Thursday, June 21, 2018

Italy’s first woman consul general sees a multi-layered, dynamic Saudi society

By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Wednesday, March 8, 2017

She is a rarity in the foreign diplomatic corps in Jeddah. Ever since she arrived in January 2015 for her first foreign posting as Italy’s consul general, Elisabetta Martini has carved a niche for herself and her country through her extraordinary work and outreach efforts. On the eve of International Women’s Day, she spoke to Arab News about the challenges she has faced as a female diplomat, and her observations about Saudi women.

She chose Saudi Arabia as her diplomatic posting “because it was an extremely challenging post, and that was the hook for me. When somebody throws a challenge at me I immediately accept it. When I was asked to apply for foreign posts, I chose Jeddah.”

Martini describes Saudi Arabia as “a very powerful country in terms of natural resources, in terms of being a regional power, a country that maintains the regional balance in the Middle East. Before coming here, I knew of Saudi Arabia as a giant that wasn’t fully awake. It has the potential to become the most powerful country in the region.”

She started her diplomatic career in 2012. She was posted in Rome for two years, where she dealt mostly with European affairs and foreign policy. She graduated in political science and completed her master’s in international relations.

She interned for six months at the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC, while she was doing research for her final thesis at John Hopkins University. The subject of her thesis was the Silk Road. During her time in the US, she was associated with a well-known Italian think tank, the International Affairs Institute (IAI). “That’s when I realized the importance of think tanks,” she said.

From the US, Martini moved to Brussels as the assistant of the representative of the Italian Senate at the European Parliament. “That was an extremely useful experience for me,” she said.

Later, she worked as an export manager for a German design company. “I represented this German firm and I used to sell a lot of their products to mostly Arab clients,” she said. All this experience stood her in good stead. “I got to know the private sector, the powerful role of think tanks and then the public sector,” she said.

In the first week of her arrival in Jeddah, King Abdullah died. “So change started to happen very quickly. That was another challenge for me, because my first public appearance was to give condolences for the death of the late king in the (presence) of the governor of Makkah,” Martini said.

“They were all men. There was a discussion between me and my colleagues, and with other consul generals, about how I should be dressed, how I should look… and how I should behave when paying condolences (here). At the same time, it was my first public appearance.” She said she covered her head out of respect for local traditions. “That really went well.”

On how challenging it is for a female diplomat in a country where women are not the predominant force in public life, she said: “It’s difficult for women, not just a female diplomat, all over the world, not just in Saudi Arabia. In my country, when I deal with my own people as myself and not as a diplomat, I support women’s rights. Everyone should give this contribution to the development of his or her own country.

“However, one shouldn’t interfere in the policies of other countries. In Italy, there’s a top-down policy that tries to push women into key areas. Women around the world have to work from the bottom up, instead of top-down.”

She said people in Italy are surprised to know that she is the consul general in Jeddah.

Regarding Saudi women, Martini said she has seen a lot of changes. “When I came here, I was a bit surprised because the American consul general was a lady before me. The British consul general was a lady some years ago. The German consul general was a lady, so I wasn’t the first lady in the diplomatic service here. The difference was that I was young, so I had to prove myself.

“Women are more critical toward other women because we know how much we have to fight and struggle for something. But when you see someone has made it to the top, you ask how she achieved it. Maybe because she’s the daughter of an ambassador? They try to belittle your success.”

Martini said she has interacted with a lot of women here. “Saudi Arabia isn’t one Saudi Arabia. There are different layers of society. There’s a big difference between the various classes of society. Some women who come from opened-minded families don’t have to face any problem. There are women who participate in municipal elections and civic activities.

“But there are some women who face lot of issues. So there are different layers. There are some women in Saudi Arabia who are more qualified than me and can do whatever job they want. Their fathers, husbands and brothers admire them. It’s amazing. But others have to struggle a lot.”

As a diplomat, did she encounter conservatives in the Kingdom, and if so how did she deal with it? “In Saudi Arabia, people recognize authority. They have a very strong sense of authority. They might say ‘you’re a lady and young,’ but they know I represent Italy in Jeddah. They have a strong respect for the state. So as far as I’m the consul general, they respect me. Everyone meets with me in a very respectful way.

