Sunday, February 27, 2005

Why London Is Not Washington

Last July I was in Washington, today in London. The difference in the street is almost nonexistent. Arabs, Saudis included, are welcome by the average man, here and there. You walk like a breeze through the airports. As long as you carry a valid visa, you are as good as any.
Once you hit the streets, your identity melts peacefully into the multicultural pot of millions of immigrants and citizens. As long as you keep on the right side of the law, you are free to worship God, and express yourself as you wish.
The similarity, however, ends here. Politically, the environment cannot be more different. While wise English leaders kept their bridges open to the Arab and Muslim world, Americans felt safer burning them. The result is clear in the Arab approval rate of either country. America stands today as an ugly predator and arrogant, heartless empire, while the UK is merely regarded as a misled country.
This view is helped by the antiwar stand taken by a majority of Britons. More than half Americans, on the other hand, are taking the opposite stand. Arabs and Muslims in Britain are as well treated as ever. In USA, the FBI is making it more difficult for Arabs to study and work in the Land of the Free.
Most Saudi students have already left and many chose Britain as their best alternative. The ones I know don’t regret it.
Right or wrong, Britain is seen in the Arab world as a reluctant partner who was dragged into a war by a mighty ally with the consent of its government and against the best wishes of its people.
Some Americans explain the different attitude. They say we were hit on Sept.11 and they weren’t. Others may explain the panic reaction by the inexperience of Americans with terrorist attacks. While Britons have a long experience with IRA terror, no foreign attack had ever taken place on American soil.
But these explanations assume that the Zionist neoconservatives in US administration had no prior plan to occupy Iraq and change the Middle East’s geopolitical map to Israel’s liking.
The fact is that ever since it came to power, this administration has been hatching plans to invade Iraq and topple ex-US agent, Saddam Hussein. The project “Clean Break” was designed in 1996 but both the Clinton and Barak governments turned it down. George W. Bush and company thought otherwise. It was a matter of time before they figured out a reason and a way to implement the plan. Sept.11 was a devil-sent excuse even though the link between the attack and Iraq had not been established. Americans were angry and needed a punching bag in the area that produced the terrorists. Iraq was as good a place for revenge as any, not to mention its rich oil resources, well educated people, strong army, strategic location and close proximity to Israel.
Another difference: Britain is an old imperial hand. Naturally, they understand their former colonies more than the new American empire. The problem with the new colonists is: They are ignorant and don’t know it; they are arrogant and proud of it.
Here is an example. Before the start of the Iraq war, the British Army turned to the prestigious Institute of Commonwealth Studies of the University of London to provide training courses for the Iraq-bound officers and soldiers. The school explained the historical and cultural background of the Middle East and Iraq and gave hints and tips on how to deal with local sensitivity. They taught soldiers how to approach families and women, and search homes and cars without showing disrespect to the Islamic faith, Arabic culture and local traditions. The same course was offered to the Americans, according to Director of School of Oriental and African Studies Prof. Robert Springboard, but they turned the offer down. Why? They already knew what was needed to be known — the art of war. The rest, I guess, was sissy stuff the tough guys didn’t need!
As a result, British soldiers are in a much better situation. They are not as much hated as the Americans are and face less problems and resistance. Of course part of that might be attributed to their placement in friendly Shiite areas. But their good knowledge, attitude and behavior should also be credited. Proof?
The Americans left the same bad impression in both Shiite and Sunni areas.
Does that fully explain the different reactions to the two invading countries? There are other reasons. America has another problem with the Arab conscience — Israel. With the peace caravan moving forward during the Clinton years this problem was almost solved. Today, Afghanistan, Iraq plus Palestine put America at the same level as Israel, or worse. Britain, however, is different. Wisdom always helps.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

