A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘Saudi Arabia’ Category

that old black magic …

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 25, 2009

Several years ago, my aunt pointed out something I had never noticed: the great frequency with which articles about – and editorials against – magic and sorcery appear in Gulf newspapers. I thought of her observation when I read earlier this month that Ali Sibat had been sentenced to death for his work as a television psychic. Sibat is Lebanese and lived worked in Lebanon, but was arrested in Saudi Arabia while there on a religious pilgrimage last year.

Here’s an excerpt from the latest Associated Press article on the story:

Saudi Arabia should overturn a death sentence imposed on a Lebanese national convicted of practicing witchcraft during a visit to the conservative kingdom, an international human rights group said in a report late Tuesday.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Saudi government to halt “its increasing use of charges of ‘witchcraft,’ crimes that are vaguely defined and arbitrarily used.”

The report highlights the ongoing complaints over the Saudi justice system, which, while based on Islamic law, leaves a wide leeway to individual judges and can often result in dramatically inconsistent sentences.

Ali Sibat, a Lebanese psychic who made predictions on a satellite TV channel from his home in Beirut, was arrested by religious police in the holy city of Medina during a pilgrimage there in May 2008 and then sentenced to death Nov. 9.

Sibat is one of scores of people reported arrested every year in the kingdom by local papers for practicing sorcery, witchcraft, black magic and fortune-telling. These practices are considered polytheism by the government of this deeply religious Muslim country.

Sibat seems to have been arrested somewhat by chance: he was recognized while in Medina, and those who recognized him informed the local authorities.

Here’s a September article from Arab News, the English-language Saudi newspaper, that addresses the issue of magic (or sorcery, as it is often called in the Gulf papers). It incorporates several common themes: the sinfulness of magic and its historic omnipresence; the connection between sorcerers/magicians and 1) Africans or dark-skinned people, 2) avarice, 3) women; and the real presence of evil in this world, which religion can address but magic cannot.

JEDDAH: Hardly a day passes without a local newspaper reporting the arrest of a sorcerer in the Kingdom, something that is indicative of the widespread meddling in sorcery. It is, however, not just sorcerers who make money — those who treat (or claim to treat) magic and the evil eye are also rolling in dollars. While there is mystery surrounding how magic is done, some weak-hearted people end up resorting to sorcerers to mend troubled marriages, ensure husbands remain faithful or cause harm to adversaries.

At the same time, magic is an old human practice, which has existed in many countries and religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism.

Sara Mohammed, a single 28-year-old woman, said a sorcerer once told her she was unmarried because someone had cast a spell on her. “I have been facing problems all my life and I was looking for something to change my fortune for the better. A relative told me that she knew a man who could help me because I may be under some kind of spell,” Sara said.

The man who her relative introduced her turned out to be an African sorcerer who had been residing in the Kingdom for some time. Sara visited him at his home, which she described as a “rotten place with a terrible stench.”

Afraid to go alone, she took her cousin along. “I went in and his wife offered us tea. We refused to drink anything there. My cousin was laughing and giggling as she felt the entire setup was just a big joke. The man then began asking me about my situation and held up a small cup filled with olive oil,” she added. Sara laughs for a few seconds and then explains that the sorcerer then began acting strange by whispering into the cup. “He then said my ex-fiancé had cast a spell on me and that he could undo it for SR1,800. I told him that he was asking for far too much money. He held the cup up once again and started talking and haggling with this supposed jinn inside,” she said, laughing.

“That was four years ago. I now only seek Allah’s help,” she said.

People underestimate how serious a sin magic actually is. Some people pay large amounts of money to sorcerers, believing they will eventually give them happiness. Abeer Saleh said some members of her family are so infatuated with magic that they act strange and perform nonsensical rituals.

“Two elderly members of my family who are sisters met a sorceress who told them that their sister-in-law had cast a spell on them. They believed everything that she told them,” said Saleh. She added that the two sisters were experiencing some domestic problems and in the course of their fascination with magic even claimed to have seen the ground split open and their sister-in-law appear and cast a spell on them. “They then began selling their personal belongings and even furniture to pay the sorceress to break the spell,” said Saleh, adding that other members of the family even tried to explain to them that magic was forbidden in Islam, but to no avail. “They’re still, even to this day, engrossed in weird rituals. They burned coriander and black pepper at my sister’s wedding to protect her wedding dress from harm,” she said, adding that her relatives are educated women and not ignorant.

