Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

The Media Line

In the Land of No Loans, Consumer Debt Mounts

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

1 April 2012

When Reem Muhammad sought a personal loan to pay off some lingering debts, a Saudi bank offered 100,000 riyals ($26,667). The price tag? Repayment of the loan, plus 33,000 riyals.

“I took the loan and repaid it, but I never knew what the 33,000 was for since it wasn’t interest,”  Muhammad, 38, told The Media Line. “But it sure felt like interest.”

Muhammad is one of thousands of Saudis taking advantage of Saudi Arabia’s healthy economy and banks’ increasing willingness to offer personal loans and credit cards. Her loan also illustrates the continuing debate in the Saudi banking industry whether some aspects of the loan system contravenes shariah, or Islamic law, that guides how Muslims conduct financial transactions.

Personal loans in Saudi Arabia jumped nearly 20-fold to a staggering 219 billion riyals in 2011, up from an estimated 11 billion riyals in 1998.  Loans included 27.7 billion riyals in property loans due in part to the passage of the 2011 mortgage law. Credit card debt in 2012 is estimated about  nine billion riyals.

Asher Noor, chief financial officer for the Riyadh-based AlTouq Group, a global investment firm, told The Media Line the increase in loans reflects Saudi Arabia’s strong economy.

“I find the increase in line with the growth of the Saudi economy, an emergence of an affluent middle class and creation of more high net worth individuals now than at any time in the past,” says Noor, who emphasizes he was offering a personal opinion. “The surge in personal loans is not just due to proliferation of credit cards in the Saudi economy, although plastic money has clearly made it easy to stack up debts. Real estate loans have also been a big reason for personal loan surge.”

Until about 2000, banks were reluctant to issue personal loans to individuals, preferring to limit their lending to large companies. Consumer credit card use was also relatively rare.

However, the demand for easier access to money has increased as the Saudi middle class has grown more affluent. Banks devised methods to offer credit cards compliant with shariah. Islamic law does not permit usury, charging or paying interest and conducting business contrary to Islamic values, such as operating a casino and selling pork or alcohol.

Saudis pay a fixed monthly fee on credit cards. Banks may require customers to have a savings account with a specific amount of money on deposit. Charges for late payments may be about 3% of the outstanding balance. Another way the card issuer earns a profit is to pre-purchase an item a customer plans to buy and then instantly resell it to him at a higher price.

Noor acknowledged there is “cause for concern” over the rapid increase in consumer loan and credit card debt, but the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) has not allowed it to get out of control. “I think SAMA has not been asleep at the wheel and has kept the commercial banks in check with regulations like limiting loan to deposit ratios.”

SAMA in 2006 established regulations that total loans may not exceed 33% of the total salary of employees and 25% of the income of retirees. Nabil Al-Mubarak, executive-director of SIMAH, told the Arab News that, SIMAH’s policy labels card debtors as defaulters under two conditions: if they have not paid for six consecutive months and if the amount due is SR 500 and more.

Noor said the criteria to issue credit cards is heavily regulated in Saudi Arabia, noting that customers are rarely pre-approved and must prove their eligibility for credit cards. “There are SAMA regulations dictating the credit card and personal loan limits and the central database [Saudi Credit Bureau] SIMAH is monitoring defaults,” he said.

Noor said that given the large expatriate population, whose work and residence permits are linked, banks are very careful in credit card issuances and usually require having a bank account with them, salary transfer and employer letter before a card is issued.

“Since expatriates here are unable to leave the kingdom with credit card debts disproportionate to their earnings or end of service, the banks here have not struggled with staggering default rates as elsewhere,” Noor said.

Yet the explosion in obtaining credit cards and personal loans, and how banks charge fees, has led to consternation among some Islamic scholars whether the high fees are tantamount to paying interest.

Ahmed Alkady, a trainer at the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank, told The Media Line that he sees no difference between paying penalty fees and charging interest on credit cards.

“I don’t use or even recommend credit cards,” Alkady said, “It is a hidden type of interest as banks make you pay what they call a fine or a penalty for failing to pay them back on time. The same thing is applied in non-Islamic banks but they call it interest. I see no difference between the two unless you make sure you don’t use it for drawing cash. Or when you buy goods make sure you pay it back before the end of the time limit.”

Alkady also considers Muhammad’s 100,000-riyal loan as contrary to Islamic values with some Saudi banks skirting shariah-compliant regulations.

Islamic banks use an asset-based loan system, such as providing an automobile loan, in which the bank purchases the car, maintains ownership and then rents it to the customer. The customer makes monthly payments that add up to more than what the bank paid for the vehicle. Ownership is then transferred to the customer once all payments are made.

Alkady described Muhammad’s loan was tawreeq, or securitization, meaning the asset is made into financial tool like a share in a company. The transaction originates with an item, such as equipment or even property bought by the bank and then sold to the customer to be paid for on an installment basis. This allows the bank to raise the price of the item as a way of earning a profit while at the same time providing immediate liquidity for the borrower.

However, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s International Council of Fiqh Academy, a group of Islamic scholars, ruled in 2009 that tawreeq is “legal trickery” with roots in interest-based lending.

Alkady said the Islamic Development Bank followed with a similar ruling in April 2011. “The bank’s scholars have issued a decree in which they consider tawreeq un-Islamic simply because the bank is selling goods that it does not actually own,” he said.

Yet most Islamic banks worldwide embrace tawreeq, with many Islamic scholars in Muslim countries endorsing the practice.

Sami Al-Nwaisir, chairman of Al-Sami Holding Group, wrote in the Arab News recently that loans “favor the banks and their regulations” and “the unfair contracts by banks designed for their benefit alone, which victimize and suppress the individual through the systematic brutality of the one-sided agreement.”

Noor faults the banks for not educating borrowers. “Islamic banking is asset-based and borrowers need to understand that to better appreciate it,” he said. “Bankers, however, remain the culprit by complicating documentation and structures, and thus making it difficult for the layman to make a rational choice.”
Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Saudi Women on Their Way to the Olympics

By Rob L. WagnerThe Media Line22 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.

Iran Angst: Not Israel, but Domestic Discord

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

20 March 2012

Analysts say leadership is exploiting nuclear tensions to consolidate rule

Worsening domestic discord – not nuclear ambitions – is pushing Iran closer to brinkmanship with Israel, while Arab leaders sit on the sidelines hoping that any containment of Iran does not result in war, analysts say.

Some analysts observe that Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear energy – and according to critics, nuclear weapons – barely registers as a threat to Arab countries. Instead, Iran’s internal strife could prove its undoing.

Ehsan Ahrari, a Middle East analyst and chief executive officer of Strategic Paradigms, a defense and foreign affairs consultancy agency based in Alexandra, Virginia, told The Media Line that Iran’s primary concern is to shore up the crumbling faith of its people.

“There is a huge rift inside Iran and the government is looking more vulnerable than ever,” Ahrari said. “It’s not necessarily the sanctions that are hurting Iran, but the political legitimacy of the regime that is in tatters.”

A foreign affairs official for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) told The Media Line that Iran’s nuclear capabilities are vastly overstated and Iran’s “posturing” has more do to with maintaining its regional power.

“Iran is more interested in maintaining its influence in Syria and Iraq, and making a nuisance of itself by promoting insurgency in Bahrain and among the Shiites in Saudi Arabia,” said the official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak.

The 2009 Green Revolution spearheaded by thousands of middle class and educated Iranians badly shook the regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Although the Iranian government violently crushed a burgeoning uprising, it did nothing to quell the growing dissatisfaction among young people with the country’s elders.

Amnesty International reported last month that Iran executed twice as many people in 2011 as it did in 2010 when 253 official executions were held. The executions “may be a strategy to spread fear among the population and to deter protests,” the human rights organization said. Since their 2009 election triumph, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have been engaged in a bitter power struggle, dividing the leadership.

By exploiting tensions with Israel and the leadership role taken by U.S. President Barack Obama and the European Union in issuing tough sanctions, Iran hopes to rally its people behind the government and strengthen its political leadership, Ahrari said.

Marking the Iranian new year on Tuesday, the Khamenei turned to the theme of defiance in an address to the nation. “If the Iranian nation resorts to its determination, awareness and planning it will overcome challenges that the enemy has provided,” said Khamenei, who has the final say on all matter of state. If Iran’s domestic economy flourishes, the country’s enemies would lose hope and their “plotting” would come to an end.

Ahrari said that despite Obama’s talk of combining sanctions with diplomacy, the U.S. president is not laying out a complete game plan.

“We have not seen Obama’s real colors in dealing with Iran,” Ahrari said. “And we probably won’t see it until his second term if he wins it. He is playing his cards closely.”

Whether the sanctions against Iran are really working remains uncertain. Obama tightened them in December and the EU followed with a ban on Iranian oil imports. Washington hopes the sanctions’ ripple effect will weaken Iranian consumer confidence and further alienate the population from its leaders.

The latest blow came last week when the international banking clearing house SWIFT cut off Iranian banks’ access to its funds-transfer system. Excluding Iran from SWIFT, which serves nearly 10,000 banking organizations, forces Iranian businesses to go outside the country to pay suppliers. The move makes it tougher for Iranian businesses to get suppliers to import goods and may result in shortages and higher prices of foreign goods.

Earlier this week, Iran’s central bank eased its strict foreign exchange policy, allowing money traders there to sell dollars for rials at the unofficial market rate, rather than the artificially fixed official rate. While the move should ease pressure on the currency, which has lost half its value against the dollar in the past year, it risks raising setting off capital flight, economists say.

The banking sanctions, coupled with a European ban on Iranian oil imports by the summer, puts greater pressure on the Iranian government, which is already dealing with massive budget deficits and a 40 percent inflation rate, to tamp domestic discontent.

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported last month it has yet to gain access to Iran’s Parchin site, which is where Iranian scientists allegedly have conducted high-explosive research that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that international opinion has “evolved” as countries recognize Iran’s behavior is destabilizing the Middle East.

The Jerusalem Post reported that Barak referred to the international community realizing that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is reaching the so-called “zone of immunity,” after which enough of Iran’s nuclear facilities have been moved so far underground that they are protected from Israeli bombing.

Ahrari is skeptical. He noted that Arab leaders want Iran contained, but not war.
“The international community is not evolving,” he said. “Look at the Gulf. Is Israel really willing to go to the extreme of bombing Iran? I’m not sure the Arab autocrats are willing to go that far. With the Arab Awakening, they know their days are numbered. The Arabs will play it moderately and not promote war.”

The UAE foreign affairs specialist said Arab countries would never endorse an Israeli attack. “It has nothing to do with Arab animosity against Israel and everything to do with a war that will kill thousands and leave economies in ruin,” he said.
Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Saudi Students Stage Rowdy Protests

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

12 March 2012

In separate-sex demonstrations they protest dirty campuses, ill-treatment

Separate protests by male and female students alleging corruption and ill-treatment at Saudi Arabia’s normally tranquil King Khalid University has shaken the kingdom’s authorities and highlight persistent complaints that young people lack a voice in Saudi society.

On Wednesday, dozens of women staged a noisy demonstration on campus to complain of filthy conditions, ill-treatment from staff and poor infrastructure at the women’s section. Protesters clashed with security forces and members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. About 50 women suffered injuries when the religious police – also called the hai’a – turned water hoses on the protesters to quell the disturbance.

Two days later, about 500 male students rallied in the university courtyard demanding the resignation of Rector Abdullah Al-Rashid. The students alleged corruption in the university’s administration and the faculty’s failure to provide better curriculum. The men chanted, “Listen, listen, go, go, leave Al-Rashid” and sang the Saudi national anthem. The protesters did not elaborate on their corruption allegations.

King Khalid University is a giant institution, with a student population of about 70,000 in Abha in the Asir Province. It contains the Women’s College and the main campus for men. One male student, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Media Line, the men’s protest had shaken local officials.

“No one paid attention to the women’s complaints, but when the guys protested the administration and the authorities reacted immediately,” said the student who was on campus at the time of the protests but did not participate.

Continuing demonstrations in the Eastern Province since February 2011 by Shiites, who account for about 10% of Saudi Arabia’s population dominated by Sunnis, have authorities on edge. Ministry of Higher Education officials have hinted at outside influence in the demonstrations, but no evidence of external influences in the protests has been given.

Prince Faisal Bin Khaled, emir of Asir region, met with the university officials and promised an investigation into the demonstrators’ complaints. He also established a committee to address student concerns. Yet he had harsh words for the protesters. He described the demonstrations as “demagoguery” and the women’s sit-in as behavior beyond reason.

“There are those who are trying to take advantage of this momentum and enthusiasm by you to destabilize security and the security of this country,” the Saudi media reported him telling male and female students at a meeting on Sunday.

However, Prince Faisal said he did not question the protesters’ loyalty.

“I am here today to listen to your demands and I assure you I will never allow anybody to suspect your patriotism and loyalty to your country,” he said during the meeting. “You are the real assets and leaders of the future [of Saudi Arabia].”

Male students emphasized the issues were non-political, posed no threat to Saudi Arabia’s security and that they were loyal to King Abdullah.

A Saudi woman journalist told The Media Line the women’s protest also was not political, but part of a simmering problem of the Ministries of Education and Higher Education failing to address poor facilities for women in high school and the universities. The Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School fire in Jeddah last November that killed three teachers raised issue of school safety.

Female secondary schools and universities generally lock down campuses during school hours, requiring students to leave or enter the campus through one gate. Bars often cover windows and emergency exits remained locked around the clock.

The King Khalid University women’s protest covered much of the same ground. “Their big complaint was the filthy conditions of the campus because there was no rubbish pickup and because the elevators in the building, which has six floors, did not work,” said the journalist, who asked not to be identified.

The journalist said the protest collapsed into a “free-for-all” because university officials did not know how to break up the demonstration.

“University staff didn’t know what to do with the students and the police didn’t know how to deal with it because it’s a very sensitive issue when dealing with women,” the journalist said. “They called the hai’a, which got involved and obviously used violence.”

Reem A., a 39-year-old Saudi high school teacher, told The Media Line that university students are apolitical.

“This is sort of a trend we’ve been seeing in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “We had teachers demonstrating recently over the cleanliness in universities. And we have seen graduates with health services diplomas standing in front of the local civic bureaus asking for jobs because government hospitals will not take them. The hospitals only hire college graduates because they think diploma holders are less qualified. It’s all about jobs.”

Reem said unemployment and corruption among some civil servants are the primary grievances of young Saudi adults. Disturbances in the Eastern Province have had little impact on Sunni Saudis in other regions.

Instead, she said, the breaking point was the 2009 floods in Jeddah that left more than 100 people dead, nearly 11,000 buildings damaged and 10,000 vehicles destroyed. Saudi bloggers and news outlets blamed the Jeddah Municipality’s crumbling infrastructure and a failure to build an adequate drainage system. Dozens of engineers resigned to avoid prosecution on corruption charges.

“Young Saudis matured after the Jeddah floods and no longer accept excuses from local government authorities,” Reem said. “What we are seeing now with student protests is an extension of what we’ve been reading on news websites and blogs about the shortcomings of some of our local decision-makers.”

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Arab Spring: A Win for Saudi Women?

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

7 March 2012

They get more of a voice in Tunisia, Libya, but Egypt seems to be marching backwards

Is the Arab world becoming a friendlier place for women in politics?

The turmoil that has upset the region’s politics over the past year has yet to provide a clear answer. Women can point to some preliminary gains in Tunisia and Libya.  The Islamists who have come to power across the region have proven more female-friendly than skeptics predicted. The winds of change have even reached conservative Saudi Arabia, which decided last year to let women vote and run for municipal office.

But in Egypt – the biggest and most influential country in the Arab world – the revolution has marked a setback for women.

When they try to size up a complicated and contradictory picture, Islamic and Western women’s rights activists express cautious optimism that women in patriarchal North African and Gulf countries are gaining a voice. They warn, however, that that voice is fragile at best, with little evidence yet that women will be able to achieve true power.

“Tunisia and Egypt have held elections, and the fear, particularly in Egypt, is that women have been left out,” Amber Maltbie, an American attorney who is an expert in gender and politics told The Media Line. “The Arab Spring has prompted new elections in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. It appears cosmetic because the bodies are consultative in nature.”

On the balance, the Arab Spring resulted in “mild electoral reforms” and some reforms are nothing more than “cosmetic,” says Maltbie, who was a polling station adviser at the Kosovo parliamentary elections for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Women start from a low baseline in the Middle East and North Arica, which has lagged by Europe and North America, and even Asia, in getting their foot into the doors of parliament and the presidential palace. The Inter-Parliamentary Union figures show that women account for just 11.3% of lawmakers on average in the Arab World, compared with 22.6% in Europe and America. In Asia, they occupy 18.3% and in sub-Saharan Africa 20.8%.

Women have been the power behind the throne in countries like Tunisia, where Leila Ben Ali helped her husband to manage the affairs of state, and Qatar, where Sheika Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned is a highly public figure. Syrian women won the right to vote in 1949, Lebanese women in 1952, Egyptians in 1956 and Tunisian women in 1957.  But no woman has ever been elected to high office or, as had been the norm in the region, seized it for herself.

The Tunisian legislative elections, the first to be held in an Arab Spring country, came as a surprise to Western observers, who had expressed skepticism that the victorious Islamic Ennahda Party could deliver on its promises of promoting democracy and Islam as compatible, if not complementary, forms of governing.

“I view the Tunisian election as a gain for women,” Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations and director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative “They have a substantial representation, and unlike in Egypt, they didn’t lose ground. Many of the women elected are from Ennahda.”

According to the IPU, 26.7% of the Tunisian legislature is female after the transitional government passed a law in 2011 that required half of all party lists to have women.

“It will be up to them to play a strong legislative role and forge an influential role within the party. That is what will make a difference over the long term,” says Coleman.

Libya has yet to elect a parliament, but the National Transitional Council (NTC) has approved a quota for woman that will ensure a place for women in a country making its first real attempt at democratic rule after 40 years of dictatorship under Mu’amar Al-Qaddafi. But women had to fight for their rights.

The final version of the country’s election law, passed in January, had dropped a quota requirement that would give 10% of the legislative seats to women. That angered women’s groups including the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, which mounted a campaign to reverse the decision.

Najat Al-Dau, a women’s rights activist in Libya, told The Financial Times the revised election law ignored women’s role in overthrowing Al-Qaddafi.  “I don’t think it’s fair to women,” Al-Dau told the newspaper. “They’re trying to eliminate women from politics and revolution. But they cannot deny us what we did in the revolution.”

The women prevailed, with the NTC revising its election laws to allot 40 seats to women on the 200-member Constituent Assembly.

Morocco, whose king responded to protests with a package of mild reforms, has a voluntary party quota system which resulted in 17% women in the lower house and 2.2% in the upper house in parliamentary elections last year. In 2009, Morocco established a quota requiring that 12% of all local government council seats go to women. As a result, voters elected 3,300 women to local district offices.

Less lucky are Egyptian women, who saw the parliamentary quota system from the Hosni Mubarak era abolished and female representation reduced from 64 seats to just five. For now, Egypt stands above other Arab Spring countries in implementing regressive measures that hamper women’s representation in government.

The government excluded women from the constitutional review committee appointed last year to ensure free and fair elections and create democratic safeguards. The amendments it proposed, which were approved in a referendum last March, made no reference to gender equity. When then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf fired 20 governors, no women were named as replacements.

Although the loss of Egypt’s quota system is a significant setback for women politicians, Islamic political parties, most notably Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, have demonstrated there is room for women at the governing table. What kind of role they play is another question altogether.

“Islamic governments can prove women have a voice in decision-making, although it remains to be seen how much they will do so,” Coleman, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Media Line.

Human Rights Watch in January urged Western governments to give burgeoning Islamic governments a chance to succeed and to support democratic elections whatever the outcome. HRW’s Kenneth Roth wrote in a report that the West “cannot credibly maintain a commitment to democracy if they reject electoral results when an Islamic party does well.”

In the Gulf, women have made some progress toward representation even if the bodies that can run for office have little actual power.  In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a woman won one of 20 elected seats and seven others were appointed to the consultative council by the ruling emirs of the confederation.  Kuwait has no quota system, but its National Assembly is 7.7% female, according to the IPU. Kuwaiti women won the right to run for office in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2009 that four women were elected to the legislature.

Last September, King Abdullah has announced that Saudi women were given the right to vote and run in municipal elections and would also have the right to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council.

Even appointments to consulting bodies – such as in Bahrain, which has 27.5% female representation in the upper chamber of National Assembly – are an improvement, says Maltbie, the attorney. “These bodies have no binding authority, but going through this is the first step,” she says.

Coleman argues that quotas help women overcome obstacles to obtaining fair parliamentary representation, help form coalitions and provide an entrée into politics. But they are undemocratic and go against the grain of equal opportunity. And, they threaten to taint female politicians by implying they won office because of their gender and not their qualifications.

To election observer Maltbie, getting a critical mass of women in parliament is the key to wining power and there is no reason not to use quotas to create it. “Quotas are really important. Empirical data show that the threshold for policy changes in a manner that is meaningful for women is 30%,” she says.

Numbers, however, cannot tell the whole story. Coleman cautions that how much influence women legislators have remains unknown. The experience of their sisters in Iraq, where the first democratic elections for parliament took place in 2005, is instructive. In her book, Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, Coleman found that Iraqi men routinely insult their female parliamentary colleagues and consign them to “women’s issues.”

Iraq’s legislative body is 25.2 % women, but one Iraqi female lawmaker, who is a member of the National Iraqi Alliance and spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Media Line the role of women in the Iraqi parliament is to boost the government’s image.

“How long has it been now?  Six, seven years?” the lawmaker says. “We have accomplished little because we are constantly pushed aside. We’re given meaningless duties and are expected to like it.”

 ©2012. The Media Line Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

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.

In Emirates Competition, Abu Dhabi Outclasses Dubai

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

20 February 2012

For much of the past decade Abu Dhabi Emiratis have looked somewhat askance at their neighbors in Dubai who embarked on a mission to build the world’s tallest buildings, the greenest golf courses and the largest shopping malls.

