Doubts Raised About Effectiveness of New Saudi  Opposition Movement

A Saudi woman drives in Saudi Arabia, where women are still not allowed to drive:

FROM MY ARCHIVES:

24/10/2006

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Christian Science Monitor

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – An exiled Saudi millionaire has
taken on the nearly impossible task of bringing reform
to this conservative kingdom.
Talal Al-Rasheed, a member of a leading Saudi family
that once ruled central Arabia for several decades,
announced the launch of a new opposition movement in
August that will focus on ending what he claims is
endemic corruption in the kingdom.
He joins a long tradition of opposition to the ruling
Al-Saud family, some of it even from within the royal
family itself. But all of these opposition movements
have failed in bringing dramatic change to a deeply
suspicious population that has been kept quiet through
massive state subsidies and handsome payouts by the
royal family.
Several Saudi analysts have said they doubt that the
recently launched opposition movement will have much
support among the Saudi population.
Al-Rasheed, who has lived in exile in Paris since
1980, told the Christian Science Monitor in an
interview that his group seeks political and social
reforms in the oil-rich kingdom, which would see the
establishment of an elected parliament and more rights
for women.
The religiously conservative kingdom currently only
has a powerless appointed Shoura Council and women are
barred from driving, voting and holding political
office. Although King Abdullah has allowed limited
reforms such as the municipal elections held last year
for the first time in 40 years, many Saudis say that
change is coming too slowly.
“Our group seeks the following: Democratic,
transparent parliamentary elections; liberating women
and giving them their full rights; arresting the
people who are stealing the government’s money, giving
the press its freedom of expression, and to have the
administrative and legitimate authority at the hands
of the citizens and their elected representatives
only,” said the 70-year-old Al-Rasheed.
Al-Rasheed claims to have 2,000 supporters in the
kingdom, both Sunni and Shia, conservative and
liberal, and says that “there are many wealthy people
who support us.” But not everyone is sure of this wide
range of support.
“I do not believe that he has 2,000 supporters. I’m
very skeptical about this figure,” said Adel
Al-Toraifi, an analyst and newspaper columnist based
in Riyadh.
Nawaf Al-Obaid, a security advisor to the Saudi
government, also doubts the level of support claimed
by Al-Rasheed.
“I have doubts about him saying he has 2,000
supporters in the kingdom,” said Al-Obaid. “I think
they are Internet supporters, people who have
expressed support on their website.”
Al-Rasheed said that his group plans to beam
opposition television programs into the kingdom via
satellite, run an Internet website and publish a
newspaper.
“Our TV station will air democratic programs that call
for justice and equality. We want to eliminate
corruption from governmental bodies, especially the
judiciary where people are using bribes to rule and
issue judgments against Allah’s rules,” explained the
reformer. “Everyone will have access to this TV
station, even people who disagree with us.”
He denied rumors that he was joining forces with
another Saudi opposition leader, the London-based Saad
Al-Faqeeh, although Al-Obaid claimed that Al-Rasheed
would be using the satellite broadcasting company of
Al-Faqeeh to beam programs into the kingdom.
“We have no practical association with Saad
Al-Faqeeh. We respect him because he’s a fighter who
deserves to be respected. However, we view things
differently,” said Al-Rasheed.
Al-Faqeeh and his Movement of Islamic Reform in Arabia
have been effectively neutralized since July 2005 when
the US government managed to link him to Al-Qaeda by
alleging that he posted messages written by the terror
group on his website. Al-Faqeeh’s websites have been
subsequently shut down and he has apparently stopped
broadcasting TV programs into the country.
The Al-Rasheed clan is very large and is part of the
Al-Shammar Bedouin tribe that extends from Hail all
the way into Iraq. Long rulers of Hail in central
Arabia, they ruled most of central Arabia, including
Riyadh, from 1887 until 1902, when the founder of
modern Saudi Arabia Abdulaziz Al-Saud recaptured
Riyadh after living in exile in Kuwait for several
years.
Many members of the Al-Rasheed clan have been
receiving a monthly government stipend, much like the
more than 5,000 princes of the royal Al-Saud family
receive. This has served to pacify them and buy their
allegiance to the Saudi state, though many Al-Rasheeds
still believe that they are the legitimate rulers of
the kingdom.
Talal Al-Rasheed is said to have received millions of
dollars in stipends from the Saudi government over the
years, but he denied that he was still receiving a
stipend.
“We belong to the Al-Rasheed family and as you know
it’s been a ruling family for decades. We have enough
fortune to cover the cost of our expenses and needs. I
used to receive regular stipends from the government
until 1975. Since then I haven’t received any money
from the Saudi government,” said Al-Rasheed.
“He’s a pretty old man. He’s been living in Paris for
the past three decades. It’s doubtful that he has much
support among the Al-Rasheed clan,” said Al-Obaid.
“He’s trying to have a unified opposition, but how can
you lump liberal Sunnis and Shias with hardcore
Salafis?”
But Al-Rasheed said he was confident that his movement
would be successful because of its broad base and
inclusiveness.
“We can’t measure the success or failure of an
opposition group by seizure of the government through
a coup. Saudis today are not the same as in the past.
They are now part of much smaller world. We are
walking on the same path as others because we want
reform. However, we’re different in being a national
movement that includes all regions of the country,”
explained Al-Rasheed.
But Al-Toraifi disagrees, saying that the reformists
in the kingdom are too disorganized and distracted to
pose much of a threat to the royal family. He also
believes that King Abdullah is trying to bring in
democratic reforms but faces much opposition both from
the powerful “ulama” (religious scholars) and within
his own family.
“King Abdullah is going slowly with reforms as he
faces opposition from within the royal family and
faces regional problems such as the war in Lebanon and
Iran’s expansionist tendencies,” said Al-Toraifi.
“Reforms are coming very, very slowly. The lack of
transparency on the part of King Abdullah in terms of
his reform plan makes it difficult to gauge just how
far he’s willing to go.”

