Sunday, March 17, 2013

Viruses of racism and intolerance: How sickening!

Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Harthi shocked his audience in his Friday prayer sermon by telling them that starting from next week, only Saudis are welcome. He explained that if he really did so most of us would find it outrageous, but that this was exactly what many of us feel about our fellow Muslims.

 He is right. Under our skins, too many of us are racists. Because we became rich with oil revenue, (which is a gift from Allah not a result of our own hard work), many of us think we are a superior race. And yet despite our ability to think in this way, we still consider ourselves to be the best and purest Muslims?

Allah tells us in the Holy Qur’an: “People, We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you would recognize each other. The most honorable among you in the sight of God is the most pious of you.” His Prophet (peace be upon him) warns against racism and announced that there is no difference between white and black, Arabs and non-Arabs, except in righteousness.  

This is not a Saudi issue only, but a pan-Arab disease. During my travels to Arab countries and meeting with Arabs abroad it troubled me to feel this false sense of superiority, especially against each other and toward other Muslims. Even intellectuals are affected. Many believe that Gulf citizens are merely uncultured Bedouins. While this is true in many cases, it is unfair to generalize. 

Arabs tend to look down on some races, especially those who come from the poorer parts of the world. Many believe the world is somehow conspiring against us. They cite Western and Russian invasions, and the support of our enemies, like Israel, as evidence.

The trouble with such a mentality is that it is the worst kind of escape and blame transfer. Instead of facing our challenges head on by finding and solving our mistakes, we blame others.

Therefore, Palestine was lost not because of our incompetence, but because of a Zionist-Christian conspiracy. Our economic backwardness is a result of similar conspiracy. Neocolonialists are eating up world resources, supporting dictators and forcing failed governments on us. We are behind in almost every race, from space to sport, industry to agriculture, not as a result of the failure of our education system, religious in-fighting and laziness, but because of those foreigners who won’t let us win!

Conspiracy theorists always have “evidence”. They readily recite a long history of colonialism and suppression, and build on it their concept of the present and future. Instead of getting busy finding ways to succeed and win, they are busy crying foul.

Religious intolerance, competition and suspicion are building up the fires of hate among us. Isn’t it amazing that 1400 years after our first civil war, we are still fighting about what the fight was about! How much longer will we let historical wars keep us stuck in history? Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states share the same Islamic basics and principles, follow the same Prophet (pbuh) and pray toward the same Kaaba. Still, we let the agents of death, the preachers of hate keep us engaged not in bettering ourselves and the future of our children, but in a state of tension and war against each other, all the time. 

Racism and intolerance are viruses that take many forms and find their way into many good hearts. Patriotism is one of the most deceiving and deadly forms. Under such a banner, the "others" are dehumanized. It puts one’s own people and their interests above basic human rights and laws.

It then becomes acceptable to deny guest workers basic services, including educational and medical services, because citizens come first. When water and electricity are scarce, it is okay to give ourselves priority. Following the same logic, you may hear demands that fast roads and lines should be reserved for Saudis, or cheaper food and transportation should be given to citizens, only. Some writers even accuse foreigners of stealing our jobs and business opportunities. Others count every penny these workers send home, as if they had stolen the money! 

We need a wake-up call from our opinion, society, tribal and religious leaders. We need to realize how wrong, sickening and dangerous the virus of racism and intolerance is to our civilization. And we urgently need to do something about it! 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A cry from a South African mother: Help my Saudi daughter!

I have written five articles about tragic love and marriage stories that have left Saudi and Qatari children stranded with their foreign mothers. The fathers are mostly Gulf students who married or had love relations with American women. They promised these women a lifetime journey or agreed on a temporary relationship that should not involve children and should end on graduation day.

However, reality kicks in and children arrive at inconvenient times. The doomsday comes when the young man has to return home to a family that does not welcome foreign wives. In many cases, his mother has already chosen a relative, a neighbor or a friend’s daughter for him.

As time and distance intervene, love wanes, and so does his commitment. The poor deserted foreign mother is left caring for the young children with no help or even acknowledgement from their father. She calls him, his family and friends, the Saudi embassy and concerned organizations like Awasser, but to no avail. The young man gets married, has children, and goes on with a life that has no room for his “other” family which lives so far away. He abandons his responsibilities to his own children, in some cases not even acknowledging their existence. What a shame!

This time the cry for help comes all the way from South Africa. The husband who abandoned his wife and children is not a young student, but a Saudi traveler who decided to keep a warm home abroad for occasional visits, without taking any responsibility for its cost, or so claims his wife.

Here is a summary of her story. She says: “I am a South African Muslim woman of a Turkish-Middle Eastern background, who has been married to a Saudi citizen for nearly seven years. Before our marriage, he assured my family that he was applying for permission from the Saudi government to marry me. Yet, soon after we were married, he claimed that he had applied many times but was not granted permission. I find that difficult to believe! Anyway, in all those seven years he insisted that he was unable to take my daughter and me to live with him in Saudi Arabia as our marriage was not recognized. Therefore, he would travel back to the Kingdom for long periods of time. This time he has been away for eight months, leaving us with no money, and not even calling to enquire about our well-being.

“I have contacted my husband’s family concerning this issue many times, as well as the Saudi embassy here, but to no avail. I’ve also contacted the Awasser organization on numerous occasions. After many years and hundreds of emails, they finally answered.
 “They said that in order to apply for help, I needed to apply through the embassy. I tried there but they said I needed official documents from my husband. Upon calling him in Saudi Arabia, he refused. The embassy contacted him and assured me that he would return in a couple of weeks. Many more weeks have passed by and I am still waiting.

“A few months ago, I requested my husband to please sign a document that the South African Ministry of Interior emailed him in order to issue a new passport for my daughter. I have been saving up for many years now to take her for Umrah in Makkah and to visit her Saudi family. He bluntly refused to sign the document.

