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.

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.

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.

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.

But punishing all young men for the ill deeds of a few was never fair, and Prince Khaled realized this and thus lifted the ban. One major reason for lifting the ban was that shops in these malls were losing money due to the absence of young customers. And so they complained to the authorities repeatedly, asking that the ban be lifted, and finally it was. As Arab News story pointed out, young men who work or study often only have time to go shopping for clothes in malls on the weekends, exactly when the bans were in place.

In the past I would often witness scores of young guys milling about the entrances to shopping malls in Jeddah, waiting for the security guards manning the entrances to become distracted for just a few seconds so that they could slip in. Many of them would approach women entering the mall, asking if they would be willing to act like they were siblings so that they could enter the mall with them. Many times huge arguments would erupt between guards and young men insisting that they be let in to join their family who were already inside. Most of the time the guards knew this was a farce, a lie told in order to be allowed inside. And it is true that many of these young guys just wanted to get inside in order to run after young women, try to talk to them and pass them their phone numbers.

Any young men, who genuinely needed to go shopping in a mall — to buy clothes, perfume or bags — unfortunately would be caught up in this situation and also be banned from entering. Even I was stopped many times when I needed to go shopping in a mall on weekends, even though I was not that young anymore.

As the report pointed out, quoting psychologists, this shunning of young men in malls creates feelings of exclusion and rejection that they said could lead to problems such as anti-social behavior. Just excluding bad-behaving men from malls only treats the symptoms and not the cause. Saudi parents should teach their boys from early on to respect girls and women. Unfortunately the ultra-segregation that we have in our society leaves many young men without the means with which to behave properly in public with girls and women that are not part of their families.

As more Saudi women keep joining the work force problems in how men interact with women will become more prevalent. And we should not put all of the blame on the men. Many young women also act foolishly in public, teasing and encouraging young men, some even throwing them their phone numbers. This only encourages irresponsible and dangerous behavior.

As Prince Khaled noted, it is the responsibility of the security guards at shopping malls to ensure proper enforcement of the rules and protect all shoppers. There is no reason why law-abiding young men should be made to pay the price for the shenanigans of others. It is only living and interacting together in public in a decent and honorable way, that Saudi men and women will learn how to get along.


New budget is a breath of fresh air

A Saudi man at a gasoline station in Jeddah. (AFP photo)

A Saudi man at a gasoline station in Jeddah. (AFP photo)

This column appeared in Arab News on Jan. 03, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The new Saudi budget approved and announced last week by the Cabinet is a breath of fresh air in that it addresses the budget shortfalls in intelligent and must-needed ways.

Announcing an immediate 40 percent to 50 percent rise in fuel prices was something long overdue since we have had some of the cheapest gasoline in the world for many years. With the barrel of oil at less than $40 a barrel and our government spending needing at least a price of $90 a barrel to balance our accounts, something had to give.

Our electricity and water rates are also being readjusted upward starting Jan. 11. These rises are also long overdue. Our cheap water and power rates have meant that many Saudis have wasted both by leaving their lights and air-conditioning on the whole day, even when they were not home! This wastage of our resources is sinful and should be stopped. Hopefully, the rate rises will make those who are wasteful more appreciative of our resources, which are not infinite.

Those of us who have lived abroad and have paid much more for our utilities have learned the value of these utilities and have learned how to be thrifty, turning off lights when not using them and not leaving the tap running when shaving or washing the dishes. These are simple behavioral adjustments that any human being can learn.

The introduction of a value-added tax that the Kingdom along with other Gulf Cooperation Council states are planning to introduce perhaps by next year, is also a very good move to raise income for our respective governments. This obviously would be like a sales-tax added to the cost of services and goods, except for food and other essential items. The Kingdom is also going to raise taxes on tobacco and sugary drinks, which is excellent news. There are far too many young smokers in our country, fueled in part by very cheap cigarettes. In the UK and the US, cigarettes are taxed heavily in an official effort to discourage smoking. In New York City a pack of cigarettes can cost $15 because of the taxes. Can you imagine our youth having to pay SR56 for a single pack of cigarettes? Many would stop smoking overnight. Of course, I do not think our taxes on tobacco will initially be as high as that, but I do hope the tax is significant enough to make a sizeable portion of our population reconsider their smoking habits.

