Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Not One and the Same Thing

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

When I write about Israel my choice of words betrays my anger and disapproval. This is due to Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians and refusal to accept Security Council resolutions, and international and Arab peace initiatives.
To many Jews, criticizing Israel is anti-Semitism. I find it hard sometimes to explain how I could be their friend and an enemy of Israel at the same time. For them, censuring Israel is religious blasphemy and racial hatred. They seem to insist that you take Judaism and Israel, Jews and Israelis as one package. If you do otherwise, you enter that long, ugly black list, with the Pharaohs, Romans and Nazis. Some messages are so partisan, but not all. In fact, most, especially from American Jews, are scholarly and reasonable, if sometimes misinformed. Here is a typical exchange with an American Jew:
Dr. Batarfi,
Why must you and others like you continue to pursue the line that Israel “terrorizes the region?” If the Islamic world would only recognize its scripture and history, one would know that Islam recognizes the Jewish people and their right to a homeland in the Israel/Palestine region.
This is why no Islamic leader would ever build a mosque on the Al-Aqsa site for the first six centuries of Islam (!!!). In fact, a recognized mufti in Palestine contradicted the Jerusalem mufti by suggesting that the Jews should be welcomed back to the region, not perpetually warred against.
It is true that Israeli policies have caused undue suffering to the Palestinians, but Arab state policies in the region have also caused undue suffering to the Jewish people in Israel.
When intellectuals in the Arab world like yourself begin to recognize that Israel will and should exist and that Zionism is not as sinister as you think, peace will come much closer. In turn, Allah will be happier knowing that the descendants of Abraham are getting along. Your first sentence implies that Israel is “the enemy”. This is not the way to a lasting future for all peoples in the region.
Dear Samuel,
We seem to agree on most issues. I would support the 2-state solution, but my first choice is one democratic, viable nation. Palestine is too small to divide, so I would call for a secular state and a US-like Constitution. Citizens and residents, visitors and pilgrims, be they Muslim, Christian and Jewish Arabs or Jews from Europe, America, Russia, Africa and elsewhere should be treated equally — same rights, same duties.
The Qur’an never stated that Israel is the house of the Jews. This and other claims such as that Qur’an never mentioned Jerusalem, and no mosque was built in the first six centuries, are incorrect.
Salam, Shalom,
I don’t know if my above statements would go far enough to explain my position as an Arab and Muslim, but I will always try. Some of my Jewish friends understand that even if we agree to disagree we continue to be friends. I hope we all learn to discuss political differences without ending up enemies.

The Other Talk With the ‘Other’

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

The next National Dialogue will be about another dialogue, this time “with the other.” Not much explanation was provided. But I understand, and hope I am correct, that the other includes the local other, as well as the foreign.
We seem to be in dire need to talk with many others, these days. While most attention is focused on our misunderstanding with non-Muslims, especially Western, more urgent talk is needed with non-Sunni, non-Hanbli, non-Saudi, non-male “others”.
Not that I don’t appreciate the external pressure on us to tackle the politically charged stand toward the West — I do. But I hate missing the chance to tackle the other files too. The world, I am sure, will feel better hearing a united voice, representing all factions and thoughts. Our credibility will be much stronger if we talk as a diversified, but united nation, with equal footing for all in an open-minded dialogue with a West built on principles of multiculturalism, human rights for minorities and women, and freedom of expression.
Once we did that, we must start a dialogue of our own. Here is how:
First, we should review our whole concept of isolationism. Like many conservative groups, especially in USA, there are some influential parts of society who think of the outside world as dangerous, corrupted, and corrupting place. They live a conspiracy theory of a scheming others trying to conquer our lands, steal our resources, corrupt our kids and distort our culture.
Unfortunately, certain events and policies of some Western governments, especially America, Russia and Britain, do lend credit to some of these theories. The one single issue that enforced the isolationists’ mode of siege has been, for half a century, Palestine. Today, the list of under-fire Muslim areas is much longer. It includes Chechnya, Kashmir, India, The Philippines, Thailand, and Sudan.
Of course, there are explanations from the other side, and complaints of faults and shortcomings on our part, too. Non-Muslim governments, West and East, that oppress Muslims, cite terrorism, independence movements and foreign jihadi involvement. They blame Muslims for being unable to integrate fully in dominant cultures. The problem is, neither party is willing to trust the other or even listen open-mindedly.
In our internal dialogue we must consider all perspectives and look for ways of bridging differences, and solving problems with the other side. This should happen in an environment of peace, hope and good faith in the other’s best intentions. Certainly, we cannot assume that all are of one mind about us. If we believe that certain circles of influence and power are too invested in their ways and stands, therefore a hopeless case, we could work with the better side, and talk directly to the silent, undecided, uniformed majority.
Many non-Muslim societies and intellectuals are simply unaware of our concerns and motivations. They see hate and anger, but don’t understand why. The devils inserted the notion that Islam, the religion, Qur’an the book, and Prophet Muhammad the messenger are the problem.
They put us all on a collision course, because they drew an impossible problem to solve. Since they can’t force or entice us to drop our religion and denounce our holy book and Prophet, the only way that remains for all of us leads to “Armageddon,” “Clash of Civilization” and “The End of History.”
Of course, both sides expect ultimate victory. This is just what the world was at during the Cold War. The wiser, of course, realized that total annihilation was the most likely end. They, and lucky historical events, helped in leading the human race away from this hellish road, to more cooperative, trade-based, electronically connected, multilateral world.
Today, we face similar dilemmas and challenges. We, Saudi intellectuals, must shoulder our share of responsibility. The forthcoming conference is one platform we should well utilize to come up with new logical, coherent, realistic and effective approach to all others.
We must face our internal differences, and sew a unified stand on this and all related issues. It is about time we admitted that many of our extremists mirrored their Western counterparts. They filled many innocents with misinformation that led to hate, apprehension and anger. They distorted our religion, reinterpreted our holy book and drew a hateful, arrogant, aggressive face for our peaceful, tolerant and inclusive religion.
The misinformed of them are our responsibility to re-educate and enlighten.
We tried this and it worked. The purposeful among them are our enemies and must be fought. The end products of their devilish work are terrorists who hunted the world and came back to hunt us. We should both face them and fight the schools of thought that produce them. Our future, peace and place in the world is at stake. We cannot afford to delay resolution any longer.