“I can say with all pride that I am an honorable Muslim lady desperately fighting for my dear, dear child! I have done all that I am capable of doing and have given her a good Islamic upbringing. My daughter is only five, but loves her prayers dearly and has begun memorizing the Holy Qur’an. Still I cannot deny that she needs the presence of a proper father in her life! I have taught her to sit down every morning and evening and cry to Allah for help.

“My unanswered questions are: Why is it so difficult to resolve these issues in Saudi Arabia and why are we treated like beggars and sent from pillar to post by every group and organization every time we try to get their help? Why hasn’t the Saudi government come forward to address these important issues and make these children feel part of their own country – Saudi Arabia?

“My daughter clearly is suffering from a complex, as she does not know where she belongs. It is my Islamic duty to give my child her father’s name and tell her that she belongs to the Holy Land.”

That is one more tragic story. The mother of another abandoned Saudi child is asking the same question I have been asking in every article I have written about the issue with no answer at all from those it may concern. It makes me wonder: Is anyone listening? 

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Women in the workplace: Saudi youth and work ethics

“Are Saudi women better off in the workplace, today?” Bloomberg reporter, Dona Abu Al-Nasr asked me. Ten years after her last visit to the Kingdom, she was wondering if the unemployment situation was improving, especially for the young and women. What are the obstacles for females in certain work environments? Are they religious, social, economic or political? Who is responsible and what are the solutions?

I told her that much had been achieved in ten years. Are we there yet? No, not yet. Reasons vary. More than the obstacles she mentioned, I would say we need more proper training and work ethics.

Let’s start with education. Former Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, was asked about the secret of his country’s economic miracle. In 22 years, he managed to develop his country into a prosperous, sophisticated and highly developed nation. His answer was: Education, education and quality education.

Dr. Mohamad was absolutely right. No nation can progress without good education. Our kids are overloaded with books that are mostly theoretical not practical. They are taught more about the past and hereafter than about the present and future.

Then we send them off unprepared to an ever demanding and sophisticated market. They lack the needed skills in English, computers, accounting, administration and general sciences. Needless to say, they get no practical experience during their school years.

Government and large corporations, like SABIC, ARAMCO, Saudi Arabian Airlines and other mega financial, petrochemical and energy companies can afford to provide on-the-job training for fresh graduates or send them abroad for postgraduate education and training.

However, most companies are small and medium enterprises. They are the engines of our economy. But to survive in a very competitive market, they cannot afford expensive training and education for their new recruits.

And even if they could, what guarantees do they have of retaining them? Saudis, especially the young, tend to apply to different companies and state agencies. They may accept the first job available in the private sector, but many jump ship once they get a better offer, especially from the government.

Even though public sector jobs are not highly paid, their workload is much less and the hours are usually 7 A.M. - 2 P.M. Saturday to Wednesday. This allows for other work and social activities. The workload in small and medium enterprises is usually heavier and the hours longer, divided into two shifts, with much less tolerance for inadequate performance.  

This leads us to the issue of work ethics. Let’s face it: A lot of our youth are not hard workers. Many lack discipline, patience and persistence. Some are not serious, responsible or even honest. In such cases, how can they be given any critical missions and who would invest in training them?

This problem is a joint responsibility of home and school. Take for example the first week after any school vacation when most students are absent. Who encourages such behavior and makes excuses for it? Parents do. Society accepts. Teachers tolerate or encourage the trend.

What messages are we sending to our children? Here are some: Disrespect, irresponsibility, cheating and disregard for the system. These bad ethics are carried over to the workplace.

Saudis, however, work harder in their own businesses.  Offered government incentives and protection, plus tax-free profits, many are finding it more profitable to start their own business.

Maybe this is the solution. Instead of imposing job seekers on employers, we should increase the job market by encouraging entrepreneurship.

Here’s an illustrative example. Shorooq Al-Sulaiman is a graduate of the Business College of King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah. She didn’t learn enough in school, but had good training in a mega company, Emaar.

She used her work experience to start a real estate business. Three years later, she is creating jobs instead of looking for one. Her company is working now in real estate development, wood manufacturing and construction.

Many success stories, like that of Shorooq, are pointing us in the right direction. Creative young entrepreneurs with the help of state and private organizations are making waves in every field, from traditional trade and services to graphic design and new media marketing. 

Let’s embrace them, support their efforts, guide their steps and provide them with a sophisticated network and modern infrastructure and superstructure.

Government agencies, education institutions and non-government organizations should coordinate their plans and efforts to accommodate and encourage this phenomenon. Our youth, women, progress and future depend on it.

Capitalism, consumerism: Time for revolution?

I just bought a new Galaxy Tab. This is my fourth tablet in two years. The first three were iPads that I replaced one after the other. I still have the last one and am eyeing a mini iPad. I also bought an iPhone and a BlackBerry less than a year ago. Now I feel backward and am resisting the urge to buy the brand new BlackBerry Z10 and iPhone 5.

My 15” MacBook Pro laptop is doing just fine. Still, I bought the lighter 13” MacBook Air, convincing myself that I needed it for more portability. All the above is in addition to a couple of desktop PCs at work and in my home office. The cost of all these gadgets is some SR30,000, which could have bought a small car or helped me replace the one I have — not that I need to! So what is going on? I am fully aware of how insane this is, but still can’t help it! 

Prince Amr Al-Faisal believes that a capitalist economy is built on consumerism. After 9/11, former president George W. Bush’s first advice to Americans was to go shopping. The US president knew only too well that his economy depended on spending. Factories keep making products that exceed people’s needs. Car factories build a car every 45 seconds. Apple alone produces millions of iPhones for people who already own phones. 

So if we were to keep what we have and pass it on to our children, then who is going to buy all these products? Remember old cars and phones? Remember when they would last a lifetime? Today, we buy cars every few years, and cell phones at least once a year, not because we need to but because the culture of consumerism makes it seem necessary, and even urgent, to buy the latest and greatest. 

How does this work? Manufacturers keep adding more features and speed to new products. Then marketing showers and surrounds us with news, reviews and advertising about how useful the new software applications are that can only work with the latest hardware. If you cannot afford them, you can get bank loans or use credit cards — so no excuse! (What are you waiting for? Call this free number now and get a discount, or buy two and get one free! Hurry, only a limited supply is left!)

