing of the law, estranged foreign spouses are permitted to remain in Saudi Arabia to complete their di­vorce case. The new regulation also allows domestic court judges to de­termine how long it would take to finalise a divorce case and stay a deportation order. The expatriate spouse can grant power of attorney to another individual who can fol­low up on the case in their absence.

Ravi Muhammed, who counsels Indian expatriate workers perma­nently leaving Saudi Arabia after many years of employment to tran­sition back into Indian society, said abusing the final exit visa option has a far-reaching emotional im­pact on people.

“These workers have left their homeland and built a life here,” Muhammed said. “Many have achieved responsible positions with their companies. They have invested their entire lives to make Saudi Arabia a better place. Having no concrete connections to their home country could be psychologi­cally devastating to anybody.”

Muhammed said he has not pro­vided counselling to expats experi­encing a divorce but has seen more than a few forced to leave employ­ment on a final exit visa in what he sees as punishment for some in­fraction.

“This new arrangement gives hope to workers that they will not fall prey to being abused through the final exit visa system,” he said.

Muslim Countries to Collaborate on Vaccine Production

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 13:13

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

16 October 2016

Jeddah – The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is de­veloping an ambitious plan to establish a multi­national company to pro­duce vaccines and pharmaceuticals for countries with predominately Muslim populations. The OIC plans to include manufacturing and agri­business to create jobs.

“It’s the first project of its kind for the OIC,” OIC spokeswoman Maha Alqeel said. “OIC members are affected the most by polio and malaria and this is just a matter of making those countries self-suffi­cient in producing vaccines.”

Hameed Opeloyeru, assistant secretary-general for economic af­fairs for the OIC, announced the vaccine plan during a recent visit to Riyadh. He said the project was part of consultations with the 57 members of the OIC to determine “how to pool resources to produce vaccines”.

Alqeel said the project remained “on the table” and was moving forward with the assistance of OIC members.

In a separate action in July, the Islamic Advisory Group for Polio Eradication adopted a plan to make a final push to stop the spread of po­lio in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The OIC is a core member of the group.

The OIC would act as a facilita­tor to bring together private com­panies to produce vaccines and other pharmaceutical products to encourage use in countries, such as in Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, that experience infec­tious diseases.

The biggest challenge for the OIC is to facilitate producing and distributing vaccines in rural ar­eas where immunisation is viewed with suspicion. According to the Foreign Policy Group, polio thrives in conflict zones and countries ex­periencing political turmoil.

Fewer than 100 cases of polio were reported globally in 2015 but Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only two countries where polio re­mains endemic, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which monitors the disease.

Pakistan has seen a 64% reduc­tion in polio cases this year com­pared to the same period in 2015 but the regions of the Khyber-Pe­shawar corridor and Karachi and Quetta are particularly trouble­some in health authorities’ efforts to eradicate the disease. Although the percentage of Pakistani fami­lies refusing polio immunisation for their children is small — about 2% — there are more than 35 million children in the country who need to be immunised.

The Global Islamic Advisory Group, which is headed by the grand imam of the Holy Mosque of Mecca, issued a statement in Feb­ruary 2014 saying that “protection against diseases is obligatory and admissible under Islamic sharia”. The group ruled it is un-Islamic and a threat to humanity to fail to sup­port preventative measures.

To reinforce the message, more than 2,000 religious leaders have been recruited to issue statements on the necessity and safety of the vaccines and to dispel misconcep­tions about the dangers. Imams routinely have councils in rural ar­eas to provide advice and address any religious concerns.

“We are encouraging acceptance of the vaccines,” Opeloyeru said. “We would use Islamic academ­ics to talk to families to make sure these vaccines are accepted. We just want to encourage the immu­nisations in view of the experiences we have had.”

Opeloyeru emphasised the only role the OIC would play is gathering private companies to unite in the common goal of vaccine and phar­maceutical production. The OIC is to play no role in oversight, direc­tion of production nor distribution.

The OIC hopes that by establish­ing pharmaceutical manufacturing in OIC member countries, vaccines will become more readily available, cheaper to produce and ultimately accepted in the more conservative regions of Muslim countries.

Opeloyeru, speaking at the trade fair, said the project will promote investment among OIC members that is expected to generate jobs in economically disadvantaged areas. It will also promote competition among Muslim and non-Muslim countries, he said.

The key, he said, to committing the OIC to establishing a multina­tional company as well as increas­ing intra-OIC trade volume was to boost public-private partnerships.

Opeloyeru said: “The contribu­tion of the private sector in our cur­rent efforts to change the current mono-cultural structure of the OIC economies and dependence… on primary exports is very consider­able. In this regard, the advocacy role of the private sector is crucial.”