 

Q&A with Manolo Quezon III on drug killings

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

I recently wrote a column on the ongoing war in the Philippines against drug pushers and users. The escalating body count has alarmed human rights groups and the United Nations, who have called on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to reign in the violent campaign, speak out against extrajudicial killings and to respect the rule of law.

So far, Duterte has shown no signs of reigning in the killings.

For more perspective on this issue, I interviewed Manolo L. Quezon III, who was undersecretary of presidential communications under President Nonoy Aquino, and is a well-known political analyst and columnist. Here is the entire text of the interview:

Rasheed’s World: What are your general thoughts on this campaign? Do you support it, or think that it has gone too far with nearly 2,000 already dead?

Manolo L. Quezon III: The number of dead is an indication of what is problematic. An official distinction has been made between “legitimate” killings and those attributed to either preemptive internal purges within drug syndicates, or by vigilantes. The problem is that the mechanisms and manpower of the government seem hard-pressed (and sometimes simply disinclined) to clearly determine by means of inquests which fatality can be attributed to which of the supposed simultaneous trends going on. Responsibility, either by negligence or design, is also diffused; the entire police apparatus has been mobilized, and like any big organization the level of competence of various detachments varies widely. The result is all the public has to go on is confidence in both the president and his principal lieutenants in the police and other organs of the government.

The campaign itself seems to be modeled after that of Thaksin in Thailand –again problematic, because it was generally deemed a failure. Its domestic characteristics date to the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (former president and one of the big players in the Duterte coalition) and some of her former people who had attempted saturation drives during her term, and whose political allies first tried to raise narco-politics as an issue in the 2010 campaign (narco-politics as an issue of public concern had emerged in 2001, the period of transition from the Estrada administration which was ousted from office and replaced with Arroyo). Both Thaksin and Arroyo (or their officials) in the face of their anti-drug efforts also found it convenient to use narco-politics as a political issue; this is risky because, as the present administration is also doing, any carelessness in accusations diminishes the long-term effectivity of the argument.

This much is clear. It is a campaign that is very specific –not a war on drugs per se, but a war on crystal meth. It is a war focused on the liquidation of pushers and the principal lieutenants of the drug kingpins, who have been officially announced to be generally overseas and thus beyond the reach of the government. It is one of indeterminate duration, which raises the problem of how –or by what measure– victory can be achieved.