About Greatness, Tsunami Tragedy and America

What makes a great person great? My uncle asked me once, and then volunteered an answer: To act great. You can’t lead if you only push. You need to set a good example for people to follow. There will be occasions when only the great ones can make a stand, a lead, and a difference. It is not easy, simple or free. You pay to be great. Stands cost you, setting examples tax you, and leading a crowd requires time, intelligence and effort. You can’t be a leader, even by force, if you are selfish. Sometimes you must sacrifice your own interests for those you lead.
Not all people are up to it and can afford it, but those who do deserve our utmost love, trust and respect. They earn our loyalty and obedience. They are the best.
People recognize greatness when they see it in deeds, more than in words. Even the simple ones can distinguish the great ones from the bullies; the righteous from the false, the selfless from the selfish, those who care for them, and those who only care for themselves.
I used to argue that sometimes people could be fooled. Satan has the greatest following. Hitler persuaded his people and led them to disaster.
Stalin and Mao pushed them to catastrophe. Castro, Nasser and Saddam fooled and pushed their way to “greatness”. Not all great ones are great after all, and there is more than an ideal way to be one.
Uncle was adamant, I thought then: You can fool some people all the time, or all people sometime, but you cannot fool all people all the time. All your examples, Khaled, are of leaders who either stole their status or faked it. History exposed and put them in the black lists of great disasters.
My uncle is dead now. I wish he waited a little longer. I wanted to tell him how right he was. Weeks after his departure, tsunami hit and put our great ones on trial. Few proved themselves worthy of greatness; most were caught naked.
When America and its Western allies stood up to Saddam Hussein in 1991, I thought the world had finally found its leadership. USA and company were the Great Ones who would rewrite the world order, as they tried after World War 1, and succeeded after World War II.
During my study years in the States, Bill Clinton convinced me that not only America was great, it meant well for the rest of us. I saw a great example to follow, a beautiful people to love, and a caring, libertarian leadership to admire. Then came Mr. Bush Junior. Then came the first trial, 9/11. Then came the murderous responses in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I am not so sure anymore.
US and Bush’s initial performance in tsunami test was another proof, as if more proofs were needed, that mighty America is not fit to lead the world. They do have the muscles, but they don’t have the warm heart, the selfless soul and the moral, ethical code.
As my friend, Egyptian political analyst, Abdulmonaem Mustafa, puts it: America’s Bush showed once more its real face. When it was their dead and interests at stake, they created a formidable coalition and led the world into wars that cost hundreds of billions dollars. But when some two hundreds thousands were killed in Asia, the president of the super empire didn’t even say: I’m sorry.
He stayed put on in his holiday retreat watching as half the world was in ruin. His neoconservative team managed only a short statement and a shorter help — a stingy $15 million.
When a deafening outcry came out from all corners of the civilized world, another 10 million was added and a longer statement released. Finally, under fire, domestic as well as global, the leader of the Free World moved and did what should have been done in Hour Zero of Day One. America finally led global effort to save millions more of victims and help organize countries and people to cope with the catastrophe. Still, Japan, the No. 2 economic powerhouse donated $500 million to America’s $350 million.
The world is in dire need of a great leadership. Morally bankrupt US authority has just proved once again it only cares for its own.
The case is made again for a multilateral world order.
We need a system that is free from self-interests and US dependence. We very much need a new UN with more authority and power, more democratic, transparent mechanism and fair share of influence, more of the world and less of USA.
Yes, Uncle Omar, greatness can only last if it is really, truly great.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Saudi Democracy: Is It a Time for Celebration, Then?

Election time in Saudi Arabia! While voters registered for the first municipal elections in half a century, scores of young men and women were discussing their concerns, hopes and demands in the National Dialogue Forum last week. They were allowed to question taboos, and demand power sharing, better education, women’s rights, and more. The media is reporting, analyzing and debating these issues in increasingly free-speech mode, and a more tolerant society is opening up to different and differing ideas.
In the same week, Prince Sultan, second deputy premier and minister of defense and aviation and chairman of Saudi Arabian Airlines announced that Saudi women would join the airline workforce soon.
Companies, factories, hospitals and government departments, including security forces and foreign services are now hiring women in areas that were not open to them in the past such as police stations, prisons, passport departments and embassies.
In Riyadh and Jeddah, businessmen are opening women-only factories and telemarketing sections. Companies and government offices are following banks’ lead in setting up women service divisions. Department stores are hiring women in back and front office positions.
In Riyadh, women were finally allowed to vote in the chamber of commerce elections. They went in person without having to authorize men to vote on their behalf. Other cities are expected to follow suit. Lubna Olayan was elected a board member in a major bank — the first woman ever. Hospitals are hiring Saudi female doctors, nurses, managers, receptionists and operators.
This is good news. We are moving forward, if slowly. Grievances are considered, problems admitted, solutions explored and reforms are under way. Is it a time for celebration, then? Not quite yet. Let me explain.
When I was a little boy, I had pigeons imprisoned in a wooden cage. I felt guilty, and someone told me that if I put food and water in there and let them out, they would most likely return. I took the risk and decided to free them. When I opened the door I expected them to fly in my face. They didn’t. I waited and waited, but they wouldn’t leave. When the night fell I got tired, and left. The next day they were gone, and never returned. I remembered this experience waiting in vain for women callers when Sumaya Alshibani and I were discussing women’s issues and rights in a live radio show, but none did. Only men were calling even though my hostess, Sumaya, was urging women to show up. I remembered my pigeons again when I learned that fewer people than expected registered to vote for the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia in half a century. That is less than in the first municipal elections of the 1920s, which also included the Shoura Council. The earlier elections, by the way, were for all the seats, not for half the number as today.
People get used to certain routines in life. It is hard to change people’s mentality and habits, especially if the stakes are not high enough. As I told Christopher Durrance of the American Public Broadcast Service, you can always change the rules, but you can’t always get people to follow them. Old habits die hard, and unless self-interest is at stake, and you know that your vote can make a difference, most people don’t care enough to vote. While a new team leading a chamber of commerce may help your business or hurt it, a new member in a largely consultative board to a city mayor, with look-alike agenda and promises, might not affect you directly. Even if you got one good member to the board, you don’t have much control over the rest, and that might not make a difference. If it were the mayor you were electing, then you would care. So, how do we get people motivated enough to break with their old habits, and get out to vote?
I suggest democracy education through school system and the media. I suggest explaining to the public what is at stake: Why would one vote for one member make a difference? What good those people would do for everyday concerns? Let them know exactly and clearly how their votes can translate into better, cleaner and well-served neighborhoods. How this one, small step on the democracy road would lead to bigger steps toward a brighter future for our kids and us.
Only when we get this close to people’s interests and concerns can we make them care enough to make democracy work.
SMS: My dear American friends, I am sorry beyond words for the attack on the US Consulate in Jeddah last week. I don’t know how to express my anger, shame and sorrow for the loss of life and wanton destruction. I love you all. Salam, Peace.

