Pushing Freedom

May 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves”. 

~Abraham Lincoln

freedomThe word “freedom” is one that is being heard more and more often in the Middle East whether it is in the media or brought up in simple conversation.  Countries like Egypt and Tunisia have already tasted the sweet tang of freedom in recent months. Other countries, like Bahrain and Libya, are still waiting to savor even a morsel of freedom in their countries. While certain parts of the Middle East have yet to provide full throttle freedom for its denizens there is one country that has been a beacon of light for a primary liberty, freedom of speech, in the Middle East for many years.

The State of Kuwait has topped the annual Freedom House “Freedom of the Press Survey” for several years running and has been heralded as having one of the most free media sectors in the region. However, this year, Kuwait was toppled from first position by Israel and further pushed down a notch by Lebanon to take third position.

It’s not surprising that Kuwait lost the top spot given that the past several months have seen quite an amount of political turmoil in the country with some media outlets not only reporting the news but also becoming part of it. At least one television station was ransacked in the pasts several months and one writer jailed over public statements they made which were deemed to be inflammatory.

Members of the public in Kuwait have also been prone to having their freedom of speech impugned as of late. This past January a Kuwait-based blogger was sued by an international eatery over writing a negative food review. Fortunately, the blogger proved victorious as the case was thrown out of court.  However, this past week a group of Kuwait University students found themselves simmering in a pot of “hot water” over comments made about one of their teachers on the social-networking site Facebook.

According to the teacher, who chose to press charges, the students posted derogatory comments about her teaching methods on a personal page. Other students chimed in about their experiences and it snowballed from there. Authorities investigated the incident and the case was seemingly closed until the teacher demanded punitive measures from the university’s governing panel. All of the students, some of which are set to graduate in the coming month, involved in posting the comments online face expulsion. In a counterclaim, a spokesman for the student union known as ‘The Democratic Circle’ has retorted, “Freedom of speech is a fundamental right granted by the Constitution. The fact that a university instructor does not respect this premise signifies the existence of a larger issue and jeopardizes the university’s reputation as an educational institute.”

Only time will tell if Kuwait can regain its status as the exemplar for free speech in the region. But one thing is for sure, censorship and transgressions against freedom of speech are both meals best served up cold. 

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While You Were Sleeping

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

COV_iranFlag This week has seen a spurt of would-be terror plots that painfully highlights the reality that our world is still not as safe as it should be, despite the two wars still being waged against purported terrorist regimes. The most notable occurred in the heart of New York City as Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad has confessed to being the mastermind behind the car bomb that, luckily, did not explode in Times Square. Shahzad was just barely apprehended as he sat on an Emirates flight set for Dubai.

The tiny Gulf State of Kuwait also got its own dose of a potential terror-plot in the making when security personnel unraveled a tangled web of deceit within its own borders. A ‘sleeper cell’ network of spies, apparently working covertly for the Iranian government’s Revolutionary Guard, was exposed this past week much to the surprise of the denizens of the region. For weeks, local Kuwaiti newspapers have been reporting renewed ties between Kuwait and Iran as well as a couple of deals, like oil exports. By all appearances the sleeper cell was put into place to gather intelligence on primary Kuwaiti and American targets, in the event that America decided to take a preemptive military strike against Iran. Iranian President has always promised to lash out at any Gulf neighbor that allows its land to be used by the US and its allies in a show of force against Iran.

Kuwait’s security forces have arrested at least eleven high-ranking Kuwaiti citizens that worked in close proximity to both the interior and defense ministries as well as several Arab nationals whose nationalities have not been released. During the bust, Kuwaiti security personnel raided the home of one of the leaders of the sleeper cell and found a great deal of incriminating evidence including maps for sensitive targets in Kuwait, hi-tech gadgetry and an estimated $250,000 stockpile of cold hard cash. Key players within the sleeper cell have also revealed to Kuwait security forces that they were instructed to recruit new members from Kuwait that were sympathetic to the plight of Iranians.

