Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why let principles get in the way of a good business deal?

There’s nothing like a little money to help put aside those nagging issues of principles, honor and just doing the right thing.

No, I’m sorry, it’s not a little money, but $26.7 million (SAR100 million) that eases one’s conscience. I’m referring to the Rotana Media Group that just inked a deal that gives News Corp., which owns the Muslim-hating, Saudi-bashing Fox News, a 10 percent stake in the Saudi company. The deal apparently leaves the door open for News Corp. to purchase another 10 percent of Rotana.

The agreement looks to give Rotana, a part of the conglomerate Kingdom Holding Company, a 30 percent market share in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Rotana’s regional reach will exceed the Dubai-based and Saudi-owned MBC.

News Corp. is run by Australian Rupert Murdoch, who has allowed his Fox News to run amok on cable TV with the likes of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, a pair of conservatives who use the word “Muslim” as an epithet.

Saudi Arabia has spent considerable energy since 9/11 attempting to correct the stereotypes and outright lies about Islam, but whatever campaigns Saudis lead takes a backseat to the Fox propaganda machine.

Shortly after the Ft. Hood attacks that left 12 US soldiers and one civilian dead at the hands of a Muslim, Fox trotted out Michelle Malkin to give her two cents about the motives behind Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. Malkin, who wrote a book arguing that interning Japanese-Americans during World War II was just fine and mass internments should be brought back today, railed against “Muslim soldiers with an attitude” who are able to “infiltrate” the US military with “jihadi intentions.”

Another Fox News host suggested that all Muslim military personnel be treated as “potential threats.”

In 2006, Glenn Back demanded the US Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison “prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”

For every interfaith dialogue conference sponsored by Saudi Arabia to promote tolerance, Fox is there with a sledgehammer to knock it down.

Yet, according to Rotana, Islamophobia should never get in the way of the good business deal. Rotana’s partnership with News Corp., and by extension Fox, tacitly endorses the American media’s perpetuation of Islamophobia. The Kingdom Holding Company has owned 5.7 percent of the voting shares in News Corp. since 2005.

The Saudi media giant’s relationship with News Corp. has never been a secret. After all, Rotana carries Fox in Saudi Arabia. This deal, however, gives News Corp. access to more than 2,000 Arabic movies, the largest Arabic language music library in the world, and even to Lebanese pop stars Haifa Wehbe and Elissa and Egyptian Amr Diab.

Saudis can be their own worst enemies. They have no problem boycotting Danish goods over offensive cartoons. They may stop vacationing in Switzerland because its voters want a nationwide ban on minarets on mosques. And for goodness sake let’s make sure that not only do we boycott Israeli goods, but the countries that do business with Israel.

Our true colors, however, show when the stakes are much higher the values we cherish take a back seat.

It’s a good thing that Rotana wants to strengthen its position in the Arab media market. But its influence stops there. It’s evident that the Kingdom Holding Company’s influence in News Corp. and Fox doesn’t amount to much.

The same can’t be said for News Corp., which has the true global reach. The company continues to spew its anti-Muslim rhetoric almost daily. It’s only a matter of time before their garbage is routinely aired in Arab markets.

Often it’s impossible to gauge the true motives and the politics of the people. Certainly we often are required to put aside politics to ensure that our businesses remain healthy and profitable. The politics of News Corp., however, is obvious and detrimental to Saudi interests. Rotana may profit from its relationship with Muslim haters, but I’m not sure a pact with the devil will help the country in the long run.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The OIC Secretary General is disappointed, and OIC Group in Geneva strongly condemns decision to ban construction of minarets in Switzerland

The Secretary General of the OIC, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, voiced his disappointment and concern with the result of the public referendum that took place in Switzerland on November 29, 2009 on the initiative to ban building of minarets in the mosques in Switzerland.

The Secretary General qualified the ban as an unfortunate development that would tarnish the image of Switzerland as a country upholding respect for diversity, freedom of religion and human rights and also as a recent example of growing anti-Islamic incitements in Europe by the extremist, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, racist, scare-mongering ultra-right politicians who reign over common sense, wisdom and universal values.

He recalled that the UN Committee on Human Rights had clearly pronounced its concern on the ban as a discriminatory practice that violated fundamental human rights including the freedom of religion.

Secretary General Ihsanoglu expressed his deep regret that at a time when the Muslim world and Muslim societies around the world have been engaged in a struggle to fight extremism, the western societies are being hostage to extremists who exploit Islam as a scapegoat and a springboard to develop their own political agenda which in turn contributes to polarization and fragmentation in the societies.

He stated that the development also highlighted the need for promoting genuine dialogue at the grass-roots level to alleviate all misunderstandings and misinformation that lead to intolerance and misconceptions.

In this regard, he appreciated the position of many Swiss political and religious leaders from all sides who expressed unequivocally their rejection for any attempt to undermine the rights of Muslims in Switzerland.

The issue was taken up between the OIC Secretary General and Foreign Minister of Swiss Confederation Mrs. Micheline Calmy-Rey who called the OIC Secretary General by phone following the official announcement regarding the results of the voting. The Secretary General conveyed to the Swiss Foreign Minister that with due respect to the sovereign and legitimate right of the Swiss people and democratic principles governing the Swiss Confederation in adopting any legislative measure, the decision of the Swiss people stood to be interpreted as xenophobic, prejudiced, discriminative and against the universal human rights values and it would tarnish the reputation of the Swiss people as a tolerant and progressive society. The Secretary General urged the Swiss authorities to remain vigilant in addressing any move, which may fuel extremism, misunderstanding, misperception and intolerance among communities and that he remained confident that Swiss political leaders would not spare any effort to preserve the image of their country as guardian of the international human rights instruments.

As the Muslim public opinion is following the issue with concern, the Secretary General appealed to the Muslim societies to abide by peaceful and democratic means in expressing their views on the issue. He stated that the OIC General Secretariat will continue to follow the developments very closely.

Meanwhile, the OIC Ambassadorial Group in Geneva communicated to the Swiss Government a letter in which the discriminatory decision to ban constructing minarets was strongly condemned. The letter, which was forwarded to the Swiss Government on December 3, stated, “the decision was a manifest attack on an Islamic symbol which could only serve to spread hatred and intolerance towards Muslims in general and those living in Switzerland in particular.”

The OIC Ambassadorial Group in Geneva drew the attention of Swiss Government to the fact that “Muslims in Switzerland were peaceful and law abiding citizens. The ban was, therefore, a discriminatory measure that would lead to intolerance towards this community”.

The OIC Group in Geneva welcomed the balanced and constructive statement made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on December 1 in which she described the vote as “a discriminatory, deeply divisive and thoroughly unfortunate step” that risked putting Switzerland “on a collision course with its international human rights obligations”. She also stated that “politics based on xenophobia or intolerance was extremely disquieting, wherever they occurred” and that “they were corrosive, and – beyond a certain point – could become highly disruptive and even dangerous”. The OIC Ambassadorial Group believed that the High Commissioner was correct to point out that “if allowed to gather momentum, discrimination and intolerance not only do considerable harm to individual members of the targeted group, but they also divide and harm society in general”.

This ban also stands in sharp contradiction to Switzerland’s international human rights obligations concerning freedom of expression, conscience and religion. It adds to the danger that this trend could spread to encompass other areas and activities related to the Muslims in Switzerland. There are reports that the Swiss Peoples Party is now planning further referenda to ban the headscarf among other measures.

The OIC Group has consistently pointed towards the xenophobic and Islamophobic trends in Western societies. The Swiss ban should serve as a warning sign and a wake-up call for all Western countries where calls are being made for similar policies, as it would lead to divisive and discriminatory practices against their Muslim populations.

The OIC Group has taken note of the opposition by the Government of Switzerland to this ban but regrets that “the absence of a more pronounced and concerted campaign against the ban gave its proponents a heavy margin in the referendum. It is hoped that the Swiss Government would do all in its powers to rescind this decision through appropriate parliamentary and judicial measures.

The OIC Ambassadors further hope that sustained efforts would be made by the Swiss authorities in particular and western authorities in general including the civil society, to fight the scourge of discrimination and xenophobia.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Expat medical student calls Saudi Arabia her home but she's left abandoned in the cold

While I was in Jeddah last month I received a telephone call from a young woman. She was timid, nervous, upset and desperate. She was a stranger, but her story touched me as it should touch all women.

This young woman had been attending medical school in Saudi Arabia and was in her fourth year when her father died. As her sole benefactor her father had gone to great lengths to ensure that her tuition was paid. He saved his money from the income of his job and apparently had several other sources of income from business acquaintances that helped fund his daughter’s education. As customary, he spared her the details of the source of her tuition so she could maintain her dignity
and focus on her studies.

When the father died, the daughter was left without parents or any male family members. She no longer had the money to continue her education and the medical school suspended her studies and asked to leave campus. The Ministry of Higher Education turned down her requests for a scholarship.

My initial reaction was that this was impossible. How could an intelligent, well-spoken and committed Saudi woman be denied a medical degree in a country where there are so few Saudi physicians, let alone female doctors? The Saudi medical community recruits hundreds of foreign doctors to fill its ranks, but snubs a medical student in its own backyard. Surely, a private scholarship would be available to her.

But the crux of her problem soon revealed itself. After further questioning, I discovered this desperate woman was not a Saudi citizen. Her mother was Egyptian and her father originated from a small African country. Yet everything about her -- from her demeanor, language, tone and even manners -- shouted that she was Saudi. She was born in Saudi Arabia, and knows no other country and speaks no other language other than Saudi. She is Saudi down to the bone. But she is not afforded any of the privileges of being Saudi because her parents were born elsewhere.