Most worrying of all is that the state has a monopoly on the use of force grounded on the expectation that it is used sparingly, responsibly, and with accountability. A very human factor is thus being ignored in the ongoing debate on the war on drugs. We have a police –and possibly, in the future– a military that has been institutionally-expected to be responsible and judicious in its use of force. Individual policemen, long circumscribed in their actions by strict rules on the acquisition, and legal scrutiny, of evidence, and who had clearly defined rules of engagement in terms of the use of force on suspects and the public at large, are discovering that the institutions that used to limit their actions are now neutralized. This feeling of power, this sense of immunity and impunity, this thrill from obtaining instant results, can be a kind of narcotic, too. Once experienced, it can become increasingly difficult to limit it to just the war on drugs, particularly when that war takes on the attributes of a larger war, whether to “reform,” or “rebuild,” or “reengineer” or “defend” the state against its “enemies” –as defined by the commanders.

Every society that has experienced political instability knows these are developments that can have an effect on institutions and society lasting generations –it took the Philippines a generation to wean its military and police from a similar experience during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1972-1986).

Manolo L. Quezon III giving a press briefing at Malacanang Palace in Manila.

Manolo L. Quezon III giving a press briefing at Malacanang Palace in Manila.

RW: Why do you think that President Duterte has so much popular support? Do you think this support will diminish in a few years? If so, why?

MLQ: Every president who wins an election –even as a plurality victor– obtains a subsequent overwhelming level of public support in their initial months in office. The public, which previously supported different candidates, rallies around the victor and gives the winner a chance to fulfill the mandate given at the polls.

This is an observable trend in public opinion surveys. In June 2010, Benigno S. Aquino III who won with 42% of the votes, obtained an 88% trust rating. In June 2016, Rodrigo Roa Duterte who won with 39% of the votes, obtained a 91% trust rating. Both surveys (By Social Weather Stations) having a plus or minus 3% margin of error, the results can be said to be quite similar, if not identical.

The question is what the next survey in October and every quarter thereafter, will reveal. No one knows. If public trust remains high, it will further embolden the administration; if it plunges, it can embolden the administration to even more vigorously pursue current policies, knowing time is running out in terms of public support. However, whatever the results, it also suggests the administration knows it can count on a committed constituency of 39% to sustain itself –even now, despite every indication of public support being high, efforts to mobilize this constituency to mount demonstrations against the Senate (which conducted an inquiry into the drug war) are being made, which suggests some in the ruling coalition may have noticed a dip in public enthusiasm.

RW: Many people, among them officials, judges, journalists and politicians, seem reluctant to publically criticize this anti-drug push. Why do you think this is so?

MLQ: The answer is simple: fear. Fear of public opinion and more importantly, fear of the president. The president’s supporters are vocal, aggressive, plentiful and in some instances, organized. They swarm social media, and media sites both local and foreign. The President himself has a gift for targeting specific personalities who to his mind, represent challenges to his authority. This combination is formidable and considering the enthusiasm for the use of force, requires every individual venturing on expressing an opinion to consider the consequences.

RW: Vice President Leni Robredo has called for the rule of law to be applied in the hunt for drug pushers, but has not really come out to criticize the president’s anti-drug campaign. Do you think she could do more in terms of speaking out, or is that too politically risky?

MLQ: In the Philippines we elect our presidents and vice presidents separately, a practice that dates from the foundation of our modern institutions in 1935. It was felt important at the time that the potential successor of a president should have a clear, personal, mandate, too. However, this means every vice-president is viewed with suspicion by the sitting president, especially if they do not come from the same party. This suspicion is particularly intense not only because Vice-President Robredo defeated one of the paramount allies of the president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., but also, she was the candidate of the very administration the president’s ruling coalition (composed of the factions of former presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the united front parties of the Communists, and the political apparatus of the Marcos family) was meant to not only defeat, but permanently discredit as an ex-post-facto rehabilitation of themselves (the whole 1986-2016 era, with its periodic outbreaks of People Power, its anti-dictatorship constitution, and relative media independence and civil society participation, was a perpetual thorn in the side of those wanting a Marcos restoration, an Arroyo political rehabilitation, and a Ramos-proposed parliamentary system modeled on the one-party dominance of UMNO in Malaysia).

