Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Debunking the depiction of subjugated Arab women

Sabria S. Jawhar

THE other day I saw the face of American journalism and it wasn’t evil. It was just plain dumb. And that face belongs to Sally Quinn of the Washington Post.

Quinn managed in less than four minutes in an MSNBC television interview to insult every Arab woman with broad generalizations and stereotypes about who we are.Quinn, an editor and columnist for the Post and who runs the newspaper’s “On Faith” blog, is half of the American journalistic power couple of Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn.

Bradlee was the editor behind the historic news coverage of the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon in 1974. Journalists far and wide make pilgrimages to the Bradlee-Quinn household to hear their words of wisdom.

Quinn recently returned from Doha, Qatar, where she was a panelist in the three-day 6th US-Islamic World Economic Forum. Her attendance in Doha apparently makes her an expert on all things related to the Arab female.

It’s kind of like those Western journalists who visit Riyadh for eight hours, go to a mall, see the Hai’a strolling down the street, talk to their Pakistani cab driver and some low-level Saudi bureaucrat for 15 minutes, and then rush home to write a five-part series on the so-called Wahhabi threat to the Western world.

But Quinn is much more offensive. By virtue of her journalistic pedigree she should know better.In her MSNBC interview, Quinn said that “oil-rich” countries make Arab women lazy.“They can shop, they can gossip, they can go to lunch,” she told her fawning interviewer.

But apparently Arab girls can’t do much else. Since all Arabs are bathing in oil there are few manufacturing jobs available where women can find meaningful work, she said.Quinn adds that, “I think a lot of women, and this certainly goes for women in this country, too, would probably rather spend more time at home when they have little children and not have to work full-time.

But I think that most women would prefer a more fulfilling life than just siting around eating bon-bons all day.”Thanks, Ms. Quinn, for that image. Apparently the harem sits around all day trapped in a patriarchal society where we feed our husbands chocolate-covered dates, belly dance for him and his friends, and then cool them off by fanning them with palm branches on the veranda.

Quinn shores up her empty-headedness with the faulty 2007 study “Oil, Islam and Women” by Michael Ross, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who states that oil-producing countries make Arab women second-class citizens.

She also uses the United Nation Human Development report on female empowerment. Unfortunately, Quinn mangles her facts.She says countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman oppress their women.

Well, for one, Bahrain doesn’t produce much oil, so exactly how does it get lumped into making Bahraini women second-class citizens? She also neglects to mention that oil-soaked Oman has far more employment and academic opportunities for women than the oil-starved Yemen.

For another, the UN survey states that the UAE ranks 29th worldwide in female empowerment (jobs, education, etc.). That’s well above such countries as Poland, Mexico, Russia and Greece. And the UAE ranks just one notch below Israel.So this oil-equals-female-subjugation argument doesn’t fly.

Quinn also seems to forget the dynamics of human nature. If a Saudi woman is at home eating bon-bons and watching Oprah or Tyra Banks on TV while the nanny puts the kids down for a nap, does Quinn honestly think that Saudi mom will get her butt off the couch to work at a job making widgets for SR50 a day?

The MSNBC interviewer, probably using her extensive research on Wikipedia, announced solemnly that only 5 percent of Saudi women are employed in the Kingdom, forgetting somehow that unemployment among men across the entire Middle East region is extremely high.

And both the interviewer and Quinn ignore that cultural issues and family tradition – not oil – play a huge part in whether daughters, wives and sisters find meaningful employment. As repugnant as Westerners may find it, our culture places women in the home to care for the children.Never mind that is also the case for much of rural America.

And never mind that those cultural attitudes are undergoing a sea of change as more Arab women are earning their graduate and post-graduate degrees abroad.Many of my friends and colleagues believe there is a vast conspiracy in the Western media to destroy Islam and our culture.

I don’t believe it for a second because Western journalists are too lazy to make the effort. But liberal journalists like Sally Quinn can be dangerous. At least with American and British neoconservatives you know what you are getting.