It’s highly unlikely that she will succeed in obtaining financial assistance in the form of charity from an emir or sheikh. She certainly doesn’t have the support system that Saudis receive when their parents have died and they need financial help.

This young woman’s plight illustrates a growing problem in Saudi society about where these children -- born in Saudi Arabia to legal or illegal resident parents -- belong in society.

We have quickly become a country of parallel societies: Saudis and the invisible class of a new generation of young people denied an education and meaningful employment.

Let’s not talk of deportation. It’s impractical, costly and inhuman. Exactly how will the Saudi government deport children to a country they do not know or ever stepped foot on? And let’s remember that many parents of these children entered the country legally on Umrah and Haj visas and simply overstayed those visas. We can’t punish the children of overstayers by denying them the basics of an education and jobs. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia will be burdened with caring for this invisible class of people.

I think it would be a fine gesture of the Saudi government to extend citizenship to children born in the country to legal or illegal parents, but that’s rather naïve. Just looking at the citizenship requirements document issued by the government a few years ago reads like a recipe for failure for every expatriate who has the audacity to apply.

The difference the government can make is to extend all educational benefits to children born in Saudi Arabia to foreign parents. Give them scholarship pportunities for higher education and even send them abroad on the promise they will return and practice their profession in the Kingdom.

I dread the moment when I must contact this young medical student and tell her there is not much hope of continuing her studies. Saudi Arabia will lose a female physician at time when even losing one potential doctor should not be acceptable. We can take the easy route and continue to recruit foreign doctors. Some will stay a lifetime. Others will leave after a few years. The cycle of recruitment will continue and we will be no closer to filling the ranks of the Saudi medical community with Saudis. And yes, that includes the Egyptian medical student who calls Saudi Arabia her home, her country and now her mother and father.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Passive Muslims should take some blame for Swiss minaret ban

What does Europe want from the Muslim community?

Well, you got me.

Like a party host who complains that her country cousins aren't mingling with the guests, and then seats them at the children's table at dinnertime, Switzerland, Denmark and France can't make up their mind about the so-called "Muslim problem."

The French want to ban the burka. Danish newspapers like to poke sticks at Muslims by publishing offensive cartoons. Now, 57 percent of Switzerland's voters have passed a referendum to ban the construction of minarets on mosques. Yet some European government officials complain, "Why don't Muslims assimilate into our society?"

And I ask: "Why would I want to?"

For all the phony talk about Muslim assimilation into white European Christian society, some EU countries do their best to marginalize us. In Switzerland, about 6 percent of the population is Muslim, a great many who are war refugees from Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I agree that it's likely that these first-generation Muslims have difficulty assimilating into European society, but that's true of first-generation immigrants in any country throughout history. Their offspring, however, are a different story. In 20 years time we'll see many second-generation Eastern European Muslims fit right into Swiss society. That is as long as the government resists the temptation to pass discriminatory laws against their right to worship and practice their cultural customs and traditions like everyone else.

There are two troubling aspects of the minaret ban. There is little of the Islamic extremist ideology found in Switzerland that would prompt such discrimination. And the country's constitution essentially prohibits anti-religious laws.

Unlike France and Denmark, there has been little talk of the "Islamification" of Switzerland. There are few burka-clad, dark-skinned Asian Muslim women walking the streets of Geneva and Zurich. Aside from the occasional web rants of extremists, there are no calls for Shariah to replace Swiss laws. There are about 150 mosques in Switzerland, most of which are no more than large prayer rooms. There are no calls for prayer over loudspeakers. Only four mosques have minarets.

So where do these anti-Muslim sentiments come from? I blame the ultra-right wing Swiss People's Party, the junior version of the British National Party and the Dutch Party for Freedom. The Swiss People's Party's clever ad campaign for the referendum featured an advertisement of a scowling burka-clad woman next to sprouting black minarets atop the Swiss flag. It's a compelling image that plays on the fears of the Swiss.

But I also blame European Muslims who allow extremist websites to present a skewed image of Islam. Imams, Islamic scholars, Muslim journalists and social workers do so little to stem the tide of public opinion. European Muslims need to shed their reticence to defend themselves by countering claims of the Islamification of Europe.

A case in point is the October appearance of BNP's Nick Griffin on the BBC's Question Time. Griffin's odious anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim positions were exposed by Muslim and Christian participants on the television show. The exposure demonstrated that BNP's policies were not based on facts and logic, but on hate.

Switzerland's Muslims can remain silent and continue to be marginalized or they can involve themselves in government policy and through the media to shape their future. Frankly, I'm a little weary of the namby-pamby "let's not rock the boat" attitude of Muslims. It didn't work for Jews in the 1930s and I don't think it's going to work for Muslims today.

The other uncomfortable aspect of the referendum is that it flies in the face of Switzerland's constitution. The constitution bans discrimination against persons on the "grounds of origin, race, gender, age, language, social position, way of life, religious, ideological, or political convictions, or because of a physical, mental or psychological disability."

Swizz government leaders have indicated they have no choice but to pass the referendum into law. But I sense that the referendum can be challenged on constitutional grounds. It also should be noted that although a clear majority of Swiss voters want the referendum to be the law of the land, it doesn't mean it's a good law. There's no question that a massive mosque with minarets will look out of place in a neighborhood surrounded by 17th century architecture. But that's a zoning issue decided at the local level.

And that's precisely the reason why this is a referendum that discriminates against one specific religion. The design and construction of a mosque or any building is a decision best left to local districts. By taking the decision out of the hands of local officials and declaring that minarets - not cathedrals or synagogues - should be banned throughout the country changes the issue from one simply of architecture to one of religion.

Switzerland has enjoyed a global reputation as a nation of tolerance and a safe haven for the oppressed. That reputation was rocked in the mid-1990s when it was revealed that Switzerland's banking industry colluded with Nazi Germany to plunder accounts of depositors in occupied countries during World War II. Swiss banks also refused to release the account funds of Holocaust survivors after the war. The controversy greatly upset the Swiss who saw their reputation as a tolerant country impugned.

The Swiss are now facing a new but similar test. Do they join the ranks of Denmark and France in allowing right-wing political groups manipulate its citizens' emotions with unsubstantiated rhetoric? Or do they take the right path by embracing all religions and cultures of people who seek a fair shake when they cross into their borders?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Proposed court reform puts Saudi women lawyers in the closet

About 10 years ago Saudi women started returning home from abroad with fresh law degrees and were ready to take on the world. And they are still waiting. Last week, the Minister of Justice, Muhammad Al Eisa, announced that Saudi judicial system will “eventually” make way for female lawyers to represent women in the court.

Given the timeline on Saudi judicial reform, I peg the year that Saudi women will be practicing courtroom litigation to be around 2019. Don’t misunderstand me. I applaud the Ministry of Justice’s attempts to revamp the judicial system. But let’s not fool ourselves that we are seeing great advances in Saudi women’s rights.

If I sound skeptical, it’s because even if Saudi women do find themselves practicing law in a courtroom before a judge it’s no more than window-dressing. Sheikh Abdullah Al Guwair, director of the Department of Lawyers at the Saudi Ministry of Justice, said women will be issued a “restrictive form of license” that gives them access
to some areas of the court.

Al Guwair said the move towards allowing female lawyers in the courtroom is due to the fact that many women give up their rights because they were too shy to divulge details of their case to a man. Further, Al Guwair said that women lawyers will not be working with men and be confined to different courtrooms.

I can get onboard with the “separate but equal” concept in Saudi society. That is, I accept it as long as it’s really equal. But there is nothing remotely equal in dispensing justice under this proposed system. Male lawyers are given the advantage of having full access to the court and to the judge. Omitted from the Ministry’s announcement is whether female lawyers will even appear before a judge. Essentially, the Saudi judicial system is planning to ghettoize women lawyers by sticking them in a room where they can be occasionally heard but never seen.

The plan allows the judicial system to proclaim it opened doors to female lawyers, but the end result will be that a woman’s rights will continue to be subordinate to men.

A woman’s role in the Saudi judiciary also will be diluted by Saudi Arabia’s efforts to attract foreign lawyers. The Ministry of Justice is seeking to license more foreigners to practice law in Saudi Arabia as long as they have a degree from a Sharia university, three years experience in law and a valid visa. Seeking to beef up the available lawyers to the courts by recruiting from foreign countries only
further marginalizes Saudi female lawyers.

Putting aside the discrimination against Saudi women, the larger issue is the judicial system continuing to dispense justice without codified laws, with judges making rulings applied directly from Sharia. The basics of criminal and civil law, such as the right to legal representation, established legal precedent, the basic notion of a common law system and impartial decisions, are thrown out the window.

This is a special problem for foreigners doing business in Saudi Arabia. It’s significant that the World Bank ranks Saudi Arabia among the top 20 countries for being business-friendly, but it’s also noteworthy that the Kingdom ranks 140th out of 181 countries in enforcing commercial contracts. The World Bank reported that it takes two years for business disputes to be solved in Saudi courts.

The problem should be laid at the feet of Saudi judges who are trained in Sharia, but have absolutely no clue in business law.

Yet civil court reform appears to be moving faster than criminal. The Saudi government spent SR 8.2 billion ($2.2 billion) to establish 13 additional commercial courts and the Ministry also plans to announce verdicts on its website. This is a far cry from the full transparency needed to instill confidence in a fair and impartial court, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Saudi judges are also being sent to Western countries for civil law training. Another good step, but it doesn’t solve the problem that there are only 1,200 judges serving the entire country.