“I know more than a few Emiratis who see what’s happening in Dubai and think of the hadith in the Qur’an about the end of days,” an Emirati businessman told The Media Line and asked not to be identified to protect his Dubai construction contracts. “The hadith says, ‘There will be no Judgment until very tall buildings are constructed.’ ”

Notwithstanding dark predictions of Dubai’s doom, the Emirati’s sentiment illustrates the gulf between the two emirates’ approach to economic diversity.

It’s easy to bash Dubai, which saw hundreds construction projects ground to a halt during the global recession that began in late 2008. Abu Dhabi contributed to a $20 billion bailout package to Dubai. An estimated $4.1 billion of that bailout went to save the government-owned Dubai World.

Abu Dhabi is far healthier, but it also gave loans totaling $10 billion to rescue its own troubled Aldar Properties, which developed such prestige projects as the Yas Marina Circuit for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Ferrari World. The bailout stung so badly that Abu Dhabi’s investment arm, Mubadala, is considering abandoning real estate investments.

But given its wealth, Abu Dhabi is in a better position to be magnanimous. The United Arab Emirates has the world’s fifth largest oil reserves. Abu Dhabi controls 95% of those reserves, holding about 92.2 billion barrels. Dubai has only 4 billion barrels in reserve, which are mostly from offshore oil fields and likely to be exhausted by 2030.

As a result, the oil-poor little brother embarked on a building frenzy that included the world’s tallest skyscraper, the 2,722-foot Burj Khalifa, among other large-scale luxury projects to create a tourist mecca.

The stark reality today is that Dubai’s salad days are over. The Dubai Real Estate Regulatory Authority reported in 2011 that nearly 300 construction projects remained on hold due to the global recession. Nakheel Properties, which created the three iconic man-made Palm Islands off the Dubai coast, has more than 100 projects on hold. Dubai Properties Group lists 42 stalled projects, including the now-suspended high-profile Tiger Woods luxury golf resort.

Robin Mills, head consultant for the UAE-based Manaar Energy Consulting and Project Management, told The Media Line that many Dubai projects might never resume.

“There are major projects not completed, delayed or stopped entirely,” Mills said. “Some projects were more advanced, and some are officially on hold but effectively cancelled and will never come back. And some projects with infrastructure in place will deteriorate and there will come a time when those projects will have to be abandoned.”

He added that the once-promised projected population of one million on the Palm Islands is a “fantasy” in today’s economic environment.

However, Dubai’s debt woes will have little impact on its long-range quest to remain the playground of the Middle East.

Asher Noor, chief financial officer for the Riyadh-based AlTouq Group, a financial investment organization, told The Media Line that although Dubai continues to grapple with slower growth, its prospects are promising for the long haul.

“(Dubai) sure has a short term maturity mismatch in its finances, but given its geographical location, political stability, and relatively mature laws and transparency as compared to its neighbors, I do not foresee Dubai struggling with raising finances,” said Noor, who emphasized that he is not speaking for his employer.

“The Arab Spring has been a shot in the arm for reviving the belief that Dubai is indeed a safe haven for regional investors,” he added.

A key component to attracting foreign investors is for Dubai to move beyond luxury resorts and focus on strengthening its economy, Noor noted.

“Abu Dhabi took a back seat while Dubai went on creating the diamond in the desert,” he said. “I see them as pilots and co-pilots on a long haul flight. Now Abu Dhabi has taken over the pilot duties but that does not mean that Dubai is relegated to an aisle seat in the economy section. What Dubai and Abu Dhabi need is more substance to their economies than skyscrapers or man-made islands. Dabbling in fine arts, music, energy efficient projects, sporting extravaganzas, and developing tourism spots are their equally important priorities. I think they are doing a very good job in the right direction.”

Abu Dhabi, though, has the edge. The emirate’s Executive Council announced last month that it is reviving plans to complete construction of the Zayed National Museum and the Guggenheim and Louvre branch museums. Its centerpiece to strengthen its infrastructure is the Mohammed Bin Zayed City that will feature 349 residential towers and ultimately have a population of about 85,000. The emirate also is building 24 new public schools.

Mills said that Abu Dhabi and Dubai share many similarities in their diversification efforts, especially in attracting more tourists. “The major difference is that Abu Dhabi is attracting higher end tourists with its plans for museums.”

Abu Dhabi also has taken a more aggressive approach in specializing in science, technology and education. Despite the economic downturn, construction of the zero-carbon, zero-waste Masdar City continues with completion scheduled for 2025. It will eventually have about 60,000 workers commuting daily to the city. Masdar City will have a solar power plant, wind farms, gray water recycling, solar-powered desalination and geothermal energy plants.

A central part of Masdar City is the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009 and focuses on research in renewable energy and clean technology.

Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, chief executive officer of Masdar and chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees of the institute, told UAE reporters in January that, “Abu Dhabi is evolving from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy” by focusing on “future leaders in the science and technology spheres.”

Abu Dhabi has also taken the lead in developing a $20 billion four-reactor nuclear power plant at Braka. The emirate has eased U.S. and Israeli concerns by developing a transparent civilian program. The emirate also promised not to reprocess spent fuel or enrich uranium that leads to building weapons. By 2020, the plant is expected to provide 25% of all of Abu Dhabi’s energy needs and 12% for the rest of the UAE.

By pushing for renewable energy and developing an automotive re-export trade center to make up for the absence of automobile manufacturing in the region, Abu Dhabi will become an economic powerhouse.

Mills, however, cautioned that Abu Dhabi investing in infrastructure for renewable energy doesn’t necessarily mean a bright economic outlook.

“It’s important not to overplay clean energy,” Mills said. “The tangible effects now are not much. But Abu Dhabi has a much stronger industrial base in aluminum and petrochemicals than Dubai.”

Dubai, in fact, has performed remarkably well not to depend on oil revenue. “Dubai did succeed in reducing its dependency on oil,” he said. “Aside from tourism, the Dubai government is getting revenues come from customs duties, various local taxes, road fees and government investments.”

Mills said that not only is Dubai’s economic model sustainable, its geographical proximity in the Arabian Gulf makes it an ideal trade center. “Dubai attracts so much for its services in the Gulf, and no other Gulf countries come close,” he said.

Abu Dhabi is likely to open its checkbook again as more debts mature in 2012, including Dubai Holding Commercial Operations Group’s looming $500 million debt repayment. It’s an object lesson that will dictate the economic future of the two emirates, said financial analyst Noor.

“The real estate crash left a very sour taste in many a mouth and investors and developers are still struggling to recoup their losses, let alone (see) any upside,” Noor said. “It has not only been a humbling but a very important learning lesson for many who now understand what Warren Buffett means when he says be fearful when others are greedy and be greedy when others are fearful.”
Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Abu Dhabi’s Outsized Cultural Ambitions

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

5 February 2012

Abu Dhabi’s resurrection of its three-museum project to promote the emirate as a go-to tourist destination will give a boost to its beleaguered local economy. But the presence of local outlets of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums also highlights the prickly issue of what role Western cultural institutions should play in a Muslim country.

In a surprise move, Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council brought back to life plans to complete the Zayed National Museum, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi – three massive repositories of art and culture slated for Saadiyat Island and aimed at making the tiny Gulf state a world-class cultural center.

The much-anticipated maritime museum and performing arts center remain in limbo, but the Zayed national museum is tentatively set to open in 2015, with the Louvre following a year later and the Guggenheim in 2017. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will join the foundation’s branch museums in New York, Venice, Berlin, Bilbao and Las Vegas.

The three museums’ future looked in doubt after the 2008-2009 global recession scuttled $30 billion worth of building projects in the emirate. Housing prices in Abu Dhabi fell by 45%, while in Dubai – the emirate next door whose breakneck development has served as both an inspiration and a warning for Abu Dhabi – the property market plummeted 65%.

Their size alone is enough for the three museums to have a major impact on the country that is hosting them. At 260,000 square feet (24,000 square meters), Abu Dhabi’s Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre will be 40% of the size of the Paris original, whose collection took centuries to build. The 300,000-square-foot Guggenheim, designed by architect Frank Gehry, will be the largest of the institution’s international network of museums.

All this to serve a country covering 26,000 square miles of mostly desert with an indigenous population of 928,360 people.

Mo’ath Hussein, an economic consultant in Abu Dhabi, told The Media Line that he is confident that the museum projects will give an important boost to the region’s economy. The museum complex will cost $27 billion to build and will anchor a complex of golf courses, luxury hotels, and a park and theater, that will continue to bring in tourist dollars years after the construction jobs cease contributing to employment.

“The museums will provide an opportunity to all in the region to have easy access to that type of art,” Hussein said. “Not many art lovers can afford trips to Europe.”

Critics, however, say the initial economic benefit will be minimal. Foreign architects, construction companies and South Asian labor will perform the lion’s share of the work and take home the economic rewards, they argue.  More importantly, there appears to be little evidence to suggest that the museums will help develop a strong cultural identity among Emiratis or bring about an efflorescence of local art.

Vali Nasr, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, told The Media Line that the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the seven-member federation to which Abu Dhabi belongs, is buying international prestige with the museums projects. But, he said, it is failing to invest in the culture of the region and serve the needs of the local population.

“The problem is that cultural centers are not developed,” said Nasr, who is also a senior fellow of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “The local culture is very wealthy but not mature enough to engage in an arts culture. Dubai, for example, has its film festival but it does not have a local film industry. American institutions are being grafted into a society that does not have the infrastructure to promote local culture.”

Nasr likened the UAE’s eagerness to build big name museums to the alleged efforts last year by King Saud and King Abdulaziz Universities in Saudi Arabia to offer cash to well-known Western academics if they cited the Saudi institutions as a second affiliation in their research papers.

The Saudis sought to acquire scientific prestige just as the Emiratis are trying to buy cultural prestige — quickly and easily without investing the time in developing human talent.

The projects would create a “massive gulf” between Emiratis and the institutions, according to Nasr. Bridging that gulf depends on whether museum officials and Abu Dhabi leaders can agree on outreach programs to stimulate the region’s largely ignored arts community.

Hussein, the economics consultant, said he expects the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi to follow the strategy of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, which has a center for Arab and Islamic art. “The Guggenheim comes from Spain where every step you make in Spain has a trace of Islamic and Arabic art,” he said.

The Guggenheim Foundation brought in Reem Fadda, a Ramallah-based art historian and former director of the Palestinian Association of Contemporary Art, as the associate curator of Middle Eastern Art. She is charged with organizing contemporary Arab art exhibitions and participating in regional cultural events for the Abu Dhabi branch.

Fadda declined to comment and Eleanor R. Goldhar, deputy director and chief of Global Communications for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, refused to disclose the foundation’s regional strategy.

“A museum of this size and scope takes a great deal of intellectual investigation and investment, and time, to create,” Goldhar told The Media Line. “Speaking about it before we are ready is just foolish.”

Unlike Guggenheim Bilbao, which exhibits Western and Arab/Islamic art without controversy, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi may find itself beset by controversy in a region where Islamic clerics can’t agree on whether images of humans and animals are prohibited.

Timothy Furnish, an Islamic geopolitical analyst and lecturer at MacDill Air Force Base’s Joint Special Operations University, told The Media Line there is “no tradition in Islam of museums in the Western sense.” He said conservative interpretations of Islam might affect the Guggenheim’s relationship with the local community.

Although the Quran itself does not prohibit artistic renderings, several hadiths – the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammed – frown on visual human images, he said. Salafists, who practice what they regard as a pure form of Islam based on what the earliest Muslims did, have no doubts about the ban.

“While the ostensible prohibition of art involving animal, human or prophetic figures is often overstated because the squeaky Salafist wheels always get the most journalistic grease, this idea has become a main current of Sunni Islamic – not just Salafist or Islamist – thought,” Furnish said.

Yet the UAE may provide the best venue to test local community reaction. “If there is anywhere in the Arab-Muslim world that art could possible flourish, it might be in a more enlightened place like the UAE or one of the Gulf States,” Furnish said. “But even there I have my doubts.”

The Guggenheim indicated early-on in the project that it does not intend to rock the religious boat. In 2006, then-director of the Guggenheim Foundation, Thomas Krens, told The Guardian that there were no plans to exhibit nudes or religious themes. “Our objective is not to be confrontational, but to be engaged in a cultural exchange,” he told the British daily.

However, the emirate’s deputy chairman of tourism, Mubarak Al-Muhairi, told The New York Times in 2007 that there were no limits on religious themes or nudity. “In principle, there are no restrictions,” he said. “But both sides will agree on what is shown.”

The Zayed National Museum will help fill the void of expressed Islamic themes if the Guggenheim and Louvre limit Arab and religious exhibits. The museum plans to offer exhibits on the Quran, the life of the Prophet and Islamic calligraphy.

But for Western institutions to ignore Islamic art and exhibit it alongside contemporary Western artists might be a mistake.

“Islamic conservatives only begin to make noise if Western culture makes inroads into local culture,” Nasr observed. “That’s not happening now. One possible benefit of the museum is attracting Muslims from the Muslim world. This would potentially impact the region, but the Guggenheim must touch a broader cross-section.”

Furnish suggested the museums might have an “intellectual responsibility” to ease religious-based cultural barriers with archaeological exhibits of the region’s ancient history, but Salafists may object. “In the past, Salafists have said that should they ever come to power in Egypt, they would not just close the museums that glorify the age of jahaliya [the age of ignorance that preceded the coming of Islam], they would destroy the Sphinx and the Pyramids.”

Nasr pointed to Iran, which has a thriving arts culture that survived the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as a potential arts role model.

“There was the Shah’s art festival and film festival, and the Queen had the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran,” he said. “There was resistance on moral grounds, but it served the local population and it was not for tourism. It made sense at the time because it reached out to the local population. Because of that, Iran has a healthy arts culture and world-class film industry.”

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Will Saudi Arabia Send the Troops?

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

25 January 2012

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Iran’s relationship with Saudi Arabia – once seen as improving following President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 visit to Riyadh – has deteriorated to the point that the Saudis may consider military intervention by joining the U.S. to protect oil shipped in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran threatened to choke off oil transportation in the Gulf following the U.S. President Barack Obama’s tightening economic sanctions at the end of December and again this week when the European Union voted to gradually impose a ban on Iranian oil. Last week, Chinese leader Wen Jiabao made a round of visits in the Gulf in a move seen by many observers as securing alternatives to Iranian oil.

Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal told Al-Arabiya television last week that the Saudi government is taking Iran’s threats seriously.

“I personally don’t think Saudi Arabia will participate with the military, but it’s a direct threat to our national interests and a direct threat to our industrial installations on the coast,” Ali Al-Tawati, a Saudi military affairs analyst and professor at the College of Business Administration in Jeddah told The Media Line. “That region is a most precious region with most of our resources coming from there.”

Tensions between the two countries increased when Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi promised that the kingdom could boost oil production by 2.7 million barrels per day (bpd)  to make up for any shortfall caused by sanctions on Iran. The pledge elicited a veiled threat from Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who warned Saudis it “will create all possible problems later.”

Iran’s threats “could be interpreted by Saudi Arabia as an act of war,” Al-Tawati said.

Nervousness about where all this could lead has been reflected in the international oil market in recent weeks, where the price of benchmark Brent crude has risen. Early Wednesday morning in London it was trading at $110.34 a barrel. In the third quarter of 2011, Saudi Arabia was the leading OPEC oil producer, delivering 9.34 million bpd, compared with Iran’s 3.53 million bpd.

The issue is not whether Iran is capable of closing the Strait to oil shipping, but how long it can maintain a full or partial blockade. Al-Tawati suspects three months at most. “The whole world will make a coalition to stop it,” he said. “Iran is trying to stop 40% of the oil production getting through. That’s an international threat.”

Al-Tawati said Iran cannot count on support  from its Asian customers as evidenced by Wen’s courting of Saudi Arabia to make its gas and oil wealth available to Chinese investors. China is Iran’s biggest oil customer, with the Islamic republic exporting 572 million bpd to China in December. Saudi Arabia delivered 1.12 million bpd to China during the same period.

“Most of the oil that goes to China, Korea and Eastern Asia is from the Gulf,” Al-Tawati said. “We sell most of our oil to the East. Japan is not going to support Iran, and neither will China nor Korea. If Iran wants to make an action that affects the whole world, it will need support and no one will support it.”

Ehsan Ahrari, professor of national security and strategy at the Joint and Combined Warfighting School at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia, said he expects the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to join the U.S. to keep the Strait open. “If not with the military, then 100% in support to the point of spending millions, of not billions, in assistance,” Ahrari told The Media Line.

The question remains, however, whether Saudi Arabia and its GCC neighbors – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and United Arab Emirates (UAE) – have the military might to defend  themselves from Iranian aggression.

The GCC has the 40,000-strong Peninsula Shield Force (PSF) based in the Eastern Province city of Hafar Al-Batin. Last spring, the force sent 1,500 troops to help quell Shiite demonstrators and protect government installations in Bahrain. But the PSF has never engaged in a full fledged military operation since its founding in 1984. It did not participate in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, although the Royal Saudi Air Force flew sorties for coalition forces.

Nevertheless, GCC leaders have recently gone on a spending spree buying military hardware. Saudi Arabia has been the biggest spender, purchasing from the U.S. about $60 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets, Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, bunker-buster bombs and Patriot missiles. The Pentagon sold an estimated $3.5 billion worth of an anti-ballistic missiles and military technology to the UAE, while Kuwait is set to buy 200 Patriot missiles.

“Saudis do a very good job of exercising diplomacy, but in terms of acting as a military force, they don’t have the capability,” said Ahrari, adding that Saudi Arabia’s military doesn’t possess the skills to engage in combat. “I never understood that simply buying high tech equipment makes a military force. They must have the know-how and infrastructure to make it work.”

Al-Tawati disagreed, but acknowledged the PSF may not be prepared to defend Gulf interests. “It isn’t developed enough to work as a joint military action, but we need to develop it to take military action or reaction.”

Al-Tawati said Saudi Arabia possesses more technologically advanced weaponry than Iran and has the training to go with it. “We don’t usually buy weapons without training, support and the experts that come with the weapons. Al-Tawati pointed to Saudi Capt. Iyad Al-Shamarani, who shot down two Iraqi Mirage fighters during the Gulf War, as evidence of Saudi mettle and technical prowess in combat. The air battle effectively ended Iraq’s attempt at air superiority.

A Middle East analyst for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who asked not to be identified because Israel is not directly involved in the Gulf crisis, told The Media Line that Israel may indirectly be affected by standoff between the GCC and Iran. Crucial to the current climate between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the Islamic Republic’s attempts to expand its influence to GCC countries, he said.

The Saudis have long held that the deadly clashes between Shiites and Saudi security forces in the Eastern Province and demonstrations in Bahrain are products of Iranian meddling.

“Saudi Arabia’s primary concerns are to maintain the stability of the region and to contain Iran’s interference, which the Saudis perceive as a destabilizing factor and as a threat to the Saudi regime,” the Israeli government official said. “The Sunni-Shiite rift plays a role in this regional rivalry, and it has been escalated by Iran’s attempts to employ Arab Shiite sentiment for its regional policies.”

He added that continuing sanctions are taking a heavy toll of the Iranian economy. “An Iranian military adventure against the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Gulf states – and perhaps also attacking Israel – would worsen Iran’s diplomatic and economic difficulties,” he said.

He added Iran’s Islamist leadership will consider the implications of a military confrontation, “but you can never be sure about it when political rationale is mixed with an extremist religious viewpoint.”

While building a more comprehensive military force is vital to protect the GCC’s oil interests, alternatives to shipping oil through the Strait of Hormuz have largely been ignored. A 745-mile east-west pipeline connecting the Eastern Province’s Abqaiq oil processing facility to the Red Sea port of Yanbu is operating under capacity. Only 2.5 million bpd move through the pipeline although it has a capacity of twice that amount, according to the U.S.-based Global Equity Research.

The Saudi government has expanded the Yanbu facility as insurance against trouble at the Strait of Hormuz, but capacity remains stagnant.

“We can export 50 to 60% of our oil away from the Strait of Hormuz, and we lessen to a certain extent [disruption],” Al-Tawati said. “We need to invest in other alternatives. We need a resolution, and, in fact, we now need the United Nations Security Council to make a decision to discuss the issue because of the threat to close an international strait.”
Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Saudi Arabia’s Automotive Aspirations

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

8 January 2012

 Not content with oil, the kingdom wants to make cars as well; skeptics abound

Two years ago, the Saudi Arabian government announced with great fanfare – and was met with some skepticism – plans to manufacture automobile parts by 2013 and assemble cars by 2021. King Saud University engineering students, who designed an economical sport utility vehicle called the Ghazel, bolstered those plans with a tangible vehicle ready for production.

Saudi economic analysts are optimistic that automobile manufacturing in the kingdom will help reduce the economy’s reliance on oil exports. Yet roadblocks persist. Already the goal to manufacture car parts next year is in jeopardy as infrastructure and a trained labor pool are not in place. It begs the question of whether Saudi Arabia can pull off a massive undertaking within its stated timetable or even come close to it.

“It’s not realistic,” Asaad Jawhar, an economics analyst and professor at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University, told The Media Line. Jawhar says manufacturing automobile parts is more likely to get underway within five years.

Saudis love their cars, purchasing an estimated 800,000 in 2011 with an expected one million cars to be bought annually by 2020. The Petroleum and Minerals Ministry and the Commerce and Industry Ministry are investing in research and development, design, vehicle assembly and infrastructure to create enough exports to help the kingdom wean itself from oil revenues.

The ministries initiated the National Industrial Clusters Development Program to help achieve those diversification goals by focusing on five industries: automobile manufacturing, solar energy, plastics, home appliances and minerals processing.

The most ambitious challenge is building cars.

Fayez Al-Sharef, chemical project director for Saudi Aramco, told Bloomberg News in October that he expects the nascent Saudi automotive industry to eventually create 100,000 jobs and produce a half-million cars every year.