Reports surfaced in July that divers searching for the body of a young woman who drowned off Jeddah’s Corniche discovered 22 bottles containing papers with names scrawled on them, as well as pieces of jewelry and locks of hair. It is thought these items were spells cast into the sea as part of some magic ritual. Some sheikhs cure those afflicted with magic by reciting verses of the Qur’an over Zamzam water, olive oil or honey which they then administer to those affected.

Some of these people have even developed reputations of being very proficient in what they do and are known to charge around SR100 or more per visit. One sheikh who helps fight black magic and the effects of the evil eye said that magic is everywhere. The sheikh, who asked not to be named, charges SR100 per visit. He even has an office where he receives clients.

“Black magic is widely practiced nowadays. It’s all over the Internet and even in toy stores,” he said giving the example of Ouija boards, which are sold in stores.

A woman told Arab News that she went to this sheikh after her son decided to break off his engagement. “I just felt my son was behaving strangely. It was out of character. The girl he was engaged to was suitable for him,” she said. “The sheikh treated my son with verses of the Qur’an and Zamzam water. He then abandoned his intention and then married that girl. They are very happy,” she added.

I’m personally not a great fan of astrologists, psychics, etc. But this story is rather horrifying: a man goes to the holiest cities of Islam to perform an act of piety, and is arrested and sentenced to death for breaking the law – a violation that occurred in another country, under a different set of laws. Talk about a guardian state …


Posted in Arab world, Arabic, education, Islam, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia | Leave a Comment »

Sunni Love, take two

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 19, 2009

I bet that you thought that “Sunni Love, take one” was going to be about Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s parents, didn’t you? I did too, to be honest. But the failed romance between Sultan and Alia was a pretty good story on its own. And happily Time paid the same media attention to the next Saud-Solh love story: that between “brawny, globetrotting” Talal and the “sparkling” Mlle. Mona.

I’m still not sure where Tola is, but I do love the $8 dowry. Happy Monday-morning reading!

SAUDI ARABIA: Trinkets from Tola!

For years, as he watched his 40-odd sons (the exact number has never been reliably checked) grow to strapping manhood, Saudi Arabia’s wily and sentimental old King Ibn Saud cherished a wish—to unite one of them with a daughter of his old friend and champion, Premier Riad El Solh of Lebanon. After El Solh fell before an assassin’s gun (in 1951), Ibn Saud sent his boy Prince Sultan, 29, to offer sympathy and a small token of affection ($79,000 in cash) to the Lebanese Premier’s widow.

During the course of these amenities, a romance flowered between young Sultan and dark-eyed Alia El Solh, eldest of El Solh’s daughters. But disillusionment set in. Alia, a Western-educated 22-year-old, learned to her chagrin that Sultan already had at least one other wife, two sons and four daughters. Sultan hired a private eye and discovered that his bride-to-be was a feminist agitator with a firm determination not to hide herself behind a veil and live in a harem. One month after old Ibn Saud went to his grave, the marriage plans were canceled (TIME, Dec. 21).

Last July, for the observance of the third anniversary of El Solh’s murder, another Ibn Saud heir, brawny, globetrotting Talal, son No. 18, journeyed to Lebanon to pay his respects to the bereaved. His piercing eye soon singled out Mona, the dead Premier’s sparkling 18-year-old third daughter. After one quick glimpse. Talal invited himself to dinner on the following day. A day later, he proposed marriage. Mme. El Solh said it was up to Mona, and Mona cast down her eyes and murmured yes. Last week, after agreeing to pay a modest dowry of 25 Lebanese pounds ($8), Prince Talal signed his name in the marriage register alongside that of Mona El Solh.

