Egypt Welcomes Volcano-Stranded Tourists

April 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Charlene Gubash, NBC News Producer

Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism is determined to keep the good times rolling for stranded visitors.  Although hotels are overbooked by 7 percent in the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada and well over 80 percent in Sharm El Sheikh, hotel owners have been ordered not to expel guests who have overstayed their reservations.

Tour companies must continue to foot the bill for tour groups who overstay and if lodgers are traveling solo, hotels are obliged to offer them low rates. If travelers are in financial trouble, they have been advised to contact their embassies.

Stranded Europeans are taking full advantage.

“The travel agent, they pay all for us, room, food, drinks, everything,” said Ulf Daahlbom of Gothenburg Sweden.  He took a five hour taxi ride from Hurghada to take in the sites in Cairo.  “It was beautiful here.  I have been at the Pyramids and the Egyptian museum.”

Two engineers from Ireland and Scotland couldn’t conceal their smiles as they sat in the shade of a tree after a day in 100 degree heat at the Pyramids and Egyptian Museum.  They had been on their way back home from work in the Suez Canal zone when they were obliged to take an all-expense paid vacation.

Charlotte Krum, a stewardess for Scandinavian Air, has nothing to go back for since her airline has been grounded.  She and her husband and four children were on a Red Sea get-away when spewing volcanic ash extended their stay.  “It’s nice for us to have the opportunity to show them [the children] all the sites in Cairo,” she said. “We just came from the Pyramids and now we go to the museum.  We are trying to make the best out of it.”

Krum and her family came to Cairo to try and get a flight to Greece, but seemed in no hurry. Traveler’s insurance covered the first four days of their stay.  “Everything has been working out quite well.  We have some nice rooms here.”

Egypt jealously protects its biggest money earner: tourism.  About 12 million tourists, at least 65 percent of them from Europe, bring in about 11 billion dollars a year and 12.6 percent of the workforce lives off of tourism.  All guests are welcome, even those who overstay.

While many hotels over overbooked, EgyptAir and other regional carriers sit idle on the tarmac.  They are suffering to the tune of 250 million dollars a day.  Before noon on Monday, more than 16 planes were grounded on Cairo’s tarmacs.

But in Egypt’s airports, you won’t find hapless visitors trying to catch some sleep on makeshift bedrolls, or slumped in plastic chairs. Tour guides are under strict orders not to drop anyone off at the airport until they have confirmed their flights.

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Will Obama Play the War Card?

February 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Patrick J. Buchanan, Antiwar.com

Republicans already counting the seats they will pick up this fall should keep in mind Obama has a big card yet to play.

Should the president declare he has gone the last mile for a negotiated end to Iran’s nuclear program and impose the “crippling” sanctions he promised in 2008, America would be on an escalator to confrontation that could lead straight to war.

And should war come, that would be the end of GOP dreams of adding three-dozen seats in the House and half a dozen in the Senate.

Harry Reid is surely aware a U.S. clash with Iran, with him at the presidents side, could assure his re-election. Last week, Reid whistled through the Senate, by voice vote, a bill to put us on that escalator.

Senate bill 2799 would punish any company exporting gasoline to Iran. Though swimming in oil, Iran has a limited refining capacity and must import 40 percent of the gas to operate its cars and trucks and heat its homes.

And cutting off a country’s oil or gas is a proven path to war.

In 1941, the United States froze Japans assets, denying her the funds to pay for the U.S. oil on which she relied, forcing Tokyo either to retreat from her empire or seize the only oil in reach, in the Dutch East Indies.

The only force able to interfere with a Japanese drive into the East Indies? The U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Egypts Gamel Abdel Nasser in 1967 threatened to close the Straits of Tiran between the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba to ships going to the Israeli port of Elath. That would have cut off 95 percent of Israel’s oil.

Israel response: a pre-emptive war that destroyed Egypt’s air force and put Israeli troops at Sharm el-Sheikh on the Straits of Tiran.

Were Reid and colleagues seeking to strengthen Obama’s negotiating hand?

The opposite is true. The Senate is trying to force Obama’s hand, box him in, restrict his freedom of action, by making him impose sanctions that would cut off the negotiating track and put us on a track to war a war to deny Iran weapons that the U.S. Intelligence community said in December 2007 Iran gave up trying to acquire in 2003.

Sound familiar?

Republican leader Mitch McConnell has made clear the Senate is seizing control of the Iran portfolio. “If the Obama administration will not take action against this regime, then Congress must.”

U.S. interests would seem to dictate supporting those elements in Iran who wish to be rid of the regime and re-engage the West. But if that is our goal, the Senate bill, and a House version that passed 412 to 12, seem almost diabolically perverse.