We Are Giving in More and More to Consumerism

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

Near our home, in Jeddah, sprang some hundred shops, three new malls, in addition to many more already in place. In one street, Al-Tahlia, hundred millions worth of investments are poured in malls and rows of shops. In the rest of the city, thousands more are either built, being built, or planned. That is at a time when unemployment is between 10-40 percent (official and estimated figures) among men, and double that among women. Our per capita income is less than $10,000, a third of the US. This phenomenon is at least five years old while our deficit was ballooning, and national debt was sky-high.
The questions are many, but the most important are the effects, negative and positive, of this phenomenon on our society and developing economy. No doubt that many are happy. Merchants and creditors are making good money, jobs are created, families have fun in the air-conditioned hypermarkets, and tourists, local and foreigners enjoy their shopping experience.
On the other hand, the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening; saving rates is in the zero neighborhoods; and Saudi society is becoming more and more materialistic, individualistic, and consumerist.
How much of these investments are going to survive in the cutthroat competitive market it is creating? How much of the return on mostly imported products is reinvested in our economy? How many jobs are created? And what kind of values are we learning as a Muslim, socially oriented, people?
I carried my concerns to the concerned people. Here is what I learned:
According to Director General of Jeddah Chamber of Commerce Saud Aonallah, the new malls are competing for the same pool of shops, and luring the best away from the older malls. The older in turn are taking from the oldest. The vicious circle continues until only the biggest, fanciest and newest stay in the game. The rest are forced into bankruptcy. He accused investors of copycat attitude and economic ignorance.
Aonallah also blames obstacles and lack of infrastructure development and other incentives for the weak investments in more productive sectors such as industry. He calls for cession in malls building.
Jeddah Mayor Eng. Abdullah Al-Muallami refuses the intervention concept. Since consumers are served better by more competition and as long as developers abide by building codes, he would encourage more of the same. It is there headache to worry about the viability of their projects, he insists, not his. “Either we have free market or planned economy. We can’t have it both ways.”
Mohammad Alharbi, commerce director in Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, wondered how come the only building licenses needed come from Jeddah Municipality, not from the Commerce Ministry?
Social scientist, Prof. Baker Bagader, says families are lured to malls for entertainment and shopping pleasures. People are now buying not only to fulfill their needs, but also to show up status. This, he says, will increase the gap and frustration between economic classes.
Princess Reem Alfaisal, writer and photographer, warns that our kids are getting the wrong message about their role in life. Writer and mother of six, Suraya Al-Shehry, criticizes the absence of reading-friendly bookshops and early learning centers in malls. “Eat, buy and play are the only alternatives. What kind of generation are we raising these days?”
Omar Bagaor, economy professor, charges that Saudi society is fast adopting the concept of consumerism.
He warned that our saving rate is now close to zero while 80 percent of banking loans is wasted in consumption.
Islamic banker, Prince Amr Al-Faisal, sees a conspiracy led by producers, creditors and states adopting the Western market model.
The model, he contends, is built on consumerism. People are seduced into buying on credit what they don’t need to keep the economy machine humming.
They labor for life to pay for manufactured lifestyle and debt interests. This materialistic mode, he claims, corrupts moralities and reduces people to corporate slavery.
Adel Almonaie, general manger of the largest mall in Jeddah (200+ shops), Al-Tahliah Shopping Center, surprisingly agrees with all the above charges, but adds that he is encouraging investors to open bookshops with US-style reading spaces, and early learning centers. He calls on merchants to better educate consumers about products and their technologies.
What do we do then? Al-Faisal urges our religious scholars and economists to come up with alternative models that better suit us.
I would add scholars in other scientific and intellectual fields like philosophy and sociology.
One concept we should refuse even to consider is isolationism. It would only increase our economic and political woes. We can’t afford to end up in North Korea’s lonely, hungry club.
Besides, it is impossible. The globe is too integrated, and our interests as its biggest fuel exporter are too incorporated in its mechanism to fit any isolationist scheme. That is another good reason to start our bridge-building dialogue with the “other.”

