Monday, April 28, 2008

Saudi Health Ministry worries more about its image than patients

During my last visit to Saudi Arabia I spoke with a source from the Ministry of Health at a local hospital. He told me about the severe shortage of sterile disposable surgical gloves and the frequent infections patients suffer following surgery at some government hospitals.

He said that the cleaning crews at one of the hospitals were using the gloves for their cleaning duties, although doctors and nurses in the surgical units didn’t have enough to take care of patients.

His story reminded me of an incident I had while my mother was having dialysis in a government hospital. A nurse came in wearing surgical gloves stained with blood after attending another patient with Hepatitis C. When I asked her to remove the gloves, she carelessly told me that she had no replacements and went about her business.

Another doctor told me once about physicians complaining to the Ministry of Health about the poor quality of stitches supplied to the hospital. He said some of them were so poor that they would break open and allow the wound to open.

I have been accompanying my mother now for a few years to government hospitals and have seen and heard many incidents like these. So it’s no wonder that the National Human Rights Association came out with a report severely criticizing the Ministry of Health for the way it dispenses medical treatment to the patients.

The report is no surprise to any of us with experience in dealing with government hospitals. But what is truly troubling is the Ministry of Health’s reaction to the report.

Simply, Ministry officials seem to think that the Human Rights Association needs their permission to make their findings public. No, that’s not correct. The association is doing its job to inform the public.
But I understand why the Ministry of Health is embarrassed.

The Human Rights Association found the following: Health services are not distributed evenly to difference regions; rural areas tend to receive fewer services than metropolitan areas; many families must move from rural areas to major cities to receive medication; the Ministry of Health does not do enough to minimize medical mistakes; there is a huge shortage of medication in government pharmacies, forcing patients to purchase their own medicines; government hospital emergency rooms are providing substandard care; the medical staff in many hospitals are less qualified and manpower shortages continue to be a problem; and prisoners, especially those who are HIV-positive or suffering from psychological problems, receive substandard care.

The report is damning, but what is the Ministry of Health’s response?

According to the Ministry, the Human Rights Association does not have the authority to speak on behalf of the Ministry or release information until the Ministry responds to the report.
Patient care appears to be a little further down the list of priorities while the Ministry’s reputation is more important.

The Association responded to the Ministry’s concerns with logic. The group’s leaders pointed out that they were simply doing their job by reporting in a transparent manner the complaints from Saudi citizens about the Kingdom’s health services.

The group is following the rules and guidelines established by a government decree, which is part of the constitution.

Besides, the Human Rights Association isn’t telling us anything we haven’t heard already. One must be deaf and blind not to recognize the serious shortcomings of government hospitals.

Perhaps the Ministry of Health should stop with its arrogant attitude and acknowledge its repeated mistakes.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare Saudi Arabia’s health care system with that of a Western country, but the Ministry of Health could learn a few lessons from the United Kingdom.

I recently signed up for health care with the UK’s National Health Service. My very first impression was not promising because the moment I entered the reception of my general practitioner for the very first time, I discovered a dog wondering around while its owner was attending to some business at the counter. My initial reaction was to walk out, but I stayed for the appointment.

I found a very caring and attentive doctor who not only diagnosed my condition, but provided me with educational material for me to read later.

I was given an appointment card for a test that included instructions of what to do and what to eat before and after the test. Even though I was allocated a specific time to see the doctor, she patiently answered all of my questions and never was in a rush to see me leave.

This is a concept lost in Saudi Arabia’s government hospitals and it begs the question of when the Ministry of Health will stop worrying about its image and start spending more time on quality patient care.

We are not a poor country and our people deserve a better service when it comes to their lives.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Jimmy Carter proves that diplomacy achieves results

By Sabria S. Jawhar
The Saudi Gazette

It's a curious thing about Americans. The estimated 300 million or so people seem to think they are right about how Israel should deal with the Palestinians, while there's more than a billion people on the other side of the planet that have their own ideas.

What makes the United States government right when it argues that political groups it deems as terrorists have no place as the negotiation table, but gives Israel a free pass to curb commerce, destroy infrastructure and allow the collateral damage of killing civilians to far outnumber the deaths of so-called militants?