If the vision of self-sufficiency through diversification sounds familiar, it’s because Saudi Arabia has been down that road before and failed.

Saudi Arabia has been looking since the 1970s for the magic export product that will minimize its dependency on oil. The government implemented an ambitious plan to develop its agricultural industry to become self-sustaining and provide every Saudi household with food grown within its borders.

Production of wheat and rice rose steadily, but so did the expensive proposition of building irrigation systems to bring groundwater to the crops. Between 1984 and 2000, Saudi Arabia spent an astronomical $83.6 billion to irrigate crops and build agricultural infrastructure. The project cost more than twice it would have to import foodstuff, according to the School of Oriental and African Studies at King’s College London.

However, the 1991 Gulf War put a severe strain on the Saudi budget and groundwater – its availability in the desert always an issue – was increasingly difficult to bring to the surface. Efforts to maintain irrigation of 1.12 million hectares, the level irrigated in 2000, is almost an impossible task. The project could not be sustained.

“The most important thing was not to rely heavily on oil, but to rely on agriculture and they (Saudi government) failed in agriculture,” Jawhar says. “And now they are trying to find another way of transforming technology.”

There are signs that creating an automotive industry could work. During the third quarter of 2011, nonoil exports rose by 34%, mostly in petrochemicals and plastics, according to the Saudi General Statistics Department. China was the biggest consumer of these products.

Didier J. Vigouroux, vice-president of the Automotive Cluster for the National Industrial Clusters Development Program, told The Media Line that a Saudi automotive industry is capable of matching petrochemicals and plastics as viable exports.

“No one is thinking of giving up oil and gas, but to diversify from oil and gas,” Vigouroux says. “And petrochemicals are a logical continuation. New industries like automobile manufacturing would target the success of petrochemicals and plastics as a goal.”

The brightening picture in exports lays the foundation for developing parts manufacturing plants and ultimately automotive assembly. Isuzu Motors Ltd. has an assembly plant in Dammam for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. The plant is expected to begin this year to produce about 25,000 vehicles annually for export to Asia.

Vigouroux says any timetable to bring other automobile assembly plants online is flexible.

“The only true assembly plant project in Saudi Arabia is the Isuzu plant, but as far as developing other plants we are still talking to certain companies,” he says.

Following its unveiling of the Ghazal sport utility vehicle, King Saud University inked an agreement with the South Korean engineering company Digm Automotive Technology to develop a car priced under $10,000. Saudi Arabia would export the car to neighboring Gulf countries and North Africa.

Jawhar says that producing inexpensive cars makes sense. “Saudi Arabia should approach this step-by-step like Hyundai. They can succeed if they model after Korea. Korea produced small and bad cars at first, but is now doing well,” he says. “By first producing [cheap] cars efficiently, they then build an institution.”

He notes, however, that exporting the Ghazal, or a similar inexpensive automobile, would not be competitive in foreign markets, but sell better domestically. “Perhaps there’s a market in Africa, but even there I’m not sure.”

However, a slow start to get the fledgling industry out of the gate may not only scuttle 2021 timetable for automobile production but also doom Saudi Arabia’s diversification plans.

While the Saudi government is financing production and logistics facilities through 20-year loans in the remote regions of Najran and Tabuk, the question remains whether employers can find competent Saudi labor. The government’s Nitaqat program requires that companies with more than 3,000 employees must employ Saudis for 30% of its workforce.

A Saudi engineering consultant, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak for his client, told The Media Line that it would be difficult to fill factory jobs with Saudis.

“With Nitaqat, assembly plants will have to fill unskilled labor positions with Saudis and I don’t see that happening,” he says. “Which brings us back to how we always do things, and that’s hiring cheap foreign labor.”

Jawhar says finding Saudis in the skilled labor market is another story. “The world doesn’t know that Saudis are learning fast,” he says. “Saudis between 20 and 25 years old with engineering education will be producing great cars with high technology 20 years from now.”

Vigouroux agrees. “The right perspective to put on diversification is the significant desire to create employment for young Saudis coming out of universities,” he says. “This means creating new curriculum and the right kinds of training and work ethic.”

But Vigouroux acknowledged that for 2012 Saudi Arabia’s automotive manufacturing infrastructure is minimal, although the know-how for developing automotive zones is available. “We are addressing investment issues and there some impressive botanical parks in Yanbu and Jubail where there is already an expertise for mapping and running industrial cities.”

The key to overcoming infrastructure and labor issues is better cooperation between agencies. Jawhar observed that a successful automotive industry depends on two groups that historically have done a poor job developing marketable exports: the government and private business.

“If the government heads this they will fail and the private sector has not taken [automotive manufacturing] seriously,” Jawhar says. “It’s a matter of trust between the two sectors that determines the outcome.”

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

For Saudis Born Out of Wedlock, a Life Alone

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

28 December 2011

Marriage prospects are dim, which can consign a girl to adulthood in an orphanage

Ahmed is a precocious seven-year-old boy who idolizes his father and has a knack for mastering electronic games before any adult in the family. His home in the Saudi city of Madinah is filled with cousins ranging in ages from one to 16. Whenever the aunts gather at the end of the day, they often speculate about whom the kids should marry when they come of age.

Ahmed’s name never comes up. The boy was born out of wedlock and adopted by his loving family. The unspoken truth in the household is that Ahmed’s ability to find a wife is in doubt. Few Saudi families have an interest in marrying their daughters off to a man considered the “seed of the devil.”

For Ahmed, he carries the sins of his parents. And in Saudi society, so will his children.

“Someday he will wonder why his future is never discussed like his cousins,” his aunt, Umm Sultan, told The Media Line. “That’s the day he will know that he is different.”

Islam is specific about children born out of wedlock. They are not responsible for the actions of their parents. They are not sinners. They can lead prayer and Muslims must treat them with compassion and equity. However, Saudi Arabia’s tribal society not only stigmatizes orphans but also reserves a special brand of discrimination against abandoned illegitimate children. Although these infants may be born in hospitals and prisons, most end up in garbage dumpsters. Social workers often identify them as “anonymous babies” or “pickup babies.” Worse, many in Saudi society label them “seeds of the devil” and their voices “Satan’s flutes.”

It’s a stinging indictment that never goes away, according to Wafa Al-Shamari, director of Public Affairs for King Saud Hospital and the Ministry of Health in Jeddah.

“Those terms stigmatize the children and contribute to their isolation,” Al-Shamari told The Media Line. “It makes them more like aliens who don’t belong to the society when they are simply kids with special needs.”

The Saudi Ministries of Social Services and Health are reluctant to release figures of abandoned children born out of wedlock. However, the government recorded that orphanages in the kingdom had 621 abandoned children under the age of six and 1,045 between the ages of seven and 17 in 2005, the last year statistics available. In 2007, local health agencies registered 280 abandoned children, a slight uptick from 278 in 2002. In Makkah, the Umm Al-Qura Women’s Welfare Society cares for 90 illegitimate children, according to the ministry.

In April, the Social Affairs Ministry revealed that orphans with living parents accounted for 20% of all Saudi children. The ministry did not provide an exact figure, but it classified the children as “social orphans” that in addition to being born out of wedlock, include minors involved in custody disputes, come from an abusive environment, are homeless or have parents unable to provide proper care.

“Society is divided into two groups: the majority who look down on out-of-wedlock children and hold them responsible for a sin they haven’t committed, and the minority who treats them with extreme sympathy that again negatively reflect on their attitude towards the society and their feelings about themselves,” Al-Shamari said. “The children perceive themselves as sinners and ask questions about why society is treating them like this.”

Discrimination is so extreme that families are willing to adopt an orphan when the parents are known, but won’t take a child whose parents are anonymous. The result is boys remain in orphanages until they reach puberty, while girls may never leave. Only the unlikely prospect of marriage, which guarantees the woman a legal guardian, will save girls from living their entire lives in an institution.

The Saudi government compounds the discrimination by denying orphans the right to carry their adopted family’s name. Ahmed, for example, carries no tribal or family name. He has a series of first names given by the Social Affairs Ministry and two names given by his adopted parents.

When the boy receives his national identity card at the age of 15, his name will clearly identify his parentless origins. The administrators and the neighborhood mothers at his school already know his birth circumstances, with the likelihood that his fellow students will also discover it as well.

Further, according to the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child, illegitimate children receive fictitious names, such as “Saudi” or “Jeddawi” (from Jeddah), which calls attention to the circumstances of their birth.

It hasn’t always been this way. Al-Shamari says tribes once eagerly gave their name to the anonymous as a means of protection.

“Tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, including the one I come from, used to give the tribal [family] name to people who were Al-Sonn’a, or manual worker, as a source of protection, to obtain loyalty and to help them blend into society,” Al-Shamari said. “Wherever they go, the name protects them. The same concept can be applied now.”

Time has obscured the reasons why attitudes among tribes have changed, although the increasing complexities and layers of bureaucracy in Saudi government institutions since the kingdom’s founding in 1932 have contributed to the woes of illegitimate children.

Yet Amani Hamden, a Saudi national and adjunct professor and sociology and anthropology researcher at the University of Ottawa, told The Media Line that the Social Affairs Ministry has done a remarkable job of giving orphans lifetime benefits.

“I believe that Saudi Arabia had done a great job to support orphans in offering them housing, medical insurance and education for a lifetime,” Hamden says.

Indeed, orphanages throughout the kingdom feature state-of-the art educational equipment, including computers and audio-visual materials. The infrastructure is less institutional and more like a home. Buildings are modern with the clean interiors with carpeted floors, modern furnishings and all the comforts of an apartment. However, staff training is minimal at best with most employees paid low wages.

Last May in Madinah, six orphan girls between the ages of 12 and 18 received 10 lashes each following convictions for “acts of mischief” and assaulting the orphanage’s director. Muhammad Al-Awadh, a spokesman for the Social Affairs Ministry, told Reuters the ministry was powerless to intervene with a court order. The girls alleged that the director had harassed them.

Former orphanage social worker Umm Mesha’l told The Media Line she quit her job at a Western Province orphanage because employees physically abused the children.

“The employees forget that those children are not themselves and come from an abused background,” Mesha’l says. “The workers don’t come from an educational background. They have a high school education. They don’t understand how to deal with the children.”

While staff training remains a key issue to reforming institutional shortcomings, the Social Affairs Ministry has taken steps to help ease the stigma of illegitimate children. This month the ministry announced the illegitimate children born to unknown parents are full Saudi citizens.

Traditionally, the government denies citizenship to children born to non-Saudi fathers although the mother may be Saudi. Each orphan is granted a birth certificate and civil record numbers.

The ministry has yet to consider allowing orphans to take their adopted family’s name.

“We as social workers are not calling for mixing origins, like a son seeking his inheritance from his adopted father, which is against Islam, but for giving them known family names to help them blend into Saudi society,” Al-Shamari says.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Christmas in Saudi Arabia: Cheerful but Chaste

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Kuwait Times

22 December 2011

In Land of the Two Holy Mosques, authorities overlook quiet celebrations

Christmas in Saudi Arabia. The phrase doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But celebrating the holiday in some areas of the kingdom is possible as long as expatriates use a subtle approach.

Christmas has always been kept under wraps in the kingdom as a holiday celebrated in the privacy of one’s own home. There are no church services in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, but private services are held in Christian homes and residential compounds. Holiday parties complete with festive decorations are commonplace in virtually all the compounds, although they are usually kept indoors.

Outward displays of non-Muslim religious symbols or prostlyzing can lead to nasty experiences with the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, but a personal copy of the Bible is allowed into the country. However, Saudi attitudes toward Christmas vary.

“We had Saudi friends with kids who had lived abroad and used to enjoy Christmas, not as a religious holiday, but as a social one,” says a 41-year-old Christian Arab-American, who lives in the port city of Jeddah and asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of Christian holidays in the country.

Given the pressure to keep one’s faith close to the vest, celebrating Christmas for Saudi Arabia’s 1.2 million Christians  is a tricky proposition.

An American blogger who writes under the name Susie’s Big Adventure told The Media Line her early Christmases were unlike any she had ever experienced. “My first two Christmases in Saudi Arabia were pretty non-existent, except for my son and I watching our favorite Christmas movies all day,” says Susie, who is married to a Saudi.

Subsequent holidays brightened when she purchased a small tree, lights and glass ornaments. “Our Christmases have been very low key,” she adds.

Yet Christians celebrating Christmas and the retailers who cater to the expatriate population, which numbers about eight million, have taken a page from the St. Valentine’s Day playbook to ensure that all the trappings of the holiday are recognized: Christmas tree ornaments, tinsel, colorful wrapping paper, material for Santa Claus suits and food.

To cater to the increasing popularity of St. Valentine’s Day, florists traditionally stock up on red roses. Lingerie shops carry more stock and prominently display playful red and white-laced lingerie. Christmas celebrations in some regions of Saudi Arabia follow a similar pattern with varying degrees of success. Riyadh and the rural villages and towns are barren of any signs of Christmas. And Madinah and Makkah are closed to non-Muslims. However, cosmopolitan Jeddah and communities in the Eastern Province are islands that subtly mark the holiday.

“I feel the Christmas season every year,” says Filipino expatriate Bayani, a Christian, told The Media Line. “I work at a big department store in Jeddah and about two months before Christmas we get a shipment of displays and inventory that sell the Christmas spirit.”

Christmas often immediately follows the Islamic holiday of Eid. The Eid holidays follow the Hijri calendar and are held at different times of the Gregorian calendar. Department stores order inventory and displays to reflect the festive nature of Eid, and by doing so ensure that Christmas-style decorations pass through customs without interference, says Bayani. This Christmas season provided challenges for the department store since the holiday arrived three months after Eid.

“We still managed to dress the store in red and white, maybe a little tinsel,” he says. “It doesn’t scream ‘Christmas’ but customers get the idea.”

Islam does not recognize specific dates as holidays except for Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. Saudis often ignore birthdays, including the birth date of the Prophet Muhammad. Sufis, however, celebrate the prophet’s birthday with elaborate meals and singing, which perhaps comes closest to how Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet some expatriates say that Saudis are not blind to the emotional resonance of Christmas.

Australian expatriate Steve Smith, 37, of Jeddah, told The Media Line that he and a Briton are the only non-Muslims employed by an information technology company. He expected a lonely Christmas.

“We worked Christmas Day, of course, but after work my Saudi boss invited us to his home for a Christmas dinner,” Smith recalls. “He had his cook make us a full dinner with trimmings. I was gobsmacked. We didn’t talk about Christmas at the dinner table, but it was his way of saying he appreciated that we were alone in a foreign country and that we needed this holiday.”

Yusef A., 57, a Saudi who supervises about a dozen Western non-Muslims at an Eastern Province company, told The Media Line that he makes it a habit that his Christian employees have something to do during the holidays. Speaking on the condition that his full name is not used, he says that he usually schedules a private room at an upscale restaurant or hotel for a dinner or to contribute funds for a party if they live in a residential compound.

“They are a long way from home and Saudi Arabia can be tough on foreigners,” he explains. “Besides, I want to keep them here and working for me.”

While religious authorities take a dim view on any hint of public Christian holiday celebrations, one Saudi businesswoman, who asked not to be identified, says that some Saudis are learning the holiday is more secular than religious for many Christians. As a result, some people take a relaxed view. She said many Saudis studying in the U.S. and Britain appreciate the holiday atmosphere, department store displays and home decorations.

“My husband and I studied at MIT in Massachusetts in the’90s, so after five years we were fully exposed to the holiday and were often invited to parties by our non-Saudi friends,” she says.. “We’ve come back to Saudi Arabia with the habit of giving each other one gift on December 25. It’s pretty harmless and reminds us of the old good days in the States.”

An assistant manager at an upscale hotel on Jeddah’s Corniche at the edge of the Red Sea says he notices a surge in dinner reservations on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Day is another holiday largely unnoticed since Saudis follow the Hijri calendar.

“A lot of people come in on Christmas and New Year’s with their families, and even Arab couples, although I don’t see any Saudis,” he said. “I see couples exchange gifts at the table. It’s not a big deal.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Saudi Convicts Trade Cells for Community Service

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

8 December 2011

Kingdom quietly experiments with alternatives to incarceration

A judge in Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, recently weighed the consequences of a young man’s theft conviction. The choice was either to send him to prison or to order him to perform 30 days of community service working in a hospital emergency room.

While time in prison is customary under Saudi sentencing practices, the judge opted for community service. The sentence went unnoticed by the Saudi media, but it marked a significant shift in the attitude of the Saudi judicial system, which is more determined than ever to keep people out of jail and let them contribute as productive members in their community even as they are punished.

Community service is a relatively new concept in the kingdom, but the General Administration of Prisons (GPA) has been working under the radar to develop a series of sentencing alternatives to keep the prison population low and to prevent families from losing their principal source of income.

The prisons administration throws in traditional methods of rehabilitation, such as memorizing the Qur’an, with more modern alternatives, like adult education courses accredited by Saudi universities.

“We don’t want the families to suffer and losing the breadwinner of the family would be a hardship,” Maj. Gen. Ali bin Hussein Al-Harithy, director-general of the GPA, told The Media Line.

Saudi Arabia has 40 permanent prisons and 60 transitional facilities, housing about 44,500 inmates at any given time, according to the Saudi General Presidency of Prisons. Per capita, the Saudi prison population numbers just 110 people per 100,000 people. That’s a low number, especially given that Saudi nationals account for just under half of the prison population, but other countries, including many in the Middle East and Western Europe have incarceration rates of 100 or less.

The GPA closely guards the conditions and operations of facilities holding prisoners on alleged security violations. However, U.S. Justice Department reported in its 2005 Country Report on Human Rights Practices that Saudi prisons for criminal offenders are “generally acceptable” according to international standards.

The kinder, gentler punishment regime is not the only such program the kingdom operates. Better known and more controversial is a counseling program for terrorists, who are sent to a former desert resort outside Riyadh. They play sports, take art therapy and attend classes by clerics and social scientists on religious subjects.

If student pass an exam at the completion of the course, they may be approved for release. If they fail, they can repeat it.

The GPA is under the umbrella of the Ministry of Interior and correctional authorities are loathe to discuss prison operations much less the types of rehabilitation programs they offer offenders.

Saudi prison warden Abdul Karim, who studied prison management at Ohio Northern University, told Ohio’s Dayton Daily News recently that Saudi prison officials are not permitted to discuss the kingdom’s prison system. But he described the Saudi prison environment as much like U.S. facilities.  “The prison environment is the same around the world,” Karim told the newspaper.

However, Al-Harithy says in a rare interview that the GPA is developing a codified system of alternative programs – some based on Western alternative-sentencing laws – that include adult education, work-release programs, community service and electronic monitoring to reduce overcrowding and to integrate released prisoners into society. The programs employ a quasi-honor system that keeps prisoners under the watchful eye of prison authorities, but the freedom to move about to earn a living.

“First we want to make sure that we don’t have any possible overpopulation in any prison and second we don’t want to expose people to the prison culture that we all agree is something we would not like to have at all,” Al-Harithy says. “No matter what we do or what rehab programs we introduce, this culture will always be worse than anything beyond the walls of prisons.”

Al-Harithy says offenders sentenced to prison can earn early release or participate in work-release programs by performing social and community work. Work includes cleaning mosques, helping the elderly and people with special needs, or working with local traffic departments. Offenders convicted of capital offenses or crimes deemed misdemeanors are not eligible to participate.

Minimizing confinement whenever possible is a key component of the strategy. Work-release programs allow inmates to leave the facility at 7 a.m. to work at a job and return by 5 p.m. It is similar to Western prison alternatives such as that in France, but operated with looser restrictions. Inmates, for example, do not register at local police stations.

“But we know where they are,” Al-Harithy says. It also helps that Saudi society has a de facto Neighborhood Watch tradition in which everybody’s business is a matter for public consumption. Few inmates working outside prison walls can escape the scrutiny of their neighbors.

Al-Harithy says the Ministry of Justice is working with the Ministry of Interior to teach criminal court judges sentencing alternatives. “We also have written a long illustrated list that is now under study at the Ministry of Interior that includes suggested alternatives, the authorities who will implement it and how to implement it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry routinely sends its correctional managers to the U.S., Canada, France and some Arab countries to bone up the latest methods.

In 2009, Saudi Arabia sent 30 prison administrators to Ohio Northern University for a two-year Prison Management program. The program teaches the U.S. criminal justice system and English. It also includes touring statewide prison facilities and an internship with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

The Interior Ministry implements some Western notions of rehabilitation and ignores others. But the bottom line is to codify a system, which once was largely informal, to encompass all aspects of rehabilitation as it applies to Islam with a healthy dose of common sense education programs.

“We have education programs that vary from illiteracy to the university level,” Al-Harithy says. “We implement distance learning and recently the University of Qassim and Imam University opened classes inside the prisons.”

An alternative to secondary school or university education is vocational training that responds to the demands of the Saudi labor market.

Some inmates may opt for more traditional methods to reduce their sentences. Inmates can expect sentences reduced by up to 50% if they memorize at least half of the Qur’an and memorized the 40 main Hadiths, which are the sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Abdullah Muhammad Al-Harbi, 38, who served two years in a Medina prison on an assault conviction, told The Media Line that prison authorities reduced his sentence by two years because he took Islamic studies courses and memorized the Hadiths.

“I studied the Holy Qur’an because I felt I had to so I could leave prison early, but it turned out to be best for me,” Al-Harbi says. “I now help the neighborhood kids with their studies and it keeps me out of trouble.”

A relatively new concept is the use of electronic ankle bracelets that keeps tabs on sentenced individuals confined to their home, neighborhood or city.

The Interior Ministry’s Electronic Surveillance Project allows convicted offenders to serve their sentence either at home or within a specific radius of their home or neighborhood to allow them to work. The ankle bracelet links via GPS technology the offender to a control room. The new program eases jail and prison overcrowding and allows humanitarian leave to attend a funeral or visit a patient in the hospital.

