Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Advocating the Rights of Women and Minorities

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,
Last Saturday, our weekly diwania was very tense. A prominent Saudi columnist was disappointed that his paper wouldn't publish one of his articles. In the article, he had criticized a prominent family for not announcing the name of their daughter in the wedding invitation card. Most people only print the name of the groom. His conclusion was: If the leading families of the country, who happened to be liberal, are afraid of breaking this custom, then who will dare to free us from Dark-Ages ways?
The rest of us were divided. Nobody disagreed that traditions, mostly accumulated in the last 30 years, insult women by hiding their names. We disagreed on explaining the tradition.
The writer who came from the tribal South assured us that it didn't use to be like that 30 years ago. The men in his village knew all women by the face and name. Today, thanks to the neo-Islamists, they all cover their faces and hide their names.
Instead of referring to your wife, sister or daughter by their given names, you say my folks or dependents, he noted. "Last week, I was called to my son's school because he was in a fight. Why? His classmate kept telling him his sister's name. Yes, she is my sister; my son's response was every time. Finally, my son told his friend: I know your sister's name, too. The boy went bananas and into big fight. What my son didn't know in the beginning of this episode was that the boy meant it as an insult. This was common. It shouldn't, and we, opinion and society leaders, should fight it. The least we could do is to announce our daughters' names in their wedding invitation cards."
I supported his position and reminded the others that names of the Prophet's mother, wives, daughters and female members of his extended family were not kept secret. We also know the names of the greatest women in our Islamic history. King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia was proud of his sister Nora, to the extent that he gave himself the nick name "Akho Nora" (the brother of Nora). Names of King Abdullah's wife and daughters are announced when they participate in or sponsor public events and charity works.
No one disagreed with our position, but some wondered whether it is the responsibility of prominent families and opinion leaders to advocate such a position. The argument goes like this: "While it is absolutely right to announce the female names in any event or invitation cards, we should also respect the right of those who choose not to. Leading families or not, every group has its traditions, and every person has his/her convictions. We should respect, if not celebrate, cultural diversity."
Then, we debated another point: Should the government advocate changing wrong customs and how? The writer insisted we should use schools, media and all available platforms to promote positive changes in our society.
Women's rights, respect for other religions, sects and thoughts, for example, are not subject to disagreement.
Therefore, the government, media and intellectuals should design public education and awareness programs to promote these rights and principles, starting with kindergarten and children's books.
The movement that took our society to where it is now should be overturned.
Others disagreed. They argued that societies develop in their own way, at their own pace without intervention from governments or other organized forces. No one group or authority has the right to direct social attitudes, traditions and convictions.
My stand was: Since "organized forces" were allowed for ages to take society to where it is now, we should allow others from different schools of thought with noble principles (like rights for women and minorities) to do the same.
The curriculum has to be changed in accord with these values. To reach acceptable level of national consensus on these issues, we could simply follow the recommendations of our national dialogue forums.
This way, we could avoid siding with one group or another. This way, we legitimize the campaign for positive change. And this way, we help society move forward - the least we could do for the majority, our women plus minorities.
History is a train that can only go forward. And it won't await us forever.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The American Culture Shock Works for Sure

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

“Would Osama Bin Laden have ended up so anti-American if he had the chance you had to live and study in the US?” the American journalist wondered.

I gave him a long answer (sorry it wasn’t an easy question): “Many Muslims went to America conservative and came back liberal. Others only became conservative, even radicals, after their American experience. A few remained uninfluenced either way.

Said Qutub, the godfather of Islamic radicalism, was a romantic poet before he lived for a short while in Colorado, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Still, he wrote later about his discovery then and there of the Western decadence and how he decided to change course to fight the US influence on the Muslim world. His books persuaded many Muslim generations and led them on the way of confrontation with Western values and with Muslim regimes that do not strictly adhere to the Shariah.

On the other hand, most people I know, young and old, returned from America positively impressed. A prominent anti-US leftist told me after his first visit: I discovered that America is not just pro-Israel Congress and White House. It is also the hospitable, friendly, open and generous people.

During the cross-Atlantic flight from London to New York, my American neighbor told me all about his life and family, showed me their pictures, and discussed everything from the environment to US foreign policies. We agreed and disagreed, but he never showed any anger, arrogance, stubbornness or hostility. Before we parted ways, he gave me his card, invited me home, and ... presented me with a medal of honor he received in the US Army.

Are all Americans like that? I didn’t live enough in the States to judge, but all the people I met from the steward on the airplane, to the passport officer, to the man in the street, were so nice to me. How could I hate a country with such lovely attitude? How could I ever hate America the country, the people and civilization? No, from now on, I’ll just hate their foreign policies.

Going to America right away from a conservative society is usually a huge culture shock. Many cannot cope, but most do process the change and absorb the different lifestyle, in time. America, as an immigrant society, more than most Western nations, has the capacity of accommodating and welcoming strangers. Depending on the place you happen to visit or live in, you may get easier or harder transit experience. Young and liberal get on faster than the older and conservative, but somehow, almost all manage to manage.

