Right to Vote But No Driving

September 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Saudi monarch grants kingdom’s women right to vote, but driving ban remains in force

By Associated Press

2011-09-27T195104Z_01_BTRE78Q1J5Z00_RTROPTP_3_INTERNATIONAL-US-SAUDI-WOMEN-DRIVING

Veiled Saudi women take photos of their children during a ceremony to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s Independence Day in Riyadh in this September 23, 2009 file photograph.

REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed/Files

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, considered a reformer by the standards of his own ultraconservative kingdom, decreed on Sunday that women will for the first time have the right to vote and run in local elections due in 2015.

For the nation’s women, it is a giant leap forward, though they remain unable to serve as Cabinet ministers, drive or travel abroad without permission from a male guardian.

Saudi women bear the brunt of their nation’s deeply conservative values, often finding themselves the target of the unwanted attention of the kingdom’s intrusive religious police, who enforce a rigid interpretation of Islamic Shariah law on the streets and public places like shopping malls and university campuses.

In itself, Sunday’s decision to give the women the right to vote and run in municipal elections may not be enough to satisfy the growing ambition of the kingdom’s women who, after years of lavish state spending on education and vocational training, significantly improved their standing but could not secure the same place in society as that of their male compatriots.

That women must wait four more years to exercise their newly acquired right to vote adds insult to injury since Sunday’s announcement was already a long time coming — and the next local elections are in fact scheduled for this Thursday.

“Why not tomorrow?” asked prominent Saudi feminist Wajeha al-Hawaidar. “I think the king doesn’t want to shake the country, but we look around us and we think it is a shame … when we are still pondering how to meet simple women’s rights.”

The announcement by King Abdullah came in an annual speech before his advisory assembly, or Shura Council. It was made after he consulted with the nation’s top religious clerics, whose advice carries great weight in the kingdom.

It is an attempt at “Saudi style” reform, moves that avoid antagonizing the powerful clergy and a conservative segment of the population. Additionally, it seems to be part of the king’s drive to insulate his vast, oil-rich country from the upheavals sweeping other Arab nations, with popular uprisings toppling regimes that once looked as secure as his own.

Fearing unrest at home, the king in March announced a staggering $93 billion package of incentives, jobs and services to ease the hardships experienced by some Saudis. In the meantime, he sent troops to neighbor and close ally Bahrain to help the tiny nation’s Sunni ruling family crush an uprising by majority Shiites pressing for equal rights and far-reaching reforms.

In contrast, King Abdullah in August withdrew the Saudi ambassador from Syria to protest President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on a seven-month uprising that calls for his ouster and the establishment of a democratic government.

“We didn’t ask for politics, we asked for our basic rights. We demanded that we be treated as equal citizens and lift the male guardianship over us,” said Saudi activist Maha al-Qahtani, an Education Ministry employee who defied the ban on women driving earlier this year. “We have many problems that need to be addressed immediately.”

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Saudi-India Ties: “A New Era of Strategic Partnership”

March 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

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India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) stands next to his wife Gursharan Kaur as he is given a King Saud University sash during a visit to the university in Riyadh March 1, 2010.

REUTERS/Stringer

NEW DELHI:  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described his three-day visit to Saudi Arabia as “very productive and fruitful” (February 27 to March 1). The highlight of his visit was inking of “Riyadh Declaration: A New Era of Strategic Partnership,” by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Indian Prime Minister. The declaration signed on February 28, states that the two leaders held “in depth discussions on a wide range of issues in an atmosphere of utmost warmth, cordiality, friendship and transparency.” They agreed that Saudi King’s India-visit in 2006, during which the Delhi Declaration was signed (January 27, 2006), and Singh’s “current” visit “heralded a new era in Saudi-India relations” “in keeping with changing realities and unfolding opportunities of the 21st century.”

In addition to laying stress on strengthening of bilateral ties between India and Saudi Arabia, the declaration highlights the crucial global issues discussed by the two leaders. They “noted that tolerance, religious harmony and brotherhood, irrespective of faith or ethnic background, were part of the principles and values of both countries.” Condemning terrorism, extremism and violence, they affirmed that “it is global and threatens all societies and is not linked to any race, color or belief.” “The international community must,” according to the declaration, “resolutely combat terrorism.”

