Sunday, February 29, 2004

Reforms? What Reforms?

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

Foreign reporters and diplomats often ask me: “Why are your reforms so slow? Are you in two minds whether you want to go ahead and where?”
I always say: We all feel like passengers in an airplane. No reasonable person suggests we should stop midair or leave the plane or drop anyone. The whole debate is about at what speed we should go; which direction we take to what destination? Shall we go faster towards the northwest? Or must we take it one step at a time and stick to our southeast origin? All of us, in all the sections of the plane, vie for better seats, privileges and influence. Our captains have to listen to conflicting demands and positions. We have vocal minorities and a silent majority. Some push hard, others are shy. But justice requires taking all positions into consideration.
This was never even a single country until it was unified under the Saudi banner. It is made up of a colorful variety. We have tribes that number millions and small families of twos and threes, pure Arabs and mixed, Sunnis and Shiites, townspeople and villagers, farmers and Bedouins, and the list goes on. Some of us are highly sophisticated and educated, others cannot write their names. Many are liberal, Western-style, most are conservative.
Therefore, the government, which is a reflection of this variety, chose to rule by building consensus. This is a complex, slow, and even frustrating process, but has always been the only way to keep this country together. Time is not on our side, we must admit, and faster steps should be taken.
Still, we should not skip the most important step, talking to each other about where we want our plane to go. We have already had two national dialogue forums that took all on board. The next forum will be about women, who didn’t join the first, formed 10 percent of the second, and will make up 50 percent of the next.
After this essential step, we need to move much faster in implementing the recommendations we agree on, starting with the most essential and basic — more freedoms and rights, justice and equality, jobs and education, security and quality of life. We urgently need more transparency, better representation, and a freer press. No one should be above the law; we were all created equal, including the weak and poor, the Shia and women, Saudis and non-Saudis.
If we can only agree on this, and aim for that, we are almost there.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Democracy for Arabs? Thanks, but...

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

Democracy in the Arab world? Is it possible? Can it be achieved soon in the greater Middle East as America hopes and plans for? Why now? Why not? Let’s start with the definition of democracy before we decide if we need it or if it is even possible.
Democracy today is largely a creation of each particular environment in which it exists, with only a distant relation to its Athenian origin. US democracy was the answer to the needs and dreams of immigrants and rebels, who escaped a strictly religious, monarchal, and ancient world to a New World with an abundance of freedoms and opportunities. They fought for their independence from the old regime and set up a country with a constitution written by the ten great fathers of the time. Their work was based on research taken from other experiences, but tailored for the very unique American experience.
British democracy and its unwritten constitution evolved with and against a well-established royalty. It constantly learns from its long history and adjusts with the newer realities. Across the Channel, French democracy is a product of an outright revolution against King and Pope. Its staunch secular zeal is clearly reflected in its version of democracy.
European democracy, in general, is based on Western moral and material principles, which may differ from Asian democracy which emphasizes ruling by consensus over individual rights. Their principles differ due to different religious, social and cultural roots, but what is basic in all forms of democracy is the principle of representative government. On this, hardly any reasonable person would disagree.
Therefore, let’s not worry about which package of democratic reforms we introduce into the greater Middle East, but rather encourage every political environment to build up its own form of representative government. What works for the “one nation, one people” Oman, may or may not do in multiethnic, multireligious Sudan. A system that suits the Republic of Pakistan (an independent entity separated from the old British rule and Hindu-majority) may prove unworkable in the much less diversified, never-foreign-occupied Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
What I am getting at is: Democracy should not be the goal, representative government should. Packaged, one-size-fits-all solutions won’t work; well-researched, homegrown, culturally and socially aware ones will. So, while the intentions might be good, the methods could lead us into Hell. Ask the Afghanis and Iraqis. By now, they know better.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Foreigners, Justice and Us

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

Now and then we get a shock that makes us realize we are not the noble society we claim to be. Supposedly we are hospitable Arabs as well as kind and tolerant Muslims. Sometimes, however, we fail the tests of love, justice and goodness.

Otherwise, how can you explain the way some of us treat our guests? Is it fair that we invite them in to work for us then act surprised when they show up? Or is it fair to agree with them on the amount of their salaries — always less than ours — and then criticize them when they send some of the salary to their families back home? Or is it fair that some of us accuse them of stealing the very jobs we hired them to do?

Not when we know full well that they either work in positions we don’t want or do highly sophisticated jobs that we never bothered to train our children for.

How can we be surprised at how much money they transfer home, knowing that we don’t provide them with investment possibilities? What can an expatriate do with his/her money if we don’t allow them to bring in their families, own a home, invest in the country or set up any kind of business?

Besides, how much do “we” transfer abroad every year? Isn’t what we spend on a summer holiday abroad alone equal to, or greater than, what our guests transfer in a year?

