Against corruption and for culture

“Documenting the Undocumented” by Huda Beydoun, 2013.

Misk Art Institute is organizing an October Arab art festival in New York and sending Saudi artists to study in California

By Rasheed Abualsamh

The sweep against corruption in Saudi Arabia began to wind down on Jan. 27, 2018, when Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire businessman, was released from his luxury jail at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the capital, Riyadh.

Hours earlier, an interview that he gave to the Reuters news agency was posted on the internet. In the video, the prince – whose personal wealth is estimated at US$17 billion, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world — categorically denied that he is corrupt and said he had insisted on spending more time in the hotel to get rid of all suspicions. It seemed strange how he showed the little kitchen where they brought vegan dishes for his meals, since he owns a palace in Riyadh with more than 400 rooms. Alwaleed said he will return to running Kingdom Holding, which includes several cable TV networks, a record label, a stake in Banque Saudi Fransi and large stakes in Citibank, Apple, Twitter, and Lyft, among others.

News of Alwaleed’s release made the value of Kingdom Holding shares rise 10% in one day, after having fallen more than 20% when he was arrested in November.

Bakr bin Laden, the former head of the Saudi Binladin Group, was also freed last week. But the government now controls the construction company, although the Bin Laden family holds several seats on the executive board. The contractor faced difficult times in recent years, despite being hired for decades for the expansion of the mosques in Mecca and Medina. But a lamentable accident occurred in the Great Mosque of Mecca in 2015, when a crane fell during a violent gale and killed 107 people. It seems that this sealed the fate of the company, which never recovered from the accident.

In any case, the Saudi attorney general, Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb, announced on Jan. 30, 2018, the end of investigations into the 325 people who had been detained at the Ritz-Carlton. He also announced that the government had recovered US$107 billion in deals made with the detained princes and businessmen. About 60 prisoners remain, who have refused to make a deal or admit to having made money illegally. They were transferred to Al-Hair prison, south of the Saudi capital, and will face legal proceedings.

As far as the eye can see, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has the support of the Saudi population for this anti-corruption campaign and for his liberalizing steps. Under his influence, his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, has allowed Saudi women to drive automobiles from June of this year. Until 2017, the conservative kingdom was the only country in the world that banned women from driving. King Salman also ordered the reopening of cinemas, after a break of more than 30 years, and allowed the entrance of women in sports stadiums to attend football matches.

But it is in the area of ​​culture that MBS is going further. He authorized the formation of the Misk Art Institute and appointed the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater to direct the institution. The Crown Prince already chairs the Misk Foundation, with educational, social, and cultural programs aimed at Saudi youth.

The institution has several Saudi artists on display at a museum in Brooklyn, New York, and is choosing the design for the Saudi pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. The institute will also organize an Arab art festival in New York in October, and send Saudi artists to study in California. More than 60% of management positions in the entity are held by women.

Saudi directors were very excited about the news that cinemas were going to open again in the country. Until now, they could only display their works abroad or on the internet. Now, with these cultural reforms, they will be able to show their films in local cinemas or on Saudi TV.

Saudi filmmaker Faiza Ambah, who filmed “Mariam” in France in 2015 — about the struggle of a young Muslim woman on whether to use the hijab (Islamic veil) in her public school — told me that she recently showed her film to a mixed group of young Saudis at a café in Jeddah, and then participated in a conversation with the public about the topics touched on in her film.

“The audience’s reaction was very surprising to me,” she said. “First, they understood the movie on several levels. They really were movie fans. Half the audience was female, and two girls talked about relationships that did not work out over the issue of whether or not to use the hijab,” said the director.

According to Faiza, the next exhibition of a movie in that café is already scheduled, and will be a film of another Saudi director, Shahad Ameen.

Faiza told me that she has already received invitations to show short films on Saudi TV, and that the Misk Foundation is granting funding to filmmakers in the kingdom. “The King Abdul Aziz Cultural Center in the Eastern Province is also supporting Saudi filmmakers. They called me a year ago and asked me to share new projects with them, and they wanted to support me. And a university professor who was in the audience offered to provide me her students to be interns on any project that I would execute.”

