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Khaled Al Maeena is a veteran Saudi journalist, commentator, businessman and the former editor-in-chief of Arab News and Saudi Gazette.


JEDDAH (Al-Bilad English): “Muslims are part and parcel of India; reconfiguration of history is wrong,” emphasized Saudi political analyst and Jeddah-based businessman Khaled Almaeena in an interview with India’s Arfa Khanum on a recent episode of The Wire.

Since its broadcast on Thursday, the interview has gone viral over social media platforms; with Indian Muslims, non-Muslims, and even non-Indians and general supporters of religious tolerance sharing links to the episode.

Speaking in Urdu, the long-time chief editor of Arab News told Khanum that the spread of hatred and mass discrimination in India is hurting the country’s image, as well as its relationship with the GCC.

“The attacks on Muslims in India are having a negative impact on GCC-Indian relations. What is happening today is a total rejection of Gandhian principles and Nehruvian values. The world will not tolerate it anymore,” exclaimed Almaeena.

“Islamophobia has hurt India’s interests, Prime Minister Modi must speak up for India’s Muslims,” he added.

On Saudi Arabia’s recently agreed-upon trade deals with India, Almaeena praised the historic ties between the gulf nations and India.

The expatriate community is now running from pillar to post trying to correct their legal status and the predicament that they are in.

For many, it is not their fault. Take the case of a cab driver who came to me and said that he had paid his sponsor a fee for his iqama renewal. The sponsor took the money and so far nothing has been done and the day of the expiry of the iqama is fast approaching. The sponsor does not answer calls.

The real nightmare is for those whose sponsors are in other cities. An Indian expat told me that his sponsor is in Buraidah and has demanded SR10,000. Anyway, the man’s fate has been sealed. A couple of days ago, he was detained and is now is some deportation center. In another case, two expat workers were picked up from the office where they worked.

As the final day of the amnesty approaches, the fees for everything go up astronomically. And we have this exercise of amnesty every few years and make a big fuss about it. However, we do not solve the root problem, which is the selling of visas.

And let’s be frank about Vision 2030, which we support and which aims to reduce bureaucracy and corruption. In order for this to succeed, civil society should assist and play an important role. The media has failed because they are busy hailing and praising. I feel sorry for the thousands of workers who are at the mercy of a “kafeel” (sponsor). I know of an Asian whose daughter lost two years of her medical education in her own country as the worker could not meet his sponsor’s demands.

While the Minister of Labor and Social Development is doing his best to tackle the issue and clean up the ministry, it is important that he listen to the stakeholders and the honest public who care about their country. Let us not be carried away by ignorant, self-centered tweeters who proclaim their patriotism!

Instead of deporting all these workers, many of whom are victims of their sponsors, why not regularize them. Make a list of workers, register them after fingerprinting and medical examination and if anyone wants to retain their services let them do so through a qualified government agency. Instead, we deport them and then we send another 200,000 or 300,000 visas abroad.

Last week, I entered a cab in Riyadh and asked the driver to take me to the Chamber of Commerce. He did not know the way. I asked him how long he had been in Riyadh. He said that he had only been in the Kingdom for one month. My wife remarked that we deported tens of thousands a couple of years ago and asked why we had not retained them after carrying out a thorough check. I told her I had no answer to that question. I strongly believe that the Ministries of Labor and Interior should sit with the Chamber of Commerce and local business people, as they are also affected by this.

I also appeal to Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman to extend the grace period a couple of months to help alleviate the sufferings of many innocent people.

We are, inshallah, the Kingdom of Humanity. May God help to preserve and protect our Kingdom.

President Donald Trump will land in Riyadh this morning on his first foreign trip since taking office.

He leaves behind a Washington that is in an uproar.

Trump, whatever one may say about him, is a man who speaks his mind.

His election rhetoric left many alarmed. His remarks about Mexicans and Muslims added to the already heightened anxiety prevailing in certain quarters in the United States.

His comments about Muslims troubled many in the Muslim world. While his sloganeering appealed to many, his statement “I think Islam hates us” dismayed millions of Muslims.

However, as he arrives today, we would truly like to believe that those words were merely part of an election campaign. Trump is going to speak tomorrow to many Muslims who are waiting to hear what he has to say. It is speculated that he will talk about the need for peace and tolerance, and that people should not conflate Islam with terrorism.

