Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Arab Common Market? Why not?

MANY were surprised at the response of the American people to 9/11. I wasn’t. After living among them for five years, I realized how much Americans love their country. True they originally came from different parts of the world, with diverse and colorful backgrounds, but the governance system managed to build a strong allegiance to the novel idea of the United States of America.

The European Union is a newer idea. It should have a good chance of success because the people there are mostly European in origin. Unlike the immigrants to the New World, they are rooted in their older continent. However, Europeans may not have reached the US level of integration, and countries like Britain and Greece may leave the EU.  But Europe has make great strides in economic unification.

Europeans, today, feel more like one nation than they ever did in their long history of religious, racial, colonial and political competition.

Our Arab "ummah" has more in common than most nations. We speak one language, belong to the same heritage, and are mostly Muslim. For hundreds of years we belonged to one Caliphate. People share the same aspirations and feel the same pain. We bleed for Gaza and Syria and worry for Egypt and Libya, and pray for Yemen and Sudan.

During the Arab Spring, even young people switched from sports, movies and music TV channels to follow events in Arab streets they may never have heard of before. Saudis discuss political issues in Egypt on Twitter and Facebook today as much as Egyptians do. President Morsi is probably more popular among us than among his fellow countrymen.

So why are we still debating the principles of economic cooperation rather than integration? Why was the agenda of the 2008 Arab Economic Development Summit still being discussed in the third Summit, last week? What progress has been made? What chances are there of better success this time?

I was discussing these questions last week on a Saudi news channel with Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Sultan, professor of economics at Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University. He was pessimistic with good reasons, and I was optimistic with equally valid ones.

His argument is based on the following facts:

A. Arab economies are built mostly on exporting raw materials. In the absence of sophisticated industries, we are competing with each other in global markets. 

B. The unstable political environment in many Arab countries is frightening away local and international investors. Much more Arab capital is invested in US and Europe than at home.

C. The world’s highest unemployment rates among Arab youth are adding more dark colors to a pessimistic picture. 

Therefore, Dr. Al-Sultan doesn’t expect a bright future of cooperation for such failed economies. Any financial help provided to small and medium-sized enterprises will just go to the foreigners running these establishments for their local sponsors, as is the case in Saudi Arabia.

I begged to differ. The Arab world is diversified in its resources. Countries like Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Morocco and Yemen are rich in agriculture and human resources. Others, like Lebanon and the UAE are best in services. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have mineral and financial strengths with strong, open markets.

I can imagine Saudi money and high technology going into Sudan and Yemen to develop their agriculture and sell their products in Saudi and Gulf markets. And I can see Yemeni and Sudanese workers making petrochemical and farming equipment in Saudi Arabia for Yemeni and Sudanese farms.

Young women trained in interior and graphic design in Effat University and Dar Al-Hekma College could be working online with their peers in Sana’a, Amman and Cairo to provide services for companies in Riyadh, Dubai and Doha, while male and female engineers in these countries are collaborating on the same project in Abu Dhabi.

It is happening right now. Cooperation among small and medium-sized enterprises around the world is benefiting from the communication revolution. American and European firms are outsourcing to Indians, Brazilians and Vietnamese. Dedicated networks are providing support to members and facilitating their cooperation.

What we need is to join such networks and start our own. If Arab chambers of commerce could lead the way and if Arab governments support such initiatives, our young people could provide jobs instead of looking for them. We also need good infrastructure to facilitate development and economic growth. That includes public utilities, transportation and communication. The private sector can invest in these areas as well. Electricity and water production, transportation and the Internet may make good business.

I agree with Dr. Al-Sultan that for this and any kind of investment to happen, we need solid political, security and judicial environments. Sudan and Yemen, for example, could be the breadbasket of the Arab world. But unless investors feel safe they won’t risk their hard-earned capital. With a sophisticated new generation of leadership in the poorer Arab countries, combined with the wisdom and strength of the wealthier part of our world, I will bet the future of my children on the Arab Common Market. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Power to Saudi women: An Islamic duty

Thirty women have just been appointed to the Saudi Consultative Council (Shoura) for the first time ever. They make up 20 percent of the Council’s 150 members — up from the 120 strong of the previously male-only legislative assembly. It has been a long journey for Saudi women since King Faisal, then Crown Prince and Prime Minister, established public schools for girls in the 1960s. 

Milestones for women include university education, owning and managing businesses, running and voting in Chamber of Commerce elections, equal access to scholarships abroad and now membership in the Shoura Council and equal rights in municipal elections.

Is that all? What about driving, traveling, working, getting married and studying without the permission of a guardian? When will women be able to work and study in a mixed environment, and be ministers or senior muftis? Can we see them as captains of airplanes and ships, petroleum engineers, police officers and judges?

