Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Egypt deserves a brand new system

“MAY all your days be interesting!” a Chinese proverb says. It is meant as a curse!

It seems our region has been living in interesting days since an unemployed Tunisian college graduate set himself on fire after his fruit stand was confiscated and no one seemed to care. Even worse, like all the nobodies in our world, he was slapped in the face and pushed around by a policewoman.

Without knowing it, he opened a Pandora’s box in the Arab world and beyond. The Arab Spring is generating many interesting stories that never seem to end as expected.

Here is a good one. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, was upgraded and downgraded -overnight! For some, he was no longer the “Leader,” praised by the superpowers of the world, as well as the Arab street, for saving the day in Gaza.

He had just brokered a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians, but went on to issue a presidential decree giving himself dictatorial powers.

For others, he was elevated in status for hitting back at a thoroughly corrupt judiciary with a constitutional decree.

All it took was a short TV announcement to take Egypt back to the Mubarak days of violent protests and street fights between supporters and opponents, civilians and troops.

Could Morsi be the same president who seemed like a complete contrast to his predecessor only days earlier? Could he be the same leader whose strong and proactive stand on the Gaza war put Egypt back in the Arab leadership seat? Is he the same person who deserved to be called affectionately “Al-Rais” or “Boss” by most Egyptians, as they did the populist Jamal Abdul Nasser and to a lesser extent, Anwar El Sadat? Can such an honor be instantly withdrawn or confirmed over one decree? How controversial that decision must be!

Interesting questions for interesting events, in a very interesting saga. It is hard to find good answers, but one may at least try.

It is all about mood, I reckon. The Arab street would never agree to be ignored by the board, especially on decisions affecting its governing system. The people have just taken their seats at the decision-making table and are in no mood to leave the executive room - ever!

“Today is the day to make or break our future. It is now we design our fate,” seems to be the thinking of the day.

That explains the strong reaction to every decree that may affect the constitution.  Whether in Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, or now in Egypt, the public, elite and street react like fireworks in their agreement or disagreement with such changes.

My guess is that Egyptians know exactly what they are doing.  So do Arab observers. Those supporting “Al-Rais” believe that the die-hard “folool” of the corrupt Mubarak system were plotting a counter attack that would override Morsi’s presidential powers and bring back the military and old regime.

The least the Constitutional Court aims for is the disruption of Morsi’s work and the protection of the old structure. They already did so by dissolving the elected parliament and have threaten to do the same to the Consultative Council and Constitution Committee, while absolving Mubarak and company of any and all wrongdoings.

Morsi’s preemptive strike may be an evil necessity that can only be understood and justified in its own context and within the full picture.  

I hope and pray it works and that Morsi does deliver on his promise that in three months time he will return to the new parliament all the temporary powers he has taken. In the meanwhile, corrupt officials and “folool” should be purged from the military, security, judiciary and government. New Egypt deserves a brand new system.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Help for our abandoned children: Official neglect, individual initiative!

NONGOVERNMENTAL organizations are supposed to fill the gap left by state agencies and serve the unserved and underserved. These institutions normally are formed as a result of individual and group initiatives. 

Awasser and the human rights commissions in Saudi Arabia are supposed to have been formed for this reason.

Unfortunately, they have shown no interest or concern for the many tragedies of the neglected Saudi families which I have written about in my last four articles. I have not received any comments from them nor have they responded to the criticism of callers and visitors to their websites.

“I was just thinking very hard about Awasser and their failure to reply not only to me, but to so many others who are in need of help,” a woman in desperate need of assistance wrote to me.  She is a Western mother of two neglected Saudi children, living in Riyadh, and has been trying to connect with Awasser and other similar organizations for some time and is now furious with frustration.

“I have only had time to use my computer these last few days because I am on holiday from work. I have been really unwell for the last eight days and am only just recovering a little today.  Being ill feeds my fear about how we will manage in the future. I usually have to work for more than 12 hours a day,” she wrote.

“I used to go back and read some previous articles promoting Awasser.  I discovered that the organization was started in 2001. Now, if after 11 years they still do not have a functioning website in English, then there is something very, very wrong,” she added.

“With the millions they must have had in government support and individual donations, it seems very lacking in forethought and organizational skills not to make an English website accessible.  This doesn’t fit their claim that they are scouring the entire world for half-Saudi children abandoned by Saudi fathers to offer them housing, education, medical care and social and sentimental support,” she concluded.