With the peace process in Middle East high on their agenda, the two leaders “expressed hope for early resumption of the peace process,” “within a definite timeframe leading to establishment of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestinian State in accordance with the two-state solution.” They “emphasized” in the declaration that “continued building of settlements by Israel constitutes a fundamental stumbling block for the peace process.”

The declaration strongly signals their being against nuclear weapons while they favor peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The two leaders “emphasized the importance of regional and international efforts” directed towards making “Middle East and Gulf Region free of all nuclear weapons and all weapons of mass destruction,” according to the declaration. They “reiterated their support” to “resolve issues relating to Iran’s nuclear program peacefully through dialogue and called for continuation of these efforts.” They “encouraged Iran to respond” to these efforts to “remove doubts about its nuclear program, especially as these ensure the right of Iran and other countries to peaceful uses if nuclear energy” in keeping with procedures of International Atomic Energy Agency, the declaration states.

The situation in Afghanistan and Iraq also figured in their discussions. They called for “preservation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty and independence.” They “expressed hope” that forthcoming elections will help people of Iraq “realize their aspirations” by ensuring them security, stability, territorial integrity and national unity.

Though Indo-Pak relations are not mentioned in the Declaration, they figured prominently in discussions held between the two sides. While addressing the Saudi Parliament, Majlis-Al-Shura at Riyadh (March 1), Singh said: “India wishes to live in peace and friendship with its neighbors.” “We seek cooperative relations with Pakistan. Our objective is a permanent peace because we recognize that we are bound together by a shared future. If there is cooperation between India and Pakistan, vast opportunities will open up for trade, travel and development that will create prosperity in both countries and in South Asia as a whole. But to realize this vision, Pakistan must act decisively against terrorism. If Pakistan cooperates with India, there is no problem that we cannot solve and we can walk the extra mile to open a new chapter in relations between our two countries,” Singh stated.

During his interaction with media persons, to a question on whether Saudi Arabia can be “credible interlocutor” on some issues between India and Pakistan, Singh replied: “Well I know Saudi Arabia has close relations with Pakistan. I did discuss the Indo-Pak relations with His Majesty on a one-to-one basis. I explained to him the role that terrorism, aided, abetted and inspired by Pakistan is playing in our country. And I did not ask for him to do anything other than to use his good offices to persuade Pakistan to desist from this path.”

While addressing the Saudi Parliament, Singh highlighted importance Islam has for India. Describing Saudi Arabia as “the cradle of Islam and the land of the revelation of the Holy Quran,” Singh said: “Islam qualitatively changed the character and personality of the people in Arabia as it enriched the lives of millions of Indians who embraced this new faith.” Tracing their historical ties, he said: “It is said that during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, Indian pilgrims constituted the largest movement of people by sea. Indian Muslim scholars went to Mecca in order to learn Islamic theology. Arab Muslim scholars came to India to learn mathematics, science, astronomy and philosophy. These exchanges led to the widespread diffusion of knowledge in the sciences, arts, religion and philosophy.”

“Today, Islam is an integral part of India’s nationhood and ethos and of the rich tapestry of its culture. India has made significant contributions to all aspects of Islamic civilization. Centers of Islamic learning in India have made a seminal contribution to Islamic and Arabic studies. Our 160 million Muslims are contributing to our nation building efforts and have excelled in all walks of life. We are proud of our composite culture and of our tradition of different faiths and communities living together in harmony,” Singh said.

Undeniably, the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Saudi Arabia symbolizes the two countries’ desire to strengthen their ties, “upgrade the quality” of their “relationship to that of a strategic partnership,” as stated by Singh. During his visit, Singh also paid special attention to highlight importance of Islam from the Indian perspective. Besides, the Riyadh declaration specifically condemns terrorism and states that it cannot be linked with any “belief.” In addition to strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia, Singh’s words suggest that he is hopeful of it setting the stage for improving relations with other Muslim countries; it will enhance his government’s image at home among the business community eyeing for more trade opportunities with the Arab world and gain his party greater support from Indian Muslims.

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When the Floodwaters Rose

December 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

floods

This past week, just prior to the Eid al Adha holidays, the Gulf regions of the Middle East saw exceptional rainfall that caused massive flooding, death and destruction. Nowhere was the rain more violent than in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Meteorologists have estimated that approximately 90 millimeters of rain fell in just under six hours.