The other factor is that so long as the Vice-President is in office, an alternative leadership is available, and could potentially provide a rallying figure for those disaffected for whatever reason, with the present administration. However, the Vice-President herself seems to sense a long-standing rule in Philippine politics. No Vice-President has ever benefited from challenging the sitting president: the public expects the Vice-President, of whatever party, to cooperate with and serve, the sitting president, of whatever party. At the same time the civil society background of the Vice-President suggests she probably views it as a matter of civic conscience to have a seat at the table, in order to give voice to the constituency that elected her. A very delicate balancing act is therefore required, meaning she cannot be as vocal or critical as some of her supporters might want, but also, however cooperative she is, supporters of the president will always view her with suspicion. The wider public, on the other hand, will probably be more understanding in this regard.

She has from time to time issued gentle reminders about human rights, against the dictatorship of Marcos, and this includes the drug war. It would be fair to say however she is still finding her own voice in the midst of fast-moving events.

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.”

 

Syrian refugees in Brazil

Syrian refugees in Brazil. (Foto AFP)

Syrian refugees in Brazil. (Foto AFP)

This is my column that was published in Arab News on Oct. 18, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

IT isn’t a very well-known fact but Brazil has been taking in Syrian refugees since 2013 when the Brazilian government decided to issue them special visas that gave them refugee status in the country. In September, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced that her country was extending special visas for Syrian refugees for another two years. There are now roughly 2,000 Syrian refugees living in Brazil.
Many Syrian refugees have said in interviews that they chose going to Brazil legally with visas and on airline flights over risking their lives being smuggled to Europe via the Mediterranean. Even so, immigrating to Brazil is not that much cheaper than going to Europe. Ali, a new Syrian immigrant in Brazil, told BBC Brasil that he paid $10,000 to get to Brazil.
The two main problems that Syrian refugees face upon arriving in Brazil are the language barrier and the fact that the Brazilian government has no official program to help refugees settle once they arrive. I’ve read accounts of individual young male Syrians arriving at the airport in São Paulo and being overwhelmed by the different language here and not having any local contacts yet that can help them.
With a lack of Arabic-speaking staff at the airport, some new arrivals have spent days in the terminal until someone told them how to take the bus to the center of the city and where to find cheap hotel accommodation.
The language barrier is especially harmful to these Syrian immigrants as it stops them from finding good jobs. Some local charity groups, such as Caritas, as well as mosques in São Paulo have been providing language lessons to the refugees and helping them find at least temporary jobs. Some enterprising Syrians have set up their own small stalls on the streets to sell homemade Arabic pastries and sweets to make a little money.
Brazil is going through an economic crisis, with many Brazilians being laid-off of work, so this has not helped the work prospects of the new immigrants. I’ve read several reports in the Brazilian press that immigrants from Haiti, which were once flooding into the country at the rate of several hundred a month, are now leaving Brazil for greener pastures such as the United States.
To help cope with this situation the Brazilian government has allowed needy Syrian immigrants to be enrolled in their income transfer program called Bolsa Familia, which pays very poor Brazilians a small sum of money every month to stop them from starving. According to BBC Brasil, there are now 163 Syrian families receiving monthly payments of around $41 each. This may seem like peanuts, but this welfare program was designed to keep the poorest of the poor Brazilians from absolute poverty, and not for helping refugees. Sonia Rocha of the Institute of Work and Society Studies told BBC Brasil that she did not think the Syrian refugees should be included in the Bolsa Familia program because they need specific help from the Brazilian government.
“This just masks the problem,” she said. “We need proper mechanisms for refugees in our institutions.”
To help state governments and municipal officials deal with the influx of refugees from various countries, the Brazilian Ministry of Justice’s National Committee for Refugees last week released R$15 million in credit (around $4 million) for the assistance of refugees and immigrants.
Despite all of the problems, the positive side of this story is that Brazilians are very friendly and welcoming, and this helps immensely in the adaptation of Syrian immigrants to their new home. The children of these immigrants, once they are enrolled in Brazilian schools, quickly pick-up the Portuguese language and often end up being their parents’ interpreters when they deal with Brazilians.
Brazil is a continent-sized nation with a population of 203 million, rich in minerals, agriculture and rivers. This country could easily absorb up to 50,000 refugees, according to a paper written this month by Cecilia Baeza, a political science professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, who specializes in the Arab world. One problem they face that Baeza points out in her paper is the lack of support from the local population of Arab descent who are of Syrian and Lebanese origin, who because most of them are Christian therefore do not feel compelled to help the new immigrants who are mostly Muslim. “Some fear that the arrival of Muslim refugees would change the image of the diaspora, which is mainly Christian. Adolfo Numi, director of the Syrian Charitable Society in Chile, recently said in an interview: “We want to bring Syrian refugees to Chile, but even if we do discriminate by religion, we want the Syrian community in Chile to remain Christian in its majority…,’” writes Baeza.
Facing such discrimination, it is imperative that the Brazilian government and the local Muslim community in Brazil help these Syrian refugees much more. Most of these immigrants are educated and can contribute a lot to Brazil. There are many opportunities here despite the economic downturn, and what these refugees need is help with cheaper accommodation, since high rents are one of their main complaints; intensive Portuguese-language and Brazilian culture training and monthly cash payments for at least two years to help them buy food and other necessities.
Most of the Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to Brazil in the 20th century arrived here penniless but soon adapted to their new home and built successful businesses. Today, there are Brazilians of Arab origins in the highest echelons of the government and business community. There is no reason that this new wave of immigrants from the Syria cannot achieve the same heights. They just need a little helping hand to begin with, and the many opportunities offered by such a rich nation as Brazil will surely take care of the rest.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/822041

