Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Other Saudi Arabia

I was in Riyadh for a while early of year 2000 before residing in the UAE. For that brief stay, I would say Riyadh is not my kind of city to live, esp without family.

Saudi Arabia is a big country and there are only few places are known to us. Beside Makkah, Madinah, Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam, the rest seems not in the map.

Beside my land trip to Makkah from Riyadh for haj, together with my family we went to Makkah from Dubai by bus and along the way, we stopped in several 'unkown' towns and villages. A very nice experience indeed.

Keys to the kingdom of Saud

Amar Grover

Nabataean rock-cut tombs at Madain Saleh, near Al Ula, are Saudi Arabia’s equivalent of Petra in Jordan, but receive only a trickle of visitors. Amar Grover for The National

When I announced a visit to Saudi Arabia, my friends’ reactions ranged from surprise to consternation. Why, they wondered, and what was there? Others were less receptive. The consensus was that visiting would be an academic exercise at best and, for western women wrapped in the obligatory abayas, a chore. The Saudi enigma seemed couched in severe and not particularly positive terms even, or perhaps particularly, by those who had never visited.

Yet for people who are curious about a place that seems at once familiar (we can all conjure a mental picture, and most can place it on a map) and yet enigmatic (just what is there?) – or simply seek a destination few people have visited – Saudi Arabia is just the ticket.

Apart from the annual Haj that draws millions of pilgrims, few outsiders are doing any sightseeing in Saudi. Until 2006, the sheer difficulty in simply procuring a tourist visa was enough to discourage tourism. While western expatriate residents can tour at leisure, tourists are thin on the ground. Fewer than 5,000 Europeans visited in 2008, with Germans forming the vanguard. However, the visa regime has softened, making the kingdom more accessible. Although visitors still need to be on an organised tour, the minimum group size is now four and the minimum age for unaccompanied women has dropped from 40 to 30 (below which they need to be accompanied by a husband or male relative).

I joined a small group including a retired couple, an ex-banker, an oil company geologist and an American art collector. Most were over 50 and extraordinarily well travelled, through either work or wanderlust – Congo, Angola, Papua New Guinea and Yemen, for example, had all been ticked. Saudi Arabia was among the last frontiers and their interest was genuine.

The women’s tailor-made and obligatory abayas – a long, generally black, robe that cancels shape (and arguably femininity and even temptation) – were awaiting them at Riyadh airport where we began our tour. As one quipped, it was the first destination where she’d needed to provide her passport details and vital measurements to get a visa. We men were fine in short-sleeved shirts or T-shirts, and no one had been daft enough to turn up in shorts. The ladies quickly adapted, and almost warmed, to their abayas and none were required to wear a niqab, or veil. They were light, comfortable and effectively removed the agonising over what to wear underneath each day.

Riyadh is capital in name but not, it would seem, of culture and commerce – that honour goes to Jeddah on the Red Sea coast. It is a modern city of boulevards and expressways and rather too much utilitarian concrete offset by a handful of architectural masterpieces. Yet at its heart stands Masmak fortress, whose mud-brick walls with rounded bastions, loopholes and crenellations evoke another, almost medieval, age. It is also where modern Saudi Arabia was born.

A small fortress overlooks old Al Ula's abandoned mud-plastered houses. Amar Grover for The National

In 1902, a young Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud seized Masmak from his family’s main rivals, the Al Rashids. You can still see his spearhead embedded in its wooden gate. Today it’s an acute and virtually official symbol of his pivotal rise, an episode dramatically recreated in a short film that plays in Masmak’s museum. Amid its halls and rooms with displays of photographs, weapons and armour is a plaque commemorating Saudi Arabia’s National Day that refers to the country’s “destiny which, first and foremost, brings honour to Allah and then to the creator of that unity King Abdul Aziz...”

His status as father of the nation – its unity was formalised only in 1932 – is reinforced in every, mostly excellent, regional museum up and down the country. Riyadh’s vast National Museum is by far the best and probably one of the finest in the Middle East.

Focusing on clarity and quality over sheer quantity, it covers history, archaeology, geology and Islam. Abdul Aziz has a separate wing comprising mainly old photographs, his Rolls Royces and some personal items such as robes and his doctor’s medical chest. The display even includes two of his brick-sized bath soaps.

