Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What's so offensive about the Saudi 'reform offensive'?

The Jerusalem Post, in its infinite wisdom, published the other day an opinion column by Seth Frantzman who complained that reform in Saudi Arabia was “offensive.” Yes, reform is offensive to all good people.

No, wait. I got it wrong. Frantzman actually was whining about Saudi Arabia’s “reform offensive.” In other words, he says the Kingdom is waging a public relations battle in the West to demonstrate the advances Saudis have made in cultural and women’s rights reform.

Frantzman’s laments that dumb Westerners have jumped on the Saudi bandwagon to shout from the rooftops that the Kingdom is on its way reinventing itself. He pays particular attention to a Westerner he likely considers to be the dumbest of all, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. She wrote recently about some progressive steps taken by Saudi Arabia. Frantzman also singles out American bloggers living in Saudi Arabia like Tara Umm Omar and American Bedu for joining the diabolical Saudi conspiracy of disseminating good news.

Frantzman and I share something in common. He identifies himself as a Ph.d researcher at Hebrew University and I am a Ph.d researcher in the United Kingdom. Well, I’m embarrassed for my Ph.d brothers and sisters worldwide. He gives us a bad name. Apparently this researcher lives in a bubble and hasn’t noticed the Western press is convinced the all the evil in the world is sourced from Saudi Arabia.

Okay. I’m exaggerating, but for every one Western journalist who refuses to engage in Saudi stereotyping there are 10 others who think that stereotyping is the “truth.” As a Ph.d researcher I’d expect some evidence that these Americans bloggers are dupes. The evidence I see is that Tara Umm Omar and American Bedu have intimate knowledge of Saudi Arabia that most American journalists could never begin to understand. These bloggers possess Western values by virtue of their upbringing but live a Saudi life. Their life experiences give their written observations credibility that Frantzman lacks.

The reality is that Frantzman may write about the Saudi reform offensive, but his real message is that Saudi reform is offensive. Saudi reform is offensive to him because it’s a stark contrast to Israel’s relentless desire to keep the status quo and to deflect criticism of its actions.

Frantzman and the Jerusalem Post attack changes in Saudi society, particularly when embraced by Western journalists and bloggers, because Israel is rapidly losing the good will of the international community by failing to help find a solution to its conflict with Palestinians. Rather, Israel seems to delight in stoking the fires of rage among Palestinians and now the Obama administration by building housing settlements in East Jerusalem and sending hit squads around the globe to assassinate people the Israeli government deems annoying.

Frantzman is so offended by Saudi reform he cites dialogue in an American movie. In the film a police officer in the early 1960s American South says it’s “progress” that a black man is only whipped instead of hanged for stealing. I suppose he is talking about the snail’s pace of Saudi reform, but without considering for a moment that reform is indeed taking place. So when Maureen Dowd says some nice things about Saudi Arabia after spending a few days as a guest, people like Frantzman behave like an insecure younger sister living in the shadow of her prettier and brighter sibling. The insults fly.

Although the movie analogy is an example of lazy thinking, I must admit I am impatient with the pace of change in our society.

The Saudi judicial system’s recent decision to allow women lawyers to represent women clients in domestic and civil matters is a case in point. Severe restrictions will remain in place limiting a female lawyer’s access to judges and the right to practice criminal law. It’s almost as if the new rules were established to set up women lawyers for failure. Yet the Saudi government’s policy has always been to make incremental changes to reflect the sensibilities of Saudi society. These are the nuances that some Westerners get.

It’s also what the Jerusalem Post finds so offensive. It’s not that reform is slow, but that Saudi Arabia is willing to embark on the difficult, if not painful, path to reform while Israel isn’t.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

U.S. conservatives guilty of denying their neighbors 'freedom from want'

The landmark healthcare reform legislation passed by the U.S. Congress on Sunday promises to be the beginning of further reforms in the healthcare industry that guarantees that an additional 32 million Americans will receive affordable medical care by 2019 regardless of their income.

The Democrats, however, continue to be hammered for this “un-American” and "socialist” approach to healthcare. It’s ludicrous to suggest for even a moment that legislation designed to guarantee all Americans health coverage under government supervision is the road to socialism.

Clearly the existing free-enterprise system in which health insurance companies have complete control is not working. Yet many Americans rather see their neighbors suffer than have the government put in place a sensible and equitable program.

Most Europeans, who enjoy the benefits of nationalized healthcare and view it as their right, look at these overwrought, emotional arguments against government-supervised healthcare with disbelief.

Although criticism of Saudi Arabia’s “backwardness” from certain quarters is loud and persistent, the Kingdom has a distinct edge over the United States: Mandated healthcare for all residents.

And by residents, I just don’t mean Saudis, but expatriate workers that number at least 6 million.