“So far, I’ve never met someone who refused to shake my hand. I found Saudis super welcoming. I’m always being welcomed to their houses for big and intimate gatherings. They try to make me feel at ease.”

About women journalists in Saudi Arabia, Martini said: “It’s very important to encourage female journalists because it’s very important to have their point of view. They’ll always have a different point of view. Only they can understand their issues well.”

She said in advanced countries, women do not want to celebrate International Women’s Day as they have already reached gender equality. “But for me, this occasion reminds us of the importance of women in society. We need to push the role of professional women in the world. We’re the other 50 percent of society. My message to women is not to rely on the fact that they’re women. They must think of themselves first and foremost as human beings, and go ahead in life.”

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

US diplomat’s ringside view of a changing Saudi Arabia: Interview with Consul General Matthias J. Mitman

• Departing US consul general reflects on witnessing a dynamic transformation during his two years in the Kingdom

• Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman captures the dynamism that exists within Saudi Arabia, says Mitman

By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Matthias J. Mitman could not have imagined what was in store when he arrived in Saudi Arabia two years ago to take up his post as the US consul general in Jeddah.

“I did not anticipate the degree to which change would occur in the Kingdom when I came here in 2016,” he said.

“The changes have been very rapid. I think they have been welcomed by the vast majority of Saudis, so it has been more than I expected. I think we have developed a very good and solid relationship with our Saudi counterparts, and that has been very useful and productive.”

Mitman’s job as a diplomat meant that he had a ringside view of these momentous changes. He took time out from his preparations to leave the country — now his posting is almost over — to welcome Arab News to his residence in the US Consulate in Jeddah’s Al-Ruwais district.

During an exclusive interview, he reflected on his time in the Kingdom and shared his thoughts about an eventful assignment, his impressions of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and his views on the Saudi people — in particular the youth.

“It has been a very dynamic and interesting period,” he said. “The Saudi Arabia that I came to two years ago is not the Saudi Arabia we are living in today. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has put into place his Vision 2030, which has resulted in remarkable changes in the economic landscape, as well as in the cultural and social environment.

“I feel very fortunate to have served here in a period when there has been more change than perhaps in any other period in Saudi Arabia.”

Mitman said the crown prince had impressed him with his leadership, his vision for the country, and his ability to strategically plan its implementation.

“I have met (the crown prince) and I think he is a very dynamic leader,” he said. “He has a vision for the future of Saudi Arabia. He thinks strategically and he is dedicated to formulating a plan to bring about that vision. He wants to work closely with the United States so we have worked very closely with him on a number of issues related to Vision 2030.

“I think he captures some of the dynamism that exists within Saudi Arabia — and because the majority of the Saudi population is under the age of 30, that is captured by the support they give to the crown prince.”

Mitman met many young Saudis during his posting, an experience that gives him confidence for the future of the country.

“I am very impressed with young Saudis who are interested in working in the private sector, their use of technology, and the fact that they are so familiar with what is going on everywhere,” he said. “I have been very impressed with how knowledgeable they are about world affairs, politics, international trade, and their interest in studying in the United States.”

Among the many changes that Mitman has witnessed in the past two years, a few stick out as particularly noteworthy.

“One of the reforms that I have seen is the promotion of the private sector as an engine of growth in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “The Saudi economy was traditionally dependent upon the export of hydrocarbons — oil and gas. Graduates at one time expected to work for the government, and what I have now seen is a vibrancy, dynamism and entrepreneurship, especially in young people who are interested in forming their own companies and businesses. These will be small- and medium-sized enterprises — and in any economy the engine of growth for job creation is people who start out as small businessmen.

“Apple, Google and Microsoft started out as small companies with one or two people, and in many cases they were working in their garages. Yet now they employ hundreds of thousands of people, and the net worth of a company such as Apple is approaching $1 trillion in capital value. That is what the private sector can do.

