Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

December 25, 2016

Saudi Women Enter Pharmaceutical Retail Industry

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

18 December 2016

Jeddah – In a significant move that prom­ises to level the playing field for women in the pharmaceutical industry, Saudi Arabia’s Minis­try of Health has agreed to issue licences for women to work in phar­macies and herbal medicine facili­ties.

The decision is a boon for female pharmacists looking for employment in a sector that has been unavailable to them for decades. Pharmaceuti­cal jobs remain available for women in the government sector but their exclusion from private employment limits choices of where to work.

The Ministry of Health reported in 2015 that the kingdom, which has a population of 28.8 million, has about 7,000 privately owned pharmacies, twice the number of the global aver­age in which one pharmacy serves an average of 8,000 potential cus­tomers.

The proliferation of private phar­macies stems in part from the Health Ministry eliminating a requirement that pharmacies must be at least 250 metres apart.

A majority of the kingdom’s phar­macies employ Arab expatriates as workers but the government’s Vi­sion 2030 aims to extend job oppor­tunities not only to Saudi citizens in general, but specifically women. The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry reported that 500 female pharmaceutical students graduated from just one university this year and need jobs.

Ghadi Ghulam, a pharmacist working in a government pharmacy in Jeddah, said she welcomed the advantages jobs in the private sector would offer women.

“It will provide good opportuni­ties for women in general but, in our culture, we must go slow to get peo­ple used to the idea,” she said.

The average salary of a pharma­cist in the private sector is about $20,000 annually, although phar­macists with more than 20 years’ experience can earn as much as $64,000 per year, according to Pay­Sale, which collects data on sala­ries for virtually every profession around the world.

Only about one-quarter of the government-run pharmacies are staffed by women but some private companies are working to boost the number of women working in the profession.

Ahmed S. Dahduli, communica­tions director for AbbVie Biophar­maceuticals, which has offices in Jeddah and Riyadh, said interest among women pharmacists in the private sector is growing. The Chi­cago-based AbbVie provides train­ing programmes for student phar­macists in Saudi Arabia and other countries.

“The female Saudi pharmacist tal­ent pool is significantly large,” Dah­duli said. “When students started the programme with us, only 33% of them expressed interest in consid­ering working in the private sector. At the end of the programme, after witnessing the opportunities and career development plans, more than 75% of them are considering working with the private sector after graduation.”

The AbbVie training programme provides Saudi university students a look at the practicalities and ca­reer possibilities of a pharmacist. The company offers daily summer courses that focus on supply chain management, government and reg­ulatory requirements and quality as­surance among other topics.

Dahduli said Vision 2030 “has placed a significant amount of focus on Saudi human talent”.

“Given the number of pharmacy college graduates and the demand for professionals in the pharmaceu­tical industry in the kingdom, the intent of our programme is to help provide female candidates with the skills that can help them compete for available positions within this important sector,” he said.

Dahduli said there is a great de­mand for Saudi women pharma­cists. Ghulam agreed, noting that although the percentage of women working in government pharmacies is low, employment in the field — whether in the government or pri­vate sector — is available.

“Women would be more than happy to work in either the govern­ment or private sector,” she said.

Employment at private pharma­cies is not just limited to pharma­cists but also to support personnel. Many pharmacies, particularly in shopping malls, count most of their sales in cosmetics with about 30% of sales in medicinal products and pre­scriptions. Pharmacists say female customers prefer speaking with an­other woman when discussing de­tails of their prescriptions.

Other medical-related professions are also expected to open more job opportunities to women, including ophthalmology. For example, 60 of the 68 recent graduating ophthal­mologists at King Saud University were women. This year, an estimat­ed 13,000 women were certified ophthalmologists although jobs in the private sector do not exist for them.


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.”

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.

March 22, 2012

Saudi Women on Their Way to the Olympics

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Gulf Times

22 March 2012

Kingdom to field female athletes, assuaging critics aboard, spurring controversy at home

Crown Prince Nayef’s surprise announcement that Saudi Arabia expects to field at least one woman athlete in the Summer Olympics in London has sparked optimism among some women that the door to female participation in sports has opened a bit wider. Yet some Saudis caution that women should not sacrifice religious faith to appease Western critics of Saudi culture.