Let’s Not Sell Our Youth Short

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

Our youth face many challenges — many challenges. It is possible that the greatest of their challenges may be us — an older generation that is happy to proscribe but reluctant to include them in creating the path to tomorrow.
At a conference in Jeddah to discuss youth issues, I noticed with little surprise that the youngest of the some 60 men around the table were over 30. Most were in their 50s and 60s. In attendance, there were 14 youngsters.
I told them that when a doctor sees a patient he first asks “What is your problem?” Only after carefully listening to all that the patient has to say, and asking for more details can the physician consider a prescription.
Here we were talking about what is wrong with a whole generation, and we assumed we knew all about that there was to know. No representative of that generation was sitting at the table, but some were allowed to witness. We were discussing women’s issues, too. But not one woman was invited — even to listen and watch.
Later, one of the young men took the floor and made a statement that we all should give careful consideration. “You talk about our problems,” he said. “But as we see it, our problems are of your creation. Ask us, and we have solutions for you. Ask yourselves, and you won’t even admit you are part of the problem.”
The list of issues facing our young people was long. The most important that day was that education is our greatest challenge. It is the most important issue today, and it will be the most important issue every day to come until our society acts to remedy it.
Basically, students are taking more cultural classes than needed and less science than they should. Most graduates are in human sciences. More than 80 percent of master’s degrees and PhD theses are in language and religion. If we expect some industrial or business boom to keep our economic growth and population growth in balance, we had better make sure that our young people get the knowledge and skills they will need to make that happen.
Our curriculum needs continuous update. We need to consult with the various business and industrial sectors before deciding what directions to take. We need more practical training and modern tools, such as labs, computers and foreign languages.
Isn’t it strange that we enter the new century with some text books and educational tools that relate to earlier centuries? If we continue to dwell on past glories and stopgap solutions rather than aggressively prepare our youth for the challenges to come, we may well be relegating our society to the past. It may be easy to look beyond our borders to seek the cause of our problems, but perhaps the real cause is complacency and the purveyors easily visible by looking in any mirror.
We need to open up to investments. Our market is promising, and investors, domestic and foreign, would love to buy in. We need to eliminate red tape, offer incentives and speed up infrastructure development.
Our legal system needs to be updated to ensure we are competitive with the rest of the world in regulation and application of the laws. Our judges need to become familiar with business issues, and simple cases should be solved in weeks or months — not years.
As we move toward the future, our successes and failures to a large extent will be determined by our willingness or unwillingness to hear all sides of the issues and our determination or lack of determination to fashion meaningful resolutions to those challenges.
Some of us may believe that our greatest resource is our vast oil reserve, but that bounty is dwarfed by the incredible potential that the young men — and women — of this country possess.
The future we think about is the future that they will live — and the future they should help shape. It’s up to us to make sure they get that chance.

No Reason Why So Many Saudi Women Go Without a Job

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

Samia is a very frustrated girl. Her father is old and retired and her only brother lives in another town with too many responsibilities to spare much of help. Her mother is sick and needs medical attention while her younger sisters are still in school and need daily transportation, as she does. All her problems begin and end with money. She can’t have enough of her teaching salary to satisfy all these needs. Her pay of around four thousand riyals is hardly enough to cover food, medicine and accommodation expenses. Much could have been saved if she could drive to take her sisters to school and on to hers. Later, she could take them back home and run other errands. Besides grocery, she has to take her father to the three-days-a-week physical therapy, her mother to hospital or her grandmother’s home. Every now and then the family needs to go to social events and join family gatherings.
Since money is a constant challenge, she tried to improve her income by working evenings. Jobs are scarce for women outside schools and hospitals. Taking few courses in English and computer were supposed to help. But in all the companies she applied to, the pay was very low. A thousand or a thousand and a half riyal is not worth the headache. Her transportation alone may eat most of that.
Still, she regards herself fortunate. Her cousin had to travel over 130 kilometers everyday to teach in a village school. She wakes up before dawn, prepares her kids for school, takes off with her colleagues in a bus that speeds dangerously over desert roads, then comes back before dinner to take care of a husband and five kids. Things are getting worse because she is pregnant, and her maid had escaped, again.
Both ladies count their blessings when they compare their situation to that of some hundreds of thousands of unemployed women of various levels of education. Some are illiterate and others are postgraduates, and most are high school and college graduates. With less than adequate modern skills and tools, they have little or no chance of getting suitable jobs with reasonable pay.
This may sound strange, even unbelievable when we remember that some seven million expatriates work in the Kingdom. A good percentage of these jobs can be easily filled with Saudi women. Male expatriates, for example, mostly take secretarial jobs; so are other positions like receptionists, phone operators, factory labors, school bus drivers, staff in women sections in companies and public department. Islam doesn’t prohibit women working in a mixed workplace, as long as they observe modesty rules. The prohibition comes from traditions of certain regions and environments. While we respect the choice of those women who prefer not to work in a mixed environment or drive cars, we demand the same right to choose for those who don’t mind.
Samia, I am sure, will love to drive and work in a lingerie shop. She doesn’t understand why going with a male driver, alone, can be any more decent than driving on her own. She can’t fathom how males selling women underwear to female shoppers could be more conservative than a woman selling such private stuff to her own sex. Or a male staff attending to her needs in a public office is more Islamic than a woman doing that for her.
That’s why she demands the right to vote and run for office. She wants her voice heard, her needs addressed, and her views and interests taken into consideration. Decisions that affect her life, her work, her very existence must come by her, and her opinions should be as important as that of her other half.
Samia is right. Not only about the need to be included in the decision-making process, but also in the studies now under way to improve the education system. If boys complain from the limited choices and the inadequate curriculum to market requirements, wait until you see the girls’. It was only recently that their forty-year-old curriculum was updated. Women’s college choices are still very limited. They can’t study engineering, décor, marketing and many other boys-only subjects. The idea is why bother to study for jobs that are not suitable for women. But if that was the case forty years ago, it is not true today.
Girls who had to study in these and similar areas abroad find their expertise very much in demand. And the pay is much better than most jobs offered to graduates of Saudi colleges.
I am encouraged by the decision of Saudia Airlines and Saudi Arabia Basic Industries Co. (SABIC) to train and employ Saudi females in suitable jobs. I hope the rest follow their lead ... and soon.

