Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Our Economy, Our Women

What’s the relation between our women and the economy?
Last Saturday, I attended a heated debate about the government’s decision to allow women to run in the election to the new board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as similar elections in other cities.
This is the first time businesswomen get the right to be candidates, not just voters. I thought this was a historical, but overdue step. It defies logic that 15,000 owners of Saudi businesses cannot be represented on the boards of trade organizations like the chambers of commerce and industry.
The same can be said of the boards of banks, companies and industries, where women make a sizable minority of shareholders and employees. Similarly, government ministries and departments, courts and religious scholars’ organizations, universities and schools all deal with constituencies of both sexes. Isn’t it absurd that even in the Department of Girl’s Education only men are in charge?
Some of the opponents are basing their objections on religious and cultural grounds. I told them: Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) worked for a businesswoman, his wife. He consulted another wife, Aisha on matters of state and religion, and told his companions to take half their religion from her. Why is it that, after 1400 years, women are not allowed to be at the level they reached then? If culture is the issue, it is wrong since it is in conflict with the principles of Islam.
As for experience and expertise, they come with training and practice. New generations of men go through this learning curve to reach higher positions, so why not our better half?
To help in this direction, we need to improve women’s education and training. Many fields, like engineering, accounting, and d├ęcor are still off limits to girls in public colleges, even though they are better school achievers than boys.
• Here is a comment on my last article “The Economic Boom: Our Second Chance!” from an American who taught and understood Saudi girls. I found it refreshing and enlightening to see one’s position from a different angle and with different eyes.
Let me quote her letter:
“I left Jeddah about two months ago and was living there for a little over a year. I have written to your e-mail correspondence a few time concerning women’s issues, but I think this issue about how to spend the money is just as, if not more, important. It is also relevant to the women’s issue.
Jeddah has turned into a giant mall and it’s very disappointing and sad. In the past, weren’t the best and most renowned educational centers in the Middle East based in Makkah and Madinah? Are not Arabs known for great educational achievements such as algebra and beautiful poetry? Well, it seems things have changed, and not because of bad financial times.
There should be large public libraries, good sporting facilities and top-notch learning facilities for everyone.
So as to not abandon my women I will speak to how this correlates directly to women. When young women have more to do with their days than go to the malls to spend money they haven’t earned, they themselves will gain a higher feeling of self-worth. This is much more important and preliminary to achieving a status that they seek in society.
I taught Saudi girls and it got very boring when all they had done over the weekend was to shop, meet at a cafe, or sit at home. What about scuba diving, sports leagues, book clubs, efficient technical institutes?
Of the hundred or so female students I taught, NOT ONE had ever scuba— dived. With one of the world’s most beautiful reefs at their fingertips, none were given the opportunity to take advantage of something people outside of the Kingdom can only drool over. At this point, society is telling Saudi women all they are worthy of is spending money.
Certainly, the men don’t have it much better. Therefore, it’s time to stop ignoring Saudi youth. Make investments in their future. Create a school system that allows them to compete in the world that looms like a tidal wave above them.
Of course, follow-through is just as important as the initiation. Provide them with facilities so they can be involved in healthy activities to make them well-rounded individuals. Then they can say, ‘This weekend? Hmm, where do I start’”.

The Economic Boom: Our Second Chance!

