Thursday, June 24, 2010

Saudi rehab program for terrorists proves skeptics wrong

The other day it was announced by the Ministry of Interior that a little more than 20 percent of the Guantanamo detainees who returned to Saudi Arabia and underwent the government’s rehabilitation program have returned to extremism.

Twenty-five of the 120 Guantanamo detainees that graduated from the program resumed militant activities, with up to 11 joining Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Othman Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, 31, who was imprisoned at Guantanamo for four years and released in 2006, has been named the leader in Al-Qaeda.

The Ministry also reported that overall about 9.5 percent of the 300 people who passed through the program have rejoined the militant ranks or have failed to adhere to the terms of their release.

The Western media has been relatively restrained in reporting these numbers, but present the recidivism rate as a failure. Reuters describes the Guantanamo detainees’ return to extremism as a “setback” for the “world’s top oil exporter”. So by implication not only is the program failing but the failure is in a country that produces fuel for the cars we drive. Agence France-Presse bluntly announces the “20 Percent Failure Rate in Saudi Gitmo Rehab Programme”.

Is the Saudi government’s rehabilitation program failing? The obvious answer is no. Not by a long shot. Rather, the numbers are encouraging. And instead of engaging in torture and isolating individuals in jail cells without trial, perhaps the U.S. can learn a few lessons why Saudi Arabia is succeeding in its own efforts to combat extremism.

Ask any criminologist, police officer, prosecutor or judge about the Saudi rehabilitation program’s recidivism rate and they will express envy. Few Western countries can lay claim to a 9.5 percent recidivism rate among criminals.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 1.18 million American men and women on parole in 2007 were at risk of returning to prison. About 16 percent actually were reincarcerated in 2007. The average recidivism rate in the United States is 67.5 percent, according to a 1994 Department of Justice report.

An estimated 70 percent of convicted robbers are returned to prison. About 74 percent of convicted burglars are re-offenders. These people pose more of a risk to the average American than a terrorist. In 2005, the BBC reported that the recidivism rate in the U.S. was closer to 60 percent and about 50 percent in the United Kingdom.

By the Department of Justice’s own measuring stick, the Saudi rehabilitation program is a smashing success. In fact, the success rate has been remarkably consistent since the inception of the program. About 90 percent of the militants who pass through the program have not returned to extremism.

The program uses a mix of correct religious teachings and financial incentives to keep participants on tract. Much of the program focuses on the participation of religious scholars who freely engage with participants in debates over the interpretation of the Holy Qur’an by counseling them on the correct doctrine and ferreting out corrupt interpretations. Psychological counseling, the use of halfway houses to re-integrate former militants into Saudi society, jobs, and financial aid to get them back on their feet are also employed.

Western nations are used to the hard-line approach of harsh prison sentences imposed on people who commit crimes. Some U.S. and British legal experts have expressed skepticism whether a religious-based “soft” program can be effective over a long period of time. The consensus among Westerners is to assume a wait-and-see attitude. But now that Al-Qaeda in Yemen is composed of several rehab graduates, the program has been deemed a failure.

Critics have a tendency to believe that the Saudi program is some kind of Islamic version of an American weekend bible camp. Verses are memorized and recited, bonds are made between participates, songs are sung, and then everybody goes back to their secular world on Monday.

These notions can’t be applied to Saudis, who measure their very existence on how they live their lives as Muslims. Islam is a road map to pious living. It’s not a Friday-only thing or the occasional trip to Holy Qur’an camp. It’s an every minute thing.

Saudi extremists stepped off the correct path and only Islam can bring them back. It’s unlikely that hardcore extremists will ever change, and certainly life prison sentences or the death penalty will keep them off the streets. Those people will never personally harm another human being again. But it won’t stop them from spreading their ideology whenever possible, even behind prison walls. It will not stop their families from assuming the same ideology. It will not stop misguided Muslims from seeking revenge because their loved ones were tortured or held in prison without trial.

