Thursday, May 4, 2017

Saudi Arabia Breaks Free Of Its Four Decades Of Cultural Imprisonment

Saudi Arabia is entering a new era, or perhaps a more accurate phrase would be an era of enlightenment. This is not a case of Saudis being “unenlightened” until now, but instead an awakening from a slumber from the past 38 years.
Against our better judgment, we had allowed a segment of our society to dictate a moral code that did not fit with our identity as Arabs or as Muslims. We lost a generation — my generation — to the fear of being judged as not good Muslims because we enjoy music, literature and popular entertainment. So, many Saudis put aside those small pleasures to demonstrate that we were pious and our devotion to Islam could not be questioned.
The new era that I write of is unrecognized today because fanaticism has become the image of Islam to non-Muslim nations. Daesh and Al-Qaeda command media attention for their crimes against humanity while the true Islam, the peaceful Islam, is silenced by the hysteria of passing legislation to ban hijabs, burqas and minarets from cities, and even proposals from some European far right political parties to ban the Qur’an and deport law-abiding Muslims from their countries.
In Saudi Arabia our view of our religion is quite different. Recently the government held its annual book fair in Riyadh. Two very important events occurred at the fair that bear examination.
First, the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, otherwise known as the religious police, was present not as an enforcement agency to demand strict adherence to their version of Islam, but as a participant with an information booth. Five or 10 years ago, the religious police would have swept through the fair with their sticks, tearing up books, swatting foreign book publishers and authors, and smashing musical instruments in their freakish zeal to practice their definition of Islam. Today, this crude behavior has virtually disappeared as committee members perform volunteer work to aid book fair guests and explain their role to guide Muslims along the right path.
The second event at the fair involved a lone Saudi who took it upon himself to disrupt a concert given by the fair’s country guest of honor, Malaysia. He upturned their microphone and scattered musicians off the stage as he ranted and raved about the sin they were committing by playing music. A video of the incident has gone viral. This poor soul may earnestly believe that playing and listening to music is a sin. But the new generation of Saudis are taking a different approach that one man’s right to loudly proclaim his piety ends at the tip of another man’s nose. It is not up to him to impose his righteousness on others. This individual was expecting applause and appreciation for standing up to perceived sinners only to be greeted by silence and pitying looks by onlookers.
The contrasts of these two episodes point to the challenges Saudi Arabia is facing today. We have a government willing to allow their people to flourish with new ideas and a new way of living their lives, but society hasn’t quite caught up with the idea. And while it may be a struggle for my own generation to rise above a limited view of the world imposed upon us over four decades — as we have seen with this poor fellow at the fair — today’s youth have no such constraints.
Saudi society today is more educated and increasingly becoming more tolerant and emphasizing moderation. The religious discourse among young Saudis in private conversations and public forums has taken on a “live and let live” philosophy. Saudis are rebelling against the barbarian, loud extremist behavior ingrained in our society since 1979 when breaking musical instruments and creating chaos at public venues were deemed somehow appropriate in religious conservative circles. These individuals behaved in such a manner in the name of religion even if it was not part of the religious establishment.
Recently Tawfiq Al-Sudairi, the deputy minister of Islamic Affairs in Saudi Arabia, expressed his disapproval of the “political interpretation of Islam” by arguing that it is a “self-serving interpretation.” He argued that extremism is more dangerous than terrorism. Political Islam today has influenced many Muslims’ religious paths. Political Islam as a theory has ignited uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.
Certainly there are plenty of young men and women who view political Islam as the right path. We can not deny the hundreds of young people from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe who pledge their flawed and demented version of Islam to Daesh. But these people are a handful in contrast to the burgeoning renaissance of art, music and literature created by Saudis. A renaissance that is public and with the support of the Saudi government through its General Authority of Entertainment, which is bringing A-List acts to the Kingdom and in some cases funding arts projects created by young people.
This is the true face of today’s new generation of Saudis: hardworking, committed  to the artd to the arts and science, andbreathing life into a culture and religion that once was the envy of nations but had laid dormant for so many years.  Link to the original article 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Privatization of education sector

The Saudi government’s recent announcement that it plans to privatize its education system offers some tantalizing possibilities for Saudi citizens, but it also poses far more questions than answers on how such a massive undertaking would be implemented and whether such a plan is even workable.
Privatization of a public agency is fraught with enough unknowns that it could be doomed to failure without proper government monitoring. Americans and British citizens witnessed a boon in privatization beginning in the 1980s of services ranging from prisons to airports to fuel production. The results have been mixed, but one thing for sure is that middle-class workers and unions in the West took huge hits in available jobs once private companies started running things.

