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Ahmadinejad to Abdullah: “You never call me!”

Christians arrested at underground mass. Price of water to rise. Just like Chinese imports of Saudi oil. New groom says ‘Mommy made me do it.’ And NASA comes calling.

Top News: Must have been an interesting conversation. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who did not endear himself to Arab or Israeli leaders by visiting Lebanon this week, telephoned Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz on the eve of his trip on Oct. 12, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency. As usual, SPA was stingy with details about the rare phone call, saying only that they discussed regional and bilateral matters. Relations between the kingdom and Iran are pretty discordant these days, as Riyadh takes a dim view of Iran’s interference in both Iraqi and Lebanese internal affairs. Perhaps Ahmadinejad was seeking tips from the king on touristy things to do in Beirut.

An Oct. 8 article in the Arabic daily Al Watan about yet another Saudi father who gave away his 12-year-old daughter in marriage sparked another wave of public outrage and revulsion against this widespread practice. Many Saudis were further angered to read that the groom is a government-appointed marriage official, whose job is to preside at signings of marriage contracts. He told the paper that he was going to wait a year to consummate the marriage, but his mother goaded him into having sex with his wife, who just finished sixth grade. Although human rights groups in the kingdom have denounced child marriages, the government has yet to mandate a legal minimum marrying age. Its foot-dragging is blamed on fears of a backlash from religious conservatives and tribal elders who see nothing wrong in even very young girls being married.

In another sensitive matter, 12 Filipinos and a French priest were arrested Oct. 1 by Saudi Arabia’s religious police while attending a private, clandestine Catholic mass. They all were released within a few days to their embassies. It was a surprising incident because in recent years there has been a steep drop in such arrests. A Filipino diplomat said he had not heard of any of his countrymen being detained for attending worship services in the last four years. Filipinos make up the largest group of Christian residents in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia does not permit any formal non-Muslim religious services, but it has turned a blind eye in recent years to non-Muslim religious gatherings in private homes. Customs agents have been told not to confiscate Bibles from passengers arriving at Saudi airports. And occasionally, foreign priests have been given visas for short visits. This relaxation is all very much on the down low as it inflames the ultraconservative religious establishment.

Water, one of the desert kingdom’s most precious commodities, has gotten a lot of attention this month. A Saudi bank reported Oct. 4 that nearly 85 percent of water consumption is in agriculture. And yet this sector accounts for only 3 percent of GDP. The report urged the government to drop expensive water subsidies to agriculture and industry, and to start charging homeowners for their water consumption. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest producer of desalinated water, and gets 70 percent of its drinking water this way. The report came just a day before the government’s top water official announced that Saudis will soon be charged for their water because consumption is “growing exponentially due to the lack of incentive for the customer to conserve water.” He was speaking at a national forum on water and power generation.

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, whose senior ranks include several Saudis, has once again threatened to kill Saudi princes. In a video posted on the Internet Oct. 5, Qassem al Rimi, a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, addressed Saudi royalty and said: “We can get you in your offices, we can get you in your bedrooms. I advise you to check before going to bed that there’s no bomb planted and no suicide bomber in the room.” The threat surfaced just a few days after Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef said that his security forces had thwarted more than 220 attempted terror attacks since 2003. 

Money: China is forecast to import 19 percent more oil from Saudi Arabia this year than it did last year, the Chinese ambassador to Riyadh said. Earlier this year, China already overtook the United States as the largest purchaser of Saudi oil. And this new buying power is reflected in many ways as the two countries continue to broaden their cultural, economic and diplomatic ties. On Oct. 5, assistant defense minister Prince Khalid bin awarded the Chairman of China’s Supreme Joint Military Committee General Lee An Dong with the King Abdulaziz Medallion of the Excellent Grade, one of the kingdom’s highest honors.

Elsewhere: NASA chief Charles Bolden visited Saudi Arabia in early October for a conference on space technology where he talked about increased cooperation in this field between the United States and Riyadh. NASA and the Saudi agency for science and technology, known as KACST, signed two agreements to further this cooperation. Prince Sultan bin Salman, the first Arab astronaut, who flew as a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985, also attended the conference.