A Young Prince is Re-imagining Saudi Arabia

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

A Young Prince is Reimagining Saudi Arabia

Two years into his campaign as change agent in this conservative oil kingdom, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be gaining the confidence and political clout to push his agenda of economic and social reform.

The young prince outlined his plans in a nearly 90-minute conversation Tuesday night at his office here. Aides said it was his first lengthy on-the-record interview in months. He offered detailed explanations about foreign policy, plans to privatize oil giant Saudi Aramco, strategy for investment in domestic industry, and liberalization of the entertainment sector, despite opposition from some people.

Mohammed bin Salman said that the crucial requirement for reform is public willingness to change. “The most concerning thing is if the Saudi people are not convinced. If the Saudi people are convinced, the sky is the limit.” he said.

Change seems increasingly desired in this young, restless country.

A recent Saudi poll found that 85 percent of the public, if forced to choose, would support the government rather than other authorities, said Abdullah al-Hokail, the head of the government’s public opinion center.

He added that 77 percent of those surveyed supported the government’s “Vision 2030” reform plan, and that 82 percent favored entertainment performances at public gatherings. Though these aren’t independently verified numbers, they do indicate the direction of popular feeling, which Saudis say is matched by anecdotal evidence.

“MBS,” as the deputy crown prince is known, said that he was “very optimistic” about President Trump. He described Trump as “a president who will bring America back to the right track” after Barack Obama, whom Saudi officials mistrusted. “Trump has not yet completed 100 days, and he has restored all the alliances of the US with its conventional allies.”

A sign of the kingdom’s embrace of the Trump administration was the visit here this week by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. While the Obama administration had criticized the Saudi war in Yemen, Mattis discussed the possibility of additional US support if the Houthis there don’t agree to a UN-brokered settlement.

(Writer’s note: I traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of the press corps accompanying Mattis.)

Mohammed bin Salman has been courting Russia, as well as the United States, and he offered an intriguing explanation of Saudi Arabia’s goal in this diplomacy.

“The main objective is not to have Russia place all its cards in the region behind Iran,” he said. To convince Russia that Riyadh is a better bet than Tehran, the Saudis have been “coordinating our oil policies recently” with Moscow, he said, which “could be the most important economic deal for Russia in modern times.”

There’s less apparent political tension than a year ago, when many analysts saw a rivalry between Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is officially next in line for the throne.

The deputy crown prince appears to be firmly in control of Saudi military strategy, foreign policy and economic planning. He has gathered a team of technocrats who are much younger and more activist than the kingdom’s past leadership.

Reform plans appear to be moving ahead slowly but steadily. Mohammed bin Salman said that the budget deficit had been cut; non-oil revenue increased 46 percent from 2014 to 2016 and is forecast to grow another 12 percent this year. Unemployment and housing remain problems, he said, and improvement in those areas isn’t likely until between 2019 and 2021.

The biggest economic change is the plan to privatize about 5 percent of Saudi Aramco, which Mohammed bin Salman said will take place next year. This public offering would probably raise hundreds of billions of dollars and be the largest such sale in financial history. The exact size of the offering will depend on financial-market demand and the availability of good options for investing the proceeds, the prince told me.

The rationale for selling a share of the kingdom’s oil treasure is to raise money to diversify the economy away from reliance on energy. One priority is mining, which would tap an estimated $1.3 trillion in potential mineral wealth.

The Saudi official listed other investment targets: creating a domestic arms industry, reducing the $60 billion to $80 billion the kingdom spends annually to buy weapons abroad; producing automobiles in Saudi Arabia to replace the roughly $14 billion the government spends annually for imported vehicles; and creating domestic entertainment and tourism industries to capture some of the $22 billion that Saudis spend traveling overseas each year.

The entertainment industry is a proxy for the larger puzzle of how to unlock the Saudi economy. Changes have begun.

A Japanese orchestra performed here this month, before a mixed audience of families. A Comic Con took place in Jeddah recently, with audience dressing up as characters from the TV show “Supernatural” and other favorites. Comedy clubs feature sketch comedians (but no female stand-up comics, yet).

These options are a modest revolution for a Saudi Arabia where the main entertainment venues, until recently, were restaurants and shopping malls. The modern world, in all its raucousness, is coming, for better or worse.

King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh hosted a Monster Jam last month with souped-up trucks. There are plans for a Six Flags theme park south of Riyadh.

Maya al-Athel, one of the dozens of young people hatching plans at the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, said in an interview that she’d like to bring a Museum of Ice Cream, like one she found in New York, to the kingdom.

“We want to boost the culture of entertainment,” said Ahmed al-Khatib, a former investment banker who’s chairman of the entertainment authority. His target is to create six public entertainment options every weekend for Saudis. But the larger goal, he said, is “spreading happiness.”

The instigator of this attempt to reimagine the kingdom is the 31-year-old deputy crown prince. With his brash demeanor, he’s the opposite of the traditional Bedouin reserve of past Saudi leaders. Unlike so many Saudi princes, he wasn’t educated in the West, which may have preserved the raw combative energy that is part of his appeal for young Saudis.

The trick for Mohammed bin Salman is to maintain the alliance with the United States, without seeming to be America’s puppet. “We have been influenced by US a lot,” he said. “Not because anybody exerted pressure on us — if anyone puts pressure on us, we go the other way. But if you put a movie in the cinema and I watch it, I will be influenced.” Without this cultural nudge, he said, “we would have ended up like North Korea.” With the United States as a continuing ally, “undoubtedly, we’re going to merge more with the changes in the world.”

Mohammed bin Salman is careful when he talks about religious issues. So far, he has treated the religious authorities as allies against radicalism rather than cultural adversaries. He argues that extreme religious conservatism in Saudi Arabia is a relatively recent phenomenon, born in reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni radicals later that year as a reaction to the Shi’ite radicalism.