Oil-rich Talal provided his bride with a few trinkets as well. Items: a necklace containing 263 diamonds and an emerald; an engagement ring with a marquise diamond approximately an inch long, half an inch wide; a gold mesh bracelet, a diamond-studded necklace, and a hunting-case wristwatch adorned with seven large diamonds and several smaller ones. More important, Talal bought himself a 20-room mansion on the mountain road to Damascus, which suggested that Mona would not be cooped up all year round in a Saudi Arabian harem.

And there was one other matter. “I don’t like to make conditions, and I made none. But I’m sure he won’t marry any other girls,” Mona said confidently.

Posted in Arab world, Lebanon, romance, Saudi Arabia | 3 Comments »

firsts: Hariri in the New York Times

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 17, 2009

I find firsts interesting. When did someone we now consider famous first attract the notice of major media outlets? How was he or she portrayed, and how has his or her image evolved since?

Some time ago, my interest in firsts intersected with my interest in Rafiq Hariri, and I began poking around a few news outlets, starting with the New York Times.

I bet you won’t be surprised to learn that Hariri’s name first appears in the Times in 1982 – but I also bet that you will never guess why. Will it help if I tell you that he appears in a section titled “Middle Western Journal”?

Yep – that’s “Western”, not “Eastern”. Hariri appears in an August 25, 1982 story about a stalled dam project in Missouri. The dam project put pressure in turn on the economy of nearby St. Louis, which had been anticipating good things:

It was to have been a boon to the St. Louis area: a large, $200 million complex with a 400-room hotel, three high-rise office buildings, a shopping mall and condominium apartments, all to be built on choice land in Clayton, Mo., just west of St. Louis.

Instead, the complex was described as a “six-block-long crater”. And guess who was behind the project?

It all began with considerable fanfare a few years ago when Rafik B. Al Hariri, a Saudi developer, put up money to get the project going. There was a flurry of activity: Architectural plans were drawn, Western International Hotels became involved and work crews began gouging the earth to prepare for a major parking lot that was to be the project’s first stage.

But Mr. Hariri encountered snags, according to Gyo Obata, a partner in the architectural firm that designed the project. ”It was one of those absentee ownership deals that was made worse by problems with getting financing as interest rates went up,” Mr.  Obata said. ”He kept putting up more money for the project and probably spent $30 million. Finally he said he could go no farther and the project stopped.”

The article noted that Hariri was “said to be looking for another developer”, but that few might be interested given the raised interest rates and lack of interest in the complex’s office space.

I’m amused but happy that Hariri’s first appearance in the Times has to do with the Midwest, rather than the Mideast. And I’m delighted to have a new spin to put on the old phrase: “Meet me in St. Louis”!

Posted in Americans, Arab world, construction, Lebanon, media, news, Saudi Arabia | 1 Comment »

“Thirteen Million United States Dollars only”: more inheritance spam

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 6, 2009

Just when I was feeling a bit sad that the bulk of my emails these days seem to be either work-related or news alerts, along came an “urgent” and very personal note from my new friend, Mr. Hong Achai. He seems like a nice man, aside from his total ignorance about shari`a inheritance prescriptions.

Below is his email, with the usual commentary:

Dear Friend,

I am Mr. Hong Achai credit officer of the Hang Seng Bank Ltd. I have an urgent and very confidential business proposition for you. I honestly apologize and hope I do not cause you much embarrassment by contacting you through this means for a transaction of this magnitude, but this is due to confidentiality and prompt access reposed on this medium, sorry my English is not very good. Furthermore, due to this issue on my hands now, it became necessary for me to seek your assistance, and it is imperative for me to know your opinion.

[I’m not embarrassed at all – I love being asked for my opinion. And I’m going to be working hard to get the phrase “reposed on this medium” into wider circulation.]

Five years ago, a Saudi Arabian Oil Consultant/Contractor with the Chinese Petroleum and Chemical corporation Mr. Al-Rahman Al Saud made a numbered time (Fixed) Deposit for twelve calendar months, valued at US$13,000,000.00 (Thirteen Million United State Dollars only) in my branch. Upon maturity, I sent a routine notification to his forwarding address but got no reply. After a month, we sent a reminder and finally we discovered from his contract employers, the Hong Kong Petroleum and Chemical Corporation that Mr. Al-Rahman Al Saud died from an automobile accident.