But my instinct to generalize and stereotype Americans as Muslim-hating, anti-Palestinian, Israeli-loving-at-any-cost war-mongers is put to the test when I consider the efforts of President Jimmy Carter to negotiate with Hamas. Here's a man who has been mocked, ridiculed, labeled a traitor to his country and described as anti-Semitic because he dared to say that Israel practices apartheid. Yet he continues to perform unpopular work in the name of peace.

Hamas was deemed a terrorist organization in 1995 and since then the United States has refused to negotiate with it. When the United States in effect sponsored the 2006 elections in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and was shocked to see Hamas voted democratically into power, it still held on to the antiquated policy not to negotiate.

Sure, Hamas occasionally behaves stupidly. What is to be gained by its over-the-top rhetoric to annihilate Israel or to cross the border to kidnap Israeli soldiers? Of course, the US doesn't behave any less stupid with its grand, but tragic adventure into Iraq and its own rhetoric against Iran. Equally stupid is its insistence to condemn the idea of talking to a political group that represents, for better or worse, all Palestinian, or at least the majority.

Consider, however, Carter's efforts to deal with Hamas. He has accomplished more in the past week than the Bush administration has in more than seven years and more than the Clinton administration when it decided that Hamas was the bogeyman.

By simply meeting with Hamas Carter has already shown the United States what Arab leaders have known all along. Reasonable people can separate the rhetoric from the true actions of a group. In this case Carter has gotten Hamas to agree to peace negotiated with Israel by its rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as long as it is ratified in a referendum by the Palestinian people. Even if Hamas did not agree with the terms of the agreement, they would leave it to their people.

That's a far cry from wanting Israel wiped off the map.

Carter also recognizes what everyone else in the Middle East already knows. Refusing to bring Hamas to the negotiation table is not working. Rather, we have seen President Bush, Dick Cheney and the hapless Condoleezza Rice trudge up to the White House attic, dust off the same old peace plans, slap a pretty new cover on it and try to shove it down the Palestinians' throats without discussion or so much as a single concession from Israel.

"We believe that the problem is not that I met Hamas in Syria," Carter said in speech in Jerusalem on Monday. "The problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet with these people, who must be involved."

While Carter has done great things during his trip, I am not so naïve to think that peace can be achieved anytime soon. Hamas agrees that peace can be accomplished if Israel returns to its pre-1967 borders and allows refugees to return to the homeland. This is essentially the same proposal outlined in the 2002 Arab Peace Plan authored principally by Saudi Arabia. But it's been six years. While Israeli leaders make noises that they like portions of it, they have yet to seriously open negotiations to discuss details.

The problem I see is not Hamas. Far from it. The United States needs to ignore the Israeli lobbyists and its fears of anti-Semitism allegations, and apply pressure to Israel's leaders to act in good faith. Carter, for all of his good intentions, doesn't have the weight to apply this kind of pressure. We've already seen the petty behavior of Israel by refusing to grant Carter protection. Why would Israel consider his pleas for reasonable accommodations for the Palestinians?

In effect, Carter has opened the door for the Bush administration to take the next step, but I am not optimistic. To react favorably to Carter's hopes of a negotiated peace would mean that the Bush administration policy of not talking to Hamas is flawed. And President Bush always thinks of his pride.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Giving Saudi women jobs and respect

By Sabria S. Jawhar

The Saudi Gazette

AT the Saudi Gazette I am fortunate to have editors who value my work and my presence in the editorial department. Working alongside my male colleagues has never been an issue.

That’s why it’s good news to hear that the Ministry of Labor has issued new regulations allowing men and women to mix in government offices. I can only assume that the private sector will follow. I am sure that some families will now reconsider whether to allow their daughters, wives or sisters enter the Saudi workforce. But the benefits from this new decision far outweigh any of the negatives especially if, as the decree says, Islamic regulations are taken into consideration.

But this shouldn’t be considered some great leap in modernizing our society. For one, it’s long overdue. We’re just catching up with the rest of the world, Saudi society or no Saudi society. Here we are with the first decade of the 21st century almost over and we can’t even give women the right to work in lingerie shops or give them the right to drive a car.

And we still must address the issue that 60 percent of Saudi women graduate from universities but only 7 percent can get jobs.

By contrast as many as 40 percent of the female population in other Gulf countries are working. If Saudi Arabia is investing so much in getting women educated, especially with full scholarships available for women in universities abroad, then what is the point if jobs are not available for them?
One wonders why Saudis are comfortable with their women traveling to Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates for jobs they should have in Saudi Arabia.