In the early 20th century, during the British colonial rule of Egypt, an Egyptian suddenly decided to establish the first national bank. He was motivated by a moving experience. An Egyptian farmer was crying in shame, anger and sorrow because the British bank tricked him. Typically, they gave him a loan, drove the cotton price down and confiscated his land for payment. Now, he was going to work as a laborer in his ancestor's land.
Young Talat Harb decided then and there to establish Misr Bank. Many laughed at him. He proved them wrong.
Within a couple of decades, Misr's Bank sat up 28 Egyptian companies producing everything from cotton dresses to heavy industries. They went into every field from hypermarkets for local products to Cinema for local movies, to sea, air and land transportation.
In addition, the bank helped starting and supported sixty more businesses in all kind of production and service fields.
The bank trained and maintained a competent and competitive professional Egyptians work force. Not only Talat Harb Basha suprvised them during work hours, but he also insisted that as representatives of the bank they must well behalf in their private lives. He would fire anyone who mistreated his wife or stole his neighbors. The bank's image had to be upheld at all times.
When the British forced him out, Misr Bank was worth more than two billion Egyptian pounds. He commented: "They could fire me but they can't fire the professional generation this nation now has."
Many Arab banking pioneers were inspired by this example. In Saudi, Salem bin Mahfouz, founded the National Commercial Bank to break the "economic colonialism" in his country, as he explained to the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz. He sat up companies, built low-rent flat blocks, and supported hundreds of factories, farms and businesses. The bank played the role of the Central Bank before it was sat at a later stage.
Suleiman and Saleh Alrajehi started, like bin Mahfouz, from the bottom. They well understood the needs and aspirations of their nation and business environment. Their bank was more like a holding company of specialized units. They entered the fields of modern agriculture, poultry, manufacturing and marketing, among many others.
In addition to supporting businesses, those pioneers helped their people. Charity works accounted for as much as third of their fortunes, with billions sat aside for helping the poor and underprivileged.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Mohammad Ali Xenel sat up a network of schools. Not only providing free education, he also supported the poor students' families and sent the best to India to pursue higher studies. In the sixties, Sheik Abdullah Al-Suliman donated million of acres of his land, including his palaces and farms to support the establishment of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. Sheik Abu Bakar Bakhashab was first to support the project with a million Riyal donation, a fortune by the standards of those days.
Today, fewer people act and think the same way. Tall among the best is Mohammad Abdulatif Jameel. He, alone, put up 100 million riyals to establish pioneering schools, services and funds. Hundreds of poor women are getting micro financing of up to a thousand riyal to start small businesses individually and in small groups. Young girls and boys are taking training courses in untraditional courses for Saudis like food catering, hair dressing, fashion design, event management, and car maintenance. Others are sent aboard to study in prestigious universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford and Cambridge. Before they graduate, Jameel finds them secured jobs in and outside his group.
Abdulrahman Fakeeh is another shining example. His free training schools are focused on modern tools like computer and languages, as well as traditional like farming and poultry. After graduation students are free to work for him or anywhere else, without any strings attached.
The same can be said of charitable business groups, lik Alkherieji, Alamodi, Bin Mahfouz, Xenel, Bin Laden, Aljaffali and Bugshan.
There must be many others working in silence. But the percentage is too small, the help insufficient, and the philosophy rapidly changing. Banks today are more concerned with fueling consumerism than nurturing small businesses. Most investors prefer to make easy money by building malls, importing and selling consumer goods, and providing services and entertainment. Productive businesses that provide good paying jobs and reform the economy attract fewer investors.
Charity is less smart, focused and directed towards sustainable help, such as training, cottage industry and productive families. Investment venues are hardly enough to absorb more than 500 billion riyals in private bank accounts alone.
We blew our first economic boom of the late seventies, and need to dramatically change strategy, philosophy and attitude before we blew our second chance.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Arab Leaders and How They Treat Public Criticism

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

ARAB officials are not used to any sort of criticism, especially in public, and don’t tolerate open debate about their performance.

Now and then, I have off-the-record conversations with Arab leaders of various levels in the public and private sectors. Most are unelected.

I ask them: Why don’t they allow intellectual, peaceful dissent and free discussion of ideas and thoughts? They have the power to pick and choose among proposals; so why the imposed silence and unilateral governance?

Their rationale goes like this: Talk to me respectfully and I’ll listen and consider. Do that in public and you put me in a serious dilemma. If I respond positively, I admit to having made mistakes and you take credit and steal the victory. Worse, by relenting to your demands, I show weakness. You can’t run a business, let alone a country like that.

Besides, in our culture, you don’t humiliate your leader, be it a father, a boss, a sheikh or a president. We shouldn’t copy less respectful societies in this regard.

Eastern societies are different. We don’t go around smearing the image of our heads and expect them to take it kindly. Of course leaders get angry; they are only human. Of course they punish offenders; they have prestige, security and unity to protect. Wrong approaches deserve bad receptions.

If you are sincere, then don’t make a scene. If public interest is your goal, come and talk to me in private. Let me take the credit for doing the right thing. It won’t hurt you, but makes me stronger. However, if it is fame, political gain or any other self-interest you are after, I won’t allow you to gain it at my expense. I will fight you to the bitter end. And you will most likely lose, because I have the muscles and you are toothless.

An Arab public official may add: Make a noise and you might get the outside world’s attention. Some foreigners might take up your cause. Western officials might call on your behalf. This helps me prove you are an agent and traitor. Human rights organizations might protest. Pressure may mount. But it is up to me to set you free. And if I do, I could make your life miserable. You can live outside prison, but the whole country will be your jail. The difference is: I pay your expenses inside, but make sure you are not able to pay them outside. Your call! Your choice!

In response I say: “Those with tight chests and short breaths are not good for leadership,” as an Arab proverb says. If you are so sensitive and thin-skinned, be kind enough to leave the headache for those who are not. You are right to be offended if critics were intruding into your personal affairs that don’t affect your job performance. But if people are criticizing, demanding or advising on issues that concern their well being, then you ought to listen, respect and accept.