For a cutoff in gas would hammer Irans middle class. The Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia on their motorbikes would get all they need. Thus the leaders of the Green Movement who have stood up to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah oppose sanctions that inflict suffering on their own people.

Cutting off gas to Iran would cause many deaths. And the families of the sick, the old, the weak, the women and the children who die are unlikely to feel gratitude toward those who killed them.

And despite the hysteria about Iran’s imminent testing of a bomb, the U.S. intelligence community still has not changed its finding that Tehran is not seeking a bomb.

The low-enriched uranium at Natanz, enough for one test, has neither been moved nor enriched to weapons grade. Ahmadinejad this week offered to take the Wests deal and trade it for fuel for its reactor. Irans known nuclear facilities are under U.N. watch. The number of centrifuges operating at Natanz has fallen below 4,000. There is speculation they are breaking down or have been sabotaged.

And if Iran is hell-bent on a bomb, why has Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair not revised the 2007 finding and given us the hard evidence?

U.S. anti-missile ships are moving into the Gulf. Anti-missile batteries are being deployed on the Arab shore. Yet, Gen. David Petraeus warned yesterday that a strike on Iran could stir nationalist sentiment behind the regime.

Nevertheless, the war drums have again begun to beat.

Daniel Pipes in a National Review Online piece featured by the Jerusalem Post “How to Save the Obama Presidency: Bomb Iran” urges Obama to make a “dramatic gesture to change the public perception of him as a lightweight, bumbling ideologue” by ordering the U.S. military to attack Irans nuclear facilities.

Citing six polls, Pipes says Americans support an attack today and will “presumably rally around the flag” when the bombs fall.

Will Obama cynically yield to temptation, play the war card and make “conservatives swoon,” in Pipes phrase, to save himself and his party? We shall see.

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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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Saudi to Launch Elite Science, Tech University

October 1, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Tarek El-Tablawy

Capture9-30-2009-12.20.22 PM Cairo–Saudi Arabia has dug into its oil-fueled coffers to set up a new research university, a multibillion dollar coed venture built on the promise of scientific freedom in a region where a conservative interpretation of Islam has often been blamed for stifling innovation.

The King Abdullah Science and Technology University — complete with state-of-the-art labs, the world’s 14th fastest supercomputer and one of the biggest endowments worldwide — is poised to officially open its doors Wednesday on a sprawling campus nestled along the Red Sea coast about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the commercial center of Jeddah.

Saudi officials have envisaged the postgraduate institution as a key part of the kingdom’s plans to transform itself into a global scientific hub — the latest effort in the oil-rich Gulf region to diversify its economic base.

But KAUST, whether its founders intend it or not, has the potential to represent one of the clearest fault lines in a battle between conservatives and modernizers in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is the most religiously strict country in the Middle East with total segregation of the sexes and practices Wahhabi Islam — a byword for conservatism around the region. But the new university will not require women to wear veils or cover their faces, and they will be able to mix freely with men.

They will also be allowed to drive, a taboo in a country where women must literally take a back seat to their male drivers.

With KAUST’s inauguration, “we see the beginning of a community that is unique” in Saudi Arabia, the university’s president, Choon Fong Shih told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“We recruit the very best in the world …. and we give them the freedom to pursue their scientific interests,” said Shih, a mechanical engineer by training who headed the National University of Singapore for nine years.

While it takes decades to develop world class institutions like what KAUST hopes to become, the university’s breakneck inception in many ways reflects Saudi Arabia’s rise to wealth and power in the global political and economic arena.

The inaugural ceremony is to be headed by its namesake, the Saudi monarch, as well as several world leaders, dignitaries and officials who will stand on what three years ago was just a sweeping acreage of sand, but is now a 36 square kilometer (13.9 square mile) campus with its beach on the Red Sea.

In a region where Internet access can often be lackluster, KAUSTS boasts Shaheen, a 222 teraflops supercomputer which officials says is the fastest in the Middle East and 14th fastest in the world. The computer is named after the Arab Peregrine falcon, believed to be the fastest animal on earth.

It also boasts a fully immersive, six-sided virtual reality facility called CORNEA that officials say, for example, can allow researchers to visualize earthquakes on a planetary scale.

Among the other equipment and facilities are 10 advanced nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, a coastal and marine resources laboratory and bioengineering facilities with labs needs to study cell molecules for DNA sequencing.

The English curriculum is focused on the sciences, with masters and doctoral degrees offered in nine fields including computer science, bioscience and various engineering specialties. The university is also focused on collaborative work with the private sector, as well as other research institutions.

KAUST has enrolled 817 students representing 61 different countries, of whom 314 begin classes this month while the rest are scheduled to enroll in the beginning of 2010. The aim is to expand to 2,000 students within eight to 10 years.

Of that total, 15 percent are Saudi, say university officials.