Having said that, there are many successes in private education. Public secondary school graduates are more likely to be unprepared for university level courses than their private school graduate counterparts. Students’ proficiency in a foreign language and strong critical thinking skills can’t hold a candle to students graduating from private schools. Memorization techniques still taught in the Saudi public education system, long since rejected by most countries as a poor method of teaching, remains the preferred system.

But to make the plan work there must be strong oversight by the Ministry of Education. There also must be competent staff to implement and maintain that supervision. Yet even with strong supervision there are many obstacles to consider. Public agencies’ foremost obligation is to serve the masses. Private companies’ obligation is to serve its shareholders, investors and its owners. 
The gains that Saudi Arabia has seen in the past decade to preserve the environment may be threatened by private business that may subvert environmental rules. Larger companies are in a better position to create a monopoly of ownership of schools. And perhaps the most important concern for privatized education is that if there is a lack of transparency then corruption will soon follow.

Parents may very well turn a blind eye toward these potential issues. That won’t mean they will be faced with their own set of a problems of sending their children to a private school. Already, Saudi Arabia is rife in controversies at the local level of parents battling school administrations over high tuition costs, which begs the question of whether the government will put a cap on tuition or require privatized schools to follow a uniform tuition schedule. Will each school have the same curriculum? Will memorization as a teaching method be thrown out? Will the government establish a set of standards government when hiring teachers domestically and from abroad?

The premise of privatization is that it saves governments money and the private sector can run a service efficiently and provide better quality. In theory private sector employees make less money than government workers. The private sector can cut bloated payrolls and function with fewer workers. 

But studies have shown, including a 2011 survey published in the Washington Post that it doesn’t always work out that way. The study found that 33 out of 35 jobs farmed out to private companies, including engineers and auditors; actually cost the US government more money. And there’s the rub. Private companies may bid low for a government contract to run a school, but at the end of the day the government is still paying those businesses. If the private sector takes away one thing in securing government contracts, it’s that those contracts are a cash cow. Of course, when a private company’s sole purpose is to obtain government contracts to run a service the potential for corruption increases.

Since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher ignited the privatization spree nearly 40 years ago economists still can’t agree whether the strategy really works. One thing is certain, though, private companies jumping on the government contract gravy train see huge profits. And that’s the bottom line.

Wasting time on trivial matters

We Saudis don’t like to admit it, but we can be without too much effort a misogynistic society. Harsh? Perhaps. I’m not talking about all Saudis, of course. 
It’s hard to tell when people in positions of authority find creative ways to keep women from becoming part of the decision-making process and be part of the Kingdom’s future. Saudi Arabia is not alone. Misogyny reaches far and wide across all corners of the world.
But here in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques we seem to have a vigorous resistance to joining the 21st century. Our leadership has directed us to the path of reform and inclusion of women in the workplace and to receive a university education. Some of our brightest minds are now working in the private sector. King Abdullah issued a royal decree that put 30 women on the Shoura Council, which, by the way, has hardly caused a single negative ripple in the fabric of Saudi society. To the contrary, the inclusion of women on the council has created a new dynamic that has included meaningful debate on women’s issues that up until a few years ago were never discussed.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman has continued those programs. It’s obvious that the Saudi government is investing in women to bring about positive change. These points, however, are lost on the men of the Jeddah Municipal Council, who seemed to be so frightened of sitting next to two newly elected female council members that they demanded that they sit at a separate table partitioned with frosted glass from the rest of the council. If you ever wondered why Jeddah’s sidewalks are crumbling, the neighborhood parks are total wrecks and parking at commercial centers is virtually impossible, now you know why. The men of the municipal council feel threatened working with women and rather focus on keeping them at harm’s length. They don’t even want to see them.
This incident, which occurred recently at council meeting, is a slap in the face of every Jeddawi female. Their temper tantrum disrespects the forward-looking work of inclusion of Saudi women in society. The council has completely lost sight of what it means to be a Muslim and to be Saudi. They refuse to look at the Shoura Council as a role model for their own council, in which their sole purpose is to advise the municipality. 
As long as a woman wears the hijab and is modestly dressed, there is no prohibition in Shariah against men and women mixing, so whatever legal excuses municipal council members are claiming is fantasy. The two female council members subjected to this harassment, Dr. Lama Al-Sulaiman and Rasha Al-Hifzi, would not be cowed by these fellows and demanded their seats at the table. They ultimately prevailed much to the consternation of their male colleagues. The women’s victory comes after a battle that should never have been fought.
It all boils down to whether we really want to progress as a nation. And the answer from the Jeddah Municipal Council is “no.” The council rather haggle over seating assignments than help govern its city.