Now, here is good news for a change! As big and powerful organizations fail to respond and cooperate, including the GCC Secretariat General, Shoura Council, National Dialogue Center and concerned departments in the ministries of social affairs, foreign affairs and justice, here is a hero offering his help free of charge.

“I have been following your articles recently with much interest,” Faisal Abdullah Abdulrahman Abulhassan wrote. “Although my story is not tragic, I have met many other half-Saudis with sad stories and I have always dreamed of finding a way to help them bridge and connect to Saudi culture. My parents (American mother and Saudi father) were legally married and lived in the Kingdom, but separated when I was young and I was raised in the USA my whole life.”

Faisal and his sister are luckier than most children in similar situations; their parents and families are idealists.

“I was always in contact with my family in Saudi Arabia, and visited them many times as a child. My grandparents, father, aunts, uncles and cousins visit me and my sister in the States,” he wrote.

“I was blessed to be raised completely in America, while knowing my Saudi identity and Saudi family. Thanks to Allah I have been blessed with a mother who maintained our Arab and Muslim identity and did not remarry in order to raise us properly; and a father who also did not remarry and focused his life on working in Saudi Arabia to support his ex-wife and Saudi children; and a Saudi family who cared and loved us. I have spent my life working with many Saudi agencies (embassies and ministries) that deal with citizens affairs abroad, and, unfortunately, you are correct, they often offer information only in Arabic.”

Faisal is offering his experience to help families and children who need help in communicating with government agencies.

“I would love to be able to assist the women and children who were not as lucky as I was to re-connect with their Saudi families, or at least their Arab and Islamic roots and government services. I had some work experience in Saudi consulates before I went back to school (I am now studying for my Masters) and I would like to use this knowledge of Saudi systems to help these lost families re-connect.

“If you have any idea how I could connect with them to do this, please let me know. It was always a dream of mine to set up a society later in life to help these families, but your articles have given the issue much attention and have made me decide what better time than the present.”

Bless your Saudi-American heart, Faisal. I hope more individuals and groups will join us in our endeavor to find some organized solutions for our abandoned families and children. Send us your thoughts and stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Our secret marriages: A Qatari story

“I hope my daughters will marry Qatari or Arab Gulf (GCC) nationals, so maybe they can help their brothers when I die of my sickness,” an Italian-American woman who was married to a Qatari citizen wrote with regard to my last three articles about the secret marriages of Saudis to foreigners.

Charlotte met her ex-husband when he was studying in the United States. 

They fell in love and got married when she became a Muslim. After her second child, he returned home to announce his marriage.

His prominent, rich family, of Iranian origin, got him to marry a cousin in three weeks time and refused to acknowledge Charlotte and her children or let him support them and prevented him from returning to the US. 

He surrendered. He accepted!

“It is sad that it is so easy for men to abandon their children and wives.

You would have to cut me in a million pieces, and put those pieces in the four corners of the Universe to take me away from my children. And even then, I would find my way back to them,” Charlotte said.

“I don’t know how some people can do this. How do they pray, fast and go to Haj, when they have neglected the most sacred bond in humanity? And the sad thing is that I still love him, and cry over him anytime I hear his name. 

This is one of the hardest letters I have ever written. I want to say in your column, please, that this abandonment destroys lives, and breaks hearts for generations to come.”

Charlotte never gave up on her husband. She loved him. She needed him.

“I had to beg the American government for food stamps and rent. It was so shameful for me. I wanted to die. And I am glad my father, who became a Muslim at the end of his life, was dead so he did not have to witness that.

“My family made fun of me, and told me to divorce him, but I loved him. It hurt, but I accepted that he took a second wife, if he would only treat me as an equal.

“She was living like a queen, and talked to me a few times, laughing and telling me that he was her husband and would not be coming back to America, and what did I want? Did I want her to cut him in half?

“He was telling me to be mature and not be upset that she had more than me. 

I shut up because I loved this man more than my life. And I kept with my religion, and left my family to move to a city with all Muslims. I wanted my children to grow up Muslim. And every day I cried myself to sleep, not knowing what happened to my life.”

Charlotte finally divorced her Qatari husband, remarried a Lebanese, and had two more children, but he was abusive to her and her Qatari kids. She divorced him and decided to fight for them.

