Here’s an official plan submitted to invigorate tourism in Saudi Arabia: Marry four women, domicile them in corners of the kingdom, travel to visit each during the year, and — boom — you’ve stimulated airline business, hotel occupancy, and car rentals. This was submitted by none less than Hassan Alomair, director of self-development in Saudi Arabia, at a Jeddah conference for the development of internal tourism.
The project combines piety with efficacy by uniting Sharia’s entitlements to multiple wives with economic stimulus, Mr. Alomair argued. Sharing the dais was the female dean of the school of literature at King Faisal University, Dr. Feryal al-Hajeri, who remained silent as he prescribed his harem-induced economic scheming.
Not so with the readers and bloggers on the Saudi daily Al Watan’s website, which lit up on February 12 with commentary. “Why not make it four cows? He can fly around to milk them,” one said. “If that is the mentality of our director of self-development,” another asked, ”how are the others in that department?” There was plenty of accord with Mr. Alomair too. Some saw his idea as a “pillar” for building a true Islamic society, a “refuge” for unmarried Saudi women, and a “cure” for a widening spinster phenomena.
Dumbfounding episodes of this variety occur weekly in the Arabian Gulf and are regularly exposed by a growing contingent of brave reporters. Remember the girl condemned to 200 lashes for protesting being raped and that Saudi businesswoman arrested at a Riyadh Starbucks and jailed for having coffee with a male subordinate? The girl of Qatif was pardoned under world pressure but most victims of Saudi religious dementia are never heard from. Alas, if anything, new installments keep on illustrating a Saudi government sailing into the 21st century with social laws of the 7th century.
This weekend the Saudi TV network Al Arabia reported the arrests of 57 men in Mecca’s shopping malls by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice on charges of “flirting with Saudi girls.” Among other things, the young Saudi males were accused by the religious police of “wearing indecent clothes, playing loud music, and dancing.”
Just before Valentine’s Day, dubbed by the Commission as “a pagan Christian holiday,” the government issued an edict banning the sale of anything red: no red roses, no red ribbons, no red greeting cards, no red paint. The penalty as always was arrests and lashes of the cane.
On the face of it, some of this seems pitifully amusing.
It isn’t so for hundreds of thousands of Saudis and the eight million expatriates who live and work in the kingdom — men and women routinely humiliated in the streets, hauled into police stations for wearing a cross or not wearing a veil, or deemed to look the wrong way by a 20,000-man army of bearded fanatics.
This politico-religious repression has suited the royal family for over 60 years. To most of us it was their business. After 9/11 it spilled over when fulminating Islamofascists of the Osama bin Laden variety visited their obsessions upon infidels in New York, London, Paris, and Madrid. It then became “our” problem.
Internally, these miseries hamper all attempts to modernize the kingdom, turning aspirations to a normal life into Sisyphean daily challenges.
Externally, Islamofascism, fortified with oil money, is replicating the Saudi model across a wide swath of the Muslim world from Egypt to Pakistan, and even to enclaves in Europe and America. Witness the suggestion by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to create a special space for the application of Sharia laws for United Kingdom Muslims, in effect rolling back the parameters of freedom at home to accommodate imported modes of Islamofascism — multiple marriages, oppression of women, and suspension of free expression about all things Muslim.
Even modernized Arab sheiks are a problem.
Take one of the most celebrated Arabian friends of America and the West, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid (Sheikh Mo), the ruler of Dubai, a full business partner of President Bill Clinton and his billionaire friend Ron Burkle in their Yucaipa Company’s investment fund, a man of fine taste and zillions of dollars who loves to collect the world’s finest horses — and a few wives.
In all fairness, Sheikh Mo, a modern potentate by any standard, does make it a point to jet around visiting his far-flung horse stables and those multiple lush residences of his wives — spreading that wealth.
Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times and Energy Editor of the Wall Street Journal, is a freelance writer and Mideast political risk consultant based in New York.