Dealing with refugees

Old Europe, when the going gets tough, reverts to its tendency toward a bit of fascism lite and with a heavy dose of xenophobia. This is not to say that things haven’t been tough for Europeans since more than 1 million refugees have been poured into the continent last year. But its reaction to tough times is more knee-jerk rather than thoughtful, hysterical rather than deliberate.
The behavior of some refugees is lamentable, but must be dealt with swiftly and decisively. The sexual assaults against women in Cologne, Germany, allegedly by some refugees are disgusting and inexcusable on any level. But the fatal stabbing of an aid worker at an overcrowded Swedish asylum center by a 15-year-old war refugee points to a much larger problem that Europe is apparently ill-equipped to handle.
How to deal with refugees traumatized by war and displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome? Swedish law authorities have reported that police response to threats and violence at asylum centers have more than doubled from 148 incidents in 2014 to 322 in 2015. The Swedish police commissioner is seeking an additional 4,100 police officers to strengthen Sweden’s counterterrorism units, but the country’s staffing to deal with the steady stream of refugees remains woefully thin.
As the incidents of violence increases, European governments’ first reaction is to focus on deportation and imprisonment. Neither is a solution. Expelling traumatized war refugees will only exacerbate the problem by sending violent offenders elsewhere and who could very well return radicalized and a much more dangerous threat. And as Europe and England have discovered, prisons are breading grounds for extremists to recruit young men into their ranks.
Already, Europe is heading toward a slippery slope with a series of policies that are reportedly designed to protect countries admitting migrants, but in reality only marginalize them. In a move that echoes Europe’s past, Denmark this week passed legislation to strip refugees of their possessions valued at $1,435 or more. Migrants are allowed to keep watches, mobile phones and wedding rings as long as their value is not too high. The Danish government reasons that the possessions might pay the expenses to accommodate refugees.
Unfortunately, Denmark demonstrates a collective amnesia suffered by some European countries. Nazi Germany occupied Denmark from 1940 to 1945 and seized the assets of its Jewish citizens. Many surviving Jewish Danes returning from concentration camps after World War II were lucky enough to have neighbors who protected their homes in their absence, but for most European Jews the recovery of their possessions was impossible.
In Cardiff, Wales, a private company responsible for feeding refugees, issued red wristbands to easily identify individuals eligible for evening meals. However, the wristbands, which must be worn at all times, also identified them as war refugees and as potential targets for xenophobes to abuse. The wristband requirement was rescinded following media reports. To be fair the idea might have sounded good on paper. But there are enough people living in England and in Europe to remember — and to have first-hand experiences — of either wearing or seeing people with yellow stars on their clothing.
There is no question that Europe is grappling with how to manage the burden of migrants, many of whom are damaged by the ravages of war. Yet it’s clear that 20th century thinking, even well intentioned, will only create more problems than it will solve. Swift action to mitigate the damage already wrought by war will also minimize the threat of extremism. This means psychological treatment for PTSD and providing jobs and housing. Courses in European culture to help with assimilation also should be provided.
There is a tendency to treat migrants in the abstract and not as real people. Europe must recognize that these people have really suffered and are victims of Bashar Assad and Daesh. If the European Union implements policies to set them on the right path, then it can serve as a model instead of a cautionary tale. The EU is on the threshold of doing some great things, but if it fails to get a grip on managing the migrants they have welcomed, then the cycle of violence will continue and perhaps further engulf Europe.