Building Bridges With America

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

Last week I was invited to join the Saudi American Interactive Dialogue in Jeddah, titled “Fostering Community: Building Bridges of Understanding and Cooperation.” Sixty Americans and Saudis sat with each other on ten round tables, three from each side on every table, with one chosen as a moderator and presenter. We discussed two main issues: “The role of religion and social responsibility in community development,” and “The creating of a responsible media.” The conference was sponsored by Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry and key business entities.
We brainstormed and debated the issues of the day, and came out with analyses, conclusions and recommendations.
At the start of two sessions, morning and afternoon, we listened to two keynote speakers, Jamal Khashoggi, media adviser to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi ambassador in London, and James Oberwetter, US ambassador in Saudi Arabia. Their perspectives were insightful, positive and inspiring. I would have reported their main points, but they were off record.
Most Americans were visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time. They came from all walks of life, but mostly from academia and intelligentsia. The ones I talked to were impressed, especially with our female organizers, such as Ranya Bajsair and participants like Maha Fetehi. They expected official welcome and hospitality, but they weren’t prepared for the warm grass-roots reception. They found that Saudis might have issues with certain US policies, but they are not anti-American, certainly not against those Americans who do not support these policies, like many in the conference.
The delegates went around, talked to ordinary people, and debated with male and female professors, intellectuals, business people, diplomats, reporters, and writers. There were no taboos and they and their Saudi counterparts weren’t shy of raising questions that touched on the very core of our political, social and cultural differences. Both sides were open-minded. Most were not defensive or aggressive. They just wanted to know, and they deserved what they got — honest, if not always agreeable, answers.
The atmosphere was positive and constructive. We talked for hours, from morning to evening. Many felt we needed more than a day to discuss more issues. We hardly scratched the surface. As one delegate put it, we were just warming up for the real match.
On the role of religion in community development, I told my American counterparts that they don’t have a problem with the real Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) married Christian and Jewish wives. His friendly neighbor was a Jew. They visited and cared for one another.
In our prayers we pray for our Prophet, as well as Moses and Jesus, peace be upon them. On the day of Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar, we fast celebrating Prophet Moses’ (peace be upon him) safe escape from Egypt. These stories as well as other Christian and Jewish legends are narrated in the Qur’an. The first and largest chapter is titled “Al-Baqara” (The Cow) after the Jewish holy cow, and another chapter is titled Yousef (Joseph) after a Jewish prophet. Mariam is the title of a chapter devoted to the story of Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus.
In fact, we cannot be Muslims without believing in all holy books and messengers of Allah, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad; and their books, the Torah, Bible as well as Qur’an, I told them.
The real problem has always been with the politicizing and misinterpretation of holy texts, and the use of religion to rally the troops and achieve earthly goals and interests. This is true of all religions. The Crusaders were driven to the Holy Land to kill and conquer in the name of God. That is what’s happening today in the Muslim world.
My American partners were surprised. I wasn’t. Intellectuals on both sides failed miserably during better times to educate themselves and the public about other civilizations.
Whether out of bias and disregard, as Edward Said claims in “Orientalism”, or disinterest and laziness, the result is troubling. Today, people of the same-origin religions regard each other with suspicion and apprehension, reaching the level of hate.
Their stands are based on mostly misinformation and ignorance even of basic tenets and principles.
The first Saudi American Interactive Dialogue (SAID) was created in the wake of Sept. 11 to “gain perspective on how we, as business leaders, academics, government officials, journalists and students, can foster greater understanding between Saudi Arabia and the United Sates.
Although the relationship between our two peoples remains strong, Saudis and Americans are confronted daily by misperceptions on both sides. SAID aims to dispel such misperceptions in an open and transparent dialogue and by working together to build greater understanding.”
This conference was a good one small, but important step, toward building that elusive bridge.