Some foreign commentators have been quick to ring the death knell for the Kingdom because of the new budget, calling it austerity-driven. Obviously these people are keen to rush to these conclusions because of ill-will toward us. But they seem to have forgotten that the country has more than $600 billion in foreign reserves, and that we have gone through low oil prices before in the early 1990s, when the barrel of oil hit a low of $20. We survived that and will, God willing, survive this downturn again.

The new budget for sure has seen come cutbacks in spending on the crucial education and health sectors, but nothing very drastic. I was looking at the budgets for our state universities and was surprised that so much was being allocated for each. King Saud University in Riyadh was allocated more than SR5 billion in the new budget, while King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah got more than SR4 billion. Quality education is expensive.

As good citizens we have to do our part to help our leaders balance the books. We cannot expect the state to keep giving us everything we need for free. This is unrealistic and will bankrupt any society that tries to do so. But we also cannot forget the poorer Saudis and the difficulties they will face with higher prices and the inflation that they are sure to bring. The government has assured the public that measures will be put into place to protect them. I hope they will be enough to protect the truly disadvantaged, and that those of us with the means pay our share of these new fees and taxes in order to make a better country for all Saudis.


From my archive: Saudi Shiites Fear Backlash If War Breaks Out With Iran

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr

Read my story from 2007 when I interviewed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Awamiyya:

I just returned from a three-day trip to Qatif in the Eastern Province to interview Saudi Shiites and witness their Ashoura festival. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were warm, friendly and intelligent, all too happy to talk with journalists and share their hospitality with me and my colleagues.
Here’s my report:

By Rasheed Abou Alsamh

QATIF, Saudi Arabia – “Hussein, I am so proud to say your name,” chanted the long line of Shiite men dressed in black as they moved slowly up the narrow street of a working-class district of Tarout Island on Monday, the sound of the beating of their chests with their hands and the chants praising Imam Hussein echoing through the air.

Just a few years ago such a scene would have been impossible to see in Saudi Arabia, the Shiites here having long been under the unforgiving thumb of the majority Wahhabi Sunnis. Accounting for around 15 percent of the Saudi population, the Shiites have long been the target of religious edicts, or fatwas, declaring them to be kaffirs, or non-believers. This has led to long simmering tensions between the Shiites and Sunnis here, which came to a head when a similar Shiite procession was violently dispersed by Saudi security forces in Qatif during in the Islamic month of Muharram in 1980 which resulted in the death of 27 Shiites.

The ensuing sectarian strife led many Shiite notables in Saudi Arabia to go into exile after the Saudi government threatened to imprison them.

But following a breakthrough meeting with King Fahd in Jeddah in September 1993, the Shiites were promised that action would be taken on a long list of demands.

“Many Shiites were released from prisons, given back their passports and allowed to travel again following the 1993 agreement,” said Tawfiq Alsaif, considered the right hand man of prominent Shiite religious leader Sheikh Hassan Al-Saffar. Both fled the country in the early 1980s and were core members of the Islamic Revolution Organization in the Arabian Peninsula, of which Saffar was the spiritual head.

Alseif says that he is mildly optimistic that things are changing in this ultra-conservative kingdom, bringing improvements in the lives of all Saudis, and not just for the Shiites.

“The religious establishment is still strong and they pressure the media and government to stick to the old ways,” said Alseif. “But they cannot hold back the wave of change that modernity is bringing to Saudi Arabia in the form of the Internet, travel abroad and a huge range of satellite television channels.”

Indeed in 2005 the first municipal elections held in this country in over 40 years, Shiites won most of the seats in areas where they are a majority and are now not stopped from openly marking Ashoura in some areas. But the fact that most of the freedoms they have now can be easily taken away from them by the Saudi government has many Shiites worried about the future and demanding that their rights be enshrined in law.