The Red Sea port city of Jeddah was affected the most by the sudden and unexpected burst of showers. More than 100 people died, with that number expected to rise as the murky waters recede and possibly reveal more bodies beneath the mud. A lot went wrong on what is being touted as ‘The Wednesday Disaster’ and most of it could have been prevented.

Financial corruption, big business and living above the laws are just a few of the charges that angry Saudi Arabian citizens are leveling at their own government. However, the city of Jeddah is a low-lying area, which is prone to flooding. Questions are now being raised about whether or not the areas hardest hit should have been inhabited at all. New projects in the region have also come under scrutiny, such as the ‘Abdullah Bridge and Tunnel’, which was completely inundated by the floodwaters. The lack of drainage maintenance has also been an ongoing problem in Jeddah for more than three years as most drains and sewers are inoperable, clogged with debris.

Citizens had little to no warning about the impending rainfall and flooding. The majority of those who died were trapped inside cars or buses and drowned to death. Those who survived were left stranded for hours, as civil authorities did not have the appropriate equipment, skills or training to launch a massive search and rescue operation. The entire incident is reminiscent of the emergency services fiasco following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

By all calculations, Saudi Arabian security personnel may have been spread a bit too thin as the Kingdom hosted an estimated 3 million pilgrims during the recent Hajj season. The government put most of its energy and resources into ensuring that worshippers were safe while performing Islam’s most holy rituals. All measures were taken to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus with medical staff on alert around the clock. Security forces also had to keep a watchful eye as pilgrims tested out a new bridge meant to diversify traffic from congested areas to prevent stampedes, which have plagued past Hajj seasons. The clouds opening up and unleashing waves of fury upon unsuspecting residents took most everyone by surprise.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has ordered an all-inclusive investigation into the flooding disaster. The governor of Makkah, which includes the city of Jeddah, Prince Khalid bin Faisal will head up the inquiry. According to the state-run news agency, King Abdullah was quoted as saying, “We cannot overlook the errors and omissions that must be dealt with firmly.” King Abdullah has also stepped in to ease the suffering of the flood victims. He has ordered the Ministry of Housing to make available more than 2,000 apartments for flood victims whose homes were lost or damaged due to the flooding. King Abdullah has also earmarked more than $260,000 compensation for each flood victim’s family.

However, despite the Saudi government’s attempts to make things right, public sentiment is still turning sour. Since public protests are banned in the Kingdom, disgruntled citizens have taken their complaints to the Internet. The social-networking media mogul, Facebook, has been the heir apparent for the Saudi Arabian people and their supporters to vent some good old-fashioned anger. The most popular page on Facebook is the ‘Popular Campaign to Save the City of Jeddah’. Within in only days of the page’s creation, more than 11,000 users joined and an estimated 22,000 comments were written. One of the cyber protestors wrote, “We’ve been talking about this issue for years. Everybody knew this disaster was coming. There’s only one reason: it’s corruption.”

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Why Jerusalem? Israel’s Hidden Agenda

July 13, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Dan Lieberman

Three huge granite stones rest comfortably on the top of Midbar Sinai Street, in Givat Havatzim, Jerusalem’s northernmost district. Cut to specification, the imposing stones represent one of several preparations by the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement to erect a Third Temple on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Since the Islamic Wafq owns and controls all the property on the Haram al-Sharif, these stones cannot be legally transferred to the Temple Mount nor can a Temple be constructed there? The provocation, represented by the stones, which the Israel government refuses to curtail, lead to a belief that an eventual Muslim reaction to the increasing provocations will give Israel an excuse to seize total control of the Holy Basin – the ultimate of the properties that Israel intends to incorporate into a greater Jerusalem.

For decades, Israeli authorities have spoken of a united Jerusalem – suggesting a spiritual quality to its message – as if Israel wants the home for the three monotheistic faiths to be solid and stable. By being guided from one central authority, a united Jerusale m also offers a preservation of a common and ancient heritage. However, Israel disguises the lack of a sufficiently supporting and verifiable historical narrative that could bolster its thrust to incorporate all of an artificially created greater Jerusalem into its boundaries. Coupled with inconsistencies and contradictions, Israel’s eagerness to create a greater Jerusalem under its total control becomes suspect. The intensive concentration on a ‘united’ Jerusalem reveals a hidden agenda that debases Jerusalem’s religious ingathering and heightens division, hatred and strife.