Saudi lawyers and judges are kicking and screaming all the way into the 21st century. But overhauling the Saudi judicial system through piecemeal efforts dooms the promise of equitable justice for all Saudi and expats. The half-hearted attempt to bring female lawyers into the judicial fold will have little impact on women having their voice heard in the courtroom. The basic premise that a fair decision can be reached without established codified laws is flawed. It only brings
uncertainty, insecurity and skepticism among Saudis who are forced to
turn to the judicial system for help.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Saudis try to find a way to curb inappropriate fatwas

Nearly a year after Saudi King Abdullah warned religious scholars that issuing careless fatwas gives extremists credibility as religious experts, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Call, Guidance and Endowment has finally said enough is enough.

Recently the Ministry issued a memo that fatwas were not to be issued to just anybody asking for one. The Ministry has ordered that Saudi imams refer people seeking fatwas to the Senior Board of Ulema.

Apparently the Ulema got tired of having their own fatwas contradicted by some obscure rural cleric who thinks of himself as a religious scholar. This new rule, although long overdue, thrills me to no end. If ever there was an aspect of Islam that has been so thoroughly abused by people who have no idea what they’re doing it’s the fatwa.

Fatwas, which are basically opinions or edicts, are supposed to be issued by Islamic scholars after careful and lengthy deliberation. The fatwa’s source comes from the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Once upon a time each and every word of a fatwa was agonized over and issued only when necessary.

Somewhere down the line more than a few imams from Seattle to Somalia fancied themselves fatwa experts and abused the privilege. As a result, trousers have been deemed sinful, Mickey Mouse was discovered to be Satan’s foot soldier, and Saudi guys were given permission to take non-Muslim Western girls as wives for a couple of months to, well – just take a guess.

Although I am not one to concern myself with the internal politics of Saudi clerics, it’s long troubled me that there often seems to be no rhyme nor reason as to what qualifies as a fatwa and who should be responsible for issuing one. At the very least it presents am image of disorganization among the Islamic religious community. At worst, it presents a picture of ignorance that leads to mockery of Islam.

At last January’s International Conference on Fatwa and its Regulations, the King stated in a speech that, “Issuing ill-considered fatwas without following any criterion offers biased, ignorant, extremist or careless individuals the opportunity to pose as religious experts qualified to issue fatwas. On the other hand, they have been abusing Islam and distorting its noble values besides offering its enemies the justification for attacking the Holy Qur’an and spreading lies about the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him).”

The Senior Board of Ulema’s recent decision brings back order and the original intent of the fatwa. Now, a panel of scholars will carefully deliberate the issue before them, determine whether it deserves consideration, and if so, correctly interpret the source of the decision before a fatwa is issued.

We’ve seen in the last decade or so, wildly different interpretations of the Qur’an and the words of the Prophet. Some non-Muslims, either through an anti-Muslim agenda or just plain ignorance, mangle the verses without proper scholarly research. Worse are the extremists, who interpret the Qur’an to suit their own agenda of murder and
terror. Lost in these political sideshows -- and believe me it’s political, not religious – is that even the most learned Muslim scholar still struggles to correctly interpret the Qur’an. Scholars who spend a lifetime of study still engage in debates over the interpretation of even a single word.

Issuing half-baked fatwas trivializes the true meaning its intent and renders it a joke. And the sheer number of fatwas issued over the past year reduces the ignificance of important ones, those that are really helpful guides to making us more pious and better Muslims.

It’s ridiculous, I know, but for the sake of argument let’s consider that Mickey Mouse is indeed the devil’s toady and Minnie Mouse his handmaiden. Just how does this information help me live my life? Instead, it’s a distraction, a bit of nonsense that would not have survived scrutiny of serious religious scholars. It’s about time the real experts handled these things.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Saudi female journalist becomes LBC's scapegoat

Something got lost in all the outrage last week over the conviction and lashing sentence of the 22-year-old Saudi woman journalist who worked for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp (LBC). What exactly is the LBC doing to support their journalist?

The answer is absolutely nothing.

According to a Reuters report this week, the young woman had nothing to do with the Bold Red Line broadcast segment in which a Saudi man bragged about his sexual conquests. The man was sentenced to five years in jail and lashings, but the woman journalist only worked as a "fixer," someone who arranges interviews for foreign media. She apparently had nothing to do with the segment involving the braggart. Her crime apparently is that she worked for the LBC, which was not licensed to operate in Saudi Arabia.

Let's set aside the idiocy that the Saudi government did not know that the LBC was not licensed. Let's focus on the conduct of the LBC. The Lebanese were kicked out of the country, so they suffered a bit for their actions. But they also couldn't get out of Saudi Arabia fast enough, leaving behind a vulnerable employee who proved to be the LBC's scapegoat for their poor behavior. King Abdullah this week pardoned the woman, but she still must face a tribunal before the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information.

A year ago the LBC approached me and offered a job that eventually went to this young Saudi journalist. I spoke over the phone with their producers and a presenter. It quickly became clear that the LBC was not interested in Saudi news, but creating tabloid headlines.

Among the topics the LBC was eager to cover were strange sexual practices, voodoo and black magic, especially black magic practiced on wayward husbands. Runaway girls, marriages of convenience and spinsterhood were other topics the LBC wanted to present. The LBC was clearly interested in the sensational aspects of Saudi culture, taboo subjects that are not topics of conversation. Yet the LBC seemed unmoved that these stories would perpetuate Saudi stereotypes in a period in which Saudis are under attack for their cultural and religious differences.

Part of my responsibility as a Saudi journalist is that if wrongdoing is exposed or taboo subjects are addressed, solutions must be provided in these stories. Perhaps more important is the safety and well-being of the people we interview. It's likely that Saudis who participate in media interviews on sensitive subjects will face consequences for their actions.

It's one thing to interview a Saudi woman who chooses to remain unmarried to pursue a career. It's another for a young woman forced into spinsterhood by her father who wants her income. If such a woman gave an interview, she would have to answer to her family. What kind of support would the LBC provide for the girl if she was thrown out of the house? I think none. No two better examples of abandonment can be found than the sex braggart and the Saudi journalist.

During our discussion about my role in their Bold Red Line series, the LBC producers were cavalier, if not dismissive, about my concerns over the consequences of these kinds of interviews. When the discussion turned to me being hired as a producer, I thought that I could control editorial content. But the answer was no. Editorial control came from Beirut.

It became apparent that if I were to arrange the interviews, it would become my responsibility to see that the interviewees did not suffer any consequences for their frank talk. But that is an extremely risky task without the support of the employer.

I recognized the LBC was not prepared to offer any support after a broadcast to its Saudi employees or the interview subjects. Their desire to present sensitive Saudi issues as tabloid fodder was not much different than Western media parachuting into Riyadh for two days to do a story on how the abaya and niqab are oppressive to women. It makes for interesting television and boosts ratings, but it leaves a lot of pain and humiliation in its wake.

I rejected the LBC's offer. Their attitude toward Saudi Arabia was insincere and cynical. I could not see how the Bold Red Line series would benefit or shed any light on Saudi culture other than presenting Saudis as parodies of themselves.

It didn't occur to me until this young Saudi female journalist stood trial for the LBC's negligence that the LBC's producers would prey on someone who is young, perhaps naïve, and eager to advance her journalism career.

Now this young woman is suffering for the sins of the LBC, which has stood by mute. They offered no lawyer and no statement of condemnation for her treatment by the Saudi courts. LBC should be an embarrassment to Middle East journalists. At a time when Arab journalists are seeking to be taken seriously as professionals and attempt to adhere to an ethical standard, the LBC's cowardice illustrates just how little progress we have made.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Opening gunshops in Saudi Arabia is not the answer to curbing illegal weapons

The Saudi Ministry of Interior’s decision to issue licenses to entrepreneurs to open private gun shops is full of good intentions, but until more information is disclosed I must wonder: Do we really need easy access to guns?

The ministry announced recently that any person 25 years or older with no criminal record and a bank guarantee of SR500,000 can open a gun shop. The best part of these requirements is the bank guarantee, which pares down the pool of potential applications to open businesses.

The idea behind this is to curb illegal ownership of firearms and have a better tracking system of where guns originate. About five years ago, the Saudi government asked gun owners to register their weapons at the regional Emir office's security department. The response from Saudi citizens was overwhelmingly positive. Many -- if not the majority -- Saudis participated in the registration drive.

Gun ownership is long ingrained in Saudi society. Boys are taught to hunt and as men usually keep firearms in the house. Truck drivers, and even some women drivers in rural areas, as I mentioned last week, carry handguns for protection.

As a society we have demonstrated responsible gun ownership. Our crime rate is extremely low. About half of the crimes committed in Saudi Arabia are non-violent thefts, and the murder rate is barely 1 person per 100,000 population. The U.S. State Department, however, has issued a warning to its citizens that the instances of carjackings in Riyadh have risen. Yet violence involving firearms is low.

Although I have no doubt that illegal gun ownership remains a problem in Saudi Arabia, the logic of opening gun shops eludes me. This move by the Ministry of Interior reminds me of the occasional news article I read from the United States in which a municipal police chief decides to issue concealed weapons permits to all gun owners who ask for one to ensure they can legally carry a weapon. The thinking is that the permit will reduce the number of people walking around with illegal
guns in their pockets or purses. But all it does is simply put more weapons on the street and increase the chances that someone will get hurt.