The question is not whether this is going to happen — it eventually will — but if we are asking for too much in too short a period of time. Are our expectations too high? Are we not considering the sensitivity of a conservative society and the strong opposition of some influential Islamic scholars? 

Before answering these questions, let’s first consider Islam’s position on these issues.  I was once asked on a radio program by a religious caller: “How far do you want Saudi women to progress?” I explained that I actually wanted them to regress — 1430 years. 

At that time, Muslim women had more rights than they do today. They owned and managed businesses. Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) as a young man worked for his future wife, the mega businesswoman Al-Saydah Khadija. Women joined the army as soldiers and nurses.

The Prophet (pbuh) consulted his wives on social, state and religious affairs. So did Caliph Omar, who changed his position on marriage dowry and admitted his mistake after a woman challenged him in public. As for driving, women rode their camels and horses, even in war. 

The caller explained that it was a different era then. Our women need more time to reach that level, he argued. 

I answered him by asking: “Do you mean after 14 centuries and 50 years of modern education, our women are less educated, trained and responsible? And if so, who is to blame? Our education system? Our upbringing? Our Islamic teaching?”

If we are to admit that we have had 50 years of educational failure and that it is getting worse, then we should drastically change our curriculum and teaching methods. But if we insist that we have the best system in the world, then we should trust our women to prove it right. 

All this reminds me of an issue in court right now. A Saudi girl was taken from her Egyptian mother after an ugly divorce. As a child she was told that her mother was dead.

Her father and stepmother mistreated her. When the love of her life asked for her hand, he was refused, only because the father suspected that the young man had had a relationship with her.

The father pressured the young woman into marrying a man of his choice. She agreed provided her Egyptian mother, whom had she discovered was alive, attended the wedding ceremony.

After her marriage, her husband proved to be a male chauvinist. Since her father refused to even acknowledge her complaints, she finally ran away.

Her uncle convinced her father to allow the young woman be be divorced, but as a punishment, the father denied his daughter a college education and put her under virtual imprisonment.

Under intense pressure, she accepted a suitor, and agreed to be his second wife. As it turned out, he was no better than the first husband.

Still, out of this marriage she had two blessings: A college degree and a wonderful daughter. 

Six years later, she was divorced. Now, her father was so angry that he refused to give her shelter and transferred her custody to his brother who sexually harassed her.

She ran away, this time to the police with evidence of the harassment. They allowed her to live on her own and work in the women’s department of a company, to support herself, her daughter — and a driver! 

The father did not like the arrangement. Accusing her of being a bad woman, he insisted on denying her his name and inheritance. The issue is going from one judge to another with more psychological turmoil in every step of the way. 

The woman does not mind being cut out of her inheritance because, as she told the court: “I was denied what is much more important, my father’s love, care and protection. I don’t care for his money.” 

This story explains what our women need and why we are still far from getting there. I am sure that the women who have been appointed to the Shoura Council are well aware of these issues and that they will do their best to resolve them. Empowering our women is an Islamic duty. 

Islam, liberalism and Egypt

What's going on in Egypt? I keep receiving questions about events in Egypt and not only from non-Arabs. Saudis and Egyptian expatriates are confused, too.

Among the most frequent questions: Is it true the Islamists have hijacked the revolution? Is the constitution ideological and backward? Will religion rule all aspects of public life, and negatively influence civility? Will liberals, women and non-Sunni Muslims lose in the new era? Are we going to see the rule of one party, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan)? Why are the Gulf countries not supporting the new Islamic leadership? Is it because of old suspicions of the Ikhwan? Has the West lost Egypt? Will an Islamist government honor the peace agreements with Israel, even if Salafis achieve greater influence in the government?

I wish there was a way to see the future, or read the minds and hearts of political players. However, reading their statements and observing their actions is enough to enable political analysts to explain what is going on and to venture some predictions.

Let’s start by saying this is not a civil war — yet. It is a political fight between two camps - an Islamic government and a liberal opposition.

The first is the representative of the majority. It has won in every democratic competition, so far, starting with parliamentarian and presidential elections, up to the constitutional referendum.

I have no doubt that future elections will follow suit. The vast majority of Egyptians are religiously moderate and socially conservative. That is not going to change anytime soon. The Ikhwans and Salafis won because they were organized, but the real winner is Islamic rule.  No party has a monopoly on that, and the arena is open to all.

The action in the streets now is a war of survival between winners and losers. Liberals and pro-Mubarak and anti-Islamist forces are joining hands in a loosely organized Front to Save the Revolution. The fact of the matter is that they are fighting to save their own interests. What unites them is suspicion of the new order. Those who benefited under the Mubarak regime in the judiciary, security, business community, media and entertainment industries are afraid of the approaching Day of Judgment.