Eradicating the scourge of racism

Nearly 12 years ago while working with a Saudi newspaper I met an eager, intelligent young Saudi woman who was prepared to take on the world.
This was a time when young Saudi women were testing the waters of journalism and were taking privately sponsored classes to learn the craft of news reporting. 
Some young ladies bowed out of the program or went on to other things once they received their certificate of completion. 
But Nawal Al-Hawsawi wanted to save the world and she persisted long after some of her colleagues in class lost interest. Even when some of her editors did not take her seriously she did not lose hope that there was a place for her.
I have kept track of Nawal through the years and have read with great interest her successes in the United States. She married an American and now has children of her own. She is a certified airplane pilot and a licensed family counselor.
It surprised me not in the least when I learned that she is working to aid victims of domestic violence. But it does surprise me to learn that she is being attacked almost daily on social media for her work and her background as a Saudi citizen.
I can identify with Nawal because we have taken similar paths in our professional and personal lives, although I give her the credit for being much more courageous and adventurous than me. We suffer some of the same slings and arrows for our work and opinions, but Nawal’s work makes mine look like I live the life of a princess.
The attacks on Nawal, including death threats, are racist and delivered by many young Saudis who have delusions of grandeur and believe somehow that there is a certain purity that can only apply to a specific group of Saudis. Nawal is black so she is perceived by the ignorant as not worthy of Saudi citizenship. As noted recently in this newspaper, there are three categories in which the residents of Saudi Arabia fall, according to those misled people. 
“The Original Saudis descend from Bedouin tribes, the ‘Vomit from the Sea,’ which is Saudis of foreign descent and ‘strangers,’ which are basically all expats.” 
To the bigoted, Nawal falls into the second category. I have heard about these categories many times and even have discussed this at the dinner table with my family. But when Saudis take to social media and ridicule other Saudis’ ethnic and regional background, it says much more about them and their insecurities as Saudis than it does about Nawal and people like her. To many independent-minded Saudis — and yes, there are a few out there — it only puts Nawal above them. In fact, when some Saudis ridicule individuals as vomit from the sea, it’s a reflection on them as narrow-minded racists incapable of being true Muslims.
Nawal was born and raised in Makkah and considers herself the daughter of Al-Hijaz, but she doesn’t carry the tribal credentials or have that perfect alleged Saudi looks that makes her, in the eyes of the hateful, a true Saudi.
I don’t deny that many Saudis divide their brothers and sisters into numerous categories and even rank them whether they are authentic. But that is true in many societies, such as what we are witnessing in the United States presidential Republican campaign in which apparently the only true Americans are white and Christian, or in Europe where darker second-generation Europeans are still marginalized.
But frankly, we Saudis think of ourselves as special because we live in the land of the Two Holy Mosques and the cradle of Islam. Yet many of us behave as if we don’t live in this special place and we don’t accept the teachings of Islam. Really, how do these racist bullies look themselves in the mirror and call themselves Muslims?

KSA moving in a new direction

Gone almost unnoticed in the West, but very much on the minds of people in the Arab world is the abrupt turnaround from the United States by trying to embrace Iran at the expense of its longtime allies in the Middle East.
First, it must be acknowledged that US President Barack Obama had found himself between a rock and a hard place on what to do with Iran. The two governments had been hostile toward each other since the 1979 revolution and the rhetoric only became much more vitriolic with the passage of time. Obama saw war as perhaps inevitable and sought to defuse the violent rhetoric with the nuclear deal, which basically delays whatever confrontation between the US and Iran for another decade or so.
The casualty in all of this is the Arab world. Ignoring the Arab world and embracing Iran, which continues to this day to show contempt for the US by detaining American sailors who had wandered into Iranian waters, is a fool’s mission.
The American and British media followed America’s lead with a steady stream of anti-Saudi Arabia reporting. Much of this rhetoric stems from Saudi Arabia’s more pragmatic foreign policy initiatives during the past year and its decision to rely less on support from the United States.
In the recent interview with The Economist, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outlined Saudi Arabia’s bold plans to wean itself of oil revenue and embark on a revenue-generating program that involves some taxation. In the interview, The Economist displayed its lack of understanding of Arab and Islamic culture by seeking answers through the prism of western values. 
Prince Mohammed pointed out that any introduction of taxes would be in the form of a VAT. There will be no income tax or taxes on basic products like dairy. 
The Saudi government, he said, represents the people. Unsaid, though, and lost on the interviewer was that a form of democracy, codified in Shariah, already exists with the Shoura Council, the Council of Ministers, workshops and the National Dialogue program.
On the execution of terrorists and the inappropriate and wild reactions, the deputy crown prince said the terrorists were sentenced in a court of law with charges related to terrorism and they went through three layers of judicial proceedings. They had the right to hire an attorney and they had attorneys present throughout each layer of the proceedings. The court doors were also open for any media people and journalists, and all the proceedings and the judicial texts were made public. And the court did not, at all, make any distinction between whether or not a person is Shiite or Sunni. They are reviewing a crime, and a procedure, and a trial, and a sentence, and carrying out the sentence.
The Economist took issues with the role that Saudi women will play in the changes in the economic structure of the country with only 18 percent of the work force female and the restrictions on travel and driving. The deputy crown prince noted there were fewer restrictions on travel that were perceived by foreigners and that the idea of a fully employed woman was new to Saudi culture. There are aspects of travel and independence that Saudis are willing to change to increase female participation in the work force, but there are also religious constraints to consider as well, he said.
By invoking during the interview Margaret Thatcher’s austerity programs as a model for changes in Saudi Arabia’s economy and his appreciation for Winston Churchill’s ability to see opportunities in times of crises, the deputy crown prince has demonstrated that Saudi Arabia is more than ready to make it alone without the United States watching its back. The US will always be Saudi Arabia’s ally, but the days of total dependence on other side of the world are over.

