Sunday, February 21, 2010

Saudi Cultural Attaché appears to be turning over a new leaf

Any young Saudi studying abroad for the first time will tell you about the stress they are under to adjust to a new country, finding a place to live, and to navigate the confusing world of a new university.

Acclimating to a university in the United States or the United Kingdom is even more difficult. It’s an alien culture for most of us and we confront this world with trepidation.

That’s why when I arrived in Newcastle, United Kingdom, in 2007 to begin my postgraduate studies I was not looking forward to working with the Saudi office of the Cultural Attaché. The reputation of the Cultural Attaché in England was legendary among Saudi students for its complete lack of empathy for our struggles and the seeming inability to conduct any business that didn’t require undignified begging, pleading and racking sobs to get someone to return a phone call.

Towards the end of my first year at the university, I took a deep breath, picked up the phone and called the Cultural Attaché office to make arrangements to get a plane ticket to visit my sick mother in Madinah and to get details about the Saudi Excellency Performance Awards. Walahee! My 1-year-old niece, Alia, is more responsive and willing to answer my questions. She’s even more articulate over the

My supervisor, a Saudi woman, didn’t even feign interest in my questions. She told me she couldn’t help with the airline ticket and told me to call the ticketing department. She didn’t know a thing about the Excellency Awards and told me to check the website. She didn’t even bother giving me the website address. I was a nuisance to her. She confirmed the office’s reputation in a phone call that took less than three minutes.

I sent faxes to the Cultural Attaché office make arrangements for my flight to Madinah. No response. I called on the telephone. No answer. I paid for the tickets out of my own pocket for my brother and myself.

But what a difference a semester makes. The following semester I got an unexpected call from my new supervisor, Hany Ahmed, who introduced himself. He was friendly and polite but professional. He asked for my student details because he had none. He gave me his contact telephone number and e-mail address that I thought was only given by his office to the Saudi secret forces and to selected leaders of foreign
countries. I felt so special I thought it might be a prank call.

The next time I asked for plane ticket, I got one in less than two days. I then got an unsolicited phone call from Mr. Ahmed congratulating me on my performance review from my academic supervisor. He was encouraging and told me I was entitled to a
one-month allowance award for my performance.

At a workshop and conference in Surrey last year I finally met and the Saudi Cultural Attaché Dr. Ghazi Al-Makki and Saudi Ambassador Prince Mohammed Bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz. These men continually expressed their commitment to Saudi students studying in the UK.

I can’t speak for other Saudi students in the United Kingdom, but in less than a year the Cultural Attaché office transformed itself from a secret American-style black operations site to an agency designed for the purpose of student support.

My new supervisor is obviously dedicated to the job, but the Ministry of Higher Education’s new system also fits perfectly with dealing with students’ needs. What is even more surprising is that as a student I am permitted to evaluate my supervisor’s work representing the Cultural Attaché. This is an unprecedented experience for me with the Saudi government. The new system and the performance evaluation policy demands accountability. If this system is applied throughout the Saudi government, performance will improve.

We’ve already seen signs of a new order in Saudi government following the Jeddah floods. Those responsible for the city’s failed infrastructure that led to so many deaths are now being held accountable. While some people may see the connection between the improved performance of the office of the Cultural Attaché and the
demands for accountability in Jeddah’s government, the reality is that it appears the Saudi government is recognizing that deadwood in its ranks do nothing but obstruct the people it’s supposed to serve.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

There's a need for the Hai'a as long as its role is defined

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is going through another transformation. This time the duties of members of the Hai’a are more defined and detainees and members of the public who have contact with them are to be told whether a commission staffer is acting in his official capacity or exercising personal judgment.

This is a good step forward, but let’s not forget that the commission has been down similar roads before with not much to show for it. Just a few years ago there was an announcement that the Hai’a would take a more measured and gentle tone with the public that emphasized instruction and less on force. The results have been limited.

A more vocal public and perhaps impatience over continuing mistakes have prompted the Shoura Council this week to define the commissions’ duties in a written document. In essence, a Hai’a staff member now has a written job description. People who have contact with a commission member now will have a clearer picture of how and why the staffer is conducting commission business. In the past few years, there have been increasing reports of Hai’a members pursuing their own agenda. Now, that will be a thing of the past.

The Hai’a is needed in Saudi society. As Muslims we should welcome and give our thanks for their aid, sacrifices in performing an unenviable job, and for their instructions in matters of behavior and our religious obligations. To strip the commission of its duties, and render them nothing more than an agency in name only is

The Hai’a, however, has a serious image problem. Saudis and expatriates loathe having contact with them. Saudi women, in particular, fear them. Somewhere in the past decade or so the commission has lost its way, and few people were willing to help them find the right path until there was a series of deaths that were all
too preventable.

Commission members in my view can be heroic. I recall an acquaintance that was having her hair done at a beauty parlor when she got into a conversation with an employee who asked whether she was married. The woman replied no, and the employee said she knew of a man looking for a wife. The employee asked if she could give the woman’s telephone number to the man. My acquaintance consented. Not much later the man called and they had several enjoyable conversations.

Later, the beauty parlor employee contacted the woman and asked whether the man called her. When woman said yes, the employee identified herself as a marriage broker and demanded a SR 3,000 fee.

My acquaintance refused since the employee never identified herself as a marriage broker. The employee began a campaign of harassment. And to add insult, several men began calling her. These men said the so-called marriage broker gave them her telephone number.

Frightened and feeling cornered by being harassed by the beauty parlor employee and strange men calling at all times during the day and night, my acquaintance had the broker paid off. The harassment, however, continued and finally the woman went to the Hai’a for help.

