Press freedom ranking, arms, doctors, genies, he’s back!

  • At least 20 Saudi medical doctors wanted to show the world what kind of ignorant idiots they are, so they went and joined an ongoing campaign calling for special government hospitals for women in order to prevent mixing of genders. Carol Fleming, who worked for hospitals in Riyadh, comments.
  • The recent US-Saudi arms deal, with an estimated $60bn price tag, was marked by the unusual absence of any opposition by Israel and its lobby in Washington DC. Dov Zakheim, blogging at Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog, says this is “In part because the Israelis do not expect such an attack [from the Saudis]; in part because they will be receiving the more advanced F-35 the same year that the Saudis begin to take ownership of the F-15s…” At the end of his post he mentions one more reason: “Riyadh is the biggest prize and the Israelis are ready to go to great lengths to win it over — and if that means silence in the face of a massive purchase of American arms, so be it.”
  • Speaking of Foreign Policy, they have this aptly titled article by Simon Henderson about the return of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of the National Security Council, after two years of being AWOL. Elaph had the scoop on this one a couple of weeks ago.
  • RSF released their 2010 Press Freedom Index. Saudi Arabia, unsurprisingly, is at the bottom ranking 157 out of 178. Last year we were 163. Can we call this progress? As a journalism student, I’m not quite sure how to feel about this.
  • Everybody back home is laughing about this. I don’t want to talk about it.
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Street Terror

According to WHO, Saudi Arabia has the highest road accident death toll in the world. It is very rare that you will meet anyone here who has never lost a friend or a relative in a car accident. Inspired by the death of his cousin, Ala’a al-Maktoum aka McToom made this impressive video illustrating the magnitude of the problem. Check it out:

Mixup

For many outsiders, I think the current debate over gender mixing in Saudi Arabia can either be seen as a) a fascinating change to a very conservative society, or b) a sign for a society that is stuck in the 19th century. Nevertheless, I think it is a good thing that we are having this debate, for I have always said that as long as they are not killing each other, people should be allowed to talk.

What is more interesting this time around is that the debate is playing out amongst conservatives in contrast to the usual conservatives vs liberals bickering. Ahmad al-Ghamdi is not just a shiekh; he is a senior official at the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a bastion of orthodox conservatism in the country, and the institution which seems to believe it has a duty from God to enforce their moral code on society, including segregation of men and women.

To have one of its loyal sons attacking some of the basis on which they operate daily is nothing short of astonishing. Al-Ghamdi has been working in the Commission for the past fifteen years. He said he has had these opinions for almost ten years but he never had the courage to publish them. Why now? Obviously because the atmosphere has changed. The opening of KAUST and its aftermath made the needed room for this debate to expand enough that even a shiekh like al-Ghamdi can now publicly speak out without fear.

Most conservatives were outraged. Many of them denounced al-Ghamdi and his ideas. Even the grand mufti, who typically stays out of similar debates, weighed in heavily to criticize al-Ghamdi in his sermons, though without naming him. Last week a group of young religious men stood at the door of al-Ghamdi’s house demanding to mix with his wife and daughters. It was a pathetic attempt to embarrass him. They were later arrested, but the disturbing thing is that some people who disagree with him, including a professor of Islamic studies in Makkah, saw nothing wrong in what these young men did.

When confronted that his opinions contradict the field work of subordinates in Hia’a, Ahmad al-Ghamdi prefers to avoid details. Instead, he says the Commission needs to be reformed, and that they have been working in that direction. But is this true? Is Hai’a reforming? Or should I ask, can it be reformed?

Reform is the promise that came with the new chief of CPVPV shiekh Abdulaziz al-Humain, who has been absolutely silent on this whole al-Ghamdi controversy. Where does he stand in all of this? What does he think about this saga?

The rumors of sacking al-Ghamdi made this all more fascinating, but provided little concrete conclusions. Earlier this week, the state news agency distributed a statement from the Commission about four new appointments in Hai’a, including a replacement for al-Ghamdi. But few hours later, SPA withdrew the item and asked newspapers not to run it. A spokesman for Hai’a told al-Hayat daily the news about new appointments were inaccurate.

So what happened here exactly? We can think of few theories. It could be that the old guard in Hai’a wanted to get back at al-Ghamdi for what he said about them, and did this without al-Humain’s knowledge. When al-Humain knew about this he cancelled it. Another theory is that it was al-Humain’s decision to get rid of al-Ghamdi who has become too hot to handle, but then someone high above reversed the decision. You can never underestimate the powers to be in Saudi Arabia, especially that al-Ghamdi is riding the new liberal wave in the country that Prince Saud al-Faisal talked about.

We probably will never know the truth. But what we know for sure is that Ahmad al-Ghamdi and his opinions are here to stay. At least for the time being. A picture is worth a thousand words, it is often said.

Another question: is this debate really changing how the general public feel about gender mixing? I would say: No. Socio-religious beliefs are very difficult to change. Even more difficult in a conformist society like ours. I think that people who are pro-mixing would feel validated as someone from the other side jumped the ship, while anti-mixing people would simply dismiss it as an individual case that can’t shake their long held convictions.