The Saudi rehabilitation program is successful because the government respects the people it’s trying to rehabilitate. It’s far easier to lock them away forever or execute them, but it does nothing to reduce the threat of extremist ideology.

Saudi tourism projects show improvements

There’s more good news from the Saudi Arabian tourism industry. Revenue was expected this year to jump 4.76 percent over 2009 for a total of SR 66 billion.

Salah Al-Bakhit, the deputy chairman of Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), told the Saudi Press Agency earlier this week that “by the year 2015 (tourism) revenue would reach SR118 billion and by 2020 it would jump further to SR232 billion.”

Also consider the SCTA’s announcement that jobs created by investments in tourism has increased 7.4 percent, or from 333,125 jobs in 2000 to 457,658 in 2009. I suspect that much of this growth, which is not terribly large over nearly a decade, occurred in the last couple of years as the SCTA increased its efforts to promote Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination and improved access to various sites.

Support services, such as restaurants, at tourist destinations also saw a significant rise in revenue with a 9 percent uptick, or a total of SR 36 billion expected this year.

So what are Saudi Arabia’s hot spots? Madain Saleh is popular with non-Muslims. Madain Saleh was named in 2008 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and continues to undergo excavation in a cooperative effort between the SCTA and the National French Research Center. The Grand Mosque in Makkah and Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah for pilgrims remains Saudi Arabia’s centerpieces of tourism. Asir, Najran and Jizan are beginning to attract new visitors. At least SR 150 billion has been earmarked for the construction of resorts along the Red Sea coast. Ras Muhaisen in the Makkah province, Dhaffat Al-Wajh, Ras Humaid Sharma and Qayyal in Tabuk, Arrayes in Yanbu and Haridha in Asir all have resorts under construction or have projects planned.

A project to develop the old Okaz Souq in Taif also is on the horizon.

It seems that the SCTA has proven the skeptics wrong and has exceeded their own expectations in tourism growth. With an unprecedented number of tourism projects underway, SCTA chief Prince Sultan Bin Salman is turning his attention to domestic travel issues. Citing that 80 percent of the Saudis use domestic highways to reach their destinations, a Saudi Automotive Services Company (SASCO) service station project has been launched.

“To promote domestic tourism we have to provide the best services to the local citizens, residents and tourists who make use of our trunk roads,” Prince Sultan told Saudi reporters at a press conference recently. He said the project is aimed to allow service stations to be more attractive for travelers.

The SCTA plans to add 20 SASCO service stations by next year for a total of 83 facilities. These services stations will include shopping centers, food courts and lodging. But it will take more than additional service stations to increase domestic travel on Saudi Arabia’s highways. What the SCTA hasn’t mentioned about their project is the fact that current highway service stations are notorious for their filthy conditions in restrooms and wash areas and less than adequate service at sales counters. I think that a filthy petrol station restroom and rude service staff will make more of an impression on a foreign visitor than any tourist site. If the Ministry of Transport can get on board with the SCTA and refurbish rest areas and service stations and train staff, then domestic travel will further increase

Also not addressed by the SCTA are the chronic problems of lack of public transportation in urban areas. While railways are planned for inter-city travel, public bus transportation remains substandard in general and non-existent for women in particular. Once tourists arrive at a destination, rental cars and taxis should not be the only transportation option for families.

Ultimately, the transportation problems will be solved given the giant strides the SCTA has made in the past two years. That’s promising for domestic tourism. Now if the SCTA can begin focusing on bringing more foreign tourists to Saudi Arabia, then we can see some further revenue increases.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Having an opinion can land Saudis in jail

Young Saudis are in deep trouble yet again for speaking their minds. Three young Saudis, two men and a woman, face lawsuits for “opening declaring sin” in a MTV “True Life” episode titled “Resist the Power, Saudi Arabia.”

A portion of the episode was videotaped at a Jeddah Municipal Council meeting. Now the council claims that broadcasting images of its members is “an aggression against the rights of others” because one of the youths profiled in the show complained of lack of female council members.