“We have the best prison system in the world,” Al-Harithy says. “There is nothing else like what we do here.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Deadly Blaze Puts Spotlight on Saudi Girls Schools

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

29 November 2011

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The scene was chilling to watch: Three young girls, clad in their black abayas, dropping one by one from the third-floor window shrouded in billowing black smoke as their school went up in flames.

The fierce fire that burned Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School in the Al-Safa District on November 19 left three teachers dead and 56 students and school personnel injured. It was reminiscent of the 2002 Makkah Intermediate School No. 31 fire that killed 15 girls after members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice forced the victims back into the burning building to retrieve their abayas, the long black cloak that covers women from head to toe.

Killed in the Jeddah blaze were teachers Souzan Al-Khaledi, Reem Al-Nahari and Ghadeer Katoua. Al-Khaledi was fatally injured after jumping from a third-floor window. Al-Nahari and Katoua died from smoke inhalation. Katoua was also deputy director of the primary school. Civil Defense investigators determined that five students playing with matches started the fire in the school’s basement.

This time the commission didn’t interfere in evacuating the building, but the issue of school safety, first raised after the 2002 Makkah blaze, remains today. It also points up the significant difference between the resources allocated to boys’ and girls’ education even as the kingdom has promised to improve the status of women. Two years ago, King Abdullah opened the first co-educational university and appointed Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez as deputy education minister, the first women to ever hold such a post.

According to teachers employed at Saudi girls schools, little has changed in nine years.

Like the Makkah School, Baraim Al-Watan Girls’ School was in an aging rented building not designed to accommodate school students, that crowded some 750 students inside. The two schools lacked safety equipment and adequate emergency exits, and its ground-floor windows were barred, according to Civil Defense officials.

A teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to speak for the Ministry of Education, said there are significant differences in safety features between boys and girls schools.

“Most of the boys schools are specifically designed to be schools,” the 40-year-old teacher told The Media Line. “Boys schools are not rented, and are all equipped with big yards for sports to play football and basketball. They are surrounded by huge open areas.”

She added that classroom doors are usually left open and classes are often held outdoors.

Privacy concerns by the Ministry of Education require a different environment for female students, the teacher says.

“Girls schools are usually rented and redesigned for privacy,” the teacher said. “Though they say there is a rule against it, the windows usually have bars. The girls don’t have allocated spaces for sports, so the yards are very small. It’s like a prison.”

A defining feature of virtually all Saudi public schools for girls is the tightly controlled access to school grounds. Fathers routinely drop off their children at the front gate, but rarely enter school grounds. Mothers have greater access, but still must pass muster from the guard at the gate to enter. Many Saudi girls schools feature high walls surrounding the building with no other entries or exits other than the main gate. Likewise, female colleges and universities have strict rules that prohibit students from leaving campus without authorization.

Hannan Al-Harthy, a former student at Umm Al-Qura University in Makkah, told The Media Line that it is policy at virtually all female universities to lock students in their dormitories for the weekend unless they have permission to leave the university. Guards padlock all exits and only male guardians pre-approved by the university can retrieve the student to leave campus for a social visit.

“I never thought about the safety implications then, but in retrospect we were locked in a big box cooking food, lighting candles – basically playing with fire, if you will – without thinking of the consequences,” Al-Harthy said.

An estimated 4.6 million Saudi children attend public primary through secondary schools. About 2.2 million are girls, a jump from 33% of the student population in 1975 to about 48% in 2009. Girls schools accounted for about 48% of the Ministry of Education’s schools budget of 122 billion Saudi royals ($32.5 billion). Although the education ministry has spent considerable money on infrastructure improvements, many girls schools still lack the larger modern campuses and more comfortable environment boys enjoy.

However, Arwah Aal Al-Asheikh, owner of Baraim Al-Watan, told the Arabic-language daily newspaper Al-Madinah that her school had up-to-date safety equipment and features, including emergency exits, fire hoses and sensors. She said the building meets the standards of an educational facility.

Yet Civil Defense fire investigators reported the emergency exits were not used to evacuate teachers and students. They said safety training appeared inadequate because the children panicked when they attempted to board a rescue helicopter hovering over the roof the building.

Taif Saeed Al-Qahtani, 12, who jumped from Baraim Al-Watan’s third-floor window, told the Saudi newspaper Al-Arabyia that she remembers nothing after her leap to safety. Her father, Saeed Al-Qahtani, said he learned from his daughter that school officials had no proper crisis-management plan in place to allow school staff to organize an “orderly and safe” evacuation of the building.

Perhaps most evident in skirting safety guidelines were bars placed on all first floor windows.

An investigation is underway to address the school’s safety issues. Prince Khaled Al-Fasial, emir of the Makkah Governorate, appointed a five-member panel consisting of representatives from the Saudi General Investigation Department, the Makkah Governorate, Criminal Investigations, the Saudi Electricity Company and Civil Defense to conduct a probe of the causes of the fire and the events leading to the deaths.

Meanwhile, Abdullah Alami, an economist and women’s rights activist based in the Eastern Province city of Dhahran, and Saudi journalist Jamal Banoon in Jeddah launched the National Safety Campaign to address commercial and educational building safety issues.

“School officials claim their facilities have all safety measures, including emergency exits, in place as specified by the Civil Defense,” Alami said. “Our task is to review defects related to electricity, roads leading to the school buildings, emergency exits, fans, lighting and wirings. We intended to look at distribution panels, iron fences on windows, gates, gas cylinders, air conditions and refrigerators in school.”

For 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.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Belief in Witchcraft Runs Deep Despite Bans

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

17 October 2011

When Tara Umm Omar was a young bride in her first marriage, she and her Moroccan husband took into their home the youngest sister of a family friend. On the day the young Moroccan woman arrived, she gave Umm Omar a doll, which Umm Omar promptly placed in a dresser drawer.

When Umm Omar told a friend of the doll, the friend suspected it was an item for black magic and suggested the doll be destroyed. Instead, Umm Omar tossed it in the garbage. That’s when household items disappeared, the family dog barked incessantly, Umm Omar started fighting with her husband and she began seeing strange insects in the house. When the guest finally moved out, the couple found their bed sheets and an identical doll to Umm Omar’s among the woman’s discarded belongings.

The message to Umm Omar was clear: The woman she invited into her home sought to destroy her happiness through black magic.

Umm Omar is since remarried to a Saudi and now lives in Riyadh. She runs the popular blog, Future Husbands and Wives of Saudis, a help website for non-Saudis marrying Saudis. As a quasi-marriage counselor for brides and grooms nervously entering Saudi society, Umm Omar dispenses religious and practical advice to help ease the cultural shock. That includes providing insight to the real world concerns of black magic and evil eye.

“The truth is that all magic is haram (prohibited) and only leads to bad ends,” Umm Omar told The Media Line.

Belief in black magic runs deep in Saudi society. The issue was raised last month when the quasi-legislative body Shoura Council granted permission for Moroccan women to work as maids in Saudi households. Hundreds of Saudi women complained to the Council that granting Moroccan maids permission to work was tantamount to allowing the use of black magic in their homes to steal their husbands. Saudi wives complained the issue was not lacking trust in their husbands, but their men were powerless to ward off spells.

While greeted with skepticism in western societies, Saudis would no more question the existence of black magic than they would Islam. Two surahs (chapters) in the Qur’an under Al Mi’wadhatyan address black magic and are often recited during or after prayer. Simply, part of being a Muslim is believing in the existence of magic.

In April of this year, members of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice underwent special training in the Eastern Province to investigate black magic crimes.

Although also found in Christianity and Judaism, casting spells is particularly common in Oman, Sudan, Yemen, Morocco and Indonesia. Turkey is a secular Muslim country, but protection against evil eye is deeply rooted in virtually all aspects of daily life. Tools of witchcraft include using lizards, dead birds, photographs, hair, thread, dirt, blood and red ink. Hiding places to place the “spell” may be in bedrooms and under beds. Written spells generally contain the intended victim’s name and one or two words to state the intention to do harm.

In 2007, the religious police in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, removed 23 black magic tokens, including knives and written spells on paper, from two graves in a cemetery. Black magic artists placed the tokens at the heads and feet of the corpses.

The Saudi press reported recently that evil eye was suspected in causing the death of Mastoora Al-Ahmadi, the Saudi poet who garnered international attention for her performance on “The Million’s Poet” on Abu Dhabi TV. She was the first woman to reach the semifinals in the Arabic poetry contest. Al-Ahmadi died unexpectedly on Oct. 2 in Madinah after falling into a coma.

Howaizan Muhammad, 26, of Madinah told The Media Line that she had difficulty finding a job and failed in many interviews. And she hated the jobs she did find. She broke up with her fiancé and couldn’t find a husband. “My sister told me to read the surah Al-Baqarah to protect me against any spells,” she says. “After 14 days, my father found a spell written on paper and in blood with my name on it on the roof under our water tank.”

Muhammad says she had Indonesian maids at the time, but notes that anybody could have left the spell.

Sheikh Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, an Islamic scholar based in Qatar and the author of The Exorcist Tradition in Islam, told The Media Line that Muslims must not fight witchcraft with their own magic but refer to the Qur’an. “There are a number of Qur’anic texts that the Prophet said should be read with reflection as a means of removing or reducing the effects of black magic,” he says. “Eating adjuwah dates from Madinah is also a means of protection.”

He notes there is a tendency to fight magic with magic, but it’s prohibited. “People should avoid charms, amulets and other things that people have proffered, which has become something of a business in the Muslim world.”

Philips acknowledges that Moroccans have an “international reputation” among Muslims for practicing witchcraft, but cautions against overemphasizing Moroccans as master artists of voodoo. “Historically they (Moroccans) are most noted for it. But they are not much different than most in the Muslim world. Chechnya and Bosnia probably engage in it more.”

Although Saudis may claim that witchcraft is at the heart of their distrust of foreign maids, Umm Omar suggests that old-fashioned power struggles and jealously play vital roles in conflicts.

“There is a factor that Saudis are more well-to-do than Moroccans and magic can be used to remove those blessings (of wealth) if (maids) dislike them,” Umm Omar says. “Saudi women are used to feeling superior over maids, and in some cases look down on them. Moroccan women do not like to be pushed around and will defend themselves. My experience with Moroccan and Saudi women is they both like to be in charge of the household and are naturally bossy.”

Umm Omar adds that if a maid feels threatened, she could resort to black magic. “Of course that is not to say that a Saudi woman won’t seek out magic to harm a Moroccan maid.”

Left unsaid in this battle of wills between Saudi and Moroccan women is the consequences of practicing black magic in Saudi Arabia. Practicing witchcraft is an offense punishable by death.

Saudi religious police arrested popular Lebanese television personality and fortuneteller Ali Sabat in May 2008 on charges of witchcraft while he was on a pilgrimage. A Saudi court sentenced him to death. But an appellate court threw out the sentence in 2010, citing lack of evidence that Sabat harmed anybody. According to Amnesty International, the last documented execution for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia was in 2007. A Saudi court sentenced Egyptian pharmacist Mustafa Ibrahim to death for casting spells in order to separate a married couple.

“Fortune telling is not just sleight of hand tricks, but involves the spirit,” says Philips. “As evil, it’s the same thing as black magic. Sharia (Islamic law) proscribes the same punishment for both.”

Umm Omar points to ignorance and the absence of a strong foundation in the teachings of Islam that lead some Muslims to practice magic and evil eye.

Although Philips says that ignorance is no excuse for breaking laws, forgiveness should be considered. “God does forgive ignorance,” he says. “We should be more tolerant in some cases because some people are not doing (harmful) things deliberately.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

At Turkish Resorts, Arabs Fill Israeli Rooms

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

10 October 2011

Upheavals in Middle East bring changes to travel destinations

ANTALYA, Turkey – Old Town at dusk in this resort city on the Mediterranean coast is filled with hawkers selling jewelry, clothes and souvenirs. Shopkeepers easily transition from speaking Turkish to Russian, Polish and German as they spy tourists tentatively approaching their shops. Yet Hebrew, once among the languages mastered by bazaar sellers, is virtually non-existent.

The annual number of Israeli tourists to Turkey has always been modest. However, resorts and shop owners recognize the potential for a greater Israeli presence on the beaches and in hotels. Israeli tourism to Turkey remains a fledgling enterprise, but the worsening diplomatic crisis between the two countries has damaged the progress made in recent years to attract more visitors.

Israelis accounted for no more than 3% of the tourists visiting Turkey before 2009. Since 2009, only 0.05% of the total number of tourists visiting Turkey is Israeli, according to Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Whether Turkey can attract Israeli tourists to at least 2009 levels is the “million-dollar question,” Danny Zimet, spokesman for Turkey’s tourism ministry office in Tel Aviv, told The Media Line.

“Turkey as a tourist destination is disappearing because of the constant problems between the two countries,” says Zimet, who is also a senior fellow at the Center for International Communication at Bar Ilan University at Ramat Gan.

Zimet says that a record number of 560,000 Israelis visited Turkey in 2008. Turkey and Israel enjoyed warm relations until Israel launched its Gaza campaign against Hamas in December 2008. A month later, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos after declaring “you kill people” following a heated exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

The very public confrontation had a chilling effect on the Israeli and Turkish tourism industries. Israeli tourism to Turkey fell dramatically to about 300,000 visitors in 2009. Zimet says the number of Israeli tourists to Turkey further dropped to 110,000 in 2010. The numbers decreased again to about 62,000 between January and August of this year.

Relations between the two countries reached a breaking point when Israeli commandos killed nine people aboard the Mavi Marmara in May 2010 as the Turkish-flagged ship attempted to break the Israeli blockade at the Gaza Strip. The United Nations later determined Israeli armed forces used “excessive force,” but commandos also faced an “organized and violent resistance” from members of the flotilla.

Last month, Ankara expelled the Israeli ambassador and terminated all bilateral military agreements after Israel refused to apologize for the Mavi Marmara incident.

Deteriorating relations between the two countries prompted Israeli tour companies to cancel charter flights to Turkey due to lack of demand. Turkish charter airlines, meanwhile, scaled back weekly flights to Israel.

“Most vacations are done via charters,” Zimet says. “It is the most practical way to go on vacation. It is the most affordable way. Most tourists going to Turkey now are Arab Israelis who are taking Turkish Airlines or Israelis going to Turkey for business purposes.”

Indeed, bilateral trade relations between the two countries appear to be untouched by the crisis. “There has been no clear impact on civilian trade,” Zimet says.

Menashe Carmon, chairman of the Tel Aviv-based Israel Turkey Business Council, a non-profit organization with an extensive Israel/Turkey entrepreneurial membership, told The Media Line that business owners “don’t speak politics.” He says it’s business as usual for Turkish and Israeli business owners forging civilian bilateral trade agreements.

“The private sector has been unaffected,” Carmon says. “The private sector operates under different conditions and different criteria. Our organization is still intact.”

While the loss of Israeli tourists in the resort cities of Antalya and Alanya appear to have minimal impact on the local economies, their absence has not gone unnoticed. And whatever animosities between the two governments, the tension has not interfered with local commerce. 

“We don’t get many Israelis here, but we always welcome their business,” says Mustafa Saydam, who hawks day tours for Pacho Tours on the sidewalk of Ataturk Street in Alanya.

“Politics is politics,” he told The Media Line. “It has nothing to do with showing people how to have fun.”

Zimet agrees. “From my personal perspective of Turkey and what I am hearing from my colleagues, there is no obvious change [in attitude toward Israelis] in the civilian population of Turkey,” he says. “The Turks don’t have the same feelings as their president expressed.”

An Israeli-Arab citizen vacationing with his family at Antalya’s Club Hotel Sera luxury resort told The Media Line the city has been his destination of choice for the past five years. The man, who spoke on the condition that his name not be published, said he has not come across any problems. “I am always treated well here, although I am not Jewish and I cannot speak for Israelis. But even so, like any tourist place, doing business crosses all cultural and religious lines.”

But what is Israel’s loss may be Turkey’s gain. Turkey’s tourism ministry recently announced that an estimated 1.4 million Arabs visited Turkey so far in 2011, a jump from about 912,000 in 2009.

Mehmet Habbab, chairman of the Turkish-Lebanese Business Council, told Agence France Presse recently that he expects the number of Arab tourists to hit 1.7 million by the end of the year.

Part of the trend for Arabs to visit Turkey is the growing popularity of Erdogan in Gulf countries for his hardline stance over the Mavi Marmara incident. The success of wildly popular Turkish soap operas, long a staple on Arab television, has attracted more Arabs to Istanbul to visit the city’s sites. Traditional Arab tourist destinations like Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Syria are in upheaval. Turkey provides an alternative.

In addition, the Turkish tourism ministry reported that an estimated 1.2 million French tourists traveled to Turkey from January to September in 2011, a 45% leap from the same period in 2010. France now ranks sixth behind Germany, Russia, Britain, Iran and Bulgaria in the number of tourists visiting Turkey.

Zimet says that despite the crisis Tel Aviv’s Turkish tourism office “has no intention of closing its doors.”

“Slowly, Israelis will be drawn to Turkey,” says Zimet. “Despite boycotting Turkey now, it’s still attractive. Israelis will come back once there is a better political atmosphere and a practical way to get there.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Tussle over a Textbook

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

27 September 2011

New Saudi high school text prompts controversy with attacks on West and UN

A power struggle usually ends with winners and losers. If a new religious textbook critical of Western culture is any indication of who is winning the role of guardian of young minds in Saudi Arabia, then Islamic conservatives are the clear victors.

In what amounts to a rebuke of a scholarship program under the aegis of none other than King Abdullah himself that sends thousands of young Saudis to foreign universities, a new secondary school textbook called Hadith argues that Western culture exposes students to corruption.

“The conservatives have the upper hand and have made sure that it’s their voice that says what is permitted in Islam,” Ehsan Ahrari, a Middle East analyst based near Washington DC, told The Media Line  “The conservatives have the loudest voice in making a persuasive argument within the Saudi context. Saudi Arabia is truly concerned about modernization in its educational institution, but even the king doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

The publication of the book comes at a sensitive time for Saudi Arabia as it struggles to scrub its textbooks of derogatory language of other religions and cultures. The Ministry of Education has made progress to eliminate some passages, including controversial definitions of jihad.

More than 100,000 Saudis have obtained King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship to pursue studies in universities in professional fields such as medicine, computer science, engineering courses and administration and finance. About 30% study in the U.S., 15% in Britain, 11% in Canada and 8% in Australia. Only about 6% study in a Muslim country, Egypt. Saudi Arabia has the largest number of citizens studying aboard of any country in the world.

The textbook, which warns students of democratic countries’ attempts to Westernize Muslim countries by advancing the United Nations’ human rights agenda, has received little attention in the media, where restrictive laws passed in response to the Arab Spring. The Saudi government can levy fines and jail sentences for criticizing government institutions

As a result, few Saudis are willing to publicly criticize for the record the Ministry of Education. Religious conservatives, Ahrari says, are taking advantage of the chilling effect of those laws to broaden their power.

But the book has lit up the social media with complaints – mostly anonymous – that politics have no place in teaching hadith, sayings attributed the Prophet Muhammad.  The authors are accused of attempting to politicize Islam by slipping criticism of the West into religious texts just as students are preparing to enter foreign universities.

Saudis have also expressed bewilderment that the Ministry of Higher Education, which administers the scholarship program, and the Ministry of Education, which published Hadith, do not have a shared strategic education plan.

However, Hadith has brought renewed scrutiny to how the ministry vets textbooks that contain political opinion. The controversy also renews focus on how much influence Saudi conservatives wield at a time when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Ennahda Party in Tunisia are also flexing their political muscle.

The textbook details the “risks” scholarship students face. “A lot of them [student] have returned laden with the spirit of the West, breathe with its lungs and think with its mentality,” the book states. “They echo their Orientalist teachers in their own land and spread their ideas and theories with deep belief, increasing enthusiasm and eloquence so they become a burden on their society.”

“The percentage of those who survive from this influence is a very little one,” the book’s authors say.

Another section in Hadith, entitled “Westernization,” targets the UN. The section characterizes the international organization as a tool for “dominating” Western powers to apply political pressure on Muslim countries to adopt more aggressive human rights legislation. The West, the textbook argues, uses “the United Nations, the Security Council and its different committees, on weak countries, especially the Islamic ones. This is done for the sake of westernization under slogans such as reform, democracy, pluralism, liberation and human rights, in particular those related to women and religious minorities.”

In fact, some of the views expressed in Hadith are widely held by Saudis.

Maha A., a 33-year-old Jeddah native and university student studying in Newcastle, England, says the UN entry in the book is legitimate. She points to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) as meddling in the Kingdom’s affairs and with sharia, or Islamic law. Saudi Arabia ratified CEDAW in 2000. “I have no problems with the way the United Nations is portrayed in the book,” she told The Media Line.

The schoolbook also warns of Western attempts to subvert Islamic culture by distributing “immorality” through the media. It considers the media tools to advocate western values.

Turki Al-Dakheel, a journalist and presenter on Al-Arabiya television, complained in a column in the Arabic-language daily Al-Watan that the textbook’s “extremist” portions are not consistent with the changes taking place in the international community and in Saudi society.

“The same educational institutes that send students abroad also criticize the scholarship [program],” Al-Dakheel argues. “We should take out the mentality of disagreement from our curriculum in order to protect our students from being politicized or being slaves to one single notion.”

Ahrari, the Washington-based analyst, told The Media Line that the book’s content is less a challenge to King Abdullah and more of “classic bureaucratic” infighting in the Ministry of Education

A Saudi Ministry of Education official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the textbook, agreed. He told The Media Line that there are two factions in the ministry struggling to implement their ideology: Western-educated liberals and Saudi-educated conservatives.

Many of the ministry’s decision-makers hold postgraduate degrees in education from the U.S. and Britain. These supervisors often square off with mid- and upper-level managers educated in Islamic studies from Imam Mohammed Bin Saud University in Riyadh and other Saudi universities.

“There is a great debate between conservatives and liberals. The conservatives are in the minority, but they are very active,” says the official, although he notes the ministry’s policy requires moderation in texts.