The ministry’s logic is similar to the U.S. police chief. The ministry’s ruling will put more legal guns on the street, but it’s still more guns.

It’s likely that the ministry has thought of such things, but has not released the requirements that will be imposed to buy and sell guns. Issues to be addressed are whether a waiting period between purchase and actually receiving the weapon will be imposed and if criminal background checks will be conducted. Presumably the ministry will establish checks and balances to maximize the safety of people.

We only have to look at the U.S. as an object lesson. According to a 2009 Centers for Disease Control report, 30,896 U.S. gun deaths were reported in 2006. Forty-one percent were the result of homicides and 55 percent were suicides. The remaining fatalities were unintentional or undetermined intent deaths.

In addition, a gun in the house increases the risk of a homicide by three times and the risk of suicide five times compared to no gun present. People are more likely to be shot by their own gun than shooting a robber or attacker.

We shouldn’t believe for a second that more legal guns in Saudi Arabia are going to protect us from criminals. Rather, think about the next Saudi National Day. We already have a problem with people who don’t understand that shooting a gun into the air means a bullet must come down somewhere. If more guns are available the odds of more bullets falling on someone’s head on National Day increases. The same goes for
tribal weddings and celebrations in which guns are shot in the air.

Perhaps the most obvious argument is that we still have extremists operating in Saudi Arabia, as was the case with the recent attack on security officers near the Yemen border. Although the Ministry of Interior has done an incredible job of curbing attacks and our country is stabilized, the threat remains. During the height of the 2003-2006 militant attacks in Saudi Arabia there were Al Qaeda supporters,
perhaps better described as wannabes, trolling Riyadh and Jeddah streets using handguns to shoot Westerners.

Presumably Saudis with no criminal record can walk into a gun shop and purchase any weapon he desires. Militants with a phony identity or a well concealed background should have no problem purchasing over-the-counter weapons. Do we really need to make it easier for them?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Saudi rural women's freedom to drive cars and trucks under renewed threat

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of Saudi society in the non-Arab world is the myth that all Saudi women are banned from driving cars. Read any English-language news periodical and the message is absolute: It’s illegal for Saudi women to drive.

Well, that’s kinda-sorta-usually-but-not-always true.

For decades, Saudi women have been driving on highways and streets outside of urban areas. They must drive because their families’ survival depends on it. While men are working, wives are tasked with taking the kids to school, transporting livestock to market, and managing the house. They also drive big tankers to bring drinking water to their villages. Many of these women are also Bedouins who travel from village to village earning a living by transporting goods.

This is not a case of heading down to the local Danube supermarket for a box of corn flakes. This is a long drive, sometimes hundreds of miles, over a harsh desert environment usually in a 2-ton Mercedes truck or a Hilux pickup. These moms, some who arm themselves with a handgun for protection while driving alone, are a hardworking, tough lot that can handle a truck better than most men.

I remember as a child my uncle in one of the Yanbu villages going to work at 4 each morning, leaving the management of the house, the family and the harvesting of their crops to my aunt. She drove all over the region to make sure not only her kids but the extended family were cared for.

As a practical issue, the police and Hiy’a (Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, commonly referred to as the religious police) can’t effectively patrol these remote areas. For the most part, women have had free reign in driving vehicles where they please.

Common sense, which is not always a prime ingredient when journalists address perceived wrongs with Saudi Arabia, tells us that it’s impractical and dangerous to ban all Saudi women from driving. Of course, Saudi conservatives, and that includes some members of the Commission, share the same problem.

Although rural women have had it pretty easy on the roads, apparently there can be too much of a good thing. Last week, the Hiy’a filed a complaint with the administrative ruler of the Hail region in which they asked him to ban 15 village women from driving their cars and trucks. Now, women who make sure the family’s chickens and goats get to market and keep the village supplied with water, are without transportation.

These women can’t hire a driver because their primary means of transportation is a pickup truck, which forces them into a state of khalwa -- or seclusion with a non-relative male -- as they sit beside the driver.

Consider what is more dangerous: a woman driving a truck or a woman alone with a male stranger in the middle of nowhere. The female breadwinner is faced with the double whammy of being denied the right to use a vehicle to contribute to the household income and the
right to hire a driver as a solution to her economic problem.

Many Saudis support the idea of enforcement of our moral and religious obligations. Indeed, it’s addressed in the Qur’an. But it’s quite another thing to mess with hardworking families who depend on the motor vehicle to make ends meet. For decades Saudi law authorities recognized that ranch and farm families were an exception to the driving ban edict because a family’s livelihood depended on a vehicle. They understandably turned a blind eye. That right apparently has been taken from them for no reason other than the conservatives feel threatened by it.

Saudi Arabia is in a period of great transition, and there is an expectation of movement forward, not backward. Naturally there are many people who prefer the comfort of the past. Perhaps forcing working rural women to return to camels and donkeys as transportation makes some people feel more comfortable. But their comfort comes at the expense of the working family.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Saudis in denial over violence against women and children

It came as something of a shock when I learned the other day that the number of domestic violence cases in Saudi Arabia does not exceed 650.

What a relief to live in a country where violence against women and children is virtually non-existent. This good news comes from none other than the man who should know: Ali Al-Hinaki, the general manager of Social Affairs Department in the Makkah province.

Al-Hinaki told a Jeddah reporter that there are no statistics on the number of abuse cases, but he estimated that there were no more than 650. Yet the Social Affairs Department does not explain that if there are so few domestic violence cases in Saudi Arabia, why is there the need to sponsor this week a three-day awareness forum in Jeddah? Or why establish 17 committees to deal with family protection? By Social Affairs Department’s logic that amounts to 38 abuse victims per committee. Now that is what I call great response to such a minor issue.

But all kidding aside, this ridiculously low statistic is an insult to every Saudi woman and child whether or not they have been the victim of abuse. There are more than 27 million people – 22 million of which are Saudis – living in Saudi Arabia. Just how did the law of averages
elude the Social Affairs Department?

Earlier this year Abdul Aziz Al-Dakhil, an attorney and a leading expert on domestic violence, said, “If we are informed that there are 10 cases of abuse, there are for sure 1,000 more suffering in silence and not spoken about.” Al-Dakhil has a better grasp of reality, but the numbers don’t adequately convey the urgency of establishing codified laws protecting abuse victims.

Al-Dakhil points out that there is no established definition in Saudi Arabia of what constitutes domestic violence. Family members who perpetrate violence against their victims confuse guardianship and Islam with discipline. Even victims are often confused about whether
their misery is a product of abuse or a form of discipline under Islam.

There are grassroots efforts to provide services to prevent domestic abuse. Saudi writer Rima Ibrahim is campaigning to establish a facility that can provide care and protection for women abused or abandoned by their husbands. We’ve also seen the growth of women’s shelters throughout the Kingdom.

Saudis, however, have a tendency to minimize their faults. We claim the moral high ground by asserting we are good Muslims not capable of committing unspeakable violence towards our loved ones.

Government officials undermine their own awareness projects by dismissing the seriousness of domestic violence with unsubstantiated low statistics. People in a position of authority charged with making life-altering decisions affecting a girl’s future have no business holding the job. I recall visiting a shelter a couple years ago in which the director told me that many runaway girls seeking protection from abuse were simply disobedient brats who should mind their parents.

It’s incredulous that Saudis still dance around the issue of domestic abuse. It’s not a question of whether Saudi Arabia has a domestic violence problem, but how do we as a nation solve it. Our failing is that we think our moral authority makes us separate, if not above, the rest of the world in terms of crimes against our own family members. We are no different than the rest of the international community. I imagine that the number of abuse cases in Saudi Arabia is proportionate to the rest of the world.

It’s fine that judicial reform is underway to codify laws. It’s good that Saudi authorities are moving towards legal transparency. And it’s satisfying to see progress made – although at a snail’s pace – in the establishment of shelters and women’s rights services.

But none of it means much if we continue to bury our heads in the sand and claim the violence in the home is limited to just a few hundred cases. These kinds of pronouncements instill little confidence that we will ever effectively combat domestic abuse.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

KAUST may test Saudi higher education system

A few weeks ago I was taken to task by a reader who complained about my enthusiasm for the academic potential of the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST), which had its inauguration this week.

The reader implied that I was naïve to believe that KAUST will benefit any Saudis, noting that KAUST is nothing more than a “$10 billion write-off.”

The reader writes: “KAUST barely brings any benefit to the local population. It has been created as a gated microcosm whereby foreign intellectuals and scholars from around the world come, live in their own little worlds whereby they need not have any interaction with the local population, and enlighten each other at the expense of King Abdullah's $10 billion endowment … and will then conveniently leave after benefiting from years of tax-free income.”

I think the observer fails to grasp simple economics. But I will get to that in a moment.

The reader continues with a more valid point: “What … actually (will) be a landmark project would be a complete overhaul of the education system, which is failing spectacularly at nurturing homegrown Saudi talent.”

The fact is that KAUST is likely to be a boon for local job market if the global economy recovers from the disasters of 2008. As for the quality of the Saudi lower educational system, I couldn’t agree more.

But KAUST is the test case as to whether its successes can be applied to entire the Saudi education system in the future. But let’s address the economic impact first.

KAUST is situated on a 24-acre campus in Thuwal, about 50 miles north of Jeddah. Three residential districts for men and women include more than 3,000 housing units for faculty, students and their families numbering upwards of 5,000 and more. Yes, the campus will be self-contained with markets, theater, a bowling alley, bank and other support services.