Saudi Arabia has come under withering criticism in the past year for its failure to provide physical education opportunities for girls at public schools and for preventing professional women’s sports teams from organizing. Human Rights Watch has been especially critical of the Saudi government, issuing a 51-page report in February documenting systematic discrimination against women in athletics.

Last year, Anita DeFranz, chief of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Women and Sports Commission, threatened to ban Saudi Arabia from the games if it didn’t send women athletes.

However, Crown Prince Nayef, regarded as a hardliner who maintains that Saudi Arabia adheres to the ultra-conservative Salafist ideology of Islam, followed King Abdullah’s game plan to broaden women’s rights. Women in recent months were given the right to vote, run for public office and to work in lingerie shops.

But women still do not have the right to drive an automobile in urban centers or travel abroad without a male guardian.

By participating in this summer’s London Olympics, Saudi women move a significant step closer to gaining rights that by competing on the international stage in football, basketball and other fields. The IOC will make a final decision on Saudi Arabia’s proposal in May.

Tara Umm Omar, a popular Riyadh-based blogger who advises women on Islamic and marriage issues, contends that the earliest Muslim women routinely engaged in sporting events.

“Islam encourages modesty for women, and to my knowledge there is nothing in the Qur’an and Sunnah [the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad] that discourages sports or exercise,” Omar told The Media Line. “The prophet raced Aisha, his wife, twice in their lives. Women rode horses in jihad excursions. Doesn’t that count for exercise? In fact, they are doing so in full view of men, albeit while covered.”

Fouzia Muhammad, 51, a teacher in Madinah, told The Media Line, that she now sees possibilities for her youngest daughter to compete in organized sports.

“I never had the opportunity to play sport when I was a teenager, and neither did my oldest girls,” Muhammad said. “But my youngest is 12. Hopefully by the time she is in secondary school, the government will see the benefit of having girls play sport.”

A likely candidate for the summer games is 18-year-old Dalma Rushdi Malhas, a Saudi equestrian who captured the bronze medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics.

Malhas’ medal win followed years of training. There are few, if any, Saudi women capable of competing at the Olympic level in any sport. However, the IOC often provides waivers to allow developing nations to send athletes under special conditions.

Although Saudi sports broadcaster and amateur footballer Reema Abdullah announced this week that she was named as one of 8,000 people to carry the Olympic torch in pre-games events, not all Saudis are convinced female participation is a good idea.

Saudi women who have made inroads in generally regarded masculine professions have not fared well. Saudi race car driver Marwa Al-Eifa and film director Haifaa Al-Mansour have garnered little support or attention from the Saudi media for their groundbreaking efforts to help Saudi women gain a foothold in sports or the arts. Both woman work in Dubai, where they can freely pursue their professions.

“There’s nothing special about these kinds of women, who show off to gain fame,” said Maryam Abdulkader, 41, a marketing professional based in Jeddah. “Why should Dalma Malhas be a role model for girls when every curve of her body is exposed for the world to see? My husband could never show his face to his family again if our daughters chose this path.”

Abdulkader echoes a wide-held belief among conservative Saudis that public displays of athleticism by women is shameful. Female role models should be limited to religious figures, such as the prophet’s wives, Aisha bint Abi Bakr and Khadija bint Khuwaylid, she said.

“Saudi Arabia is being pressured by the West to conform to their idea of morality,” Abdulkader said. “They have taken the hijab and made it a weapon against us. There can’t even be a discussion of Islamic modesty without Westerners turning it into some kind of extremist thought perpetuated by crazy Saudis. They [the IOC] will slowly chip away at a woman’s modesty to conform to their idea of what a athlete should wear and soon women will be stripped of all dignity.”

Umm Omar sees it differently, noting that Islam allows wiggle room. “As long as Muslim women are not compromising their religion and observing hijab, why not take advantage of concessions in Islam where it does not explicitly prohibit them from participating in sports like the London Olympics?” she said.

Umm Omar pointed to many sporting events that allow women to remain modest yet competitive.

“There are some sports where Muslim women can observe hijab and not be encumbered by their sports outfits, provided it is designed in a specific way to not impede their movements yet maintain modesty, like in the martial arts, fencing, skiing, equestrian, archery and shooting,” she said.

Prince Nayef said as much when he told the London-based Arab newspaper Al-Hayat that Saudi women can participate in the Olympics as long as the events “meet the standards of women’s decency and don’t contradict Islamic laws.”