For examples, look at hospitals which have always been some of the few places in the country where men and women work side by side. I currently train at a hospital pharmacy in Hofuf. The pharmacy has separate windows to serve male and female patients, but from the inside pharmacists and technicians of both sexes work together without segregation. To reduce dispensing errors, a new policy has been recently implemented where some female pharmacists work on the male window while some male pharmacists work on the female window.

I asked a female colleague, let’s call her Zainab, what is it like to work on the male window. “Work is work,” she said, “it’s the same for me here or there.” A male colleague who was in earshot, let’s call him Basheer, turned to me and asked, “would you let your wife work in a place like this?” I was shocked by the question, but I calmly replied that I certainly would. I said it is a respectful and professional work environment, so what’s the problem? I glanced quickly at Zainab who was standing next to me, then asked him: do you find anything dishonorable or disgraceful about working here?

Basheer said that some guys are jealous and can’t let their wives mix freely with men. “I’m that kind of guy,” he added. I was struck by the hypocrisy of what he said. He finds it acceptable for him to be here and work with other women, but apparently the same rules don’t apply to his wife. This kind of hypocrisy, however, is nothing new. It is a typical symptom of the double standards many Saudis practice in their lives everyday.

It will take time for the general public’s perception of gender mixing to change, and nobody knows how long it will take. Probably a very long time. As with everything else in Saudi Arabia, I’m not holding my breath.

More child marriages, Saudi nurses quit, SG fluff

  • Why my heart hurts and my stomach is turned, too.

    In Riyadh Newspaper today there was a report on a 65 year old man who suffers from Hepatitis B applying for a marriage health certificate to marry an eleven year old girl. The staff at the hospital were shocked not only by the shamelessness of the man but also of the eagerness of the girl’s parents to finish up the paperwork so they can go ahead with the wedding. So they are knowingly subjecting their daughter to not only a pedophile but also a disease.

    Some of the hospital staff apparently strongly disagree with the procedure and want to prevent the marriage but they have no power to. Marriage licenses are granted to hepatitis sufferers only after the healthy partner is aware and agrees but how can you expect adult consent and awareness from an 11 year old?!

    Sickening.

  • Half of Saudi women who enter the nursing profession quit their jobs because a) they don’t understand what it takes to be a nurse, and b) the social stigma and lack of family support. I have a cousin who wanted to become a nurse but her parent didn’t let her because of this reason.
  • Some people accuse me of being too negative, that I focus too much on everything that is wrong with this country and never write about the good things here. But the truth is, you don’t really need me to do that. Why do need to do that when Saudi Gazette runs stuff like this?

King Renders Me Speechless

On the second week of February every year, the international media is usually full of stories about the assault on Valentine’s Day in Saudi Arabia by the infamous Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice aka the religious police. However, the biggest news on V-Day this year wasn’t the Commission and their war against all things red. On the morning of last Saturday, February 14th, the air in Riyadh was filled not with love but rather with rumors about some upcoming changes in the Saudi government. Around midday, news finally began to materialize and royal decrees started hitting the wire one after another.

Considering that King Abdullah has not made any big changes in his government since he ascended the throne in 2005, it was expected that we were going to see some changes this year, although many speculated it wouldn’t happen until the summer. I think the cabinet shuffle was not surprising in itself, but rather in its scale and some of the details.

In areas like education and health care, changes seemed inevitable because despite the massive government spending, both sectors were at the center of negative attention as the public grew increasingly dissatisfied with their services.

The new minister of health Dr. Abdullah al-Rabia is a bright surgeon who has an international reputation, and was the head of the health services department at the National Guard. He has led his medical team successfully in complex operations to separate conjoined twins, but some people have questioned his managerial skills. There is no doubt that he is facing an enormous challenge, especially at a time when the government is trying to implement a new national health insurance scheme.

The picture is more interesting at the ministry of education with three new appointments. The government has been trying to implement a huge plan to reform the educational system through a new vision, and Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, the new minister, is not just a member of the royal family. He is the King’s son-in-law and is said to be very close to him.

It is worth noting, however, that he has no background in education.
He used to work for the National Guard and most recently he worked as Assistant Director of General Intelligence. But he is also the chairman of Al-Aghar Group think tank, which is credited with many of the reform plans in the country, including the aforementioned Tatweer program.

The second change in MOE was the appointment of Faisal bin Mummar, the former SG of King Abdul-Aziz Center for National Dialogue as a new deputy minister.

The third change, and the one that by far grabbed the most attention, was the appointment of Nora al-Faiz as the new deputy minister for girls’ education. It is the first time that a Saudi woman was chosen for a senior position in the government, and many saw this as a sign of reform as well as recognition of the effort of Saudi women who have worked very hard over the years and contributed to the development of the country.

Interestingly, Mrs. Al-Faiz gave a long interview to Al-Watan daily last week where she said she was immensely upset because her photo was published in the media. “It is well known that I am a Saudi woman from Najd and thus I wear a niqab,” she said. She added that she has no intention of visiting men’s office buildings in the ministry. I found her statements strange to say the least, but it could be that she does not want to anger the conservatives on her first few days on the job.