Back to the original question, I don’t think Osama, who did shortly visit America in the 1970s for medical treatment for his son, would have changed fundamentally. His stand is more political than social. His criticism is directed at US foreign policies, not at American social attitudes. But knowing how friendly the average American is, I’d bet that would have made a good impression on Osama.

I was lucky to have known American expatriates since childhood. The kids in the nearby compound were my playmates. This allowed me to see the different other not as a stranger or an enemy but as a friend. After years of study in the US, the positive image was enforced. My professors, classmates and neighbors of all faiths, races and colors showed me that no matter what a person’s background maybe it is how he treats you and what ethics and values he upholds that matters.

I would imagine that for the anti-Americans of the world to live in such a liberal, friendly, and civilized environment as I did in Eugene, Oregon would have made them more tolerant and friendly and less suspicious and hostile. It would moderate their anger toward the public who elected a government they despise. It would make them understand that electing a president doesn’t necessarily mean supporting all his foreign policies.

That is one reason I encourage our students, professionals and opinion and community leaders to have such experience and exposure.

It defeats our best intentions and purposes to encourage studies in the States and then find it so difficult and humiliating to get a visa. It would very much help if we expand on Saudi-American visitor exchange programs, workshops, conferences and scholarships. We need more of face-to-face, people-to- people meetings.

Only by building a direct bridge between our peoples and cultures will we get to know each other, and care for each other. Love doesn’t grow in abstention.

What is Wrong with the Stock Market?

What is Wrong with the Stock Market?
Dr. Khaled Batarfi

John D. Rockefeller was once asked why he decided to sell all his stocks just months before the 1929 Wall Street Crash. He explained: One morning, I was on the way to my office and stopped to have my shoes polished. The guy asked my advice about the shares he bought. If people with this kind of talent were now playing the market, I knew there was something wrong.

The limousine driver who took me home from Jeddah airport announced happily that this was his last trip. He was retiring. The young, high school graduate, explained to me that he was now a good broker. For months now, he sits on the computer at home, buying and selling in the stock market. Starting with a few thousands, he is now making more than he gets from his limousine, without the headache. Like Rockefeller, I knew then there was something wrong. But unlike Rockefeller, I haven’t sold my stocks. I am stuck with it now. In fact, we should have seen it coming long time ago. There are lots of things that have been wrong, persistently.

Let’s start with the imbalance of liquidity and availability. While the first is increasing, reaching historical heights of over half a trillion riyals in private accounts alone, few shares and investment avenues are available. For some reason, giant companies, like petrochemical SABIC, petroleum ARAMCO, telecom STC, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Saudi Arabia’s biggest banks Al-Ahli and Samba, among others, are mostly or completely in government hands. Take SABIC for example. When it was partially privatized (30 percent) the promise was more percentage to follow. This was some 20 years ago, and until now there is not even a hint of what to expect. Therefore, lots of money is chasing few shares and investment opportunities. The bubble market was a sure result. Bursting was a question of when not if.

Another “wrong” is the absence of transparency. The overseers of the stock market are not talking. The overseers of the whole economy are not talking either. The movers and shakers, nicknamed hamoors after the big fish, are hardly known. The media has no clue. And only the hamoor-connected analysts are talking to the masses. Of course, their advice is self-serving, leading buyers toward one company’s stock or another.

Three million Saudis, out of 13 million, went wild in the wild market. Few have any clue. They buy and sell on rumors and instinct, with little or no idea about the solidity of the company they buy in. Therefore, bankrupt and small-time businesses’ shares are sold at higher rates than that of market leaders. Bisha’s shares, the small agricultural company with a few thousands date trees, reached over SR2,400, much higher than SABIC’s SR1,800. Why? Because a few “hamoors,” who own most of the shares, artificially inflated them. When the time was right, they sold all, and let the price fall to the range of a few hundred.

What was the penalty, if any? Only a few people were punished. Their identities were not revealed. And the punishment didn’t include imprisonment. Their response? Driving the market from around the point of 21,000 to bellow 13,000! The government response? In the first interview ever with Jammaz Al-Suhaimi, chairman of the Capital Market Authority, we were told that 50 percent of the liquidity was invested in the weak companies and that this has to be corrected. What is new in the most important matter of transparency and strong rules against cheaters? Nothing. Business will continue to run as usual.

The huge drop goes against market fundamentals. Corporations are making tons of profits. Banks are doubling their earnings. Business thrives and projects are plenty. In short, we have no shortage of good news.

I would understand that weak companies are losing much of their inflated values — this is called correction. But the big question is: Why every company, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, rich and poor is losing, too? And if the hamoors are doing it, and we already know them by name and address, why can’t we “correct” them, as well? The banks are now turning down loan requests to invest in the stock market. This takes out much of the liquidity. Can’t we do something about that?

I don’t know how much “correction” we need, and what we can do without interfering too much in a free market phenomenon, but what worries me is that no one else seems to know. And if those who are supposed to know are not telling or doing something about it, then we all should worry. At stake here is not only the state of a trillion-riyal market, but the economy train this engine is driving. Crash seems to be the one conclusion I can see.