Women Driving in Saudi Arabia? Why Not?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

My last column touched on the issue of women’s right to drive. And this generated some hot discussion on my e-mail list.
Readers who do not know Saudi Arabia well couldn’t understand or appreciate the reasoning against women driving. Saudis and residents who are familiar with the issue cite logistical and practical problems and concerns. No one claims the ban is Islamic. In Prophet’s (peace be upon him) time, women rode their horses and camels. In other Islamic countries, women didn’t have to compromise their modest dress code to drive. And they drive as well as men, if not better and safer.
Many readers fear that men, especially the young, will harass or chase female drivers.
This is blaming the victim. If men are the guilty party, then let’s ban them.
Some suspect that if we allow women driving, it will make it much easier for dating. They say it is bad as it is. Girls pretending to be out for school and social events go for dates! Give them cars and see what happens!
I say if they decide to date they will find a way. If you don’t trust your kids, boys or girls, don’t give them cars. But if you brought them up well, trust them. Besides, why do we assume girls would be less observant and conservative than boys? If both are as much suspect, then nobody should be allowed to drive. What difference does it make who sits on the driving seat?
Other arguments focus on practicalities, like traffic jams, accidents, car breakdowns, driving in remote areas, etc.
I say, we should plan and prepare. We could go gradually, allowing women over thirty to drive first, and then schedule other age groups. If they get in trouble they could use their cell phones. Mobile car service operators would help in case of breakdowns. We must take extra security measures and harsher punishment for harassers, like publishing offenders’ names and photos in the papers. They did that in Dubai and it worked.
We have to start by educating the public with media campaigns and encourage preachers, teachers and parents to contribute and participate. Solutions are there if we just look for them. As the Americans say, if there is a will, there is a way.
I like the following e-mail message I received from a Western teacher in a girls school. It very much sums up the problem from women’s perspective. It says:
I am a female teacher here in the Kingdom and I teach Saudi girls English. I was pleasantly surprised at the caliber of females I have come in contact with. I listen to their frustrations on a daily basis of the restrictions (mainly of not being able to drive) placed on them. The majority are perfectly capable human beings who just need their country to stop underestimating them and their abilities and the possibilities are limitless to what they will be able to offer this society.
Of course I can also understand the hesitation in allowing women to drive but I would place the fault of this completely on the men of this country. I could just imagine a car full of teenage Saudi boys hitting a woman’s car just for flirting purposes and this would make me personally more apprehensive about driving in this country. The problems are structural and deep-rooted. You can’t just lift the ban, but on the other hand, the longer you wait the harder it will get to change it.
A suggestion would be to fill the streets with competent, well-trained and prepared police, and have them clean up the act on the streets here. Maybe after a few months of over ticketing and tight restrictions you may have a situation where women will feel comfortable driving. You will also have to have driving schools for women and then, maybe, the country can conceptualize driving for women.
Another thing that needs to change is the attitude some men have toward women in this country. If the laws are there to make women feel more comfortable when in public then they are retroactive.
This can only change when men begin to see women as having a more independent role in society, for example, by driving. But women can’t drive until this attitude is curbed. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? It’s quite the dilemma. All I can say is the situation needs to change so better to start now and deal with the problems head on, rather than just watch things become more difficult to unravel. Bite the bullet, as we would say.
I would go for the bullet biting ... now. Who says AYE?

Helping the Poor ... in Saudi Arabia

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

As the coordinator of a newly formed charity, I was invited to a meeting in Jeddah Chamber of Commerce.
Representatives of charities were trying to form a coordination committee under the supervision of Makkah Governor Prince Abdul Majeed. High on our agenda were: Starting a cottage industry for needy families to work from home, providing training courses and finding jobs for less-skilled persons, and micro financing for small projects.
The idea is that we could help more if we think small and specific. The government can build larger projects, implement grand solutions, and throw a wider net.
For us, we should focus on smaller, neglected areas, and come up with creative, practical, sustainable solutions.
For example, at the “Productive Families Society” we are working on a poor area south of Jeddah as our case study. Our first step was diagnosing. We asked the engineers at the Environment Designs College in King Abdul Aziz University to study the area. We are also gathering area maps, satellite images, and information about the state of security, health, education and other public services from concerned government departments.
The next step is to come up with “sustainable” solutions designed as modules. If we decide that the best way is to develop a totally new neighborhood, then we divide the project into cost units: Land, studies, houses, schools, clinics, training courses, job opportunities, micro financing for small projects, and so on.
Then we look for sponsors for each unit starting with our members. We don’t ask them to contribute in cash. Instead, we ask them to build or provide the service required from A to Z themselves. Our job is to organize and coordinate.
Others, in turn, presented their creative ideas. Ibrahim Badawood, from Abdul Latif Jameel Co. briefed us on their community services. They train young men and women and help them get jobs as chefs, tailors, mechanics, plumbers, computer programmers, photographers and specialists in areas unfamiliar to Saudis, like beauty, flower and décor.
They support good business ideas by providing young entrepreneurs with office space, logistics, financing, and business contacts.
Since they are a car agency, they sell their Toyotas to taxi, bus and pickup drivers. The owners pay interest-free monthly installments over three years.
The company established a nonprofit hospital in 1995 to cater for patients with disabilities and is providing training programs for Saudi specialists in this field.
They also give scholarships to talented, but needy Saudis, who aspire to pursue graduate studies in reputable international schools. Since 1994, they have sent hundreds of students to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
They run other programs to train Saudi talent in such areas as car maintenance and computer technologies.
Dr. Nadia Baeshen, the general manager of Khadija bint Khoailid, told us how they help poor families by training women in skills to work from the convenience of their homes.
They also help them market their products and provide showroom space with subsidized rent on daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis.
Dr. Abdullah Altelmesani of Makkah Development Society showed a video that included sophisticated training centers for both sexes, in partnership with reputable American and European training centers. In association with local businesses and the public sector, they provide free housing, education and training for the needy, jobs for the able, and outlets for homemade handicrafts.
Other participants in the meeting told us about their visits to countries like Tunisia to learn from their experience in helping poor communities and under skilled workers. They were fascinated by the way people are trained in traditional handicrafts and helped with soft, micro financing and government-supported marketing.
This idea is now being implemented here. Many families are getting small loans of around a thousand Saudi riyals to buy simple equipment that helps them produce traditional dresses, food and tools. Some are now getting together in small companies of twos and threes and are obtaining financial help and professional advice. They, in turn, are employing others in their neighborhood.
Factories hiring women for low-paid jobs are getting support from charities that pay for training and transportation. A center has been set up to provide free legal advice and representation to poor families and battered women.
I suggested we broaden the scope to include legal help for small home businesses.
Others are setting up CV databases and contacting both private and public sectors to find jobs for the unemployed, especially in the underprivileged and remote areas.
Saudi Arabia has always given generously to millions in poorer countries. Some of our best-intentioned help was misused and gave us a bad name. Without neglecting our global duties, it is high time we focused on our needy. Charity after all begins at home.