No one says anything about the Earth having a limited supply of resources as well. No one explains how we can afford this rate of consumption that eats up our world’s limited resources. No one explains what is going to be left for new generations? 

So what would happen if one day we decided to stop playing this game? The answer comes from all directions: The whole economic structure of the world would collapse! Recession, we are told, starts with less shopping. 

Then the vicious circle turns in the opposite direction. Instead of booming, economies collapse. Factories shut down, shops close, advertising agencies go out of business, and so do all supporting service providers from distribution to transportation, and from storage facilities to hotels and restaurants. We all lose our jobs and benefits. 

Look at Greece, they point out. More austerity measures made people poorer. They could only afford to buy less, which means less production. The only way to lift this country out of its recession is to lend it more money so that people can buy more of its produce.

How do we get out of this predicament? What is the solution? Prince Mohammad Al-Faisal, the founder of Islamic banking, believes we should start searching for an answer. There is no Islamic economic theory, yet. What has been achieved in the last 30 years is the development of Islamic financial institutions and banking products. It is high time Muslim scholars start looking for solutions to the world’s economic ills.

To encourage research in this field, he established the Prince Mohammad Al-Faisal Award for Islamic Economic Studies. His son, Prince Amr, is traveling all around the Kingdom these days to spread the word. He is encouraging university students to think out of the box. “Ignore all established theories and come up with your own,” he urges them. “Capitalism has failed us time and time again. As a result, only 1 percent of the population in rich and poor countries enjoys the fruit of the hard labor of the 99 percent.”

Islam has the solution, but what is it, exactly? How can we develop the endowment “waqf” and alms “zakat” concepts, for example, to serve our modern needs? Only the young would dare to challenge the traditional concepts, and Prince Amr is daring them to come up with creative answers to ancient questions. The elders should follow. That is the way revolutions go! 

Ikhwan phobia: Truths and myths

When Imam Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan), met with late King Abdulaziz Al-Saud during the Haj of 1948, he asked for permission to open a charter of his organization in the Holy Land. King Abdulaziz told him: In Saudi Arabia we are all Ikhwan, and I am their head.

What he meant was that the Saudi version of Muslim Ikhwan, which preceded any similar movement and concept in the Arab world, was already in place. It was also a diplomatic way of saying no to the establishment of political Islam in Saudi Arabia.

The Society of the Muslim Brothers (MB) that started in 1928 as a purely Islamic social organization in an increasingly Westernized Egypt, then a British colony, later took on politics as well. By the end of World War II, the MB had an estimated two million members. Its ideas gained supporters throughout the Arab world and influenced other Islamist groups with its “model of political activism combined with Islamic charity work.” Today, it is the most influential and one of the largest Islamic movements and political opposition organizations in the Arab world.

According to Wikipedia, the Muslim Brotherhood started as a religious social organization; preaching Islam, teaching the illiterate, setting up hospitals, and even launching commercial enterprises. But in 1936, it began to oppose British rule in Egypt. The Brotherhood’s stated goal is to instill the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah, the sayings and traditions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), as the “sole reference point for ...ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community ... and state.”

The movement officially opposes violent means to achieve its goals, although it, at one time, encompassed a paramilitary wing and its members were involved in the assassination of political opponents, notably Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud Al-Nukrashi Pasha.

Th Egyptian government, under King Farouk, dissolved the organization and arrested its members after the Arab defeat in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948. The Ikhwan fought bravely in that war, and shared with the Free Officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, a resentment toward weak and inefficient Arab governments and armies. Therefore, the MB supported the military coup of 1952, but after its members were accused of the attempted assassination of Nasser in 1954, the organization was once again banned and repressed. They were suppressed in other Arab countries as well and many were killed in Syrian President Hafiz Al-Assad’s Hama massacre in 1982.

The MB is financed by membership fees. Some of these contributions come from members working in oil-rich countries. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates provided safe havens to Ikhwans escaping Nasser’s crackdown. Because many were highly educated, they were given prominent positions in institutions of general education, media and Islamic teaching. A good number of them were influential in establishing religious colleges and designing school curriculum.

Today, after 84 years in the shadows, prisons or underground, the Ikhwans are finally in the driving seat. After prevailing in Turkey, Sudan, Yemen and Gaza, the MB and its affiliates have won executive and/or parliamentary elections in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Kuwait.

This creates great opportunities and challenges. The Ikhwan can finally deliver what they have promised if they rule in the Islamic spirit of good governance. However, while their supporters are in the millions and are well organized and strong, their many well-supported rivals are also united and determined to see the MB experiment fail. Their adversaries include local and international opponents of Islamic rule and those who doubt the Ikhwan’s intentions.

So now is the prefect time for MB parties to prove themselves worthy of people’s great expectations and to disprove the accusations of their detractors. These accusations include that the MB favors a Taliban-like rule and has  a hidden agenda to activate sleeping cells, topple Gulf regimes and extend the MB system to include the rest of the Muslim world.

If the MB succeed, they may, once and for all, put an end to Ikhwan phobia and Ikhwan bashing. That would be good for them, for their countries, for Islam—and for the rest of us.

Social intruders: Mind your own business!

THE man interviewed on Arabic TV Channel, MBC1, was explaining why women don’t need to drive. "Look around you; I have three cars in my garage: One for me, the other for my son, and a third for the family with a driver," he was boasting.  

Good for you, I thought, but you are answering the wrong question. It wasn’t whether "your" women need to drive, but why women, in general, need to. Again, the question is raised and answered the same way about women’s need to work. Those who are well off decide for the rest of us.

Their argument is that men should take care of their families, but what about those who don’t have men to take care of them? Some women are actually taking care of their families - parents and children, and even unemployed husbands. Besides, why should work be associated with financial need? What about work for work, work for experience, work for social service? What is the use of female education if it ends up with a certificate hanging on the wall of a kitchen?