Only five years ago, this level of official support for Saudi artists and filmmakers did not exist. Film funding always came from the private sector, and even so, several Saudi filmmakers had to seek foreign funding to make their films. But now, it seems the Saudi government has realized the soft power that culture has. It remains to be seen how much freedom Saudi artists will have.

–This article appeared originally in Portuguese in O Globo newspaper.

Should male teenagers be banned from malls?

A young man is arrested at the Shopping Internacional in Guarulhos, Sao Paulo, in December 2013 after taking part in a 'rolezinho'.

A young man is arrested at the Shopping Internacional in Guarulhos, Sao Paulo, in December 2013 after taking part in a ‘rolezinho’.

This column appeared in Arab News on Jan. 26, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

A recent phenomenon of shopping malls in Brazil closing their doors to young men who came in and run around singing, laughing and scaring shoppers, reminded me of the malls in Saudi Arabia that close their doors to young, unaccompanied men on the weekends for fear that they are going to harass women shoppers.

We are at the end of the summer vacation here in Brazil, since we are in the Southern Hemisphere and that means that young students are out of school and are mostly at home feeling bored. This has given rise to what is called “rolezinhos” here, where groups of mostly young teenage boys, some as large as 300-500, agree through social media such as Facebook, to meet at a certain mall on a specified day and time. They run through the mall in groups chanting humorous songs and many run up to random girls and harass them.

Unfortunately, bored activists decided to come to the rescue of these young men and defend them against elitist malls that were barring these men from entering. The malls said they were scaring customers and shop owners alike. One luxury mall in São Paulo even closed its doors 10 hours early on a Saturday a few weekends ago when a group of these youngsters wanted to come in and mess around. Activists immediately launched cries of racism and elitism since most of the young men come from poorer suburbs and are of mixed race. Some shopping centers are so determined to stop these hooligans that they have entered with requests in courts of law to get the holding of these “rolezinhos” banned on their premises.

It should be pointed out here that these young men usually don’t steal or destroy property in shopping malls, but nevertheless are a major disruption in a supposedly controlled-environment and scare both shoppers and shop owners. I don’t think that these young men should be barred from entering malls on an individual basis, but when they come in huge groups with the sole purpose of messing about then I think mall owners have a right and duty to stop them from doing so.

I remember seeing many young men being barred from entering malls by security guards in Jeddah, especially on the weekends. Even I have been stopped a few times even though I have gray hair and a.m. long passed my teenage years. It’s not fair to bar all young men from shopping malls just because guards suspect some of them may be going in solely to harass female shoppers. After all, everyone needs to go to mall on a regular basis to buy clothes, shoes, perfumes, books or whatever one needs. In the Saudi case, I think young men should be allowed in alone as long as they behave themselves. Guards can easily pinpoint troublemakers and kick them out of malls if necessary. In Brazil, mall owners have asked the federal government for help, saying they want the police to arrest the organizers of “rolezinhos” and that the parents of minors involved in such disruptive events to be held legally-responsible for the acts of their children. With the World Cup being held here in June, many Brazilians fear that these romps through malls could take on political tones and become violent and criminal.

I think it is an overreaction on the part of Brazilian mall owners. These young men from the suburbs are bored and want to enjoy themselves and get attention. Similarly, Saudi youth are also bored, especially during their summer vacation. It is a challenge for both Brazilian and Saudi societies to discover ways of keeping these youth engaged and challenged enough so that they don’t go charging through shopping centers like wild animals. Government- funded summer camps would be an excellent way of keeping the younger teenagers educationally engaged and occupied, while internships in companies could keep the older ones similarly engaged. Leaving bored teenagers at home during holidays, often without adult supervision, is a recipe for mischief whether in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere.

Click here to read this on the Arab News website.

 

Gulf calls for film’s ban

Egyptian protesters tear down the US flag at the US Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. (Photo courtesy AFP)

This story appeared in the 20-26 September, 2012 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly

Gulf citizens upset at the US-made film mocking Islam have called for worldwide bans on attacks on Islam and PR campaigns to explain the religion better, reports Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The trailer for the US-made film mocking the Prophet Mohamed, The Innocence of Muslims, has upset Muslims across the Gulf, who have condemned the movie but have also called for a calm and united front in the face of such slanderous attacks and for a worldwide ban on attacks on Islam.