The infighting is so intense, he says, that the ministry recently began publishing school textbooks without authors’ names to prevent accusations of extremism. Yet the anonymously authored books have also led to the lack of accountability within the ministry’s ranks for authors failing to adhere to moderation guidelines.

One 22-year-old Riyadh student studying in Britain says there is little merit in warning scholarship holders of the dangers in the West.

“Saudi students are already asked to attend a two-week course on Western culture. The scholarship program selects the highest qualified students to go abroad. If a student is weak in religion and cultural values, he won’t be studious and he won’t be allowed in the program,” Muhammad A. told The Media Line.

But the student also says that human rights issues advocated by the UN are consistent with the pillars of sharia. “Sharia talks of human rights and it’s no different than the United Nations’ human rights. It’s compatible, and there are no negative effects on Saudi Arabia,” he says.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved

Labor Pains in Saudi Arabia as Deadline Nears
By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

23 August 2011

Government is forcing reluctant businesses to hire more locals

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Jaad Ameen Jaad is used to deadline pressure. He builds hotels and operates his family-owned Crom Hotels & Resorts International in the highly competitive tourism industry. However, next month Jaad faces a different kind of deadline under the  Nitaqat nationalization program that may force him to employ Saudis without qualifications.

In May, the Ministry of Labor launched Nitaqat  — literally meaning “layers” or “ranges” in classical Arabic — to do what Saudization could not: increase the number of Saudis in the workforce.

The Saudization program required an across-the-board hiring system to increase employment of locals to 30%, but never exceeded a third of its goal. Nitaqat features a more nuanced system. There are 164 different quotas based on the performance of individual businesses that must employ a certain percentage of Saudis according to the size of their workforce and the type of services. On September 10, Saudi companies must demonstrate they have met the quotas.

Jaad says the deadline for compliance is unrealistic.

“The time given to us by the Ministry of Labor is too short for us to organize our needs,” he told The Media Line. “It takes a long time to transfer iqamas [work permits] or even bring in new employees from abroad, especially during Ramadan. What’s worse is that the ministry is considering Ramadan as part of the time allocated for us to finish this business. They work only 24 days in the month and their working hours are very short.”

Nitaqat uses the carrot-and-stick approach. It rewards companies that meet the deadline to employ Saudis and punishes those that do not.

Each business is assigned to a category of red, yellow, green or premium code based on the number of Saudis on the payroll. Red and yellow companies are those that don’t have enough Saudi employees. These companies risk losing Labor Ministry services, such as visas transfers or extensions. Yellow companies can apply for new expatriate visas and visa transfers starting September 10, with the caveat that visa renewals can continue only for workers who have been less than six years on the job as of 2011.

Red companies are hit the hardest. They stand to lose all their visa and work permit privileges if they don’t demonstrate recruitment of Saudis. But Nitaqat permits red companies a grace period until November 27 to renew work permits for expats.

Crom Hotels is better off than many private companies. Crom is in the green category because it meets the Nitaqat requirement that between 18% and 39% of its workforce is Saudi. As a green company, Crom can hire expatriates, obtain new visas or transfer them, and even raid red and yellow businesses to recruit new workers.

While that is all well and good, Jaad says he is under pressure to hire Saudis who are either not qualified or fail to finish their contract.

“We find ourselves sometimes forced to hire Saudis who aren’t qualified,” Jaad says, noting that some Saudis simply walk off the job without finishing their contract. “The Ministry of Labor should implement laws to force Saudis to finish their contracts with us without carelessness.”

Saudi Arabia is notorious for its reliance on foreign workers, which number about eight million in a country with a total population of 26 million people. The sudden influx of massive oil revenues beginning in the 1970s resulted in a generation of men who preferred office work and disdained manual labor. Millions of foreign workers picked up the slack, but they also sent billions of Saudi riyals to their home countries instead of spending money in the kingdom.

Beginning in the 1990s, the Saudi government embarked on its ambitious Saudization program to wean the kingdom from its reliance on foreign labor. Saudis generally regard Saudization as a failure as companies have long grown comfortable with expatriate labor and view Saudis as lacking a work ethic.

The work ethic issue rankles Labor Minister Adel Fakeih, who lamented recently that “negative stereotypes” hinder Saudi employment. Fakeih even urged employers to hire Saudis without qualifications and give them on-the-job training to bring them up to speed.

Usamah Al-Kurdi, a member of the Shoura Council, Saudi Arabia’s quasi-legislative body, told The Media Line that the work ethic issue is not grounded in fact.

“Frankly, I have had my own experiences with Saudization as far back as 20 years ago,” Al-Kurdi says. “And it took a lot of effort, but it’s not an impossible job and the professionalism was quite satisfactory.”

Al-Kurdi says negative stereotypes persist because private foreign-owned companies rely on a deep expatriate labor pool. “Most companies don’t have their own experiences [with Saudis] and worry about Saudis’ work ethic.”

Employing unqualified Saudis remained an issue up until about 2010 when the labor market began to change. King Abdullah’s government scholarship program implemented in 2007 has brought university-educated men and women to the labor market. This flood of graduates promises to reduce the overall 9% Saudi unemployment rate and the 28% unemployment rate among women.

But the lack of a recruitment infrastructure is the bigger obstacle to employment, Al-Kurdi says.

“There is a recruitment problem because there aren’t sufficient offices and statistics that will satisfy the private sector,” Al-Kurdi says. “The unemployment scene has changed dramatically. There have been two important changes. One is the number of university and diploma graduates coming into the market, and two, are the [government] arrangements to recruit women.”

He adds that, “the combination of these two changes will help make private companies satisfy the quota.” Yet recruiting these new graduates will be cumbersome without a comprehensive recruitment program, he says.

Ali Dakkak, assistant professor of business management at Prince Sultan College and a business consultant, says the lack of a minimum wage law also hinders Saudi recruitment. Simply, foreign-owned businesses don’t want to pay the same salaries to Saudis as they do expatriates. Starting salaries for Saudis are as low as SR 4,000 ($1,066) per month, compared with some expats who receive SR 8,000 ($2,133) a month.

“The salaries for Saudis are low and there are long working hours,” Dakkak told The Media Line. “Saudis can’t compete with expats for higher salaries. So far these companies aren’t willing to pay Saudis the same wage as expats.”

One area doing well is the banking sector, with most financial institutions in the green category, although the vast majority of Saudis employed in banking fill lower management positions.

But Al-Kurdi notes, “The percentage of Saudis in lower management is high. As you get more educated and more experienced, it is easier to fill senior positions. It’s only natural that Saudis fill the lower and mid-management positions and climb the ladder.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Women’s Football Making Headway in Saudi Arabia

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

11 August 2011

Dream of competing in Olympics despite sexist barriers at home

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Shaima Sabri, 12, dreams of the day when she plays football on a stadium field of green grass with her father and brothers in a crowd of thousands cheering her on to victory.

On the first day of Ramadan after Maghreb prayer, Shaima was running barefoot through a hardscrabble patch of dirt off Madinah Road in Jeddah. Playing with the neighborhood kids, she was kicking a frayed football. Her dreams at that moment of playing before thousands were as elusive as the sweeping green fields that she hopes to play on.

“Some day I will play like Salem Aldawsari with Saudia,” said Shaima, referring to one of Saudi Arabia’s leading footballers. “But sometimes I think this is as far as I will get.”

Yet Shaima, and girls and women like her, have an unlikely ally in helping them organize football leagues: the men’s Saudi Arabian Football Federation.

Ahmad Eid Al-Harbi, vice president of the Player Status Committee for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, which plays under FIFA, has been quietly visiting university campuses to help women develop football teams. Al-Harbi said meetings have included consultations on how to negotiate with the international football unions from Germany, Brazil, the United States and the United Kingdom in order to help women qualify for trainer positions. The Federation has also developed a physical education curriculum for women’s university campuses.

“Three weeks ago I visited CBA (College of Business Administration) University in Jeddah and we had long conversations with officials there with regard to women’s sports,” Al-Harbi told The Media Line. “We formed a group of women who are willing to play basketball and volleyball. We also convinced another group of women to form a football team. Now, they are considering organizing a league among all women’s universities in the region as a step towards participating in the Olympics Games.” At least seven Arab countries presently have women’s football teams.

The meetings mark the first acknowledgement from a sanctioned Saudi sports body that women could someday compete in the Olympics Games. Competing in the Olympics is a tantalizing goal for women athletes who believe that Saudi society might never recognize that women should have equal footing with men in sports. In the past two years, young Saudi women decided that they could no longer wait for government permission and funding to start their own football league. Instead, they organized their own teams and paid trainers out of their own pockets to develop competitive teams. One such team is the fledgling all-women’s Kings United Football Club in Jeddah.

Al-Harbi cautioned that although he wants to see women on the playing field, the road to government-funded leagues still is fraught with many obstacles.

“Saudi Arabia is a tribal society that doesn’t believe in speedy change,” Al-Harbi said. “However, I believe there is a quite sizable number of the society that is ready to accept women social sports that contribute to women’s good health and her main role in the family as a leader. When it comes to competitive sports, this needs quite longer time to be accepted.”

Although Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal joins Al-Harbi in supporting the right of women to play football, Al-Harbi characterized the atmosphere in Saudi Arabia as “hostile” to competitive women’s sports. “I’m all for [women’s football leagues] if we prepare the right atmosphere for such participation. We need to build a very strong infrastructure and we need human resources. Above all, we need to prepare the social atmosphere to accept such competitions to make it friendlier than it is now,” he said.

Indeed, Rima Abdullah, the founder of Kings United, told the Dubai-based Al-Arabyia TV last month that she has been criticized for organizing her football team.

“As for society as a whole, when we first appeared in public, we were attacked,” Abdullah said. “One of the most vehement attacks against me was during a Friday sermon. The entire sermon was about Rima Abdullah, as if I were pushing Saudi women towards promiscuity, or something.”

Kings United began playing in secret around Jeddah in 2005. The team rented secluded football fields to keep away the curious. Players paid their own expenses. Each player must have written permission from a male guardian to participate. The team then initiated a publicity campaign to drum up support. Last year, the team sought to participate in a women’s tournament in Bahrain that included teams from Oman and Kuwait. The Saudi team did not receive permission to play because FIFA and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation do not formally recognize the team.

Al-Harbi advised patience. “One should first work on providing suitable places such as playgrounds or stadiums that are specially equipped for women in our segregated society,” he said. “Second, women’s organized leagues should be operated under a very strong umbrella that protects women and the ultimate goals of which leagues are formed. I suggest it should be at least as a first step operated under Ministry of Education. It should also follow the Islamic regulations so it doesn’t upset the religious authorities.”

And there-in lies the obstacle. Religious conservatives have not only railed against women’s sports leagues as unseemly and undignified activities, but as a threat to players’ virginity. As perhaps the leading voice in domestic matters, religious leaders hold considerable sway over what is permissible and what is forbidden in Saudi society. Earlier this year, clerics demanded the resignation of the dean at the all-women’s Princess Noor University for Women in Riyadh for implementing a physical education program.

A 2009 Al-Riyadh newspaper survey of 2,250 Saudis reported that only 4 percent opposed female physical education. But Saudi Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul Aziz Al-Asheik told Al Eqtisadiah TV that, “Women should be housewives. There is no need for them to engage in sports.”

Kings United has been careful not to rock the boat. Players wear the hijab, sleeveless jerseys and shorts at mid-thigh in front of all-female crowds, but long white clothes and the hijab that complies with Sharia, or Islamic law, for male audiences.

Jeddah-based blogger Susie’s Big Adventure, who prefers to be identified only as Susie and writes extensively on Saudi women’s health issues, told The Media Line that physical education and participating in organized sports can improve Saudi women’s health. The Salman Medical Center at King Fahd Health City in Riyadh reported last year that half of the Saudi women between the ages of 30 and 45 suffer from obesity.

“If Muslim men truly cared about the health of Muslim women, they would encourage and support physical activities for women,” Susie said.

The good news is that government funding for women’s leagues may be more than just wishful thinking with the backing of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. The bad news is that it might not be what women footballers want.

Al-Harbi noted that women’s groups should receive government-funding equal to men, but money should first be allocated for physical education or “soft” sports, such as basketball and gymnastics, as a means to integrate Saudi women into competitive international sports.

However, as for a FIFA-approved Saudi women’s team like the Iranian Football Federation, Al-Harbi doesn’t see a quick solution. “Saudi society is a very conservative one, even when it comes to men’s clubs. No one can imagine his daughter playing in front of thousands of people wearing shorts, such as in football.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.
Saudi Maids Become Battleground

By Rob L. Wagner
The Media Line/The Yemen Times
10 July 2011

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The standoff between the Saudi Arabian and Indonesian governments over the treatment of Indonesia’s domestic workers has put both potential housemaids desperate for work and Saudi households desperate for help between a rock and a hard place.

Indonesia has increasingly been critical of Saudis’ treatment of its workers as a steady stream of reports of housemaid abuse, and in some cases slayings, reached Indonesian authorities. Relations between the two countries reached a low point when Saudi Arabia beheaded an Indonesian maid on June 18 following her conviction for the murder of her employer. Saudi Arabia failed to notify the Indonesian ambassador in Riyadh.

Indonesia responded by issuing a moratorium on sending workers to the kingdom effective Aug. 1. Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia slapped a ban on issue Indonesians visas starting on July 8.

In 2009, the Saudi Shoura Council, the quasi-legislative body, recommended to the Council of Ministers new protections for expatriate workers in the kingdom’s labor laws. The Council has yet to approve the recommendation. But Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division in Berlin, says there has been no improvement in worker conditions since then..

“The Shoura Council’s recommendation has had no impact at all, either as a legal situation because there is no law yet or as a signal to employers or the government to improve working conditions,” Wilcke told The Media Line.

Most Saudi employers prefer documented domestic workers because they are cheaper to hire than illegals. They also have complete control over the employee. Illegals can walk off the job anytime without consequences. Perhaps most important for Saudi employers is the ability to travel abroad with their maids.

“I can hire an illegal maid any time,” says Fauzia Muhammad, 47, a Saudi housewife who employs three Indonesian housemaids to help run her villa. “But I travel to Europe every year for holiday and I can’t take an illegal maid with me. Hiring maids the right way is my only option to control my house.”

Hiring illegal maids presents a whole new set of problems for employers, who face fines of 10,000 Saudi riyals ($2,700) if caught.

Fatmah Al-Harbi, a 36-year-old teacher, says she never hired a documented maid because obtaining a visa is a difficult and expensive process. She doesn’t want to take the risk that a maid will run away. But taking the path of least resistance comes with its own risks. “I do have problems with illegal maids,” Al-Harbi says. “One was sexually harassing my child, and I only found out after she quit. I couldn’t take her to court.”

Saudis prefer Indonesian maids because they are devout Muslims, easy to work with and industrious. Although there are many examples where longtime maids become an integral part of a Saudi family, a prevalent fear among many employers are maids teaching Saudi children their native language at the expense of Arabic, theft and practicing witchcraft to bring harm to the family.

Justified or not, these fears create tension between maids and their employers. It also leads to exploitation of the maid with no time off and withholding salaries.

“I have a good relationship with my madam,” says one maid employed in the Muhammad household. “But I know many friends who never have free time and never see their money. One friend works all day then her madam tells her to go play with the kids, although she’s exhausted.”

For decades, Indonesia enthusiastically sent hundreds of thousands of women to Saudi Arabia to work as housemaids. There is no work for them at home in Indonesia and there are few jobs outside of domestic service available in Saudi Arabia. In April alone this year, Indonesian recruiters sent 58,335 workers to Saudi Arabia and 228,890 throughout 2010, according to Bank Indonesia.

Wilcke says the visa ban will have no impact on the flow of maids to Saudi Arabia. He notes that many Indonesian and Saudi recruiters develop informal procedures to get around Saudi work visas by issuing visitors visas and have laborers enter the kingdom from Dubai.

“If there is ever a problem with the worker, she is not registered with the home country and has no copy of a contract or residency permits. It’s hard to follow up,” Wilcke says. He adds that workers arriving at shelters have difficulty receiving aid because the home country’s embassy has no record of them.

Saudi Arabian authorities have also indicated that they plan to go elsewhere to recruit maids, including Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam. Wilcke says these countries pose even more risks for potential housemaids because they have fewer protections from their home governments in place than does Indonesia. “There is little pre-departure training other than how to use an iron or a washing machine,” he says.

Countries providing labor to Saudi Arabia wield little clout to demand that Saudis provide protection for its workers. The labor-exporting government can’t agree to a minimum wage standard, and this remains the weak link in developing a coalition to create labor standards that Saudi Arabia is willing to following.

Wilcke says the Philippines wants its workers receive a minimum salary of $410 per month. However, Vietnamese workers are willing to work for as little as $130 per month. Countries like Indonesia want worker remittances returned home to feed laborers’ families. Saudi Arabian salaries, for example, account for 44% all remittances to Indonesia.

“Salaries are tricky, but these countries could agree on some issues, such as obtaining more access to the [Saudi] courts and agree on labor protections, such as helping set up a joint labor inspection system,” he said.

Wilcke also suggests that countries providing laborers should employ more labor attaches at their embassies to handle the large caseload of workers seeking protection.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

In the Desert Kingdom, No Grassroots Politics

By Rob L. Wagner
The Media Line
21 June 2011

Behind closed doors, Saudi municipal councils often operate without public input.

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Nadia Bakhurji, architectural consultant, has launched campaigns twice to run in Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections. But she has yet to ever hold office.

As a Saudi woman, that’s no great surprise. Once in 2005, and again this year, her ambitions were thwarted by a ban against women candidates and women voters. But like nearly all other Saudis – male or female – neither has she ever attended a council meeting or petitioned an elected municipal official.

Saudi democracy is not only constrained at election time, but the grassroot politics that takes place between polls – public participation in council meetings, petition drives, protests and lobbying – is virtually non-existent even in the democratically elected municipal councils.

“It’s been a complete blackout,” Bakhurji, who also was the first woman to announce her Riyadh municipal council candidacy in 2005, told The Media Line. “I thought at first that maybe the municipal council was on a learning curve, but to my knowledge there hasn’t been very much done.”

The pro-democracy aspirations of the Arab Spring have put the spotlight on Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that has tread lightly on issuing new reforms. Since King Abdullah returned to the country in February following hospitalization, the government has announced tens of billions of dollars in subsidies and hiring as well as plans to replace expatriates with Saudi labor. But deep political reforms remain off the agenda.

After officials delayed a poll originally slated for October 2009, municipal elections are now scheduled for September 29 – the second time ever that voting is being allowed in the kingdom for any office. Still, the vote for 258 municipal councils is the only time Saudis get to choose their political leaders.

Approximately, 1.2 million of the three million Saudi males eligible to vote registered during the registration period in April and May, said Election Commission Chairman Abdul Rahman Al-Dahmash. Among potential candidates, there’s apparently more interest: Earlier this month, 5,609 candidates registered to campaign for 1,632 seats in the municipal councils, but that doesn’t mean they will get to run.

The elections process is tightly controlled. Election commission officials will vet the candidates and issue a final list on July 18 of men qualified to campaign. Moreover, the winners get a limited say in municipal affairs because only half of the local council seats are to be decided in the election. The rest are appointed by the government.

In 2005, Saudis initially reacted to the municipal elections with mixed emotions, but quickly became enthusiastic as voting drew near. Religious conservatives ran well-organized campaigns and issued a “Golden List” of candidates. The endorsements from religious scholars resulted in overwhelming victories for conservatives in Jeddah, Riyadh, Mekkah, Madinah, Taif and Dammam.

This time around Saudis have expressed skepticism over whether the election will produce tangible results, local government transparency or changing the way municipalities conduct business.

“The municipal council has not said a single word to the public since they were elected six years ago,” Abdullah Al-Atayyah, 38, a high school teacher, told The Media Line. “What would be the point of voting this year?”

Al-Atayyah says there is no mechanism in place that allows Saudis to attend council meetings or even explains how to seek permission to attend one.

Perhaps the most notable instance of Saudis attending a municipal council meeting occurred with the May 2010 airing of the MTV documentary, “Resist the Power! True Life,” which profiled four young Saudis in Jeddah. Ahmad Sabri, a youth activist, organized a group of women to attend a Jeddah Municipal Council to discuss the inability of women to move freely about the city because of the female driving ban.

In a message on the social network Formspring, Ahmad Sabri’s sister, Lama Sabri, recounted what happened next. “He appeared on MTV after one year or more of struggling with the city council, and they only allowed us to attend once. And in that meeting they promised to appoint specific dates for women [to attend], but of course they never did, so we had to enter [invade] the all-men meetings.”

In the documentary, council members debated whether to partition the council chambers in order to segregate men and women. The council then permitted the women to address their concerns. The council didn’t invite the group to return.

In April, a group of Saudi writers and intellectuals announced a campaign to boycott the elections. In a statement, the group, which didn’t identify its members, complained that the councils have no administrative or financial independence and don’t have budget oversight responsibilities.

“The experience of the previous six years have proven the absence of any effective role for these councils, even in the small issues related to municipal work, such that they have no presence in the lives of citizens,” according to the statement.

The group also said the elections failed to promote “popular participation in decision-making.”

The lack of interaction between the electorate and municipal council members appears to be only partly responsible for the lack of enthusiasm among Saudis for this year’s voting. Political parties cannot organize and campaigning will be limited. And banning women from the polling booth has puzzled some Saudi men.

“I understand why women couldn’t vote in 2005, but again in 2011?” a Saudi lawyer says. “There‘s no reason this time around.”

Hatton Al-Fassi, an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, wrote on the Arabic-language website that the government is doomed to “repeat past mistakes” by not permitting women to participate in the September polls. But a poll released recently by the Riyadh-based ASBAR Center for Studies, Research and Communications found that 59% of Saudis opposed women voting and 72.5% were against women as members on councils.

Bakhurji acknowledges that the “country is divided towards the progress of women” and a “tug-of-war” has developed high in the Saudi government between liberals and conservatives about the pace of women’s rights. But she insists that most men are ready to vote for women candidates and points to her election victories in the Saudi Council of Engineers.

