National service is a must
Saudi soldiers in formation.
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The call by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Alsheikh for mandatory military conscription of Saudi youth is an overdue and excellent one. Not only would it bring much needed discipline into the lives of young Saudis, it would also give them a greater purpose in life.
The Grand Mufti said he wanted to see specific legislation enacted that would make military service compulsory for young Saudi men for a specified period of time. Our government would do well to seriously look into this. Many countries around the world have had mandatory military service for decades, and even our Gulf allies such as Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE already have some form of military service.
Can you imagine the discipline of having to rise at 4:30 in the morning and be ready for full inspection by 5 a.m.? Conscripts would have to make their own beds, shine their own shoes and wash their own clothes. No one would have their Indonesian maid there to do all of the domestic chores. No, the Saudi youth will have to do this themselves, and do it well without complaining.
I think the idea of mandatory military service should be expanded to include national service such as doing volunteer work, like helping to build housing for the poor, so as to accommodate Saudis who absolutely do not want to do military service. That way, Saudi women could also be included in this mandatory public service, which would be a great way to build confidence, capability and experience among all of our youth.
I attended the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh last week, and was very pleased to see so many young Saudis, both male and female, attending and asking relevant questions of the speakers. But I still think that as a nation we lack certain basic life skills and independence to do them, which other youth have learned through necessity. While our oil wealth has been a blessing in that it has enabled us to be able to hire maids and drivers to help us in our daily lives, it has also made many of us “dumb” in many ways. How many young Saudis are capable of cleaning their own rooms, washing their own clothes and bathrooms without the help of servants? This may seem like something trivial, but it is not. We must have these everyday life skills in order to prove to ourselves that we are capable and not helpless, spoiled brats.
To sweeten the prospects of military and national service, the government could promise to give university scholarships for those Saudis who excel in their service to study abroad. In return, the government would insist that these scholarship students return to the Kingdom to work for a certain number of years.
Young Saudis are far too often accused of being lazy and of floating through life without any purpose. This is unfortunate; something that mandatory national service would certainly help change. In order for this concept to work, all Saudis regardless of wealth or position would be obliged when they turn 18 years old to undertake national service for a minimum of one year or 18 months. They would of course be paid a monthly stipend by the government for their service. Refresher training every five years, for two months until the age of 35, would keep our military conscripts up to date with the latest techniques.
Compulsory national service is an idea that is long overdue. Young Saudis are in dire need of such a program to give them purpose in life and to make them responsible and valuable citizens. For sure there will be much resistance to this idea in the beginning, but when the youth see the benefits of it, they will surely be glad that the government introduced it.
Holding workers accountable
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, visits an empty government office.
This article was printed in Arab News on September 11, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The surprise inspection of government offices in Dubai on the morning of Aug. 28 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the UAE’s prime minister and ruler of Dubai, found that many managers were not at their desks working. Video released of the ruler showed him walking around empty offices, looking at papers piled on desks and not looking pleased at all.
His surprise inspection tour took him to the municipality, Dubai international airport, the
Land Department and the Department of Economic Development. The next day his office announced the retirement of nine of these managers, mentioning their titles and full names. It was a way of naming and shaming. Just imagine if a similar thing happened here in Saudi Arabia? It would send shockwaves through our bloated bureaucracy.
The ruler felt he could not fire subordinates for not being at work when their superiors were also skipping work. He also stressed that the retirements were a method of retiring the older generation, who had already proved their abilities, to allow the younger generation a chance at running things.
The problem with public servants all around the world is that they often become entrenched and entitled bureaucracies that only want to do their duties when they feel like it and at their own pace. Egypt and India are two countries that have huge civil service contingents that are very efficient when they want to be, and incredibly slow, hard-headed and lazy when it suits them.
Go to any government office in the developing world and more often than not you will find long queues of people waiting to be attended to by bureaucrats. Meanwhile, the government workers can be seen drinking endless cups of tea and bantering among each other, seemingly oblivious to the waiting public. It seems that the quasi-for life jobs that they have, shield them from the efficiency standards that the private sector is subject to.
A recent cartoon in a Saudi newspaper showed a worker running out of an office while hurriedly telling a tea boy to leave a glass of tea on his desk so that his boss would think that he is somewhere in the building and coming back soon. I think everyone who has ever worked in an office laughed at reading the cartoon’s text as it must have struck a chord. But it captured perfectly the attempt of many in Saudi Arabia to appear to be working, while in fact slacking off to go to a social gathering, to smoke or just to bunk off work at the expense of the employer.
Unfortunately far too many Saudis and Gulf citizens think this is still acceptable behavior as long as they don’t get caught neglecting their professional responsibilities. This leads to a loss of morale among other workers in the offices where this occurs. It is also incredibly inefficient and unfair as well; as more often than not someone else in the office will have to do the shirker’s work on top of their own work.