We moved on to Dir’aiyah, an ancient mud-brick city on the fringes of Riyadh, which was the Al Sauds’ original power base. Here, explained Saad, our Jeddah-based guide who was to accompany us for the duration of our trip, in 1744, a scholar called Mohammed ibn Abd al Wahhab befriended (and eventually married his daughter into) the Al Saud family. The country already subscribed to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, the most conservative of the four schools in the Sunni tradition. Abd al Wahhab’s influence coupled with Al Saud patronage steered the region into a yet more puritanical form of Islamic interpretation, and became a rallying doctrine for many Arabian tribes. It is this that distinguishes modern-day Saudi from other Muslim countries, including most its GCC neighbours.

Armed now with a semblance of basic history, the Saudi enigma had some context. We were keen to wander Dir’aiyah’s atmospheric maze of lanes but they were closed for restoration work so we could only gaze from the fences. Clearly, more tourists are expected soon.

Most of our tour was to encompass the country’s northern half and we flew to the city of Al Jouf, which lies on the main road routes towards Jordan and Iraq. At nearby Domat Al Jandal, a once vital oasis town with a recorded history starting in the sixth century BC, stands Qasr Marid. A local guide, Saleh, took over from Saad, saying the small picturesque castle was reputedly built by a grandson of Ibrahim and besieged by Palmyra’s (now in Syria) Queen Zenobia. “It may also have been visited by the Prophet Mohammed, peace and blessings be upon him,” he added.

From its ramparts, we gazed over the crumbling old town with its jumble of dissolving walls, collapsed homes and blocked streets. Dominating the view was the Umar Mosque and its distinctive tapering minaret with a tiny staircase accessing a series of little doorways. It is among the oldest mosques in Saudi Arabia, though, strangely, Saleh initially made little of it; were it not for our enthusiasm it might have been ignored altogether.

A six-lane motorway crosses Al Nafud, Saudi’s second largest desert after the Empty Quarter, south from Al Jouf to Hail. A police escort – always a feature of our journeys – drove behind and stopped midway when their colleagues from Hail took over. Saad caught our quizzical looks. “For your security ... some crazy drivers in Arabia,” he beamed, though we really only believed the first part.

Vast expanses of undulating pale orange sand dotted with sprigs of acacia slid past for hours until patchy green fields and quad-bike stalls heralded town. Opposite our hotel stood a McDonald’s (often referred to as “Eighty-eight” because its stylised “M” logo resembles the Arabic characters for 88). Off to the right stood a KFC and Pizza Hut, neither of which were particularly busy.

Hail was the stronghold of the Al Sauds’ once great rivals, the Al Rashids, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that Abdul Aziz built his mighty Al Qashalah barracks in the centre while tactfully opting not to interfere with Al Rashidi properties. It’s an imposing square building of 10-metre-high walls with machicolations and holes to drop burning oil. We walked up to ’Airif, a compact Al Rashidi fort which tops a ridge at the edge of town and has recently been thoroughly restored.

Our first real experience of Saudi markets came at Hail’s souqs. In one small section, women sold bundles of dried hibiscus and mint and carefully adjusted their abayas and niqabs in the face of our curious yet hopefully polite gaze. While none would be photographed (and why should they?), they were friendly enough and seemed to enjoy a bit of banter with Saad and our escorts.

A market in the old quarter of Jeddah. Amar Grover for The National

Later I wandered off alone to another covered parade of shops to find Bangladeshi shopkeepers serving the ladies of Hail. They were assessing jewellery and clothes and rummaging through utensils and plastic toys. It was busy, earthy and authentic. There were a few beggars, too: women with infants who, because they were dressed in ubiquitous black, looked no different to anyone else except for their outstretched black-gloved hands meekly awaiting coins.

Oil-rich Saudi was proving a little grittier than we expected. Beyond the capital, its prosperity and gloss seemed more diluted. The roads were good but many were new or only recently widened. Moreover they were used by a surprising number of old and tatty cars – far fewer prestige marques than, say, Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Many areas had a generalised, almost reassuring scruffiness to them, such as incomplete pavements and walls. Shopping seemed to revolve around basics, not luxuries - though it’s the country’s first attempt at tourism and the lack of garish or vulgar desert fantasy there was refreshing.