The show profiled a young man breaking up with his unseen girlfriend and his attempts at dating. Another subject was a 20-year-old Effat College student starting her own abaya business in which her abayas are in every color except black. Another is a 22-year-old university political science major who regularly attends the municipal council meetings and worked four months to have women allowed to voice their community concerns. A fourth profile focused on a Saudi heavy metal rock band that is unable to stage a concert in Saudi Arabia.

Unlike the young Saudi who bragged of his female conquests on LBC several months ago, at least two of the young people interviewed by MTV in the hour-long episode did no wrong and committed no sin. The rock band is harmless.

It’s not for me to judge any of these individuals. That’s for Allah. I wish the lovelorn Saudi kept his mouth shut because, frankly, he openly defied Islam. But the abaya entrepreneur and budding Saudi politician have nothing to apologize for. This doesn’t absolve MTV from its responsibilities to their interview subjects. Like LBC, the music television company abandoned the people it profiled once the cameras stopped rolling. MTV also failed to balance its show by interviewing their subjects to elicit the positive aspects of Saudi culture.

Still, Saudi authorities – in this case the municipal council and apparently the Commission to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue, which had sought the lawsuits (Jeddah court officials said this week that no complaints have actually been filed) – have failed to take the documentary in perspective.

It’s telling that in each of the interviews, these young people freely expressed their opinions about the society they live in, yet behaved in every way like good Muslims and had sought the approval of their parents. During practice sessions, the heavy metal band immediately stopped playing their music, performed wudu and went to prayer. The mothers of the Effat College girl and the lead singer in the rock band gave their complete permission and encouragement of their children’s activities. The mothers willingly appeared on camera for interviews. Throughout the entire episode the musicians repeatedly said that heavy metal is a performance driven act that is not “Satanic” that is implied in that genre of music. Rather, their lyrics focus on their lives as Saudis. It was only the style of music they were emulating.
“There is no conflict between heavy metal music and being a Muslim,” one young man said.

Although the young man desperate for a date annoyed me, he made a statement that some young Saudis might agree: “Saudi society encourages Saudi youths to do wrong things.”

This statement is the crux of the MTV episode. Three individuals and a group of musicians swimming against the tide of Saudi society to pursue their dreams. The young abaya maker was lectured by a shop clerk that black represented modesty and was the only suitable color for an abaya.That’s not his place. It took the girl a while to find another shop owner, although he was quite reluctant, to make the colorful abayas she had designed.

There is no sin there.

The political science major’s legal issues are even more ludicrous. He is openly videotaped debating Jeddah Council members on the issue of allowing women to attend meetings. Most council members are photographed and engaging in the debate. Following a four-month negotiation, the Council agreed to allow women into the meeting. A few dozen women attended and are given an opportunity to voice their concerns about their needs in the community. A primary complaint is the lack of affordable transportation in the city.

Not until the MTV episode aired on May 24 did the Council discover that they were wronged by the young man for allowing the meeting to be recorded. Apparently no council member believes he should be held accountable for allowing the videotaping in the first place or giving the young man permission to bring women to the meeting.

Nearly 60 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia is under the age of 24. As one of the rock musicians stated in an interview, there are few ways for self-expression. He noted he could play his music or he could take drugs and drive his car aimlessly around Jeddah. His decision, he said, is to find a creative outlet to express himself.

Saudi authorities showed the wherewithal to allow MTV into the country to allow young Saudis to freely express themselves. Yet when the opinions expressed don’t match the opinions of the collective, then punishment is pending. It’s a wonder that any young Saudi would ever grant an interview to the media. The consequences of having opinions are too severe.

As for MTV, the opening narration provided a laundry list of Saudi generalizations and stereotypes, but to its credit virtually the entire documentary was in the words of the interview subjects. Leaving the young people behind to fend for themselves is unforgivable, but I’m not sure what is worse: MTV packing their bags and leaving without so much as a thank-you, or the Saudi authorities who endorsed the documentary by allowing MTV into the country, and then pulling the rug out from under these young people for speaking their minds.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Media give Western extremism a free pass

The other night I was sitting at home minding my own business when I came across Al Jazeera English’s “Inside Iraq” program online. There for the world to see was an American describing Arabs as “barbarians” and Islam a “crazy ideology”. President Bush, he said, courageously “planted some flowers” of democracy in the Middle East when U.S. troops invaded Iraq.

