Monthly Archives: March 2012

Qatar on 60 Minutes

As an addendum to the last post, here is a recent 60 Minutes story on Qatar: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7395216n

Even more than a decade ago, the leaders of Qatar recognized the coming of democracy and the power of the media. Camelman always recalls the quote of  Qatar’s foreign minister at the time: “Democracy started. Either the leaders like it or they don’t like it. Either you open the door or they break the door. It’s a matter of time, in my opinion.” A transcript of that 60 Minutes episode can be found here.

a free and open society in the Arabian peninsula … mirage or reality?

We took a road trip to Doha last week for a short holiday. Doha is the capital of Qatar, which is a small Gulf state whose only land border is with Saudi Arabia. It has a population of 1.8 million, of which only 300,000 are Qatari citizens. Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar is also a petroleum-rich state and is ruled by a monarchy. Qatar and Saudi Arabia also follow the same version of Islam (Wahhabism). In addition, many Qataris are actually descendents from tribes originating from regions in Saudi Arabia, including the Najd region (central Saudi). For example, the Tamim tribe, to which Camelman belongs, gave rise to the Al-Thani family, which rules Qatar.

Same tribal roots, same religion, both petroleum-rich, both ruled by a monarchy .. but Qatar is no Saudi Arabia. The contrast between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was apparent as soon as we crossed the border. For example, when we passed the road sign saying “Welcome to the State of Qatar”, the car ride suddenly got much smoother as the pavement evened out. Even when we arrived at the actual border crossing, we were all a bit tongue-tied at first – because we were greeted by a female Qatari border guard! It might sound strange that this was noteworthy to us, but contrast it to Saudi Arabia where you would never encounter Saudi women working in situations where they need to interact with the general public. But pictures might be the most telling of all – here is the Qatar side of the border crossing:

And here is the Saudi side of the border:

Beyond just the border crossing, Qatar has significant differences from Saudi Arabia in several ways, both politically and socially. Qatar is a constitutional monarchy with a 45-seat parliament (currently appointed but will have two-thirds elected seats by 2013). Qatar is also playing a leading supporting role for the Arab Spring. Qatar has a free and open media – indeed, Al-Jazeera is broadcast from Qatar. Qatar allows for non-Muslims to practice their religion. For example, there are already two Catholic churches and soon a third one for Maronite Christians will open. Men and women can mix freely in society, like in the West. Qatari women are not required to wear an abaya or cover their face in Qatar. They can if they want to, but they don’t have to. Indeed, there is no dress code for any women (Qatari or expats). Also, women can drive in Qatar and they can hold jobs where they might have to deal with the public. In fact, the president of Qatar University (which is co-ed) is a woman.

So it IS possible to have a free, open, and progressive society in the Arabian peninsula!

on the road again: Riyadh to Doha

This week, we took a short road trip from Riyadh to Doha, which is the capital city of Qatar. Doha may not be as ‘famous’ as Dubai among the cities of the Gulf region, but it is notable for being the broadcast home of Al Jazeera and if you watch BBC, you might have seen the Doha Debates. Qatar will also host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and is bidding to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The drive to Doha took us on highways across the Saudi desert straight east/southeast towards the Qatari border.

The drive was smooth, with little traffic and wide open landscapes all around us:

Near Hofuf, a city about mid-way through the journey, we saw these interesting rock formations rising out of the desert. They beckon us for another visit to Hofuf, which is famous for its “Ali Baba Caves” and rock formations.

Road trips in Saudi are pretty much the same as everywhere else. You spend your time enjoying the scenery, making sure you have enough gas to get you to your next destination, and ensuring that you heed the warnings of highway signs. Whereas in North America, you might come across signs like this, warning of slippery road conditions …

… or crossing deer or moose …

… here are some examples of road signs we saw here, warning of drifting sand …

… and camels …

(Most of the time, there are safety fences along the side of the highway preventing camels from crossing the road, but there was one stretch of road where we saw a camel coming dangerously close to the side of the road – more nerve-wracking than anything, especially in my line of work where I come across articles like this).

I always get a kick out of the gas stations, which are usually like small plazas manned by guys in jumpsuits (no one pumps their own gas here) …

… and include a mosque …

… and a shop that sells anything one might need for a family excursion to the desert (from BBQ equipment to camel-hair lined robes for the chilly desert night, to toys to keep the kids amused):

By the way, gas is currently selling at the equivalent of ~$0.15/liter here – less than $10 to fill up our tank. No doubt about it: gas is cheaper than water out here in the Desert Kingdom!

more student protests …

Saturday saw more protests at King Khalid University in Abha, this time the male students coming out in support of the females, who demonstrated last Wednesday. This short video shows the students marching onto campus and calling for the resignation of the university president.

Some more images of the protests at KKU were emailed to me, but unfortunately, I don’t know the original source of them. This one shows the authorities’ response to the male students’ protest earlier this week. Note the machine gun truck in the photo on the top right and the tank-like vehicle in the middle. Yikes! (The caption on this photo collage says “King Khalid Military University”.)

I also got more images from the women’s protest. Here’s one showing just a sea of black from the number of women gathered during the demonstration.

The signs being held up by these 3 women say “The People want to bring down the regime of King Khalid University” – a phrase borrowed from the Arab Spring protests.

There’s also several videos on Youtube that were posted about a month ago showing examples of what the students were demonstrating about. I grabbed a couple of screen shots from one of them. The state of the facilities is pretty shocking, even more so considering that the university is relatively new (established 1999) and that the country has forecast a $3.2 billion budget surplus and has budgeted more than $100 billion for education spending for 2012. And the focus on education already goes back several years – for example, in 2008, the budget for education was $28 billion.

Where is the all that money allocated towards education going? These students deserve much more from their university and the learning environment the government purports to provide!

girls leading the charge?

Yesterday, there were news reports here of several female university students injured following a protest at King Khalid University in the city of Abha, located in western Saudi Arabia. There were apparently around a 1000 students who gathered to protest against corruption and deplorable learning conditions at the university, including garbage allowed to accumulate around the cafeteria and insufficient seating in lecture halls despite repeated complaints from students. At least 50 students were injured and several had to be sent to hospital. Some reports stated that a student died following an epileptic seizure and another suffered a miscarriage, but not all the coverage reported the death, so that fact is uncertain.

This university protest is just the latest among a few that have occurred over the last year – all but one, to my knowledge , by female university students. I should also point out that any sort of public demonstrations are banned in Saudi Arabia, making these university protestors even that much braver. Last year, there were protests by female students at Princess Nora University when apparently 70% of the class failed the English exam. You can be pretty sure that when a majority of the students fail an exam, there’s something wrong with the exam … and the instructor! And also last year, female university students at Umm Al Qura University in Mecca stormed the university’s administration building protesting the institution’s admissions policy that unfairly considered family and personal connections (“wasta”) over actual merit and academic grades.

Change and revolution is often seeded by the youth, as seen by so many examples throughout history. For Saudi Arabia, will it be the women who will lead the charge?