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Off the List, Certainly US and The Oldies Are Back

Shall we start with VAT, or rather the concert of the always-will-be loved-oldies singers of Saudi Arabia? Perhaps the interview with Minister Al-Falih at the BBC, when the interviewer could no longer follow him at some point?

The USA and Saudi Arabia Remain Buddies

Let’s start with the latest:

In an interview with the BBC, Saudi Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources Khalid Al-Falih said that Saudi Arabia may increase its oil investments in the United States due to a more fossil fuel-oriented energy policy by the US administration of President Trump.

“President Trump has policies which are good for the oil industry and I think we have to acknowledge it,” Al-Falih told the BBC, asserting that relations between the USA and Saudi Arabia are strong both on a political and economic level, and will remain strong.

When asked about Trump’s promise to pursue US energy independence, Falih replied: “We have no problem with the growth of American indigenous oil supply. I have said it repeatedly, as long as they grow in line with global energy demand, we welcome that.”

“We have billions of dollars invested in refining and distribution in the United States and we may be increasing that investment on the back of the pro-industry, pro-oil and gas policies of the Trump administration.”

Both countries have been speaking in softer tones about each other, trying to find common ground for tackling current issues. In a phone call on Sunday, King Salman has asked President Trump to take a leadership role in the Middle East on political as well as economic levels. Both parties agreed on “safe zones” in Syria and Yemen.

The White House evaluated the outcome of the call a signal for a potential policy shift in the Middle East. “The President requested and the King agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts,” a White House readout of the call said. It’s clear which side is requesting and which side agreed to the request.

Looking back to his campaign, Trump had called on creating safe zones in Syria to allow relief for families hurt by the war as an alternative to them fleeing to the everywhere. Trump had accused the Obama Administration of not doing enough in vetting of Syrian refugees, while Obama declined to set up a no-fly safe zone as it would require more US military intervention to enforce it and sought to find a diplomatic solution to the civil war.

It is likely that such a zone will not be limited to only Arab leaders’ contribution but will have to be coordinated with the Russian and Turkish governments, who would in turn solicit the acquiescence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran. It makes sense that the parties in war agree to stop the war, at least in a way.

Of course, there was more to the than just politics, namely making money. The President and the King welcomed economic and energy cooperation, in which they “agreed on the importance of strengthening joint efforts to fight the spread of radical Islamic terrorism” and working jointly on enforcing the Iran nuclear deal and addressing “Iran’s destabilizing regional activities,” the readout of the White House said.

“The two leaders also discussed an invitation from the King for President Trump to lead a Middle East effort to defeat terrorism and to help build a new future, economically and socially, for the people of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the region,” the White House statement continued.

Well, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister had expressed his country’s optimism for cooperation with the Trump government around Trump’s inauguration. Economic interests might be one of the reasons why the Saudi government – with other Middle Eastern governments – have kept quiet on the ban on citizens from seven countries entering the USA.

While Egypt wants the Trump administration to designate the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are welcoming the administration’s pledge to take a tougher line against Iran. Saudi Arabia hopes to build a better relationship with the current administration than it had with the USA under Barack Obama. So far, the Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Trump, citing the 9/11 attacks as one of the reasons, issued a list on Friday of seven countries whose citizens may not enter the USA for 90 days. On the list are Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. Syrian refugees are blocked indefinitely.

It is interesting is that none of the countries on the list produced a single 9/11 hijacker; the men who did that job were from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Lebanon. Nor are they in the top producers of foreign fighters to Islamic State, which include Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Morocco.

In leaving out countries from the list, the Trump administration is largely following a precedent set by past American administrations that put a premium on working with allies at the expense of human rights and business interest.

One slight hope came on Tuesday, when the Saudi-based, 57- nation Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) expressed “grave concern” about the measure, saying it would “only serve to embolden the radical narratives of extremists and will provide further fuel to the advocates of violence and terrorism.”

VAT in Saudi

On Monday, Saudi Arabia’s cabinet approved the introduction of a value-added tax (VAT) by ratifying the GCC Unified VAT Treaty. This signals the end of tax-free living in the Gulf states as a result of the – by now known to everyone – dramatic fall in the price of oil.

Saudi Arabia’s introduction of VAT has met with the approval of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Residents of the region had enjoyed the tax-free period before the fall of oil prices, but the slump has sparked a search for creating revenues.

It is expected that VAT will be introduced in the 1st quarter of 2018, at a rate of 5% for most goods and services, with some exceptions, across the GCC states Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

“A Royal Decree has been prepared,” the official Saudi Press Agency said.

An excise tax on tobacco, now at 50 percent, will be increased to 100 percent, the same level as those for energy drinks and sodas.