It’s not surprising that Kuwait was chosen as a primary location for the Iranian sleeper cell to settle in unnoticed. There are several American army bases littered throughout the country and Kuwait is a key stopping point for American troops headed to the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the strongest reason is most likely the friendship that Kuwait and America have built ever since the 1991 Desert Storm war, where America and its allies literally pulled Kuwait out of the clutches of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Word out of Iran is that the whole fiasco is merely a chance for Kuwait to discredit the country. However, the evidence is strongly leaning towards the validity of the sleeper cell and the Iranian governments full knowledge of its existence. And according to the Kuwaiti government there are still at least seven more members of the sleeper cell who have not yet been apprehended. But what is most disturbing is that interrogations with the suspects are slowly revealing that the espionage stretches clean across the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) member states with several Gulf countries supposedly having an invisible sleeper cell operating from within. Leaders from the Arab world are expected to meet in the foreseeable future to join forces in combating Iranian spy rings.

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Breaking the Chains of Labor

March 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan – MMNS Middle East Correspondent

DUBAI_WORKERS_(409_x_279) They say it takes a village to raise a child and, at least in the Middle East, that sentiment is taken quite literally. For decades, the wealthy denizens of the oil-drenched Gulf region have relied heavily upon an army of laborers numbering in the millions to help raise their families. Most of the laborers hail from the poorest nations of Southeast Asia, like India and Sri Lanka. They fulfill jobs that no one else wants to or seem beneath the wealthy elite class. Some serve as housemaids, nannies, cooks, gardeners and chauffeurs. Others have managed to crash through the ‘domestic servitude’ ceiling and work both in the private sector and public sectors as janitors, office boys and the like.

For many of the poor laborers, the jobs that they are contracted to do in the Gulf region are the only means of financial support for their families back in their homelands. And the support is often meager as the salary contracts are rarely enforced. The actual salary they receive is, typically, at least 60% lower than the original salary that was contractually agreed upon. Not only are the laborers exploited financially, but they are also often abused, both verbally and physically. Regardless of the drawbacks, the quality of life in the Gulf is a lot better than that in their poor homelands.

However, the result of the dependence upon such a huge force of laborers for so many years has come at a hefty price. There simply are not enough jobs for Gulf nationals. Well-educated and trained Gulf citizens are left redundant in most cases, as there are not enough of the highly coveted government jobs, with perks like obscenely high salaries and extra holidays, to go around. For this reason, many Gulf countries have little choice but to take drastic measures to release its dependence on a largely foreign workforce in order to free up jobs for their own people.

One such country is the State of Kuwait, who this week announced that the Kuwaiti government is initiating plans to replace its estimated 600,000 strong foreign workforce, in various sectors, at a rate of 10% per annum. The government also plans to ban hiring foreign workers, with the exception of those who are highly skilled, and will begin purging existing workers right back to their homelands.

The rationale behind the Kuwaiti government’s move is to cut spending and open new employment opportunities for eager Kuwaiti workers. According to a recently conducted study by the Kuwait Parliament, there are an estimated 60,000 foreign-held jobs today that could be handed over to Kuwaitis tomorrow.  The decision is also a preemptive strike to secure Kuwait’s borders as foreigners out number Kuwaitis 3 to 1. Other Gulf countries have already taken initiatives to break the chains of reliance upon a foreign workforce.

Further governmental plans include specialized training courses for Kuwait citizens so that they can step right into a skilled job previously held by a foreign laborer. And the government will also pay special attention to the Kuwait youth, which makes up a whopping 50% of the Kuwaiti population. Ignoring this segment of the future Kuwaiti workforce would be fatal as the next generation has the potential of meeting all of the employment needs of the country.

The impact of Gulf states sending much of their foreign workforce packing will have far reaching effects, most notably with the foreign laborers themselves. Once back in their homelands, there is little guarantee that they will be able to earn a quality living, as unemployment is usually high and community programming to help the poor is sparse. Being forced ‘out to pasture’ before their time is like a cold hard slap in the face for a foreign workforce that has helped build the Gulf region up to global contender that it is today.