He, therefore, has to be forceful and not condescending and deal with all forms of extremism. He should openly reject Islamophobia and condemn those who preach and practice it.

It is to the credit of Saudi Arabia that it has been able to gather together such a large number of Arab and Muslim leaders under one umbrella to talk to the US president.

The Middle East has suffered a lot due to its inability to solve its domestic problems and to outside interference. Enough blood has been spilled. The key issues that Trump has to deal with right now are to see that order is restored in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. However to do that, the guns should stop and the aspirations of people should be respected.

Paramount among the issues to be solved is the problem of Palestine and its occupation by Israel, which has flouted every UN resolution. In addressing this issue, the US can play the role of an honest broker.

Trump will earn the gratitude of all if he is able to persuade the Israelis that occupation and repression will do it no good in the eyes of the world.

His narrative will then be more powerful and productive than the optics of his visits. All peace-loving people around the globe want the American partnership with the Muslim world to succeed.

In face-to-face interviews conducted with 3,500 Arab youth aged 18-24 and with a sample split 50:50 male/female, the results that followed were an indication of the mindset of young people in the Arab world today.

I wrote about this in the Saudi Arabic media last year and here once again I would like to commend Sunil John for undertaking this great task in a region that does not rely heavily on statistics and surveys in its decision-making process. Sunil John, Chief Executive Officer ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, is however a determined man who is fired up with a zeal to assist Gulf society.

It’s not an easy task but it has been done and for many who are not privy to the Arab mind and base their opinions on other sources, the results of the survey are an eye-opener.

The top 10 findings are as follows:

•  Optimism among young Arabs is waning, with a clear split by geography into “have” and “have-nots”.

• Young Arabs want their countries to do more for them and many feel overlooked by policymakers.

• Young Arabs view unemployment and extremism as the biggest problems holding the Middle East back.

• Many young Arabs say their education system falls short of preparing students for the jobs of the future.

• Young Arabs say Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) has become weaker over the past year.

• The UAE sprints ahead of the pack as the country in which most young Arabs would like to live and want their countries to emulate.

• Young Arabs say Donald Trump is anti-Muslim and express concern, anger and fear about his presidency.

• Anti-American views are on the rise and now Russia – not the US – is seen as the region’s top international ally.

• Despite their pride in the Arabic language, most young Arabs say they are using English more in their daily lives.

• Among young Arabs, Facebook is the number one medium for daily news.

I hope that after going through this report, a more accurate picture will emerge and biases and prejudices will be removed.

Assistant Deputy Minister of Health for Transformation Dr. Rashed Al-Kawan has denied the possibility of the privatization of government hospitals and said that they will be transformed into government companies. He also focused on the lack of Saudi health cadre and said that it is the responsibility not only of the ministry, but also of society as a whole with all its institutions.

The question arises as to why this statement was made. The Ministry of Health itself has been the subject of great criticism and over the years, reports of poor services, malpractice and shoddy performance and safety that have resulted in death have been reported in mainstream and social media. Moreover, for many years, there have also been reports of the low caliber of the ministry’s employees. Turning these same hospitals into government companies run by the same employees will not serve any purpose. It is like putting old juice in new jugs.

What is needed is a total revamp of the ministry’s working culture and the introduction of innovative ideas that fall within the objectives of Saudi Vision 2030.

Let us not point the finger at the wrong place. The privatization of hospital is a must. It will relieve the government of a large budget, some of which goes to waste, and it will reduce corruption and increase efficiency. The job of a government is to govern and not run hospitals, malls or shops. Moreover, for years, we were happy building huge hospitals while forgetting the basic premise of health care – the primary one. Instead of having dispensaries and small clinics in villages and towns, we went all out for specialized hospitals, which are, of course, needed, but should be the road of last resort.

An Asian doctor said if you treat a flu patient in time you avoid bronchitis and then pneumonia that then requires an ICU unit and attention costing the state a lot of money. And many similar diseases can be used as examples, such as diabetes where prevention, managing and containment can be done at small clinics.

The Ministry of Health should be a regulatory body that monitors and insures that health industry standards are maintained. And to do that you need qualified, honest, God-fearing bureaucrats who will not act as obstacles or stand in the way of prospective investors. We do not want statements. We want investor-oriented reforms, simplification of permit clearance, technological innovation and commitment to excellence.

Above all, health ministry officials should know that they should part with the old ways and display excellence in governance and have a deep unwavering commitment to innovation.