Jafar Al-Shayeb won the elections in Qatif and is now the president of the Qatif Municipal Council. He too lived in exile for many years and returned to the country in 1993. He stressed that the demands of Saudi Shiites were local ones calling for more civil and religious rights, and not linked to the regional tensions caused by the civil war in Iraq and America’s tense standoff with the Shiite powerhouse that is Iran.

“We want to be able to serve as a minister of state, to join the military, represent the kingdom abroad as diplomats, get jobs in local companies, build our own mosques and print our own religious books,” said Al-Shayeb.

He said the fact that Shiites had not reacted adversely to the fatwas attacking them was a sign of political maturity that did not exist in the past.

“We are now separating ourselves from problems like the sectarian strife in Iraq. There is a better understanding between the Shiites and the government,” he said.

But not all Shiites in Saudi Arabia agree with this line, with many of them accusing Al-Shayeb and others like him of having been co-opted by the government into lessening Shiite demands and stopping any sharp criticisms of the government.

Sheikh Nimr al Nimr is one of the critics of the dialogue that Al-Shayeb and Sheikh Saffar have been having with the government, insisting that Shiites in Saudi Arabia will only get their rights by fighting for them as the government has only begrudgingly given them the few freedoms that they now have because of outside pressure.

“The government is not going to give us our rights; the people are going to have fight for them. If people fight for their rights, they have to expect to pay the price for it such as being imprisoned and losing their jobs,” explained Sheikh Nimr, who himself had only just been recently released from a brief spell in jail for his outspoken views.

The division between the Saudi Shiites is due in part to economic differences that have left a large portion of the Shiite community in a state of financial desperation. Sheikh Nimer is one of those living in a poorer area, so poor in fact that he was not able to hold nightly Husseiniyas, or religious lectures that are held during Ashoura, because he did not have access to a building in which to hold it.

In contrast, Sheikh Saffar held daily Husseiniyas in a brand new, three-storey building in Tarout that is owned by a local family.

“If Sheikh Saffar and his followers think things are improving for Shiites that is their opinion, but I don’t agree with them,” said Nimr.

Some Saudis believe that the Shiites here are being used as pawns by the United States in its ongoing occupation of Iraq and growing confrontation with Iran.

“Don’t tell me that things are getting better. They are going backwards for the Shias,” said Ibrahim Al Mugaiteeb, the president of an independent human rights group.

“There are 250,000 Shiites in Dammam but there is only one mosque for us. There are thousands of unemployed and poor Saudis committing suicide over their debts,” said Al Mugaiteeb.

The human rights activist, who has been jailed several times for his work, says that he wants transparent trials for the 9 Shiites in prison for the 1996 Alkhobar Tower bombing in which 19 US Marines were killed and 372 people wounded. According to Al-Shayeb they are still in jail and have not been tried or convicted yet.

“The Americans were quiet all of this time about the 9 Shiites in jail here, but now that they are escalating their confrontation with Iran they have revived the issue of the Alkhobar bombers by linking them to Iran,” said Al Mugaiteeb.

And if war breaks out between the US and Iran, where will the loyalties of the Saudi Shiites lie? That is a question that few Shiites here were willing to discuss frankly. Most insisted that their loyalties would be to Saudi Arabia, with only Sheikh Nimr admitting that if war broke out with Iran most Shiites here would support Iran.

Despite the many differences in the Shiite community, the bottom line is that all of them want to be able to practice their religion freely, openly and with dignity.

“In school I remember having to answer questions on exams that asked if Shiites were nonbelievers,” recounts Mohammed Al Khabbaz, a young Shiite in Tarout. “I always answered ‘no’ because I knew I had to in order to pass the test. I just wish that one day soon we won’t have to do that anymore.”


Saudi women set to make their mark

Saudi women hold their voter registration forms at a voting center in Jeddah at the end of August. (Photo AFP)

Saudi women hold their voter registration forms at a voting center in Jeddah at the end of August. (Photo AFP)

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