With research institutions, cash is king, and KAUST, thanks to Saudi’s oil wealth, has plenty.

It has tossed generous salary packages to prospective hires from around the world, an offer made more tempting by a multibillion dollar endowment that Shih says is “one of the biggest in the world.”

The 71 faculty members include 14 from the U.S., seven from Germany and six from Canada.

Shih did not provide a specific figure, but the funding allows all the students to receive full scholarships covering their tuition plus a stipend.

He says without that aid, students would have to pay about $60,000 to $70,000 per year — roughly comparable to the cost of attending elite U.S. schools like California’s Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The university is being launched at a time when the OPEC powerhouse has been upping its push to focus on education and development programs aimed at boosting economic growth.

Saudi officials have said they are committed to spending $400 billion over the next five years on various development and infrastructure projects, and the kingdom set a 2009 budget that ran a deficit for the first time in years specifically to sustain spending on such ventures.

But more than a projected research juggernaut in a region where other oil-rich nations are also embracing similar initiatives — albeit on a much smaller scale — KAUST may indirectly challenge the brand of conservatism that critics say has stifled progress in the Muslim world.

“We do not restrict how they wish to work among themselves,” Shih said, referring to whether men and women can freely intermingle on campus. “It’s a research environment …. driven by scientific agenda.”

In many ways, the campus is similar to other Western-style compounds in Saudi where residents are often allowed more flexibility in embracing liberal Western values shunned outside the confines of their community in the kingdom.

But the university also could also be seen as a return to Islam’s golden age — an era centuries ago when Muslim scholars took up the mantle of the Greeks and were pioneers in the fields of medicine, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, among others.

This tolerant and inquiring period was snuffed out under pressure from invasions by Crusaders, Mongols and nomadic desert hordes in the Middle Ages and was replaced by an age where faith superseded reason amid unstable times.

In the modern era, bureaucratic bungling, a lack funds, and a general stifling of freedoms has left much of the Arab Middle East in a state of academic and scientific atrophy.

Officials say KAUST’s embrace of scientific freedom marks Saudi Arabia’s determination to not be left behind as technology increasingly drives global development.

“In a way, we are paving the way,” said Shih, referring to the university’s focus on pure science. But if “KAUST is leading the way, it has to meet global standards of excellence, otherwise how else can we be a global player.”

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kaust graphic

No Longer a Day at the Beach

October 9, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS

beach

Enjoying a day at the beach has always been something fun and affordable for families in Egypt. Who wouldn’t want to take a dip in the Red Sea or frolic in the sun soaked sand? But for many residents of Egypt a day at the beach, like so many other commodities in their life, is becoming unaffordable. Now anyone wanting to spend the day at the beach must pay to play.

The reason being is that wealthy developers and governorates of the coastal property are turning public beaches into private ones, excluding the general public from setting foot on the property. Egypt, with its stunning scenery, is fast becoming a playground for the elite. Chalets and 5-Star hotels are going up seemingly over night. And while the public does have limited access to the now private beaches, in the form of an entrance fee of about $18, it is still an unaffordable rate for many families in a country where 65% of the population can barely make ends meet.

More than 100 meters of the Egyptian coast from Alexandria to Marsa Matruh have now been cordoned off from the public. There is not a single public beach in the whole stretch of land. The beaches have also been renamed to further woo tourists. Names like Oxygen, Paradise and Bianki don the most exclusive beaches whom in turn shell out thousands of dollars to the governorates to rent the space. Then the costs are passed on to visitors in the form of high entrance, food and comfort fees. Most of the private beaches will give beach-goers a chair for free, but if they want a towel, sunglasses or even a glass of water they should be ready to pay through the nose.

The private beaches are popular for several reasons. The Red Sea is close to Cairo, which is one of the biggest cities in the World with high-flying executives and wealthy Egyptians seeking to shed the city for the weekend. Another attraction is women’s-only private beaches where women, who normally wear the face veil or burqa, can shed their everyday clothes in favor of a bikini so that they too can soak up the sun, sand and surf. And let’s not forget about global tourists who visit Egypt year round to tour the Pyramids and enjoy activities like desert safaris.

The facilities and leisure activities on offer at Egypt’s most prestigious private beaches are also a massive drawing point. Snorkeling, scuba diving, jet skiing, windsailing and parasailing are just a few of the activities on offer. There are also several resorts and private villages like La Hacienda, Marabella and Marina that offer live concerts, 5-star restaurants, bars and dance clubs.

With a favorable climate, especially in the winter months which is notably warm, more and more of the Egyptian coastline will be developed not for locals to enjoy but rather to cater to those guests who have more disposable wealth to pay for even the simplest entertainment.

The days of the remaining public beaches are most definitely numbered, with newly categorized private beaches going directly under lock and key.

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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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