Watch out for fake degrees

Axact CEO Shoib Sheikh being arrested by Federal investigation Agency officials in Karachi, Pakistan.

Axact CEO Shoib Sheikh being arrested by Federal investigation Agency officials in Karachi, Pakistan.

This article was published in Arab News on June 07, 2015

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The hysteria over the arrest last month of the chief executive officer of Axact, the Pakistani software company that was churning out fake online university degrees and selling them to students around the globe, has unfortunately unfairly tainted the reputation of distance learning.
So much so, that a Twitter battle erupted recently between Shoura Council member Muwafiq Al-Ruwaili and the undersecretary at the Social Affairs Ministry Naif Al-Subaihi after Ruwaili accused Subaihi of irresponsibly encouraging distance learning.
Ruwaili has been on a campaign to stamp out fake degrees bought online, of which there are many in the Kingdom. In 2013 he told Arab News that there were 7,000 individuals in Saudi Arabia with fake educational certificates, including officials in both the public and private sectors, which they had obtained online. He also claimed that five percent of Saudi women working in the training and interior design fields have fake degrees. The obvious solution would be a crackdown by the Saudi government on these dubious sites, with the most notorious ones being blocked. Of course, there are probably far too many for the government to keep up with, so the Shoura Council’s recommendation made in 2013 to establish a national center for the attestation and documentation of university degrees should have been implemented already. Most countries require that foreign university degrees be attested by their local educational authorities before being accepted as valid. In our case, the Ministry of Education would be in charge of this attestation process of foreign degrees earned both online and off.

In the Kingdom the only local university licensed by the government to offer distance learning is the Arab Open University, which is based in Kuwait and has campuses and students in eight countries. Conceived in 1996 by Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz, president of the Arab Gulf Development Program (AGFUND), the university started operating in 2002 and today has 28,460 students enrolled, and has graduated more than 20,690 students, 50 percent of which are women. It has a limited number of classrooms in Jeddah, Madinah, Riyadh, Dammam, Hail and Al-Ahsa, where students go to attend certain classes that demand their presence and to take regular exams. But the bulk of its teaching and learning is done online. It is a combination of distance and in-place learning. The benefits of distance learning are obvious: It is always cheaper than attending a university full-time, and is a good solution for students who live in remote areas and thus have no access to university campuses or for people who work and can only study part-time. Even so, degrees earned online or through the mail have always been looked down upon as being of inferior quality because those who earn these types of degrees have not attended classes on a campus classroom and had the benefit of personally interacting with fellow classmates and teachers. While this may be true of distance learning that is done entirely through mail, most distance learning today is done online where students can attend classes together online, or watch videos of lectures later if they miss the class.
Video conferencing with fellow students and teachers, as well as chat rooms online can make online learning as interactive as physically being present in a brick and mortar classroom, and perhaps even more so as one cannot sleep or not pay attention online as you need to keep interacting to make your presence be felt. To assure the quality of online learning, all end of term testing should take place in a real classroom with teachers and monitors to ensure that no cheating takes place. That is the only way to make sure that each online student has really learned all that was on the syllabus and was not asking a smart friend to do their homework for them during the semester.
Distance learning has been the great equalizer, allowing access to higher education to many poorer students around the globe for the first time in their lives. In India the Indira Ghandi National Open University (IGNOU) has 1.8 million students enrolled, and the Open University of China had a 9 percent increase in enrollments in 2011 of 467,000 students according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
And you would be wrong to think that distance learning is a recent phenomenon. The first recorded attempt at it occurred in 1728 when Caleb Philipps advertised a shorthand course by mail in the Boston Gazette. This later evolved in the 1840s to another shorthand course given by Sir Isaac Pitman in England in which he mailed students texts in shorthand, and students had to mail him back the transcriptions they made for correction. The University of London pioneered distance learning in 1858 with its External Program. The first Open University was founded in the United Kingdom in 1965 under Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
Despite this long history of distance learning, it is sad that too many Saudis are so desperate to impress their employers with “fancy” foreign degrees — and so lazy — that they are ready to pay thousands of dollars to quacks to sell them fake degrees. The Ministry of Education has to do something quickly and forcefully about this veritable tsunami of fake degrees that is flooding the Kingdom. It is putting all of distance learning in a bad light and putting unqualified people with these fake degrees in positions where they could potentially harm the public at large.