The Saudi grand mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Ibn Abdallah Al-Sheikh, denounced the attacks on American diplomats and diplomatic missions across the region that have taken place in the wake of the film’s release, saying these were un-Islamic.

“It is forbidden to punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty, or to attack those who have been granted protection of their lives and property, or to expose public buildings to fire or destruction,” he said in a statement in a clear reference to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which was set ablaze on 11 September leading to the deaths of US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US staff.

Both the Saudi and the United Arab Emirates governments have condemned the attacks, but they have also criticised the film. ‘Saudi Arabia has expressed its condolences to the United States for the victims of the violent actions in Libya that targeted the American consulate in Benghazi,” reported the Saudi Press Agency. “The kingdom also denounces the irresponsible group that produced the film.”

“I was extremely angered, or rather disgusted, by excerpts from the film. I didn’t think that insolence could push anyone on the face of this earth to be so abusive of God’s messenger and my beloved Prophet Mohamed (PBUH),” wrote Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Al-Hayat daily.

“Nevertheless, I won’t join or support calls for any uncontrolled protests, let alone an attack on an American embassy. On the contrary, because of my fervent commitment to the beloved messenger of Allah and his teachings, I urge all assailants of the foreign embassies and those behind them to be severely punished. We Muslims must have the courage to condemn our people’s crimes before condemning the crimes of our enemies.”

Professor Abdallah Al-Shayji, chair of the political science department at Kuwait University, called for a global ban on attacks on all religions. “The US would do itself, the Muslims and the relationship between the West and Islam a big favour if it addressed the real causes for discontent and grievances among Arabs and Muslims, in order to avoid a real clash of civilisations. The US should be as vocal, resolute and vehement about criminalising those who defame and denigrate faiths and religions, as it is about anti-Semitic expressions,” he wrote in Gulf News.

But many of those interviewed admitted that a ban on blasphemous attacks would be, if not impossible, then very hard to implement and probably not effective.

“A call for a global ban on attacks on Islam is unnecessary,” said Hasnaa Al-Mokhtar, a Saudi journalist. “There is nothing new here. The man who carried the burden of the message was fought, attacked, ridiculed, tortured and went through severe hardships 1,433 years ago. Islamic history is rich with incidents that highlight one major fact: no matter how oppressive or offensive any given situation is, Islam always stands for tolerance and peace.”

“This is an old call made by the mufti and the king four years ago,” said Khashoggi in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. “The king called for a ban on all blasphemous attacks against all religions and not just Islam. But it is very difficult to pass such laws in Europe. It is a philosophical question. Most Muslims did not grow up in democracies and don’t know how to interpret freedom of expression.”

He added that he had searched online for videos criticising Jesus Christ and had found plenty of material.

Saudi commentator Abeer Mishkhas agreed, saying “it’s not possible. You can’t stop everyone from criticising religion. The people in the Gulf region have to accept and understand that the rest of the world is going to criticise us. Protesting is fine as long as it is peaceful. You shouldn’t set buildings on fire, killing diplomats, and then wonder why they call us terrorists.”

Khashoggi believes that Muslim leaders must come out and calm down their populations. “The Tunisian leader came out and explained that the US could not ban the film. President Mursi and our other leaders should come out and say the same thing, even at the risk of being criticised by more extremist elements of being puppets of the US government.”

In his Al-Hayat column, Khashoggi went further and accused Arab leaders of cosying up to extremist elements in the hope of gaining their votes or avoiding their wrath.

Both Mishkhas and Mokhtar believe that the best way to counteract such anti-Islamic films is to launch films and public-relation campaigns that explain and defend Islam and its believers.

“Just try to have a PR campaign,” said Mishkhas. “Israel hired a PR company after the Gaza invasion of 2008-2009, and it got much good publicity out of it. This is what we should be doing.”

“Muslims need to strive to become better human beings morally, ethically, socially, culturally and politically, and fight their egos,” said Mokhtar.

“They need to lead by example. Chaos doesn’t bring about change. A united, productive and intelligent Muslim nation can definitely spread a more positive image of Islam in the world. In this time of social and digital media we need to educate people and raise awareness about the true essence of Islam.”

“One online campaign called ‘Inspired by Mohamed’ (www.inspiredbymuhammad.com) is a brilliant example of a fun website designed to improve the public’s understanding of Islam and Muslims.”

