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New big arms deal means Jets for Saudi, Jobs for Americans

Saudi TV exec in trouble over on-air criticism of religious figure; More charges of ill treatment of foreign-born housemaids; Unemployed college grads stage rare street protest over lack of jobs; Supermarket chain will keep female cashiers and sheiks who disapprove can buy their vegetables elsewhere.

Top News: Flush with cash reserves and fearful of Iran’s supposed pursuit of nuclear weapons, oil-rich Saudi Arabia has gotten initial U.S. approval to buy up to $60 billion in U.S.-made air and missile systems, according to press reports. The purchases, to take place over a decade, represent one of the largest U.S. arms sales package ever. After almost three years of quiet negotiations, the Pentagon has approved the deal, which would allow Riyadh to buy 84 new Boeing F-15 fighter jets and more than 170 new helicopters. The Pentagon will now formally notify Congress of the pending deal, giving lawmakers 30 days to block or approve it.

Apart from the eye-popping cost, and the thousands of U.S. jobs created by the Saudi weapons order, the deal symbolizes a new day in U.S.-Saudi relations. It signifies that the two allies are ready to resume their close defense ties, which were twisted out of shape by Sept. 11 and by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It also demonstrates that the United States sees Saudi Arabia as an important component of its effort to confront Iran’s belligerent stance in the Gulf region.

Two horrendous cases again underscored the deplorable conditions that many foreign-born domestic workers endure in Saudi Arabia. L.T. Ariyawathi, a 49-year-old Sri Lankan mother, said her Saudi employers hammered nails and needles into her legs and forehead as a form of punishment. Doctors in Sri Lanka removed 18 nails and metal particles from her body, press reports stated. In another incident, a 22-year-old Filipino was found dead of stab wounds and acid burns in the kitchen of her employer in the Eastern Province on Sept. 8. The death has not yet been ruled homicide or suicide.

Gulf area news junkies were taken aback by the Sept. 14 flash that widely-respected Saudi columnist and television executive Abdulrahman Alrashed had quit his job as head of the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya satellite television channel. The Dubai-based Alrashed, a progressive voice who is not afraid to take on religious fundamentalists, told his staff he was resigning but gave no reason. Some reports linked his move to Al Arabiya’s recent airing of a program that included criticism of Saudi Arabia’s revered religious figure, Muhammad bin Abd al Wahhab, founder of the kingdom’s ascetic brand of Islam. But on Sept. 16, Alrashed issued a statement saying he was “postponing” his resignation and will stay in some capacity with MBC Group, which owns Al Arabiya. He appeared to confirm that the on-air criticism of Wahhab had led to pressure for his resignation, saying that “some have tried to capitalize on the inadvertence that occurred on-screen in order to harm the channel itself.”

A Saudi diplomat on Sept. 11 asked for asylum in the United States, claiming he would be killed if sent back to the kingdom because he is gay. Ali Ahmad Asseri also said he had evidence of wrongdoing by Saudi diplomats serving in the United States. While homosexuality is illegal and regarded as a sin in the kingdom, no one has been executed for being gay in recent memory.

Money: Always a concern in the Arab world’s largest economy, inflation took an upswing over the summer and reached 6.1 percent in August. This is partly because of the good news that the kingdom’s economy is expanding. And that derives in large measure from the government’s capital spending program on infrastructure.

Despite the expansion, job creation remains a high priority for the government because of the growing numbers of young people entering the workplace. With high rates of unemployment [10.5 percent in 2009], it is a sensitive issue. In a country where demonstrations are illegal, about 200 newly-graduated job-seekers staged a protest Aug. 28 outside the education ministry in Riyadh demanding they be given jobs as teachers. The protest sparked a call by Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz for government ministries and private employers to hire Saudis rather than foreign workers. There are about 8 million expatriates working in the kingdom.

Elsewhere: Updating breaking news in last month’s news brief: An ultraconservative sheikh has called for a boycott of the supermarket chain Hyperpanda because it has hired 16 females to work as cashiers. Sheikh Yusuf Al Ahmad called the employing of females in public places “dangerous” because “it is part of the normalizing of the Westeren culture” in Saudi Arabia. But Hyperpanda does not seem ready to back down, in large part because the government is backing private employers who hire women, even though it says it’s only an ‘experiment.’ "The experiment of employing Saudi women as cashiers has been implemented for the first time in leading shopping centres in Jeddah and the Eastern Province," Deputy Minister of Labour Abdul Wahid Al Humaid told a Saudi newspaper. A spokesman for Hyperpanda said the women were appropriately dressed and that the ‘experiment’ would likely be extended to stores in other parts of the kingdom.