Christoph Wilcke, Human Right Watch’s senior researcher in Germany, remains unconvinced. “While tokenistic participation is welcome, it wouldn’t change our position that the IOC should affect more systemic change,” he told The New York Times this week.

Umm Omar said that getting Saudi women into the Olympics is only the first step.

“It really depends on the woman’s understanding of what constitutes hijab and covering the ‘awrah [intimate parts of the body],” Umm Omar said. “This varies from different sects down to the individual. If she believes that wearing pants is haram [forbidden] unless covered by a garment that doesn’t show the shape of her legs, how will she compete in this way? Can she compete this way? Would the IOC allow her to complete this way?”

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

February 26, 2012

Western Ways Woo Saudi Women

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

26 February 2012

Study abroad exposes them to new freedoms, raises doubts about returning home

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, England – When 26-year-old Sabah arrived at the University of Newcastle in northeast England in the fall of 2009 for her postgraduate studies, she did what many of her Saudi girlfriends had decided. She sent her legal guardian home and lived an independent life.

Sabah, who spoke on the condition that her real name not be revealed because she is not following the guidelines of the Saudi cultural attache, which supervises her scholarship, said neither her father nor mother feel the need to keep her on a short leash.

“I have my own flat, I take the train to the university and I study late into the night at the library,” Sabah told The Media Line. “It’s a life I thought I never would have experience. I owe everything to my parents, who trust me to make the right decisions. Now I must make a decision of whether I even want to go back to Saudi Arabia. My heart tells me to stay here, but my head says I have no choice but to return home.”

Sabah is one of more than 800 Saudi men and women studying at Newcastle. An estimated 110,000 Saudis studying worldwide and are part of King Abdullah’s Foreign Scholarship program. They are studying abroad with about 30% attending U.S. universities, 15% in the United Kingdom, 11% in Canada and 8% studying in Australia.  The rest are scattered in other, mostly Muslim, countries. The program was initiated in 2005 and the first wave of students with graduate and postgraduate degrees has already returned to Saudi Arabia.

However, many Saudi women like Sabah are facing a personal crisis as they ponder their future once they earn their degrees. It’s an issue so sensitive that few students were willing to discuss their lives in the West using their real names, fearing they would lose their scholarships and sent home.

Some women say they see efforts to tighten restrictions on their personal freedoms since the beginning of the Arab Spring. The heady feeling Saudi women felt following the June 2011 driving demonstrations to demand their right to drive has dissipated and replaced with heightened rhetoric among conservatives to stay at home.

A Saudi Ministry of Higher Education official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because sensitivity of the issue, says education and cultural attaché officials, who supervise the scholarship program, are aware of the discontent among some Saudi students.

“We understand our sisters’ concerns about job prospects when they return and some of the other obstacles they face, but they must fulfill the terms of their scholarship and any employment obligations they have,” the official told The Media Line. “They must come home after completion of their studies.”

Maha, who turned 31 recently and is preparing to graduate with an education degree from the University of California Berkeley, has a teaching job waiting for her in Taif that pays 3,000 Saudi riyals ($1,066) a month. “I can’t think of anything more boring,” Maha told The Media Line. “I have lived in California for four years. Jobs in my field pay about $2,700 a month and I would have none of the problems that I would face if I returned home.”

By problems, Maha points to the inevitable laundry list of expectations Saudi society places on her, including the type of job she can have. Like many young Saudi women on scholarships to Western universities, Maha accepted in advance a teaching job in a rural area after completing her studies.

“I’ll be teaching village kids and my colleagues will be village women who have never left the province. And the only jobs available are teaching. I don’t necessarily want to be a teacher, but that is all that is available,” Maha says. “My father is dead, so my brother will be my guardian. I will answer to him for everything and he’s already hinted he expects some of my salary and he will find me a husband.”

Maha and Sabah often grumble about the restrictions imposed on them on choosing their employment, their husband and travel, all of which require permission from a male guardian. It’s the unintended consequence of the king’s scholarship program. For some Saudi women students, they came, they saw and they want to stay in the West.

While some Saudi university students are flirting with the idea of remaining in Britain or the U.S., they acknowledge the enormous pressure of adapting to Western culture. “England, as much as I like it here, has a deep drinking culture and everybody’s sex life is an open book,” Maha says. “These are things I feel very uncomfortable about. Can I live in a culture with different moral values? I wonder.”