“I had written to presidents Reagan, Bush senior, Clinton, Bush junior and to Qatari officials, but no one would help me to get him to pay for his children, and he had stopped taking my calls after I divorced him, in 1996,” she said.

Finally, she wrote to the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, in October 2000, and he was her hero! His office told her that the father of her children had died in 1996, but she could bring them to get their Qatari passports, and live in Qatar.

She went, received some compensation, became Sunni Muslim, and is working now to support her children’s education. Her late husband’s Shiite family never liked her. They hated her more after she changed her and her children’s sect. Her main worry now is that she will die of her illness and leave her children behind facing an unfriendly family.

Still, Charlotte acknowledges that some Gulf citizens are being targeted by opportunistic foreign girls.

“God bless all those children that have been abandoned, but also in fairness, I have seen women who pretend to like Islam or become Muslim only to get a rich Saudi or Qatari to marry them. Or they don’t want to live in the Gulf, but they want the man’s money. That’s why many families do not accept foreign women,” she said.

We started this issue with Saudi stories, but it seems Gulf citizens are involved, as well. Since we are moving toward some sort of Gulf union we should discuss the issue on a larger scope.

We should also learn from each other’s experience. The Qatari government’s handling of Charlotte’s tragedy is honorable. However, we need rules and regulations to manage the entire matter in cooperation with concerned governments.

We should also have an extensive awareness program for our students and travelers. The GCC should lead the way!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

US elections: Should we care?

WHEN Senator Barack Obama was running for president four years ago, the Arabs were hoping he would be another Dwight D. Eisenhower, the one and only American president who stood up to Israel, forcing it - along with Britain and France - to withdraw its forces from Egypt in 1956. Millions were praying for Obama to win and on the day he was elected, I saw tears in many people’s eyes. It felt like a great leader winning the presidency of the United States of Arabia.

The night before the election, I was the guest of a special election television program on the Lebanese Broadcast Corporation (LBC). Many people interviewed for the show in the Arab streets expressed optimism that a president with African and Muslim roots would be more sympathetic to their “just causes.” I had to disappoint them.

Unlike most Arab countries, Americans are ruled by a system not by a person, a government or a dictator, I explained. Even if we assume the best of Obama, he cannot change the course of his country’s foreign policies the way he wants, at the speed he needs and to the extent he aims for. Besides, a US president would be serving US not Arab and Muslim interests. After all, he is their leader not ours, I explained.

Still, I gave him my vote. During eight years of George W. Bush, America went so wrong and wild in its foreign adventures that any man who was wiser would be much better for them and for the rest of us. What we needed was a president who puts US interests first, not that of Israel, the party or special interests groups. He should be serving US political and economic interests, not ideological and philosophical ones.

In 2008, the Republican Party proved that they were bad news for their own country. Their candidate, Senator John McCain, and his running mate Governor Sarah Palin, expressed similar arrogant attitudes toward the world and defended the same irresponsible fiscal policies as Bush.

Senator Barack Obama, on the other hand, showed a more cooperative, appreciative, understanding and libertarian attitude. He was more like diplomatic, eloquent and peace-oriented Bill Clinton, who did his best to solve hot global issues, including Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts with mixed results.

Obama’s grasp of economic matters gave us hope that he would be the better president to face and solve the world’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. He promised radical change and we were desperate for that.

Four years later, I was almost right. The Nobel Peace Award winner, President Obama, has not brought peace to our region - and none is expected soon.

American heavy boots are still kicking over the same areas his predecessor invaded, less so in Iraq and more so in Afghanistan and Yemen.

Guantanamo prison is still open for torture and its remaining prisoners are not being released or sent to US civilian courts, three years after that was supposed to happen.

Things are getting better on the economic front, but not enough to save the world from the tsunami the American banking system unleashed on us.

America did support good causes, such as the Arab Spring, and helped in removing dictators like Libya’s Gaddafi, Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak and Yemen’s Saleh. It resisted Israel’s urge to bomb Iran and cause an explosion in the region.

On the other hand, America has so far failed to stop Assad’s killing machine and has provided limited support to the Syrian Free Army. Israel’s interests are still higher on the US list than its own.

So why should we care, again, who will sit in the Oval Office for the next four years? I won’t say the devil you know is better than the one you don’t, because Obama is not that devilish, if he would ever be able to have it his own way.