They want to bring us democracy and their vapid Western culture even if it kills us.With liberals like Quinn, however, the danger is much more subtle. She wants to save the poor Arab girl through her 21st century version of colonialism.

If a Western woman wants to have kids and a job, well, then it must be true for the Arab woman. I have some advice for Ms. Quinn: Ikhrassi (shut up).Don’t do us any favors. Don’t call us, we will call you.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is Saudi Arabia moving closer to a modern society ?

THERE’s been a lot of talk this past year or so that changes in the Saudi government were too slow in coming. That somehow the momentum to push forward the bold decisions to bring Saudi Arabia closer to a modern society had somehow been lost or pushed aside.

Saudis have become somewhat cynical over cabinet changes over the years as ministers have been shuffled from one job to another, but real change, real progress, always was an elusive element on how we govern our country.That changed dramatically, perhaps for the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history, as King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz named Norah Al-Fayez as the first deputy minister for Girls’ Education and Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Humayen Al-Humayen as the new head of the General Presidecy of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the Hai’a).

Also receiving positions were Saleh Bin Humaid as chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Council; Mohammed Al-Jasser as governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency; Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah as minister of Education; Abdullah Al-Rabea as minister of Health; Abdul-Aziz Al-Khoja as minister of Culture and Information; and Abdullah Al-Sheikh as head of the Shoura Council.King Abdullah also has re-structured the Senior Ulema Council.

A quick glance at these names demonstrates capable leaders of different cultural and tribal backgrounds, not to mention all coming from different schools of Islam.Abdullah Al-Rabea, the new minister of Health, is well known worldwide for his work in separating conjoined twins. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years ago. He is popular for his work in the health sector of the National Guard. I found him to be a humble, religious man who never thought of himself as too important to listen to patient’s complaints. His door was open to everyone at any time.

He’s a visionary who always believed and hoped that all of the health sectors throughout the Kingdom work under a single umbrella instead of the various ministries to allow services to become more effective.Norah Al-Fayez’s appointment promises a long-held belief that education for women can be separate but equal to men.Many in Saudi Arabia have long been troubled over the many unfortunate incidents involving the Hai’a (Virtue Commission) over the years.

Fatal car chases, inexplicable rough-handling of non-Muslim expats in public places and what seemed to be the commission’s intent to banish anything remotely Western from Saudi society has tarnished its image. But Humayen is believed to be fair-minded, practical and scholarly, and who will promote the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in a more enlightened manner.

In his first public appearance following his appointment, Humayen has already reflected a change. He said a person is innocent until proved guilty.Equally, if not more important, is the attention paid to the Saudi judicial system. King Abdullah has recognized these incidents as counter-productive and has taken steps to correct them. He indicated in 2005 that Saudi Arabia was to embark on an era of reform.

But we set the standard by example for the Ummah. And if is not the leaders of Saudi Arabia, then who will take the responsibility to lead Islam into the 21st century?An Egyptian friend of mine who lives in Saudi Arabia could barely find the words to express her joy over what she saw as the good deeds, wisdom, respect and the deep religious nature of King Abdullah and the courage he demonstrated in making changes that many of us thought may never happen. Although I see these changes as the first of many steps to a more compassionate and embracing Islam, I couldn’t agree more with my friend.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