[I don’t really understand what kind of deposit this is. Al Saud put in the same amount of money that was available at maturity? What? And: “Thirteen Million United States Dollars only”? I think the “only” is a matter of opinion.

Also, I’m no China expert, but I imagine that the Hong Kong Petroleum and Chemical Corporation would be quite irked to know that it was also described as the Chinese Petroleum and Chemical Corporation.]

On further investigation, I found out that he died without making a WILL and all attempts to trace his next of kin were fruitless. I therefore made further investigation and discovered that Mr.-Rahman Al Saud did not declare any kin or relations in all his official documents, including his Bank Deposit paperwork in my Bank. This sum of US$13,000,000.00 (Thirteen Million United State Dollars only) is still sitting in my Bank and the interest is being rolled over with the principal sum at the end of each year. No one will ever come forward to claim it. According to Laws of Hong Kong, at the expiration of 5 (five) years, the money will revert to the ownership of the Hong Kong Government if nobody applies to claim the fund.

[Again with the “only”. I’d like to hear more about the amount of interest, and why it isn’t being calculated as part of the principal. I’d also like to point out that Al Saud may not have made a will because as a Saudi citizen, he wouldn’t need one: shari`a principles are fairly clear, at least for Sunnis, about how estates are divided.]

Consequently, my proposal is that I will like you as a foreigner to stand in as the next of kin to Mr. Al-Rahman Al Saud so that the fruits of this old man’s labor will not get into the hands of some corrupt government officials. This is simple, I will like you to provide immediately your full names and address so that the attorney will prepare the necessary documents and affidavits that will put you in place as the next of kin. We shall employ the services of an attorney for drafting and notarization of the WILL and to obtain the necessary documents and letter of probate/administration in your favor for the transfer. The money will be paid into your account for us to share in the ratio of 50% for me and 40% for you and 10% for Expenses Incurred in the course of the transaction.

[Oh yes – this sounds like a good idea. First of all, the man is dead, so a will isn’t really possible. Second, I imagine that Al Saud has family in KSA and while – judging from the last name – $13 million might indeed seem like chump change to them, I’d rather not risk both legal indemnity and the wrath of the Saudi royals.]

There is no risk at all as all the paperwork for this transaction will be done by the attorney and with my position as the credit officer guarantees the successful execution of this transaction. Upon your response, I shall then provide you with more details and relevant documents that will help you understand the transaction. Please send me your confidential telephone and fax numbers for easy communication. You should observe utmost confidentiality, and rest assured that this transaction would be most profitable for both of us because I shall require your assistance to invest my share in your country.

[The attorney will get only whatever part of the 10% for “expenses” goes towards legal fees, and you say that there will be “no risk at all”? Why am I skeptical … ?]

Awaiting your urgent reply.

Thanks and regards.

Mr. Hong Achai

I think I’ll spare my conscience on this one – maybe those news alerts aren’t such bad inbox fillers after all.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Saudi Arabia, spam | Leave a Comment »

helping out the bin Talals

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 26, 2009

This morning I received a lovely email from my new friend: Princess Amira, the wife of Saudi prince and uber-billionaire, Alwaleed bin Talal. As some of you may recall, Amira was recently in the news for her comments about her readiness to drive in Saudi Arabia whenever the laws are changed. Sadly, it seems that she now has more pressing issues on her mind:


Assalamaleku and Good day.

My husband’s agent came across your e mail contact where he was seeking for
an investor/business partner for me.

I am interested to invest and partner in your business, with assurance that the security of my capital will be there, please kindly get back to me with full details via email. I have $120 million of my sick husbands money that I want to invest in your country through you or your company.

May Allah bless you.

Direct email: hayalwa@yahoo.co.uk
2nd Email: hayalwa@gmail.com
Mrs H.Alwaleed, (Wife of HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal)
Founder/ Chairman of KHC
Kingdom Holding Company

Evidently “Mrs. H. Alwaleed” has been so affected by her distress at the Prince’s illness that she 1) called me Sir, my longstanding pet peeve 2) missed the meem on “Assalamalekum” and 3) signed a doozy of a pre-nup, if she only has access to $120 million of the bin Talal fortune.