The 13,000-member organization has only 200 female members, and Bakhurji was the only woman among 75 candidates running for a board seat. Yet, her male colleagues elected her to a second term. She also points to Nora Bin Abdullah Al-Fayez’s 2009 appointment as deputy education minister and women elected to seats on the Riyadh and Jeddah Chambers of Commerce.

“Obviously, women are on the path to higher decision-making,” she says, expressing disappointment over her aborted run for municipal council. “In the past two years there have been positive steps in the progress of women and this would have been a natural step. There is no excuse for us not to participate.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Saudi Women Embrace Feminism — On Their Own Terms

By Rob L. Wagner
The Media Line
Published Sunday, March 20, 2011

Most reject Western ideas, but seek formula that blends with Islamic faith

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Perhaps one of the most significant developments emerging from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions is the growing Arab women’s rights movement that has spread to the anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain and Yemen.

Absent, however, from the chorus of women’s voices demanding equity in the workplace, freedom to travel and a role in government are Saudis, who have done little to join their Arab sisters to create a feminist movement. In fact, no such organized movement exists in Saudi Arabia.

“I don’t see signs of a feminist movement,” says Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “I see signs of rising consciousness among women—a questioning of why things are they way they are.”

Rasha Alduwaisi, 30, a Saudi mother, is a leading force behind the first tentative steps to galvanize women through the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page. She acknowledges a feminist movement is an uphill battle.

“There’s almost no organized effort whatsoever to try to obtain these rights we’re seeking,” Alduwaisi told The Media Line. “Saudi women are raised to be subordinate, and grew up with the society drilling in them that their issues are marginal. This upbringing in my opinion is playing a huge role in the reluctance and hesitation in taking the steps that such a movement calls for.”

Saudi Arabia has long stood apart from other Arab nations in how it treats its female population. Older generations of Saudi women through most of the 20th century were largely content with gender roles imposed by the patriarchal religious establishment. Post-secondary education for women was elusive until a minority of wealthy Saudi women began studying abroad in the 1980s. University education blossomed in the years following 9/11. Today, more than 60% of Saudi Arabia’s university students are women.

The rapid shift to educating Saudi women has given them a voice, but it also created a divide between today’s young females and their mothers’ generation. Disparate views on the role Saudi women play in society have contributed to a lack of unity. In addition, the ambitions of rural women, who may focus on economic survival in farming communities, contrasts sharply with educated urban women who may seek positions in government and business.

These differences have prevented the development of a grassroots to campaign.

“Public demonstrations and mobilization are treated criminally in Saudi for just about anything, so it’s particularly hard for women to form a robust movement,” Coleman told The Media Line. “Here, social media will help.”

Marwa Al-Saleh, founder and general manager of, a web design and online marketing company in Al-Khobar, promotes the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page with Alduwaisi. Al-Saleh says most Saudi women are unaware of their rights. “Sometimes they think their rights are against Islam.”

The definition of feminism remains a sticking point with young Saudis who say they want a feminist movement on their own terms, which includes Islam as a major component. Alduwaisi says she prefers a “Saudi-Islamic” feminist movement, noting that she wants rights that consider religion and a Sharia-based judicial system.

Coleman, who authored the book Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East, which examines Islamic feminism, says Western feminism appears threatening to Saudi men because it’s perceived as leading to high divorce rates and promoting promiscuity. She noted the portrayal of women in American films and television feed negative stereotypes of Western women. “Islamic feminism provides a more comfortable alternative path toward change,” she says. “It can be seen as more culturally relevant and less threatening to core Islamic values.”

Alduwaisi and Al-Saleh reject the Western definition of feminism, although there is no shortage of Arab women speaking to the Western media on behalf of Saudi women.

For example, some prominent Saudi women, such as Wajeha Al-Huwaider and Mai Yamani, frequently address Saudi women’s rights on Western news shows. Yet they have little traction with women living in Saudi Arabia because their idea of feminism reflects Western concepts not compatible with Islam.

“These women represent the opinion of a minority,” Alduwaisi says. “So I don’t think many Saudi women would want to have them be the face of the movement. I believe if we want this movement to be a success we’ll need a more moderate or conservative face.”

A 29-year-old Saudi woman journalist, who asked not to be identified, says few young women have role models beyond the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Aisha bint Abu Bakr and Khadījah bint Khuwaylid. “If I was looking for role models, I’d want women who looked and talked like me, covered with the hijab and addressing me as a Saudi woman. Not some Western ideal of what a Saudi woman should be.”

Al-Saleh says women’s rights critics who wave the warning flag of Western liberalism are looking for excuses to deny Saudi women a role in society. She points to neighboring Arab countries that have found room for women in the workplace and government. “Is Saudi Arabia the only Islamic country? Look at the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.”

Yet even an Islamic feminist movement faces significant challenges. Much like the Western suffragette movement of the early 20th century, the most vocal critics of Saudi feminism may be women. Rowdha Yousef and 15 other women, for example, launched the “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me” campaign in 2009 in reaction to calls to eliminate guardianship laws.

The push-pull of differing agendas makes empowering women slow going, although there are potential allies in powerful places to help create momentum. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal complained in February that Arab women were “economically and socially marginalized.” He routinely hires women in key corporate positions and makes it a point to showcase female entrepreneurial talent.

Princess Lolwah Al-Faisal has been a powerful ally in furthering the integration of Saudi women in the workplace and education by lending her support to several women’s groups. Princess Fatimah Kulsum runs a slew of welfare and charity groups for women. Princesses Adela bint Abdullah Al-Saud and Seetah bint Abdullah Al-Saud have emerged as the female representation in King Abdullah’s reform agenda by lending their names to various programs.

However, the larger issue should a Saudi-Islamic feminist movement succeed is just how to interpret women’s rights guaranteed in Islam.

“There are more progressive interpretations that can get women very far, but there will always be those who want a more conservative interpretation that will impede rights for women,” Coleman says. “Protecting those universal rights ultimately depends on a separation of the religious and legal spheres.”

Pending codification of Isalmic law (sharia) in the Saudi judicial system may resolve issues of interpretation, but the basic premise of sharia is that’s always applied in the context of time and place. Male guardianship, for example, is outmoded in the 21st century kingdom, according to activists.

Abuses of guardianship over travel issues also play an important part in the future of a woman’s movement. A hadith, which contains the words and deeds of Mohammed and pertain to matters of Islamic jurisprudence, states that women must not travel without a guardian if the journey takes longer than three days. Travel in modern society no longer takes three days. If an Islamic feminist movement were to take root, reinterpreting the hadith would be a core issue on the table.

“The first priority is to get rid of male guardianship on woman after 18 in everything: Education, travel, work, business, finances, medical services, government and marriage,” says Al-Saleh.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Saudi Arabia Gets Ready to Put Order in Its Courts

A $2 billion undertaking will codify Islamic law, make judges accountable

Written by Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line 

Published Thursday, February 24, 2011

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – In 2009, a Saudi judge sentenced a Turkish barber Sabri Bogday to death for blasphemy, and in the same year Lebanese television personality Ali Sibat also received death for “sorcery.” Another judge, in Medina, refused to release a well-respected physician from the guardianship of her abusive father because the family’s tribal ties outweighed the woman’s right to be released from her father’s custody.

The three cases received a lot of media attention – in the case of the two death sentences enough attention that King Abdullah set them aside – but they are not unusual in the Saudi judicial system where a hodgepodge of justice provides little protection or appeal rights for criminal defendants and women in family court.

That is about to change. A plan to codify the country’s Islamic law and require accountability from judges is near completion, a Saudi sharia expert and former Shoura Council member told The Media Line.

“Soon Saudi scholars are going to implement the sharia according to the new drafts,” said Khalil Al-Khalil, who was a member of the Shoura Council when it started the reform plans in 2009. “These days qualified Saudi experts in sharia and international law are working on this new codification system and I believe it’s going to be shocking when it is announced.”

Most Saudi judges earned their postgraduate degrees in Islamic studies from Imam Mohamed bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh. Few have formal legal training. Judges currently exercise wide interpretations of sharia more or less on an individual basis. Tribal customs, social pressure and regional differences heavily influence rulings, especially in domestic cases.

Derived from the Quran and the example set by the Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime, sharia encompasses laws addressing public issues such as crime and business as well as private ones, like hygiene, diet and prayer. Codifying it will not only eliminate tribal customs, but also shift judges’ responsibilities from interpretation to the application of the law.

Court officials, however, have complained that codifying sharia will alter it and dilute Saudi Arabia’s Islamic identity, opening the door to secularism. Abdulla Al-Shami, professor of comparative jurisprudence and Islamic Studies at The Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, insisted otherwise. “Codifying Islamic law has nothing to do with Muslim identity, but doing this [codification] will be more adherent and meritorious to the Islamic law,” he said.

Al-Khalil said the Shoura Council, Saudi Arabia’s consultative assembly, has made significant progress in judicial reforms. However, a timetable for completion hasn’t been set. The Council of Senior Ulama, the country’s top religious panel, endorsed codification of sharia in March 2010.

Saudi King Abdullah announced extensive judicial reform measures in 2007 with a budget of $2 billion. He hoped for five-year transition period before the new laws became effective. But the absence of at least 10,000 qualified lawyers and hundreds of trained judges has hindered progress on some aspects of reform.

Legal reform is perhaps the king’s most ambitious program in scope and lasting impact on Saudi society. The reforms call for expanding the kingdom’s appeals courts from two to all 13 provinces and establishing a Supreme Judicial Council, which is now in place, to take over responsibilities once belonging to the Minister of Justice.

The SJC now supervises training, judicial appointments and disciplinary issues of the kingdom’s 721 judges that serve a Saudi and expatriate population of 26 million. The SJC’s role significantly reduces the justice minster’s power. The minister previously approved all rulings by Court of Cassation. Now the court bypasses the justice minister and its rulings are final.

Reform measures receiving the most attention, however, are efforts to codify criminal law to serve as precedent for cases. Judges in theory will render consistent rulings under a codified Sharia in criminal, civil, and the domestic courts where women usually end up on the wrong side of rulings.

Al-Khalil said codifying sharia is “shocking” because “Saudi Arabia is perceived as the only Muslim country that seriously implements sharia.” A codified sharia could serve as a precedent for other Muslim countries that use sharia in varying degrees to implement justice.

Al-Khalil said the Shoura Council made “major changes” to Saudi laws following a review of the judicial system over three years. He said most Islamic scholars believe the codification and sharia are compatible.

“Codifying the judicial system is allowed in the Islamic sharia,” he said. “Nowadays, the majority of Saudis and Muslims think it is a necessity to codify Sharia so it can be understood and reviewed. Judges can be held accountable for their rulings. Accountability is a very important issue when it comes to rulings.”

Al-Khalil and Al-Shami said codifying sharia is rooted in the Ottoman Empire.

“Islamic law can be codified, and has already been codified during the Ottoman dynasty,” Al-Shami told The Media Line. “Many Muslim countries did the same as seen in Yemen and United Arab Emirates. Although a codified sharia is nearly ready for implementation, the kingdom is still struggling to find qualified judges and deal with resistance from current judges who believe only they can interpret Islamic law.

Perhaps the face that best represents the judicial system’s old guard is the Saudi courts’ chief, Sheikh Saleh Al-Lohaidan, who gained notoriety in September 2008 for demanding on Al-Arabiya television that satellite television owners should die for airing “immoral” programs during Ramadan. The Saudi government fired Al-Lohaidan four months later as part of the king’s effort to bring sheikhs more in line with the government’s new policies on jurisprudence.

The Saudi government also forced Sheikh Sa’ad Bin Nasser Al-Shethri from the Council of Senior Scholars to step down following his criticism of co-educational policies of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. The government then reassigned Justice Minister Abdullah bin Ibrahim Al Al-Sheikh in favor of the reform-minded Mohammed Al-Eissa, a former deputy director for a tribunal that settles commercial contract disputes. Also heading reform efforts is Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Huqail, the former chief of the Saudi Board of Grievances.

A Saudi lawyer, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, said the religious conservatives’ resistance to change is the primary roadblock to full implementation of a codified Sharia.

“The conservatives think that any change to the way Sharia is implemented means liberal modernization and modernization is a western influence,” said the lawyer who practices in Jeddah. “I sincerely hope the government pushes them to the sidelines and move as fast as possible so we can have a real judicial system.”

Al-Shami said Saudi judges should embrace Western legal concepts because the foundation of the world’s penal codes is in the Ten Commandments of Moses. Sharia, he said, is a direct descendant of the laws appearing in the Pentateuch law, or the Five Books of Moses.

“I do recommend the Saudi judges to be trained in Western law, to gain more experience in commercial property law as now practiced in most countries,” he said. “And also, I would recommend the West to do the same training in Muslim courts.”

Away From the Cities, Saudi Women Take to the Roads
Rural families can’t manage without wives and daughters driving, so ban is ignored.

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line 

Published Thursday, February 10, 2011

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Whenever Hawazen Ebrahim’s family spends an evening picnicking in the desert outside of Medina, it’s her job to jump into the car and drive to the nearest village to load up on extra supplies. During the week, she is responsible for taking the kids to school and picking them up each day.

Ebrahim, 25, doesn’t consider herself an outlaw, nor is she protesting Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. She does what many Saudi women do in rural villages throughout the kingdom and drives as part of the everyday responsibilities of managing a household.

Saudi Arabia is regularly criticized by human rights groups and the foreign media for its ban on women drivers, but when it comes to rural areas, the authorities have what can best be described as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Women who keep a low profile can drive. It’s the worst kept secret in the country.

“The women in my family and the families in my neighborhood think nothing of driving,” says Fawzyyah Hassan, 45, who tools along the roads in areas near Medina. “My husband goes to work before we even get up in the morning and comes home late. Of course, I drive.”

Saudi Arabia’s driving ban isn’t strictly speaking illegal since there is no actual law on the books that prevents women from driving. Sharia – the Islamic code of law – doesn’t address the issue.

Indeed, Abdullah Alami, a Saudi economist who is spearheading the latest campaign to make end the ban, says the law implies that women are permitted to drive. Alami is fighting a quixotic campaign to get the Shura Council, the body that advises the King on policy, to consider a petition allowing women to drive.

“You see, Islam calls for protecting women’s legitimate rights,” Alami told The Media Line. “Driving is a right for women, as it is for men. Article 32 of the Saudi Traffic Regulations provides that. It’s prohibited for any ‘person’ driving a vehicle before getting a driver’s license. Based on this text, the term ‘person’ isn’t limited to males.”

Women caught driving in cities don’t face arrest. A Saudi journalist explains that local police agencies follow a basic policy by taking the offending female driver to the police station and having a mahram (male guardian) come to collect her. At the station, the police require the guardian to sign a document promising never to allow his charge to drive again. Refusing to sign the document exposes the guardian to jail time for failing to discharge his duties the protector of the woman.

“I have to admit I never heard of any guardian being arrested because his daughter drove a car,” the journalist says.

Although Saudi Arabia keeps no statistics on how many women drive cars, large numbers routinely get behind the wheel in virtually every rural community where hundreds of miles separate towns and villages.

While men are at work, wives and mothers transport livestock to market and drive tanker trucks to ensure their villages have water. Many Bedouin women act as the principal breadwinners in the family by transporting goods from village to village. Unlike in urban areas, a woman driving in the desert isn’t taboo, but encouraged.

“There is evidence that women who drive in remote villages have earned respect for following traffic regulations,” Alami says. “It’s natural for women in rural areas to assist in making a living in every way possible.”

In 2009, there were so many women driving in the Ha’il region that the Commission on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the mutaween) filed a complaint with the administrative authorities asking that 15 women be stripped of all driving privileges. The local authorities ignored the demand because it posed a threat to the families’ livelihood.

Women in the hinterlands have few alternatives to getting behind the wheel. The typical family car in rural areas is a pickup truck with a single bench to seat three people in the cab. But women can’t sit beside a male driver because it puts them in a state of khalwa (seclusion with an unrelated man), which is forbidden. Families can’t afford to hire a professional driver because that would cut into the family income.

In any case, it’s virtually impossible for traffic police and the mutaween to patrol thousands of square miles of desert.

But the acceptance of women driving doesn’t extend to cities, where the ban is enforced. Women passengers sitting alone in taxis or cars with private drivers face harassment from men. The harassment has made many families fearful of allowing their daughters or wives to be alone in a car.

Alami, however, says that is no longer a valid concern. “People are more convinced today than ever that there is no justification for preventing women from driving,” he says. “Saudi women continue to drive in various countries around the world. It has become more acceptable for them to drive in their own country.”

There is also anecdotal evidence suggesting that police sometimes turn a blind eye to women driving in the city, at least in Jeddah where a large swath in the northern part of the city is inhabited mainly by wealthy Western-educated Saudis. Police officers are often reluctant to confront influential families that tacitly approve of their daughters and wives driving.

A 26-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be published, says she recently went on a driving spree with a female friend in North Jeddah. “I have a new Hummer. It was late at night and the streets were empty, so we were driving all over the place,” she recalls. “A policeman pulled me over. He said, ‘Don’t drive in the City Centre or to the south,’ and let me go. He acted like it was the most natural thing in the world.”

Alami says rural women could serve as role models to their urban sisters. They get behind the wheel to put food on the table and don’t bother themselves with the restrictions their urban counterparts face.

Last month, Alami sent a petition signed by 136 Saudis, including 98 women, to the Shura Council. The petition asks for consideration of a trial-driving phase. The Shura Council can forward a recommendation to the Council of Ministers for approval if it agrees the plan has merit. The petition seeks to specify driving schools available to teach women driving and to issue driving certificates. It also asks that police departments develop women’s sections to handle licensing and violations issues. A key component of the petition asks that stiff jail time and fines be imposed on people harassing female drivers.

Alami also seeks to have Saudi traffic authorities develop vehicle safety checks, highway breakdown programs and an awareness campaign.

A representative for the Shura Council says there was no record of the Council receiving the petition. Alami is undeterred. He is preparing a second petition and seeking additional signatures.

“Saudi Arabia has signed the international conventions of non-discrimination against women,” Almani says, referring to the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. “It is crucial that women aren’t discriminated against, including, and not limited to, driving.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Saudi Bloggers Back Egyptian Uprising, But Don’t Want One of Their Own

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line
Published Thursday, February 03, 2011

Young Saudis are enthusiastically endorsing the anti-government uprising in Egypt filling Facebook and Twitter with postings supporting the demonstrators at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. But their enthusiasm for rebellion doesn’t extend to their own country.

Blogger Fouad Al-Farahan, who was detained by Saudi authorities three years ago for his on-line activities, Twittered, “Democracy is the Solution!” Even an eight-year-old Saudi girl calling herself “Juju” lectured Mubarak to resign on a YouTube video that has gone viral.

But much of the enthusiasm was tempered last week when King Abdullah announced through the Saudi Press Agency his support for Mubarak. He accused Egypt’s young anti-regime demonstrators of “tampering with Egypt’s security and stability … in the name of freedom of expression.” For many Saudis, publicly contradicting the king is disloyal to the kingdom.

Yet following a lull in Saudi postings, Facebook and Twitter lit up again on Wednesday when violence broke out between anti-government and pro-government factions in Cairo. Virtually every Saudi commenting sided with the anti-regime demonstrators. Nevertheless, young Saudis say that the situation in Egypt can’t compare to Saudi Arabia.

“What is happening in Egypt has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia,” Muhammad Al-Asmari, 19, a student in Jeddah, told The Media Line. “Mubarak has done absolutely nothing for Egypt in three decades. You can’t say the same for Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah has done a lot for us.”

Saudi Arabia and Egypt do share similar problems: high unemployment, inflation, an absence of democracy and a directionless youth. Unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth enables it to build schools, hospitals and infrastructure and provide social services that Egypt cannot.

Norah Shayib, 21, of Jeddah, said Saudi Arabia’s deeper Muslim identity is what has enabled to avoid the turmoil that has spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Jordan and Yemen over the last several weeks.

“This is not meant to be an insult to Egyptians—I have high regard for my brothers and sisters there—but they are a country of 80 million people who have varying attitudes about Islam,” she told The Media Line “It’s a secular country. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia is about being Muslim and we have nothing but affection for our king who has been good to us. We identify first as Muslims and second as Saudis.”

She added that Saudis take seriously the hadiths –words and deeds attributed to the prophet Mohammed that are often used as the basis for Islamic law. They demand loyalty to a Muslim ruler who has been “fair and just” to his people, she said.

However, some Saudis expressed a more cynical view. “I think Saudis are asking themselves, who would be better [than King Abdullah]? The answer is nobody,” said one Saudi who didn’t want to be identified.

Indeed, the Saudi king’s popularity among Muslims outside of the kingdom far outstrips other Muslim leaders, including Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

In a 2010 Pew Research Center poll, 92% of all Jordanians and 83% of all Egyptians expressed confidence in the Saudi king. In contrast, only 32% of Jordanians and 26% of the Egyptians expressed confidence in Ahmadinejad. A third of Jordanians and Egyptians had confidence in Abbas. The Saudi government, however, is not without its domestic critics.

Perhaps the most well known demonstration occurred when nearly 50 women defied the country’s driving ban by driving cars throughout the streets of Riyadh in 1990. Religious conservatives staged a demonstration in 2009 when Norah Al-Fail, the first woman named deputy minister of the Saudi Ministry of Education, visited a boys’ school. The demonstrators demanded the government enforce its gender segregation laws. More recently, about two dozen Saudis took the streets of Jeddah to protest against the government’s failure to improve infrastructure that led to flooding that killed 10 people.

Last week’s floods in Jeddah were the second massive flooding in 14 months and enraged local residents. During the November 2009 floods, which killed more than 100 people, Saudi authorities initially blamed the deaths on people failing to follow government instructions to reach safety. A news blackout followed, which prevented the Saudi media from reporting on the damage and death toll. Jeddah residents skirted the blackout by posting mobile phone video images on Facebook and YouTube. The graphic images of floating bodies angered Saudis.

“It was a huge change for Saudis,” Al-Asmari said. “We could make a change just by using the Internet.”