There is a danger that KAUST faculty and students will live in their own little bubble. There are plenty of examples in Saudi Arabia with self-contained residential compounds where many Westerners remain behind compound walls. But I think it’s unlikely since Jeddah is only a short distance away from the campus.

But more importantly is that that the campus’ residential and commercial project is expected to create 500,000 jobs by the time it’s completed in 2016, according to KAUST officials. The nearby Knowledge Economic City is expected to create 20,000 jobs in the Madinah providence by 2014. And this does not include the benefits the region will reap with the completion of the proposed railway that will link the Red Seat with the Arabian Gulf.

It’s a mistake to believe that KAUST’s success or failure is not linked to the current Saudi education system. Certainly on an international level, Saudi Arabia’s lower education system has failed its students with too much emphasis placed on non-academic curriculum.
The standards of higher Saudi education are less of an issue, although. Western universities continue to accept Saudi university degree holders in great numbers for postgraduate work, so we can’t call the system a failure.

The role I hope KAUST will play in developing better higher academic standards is the international makeup of its faculty and students. According to KAUST, the current faculty of 71 professors is 14 percent American, 7 percent German, 6 percent Canadian and 6 percent Chinese.

The university provost is Dr. Brian Moran, an American who served as chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Northwestern University. KAUST’s president is Choon Fong Shih, who was president and vice-chancellor of National University of Singapore.

The student population, which numbers only about 400 now, is 15 percent Saudi, 14 percent Chinese, 11 percent Mexican and 8 percent American. The rest of the students come form nearly 60 other countries. Students, particularly Saudis, thrive in an international environment and their exposure to non-Saudi students will go a long
way to breaking down barriers between the Arab world, the West and developing countries.

While I sound like an optimist I am not kidding myself of the obstacles ahead. A mixed-gender student population is going to be difficult for many Saudis to accept. I suspect the university will be under tremendous pressure from law authorities because the campus is not accessible to routine inspection like other Saudi universities. Further, Western academics teaching Saudis opens the university to
criticism from conservatives that the West is corrupting Saudi youth.

I suppose we can sit back and hope that KAUST fails; that its impact on Saudis will be minimal and the grand experiment will be an object lesson that Saudis have no need for foreign meddlers in our education system. But if my critic is correct that the Saudi education system is a failure, then KAUST is indeed a bold experiment that deserves our support to ensure that it succeeds, and the lessons we learn there
will be passed on to the rest of the Kingdom.

It’s easy to dismiss KAUST as a $10 billion debacle that further lines the pockets of expatriate academics. It’s more courageous to take $10 billion risks to ensure Saudi Arabia future in the international

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Muslim day of prayer may bring unwanted attention

A New Jersey mosque is planning a national day of prayer on Sept. 25 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that expects to draw as many as 50,000 Muslims from across the United States.

This appears to be the first such event held by Muslims on such a large scale in the U.S. It represents a huge step forward for Muslims who for the most part prefer to stay out of the spotlight following 9/11.

Hassen Abdellah, president of Dar-ul-Islam in Elizabeth, N.J., told the Star-Ledger newspaper that, "Most of the time, when Muslims go to Washington, D.C., they go there to protest some type of event ... This is not a protest. Never has the Islamic community prayed on Capitol Hill for the soul of America. We're Americans. We need to change the face of Islam so people don't feel every Muslim believes America is
'the great Satan,' because we love America."

The event will be held from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m., but the main prayer will occur at 1 p.m.

It’s a wonderful thing to see Muslims wear their patriotism on their sleeve and demonstrate the deep love for their country. Abdellah hopes that people of other faiths will join Muslims as well.

But, alas, the event also is turning into a religious war spurred by fringe groups who see an opportunity to stage confrontational anti-Islamic protests. One pastor is urging his congregation to fast from midnight on Sept. 25 to 7 p.m., not for spiritual meditation or to bring his people closer to God but to wrestle the “soul of the nation” away from Muslims. He’s mistaken. Muslims don’t claim ownership of America’s soul and he shouldn’t either.

The argument that has originated on anti-Muslim websites and appears to be spreading among conservative religious groups is that some sort of cultural or stealth jihad is being played out in the West while non-Muslims go about their business blissfully ignorant of the dangers. Meanwhile, mainstream media conspires to keep it all

For those who may not care to read the blathering of such websites, stealth jihad supposedly when Muslims seek prayer breaks at work or Muslim women request private time to swim at public pools. Even wearing in public the so-called burqini, modest swimwear for women, is somehow Islamifying the local community. Who would have thought that a loose-fitting single-piece swimsuit would become a political hot potato that required government intervention, as we have discovered to be the case in France and Italy?

Now, the image of 50,000 Muslims -- most of who are American citizens – praying in public has raised the hackles of some people who see prayer as not worshipping God but as a threat to the soul of America. The whole thought seems, well, so un-Christian and un-democratic.

This past year or so a disturbing trend has emerged as small groups of people have staged anti-Muslim protests. On the eighth anniversary of 9/11 a small church group held an anti-Islamic demonstration at a Gainesville, Fla., mall to memorialize those who lost their lives on that day and those serving in the U.S. military.

About 30 protesters waved confrontational signs and shouted anti-Muslim rants. In London a nastier and more violent confrontation occurred between the English Defence League and Muslim youths at a Harrow mosque under construction.

If taken as isolated events, the rallies don’t amount to much. But it’s curious that for the first time we are seeing organized anti-Islam protests. I can’t help but think we are witnessing early signs of future, better organized rallies targeting the Muslim community.

Certainly Muslims have staged anti-Western rallies and often these demonstrations are violent. But these protests are not so much as anti-Christian but sparked by specific events, such as the publication of images of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. The incidents at Harrow and Gainesville are a different animal all together. The protesters’ target is faith, as in my faith threatens your faith.

The implication is that we pray to a different God because we call Him Allah. And that’s the irony. We all share the same God. By denying, interfering or ridiculing anyone’s right to worship demonstrates a complete lack of respect to the deity we all pray to.
A New Jersey mosque is planning a national day of prayer on Sept. 25 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that expects to draw as many as 50,000 Muslims from across the United States.

This appears to be the first such event held by Muslims on such a large scale in the U.S. It represents a huge step forward for Muslims who for the most part prefer to stay out of the spotlight following 9/11.

Hassen Abdellah, president of Dar-ul-Islam in Elizabeth, N.J., told the Star-Ledger newspaper that, "Most of the time, when Muslims go to Washington, D.C., they go there to protest some type of event ... This
is not a protest. Never has the Islamic community prayed on Capitol
Hill for the soul of America. We're Americans. We need to change the
face of Islam so people don't feel every Muslim believes America is
'the great Satan,' because we love America."

The event will be held from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m., but the main prayer will
occur at 1 p.m.

It’s a wonderful thing to see Muslims wear their patriotism on their
sleeve and demonstrate the deep love for their country. Abdellah hopes
that people of other faiths will join Muslims as well.

But, alas, the event also is turning into a religious war spurred by
fringe groups who see an opportunity to stage confrontational
anti-Islamic protests. One pastor is urging his congregation to fast
from midnight on Sept. 25 to 7 p.m., not for spiritual meditation or
to bring his people closer to God but to wrestle the “soul of the
nation” away from Muslims. He’s mistaken. Muslims don’t claim
ownership of America’s soul and he shouldn’t either.

The argument that has originated on anti-Muslim websites and appears
to be spreading among conservative religious groups is that some sort
of cultural or stealth jihad is being played out in the West while
non-Muslims go about their business blissfully ignorant of the
dangers. Meanwhile, mainstream media conspires to keep it all

For those who may not care to read the blathering of such websites,
stealth jihad supposedly when Muslims seek prayer breaks at work or
Muslim women request private time to swim at public pools. Even
wearing in public the so-called burqini, modest swimwear for women, is
somehow Islamifying the local community. Who would have thought that a
loose-fitting single-piece swimsuit would become a political hot
potato that required government intervention, as we have discovered to
be the case in France and Italy?

Now, the image of 50,000 Muslims -- most of who are American citizens
– praying in public has raised the hackles of some people who see
prayer as not worshipping God but as a threat to the soul of America.
The whole thought seems, well, so un-Christian and un-democratic.

This past year or so a disturbing trend has emerged as small groups of
people have staged anti-Muslim protests. On the eighth anniversary of
9/11 a small church group held an anti-Islamic demonstration at a
Gainesville, Fla., mall to memorialize those who lost their lives on
that day and those serving in the U.S. military.

About 30 protesters waved confrontational signs and shouted
anti-Muslim rants. In London a nastier and more violent confrontation
occurred between the English Defence League and Muslim youths at a
Harrow mosque under construction.

If taken as isolated events, the rallies don’t amount to much. But
it’s curious that for the first time we are seeing organized
anti-Islam protests. I can’t help but think we are witnessing early
signs of future, better organized rallies targeting the Muslim

Certainly Muslims have staged anti-Western rallies and often these
demonstrations are violent. But these protests are not so much as
anti-Christian but sparked by specific events, such as the publication
of images of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. The incidents at
Harrow and Gainesville are a different animal all together. The
protesters’ target is faith, as in my faith threatens your faith.

The implication is that we pray to a different God because we call Him
Allah. And that’s the irony. We all share the same God. By denying,
interfering or ridiculing anyone’s right to worship demonstrates a
complete lack of respect to the deity we all pray to.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Political hooliganism is now part of the democractic process

In case anybody hasn't noticed, hooliganism is now part of the fabric of democracy.