It’s justice not ‘provocation’

Since the so-called Arab Spring erupted in 2011, throwing much of the Middle East and North Africa into turmoil, few countries in the region have escaped bloodshed. 
Saudi Arabia and a handful of other Arab countries — among them the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar — have escaped major violence and have proven to be models of stability.
Saudi Arabia, by virtue of its size and leadership position in the region, has had to contend with external forces not only within its own borders, but also with its closest neighbors, Bahrain and Yemen.
Unappreciated by most of the world is the fact that Iran has designs to emerge as a leader in the Arab world. Evidence is plentiful that it is stoking sectarian unrest in Bahrain, Yemen and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Iran is eager to fight a proxy war against Saudi Arabia to become the leader of a region that absolutely no Gulf country wants.
Iran is trying to create problems in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province by using the sectarian card. Nimr Al-Nimr, who was recently executed along with other terror convicts, not only advocated violence in the Kingdom but he also made inflammatory speeches that certainly could lead to sectarian unrest.
Al-Nimr was executed along with 46 other individuals linked to terrorism, including the Al-Qaeda attacks between 2003 and 2006. 
If Saudi Arabia is to stem sectarian violence inside the Kingdom and keep the peace amid the turmoil engulfing its neighbors, it must wield a firm hand inside its own borders and send a clear message to Tehran that it will not tolerate meddling in its domestic affairs. Iran, with all of its blustering over the execution of Al-Nimr, has violated the sovereignty of Bahrain and Yemen with its presence in those two countries and its continuing policy of sending arms to insurgents. It further violated Saudi sovereignty with its infiltration of the Shiite community and now with its ransacking of the Saudi embassy and consulate on it soil.
If Saudi Arabia were to accept the conventional wisdom among western leaders that Iran’s influence in the region is greatly exaggerated, then it exposes itself to the same violence we now see in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Not only is the threat of sectarian violence real but if left unchecked by the Saudi government, sectarianism will further collapse into tribal warfare to settle old scores. If Saudi Arabia stood by and did nothing to curb Iran’s misadventures, then the region will lose its leader and threaten the civilian population in every country from Morocco to Qatar and Lebanon to Yemen. It will lead to a catastrophic war that will leave no winners.
To protect its own interests Saudi Arabia is protecting the interests of the region. The execution of Al-Nimr was necessary to preserve peace in the Kingdom and ultimately to save lives. It was not an act of provocation, but justice. Tehran should recognize that we would never relinquish our sovereignty at any level or allow threats to the sovereignty of our peaceful neighbors. Providing funding to nations, no matter whether their governments are weak, to incite revolution is a gross violation of those countries’ sovereignty. To ignore these intrusions is negligent. Saudi Arabia has an obligation to protect itself and its neighbors from external influences.

