Royal Gifts

King Abdullah was by far the most generous gift-giver to President Barack Obama, his family and administration, according to documents released by the State Department on Tuesday. The King gave Obama, his wife and daughters nearly $190,000 in luxury items in 2009, including the single most valuable gift reported to have been given to U.S. officials that year in 2009: a ruby and diamond jewelry set for Michelle Obama worth $132,000.

However, don’t expect to see the first lady wearing the fancy gems anytime soon. By law, most gifts to American officials must be turned over to the government and the jewelry has already been sent to the National Archives. Why do they accept these gifts if they can’t keep them? According to the documents, “Non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and US Government.”

See a list of the most interesting gifted items after the jump.

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Saudi video plea to Obama

A group of Saudis have launched this video plea asking US president Barack Obama to pardon their countryman Humaidan al-Turki, who was convicted in a Colorado court four years ago for several crimes and was sentenced to 28 years in prison. The short video is well produced, and has racked up more than half a million views on YouTube so far. It features several Saudi celebrities, bringing together, probably for the first time, a Sunni cleric and a Shia cleric as well as some other notable Saudis including a columnist, a tv talk show host, and a former footballer. The idea for this video plea grew out of a column by Najeeb al-Zamil, a member of the Shoura Council, who also appears in the video. However, the highlight of the video is the emotional appearance of Ruba, the 12-year-old daughter of Humaidan.

The effort by Al-Muhannad Al-Kadam, Asem Al-Ghamdi, and the young Saudi team behind this work is no doubt commendable. But like Abdulrahman al-Lahem and John Burgess, I wonder about the real impact of the video. The case has been raised by Saudi officials in several exchanges with US counterparts, but to no avail. In December 2006, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers travelled to Riyadh to explain the original convictions to Saudi officials.

The timing to release this video was apparently chosen to coincide with the fourth anniversary of his sentence, but from the American perspective it seems like a bad timing. The controversy over building an Islamic community center near ground zero has resulted in a rise of anti-Muslim sentiments here. As John points out, “At this time, sad to say, Islam and Muslims do not enjoy favorable views by a majority of Americans. There is simply no up-side to the President’s issuing a pardon.”

In any case, and regardless of the outcome of this work, I’m certainly glad to see such grassroots effort gains traction. It is a good example of what regular citizens can do to make a difference, and it is a also a good example for the use of social media to promote a cause. The idea that started with a newspaper column now has a Facebook group with more than 26,000 members. The goal of the video, according to the website, is to deliver the Saudi point of view on this issue. I think this goal has been reached. Can this goal be a catalyst for a presidential pardon in favor of Homaidan Al-Turki, like the campaign hopes? That’s a totally different matter.

Malik Nejer profile, King Abdullah & Obama meeting

  • After reading his name on this blog, Caryle Murphy decided to meet Malik Nejer and then she wrote this nice profile of him for The National daily, which is based in Abu Dhabi. “Sometimes it’s scary when you’re alone and you feel like you’re rebellious against a culture and an entire society,” he said. But I don’t think this is the case anymore. Thanks to the internet, Malik and other artists and activists who challenge the conventional wisdom of our conformist society have come to realize that they are not alone, and that there are at least some people out there who are like-minded and have similar ideas.
  • Abdullah Alami will be happy to hear this:

    “I want to also thank our friends, the American people, and I also would like to thank our friends here in the media,” King Abdullah said at the end of his statement. “May God spare us from all of the bad things they can do to us.” As Obama chucked, Abdullah added, “And may God bless us with all the positive things they can do for us and for humanity.” Obama chimed in: “Well, that is an excellent prayer. Thank you.”

    Here’s the video. The quote above starts at 8:35.

Open letter to Obama, things to do in Riyadh

  • King Abdullah will meet the American President tomorrow. Abdullah Alami has an open letter to Mr. Obama. I find it naïve of Alami to ask Obama to stop the American media from criticizing Saudi Arabia. The American President does not control the American media. Hell, if he had any control over the media he would probably try to stop them from criticizing him. Don’t get me wrong. I hate to see my country being criticized unfairly. But I believe that the best way to stop the others from criticizing us is not by asking them but rather by fixing our issues and solving our problem.
  • Laylah fromt the Blue Abaya blog has some advice to Western women about what they can do in Riyadh to fight boredom and make good use of their time in the capital. She makes some nice suggestions that could be also useful to male expats, and even to some Saudi citizens.

Saudi-US relationship, Graduates taking jobs they don’t want

  • King Abdullah will meet the American President Barack Obama in the White House next week. In this piece for The Majalla, Caryle Murphy examines the changing nature of the Saudi-US bilateral ties over the past 20 years. The previously so-called “special relationship” has become what both countries now refer to as a “strategic dialogue.”
  • Rima al-Mukhtar, who recently said she hates free lance [sic], reports that many Saudi college graduates are taking on jobs that are unrelated to their degrees due to a lack of available opportunities and a loathing for being unemployed. Boo. But seriously, only seven percent of jobs are available to Saudi women?
  • KAUST’s Museum of Science and Technology in Islam (MOSTI) has redesigned their website. The Museum celebrates the contributions of Muslim scholars to science and technology during the first Golden Age of Islam. Admission to MOSTI currently is limited to the university community and its invited guests. No word on when it will be open to the public.

Now Walk the Walk

President Obama’s speech was better than expected, but less than what I was hoping for. We know that he can give a good speech, and he certainly did that in Cairo. However, I think that in his attempt to be balanced, he came out sounding too balanced, especially on democracy and human rights.

Probably he was trying to be careful not to offend his hosts, but as I said in my New York Times op-ed, I was hoping that he would speak directly to the leaders in the same way that he did in his inaugural speech when he said: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

However, I understand why he was cautious when he talked about democracy and human right, and I can’t blame him. He obviously wants to distance himself from the rhetoric and policies of the previous administration, and I guess that’s why he also did not use the word “terrorism” at all in his speech. Still, I think that in the few words he said on democracy he made several good and important points:

America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away (…)

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

In any case, he had too much ground to cover, and therefore it was only normal that he would choose to focus on some issues more than others. I think the way he talked about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was different than what we usually hear from American presidents. Yes, he said the bond with Israel is unbreakable, but for the first time we hear a US president talk about “Palestine,” not just the Palestinian people, and use words like intolerable and humiliation to describe their suffering. It was also good that he dedicated parts of his speech to religious freedom and women’s rights, two issues where there is much to be done, especially here in Saudi Arabia.

Over all I think the speech was a good start for a frank dialogue between America and the Muslim world, but now those words must be matched with deeds so we can move forward. “And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world,” Obama said at the end of his speech. Count me in. I, for one, want to remake this world, starting from here.

UPDATE 6/6/09: David Brooks described the part on democracy as “stilted and abstract — the sort of prose you get after an unresolved internal debate”:

But many of us hoped that Obama would put a gradual, bottom-up democracy-building initiative at the heart of his approach. This effort would begin with projects to create honest cops and independent judges so local citizens could get justice. It would make space for civic organizations and democratic activists. It would include clear statements so the world understands that the U.S. is not in bed with the tired old Arab autocrats.