An incident occurred last week in Birmingham, England, that gained little notice outside the UK but sent shockwaves through some British communities. Dozens of people were arrested last weekend following a protest by followers of the English Defence League against the implementation against Sharia in the United Kingdom.

The reality is the protest against Sharia was nothing more than an anti-Islamic grievance beer party that started at a neighborhood pub and ended violently when a group of Muslims confronted the protesters. Rocks, sticks and punches were thrown with the police blaming both the EDL and Muslims youths for the ruckus.

Lost in all the haze is the fact that most Muslims, British-born or not, have given little thought about whether Sharia belongs in the UK. The tiff in Birmingham was a result of the young Muslims recognizing the protest for what it was: a movement against the Muslim community, and not because Sharia was supplanting British law.

How is this political hooliganism?

While British MPs are dithering over expense accounts, the fringe elements outside the political process have become mainstream. Last June, the British National Party garnered more than 6 percent of the vote in European elections, including two seats in the Brussels parliament. Not only does the BNP have a voice in government, but it has its militia in the streets.

While the Liberal Democrats and Tories think it's fine to engage the BNP in debate, they are making the mistake in believing that logic and common sense will prevail in the political arena. They are faced with such organizations as the Stop Islamification of Europe (SIOE) that argues that "Islamophobia is the height of common sense." Just how do the Liberal Democrats and Tories think they are going to win the war of words with that kind of rationale?

I must admit, though, the Labour Party's policy of ignoring the BNP is probably more ridiculous. Doing nothing in the face of seething unrest among some British citizens who see merit in the BNP and EDL is a recipe for disaster.

The problem lies in the unchecked behavior of the BNP, EDL, SIOE and their followers. Political debate legitimizes fringe groups. It allows these groups to obscure racism and xenophobia with phony arguments of UK border security while the real work is performed in the street. Few people are going to pay attention to Liberal Democrats arguing border security with the BNP when hooligans know the best arguments are made with BBC footage of Britons "defending" the streets of Birmingham with their fists.

This Friday, the anniversary of 9/11, anti-Islamic protests are scheduled to be held by the SIOE at the new Harrow central mosque in London. Muslim supporters, calling themselves Unite Against Fascism, also plan to be there. The mosque is not finished, but Friday prayers will be conducted next door in the middle of Ramadan, Islam's holiest month. Imagine, if you will, the specter of a massive demonstration with the threat of violence outside a London church during Christmas Day services. Same thing. In this case, Muslims are faced with the threat of violence during a period of fasting and prayer.

Ghulam Rabbani, the general secretary of the Harrow mosque, told The Times of London last week that he doesn't know why protesters picked his mosque.

"We don't know why they are singling us out. They say we are planning a Sharia court but we have never had such a plan. This community is mixed with Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Jews. We have had very good relations for 25 years."

Members of the BNP, SIOE and EDL have the right to freely express their views in a peaceful manner. But let's not forget that by embracing their legitimacy in the political process, we are also legitimizing their followers in the street. It's not about Sharia because its implementation in the UK doesn't exist. The Sharia argument is a smokescreen for the true anti-immigrant agenda.

The irony is that this Friday's scheduled protest is planned by extremists: SIOE and the Unite Against Fascism group. In the middle are the Harrow Muslims who just want everybody to go away.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Saudis struggle with whether to display pre-Islamic artifacts

Last year a Saudi/French archeological team made a major discovery at Madain Saleh. Pottery and metal and wooden tools were unearthed at Al Diwan and at Ethlib mountain.

The discoveries at Madain Saleh pose something of a dilemma for Saudis. We Saudis are not particularly eager to look for pre-Islamic artifacts. There’s a prevailing opinion among the conservatives that items not Islamic belong in the ground because displaying them risks a tacit endorsement of the culture or religion the artifacts represent.

We have a habit sealing off ancient sites from public view whether they are Islamic or non-Islamic. We have been known to neglect or destroy them. Saudis don’t want to run the risk of turning a site into a place of idolatry. As a rule we minimize the publicity of such discoveries.

But as with most things, Saudis can’t stop progress. And today there is a significant and successful campaign to develop an economically viable tourism industry that will create jobs and stimulate the economy, particularly in rural areas.

Add to that is the fact that Madain Saleh was named in 2008 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Madain Saleh is now open to visitors. The Saudi Commission on Tourism and Antiquities, under Secretary General Sultan Bin Salman, and the National French Research Center are continuing excavation efforts. An American team also is participating.

The teams are restoring what has been found and electronic software is being used to record the excavation and restoration efforts. The work is continuing and it’s certain that more items will be unearthed.

Once the Saudi government finds its footing in establishing a consistent tourism program and becomes more flexible in granting visas to Muslims and non-Muslims to visit the Kingdom, Madain Saleh should become a key component in developing a thriving tourism sector.

But offering Madain Saleh as a tourism stop is not a problem. It was first inhabited by the people of Thamud who are mentioned prominently in the Qur’an. But what of the non-Muslim sites? Like most Saudis, I know little of pre-Islamic sites, although occasionally amateur archeologists come across such places. Frankly, it’s gross negligence to destroy or hide these discoveries. The government in recent years has taken positive steps to recover and catalog artifacts, but there’s a disagreement with what to do with them once they are found.

It’s right that churches are not permitted in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. But what’s less certain is whether crucifixes, if found, should be destroyed or hidden. More precisely is the issue of whether Christian or Jewish artifacts can be displayed in the proper context in a Saudi museum as an acknowledgment of a people who called pre-Islamic Arabia their home.

My guess is that most Saudis will say no. Many Saudis believe there is no place in the Kingdom for such relics.

The Associated Press the other day reported that Sheikh Mohammed Al Nujaimi said non-Muslim artifacts “should be left in the ground.” He said that Muslims would not tolerate the display of non-Muslim religious symbols. "How can crosses be displayed when Islam doesn't recognize that Christ was crucified?" he said. "If we display them, it's as if we recognize the crucifixion."

Most Saudis probably agree, although the argument can be made that displaying an ancient cross doesn’t necessarily recognize that Christ was crucified but only acknowledges a previous non-Muslim civilization.

Religious symbols aside, there is a precedent in showcasing pre-Islamic items. The museum in Riyadh has a number of pre-Islamic statues. And Riyadh’s King Saudi University has similar items.

This is a sensitive time for Saudi Arabia. We have made tentative steps with the international community by promoting inter-faith dialogue. We have been diligent in sending young university students to other countries where they learn of other cultures. We are throwing open the doors of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to the world’s best researchers and scientists. Developing a policy to deal with non-Muslim antiquities is a logical step towards continuing to bridge cultural gaps.

Perhaps displays of such artifacts are not the solution, but it’s not unthinkable.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tribal customs, not Islam, is responsible for male guardianship abuses

A battle is brewing among Saudi women over the touchy issue of male guardianship. Pressure from outside Saudi Arabia has been building to abolish guardianship laws, and a number of women who fashion themselves as activists have led the charge.

Perhaps the most visible is Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a Saudi who does a little showboating by being driven in a taxi to the border checkpoint to enter Bahrain without permission from a male guardian. She's always turned away by Saudi authorities and told to go home. She is the darling of Western conservatives who think this public demonstration will further the cause of Saudi women.

It's silly. Public acts of defiance are unseemly in Saudi society and few women want to give up their dignity when letter-writing and petition campaigns are more effective.

Additionally, advocating to completely abolish guardianship rules is not a productive means to deal with abuses in the system. The problem with some Saudi activists is that they want to make wholesale changes that are contrary to Islam, which requires a mahram for traveling women. If one wonders why great numbers of Saudi women don't join Al-Huwaider it's because they are asked to defy Islam. Al-Huwaider's all or nothing position undercuts her credibility.

Of course, there are a great many women who are abused and they are seeking to change the guardianship system. And these efforts have sparked a counter-campaign by women who want the system to remain the same.

Recently a campaign called "My Guardian Knows the Best for Me" was initiated in direct response to the anti-guardianship movement. I have mixed feelings about both movements, but I must say the guardianship supporters have me more worried.

The system currently in place is seriously flawed. Saudi authorities have abdicated their responsibility to see that laws are enforced in a fair and equitable manner. It has ceased being a religious issue and is more about patriarchal control.

Many families treat their wives, daughters and sisters with great respect and don't follow their every move. Permission to travel or to conduct business abroad is often granted carte blanche with a signed piece of paper from a mahram. Many women travel freely with this document and consult little with the men in their families about their movements.

But since there are no codified laws, most Saudi women traveling alone don't know from one day to the next whether their documents will pass scrutiny at the airport. And for every family that follows guardianship rules, there is another family that wields the law like a club. It's not a system ripe for abuse. It's already a system abused with regularity.

Guardianship opponents are waging a losing battle if they believe that Saudi authorities will abolish the law. The reality is that there is little incentive for the government to consider anything but maintaining the status quo.

More worrisome is the women's pro-guardianship camp that is perfectly happy for men to control their lives. That's fine for them. They undoubtedly live in households of unquestioned male authority and are pleased with the arrangement. But what about the women abused by the guardian system?

It was reported recently that a Saudi woman protested that her father rejected several potential husbands because they did not belong to the family's tribe. The father confined her to the house as punishment and denied her outside employment. He even sent her to a mental institution when she continued her protests. She sued her father in court, but found herself at the wrong end of a tongue-lashing from the judge who said she did not respect her father. She now lives in a women's shelter.

Here is a clear instance of the Saudi judicial system failing to protect the woman and tacitly endorsing abuse of the guardianship system.

