Robbery in skies, Routes of Arabia, Weddady’s response to Khouri

  • Have you heard of the Air France flight attendant who was arrested for robbing passengers? Muhammed al-Ahidib provides four reasons why this woman would not have been able to steal if she were working for Saudi Arabian Airline.
  • Here is another good review for Routes d’Arabie, this time from Bloomberg.
  • Nasser Weddady offers another fine rebuttal to Rami Khouri’s op-ed in NYT. At the end of his blogpost, Weddady comments on a part of Khour’s article that I chose to ignore, which is about the “hypocrisy” of US government’s interest in social media while it supports the very same dictatorships that crush liberties. This is an old and overused argument, and something I have touched on in my op-ed in the same newspaper last year.

Routes d’Arabie, Rami Khouri, Reverse culture shock

  • The Saudi Routes of Arabia exhibition in Paris has been receiving some pretty good reviews. Hundreds of artifacts never before seen outside Saudi Arabia are currently on view at the Louvre. I have seen most of these pieces at the National Museum, and I’m glad the whole world is getting a chance to see this part of our history. I wish they would do more to promote the museums and exhibitions like this inside the country for the locals who only get to hear about such events when they take place abroad.
  • Rami Khouri thinks the new media in the Middle East synonymous with the Al Jazeera effect of the 1990s, i.e. it is merely venting and therefor will not lead to any real change in the Arab political landscape. I’ve heard this rhetoric many times before. If he thinks that the current wave of activism is useless, then what exactly does he suggest? Should we just sit down, keep our mouths shut, and wait for his generation to bring about change? Based on their history, this seems pretty unlikely. But lamenting this whole phenomenon as merely venting is naïve. Khouri and other old media people obviously still struggle to understand new media and their influence. I never said blogging will change everything, but I think it is the start of something good, something that our predecessors were not able to do. The evidence is his comparison to Al Jazeera, which is a one-way medium just like the one he comes from, unlike new media where people are actively engaged and involved and not simply passive consumers.
  • My friend Ben has been living in Saudi Arabia for a year, and now he is back to the US and is suffering from a “reverse culture shock.” Thankfully, he says, his condition is treatable. The doctor has prescribed him movies, lots of bacon, and a few happy hours.

Ahmad al-Ghamdi sacked (or maybe not), Quarter to Nine news cast

  • Ahmad Qassim al-Ghamdi, the head of CPVPV in Makkah was sacked. No, he wasn’t. Yes, he was. No, he wasn’t. Well, apparently nobody knows for sure. The grand mufti came out with a strong statement few days criticizing al-Ghamdi, practically telling him to keep his mouth shut. Confusion is still dominating this matter. Will update you as things clear up. UPDATE: a spokesman for CPVPV sent a message to al-Hayat daily saying the news are inaccurate.
  • Arab News reports on Sah, a local internet channel that has gained some more attention lately. I have been following their satirical news show “Quarter to Nine,” and I have to say that I find it pretty nice. I think they could do a better job finding bizarre stuff in Saudi newspapers to make fun of, but for now they are doing okay. It’s a good example of what good content the new generation of Saudis can create using new media tools.

Beautiful Mess

I hear that officials at the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) are forging ahead with their dumb idea to regulate so-called electronic media. Asbar, a research center based in Riyadh that includes several members of Shourac Council on its board (conflict of interests, anyone?), has been working on a draft for the new law.

This Saturday, they hosted a discussion panel about the proposed law where they met with representatives from MOCI, CITC, KACST, and the Ministry of Interior as well as some government and media consultants.

Ironically, some owners of news websites are actually pushing for this law. They argue that it would make it easier for them to get funding and make money from advertising. What about their independence and freedom that could be threatened by the new law? Well, apparently these things are not high on their agenda.

I previously said regulation by the government is not the answer, and I stand by that opinion. News websites should operate under the same laws that regulate traditional media. If these laws are old and outdated, then they should be amended, updated, or even overhauled and rewritten altogether if necessary.

Although I find the government’s obsession with control hard to understand, I have to say it is not unusual. Someone should tell them that their constant attempts to police the internet are useless, really. Why get yourselves into this mess? Yes, it is a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess. Just leave it that way.

Read more:

Thoughts on Jeddah

Three weeks have passed since the Jeddah catastrophe. People now are eagerly waiting for the verdict of the investigation commission. While we are waiting, it might be useful to look back and reflect.