Examine the Holy Basin. The Holy Basin contains well marked Christian and Muslim institutions and holy places that have had historical placement for millenniums. Although people of the Jewish faith had major presence in Jerusalem during the centuries of Biblical Jerusalem, which included rule by King Hezekiah and control by the Hasmonean dynasties, their control and presence were interrupted for two millennia. Extensive commentary has enabled the two thousand years of lack of control and presence to seem as if it never happened and that today is only a short interval from the ancient years of Hezekiah. Almost one thousand years of Christian and Crusader rule and more than one thousand years of Muslim rule are politely ignored, while their tremendous constructions and creation are not credited. Almost everything becomes nothing and a minor something becomes everything. Myth replaces reality. Spiritual quality replaces actual presence.

Some remains of Jewish dwellings and ritual baths can be found, but few if any major Jewish monuments, buildings or institutions from the Biblical era exist in the “Old City” of today’s Jerusalem. The often cited Western Wall is the supporting wall for Herod’s platform and is not directly related to the Second Temple. No remains of the Jewish Temple have been located in Jerusalem.

According to Karen Armstrong, in her book Jerusalem, Jews did not pray at the Western Wall until the Mamluks in the 15th century allowed them to move their congregations from a dangerous Mount of Olives and pray daily at the Wall. At that time she estimates that there may have been no more than 70 Jewish families in Jerusalem. After the Ottomans replaced the Mamluks, Suleiman the Magnificent issued a formal edict in the 16th century that permitted Jews to have a place of prayer at the Western Wall.

The only remaining major symbol of Jewish presence in Jerusalem’s Holy City is the Jewish quarter, which Israel cleared of Arabs and rebuilt after 1967. During its clearing operations, Israel demolished the Maghribi Quarter adjacent to the Western Wall, destroyed the al-Buraq Mosque and the Tomb of the Sheikh al-Afdhaliyyah, and displaced about 175 Arab families. Although the Jewish population in previous centuries comprised a large segment of the Old City (estimates have 7000 Jews during the mid-19th century), the Jews gradually left the Old City and migrated to new neighborhoods in West Jerusalem, leaving only about 2000 Jews in the Old City. Jordanian control after the 1948 war reduced the number to nil. By 2009, the population of the Jewish quarter in the Old City had grown to 3000, or nine percent of the Old City population. The Christian, Armenian and Muslim populations are the principal constituents and their quarters contain almost the entire Old City commerce.

In an attempt to attach ancient Israel to present day Jerusalem, Israeli authorities continue the attachment of spurious labels to Holy Basin landmarks, while claiming the falsification is due to the Byzantines, who got it all wrong.

King David’s Tower’s earliest remains were constructed several hundred years after the Bible dates David’s reign. It is a now an obvious Islamic minaret.

King David’s Citadel earliest remains are from the Hasmonean period (200 B.C.). The Citadel was entirely rebuilt by the Ottomans between 1537 and 1541.

King David’s tomb, located in the Dormition Abbey, is a cloth-covered cenotaph (no remains) that honors King David. It has not been verified that the casket relates to David.

The Pools of Solomon, located in a village near Bethlehem, are considered to be part of a Roman construction during the reign of Herod the Great. The pools supplied water to an aqueduct that carried water to Bethlehem and to Jerusalem.

The Stables of Solomon, under the Temple Mount, are more likely a construction of vaults that King Herod built in order to extend the Temple Mount platform.
Absalom’s Tomb is an obvious Greek sculptured edifice and therefore cannot be the tomb of David’s son.

The City of David contains artifacts that date before and during king David’s time. Some archaeologists maintain there is an insufficient number of artifacts to conclude any Israelite presence before David. In any case any Israelite presence must have been in a small and unfortified settlement.