I quickly looked at the time stamp on the program thinking I found something from the 2004 archives of Al Jazeera. No. Jack Burkman, a Republican strategist who does spin control for disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and toes the Republican Party line on foreign policy, was speaking in the here and now. Burkman told his disbelieving host and fellow guests -- British journalist Robert Fisk and Iraqi analyst Anas Altikriti -- that the Middle East needs to be cleaned up of dictators. He also said that oil, not weapons of mass destruction, was the true motive behind the invasion. Nobody in the U.S. government, he said, cares about Egypt or Syria because those countries have nothing to offer.

Okay, so Burkman articulates what Arabs have known all along. But the curious thing about this second-string Beltway insider is that Al Jazeera would put this guy on the air in the first place. Al Jazeera has fallen into the same trap as the American media by booking individuals with extreme viewpoints, taking off the gloves and allowing the blood to spill.

The unintended consequence of booking people with questionable credentials and outrageous opinions to draw viewers is that Western extremism is legitimized. If on American television we took the polar opposite of a Muslim extremist's point of view, say, that car bombings are a legitimate form of warfare to repel foreign invaders from Muslim lands, a media firestorm would ensue and the hapless Islamic extremist would disappear into a black hole.

Mainstream book publishers with a long record of publishing thought-provoking analysis on world events in general and American foreign policy in particular now recognize that Western extremism can be profitable.

Simon & Schuster has published commendable biographies and autobiographies of Barack and Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Afgan women’s activist Malalai Joya and Clara Rojas, who was held captive for more than 2,000 days by Colombian terrorists. But the publisher now includes Muslim haters Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, American advocates of the extinction of Islam, in their roster of authors. Simon & Schuster apparently believes Geller and Spencer’s argument that Obama is waging war on his own country.

Spencer, in fact, purports to be an Islamic scholar although he has no formal education in the field. He enjoys U.S. government tax breaks as a non-profit organization dedicated to Islamic scholarship. Yet his website and public speeches are screeds against Islam much in the same vein as Burkman’s view that Islam is a “crazy ideology” anchored hopelessly anchored in the 6th century.

Spencer’s promotion of “Draw Muhammad (peace be upon him) Day” further solidifies Western extremism directed toward Muslims. “Draw Muhammad Day” was promoted on Facebook last month in reaction to Comedy Central deciding not to air a “South Park” cartoon parody of the prophet following a threat from a fringe Islamic website. Billed as championing free speech and standing up to the excesses of Islamic extremists, artists were invited to submit artwork of the prophet to Facebook.

Scores of entries were submitted with every single one depicting hateful images. Freedom of speech to the organizers and artists was simply an excuse to vent anti-Muslim sentiments. Not one image portrayed the prophet in a positive or neutral light, or even attempted to emulate the well-known 16th century Turkish Islamic artwork.

Muslim extremists and their unhinged followers should assume some responsibility for fostering the rise of Western extremism (although Muslim extremists don’t enjoy the same benefits of being published by Simon & Schuster et al). Westerners have learned a few lessons from Al Qaeda, which virtually pioneered the use of the Internet to further their cause through terrorism Spencer, for example, often adopts the language of Al Qaeda when advocating the elmination of Islam. Yet long before Al Qaeda came about, extremism was alive and well in the U.S. It’s woven into the fabric of American history.

The Ku Klux Klan, the original American terrorist organization, virtually legalized murder, kept racial segregation alive for decades and spawned neo-Nazism. Anti-Semite Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, had his radio show in the 1930s. Sen. Joe McCarthy ruined lives simply by hinting that individuals may be communists. Today, the Internet has created thousands of new Klansmen, Father Coughlins and Joe McCarthys. The difference, however, is they get book deals and are interviewed by Wolf Blitzer to spread their hate.