If men follow the spirit of guardianship as outlined in the Qur'an and recognize at the same time there is no place for tribal customs within the system, then a happy medium can be found. But if the Saudi courts fail to implement checks and balances to punish guardianship abusers and to protect the victims, then the laws are pointless.

Tribal customs should not usurp Sharia. Yet, to listen to the pro-guardianship camp, Saudi customs and traditions should indeed be a central part of the system. In effect, they are placing customs and traditions above Islam.

By waging a campaign fully supporting existing guardianship rules dooms thousands of Saudi women to being housebound servants to male family members.

A campaign to encourage guardianship, but also to demand that codified laws protect the abused, makes more sense. Such a system respects an independent woman's right to move about, attend university and marry whomever she pleases. It allows the family to determine a comfort level, but also imposes consequences on guardians who manipulate the laws to their own advantage.

The argument that women are not competent to handle their own affairs is not valid and never has been. More Saudi women than men attend universities in Saudi Arabia and abroad. Most of the money held in banks belongs to women.

How guardianship laws are followed must be a joint decision involving the family. But Saudi judges also need to summon the courage to cast aside customs and traditions when faced with abuse cases and make the right call to protect victims.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rising crime against Arab tourists could dampen Europe's tourism industry

This is the high season for Saudi Arabia and airlines are booked solid as Saudis prepare to either spend Ramadan at home or abroad.

GCC tourists have been flocking to favorite spots like Geneva and London, but some European tourism experts are beginning to worry that Gulf tourists may take their spending cash elsewhere.

An incident occurred last month in Geneva that has Swiss tourism officials concerned over the country’s image among Gulf tourists.
A 48-year-old Saudi man was severely beaten outside a Geneva nightclub that left him in a coma for 10 days. Apparently local police did not take the incident seriously until the Saudi Consulate and the victim’s family provided evidence that the victim’s credit card was used by his attackers.

The story got plenty of air time on Al Arabiya. Now Swiss authorities are wondering whether the lax response from police and subsequent media coverage have harmed their image.

“This incident could have a very negative impact on Geneva’s image in the Gulf States,” François Bryand, director of Geneva Tourism, told “It’s clear that it’s one attack on one tourist, but it’s one too many.”

According to Swiss media reports, the Saudi consulate expressed concern that Swiss authorities are failing to deal with the rising number of attacks and harassment of Saudi tourists. There have been numerous incidents of petty thieves preying on tourists in the Lake Geneva area, according to

The Swiss newspaper Tribune de Genève, Moutinot, had sought to arrange a meeting with the Saudi Consulate to discuss how to increase security for tourists.

I don’t see Saudis abandoning Geneva, Paris or London anytime soon because of these reports. These European cities have been favorite tourist spots for Saudis for decades.

In fact, Switzerland’s tourism officials recently reported that the Arab tourists in their country rose by 62 percent between 2003 and 2008. But the first half of 2008 only saw a 0.2 percent rise.

Gulf tourists spend an estimated 164 million euros, or $233 million, annually in Geneva. That accounts for about 10 percent of all tourism euros spent in the city.

Certainly the global economy, rising prices in Saudi Arabia and fears of swine flu factor in the number of Arab tourists leveling off. But there also is an undercurrent of hostility in some Europeans cities. Arabs are sensitive to this and not inclined to spend their money where they are not wanted.

Geneva’s police, according to some media reports, seem to be at a loss on how to detail with the increased crime. But in London the attitude is a bit different. The city has a sizable Arab population and its own restaurants and Arab centric shops in Edgewater.

London’s hotels in particular make it their business to attract and keep Arab tourists in the city. Through November, The New West End Company, which represents 600 London hotels and retailers, expect about 140,000 Arab visitors. And estimated $410 million is expected to be spent by Arabs in London over the summer.

Restaurant open times have been extended. More Arabic speakers have been hired and more Arab chefs have been hired to service food that reminds Gulf tourists of home.

“The Middle East represents the third most important market to us and still the largest percentage of this business comes during the summer months,” one tourism official told the Arabian Business magazine recently.

Perhaps more important, Paula McColgan, director of sales and marketing at The Lanesborough in Hyde Park, told the magazine that, “(We also) have a very advanced security system, which is greatly valued by high profile guests from the Middle East.”

Swiss tourism officials have a long history of catering to Arab clientele, but the country’s law enforcement officials have less experience in dealing with increasing safety concerns for Gulf tourists. They never had to worry about it. Now they do.

London tourism officials don’t have all the answers, but they appear to recognize that in order to keep tourist spending money in their city they first must ensure their safety. Perhaps some lessons can be learned.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Good-minded people are being cowed into submission by shouting race-baiting hooligans

Last week I had the only nasty encounter with British teenagers in the
two years I have been living in Newcastle.

My sister-in-law and I were standing on a train platform to catch a train to city center when some loud teens walked up and called us “little rats” and asked if we were carrying “bombs” under our clothes.

These boys were boisterous and having fun at our expense. My sister-in-law, who doesn’t speak English and is in Newcastle on a brief visit, was terrified. I pretended not to speak English, hoping they would go away. When they became louder and bolder I asked a woman nearby to call the police.

The boys immediately stopped and attempted to explain they were simply joking. I found nothing to laugh about. I recognize that wearing the hijab draws unwanted attention. But I wonder why I should feel threatened wearing one in a country that prides itself on tolerance
and democracy.

The unprovoked verbal attack has marred an otherwise wonderful stay in the United Kingdom. I enjoy a productive and rewarding collaboration with my teachers and fellow students whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim. I have been shown nothing but courtesy and respect.

Perhaps the incident on the train platform was an aberration. It’s hard to say. But it gives me pause to consider where British teens learn that intolerance is acceptable on any level.

The media, of course, fuel much of the attitudes young people have today toward minorities. To read the UK tabloids and billboards paid for by the British National Party, UK citizens must come to the conclusion they are under siege from the unwashed masses of Eastern Europe and Asia.

There is immense pressure today on mosques to teach tolerance in school curriculum, as there should be. Many Islamic faith-based schools are under scrutiny to eliminate discussion of jihad and other references to Christianity and Judaism in the name of tolerance. This is all well and good, but British public schools must be a part of the solution as well.

Certainly the boys so interested in what was under my hijab got their ideas from home. Ignorance breeds ignorance. Yet teaching tolerance appears to be an elective in the British school system. Many school districts refuse to teach cultural studies on the grounds that it’s religious instruction. Parents and teachers have difficulty distinguishing the two.

The British Council reported last year reported that 3 percent of the British population is Muslim. That’s about 1.5 million Muslims in the United Kingdom. Further, 23 percent of the UK’s population declared no religious affiliation in 2001. And an estimated 75 percent of the UK’s
youths between the ages of 18 and 24 have no religious affiliation.

The British Council and a number of privately-funded UK organizations have teaching assistance material and curriculum for local schools on various cultures and religions, but it’s unclear how many educators take advantage of providing classroom instruction. If indeed three-quarters of the country’s youth have no religious affiliation, how are they educated about other religions if not in school?

Bradford, England, has a significant Muslim population and the nearby Rhodesway School has gone to great lengths to provide multicultural programs. School administrators have discussed how to better celebrate religious holidays of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus.

Unfortunately this is an initiative taken by Rhodesway and doesn’t necessarily reflect the rest of the UK’s school systems.

Part of the problem lies in fear. School administrators who see a need to develop multicultural programs and provide classroom lessons in tolerance are often the target of fringe groups and the tabloids. They face accusations of pandering to Islam or indoctrinating UK youths in the teachings of the Holy Qur’an.

By refusing to recognize some of the UK’s young people are blithely spouting racist, Islamophobic and truly hateful comments to strangers is no better than an imam encouraging jihad without proper context.

Ignoring the growing pervasiveness of public condemnation of religious minorities is in many ways another version of the “bystander effect.” The more people witnessing an emergency the less likely they are to help. There’s been a trend in the UK and the United States where people have become paralyzed or unwilling to stand up to abusive race-baiters and anti-reformers.

Here’s an example: In Saudi Arabia there is an element of society that doesn’t want reform and sees literature and the arts as a threat. Standard operating procedure of these groups is to lay siege to a book fair or stage play. They shout verbal abuse, toss chairs around and
intimidate attendees and organizers into submission.

Americans have witnessed this in recent weeks at their own community town hall meetings held by Congressional representatives. The men and women elected to represent their community are verbally abused and shouted down. In some cases the abusers incite violence because they
oppose their representative’s position on issues. Legitimate attendees are denied their right to speak.

The breakdown of public discourse on sensitive issues is redefining the bystander effect. Good-minded people who see a need to teach tolerance and engage in civil discussion are cowed into submission by the shouters. It’s easier to stand by and witness the public demonization of minorities rather than confront and condemn people who use intimidation as a weapon in debate.

The hooligans on the train platform last week are another version of today’s shouters and chair-throwers. Their behavior is endorsed by fringe media pundits passing themselves off as immigration experts.

They are validated by the BNP, which disguises their members’ racism in the cloak of immigration reform. These boys have been denied an education in the classroom on tolerance. Eventually the bystander effect will reach a level that will be difficult to turn back.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

New Saudi health minister takes aggressive approach to reform

It’s a rare thing these days to see a change in leadership in a Saudi ministry, and then for Saudis to witness a sea of reforms occur within a short period of time.

That’s what’s happening at the Ministry of Health following the February appointment of Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah by King Abdullah.