The Jerusalem Archaeological Park within the Old City, together with the Davidson Exhibition and Virtual Reconstruction Center also tell the story. Promising to reveal much of a Hebrew civilization, the museums shed little light on its subject. The Davidson Center highlights a coin exhibition, Jerusalem bowls and stone vessels. The Archeological Park in the Old City contains among many artifacts, Herodian structures, ritual baths, a floor of an Umayyad palace, a Roman road, Ottoman gates, and the façade of what is termed Robinson’s arch, an assumed Herodian entryway to the Temple Mount.. The exhibitions don’t reveal many, if any, ancient Hebrew structures or institutions of special significance.

Well known archaeologists, after examining excavations that contain pottery shards and buildings, concluded that finds don’t substantiate the biblical history of Jerusalem and its importance during the eras of a united Jewish kingdom under David and Solomon.

Margaret Steiner in an article titled It’s Not There: Archaeology Proves a Negative in the Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August, 1998, states

“…from the tenth century B.C.E. there is no archaeological evidence that many people actually lived in Jerusalem, only that it was some kind of public administrative center…We are left with nothing that indicates a city was here during their supposed reigns (of David and Solomon)…It seems unlikely, however, that this Jerusalem was the capital of a large state, the United monarchy, as described in Biblical texts.”

West Jerusalem is another matter. With banditry prolific and Old City gates being closed before nightfall, living outside the city gates did not appeal to the population. Philanthropist Moses Montefiore wanted to attract the Jewish population to new surroundings and constructed the first Jewish community outside of the Old City. Yemin Moshe’s first houses were completed in 1860. From that time Jewish presence played a critical role in creating a West Jerusalem. Other institutions, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Muslim soon ventured forth and acquired much property in the evolving West Jerusalem.

In 1948, After the Israeli army seized absolute control of West Jerusalem, the new Israeli government confiscated all West Jerusalem property owned by Muslim institutions. Reason – enemy property. Few Muslims and no mosques remain in today’s West Jerusalem.

One contradiction. By attacking and ethnically cleansing the Christian Arab communities of Deir Yassin and Ein Kerem, Israeli forces characterized Christian Palestinians as an enemy. Nevertheless, Israel did not confiscate all Christian properties, many of which are apparent in West Jerusalem. The Greek Orthodox Church owns extensive properties in West Jerusalem, many marked by its Tau + Phi symbol, which translates to ‘Sepulchre.’

Another contradiction. Israel has cared for the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives and expanded it as a heritage site. Part of the famous Muslim Mamilla cemetery in West Jerusalem has been classified as refugee property and is being prepared to be demolished for the new Museum of Tolerance.

East Jerusalem reveals more contradictions. The desire to incorporate East Jerusalem into Israel contradicts the repeated warning by Israeli leaders that co-existence is not feasible and that it is necessary to separate the Jewish and Palestinian communities. Incorporation means accepting somewhere between 160,000 and 225,000 Palestinians into a Jewish state. Or does it? Whereas the older historical Jewish neighborhoods in West Jerusalem have their characters maintained or are rebuilt in their original style, the older Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are entirely neglected (all of Arab East Jerusalem is neglected) or destroyed. How much deterioration and destruction can Palestinians absorb before they decide to leave?

Construction of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods proceeds and destruction of Arab homes, ei ther declared illegally constructed or illegally purchased, continues. On 44 dunums of lands that previously belonged to Palestinian families, a private company has constructed the gated community of Nof Zion and conveniently separated Palestinian Jabal Al Mukabir from other parts of East Jerusalem. No Arabs need apply. The million dollar condominiums are advertised for American investors.

The Israeli ministry of Interior has approved a plan to demolish a kindergarten and wholesale market in East Jerusalem’s Wadi Joz neighborhood in order to construct a new hotel close to the Old City and near the Rockefeller Museum. The result will be the destruction of an Arab neighborhood and its replacement by Jewish interests, which will one day join with other Jewish interests.

These are only two examples of a master plan to replace the centuries old Arab presence in East Jerusalem with a modern Jewish presence. The ancient Arab presence in an ancient land is further divided by the Separation Wall, which runs through the East Jerusalem landscape and detaches East Jerusalem from the West Bank, making it unlikely for a Palestinian state to have its capital in East Jerusalem. The master plan extends the boundaries of Jerusalem to include the large Israeli settlement (city) of Maale Adumim. Between Maale Adumim and East Jerusalem, Israel proposes to construct the E1 corridor, which joins settlements in a ring and adds to the separation of East Jerusalem from the West Bank. The E1 corridor will divide the northern and southern West Bank and will impede direct transit between Palestine Bethlehem, which is south of E1 and Palestine Ramallah, which is north of E1. Construction of the E1 corridor, portions of which are owned by Palestinians, could prevent the formation of a viable Palestinian state.