And that’s the issue. Jobs are available, both in government and private sectors. We just aren’t serious about filling them with women.

What’s more important is that Saudi Arabia suffers socially and economically by refusing women the right to work anywhere they choose. By working and contributing to the economy (and imagine if they were free from the economic constraints of hiring private drivers), women provide a second income for their family. They spend more money to contribute to the local economy. And they develop a strong sense of self-respect and a stronger sense of pride and confidence.

And this brings me to the issue that Saudi women need a greater say in their economic and social future. Most Gulf countries have a fair sampling of women in elected positions. Only Saudi Arabia, the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, to which all Arab nations look for guidance, stands alone in shutting women out of the political process.

The Shoura Council has 150 men but only six part-time female advisers. Advisers, mind you, not full-time participating members. Not a single Saudi municipal council has a female member. And, of course, women are not permitted to vote in local elections.

In our society, women - their minds, their bodies, their role in the family - are so tied to a man’s honor, that we have become paralyzed in moving forward to provide them wider opportunities.
For some reason, we are being pulled kicking and screaming into modernizing our society. Yes, we Saudis struggle daily with the concept of modernization. We equate modernization with Westernization or becoming too American. As if wearing a pair of faded jeans is somehow surrendering to the modern Western culture. The same is true of having women mix with men in the workplace or allow them a full seat on the Shoura Council or being elected to the municipal council.

It’s modernizing how we do business and engage in the political process, but it’s not surrendering our cultural or religious values.

We are in the middle of building six economic cities. But what to do with them? Have them stand as a monument to male superiority by denying women the right to participate? Or are we going to open these economic cities to the entire Saudi society?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Summit shows Arabs are paralyzed by indecision

By Sabria S. Jawhar

The Saudi Gazette

When was the last time the Arab Summit actually accomplished something?

Try six years ago when Arab leaders approved the Peace Initiative in Beirut. Since then there has been little that has been positive from these summits. Just plenty of bickering and petty arguments.

If I sound frustrated, well I'm sure that most of the 400 million Arabs across the Gulf countries feel the same. In 2002 we demonstrated unity with the historic peace proposal that would give Israel recognition in exchange for a return to its pre-1967 borders.

Certainly it's frustrating to see apathetic Israeli leaders squander this opportunity for lasting peace in the Middle East and to ease the pain and oppression of the Palestinians, but the proposal reflects well on the Arab League's 22 heads of state.

Unfortunately the very thing that we can take credit for that the United States and the European Union failed to do is now in danger. Delegates at the summit made the suggestion that perhaps it's best to reconsider the Peace Initiative. And it seemed to have gained traction through the two-day meeting.

But the Palestinian delegation urged Arab nations to stand by the proposal.

"The Arab Peace Initiative is a political stance that should not be wavered... If we pull out this initiative we would be doing Israel a favor," said Nimer Hammad, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas just as the the Damascus summit was getting underway. And Abbas has said that despite the Gaza crisis it's still possible for the Palestinians and Israelis to make peace before the end of the year.

Let's consider for a moment this reevaluation of the Peace Initiative. Do we have something better to put on the table? If we are going to withdraw the proposal, what will be put in its place? War? This is the problem with these half-baked ideas that seem to play in the hands of Israel and the United States.

We mumble threats like children when Israel is too lazy to sit at the table and discuss the peace proposal, so I suppose we just take our ball and go home. All that does is give Israel another victory and point fingers at us that we are nothing more than a bunch of quarrelsome Arabs who can't make up our minds of what to do. But having said that, Israel needs to quit waffling and either accept or reject the initiative or be willing to sit at the negotiation table.

We also managed to be lectured by none other than Muammar Qaddafi for our inability to make a decision or organize united front. As usual he was at his colorful best by warning Arab leaders that their countries will be “marginalized and turn into garbage dumps” if we don't get our act together.

Syrian leaders should be held accountable for some of this mess. First, they managed to anger most of their neighbors by meddling in Lebanese affairs. It brought a US warship off the coast of Lebanon. In all, 10 of the Arab League's 22 members stayed home. So even if the ridiculous effort to rethink the Peace Initiative wasn't considered, little would have been accomplished as it is because no one was there to take a leadership position and effect a meaningful agenda.

For instance, we've been told that all sorts of resolutions have been passed. But anybody name just one that means a thing?