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Hell Hath No Fury…

August 20, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Mideast Correspondent

jahra As William Shakespeare wrote, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

Those words came to life this past week in the state of Kuwait as a raging fire engulfed the tent of a wedding party that was in full swing following the nuptials of a young groom and his beautiful new wife. The swiftness of the blaze took everyone by surprise as the tent–where bride, female guests and children were celebrating–was turned to ashes within three minutes.

There was little chance for victims to escape as the burning tent collapsed on those who were unable to find an exit, then the electricity failed, thus cloaking any rescue attempt in darkness. More than 20 fire trucks and emergency personnel were dispatched to the scene. But it was already too late. Anyone who did not get out at the start of the blaze was shrouded in what remained of the melted tent. Even more victims died in the stampede to get out of the engulfed tent. The death toll stands at 46, with more than 80 injured with severe burns. Authorities expect the death toll to rise, as many victims remain in critical condition. The bride managed to escape, but her mother and sister both died in the blaze.

As the story unfolded the following morning, with some saying that it was just an accident possibly caused by the air conditioners used to cool the tent, it was difficult for even investigators to be sure of exactly what happened. That was until the arsonist turned herself into the authorities. She turned out to be the first, and recently divorced, wife of the groom. So far her name has not been released to the media, however the 24-year-old woman fully confessed to the crime based on the ‘bad treatment’, which was meted out to her by her husband and his parents during the marriage. In her confession, the first wife said that she only intended to disrupt the celebrations. When the police told her that more than 45 people had died and that it was one of the worst disasters to ever hit Kuwait in the past 40 years, she collapsed in tears. Eyewitnesses have since given the police more incriminating evidence. The woman’s housemaid said that she had seen her carrying a large bottle of gasoline and had asked the housemaid to bring her the day’s newspaper. Authorities now believe that she soaked the newspaper in the gasoline and then ignited it outside the tent.

In her confession she revealed that she took two separate taxis to the venue of the marriage. She hid outside of the tent and doused the gasoline around it before lighting a match and fleeing. The arsonist also revealed that she had exchanged SMS messages with her former in-laws during the day and was further incensed by their replies. She even told her ex-husband that she would burn the wedding tent down, but he did not believe her.

Doctors specializing in the treatment of burns have already arrived in Kuwait from Britain and Germany. And the Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Kuwait has offered to transport victims of the fire to Bosnia for treatment or dispatch a team of doctors from his country to Kuwait. In a new development both Kuwaiti citizens and expatriates have rallied together to donate much needed blood to the victims. An estimated 1,100 people have donated blood at the country’s blood bank since the fateful incident.

Family members of the victims have already buried their dead in local cemeteries with many praying openly that the arsonist will receive the full punishment from authorities. Kuwait Airways has also stepped in to offer immediate flights for family members of the hospitalized victims, who are on vacation in different parts of the world, to help them return to Kuwait as quickly as possible. His Highness the Amir of Kuwait has sent condolences to all of the victims and their families. The Amir has also said that he will not receive congratulations on the upcoming Eid-al-Fitr holidays to show solidarity and express his remorse for the victims.

It remains to be seen what justice the arsonist will receive as she has not yet been put on trial. However, her vengeful actions have forever changed the course of innumerable lives, including her own.

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The Bachelor City

December 11, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan- MMNS Middle East Correspondent

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The phrase ‘hired help’ takes on an extreme meaning in the Gulf with just about everyone, who is anyone, employing a bevy of service workers to fulfill their every whim. The majority of the workers are males hailing from Southeast Asia who leave their homelands in the hope for a better life in the oil rich region where they earn a meager living, which they send back to their families. They are garbage collectors, office tea boys, stockists, chauffeurs, janitors and are basically ‘jack-of-all-trades’ in every sense. They do the work that no one else wants to do and keep the Gulf nations running smoothly. Without this source of cheap labor, the current construction and economic boom in the region would come to a screeching halt.