The least they expect is that the new regime will not favor them. More strict, transparent and conservative laws will certainly go against their privileges and in favor of a new and different class of players.

Will an Islamic government maintain peace accords with Israel? They have already demonstrated that. However, they may not be buddies with the Israelis unless they are able to achieve peace for the Palestinians. They have demonstrated that too during the recent Gaza War. Israel will have to deal with a new Egypt similar to Islamist Turkey. Respect is the name of the game.

Has the West lost Egypt? Not unless they forget that they must now deal with the “people of  Egypt,” instead of the “one and only” dictator.

Democratic partnerships will certainly work with Egyptians. The US, in particular, must get used to new rules of communication. No more orders and threats from the the US Congress, CIA, Pentagon and State Department. The US president should be careful in his statements, as he already is, in order to accommodate public sentiments and sensitivity. Mubarak is no longer there to suppress resentment and opposition.

Are Gulf countries against the new rule in Egypt? I could count one for and one against. Qatari officials have shown support for Morsi and his party, while some Emiratis have expressed doubts about the Ikhwans’ intentions in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, other GCC states and their Council are being neutral with regard to internal events, while supporting Egypt’s economy and maintaining good relations with its leadership.

Is the constitution backward and ideological? It had been agreed upon and signed by all parties, including those now fighting against it. It was about to be voted on when they suddenly decided to withdraw. The phrasing of 12 articles (out of 200) which they objected to can easily be rephrased in the new Parliament.

It won’t make much difference, anyway. Take for example the article that says all citizens are equal under the law. The opposition wants to specify “men and women.” A second article says that all criminal cases must be seen by civilian courts, except the ones that harm the military. The Front insists on no exceptions.

A third said the government must uphold Egyptian family traditions. The Front felt that was an excuse to interfere in private lives.

So all in all, the constitution is fine. What the opposition is fighting against is what comes next. They don’t expect to win a majority in the parliament. The government then will be strong enough to go on to the next stage - cleaning up corruption. Ladies and Gentlemen: That is what the fight is all about.

Saudi-Sudanese investments and the bureaucratic jungle

I have received an invitation from Sheikh Mahfouz Bin Mahfouz, a Saudi businessman, to attend a Saudi-Sudanese conference in Riyadh next month. 

Its goal is to foster commerce and encourage investments in Sudan, especially in infrastructure and agriculture.  We do need each other. Saudi Arabia has a lot to offer in rebuilding the war-torn Sudan and meeting its market needs. Our private capital can utilize the huge and largely untapped opportunities in the neighboring African country. 

Sudan has been called the “food basket” of the Arab world for ages. While most Arab countries lack water resources, Sudan has far more than it needs. 

The Nile River, with its two branches, the White and the Blue, meeting in Khartoum, brings life to a land the size of Europe. It was called the Sudan (black in Arabic) because of the color of its soil. The generous Nile brings the fertile soil from its origins in Uganda and Ethiopia to enrich the land on its banks. Egypt, too, used to enjoy this gift before its late president Gamal Abdel Nasser built the Aswan Dam in the 1960s, preventing the fertile soil from being carried northward.

After independence from Great Britain in 1956 and its separation from the Kingdom of Egypt and Sudan, civic progress and development in Sudan were slowed by civil wars and political turmoil. 

Today, with the end of the long war between the South and North and the relative calm of the Darfur conflict, the Sudanese government is finally giving its full attention to building and enriching the improvised country.

On the other hand, the world, and especially our part of it, is facing serious water and food shortages. With global warming and the increase in population, everyone is looking for guaranteed food resources. Saudi Arabia has been working on this problem for many years now. King Abdullah’s Agriculture Initiative calls for private investments in Asian and African countries, starting with neighbors like Ethiopia and Sudan. Many investors, like Sheikh Mohammed Hussien Al-Amoudi, have answered the King’s call. With generous government loans and support, they have heavily invested in developing agriculture in Sudan’s non-Arab neighbor, Ethiopia.

So, is it about time we go further north to develop Sudan? On the surface, it makes prefect sense. The country has all the basic ingredients: water, fertile soil, roads, ports, airports, electricity, human resources, and peace. 

When I visited Sudan in 2002, with Prince Mohammed Al-Faisal, chairman of Faisal Bank, the country had a weak infrastructure and poor services. It has developed considerably since. Then, it was engaged in civil wars in the south, west and east of the country. Today, it is much more secure and peaceful. However, two problems persist — bureaucracy and injustice. Like many Third World countries, laws are not always respected. And when they are followed, it is not always for the best.

Too much red tape frustrates and chases away local, let alone foreign, investors. Obstinate bureaucrats who ignore, delay or refuse to implement even court and executive orders are formidable obstacles. 