AIDS Here? What Do We Know?

Rami is an interesting case of humanity under fire. He was born with hemophilia. After a surgery eight years later, he received blood transfusion contaminated by the HIV virus.
They told him, “you have two years to live.” He knew everyone would eventually die, so he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
Today, he is twenty-eight, and the renewable two-year extension is still hanging like a sword over his head. I noted he never cites dates, and when I asked why, he explained: When you await execution in a death chamber, time becomes irrelevant.
Still, Rami has always been an A student. He is now doing his Masters in history. That is because he believes in what the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: Do for your life like you live forever, and do for your hereafter like you die tomorrow.
Most people didn’t know about his illness, but some of those who knew made him feel guilty. He was kicked out of dinner tables, refused shake-hands, and denied medical treatment even in emergency rooms.
“I can’t forget when I had an emergency and went from one hospital to another asking for help only to be told: We don’t treat AIDS patients here. They said it like I was a criminal who brought this on himself and the world. I asked for an ambulance to my hospital in Taif (he lives in Makkah) but they refused. I remember crawling to my car in pain and dizziness with the ER doctor shaking his head, probably in disgust.
People suffering from AIDS, hepatitis and similar diseases need compassion more than anything — not pity, not tears. They just want to be treated like humans. They want to live what is left of their lives in dignity. Instead, they are shunted to a psychological prison, left to decay and disintegrate painfully on their own.
So what do the “Ramis” want from society? “We want and need acceptance, recognition and understanding. We need to eradicate baseless doubts and fears. We want people to treat us like human beings, not as nuclear refuse. This can only happen when we educate society with public awareness programs in schools, mosques and the media.”
Rami is proposing to set up what he calls “Friends of the Disabled Society.” He hoped members would include celebrities from all walks of life — media, sports, business, arts and academia, headed by the governor of Makkah Region, Prince Abdul Majeed.
He studied for many years the project he regards as his life’s dream and legacy. In fact, that’s exactly why he decided to break all social taboos and went public in last week’s Arab News interview. Only with such shock treatment, he calculated, will society wake up to the realities they hide under the carpet, hoping one day they will disappear altogether.
He plans for the nongovernmental organization, which he would gladly manage, to conduct public awareness campaigns such as organized events, participation in conferences, talk shows, workshops, media programs, school tours, etc. He would set up an extensive information center with a specialized library, research tools and an electronic database in cooperation with the world’s best medical and academic research centers in the field. The information would be accessible to doctors, specialists, patients, as well as the media and public.
In addition, he plans for the society to provide a social and sports club, a scientific forum, and a service center for patients. It would organize social and sports events for patients and their families and friends, and help them with their psychological, social and family problems. It would help in getting scholarships, jobs and would arrange marriages among patients under medical supervision and with expert consultation.
Rami is in a hurry. He explains that he doesn’t have much time. That is why he would love to achieve his vision before he has to go.
Thousands of AIDS patients as well as those suffering from other sexually and blood-transmitted diseases are suffering in silence. Most hide their illness, which increases the chances of transmitting the disease. It also raises the risk for patients who might skip certain treatments and precautions to hide their problem.
Women, more than men, pay a heavy price. They usually contract the disease from husbands, children and by blood transfusion. Even if they sin, who are we to judge them? Is the heavy punishment not harsh enough for us to try them more?
I call for Rami’s dream to be realized. I call on all those who could help, by joining and supporting his project, to give a hand.

Where Does All This Money Go?