They should be facilitators and to do that they should think in a modern way.

The situation is becoming grimmer and grimmer for expatriates as we enter the second month of amnesty. The fee for the renewal of sponsorship has gone up. Heartless sponsors are demanding more and more money and threatening to send their employees to detention centers.

White-collar workers have also not been spared. One feels sorry for those who have been here for decades and now find themselves out on a thin limb.
For many employees, the tragedy has been compounded by the fact that those who brought them to the Kingdom to work are now deceased. These workers have now been “inherited” by the relatives of the original sponsor. These are not individual cases. I have written in the past about an educated man who after having spent 34 years here was taken to a deportation center, jailed for five months and was then sent home packing.

On the plane last week, I met an Asian cab driver who pays SR800 every week to his employer. He just renewed his iqama (residence permit) and paid the required fee to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development. These are not isolated incidents. There are dozens of such cases.

Listen to what Yeroon Amma says: “Those selfish and greedy sponsors deserve to stay in such a detention center, not their victims. Nowadays, they announce the so-called amnesty period in order to rid the country of undocumented workers and illegal residents, but the root cause of the problem is the kafala (sponsorship) system. It is still here after years and years of complaints about it. Are they going to announce another three months of amnesty? This is futile.” She is right.

Arham Ali Ahmed’s observation is not wrong either: “Many people are still suffering inside detention centers and have been waiting to be deported for many months. Most of them came with a work visa and their sponsors asked them for money to renew their iqamas. If you do not give the sponsor all the money that he wants, he will report that you have run away and you will become illegal as if you had entered the country without a visa.”

Naggita Anita wrote: “All Saudis should realize that the people they employ are human beings like them and they should be treated as such. Employers should treat those who work for them in the same way that they would wish to be treated themselves. And they should realize that they have a responsibility to pay their workers on time, because people come to this country to work and be paid.

However, some people make you work in their house and in the end they refuse to pay you even though you have left your family behind and need to send money to support them.” This is so tragic.

A Saudi friend wondered why I keep writing about these issues in particular. My answer to him is: “We all should strive so that not one act of injustice is done in our Kingdom.” It is up to us — the law-abiding citizens — to convey this to the authorities.

“Sponsors will be fined and punished for failure to renew muqeem or resident cards of their employees on time,” according to a recent ruling of Jawazat (General Directorate of Passports).

The punishment will include suspension of electronic services being provided to the sponsors. According to the new regulations, the punishments would be doubled in case the violations were repeated.

Also, there was a report that sponsors should not keep the passports of their expatriate employees. Some employers have implemented this ruling, but many have dithered.

This measure, however, is redundant as the sponsor still has a life and death hold over his employees.

Let us not fool ourselves. The present sponsorship system is totally outdated and is a form of slavery. I write this again and again as a citizen who does not want his country to be flayed in media reports.

It’s always the poor employee who is at fault. There are cases where employees have not been paid for two years.

Their cases in the Labor court are lying in either a moribund state or the hearing gets put off repeatedly with the sponsors failing to appear, and their constant pleas for help go unanswered. The modus operandi runs like this.

For a transfer, many of the employers ask for a large sum and if not paid they go and register the employee as “huroob”. In some cases, the employee is coming to the office daily with no knowledge of his “precarious” status.

In a heartbreaking case, an employer asked for SR30,000 to remove the huroob while the poor man’s wife was dying of cancer in a hospital. Some kind-hearted Saudis collected the money to pay.

In another case, a court in Riyadh had cleared an expatriate of all charges against him but the sponsor still held his iqama and did not relent even though the poor man was suffering from a heart problem and living in misery.

Hundreds of similar cases exist. For we repeatedly hear such cases, with varying degree of suffering, and many generous acts of philanthropy.

And I would suggest that the Minister of Labor himself, along with a group of righteous citizen, the Director General of Passports, and members of the Human Rights Commission, visit deportation centers to see and hear for themselves from those detained there.

This is very crucial for obtaining an accurate report that will help us resolve this issue once and for all.

We can emulate Qatar in reforming the sponsorship system. They planned the reforms and then acted on it. Last December, Qatar abolished the kafala (sponsorship) system and implemented new reforms to improve workers’ rights.

The new law replaces the kafala system with a modernized, contract-based system that safeguards worker rights and increases job flexibility, freedom and protection to Qatar’s salaried workforce.
We cannot continue like this. We have to put a stop to this and until affirmative action is taken from the top nothing will be done.

