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A Saudi stimulus for the US: warplanes

The kingdom proposes to buy US fighter jets and choppers. Whether sick or annoyed by a scandalous “leak,” the king cancels his Paris visit. Join the line of foreign investors, but please, no singing! Saudi teachers are monitored for extremism. And a Facebook campaign advocates polygamy to aid spinsters.


Top News: French officials scrambled to do damage control after Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz on July 10 cancelled a long-planned state visit to Paris, during which he was supposed to have participated in Bastille Day festivities and presided at the opening of a Saudi antiquities exhibit at the Louvre. The Saudi side, as usual, gave no explanation for the cancellation.

French officials put out the word that the king had a “cold,” and was feeling tired after his recent trips to Canada and Washington DC. But many observers suspect the cancellation was due to royal pique at the leaking of an alleged remark by the king during a private meeting June 5 with French Defense Minister Herve Morin. French journalist Georges Malbrunot reported in a blog posting on the website of Le Figaro that the king told Morin that both Israel and Iran “do not deserve to exist.”

The comment seems unlike King Abdullah and Riyadh was not happy that Paris never officially denied the report. As part of the damage control, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal presided at the Louvre exhibit debut and both sides said the king would be visiting Paris in the fall.

Indeed, the king may have been tired after his June 29 meeting with President Obama in the White House because it has been widely reported since then that the oil-rich kingdom, which feels mightily threatened by Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, wants to spend up to $30 billion on US-made jet fighters and helicopters. Bloomberg got the details of the planned purchase of 84 Boeing F-15s and 72 Sikorsky Black Hawk choppers.

The deal is still in negotiations and Congress will have to approve. There are reports that Israel is not happy about the big-ticket purchase, even though it’s highly unlikely Saudi Arabia would ever attack the Jewish state. King Abdullah is prime sponsor of a 2002 Arab peace plan offering Israel full recognition of a just settlement for the Palestinians.

Sporadic clashes between Yemeni rebels, known as Houthis, and pro-government Yemen tribesmen has raised fears that a fragile cease-fire between the rebels and Yemeni government could break down. That is a big concern for neighboring Saudi Arabia, which last fall conducted a months-long military offensive against the Houthis who were infiltrating across the border into the kingdom.

The Saudis are said to be fearful that the Houthis are re-arming with the aim of resuming fighting sometime this summer. They are also upset that the Yemeni government has withdrawn many of its armed forces patrolling the Yemen-Saudi border in order to use them against a secessionist movement in the south. Meanwhile, Yemen is also dealing with attacks on its forces by the Yemen-based Al Qaeda affiliate that over the past year has become more aggressive towards the Yemeni government.

A big disappointment, surely, for Saudis working to reform their education system was the alarming news July 10 that almost a third of Saudi students are dropping out of university before graduating. The government is spending 26 percent of its current budget on education reform and expansion, one of the kingdom’s top priorities. In the past few years, Saudi universities have grown from a handful (six) to more than a score (24). But as with all fast expansions, there’s a risk of increased failure. The nation’s universities are now dealing with the reality that Saudi high schools are not adequately preparing students for further education. About 278,000 Saudis are set to start college this fall.

In other education news, Saudi newspapers reported what Interior Ministry officials had earlier disclosed to Riyadh-based foreign journalists: That over the past several years, around 2,000 Saudi teachers – mostly men – had been moved from the classroom to administrative positions because of their alleged sympathies with extremist ideas or “deviant” Islamic ideologies such as the one espoused by Al Qaeda. The Saudi Gazette reported July 20 that the Education Ministry wants principals to alert it to any signs of extremism shown by teachers. The ministry, in partnership with the Interior Ministry, is also holding seminars for teachers around the country to raise awareness about the dangers of extremist thinking.

Money: Perhaps this came as no surprise since Saudi Arabia has the biggest economy in the Arab world, but it was among the top ten most attractive countries for direct foreign investment, according to the World Investment Report released this month by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The kingdom is also attractive right now for investors because it has suffered only negligibly from the recent global recession. Also, it has embarked on a $400 billion capital and infrastructure building boom that holds out the promise of big contracts for foreign entrepreneurs.

Contrary to earlier expectations, a new law governing mortgage lending meant to help Saudis purchase their own home is not likely to emerge this year. Around 60 percent of Saudis do not live in a residence they own. Many cannot afford the interest rates or the down payment. In addition, there is a national shortage of affordable housing. A draft bill intended to deal with these problems was discussed in the Shoura, a government-appointed advisory body, and reportedly headed for the king’s signature. But officials later said the bill needs a lot more work and discussion.

Elsewhere: In a culture where unmarried people are regarded with pity and suspicion, some young Saudi men are offering a solution for the “problem” of spinsters. They have started a campaign on Facebook to encourage Saudi men to exercise their right under Islamic law to have up to four wives. Their Facebook page is called “We Want Them Four.” Young Saudis increasingly prefer monogamy over polygamy, but it is still common and completely acceptable for Saudi men to have more than one wife. A report on the Facebook campaign in the Arab News drew scores of comments, many of them from women caustically critical of the polygamy-encouraging effort.

Meanwhile, the latest drama in the battle of fatwas emerged after a prominent sheikh in Mecca announced that it was his belief that singing and music are acceptable for Muslims. "There is no clear text or ruling in Islam that singing and music are prohibited," said Sheikh Adel Al Kalbani, a former imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.Other sheikhs, such as Abdul Aziz Fawzan Al-Fawza countered that anyone who issues a religious ruling like that is “ignorant.”