Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Demise of Arab hospitality

WHEN I was a young girl growing up in Madina, it was common for my mother and her neighbors to welcome new residents in our locality – irrespective if they were Saudi or not – with food and friendly visits.This was not a custom of Saudis only, but it was common throughout the Arab world also.

Those days are sadly passing away, the recent Expat Explorer survey conducted by HSBC bank shows just that. The survey found that only 54 percent of expatriates living in the United Arab Emirates make friends with their Emirati hosts.While the report did not specifically mention Saudi Arabia, the UAE can certainly serve as an example for other GCC countries.

The survey examined, whether expatriates made friends with local people; whether they joined a local community organization; whether they learned the language of their host country; and whether they purchased property there.Questioning 2,155 expats in 14 countries, the survey found that Canada was the friendliest country for foreigners, followed by Germany and Australia.

Germany ranked the top spot for expats learning the local language, Spain and Belgium followed next. France was the best place for foreigners to buy property. India, China and Singapore were the least desirable countries for foreigners to buy property in.The UAE was ranked as the last place where foreigners could make friends with the locals and was ranked 11th for learning its local language, Arabic.

It was slightly better at the No.7 spot for purchase of property, and was ranked 10th for how many expats join a local community group. Overall, the UAE ranked 13th, second last, as the best place for foreigners to assimilate.I am not singling out the UAE for inhospitality towards foreigners.

On the contrary, my visits to Dubai have been nothing but pleasurable and my non-Saudi friends have only praises about what wonderful places Dubai and Abu Dhabi are to live in.But it doesn’t surprise me in the least that non-Arabs have difficultly in learning the language and making friends with locals.

One UAE newspaper, which reported the results of the HSBC survey, pointed out the significant cultural differences between Westerners and Arabs. For example, Arabs may not feel comfortable having newcomers in their home, especially since their wives and daughters in conservative families may live more secluded lives.Perhaps that is true, but to me the reasons are much more fundamental than cultural differences.

We now live in a society – and I am talking about Saudi Arabia as much as any other GCC country – that has less time to practice the traditional hospitality Saudis and Emiratis are so well known for.I know that in places like Baha that are more traditional, greeting newcomers is very common in the community.

But we are increasingly adopting a more urban lifestyle as our society is getting accustomed to the comforts of modernity. Satellite television, the Internet, computer games, DVD movies and, I suppose, the pure joy of shopping at the new mall, has irrevocably changed us into insular families.This is not criticism for the simple fact that we are products of the 21st century. The modern lifestyle is having an effect on all of us.

I’m sure most of us have not even consciously felt the loss of some of our traditions as we now lead a more hectic lifestyle that is limited to our families and existing friends.But we are also a lesser people because of it. Saudis should take a look at the expat websites and booklets giving information to foreigners coming to Saudi Arabia for the first time. One of the prevailing theme throughout the publications are references to the “famous Saudi hospitality and generosity.”

Now ask yourself. Is that really true?
Picture by : Heather Thompson (OG)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Makkah in future

Nearly three million Muslims crowded for Haj at the holy sites this year and almost no major problem arose this time.

Virtually every pilgrim is going home with cherished memories of that experience.Haj has not been without its problems over the years, owing mostly to the fact that the growing numbers of visitors have made the area too small to accommodate everyone.

I still remember the tragedy in 2006 when more than 300 people died in a stampede.It appears, though, that such disasters are now a thing of the past as the newly-built high-tech four-level SR4-billion Jamrat Bridge has the capacity to accommodate up to 300,000 people per hour and up to 5 million pilgrims in total.

This new modern bridge has eliminated congestion problems. Space to store pilgrims’ luggage nearby was allotted that reduced congestion and safety issues experienced in the past.The new Jamrat Bridge shows the foresight of King Abdullah to ensure that Makkah becomes modernized enough to comfortably accommodate the growing number of Haj pilgrims.

Makkah is Islam’s most important venue and such a massive infrastructure project suits, though cannot equal, its worth.Consider that under King Abdullah’s direction more than 40,000 fireproof tents have been established at Mina, along with 42,000 air-conditioners, hundreds of thousands of electric lamps and thousands of fire extinguishers.And that is just to accommodate the pilgrims.

It’s been reported that approximately US$7 billion have been invested in infrastructure that includes an elaborate network of tunnels for water and electricity, and fly-overs to ease traffic congestion.Another ambitious aspect of the modernization efforts is the plan to build a SR5 billion monorail that would link Makkah, Mina, Muzdalifa and Arafat by 2010.

The ongoing project is expected to be the world’s largest renovation scheme that includes luxury hotels, and commercial and residential towers. The residential towers will house most of the pilgrims.

Project planners are said to be courting top architects Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid to head the design renovations.To give an idea of the breadth and scope of the project, consider that Hadid, the 58-year-old Iraqi-born architect, is probably the top-ranked building designer, next to American architect Frank Gehry and Foster, who is being considered for the job.

Hadid is the first woman to win the Pritzker Price for Architecture, given annually to an architect who performs significant achievements, and is known for her extreme approach to building design.She is responsible for designing the Contemporary Arts Center in Rome, the Guggenheim Museum in Taiwan, the Glasgow Museum of Transport, the Marseilles Museum in France and the Abu Dhabi Bridge in the United Arab Emirates.