The Kingdom Holding website is real; I highly doubt that the email addresses are. Oh well – it was a sweet friendship while it lasted!

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Saudi Arabia, women, words | 5 Comments »

hamburgers and leadership

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 25, 2008

When I was reading for my oral exams, I also needed books that could take my mind slightly away from my exam subjects. So I ended up reading a lot of wonderful (and some not-so-wonderful) novels and memoirs relating in some way to the Middle East.

One of my absolute favorites was a rather hard-to-find 1960s novel about Khaleej college students in Cairo in the late 1950s, An Apartment Called Freedom (in Arabic I believe it is simply Shiqat al-Hurriyah). It follows the adventures of four young men, Sunni and Shia, wealthy and poor, who respond in different ways to the political and cultural freedom that Cairo offered.

Its a great book, and a terrific read – but its hard to find, and quite pricey. (Check out Amazon’s listing and you’ll understand what I mean – although there is a used copy available for $8.)

Anyway. My oral exams took place some time ago, and I haven’t thought much about Algosaibi since. I knew that he was a bit of a Renaissance man, and that he had done a stint in government service, and I knew that this was odd because his novels and poems were banned in Saudi Arabia – a case of love the sinner, hate the sin? But he had largely faded from my day-to-day consciousness.

This morning I read a curious little Reuters news article, and I knew it was the same man. Here’s the article:

RIYADH (Reuters Life!) – Saudi Arabia’s Labor Minister found a novel way of encouraging Saudis to take jobs they think are beneath them — by working as a waiter for three hours in a fast-food restaurant, newspapers reported on Tuesday.

Saudi media carried pictures of Ghazi Algosaibi, champion of the policy of “Saudisation” of the workforce, surprising customers in a popular restaurant in the city of Jeddah by serving up hamburgers in overalls and a cap.

“The beginning will always be tiring and difficult, but young people can realize their ambitions if they are persistent and work hard,” al-Watan reported Algosaibi as saying before kissing a Saudi worker on the head in appreciation.

Algosaibi, a poet and former ambassador to London, has fought an uphill battle against business and religious interests to attract more Saudis, including women, into employment.

Around a third of Saudi Arabia’s population of some 25 million are foreigners. The government is trying to diversify the economy away from reliance on oil receipts.

Many Saudis including graduates hope for work in the government bureaucracy and shun many menial jobs done by the large expatriate labor force.

Way to go, Minister Algosaibi! What a great role model – pitching in to show that there is nothing demeaning about honest work. This story reads a bit like a “news of the weird” piece – but I hope that readers recognize the value of Algosaibi’s “message”.

If you’re curious to know more about the poet-cum-minister, here’s what the Bahraini website Jihat al-Shi`r has to say about Algosaibi:

Saudi Arabian poet. Born in al-lhsa'(1940) in Eastern Saudi Arabia into a well to do and influential family, he had his early education in Bahrain, then obtained a B.A. in law from the University of Cairo in 1961. In 1964, he obtained an M.A. in international relations from the University of Southern California, and in 1970 obtained a Ph.D. in political science from the University of London. He had held important positions in his country’s government, becoming the Minister of Industry and Electricity (1976-1983), then Minister of Health (1983-1985). At present, he is Saudi Arabian ambassador to Bahrain. Dr. Gosaibi is widely read in literature, religious studies, and history and has been very active as poet, anthologist, and writer. He has at least twelve books in print, including Verses of Love (1975), You Are My Riyadb (1976), Fever (198o), and his lovely collection, Chosen Poems (198o). Despite his formal status, Gosaibi’s poetry, written with clear language and an eloquent style, reveals a deep involvement in Arab life and political experience, and reflects great love for simple beauty, innocence, and uncomplicated human relations in contrast to the pomp and flourish of the high life around him.

Posted in Arab world, politics, Saudi Arabia, vanity | 2 Comments »

revenge, Saudi style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on June 9, 2008

After Qatar’s success in getting Lebanon to return at least to its usual dysfunctional functionality, there was much speculation as to how the Saudis felt about being upstaged by their smaller neighbor.