The same logic goes with any and everything. The idea is that "your business is my business, but mine is not yours." Why? Because, I am more religious, conservative and patriotic than you are. I know what is going on, even in your head and heart. I am aware of the conspiracy of local and global liberals to destroy this society. Since I am the self-appointed guard of virtue, it is my holy duty to fight you and your fellow conspirators with all means, even if not holy.
“Together, with my fellow faithful, we will protect our society from your moral decadence, even by force. And don’t tell me you are free to live your rotten Western lifestyle here, we won’t allow it, not even in your own home. We are the representatives of God and the guardians of his religion, and we have the right to correct your habits and dictate your ways.  If you don’t like it, you may leave and live where it suits you. This is the land of Islam and holy places, and there is no place for liberalism and liberals.”

So whether you are preaching your beliefs or keeping it to yourself, you can’t be free or safe. Your neighbor will criticize the women in your family for not covering their face and “mutawwas” will put you in jail for driving your female colleague home, and your friends will hammer you for allowing your wife to work in a mixed environment. 

This mentality is spreading in the Muslim world. In Arab Spring countries, Salafis are forcing their way of life on the rest of the population. If persuasion doesn’t work, force or the threat of it is applied. 
My friend Dr. Omar Elmershedi called this phenomenon the herd mentality. People tend to defend and impose collective rules on all members of the group because they fear the dismantling of societal structure. Mavericks with disruptive new ideas and lifestyles are treated as agents of disorder. 

I agree with Dr. Elmershedi.  Fear of change takes on different disguises. Religion and patriotism are the most used. People who fear the loss of control of their herds raise holy and/or nationalistic flags. They plant the fear of change and the unknown in their followers’ hearts. The herd mentality then makes each member vigilant.  

The real game is control. Leaders may have full control of the herd when they claim to only have access to information and ideas. As gatekeepers, they take strong measures against independent thinkers and free spirits because their ideas are dangerous due to their unpredictability, independence and attractiveness. Persuasion, silencing and intimidation are used to reward or punish them. When logic doesn’t serve leaders’ arguments, they resort to conspiracy theories and the occult. How can you argue with someone with exclusive access to Divine guidance and inside information from the source of power?

The struggle for power and control will continue; it is human nature. The use of patriotism and religion will continue. They are the winning cards. Our fight against these people should also continue. 

To all these self-appointed guardians of virtue and rightfulness, I would say: Mind your own business. We are born free. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Arab Common Market? Why not?

MANY were surprised at the response of the American people to 9/11. I wasn’t. After living among them for five years, I realized how much Americans love their country. True they originally came from different parts of the world, with diverse and colorful backgrounds, but the governance system managed to build a strong allegiance to the novel idea of the United States of America.

The European Union is a newer idea. It should have a good chance of success because the people there are mostly European in origin. Unlike the immigrants to the New World, they are rooted in their older continent. However, Europeans may not have reached the US level of integration, and countries like Britain and Greece may leave the EU.  But Europe has make great strides in economic unification.

Europeans, today, feel more like one nation than they ever did in their long history of religious, racial, colonial and political competition.

Our Arab "ummah" has more in common than most nations. We speak one language, belong to the same heritage, and are mostly Muslim. For hundreds of years we belonged to one Caliphate. People share the same aspirations and feel the same pain. We bleed for Gaza and Syria and worry for Egypt and Libya, and pray for Yemen and Sudan.

During the Arab Spring, even young people switched from sports, movies and music TV channels to follow events in Arab streets they may never have heard of before. Saudis discuss political issues in Egypt on Twitter and Facebook today as much as Egyptians do. President Morsi is probably more popular among us than among his fellow countrymen.

So why are we still debating the principles of economic cooperation rather than integration? Why was the agenda of the 2008 Arab Economic Development Summit still being discussed in the third Summit, last week? What progress has been made? What chances are there of better success this time?

I was discussing these questions last week on a Saudi news channel with Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Sultan, professor of economics at Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University. He was pessimistic with good reasons, and I was optimistic with equally valid ones.

His argument is based on the following facts:

A. Arab economies are built mostly on exporting raw materials. In the absence of sophisticated industries, we are competing with each other in global markets. 

B. The unstable political environment in many Arab countries is frightening away local and international investors. Much more Arab capital is invested in US and Europe than at home.

C. The world’s highest unemployment rates among Arab youth are adding more dark colors to a pessimistic picture. 

Therefore, Dr. Al-Sultan doesn’t expect a bright future of cooperation for such failed economies. Any financial help provided to small and medium-sized enterprises will just go to the foreigners running these establishments for their local sponsors, as is the case in Saudi Arabia.

I begged to differ. The Arab world is diversified in its resources. Countries like Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco and Yemen are rich in agriculture and human resources. Others, like Lebanon and the UAE are best in services. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have mineral and financial strengths with strong, open markets.

I can imagine Saudi money and high technology going into Sudan and Yemen to develop their agriculture and sell their products in Saudi and Gulf markets. And I can see Yemeni and Sudanese workers making petrochemical and farming equipment in Saudi Arabia for Yemeni and Sudanese farms.

Young women trained in interior and graphic design in Effat University and Dar Al-Hekma College could be working online with their peers in Sana’a, Amman and Cairo to provide services for companies in Riyadh, Dubai and Doha, while male and female engineers in these countries are collaborating on the same project in Abu Dhabi.

It is happening right now. Cooperation among small and medium-sized enterprises around the world is benefiting from the communication revolution. American and European firms are outsourcing to Indians, Brazilians and Vietnamese. Dedicated networks are providing support to members and facilitating their cooperation.

What we need is to join such networks and start our own. If Arab chambers of commerce could lead the way and if Arab governments support such initiatives, our young people could provide jobs instead of looking for them. We also need good infrastructure to facilitate development and economic growth. That includes public utilities, transportation and communication. The private sector can invest in these areas as well. Electricity and water production, transportation and the Internet may make good business.