The idea of not returning home is also a single woman’s prerogative. Married Saudi women students have their husbands and children with them. Returning home, where their lives are comfortable, is not open to debate. “My married friends have everything they need in Saudi Arabia,” Maha says. “There’s no point in living here when they have everything they need at home.”

Yet the urge to remain in Britain or the U.S often has less to do newfound freedoms and more with the impact the Arab Spring has had Saudi Arabia. One student characterized the kingdom as closing in on itself. “It’s a battle of wills between the conservatives and the liberals, and the conservatives are winning,” says a Saudi male student attending Newcastle and asked not to be identified.

Sabah complains that women have been the most affected by a push among conservatives to stem the tide of reform championed by King Abdullah.  The campaign for the right to drive a car has faltered. Equally strong efforts by women activists to ease guardianship laws to provide easier access to jobs also have led nowhere. Promises to codify laws that give women more rights in divorce and child custody cases in Saudi courts also failed to materialize.

Sabah points to the disturbing trend among religious conservatives to attack men promoting women’s rights. In December, conservatives alleged that Saudi men were contributing to the corruption of women and behaving “shamefully” by socializing with them during session breaks at the Saudi Intellectual Forum in Riyadh. Sabah says that attacking the moral character of a Saudi can be devastating, and serves as an effective tool to silence allies of women’s rights activists.

“I can face this kind of thing. It’s my country,” Sabah says. “But do I want my daughters to grow up in this environment? There’s the old joke that Saudi Arabia takes one step forward for progress and two steps backward. Well, it’s many steps backward now. We’re regressing.”

A 28-year-old doctoral student studying at the University of Birmingham in England, who asked to be called Khadija, says she is hopeful for women’s rights. She points to the fact that women won the right to vote and run for elected office. The university scholarship program is evidence of the government’s desire to provide better educational and employment opportunities for women. A progressive administrator, Sheikh Abdullatif Aal Al-Sheikh, was recently appointed to run the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. His first promise was to disband the volunteer vigilante force that strikes fear in many Saudis.

Yet the progress has had little effect on the day-to-day lives of Saudi women.

“We as Saudi women are getting impatient,” Khadija told The Media Line. “I want to be there for my country. They are giving me an education. But there are too many forces against me. Too many people want me to stay at home and waste my education, waste my brain. If I have to stay in the West to use my brain, I will.”

Yet Khadija says the reality is that the decision to remain in the West entails too high a price for most Saudi women. “I am looking for a job here in England and I’m hoping to find a way to stay here and live without restrictions. But am I ready to lose my family over it? No, not really.”

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

October 19, 2011

For Saudi Terror Suspects, a Legal Fog

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

19 October 2011

Judges define terrorism on the fly, lawyers hesitate to defend them

The trials of suspected terrorists this month in Saudi Arabia bring good news and bad news. The good news is that accused extremists are getting their day in court after as long as five years of detention without trial. The bad news is that justice remains elusive.

Christoph Wilcke, the Saudi Arabia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The Media Line that kingdom has improved its approach to bringing suspected terrorists to trial. But he says continuing “flawed” court proceedings may deny justice.

“There were two major shifts in late 2008 to mid-2009 when Saudi Arabia decided to move [defendants] to trial,” Wilcke says. “All of these guys were put on trial and some were let out of prison. And earlier this year they [the Saudi government] decided to open trials.”

Saudi authorities see the new wave of public trials a huge step towards legal transparency. HRW sees the deck stacked against the defendants.

Wilcke says that terror defendants lack competent legal representation, a clear-cut understanding of the charges against them and due process.

In Riyadh, 16 Saudis and one Yemeni are on trial in Specialist Penal Court on 97 charges of belonging to a terrorist cell with links to Al-Qaeda in Syria. Prosecutors allege the defendants, who the court does not identify, plotted attacks in Saudi Arabia to destroy oil wells. The cell also allegedly planned to assassinate a Shiite cleric in an effort to spark sectarian violence.

In a Jeddah court, a top member of the notorious Turki Al-Dandani extremist cell admitted to unspecified terrorism charges against him. The cell leader rejected an offer for a lawyer and asked for the death penalty in order to become a martyr. Saudi authorities say the Turki Al-Dandani cell is responsible for the bombings of three residential compounds in May 2003 that left 239 people dead and injured.