October 9, 2016

Bill Gates teams up with Gulf states to fight poverty

By Rob L. Wagner

Gulf News

9 October 2016

Jeddah: In the suburbs of Senegal’s capital city Dakar on Africa’s west coast, malaria thrives as a killer of young children and the infirm. Like many impoverished Muslim countries, Senegal is struggling to eradicate the disease, which is the third leading cause of death among its people behind strokes and respiratory infections.

Senegal, with a mortality rate that ranks the country 19th among 172 nations with 55 deaths per 100,000 people, is in desperate need of continuing preventative aid and treatment. But hope is coming in the form of an anti-poverty initiative funded by the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development, and the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The group is already financing a project in Senegal to eliminate the spread of the disease.

Announced two years ago in Jeddah by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the initiative was formally launched last week with its first meeting under the group’s umbrella organisation, the Lives and Livelihoods Fund. LLF amassed $2.5 billion in contributions and is the largest philanthropic organisation of its kind in the Middle East.

Dr Waleed Ahmad Addas, chief of the Lives and Livelihoods Fund at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, told Gulf News on Wednesday that $363 million (Dh1.3 billion) in projects have already been approved for the first five years of operation. In all, about $2.5 billion will be allocated over the next five years in 30 of the most poverty-stricken Muslim countries.

Projects have already been launched in Africa.

“We are funding Morocco with the Support to Rural Community through Integrated Development programme, Senegal malaria pre-elimination and Uganda (for) neglected tropical diseases,” Addas said.

In addition to predominately Muslim African nations, financing is also scheduled for countries primarily in the Middle East and other Islamic countries. Combating HIV/Aids and developing infrastructure to develop better access to health care and drinkable water and increase agricultural production are top priorities.

Addas said the King Salman Relief and Humanitarian Aid Centre in Saudi Arabia contributed $100 million to LLF and chaired the first meeting of the organisation’s Impact Committee. He noted that contributions by donors do not guarantee their pet projects will be selected for funding. Instead, approval, in the form of grants and concessional loans, must go through the committee.

“Project selection is done in accordance with an eligibility criterion where members reach a decision [to financing a project] by consensus,” Addas said.

Maher Al Hadrawi, executive director of the King Salman Centre, said in a statement that, “aid from the King Salman Centre will help support incomes, provide the means for dignified living, and strengthen infrastructure in 30 Islamic countries, and is an extension of the significant efforts made by the Kingdom to help those in need.”

Addas said applicants for funds must go through a vetting process to determine whether they are entitled to funding.

“Eligibility is targeted for least developed member countries and projects must have at least three basic characteristics,” he said.

“[The projects must] have relevance to the development needs of the least developed member country and aligned with objectives of the Lives and Livelihoods Fund, to be ready for implementation, and finally to maximise the expected results on the community and beneficiaries.”

The money is financed through the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) using $2 billion in IsDB financing combined with $500 million in donations. In addition to the King Salman Centre’s $100 million contribution, partners include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, which is contributing 20 per cent of the total up to $100 million, $100 million from the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development, $50 million from the Qatar Fund for Development and $50 million from the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development.

Hassan Al Damluji, senior programme officer for Middle East Relations at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in London, told Gulf News that the Lives and Livelihoods Fund has checks and balances in place to prevent corruption, which has plagued many other anti-poverty initiatives at the local level.

“We have efficient processes in place to vet each project and ensure that each of the funds are invested in initiatives which make the most impact and which are economically, socially and environmentally feasible,” Al Damluji said. “The Lives and Livelihoods Fund will in most cases channel directly the project funds to the project contractor or service provider, to the benefit of the recipient country and its poorest people.”

“The LLF is a great example of the innovative financing mechanisms that we need in order to achieve the 2030 development agenda,” said Mohammad Al Suwaidi, director general of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development. “We are proud to be a founding member of this joint regional effort and look forward to realising the funds’ full capabilities in reaching those most marginalised.”

Senegal’s citizens living in the poorest neighbourhoods of Dakar serve as a vivid reminder of the “marginalised” who are most susceptible to disease. The World Health Organisation reported that 214 million new cases of malaria were recorded in 2015 with Africa accounting for 88 per cent of all malaria cases. The LFF sees the region as a priority to aggressively pursue funding to eliminate the disease.

July 6, 2016

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

By Rob L. Wagner

International Business Times

6 July 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saudi Tax Aims to Address Housing Shortage

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 14:19
Tags: ,

By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

26 June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 14, 2016

Ramadan’s Night of Power in Mecca

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 10:46
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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

12 June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 6, 2016

Halal Welcome for Gulf Tourists in Europe

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rob L. Wagner @ 17:14
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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

5 June 2016

Jeddah – When all else fails, adapt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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