I agree with Dr. Al-Sultan that for this and any kind of investment to happen, we need solid political, security and judicial environments. Sudan and Yemen, for example, could be the breadbasket of the Arab world. But unless investors feel safe they won’t risk their hard-earned capital. With a sophisticated new generation of leadership in the poorer Arab countries, combined with the wisdom and strength of the wealthier part of our world, I will bet the future of my children on the Arab Common Market. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Power to Saudi women: An Islamic duty

Thirty women have just been appointed to the Saudi Consultative Council (Shoura) for the first time ever. They make up 20 percent of the Council’s 150 members — up from the 120 strong of the previously male-only legislative assembly. It has been a long journey for Saudi women since King Faisal, then Crown Prince and Prime Minister, established public schools for girls in the 1960s. 

Milestones for women include university education, owning and managing businesses, running and voting in Chamber of Commerce elections, equal access to scholarships abroad and now membership in the Shoura Council and equal rights in municipal elections.

Is that all? What about driving, traveling, working, getting married and studying without the permission of a guardian? When will women be able to work and study in a mixed environment, and be ministers or senior muftis? Can we see them as captains of airplanes and ships, petroleum engineers, police officers and judges?

The question is not whether this is going to happen — it eventually will — but if we are asking for too much in too short a period of time. Are our expectations too high? Are we not considering the sensitivity of a conservative society and the strong opposition of some influential Islamic scholars? 

Before answering these questions, let’s first consider Islam’s position on these issues.  I was once asked on a radio program by a religious caller: “How far do you want Saudi women to progress?” I explained that I actually wanted them to regress — 1430 years. 

At that time, Muslim women had more rights than they do today. They owned and managed businesses. Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) as a young man worked for his future wife, the mega businesswoman Al-Saydah Khadija. Women joined the army as soldiers and nurses.

The Prophet (pbuh) consulted his wives on social, state and religious affairs. So did Caliph Omar, who changed his position on marriage dowry and admitted his mistake after a woman challenged him in public. As for driving, women rode their camels and horses, even in war. 

The caller explained that it was a different era then. Our women need more time to reach that level, he argued. 

I answered him by asking: “Do you mean after 14 centuries and 50 years of modern education, our women are less educated, trained and responsible? And if so, who is to blame? Our education system? Our upbringing? Our Islamic teaching?”

If we are to admit that we have had 50 years of educational failure and that it is getting worse, then we should drastically change our curriculum and teaching methods. But if we insist that we have the best system in the world, then we should trust our women to prove it right. 

All this reminds me of an issue in court right now. A Saudi girl was taken from her Egyptian mother after an ugly divorce. As a child she was told that her mother was dead.

Her father and stepmother mistreated her. When the love of her life asked for her hand, he was refused, only because the father suspected that the young man had had a relationship with her.

The father pressured the young woman into marrying a man of his choice. She agreed provided her Egyptian mother, whom had she discovered was alive, attended the wedding ceremony.

After her marriage, her husband proved to be a male chauvinist. Since her father refused to even acknowledge her complaints, she finally ran away.

Her uncle convinced her father to allow the young woman be be divorced, but as a punishment, the father denied his daughter a college education and put her under virtual imprisonment.

Under intense pressure, she accepted a suitor, and agreed to be his second wife. As it turned out, he was no better than the first husband.

Still, out of this marriage she had two blessings: A college degree and a wonderful daughter. 

Six years later, she was divorced. Now, her father was so angry that he refused to give her shelter and transferred her custody to his brother who sexually harassed her.

She ran away, this time to the police with evidence of the harassment. They allowed her to live on her own and work in the women’s department of a company, to support herself, her daughter — and a driver! 

The father did not like the arrangement. Accusing her of being a bad woman, he insisted on denying her his name and inheritance. The issue is going from one judge to another with more psychological turmoil in every step of the way. 

The woman does not mind being cut out of her inheritance because, as she told the court: “I was denied what is much more important, my father’s love, care and protection. I don’t care for his money.” 

This story explains what our women need and why we are still far from getting there. I am sure that the women who have been appointed to the Shoura Council are well aware of these issues and that they will do their best to resolve them. Empowering our women is an Islamic duty. 

Islam, liberalism and Egypt

What's going on in Egypt? I keep receiving questions about events in Egypt and not only from non-Arabs. Saudis and Egyptian expatriates are confused, too.

Among the most frequent questions: Is it true the Islamists have hijacked the revolution? Is the constitution ideological and backward? Will religion rule all aspects of public life, and negatively influence civility? Will liberals, women and non-Sunni Muslims lose in the new era? Are we going to see the rule of one party, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan)? Why are the Gulf countries not supporting the new Islamic leadership? Is it because of old suspicions of the Ikhwan? Has the West lost Egypt? Will an Islamist government honor the peace agreements with Israel, even if Salafis achieve greater influence in the government?

I wish there was a way to see the future, or read the minds and hearts of political players. However, reading their statements and observing their actions is enough to enable political analysts to explain what is going on and to venture some predictions.

Let’s start by saying this is not a civil war — yet. It is a political fight between two camps - an Islamic government and a liberal opposition.

The first is the representative of the majority. It has won in every democratic competition, so far, starting with parliamentarian and presidential elections, up to the constitutional referendum.

I have no doubt that future elections will follow suit. The vast majority of Egyptians are religiously moderate and socially conservative. That is not going to change anytime soon. The Ikhwans and Salafis won because they were organized, but the real winner is Islamic rule.  No party has a monopoly on that, and the arena is open to all.

The action in the streets now is a war of survival between winners and losers. Liberals and pro-Mubarak and anti-Islamist forces are joining hands in a loosely organized Front to Save the Revolution. The fact of the matter is that they are fighting to save their own interests. What unites them is suspicion of the new order. Those who benefited under the Mubarak regime in the judiciary, security, business community, media and entertainment industries are afraid of the approaching Day of Judgment.

The least they expect is that the new regime will not favor them. More strict, transparent and conservative laws will certainly go against their privileges and in favor of a new and different class of players.