This is old news for us who pay attention to this continuing soap opera. Egypt was frozen out of the Arab League for 10 years after it signed a peace agreement with Israel. And through the '90s summits were held only twice. Then in what can only be considered irony, Arab League members decided in 2000 to hold the meetings annually to foster greater unity. The effort started on an optimistic note, and 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan only brought Arab leaders closer to seriously dealing with the region's problems. The 2002 Peace Initiative proved that. But as the crisis in the region grows to epic proportions – the Gaza tragedy, Iraq's occupation, Saddam Hussein's execution, threatening US rhetoric against Iran, Islamophobia – we are paralyzed by indecision.

The only distinction this summit had over the other unimpressive meetings is that it only served to widen the gap between Syria and other Arab nations because of Syria's poor behavior. But we can ill-afford to be so fractious. There will come a time when Syria's neighbors must decide whether they will continue to permit this kind of conduct that further divides the region.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The West's skepticism

By Sabria S. Jawhar
Saudi Gazette
WESTERN media have reacted skeptically to King Abdullah’s plans to convene an inter-Faith conference that will include Jews, Christians and Muslims. By contrast international religious leaders have responded warmly, if not cautiously.

The secular Western press seems to believe there are ulterior motives for the King’s plans. There have been articles that the King wants to lull the West into a false sense of security in an effort to protect the Kingdom’s oil production along with other internal issues.

I forgive Westerners for their ignorance and applaud non-Muslim religious leaders for embracing the King’s objectives. Predictably the West is mixing politics and religion. I thought the Western media would hail the King’s plan and not criticize it. I’m troubled that it’s not possible to give Saudi Arabia the benefit of the doubt.

Think about it. When the king of a country that has Islam’s two holiest places adored and respected by all the Muslims of the world, doesn’t the call for inter-Faith dialogue from that land deserve exploring, if not adopting and promoting it?

Western media have shown little inkling to understand Saudi society and what it takes to move its people to demonstrate tolerance towards other religions. I am not talking about Islam, because the Qur’an is very clear that Jews and Christians are People of the Book and are our brothers and sisters.

But the Israeli occupation and destruction of Palestine and continuing abuses heaped on Muslims in the form of wars and economic sanctions have many Westerners confusing religion with politics. And the same goes for Muslims in which we view world events through a political prism, forgetting that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance.

We should focus on the advantage of this call for dialogue for the West and not just for Muslims. Those who claim that this is a move to address the Kingdom’s internal issues are forgetting that Saudi Arabia has already established a program to train Imams to study other religions. Is that some kind of public relations effort? No, we are not talking about NGOs implementing programs to address the issue of tolerance but the head of a state. In contrast, what have Western leaders done?

But Western journalists are forgetting several very important developments that led to the King’s decision to create dialogue. First, and this goes back to 2002, is the Arab Peace Plan to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for establishing Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Second is the King’s surprise visit to the Vatican last year to meet with Pope Benedict. Although we are not privy to the conversations between the Pope and the King, it appears that there was an agreement to pursue plans for an inter-faith dialogue conference.

I don’t deny there are practical concerns as well. Saudi Arabia is now a member of the World Trade Organization and there have been accelerated efforts to attract foreign business to our country, not to mention attempts to become a country that does more than produce oil. We certainly have to move more aggressively in establishing stronger relationships with other religions.

This has been a course charted since 9/11. And it’s a course that Saudis have been following. But the West is so very impatient with its short attention span. The Western media is like a child sucking on a piece of candy. When the candy is gone the child immediately wants another one without thinking about that tummy ache ahead.

The media want quick fixes and when those quick fixes don’t come, it becomes suspicious and skeptical about the fix when it’s finally offered. It’s odd that after all the abuse that has been heaped on Saudi Arabia since 9/11, that Western countries have been so silent about this dramatic announcement by the King. Let’s not kid ourselves.

It’s a major step for Saudi Arabia to invite Christians and Jews to a worldwide conference in which the whole world will be watching. And the road to accomplish that task won’t be easy. Admittedly, we have a conservative segment of our society who will not embrace these efforts, but for some reason the West is not prepared to give the King credit for this courageous step.

It’s kind of like the conservatives in the West demanding every 15 minutes that Muslims condemn terrorism. But when we condemn terrorism every minute of every day, no one pays attention. Our critics demand that Saudi Arabia demonstrate tolerance towards all religions. When we do, no one pays attention.

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