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Will the religious cop keep his job?

A new nuclear research center is planned. A religious police chief stirs controversy over gender mixing. A woman wins over $800,000 (and gets death threats) for a poem slamming clerics. US businesses are keen on investing in Saudi, but not ConocoPhillips. Plus, will a Lebanese psychic sentences to death for witchcraft keep his head?

Top News: Saudi Arabia announced its intent to launch a new nuclear energy research center. That may not seem like worrying news, except that it comes in the context of Saudi fears that Iran is intent on acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. While not meant for military purposes, the King Abdullah City of Atomic and Renewable Energy is a signal that the kingdom is watching the Iranian situation very closely. The government does not want a nuclear arms race in the Gulf. But it could not easily accept a nuclear-armed Iran without at least trying to acquire the same capability.  

A United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights visited the kingdom for the first time. Navi Pillay met King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz on her mid-April stay, during which she called for more rights for the country’s 8 million migrant workers and for elimination of the male guardianship system over Saudi women. She also met other officials, but had no known meetings with ordinary Saudis or human rights activists. Pillay then visited the five other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates).

The head of the Saudi religious police’s branch in the holy city of Mecca, Sheikh Ahmed al Ghamdi, denied rumors that he’d been arrested April 29 for continuing to say that Islam permits men and women to mix in public places like schools and offices. There’s been a great deal of confusion about whether al Ghamdi is going to keep his job or not ever since he sparked a long-running public debate among Saudi clerics over the religious base of the kingdom’s strict gender segregation. It’s an unprecedented development, and many Saudis are hoping for a relaxation of the customary gender segregation that is the rule in public places. The discussion has included an extremist fatwa recommending death for anyone allowing men and women to mix.           

Those are the kinds of fatwas that Hissa Hilal denounces in her poetry. Hilal, 43, a Saudi homemaker and mother of four in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, had her fifteen minutes of fame when she became a finalist in a televised Arab poetry contest with a poem attacking religious rulings, or fatwas, from extremist clerics who want to keep women silenced. Wearing the niqab, or face veil, Hilal used her poetic talents to condemn clerics "who sit in the position of power" and are "frightening" people with fatwas. Her poems also brought her death threats on ultraconservative Islamic websites. In the end, Hilal won third place in the competition, which is known as The Million's Poet and takes place in nearby Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. That means Hilal went home with U.S. $816,760. And she doesn’t have to worry about giving a third of it to her government, as there is no income tax in Saudi Arabia.

The reckless, high-speed driving habits of Saudis were put under the spotlight with the release April 21 of new government statistics indicating that around 6,000 people die and 275,000 are injured every year on Saudi highways. It is one of the highest automobile accident fatality rates in the world.

Money: The U.S. oil company ConocoPhillips announced April 21 that is pulling out of a project to build a huge refinery in partnership with the Saudi state oil company Aramco. Conoco said the project is not in line with its long-term strategy of reducing refinery operations.

But pullback is not what many other U.S. companies have in mind for operations in the oil-rich Gulf kingdom. According to some press reports, more than 1,000 people attended the Saudi-American Business Opportunity Forum in Chicago in late April. Keynote speeches were given by Saudi ambassador to Washington Adel Al-Jubeir and U.S. Ambassador to Riyadh James B. Smith. The Saudi government is on a massive capital and infrastructure spending spree and for foreign firms, there’s money to be made.

Elsewhere: Saudi Arabia has developed its own niche in the medical world: Its surgeons have separated more than 25 conjoined twins from around the world, most brought to the kingdom on all-expenses paid visits by the government. Health Minister Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeah, a surgeon, usually leads the operations, as he did April 29, successfully separating two boys in a seven-hour operation televised live in the infants’ native Jordan.

A Lebanese psychic who had his own television program in Beirut and who was popular among viewers from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, has been on the kingdom’s death row since last November when he was convicted of practicing witchcraft. Ali Sibat was arrested while on a visit to Mecca in 2008. But there are hopes now that he won’t be executed. On April 21, his lawyer in Lebanon told the Associated Press that she had been informed that the Saudi authorities will not carry out the sentence. Witchcraft, magic, sorcery and astrology are illegal  in Saudi Arabia, which is governed by Islamic law, or sharia.