Tens of billions of hard currency returned to Saudi Arabia after Sept. 11. Higher oil prices brought more cash. This is a big plus in any economy. But like when it rains on our cities, we are caught unprepared.
While hundreds of thousands are out of work, especially women and the young, and many investment opportunities go unutilized, it seems so odd that all this cash is not making much difference. Lack of investment avenues is sending much of Saudi capital to other investor-friendly places, such as Dubai, Jordan, Qatar, Tunis and Bahrain. Laws and regulations in more welcoming and encouraging environments as those areas are making it harder for Saudi investors to resist.
Yes, you want to be patriotic and invest in your motherland, but you cannot be the only one who cares. You are ready to sacrifice and go the extra mile to build that factory. But if you can’t cut all the red tape in a reasonable time, acquire the license, get a piece of land in the industrial area, or the necessary infrastructure and services outside that area, then no one blames you if you cut your losses and run.
You call on Jabel Ali industrial authorities in Dubai and a jinni comes out of the lamp to grant you all your requests. Your dream project can be rolling in no time, and all facilities and support for establishment, production and export are provided as part of the package.
In short, you feel that your success is everyone’s concern from the governor to the cargo handler. And if you need the law, the law is fair and square. No one is above the law and no case takes longer than needed. More important, everyone understands the difference between business and marriage contracts, dispute settlement and religious fatwa, 21st century commerce and medieval trade.
The money that stayed home went mostly three ways: The inflated Saudi stock market, real estate and money investment funds. Some, especially smaller capitals, were wasted on hasty, badly studied projects and fraudulent schemes.
Many unneeded shops were opened everywhere, especially in the communication and food sectors.
Today, there are more mobile phone malls and stores in Jeddah’s Palestine Street than the whole city of three million inhabitants needs. Billions of riyals are given to shadowy traders in mobile phone charge cards SAWA who promise astronomical profits only to run away with the spoils.
Real estate prices are skyrocketing. Many projects, as Bani Alnajjar Market in Madinah, promised up to 70 percent profits, millions of shares, and took billions of riyals for them, then went bankrupt. Investors in similar projects are crowding courts and police stations with little hope of getting their money back.
They joined thousands who have been waiting for settlement of similar cases for over twenty years, like that of Al-Ajhori investment fund.
The stock market broke the 10,000-point mark. When the newly established Al-Bilad Bank and communication giant Etihad Etisalat went public, people rushed to buy twenty times the offered shares. That is great, except that you try to buy ten thousand shares and get only three. Besides, many believe the market cannot sustain this boom. The bubbles eventually will burst as the American Internet startups did in the late nineties.
What can we do to absorb the flood of money and make the most of it? I am not an economist, but it does not need an expert to see that we are not doing enough on most fronts. We started privatization long ago when we sold 30 percent of state-owned Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC). Twenty years later, the rest of the giant petrochemical is still owned by the government.
The Saudi Telecom Company sold a similar percentage, and we still wait for the rest to be sold. Saudi Airlines announced their privatization plan many years ago. Today, they are still planning! The National Commercial Bank, our biggest, is not even planning. Same is the case with Petromin, Riyad Bank, and many others. How can we hope to absorb the extra capital without expanding the limited market?
We also need to protect people’s investments. Huge real estate development projects are eating up billions, and then go bankrupt. All an investor needs to sell shares in a multibillion-riyal project is to get a license from the Commerce Ministry after proving his land ownership. Having done that, it is a no-rule game. He could buy a palace and private jet, or invest the money in other projects and countries.
When all is lost, there is no one authority to turn to. Courts are overwhelmed and cases lurch for ages.
We badly need new investment openings for our money. But first, let us set up the right systems that encourage, protect and secure investors’ rights and riyals. Without that, the flow will keep moving on... elsewhere.

Without a Free, Fearless Press

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

One nagging criticism of Arab culture concerns the state of our media. Democracy, critics say, cannot flourish in an environment where freedom of the press is as hard to get as gardens of Eden are in the Empty Quarter desert. For the public to have a voice in the running of their affairs, they need an independent outlet, a supermarket of ideas, an unbiased forum for intellectual debate. How could you enlighten the people and offer them a venue to express their views on the issues of the day, if you let the state control what is said and discussed?

True. There is a serious conflict of interests here. A chairman of a company cannot decide for the shareholders what issues to discuss and what not; what criticism to level and how to. Of course, if left to him, no one will be allowed to express anything but praise. Forget about the losses, the diminishing market share, and the sinking share price. All what matters is how fortunate we are that our leadership survived global conspiracies.

Things are changing, however. When it was feasible for a government to seize the airwaves and be the only voice people hear, it was possible to play the Big Brother. Today, it is inconceivable to exercise such power and enjoy such monopoly. The world is becoming one integrated electronic net. Communication is increasingly direct, independent, easy and cheap. It is as difficult now for parents to control what their kids watch and hear, as it is for governments to control what their people watch and hear.

The Arab world was slow to use the information superhighway. Satellite TVs, mobile phones and the Internet are still less used here than in other countries. Until recently, Arab governments were dragging their feet in introducing modern communication tools. In some Arab countries, it is still hard to get permission to buy a mobile line, an Internet connection or a satellite dish. Still, obstacles or not, the Arab masses enjoy unprecedented access to news and information about local and foreign affairs. People, across the country, the Arab world, and beyond, are virtually meeting and discussing taboo issues freely any time they choose. Programs in nongovernmental satellite TVs are reporting crises and events in a free professional way without having to toe the official line. Al-Jazeera, MBC, Al-Mustagella, and other semi-independent channels led the way. Others followed.

Even state-run channels, like Abu Dhabi, had to compete in an equally professional manner. A new dawn of openness has been descending on the Arab world in the last decade. Both the public and private sectors are getting used to stern criticism in the media. It was harder in the beginning, but now it is much easier for journalists to ask hard questions and for officials to disclose embarrassing facts.

