Neighbors / The City That Silence Killed

"Our situation reminds us of the tale about the city that silence put to death. All this, because its ruler threatened its citizens with death if they continued to spread rumors and gossip. And then the day came when they saw the enemy approaching from all sides, but the law of silence tied their tongues and they let the enemy attack and destroy their city, which the survivors called the city that silence killed."

This is how Dr. Mohammed Al-Rumaihi characterizes the situation of the Arab states to his interviewer, the sharp literary and film critic Ibrahim Al-Aris, in the London-based newspaper Al Hayyat. The enemy to which he refers is not Zionist or American, nor is it terror. He is talking about the lack of education, about ignorance, about regimes that do not advance their countries and their citizens, and he also sharply criticizes the Arab intellectuals who serve the Arab regimes and are not fulfilling their function.

"The Arab regime is built on obedience and on profound interests, which no one can be allowed to approach. Therefore if you ask who has allowed the few intellectuals who are close to the regime to be there, I will reply that apparently their family, social, ethnic or sectarian status, but not their 'ideas.' Only very few have become part of the ruling class because of their ideas."

The blame is at the level of education in particular and its absence in general, says Rumaihi. "The Arab mentality is made up of fanaticism against anyone who is different with respect to religion, politics or ethnicity. The dominant ideas among the Arabs are created by fanaticism, which brought about the civil wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan. This mentality is created by the media, mainly the satellite media, especially when more than 60 percent of the Arabs are illiterate and unable to judge the quality of the information that comes to them over satellite television."

Rumaihi is one of the most original and important Arab intellectuals. He is the editor of the monthly Arab Dialogue published by the Arab Thought Foundation, which is headed by capitalists from the Gulf states and Arab intellectuals and has as its slogan "Solidarity between capital and thought to promote the Arab nation."

The 64-year-old Rumaihi, a Kuwaiti, is a former editor of the newspaper Saut al Kuwait and the magazine Al Arabi. He received his doctorate in political science from Durham University in Britain and later was dean of the humanities and social sciences at Kuwait University. But he was interviewed in Al Hayyat as part of a series of reports on Arab thought and the status of Arab intellectuals because of his sharp articles, in which he often criticizes the state of the Arabs.

Anyone who is keen on the anti-Arab discourse or who is thrilled anew every time an Arab or a Muslim who lives in the West comes out against the Arab states should take note: He is an intellectual who lives in an Arab country and he is definitely not the only one. He is truly pained by the situation in the Arab countries and he does much, at least among his interlocutors, to uproot fanaticism. It is also possible to draw encouragement from Al Hayyat's decision to examine the situation of the Arab intelligentsia, without fear and without whitewashing.

Syria: Slim presenters, new contents

The directive that came this month from the Syrian Information Ministry was bad news for the female presenters on Syrian television. Henceforth there will be none whose "last two digits of their height are greater than the two digits of their weight." This means that any woman who is 160 centimeters tall cannot weigh more than 60 kilograms, and in short from now on there will be only slim or at least "proportional" women on Syrian television.

This is not a great revolution as among the hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of employees of the official broadcasting authority, few are women who present programs.

However, this instruction is part of another revolution underway there, or at least the one that the director of television, Dr. Faiz Al-Sair, is trying to foment. According to his instructions, every presenter and interviewer will have to take special courses in interview theory, so they "will not put answers into the mouth of the interviewee, not answer in his stead and not challenge his national loyalty," as Sair said in an interview he gave to Al Hayyat journalist Ibrahim Hamidi.

But this is not just a procedural matter. According to Sair, the Syrian broadcast schedule will also change. News programs with titles largely similar to those on Al Jazeera will fill the Syrian screen, for example "Point of View" and "Windows," which deal with political and social analysis and let viewers call in to express their opinions. The channel also holds interviews with people who are considered oppositionists, such as the important publicist Michel Chelou and Omar Kush, both of them Syrian writers who participated in political salons in Damascus and sometimes were also arrested.

Syrian opposition people are still not convinced this is the cultural revolution they have been preaching for years, but some of them are prepared to give credit to the director of television. One leading oppositionist journalist, Hian Nayouf, wrote: "When I heard about the decision to appoint Faiz Al-Sair as director of television, I expected there would be significant changes. Though he and I do not see eye to eye on some of the main issues, professionally and administratively he has fully proved himself. I am acquainted with Sair and I know he will make an effort to develop Syrian television within the margins he is given." Sair needed no better seal of approval than this.

The question is whether the change in the television also testifies to openness in other directions. There is no evidence of this on the ground, but apparently the regime realizes it has to give something to the pressures that are being applied to it from outside in the matter of human rights and in the matter of the accusation that the regime is tainted with support for terror. In this last matter, for example, the regime decided to approve the law to prevent money-laundering, in the wake of an instruction from the American Treasury Department last week that prohibits American financial institutions from having any connection with the Syrian Commercial Bank, which is the largest government bank and has 55 branches.

Syria fears, rightly, that this is the start of economic sanctions and it is taking steps on two fronts: legislation aimed at demonstrating the adoption of international standards and the transfer of funds that it is holding in the United States to banks in other countries.

Saudi Arabia: A bear market needs psychologists

"Black Wednesday" is the name that has been given to last Wednesday, when the markets in the Arab countries plummeted to an unprecedented low. The expected blow came after an excellent year during which many investors, especially in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, became new millionaires. Expected because these markets were propelled by small investors who did not understand or know exactly what was happening in the firms that are traded, who relied on rumors or acquaintanceships with people who had made money and created a "popular movement" of investors.

Newspapers reported on schoolteachers selling stocks over their laptops at recess, students buying stocks using SMS and women who "liberated themselves" from economic dependence on their husbands.

The free fall of the market (6 to 7 percent within a few days) predictably produced a counter-movement. According to the reports from Saudi Arabia, new car purchases plummeted by nearly 40 percent and sales of home furnishings also decreased considerably.

And worse than that, women have started to complain in newspaper interviews that their husbands are so worried and disappointed that "they are not able to fulfill their masculine role." The stock market success during the past year no doubt caused some social changes in the Gulf states, especially among the middle class; now it is the fall that is causing some "social ills," such as suicides and poor functioning at work and home, which has already had some political effects like demonstrations in Jordan and Kuwait demanding the government intervene to save the demonstrators' money.

On the day the news of the fall in the Gulf stock markets broke, the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat reported that more Saudi women are studying psychology in the kingdom. These studies, which for years were not popular in the Gulf states, have recently been seen as a new channel in which Saudi women, who are prevented from engaging in many professions, can find employment. It would appear that at least in the environs of the Riyadh stock market they will have no trouble earning a living.