No softie, Fatimah’s a fine choice for Saudi diplomacy

Sabria S. Jawhar

It’s with a great deal of satisfaction that I see that Dr. Fatimah Abdullah Al-Saleem has been appointed cultural attaché at the Saudi Embassy in Canada by the Ministry of Higher Education.
The appointment of Dr. Fatimah, who has a Ph.D from the American University in Washington D.C. and has taught at the King Saud University for nearly 30 years, makes perfect sense on many levels.She comes to Canada, which is experiencing the growing pains of a thriving and active Muslim population.
There are an estimated 750,000 Muslims living in Canada with projections to hit about 1.4 million Muslims in the country by 2017. In addition, there are more than three-quarters of a million international students studying in the country, a large percentage represented by Saudi undergrad and graduate students.
When I say growing pains what I mean that in the post-9/11 climate Muslims in general and Saudis in particular have come under mounting criticism for their perceived inability to assimilate into Canadian society. Canada, as a rule, has perhaps been the most welcoming of any Western nation to Saudis and Muslim immigrants.
But the alleged killing of a 16-year-old Muslim girl by her father over her Western lifestyle over a year ago and the recent high-profile terrorism case have put many non-Muslim Canadians on edge.While it’s not Saudi Arabia’s role in Canada to deal with all Islamic issues, the appointment of Dr. Fatimah signals sensitivity by the Saudi government to put a female voice to issues affecting Saudis, and perhaps by extension, to the Muslim population in general.
I am certain that other Arab and Asian embassies have female cultural attaches. Yet, given the large number of Saudis living in Canada, Dr. Fatimah’s presence can provide valuable influence to them, especially young Saudi women away from their families. She can also do much to shed myths and stereotypes of the silly notion that all Saudi women are subservient to men.But before I jump up and down like a spoiled teenager buying her first Prada bag, a reality check is in order.
Dr. Fatimah’s appointment is in keeping with King Abdullah’s wish to give women more prominent roles in Saudi society and to represent our society in a more public manner. An assignment as a cultural attaché is a fine first step, but it doesn’t rank as a key position in Saudi diplomacy.
The danger I see is that such appointments could become just so much window-dressing.Foreign diplomats are trained professionals and are not clueless. If it is perceived that a Saudi female diplomat is no more than a figurehead or a goodwill ambassador trotted out for social occasions then the Saudi government’s efforts to shed its image as an oppressor of Saudi women will be seen for what it is and fail.Remember a year ago when the Saudi government sent a delegation of men and women to face questions from the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women?One prominent Saudi woman told the committee that, “We can travel on our own. For instance, for me, I have permission from my husband, so I can move freely and go wherever I want.”
The reaction, to say the least, was less than enthusiastic and did much to hold Saudi Arabia up to ridicule. It doesn’t mean that male guardianship should be taken lightly or ignored. That’s not the issue here. But the incident revealed that an attempt at window-dressing can backfire.Dr. Fatimah, I would imagine, is her own woman and more than likely does not suffer fools gladly. She would not be in her position today if she were a softie. As long as she is allowed to do her job and the powers that be in the Canadian Embassy give her the latitude she requires, then this appointment is a vital first step toward giving Saudi women the high-profile voice Saudi Arabia so desperately needs.

