International Knowledge Forum in Madinah

Knowledge Economic City (KEC) in Madinah is one of many megaproject launched by the government in recent years to diversify the country’s economy and decrease dependence on oil.

The Economic Cities concept include five other projects, three of them have been launched in Rabigh, Hail and Jazan, and two more are expected to be launched later this year in Tabuk and the Eastern Province. It is still not known where exactly in the EP they plan to build the economic city, but I hope they choose either Qatif or Ahssa as both regions has not received the development they deserve in the past.

Building huge projects like these is a big challenge, and making them work efficiently is a bigger challenge. SAGIA, the government’s arm that oversees these projects, have a vision for the economic cities contribute between a quarter and a third of the aspired national growth rate, to create over a million jobs, and to become home to 4-5 million residents by 2020.

KEC, with a total investment worth US$ 7bn, is particularly interesting because it will focus on knowledge based industries, tourism and services. As part of their effort to raise awareness and create excitement around the project, SAGIA are organizing the first ever Islamic Conference for Science & Knowledge (Noor). The event will take place later this month in Madinah.

I hope that some bloggers from the Western region would register to attend the event as it will tackle some topics of importance to them such as healthcare and information communications technology. I would like to attend but I won’t be done with my finals until the 23rd, and on the 25th I will leave the Kingdom to attend the GV Summit 08 in Budapest, Hungary.

Segregation or Regulation?

Although I have tried to register to participate at the 7th National Dialogue, I never received to a response from the organizers and therefore I have had to watch the dialogue on television.

This round of the National Dialogue, which took place earlier this week, focused on the dilemma of employment from different angles. The hottest topic, of course, was women’s employment. Now almost everyone agrees that we need to create more job opportunities for women; the disagreement, however, arises when it comes to how to approach and address this problem. More specifically, the disagreement is over how to define the proper work environment for women.

Two trends can be seen here. First, there are those who believe that in order to encourage more women to join the workforce we have to provide separate workplaces for them. They cite the example of the education sector, the field where 85% of working women in the country are in, and argue that the government should push in that direction.

However, I believe these guys are ignoring two important things: the fact that following education, the second field where most women are employed is the healthcare sector which is not segregated, and also the fact that many women chose to work at the education sector simply for the lack of other options, even if that choice means sometimes working in remote areas and being away from their families and putting themselves in danger of lethal car accidents.

The other trend regarding women’s employment in the dialogue argue that strict interpretations of religion and old social norms have only halted the development of the country and slowed down the growth of our economy. The insistence on providing separate work places for women, they say, is costly and impractical as it makes it difficult to keep a smooth workflow. Moreover, even if the government decided to go with that option, they won’t be able to force business to do the same.

Instead of separate workplaces, what they propose instead is writing new laws and regulation to create and maintain safe work environments that give equal opportunities and protect employees, especially women.

I expect this debate to continue, and I think we need to wait and see which argument of these two will attract more followers and prevail, or probably we will have to make some compromises and end up with a third way and a middle ground. The economic factor will be decisive here because, as one participant pointed out, the ever increasing living costs will mean that the one salary (currently the man’s) will no longer be enough to support a family.

I agree with Fatin Bundagji when she says that the idea of the national dialogue, even if it did not amount to obvious immediate results, is a good idea. And even though I was not invited to attend the dialogue at Makarem Ballroom in the Marriott, it was certainly refreshing for me to follow it and see my countrymen and women debate and take part in this conversation, which signifies, among many things, a change in mindset and a newfound respect for diversity, as well as a better understanding between the different faction in our society.

Govt to Establish New Medicine Firm

The government announced earlier this week its plan to establish a new firm that is expected to play a major role in the health care sector in Saudi Arabia. The newly formed National Company for Unified Purchase of Medicines and Medical Appliances will have a capital of SR 2 bn, and will sell 30 percent of its shares in an IPO three years later.

It is an interesting move by the government to change the game in the medicine market this way. The market is currently dominated by 10 companies which have captured 50 percent of a market estimated to be worth more than SR 5 bn. Of course these companies are not happy about the creation of the new firm, claiming it would drive them out of business. Let’s wait and see.

However, there is one more thing I would liked to add here. It is common knowledge that the Ministry of Health is one of the largest areas in the government where corruption is very prevalent, and a large part of this corruption is related to the medicine market. I really hope that the newly formed company would be managed in a professional and transparent manner in order to cut back on the corruption that has been flourishing in MOH for the past few (many?) years. I mean one can hope, can’t one?

On Health Care Saudization

arab_news_article

Today’s Arab News is running an editorial by yours truly. The editorial is based on a post I’ve written on Saturday commenting on a headline the paper carried in which an “expert” claimed that the country is in need for 100,000 Saudis to work as pharmacists in the government and the private sector. The expert went as far as saying “Those who pass the degree will instantly be employed.”

But as anybody here can tell you, statements of experts are one thing, and reality on the ground is usually quite another. As a matter of fact, many pharmacy graduates like my own brother are unemployed because they could not find any proper jobs for their qualifications. I hope this piece would draw the attention of officials in the Government and Shoura Council to this situation.