Within a day the phone calls stopped and the phony marriage broker was never heard from again. Nobody could have resolved this problem better than the Hai’a. As far as I am concerned this is the true role of the commission: to protect young woman from predators.

With modern technology at our disposal, it’s truer than ever before that the Hai’a has a vital role to play in Saudi society. Saudi and expat women are often duped into supplying their photographs to men who appear to be honest but are anything but honorable. These women are often the victims of blackmail. E-mail and Facebook accounts are hacked. Women’s reputations and the reputations of their families are
tarnished. I have heard many stories of the Hai’a stepping in to quickly and quietly solve such problems. These pious men excel in this sort thing.

Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) Chairman Saleh Kamil probably said it best when he complained that too much emphasis is placed on the mingling of men and women, which is not haram. Only a man and woman alone together in a secluded place is haram. Rather, Kamil said that bribery, which is rarely mentioned in Saudi society, is far more harmful mingling. The same goes for protecting women.

A shift in priorities by the Hai’a will reestablish trust and confidence in the agency.

Specific job descriptions for commission members are a good start. The right of a detainee to understand the distinction between a commission member’s official duties and when he is exercising his own personal judgment is a good start. The recent announcement that a human rights unit will be established in the commission is a good start. But these new policies are only as good as the people who enforce them.

Without accountability and the proper checks and balances to ensure consistent enforcement of our religious duties, there is little hope that Saudi and expatriate women will ever feel comfortable going to the Hai’a for help when they need it most. The Hai’a is indeed here to help, but trust must be established first.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Saudi media zone will only work if restrictions are loosened

For all of the talk about Saudi Arabia’s strong desire to play a larger international role and to bring in foreign investment, our country seriously lags behind our Gulf neighbors in developing a sophisticated advertising and news media industry.

That’s why recent talk of establishing a media zone in the King Abdullah Economic City and perhaps elsewhere in the Kingdom sounds so promising. Media zones, or Media cities, are something intrinsic in the Middle East, although London has its Fleet Street, and New York once had Park Row and more or less Madison Avenue where all the news and advertising giants were clustered.

Dubai’s media zone is probably the best example of news, public relations and advertising companies assembled in a single cluster in the Middle East. There, daily newspapers, business and trade magazine, and fledgling public relations companies rub shoulders with news bureaus for CNN, Fox, the Associated Press, Agence France Presse and Reuters among others to deliver Middle East news. It’s also the primary news venue for foreign journalists to report on domestic issues in Iran and other regions where access is difficult.

While the idea of a media zone in Saudi Arabia sounds promising and is a logical step in the country’s campaign to become more progressive, the question must be asked whether Saudi Arabia is ready to take this big step. If this is an effort to put lipstick on a donkey and call it a thing of beauty, then maybe we should wait for the media industry to mature some more.

And that is perhaps the key issue here. The Saudi media are incredibly immature. Public relations, for example, is a foreign concept. I’ve run into many Arab and Western businessmen and women who refuse to do business with Saudi public relations companies due to unprofessional behavior. Often the simple task of showing up for a meeting sees to be too much for some Saudi PR people. And I have yet to find a single government news source that hasn’t complained about the lack of professionalism among Saudi journalists. Providing office space in a state-of-the-art commercial building in a tree-lined neighborhood isn’t going to make the local media any more professional.

Yet the advertising industry outside Saudi Arabia has gained considerable ground over the past decade to capture the Saudi consumer market. Saudis are the most powerful consumer in the region and broadcasters like Rotana and MBC target the Saudi consumer with an extensive advertising campaign. The problem is that most of the content for commercials and print advertising are produced in Dubai, Cairo and Amman, Jordan. There are no Saudi actors or models used. Filming, editing and packaging content are performed outside the Kingdom.

To make a media zone work, government restrictions on filming outdoors and in studio production facilities must be loosened. Tolerance needs to be practiced in allowing Saudi actors and models to work in their own country. I find it irksome that I must watch Egyptian actors pretend to be Saudi and try to sell me dish soap for my Saudi household.

It boils down to economic growth. A fully functional media zone with production facilities provides jobs for technicians, editors and production supervisors. It will jump start Saudi’s stagnant and neglected artist community. It will create jobs for Saudis in support services. It’s all good that Saudis are pushing for more students to pursue professions in science and technology, but it’s equally important for Saudis to find media jobs not limited to newspapers.

If Saudi Arabia wants to project an image of a leader in business investment and science then it must invest in a broadcast media within its own borders that conforms to our religious and cultural obligations but remain relatively free. We must deliver that message ourselves. We are not fooling anybody by mostly using non-Saudis in front and behind the camera to sell Saudi Arabia as an business opportunity, whether it’s dish soap or a construction project.

When we talk about pan-Arab satellite broadcast television stations, we should not be thinking of a Cairo-based operation but Jeddah- or Riyadh-based facilities. We have a young educated population that wants to work. Commercial broadcasting, film production, advertising, public relations and broadcast journalism are fields ripe for the picking.

The Abu Dhabi Media Company, which owns the leading United Arab Emirates daily newspaper The National, is planning to be on the ground floor of the proposed media zone. The company announced plans to open offices in Saudi Arabia in 2011.

The Abu Dhabi Media Company’s sole reason for its presence in Saudi Arabia is to target the Saudi consumer with heavy advertising. That’s good for the Abu Dhabi Media Company. The UAE company will make loads of money and create more jobs presumably for Emiratis and expatriates. But it begs the question whether any of The National’s counterparts in Saudi Arabia media, aside from Rotana, have similar plans to cash in and to create jobs for Saudis.