A bitter pill for a better future

The re-cent hike in gasoline prices in Saudi Arabia — up to 67 percent for some grades of fuel — came as a shock to many Saudis. But it shouldn’t.
Pretty much since the 1970s, Saudis have been given a free ride when it comes to fuel prices. While Europe and the United States have paid a premium at the fuel pumps we have been paying a few halalas to drive around. Now gasoline prices in the Kingdom are about $1 per gallon. In England it’s about $5.40 a gallon, and in the US gasoline prices average about $2 a gallon depending on the region.
We are witnessing an end of an era in Saudi Arabia in which dependency on the government and the economic model that Saudi citizens have become accustomed to is changing rapidly. Many Saudis see this with an attitude of doom and gloom while many others view the transformation as a challenge to emerge from our four-decade-old lethargy.
Of course, much of the changes are directly linked to low oil prices, but it has been expected in the last decade as Saudi Arabia pursued projects to generate nonoil revenue. Those generous government subsidies had to end some day. The first hint occurred in the 1990s with Saudization to provide Saudis with jobs, particularly in the private sector. The indirect message was that the government jobs would not always be available to young Saudis.
Half of the Saudi population is now under the age of 25 and must find employment. Women are entering the workforce in large numbers after earning university degrees abroad and have high expectations of good salaries, positions of authority and good working conditions. The Ministry of Labor has been making efforts to reduce the country’s dependency on foreign labor, although getting Saudis to accept jobs that include manual labor remains to be a tough nut to crack. There has been tremendous success in getting more Saudis into the workplace with bank jobs for men and women and the thousands of jobs now available for young women in the retail sector.
So the signs have been obvious for a long time. Although the government may impose harsh penalties on businesses that pass the additional costs to the Saudi consumer, it’s inevitable that food, services and public transportation — such as it is — will increase over the next year. This will further force Saudis to seek to increase their income. Although there is no indication as of yet, some economic experts expect free education and free health care to Saudis may also be reconsidered. These benefits, however, are what make Saudi Arabia a great nation. But there is a caveat. The public education system needs a desperate overhaul if Saudis are to be competitive in the global workplace. The Ministry of Education must set its sights on a workable model that gives young people a global view with an emphasis on science and technology.
The ministry also must consider reestablishing humanities and arts curriculum that will help Saudis better connect with individuals from different faiths and different walks of life. By stripping ourselves of our tendency to live in an insular, highly private world, young Saudis will become more competitive in the domestic and international job market with fewer expectations of government handouts. If the government removes some of the safety nets that many Saudis have come to expect as their entitlement they will be put in a position to flourish.

Poor safety culture

The other day, I visited a friend at one of the five-star hotels in Jeddah. Suddenly, the hotel management announced that it would conduct a fire drill and urged its guests to evacuate the building as part of the drill.
The curious thing about the announcement was that although it described the fire drill as voluntary, management would forcefully enter any hotel room, which the guests did not evacuate. The reasoning was that in the event of a real emergency, Civil Defense teams would naturally break into rooms to rescue guests.
There was some ambivalence among guests about whether to participate in the drill, and of course, more than enough grumbling that hotel security would actually break into rooms and violate their privacy if they chose not to participate.
The drill was timely following the disastrous hospital fire in Jazan that killed 24 people and injured 123. This fire was especially tragic since it occurred in the maternity ward and neonatal unit. So far, no details have been released that could tell us whether newborns and mothers were among the victims.
What is of special note, however, is the criticism leveled at the so-called Good Samaritans who may have contributed to the death toll. 
Top officials blamed the number of deaths on the crowd gathered outside the hospital. They complained the crowd, which they described as a “mob,” prevented Civil Defense rescue teams from entering the building. Worse, many in the crowd rushed into the building to help with rescue efforts. About 50 of these do-gooders were injured and had to be treated by rescue teams, which took them away from rescuing the original fire victims.
The incident involving the crowd points to two problems: The crowd’s behavior during the fire is indicative of Saudis and expats having little confidence in the ability of government rescue teams to perform their job properly. This is hardly the first incident of crowds becoming unruly while watching rescue operations and attempting to take matters in their own hands. Second, the average onlooker allows his emotions to get the better of them and as a consequence exercises poor judgment.
Many lives are saved by Good Samaritans who happened to be in a position to perform heroic deeds. Recently, a Saudi nurse on the highway between Jeddah and Madinah saved the life of a man involved in a traffic accident. But I have also traveled the same highway and observed more than my share of accidents in which dozens of motorists converge on a traffic collision to aid the injured. To what extent does so many people really help is a mystery.
The message here is that if an individual is certified to treat injured people, by all means allow them to do his job, even if he is off-duty. If an individual has no expertise or training, then the only reasonable thing to do is stand out of the way and let the professionals do their job.
The same attitude should be applied to safety drills. At least one report on the Jazan hospital fire stated that some fire exits were chained shut. No official investigation has reached the same conclusion, but if these reports were to be believed routine fire drills would have immediately exposed this safety violation. If the hotel where my friend was staying ordered its guests to exit the building via the stairwell and found a fire door locked, then lives would be saved in the event of a real fire.
There is a tendency among Saudis to let fate dictate our choices. In other words, the future will be what it’s to be and we have no control over it. But by the same token our choices will dictate our fate. By choosing to participate in fire drills and to avoid rushing into a burning building without the slightest hint of what we are doing, we are setting a course to save lives. And that is our fate as well.