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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – One Day in KSA

December 3, 2014

Arab News

Where do I look for news while I’m in the Middle East? For international news, typically the BBC website, the Times Online and a host of other sites I’ve bookmarked over the years. For local news I rely on the English-language dailies produced in whichever country I happen to be visiting. I would have more choice if I could read Arabic, but that’s a challenge too far.

Saudi Arabia has two dailies: The Arab News and the Saudi Gazette. The former is fairly conservative in its editorial policy. It doesn’t push against the unspoken red lines as often as the latter. The make-up of the staff of both papers has changed as the readership has changed. Nowadays there are far less western expatriates than there were in 1980s, for most of which I was a resident in the country. In those days there were a number of western journalists on the staffs of both newspapers.

These days the writers are mainly Saudis or from the Asian subcontinent (I would say that these days a majority of readers are from this area too), with a smattering of syndicated material from westerners and other Arabs. The other major change is that there are many more female writers appearing in print, many of them Saudi columnists commenting very eloquently on social issues.

One of the interesting aspects of reading these papers is that they challenge your ability to read between the lines – red ones usually. Of course they’re often reflecting the language of official pronouncements. Words like “deviant” usually describe religious extremists whose views are in sympathy with the likes of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a liberal columnist might refer to “certain people” when he’s referring to conservative elements in society – usually the more head-in-the-sand members of the religious establishment.

In other words, the papers have developed a code that is easily deciphered by the cognoscenti, but their use is oblique enough to enable them to allow multiple interpretations. Unlike Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News, whose standard description of anti-government protesters – whether violent or not – is “thugs”. Pretty uncompromising. The Saudi media are more subtle.

So for the benefit of those esteemed readers who have no prior exposure to the Saudi media, let’s look at a few stories appearing in yesterday’s Arab News, and do a bit of line-reading.

The first story – “Mosques to be monitored with CCTV cameras”, The headline is pretty self explanatory. To quote from the story:

“Mosques in the Kingdom will soon have close circuit cameras and a smart control system to monitor imams and muezzins (prayer callers) as they perform prayers, religious rituals and deliver sermons. The move will help record any irregularities or violations in the mosque.

According to Abdullah Al-Howaimel, undersecretary for administrative and technical affairs at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Call and Guidance, all mosques will be managed by the electronic system that automatically records the activities in mosques.”

Later comes further explanation from the government official:

“Al-Howaimel explained that the project will address the problem of theft of appliances in mosques and will allow the ministry to fully monitor the prayer houses electronically.

“The installing of the cameras does not mean dispensing with the employees tasked with monitoring the mosques, because they have other duties such as maintaining hygiene,” he noted.

Pointing out that the new smart control system will also include air-conditioning, lighting, voice control, broadcasting messages, storage of preachers’ lectures and CCTVs, he said that the system would help reduce energy costs by 80 percent, lengthen the life span of appliances and facilities and decrease maintenance costs.”

It all sounds pretty sensible, especially the bit about energy saving. But I suspect that the main motivation lies behind the phrase “irregularities or violations”. The government has long been concerned about imams preaching extremist messages that could be interpreted as encouraging such activities as violent jihad – in other words “deviant ideologies”, which are potentially a threat to internal security, especially given the Kingdom’s experience of the extremist attacks directed at government institutions and western expatriates in 2003 and 2004. Recently there have been three attacks against westerners, one of them fatal, which may or may not have been “ideologically inspired”. Commentators have also interpreted the recent attack Shia worshippers in Al-Hasa as a direct challenge to the authority of the state. Plans to monitor what is said in the mosques therefore sends a message to imams to watch their steps.

Will it curb extremism? I suspect not, because the really subversive conversations can still take place elsewhere than in the mosques. But it is one more string in the bow of the Ministry of the Interior’s very effective counter-terrorism operation.

The next story – “Ideal: SR4,000 minimum pay for nationals” is about the Ministry of Labor:

“…considering a proposal to raise the minimum pay for Saudis in the private sector from SR3,000 to SR4,000 per month.”