However, the side effect of importing laborers from other nations is that there is an abundance of bachelors residing in residential areas, which often causes problems for families and the community as a whole. Nowhere is this more evident than in the State of Kuwait. According to recent research conducted in the tiny Gulf nation, bachelors are responsible for the bulk of crime in the country with theft and sexual assault topping the list of transgressions. It comes as no surprise that the so-called bachelors have turned to crime when they have limited opportunities in Kuwait, zero chance of promotion in their menial jobs and are lucky if they are paid their salary on time or at all. Some have no choice but to dig through the garbage to earn money from recyclables as their ‘payday’ is unreliable.

The issue of the bachelors has long been a sticking point in the Kuwaiti Parliament with MP’s from every district highlighting citizen complaints about the bachelor’s crimes and presence on the streets into all hours of the night. This past week the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MSAL) announced plans to construct a ‘bachelor city’ to house the ever-growing number of unattached men in the country. The first complex will be built in Sabhan city. It will cover 60,000 square meters and accommodate an estimated 3,000 laborers. The second complex, still in the planning stage, will cover 1000 square meters and house an estimated 9,000 workers. Both complexes will contain entertainment facilities and basic service businesses, like mini-grocery stores and barber shops. The governmental aim is to relocate all bachelors from the residential areas of Kuwait into their very own city to limit the opportunities for crime and to appease residents.

However, it remains to be seen if the idea will be a success or a failure with many bachelors up in arms for being forced to leave the only homes they have known since they landed in Kuwait. Many are law-abiding citizens whose only crime is that they are labeled as menaces to society simply because of the actions of other bachelors. The bachelors will be bused to and from their places of work in every city of Kuwait each day and return to their own city at night.

When asked about the plan for the bachelor’s city, Muhammad Amin, who is a Pakistani bachelor and day laborer said, “I think it is wrong to blame all bachelors for the problems of the country. The finger-pointing should be directed to the recruiting agencies who hire us from abroad. Moving us all to one city is not going to solve any problems and will cause anger amongst us for being kept away from society as if we are lepers.”

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The Arab Bailout

October 30, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS

bank-op

Vans line up at Gulf Bank to deliver money to the bank branches.

Photo Courtesy www.248am.com.

When news of the U.S. bailout hit the Middle East newswire, the snickering could most likely have been heard halfway around the World. There is no love lost between the U.S. and most Gulf States as the mass majority of Gulf residents view the U.S. as an aggressor and not the liberator they claim to be. However, no one is laughing now as the very first casualty of the World economic crisis, stemming directly from the U.S. bailout, has fallen right in the State of Kuwait, which is sure to send shockwaves to neighboring GCC nations.

One of the most prestigious and trusted financial institutions in Kuwait, Gulf Bank, had to be bailed out by the Kuwaiti government this past week. As Kuwait’s second largest lender, Gulf Bank suffered losses as a result of trading in oil derivatives and its’ own investors refused to help settle those losses. The Central Bank of Kuwait (CBK) has stepped in and is quoted as saying it, “backs the bank and fully guarantees its deposits.” The CBK also halted trading by Gulf Bank in the Kuwait Stock Exchange and sent its’ own surpervisors to deal with risk management. Bank records will be closely scrutinized to determine the scale of the risks the bank took without the knowledge of the CBK.

From the moment the news broke in this tiny Gulf nation, jittery Gulf Bank customers raced to the nearest ATM’s, local branches and even online to immediately withdraw the full balances from their accounts. All of the branches were swarmed with panic-stricken customers and rioting nearly broke out at one of those branches. By the mid-morning of the first day it is estimated that over $100 million US dollars was withdrawn. By the second day, rumors were rife that the all the Gulf Bank branches were under lockdown and customers were being limited as to how much they could withdraw from the ATM machines.

However, to hear Gulf Banks version of the events over the past few days, one might feel like they’ve entered the ‘Twilight Zone’. According to General Manager for Board Affairs Fawzy Al-Thunayan the reason for so many customers descending on the branches of the bank is because, “It’s the time of salaries … It’s the end of the month.” Al-Thunayan also denied that money from CBK is being pumped into his bank despite reports of several armored vehicles being spotted lined up at many of the main branches. 