Understandably, his foreign and financial policies hit a Republican wall in Congress many times with no hope of change if he wins today’s election. 

Still, in comparison, he is a much better choice for us than Benjamin Netanyahu’s buddy, Mitt Romney.

For the world, the latter is just too ideological, naive and unexperienced and he sounds and feels much like the last cowboy in the White House, George W. Bush. Romney has shown an arrogant and militaristic attitude that could spell trouble for the rest of us.

In addition, the first term of any US president is half wasted as he explores and learns his way around and is half spent in preparing for the next election. That is why unpopular and risky decisions and projects most likely take place in a US president’s second term. Therefore, I hope Obama wins this race, and gets four more years to leave a lasting, honorable legacy. 

And to Arabs and Muslims, I would say: Pray for a better, more united and stronger Ummah that doesn’t need to pray for foreign presidents to save its own neck and solve its self-made problems.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Our lost families abroad: A call for action!

IN the last couple of weeks I have been contacted by readers from the Kingdom and all over the world. From what I have heard and read, it seems that my last two articles, about Saudi travelers’ secret marriages and the neglected children of Saudis who travel abroad have hit hot buttons. 
What I have found is that some marriages of Saudis to foreigners, secret and announced, here and abroad, are the source of much suffering. 
I have no way of verifying the accuracy of the stories I have been told, so I direct the mothers and children to the concerned governmental and non-governmental human rights and social services agencies. 

A mother of Saudi children asked me for advice and I suggested that she contact “Awasser,” a society sponsored by the Ministry of Social Affairs which attempts to find and support Saudi families and children abroad (http://www.awasser.org.sa). I also directed her to the Commission of Human Rightshttp://hrc.gov.sa and the National Society for Human Rights  http://nshr.org.sa.  

The lady was not impressed. She complained that she had already tried her best to contact them, but to no avail. I hope it was just bad luck, and that she and others will be luckier in future attempts. 

I visited the “Awasser” website and found the English section unfinished and unhelpful. Even the “About” and “Message from the Chairman” were empty! The Arabic version, on the other hand, was informative. The promises are great. I hope and pray the delivery is as good. 

The human rights commissions’ websites are in Arabic only. What about the needs of foreigners who do not speak Arabic? There must be sections in the languages of major foreign communities such as Indonesian, Urdu, Swahili and Filipino. These websites could at least start with English!

I asked the distressed mom to tell me her story and here it is in summary: “I am a Western woman who chose to remain in Saudi Arabia after divorcing my problematic husband for the sake of my children, a boy and a girl.  I have lived here for 25 years devoting my life to the welfare of my autistic children who needed to remain here as this was the place they knew all their lives. 

“I have had no life other than the joy of being with my children who are now teenagers.  My sadness continues as my son is not functioning well and has numerous health problems. I spend every minute trying to make ends meet.

“Thank Allah that I have been given the strength to bear all of this entirely alone. But I am beginning to wonder how long my strength will remain as I am unwell and time is against me. I pride myself on being a woman of substance and utmost integrity knowing that will see me through until my age takes the upper hand.”

Like hers, there are many heartbreaking stories. Some involved Saudis who married abroad in semi-legal marriages. The wife, in such marriages, has no proof, as the only copy of the marriage contract is kept by the husband and is not registered officially.  

Usually, it is agreed that the couple will not have children. The marriage is kept low-profile and secret from the husband’s family in the Kingdom. 

Other than paying dowry and living expenses, and the irregular visits, there is not much commitment. 

After the death of a Saudi man, who was senile in the final years of his life, his children learnt that he had an Egyptian wife and children. The elder son went looking for them. He found that they had been evicted from their apartment for not paying the rent.

The neighbors told him how sorry their life had been. He went looking in every possible direction, following every lead, but could not find them. It seems that when his father fell ill with Alzheimer’s, he could not send them their allowance or tell his Saudi family about their existence. Worse yet, he had not given the Egyptian mother his contact address in Saudi Arabia.

I was told of similar or worse stories occurring in many places. They all have certain things in common: the irresponsibility of individuals, the absence of regulations and the lack of concern of institutions, including academia and the media. 

I call on the National Dialogue Center to take on the issue and to discuss it at its next annual conference. Participants should include the concerned departments in the ministries of foreign affairs, interior, justice, social affairs and higher education. The Shoura Council and media should follow up on this subject and call for action.