Rights: Home and Abroad

Summer is here, and thousands of Saudis are getting ready to depart the country to spend their vacations away from the insane heat. Swine flu has certainly affected tourism around the world, but some people insist that they won’t let infectious diseases and global pandemics ruin their holidays. “I’d rather die of Swine flu somewhere nice than die of this hot weather in Riyadh,” a friend of mine half-jokingly said a couple of weeks ago.

With the large numbers of Saudi nationals traveling, the Ministry of Foreign affairs issued information guidelines of the varying nature of legal procedures abroad and how best to protect their rights when traveling or studying outside the Kingdom. The guidelines advise Saudis involved in legal cases to only speak in the presence of a lawyer and ensure attendance at court hearings to avoid in absentia rulings.

Sound advice, no doubt, and it is a commendable effort by the foreign ministry. But this piece of advice should also apply equally to citizens inside the country, and it is important that people here know their rights before the law. Unfortunately, little has been done to promote these rights among citizens. I believe that the government is responsible for protecting their citizens abroad and home alike.

Worth mentioning here is the Know Your Rights series published by the National Society of Human Rights. I personally don’t leave the house without a copy of this Rights of the Suspect (PDF) booklet. An English version of the booklet is available here (RTF).

Visa Wars and Reciprocity

For the past few weeks, Dawood al-Shirian and his colleagues in al-Hayat have been waging a ferocious war against the embassies of France, Germany, and Italy for what they describe as unfair treatment Saudi citizens have to endure when they apply for visas to enter these countries. Other newspapers joined the campaign, with calls to boycott, especially against France. Meanwhile, the British embassy has been enjoying much praise in the local media for the speed and efficiency of their visa process, which is outsourced to a private firm, and the Americans seem happy that for once they are not the target of criticism.

The government recently weighed in, accusing the European embassies of discrimination. Saudi applicants are forced to submit more documentation and wait much longer than citizens of neighboring countries for Europe’s Schengen visa, the foreign ministry said.

After weeks of giving every kind of lame excuse for the unreasonable delays to secure a visa to his country, the French ambassador came out to admit that the delays are related to the 9/11 terror attacks and to the 2003-2005 Al-Qaeda bombings and murders in the country. He also accused the Saudi media of being unprofessional, which simply won him even more enemies in the local press.

I have to say that I find this matter very annoying. I have had my own bad experience with another European country last year, when I applied for a visa to Hungary. After a long, complicated process, they denied me a visa without offering any reason. However, I have always said that Saudis should not complain about how hard it is to get a visa to any country as long as it is still extremely hard to get a visa to come here. The foreign ministry is not making a good point when they compare Saudis to citizens from other Gulf countries; these countries offer visas to EU citizens on arrival at the airport. It is all about reciprocity.

Rants from Beirut

Sorry about the hiatus. I’m back in town after a few days in Beirut, and No, I wasn’t there to enjoy the Eid break. I was invited by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) to participate at the 3rd Arab Free Press Forum. I was a speaker at last year’s event and I had a good time there. This year, my friend Fouad al-Farhan was invited to speak on a discussion panel on the changing face of Arab blogging. Unfortunately, Fouad was stopped at Jeddah airport and was told that he is banned from leaving the country.

I was in Riyadh airport preparing to take my plane to Beirut when I received the disturbing news which made me upset. What happened to Fouad reminded me with other good people in this country also banned from traveling despite what they have contributed to this nation. People who sacrificed their freedom to promote free speech, human rights and justice. It is truly sad that such people are treated this way, especially in these times that carried the signs of reform and hope for a better future.

However, Saudi Arabia was not alone in this shameful act. Syria and Tunisia followed suit by banning two journalists and a human rights activist from traveling to attend the event. In his opening remarks, Timothy Balding, CEO of WAN, thanked the authorities of Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Syria for this eloquent and timely demonstration of their contempt for, and fear of, free expression. Of course this is not surprising. According to the latest Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index released by RSF, the three countries ranked 143, 161 and 159 out of 173.

Now coming to the forum’s sessions, the first one dealt with new tactics used by governments and the judiciary to impede and sanction the independent press. In his introduction, the moderator described these new tactics as oblique or subtle. But Ibrahim Essa, editor-in-chief of Al Dastour daily in Egypt refused such description, saying the Arab governments are not cleaver enough to employ such tactics. “I think Arab governments are stupid and repressive and they don’t need to resort to oblique tactics. Our governments don’t need to resort to oblique tactics because they are blunt,” he added.

The second session, on which Fouad was supposed to speak, focused on the Arab blogging scene. Interestingly, and maybe not surprisingly, the three presenters are all living and writing from outside their countries. Syrian blogger Mohammed al-Abdullah talked about restrictions on the internet in his country and the evolution of the Syrian blogosphere. He said the bloggers have become a source of information for Syrian citizens, despite all the constraints and obstacles for even just being on the internet. Mohammed left Syria after being arrested twice and facing a third arrest (his father and brother are both in jail).