Even if Hadid fails to win a commission, the fact that an Arab woman is in the running for such a prestigious project speaks volumes of King Abdullah’s vision to bring greatness to Makkah; a greatness that is not limited to buildings and infrastructure but extends to the people who will make a modern Makkah a reality.

By the end of this decade Makkah will rise to a level that will easily accommodate the ever growing number of Muslims worldwide. Like other planned tourism infrastructure projects throughout Saudi Arabia, the holy city will become much more than a venue to perform Haj. It is, as it always has been, the guiding beacon for all Muslims. But now it will be a holy city with modern amenities.

Saudi women’s group wins EU rights prize

RIYADH - A Saudi charity which helps divorced and underprivileged women has won a European Union prize for human rights groups in the Arabian Gulf, the Riyadh office of the European Commission said on Wednesday.
The Al-Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women won the first Chaillot Prize over several other rights groups for its range of activities, including preparing underprivileged and undereducated women for jobs, setting up a school for Down Syndrome children, and assisting needy families, according to the Commission.
The award was announced to mark the 60th anniversary on Wednesday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, originally presented to the UN General Assembly at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris.Several rights groups in member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council were short-listed for the prize, which fetches the winner $7,760 in prize money.
“With the launching of the Chaillot Prize, the EC desires to acknowledge the extraordinary work which is done by some institutions and individuals in the field of human rights in all the Gulf countries,” said Antonia Calvo, the EC deputy head of mission for the region.
Al-Nahda is one of Saudi Arabia’s oldest and most prominent non-governmental organizations, and its first foundation for women, founded in 1962 under the auspices of Princess Sara Al-Faisal and Princess Latifa Al-Faisal.Aside from helping thousands of poor women learn crafts and trades to help support themselves or augment family income, the group helps to provide housing to poor families and operates health awareness programs for poor women.The prize will be awarded in ceremony in Riyadh on Dec. 17, Calvo said. - AFP


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Saudi tourism: An important milestone

LAST September I wrote about the modest advances that the Saudi General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (GCTA) has been making in order to create a better climate for foreigners to visit Saudi Arabia.

I don’t anticipate that it will be easy for a lot of Westerners who may become impatient with our famous, or infamous, governmental red tape when it comes to issuing visas to visitors, but I certainly applaud those hearty people who have the patience and will to make the trip.

That’s why I was so glad to hear that 38 American tourists visited Tabuk last week by way of Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. They visited the ancient sites in the region and had a look at the old Hijaz Railway and the historic Tabuk fortress.

The Saudi Gazette reported that it was only one trip of a scheduled 68 visits expected to Saudi Arabia from the United States and Europe.The trip marks an important milestone in Saudi history as Saudi Arabia moves from a closed society to one that is embracing its international standing.

For those of us who have been following the GCTA, we looked on skeptically as the Commission began exploring tourism options shortly after 9/11.I don’t think many of us in the news media seriously considered that foreigners would be allowed to visit our historic sites in large numbers.

And I also recall many of my friends and colleagues who said they would be quite happy if our borders remained closed and Saudi Arabia was left to the Saudis.But time has a way of changing our perspective on things, and most of the skeptics have turned into optimists in recent years.

Terrorism in Saudi Arabia and around the world has certainly changed our attitudes about living in an insular world. Showcasing all that Saudi Arabia has to offer and learning about other nationalities is perhaps the best way to bridge cultural and religious gaps.But from a more practical standpoint, opening the country to foreign tourists is a smart economic move.

Just recently it has been announced that 24 new tourism projects are being launched that will bring big business to regions not typically known as tourist destinations.About SR150 billion has been set aside for a string of resorts along the Red Sea. Ras Muhaisen in the Makkah province, Ras Humaid Sharma, Dhaffat Al-Wajh and Qayyal in Tabuk, Haridha in Asir and Arrayes in Yanbu will be sites for new resorts.

Tourism centers are now planned throughout the western region, including Asir, Jizan and Najran. Construction projects are planned for heritage buildings and museums.This will serve two purposes. It will bring much needed foreign tourist dollars to these areas, creating jobs for more Saudis than probably any other industry in the country.

The projects also anticipate another huge influx of foreign workers to Saudi Arabia. Despite the current economic slowdown, plans for the country’s six economic cities and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology are continuing on schedule. These cities and the university will bring thousands of workers. KAUST, in particular, will see large numbers of Westerners live and work in the region.

Their appetites for entertainment and visiting cultural and historic sites will far exceed what Saudi Arabia has to offer now.Already tourism is now the fastest growing industry here and tourism training has taken place with fresh graduates ready to serve the Commission.The benefits of this new growth industry are limitless.

Economically depressed areas will be revitalized with jobs and a healthy economy while we are given the opportunity to present the unseen face of Saudi Arabia.I’m not so blind as to believe that opening the country to foreign tourists will occur without problems. Western culture and Islam have always struggled to find common ground.

The United Arab Emirates, for example, continually works to find a balance between accommodating foreign tourists and maintaining its cultural and religious identity.Saudi Arabia, of course on a more restrictive and different level, must contend with these issues as well if foreigners are permitted to visit in greater numbers.But overall, the visit to Tabuk by a few dozen Americans is a promising sign that there are alternatives for ensuring economic prosperity for the future.