We headed 400km west on the main motorway towards Al Ula through mostly featureless desert steppe, pausing around lunchtime at Taima (or Tayma). For millennia, it was a vast and celebrated oasis that prospered from the caravan trade in frankincense and spices. There is a famous well here, the Bi’r Al Haddaj – reputedly the country’s largest – whose 60 draw-wheel fames and channels placed around its rim would have been worked by camels to water an intricate complex of gardens. Later, on the edge of town, we stood on the faint remnants of what was its 14km-long perimeter wall, with potsherds still scattered here and there.

One evening Georgios Papaioannou, our guest lecturer and regional expert, briefly outlined the Islamic notion of Jahiliyyah, a reference to the pre-Islamic era that is usually translated as “period of ignorance”. As the very foundations and pillars of the faith reside in Saudi Arabia, its culture seems more sensitised to this concept. Perhaps, he ventured, this partly explained why archaeology had not developed here as much as in other areas of the Middle East. There might not be buried treasure-troves, but there’s plenty of interest that has barely been excavated, such as the ancient city of Dedan by Al Ula, or Al Ukhdud – reputedly the site of the sixth-century “Massacre of the Trench” – at Najran in the far south. Yet at Madain Saleh near Al Ula, even the Saudis realise they have an archaeological site too imposing to ignore – their very own Petra.

Our final approach to Al Ula weaved through weirdly eroded sandstone hills and clusters of boulders before descending into a beautiful palm-choked valley enclosed by rugged ridges. Next morning we strolled through old Al Ula’s abandoned and now crumbling mud-plastered houses and labyrinthine lanes overlooked by a small fortress. It was a compelling prelude to Madain Saleh, where nearly a hundred rock-cut facades of tombs pierce the cliffs and spectacular island-like stacks of rock erupt on the desert fringes. This was the Nabataeans’ second city of Hegra (now better known by its contemporary name), but, unlike Jordan’s Petra, it sees just a trickle of visitors.

Accompanied merely by a breeze, we were largely free to wander among these two-millennia-old necropolises amid the echoes of ancient Nabataean caravans transporting frankincense and myrrh from Yemen to Damascus. Many facades have inscriptions, such as “Kamkam’s Curse” in tomb 39, where three gods were invoked five times over against any who interfered with it. In its eerie emptiness, you hope the curse has already worked its course.

A display at the King Abdul Aziz Museum in Riyadh. Amar Grover for The National

You can also clamber up to some of the facades’ hillocks and bluffs where piles of stones suggest sporadic Roman occupation by small garrisons in watchtowers. The views across the site are terrific. We ended our visit walking through a sheer-sided cleft to climb a hill and watch the sand pinken as the sun dipped behind a bank of stark hills. Few of us doubted Madain Saleh was the trip’s highlight.

Finally, we made for Saad’s hometown of Jeddah. It’s a city long used to visitors, especially traders and pilgrims, and it is rightly considered Saudi’s most liberal locale. What many conservative Riyadhites regard as decadent here is commonplace through most of the Middle East. At a popular corniche restaurant, there were glamorous, unaccompanied women, with niqabs relegated to headscarves, who smoked shisha and chatted together contentedly.

Ultimately, of course, our group’s female travellers were glad to cast off their abayas – but not even Jeddah is so permissive. It may not be the easiest of destinations for those of a western mindset, but the tour had cut a fascinating course through its highlights. More than most countries, we were compelled to see it on its own terms. Throughout, Saad frequently alluded to a changing Saudi Arabia. How, we often wondered. “Well, you’re here now,” he began.

Islamic Banking and Profit Fairness

Gulf Islamic banks have interest in Malaysia as Gulf Islamic banks seek new growth areas to diversify sources of earnings as their domestic markets mature. One of them from Bahrain, Al Baraka has already said it is planning to spend $30-50 million to buy another bank in Indonesia as it seeks to expand its global footprint.

Malaysian authorities are courting more foreign investment for the domestic Islamic banking industry to create bigger players and raise the country’s international profile.

The Southeast Asian economy has made its mark as a major Islamic banking hub in Asia but is seen as lacking in global clout, especially in the Middle East.