Al-Rabeeah is faced this year with the monumental task of ensuring that Haj is held while minimizing the spread of the swine flu. But if his performance over the past seven month is any indication, he is the right man for the job.

It’s unusual that a cabinet minister takes the time to meet with average Saudis, but Al-Rabeeah, a medical doctor, has made it a point to be accessible to rank-and-file medical staff personnel and even patients.

Just a few months into the new job, Al-Rabeeah announced a series of health reforms to provide better care to patients. The reforms include a new salary schedule for Saudi physicians and pharmacists, who are notoriously underpaid. The new scale will boost salaries by 41 percent and standardize government medical personnel salaries. He also plans a pay structure based on categorizing pharmacists’ positions as pharmacist, senior pharmacist and consultant pharmacist.

Al-Rabeeah also wants to bridge the gap between patient and doctor by developing awareness programs.

But more importantly is the lack of physicians available to treat patients. By late 2008, there were 4,000 patients for every one doctor. Al-Rabeeah hopes to bring that ratio down to 400 patients per doctor. I’m also hopeful that the Health Ministry will complement the Kingdom’s 50,000 doctors by retaining and adding as many Saudi physicians as possible to that number and train more female Saudi nurses.

Al-Rabeeah’s medical training makes him a rare breed among top echelon Saudi government officials. He knows what he is talking about. He is largely responsible for Saudi Arabia’s global reputation in separating conjoined twins. The last successful effort by his own multidisciplinary team occurred recently with the separation of Moroccan twins at King Fahad Medical City. It was the one of nearly two dozen such successful procedures performed in Saudi Arabia.

All of this brings me back to the swine flu epidemic and its potential impact on this year’s Haj.

In June, Saudi health officials recommended that the elderly and very young not join Haj this year. The World Health Organization and the Egyptian government also excluded pilgrims over the age of 65 and younger than 12 from attending. While this will help reduce the number, the fact remains that last year 2.5 million pilgrims performed Hajj. While a reduction in numbers is expected this year, the number still is expected to be extremely large.

The challenges are almost too difficult to comprehend. Worldwide the number of swine flu cases is approaching 150,000. More than 700 people have died, including four Saudis. Those deaths occurred in Al-Ras, Abha, and two in Dammam.

Although not directly related to Haj, the Health Ministry announced recently that it plans to establish an electronic network to improve communications between the Kingdom’s 20 health districts to monitor swine flu incidents. The project includes 500 mobile surveillance machines distributed to physicians, medical support personnel and community leaders.

It remains to be seen whether the project will make a difference in identifying swine flu cases in a timely manner as Haj approaches. But what is encouraging, though, is the Health Ministry’s aggressive proactive approach to stemming the tide of the swine.

Saudi Arabia has experience in dealing with epidemics during Haj seasons. Southwest Saudi Arabia was hit with the Rift Valley fever epidemic in 2000-2001 and there have been similar dengue fever outbreaks. These outbreaks pale in comparison to the deadly swine flu, but Saudis and visiting pilgrims can perform Haj this year with a high level of confidence that Saudi Arabia is prepared.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Saudi women's empowerment can be found at the bank

Saudi businesswomen have found themselves in a position that may make a lot of people uncomfortable.

What’s hardly news to Saudi women but may come as a surprise to the West is that Saudi businesswomen carry tremendous influence in the Kingdom despite the disadvantages they face. Equally important is that this influence allows women to work around the obstacles that have
become symbols of our so-called oppression.

Indeed, Saudi women must navigate the slippery slope of Saudi society. The obvious issues of driving, male guardianship and the challenges of running our own businesses remain, but it’s by no means a cultural prison.

The reason is simple: Money talks.

John Esposito, who wrote last year “Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” has come up with some useful information that busts the stereotypes that are stated so often that many people now take as the truth.

Esposito, an Islamic affairs professor at Georgetown University and a rare Western scholar who can write about Islam with a clear head, estimates that 70 percent of the savings in Saudi banks are owned by women. Time magazine last year pegged the value to be at about $11 billion. That ought to wake up those who feel Saudi women are under men’s thumb. In addition, a great deal of the real estate in Jeddah and Riyadh are owned by women, while 61 percent of Kingdom’s private businesses are owned by females.

Give or take the 5 percent or so for margin of error in Esposito’s study, his findings nevertheless place women in a position of calling the shots both at home and in the workplace. This doesn’t open the floodgates for women to do as they please and reward or punish their husbands by withholding the pocketbook when he wants that new Ferrari.

It’s true that many businesswomen have given up operating business because the climate is often unfriendly. Part of the problem is finding a trustful male agent to represent a female-owned business while dealing with various Saudi agencies.

And two years ago more than 200 Saudi businesswomen complained that the Ministry of Labor continued to place obstacles in their path that hinders progress. They urged an overhaul of the system to ease those hurdles.

Many Saudi businesswomen find a way around these obstacles. And one way is to take their business elsewhere, such as another Gulf country that appreciates the impact Saudi-owned businesses can have on their own economy.

It’s perhaps that Saudi women have managed to work the system so well that the interest in women’s equal rights doesn’t rise to the level that activist organizations so desperately hope for. This is not to say that Saudi women do not want equal rights. To the contrary, but when women have worked so long and have become so adept to manipulating the Saudi system, the response often is, “Well, yes, but I have work to do …”

But consider Esposito’s other findings: Sixty-one percent of Saudi women want the same legal rights men. A majority opinion that was unheard of 10 years ago. Not surprisingly, 69 percent of the Saudi women want the right to work outside the home.

Money has empowered the Saudi female to a degree that had not been considered until recently. The difference today is that Saudi businesswomen have the tools necessary to grow their businesses and hire more women to help run them. The fact that nearly three-quarters
of the female population want the opportunity to work outside the home is not only indicative of their desire, but also the potential to accomplish their goals in the business community.

If the growing numbers of Saudi women who want to work outside the home join business female owners willing to give them jobs, then there is no limit to the kind of influence Saudi women can wield. But then again maybe that’s why the Ministry of Labor can’t find its way to easing the regulations regarding male agents. Too much influence makes the establishment nervous. But Saudi businesswomen still have the upper hand. They can take their money out of the bank and invest it elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Okay! Don't let me go to cinemas, but how about the gym?

One of the puzzling aspects about being a Saudi woman is the pressure from family, peers and even society to be a good Muslim woman. Be modest in public. Show your charms to your husband at home. We have an obligation to look our best.

Equally puzzling are the obstacles thrown in our way at every turn to be that good Muslim woman, not to mention the hypocrisy. For generations the Saudi female has been denied the right to physical exercise, this mundane yet vitally healthy aspect of living an active and happy life that benefits not only the woman but her entire family.

The absence of female physical education in Saudi schools has been for so long that few of us even consider the impact it has had on our society. I never participated in physical education as a child and it was only five years ago that I gave exercise any serious thought when I bought my first pair of walking shoes. For many young women outside of Saudi Arabia, jogging or walking is a part of their lifestyle and the day’s routine. For us in Saudi Arabia, the mere thought of venturing outside for a jog or walk is laughable because it’s considered eccentric. It has nothing to do with the heat.

Just a few months ago, Saudi women discovered that unlicensed women’s gyms were to be shut down. The irony is that the gyms are unlicensed because there is no government authority willing to assume the responsibility of issuing them.

Now comes Dr. Ali Abbas Al-Hakami, who belongs to the Board of Senior Ulema. Dr. Hakami offers women a glimmer of hope that may turn the tide of how Saudi society views the concept of female exercise. Dr. Hakami asserts that not only is exercise for women permitted under Sharia, but is a necessity.

“There is nothing stopping setting up women’s sports clubs provided nothing forbidden by Sharia occurs, such as mixing with men, exposing what should not be exposed, and other issues forbidden by Sharia,” Hakami told a Gulf reporter.

Makes sense. Of course, we have heard that before about women driving. But I still haven’t received my Saudi driver’s license in the mail.

The difference here is that Saudi Arabia is faced with some real urgent health issues. Thirty-five percent of the adult Saudi population is obese. One in four Saudi children has diabetes. Satellite television has brought pressure to Saudi women to look like models. This has led to Lina Almaeena, the founder of the Kingdom’s Jaguars, a women’s Jeddah United Sports basketball team, to point out that many Saudi women suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD, in which women have a skewed idea of what their bodies should look like.

This is the first I have heard such a thing, but it makes sense. The global community has gotten considerably smaller in the past decade thanks to television and the Internet and the image we have of ourselves has changed dramatically. How can a Saudi woman not compare herself to Tyra Banks or empathize with Oprah Winfrey’s fluctuating weight?

Almaeena, in an interview with a Gulf newspaper, argued that women’s sports are a necessity and no longer an option.

The benefits of physical exercise aside – really, that’s a given – it’s a matter of self-esteem. For all the times Saudi women are told that they are respected and must show respect in return, the Saudi woman must respect herself first. And that is severely lacking, which leads to depression. Consider the fact that Saudi women in general can’t drive, can’t travel alone and must answer to just about everybody in the household before blowing their noses. Then mix in all those helpful critiques from mom, dad, sisters and brothers about your less than perfect body. Suddenly, mental health becomes a real problem.

If our society decides that cinemas are not in the best interest of Saudis and that it’s better to have unannounced inspections of resorts to ensure we are living moral lives, then perhaps we should consider other activities that allow women an outlet other than going to Chili’s on Thursday night.

Licensing women’s sports clubs seems to be a reasonable, although partial, answer to this issues. Saudi women’s options are few these days. If it doesn’t conflict with Sharia, what are we waiting for?