I am sure that there some Saudis who work extremely hard and do not fit this pattern of behavior. Often, we have been lulled into this sense of entitlement and consequent slacking off because of the immense oil wealth we as a nation have been fortunate enough to be blessed with. “Oh, someone else can do my work,” has normally been the attitude. But with the plunge in oil prices, and the realization that our oil reserves will not last forever, Saudis have better wake up soon to their new reality and work much harder than they have ever before.
Iran’s pack of lies
This column was printed in Arab News on September 17, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
With the Haj pilgrimage just successfully completed in Makkah with no serious injuries this year, without any Iranian pilgrims, and with Saudi Arabia successfully fighting to stop Iranian domination of Syria and Yemen from taking place, the Iranian government has decided once again to lash out at the Kingdom.
In a shocking and sickening opinion piece for the New York Times this week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif calls on the world to rid the world of “Wahhabism,” using a term that we Saudis have rejected for decades. He falsely claims that Saudi money funds such extremist groups as Daesh and the Nusra Front in Syria. The whole article would be laughable if not for the sinister tone pervading it. Indeed, a British friend of mine was horrified at the piece, telling me that it sounded as if the Iranians were calling for the genocide of all Saudis.
Indeed it is highly ironic that a country that has vowed to export its Islamic Revolution since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, is now accusing Saudis of exporting conflict and death. Everyone is well aware that the Iranians were behind the formation of the Hezbollah guerilla group in Lebanon; and that their support of the Assad regime in Syria has caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the civil war there, now in its fifth year.
Zarif brings up the old canard of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US as “proof” that Saudi Arabia is bent on attacking everyone. But the 9/11 Commission report found that no Saudi official gave support to the hijackers. Then he accuses Saudi money of funding extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh. The Saudi government has said that some misguided individuals may have donated money to these groups and even fought for them, but that does not mean the government supports them. Far from it. Al-Qaeda and Daesh are deadly enemies of the majority of law-abiding Saudis, with both groups responsible for a string of bloody terror attacks in the country that have claimed many lives.
Zarif claims that the Kingdom is confronting Iran in all of the Middle East in order to contain Iran. That he got right. If there is one country in the region that is fanning the flames of sectarianism it is Iran with its support of Shiite militias in Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. He falsely claims that Saudi Arabia pines for the return to the days when Saddam Hussein was live and in power. Saudis are not sentimental for the past, but that does not mean that they will sit quietly and allow Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen run roughshod over Sunni communities.
After all, everyone with a few brain cells realizes that the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 brought in a Shiite-majority government backed by Iran with militias that have killed, intimidated, tortured, extorted, blackmailed, kidnapped and summarily executed thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians because of their sect. Even the Saudi ambassador to Baghdad has been the target of threats from Shiite militias in Iraq, who have said they would kill him.
Zarif also brings up the old accusation that the Kingdom has exported an intolerant version of Islam by funding the building of mosques and Islamic centers for Muslim communities around the world. This is patently untrue. Here in Brazil, the Kingdom has helped fund more than 50 mosques since the 1970s, most of them staffed by Egyptian imams. No extremist Muslim groups have popped up here, except for a few terrorist suspects that were arrested in July and who were influenced by Daesh through the Internet and not in local mosques.
It is cynical of Zarif to suggest at the end of his screed that the Kingdom can be part of the solution of tackling radical Islam, as if we need his permission or blessing to fight against the misguided monsters of Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
The Kingdom has never been against the Iranian people, but it will not stand still and allow the Iranian government to run roughshod over Sunni communities throughout the Arab world. Cooler heads need to prevail in Tehran to stop the current clash between the two sides, which may ignite into a conflagration much larger than the current one.
Centenary of the Great Arab Revolt
Arab forces a top their camels, ready to fight the Turkish forces in Arabia.
This column appeared in Arab News on 12/06/2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
A hundred years ago this week the Great Arab Uprising against the Ottoman Empire began on June 9, 1916, with the British shelling of the city of Jeddah by military ships in the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia did not exist yet, and the region of Hejaz where Jeddah and the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah are, was under the rule of the Turks.
The Great Arab Uprising happened within the context of the WWI, in which the Allies — the British Empire, France and the Russian Empire — fought against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. This conflict lasted four years, from 1914 to 1918, in which nine million combatants and seven million civilians lost their lives. It also ended the Ottoman Empire.
To facilitate the travel of Muslims to Makkah and Madinah, the Ottomans began to build a railway line in 1900 from Damascus, Syria, to the Hejaz. Named the Hejaz Railway, work was completed in 1908, only reaching Madinah, and not Makkah, as the Ottoman rulers originally planned, because of regular attacks on the railway line from local Arab tribes. Of course, the Ottomans also used this railway for military purposes, to maintain control of all the Arab lands under their rule.