“But the basis of that really is individual entrepreneurship and starting out with your own company, which grows from an idea that uses technology. I see a very strong interest in this among young Saudis. They are very technologically sophisticated. I think that is a very positive sign for the future of the Saudi economy as they will be able to form companies.”

Ultimately, Mitman said, the Kingdom’s most valuable resource is not oil, but its people. As such, the empowerment of Saudi women is a crucial development.

“I have visited universities in Madinah, Tabuk, Taif and Abha and I have seen the majority of students are women,” he said. “These women are a tremendous human resource that is skilled, talented and educated.

“I think one of the most profound changes is the one that enables women now to enter the labor force more easily, with greater flexibility, and part of this is a greater understanding of what is necessary to facilitate women working in the private sector.

“There is also the transportation issue, and we saw this week women getting their driving licenses. Thus you see a process by which women will have greater independence, freedom to drive themselves, and that will facilitate their being able to work and their entering the labor force.”

This, he said, “will have very positive long-term benefits for the Saudi economy.”

A career diplomat with the Senior Foreign Service, Mitman arrived in Jeddah in August 2016. He speaks Greek, Russian, Spanish and some German, and is a distinguished graduate of the National War College, earning an MA in National Security Studies in 2006.

Prior to his career with the State Department, he was an assistant professor of economics at Ball State University.

Before arriving in Jeddah, he was consul general in the Iraqi cities of Irbil and Basra. Earlier in his career, he worked at the US embassies in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Moscow.

“Coming (to Jeddah) as consul general was my first assignment here and my first trip to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Jeddah was a new experience for me and one which I thoroughly enjoyed.”

Tourism is an important area that the Saudi authorities are keen to develop and promote as part of Vision 2030, and Mitman believes that the Kingdom has plenty to attract visitors.

“The United States is well-known for its natural beauty,” he said. “Equally, Saudi Arabia has natural attractions and I have visited several of them. I think Madain Saleh is clearly outstanding, and from an archaeological and historical standpoint it is one of the most interesting sites that I have seen. I think it has tremendous potential for tourism development.”

There is no shortage of opportunities, he said, to develop and promote the Kingdom’s natural beauty.

“I have gone up to Tabuk and along the Red Sea coast, where there are two of the projects launched by the Crown Prince — Neom and the Red Sea Project. I think both have tremendous potential,” he said. “I own a condominium in Florida, on the state’s Atlantic coast, and the area on the Red Sea is much more beautiful. There is the potential to attract people who want to go scuba diving or who just want to go to the beach.

“I think there are lots of opportunities in Saudi Arabia and I believe this is one of the crown prince’s priorities, which he has outlined. I think it will take some investment in infrastructure, and US companies have a lot of experience along those lines.

“I think they will be interested in being part of the hospitality or travel industry, or any industries that facilitate tourism.

“We already have about 75 travel agencies in the US that organize trips for Americans to come here for Hajj and Umrah, so we are talking about more than 20,000 people from the US who come here every year for religious journeys. The same skills and knowledge in arranging those trips can be used to arrange tourist trips that will appeal to Americans.

“Most Americans have never traveled to Saudi Arabia. In the past, it was somewhat of a challenge to get a tourist visa, but I think the Saudi government is now looking at ways to make the process easier to facilitate tourists coming to the Kingdom.”

As part of his work, Mitman met religious leaders and reported back to Washington on evolving attitudes, to give policymakers a more accurate present-day view of the country.

“I have had very positive and productive discussions with the religious leaders about Islam and I have come away very impressed with their level of tolerance and their emphasis on moderation in the practice of Islam,” he said.

“I have also been impressed by their understanding of the importance of having friendly relations with Americans. We have about 3 million Muslims living in the United States and there are several thousand mosques there. We brought the imam of one of the Washington, DC, mosques to Saudi Arabia to conduct workshops and to talk about Islam as it is practiced in the United States. He also performed Umrah while he was here.

“We are always looking for ways in which we can help people understand that we promote freedom of religion in the United States … that is an integral part of what it is to live in America. Many of the first settlers who went to the US hundreds of years ago went there because they faced religious persecution in Europe, and they wanted to go somewhere where they could practice their religion freely.”