A huge sigh of relief

Single Saudi mothers can now visit government offices alone to follow up on matters relating to their children.

Single Saudi mothers can now visit government offices alone to follow up on matters relating to their children.

This is my column that appeared in Arab News on Feb. 01, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

I was very pleased to read the report this week of the announcement from the Ministry of Justice that courts in Riyadh have sentenced more than 65 men to prison terms ranging from two days to three months for refusing to heed court rulings in favor of their former wives. Finally, these women who have suffered from not receiving their alimony payments to not being able to see their children because of mean-spirited ex-husbands, are getting some long overdue justice.

In our country where men have the upper hand, many women and their children are made to suffer unnecessarily by vengeful ex-husbands who do not want to pay the alimony they owe them, and many times make it nearly impossible for their ex-wives to see their children if they have custody of them. And in our male guardianship system, an ex-husband can very easily make the lives of his ex-wife and children a living hell if so desires by refusing to pay alimony, blocking the ex-wife from seeing her children and refusing to do the necessary paperwork that children need for enrollment in schools and to get government IDs and services.

It is clear that this has been a problem for a very long time, and our government has recognized this now, signaling that its patience has run out with misbehaving ex-husbands, who cause wholly unnecessary suffering and embarrassment to their ex-wives and children when they pull such illegal stunts. For sure such shenanigans are not unique to Saudi Arabia. Divorced husbands, all over the world, have for decades been skipping alimony payments and trying to get away with it. Here in Brazil they also jail ex-husbands who miss alimony payments too many times, especially when minor children depend on the payments for survival.

The other piece of good news in the announcement said that the ministry has recently allowed, in cooperation with the Supreme Judiciary Council, single mothers the right to visit the Civil Status offices, Passport Department offices, schools and departments of education, and some government and private bodies to deal with formalities and transactions related to their children. This is an excellent development, as it will allow divorced mothers to take charge of their children’s lives and not be wholly dependent on ex-husbands, who may or may not be helpful. How many times have I seen single women in government departments trying to get some bureaucratic issue resolved, papers in hand, only to be treated as if they were lepers with a contagious disease and desperately being shunted from window to window. With this new regulation, hopefully single women, who do not have a husband to do these types of essential errands for them, will no longer be treated so badly or ignored.