Many observers, including Khalid al-Dakhil believe that the most important aspect of this reshuffle relates to changes in the justice system. We are finally witnessing the end of Sheikh Saleh al-Lhuaidan’s reign (good riddance!), which will pave the way for more fundamental reforms in the judiciary. Establishing the new supreme court is a great step in that direction, and hopefully many other steps will soon follow.

Now coming to the ministry of information, I did not expect to see Iyad Madani shown the door. It is true that the conservatives were very unhappy with what they considered an extreme liberalization of official media, but the word on the street was that Madani is one of the King’s men. Another explanation for the change at MOI surfaced last week, and argues that the decision to give the position to Abdul-Aziz Khoja was made to reward him for his outstanding work as Ambassador to Lebanon during the recent crises, and not due to dissatisfaction with Madani’s performance.

I guess I was not the only to see the irony in kicking out Sheikh Saleh al-Ghaith, head of the Commission, on Valentine’s Day. Al-Ghaith was often criticized for being weak and therefore not able to control his men, which led to many horrible incidents involving the Commission over the past few years. Unfortunately, they were never held accountable for any of their actions, even when the results were very disastrous and included the loss of life. Can the new man, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Humayen, exercise more control and constraint over the so-called lions? Let’s wait and see.

There were also some changes in the Council of Senior Ulama, which will include for the first time scholars from other schools beside the Hanbali school. I even read some speculations that the council might include Shia scholars in the near future, which is expected to be part of larger reforms and will have greater effect on shaping the policies and culture of the country. I have to say that this sounds like a very long shot to me, but who knows?

The cabinet reshuffle was well received by the people here, but I could not help but sense that some people are being overly optimistic about what kind of change these new appointments can bring. It is usually not enough to change faces, because there is only so much one person can do when you have a system that is dysfunctional and has been like that for years. Newspapers have enjoyed their hoopla for a week now, so I think it is time now for all of us to sit back and watch what these new guys (and woman) are going to do over the course of the next few months. As I always say, I’m not holding my breath.

Too Centralized?

One of the courses I’m taking this summer is Pharmacy Law. The current law was issued few years ago to replace the first law that regulated the profession of pharmacy in Saudi Arabia which has been used since the 1960’s. There is no such thing as a perfect law, and this one is no exception. My professor has repeatedly criticized it throughout the classes, pointing out many of its loopholes and shortcomings.

While many of the law’s problems lie in the details, one major flaw stands out because it is not limited to the pharmacy law but rather universal and is directly related to how our government is functioning.

Many (all?) laws regulating different professions in the country are issued by a single authority that is the Council of Ministers, chaired by the King. Saudi Arabia is a huge country, and this centralized approach of governing is overwhelming to the Council of Ministers which has to approve every little detail in a very wide variety of laws and regulations. Even a tiny change in one article of a preexistent law takes years to be approved and implemented. Keep in mind that we don’t even have a parliament which could stop the government from doing whatever they want to do. Yet, the process remains slow, and this slowness is bad for people and bad for business.

The government should consider moving some from their responsibilities to other entities such as civil society organizations and independent government bodies. Unfortunately, we severely lack such institutions in our country.

Saudi Arabia has recently passed a new law for regulation of civil society organizations. The new law has received a lukewarm response, but hopes remain high that it would propel the creation of new organizations and bodies. However, the concept of civil society is closely connected to democratic systems. Considering the current political situation in the country, it is debatable if civil society can flourish here and lead to significant changes.

Who Needs Doctors?

Saudis comprise around 20% of the workforce in the healthcare sector. Considering this very low figure, the government have decided to open new colleges of medicine and health-related sciences to cope with the increasing demand of healthcare services in the country. It seems pretty much straightforward and it should make sense to almost everyone. I say “almost” because there is one particular man who strongly disagrees.

Sheikh Saleh al-Fowzan, a senior cleric and member of the Ulema Council, recently wrote to Al-Riyadh daily expressing his dismay at this approach by the government, which included opening health colleges even at Imam Mohammed bin Saudi Islamic University, and asking the government to open more religious colleges at the “civic” universities. I thought we already have large Islamic studies departments at all of our universities but what do I know.

Sheikh al-Fowzan argues that people need Sharia more than they need medicine and science, and that they need muftis and preachers more than doctors and scientists. (!)

With mentalities like this one, no wonder our country is still struggling to join the modern world. Such statements readily exposes that there are still some people in the religious establishment who seem so detached from reality. I have to say that at first I was laughing and thought nobody would buy his argument, but going through many comments on the newspaper’s website had left me frightened. This man owns a seat in the body which has the highest religious authority in the country, and his opinions — bizarre and foolish as they maybe — exert much influence on how regular folks here think.

I don’t want to ask him to be more responsible and act according to what is in the best interest of our nation because apparently that doesn’t concern him at all. But please, cut the nonsense and stop insulting our intelligence. Oh and btw, I think he could really use a doctor.