So, if Israel is destroying Jerusalem’s heritage and subjugating its spiritual meaning, why does Israel want to unify Jerusalem?

Israel is a physically small and relatively new country with an eager population and big ambitions. It needs more prestige and wants to be viewed as a power broker on the world stage. To gain those perspectives Israel needs a capital city that commands respect, contains ancient traditions and is recognized as one of the world’s most important and leading cities. Almost all of the world’s principal nations, from Egypt to Germany to Great Britain, have capitals that are great cities of the world. To assure its objectives, Israel wants an oversized Jerusalem that contains the Holy City. That’s not all.

Jerusalem has significant tourism that can be expanded and provide new commercial opportunities as an entry to all of the Mid-East. An indivisible Jerusalem under Israeli control is worth a lot of shekels.

Israel competes with the United States as the focus of the Jewish people. It needs a unique Jerusalem to gain recognition as the home of Judaism.

By controlling all of the holy sites, Israel commands attention from Moslem and Christian leaders. These leaders will be forced to talk with Israel and Israel will have a bargaining advantage in disputes.

Whatever Israel gains the Palestinians are denied. Even if Israel agrees to the establishment of a Palestinian state, it will direct its policies to limit the effectiveness of that state. Since East Jerusalem and its holy sites greatly benefit a Palestinian economy and increase Palestine legitimacy, Israel will do everything to prevent East Jerusalem being ceded to the new state of Palestine.

West Jerusalem only gives Israel a North/South capital. An indivisible Jerusalem gives Israel a forward look towards an East/West capital or a centralized capital of the land of previous biblical Jewish tribes.

The Zionist socialist ideals and the cooperative Kibbutzim received support and sympathy from idealistic world peoples for many years. Israel’s attachment to the Holocaust tragedy extended that sympathy and support to more of the world. With the end of the Zionist dream, the decline of kibbutz life and the over-popularizing of the Holocaust, Israel needs a new symbol of identity that captures world attention.

If Israel has legitimate claims to Jerusalem, then those claims should be heard and discussed in a proper forum. However, that is not the process forthcoming. The Israeli government is using illegal and illegitimate procedures, as well as deceitful and hypocritical methods to force its agenda . Israel is not presenting its case but is exerting its powers to trample all legal, moral and historical considerations.

The Museum of the Citadel of David has an inscription: The land of Israel is in the center of the world and Jerusalem is the center of the land of Israel.

This self praise was echoed at a West Jerusalem coffee house in a conversation with several Israelis, A youthful Israeli abruptly sat at the table and entered the conversation with the words: “All the world looks to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the center of the world and Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Everyone needs Jerusalem and they will need to talk with Israel.’

And that is why Israel desperately wants its greater Jerusalem.

Dan Lieberman is the editor of Alternative Insight, a monthly web based newsletter. Dan has written many articles on the Middle East conflict, which have circulated on websites and media throughout the world.

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A Saudi Arabian University with a Western Feel

July 17, 2008 by · 1 Comment 

By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

kaust classroom artist

Artist’s rendering of a classroom at KAUST.  King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) will feature coed classes, a curriculum in English and other touches seen as dangerous liberalism by Islamic fundamentalists.

THUWAL, SAUDI ARABIA — Up the corniche, along a coast where boats carrying pilgrims bound for Mecca sailed for centuries, a thicket of cranes rises over whitewashed mosques along the Red Sea.

Steel flashes and blowtorches glow as 20,000 workers build a $10-billion university ordered up by a king who hopes Western ingenuity will revive the economy of this ultraconservative Muslim nation. When finished next year, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology will offer coed classes, Western professors, a curriculum in English and other touches loathed as dangerous liberalism by Islamic fundamentalists.

The West may be dependent on Saudi crude, now as high as $145 a barrel, but this campus outside an ancient fishing village is recognition that the country that is home to Islam’s holiest shrines needs the likes of USC, Oxford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to survive globalization.