Privatization ... Why Not?

I always believed that political reforms are worthless without economic reforms. On a scale from 1 to 10, survival and satisfying natural needs come atop. Political rights, while essential, come after.
Privatization is one way to go, especially in societies where corruption rules. Stakeholders play the role of the watchdog on corporations and their managements. Performance is closely analyzed, corruption is strongly protested. So are the ills of bureaucracies, such as nepotism and red tape, because they affect the bottom line, and are immediately reflected in the market as they eat away profits and bring down stock prices.
More important, the press is freer in Third World countries to discuss and criticize private sector performance than it is when it comes to the politically powerful public sector. No question then that privatization is our best way to restructure the formidably obstinate state and semi-state firms.
Much is needed to clean up the corrupted, bureaucratic public-sector environment. Only an elected board of directors, mandated management, and measurable performance can upgrade fat, slow and unprofitable businesses to world standards.
Britain did this in the 1980s and brought the staggering state and socially oriented economy to the forefront of Europe’s top performers. With an iron hand, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made the likes of the notoriously inefficient telecom company one of the best in the world. The Iron Lady gave the rest of us a good lesson to learn from and a great example to follow.
Saudi Arabia has been down this road for a while now. The first step was selling 30 percent of the state-owned petrochemical company SABIC in mid-eighties. This was followed by the sale, more than a decade later, of 30 percent of another giant, Saudi Telecom.
Saudi Airlines was supposed to be next but it took its management so many years to plan for the move, and they are still planning! There also was talk about selling a stake in Petromin, part of the state oil company, Aramco. Altawnia, the biggest Saudi insurance company, is expected to be sold in the coming months.
All those steps are positive and in the right direction. But they are much less than the market could absorb and the modernization and restructuring project requires. Why?
The obstacle is that we ask people who are part of the problem to solve it. The last people who would care to see state firms privatized are those who run them. It doesn’t make any sense to ask managers who would lose their privileged, secured, comfortable jobs to administer a transition that would probably bring in new management or annoying auditors, stock holders and unfamiliar transparency. As the slow steps show, they would stall and stall to the last minute of their tenure, and the next managers won’t be any faster.
The solution, then, is to bring in outsiders. Hired specialists and private consultants on a short leash, with specific mandate and deadlines would be more motivated to accomplish the task in good faith and on time. That is if we seriously mean business, as we should. Our application for the World Trade Organization membership depends on this, not to mention our whole reform project.
While higher oil prices may help us solve some of our immediate problems, long-term challenges, like opening up to foreign investments, providing million of badly needed jobs, and upgrading vital services require more effective steps. These include restructuring, democratization, transparency, just distribution of resources, updating and documentation of laws and regulations, more rights and opportunities for women and minorities, more freedom of expression, better education and huge investments in infrastructure.
Privatization is a major part of the restructuring process. The sale of more state-stake in SABIC, Saudi Telecom, the National Commercial Bank, Riyad Bank, as well as selling every other public company, such as Saudi Airlines and Aramco will also help absorb billions of private cash looking for safe and productive venues.
This was clearly manifested when more than fifty billion riyals were thrown on the new telecom company, Ettihad Etisalat, even though, only a billion-riyal worth of stock was on sale.
The rest (80 percent) of stock was divided between government and private firms. More billions were wasted on illegal investments by illegitimate investors. No more reasons are needed to make the point for faster and bigger steps to privatize public firms, so I rest my case.
Is it not ironic that the US government would turn a blind eye when the Iraqi authorities close down newspapers and arrest journalists for criticizing the government? Wasn’t freedom the justification and excuse for overturning Saddam’s regime? What is the difference between rules that imprison people for criticizing Allawi and those punishing the critics of Saddam?