Thanks to this article from Saudi Arabia’s English-language Arab News, I think we now know:

RIYADH, 9 June 2008 — The Saudi Vs. Lebanon match held at the King Fahd International Stadium here on Saturday had an unusual start after officials mistakenly played the wrong national anthem. Fans were left shocked and Lebanese players were visibly angry when the Syrian national anthem began blaring from the stadium’s speakers, the Arriyadiyah sports daily reported yesterday. Officials quickly realized their mistake, and eventually played the correct national anthem. However, the error, which was committed by the organizing officials of the tournament, prompted the President of the Saudi Football Federation, Prince Sultan ibn Fahd, to order an official investigation into the incident. Saudi Arabia went on to win the World Cup qualifying match 2-1.

The Saudis played the Syrian national anthem for the Lebanese soccer team. I don’t mean to, but I am totally laughing out loud.

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, Lebanon, music, neighbors, politics, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, vanity, words | 7 Comments »

No ‘Kingdom’ in the emirates – but definitely in the republic

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 12, 2007

The Kingdom – the new, reputedly Syriana-esque movie (set in the Gulf and featuring a more nuanced portrait of live there) – is out, but not everywhere. Its been banned in Kuwait and Bahrain (all the more reason for my aunt & uncle to come to Beirut next weekend!) for a “false depiction of facts”, according to the New York Times and AFP. But the UAE and Qatar are showing the film, and Saudi Arabia, for which banning is something of a non-issue since the kingdom has no cinemas, has said nothing.

Arab News, the English-language Saudi paper, published a round-up of opinions and concluded that banning the film was “counter-productive” and that Saudis should be permitted to see how other parts of the world – in this case, the US – see them.

Meanwhile, I checked the movie listings yesterday morning and saw that The Kingdom is playing here – in the ABC mall, at least (no word on whether it will find an audience in Verdun!). It probably isn’t a great movie, but I bet its great on a lazy Eid afternoon:).

(On the other hand, Jack Shaheen, who pioneered social science research on the depiction of Arabs in Hollywood movies, is very critical. His review concludes with: In a time that calls for cultural understanding, we get crude antagonism. In a time that calls for nuance and clarity, we get dangerous simplifications and gross distortions. So … if you do see the film, think carefully about what you are seeing.)

Posted in Arab world, Bahrain, Beirut, film, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia | Leave a Comment »

the hot new color for fall: more red lines in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 3, 2007

This week has been a busy one, and its only half over. I’ve started a new job, and getting settled – new tasks, new responsibilities, new schedule – has meant some serious adjustments – errr, “growth opportunities” – for me.

On Monday I walked home in a bit of a haze, tired from my first full day. As a result, I had already passed this sign before its meaning dawned on me:


Some days it seems that the Arab world is entirely criss-crossed by red lines. My friends in the news and publishing world talk about “red lines” around subjects they cannot mention in print or on air, for fear of censorship or punishment. And of course Lebanese politics are rife with red lines, as one of my favorite bloggers noted earlier this summer in a post evocatively titled “Oh boy – another red line!” During the last elections, the March 14 candidate’s posters declared that “Beirut is a red line”. I’m not sure how that works, logically – doesn’t it mean that Beirut is off-limits? – but it looked good on the poster.

Red lines with local or national significance are one thing, but this banner is a mystery. Saudi Arabia is now a red line? Lebanon has more than enough domestic problems to tackle without attempting to involve itself with its regional neighbors.

The group or organization that erects the banner usually identifies itself just below the main text – in this case, a group called the People of Nu3mani League. I’ve never heard of them before, but now I’m eager to learn more.

Update, October 4

I was eager to learn more, and as always, H was there to help. First, I misinterpreted the “Rabitat Al al-Nu3mani: “Al al-Nu3mani” is another way of saying “The Nu3mani family” – I thought it was a grander designation. Second, H says that the “red line” is in reference to Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa insulting the Saudi kingdom earlier this fall.

Well – that clears up the mystery, but not the issue of why the Nu3manis are taking it 1) so personally and 2) so slowly. Did it take them more than a month to paint this banner? And again: don’t they think that perhaps their energies would be better expended defending Lebanon?

Posted in advertising, Arabic, Beirut, graffiti, Lebanon, media, Saudi Arabia | Leave a Comment »