Although we don’t call it nationalized or socialized healthcare, the Saudi Ministry of Health, and to a lesser extent the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, the Ministry of Interior and the National Guard provide primary healthcare at about 2,000 medical facilities throughout the country. In addition, preventive care and rehabilitation also is provided.

Consider this: A Saudi living below the poverty level and suffering from terminal cancer will receive around the clock care no matter what stage of the illness. If the patient lives in Jeddah but needs treatment in Riyadh, not only is there a bed available to him, but he is entitled free transportation via aircraft to Riyadh and is permitted to have a relative accompany him. Lodging for the relative will be provided as part of the coverage. Further, there are no cost-sharing requirements for the patient or his family.

What Western insurance company provides such benefits?

As a Saudi citizen and an international university student I enjoy an embarrassment of riches in healthcare coverage that no American can possibly dream. I have full coverage, like any Saudi, under the Ministry of Health. While studying abroad I have full medical coverage under the Ministry of Higher Education. As an international student and legal resident of the United Kingdom I am covered by Britain’s National Health Service. International university students employed by the National Guard have additional coverage.

Expatriate workers are protected as well. All Saudi employers are mandated by the government to provide medical insurance to its foreign employees and their ependents.

The Saudi government sets aside 11 percent of its total budget for healthcare. The healthcare budget is obviously funded from government revenue but not by taxing its citizens. Naturally, U.S. taxpayer costs to fund President Obama’s healthcare reform package remains a major theme among Republicans. Granted, I don’t pay a single Saudi Riyal for my health coverage, but the U.S. government’s own Congressional Budget Office estimates that when the key aspects of the law take full effect in 2019, the overall cost to the U.S. taxpayer for healthcare will be only about $25 billion more than if no healthcare reform was enacted. Further, healthcare costs to individual families could fall as much as 30 percent, according to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.

For all the shouting, handwringing and boorish behavior from American conservatives who complain that the new healthcare law curbs Americans’ freedoms, they’ve seem to have forgotten the Four Freedoms championed by their own president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 69 years ago: In addition to the U.S. Constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and religion, there is the fundamental right of freedom from want and freedom from fear.

American conservatives have already stripped much of the West of freedom from fear by whipping up hysteria over imagine threats of communism, socialism and fascism creeping in democratic societies. And now they are ignoring the fundamental right that any person regardless of their station in life is entitled to healthcare.

Roosevelt may have had poverty on his mind when he articulated America’s right to freedom from want in his 1941 State of the Union address, but in the 21st century affordable healthcare deserves the same consideration as freedom from hunger.

As a Saudi woman, it would be intellectually dishonest for me to deny that Americans enjoy almost limitless freedoms while I still can’t drive a car or get an education or job without my guardian’s permission. Even the British, who complain often about their Big Brother government, marvel at the purity of freedom that Americans enjoy.

Yet the temper tantrums displayed by the mob at the U.S. Capitol last weekend as the healthcare reform bill was debated and ultimately passed, illustrates a breathtaking example of selfishness and lack of understanding of just how the rest of the world admires the U.S. government for its willingness to reform itself.

Next week I will walk into a Saudi government hospital without an appointment, consult with my doctor after only a few minutes’ wait, and receive treatment without ever opening my wallet. I have it pretty good. Can the millions of employed Americans who have no health insurance say the same?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

If being a maid is an 'honorable' profession, why do men get so upset if Saudi women work as one?

There was plenty outrage going around these past few weeks among Saudis over news reports that Saudi women were working as housemaids in Qatar.

The gist of this outrage goes something like this: Being a maid is an “honorable” profession, but it’s a “great shame” for Saudi women to work at this honorable profession. Sometimes I wonder whether we as a nation will ever get over ourselves.

The outrage followed a report by a Saudi Arabic-language newspaper in January that 30 Saudi women were employed as housemaids in Qatar. Over a six-week period news reached scandalous proportions where any Saudi with access to a computer registered alarm and disgust that Saudi housemaids were earning $400 a month, just slightly above the prevailing wage of Indonesian housemaids.

A great many Saudis employ housemaids, so they went to great lengths to point out that maid work is honorable. There’s no reason to go out of our way to insult the people we employ. But apparently what is honorable for an Indonesian or Filipina is not honorable for a Saudi.

By voicing outrage and complaining of the great shame of Saudi women working as maids, Saudis undercut their own argument that maid work is honorable. In fact, the last thing these hypocrites are thinking is that maid work is honorable. If cleaning houses was a good profession, then it should be suitable for Saudi daughters and wives.

Much to the relief of the Saudi press, the news report was apparently inaccurate. Qatar does not permit Gulf women to be employed as housemaids and all maids must have a sponsor. Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility that Saudi women are working illegally as maids in Qatar.

Unfortunately, after the story broke a good many Saudis displayed their true colors about how they view some professions and about the people they employ. I’ll be the first to admit that my family would be horrified if a female family member took a job as a housemaid. There would be plenty of shouting, shared misery and recriminations about how a poor girl was led down this wanton path.