Divorced women and their children have long deserved better treatment in our society. Perhaps with this new crackdown on errant ex-husbands and new rules that allow better access to government offices to these single mothers, their situation will improve. Being divorced is already hard enough, and to have to endure not getting alimony payments and possibly being blocked from seeing your own children can only make a bad situation unbearable. We should strive to be a modern, just and fair society that respects the rights of all. Punishing miserly ex-husbands is a good start in that direction.

http://www.arabnews.com/news/697711

When a hero falls

Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama hug each other after their joint press conference at her residence in Rangoon, Burma, on Nov. 14, 2014. (EPA photo)

Aung San Suu Kyi and Barack Obama hug each other after their joint press conference at her residence in Rangoon, Burma, on Nov. 14, 2014. (EPA photo)

This is my column that was published in Arab News on Nov. 16, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The scene of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi wrapping her arms around US President Barack Obama following their joint press conference at her residence in Rangoon on Friday was sickening on several levels.

First, it smacked of desperation. Barred by the generals, who still run Burma from behind the façade of a civilian government, from running in the 2015 general election, Suu Kyi must be worried that the decades of isolation she endured locked up under house arrest may have been in vain. But more importantly, it is her revolting silence in not criticizing the state-sponsored genocide unleashed against the Muslim Rohingya people of her country by the Buddhist majority that has seriously damaged her alleged commitment to democracy and freedom for all the Burmese.

The Rohingya have long suffered severe discrimination in Burma and denial of citizenship by the government. Many may have thought that with the handover of the government to a nominally civilian leadership two years ago that loosened media censorship and released many political prisoners; things would improve for Burmese Muslims. But instead they have gotten much, much worse.

In 2012, horrific anti-Muslim riots broke out in Rakhine state in which whole Muslim villages were burned to the ground by angry Buddhist mobs and Muslim women, children and the elderly were beaten, speared and shot to death. It is estimated that 650 Rohingyas were killed, 1,200 went missing and up to 140,000 displaced. In response to the riots, the central government declared martial law in Rakhine and intervened with military troops, setting up internment camps in which Muslims were forced to move to. Today, more than 100,000 Rohingyas remain stuck in these camps, from which they are forbidden to leave.

Buddhist monks, who were once so celebrated for their role in resisting the dictatorial rule of the military from the 1960s through the 1990s, have played a key role in stirring up sectarian strife in Burma. I watched an excellent documentary a few months ago about this that featured the radical monk named Wirathu, who is the head of an extremist Buddhist group called “969.” It showed him traveling around Burma in a private jet to give lectures to groups of Burmese, warning them of the dangers of Muslims and telling them not to not allow their women to marry Muslim men, as there was an alleged Muslim plot to take over the country. In the film, Suu Kyi is asked about this and she refuses to explicitly condemn such fear mongering, only keeping to her usual mantra that it is the duty of the government to protect all Burmese.

Thankfully, Obama raised the plight of the Rohingyas several times both in private and public in his talks with Burmese President Thein Sein and in his speech at Suu Kyi’s residence. “Discrimination toward the Rohingya or any other religious minority does not express the kind of country, over the long term, that Burma wants to be,” said Obama.
American officials remain baffled by Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak out more forcefully against the anti-Rohingya violence, according to the New York Times, which notes that this persecution of Muslims is the biggest blot on Burma’s reputation and if not dealt with could jeopardize western aid to the country.

Perhaps Suu Kyi being a devout Buddhist has much to do with her reluctance to openly criticize the radical monk groups that keep attacking Muslims in Burma. She is known to wake up early every day and spend several hours in Buddhist meditations before starting the rest of her day. Yet for a woman who has sacrificed so much, most notably her not being able to see her British husband when he was dying of cancer because the military regime would not give him a visa to enter Burma to see her and she could not leave Burma as the military said they would not allow her back in, to hardly say anything now when hundreds of thousands of her own countrymen are being killed and run out of their own homes is unforgiveable.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/660591

 

Do more before Ebola reaches tipping point

US Marines get their temperatures taken after landing in Liberia on October 9, 2014, to help set-up more blood screening centers in the fight against the Ebola virus. (Getty Images)

US Marines get their temperatures taken after landing in Liberia on October 9, 2014, to help set-up more blood screening centers in the fight against the Ebola virus. (Getty Images)

This is my Arab News column published on October 12, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Watching a BBC report this week on a desperate family in Liberia that had a male member ill with the Ebola virus, driving from one emergency medical center to another, only to be turned away from them all, was heart-wrenching.