In a separate trial underway in Jeddah, seven men face charges of plotting bombing attacks against U.S. military installations in Kuwait and Qatar. They are also accused of operating a training camp near the Yemen border.

The current, public trials are in stark contrast to the largely secret proceedings held between 2003 and 2009. In those trials, 327 convicted terrorists received prison sentences of up to 30 years.

Saudi Arabia has garnered international praise for its counterterrorism efforts. Yet it appears the Saudi courts define terrorism much like the U.S. Supreme Court defines pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Wilcke says a fair trial is not possible when the crime of terrorism is not defined.

The international community has yet to agree on a criminal law definition of terrorism. United Nations members in 2005 rejected a panel’s recommendation that would establish parameters to define terrorism as an unlawful act. Consequently, Saudi terror defendants face a double whammy. There are no international laws available as a precedent and Saudi judges, instead of relying on codified law, make up the definition as they go through the proceedings.

“We find that people are convicted of rebellion on earth, which is a Qur’anic concept and not a definition of terrorism,” Wilcke says. “In Saudi Arabia, the judge defines the crime to fit the crime.”

A draft anti-terror law proposed earlier this year was sharply criticized by Amnesty International, which obtained and published a copy last July. The law defines “endangering… national unity” and “harming the reputation of the state or its position” as terrorist crimes and allows suspects to be held incommunicado for an indefinite period, if approved by a special court. It also calls for a minimum 10-year jail sentence for anyone questioning the integrity of the king or crown prince.

Since then, the kingdom has hinted that a revised law is in the works, although it hasn’t released any details. An activist told Reuters in August that the amended draft changes the offense to taking up arms against the king or crown prince or abandoning loyalty to them.

Meanwhile, the absence of codified laws has long plagued the Saudi judicial system, although the quasi-legislative Shura Council this year is nearing completion of a codified system. Domestic courts in particular have bedeviled Saudi women who must contend with tribal customs superseding sharia (Islamic law). Accused terrorists face vague charges of belonging to Al Qaeda or working with foreign agencies plotting against national security. Although specialized sharia legal assistance is essential for defendants to make their cases, the court’s inability to rely on written law tips the scales of justice in the government’s favor.

“It’s just the Saudi way of saying in essence, ‘trust me,’ ” Wilcke says.

Add to the mix the lack of legal representation and defendants are engulfed in a perfect storm of a flawed trial leading to flawed justice.

Wilcke expresses doubts that having a lawyer can even help. “Some lawyers in normal, non-political trials tell me that the judge can kick out a lawyer if he doesn’t like him,” he says. “It raises the question of whether lawyers are any good in trials.”

Indeed, attorneys have complained to HRW that Saudi courts sometimes pressure them not to represent defendants. Other lawyers have no qualms about not representing terrorism suspects.  Sultan bin Zahim, deputy head of the Saudi National Lawyers’ Association, told Al Watan newspaper that it’s “a national duty and a professional objective” not to defend accused terrorists because the “investigation and trial methods are very precise in terrorism cases.”

However, a Saudi lawyer, who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line the courts attempted to recruit him to represent a terror defendant but he turned it down because the legal fog surrounding cases. “I didn’t want the job because I never know what to expect when I go to court.”

International observers also have no access to trials. Wilcke says that since 2009 the Saudi government has banned his organization entirely from the kingdom. Requests for HRW to attend trials have gone unanswered, he said.

Although the inconsistent approach to dispensing justice rankles human rights activists, Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts have been generally successful. Saudi law authorities view the trials as a successful coda to ending the reign of terror wielded by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from 2003 through 2006.

Maj. Gen. Mansour Al Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Interior, told The Media Line there has been little extremist cell activity inside the kingdom since trials started earlier this year. In August, the Interior Ministry reported that 5,696 people remain held in militant cases. Nearly 5,100 of those individuals have appeared in court.

“We are continuing our efforts and really keeping a preventative stand to any more activity,” Al Turki says. “We have our police ready, but here is really nothing to react to for the time being.”

Al Turki adds that the “terrorism threat remains a major concern to prevent Al Qaeda from continuing terrorists crimes, but the group continues to keep a low profile in the kingdom. The success is due to Saudi Arabia’s “soft” rehabilitation program to de-radicalize militants. The program has only 10% recidivism rate due in part to a post-release monitoring system of freed prisoners. The move by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Yemen also has contributed a reduction in extremist activity in the country.

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