Say we are a traveling group. We choose you as our organizer and treasurer. You start acting without our authorization, slipping your gambling loses into the budget or changing our travel plans. Isn’t it our right to raise concerns and objections, present suggestions and proposals and call into review your administrative performance? Why do we have to come, one by one, in private, to discuss such issues with you? Why can’t we debate them among us all? And why is no one but you entitled to take credit for our achievements and proposals?

Most disasters in the history of mankind were caused by dictators. Good governance requires teamwork. No one person, no matter how brilliant, decent and strong, can successfully lead for long without decision sharing. Be it a family, small business, sports team or nation, people need and must take part in the managing of their own affairs.

Systems differ, but the basics are the same. Mechanisms may be tailored to suit different cultures and environments, but they all pursue the same goal — public participation in the decision-making process.

Ordinary citizens must have the divine, constitutionally protected right to voice their opinions publicly or privately without fear of persecution, isolation or retaliation. They should be entitled to expect respectful and systematic responses to their questions, interaction with their proposals, and addressing of their concerns.

Some agree with such logic — intellectually. The problem is, when we talk we are all men of principles. When we act, we are chasers of benefits. Without any protecting, overriding and correcting mechanism, leaders will always pursue their own interests — first.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Is Corruption Curable?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

“Framing” is a dangerous art. You can give a horrible thing a good name and make it look good. With the right media tools, you can sell it to the masses. A good lie, repeated long enough, convinces even the liars themselves.
Worse, lies in time become norms. The rules change to accommodate. And new generations know no better or different. The social evolution alters its ways accordingly, and what was immoral in the past, becomes acceptable and even ethical.
Take for example “corruption” in the Arab world.
Bribe is now called “commission.” The rationale goes like: Life became costly. What was regarded a decent life in the good old days is now poverty. Salaries, especially in the public sector, are meager. You need to think of your family and dependents. Good accommodation and private schooling cost a fortune. Every one is doing it; why not me?
Corruption is universal, but in degrees. Ours is one of the worst. This reminds me of a funny — and telling story.
Once, an Arab minister was invited to Japan. His Japanese counterpart took him on a city tour. He noted that most Japanese live in small apartments. Later, he was invited to lunch with the Japanese minister and was awed to see his spacious villa. “How could you afford this on your salary?”
The Japanese asked him to look out the window. “Do you see that bridge?” he whispered. “I got 10 percent commission on the project.”
Years later, the Japanese came to visit his Arab friend. On a city tour he noted that many people lived in shantytowns, if not homeless. He visited the minister’s home, and found it a palace. He couldn’t resist asking how come. The Arab minister didn’t need to whisper what is common knowledge. Do you see that bridge? He asked proudly. The Japanese couldn’t see anything. “Of course,” the Arab explained, “I took 100 percent commission on it!”
True, corruption is universal, but in our Arab world it is cancerous. Billions are spent on development but most go to private Swiss accounts. Few are brought to justice or even exposed. Little is done for the average man. Meanwhile, the ships of civilization are steaming ahead in all seas and oceans, while ours are sinking. Something has to be done if we ever hope to survive the storms of the New World Order where no economic or political barriers are allowed. So, is corruption a curable disease or a hopeless case? If we can fix it, then how and where to start?
This is a long story with so many variables. Some diseases are more curable than others. The longer you wait, the harder it gets; the stronger the medicine, the faster the recovery. But first, you need to know, acknowledge and be committed. Without knowing the extent of your problem you can’t appreciate it. Without acknowledging the seriousness of the disease and the urgent need to cure it, you are not prepared. And without commitment you might start but not finish, take some steps and leave some, get mixed results, no results or make it worse.
Our corruption is cancerous but curable. It will take lots of effort, plenty of headache, and tons of commitment. Once we decided we had enough, we can think up the right systems, procedures and safeguards that deal with cases, causes and symptoms.
When the Mafia polluted America in they early 20th century, the police, laws and courts were powerless, and often too corrupted to fight it.
In response, a committed US government came up with new solutions. They put new laws, created special task forces, and reinvented the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). From a small group of investigators within the Department of Justice in 1908, the bureau grew up to become a formidable force with (to a large extent) incorruptible agents. They took on organized crime, with the support and backing of a committed government, and achieved great successes.
The story was replayed in the sixties when the Kennedy administration gave full authority and support to Attorney General Robert Kennedy to break up the Mafia structure, and he did — to a great extent.
What I am driving at is: It is possible to cure a disease like corruption if we research it, acknowledge it, and sincerely decide to fight it. If there is a will, there is always a way.
Most important, though, we should start from the top down. Catch the sharks before the crap. And make it a holy rule that no one is above the law. Otherwise, it is going to be like in the Communist and Baath regimes, the fat cats swallow it all while the rest dies of malnutrition!