Sami Ben Gharbia, as usual, was awesome. He talked about Tunisia’s sophisticated internet blocking apparatus, and how bloggers and activists have used Web 2.0 technologies to find and use innovative ways around the system.

But I have to say that it was Kizzie Shawkat, the blogger from Sudan, that I felt I could relate to her story the most. Kizzie started blogging because she had no venue to express her opinion, but quickly found herself in a role where she was providing a view of her country from a different perspective from official sources. I agree with her that blogging has become an important forum for social activism, and I think this could lead the way for other kinds of activism in the future. “You have to allow people to express themselves and we’re not used to doing that,” she concluded.

While the third discussion panel of the day that addressed editorial policies, trends and innovations in Arab newsrooms was not particularly interesting to me, the first day of the conference ended with much drama as four Tunisian government officials interrupted the presentation of a new report by the Tunisia Monitoring Group about the lack of freedom in Tunisia. The Tunisian officials broke into a shouting match with the speakers and other attendees who found themselves quite amused by those officials who shamelessly embarrassed themselves.

The second day of the conference had only one panel which discussed the business of newspaper publishing in the Arab World. Later on the day, we witnessed the ceremony of the Gebran Tueni Award. This year’s prize was handed out to Ibrahim Essa, who was recently pardoned by his country’s president, but still facing 32 lawsuits.

Away from the conference, and although Fouad’s travel ban left a dark shadow on the trip, it was as always good to be back to Beirut and meet friends and fellow bloggers. The city was filled with tourists and visitors, many of them Saudis, but I avoided hanging out in their favourite spots. I want to thank my friend Buthaina for taking me to the Comedy Night show, where Mario Bassil and his colleagues entertained us for more than 2 hours and made fun of almost every single Lebanese politician. I want also to thank my friend Alex for the good times, especially at Club Sociale in Gemayzie where we enjoyed a lovely performances by Hiba Mansouri and Zeid Hamdan aka shift Z.

Finally, I want to leave you with this interesting column (Arabic) by Yahia al-Ameer. He argues that what makes Beirut attractive to Saudis is not its touristic spots like Raouche, Solider or Aley but rather the freedom, diversity and individuality they can touch here, which represents a stark contrast to the conformity of their society. You think this is the case? Discuss.

Beirut, Again

I did not enjoy Beirut as much as I wanted when I went there for the first time last December. The schedule was tight, the weather was cold, and the political situation was tense. But now it’s summer, and I hope it will be different this time. I will be flying to Beirut tomorrow to participate at the Arab Bloggers Meeting, an informal gathering for online activists in the region organized by Heinrich Boell Stiftung Middle East. It should be interesting.

P.S. I want to thank Prof. Abdul-Rahman al-Obaid and Dr. Ashraf Mahmoud for their understanding and support.

Back from Beirut

The good news is: my presentation did not end up in a disaster. The bad news is: I did not have time to see the city. But overall it was a good trip: I met many great people and I have had fun.

On the first day we attended the 2nd Gebran Tueni Award ceremony, a big event witnessed by hundreds of dignitaries and guests. We enjoyed touching speeches by Nayla Tueni, Majida Al Roumi and others, and I was especially moved by Majida speech which demonstrated the anger and frustration of Lebanese people with the current political deadlock. The award was given this year to Michel Hajji Georgiou, a senior political analyst at the French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour in Lebanon. He told us during the dinner party that night the he had to sell his car because he has been afraid of being assassinated by the pro-Syrian elements.

Except for one Saudi guy working for the LBC and has been living in Beirut since 1994, I was the only participant from Saudi Arabia and the GCC. Interestingly, many people came to me after the panel and said they could not believe that I was Saudi. I can tell that many in the Arab World have a certain stereotype for the citizens of this country. Anyways, I’m really glad that the session turned out to be fine and that many people liked it.

As I said earlier, I did not have enough time to go out and enjoy the different parts of the city, but I got to hang out with friends in Al Hamra, have breakfast by the Rawsha rock, and had a walk in Ashrafia and Solider. Beirut is a beautiful city, but because it has gone through a lot, it looks bruised and tired. I suspect that tourists would enjoy seeing the army everywhere searching their bags and asking them to stop taking pictures of the city’s landmarks. Let’s hope things would get better before the summer season.

Finally, I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to be part of this event and I hope to see them again in Beirut next year. I also want to thank fellow bloggers Wael Abbas and Mohammed Azraq, as well as Mahmoud Abdelfattah, the best moderator ever :-) Last but not least, I want to thank Alexandra, Hala, Maha, Mustapha, Sherif, Yumna, Rana, Zina, Adel, Virginie, Fadwa, and all those who made my first visit to Lebanon fun but I forgot their names.

P.S. The first picture is inspired by Roba.