With so many professional obligations, time for recreation was perhaps limited, but Mitman fondly recalls a few highlights.

“I enjoyed going out on a boat along the coast and snorkeling,” he said. “I enjoy swimming. I have visited a number of cities. In Taif, I walked along the mountains and saw the baboons — I never realized there were baboons in Saudi Arabia. And I visited some of the museums that feature Saudi history and show the cultural development of the Kingdom.”

Mitman said he is also a big fan of art and had enjoyed exploring Jeddah’s “very vibrant artistic community, with world-class galleries.” He added: “We have worked closely with the Saudi Art Council, chaired by Princess Jawaher (bint Majed bin Abdul Aziz), in bringing Arab-American artists such as Helen Zughaib here and holding an exhibition of her work.”

With the reopening of cinemas and the Kingdom’s recent participation for the first time in the Cannes Film Festival, it is fitting that Mitman also enjoyed a professional visit by American filmmakers.

“We brought people from the Hollywood film industry here who are producers and writers and they gave workshops,” he said. “This is important as Saudi Arabia is now creating its own entertainment sector. One of the areas will be film production — and producing films about Saudi Arabia directed by Saudis, acted by Saudis — and so we brought in two Hollywood experts. They went to Effat University, where there is a course in filmmaking, and this was something that I enjoyed a great deal.”

As his time in Saudi Arabia draws to a close, there are memories Mitman will carry with him.

“I have been invited into Saudi homes during the month of Ramadan, which is a very special month for all Muslims,” he said. “I have been taken into the homes of many Saudi contacts who have become close friends and who invited me to break the fast and to stay up much later for sahoor. On some nights, I have had iftar in one house and sahoor in another.

“Those have been special moments because Saudis have opened up their homes and shown me great hospitality. I am not a Muslim but they allowed me to participate and be a part of their celebrations. Those have been very special moments for me as I was away from my family. My wife works in the State Department in Washington and we have two adult children, both of whom are working (abroad).”

During times of change the role of a healthy media is to monitor and report on events truthfully and fairly. Mitman believes Arab News has a key part to play in this.

“I think Arab News plays a very important role in reporting developments in Saudi Arabia for the expatriate communities and for people who don’t read Arabic,” he said. “It is one of two newspapers that I read every morning.

“I have an excellent relationship with Editor in Chief Faisal Abbas. I saw him regularly and we exchanged ideas and had conversations about what was going on in Saudi Arabia.”

Mitman has a few parting thoughts for Americans and Saudis, based on his time in the Kingdom.

“For the Americans, I would say if you haven’t visited Saudi Arabia recently you might be pleasantly surprised with the natural beauty, the attractions, and the warmth and hospitality of the people,” he said.

“To Saudis, I would say thank you for hosting me and allowing me to live for two years in your country. I am grateful for the friendships that I made with many Saudis who helped me to build a bridge between America and the Kingdom. And I thank them for the great cooperation between our two countries in economics, trade and investment.

“Many Americans are interested in investing in Saudi Arabia and many Saudis are interested in investing in America. The exchange of goods and services between our two countries will continue to grow.”

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — The Face of Saudi Arabia’s Future


WHEN Saudi Arabia’s King Salman named him as the deputy crown prince a year ago, few outside the royal circle knew who Prince Mohammed bin Salman was. The Western media, more specifically journalists in America, scrambled to find more information as it became clear a new younger leadership was emerging in Saudi Arabia.

One important reason for this lack of information was that he did not go abroad for higher education like most other members of the royal family. He is a product of King Saud University and had remained inside the Kingdom throughout his young life. He was therefore an unknown quantity.

Complicating matters for the foreign media was that there was very little on the Internet about him except for sparse details about the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud Foundation (MISK) that he still leads. That was in May 2015. A year later, he has turned out to be Saudi Arabia’s best-kept secret.

The first hint of Prince Mohammed’s genius was revealed six months later in a column written by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times. Entitled, “Letter From Saudi Arabia,” the November 2015 column was based on Friedman’s interview with Prince Mohammed, the young Saudi leader’s first interview with a major foreign media outlet.