Don’t our rich stash more than a few billion dollars every year in foreign banks? Why do we criticize our guests for sending money to their families at home, and never say a word about those of us who invest their billions abroad? Not that I blame them since most of our investment laws treat investors as badly as we treat our guests.

It seems foreigners have increasingly become scapegoats for our mistakes, shortcomings and the most convenient explanation for our failures in dealing with problems and challenges. The result of it all will surely be that our problems multiply until even with ourselves, no further excuses are possible and we run out of them.

As with God, lies won’t work, and His anger if we don’t change will include all of us.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Our Servants and the Absence of Justice

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

In our neighborhood, a housemaid fell and broke her back as she was escaping from her sponsor. As I read the story, I thought of many similar tragedies and wondered why?
While I know that many of these people escape in the hope of better pay and freer choices, I suspect most are just desperate souls who want to escape unbearable abuses. A Saudi woman friend once told me that while she was in a restaurant, she noticed a table with two women. One was eating from a large plate while the other had no plate and was eating nothing. When the one who was not eating left the table for a few minutes, my friend’s curiosity overcame her and she asked if the woman were fasting or perhaps sick. The woman who was eating answered. “She is only the maid. I am not going to feed her in an expensive restaurant.”
If this story is sickening, what about the really awful ones? Beating, imprisonment, overworking, even rape. Many maids are denied their month-long vacation every two years, their weekly day off and their monthly pay. Living conditions are sometimes both unhealthy and inhumane.
A housemaid who almost died in her attempt to escape explained that she had come to this country for two reasons: to make money for her mother and children and to perform Haj. In more than two years, she had not achieved either; she wasn’t paid her salary and so couldn’t call her family, had gone nowhere or seen anything except the road from the airport to her sponsor’s house. Risking death for freedom, therefore, was not a bad option!
Another maid died because food ran out and she couldn’t escape from the house while the family was vacationing somewhere else.
I shiver when I hear these tragic tales, not just because they are horrible, or because we are supposed to be hospitable Arabs and decent Muslims or for the bad image they gave us all, but most importantly, because of what Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) warned against. That God supports the just non-Muslim over the unjust Muslim, that silence towards injustice is a crime, and that God may punish a whole nation for tolerating the crimes of some.
As a Muslim, I am required to right wrongs as much as I can — with my hand, if possible; with my tongue if I can’t or with my heart, if that’s all I can do.
I urge that we treat our servants with kindness, compassion and mercy, as our Prophet did, and to interfere if others don’t. I demand more rigorous rules and regulations, and the mechanisms to assure just and efficient implementation.
And I pray, that we always remember what the Prophet said: Allah helps those who help the underprivileged. A woman will go to Hell for killing a cat and a man will go to Paradise for feeding a dog.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Our New History

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

Paul Simpson of the BBC asked me in a TV interview last week where the path of reforms in Saudi should go. I told him in one word: Business.

The interview wasn’t long, so allow me here to elaborate: If we mean business, we would start — as Malaysia did — with brain reforms. Our schools should be producing candidates to take the most challenging jobs, who can be worthy competitors in the breakneck global markets and pioneers on the high-tech frontiers. Our regulations should welcome, encourage and assist investments — local and global. If that were to happen, the job-market pie would increase to accommodate not only our jobless, but anyone else who could bring something valuable to the table — skills, experience and investments.

Saudization would change its orientation — from replacing foreigners with poor-skilled, experience-empty, clueless Saudis to producing candidates for a market that is not only global and sophisticated, but also demanding, aggressive and intolerant of incompetence and mediocrity.

Our court system would be well regulated, well-documented and transparent, which everything that takes place made public. No investors would worry about opaque laws, confusing rules and ever-changing regulations. Corruption would be fought with laws on transparency and accountability and rigorous watchdog mechanisms. Our press would be a supermarket of ideas and reports; they have more freedom and a better focus on issues that matter, such as reforms and development, red tape and women rights, elections and market reforms.

If we decided — as Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Dubai have done — to really do business, we would reorient our society, culture and resources toward that end. We would open up to the world, make our country accessible to all who care to discover it. Tourism, as Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, governor of Asir, keeps assuring us, can bring more revenue than oil.

A billion and half Muslims look forward to visiting Saudi Arabia, host to Islam’s holy sites. Many would love to explore our virgin, sealed and unique social, cultural and topographic resources. International and local investors would jump at the opportunity to work in the hospitable environment of a high-spending consumer market as large as ours. There are over six and half billion dollars of Saudi cash stashed abroad. Just imagine if 10 percent of that returned home to roost.

In short, let us decide that our goal is to thrive and prosper. Then we should decide that the road to take us there is good business. Third, let us sit to discuss the journey at a round table with all of us there: Women and men, rich and poor, Sunni and Shiites, conservatives and liberals, young and old. The rest, I assure you, will be a good, happy, prosperous ... New History.