Kingdom's BlackBerry users get a respite

A Saudi Arabian man checks his BlackBerry at a store in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on August 06, 2010. Ongoing negotiations between BlackBerry and the Saudi telecoms regulator were postponed until August 09, 2010, to test proposed solutions to Riyadh's security concerns offered by the Canadian maker.
Amer Hilabi

TOP NEWS: The 750,000 residents of Saudi Arabia who use BlackBerrys had a roller-coaster month. On Aug. 4 the government threatened to follow the United Arab Emirates, which announced that all BlackBerry functions would end in October because of security concerns. Both governments, like others elsewhere, are unhappy about not being able to monitor the BB’s encrypted messaging function, which would give violent extremist groups a way to communicate without government eavesdropping. A BlackBerry messaging ban, however, would be seen as unfriendly to business, which Riyadh does not want. After several days of ‘Will it or won’t it?’ the government finally put BlackBerry users’ fears to rest, saying it had made progress in negotiations to resolve the issue with the smart-phone’s manufacturer, Canada-based Research in Motion. So for now, it’s thumbs up! And down. And up. And down. 

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz took his strongest action yet to end what many Muslims call ‘fatwa chaos.’ Aiming to curb the issuing of religious rulings that bring ridicule on Islam or that contradict government policies, the king ordered Aug. 12 that only senior clerics appointed by him can issue fatwas. How effective his decree will be remains an open question as Islam has no central authority like the Vatican and Muslim religious scholars are supposed to be independent voices. In addition, almost every satellite television network has popular programs featuring clerics answering viewers’ questions, and these responses are often regarded as fatwas. In a move to implement the king’s decree, Saudi radio cancelled the program of a religious cleric who recently opined that the ban on mixing between unrelated men and women could be circumvented if the man drank a cup of the woman’s breast milk.

In other fatwa-related news, the Saudi sheikh that we highlighted in last month’s news briefing because he declared that it was his belief that singing and music are acceptable for Muslims has now reversed himself. Sheikh Adel Al Kalbani, a former imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, said he had changed his mind, noting that “Most singing today ... brings with it debauchery, obscenity and abomination.”

Saudis mourned the Aug. 15 death of Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, a diplomat, novelist and poet who had served as labor minister since 2004. Al Gosaibi, 70, died in Riyadh of stomach cancer. Known for his liberal views, Al Gosaibi was a close advisor to King Abdullah. Yet many of his books are banned in the kingdom.

Newsweek this month put King Abdullah on its list of the world’s most respected leaders because of his reformist agenda. The king is trying to get his conservative society to accept changes necessary for developing into a modern state so that the country’s huge, young population will be able to find jobs.

Just how hard a task the King has was evident in the tough debate that broke out when the Panda supermarket chain announced that it intends to start hiring women as cashiers. According to an Aug. 18 report in the Arab News, a Saudi paper, the women will have to be at least 28 years of age – regarded as ‘old’ by many Saudis – and be either divorced or widowed. She’ll also probably have to work behind some kind of partition so unaccompanied men can’t see her as she scans the food purchases of families. She of course will have to be driven to work as women of any age are banned from driving in the kingdom.

MONEY: As usual, Saudi Arabia outpaced its OPEC peers as biggest oil earner, pulling in $116 billion in the first seven months of 2010, according to an Aug. 19 report from the U.S. Department of Energy. The kingdom’s conservative fiscal policies also have meant that it is doing well weathering the global recession.

A boost for Saudi tourism income: UNESCO on July 31 inscribed the first capital of the House of Saud dynasty on its World Heritage List: At-Turaif District in ad-Dir'iyah. The site is in the central part of the kingdom northwest of the capital, Riyadh. The property includes the ruins of palaces built by ad-Dir’iyah oasis, according to UNESCO’s description. It is the second world heritage site in Saudi Arabia; the other being Madain Salih, a relic of the Nabataean civilization. UNESCO’s list now comprises 911 properties around the world noted for their “outstanding universal value.”

ELSEWHERE: A new clock that will eventually sit atop a huge tower in Mecca began ticking this month at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan on Aug. 11. When the tower is completed, the clock will be six times the height of London's famous Big Ben and look down upon Mecca’s Grand Mosque. Some officials hope that when the clock and tower are finished, the timepiece will become a universally accepted measure of time, rivaling Greenwich Mean Time

What is good for the goose is good for the gander, so the saying goes. That’s what the famous Saudi satirical show “Tash ma Tash” meant when it aired an episode about a woman who has four husbands. Some conservative sheikhs took umbrage at the fun-poking at the right of Muslim men to take up to four wives – a custom still widely practiced in Saudi Arabia. “Tash ma Tash,” which means “no big deal,” is a hugely popular program broadcast during Ramadan. Much of its success has come from its close-to-the-bone humor as it satirizes Saudi society.