Will an Islamic government maintain peace accords with Israel? They have already demonstrated that. However, they may not be buddies with the Israelis unless they are able to achieve peace for the Palestinians. They have demonstrated that too during the recent Gaza War. Israel will have to deal with a new Egypt similar to Islamist Turkey. Respect is the name of the game.

Has the West lost Egypt? Not unless they forget that they must now deal with the “people of  Egypt,” instead of the “one and only” dictator.

Democratic partnerships will certainly work with Egyptians. The US, in particular, must get used to new rules of communication. No more orders and threats from the the US Congress, CIA, Pentagon and State Department. The US president should be careful in his statements, as he already is, in order to accommodate public sentiments and sensitivity. Mubarak is no longer there to suppress resentment and opposition.

Are Gulf countries against the new rule in Egypt? I could count one for and one against. Qatari officials have shown support for Morsi and his party, while some Emiratis have expressed doubts about the Ikhwans’ intentions in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, other GCC states and their Council are being neutral with regard to internal events, while supporting Egypt’s economy and maintaining good relations with its leadership.

Is the constitution backward and ideological? It had been agreed upon and signed by all parties, including those now fighting against it. It was about to be voted on when they suddenly decided to withdraw. The phrasing of 12 articles (out of 200) which they objected to can easily be rephrased in the new Parliament.

It won’t make much difference, anyway. Take for example the article that says all citizens are equal under the law. The opposition wants to specify “men and women.” A second article says that all criminal cases must be seen by civilian courts, except the ones that harm the military. The Front insists on no exceptions.

A third said the government must uphold Egyptian family traditions. The Front felt that was an excuse to interfere in private lives.

So all in all, the constitution is fine. What the opposition is fighting against is what comes next. They don’t expect to win a majority in the parliament. The government then will be strong enough to go on to the next stage - cleaning up corruption. Ladies and Gentlemen: That is what the fight is all about.

Saudi-Sudanese investments and the bureaucratic jungle

I have received an invitation from Sheikh Mahfouz Bin Mahfouz, a Saudi businessman, to attend a Saudi-Sudanese conference in Riyadh next month. 

Its goal is to foster commerce and encourage investments in Sudan, especially in infrastructure and agriculture.  We do need each other. Saudi Arabia has a lot to offer in rebuilding the war-torn Sudan and meeting its market needs. Our private capital can utilize the huge and largely untapped opportunities in the neighboring African country. 

Sudan has been called the “food basket” of the Arab world for ages. While most Arab countries lack water resources, Sudan has far more than it needs. 

The Nile River, with its two branches, the White and the Blue, meeting in Khartoum, brings life to a land the size of Europe. It was called the Sudan (black in Arabic) because of the color of its soil. The generous Nile brings the fertile soil from its origins in Uganda and Ethiopia to enrich the land on its banks. Egypt, too, used to enjoy this gift before its late president Gamal Abdel Nasser built the Aswan Dam in the 1960s, preventing the fertile soil from being carried northward.

After independence from Great Britain in 1956 and its separation from the Kingdom of Egypt and Sudan, civic progress and development in Sudan were slowed by civil wars and political turmoil. 

Today, with the end of the long war between the South and North and the relative calm of the Darfur conflict, the Sudanese government is finally giving its full attention to building and enriching the improvised country.

On the other hand, the world, and especially our part of it, is facing serious water and food shortages. With global warming and the increase in population, everyone is looking for guaranteed food resources. Saudi Arabia has been working on this problem for many years now. King Abdullah’s Agriculture Initiative calls for private investments in Asian and African countries, starting with neighbors like Ethiopia and Sudan. Many investors, like Sheikh Mohammed Hussien Al-Amoudi, have answered the King’s call. With generous government loans and support, they have heavily invested in developing agriculture in Sudan’s non-Arab neighbor, Ethiopia.

So, is it about time we go further north to develop Sudan? On the surface, it makes prefect sense. The country has all the basic ingredients: water, fertile soil, roads, ports, airports, electricity, human resources, and peace. 

When I visited Sudan in 2002, with Prince Mohammed Al-Faisal, chairman of Faisal Bank, the country had a weak infrastructure and poor services. It has developed considerably since. Then, it was engaged in civil wars in the south, west and east of the country. Today, it is much more secure and peaceful. However, two problems persist — bureaucracy and injustice. Like many Third World countries, laws are not always respected. And when they are followed, it is not always for the best.

Too much red tape frustrates and chases away local, let alone foreign, investors. Obstinate bureaucrats who ignore, delay or refuse to implement even court and executive orders are formidable obstacles. 

In 1989, for example, a Saudi investor and his Sudanese partner organized a successful Saudi export fair in the capital, Khartoum. It was hailed as a gate which would lead to stronger commercial ties. However, when the fair ended the organizers were not allowed to retain possession of their show materials, as promised, and therefore lost millions of dollars. They sued and won a court verdict to get government compensation. The president ordered immediate implementation. More than 20 years later, the investors still have not been paid. 

Such incidents frighten enthusiastic Saudi investors. They may have the best of intentions and want to invest in a dear, neighboring Arab country, but if they cannot be certain of a fair, welcoming and orderly business environment, they will not risk their precious time, hard labor and valuable cash. 

My advice to the Sudanese is to provide such an environment before inviting in investors. Providing regulations and a commission with all the needed power to implement them will certainly help. The free transfer of hard currency, in and out, is a must. And all unsettled cases should be resolved. Without such steps, I really cannot recommend Saudi investment in dear Sudan. No one should risk hard-earned capital in a bureaucratic jungle. 

United States of Arabia: Meeting old and new challenges

ON the eve of the GCC summit in Bahrain last week, a journalist for Elaph asked me for my opinion about the challenges facing the Gulf countries.  I told him nothing was new. The same challenges we have faced for ages are recreating themselves in a similar or a different fashion. Since we keep using the same methods to deal with them, we keep getting the same results. 