This is how Friedman began his column: “I spent an evening with Mohammed bin Salman at his office (in Riyadh), and he wore me out. With staccato energy bursts, he laid out in detail his plans. His main projects are an online government dashboard that will transparently display the goals of each ministry, with monthly KPIs — key performance indicators — for which each minister will be held accountable. His idea is to get the whole country engaged in government performance. Ministers tell you: Since Prince Mohammed arrived, big decisions that took two years to make now happen in two weeks.”

As he explained it to Friedman, Prince Mohammed’s plan from the beginning was “to reduce subsidies to wealthy Saudis, who won’t get cheap gas, electricity or water anymore, possibly establish a value-added tax and sin taxes on cigarettes and sugary drinks, and both privatize and tax mines and undeveloped lands in ways that can unlock billions — so even if oil falls to $30 a barrel, Riyadh will have enough revenues to keep building the country without exhausting its savings. He is also creating incentives for Saudis to leave government and join the private sector.”

“Seventy percent of Saudis are under age 30, and their perspective is different from the other 30 percent,” Prince Mohammed told Friedman. “I am working to create for them the country they want to be living in in the future.”

That interview was widely discussed inside and outside Saudi Arabia. The young prince instantly became a hero for what he said and planned to do. He immediately struck a chord with the 70 percent of Saudis under the age of 30. In him they saw someone who thought like them and understood their problems, and a leader ready to take action that would insulate the Saudi economy from global risks.

A series of decisions since then have burnished his image as a no-nonsense leader who says what he means and means what he says. Twitter and other social media have been abuzz with his virtues. Within a few months of his appointment as deputy crown prince, he made high-profile visits to Russia, France and the United States, winning the crucial battle of perception. The media and world leaders started taking note.

After one meeting, US President Barack Obama said Prince Mohammed surprised him with his crystal clear ideas about the Saudi and global economy, and Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the outside world. Obama said Prince Mohammed had ambition, energy and knowledge of a wide array of complex public policy issues. “He is wise beyond his years,” is how Obama described him after their meeting in May 2015 at the United States-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit at Camp David.

Since then he has won over his critics and pleasantly surprised his huge number of followers. The path-breaking interview that he gave to Bloomberg in April was the clearest indication of his coming of age. Nothing was off the record in that interview.

He talked about spending a few days a week at the late King Abdullah’s palace. He tried to push through several new reforms. “It was very difficult to do with the presence of a number of people,” he told Bloomberg. “But I remember to this day there’s nothing I discussed with King Abdullah that he didn’t give the order and implement.”

The prince, as the Bloomberg interview revealed, divides his time between his father’s palaces and the powerful Defense Ministry that he heads, working from morning until after midnight most days. He has frequent meetings with the king and spends long sessions with consultants and aides poring over economic and oil data.

He is awakened most mornings by his children, two boys and two girls, ranging in age from one to six. That is the last he sees of them. “Sometimes my wife gets upset with me because I put so much pressure on her for the programs that I want them to have,” he told Bloomberg. “I rely mainly on their mother for their upbringing.”

Prince Mohammed has only one wife and is not planning on marrying more. His generation is not so into polygamy, he explained. Life is too busy, compared with past eras when farmers could work a few hours a day and warriors could “take spoils once a week and had a lot of spare time.” Working, sleeping, eating, and drinking do not leave a lot of time to open another household, he said. “It is tough [enough] living with one family.”

That interview and the one he gave to Al-Arabiya TV on the day his pet project Saudi Vision 2030 was announced indicated the arrival of a young and decisive leader in Saudi Arabia. It was frank and full of candor. He did not consult notes while fielding questions from Turki Al-Dakhil.

Famous columnist Abdulateef Al-Mulhim was highly impressed. “My impression is that he is very confident and aware of the many needs of the Kingdom and its citizens. During the Al-Arabiya interview, he seemed very well-informed about the future path needed to upgrade the standard of life for Saudis. He seemed very transparent in his discussion about the internal issues in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Al-Mulhim says young Saudis admire him and adore him. “They are very enthusiastic about seeing someone young and sharp — it is as if he is talking to each and everyone one of them and knows full well what they need.”