Expats are not our enemy

Illegal foreign workers gather in Riyadh in 2013 to return home after the Saudi government gave them an amnesty. (AFP photo)

Illegal foreign workers gather in Riyadh in 2013 to return home after the Saudi government gave them an amnesty. (AFP photo)

This is my column that was printed in Arab News on Nov. 30, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

When I read a few weeks ago that that an Indian from the state of Kerala had been arrested in Jeddah for illegally running a vegetable and fruit selling business worth SR5 million, I did not breathe a sigh of relief. Of course I understand the action that the various ministries undertook in enforcing the Saudization rules of the vegetable market which led to the arrest of the Keralite, and I fully support our government’s efforts to make more work opportunities available to Saudis. But I also know that unfortunately there are very few Saudis that I know of who are willing to wake up every morning at 3 a.m. in order to be at the vegetable market at 4 a.m. for the daily auction of fresh fruits and vegetables. So in my mind, the arrested Keralite was just filling a market demand.

It is sad to note that too often the coverage of these Saudization issues by the local press takes on xenophobic overtones, often implying that foreigners are taking over the Kingdom and threatening our national security. This is ridiculous, as more often than not they do the difficult and low paid jobs that we Saudis do not want to do, such as domestic work, street cleaning, vegetable selling and taxi driving, among others. For sure Saudis have made immense strides in terms of the types of work that we are willing to do, both men and women. Nowadays you can find Saudi women working as cashiers in supermarkets and Saudi men working in fast food restaurants, something that was impossible to see only 10 to 15 years ago.

We should be happy and proud that so many foreigners want to work and live here. Saudi Arabia has become a wealth magnet in the Middle East, a stable country that provides job opportunities to millions of Saudis and foreigners in a tax-free environment. In that sense, we are sort of in a similar situation as the United States, which also has a large immigrant population, with many illegals.

It was good news to read that the Saudi government will allow runaway expats to leave the country without having to return to their sponsors as long as they do not have criminal cases pending against them, pay any outstanding fines and pay for their own tickets home. Too often many employers put up unnecessary obstacles or drag their feet in repatriating disgruntled employees, which makes the lives of the runways hell as they have to wait to be deported in crowded detention centers, all the while not receiving any salary.

The other good news was that the Saudi government is considering issuing Iqamas, or residency permits, that are valid for five years, instead of for one year as is the case now. This would immensely help make the lives of expatriate workers and their family members easier and less worrisome. The government also said it was studying the possibility of extending the validity of Saudi passports from five years to 10 years, which pleased me very much. Most developed countries have long issued 10-year passports, so why not Saudi Arabia? In my case, since the Saudi Embassy here in Brasilia does not issue new Saudi passports, each time my passport needs to be renewed I need to return to the Kingdom to do so, which is costly and time consuming.

It is high time that we Saudis stop seeing foreigners as the enemy and acknowledge how much they have helped develop this country, and how much they help us keep this country running smoothly every day. Measures such as extending the validity of Iqamas and facilitating the departure of runaway workers are all developments that are just and help to ease the lives of those who struggle so much to make our lives more pleasant. It’s the least we can do.

Many questions remain over death of Osama Bin Laden

EARLY Monday morning I woke up to the fantastical news that the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, had been found and killed by US Special Forces in Pakistan. Not only that, but that his body had been flown to Afghanistan and then taken to the USS Carl Vinson warship in the north Arabian Sea where his body was buried at sea following the Islamic washing of his body and prayers.

Scenes of jubilant Americans at Ground Zero in New York and gathered outside the White House in Washington, DC, showed them chanting patriotic slogans and holding up signs that read, among other things, “USA 1, OBL 0”. I found this outbreak of patriotism rather distasteful but fully understandable given the 3,000 people killed in the Twin Towers and at the Pentagon when the jets hijacked by the Al-Qaeda terrorists slammed into them on Sept. 11, 2001. (Click here to read Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy’s feelings at Ground Zero following OBL’s death. Click here to read Leon Wieseltier’s case for American joy at OBL’s death.)

Immediately the media began reporting that OBL had used his youngest wife as a human shield when the Navy Seals burst into his master bedroom on the third floor of a large house inside a fortified compound in the military-town of Abbotabad, just 50 miles north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. This later turned out to be false. What does seem to be true is that the US Special Forces flew in under the radar from their base in Afghanistan, landed just outside OBL’s compound and shot their way in a 40-minute gunfight. One of the three helicopters used in the raid was destroyed and left behind after it experienced a mechanical malfunction.

