Scurrilous

The sorry state of traditional media in the country has encouraged some Saudis in recent years to start news websites aka electronic newspapers. Some of the most well-known names in that field today include Sabq, Alweeam, and A’ajel. I have no idea what is the size of competition between such websites and traditional media, but considering that the likes of Turki al-Sudairi don’t miss a chance to attack the news websites you can probably guess they are not exactly thrilled about their existence.

Traditional media people try to attack the news websites by suggesting that they they lack professionalism and credibility, but I believe the same thing can be said about the traditional media in Saudi Arabia. So let’s not even get into this.

There are two advantages online news sites here enjoy over traditional media: speed and scandals. They can report news as they happen and don’t have to wait until the next day. They can report on scandals that traditional media would usually avoid for reasons related mostly to their red lines and sometimes to their standards. Scandals sell, and in a conservative country like ours they carry more weight due to the conformist nature of society.

You could be someone who enjoys reading scandals and celebrity gossip. Or you could be someone who hates the whole thing. But in this case that does not matter much because I think that these online websites should do their best to use these advantages to deliver a better service to interested readers.

Earlier this week Alweeam website reported on what they called a “missionary party” sponsored by several Saudi and foreign companies to celebrate St George’s Day. Alweeam said the British Ambassador and his wife attended the party, as well as “many women and businessmen, and they partied wildly until the morning.” The site added that the party violates the country’s laws, which calls for punishing the Saudi companies that sponsored the event.

It is obvious from tabloid-like reporting and pictures published with the story what Alweeam are trying to do. They are screaming: A missionary party in the heart of Saudi Arabia! How scandalous!

Now this story could be actually scandalous, except for one thing: Alweeam have added one little, but significant, false detail which is the word “missionary.” The Robin Hood-themed party has nothing to do with missionary work, and the St.George Society Riyadh (SGSR) describes itself as a “charitable and social organization, set up in September 2006 with the aim of promoting England and Englishness.”

You could argue that St George’s Day has a religious origin, but it is also England’s national day, and like Christmas and other holidays is no longer seen in that context. More importantly, there is nothing on SGRS website that suggests that the organization and its activities are missionary or related to religion. Unfortunately, the website is no longer accessible. It seems to me that after publishing the news about their party they decided to take the website down in order to avoid more controversy. You can still view a version of the website using Google’s cache.

Please note that I have no comment on the event itself. I’m only commenting here on the coverage of Alweeam which ignored obvious facts, included false information, and did not bother to talk to pretty much anyone from the people involved. They had a chance to make a real scoop here, but they miserably failed. The only aspect that will be worth watching from this rather ridiculous story is how those Saudi companies that sponsored the party will deal with their PR nightmare.

Shia Khums: Where’s Our Money?

Some young people from Qatif have published an open letter to Shia religious leaders, calling for a reform in management of Khums. According to Shia Islamic legal terminology, Khums means “one-fifth of certain items which a person acquires as wealth, and which must be paid as an Islamic tax.”

In their letter, they raised questions on the fate of millions of riyals paid by the faithful. These enormous amounts of money have gone to support religious schools in Iraq, Iran and other places, as well as supporting liberation movements in other countries. Meanwhile, most people in the local Shia communities never dared to ask where does the money go and how it is spent, especially when our communities suffer from many problems that could have been solved using these vast resources.

I join these young men and women in their call for more transparency regarding the management of Khums money. The lack of transparency and accountability has led to increased incidents of corruption and misuse of power. If religious leaders claim the Khums money is spent the way God intended, then they should not be afraid to come out and publish regular financial reports to back these claims. I believe we have the right to know how our resources are managed, and I believe that our local communities are entitled to see these resources contribute to improving living standards of people here.