By SIRAJ WAHAB
Published in Arab News on Thursday, September 23, 2010
As Saudi Arabia celebrates its National Day today, there is a significant section of the population that has reasons to cheer more than others. Not that the women of Saudi Arabia were marginalized in the past, but in recent times they have been given the honor, credit and the space that they richly deserve. Saudi society has been a little more welcoming of their pursuits and initiatives. Government institutions have grown more responsive to their needs, and the media have become more vocal, both in reporting their successes and failures. The leadership at the top provided the incentive by appointing a woman as minister. The private sector hasn’t been far behind — opening the doors of their establishments to these women who have achievements that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
Not a day goes by where you don’t see talented Saudi women making important contributions in almost all fields of endeavor. Their faces, beaming with pride, adorn the pages and covers of prestigious publications. Foreign journalists visiting the Kingdom, with preconceived notions about Saudi women, have not hidden their appreciation and admiration of Saudi women after meeting them in person. Many have described them as second to none. And yes, they are second to none.
To the Western world all these changes may sound insignificant, but for those who have been watching the Kingdom’s development over the last few years these are no proverbial mirages in the desert. To those in the West, the barometer for women’s emancipation is the ability to drive on Saudi roads. However, that is not the most pressing issue for Saudi women. There are other more important things, and they have learned to work within the system to get things done their way. For a Western observer the image of a Saudi woman is that of an abaya-clad prisoner who can do nothing on her own and is completely subservient to the whims of her male masters. That is certainly not the case, and newspapers here and abroad and social networking sites such as Facebook are proof that Saudi women are making slow yet continuous progress.
Only last month, the newspapers were filled with the success of equestrienne Dalma Rushdi Malhas who rode her way to fame with a medal-winning performance at the recent Singapore Youth Olympics.
Among the first people to reach flood-hit Pakistan with relief was Muna Abu-Sulayman. She was among those coordinating the massive relief efforts undertaken by Kingdom Holding Co. Chairman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
Hayat Sindi is breaking new grounds in the field of science; Huda Ghosun and Hiba Dialdin of Saudi Aramco have assumed key leadership positions; Asya Al-Ashaikh has given a new and positive direction to the concept of corporate social responsibility. Nora Alturki and Fatin Bundagji are engaged in pioneering research on the needs and aspirations of Saudi businesswomen; Samia El-Edrissi has launched her own business; Amina Al-Jassim’s couture has become the cynosure of all eyes in the world of fashion; Lina Almaeena has created quite a buzz with her passion for bringing women into the world of sports; Hatoon Al-Fassi, the historian, and Samar Fatany, the columnist and radio commentator, have become the most-quoted people for their insightful comments; Lama Sulaiman, Hana Al-Zuhair and Sameera Al-Suwaigh are part of key decision-making within the Kingdom’s chambers of commerce. The list is endless, and it only goes to prove that they are taking the lead and conquering new territories.
All this would not have been possible without the critical push from Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah. He brought them into the mainstream. He lent them a patient ear and understood the challenges they faced. Once the direction from the top was clear, there were other segments of society which saw the need to engage and harness this great potential.
“It is important for us to remember that the Saudi girl has been struggling for years to redefine her role in society — not only in the workplace and at school but, most important of all, in our collective consciousness and our collective perceptions of what she is and what paths are open to her and what paths should be open to her,” said a prominent Saudi journalist. “What these women sought and what they wanted was not ‘liberation’ in the Western sense of the word. They were seeking — and they attained — the right to do and be what they wanted to do and be; they wanted the same doors open to them as were open to their brothers and other Saudi men.”
There is an interesting joke that all of us hear during free-wheeling conversations here in Saudi Arabia. For the first 25 years of their life, a Saudi man is controlled by his mother; the next 25 years he is firmly in the grip of his wife. And then he becomes harmless!
That may be a joke, but Saudi women have come a long way and so widespread with their success that they will become common and no longer merit front-page treatment.
OIC Foreign Ministers Meet in Jeddah on Monday, Aug. 13
By SIRAJ WAHAB
Published in Arab News on Monday, Aug. 13, 2012
The 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is all set to expel Syria. This is to express the pan-Islamic body’s displeasure at President Bashar Assad regime’s failure to end the bloodshed in his country.
The decision is being described as one of the key outcomes of the two-day Islamic solidarity summit beginning in Makkah on Aug. 14.