Oh, but how soon we forget our past. It wasn’t uncommon in my mother’s generation to have Saudi housemaids. As a girl, I recall an aunt who managed a busy household, the farmland surrounding her home, and had employed Saudi housemaids. That all seems pretty honorable to me.

Saudis were a practical lot a generation ago. Work had to be done to support the family. The honor was in the labor and the food that was put on the table was a result of that labor. Your neighbors judged you, sure, but they judged you as a provider not whether you swept floors and did laundry.

Somehow the practicalities of daily living of my generation have been replaced by an exaggerated sense pride. It’s no longer enough that you put in a day’s hard work to provide for your family, but what kind of work you are doing.

Today’s reality is that Saudi Arabia is churning out a record number of female university graduates. More than half of all university graduates are women, yet less than 12 percent of Saudi jobs go to women. More and more Saudi women are looking for jobs abroad. While the Ministry of Labor has made efforts to expand the job market for women, employers continue to resist change. As a society we continue to limit job opportunities for women, yet we express outrage when a woman seeks work we consider taboo.

We also are forgetting that not all Saudi women are university or even high school graduates. There is a significant class of Saudis working near or at the poverty level who need their daughters and wives to work to feed their families. To deny these women the opportunity work aboard as housemaids is cruel.

If a poll was taken of Saudi families of what kind of employees that would want in their homes, the universal answer would be Muslim employees. Most Saudis respect their non-Muslim workers’ right to practice their religion. But Saudis also want an employee who understands their religion, customs and traditions. And whether it’s
rational or not, they want to be relieved of their underlying fears that that their employees are teaching their children religious values not consistent with Islam. Once Saudis got over their initial prejudices, the idea of a Saudi housemaid could be appealing.

I sense a shift in the attitudes of young Saudis today. The definition of what is acceptable and what is not is changing, especially among young women. If it doesn’t bother a young Saudi woman to do laundry for a family in Qatar, or for that matter in Saudi Arabia, why should it bother anybody else?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A creative way to keep Saudi women from driving

It never ceases to amaze me the goofiness of some people who feel they must find a creative way to deal with the "Saudi women's driving problem."

Instead of a coherent approach to the issue of Saudi women driving, like, say, give them a driver's license and set them loose on the roads (they can't drive any worse than men), do-gooders like the Dubai-based Saudi Center for Studies and Media have come up with an alternative to establish women-only buses. The center, you see, has made the shocking discovery that 35 percent of a Saudi woman's income goes to pay for taxis or private drivers.

Really, now? It's taken an organization 30-odd years to realize that Saudi women fritter away a third of their annual income on strangers to drive them around Saudi Arabia.

The center's proposal, which apparently is now before Saudi Arabia's Shoura Council for consideration, seeks to develop a 600-bus system within five years that is capable of carrying about 2.5 million women. It also will create jobs for 3,000 male drivers. It's a proposal that is likely attractive to conservatives who will do anything to prevent Saudi women from driving a car. The bus system will be called "Hafilati" or "My Bus."

I call it "Idhlali" or "My Humiliation." Here's why:

— Hafilati, or Idhlali, will delay for years the hopes of Saudi women to drive their own cars. There will be no incentive for Saudi society to permit women to drive if a women-only bus system is in place.

— Men will still be driving around women. Jamal Banoun, director of the center, states the obvious: "The primary aim of this is to provide protection for women against moral problems and sexual harassment that they sometimes face from taxi drivers." Does Mr. Banoun honestly think sexual harassment by drivers will end because women are going to switch from a taxi to a bus?

— What woman in her right mind is going to stand at a bus stop in 45-centigrade heat with her kids and wait for a bus that may or may not show up on time?

— Idhlali further encourages the employment of expatriates when the focus should be placed on employing Saudi men and women.

As much as I love Jeddah and the place of my birth, Madinah, neither city is the model of public transportation infrastructure. And this is the reason why a public transit system for women will fail. If Idhlali is to be based on the current public transit model, then Saudi families should prepare to lose a female family member or two to death or serious injury.

We are, frankly, a nation of unenforceable traffic laws. At least by driving a car, a woman can employ defensive driving skills and assume some responsibility for her own safety.

Today's bus drivers operate their buses like kids driving bumper cars at an amusement park. Like every other driver on the road, they don't bother themselves with posted speed limits or lane-changing etiquette. Posted bus stops are inconsistent from neighborhood to neighborhood. The buses are death traps. They are poorly maintained and I imagine that the records on tire and brake safety are not accurate. The current buses are filthy and rattle so much the fillings in your teeth will fall out. If there is rhyme or reason to our current public transit system, I have not seen it.