The limits of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia

 This is a translation of my column that appeared in the Feb. 24, 2012 edition of O Globo:

RASHEED ABOU-ALSAMH

The young Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari could not have dreamed that his comments posted on Twitter on the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, on February 4, would have such shrill and dangerous consequences for him.

“I have loved things in you, and hated others,” wrote Hamza, 23, on Twitter, in an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Muhammad, who died over a thousand years ago. “If I saw you, I would not kiss you, but extend my hand to you as any other friend, and would smile at you. But I will not pray for you.”

As the founder of Islam, more than 1,400 years ago in Mecca, all Muslims revere Muhammad as an almost sacred person, that can never be criticized or have his teachings put into doubt. So it’s not so difficult to understand the fury of the reaction that exploded on Twitter and Facebook. More than 30,000 tweets about Hamza’s comments flew through cyberspace, mostly attacking the young former columnist for the daily Al-Bilad, with many calling him an apostate, which can lead to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

A group formed on Facebook, with over 8,000 members, asking for his death. Stunned by the backlash of believers across the Islamic world, Hamza removed his comments and then deleted his Twitter account altogether. He fled the country on February 9, but a few days later he was arrested in Malaysia when he tried to board a flight to New Zealand, where he planned to seek political asylum. The king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz, had ordered his arrest and the kingdom had allegedly activated Interpol to detain the young wherever he was in the world. Soon after, he was sent back to the kingdom, where he remains in detention awaiting trial.

Studious, Hamza grew up in a family of great faith, and memorized the entire Holy Qur’an, not an easy achievement. But, with his inquisitive mind, he began to devour books and, according to his mother, habitually locked himself in his room to read books and did not talk much with his family.

Days after he was arrested, she called a local religious TV program and pleaded for her son, crying while insisting that her son was a good boy, and that he had repented having made those comments. But that was not enough for Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, a religious leader and scholar, who cried in a lecture, that was filmed and later posted on YouTube, over the words that Hamza had dared to say about Prophet Muhammad.

“His repentance was said with cold words,” Sheikh Nasser said. “He’s being disingenuous, he should be executed. We must not engage in debates with atheists. But instead, we should warm up our swords to fight them.” He ended by repeating that Hamza should be tried by a Shariah court for apostasy and sentenced to death despite having repented.

But do not think that all of Saudi Arabia is in the Middle Ages. Thousands of Saudis shocked by the outpouring of intolerance against Hamza urged calm, good judgment and tolerance of a young man whose only sin was exposing the doubts of his faith on the Internet. Even Princess Basmah bin Saud al-Saud, a daughter of the late King Saud, wrote an open letter to King Abdullah and Crown Prince Naif, asking them to give a royal pardon to the young Hamza.

It is perhaps ironic that in a country where there is no freedom of expression, we find the largest number of Twitter users per capita in the Middle East, and where the billionaire Prince Alwaleed ibn Talal recently bought $300 million in shares of Twitter, which will give him a 6% stake in the company. But this is the other side of a society that few outside the region see: A predominately young and educated population, with 100,000 Saudis currently studying in the US on scholarships from the Saudi government. Religious, yes, but most moderate and wanting things that all young people want: Jobs, a less corrupt government and a voice in their future endeavors.

It is interesting to see how the Internet is being used by many young Saudis to express themselves and to hold leaders accountable for their actions. Twitter has an anonymous account that regularly denounces various excesses of princes, ranging from those who earn huge commissions on government contracts, or those who have huge palaces. And it is revealing that some of the princes have even responded to the accusations, defending themselves on Twitter, something that would never happen in traditional media that is tightly controlled by the government. On YouTube, several rookie filmmakers are gaining thousands of followers with their mini-series, of 15-minute episodes, which they post regularly, dealing with a wide variety of topics ranging from urban poverty to young love.

I do not think Hamza will be executed. He is being used as a scapegoat by the ultraconservatives in the country who do not like modernity. If the government can have him be tried by the Ministry of Information, he will likely just be fined and banned from writing for a few years. If tried in a Shariah court, he might be condemned to death. But then the king will intervene and forgive the young man. What I do know for sure is that the Internet, despite being heavily censored by the government, has changed forever the relationship between the Saudi people and their leaders, and is a channel of expression and communication that the government can never close.

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