The recommendation to suspend Syria was taken at a preparatory meeting of senior diplomats of OIC member countries at the Conference Palace in Jeddah yesterday. The highly significant recommendation will now be presented to the OIC foreign ministers at their meeting in Jeddah today (Monday). Their decision will be final.
Syria’s expulsion from the OIC will complete Assad’s total isolation in the Muslim world. The 22-member Arab League expelled Syria in November last year during its emergency session in Cairo.
The preparatory meeting, chaired by Muhammad bin Ahmed Tayeb, director general of the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s office in Makkah Province, lasted nearly 12 hours. It included Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and its permanent representative to the OIC.
Syrian officials were not invited to the meeting. This led the Iranian envoys to raise objections. “The Syrians are still part of the OIC, and, therefore, they should have been invited to the preparatory meeting,” one of the diplomats quoted the Iranians as saying. However, there were few takers for the Iranian view.
With Iran continuing to support the tottering Assad regime, it found itself totally isolated. The recommendation to expel Syria found instant favor from an overwhelming majority of OIC countries, including hosts Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
“Iran has refused to see the writing on the wall and continues to support a regime that has lost the moral ground to continue in power,” said an Arab diplomat. “This was a good opportunity for Iran to go along with the sentiments of the majority of the Muslim world.”
However, the diplomats attending the marathon meeting, reiterated that the session was not acrimonious. On the contrary, there was a lot of camaraderie among all the member states. Other than its expected stand on Syria, Iran demonstrated willingness to cooperate fully with fellow Muslim states on almost all issues, including Palestine, and repeatedly stated that the OIC should remain the bedrock of Muslim solidarity.
Some nations, notably Kazakhstan, Iraq and Pakistan, suggested that efforts should not be given up to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria.
There were divergent opinions among the member countries on the issue of the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. One section called for a strong condemnation and rapid reaction, while the other, that included Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Bangladesh, suggested a policy of engagement with Myanmar.
“The Asian nations felt that since the Myanmar government had indicated full cooperation with the Muslim world body, it should be given a chance to come good on its promise of delivering justice and bringing the murderers to book,” said an Asian diplomat.
Mali was not supposed to be on the agenda, but almost all African member states vociferously raised the issue of the unprecedented political crisis in the landlocked west African country. And so finally it was decided to include it in the deliberations.
The meeting recommended that the territorial integrity of the country be respected by all parties and that those who are flying the flag of rebellion against the central government should be stopped and condemned.
At the preparatory meeting, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu’s message was read out by Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs Abdullah Alem.
Besides political issues, the meeting discussed cultural and economic issues, interfaith dialogue initiatives and the rising tide of Islamophobia in Europe and other parts of the world. All these issues will find mention in the final communique.
Pressure Tells on Military Junta in Myanmar
By SIRAJ WAHAB
Published in Arab News on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012
The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is one of the key issues to be discussed at the Islamic solidarity summit convened by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah in Makkah on Aug. 14-15.
With just two days to go for the conclave of the world’s most important Muslim leaders in the most holy city, pressure is mounting on Myanmar’s military junta to allow international and Islamic relief agencies access to the besieged Muslim population of the Arakan province.
Two important delegations to Myanmar — one led by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the other by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — this week have revealed signs of panic and desperation among the junta’s top leadership.
“They have been caught out and have now realized that what they have done to Rohingya Muslims constitutes a war crime,” one of the diplomats at the Jeddah-based OIC told Arab News.
“There is no doubt that the state was and possibly still is involved in the planned pogrom of Arakan Muslims, and they are now trying to reach out to the Muslim world to lessen the impact of the expected robust and unified Muslim response at the Makkah summit,” he said.
Besides Davutoglu, the Turkish delegation included Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s wife Emine and daughter Sumeyye. The delegation called on Myanmar President U Thein Sein and Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and visited the Banduba refugee camp where more than 8,500 Rohingya Muslims have taken shelter.
The delegates received a first-hand account of what exactly happened to the Rohingya Muslims in the last few weeks. They talked to a number of victims and, at one point, according to reports in the Turkish media, the prime minister’s wife was reduced to tears while listening to a harrowing account of a Rohingya Muslim woman.
Davutoglu later told journalists that he would present his findings to the Muslim leaders at the Makkah summit. His findings will hold the key to the future course of action from the Muslim world at the summit.