Let’s start with Iran. The Persian nation was an issue before and after the dawn of Islam. Its rulers have always sought to control the Gulf region. Their civilization preceded ours. When they had a sophisticated empire, we were mostly Bedouin. 

Islam changed everything. To spread the word of Allah, we overcame their mighty armies and formidable castles. Most atheist Persians chose Islam over fire worshipping. But that hasn’t settled the issue of who has the right to rule the neighborhood. 

The Arabs argued that since they were the carriers of Allah’s word, and the host of the holy places, they should be the leaders. The Persians felt that since they had a superior culture and merits, they should be in charge. To counter the centers of religious knowledge and culture in Makkah, Madinah and Cairo, they established their own in Qom, Mashhad and Shiraz.

In recent history, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, built a world-class army in a bid to be the policeman of the oil rich Gulf. Then came the Islamic revolution in 1979. Many thought the new regime would positively change Iran’s attitude.

In the beginning it seemed so. Ayatollah Khomeini proposed a new name - Islamic Gulf- to solve the question of whether it was the Persian or Arabian Gulf. Arabic was taught in public, as well as religious, schools. Shia worshippers were allowed to pray behind Sunni imams.

However, concerns about the revolution spreading in the region led the Gulf countries to support Saddam’s invasion of Iran. The ancient Arab-Persian mistrust and animosities were ignited by the bloody Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988). Today, we stand again at the edge of the same cliff.

The Arab Spring is also not new. Revolution has changed the Arab world more than once in its long history. Arabs fought the Turks and then the colonial powers for independence. In independent Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia, soldiers revolted against their royal regimes. 

The new revolutionary rulers were not so friendly to our countries. Led by Nasser’s Egypt, they tried to destabilize our form of government and impose their own.

There are other dangers and challenges which are not new. The Baath parties in Syria and Iraq have always been troublemakers. The Arab-Israeli issue is over 60 years old. The infighting of Palestinians has continued for half a century. Lebanon, since independence, has been the arena where Arab and foreign competitors settle their accounts. The ferocious competition among its sects, with varied political and religious loyalties, put the country through a hellish two-decade-long civil war (1975-1990), and is threatening another. 

Our southern neighbor, Yemen, has always been on fire. From Egyptian and Marxist inspired revolutions against the rule of imams to independence revolts, and from the wars of unification to the struggle for separation, and from the Houthi and Al-Qaeda armed conflicts to the Arab Spring, Yemen has always been in constant turmoil and pain.  

Jordan is another renewed problem. Since its creation, the country’s rulers have been caught in the crossfire between Palestinians and Israelis, Iraqis and Syrians. The Gulf countries have always been sympathetic and supportive of the Hashemite royal family, except when the late King Hussein chose to lean toward Saddam after his invasion of Kuwait.

Internal challenges facing Gulf governments are old, as well. Sectarian and tribal, as well as liberal-conservative and democratic-traditional tensions have always been there, with or without foreign meddling.  

All the above is not new. In one way or another, we have seen this movie before. What’s new is King Abdullah’s call for unification. Instead of dealing with these challenges individually or by depending on the cooperation of all GCC member states, we will be facing them as one entity. 

The United States of the Gulf, or, if we accept Yemen’s membership, the United States of Arabia, will be stronger and more resourceful and formidable in meeting both old and new challenges and threats. Let’s pray that we live to see that day.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Our abandoned children: Mother of Sami

TWO letters from abandoned foreign mothers with Saudi children, broke my heart this week. One mother is stuck with her son between her home country in South America and his birthplace in the United States, and the other is a divorcee, living with her autistic children here, among us. All they ask for is basic support for their children. I haven’t heard from their exes and the agencies they called on for justice, and I hope to hear soon. In the meantime, the least we can do is investigate their claims.

Here is a summary of their letters, starting with the one from Riyadh:

“I have been doing some thinking regarding Faisal who was the only person who responded to your articles with an offer to help, but not to me! Could it be that he is not a genuine person? This might sound like I am paranoid, but I can assure you that much stranger things have happened to us over the years in our quest for support.

“One example, when my children were younger (they are now teenagers), I requested a meeting with Dr. Ali Al-Namlah, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs at the time. DURING THE MEETING HE DID SAY THAT HE WAS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT MY EX-HUSBAND WAS CLAIMING MONEY FOR THE CHILDREN. Excuse the capital letters!

“As soon as I returned home I received a telephone call from his secretary, who I had seen at the meeting. In a nice way, he explained that he was a friend of my ex-husband, and then he asked me to translate some English idioms for him. There were about eight idioms, and every single idiom held a veiled threat to me. The other stuff that I could reveal about what has happened to us is horrible!

“Strange that an innocent woman alone with two children could be treated in such a way, when I am really a very respectable woman and a devoted mother who has no life of my own and has done nothing except demand a divorce from a Saudi and remain in the Kingdom because that is where my two autistic children were desperate to remain.”

The second email came from Central America: “My name is Maria, a Guatemalan student in the US, and the mother of Sami, the son of a Saudi student, from a prominent family. I met Suleiman in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the University of Minnesota. The relationship was great until I got pregnant in 2011. At the beginning, he asked me to have an abortion but I refused and left home. We are Muslims and this is prohibited in Islam. Besides, I do want my baby.

“A week later he asked me back, because he couldn’t live without me. Four months later he returned to Saudi Arabia, for Eid, but never returned home, except in December 2011, while I was in Texas with my aunt trying to survive. While he was studying at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, he kept contacting me, especially when the Saudi Cultural Mission called him regarding the issue of his son. When he denied that the child was his son, they just took his side.

“Suddenly, he decided to register Sami under his name and signed the acknowledgement of Paternity by the Attorney General of Texas. But in June 2012 he left for Saudi Arabia and decided to cut me off. I contacted his father through the Jordanian imam of our mosque. He showed sympathy but later told me the case was taken up by a lawyer in the Saudi Embassy because his son assured him that I am a blackmailer.