Fahad Nazer, a senior Saudi political analyst with the US-based JTG Inc., said Prince Mohammed has come to symbolize the “new” Saudi Arabia — “more open, more decisive, less risk averse and operating on a much shorter time frame.”

“Many Saudis — myself included — have found the frank tone he has been using in his media interviews to be refreshing. Prince Mohammed has been very forthcoming in acknowledging the economic challenges that Saudi Arabia is facing. He has also been open about the need to re-evaluate previous policies which have led to an over-reliance on oil and the underdevelopment of other sectors of the economy,” said Nazer.

Christopher Williams, an American who lived for many years in Saudi Arabia, was ecstatic with the young prince’s frank talk and ambitious vision. “Prince Mohammed was very poised and gave a very positive impression. He was obviously on top of the situation. He had done his homework very thoroughly and was sure of what he wants for Saudi Arabia and how he believes his goals can become reality,” he said.

Williams thinks he handled the press, both local and foreign, very confidently, referring to the press conference that he held in Riyadh on the night Saudi Vision 2030 was unveiled. “What the foreign press often overlooks is that its opinion is not what is important in Saudi Arabia; there is interest in that opinion of course but ordinary Saudis must be sold and convinced about what the prince aims to do and that is not done by the foreign press. Saudis are his first and primary audience,” Williams added.

Prince Mohammed is seen as a new Arab hero and Arab News Editor in Chief Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi described him aptly in his recent column: “Prince Mohammed is a young enlightened man who is behind a project that will serve the country.

“I once heard him say he had the choice of living the kind of life his circumstances allowed or serving his society no matter the cost. It is clear he made the latter and more difficult choice. As the saying goes, a vision without action is a dream; an action without a vision is a waste of time, but a vision with action can change the world. Saudi Arabia has made an appointment with its future.”


Friday, July 26, 2013

IICC President Sirajuddin Qureshi Exhorts Muslims to Do Away With Begging Bowl Mentality

From left: Mohammed Ali Siddiqui, Nadeem Tarin, Saleh bin Fahad Al-Nazha, Sirajuddin Qureshi, Mahboob Ali Qaiser, Dr. Dilnawaz Roomi and Asif Rameez Daudi at the event organized in Jubail recently.

Top Saudi industrialist Saleh Fahad Al-Nazha, Sirajuddin Qureshi, 2nd right, Mahboob Ali Qaiser, right, and Asif Rameez Daudi.

Sirajuddin Qureshi, Mahboob Ali Qaiser and Saleh Fahad Al-Nazha pose for a group picture with the event organizers.

Nobody Wants to Stifle Indian Muslim Community, Says Mahboob Ali Qaiser


A top-ranking Saudi industrialist has acknowledged the contribution of the Indian community to the development of Jubail as the world’s leading hub of petrochemical industry.

Tasnee President and Chief Operating Officer Saleh Fahad Al-Nazha was speaking at a program organized by Jubail Indian Expats (JIE) to welcome and felicitate Sirajuddin Qureshi, president of the New Delhi-based India Islamic Cultural Center, and Mahboob Ali Qaiser, president of the Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee.

“Jubail was a small fishing village in the mid-1970s,” said Al-Nazha. “The government decided to convert it into an important petrochemical base in 1979 and the actual industrial activity began in 1982.”

Al-Nazha said he came to Jubail in 1982 when he joined Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (SABIC). “There were many Indians here; they were among the first contributors to the development of this city,” he said. “On behalf of every Saudi, I thank you all for being the real partners in progress.”

There was a thunderous applause from the assembled audience that included some of the best-known Indian expatriates such as Nadeem Tarin, Mohammed Ali Siddiqui, Asif Rameez Daudi, Anis Bakhsh, Meraj A. Ansari, Dr. Dilnawaz Roomi, Amjad Khan, Habib Shaikh, Mohammed Abdulsattar, Rahat Sultan and Parvez Askari.