What’s interesting about this is the Ministry is doing what government departments often do, which is to float and idea to test public opinion before making a decision. But in this case, it’s inviting comments on its online portal. Then we learn that:

“According to sources, the ministry will approve the resolution if the public votes in favor of its stipulations.”

Votes in favour? Is this a new form of online democracy? Government by opinion poll?

I’m sure the Ministry’s intention is not quite as portrayed in the story. Something as economically significant as a 33% increase in the minimum wage would surely need the endorsement of the country’s economic planners, and most likely the Council of Ministers as well, unless the whole deal is already done and dusted. As for the poll, you can be pretty sure that there will be a whole bunch of Saudis already lining up to say yes! Most likely far more than the business owners shuddering at the thought of the measure’s effect on their bottom lines.

By the way, whatever the cost to the private sector, I think that the proposal is a good idea. 3,000 Saudi Riyals a month is not much to live on if you have a family to support, or you’re planning to do so in the future.

Then we have “Mars facility in Rabigh to sweeten market”. This is about confectionary giant Mars opening a factory in Rabigh, in the west of the country. On one level this is good news because it will provide additional jobs for Saudis, one hopes. But on the other hand, this is a country with serious levels of diabetes. Is a chocolate factory really a wise investment in the circumstances? I suppose that wherever the chocolate is manufactured people will eat it, so you might as well make it in the country rather than have to import it. But still….

Next up, the impact of AIDS in the Kingdom. In Kingdom’s battle against Aids scourge relentless the paper reports that the country has witnessed a 26% increase in AIDS infections between 2012 and 2013. Such openness is a far cry from the early days of AIDS, when the authorities flatly denied that there were any cases. There are now over 18,000 cases in the country, of which the vast majority happened through injections (the implication being of drugs) and sexual relations.

The paper goes on to describe the plight of Saudi women with HIV:

“Meanwhile, on World AIDS Day on Monday, local journalists met with several Saudi women living with the virus. A woman infected with AIDS said she found out about her disease only after her husband was diagnosed 12 years ago.

Although she was depressed for a long time, she has survived to see one of her sons get married, and has managed to raise her other children. They stood by her when she told them about her illness.

The second shock for her came when all employees at her workplace were required to have AIDS tests. When her employers discovered her illness, they dismissed her. She then started making handicrafts at her home and became a member of the AIDS Friends Society, where she met many women living with the disease.”

In this woman’s case, her misfortune seems to have stemmed from the behaviour of her husband, though it must be said that he could have been suffering from haemophilia. Otherwise it’s a tacit acknowledgement that despite the strict social and legal prohibition of extramarital sexual relations, there are a number of men who play away from home, often, I suspect, while abroad. It’s encouraging to see the Saudis accepting that they live in the real world, and being prepared to front up about the consequences.

My penultimate story is the case of the young Saudi who got into trouble with the Bahraini authorities: Saudi gets one year for hitting Bahrain cops. Regular readers of this blog might have seen the piece I wrote the other day about the massive inflow of Saudis into Bahrain for weekends.

“An appeals court in Bahrain has handed a Saudi one year jail time for assaulting four police officers on the King Fahd Causeway. The trial court had sentenced him to three years, but it was reduced after the defendant filed an appeal at the higher court, Sabaq online newspaper reported.

The man attempted to force his way into Bahrain without completing entry formalities. When a police patrol asked him to stop, he refused and sped away. However he was detained at the security barrier on the bridge. He was arrested on the spot and when asked to get into the patrol car, he spat on the officers and struck some of them.”

Oh dear. Anyone remember what I said about young Saudis after a two-hour wait at the causeway being like corks fired from a champagne bottle? Quod erat demonstrandum.

And finally is the news from the paper’s foreign section that ISIS has banned the use of the contraceptive pill in Mosul. These guys are really thinking long-term, aren’t they? But in another development, as the local papers love to say, a majority of voters in an Arab News online poll disapprove of the use of birth control to prevent overpopulation. Ho hum.

I could have chosen a number of other features to highlight, including some trenchant letters to the editor on the subject of politics in the Asian subcontinent, an op-ed on the future of Kashmir and a number of articles in the financial section celebrating the achievements of the Saudi private sector, but I think you have enough to be going on with for now.

Just a normal day in KSA.

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