Palestine 2009: After Gaza

March 2009

Driving from Tel Aviv to Haifa, you could be forgiven for not realizing you are driving close to the old Green Line that marked the border of the mountainous West Bank with Israel until 1967 when Israel seized the occupied territories. The highway is straight and uneventful as it heads through lush farmland on Israeli’s coastal strip on the edge of the West Bank. You cannot see the wall Israel has built near the border, yet Palestinian-looking towns are dotted all around.

But the wall is there all right, hidden on the Israeli side by bushes and trees, concealing the reality of the Palestinian presence from the nervous eyes of Israel’s Jewish citizens. The wall, it seems, is not there to mark a border; it is there to hide the Palestinian. From inside Qalqilya, one of the towns to my right as I head to Haifa, it is a raw presence—concrete and wire fencing surrounding the entire town, bar a checkpoint that controls access in and out. Entering the town was easy enough, but exiting was a problem. The soldiers aggressively wanted to know why we were “entering Israel”. My companion, a journalist from Tobas in the north of the West Bank, was taken aback at the phraseology.

“No, we’re going that way, not into Israel; we’re going to Ramallah.”

“But now you are going into Israel, you go to Israel before you go to Ramallah.”

Continue reading Palestine 2009: After Gaza

Abdo Khal’s Tarmi bi Sharar

I read quite a few of Abdo Khal’s novels. He’s idolised by the small liberal elite. This one got him the ‘Arabic Booker’. I met him at Dubai film festival in December 2010, we were chatting with Ahmed Mansoor who was arrested a few months later by UAE security then tried for using his web forum to promote demcratic changes in the UAE.

Saudi writers find voice depicting closed society

DUBAI | Tue Jun 22, 2010 2:42am EDT

DUBAI (Reuters) – Islamists in Saudi Arabia depict them as a pampered liberal elite while the authorities in this conservative Islamic state throw up obstacles in their path.

Despite the odds, novelists in closed, controlled Saudi Arabia have come into their own in recent years, publishing a growing body of work that has attracted attention not only in the kingdom but beyond for the creative representations of an opaque, troubled society.

Saudi novelist Abdo Khal this year won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as the Arabic Booker, a departure from previous years when winners hailed from Egypt, the traditional center of Arabic literature. The success was taken by many as a sign that the Saudi novel had come of age.

“Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have been regarded as marginal countries in the cultural scene, but now they have a major presence,” said Saudi novelist Yousef al-Mohaimeed, whose 2003 novel Wolves of the Crescent Moon painted a striking picture of a merciless society.

“Output has increased steadily over the last 7 years and now there are more than 50 novels published by Saudis each year.”

For decades a society largely closed to outsiders, tightly controlled by state-backed religious and security services, Saudi Arabia has witnessed immense change in recent years.

The September 11 attacks forced the clique of princes running the world’s top oil producer to reconsider engagement with the world. High oil prices since 2002 have been another factor, allowing ordinary Saudis to access the information revolution seen as a threat by many in the ruling elite.

Young Saudis especially, who make up a majority of the country’s population of 18 million, turned to writing blogs and novels in an outpouring of expression.

Political activity is a practical impossibility in Saudi Arabia, where the royal family dominates governance and clerics of the puritanical Wahhabi sect to enforce a rigid moral system.

Most women are unable to drive and mix with unrelated men.

The 2005 novel Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea, though dismissed by critics as lightweight, was a sign of the times: three affluent young women reveal their trials and tribulations in finding the perfect mate through a series of email exchanges. It was a surprise success, translated into many languages.

The late author Abdelrahman Munif was stripped of his Saudi nationality for his insolence after publishing books in the 1980s that showed how oil wealth enabled the rise of tribal kleptocracies in traditional Gulf Arab society.

But the new generation of writers have managed to develop a local audience and gain recognition in Saudi Arabia.


“There is censorship, which is sometimes eased, sometimes tightened, and there are the Islamists who are still strong and suffocating,” says novelist Badriya Al-Bisher, whose 2005 book Hind wa al-Askar (Hind and the Soldiers) annoyed conservatives by arguing that after years of living under Islamic tradition, the Saudi woman represses herself.

Abdo Khal’s winning novel Tarmi Bi-Sharar — a Quranic reference to hell, meaning “throwing sparks” — came to market with a non-Saudi publisher and was briefly withdrawn at this year’s Riyadh International Book Fair. His books have in the past been difficult to find in Saudi bookshops.

Mainstream television gives little attention to writers. Saudi state media and the pan-Arab news and entertainment networks presided over by Saudi princes and tycoons have virtually closed off Arab air space to literati.

Even al-Jazeera — the most popular channel in the region, currently on good terms with Riyadh — has reduced its cultural coverage to a minimum for the entire Arab region.

Yet the novel is one of the few areas of artistic production that has not been co-opted by state actors, largely because the powerful have paid it little attention.

Billionaire prince Alwaleed bin Talal has monopolized much of Arabic film and music production through his Rotana network. Critics have noted that Saudi funding of drama in Egypt and Syria involves a subtle conformism with conservative mores.

The biggest selling books in Saudi Arabia itself invariably concern religion — the Quran, works central to Wahhabism and self-help books such as preacher Ayedh al-Qarni’s La Tahzan (Don’t Be Sad) .

Mohaimeed says some Lebanese publishers, despite a new interest in Saudi literature, are reticent about Saudi writers for fear of being cut out of the Saudi market, where purchasing power is high.