Al-Nazha expressed total admiration for India and Indians. “I have been to many countries but the one thing that always stood out during my visits to India was the ubiquitous scene at the major traffic intersections,” he said. “Here, in the Gulf, we see people selling bottled water at traffic intersections because it is a hot and humid here, in other countries people sell newspapers, but in India they sell business books at traffic lights; that is something amazing, and speaks volumes about the country’s culture of knowledge.”

Sirajuddin Qureshi, in whose honor the event was organized, exhorted members of the Indian Muslim community to do away with what he described as the “begging bowl mentality.”

“We should depend on the government only up to a point,” he said. “We should not become totally dependent on it because that will stunt our growth.”

Qureshi recalled his various suggestions to many government commissions that were tasked with improving the lot of Indian Muslims. “The Sachar commission report has shown us in very negative light and so did the Ranganath Misra commission report; it is not that the government is not aware of our problems; they have known it for the last 60 years and it will take them another 600 years to solve them,” he quipped in a note of sarcasm.

Qureshi advised Indian Muslims to work hard and concentrate on education. “You, Indian expatriates, who have risen to top positions in your chosen field here in Saudi Arabia, you did not bank on government support, your success is yours, you worked hard for it and achieved it, you are the best example and the real inspiration for the rest of the community in India,” he said.

He said things move grindingly slow in India. “The decision to establish the India Islamic Cultural Center was taken in the early 1980s. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi performed the ground-breaking ceremony in 1984, but the actual center was completed only in 2006,” he said. “It took us 22 long years to bring it to fruition.”

Nobody took the project seriously, he lamented. “I would pass by this prime land every day and would wonder why was it not being completed. As a member of the center’s founding committee I always impressed upon my fellow members the need for completing the project because it did not reflect positively on the community,” he said.

Qureshi praised Asif Daudi, the architect of the program, for creating awareness about the center among the Indian expatriates in the Eastern Province. “I urge you all to become full-time members of this center; visit our website ( for details; I have special interest in NRIs (non-resident Indians) because they are apolitical; I want to save the center from any possible politicization,” he said.

The highly articulate and suave politician from Bihar, Mahboob Ali Qaiser, congratulated the Jubail Indian community for coming together for a good and constructive cause.

“India is a multi-religious, multi-social, multi-culture nation and the center is the best example of that,” he said. “We as a community need to focus on education so that we can project the true picture and true essence of Islam to other communities.”

Qaiser agreed that there was bias against Muslims in India but said that has not stopped hard-working Muslims from going ahead in life.

“Fifteen percent Muslims are competing with a community that constitutes 85 percent of the country, so naturally Muslims will have to be extremely good, extremely hard-working to succeed, and success will come just as it has come to the highly-positioned Indians here in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Nobody in India wants the community to be stifled.”

Educationist Nadeem Tarin, who runs a number of prestigious educational institutions in India and Saudi Arabia, spoke about the importance of education to the well being of the community.

Syed Baqar Naqvi conducted the proceedings with poise and grace.

Asif Daudi thanked all members of JIE’s core committee, including Mohammad Shibli, Mohammed Farooque Shahbandri, Abdul Haleem, Mufeeduzzama, Nasiruddin, Jamil Akhter, Imteyaz Khan, Aziz Siddiqui, Javed Ashraf, Asif Siddiqui, Shahnawaz, Khalili, Naveed and Sajid for the program’s success.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Note About Saudi Women and Their Positive Contribution to the Development of Saudi Arabia


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.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Makkah Summit 2012: OIC Set to Expel Murderous Syria

OIC Foreign Ministers Meet in Jeddah on Monday, Aug. 13

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.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ensuring Justice for Myanmar Muslims Tops Makkah Summit Agenda

Pressure Tells on Military Junta in Myanmar


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.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Makkah 2012 -- the Heart of Islam

Talmiz Ahmad's Book Counters Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization Theory

"Children of Abraham at War"


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.”

Sunday, June 17, 2012

May Allah Have Mercy on Crown Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Glimpses of Arab News Haj Coverage 2010