We should not allow some of our ruthless and greedy citizens to spoil the image of our country.

I have said this before and I will say it now. I don’t want the curse of any mazloom (oppressed) on our people and country.

The traffic is always a subject in all household discussions. Even while sitting among friends the topic is about safety and well-being of drivers. Unfortunately, many who talk about safety themselves flout rules and regulations. They don’t fasten seatbelts, use their cell phones and drive with their children in the front seat.

This is despite the fact that in the month of August last year Director of the Traffic Department Maj. Gen. Abdullah Al-Zahrani had warned all motorists and their passengers to strictly abide by the traffic rules, stating that the Traffic Department “will not show any leniency in implementing new regulations,” which have been passed by the Council of Ministers.

And the blame, in these discussions, is always on the “muroor” (traffic police). I do agree that the muroor is to be blamed to some extent and believe that they too are a part of our society. And I agree with the Director General of Security Gen. Osman Al Muhreg that traffic police personnel are not angels. “However, one can fairly state that they need more training and behavioral skills.”

Our cities have witnessed tremendous growth, the population has risen and hundreds of nationalities drive with their own cultural pattern, creating confusion. This requires professionalism and a high degree of systematic evaluation. I have written on this before. Traffic management has become a science and is now being taught in universities. That’s why a high degree of training is needed.

In many global cities, traffic police, the municipality and the communities sit across the table and discuss the flow of traffic in the neighborhoods and other safety features. I have written several articles in this respect and not once was there an acknowledgement that some of the observations I had relayed were being reviewed.

We do not want a “traffic week” where the public relations department distributes photos of policemen distributing bouquets of flowers to motorists at traffic signals. We want to see action. We want a scientific approach to our traffic problems.

In an earlier article I had called on us setting up a group of mothers, and call it MADD — standing for Mothers Against Dangerous Driving. Women are a powerful force in Saudi society and many of them have lost their sons, fathers, brothers and husbands as a result of traffic accidents. If moms across the Kingdom join together to help make our roads safer, many lives will be saved!

Planned areas could curb accident, but the U-turns at King’s Road in Jeddah have caused more dangers and anxiety to people on and off the road. There are no bridges or underground passes from Obhur to the city center. And many spots could have been better developed.

How many people have died attempting to cross such roads? It’s like a mad race. Did the Traffic Department give their input? If they did, we should then blame the municipality!

The King’s Road is now more congested and disorderly than ever before. Blood pressures are on the rise, hearts beat faster and aggressiveness flows. It’s time that the traffic department sits with the municipality and mothers to discuss, exchange ideas and brainstorm a safer path.

I must confess that when I first read about the establishment of the General Entertainment Authority, like many others, I was skeptical about what kind of entertainment would be involved, especially as I considered the hardening of social mores over the past three decades. I remembered the Jeddah of old when one could go out and enjoy oneself without being accosted by shrieking bearded men waving sticks.

I remember going to the movies at the Jamjoom Theater with my mother who was a great James Bond fan! We used to go out for dinner undisturbed. I vividly remember attending a concert and hearing the famous song “Marsoul Al Hub”. This was in the Ministry of Education auditorium in Al-Baghdadiyah in Jeddah! Those were happy days when families enjoyed being entertained together.

However, as I now view some of the activities of General Entertainment Authority, I am filled with hope. We want to live as a happy people. My relatives attended Omar Khairat’s concert. They described it as classy – almost similar to an Umm Kulthum concert. The atmosphere was dignified and represented the beauty of the Saudi culture of yesterday. Everything was proper and within the bounds of decency and propriety.

Regarding the General Entertainment Authority, I have a few things to say and some observations, as well. Most board members in the organization are relatives, friends and the occasional nephew of a mother-in-law. In this case, the members fit the profile for this project.

My advice to the Chairman of the Authority, Mr. Ahmed Al-Khatib, is to have zero tolerance for corruption. Here I am not just talking about money changing hands, but rather a complete stop to nepotism, red tape and bureaucracy. For that is corruption, too.

The General Entertainment Authority should not only act as a regulator but should be an enabler and a facilitator, as well. They should create an environment that empowers people to choose to be happy, to live normal lives and make happiness an integral part of Saudi Vision 2030.