Jeddah Forum eyes big names

JEDDAH – The Jeddah Economic Forum (JEF) has got the go-ahead to invite 25 international speakers, including heads of states and prime ministers.
JEF is now checking on the availability of the speakers for the annual event, which was to be held on Feb.15-18 but was postponed for the first time in its 10-year history because the organizers did not get the clearance to hold the event on schedule.
Included in a speakers’ list approved by Abdullah Zainal Ali Reza, Minister of Commerce and Industry and sent on Feb. 4 to Prince Khaled Al-Faisal Emir of Makkah, and the Chairman of the Saudi Council of Chamber of Commerce, are the following:
Former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev,
Prince Charles of Britain,
French President Nicolas Sarkozy,
Irish President Mary McAleese,
Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Queen Rania,
Russian President Dimitry Medvedev,
former US vice president Al Gore,
former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski,
Egyptian Minister of Manpower Aisha Abdel Hady,
UN chief Ban ki-Moon,
Indian Congress Party chairperson Sonia Gandhi,
ndian Minister of Commerce and Industry Kamal Nath,
Indian Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Oscar Fernandes,
Executive President of Bahraini Council for Economic Development Sheikh Muhammed Isa Bin Khalifa,
German Minister of Labor and Economy Wolfgang Clement,
EU head for Labor and Social Affairs Vladimir Spidla,
Malaysian Minster of Human Resources Fong Chan Onn,
Italian Minister of Labor and Housing Roberto Maroni,
Canadian Minister of Labor Jean-Pierre Blackburn,
French Minister of Work and Housing Xavier Bertrand, Russian Minister of Energy Igor Yusufov,
Luxembourg Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade Jeannot Krecke,
and Turkish State Minister and Deputy Premier Nazim EkrenThe Minister,
in his letter, instructed the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) to form a working team that includes representatives of the relevant government agencies and specialists to make the necessary arrangements for the forum.
Mazen Batterji, JCCI deputy chairman said “the time available for obtaining the speakers poses a challenge but the Chamber is ready to deal with any eventuality and is not facing any difficulty with sponsors and donors.”
He said the forum has an allocation of up to SR20 million.Batterji did not confirm or deny the new April deadline that was announced by JCCI last month, when the postponement was announced.
The Jeddah Marketing Board (JMB), organizers of the Forum, and its working team have started contacting the international speakers to determine their availability dates. So far, none of the speakers on the list has confirmed participation.JCCI and JMB were rocked earlier this month by sudden top-level changes.
JCCI Chairman Saleh Turki was replaced by Muhammad Abdul Qader Al-Fadhl. At JMB, Sami Bahrawi was removed from his post as chairman. JCCI sources said Bahrawi continues to lead the effort to organize the forum.Amr Enany, former JMB chairman, has told Saudi Gazette that it would take at least a year to organize a forum of the standard JEF is known for worldwide. – Okaz/ SG

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Haramain Train is a reality

AL-KHOBAR – Al-Rajhi Alliance has bagged the Haramain Express Train Project worth SR6.8 billion. The three-year contract tasks Al-Rajhi Consortium with constructing the railway works linking Makkah and Madina via Jeddah and King Abdul Aziz Airport, Abdul Aziz Al-Hugail, General President of the Saudi Railways Organization (SRO) said here Friday.
The group’s works will include but are not limited to bridges, viaducts, retaining walls, subways, shafts, tunnels, embankments, ground structures, covered ways, utility service structures, fencing, and more, he said.In the second phase of the project, construction of stations will commence tentatively by June 2009. Station works will include but are not limited to electrical and mechanical infrastructure, communications, ticketing, fire protection, lifts and escalators, power supply, and more.
The stations at Makkah and Madina will be state-of-the-art inside landmark buildings.Al-Hugail said the Haramain express train is distinguished for its high speed at about 360 km/hr and covers the distance between Jeddah and Makkah in 30 minutes while the trip between Jeddah and Madina will approximately take two hours.The consortium, led by the Mada and Al-Rajhi groups, both local, saw off a joint bid of SR8.3 billion in the final round by the consortiums led by Saudi Binladin Group and Spain’s Obrascon Huarte Lain (OHL).
Al-Rajhi Alliance is expected to begin work before the end of this year on civil works and stations for the 444-km long, high speed railway. The line will link the two holy cities via Jeddah, Rabegh and King Abdullah Economic City.Another rail scheme, the Saudi Land Bridge, which will link the country’s Red Sea and Gulf coast via Riyadh, is going ahead as a BOT scheme.
However, it has become bogged down in bureaucracy amid concerns from banks over the 50-year concession being offered to operate the railway.The Haramain railway will provide a huge boost to Saudi Arabia’s tourism infrastructure, linking the country’s main aviation and marine gateway in Jeddah to the two holy cities. It will also alleviate traffic congestion on the roads particularly during Haj and Umrah seasons.
The project is due to be completed by 2013.The winning Al-Rajhi Alliance also includes China Railway Engineering Corporation and France’s Alstom Transport.The Haramain train project has been designed in a manner to provide a safe and fast means of transportation for pilgrims and local passengers and it comes within the developmental projects being carried out by the government in the service of pilgrims, visitors, and service seekers.