The White House then later released a dramatic photo (above) supposedly showing President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other officials watching a live video feed of the raid on OBL’s compound. Obama is frowning and Clinton is covering her mouth with her right hand as if in horror. It was as if real life were imitating an episode of “24”. This photo was later proved to be staged, as CIA chief Leon Panetta told the press that there was a 20-25 minute blackout in the live video feed from the raid in which he and others at the CIA waited anxiously in a windowless operations room at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, waiting for news on the raid.

President Obama’s decision on Wednesday not to release any photos or video of the dead OBL, because the images were too gruesome and could incite further hatred and violence against the US and Americans in the Muslim world, of course immediately raised the suspicions of conspiracy theorists around the globe that perhaps OBL was not really dead or that he had actually died years ago. Indeed, it was reported as early as 2002 that he suffered from kidney failure and needed regular dialysis of his blood. In a strange interview that former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto gave to David Frost in 2007, only months before her brutal assassination, she claimed that OBL had been murdered in Pakistan by a Pakistani militant.

The most worrying aspect of this whole episode is the level of Pakistani involvement in concealing the presence of OBL in Pakistan for so long. Some accounts say that the Saudi terrorist had been living in that compound in Abbotabad since 2006, right under the noses of a nearby elite military academy and the many retired military officers who live in the area. The support of terrorist groups in Pakistan and of the Afghan Mujahideen by key elements in the Pakistani ISI intelligence services has been well known for years now. The US has provided Pakistan with $7 billion in military and economic aid over the past decade, and the US Congress is surely now going to try and cut back this aid following the discovery and death of OBL deep inside Pakistani territory.

The death of OBL of course does not mean the end of Al-Qaeda. Far from it, the terrorist organization has many cells and commanders. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who knew OBL when he was fighting the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan in the early 1980s, says that OBL had very little involvement in the daily running of the group’s terrorist actions, and that he functioned more as a charismatic figurehead and fundraiser. Yet it is also a fact that Al-Qaeda has lost much of its support in the Islamic world, especially following its bloody attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2004 and in Iraq. The wave of Arab revolutions this spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, led mostly by non-militant youths, suggests that Al-Qaeda and its intolerant and religious ideology has been left behind.

The Republican hawks in the US, while being forced to admit that Obama did good in capturing and killing OBL (watching former Vice President Dick Cheney squirm on TV while praising Obama’s win was priceless!), are now trying to link the US success in Pakistan to the intelligence gathered by torturing terror suspects around the world and in Guantanamo Bay. John Woo, the former Justice Department under the Bush administration who gave the legal cover for waterboarding and other forceful methods of interrogation of terror suspects, wrote this week in the Wall Street Journal that the death of OBL at the hands of American forces was indeed due to US interrogation tactics that Obama no longer uses. I find that hard to believe, as it was the tracking of one of OBL’s couriers for several years that finally brought them to the 12-foot high walls of OBL’s compound in Abbotabad, and not torture.

Woo also claims that Obama specifically told his military commanders that OBL should not be captured alive as this would pose a problem in terms of where to hold him while he was being questioned. As Woo points out, Obama certainly did not want to have to place a captured OBL in Guantanamo Bay, and as the US found out, no country wanted OBL when he was dead, let alone alive.

The Obama administration has now admitted that some of the details they initially provided the press about the raid on OBL’s compound were wrong. Some Republican politicians in Washington have pointed out that administration officials should have said they didn’t know for sure when asked questions that they did not have sufficient information to answer correctly.

This whole affair leaves US-Pakistani relations in tatters, with American distrust of Pakistani intentions at a record high. Pakistani officials are now claiming that they have put their government in a difficult position by so openly supporting US military strikes against targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And indeed there is much anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, especially in the border areas near Afghanistan. The fact that the Obama administration has tripled the number of drone attacks on targets in Pakistan compared to under the Bush administration, according to Woo, surely does not boost the Pakistani government’s popularity in the more conservative and religious areas of the country.

Obama and the Pakistani government now have a very delicate task of moving forward without relenting on the war against Islamist terrorists, while at the same time winning minds and hearts in the Islamic world by convincing Muslims around the world that the war against terror is not a war against all Muslims but is just against those fanatics who are against the West and the freedoms of pluralistic societies. That has been and will continue to be the hard part.

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