Although it is called the Arab Revolt, the uprising actually was concocted by the British government, with the help of the French, to ultimately destroy the Ottoman Empire and gain control of several Arab territories. A mentor of this revolt was the famous military and British spy T. E. Lawrence, who led Arab attacks against Ottoman garrisons in the region and the Hejaz Railway. He, with Gertrude Bell, another British spy, duped Sharif Hussein, the ruler of the Hejaz, into believing that the British would allow the Hejaz, Palestine, Syria and Iraq become independent after the WWI. But the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 brutally divided the Middle East. Britain got Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq; while the French received Lebanon and Syria. Hussein was given the Hejaz, but he soon lost this territory to King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, in 1924. Two sons of Hussein, Faisal and Abdullah, managed to establish their rules in Iraq and Jordan respectively.
It was typical of the British Empire to deceive the Arabs using money, false promises and manipulation. But their trickery was also decisive in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Certainly, although the Turks were also Muslims, they were not Arabs and various Arab peoples did not like the Ottoman excesses.
According to the English writer John Johnson Allen, author of the book “TE Lawrence and the Red Sea Patrol,” the British had to use the sea route through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to supply its troops in Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and India, and to take goods from India to England. The canal, designed by the French, was opened in 1869, cutting several weeks off of travel from Europe to Asia. Before, ships had to travel around the African continent to get to Asia. In 1915, the Ottomans moved eight to ten thousand soldiers near the canal. With this, the British felt threatened, and found it necessary to reinforce the safety of the route to India. Eight battleships, six British and two French, were stationed in the channel to provide defensive artillery support. The Turks attacked, but were pushed back by the superiority of English firepower.
Later, in 1916, the British decided to attack Ottoman garrisons in Jeddah, Yanbu and Madinah, with the goal of driving out the Turks and leaving these cities under the control of Arabs friendly to the British Crown. For coastal towns, they used a handful of mid-sized military ships that could carry seaplanes used for reconnaissance flights and bombing the Turks. The Turks in Jeddah surrendered after five days of British shelling. In the following months, the British took hundreds of Turks captive, including women and children, and transported them as prisoners of war in their ships to Port Said in Egypt.
The city of Madinah and the Turks guarding it suffered a siege for more than two years, from 1916 to January 1919. The Ottoman forces in the city had the advantage of being at the end of the Hejaz Railway. This meant that they could be refueled with soldiers, ammunition and food from Damascus. But it was also their weakness, as Lawrence decided to make a steady series of attacks on the railway, exploding bridges and destroying the tracks. This is what eventually led to the surrender of the Turks at Madinah.
The Great Arab Uprising was celebrated with a huge military parade in Amman, Jordan, earlier this month, as King Abdallah is the great-grandson of Sharif Hussein. It would be beneficial if young Saudis knew a little more about the history of their region, and the role of the British in building their empire and also in the formation of modern Arab states, as we know them today.
Dignity in manual labor
Young Saudi men clean a bathroom in a municipality of Al-Baha in Saudi Arabia.
This column was printed in Arab News on March 27, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
There has been a long-held belief that Saudis cannot engage in manual labor such as being car mechanics, cashiers in stores or even cleaners. While there has never been a law decreeing such a ban, during the oil boom years from the 1980s and onward, there became installed in the minds of many foreigners, and Saudis themselves, that manual labor was beneath the dignity of all Saudis. The reasoning was that these jobs often made the person hot and dirty, were unpleasant, and paid poorly.
The stereotype that reigned was that every Saudi male, whether he was qualified or not, wanted to be a “mudeer” (boss/manager) and get a fat salary for sitting behind a desk in some ministry, drinking lots of tea and working little. With our ever-expanding population Saudis who did not have a university degree, and especially Saudi women, began looking for more work opportunities, which led many to these less than managerial jobs out of sheer necessity to make ends meet and pay the bills. Soon we began seeing young Saudis working in fast-food restaurants and Saudi women hired as cashiers at a major supermarket chain. This was a pleasant development that all found needful and rightful.
With our ongoing Saudization program to get more Saudis into gainful employment, our government has forced certain sectors to only hire Saudis. The latest work sector to be affected by this program has been cellphone shops that had been staffed predominantly until now by expatriates. One area that had never before hired Saudis was the cleaning one. Recently a town in Baha caused a small controversy when one of its officials declared that Saudis could not be hired as cleaners. His words implied that cleaning jobs were beneath the dignity of Saudis. This caused uproar among foreign workers in the Kingdom who noted that it was ridiculous that any category of work should be forbidden to Saudis for being too dirty or allegedly humiliating.
The sad fact is that so many foreigners believe that we Saudis were all born in golden cradles and have never had to fight for anything in our lives. Many of the younger Saudi generations must also believe this, especially those born after the 1970s. But we must remember that before the oil boom we were a poor country that did not have much wealth. Who do you think cleaned bathrooms in this country in the 1950s until the 1970s? Saudis of course! We did not have enough resources before that to import labor to do tasks such as clean the streets or work in restaurants.