Named After Obama

SHAROURAH – A Saudi owner of a camel farm has named a newborn camel Obama after the US President Barack Obama. The baby camel was born on Jan. 20, the inauguration day of President Obama.
Al-Saiari, the camel owner, said he named the camel after Obama with hopes that it would add value to his farm. Obama, Al-Saiari believes, will bring positive change in the Middle East, especially to the Palestinian cause. The nomad said he had closely followed the US elections and inauguration of President Obama. He hoped that both Obamas would turn out to be “the best happenings of 2009.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Jeddah Economic Forum

Sabria S. Jawhar

SOME of the greatest stories I ever covered and some of the most interesting people I ever met were at the Jeddah Economic Forum, the annual event that draws the world’s top economists and government leaders for three days to discuss and exchange ideas that will make the Middle East and the rest of the world economically vibrant.

All of that came to a grinding halt last month when it was announced that 10th JEF has been postponed for up to four months. It’s hard to believe the stated reason for its postponement that JEF officials failed to get the proper permits.

As long as I have been covering the event there always have been nervous comments from organizers that they don’t have the right permits, but the show always goes on. Really, who is going to say no to people like Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Queen Rania after they had been signed up to be keynote speakers.

If there is a will there is a way to get JEF off the ground.I won’t speculate on the true reasons for the postponement but I hope “postponement” doesn’t mean cancellation because, if anything, Jeddah over the years has become synonymous with the formulas of economic solutions for the region.

Granted, it has lost a bit of its luster in the past couple of years with organization a bit more haphazard and details left to chance on opening day.But we can’t underestimate the importance of holding JEF this year given the disastrous economic downturn that appears to be becoming progressively gloomier with each passing month.

Now that a real crisis is at hand and a gathering of the best financial minds are paramount to the region to find solutions to financial instability, Saudi Arabia can’t afford not to have the economic forum.The region’s primary concern over the last decade or so is to wean itself from oil revenue by developing projects that create jobs, provide homes to residents and establish an infrastructure that will serve future generations.

As I have said in the past, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the construction of the six economic cities and the expansion projects in Makkah are testament to our commitment to economic prosperity beyond oil. Neighboring United Arab Emirates is on a similar mission with Dubai’s ongoing projects to transform itself into a tourist destination.

Abu Dhabi aspires to become a cultural center and leader in green building and sustainability with its ambitious plans to develop Masdar City as the world’s first zero-carbon community.Kuwait, Oman and Qatar have similar ambitions. But real estate developers, investors and builders have scaled back major projects.

The Nakheel Harbor & Tower, Al Salam City, the Western Region Aluminium Smelter Power Plant and other major multi-billion-dirham projects in the UAE have been suspended. Saudi builders have refocused their energies on infrastructure, a sure sign of fallback strategy to continue building as other projects are placed on hold.

In the early days of the economic crisis we optimistically thought that the leading Middle East countries would be immune to the fallout experienced in the Untied States and Europe. But as with all economic meltdowns, the ripple effect can’t be denied.Considering that we are in a financial state never witnessed by government leaders here, JEF stood as a potential answer on how to deal with the current problems.

But JEF organizers seem to have lost sight of the big picture and what JEF could offer to the world at large. Seriously, given the high stakes of the hard realties of a faltering economy, how could we not stage JEF when the region needs it most?Some may quibble that I am overstating the importance of the forum, but having covered it for four years and meeting the best financial and socially-conscious minds from the West and Middle East, it’s hard to believe that someone somewhere didn’t recognize the value of the forum and find a speaker of the caliber of a Clinton or Albright or the Queen of Jordan and cut through the red tape to see this thing through. – SG

No hope for Jeddah Economic Forum?