Events that went unreported, or were heavily embellished and misrepresented in the past, are now told as they are. The public is getting used to its new freedom. More and more it is becoming impossible to roll back the trend. This is especially so because most of the population is young. They were born in a more transparent world, and they won’t accept the darker age their parents were forced to tolerate.

Freedom doesn’t come cheap and doesn’t always produce right outcomes. Along the way, we have to endure the summer heat and the winter cold, blowing winds and flooding waves, roadblocks and sudden bumps. We can’t have double standard on challenges and opportunities. If we conduct an election, we must recognize the winners even if they were our enemies. If we demand freedom of the press, we should acknowledge the rights of our opposition, never mind how harsh they are, how outrageous they act, or how vulnerable our current state is. To pronounce that “no freedom for the enemies of freedom” is to appoint ourselves public prosecutor, judge and jury on behalf of the people.

It is not for us to decide who people choose, what stations they tune to, or who has the right to be on air and who is not. The closing down of newspapers and online sites, the banning of TV and radio stations will damage our credibility and undermine our noble cause. What influences people in the final analysis is not the reporters but the reported events. Even if you kill the messenger, they will get the message, one way or another. Their media alternatives are many and varied, so forget about censorship. It is just not possible.

I say this not only to our Arab leaders and the intellectual elite, but also to Western powers, intelligentsia and media pushing for reforms in the Arab world. We do need reforms, but we also have to accept the unexpected and unwelcome outcomes. There is no half-pregnant in democracy, either we have it all ... or we don’t.

Zero Tolerance for Abusing Maids, No Less!

Where do I stand on maid torture in the Gulf region? I was asked by many Western and non-Arab readers a lot lately.
In answer, I tell you a story. During my doctoral program in the States, I joined a unique class titled “Intercultural Communication.” It was an untraditional class. The professor who won an award for excellence teaching combined psychological therapy, research and workshop tools. We researched, debated, produced home movies, and played. Students met at school, homes, cafés and restaurants.
One night, we sat around a large hall and each of the “methodically and representatively chosen” sixty graduates was given five minutes to advise an imaginary South American government.
The issue was: Should they build a dam benefiting millions but relocating an ancient native tribe?
My advice was: If the project would benefit many and hurt few, then we should build it but generously compensate and relocate the natives in a suitable place of their choice.
A Sri Lankan student angrily protested: “What to expect from this Gulf Arab? They rape maids in Arabia, why not rape an entire village? His people act like ancient landlords toward their workers. Just because God bestowed oil money upon them after ages of poverty, they think they are super people. They forgot that only sixty years ago, they were economic immigrants in India, South Asia, and Africa. Then, we didn’t rape or abuse them. They were given equal opportunities. Some even became maharajas and kings. Our rich spent their retirement money in the Holy Lands, building schools and setting up charities. Look how they are treating us now?”
No rebuttal was allowed, until it was your turn. So I sat still in the class ... and silently cried. I guessed the poor boy must have had a terrible experience, and felt guilty. A French student said it wasn’t fair to generalize and hold me responsible. The class seemed to agree.
When it was my turn, everyone, including the Native American instructor, was expecting a fight. Instead, I apologized.
Here is what I said then, and still believe now: We have millions of guest workers in Saudi Arabia. Many are abused, but not all. Some come to steal, sell sex and drugs and work without permits. Most are good humans, who came to make an honest living, raise kids, take care of parents, and save for a head start on their return.
Those decent, hardworking people deserve our utmost respect, admiration and compassion. They are better people than we are, because in Islam the poorer are the most fortunate in Allah’s grace. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to pray: Oh, Allah, make me live as a “miskeen” (very poor), die as a “miskeen” and judge me among masakeen in the hereafter.
It breaks my heart to read and hear about abuses and mistreatment of guest workers, especially helpless maids. Some expatriates do make mistakes, not necessarily because they mean to, but mostly because of ignorance of Islamic laws and cultural differences.
They deserve a fair punishment, if they did, but also a second chance, understanding and sympathy, because they are “masakeen.”
Is it not enough that they live so far away from home and beloved ones?
In conclusions, I apologized on behalf of every decent Saudi and Gulf Arab. I promised to continue what I already did when I started my career as a journalist and writer: A campaign for more rights, better treatment, tighter laws and harsher justice for the benefit of our guest workers.
Here I am apologizing again, in frustration, anger and shame, as story after story is published about maids’ abuse in Gulf and Arab countries.
What have we done to prevent this shameful human failure? Little, I am afraid. We should do much more.
As media people, we need to shed more light on the issue.
We need journalists, like Samar Almogren of Al-Watan, who passionately and persistently pursued and exposed stories like the Indonesian maid’s ordeal. She didn’t stop until the man who chained the maid in a bathroom for days was himself in prison, waiting trial and, hopefully, swift justice.
The poor woman lost some fingers and sustained many physical injuries. We owe her a lot. But at least, other criminals and would-be criminals will get the message, loud and clear: We will not tolerate mistreatment of guest workers.
We need to do more, much more. For a start, we should set up a dedicated center with a widely advertised hotline. Abuse cases must be quickly and fairly investigated and openly tried, studied and discussed. An awareness and advice public campaign should run in parallel.
We must have no less than a zero-tolerance for abusers. After all, we are supposed to be hospitable Arabs and compassionate Muslims.