Islamic Banking and Profit Fairness


By Lahem al Nasser

Islamic finance is a moral financial model based on divine principles, the most important of which is justice. There are many Quranic verses and Hadiths that deal with this, such as: "We sent aforetime our messengers with Clear Signs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance (of Right and Wrong), that men may stand forth in justice," [Surat al Hadid; Verse 25]. There is also: "And the Firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the Balance (of Justice)" [Surat al Rahman; Verse 7]. God Almighty also said, "Allah commands justice," [Surat al Nahl; Verse 90]. In a Hadith Qudsi the Prophet [pbuh] narrated the word of God, saying "My servants, I have forbidden injustice for myself and I have made injustice forbidden to you. Do not be unjust to one another." Renowned Islamic scholar al-Izz Ibn Abdul-Salam said that Verse 25 of Surat al Hadid represents the essence of Islam.

It is therefore just that profits should not be inflated to the point that this would invalidate the satisfaction [of the customer]. This is the crux of the matter in Islam, and can be seen in the Quranic verse: "O ye who believe! Squander not your wealth among yourselves in vanity, except it be a trade by mutual consent" [Surat al Nisa; Verse 29] and this is regardless of whether the inflated profit [made by the seller] is known to the buyer such as in the event of purchasing from a monopoly, or whether this increase [on the original price] is not known to the buyer, if the seller conceals the original price of the product.

There are several Hadith that prohibit sellers making large profits on the original price of items or services. In the Sahih Muslim collection of Hadith, it was reported that the Prophet [pbuh] said, "No one hoards but the sinner." Muslim scholars explained the term "hoard" in this instance to mean the hoarding of a commodity that people need in order to sell it later at a higher price. This is something that is forbidden in Islam as it restricts the necessities available to the public. In addition to this, Prophet Mohammed [pbuh] also said, "Any Muslim who transgresses against another Muslim and is unjust then he is the sinner." In another Hadith, the Prophet [pbuh] is quoted as saying: "Injustice of a buyer is riba [usury]."

Religious scholars had different opinions with regards to the amount of profit that is permissible to make. Some of them define this precisely, while others judge this according to local customs [and other factors], which is more reasonable. Therefore Islamic finance should operate in a just manner with regards to profits, and avoid outrageous [profit] inflation, particularly with regards to long-term financing, where the rate of profit is calculated by looking at the total amount of money borrowed, and the duration that this money is borrowed for, without taking into account the amount [of this loan] that has already been repaid.

There can be no doubt that profits are inflated in the financial sector, however such dealings are considered illegal under western laws as western banks differentiate between interest and usury. However this is a distinction that is not acknowledged under the provision of Islamic Sharia law. While this does bring to light the extent of the injustice in how profits are calculated in general, what about Islamic Sharia law that is based upon divine justice?

Unfortunately the Islamic banking system which is supposed to be based on just and ethical principles that themselves are based on a divine system that prevents injustice, has transgressed even the limits of the savage capitalist banking system in terms of the profits that it makes on its operations. By doing so, this causes Islamic financial customers, who are acting with a religious and moral motive [in using Islamic financial institutes] to shoulder a heavy burden, as if they are paying a tax on their [religious] commitment. Although juristic schools have managed to put forward reasons for this, I do not believe that such justifications will last for a number of reasons, such as many [Islamic financial] clients recognize the danger that this method of calculating profit represents to the Islamic financial industry as a whole and so they are demanding justice in how such profits are calculated and for this process to conform to principles of Islamic Sharia that prohibit such profit inflation.

Many scholars today sense the danger that that method of calculating profit represents to the Islamic financial industry as a whole, and that as a result of this the Islamic banking industry appears to be a greedy financial industry that is taking advantage of people's needs in an ugly way, contradicting the Islamic Sharia principles that call for the implementation of justice and the prevention of harm. It is an Islamic Sharia principle that one "should neither be harmed nor do harm [to others]" and that [mutual] satisfaction be the focus of business operations, and this is something that will not be achieved when customers are in dire need or ignorant of the manner in which profit is calculated.

The last reason [for this] and perhaps the most important rationale to putting an end to this phenomenon and restoring matters back to normal with regards to the way in which the profits of the Islamic financial industry are calculated is the intervention of regulatory bodies to provide mechanisms for calculating Islamic finance profits, lending rates, etc. This is something that I expect to happen, especially in Saudi Arabia where the mortgage law is expected to come into effect soon. This mortgage law will be consistent with the provision of Islamic Sharia law, and will deal with one of society's most important needs, the provision of housing. Therefore I do not think that the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency [SAMA] will pass this [inflated] method of calculating profits onto the banking sector without first imposing certain restrictions and specifications, because this lies at the heart of its regulatory operations.