They were confused and in the tropical heat looked dazed and angry, a woman frantically fanning the sick man who looked too weak and feverish to walk, let alone stand up, as he sat slumped in the front passenger seat. The reporter bravely gave the family rubber gloves to use, the most she could do in such extreme conditions, where in a tiny and impoverished nation such as Liberia, this deadly virus has completely overwhelmed the public health system. The sick man died shortly thereafter.

With more than 4,000 deaths now from the Ebola virus, and more than 8,000 people in West Africa infected with it, according to the World Health Organization, we have an epidemic on our hands. And if more is not done quickly, such as more experimental drugs to treat Ebola victims, and vaccines invented to prevent infection, then we will soon have a global pandemic. For sure the Ebola virus is not that easily transmitted, but it is also not that difficult to become contaminated with it if you come into contact with the bodily fluids of infected patients, as we have seen with the various nurses and aid workers, who have come down with the disease. And the mortality rates are extremely high: 70 percent of Ebola patients in West Africa are dying from it, Robert Murphy, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, told USA Today.

Which brings us to how the disease is being fought, how patients are being treated or not, and why finding a cure still doesn’t seem to be a high priority for major pharmaceutical companies. The first three Americans exposed to the virus in West Africa were all flown home to the United States where they received the best medical treatment in the world, including the experimental drugs ZMapp and TKM-Ebola. They also received blood transfusions from Ebola survivors, in the hope that their antibodies would strengthen their immune system against the virus. All three survived and have recovered well.

Compare their treatment to that of the 42-year-old Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan who just died this week of the Ebola virus in a Dallas hospital. He was not offered ZMapp or TKM-Ebola. According to the Atlanta Blackstar news site, contradictory reasons were given for why Duncan did not get the drugs. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that doctors treating Duncan feared the drug might worsen his condition. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health claimed that supplies of ZMapp were exhausted, and that it would take six to eight weeks before new supplies would be ready. Duncan was given brincidofovir, an experimental antiviral drug, more than one week after he was admitted to hospital, according to USA Today. Obviously, that was not enough to save his life. He was not offered blood transfusions or any other experimental drugs according to the paper.

The good news, if you can even call it that, is that the WHO has fast-tracked the development of experimental vaccines against Ebola, agreeing to skip the usual randomized controlled tests in which some participants get the vaccine and others a placebo. The WHO said that it was ethical to give Ebola patients untested vaccines, although the risks and benefits should be strictly evaluated and the results shared. Several experimental vaccines are being tested in Africa, and hopefully will be able to save lives once they are produced and used on larger scales.

The US government has already sent 400 US military personnel to Liberia to set-up blood screening centers that process blood samples from Ebola patients. The US House of Representatives has now approved a further $700 million in funding to deploy a further 4,000 American troops to West Africa to help in the fight against Ebola. Cuba too has sent 165 doctors to Sierra Leone and will send a further 296 doctors to Liberia and Guinea.

Big pharmaceutical companies are not beating down anyone’s door to develop Ebola vaccines or treatment drugs because so far the majority of the victims have been poor Africans, who could never afford to buy expensive medicines that these manufacturers would want to push them to do in order to recoup their research and development costs in bringing these Ebola drugs quickly to the market. But this is a global emergency and all governments involved — African, Western, and Asian — should get together and pool their resources to fast-track the development of an Ebola vaccine. They could do so by using government laboratories or in some sort of government-private sector partnership where they offered private pharmaceutical firms tax incentives to develop these drugs quickly and cheaply.

All of our lives are in danger if not enough is done now, and Ebola is allowed to become to a global scourge. We cannot continue to be complacent, as our future depends on it.

http://www.arabnews.com/columns/news/642816

 

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