Khal speaks to some of these distorted dimensions of power relations in Saudi society in his prize-winning book that depicts the moral dangers brought on by the recent oil boom.

An unnamed, faceless tycoon figure in the city of Jeddah has built himself a palace in the vicinity of a poor neighborhood, which is able to provide individuals desperate enough to work as virtual slaves performing acts of sexual torture on those who have had the misfortune to stand in his way.

“It looks at the humiliation of the human being and suffering,” says Taleb Alrefai, a Kuwaiti novelist who headed the committee that awarded the prize. “It’s about how an individual tries to escape the social and economic chains that are taking away from his dignity.”

“The space for art and culture is very small, and not only in Arab media,” he said, adding: “The novel is the effort of one individual and that’s what gives it its freedom.”

Some Emiratis glad Dubai’s ambitious plans dented

By Andrew Hammond – Analysis

DUBAI | Wed Dec 2, 2009 4:02pm IST

(Reuters) – Dubai nationals were alarmed by the fallout from the emirate’s debt standstill, but many hope the crisis may stem the torrent of foreigners into the conservative Gulf Arab city, where locals are outnumbered ten to one.

The freewheeling emirate, one of seven that form the United Arab Emirates, sent jitters through global markets last week when it announced that one of its flagship developers had asked for a six-month repayment freeze on some debt. Continue reading Some Emiratis glad Dubai’s ambitious plans dented

“Dubai model” was the vision of one man

By Andrew Hammond – Analysis

DUBAI | Fri Nov 27, 2009 3:00pm EST

(Reuters) – The “Dubai vision,” which has suffered a crushing blow from the freewheeling Gulf emirate’s sudden debt crisis, is the creation of one man who failed to apply the rules of open governance.

The city state’s rapid growth revolved around the ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who outlined his ideas in a book, “My Vision,” where he suggested other Arab countries could replicate Dubai’s success. Now the model — always controversial among Gulf Arabs since it involved building shining cities in the desert at breakneck speed through the import of foreign residents, finance and labor — is on the ropes. Continue reading “Dubai model” was the vision of one man

Abu Dhabi ascendant as debt spoils Dubai’s “model”

By Andrew Hammond – Analysis

DUBAI | Thu Nov 26, 2009 9:29pm EST

(Reuters) – Dubai’s debt troubles have exposed the fallacy of its once much-vaunted “model” of raising shining cities in the desert with foreign residents, finance and labor.

They have also set in train a power shift toward Abu Dhabi. Continue reading Abu Dhabi ascendant as debt spoils Dubai’s “model”

Saudi judicial reform, 2009

Reading Lohaidan in Riyadh: Media and the struggle for judicial power in Saudi Arabia

Arab Media & Society, Issue 7, Winter 2009, 

Along with a reported one in seven viewers across the Arab World, Saudis were glued to their television sets during 2008 watching a Turkish soap opera called Noor.[1] The show was dubbed into Levantine Arabic and broadcast three times daily during Ramadan by MBC, a pan-Arab satellite network owned by Walid al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of the late Saudi king Fahd bin Abdelaziz Al Saud. Starring an economically independent, unveiled female lead and her tender Casanova of a husband, Noor was so popular that it spurred a large number of Gulf Arab tourists to visit Turkey, including the Saudi first lady Princess Hissa Al-Shaalan, and its blonde and blue-eyed star Kivanc Tatlitu became a heart-throb for Saudi and other women. The drama had a particular grip on the public because, unusually, it was dubbed into colloquial rather than classical Arabic, and its Turkish milieu had a familiarity for Arab audiences that other foreign soaps lack. Continue reading Saudi judicial reform, 2009

Saudi Arabia’s media empire

Saudi Arabia’s Media Empire: keeping the masses at home

Arab Media & Society, Issue 3, Fall 2007, 

Since the 1990-1 Gulf crisis when the United States used Saudi Arabia as a launchpad for a campaign to evict occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia has used the Arab media as a key area for responding to perceived threats to the leadership’s legitimacy and stability such as challenges to its alliance with the United States and criticism of its political system, decision-making processes and image in the Arab world. The immediate Saudi response to the Gulf crisis was launching the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), established as a private television enterprise by a brother-in-law of King Fahd, Walid al-Ibrahim. Subsequently, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, leader of Saudi forces in the 1991 war and son of current Crown Prince Sultan, consolidated his control over London-based pan-Arab daily newspaper Al Hayat while sons of Riyadh governor Prince Salman consolidated their control over Al Hayat’s London-based competitor Asharq al-Awsat. A minor Saudi prince set up the Orbit entertainment TV network in 1994 and businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and business partner Saleh Kamel established the Arab Radio and Television entertainment network (ART) the same year. In recent years these three networks, MBC, Orbit and ART, have saturated Arab viewers in Arab and Western entertainment, led by Hollywood movies, American sitcoms and talkshows. Continue reading Saudi Arabia’s media empire

Saving Jeddah’s old city

(Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is hoping that the United Nations will step in to help save the historic old city of Jeddah, whose unique Red Sea architecture is in danger of disappearing.

The ancient city in Saudi Arabia is in line to be included this year on the U.N.’s World Heritage List, which so far includes 830 sites including eight in Yemen and Oman, says Sami Nawwar, who is leading the effort to preserve Jeddah’s past. Continue reading Saving Jeddah’s old city