Public reaction to the floods prompted King Abdullah to order the arrest of about 50 Jeddah municipal officials and construction contractors. It also led to mass resignation of the city’s engineers. It was the first scandal of alleged corruption made public.

“This is the kind of change we can do on the Internet and I think it’s more effective,” Al-Asmari said. “I can’t imagine Saudis in the streets like what I see in Egypt on Al Jeezera. It’s not the right way to do things.”
Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Saudi Arabia’s Quest for Foreign Tourists Progresses

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line
Published Thursday, January 13, 2011

When Saudi Arabia first announced plans to open the country to tourism by inviting Western non-Muslims to visit its archaeological sites, vast deserts and snow-capped mountains in Abha, it was not without trepidation.

Saudi reaction to large numbers of tourists, especially in rural towns such as Ha’il and Taif, could prove less than enthusiastic.

The Saudi government’s announcement was in 1999 and Saudis remain cautious 12 years later of just who will be tramping through their souks in the desert and sunbathing at resorts on the Red Sea coast.

“When you see what is happening in Dubai, I think it is understandable that Saudis rather do without foreign tourists,” a Jeddah tourist agency manager told The Media Line.

Saudis are not looking at Dubai as a template for their own tourism goals. Escapades by Westerners of having sex on the beach in 2008 and the recent public meltdown of a Western tourist who partially disrobed in a Dubai mall after an Emirati woman criticized her for skimpy clothing have left Saudis cold.

Yet Saudi Arabia has pushed some of those concerns aside to promote aggressive programs to wean itself from oil revenue. The bid to attract tourists goes hand in hand with King Abdullah’s efforts to build six economic cities to diversify its economy and to attract Western investors. The same strategy applies to the tourism sector.

The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) is pursuing foreign investors to build hotels, resorts and tourism infrastructure in anticipation of an influx of tourists. Changes in Saudi Arabia’s commercial laws and the Kingdom’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) have made it easier for Westerners to do business with Saudis.

Foreign investment in tourism infrastructure means jobs. Mecca Governor Prince Khaled Al-Faisal recently announced that tourism projects were underway in Qunfuda and Al-Lith, which are expected to create an estimated 50,000 jobs. In Taif, more jobs are on the horizon when Saudis issue construction contracts this year to develop a SR120 million ($32 million) tourist project.

The SCTA announced earlier this month that 21 new hotels scheduled for completion throughout the country by 2014 would create 15,000 new jobs. By 2020, an estimated 1.5 million tourism and support services jobs will be available to Saudis.

Saudis have made significant progress to develop the infrastructure necessary to support its burgeoning tourist market, which exceeded 10.5 million visitors in 2009. This includes pilgrims, business people and tourists. Under SCTA’s chairman, Prince Sultan bin Salman, the commission had the difficult task of wrangling the Kingdom’s 13 disparate provinces and myriad authorities and jurisdictions with varying levels of enthusiasm to participate in a cohesive tourism program.

The SCTA’s primary goal was to open provincial tourist offices in rural outbacks like Baha, Asir, Ha’il, Jizan, Qassim and Jouf where tribal customs are strong and outsiders are tolerated but not necessarily embraced.

The SCTA acknowledged this in its 2009 strategic investment plan to ensure that tourism be consistent with “Islamic values and principles, compatibility with the Saudi society, and to be economically, socially, culturally and environmentally feasible.”

Compatibility with Saudi Arabia’s Islamic and cultural sensitivities is perhaps the Kingdom’s largest stumbling block to expanding the industry to attract Western non-Muslims who may not be willing to limit their visit to tour groups.

However, Saudi Arabia wants to focus its energies on promoting tourism that require group visits. Sports tourism for football fans and players, and eco-tourism that includes camping, desert safaris, scuba diving and desert and mountain hiking have been approved by the SCTA.

The commission also offers festival tourism in which visitors attend the annual Al-Jenadryah Festival in Riyadh and other regional events. Equally important to the commission is the promotion of “health tourism,” which permits foreigners to receive medical care at Saudi hospitals.

But there is a limit to this openness. For now, Saudi Arabia does not permit tourists armed only with a map to set out on their own adventure without supervision from a tour company. In fact, the Saudi Embassy website does not provide information on obtaining tourist visas. Instead, only tour companies licensed by the SCTA can get tourist visas for individuals.

The SCTA began licensing Saudi tour companies in 2008 to handle visa red tape. By the end of 2009, the commission licensed 64 tour guides who underwent extensive training to deal with domestic and foreign tourists. The commission also licensed at least 34 tour-operating companies, and was considering an additional 150 applications last year, according to the commission.

“I have not received a single tourist (visa) application from anybody outside of Saudi Arabia,” said a licensed Jeddah tour operator, who asked not to be named. “I’m sure I will eventually see applications, but there is no flood of inquiries from people who want to come here.”

This may be because although Saudi tourism officials might want foreign visitors, there is no marketing campaign to attract them. Only savvy travelers can track down a licensed tour operator, bridge the language barrier and apply for permission. Visitors also must be part of a group of 20 or more people that tours Saudi Arabia under the supervision of a licensed tour operator.

“I don’t see group tours as an attraction for a lot of foreigners,” said Muhammad Al-Yamani, who manages a three-star hotel on Palestine Road in Jeddah and caters mostly to Saudis and Hajj pilgrims. “It’s too strict. A lot of people outside Saudi Arabia and the GCC are used to traveling in foreign countries without being part of a group.”

Another consideration is Saudi Arabia’s social customs and laws. Women must wear the abaya (hijabs for non-Muslims are optional) and must have a male guardian with them. Unlike in Dubai and Egypt, alcohol, cinemas and nightclubs are absent in the Kingdom.

Yet Jeddah’s four- and five-star hotels along the Red Sea coast offer access to secluded resort beaches that are off-limits to Saudis and permit guests without restrictions to sunbathe, swim and take scuba diving lessons. Hotels, such as the InterContinental, Hilton, Golden Tulip and Meridian, also offer boating and deep sea fishing packages.

Abha, which is about 500 miles south of Riyadh, defies the Saudi Arabia image of vast deserts with its resorts nestled deep in the hillsides and wide vistas of tree-lined, snow-topped mountains. Many of Abha’s hotels offer packages to Asir National Park, the 4,000-year-old city of Najran at the Saudi-Yemeni border and area museums.

A typical Saudi destination is Madain Saleh, the pre-Islamic archaeological site about 250 miles northwest of Medina.

“There are a lot of hotels and resorts being built now,” said Hassan Younes, an Egyptian expat working for a five-store hotel near Jeddah’s Corniche. “It means jobs for my friends and family in Egypt. It means I might be able to get a better job. Saudis here in Jeddah like dealing with foreigners, especially Westerners, so they are happy about the future. Saudis in other areas? I’m not so sure, but if it means jobs, then there are no troubles.”

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

In Saudi Arabia, Sedition is in the Eye of the Beholder

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Kuwait Times

5 Jan. 2011
A Saudi couple was recently strolling through an open market in Ha’il, a city of more than 350,000 in the Ha’il Province of Saudi Arabia northwest of Riyadh, when two members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice confronted them.The mutaween insisted that the husband order his wife to cover her eyes because they were too “seditious.” The husband became enraged and got into an altercation with the commission members. The brawl resulted in the husband taking a trip to the hospital for a stab wound in the back.

“I have not heard of that incident,” said a supervisor at the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Jeddah. Jeddah doesn’t include Ha’il in his district. “We do not have a policy in which ladies must cover their eyes, but we also expect our brothers to use good judgment when trying to correct something they see as wrong. If someone is behaving in an inflammatory manner, then it’s our duty to stop it.”

The incident points to the delicate balance that the mutaween negotiate between guiding Saudi men and women away from un-Islamic behavior and what is considered invasion of privacy. Enforcement of the kingdom’s strict code of modesty is enforced unevenly, with major cities taking a more liberal approach. But the general trend has been toward a certain loosening following some well-publicized incidents of over-enforcement by the mutaween.

Sedition is in the eye of the holder, and in Ha’il the mutaween can determine what is seditious.  Yet Saudi religious conservatives generally agree there is no religious obligation for a woman to cover her eyes. There is also is considerable debate among Saudi women whether they are religiously required to wear the niqab, a veil that covers the face. Indeed, many Saudi women in cosmopolitan Jeddah cover their entire face, including the eyes. However, attitudes have shifted dramatically in the past decade, said one Saudi woman professional.

“We never discussed the appropriateness of the niqab when I was growing up,” said a 40-year-old Western-educated Jeddah Saudi woman, who asked not to be identified. “Now, the younger generation thinks nothing of going out without the niqab or even a hijab, let alone covering their eyes.”

Sheikh Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, chief of the Mecca branch of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, said in November that women do not need to veil their faces. “There is a difference in interpretation of the verse … which leads some scholars to rule that the whole body must be covered,” Al-Ghamdi told the Saudi press in an interview. “However, other scholars approve of showing the face, hands and elbows. And some even okayed the hair.”

So why the brouhaha in Ha’il, which by any measure is not the standard of loose living?

The Ha’il confrontation illustrates the dichotomy between enforcement of religious values in rural areas and urban centers. In Jeddah, the mutaween have been invisible for much of 2010. They have made no appearances at the heavily trafficked Red Sea Mall and the Mall of Arabia. Even the shopping centers of Al-Balad and the Old Jeddah District, which attracts expats more inclined to flout  religious and cultural rules, were absent of mutaween who once heavily patrolled the area.

One Saudi journalist noted that commission members assigned to remote cities like Ha’il face less accountability for their actions than in Jeddah or even Medina. Renegade mutaween may be inclined to abuse their authority in a region where residents are less educated and unquestioning of authority.

“The Hai’a wouldn’t dare make demands on a Saudi family in Jeddah,” the journalist said. “They [the Hai’a] don’t know who the Saudis are and run the risk of making someone important angry. But expats and Saudis living in the middle of nowhere? Who would dare complain?”

It doesn’t mean commission members have been inactive. On the contrary, in the hijri year 1431, which overlaps 2010, the commission announced in its annual report that 15,556 Saudi men, 1,004 Saudi women and 74,000 expatriates were arrested on such charges as possessing drugs, alcohol, distributing illegal publications or conducting illegal practices in shops. Nearly 10,000 Saudi men and women were arrested on suspicion of having illicit affairs.

In all, more than 250,000 Muslims and non-Muslims in the Kingdom were taken into custody on a wide range of moral charges. However, the commission reported that the number of arrests dropped 19.5% compared with the hijri year 1430. Most arrests occurred in Riyadh and Mecca.

In December, the commission announced that its members would break up New Year’s Eve parties.

While the commission remains active and Saudis are generally supportive, the agency’s public profile is decidedly low-key.

The reason for their low profile is threefold. The commission had in the past often exceeded its authority, which resulted in deaths following car chases and nationwide condemnation by the Saudi press. In the past year, it sought to minimize public clashes. The younger, wealthy and upper-middle-class class of Saudi men and women often ignore the edicts of the mutaween without consequences because they have tacit approval from their parents. The third reason is King Abdullah, who has shown little patience with commission members.

According to a May 11, 2009, U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, King Abdullah told a contingent at the Jeddah consul-general’s office “that conservative elements in Saudi society do not understand true Islam, and that people needed to be educated.” King Abdullah compared the mutaween to donkey herders. “They take a stick and hit you with it, saying ‘Come donkey, it’s time to pray.’ How does that help people behave like good Muslims? ” according to the cable.

“I haven’t seen anybody from the commission in months and I am out with my girlfriends every weekend,” said 26-year-old Nahed Jabari of Jeddah. “I wear the niqab.  I choose to cover my eyes only when I’m in a public building or at the airport where there are so many strangers and every single one of them looks at me as if they want to eat me up. No one ever suggested, and I don’t think they would dare to suggest, that I cover my eyes. The girls I associate with do as they please.”

Saudi Women Making Headway in Male-Dominated Business World

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

Thursday, December 09, 2010

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — About five years ago, Shroog Radain, a 29-year-old teacher’s aide at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, saw the perfect niche for her skills as a baker and confectioner. She founded Mini Bites, a small company based on Quraish Street in the Al-Salamah District of Jeddah.

Radain brought in her friend, Maha Aboulola, also 29, as her partner and named her husband, Mowaffaq Aboulolaa, as Mini Bites’ marketing manager. Radain and Aboulola supervise the entire operation.

Mini Bites specializes in homemade sweets, cupcakes and canapés, including traditional Arabic baked goods.

“We’re doing quite well,” Radain said recently. “We do weddings and go to food conventions and wedding expos.”

The company remains small and Radain and Aboulola, a journalist, haven’t quit their day jobs, but Mini Bits’ Facebook page alone boasts more than 1,000 members and has a loyal following.

Radain and Aboulola, daughters of upper-middle class liberal parents, are the new face of the Saudi woman entrepreneur. They came into adulthood in the aftermath of 9/11 with a fistful of Saudi riyals and an ambition to chart their own destiny by trying to steer clear of traditional female employment, such as in education.

Studies performed in Saudi Arabia and by foreign think tanks show in the past two years that Saudi women are emerging with influence. Changes in the population and access to deep pockets are giving Saudi women growing economic influence that just a decade ago was unthinkable.

According to Saudi Arabia’s statistics department, the country’s population grew from 7 million in 1975 to 25 million in 2009, including the 7 million expatriate workers now living in the kingdom. Saudis under the age of 34 account for 70% (13.3 million) of the total population of 18 million Saudis in 2009. Saudi women represent about half of that 34-year-old and under segment.

Earlier this year, the Cayman Islands-based asset management company Al Masah Capital conducted a survey that found that Saudi women controlled an estimated $11 to $12 billion in assets in Saudi banks. Further, the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce estimates that women invested about $1.9 billion in real estate.

Yet in late 2010 the pace of female investments remains slow as Saudi women are unwilling or unable to invest their funds effectively. A Jeddah Chamber of Commerce study (“Businesswomen in Saudi Arabia: Characteristics, Challenges, and Aspirations in a Regional Context” by Noura Alturki and Rebekah Braswell, July 2010) reports that Saudi women are not taking advantage of their funds.

Women’s investments and business account for about 4.3% of the private businesses in the kingdom. Still, 72.6% of those Saudi businesses registered by women are outside the home and 92% of those businesses have employees on the payroll. Saudi women’s businesses are generally interior design, fashion, jewelry, beauty salons, wholesale/retail, marketing, consulting, event management and public relations.

According to the Jeddah Chamber study, obstacles preventing Saudi women from achieving economic parity with their male counterparts are numerous but not insurmountable. Roadblocks include:

• Lack of government infrastructure to grant business licenses for female-oriented businesses  such as beauty salons and child day-care facilities
• Lack of public transportation and an urban driving ban on women, which lead to logistical planning problems and incurring high costs for private transportation
• Severe restrictions on international travel
• Severe restrictions on government-issued business visas for foreign women or iqamas (work permits) to foreign wives of expatriate workers
• Refusal of some government officials to recognize changes in laws that allow real estate investment, access to public services and appointing a person as power of attorney
• Lack of decision-making powers in government women’s sections
• Lack of access to traditional funding mechanisms, such as commercial bank loans

Saudi women with supportive families get around many of these obstacles. Travel issues are often solved through a notarized document from a woman’s mahram (male guardian) allowing her the ability not only to travel within the kingdom but to other countries. A female-owned beauty salon may open under a different licensing category like a tailor shop, because licensing for beauty salons don’t exist. Women possessing a national identity card can open bank accounts and obtain personal loans, although limited funding through such loans denies businesswomen to be more competitive.

Although women open and conduct business in this manner, it doesn’t solve the larger issue of government officials failing to honor changes in the law designed specifically to make it easier for Saudi women to conduct business.

One Saudi businesswoman, who asked not to be identified because she is negotiating several sensitive real estate deals, said it took two years to establish her real estate company. The primary roadblock was the names of 24 women listed as investors.

Local government officials were reluctant to grant her a license, but never specified their concerns. The government sought a closer look at the company, yet never provided information what laws and regulations. Ultimately, the woman obtained her license.

Yet Saudi Arabia has taken incremental steps to ease restrictions. Perhaps the most significant step was an effort in 2005 by then-Minister of Labor Ghazi Al-Ghosaibi to permit women to work in lingerie shops. Al-Ghosaibi, known for his liberal attitudes toward women’s rights, spearheaded the effort. But shop owners refused to hire women fearing interference from religious conservatives, particularly the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The ministry’s efforts failed, revealing that the theory of female empowerment, even given at the highest levels, is not compatible with the reality of dealing with conservatives who up until 2010 held virtual veto power over many government decisions.

The lingerie shop issue, however, served as a lightning rod for equally bold moves by the Saudi government that were successful. In 2008, Mecca’s governor, Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, abolished the law banning men and women from interacting while conducting business. During the same year, the Labor Ministry under Al-Ghosaibi made it legal to allow women to not only choose where to work but to no longer seek a mahram’s permission to seek work or change jobs. In addition, travel restrictions were eased slightly in which a ban was lifted preventing women from staying alone in hotels.

Ministry decisions are often a response to the shifting social attitudes of the kingdom. Although Al-Ghosaibi, who died in August, had long established his credentials as supporting the right of women to engage in commerce, the impetus comes largely from women born after 1975. They came of age when the Internet was in its infancy and later when satellite television offered a daily window into Western culture.

As young women graduate from Saudi and foreign universities, they are less likely to wear the niqab (face veil) in Saudi Arabia and more likely to socialize in a mixed environment. Indeed, upscale malls in Jeddah are filled with Saudi women who remove their hijabs and wear open abayas, a style unheard of five years ago. The new attitude has led to the changing tide of working alongside men in private universities and the private businesses.

“Things are different now,” Radain said. “Yes, it’s still hard to find jobs, but starting your own business can solve that and it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money. With hard work, a woman can succeed in’shallah.”

Syria Says ‘No” to Traditional Niqab

(03 August 2010)

The Media Line

By Rob L. Wagner

Syria’s ban on the face veil strengthens the country’s political position in the region rather than follow Europe’s increasingly strident efforts to ban the burqa and to westernize Islamic dress, some Islamic experts say.

Outlawing the face veil, or niqab, applies to private and public universities and government-run schools. The Syrian government in June transferred primary school teachers wearing the niqab from their positions to administrative jobs. The legislation does not apply to the hijab, which covers the hair.

Syria’s ban mirrors proposals sweeping Europe to outlaw the burqa, the long flowing robe that covers Muslim women from head to toe. Legislation is pending in Belgium and Spain. France’s lower house of parliament overwhelmingly passed a proposed law making it illegal to wear the burqa. A final vote is set for September. European lawmakers argue the burqa is a symbol of oppression and poses security risks.

While the ban follows the same logic as the legislation pending in Europe, some Islamic and Middle East affairs experts say Syria is making the move for very different reasons. The edict by President Bashar Al-Assad’s government is safe because only a small percentage of Syrian women wear the niqab. Yet it sends a message to Syria’s neighbors – specifically Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – that Syria’s secular government remains strong. Syria also sends the signal that it’s committed to curbing religious extremism in the region.

Dr. Jeroen Gunning, deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Contemporary Political Violence at Aberystwyth University in Wales, said that placing too much emphasis on Syria’s reaction to Europe’s burqa ban efforts is a mistake. “My guess is that it has more to do with internal and regional politics and power balances than Western-Syrian relations,” he said.

Dr. Ayla Göl, a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, also cautions not to draw parallels.

“(The) Syrian ban is more complicated than European contexts,” she said. “The idea of curbing Islamic fundamentalism by legislating what women wear is rather a naïve one. Fighting any kind of religious fundamentalism is more complex than what Western decision makers and media present. It seems to me that Bashar Al-Assad wants to balance between his father’s authoritarian interpretation and implementation of secularism and moderate Muslims.”

Göl said the ban is consistent with Syria’s tradition of moderation.” I don’t think it is only a current trend to embrace a Westernized version of Islamic modesty, but part of historical and cultural traditions in Syria.”

Syria’s ruling echoes more closely laws in secular Turkey, which banned not only the niqab but also the hijab in public buildings and schools 20 years ago, Göl said. Similar laws in Tunisia prevent women from wearing the hijab because it conflicts with “Tunisian traditions.”  Results from efforts to ban the niqab in Egypt are mixed, but an Egyptian court ruled recently that it’s legal to ban women and girls wearing the niqab during school and university exams.

The common thread among Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria is the perception of the growing threat of political and extremist Islam permeating culture and government. Turkey’s uncomfortable relationship with Islamic fundamentalism dates to its founding as a Republic in 1923. The debate over how to define Islamic modesty continues today. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s government continues to jail hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the organization wining 20 percent of the seats in Parliament in the 2005 elections. The Muslim Brotherhood has condemned Egypt’s policies on the niqab.

Syria is facing similar issues. The country has a long, violent history of attempting to contain Islamic extremists. Most notably was the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s by then-President Hafez Al-Assad. The bloody crackdown stemmed from a series of uprisings in Aleppo and Hama. Hundreds Muslim Brotherhood members were killed or jailed.

Göl sad that Syria’s concern with “imported fundamentalism” stems the fundamentalist Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

Conservative Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia strictly interpret two Surahs in the Holy Qu’ran (Surah 23, Verse 31 and Surah 33, Verse 59) that require all women cover themselves except for the eyes and hands. Most Saudi women adhere to this interpretation.  The irony is that while Syria perceives the niqab an extremist threat, some Saudi women are also reconsidering whether to wear it at all.

“It used to be that whether to wear the niqab was never discussed,” said Saudi journalist Sabria Jawhar. “We took it for granted that you wear it. But since 9/11, Saudi women are more open. It’s now become an issue to debate. We are more exposed to the world. Traveling to Europe for vacation is not just for the rich, but middle class families. Women come back with different ideas. Now you see a lot of middle class women not wearing the niqab.”

Dr. Suhaila Zain Al-Abedeen, an activist with the National Society for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, said Syria is justified in banning the niqab. “If the Syrian government finds that the niqab doesn’t serve its security to allow women to wear it, then they have the right to ban it.”