We want a society that is secure, stable, flourishing and productive. We want a rewarding life. We have had enough of negativism, stress and dos and dont’s. We don’t want to hear the expression “hatha mo waktoo” again.

A thing that I have noticed is a trend to the West. I am a great fan of Al Pacino and if I could, I would like to see him recite a few lines from “Scent of a woman”. Oprah is another favorite. But Mr. Al-Khatib and his group should know that Asia is also a center of culture and civilization, art, music, etc. Why not get Indian musical performers? Why not get Amitabh Bachchan who is better known to Saudi and Arab audiences that Pacino? The beautiful rendition of songs and dances of the Punjab and Rajasthan are world famous.

The cultural troupes of Indonesia and Malaysia need not be ignored. And, of course, there are natural indigenous events. Eco-tourism. A trip across the Rub Al-Khali, coastal surveys, hiking and other adventures can be arranged in conjunction with tourism.

And please do not overlook expatriates for they are part of our society. Instead of spending millions of dollars abroad, let us involve them in our plans.

And finally, the General Entertainment Authority has a golden opportunity to help small- and medium-sized enterprises thrive. There are many young Saudi men and women who have event management companies. Involve them – listen to them. Let our money flow inside the country.

Let our young people participate in the national economy. These are historic times for us. However, they are also challenging. We can only overcome these challenges with the participation of the young men and women who are ready to serve the nation.

Let happiness spread!

The passing away of Prince Mohammad Al Faisal a month ago truly will leave an un-fillable void in the hearts of all those who knew him, a space of echoes and memories that was once occupied by a vital yet modest man. It was a very personal loss for me as well, as over the years I began to know him more, being enriched with knowledge and insight while sitting in amiable companionship either in his house in Jeddah or elsewhere.

From the time he was the chairman of the Saline Water Corporation to setting up the Islamic banking industry Prince Mohammad was a personality worthy of observation.

Over several decades, I have met many leaders and personalities in many different walks of life from the mighty to the humblest. For me, he would stand tall next to the best of them.

He was a quiet unsung hero and should have got the credit for many of the things he did that went unrecorded. He pioneered many projects. He was humble, approachable, down to earth and a prince amongst men in the real sense of the world. His pleasant face would never change into a scowl even if he were angry, and he projected a calmness that encouraged genuine communication.

In the discussions over various issues ranging from the important to the mundane, he was both realistic and critical I can safely state that it was because of him that Islamic banking nurtured and grew. He pioneered it almost single-handedly. He quietly and resolutely pushed for it in Turkey and Egypt at a time when investment and trade environment were not the best. To do so was a Herculean task. It took negotiations, education, and the sometimes uphill task of convincing others. He did because he believed in his mission.

Opening up Islamic banking in Switzerland and Luxemburg amidst hostile settings was no easy task. This tireless man however, with the famous twinkle in eyes that I always remember, achieved it.

In the manner of great men, Prince Mohammad was despite his authority and position was essentially a simple and modest man. I was impressed. Here was a man who asked me to jump in a London cab as we are going to visit a contact; no pomp, no show, just a practical and simple man.

On one occasion at Dubai Airport while I was waiting with the editor of the Islamic Banker, Mushtaq Parker a plane arrived and out came a “famous personality” with 20 prancing retainers and a glittering show worthy of Busby Berkeley.

Half an hour later Mohammad Al Faisal’s plane arrived and he walked out, anonymous in the scrimmage of airport passengers with only a personal secretary as company.

That was his style.

Once at his residence in Jeddah, I recall he left his seat to attend to a personal phone call. An ordinary person with a petition entered the gathering and sat in the vacant seat. . Prince Mohammad returned and seeing the petitioner, gestured gently to him not to get off the seat, and took one near by. Even after the man left he retained the same place. Such was his character.

People of wealth or power adopt at times postures of pretence at times they exhibit a patronizing attitude. Prince Mohammad never did that. He gave everyone the respect due to them. His understanding of history was admirable. At times I would provoke him to answer questions, some of which he did. At times he would look at me and smile and say “we will leave that for next time.”

Sadly for all who encountered Prince Mohammad even slightly, there’s not going to be a next time. The time I spent with him over the years I treasure and count it as a gift.

In this world, there are people who by sheer personality and character enrich the quality of life of those whom they meet. Prince Mohammad Al Faisal belonged in that very select category.

I was privileged to know him.

Am with Ayman Darandary the famous Tik Tok Saudi personality.