JEDDAH – Is the Jeddah Economic Forum dead?Amr Enany, who was chairman of the Jeddah Economic Forum (JEF) for two successful years from 2005, thinks that could very well be likely for several reasons.
The annual JEF, held in January-February every year since its launch in 2000, and hailed as “Jeddah’s Davos”, was suddenly put off this year. Last week, JEF chairman Sami Bahrawi was relieved of his post in a top-level shuffle at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which also saw JCCI chairman Saleh Al-Turki losing his job.
While there is talk that JEF is now scheduled to be held in April, signs are that it’s just wishful thinking.“Is the forum still alive or dead?” Enany repeated the question, and desisted from a direct answer.“Most importantly,” he said, “we now have another great forum, the Global Competitiveness Forum which is another Jeddah Economic Forum but in a new mantle.” He was referring to the Riyadh event in late January that had several international business bigwigs, including the CEOs of Airbus and Nissan, and even Olympics stars Michael Phelps and Carl Lewis as speakers – all not surprising considering that Amr Dabbagh, the founding chairman of JEF is now the force behind the Global Competitiveness Forum as the head of its organizer, Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority (SAGIA).
Enany told Saudi Gazette/Okaz that what has happened to JEF “resembles what is happening in Gaza, despite the difference in some aspects.”“There is an agenda for killing the forum,” he said, “and in fact these efforts have succeeded in aborting the forum.”
When asked about the JCCI board’s promise of holding JEF in April, he replied, “We are making a mockery of Jeddah’s people by saying that the forum would be held after three months.” He said JCCI’s announcement of the postponement of the forum last month for want of a license to convene it, was “astonishing.”“Is it possible that they were not aware of this matter? There are questions that need to be answered.”Enany has good reason to be disappointed, given the effort he had put in to enhance JEF’s long standing as Saudi Arabia’s premium business networking event.He recalled how Jeddah had first taken the initiative to institutionalize a different concept for forums.
“In fact the credit goes to Amr Al-Dabbagh for this. During his time, the JCCI board enjoyed a singular team spirit. There were no conflicts, no power struggle. It was a harmonious and integrated team, a nice atmosphere for work in the interest of Jeddah.
“Now, after these conflicts have surfaced, the Jeddah Economic Forum is made the scapegoat – instead of celebrating its 10th anniversary, people are talking about postponing it. Really very sad.”So what now for JEF?“The question should be, are there any changes? I expected an organizational structure, not just one individual. “Whoever takes over and discards what was achieved by his predecessors – just for the sake of change – would never make the JEF a success.
On the contrary, he should base his plans on what was done in the past. This is voluntary work.“If there is a hidden agenda, then it will definitely affect the work. The board started off in a manner that I can’t even describe. I’m speaking about my experience when the problems started, during the time of Abdullah Al-Muallimi (who was JCCI chairman before Saleh Al-Turki).
“At that time I had apologized and bowed out because I could not involve myself in voluntary work in such an atmosphere. So they joined hands with Al-Muallimi. They were expected to support the man when he was faced with certain circumstances and deal with him with high values and ethics. They should have respected the circumstances he was going through. “But the campaign that was launched – I don’t want to utter the word – was unethical. It is the irony of the century that this can happen in Jeddah’s Chamber.”
Today there are several forums in the region competing with JEF. “Dubai is the pioneer, having 300 conferences a year. But I must say that the Global Competitiveness Forum is professionally organized, considering its huge success and the progress it has achieved. It is more of a matter of quality than quantity. “By all standards Jeddah’s forum had reached a global level.
The seventh JEF was addressed by five presidents in office, which had only happened in Davos until then. This achievement had placed Jeddah’s forum on the global map. There was live media coverage to 25 countries. “We could have built on what we had inherited. Instead, those who came after us ruined everything – the sessions were cut from 45 to 6 and the speakers from 140 to 20.”All said, would he volunteer again and head JEF?Enany said he would always willingly serve his country in any capacity.
“But I have no idea of the stage the current organizers have reached for the next forum. There are several questions. Are the speakers ready? Does the new date suit them? Are certain arrangements made?”He didn’t give a clear reply but said it would take him at least one year to organize a forum of the standard JEF deserves. – Okaz/SG