In 1989, for example, a Saudi investor and his Sudanese partner organized a successful Saudi export fair in the capital, Khartoum. It was hailed as a gate which would lead to stronger commercial ties. However, when the fair ended the organizers were not allowed to retain possession of their show materials, as promised, and therefore lost millions of dollars. They sued and won a court verdict to get government compensation. The president ordered immediate implementation. More than 20 years later, the investors still have not been paid. 

Such incidents frighten enthusiastic Saudi investors. They may have the best of intentions and want to invest in a dear, neighboring Arab country, but if they cannot be certain of a fair, welcoming and orderly business environment, they will not risk their precious time, hard labor and valuable cash. 

My advice to the Sudanese is to provide such an environment before inviting in investors. Providing regulations and a commission with all the needed power to implement them will certainly help. The free transfer of hard currency, in and out, is a must. And all unsettled cases should be resolved. Without such steps, I really cannot recommend Saudi investment in dear Sudan. No one should risk hard-earned capital in a bureaucratic jungle. 

United States of Arabia: Meeting old and new challenges

ON the eve of the GCC summit in Bahrain last week, a journalist for Elaph asked me for my opinion about the challenges facing the Gulf countries.  I told him nothing was new. The same challenges we have faced for ages are recreating themselves in a similar or a different fashion. Since we keep using the same methods to deal with them, we keep getting the same results. 

Let’s start with Iran. The Persian nation was an issue before and after the dawn of Islam. Its rulers have always sought to control the Gulf region. Their civilization preceded ours. When they had a sophisticated empire, we were mostly Bedouin. 

Islam changed everything. To spread the word of Allah, we overcame their mighty armies and formidable castles. Most atheist Persians chose Islam over fire worshipping. But that hasn’t settled the issue of who has the right to rule the neighborhood. 

The Arabs argued that since they were the carriers of Allah’s word, and the host of the holy places, they should be the leaders. The Persians felt that since they had a superior culture and merits, they should be in charge. To counter the centers of religious knowledge and culture in Makkah, Madinah and Cairo, they established their own in Qom, Mashhad and Shiraz.

In recent history, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, built a world-class army in a bid to be the policeman of the oil rich Gulf. Then came the Islamic revolution in 1979. Many thought the new regime would positively change Iran’s attitude.

In the beginning it seemed so. Ayatollah Khomeini proposed a new name - Islamic Gulf- to solve the question of whether it was the Persian or Arabian Gulf. Arabic was taught in public, as well as religious, schools. Shia worshippers were allowed to pray behind Sunni imams.

However, concerns about the revolution spreading in the region led the Gulf countries to support Saddam’s invasion of Iran. The ancient Arab-Persian mistrust and animosities were ignited by the bloody Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988). Today, we stand again at the edge of the same cliff.

The Arab Spring is also not new. Revolution has changed the Arab world more than once in its long history. Arabs fought the Turks and then the colonial powers for independence. In independent Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia, soldiers revolted against their royal regimes. 

The new revolutionary rulers were not so friendly to our countries. Led by Nasser’s Egypt, they tried to destabilize our form of government and impose their own.

There are other dangers and challenges which are not new. The Baath parties in Syria and Iraq have always been troublemakers. The Arab-Israeli issue is over 60 years old. The infighting of Palestinians has continued for half a century. Lebanon, since independence, has been the arena where Arab and foreign competitors settle their accounts. The ferocious competition among its sects, with varied political and religious loyalties, put the country through a hellish two-decade-long civil war (1975-1990), and is threatening another. 

Our southern neighbor, Yemen, has always been on fire. From Egyptian and Marxist inspired revolutions against the rule of imams to independence revolts, and from the wars of unification to the struggle for separation, and from the Houthi and Al-Qaeda armed conflicts to the Arab Spring, Yemen has always been in constant turmoil and pain.  

Jordan is another renewed problem. Since its creation, the country’s rulers have been caught in the crossfire between Palestinians and Israelis, Iraqis and Syrians. The Gulf countries have always been sympathetic and supportive of the Hashemite royal family, except when the late King Hussein chose to lean toward Saddam after his invasion of Kuwait.

Internal challenges facing Gulf governments are old, as well. Sectarian and tribal, as well as liberal-conservative and democratic-traditional tensions have always been there, with or without foreign meddling.  

All the above is not new. In one way or another, we have seen this movie before. What’s new is King Abdullah’s call for unification. Instead of dealing with these challenges individually or by depending on the cooperation of all GCC member states, we will be facing them as one entity. 

The United States of the Gulf, or, if we accept Yemen’s membership, the United States of Arabia, will be stronger and more resourceful and formidable in meeting both old and new challenges and threats. Let’s pray that we live to see that day.