Yet we are to expect that Idhlali, which presumably will be based on our current bus system, will not have these problems. I don't think Saudi women are going to have to bother with these troublesome questions. I suspect this recommendation will go nowhere like so many other wonderful proposals to better integrate Saudi Arabia's National Treasures into society. Anybody want to revisit the proposal to employ women in lingerie shops? And even if Idhlali manages to get implemented I wonder just how many Saudi women are going to subject themselves to the inconvenience of bus travel after years of being chauffeured in a car.

The real issue of this half-baked plan, though, is that it diverts our attention away from the core question of just when will women be permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Some female professionals have endorsed Idhlali as a step forward. It's not a step forward. It's a diversion designed to reduce the pressure on Saudi society to permit women to drive. I'm all for public transit. I'm all for women-only buses. But give women the right to drive first, and then implement a women-only bus system. Saudis can demonstrate real sincerity by granting women the basic, fundamental right to choose her own mode of transportation.

This Band-Aid approach to solving the expense issue of transportation and sexual harassment by male drivers weakens the voice of Saudi women advocating for their right to drive. If Saudi women settle for a seat on the bus they will never get behind the wheel of a car.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Terrorist puppetmasters play on Western fears

Gone largely unnoticed a couple of weeks ago was a statement issued by Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Asheikh, chairman of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars, who condemned terrorism in all forms and the bloodshed of innocent people.

Al-Asheikh’s statements were released just as a workshop was getting underway in Riyadh. The workshop was sponsored the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in the Middle East and North Africa and Saudi Arabia’s Commission for Investigation and Public Prosecution. A number of terrorism experts participated.

“Terrorism is criminal and spills the blood of innocents. It attacks security, spreads terror among people and creates problems for society,” Al-Asheikh said in a statement to the Saudi Press Agency. “Such acts are forbidden by Islamic law. It is necessary to fight the attempts of some to attach terrorism to Islam and Muslims with the goal of distorting the religion and assailing its leadership role in
the world.”

Al-Asheikh’s comments come at a time when Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is beginning to stir again, this time in Yemen, after it got a thrashing from Saudi security forces in 2004 and Al-Shabaab seems to have a stranglehold on Somalia.

So there is no better time for the antiterrorism to focus on developing international cooperation and a better equipped judicial system to deal with this lethal breed of criminal.

It’s curious, though, just how little attention Al-Asheikh’s remarks received outside Saudi Arabia, and for that matter the minimal publicity the workshop generated. The Saudi government deserves some blame for its need for secrecy and refusal to open the sessions to more Western media scrutiny. That said, however, I think that Al-Asheikh’s opinions on terrorism and his citations from the Qur’an
to emphasize the non-Islamic behavior of murderers hiding behind Islam have been ignored by Western observers. Al-Asheikh’s comments just don’t fit into the Western perception of what is important in the fight against terrorism.

From what I gather that important fight appears to be waged against the image of Islam. You know, the hijab because it oppresses women and is a symbol of an out-of-control patriarchal society; creeping Sharia because nobody understands it or takes the time to learn; and minarets because they are the symbol of the Islamification of Europe rather than simply some nice examples of architecture that look strikingly
similar to Renaissance Russian architecture.

The images of Islam are far easier to deal with than those nagging questions of why terrorism is waged in the first place. No one wants to understand the making of a terrorist and how to intervene, they just want him dead. If a Labour or Conservative MP in the UK seeks to pass legislation banning school teachers from wearing the hijab, they think they have struck a blow against the ideology of a terrorist. But
not the guy wearing the bomb belt.

Frankly, terrorists have done a magnificent job of manipulating Western politicians into doing what terrorists do best: Driving a wedge between the West and Islam. Western leaders are more than happy to play the game. Every time some ninny tries to set off a bomb, news reports trace the perpetrator’s radicalism to his student days in the United Kingdom, but not how and why he was radicalized. The pattern seems to be that once the brouhaha over a failed bombing subsides, Westerners turn their rage to some American Muslim congressman and ask the poor guy whether he’s a fifth columnist for Al-Qaeda. Or maybe some bank manager in Smallville will decide it’s too dangerous to allow a hijabi to cash her McDonald’s paycheck at the teller’s window.

Somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan, laughter is echoing through the passes.

No one should minimize the threat of terrorism. The massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, is a sober reminder of the true dangers Muslims and non-Muslims face. Yet American and European lawmakers appear to have little inclination to see beyond their own noses. They haven’t kept their eye on the ball and fall prey to Al-Qaeda’s shell game.

Terrorists want the West preoccupied with the superficial issues of the hijab and Islamic architecture. But instead of rising to the bait of terrorists, perhaps U.S. state and federal lawmakers should leave their hermetically sealed districts and participate in antiterrorism workshops in the Middle East and meet people like Al- Asheikh who speak for Muslims worldwide.

Perhaps then the nonsense of minarets and hijabs can be put to rest.