Weighing in on the turmoil facing Gulf Bank, an employee of one of their main rivals National Bank of Kuwait (NBK) had this to say, “Our bank has been in business since 1952 and we know how to handle our client’s money. If Gulf Bank is having problems, small investors have the right to withdraw their money and look for other banking options.” As the largest lender, by assets, its not surprising that former Gulf Bank customers have been flooding NBK to open up new accounts.

So far Gulf Bank is the first ever Kuwaiti bank to buckle under the pressure of an increasingly uncertain global economy. Other banks in Kuwait are discussing ways to safeguard themselves from falling into a similar situation. A local Arabic daily newspaper has reported that at least four proposals for mergers between Kuwaiti banks have been received by the CBK. By merging into a larger entity, banks can best weather the current economic firestorm.

While Kuwait is the first country to see the demise of one of its’ banks up close and personal, it is not the first country to guarantee bank deposits. The UAE took the preventative measure of calming down its’ investors and clients by guaranteeing all deposits in the first quarter of October 2008.

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The ‘Block’ That Wasn’t

September 25, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS

 

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It has got to be the shortest decree in the history of Kuwait and, if not, it’s sure gotta be close. This past Tuesday news broke that the Ministry of Communication issued a memo to all ISP servers in the State of Kuwait to block the world famous YouTube social networking and video-sharing website. The reason being that several videos were uncovered recently that were derogatory to the Prophet Muhammad (s) and which made a mockery of the Holy Qur`an. However, less than 24 hours after the decree was made, it was rescinded. Most likely, the Minister noticed that he could ‘flag’ a video deemed to be inappropriate and YouTube would remove it. As expected, the videos in question have already been removed.

YouTube is huge in Kuwait, with more than 59,000 videos from both citizens and expatriates in the tiny Gulf nation being available on the site. Immediately after the news about the block hit, not surprisingly it was leaked from a worker at one of the primary ISP’s in Kuwait to a local blogger, a frenzy of blog activity followed suit. One blogger had this to say, “If they block YouTube they might as well just go all the way and block the Internet completely.”

Kuwait boasts one of the most open freedom-of-speech stances for local media in the entire Gulf region. However, the latest political elections saw more religious-minded MP’s maintain a firm grip on parliament. Censorship in Kuwait is set to push the boundaries of what residents have seen in the past with the primary TV stations coming under scrutiny recently for not showing enough Islamic programming and favoring a bonanza of Western comedies and dramas instead.

28541-skype_blocked This is not the first time that the government has censored the Internet. The popular website Skype is no longer accessible for residents of Kuwait. However, the reason for the block was not religious but rather economics. Skype users in Kuwait were able to make cheap International phone calls, which took a huge piece of the ‘pie’ away from the Ministry of Communications. However, while the Skype website is blocked the service is still operational. Computing wizards in Kuwait discovered early on that the Skype installation program could be emailed to them and then downloaded right to their PC. Completely blocking Skype is impossible given that it runs on encrypted tunnels.

Other countries in the Gulf have exercised their right to block Internet content that is questionable or forbidden in Islam. All the Gulf States block pornography in every way, shape or form. Some have even gone as far as to block both dating and matrimonial websites. However, some countries have blocked internet content for the sake of their own reputations. In 2006, the Dubai government blocked YouTube because two Armenians filmed a documentary about the human trafficking of Armenian women and girls to Dubai. The duo used hidden cameras to shed light on an underground prostitution ring that thrives in Dubai. Like Kuwait, Dubai eventually rescinded the ban and YouTube was once again available.

The Internet is growing by leaps and bounds with unprecedented amounts of information, whether good or bad, at the tips of most everyone’s fingertips. The challenge for governments to filter that information grows increasingly hard, as the internet has given anyone who wants their voices to be heard a boundless audience.

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