However, Zain Al-Abedeen doesn’t see the Syrian ban as a reaction to religious extremism.

“The whole thing is about regulating schools and universities,” Al-Abedeen said “The Syrian government has noticed recently that the number of girls wearing the niqab increases dramatically at the time of examinations, which makes It difficult to identify them. It opens the door to cheating with girls attending exams for each other.”

Göl, however, said the issue reaches far beyond university campuses. She noted Al-Assad wants closer diplomatic and economic ties with Turkey and Lebanon; and play a more active role in the region. The niqab, as seen as an image of Islamic fundamentalism, gets in the way of establishing those ties.

“Politically, the niqab is regarded as the most visible symbol of Islamic fundamentalism,” Göl said. “The Syrian decision to ban the niqab in public and private universities strengthens the government’s image of Syria as one of the most secular Arab countries. Since 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslims not only in Syria but also in the Middle East have become more religious and put emphasis on the Islamic identity.”

The consequences of Syria’s ban are minimal because the niqab doesn’t play an integral part of Syrian culture.

“Like Turkey, (Syrian) women wear more modern and urban styles of headscarves,” Göl said. “As a Muslim woman, who was brought up in a Muslim tradition in Turkey, I personally support the ban of the niqab in Syria. The niqab gives the image of Muslim women as uncivilized and not compatible with modern lifestyles and it represents political Islam. Even in Saudi Arabia, you can see the pictures of woman without wearing the full veil. So, why should women in Syria put themselves even behind the traditional Saudi women?”

Sabeen, a 20-year-old Syrian university undergraduate student studying in England, said the niqab is rarely worn on the streets of Damascus.

Women our age prefer to dress in European styles, so the new law doesn’t have much of an effect on us,” said Sabeen, who asked that her last name not be used. “The girls who do wear the niqab do mainly as a form of rebellion, but the majority of us support the ban.”

Saudi Women Simultaneously Navigating the Classroom and British Culture

(13 July 2010)

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Gulf News/Gulf Times

Newcastle upon Tyne, England, United Kingdom  – A group of Saudi women studying at universities across the United Kingdom anxiously met in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2008 with Princess Fadwa bint Khalid bin Abdullah, wife of Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The students complained that their children attend school seven days a week since complying with the laws of both countries requires sending their children to both a British school and private Saudi classes.

Although Princess Fadwa sympathized that day with the students’ struggles, no solution has yet to be offered.

This is only one of many hurdles facing female students coming from Saudi Arabia to study in the UK.

An estimated 6,000 international students, including about 800 Saudis, attend Newcastle University in northeast England. Female Saudi students at Newcastle say they are adjusting well to the foreign environment, although it’s a tough slog. Saudi women acknowledge their circle of friends is mostly limited to Saudi and other Arab Muslim women.

On top of this, traveling within the United Kingdom is usually restricted to academic conferences. When social engagements are involved, they are only with university colleagues and classmates in the same programs.

In the lecture hall, though, with their strong academic performance and assertiveness when leading discussions, Saudi women defy the perception held by many Western classmates of being shy and reserved.

In their free time, female students at Newcastle University frequent Turkish and Iranian restaurants near campus, although they rarely mix with their Saudi male colleagues.

“Saudi men avoid us and we in turn avoid them,” said Miramar Damanhouri, a second-year PhD student in applied linguistics in her early 30s. “It could be that we got so used to the segregation that is rooted in our educational system that we cannot overcome it. I’d rather talk to anyone from any nationality, but not a Saudi man, simply because his reaction is unexpected. He might misjudge my intentions.”

Saudi female undergraduate and postgraduate students account for about 25 percent of the 15,616 Saudi students in the United Kingdom, according to, the site for the Saudi cultural attaché. Saudi women gravitate to scientific fields, including microbiology and chemistry, studying in an environment free of gender segregation.

For the 2007/2008 academic year, about 5,000 Saudi students received government scholarships to study abroad as part of King Abdullah’s initiative started in 2005 to send Saudis to Western universities. The Saudi Ministry of Higher Education recently closed the United Kingdom for study due to the huge influx of students since 2007.

Some students cite the difficulty and unpredictability of obtaining student visas in the United States following 9/11 and the U.S. “War on Terror” as a reason for studying in the UK.

To the north of the Newcastle campus is the Saudi family enclave of Kingston Park where large numbers of Saudi female students live. Yet many Saudis can also be found in the student community of Jesmond or the suburbs of Gateshead.

Although they enjoy independent lives, Saudi women experience pressure from family members who fear that living in the West-especially with the UK’s entrenched drinking culture and relatively free-wheeling lifestyle-has a corrupting influence. But families also recognize that their daughters are experiencing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

“My family was so happy about it [the scholarship] and they encouraged me to move ahead with my plan to study,” said Haifa Alnofaie, who is in her late 20s and studying for her PhD in educational and applied linguistics at Newcastle.

There’s a sense, however, among Saudi women that they are under a microscope. Few Saudi women at Newcastle University wear the niqab, the Islamic veil worn by women that covers the face below the eyes, although many wear the hijab.

The Saudi student website, Saudi Share, regularly reports attacks on Muslim women in the United Kingdom. Particularly alarming was one incident in Birmingham in May when a woman wearing the niqab standing at a train platform was attacked by a man who ripped away her veil. No such incidents have been reported in Newcastle, but troubling anti-Muslim incidents still do occur.

Damanhouri said she is occasionally harassed, including one occasion when a drunken woman hurled anti-Muslim insults at her and her friends at a train station. “Nobody on the platform stood for us,” she said.

“Another time a teenager was harassing a group I was with in South Shields. He was alone and obviously had no fear. We called the police. They said he was a regular troublemaker and they solved the problem immediately,” continued Damanhouri.

Such incidents have prompted some Saudi women to reconsider how they dress in public. On football days when much of Newcastle is celebrating a victory or mourning a loss at the pubs, students leave the hijab at home and tuck their hair under a hat to avoid unwanted attention.

In June, the ultra-conservative English Defense League staged its first demonstration in Newcastle to protest what the league claims is the “Islamification” of England. Muslim women heeded the advice of police and the Newcastle Muslim Society to stay at home.

Saudis don’t kid themselves that they enjoy absolute freedom. Every Saudi, women assume, is watching.

“Sometimes the colleagues in my department go to a pub for drinks and dinner,” said one Saudi PhD student in her early 30s who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Although I would never drink alcohol, I would also never go into a pub for dinner. You never know who is watching and what will be said when they go home.”

The university leaves it to the faculty to develop skills to work with students of other cultures and religions. There is no staff instruction in cultural or religious sensitivity, said Dr. Steve Walsh, Newcastle’s postgraduate research director in applied linguistics.

“[There’s] no training given, but I feel I am okay with this as I have had a lot of experience both in this country and abroad,” Walsh said. “This is an important aspect of my work. Students come to me with their problems and I try to help.”

Language and writing skills can be problematic even though incoming students are required to pass written and oral English language tests.

“Some [Saudi students] are excellent, others pretty weak, and all, including native, struggle with academic writing,” Walsh said.

Walsh testified that the quality of Saudi education is excellent.

“But I deal with PhD students who are normally excellent,” he said.

Alnofaie, who is originally from Ta’if, said the university is responsive to her needs.

“They show respect to our religious needs and do their best to provide Muslim students with adequate services,” she said. “One example is the annual Islamic Week that is held at the university to increase people’s awareness of the reality of Islam.”

Although Saudi students see no reason to complain, attending prayer at the university is challenging. The Newcastle campus mosque in the basement of the King George Building can’t accommodate Friday prayers with an average of 200 men jammed into mosque and spilling into the hallway and out onto the parking lot. About one-third as many women attend Friday prayers upstairs in equally cramped quarters.

These are minor annoyances to Damanhouri. She said she never experienced discrimination on campus because she is Muslim. Still, British society can be difficult to navigate.

“Based on my experience with Americans, I can say that Americans are warm-hearted and more friendly. They like to make friends. But many British, and I hate to generalize, don’t like to get along with anybody who is different.”

Thousands of Saudis are now studying at universities across the UK; 25 percent of them are female, who must hurdle numerous social and religious hurdles.

Virtue squads toning down shows of power in Saudi Arabia

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line/Daily News Egypt

24 May 2010

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Mersal Village on entertainment nights was once a magnet for members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (known locally as Hai’a or Mutaween), who roamed the parking lot and front gate to remind guests they were being watched. In recent months, they have been virtually invisible.

Dating couples still take precautions by arriving at the park in separate cars, but the days of power displays like the 2004 incident at the Junoon rock concert – when the Hai’a swept through the audience, upending chairs, tossing sound equipment and chasing teens around the stage ¬– appear to be in the past. At least for now.

Last month, on the same stage a Lebanese pop band serenaded families who dined on an assortment of traditional Saudi dishes. There was no Hai’a in sight, but waiters quietly moved about asking the occasional young teenager popping up to dance to remain seated. Dancing is fine as long as one’s backside is firmly planted in the chair.

The Hai’a is experiencing a fundamental change in how it’s viewed by Saudis and expatriates. Saudis more often than not agree there is a need for the Hai’a. Enforcement of moral laws is mentioned in the Qur’an when the Ummah is praised for working towards the “promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice.” Although the Qur’an makes no mention of a government-mandated agency, the Hai’a is authorized to combat vice, from rooting out bootleg liquor operations to ensuring that all Islamic moral codes are strictly observed. Dancing and public performances also come under the purview of the Hai’a .

Once having the last word on how Muslims conduct themselves, the Hai’a is now seemingly forced to defend every action it takes. The commission’s top brass has come under withering criticism from the Saudi media for its excessive use of force and its lack of accountability.

The criticism has become so vocal in recent months that an all out war of words has erupted between Saudi journalists and the commission’s leadership. The Arabic language daily newspaper Okaz has been especially critical of the agency, seemingly taking delight in reporting every alleged transgression.

The most recent incident occurred in Tabuk when a young mother was accused of asking a man at a bus station to drive her to Jeddah. This would put the woman and the man in a state of khalwa in which they would illegally be alone together in a private place – in this case, the car – and could raise questions about their morality. The man was not held. The woman was detained and allegedly beaten at the commission’s Tabuk headquarters. People performing Maghreb prayers at a nearby mosque heard the woman’s screams and alerted police who intervened.

Okaz reported the incident in April. A few days later the Hai’a took out a half-page advertisement in the newspaper to lecture Okaz about journalism ethics and why reporting such incidents should be banned. The Hai’a did not specifically address the beating allegations . The English-language Saudi newspaper Arab News defended Okaz and admonished the Hai’a for portraying itself as a victim . “The Hai’a has to realize that its strategy of always presenting itself as the victim of media conspiracies will not help any more,” wrote Khaled Hama Al-Sulaiman for the Arab News. “It is true that the Hai’a has been unfairly criticized on some occasions in the past. On the other hand, it is also true that there are many known instances of errors or excesses that vindicate media criticism against it.”

Eroding support for the Hai’a can be traced to the 2002 girls’ school fire in Makkah in which 14 teenagers died when they attempted to flee the blaze. The girls were turned back by commission members because they ran from the building without wearing their abaya, the long black cloak required to be worn by all females past puberty. Although the Saudi government has taken great pains to absolve the Hai’a low to the commission’s reputation as a necessary and welcomed influence in Saudi society.

Since the school fire, the Hai’a has carried out a series of high-profile car chases of men and women observed together in the same car. Many of these chases have ended in fatal crashes. In another incident in Riyadh, a Hai’a raid of a Saudi bootlegger’s home resulted in the beating death of the suspect.

To rescue the faltering image of the commission, a series of reforms were proposed. In 2005, the Hai’a announced that it was training its staff to be more helpful and less aggressive with the public.

Intimidation tactics would be minimized. In 2006, the Ministry of Interior issued a decree that banned the Hai’a from interrogating people detained for un-Islamic behavior. Interrogations were to be performed by the police.

In 2007, a “Department of Rules and Regulations” was formed to ensure commission staff complied with Saudi laws. In February of this year, Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council accepted a proposal that, in effect, required all commission members to have job descriptions outlining their duties and roles they played to the public.

However, none of these measures had an impact on the conduct of the Hai’a. Fatal car crashes and rogue behavior by some commission members continue unabated. Although the decrees have failed to stop alleged abuses, the Saudi media helped fill the void by stepping in to demand accountability.

Since 9/11, press restrictions in Saudi Arabia have loosened. The rule of thumb among Arabic and English language Saudi newspaper editors is that criticism of most Saudi institutions is permitted, but criticism of the Royal family, Islam and the Hai’a is forbidden. Indeed, Saudi school curricula and women’s rights among other hot-button issues have been fiercely and openly debated in the past five years with little government intervention.

Press coverage of the 2009 Jeddah floods, which left more than 120 people dead, was a milestone in Saudi news reporting and editorial writing. Newspapers demanded accountability from municipal officials and building contractors for the city’s poor infrastructure that exacerbated the flooding. As a result, several contractors were jailed.

But it’s only been in the past year that it was no longer taboo to criticize the Hai’a. Saudi journalists are enjoying the liberty of taking the Hai’a to task for its alleged abuses.

“Of course we criticize the Hai’a,” said one Saudi journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Their behavior can not be condoned. People are fed up.”

Saudis, however, are demanding accountability, not disbanding the Hai’a. They continue to view commission members as protectors of their values and morals, although many Saudis say the Hai’a has lost focus of its true calling.

“If a man and woman got into my taxi and acted suspiciously I am obligated to notify the Mutaween,” said 44-year-old Jeddah taxi driver Iqbal Khan. “The problem with that, is once I call them, I am immediately questioned as if I had done something wrong when I was only doing my duty as a Muslim.”

A Saudi female journalist, who asked not to be identified, sees the commission’s role differently. “I’m waiting for the day that the Hai’a protects women from people who want to exploit them, not terrorize them for wearing the hijab too loose or having coffee with a male colleague at Starbucks,” she said.

The journalist pointed to the recent arrest of a Medina man who was accused of blackmailing at least 100 women who answered a magazine advertisement offering jobs for a bogus women’s project. The women were required to send their photo along with the employment application. The man then attempted to blackmail the women by demanding sex in exchange for not posting their photos on the Internet, which is considered shameful in Saudi society.

“Here’s a case where the Hai’a did good and acted in a heroic manner,” the journalist said. “They protected these women from harm. This is their job.” The onslaught of media coverage may also be responsible for Makkah commission chief Sheikh Ahmad Qassim Al-Ghamdi’s rethinking of how the Hai’a enforces the country’s gender segregation laws. Al-Ghamdi told Okaz in a December 2009 interview that banning gender mixing, or ikhtilat in which groups of men and women work or socialize together, has no basis in Shari’a and should not be enforced by the commission.

“Mixing was part of normal life for the Ummah and its societies,” Al-Ghamdi told Okaz. “In many Muslim houses – even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram – you can find female servants working around unrelated males.”

When Al-Ghamdi attempted to raise the issue with the Kingdom’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Asheik, he was rebuked for discussing Islamic issues outside his expertise.

But Al-Ghamdi’s remarks have opened a once closed door on whether gender mixing is rooted in Islam or is a modern concept. It also points to attempts by the Hai’a at some regional branches to redefine what role it should play in Saudi society.

Saudis are not likely to embrace gender mixing soon and even regard Al-Ghamdi’s remarks as a distraction to the core issue of commission abuses.

A Saudi businessman observed recently that the Hai’a sion members chose to ignore men and women mixing in public places and instead focused on “real” vice issues like prostitution and drug trafficking.

“I’m not particularly fond of having single men sharing the same room with my daughters at a restaurant, but I trust my daughters to do the right thing,” the Saudi said. “We don’t need the Hai’a for that. But if my daughters were being harassed or blackmailed, then I want them to feel comfortable seeking their Hai’a] help. Right now, that’s not the case.”

This article was originally published by The Media Line on May 23, 2010.

When Saudi Arabia first announced plans to open the country to tourism by inviting Western non-Muslims to visit its archaeological sites, vast deserts and snow-capped mountains in Abha, it was not without trepidation.

Saudi reaction to large numbers of tourists, especially in rural towns such as Ha’il and Taif, could prove less than enthusiastic.

The Saudi government’s announcement was in 1999 and Saudis remain cautious 12 years later of just who will be tramping through their souks in the desert and sunbathing at resorts on the Red Sea coast.

“When you see what is happening in Dubai, I think it is understandable that Saudis rather do without foreign tourists,” a Jeddah tourist agency manager told The Media Line.

Saudis are not looking at Dubai as a template for their own tourism goals. Escapades by Westerners of having sex on the beach in 2008 and the recent public meltdown of a Western tourist who partially disrobed in a Dubai mall after an Emirati woman criticized her for skimpy clothing have left Saudis cold.

Yet Saudi Arabia has pushed some of those concerns aside to promote aggressive programs to wean itself from oil revenue. The bid to attract tourists goes hand in hand with King Abdullah’s efforts to build six economic cities to diversify its economy and to attract Western investors. The same strategy applies to the tourism sector.

The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) is pursuing foreign investors to build hotels, resorts and tourism infrastructure in anticipation of an influx of tourists. Changes in Saudi Arabia’s commercial laws and the Kingdom’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) have made it easier for Westerners to do business with Saudis.

Foreign investment in tourism infrastructure means jobs. Mecca Governor Prince Khaled Al-Faisal recently announced that tourism projects were underway in Qunfuda and Al-Lith, which are expected to create an estimated 50,000 jobs. In Taif, more jobs are on the horizon when Saudis issue construction contracts this year to develop a SR120 million ($32 million) tourist project.

The SCTA announced earlier this month that 21 new hotels scheduled for completion throughout the country by 2014 would create 15,000 new jobs. By 2020, an estimated 1.5 million tourism and support services jobs will be available to Saudis.

Saudis have made significant progress to develop the infrastructure necessary to support its burgeoning tourist market, which exceeded 10.5 million visitors in 2009. This includes pilgrims, business people and tourists. Under SCTA’s chairman, Prince Sultan bin Salman, the commission had the difficult task of wrangling the Kingdom’s 13 disparate provinces and myriad authorities and jurisdictions with varying levels of enthusiasm to participate in a cohesive tourism program.

The SCTA’s primary goal was to open provincial tourist offices in rural outbacks like Baha, Asir, Ha’il, Jizan, Qassim and Jouf where tribal customs are strong and outsiders are tolerated but not necessarily embraced.

The SCTA acknowledged this in its 2009 strategic investment plan to ensure that tourism be consistent with “Islamic values and principles, compatibility with the Saudi society, and to be economically, socially, culturally and environmentally feasible.”

Compatibility with Saudi Arabia’s Islamic and cultural sensitivities is perhaps the Kingdom’s largest stumbling block to expanding the industry to attract Western non-Muslims who may not be willing to limit their visit to tour groups.

However, Saudi Arabia wants to focus its energies on promoting tourism that require group visits. Sports tourism for football fans and players, and eco-tourism that includes camping, desert safaris, scuba diving and desert and mountain hiking have been approved by the SCTA.

The commission also offers festival tourism in which visitors attend the annual Al-Jenadryah Festival in Riyadh and other regional events. Equally important to the commission is the promotion of “health tourism,” which permits foreigners to receive medical care at Saudi hospitals.

But there is a limit to this openness. For now, Saudi Arabia does not permit tourists armed only with a map to set out on their own adventure without supervision from a tour company. In fact, the Saudi Embassy website does not provide information on obtaining tourist visas. Instead, only tour companies licensed by the SCTA can get tourist visas for individuals.

The SCTA began licensing Saudi tour companies in 2008 to handle visa red tape. By the end of 2009, the commission licensed 64 tour guides who underwent extensive training to deal with domestic and foreign tourists. The commission also licensed at least 34 tour-operating companies, and was considering an additional 150 applications last year, according to the commission.

“I have not received a single tourist (visa) application from anybody outside of Saudi Arabia,” said a licensed Jeddah tour operator, who asked not to be named. “I’m sure I will eventually see applications, but there is no flood of inquiries from people who want to come here.”

This may be because although Saudi tourism officials might want foreign visitors, there is no marketing campaign to attract them. Only savvy travelers can track down a licensed tour operator, bridge the language barrier and apply for permission. Visitors also must be part of a group of 20 or more people that tours Saudi Arabia under the supervision of a licensed tour operator.

“I don’t see group tours as an attraction for a lot of foreigners,” said Muhammad Al-Yamani, who manages a three-star hotel on Palestine Road in Jeddah and caters mostly to Saudis and Hajj pilgrims. “It’s too strict. A lot of people outside Saudi Arabia and the GCC are used to traveling in foreign countries without being part of a group.”

Another consideration is Saudi Arabia’s social customs and laws. Women must wear the abaya (hijabs for non-Muslims are optional) and must have a male guardian with them. Unlike in Dubai and Egypt, alcohol, cinemas and nightclubs are absent in the Kingdom.

Yet Jeddah’s four- and five-star hotels along the Red Sea coast offer access to secluded resort beaches that are off-limits to Saudis and permit guests without restrictions to sunbathe, swim and take scuba diving lessons. Hotels, such as the InterContinental, Hilton, Golden Tulip and Meridian, also offer boating and deep sea fishing packages.

Abha, which is about 500 miles south of Riyadh, defies the Saudi Arabia image of vast deserts with its resorts nestled deep in the hillsides and wide vistas of tree-lined, snow-topped mountains. Many of Abha’s hotels offer packages to Asir National Park, the 4,000-year-old city of Najran at the Saudi-Yemeni border and area museums.

A typical Saudi destination is Madain Saleh, the pre-Islamic archaeological site about 250 miles northwest of Medina.

“There are a lot of hotels and resorts being built now,” said Hassan Younes, an Egyptian expat working for a five-store hotel near Jeddah’s Corniche. “It means jobs for my friends and family in Egypt. It means I might be able to get a better job. Saudis here in Jeddah like dealing with foreigners, especially Westerners, so they are happy about the future. Saudis in other areas? I’m not so sure, but if it means jobs, then there are no troubles.”

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