The heavy downpour has exposed some nasty things such as the nonexistent infrastructure and the abundant corruption. But like what happens with many other things in life, sometimes we need to see the ugliness before we see the beauty. There are at least two good things I saw coming out of this disaster: the great spirit of the people, and the power of social media.

In the days and nights following Black Wednesday, we have seen more than 7,000 persons who volunteered to help in any and every way they can. I’m proud of Ibrahim al-Kushi who opened his house to shelter the displaced. I’m proud of Bassem Kurdi who decided to stay at the hospital when everybody else told him to go home. I’m proud of so many young men and women who, despite the harassment of some self-appointed guards of morality, rolled up their sleeves and spent countless hours at al-Harthi Exhibition Center to organize, distribute, and deliver the donations to those who need them in the most damaged areas of the city.

The relief efforts have been largely coordinated using the internet and social media tools. One Facebook group in particular was central to these efforts as it acted like an umbrella and a gathering point for volunteers. The group is called Rescue Jeddah, and it boasts more than 9,000 members. The content there is all in Arabic but you don’t need to read anything to see what they have been up to. Just look at the pictures and the videos and you will get a good idea on what they have done so far.

Beside Facebook, people were using blogs, Twitter, and SMS to circulate the latest news. They were also using Flickr and YouTube to document what was happening in real time. Some of the pictures, like the one of the dead little girl covered with mud, were really disturbing. But I think that in crises you need shocking images to make others understand the gravity of the disaster.

As for videos, estimates say more than 400 videos have been uploaded over the past three weeks. Most of these were taken by citizens using their mobile phones, but I have also seen some well-produced videos like this one by Mohammed al-Rehaili. In the end, I will leave you with this short film by Bader al-Homoud, who captures the tragedy but instead decides to focus on the bright human side of the story:

Read more:

  • One of my favourite blog posts about the disaster is this by McToom in which he offers an illustration on the basics of drainage systems. You know, because our officials are too busy to read long blog posts like mine.
  • Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of Arab News, wrote a letter to Makkah governor. “At the moment, the people of Jeddah and the surrounding areas are hurt, sad, anguished and in both physical and mental pain,” he said.

Wrong Side

News websites in Saudi Arabia have problems. But the answer to their problems is not regulation by the government, and the Ministry of Culture and Information’s idea to codify an internet law is dumb. I don’t see why anyone thinking of starting a website would want to ask for a license, or wait for the ministry to approve their editors. I guess the fact that the owners of these news websites have agreed to be under the supervision of the ministry says something about their understanding of press freedom and the so-called “professional integrity.” At a time when people go to the internet to seek more freedom and free themselves of old red lines and censorship, news websites in my country are running backwards. What’s next? Are they going to ask bloggers to register their blogs with the ministry?

Three words: not gonna happen.

Riyadh Book Fair ’09

While I sincerely hope that the Ministry of Culture and Information would drop the word ‘International’ from the name of what has become the most important cultural event in the Saudi calendar, I’m glad that the Riyadh Book Fair is back again. Seeing the crowds celebrate books and reading is heartwarming, regardless of whatever gripes I might have about the organizers and their approach. The book fair is taking place for the first time at the new Riyadh International Exhibition Center on King Abdullah Road, which is much nicer and much bigger than the old exhibition center in Morouj.

If you plan to come, you may want to stop by at our table in booth SA-60 where my friends and I are volunteering to sell the books of fellow blogger Hadeel al-Hodaif who passed away last year. The proceeds will go to charity. We are also taking the chance to promote the Hadeel Prize, which will be launched later this year.

I think the book fair this year is better than the previous ones, except, of course, for the usual kerfuffles by the religious police. After making a scene with Abdou Khal, Abdullah Thabit and Halima Mozaffar on Thursday, they made another scene last night when they decided that saleswomen are not allowed to be there on men’s days. All saleswomen were kicked out. I really don’t see the point of having the religious police in the book fair, but it is obviously part of the compromise deal the Ministry of Culture and Information had to make with the conservatives in order for the book fair to go on.

The Riyadh Book Fair is open until Friday, March 13, from 10 AM to 10 PM. Some days or part of them are open to men only, so make sure to check this page before you drive there. Oh, I forgot that women are not allowed to drive. Never mind. Just go, have fun and enjoy the books. And if you have any recommendations, please do share them in the comments. See you there.