According to a top Jeddah-based diplomat, there are a number of measures that the Muslim world can think of against Myanmar.
“We can haul the country’s top military leadership, including President Thein Sein and the Arakan provincial head, to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and try them like Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian leadership,” he said. “Among the other viable options are that of approaching the UN Security Council and UN Human Rights Council.”
The diplomat also hinted at pressurizing and persuading the world’s leading powers to constitute an international peace-keeping force to save the Rohingya Muslims from being obliterated and uprooted from their historic homeland.
The OIC delegation to Myanmar was headed by former Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla. Among others, it included OIC Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Atta Manan Bakhiet and presidents of the Qatari Red Crescent and Kuwaiti International Humanitarian Commission.
The OIC delegates apprised President Thein Sein of the outrage in the Muslim world at the deplorable humanitarian conditions in the Arakan province of Myanmar.
The delegation asked for access to Muslim humanitarian organizations to provide emergency aid to inhabitants of the worst-hit Arakan province “without any religious discrimination.”
According to a press-note issued by the OIC yesterday, Myanmar president welcomed the OIC delegation and stated that that what had happened was not a direct result of religious differences. Instead, he blamed the massacre on what he called as “social problems between various ethnicities in the province.”
Thein Sein pointed out to the OIC delegates that the international media distorted the events and presented wrong information and exaggerated the killings.
“President Thein Sein stressed his eagerness for the Muslim world in particular to know the truth about what occurred in Arakan, and he mentioned that he had sent an invitation to OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu recently to visit Myanmar to observe the real situation in the affected province,” said the OIC press note.
The president welcomed the OIC humanitarian delegation to Arakan and agreed to allow the OIC and its partner organizations to provide humanitarian aid to the province in an urgent manner and to open an office in the region in coordination with the central government in Yangon and the local authorities in the province. He instructed the relevant ministries to sign an agreement with the OIC to complete the arrangements.
"Children of Abraham at War"
By SIRAJ WAHAB | RIYADH
Published in The Sunday Guardian and Arab News on Dec. 12, 2010
The new book Children of Abraham at War by Indian ambassador Talmiz Ahmad was hailed as an unbiased counterpoint to Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, at its launch in the Saudi capital this week. Ahmad worked on the book for more than five years. “Its origins lay in the concern that, after 9/11, Western, particularly US, discourse was increasingly demonising Islam — the religion, and Muslims — the people,” he said during his presentation.
“Bernard Lewis’ two books, What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam, were readily seized upon by the American public and had considerable impact in solidifying the prejudices and animosities of Western readers with regard to Islam and Muslims,” Ahmad said. “Such a broad-brush approach denied all political context or legitimacy to Muslim grievances and did not attempt to take into account the complexity of Islamic history and contemporary politics and culture.”
Veteran Indian regional expert Ranjit Gupta praised the book for its perspective. “The title of this book reminds one of another book, much celebrated when it first hit the stands, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. To me it appears that the author of that book had already decided his conclusions before commencing writing and then worked backwards to offer rationalisations,” Gupta told an audience of Indian, Saudi and foreign nationals gathered at the Indian embassy in Riyadh. “It reeked of arrogance, the tendency to see all right on one’s own side and all wrong on the other, the self-assured, conviction that “my civilisation is superior to yours, yours is narrow minded, bigoted and doomed to be defeated in the looming and inevitable clash of civilizations’.”
Gupta said Ahmad’s work presented a more accurate view of events absent of Western tendencies to vilify Islam and the Arab people. “Due to the Western domination of the world during the past two centuries, Western parameters and narratives of discourse have set the standard of what is right and what is wrong. Since the West essentially controls the media and the flow and interpretation of information it becomes extremely difficult for a more balanced viewpoint to get traction,” Gupta said. “In Ahmad’s scholarly and impeccably researched effort, which for additional credibility is based overwhelmingly on Western sources, we see the beginnings of the breaching of these bastions.”
He likened Ahmad to a walking encyclopaedia on the Middle East and its many issues. “This is manifested in his learned articles, in books and journals, his speeches and presentations at umpteen professional forums,” Gupta said. “He is among India’s top two or three experts on the Gulf region.”
Amid the commendations for the five years of research for the 476-page book was one lament about the duration of the project “I hope it won’t take him five years for another book,” Ahmad’s wife, Sunita Ahmad, said to a smiling audience. “This book kept him away from me for quite awhile.”