Many thanks to my friends at Arab News for giving me the chance to write about this important issue, and I’m looking forward to contribute more to the newspaper in the future.

Saudi Genes Make Codeine Risk Higher

Codeine is an opiate used mainly to relieve pain and suppress cough, and it can be found in many prescription and non-prescription drugs. It has been known as a standard cough-suppressant, and the pain-relieving effect is due to the fact that some of it is metabolized into morphine upon administration.

One of the problems of codeine (and its metabolites) is that it is secreted in the milk of nursing mothers, and this can lead to morphine overdose for the baby if the mother was an “ultra-rapid metabolizer” of codeine.

This week, the Food and Drug Administration in the US have issued a warning following a report of the death of a 13-day-old breast-fed infant who died from morphine overdose. His mom had been taking codeine to treat pain from an episiotomy and was later found to be an “ultra-rapid metabolizer” of codeine.

Ultra-rapid metabolism occur with a big variation among different ethnic groups, and people who have it usually don’t know about it. However, Saudis in particular must pay extra attention to this case. According to studies, 16-28% of Saudis have the genetic potential, compared to 1-10% among whites, 3% for blacks and 1% for Hispanics and Asians.

This is a very high prevalence and doctors in the Kingdom should be very careful when prescribing codeine for nursing mothers. The Ministry of Health should take a quick action and issue a warning to all health professionals in the country in order to prevent any possible harm.

Codeine products remain safe for most people, FDA says, but drug manufacturers should add information to the label about the phenomenon of codeine ultra-rapid metabolism, especially as it relates to breast-feeding.

The C Word

In a recent post I noted that despite the large spending, healthcare remains one of the weakness points when it comes to governmental performance. I believe that the majority of citizens are not satisfied with the services they receive at Ministry of Health’s hospitals, and I think many of them are more than willing to tell you all kinds of stories from their experiences at such hospitals, from misdiagnoses to surgical errors and everything in between, the list can go endlessly.

Why do citizen have to put up with poor services in the same time when a very large part of the national budget is supposedly directed at healthcare? Whenever I compare the billions of riyals spent and the kind of services in the governmental hospitals I can only think of one word to describe what is going on here: “corruption.” Oops! Have I said that out loud? It is puzzling to me how “the C word” has become such a taboo that you can rarely find it in the local press. When the press try to point out to such thing in the government they would usually use the term “administrative reform,” a vague hollow expression that you probably never heard of before. Talk about “alkhossusiya al saudia”!

But when I talk about corruption at the government’s healthcare sector I’m not simply talking about comparing the poor services at hospitals to the large spending, but also about how things are run at MOH as I have come to learn some stories from few insiders, and they are not pleasant at all.

I have recently met with a gentleman who once worked at MOH, and he is one of the country’s top professionals in his field. The man was called to join a committee that was responsible to review offers by companies to provide tools, equipment, and services for all hospitals owned by the government. The estimated value for the contract in hand was about one billion riyals (~ US$ 266mn). The man told me he was shocked at how the competing companies were competing to give bribes, not to win the contract, I meant in order to win the contract. Actually, a representative of one of these companies had the nerve to visit the man’s office with an envelop chocked with hard cash! Needless to say the representative was kicked out right away, and after a brief time our gentleman was told that this was simply “business as usual” at MOH, and he had to live with that if he wanted to keep his new job. He could not, so he was shortly replaced. “At least I didn’t get my hands dirty,” he said.

On Unemployment in Saudi Arabia

One of the most pressing questions of last year was about the state of unemployment and if the worries on that regard were realistic and justified. The issue was more and more in the limelight especially after the efforts of the Ministry of Labor (MOL) to employ more women in the workforce was faced by fierce opposition from many conservatives who argued, in one of their many invalid arguments, that MOL should first work to provide jobs for unemployed men before even thinking about women.

Of course some conservatives were simply trying to take cheap shots at the liberal minister of labor Dr. Ghazi Al Gosaibi. You can say whatever you want about him, but I think Al Gosaibi should not be blamed for the mistakes of the Ministry of Planning and our dysfunctional educational system, because thanks to them and only them we have an army of unskilled college graduates and high school dropouts who their sole dream is to become pencil-pushers as a part of the government bureaucratic machine in order to receive big money for doing nothing.

The Ministry lack of planning which caused unemployment in some sectors has also led to a very high demand of local human resources in some other sectors. Take healthcare for example: less than 20% of workers in healthcare are Saudis. Compare this to the very small number of graduates from medical colleges here and you have a real dilemma. It is said that with the current numbers of graduates we will need about 500 years to come anything near Saudization of the healthcare system. Ironically, the biggest spending in the national budget goes to education and healthcare .

It is not hopeless, though, or at least that’s the hope. We are enjoying a second boom, and the mega projects launched recently are impressive and promising but we should not repeat the mistakes of the first boom because we might never have another chance; we simply can’t afford it. I pray that the lessons were learned, and please let us not fool ourselves again. Let’s work, and let’s work hard. It’s about time.