“Sure enough, I have been mailing the family, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for over a year to get financial help for their son but they have just ignored me. Is that blackmailing in your culture? Right now I am stuck with my son in my home country, Guatemala, because Suleiman does not want to sign a travel permission for Sami. When I asked why, he rudely replied ‘You lost your freedom when you allowed me to sign Sami’s papers, and I will never do anything to please you!’ He probably thought that I am less trouble away from the States.

“I reported all that to his father, and that I am willing to undergo a DNA test to prove he is Sami’s biological father, but his dad refused to even listen. I don’t believe Suleiman or his family have the right to treat us like beggars and make my son’s life a mess just because Suleiman doesn’t want to take responsibility. I strongly believe that they cannot hide and deny Sami forever, and even if they do so, they will have to give an account to Allah on the Day of Judgment. So if someone is willing to help with my case I would appreciate it. All I want now is my son’s custody, not financial support.”

Heartless, mindless Russia: Always wrong and late!

THE Russians have finally decided to acknowledge the facts on the ground, and have made it clear that they realize that the Syrian opposition is gaining the upper hand and may topple the government soon. 

On December 13, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Russia is making plans for the possible evacuation of thousands of its nationals from Syria. He said a victory by the rebels would come at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.??Hello, Moscow! Welcome to the world. Now that Russia has finally realized that it is all over for their dictator in Damascus, what are they going to do about it? The Russians seem to always be late. They seem to always be on the wrong side of the people, righteousness and history.

In the last 30 years, they have supported the Marxist and Socialist regimes in Afghanistan, Cuba, Eastern Europe, Southern and Central America, South-East Asia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Southern Yemen, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and now in Syria. All these regimes lost their battle against their own people.

When the representatives of the people came to power, they remembered who stood with their oppressors. Russia lost political and economic influence in the world as a result. Today, Russia has lost all its military bases outside the motherland. Their last naval base, in Tartus, Syria, is on its way out.

The problem is: Russians never learn. They keep hanging on to the wrong allies to the last drop. They also have never been good friends and wise consultants. Instead of counseling against the use of force, they have actually supported it. They have encouraged and often assisted in the oppression of public protest and democratic voices.

It is never too late to do the right thing. Without expecting much in return, Russia must recognize that it has lost in Syria and acknowledge that it bet on the wrong horse. The first thing it should do is courageously announce that it was wrong. Then it must apologize and make it up to the Syrian people. 

A lot needs to be done, but at the top of the list is the need to withdraw its political cover, stop its military support and try to convince the Bashar Al-Assad regime to give up its useless and deadly fight. It could provide him and his family, as well as a selective number of officials and commanders, a way out. 

Russia should work with concerned regional and international powers to find a smooth, peaceful and workable regime transition that provides security for all and protects minorities, especially the Alawites, from majority revenge. The more united and coherent the approach toward the crisis, the better the chance to work out a rosier end to the tragedy and a brighter dawn of the future. 

Russia should change its nationalistic political mindset. We are no longer living in the age of the Cold War that justified heartless and ethic-less policies. In the satellite TV and social media age, the public is well-informed and involved in world affairs.

Ordinary people, often more than elites, are making and breaking, doing and undoing governments and strategies.  It is about time that message reaches the high-walled Kremlin. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Egypt deserves a brand new system

“MAY all your days be interesting!” a Chinese proverb says. It is meant as a curse!

It seems our region has been living in interesting days since an unemployed Tunisian college graduate set himself on fire after his fruit stand was confiscated and no one seemed to care. Even worse, like all the nobodies in our world, he was slapped in the face and pushed around by a policewoman.

Without knowing it, he opened a Pandora’s box in the Arab world and beyond. The Arab Spring is generating many interesting stories that never seem to end as expected.

Here is a good one. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, was upgraded and downgraded -overnight! For some, he was no longer the “Leader,” praised by the superpowers of the world, as well as the Arab street, for saving the day in Gaza.

He had just brokered a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians, but went on to issue a presidential decree giving himself dictatorial powers.

For others, he was elevated in status for hitting back at a thoroughly corrupt judiciary with a constitutional decree.

All it took was a short TV announcement to take Egypt back to the Mubarak days of violent protests and street fights between supporters and opponents, civilians and troops.

Could Morsi be the same president who seemed like a complete contrast to his predecessor only days earlier? Could he be the same leader whose strong and proactive stand on the Gaza war put Egypt back in the Arab leadership seat? Is he the same person who deserved to be called affectionately “Al-Rais” or “Boss” by most Egyptians, as they did the populist Jamal Abdul Nasser and to a lesser extent, Anwar El Sadat? Can such an honor be instantly withdrawn or confirmed over one decree? How controversial that decision must be!

Interesting questions for interesting events, in a very interesting saga. It is hard to find good answers, but one may at least try.

It is all about mood, I reckon. The Arab street would never agree to be ignored by the board, especially on decisions affecting its governing system. The people have just taken their seats at the decision-making table and are in no mood to leave the executive room - ever!

“Today is the day to make or break our future. It is now we design our fate,” seems to be the thinking of the day.

That explains the strong reaction to every decree that may affect the constitution.  Whether in Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, or now in Egypt, the public, elite and street react like fireworks in their agreement or disagreement with such changes.

My guess is that Egyptians know exactly what they are doing.  So do Arab observers. Those supporting “Al-Rais” believe that the die-hard “folool” of the corrupt Mubarak system were plotting a counter attack that would override Morsi’s presidential powers and bring back the military and old regime.

The least the Constitutional Court aims for is the disruption of Morsi’s work and the protection of the old structure. They already did so by dissolving the elected parliament and have threaten to do the same to the Consultative Council and Constitution Committee, while absolving Mubarak and company of any and all wrongdoings.

Morsi’s preemptive strike may be an evil necessity that can only be understood and justified in its own context and within the full picture.  

I hope and pray it works and that Morsi does deliver on his promise that in three months time he will return to the new parliament all the temporary powers he has taken. In the meanwhile, corrupt officials and “folool” should be purged from the military, security, judiciary and government. New Egypt deserves a brand new system.