Let’s Have Some Fun

You may recall that some entertainments take place in different form in Saudi Arabia. For example, famous singers are seen at weddings or other private functions, but there are no public concerts – so far. Concerts have long been an underground affair, where official adherence to the severe Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam puts music in murky legal territory.

But for six hours on Monday night, stretching into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, some 8,000 men sang along to epic love songs in Jeddah as Saudi Arabia held its first large-scale concert in nearly seven years.

It was a grand homecoming for Saudi superstar Mohammed Abdo, popularly known as the “Artist of the Arabs,” who has performed to packed houses abroad for over a decade — often mostly Saudis — but who could not appear on stage at home.

Abdo was backed by a 60-man Egyptian orchestra and appeared with two other popular singers: Rabeh Sager, a Saudi, and Majid Al-Muhandis, a handsome Iraqi singer who also holds Saudi citizenship.

Still, not all barriers had fallen. Security checkpoints around the venue blocked entry to the area for anyone without a ticket, and women were barred from attending entirely – unfortunately.

The concert came only two days after a jazz performance sold out the 3,300-seat King Fahd Cultural Centre in the more puritanical Riyadh, which has not held public concerts in some 25 years. The two events were bold steps forward for government plans to promote the entertainment and leisure sector. It’s one way of creating revenue and more jobs.

“It’s an indescribable feeling,” Muhandis, one of the singers to perform, said after the show. “We were longing for such concerts in our beloved Kingdom. The audience was longing for us and we were longing for them.”

The Jeddah concert was staged by Rotana, a company owned mostly by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

The new General Entertainment Authority (GEA) has staged some 70 events since it was created last year, but mostly in smaller and protected semi-public spaces while officials are on the lookout for disapproval from religious conservatives. Social media has not barred GEA from jokes on the amount of entertainment they are allowed to create. Yet, such an event is a big step as it attracted the Saudi hearts from core being entertained by their Oldies, whom they usually travel to see.

Abdo was slated to perform in Riyadh in September, but the concert was cancelled at the last minute without explanation.

Amr al-Madani, the newly appointed GEA chief executive, declined to say whether a Riyadh concert was still in the works, but said the authority aims to double household spending on entertainment to 6 percent by 2020 and is committed to “experiences that Saudi families can enjoy together.” Excellent news, and a statement that promises entertainment for all of us.

Abdo first performed after a decade-long hiatus at the Souq Okaz festival in Taiz, near Mecca, in August.

Although the Wahhabi clergy has been close to the Al Saud dynasty since the mid-18th century, offering it Islamic legitimacy in return for control over parts of the state, music in the kingdom was not always such a taboo. Summer festivals in Jeddah and other Saudi cities used to feature concerts. Musical instruments have been sold for decades at the popular al-Halla market in downtown Riyadh.

“Historically, Saudi society was rich in culture. There were many musical traditions, with different variations and subcultures,” said Abdulsalam al-Wayel, a professor of sociology at King Saud University.

“People from throughout the Islamic world brought their traditions together in Mecca, a bit like jazz was created. This was part of people’s identity for centuries.”

But as conservatives gained power in the 1990s, the clerical establishment emboldened the Kingdom’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice to crack down on performances and other activities they saw as immoral.

The religious police chased after young men for playing music in their cars too loudly. Videos — regularly mocked by other Saudis — circulated online showing zealous men smashing musical instruments to pieces.

To this day, music is absent in malls and all but the poshest restaurants. The only public musical education is in military academies, to train bands for official marches.

Music and Islam

Religious scholars, who control much of the Saudi Arabia’s legal system, remain divided on the question of whether music is permissible under Islam, although some inside the clerical establishment have started to question the evidence against it, a positive shift in the rigid Wahhabi thinking that was so far untouchable.

The state has tried for the past decade to foster a more moderate reading of Wahhabi teachings. It stepped up the pace this year as economic pressure to open up the country mounted. Unsuccessfully, as it was also met with great resistance from among Saudis.

Authorities clipped the powers of the religious police earlier this year, barring them from making arrests, and forged ahead with the Abdo concert despite a warning by the country’s grand mufti that “there is nothing good in song parties.” A step that was overdue and came due to the economic need for creating revenues in as much as ways as possible.

Arts fans say social media campaigns against entertainment, which once pressured wary officials into cancelling events, are now dwarfed by the messages of support from fans.

Sultan al-Bazie, who runs the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts (SASCA), called these campaigns “free advertising,” after a hashtag opposing music lessons offered by his organization last year resulted in a spike in registrations.

“Saudis have always been the biggest consumers of music in the Arab world,” he said. “Everybody is happy to have these kinds of performances back — and I say back, because it used to be there.”

(The Guardian, The Independent, RTE, Reuters)