An architect’s rendering shows a campus of canals and reflecting pools running along sleek silver and glass libraries and laboratories. A marina with slips for 140 boats stands in a cove lighted by a tapered beacon. Students and professors will live in villas and apartments looking out on date palms and furnished with eggshell and white Swedish-style sofas and chairs.

Saudis have studied in the U.S. and Europe for decades, bringing back expertise without directly exposing the kingdom to Western classrooms and professors. But the new university is inviting the secular West a step closer in another ideological battle between Saudi reformers led by King Abdullah and the Wahhabi sect of puritanical Islam that has resisted outside influences since the days of desert caravans.

“Saudis are beginning to realize they are not the center of the universe,” said Tariq Maeena, a writer and aviation expert. “The king hopes that a young Saudi will be in a class with an American professor. The king is jabbing the conservatives from all sides. He’s not doing it with a massive decree, but incrementally, and all the radicals can do is roll their eyes and say, ‘Uh-oh, we’re losing more power.’

“Amira Kashgary, a literature professor at a women’s college, said, “We are part of the global world now. Whether we like it or not, and regardless of our political and religious systems, there are changes seeping through our lives.

“The radicals ran a wicked Internet campaign against the university. They said it is another sign liberals are invading us.”

The kingdom’s huge oil reserves cannot mask Saudi Arabia’s problems: 40% of its population is younger than 18, its schools are backward and its economy is not diverse enough to compete in a high-tech future balanced between the West and the rising powers of China and India.

King Abdullah is building the university, along with six multibillion- dollar Economic Cities, to provide jobs and open the country to global markets. Conservatives fear that these international voices, from South Asian construction workers to Western scientists, will change the religious fabric.

“Men and women learning together should remain forbidden,” said Mohammed Ben Yehia Nogeemy, a member of the Saudi Juristic Academy, a religious organization that issues fatwas. He said that such an atmosphere could be regarded as sedition and “if any Saudi official has the intention to allow the establishment of a coeducational university, that will be a big mistake that will need to be corrected.”

But the king, for now, is a step ahead of the conservatives. Nogeemy was not in attendance on a recent afternoon when oil money seduced brainpower at a hotel along the Red Sea in Jidda.

Silver trays of hors d’oeuvres and alcohol-free champagne glided through a crowd of Western academics gathered for a conference on the university’s goals. Soldiers with Humvees and .50-caliber machine guns stood guard outside to scare away would-be terrorists, while inside mathematicians and molecular biologists tried on blue university ball caps and pocketed Lamborghini pens left on seats as gifts.

The university, known as KAUST, is promising academic freedom, the mixing of cultures and religions, and subjects as varied as nanotechnology and crop development. The country’s ubiquitous and often abusive morality police will not patrol the campus, depicted on the university’s interactive website with unveiled women. Going unveiled is a crime in Saudi society that could lead to lashings and imprisonment.

kaust artist's rendering KAUST will be “a new house of wisdom,” Ali Ibrahim Naimi, the Saudi minister of petroleum and mineral resources, told the guests. He said world research projects and the Saudi economy, with a 12% unemployment rate, would benefit from the “easy flow of ideas and people into and out of the region.”

To ensure that, KAUST is not under the jurisdiction of the Education Ministry, which is controlled by fundamentalists and often forbids the teaching of music, art and philosophy.

The project is overseen by Aramco, the Saudi oil company founded by US firms in the 1930s. Aramco has experience in creating a parallel world: In its gated communities in the eastern part of the country, alcohol is available but hidden, there’s a pee-wee baseball winter carnival, and Western women drive cars, a practice forbidden to Saudi women.

With a chocolate-scented cigar in one hand and a honey-flavored coffee in the other, Maeena sat in his favorite Jidda cafe, nodding hellos to young men with laptops and waiters who know his preferences. This is the world he likes, a place to write, a den of intellectual freedom in Saudi Arabia’s most liberal city.
He said KAUST, which is being built 50 miles north of the cafe, is another sign that the country’s religious and ideological barriers are weakening.

“It’s an act of opening us up to a better side of education,” said Maeena, who, like many of his generation, attended college in the U.S. “The West has planted those seeds of liberalism in me and thousands like me. We were young Saudis educated in the West in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, but this slowed as the seeds of fundamentalism took hold here in the 1990s.”

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