All honest work, whether physical or mental, should be honored. Most Saudis have finally realized that not everyone can be a director and get a large salary for little work. I think they realize that to get somewhere in life requires hard work, studying and determination. Without these they won’t get very far. We must stop acting so surprised when we see Saudis working in jobs that we never thought they would ever accept. Economic necessity is having a good effect in the sense that is opening the eyes of younger Saudis that everything will not continue to be given to them on a plate. They will have to struggle for what they want, and they have already started to do so.
Tehran gains more leeway for meddling
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
This column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 24, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
The lifting of nearly all the economic sanctions against Iran last week was celebrated worldwide as a victory of American and European diplomacy. A victory because Iran has accepted the need to downgrade its nuclear energy program and has pledged to no longer try to develop nuclear weapons.
From Washington to Paris and Moscow, political leaders are patting themselves on their backs as saviors of world peace for having gotten the Iranians to accept their demands and sign the agreement. But they left out of the document a crucial part of what causes most of the tensions in the Middle East: The insistent Iranian meddling in the internal affairs of several Arab countries. Americans admit this failure, but insist that they could not include it in the agreement because of Iran’s objections.
With the lifting of sanctions, it is estimated that Iran will now have access to $100 billion of its own money, which was frozen in bank accounts abroad for years. This will leave the country with more resources to continue its interference in the Arab world. From Iraq to Lebanon, Syria and even in Yemen, the fingers of the Iranians are everywhere, arming and providing economic and political support to the Iraqi government and its Shiite militias; to Hezbollah; to the government of the dictator Bashar Assad, and to Houthi rebels.
In Syria alone it is estimated that the Iranian government has injected billions of dollars in support of the Assad government, and up to 3,000 soldiers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are fighting there against the Syrian rebels.
In an article in the New York Times this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir insisted that the Kingdom and its Gulf allies will continue to resist Iranian expansion in the region and respond with force to acts of aggression from Tehran.
“The Iranian government’s behavior has been consistent since the 1979 revolution,” wrote Al-Jubeir. “The constitution that Iran adopted states the objective of exporting revolution. As a consequence, Iran has supported violent extremist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq. (…) It is clear why Iran wants Bashar Assad of Syria to remain in power: In its 2014 report on terrorism, the State Department wrote that Iran considers Syria ‘as a crucial causeway to the its weapons supply route to Hezbollah,’” he added.
The cynicism of the agreement with Iran was echoed by many Saudi analysts. “Khamenei (the religious leader of Iran) traded a bomb he did not have for a document that gives carte blanche to the Revolutionary Guard in the region and stripped the P5 + 1 of any influence over Iran,” Mohammed Alyahya told the British newspaper Guardian.
“Riyadh has decided not to allow Iran to posture itself as the protector of the Shiites in the Arab world as it has been doing since 1979,” wrote Emirati professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla in Gulf News. “They (the Saudis) have had enough of Iran’s bullying, and genuinely feel they are being targeted by Tehran as much as by Daesh.”
And the Iranians themselves are now admitting that with the end of economic sanctions, the country will have more money available to help its allies in the region. An Iranian security official told the Reuters news agency that funding for the Revolutionary Guard and its international arm, the Quds Force, would increase.
“It is clear that our leaders will not hesitate to allocate more funds for the Revolutionary Guard when needed. More money (available) means more funds for the Guard,” another Iranian official told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia is seeing a new and decisive leadership in Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, who took the throne in January 2015.
The military intervention in Yemen, led by the Saudis to contain the spread of the Houthi rebels, has lasted over 10 months and we show no sign of withdrawing from the conflict. Internally, reacting to the very low price of oil on the international market, our government increased the price of gasoline in December 2015 and, soon after, also increased the tariffs for electricity and water.
This new tough stance of the Saudis will not let the Iranians continue to present themselves to the world as innocents in the region. It is estimated that last year Iran executed a thousand people accused of various crimes. This is much more than the 150 that were executed in the Kingdom last year. From the outside, Iran may seem to be a more progressive country than Saudi Arabia, but behind the scenes it is the ayatollahs who hold power. And it is in Iran where government supporters still chant “Death to America! The United States is the Great Satan,” and not in Saudi Arabia.
Allowing youth in malls
Single Saudi men were until recently banned from entering shopping malls on the weekends. The ban has been lifted in the Makkah Province region.
My column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 11, 2016:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
I was extremely happy to read on Friday that Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal ordered lifting the ban on young men entering shopping malls and markets on the weekend.
This banning of young men in malls, especially teenagers, had become a norm in Jeddah and other cities as a way of protecting women from the unwanted attention and harassment that they suffered from some of the young men.