All of these folks have a voice and all have been legitimized by mainstream television news. And yes, that includes Al Jazeera.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

New medical program could reduce organ trafficking

Saudi Arabia took a big step forward in seriously treating renal disease patient with an announcement earlier this week that a campaign has been launched that among other things publicizes a program that allows renal patients to be treated in villages instead of traveling to urban areas.

Prince Salman also announced that the program will include fund-raising efforts to help the Prince Fahad Bin Salman Charitable Society for the Care of Kidney Patients. Perhaps the most important aspect of the program is that the charitable society has developed a plan to make it easier for renal patients to obtain treatment.

Consider that two years ago the number of kidney patients, a great many suffering from diabetes, was pegged at about 8,500 in Saudi Arabia. That number has increased to 11,000 this year and is expected to jump to 15,000 by 2015. Diabetes accounts for as much as one-third of the country’s renal failure cases. Liver disease stemming from hepatitis also is expected to increase by as much as 10 percent

When I last wrote about treatment for renal failure in March, the Kingdom was facing a crisis with only a fraction of kidney transplants taking place. The King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, for example, performed 152 kidney transplants in 2008 with 96 kidneys taken from living relatives and 56 from deceased donors. An estimated 2,900 kidney patients were waiting for transplants.

The crisis is actually two-fold: Obtaining kidney donors for a transplant, especially from a deceased donor, is difficult in Saudi Arabia due to cultural issues. And if a transplant is not a priority, simply getting patients with few financial means from poor, rural areas to Jeddah, Riyadh, Madinah and Dammam is almost impossible.

My family is lucky. My mother, who must undergo dialysis several times a week, is treated in her hometown of Madinah or when she visits my brothers in Jeddah. Other families, however, must travel sometimes hundreds of miles for treatment. At one point, however, there was a discussion in my family whether a transplant was needed and whether that transplant should be performed abroad. But it’s a risky venture.
According to the India News, about 500 patients, mostly from the United States, had kidney transplants in India. We decided against the transplant, but other Saudi families don’t have the option or are desperate enough to seek illegal surgery outside Saudi Arabia.

Prince Salman’s fund-raising efforts for the charitable society is expected to aid patients at the end stage of renal disease to access treatment not usually available to them outside of urban areas. What I’m hoping for is that the program will minimize transplant tourism among Saudis who believe there are not enough options available in Saudi Arabia to save the life of a loved one. The society’s program
also could help minimize the conflicts Saudi Arabia is experiencing within the international medical community.

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a plea in 2004 for countries to “to take measures to protect the poorest and vulnerable groups from transplant tourism and the sale of tissues and organs, including attention to the wider problem of international trafficking in human tissues and organs."

In 2008, “The Declaration of Istanbul on Organ Trafficking and Transplant Tourism” was established. The declaration defined organ trafficking as the “ recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of living or deceased persons or their organs by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or of the giving to, or the receiving by, a third party of payments or benefits to achieve the transfer of control over the potential donor, for the purpose of exploitation by the removal of organs for transplantation.”

Many Saudis are reluctant to participate in transplant programs involving deceased donors. In addition, many Western medical experts are uncomfortable with Saudi Arabia’s policy of compensating families of deceased donors because it could lead to exploitation of poor expatriates and also encourage the commercialization of organ

Saudi Arabia’s medical community has addressed these concerns by arguing that the selection process of using an organ from a deceased donor and the resulting compensation to the family requires a thorough vetting process and is in compliance with our cultural and religious obligations. Prince Salman’s awareness program will educate Saudis about the options available to them and help reduce transplant
tourism. The program should also help bring acceptance that organ donations, whether from a living or deceased donor, is a viable option and acceptable in Islam.

As reported recently in the Saudi press, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh described the donation of cash for the awareness program and the donation of organs as not only acceptable but noble gestures.