“I’m young. Seventy percent of our citizens are young,” the prince said. “We don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days, and concentrate on developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and families, while retaining our religion and customs. We will not continue to be in the post-’79 era,” he concluded. “That age is over.”

The Washington Post

Bill O’Reilly is officially out at Fox News

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

Bill O’Reilly is officially out at Fox News

Bill O’Reilly let go from Fox News Channel amid sexual harassment claims
 
Bill O’Reilly, longtime host of Fox News’s top-rated show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” will not return to the network. His departure comes after six women alleged he sexually harassed them.(Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
April 19 at 2:41 PM
Fox News has ended its association with Bill O’Reilly, the combative TV host and commentator who has ruled cable-news ratings for nearly two decades and was the signature figure in the network’s rise as a powerful political player.The conservative-leaning host’s downfall was swift and steep, set in motion less than three weeks ago by revelations of a string of harassment complaints against him. The questions about his conduct represented yet another black eye to Fox, which had dealt with a sexual harassment scandal involving its co-founder and then-chairman Roger Ailes, just last summer.

“After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel,” 21st Century Fox, the news channel’s parent company, said in a statement Wednesday.

After Ailes’s departure, Fox and 21st Century Fox — both controlled by Rupert Murdoch and his family — had vowed then to clean up an apparent culture of harassment at the news network. Instead, the allegations kept coming — against Ailes, O’Reilly and some of the remaining senior executives that Ailes had hired.

Fox has also lost popular hosts Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly since the turmoil began last summer. The network, however, continued to roll in record ratings, driven in part by viewer interest in Donald Trump, a longtime friend of Ailes, Murdoch and O’Reilly and a frequent interview guest for years.

The loss of O’Reilly, however, is of a different magnitude: His program, “The O’Reilly Factor,” has been the network’s flagship show for nearly 20 years, and in many ways has embodied its conservative-oriented spirit.

It was just last month that Fox re-signed O’Reilly to a multimillion-dollar, three-year contract, fully aware of the long history of complaints against him.

He still seemed to be at the peak of his popularity and prestige only three weeks ago. His 8 p.m. program, which mixes discussion segments with O’Reilly’s pugnacious commentary, drew an average of 4 million viewers each night during the first three months of the year, the most ever for a cable-news program. His popularity, in turn, helped drive Fox News to record ratings and profits. O’Reilly was also the co-author of two books that were at the top of the bestseller lists in April.

But the fuse was lit for his career detonation when the New York Times disclosed that O’Reilly and Fox had settled a series of harassment complaints lodged against him by women he’d worked with at Fox over the years.

The newspaper found that O’Reilly and Fox had settled five such allegations since 2002, paying out some $13 million in exchange for the women’s silence. Two of the settlements, including one for $9 million in 2004, were widely reported. But the others had been kept secret by O’Reilly, Fox and the women involved.

In addition, a sixth woman, a former “O’Reilly Factor” guest named Wendy Walsh, alleged that O’Reilly had harassed her in 2013. Although Walsh never sued or sought compensation, she spoke against him in public, drawing more negative attention to Fox and O’Reilly over the past few weeks. A seventh, still anonymous woman filed a complaint with the company on Tuesday, alleging that he made disparaging racial and sexual remarks to her while she was employed at Fox in 2008.

O’Reilly has never acknowledged that he harassed anyone. In his only public statement about the matter in early April, he said his fame made him a target of lawsuits and that he settled the harassment claims against him to spare his children negative publicity.

After the revelations, Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, were forced to decide whether the economic and reputational fallout from the O’Reilly scandal was irreversible.

O’Reilly had previously survived several controversies during his 21 years at Fox, including a lurid sexual harassment case in 2004 that was fodder for New York’s tabloid newspapers. He also beat back a wave of headlines in 2015, when reporters examined his claims about his days as a young reporter and found them to be dubious. All the while, O’Reilly’s audience not only stuck with him, but continued to grow.

But this time, the intense media coverage surrounding O’Reilly led to a stampede of advertisers away from O’Reilly’s program, leaving it almost without sponsorship over the past two weeks. Various organizations, including the National Organization for Women, called for O’Reilly’s firing, and intermittent protests began outside Fox News’s headquarters in New York. Morale among employees at the network reportedly was suffering, too.

The Murdochs also had more than just O’Reilly’s TV career to consider: The O’Reilly controversy was casting a shadow over 21st Century’s $14 billion bid to win the British government’s approval to buy Sky TV, the British satellite service. Leaving O’Reilly in place would likely have been a public-relations nightmare for James and Lachlan Murdoch, the sons who head 21st Century Fox, Fox News’s parent.

The Murdoch family abandoned a 2011 offer for Sky amid another scandal, the phone-hacking conspiracy perpetrated by employees of the Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid in London. A parliamentary panel later declared Rupert and James Murdoch to be “unfit” to run a public company — a description they hoped would not be revived by regulators with the O’Reilly matter hanging over them.

In the wake of the Ailes scandal last summer, the Murdoch brothers vowed to clean up a workplace environment that women at Fox had described as hostile under Ailes. In one of their few public statements on the matter, they said at the time, “We continue our commitment to maintaining a work environment based on trust and respect.”

But those efforts have seemed unavailing, and at times have even seemed hypocritical. Since the Ailes scandal, the company has continued to employ almost all of the senior managers who were in charge when Ailes was allegedly harassing employees, including Bill Shine, currently Fox’s co-president. Shine was accused of enabling Ailes’s retaliatory efforts against an accuser, Fox contributor Julie Roginsky, in a sexual-harrassment lawsuit Roginsky filed earlier this month.

The external and internal pressure left the Murdochs with a dilemma: Keep the networks’ most valuable asset and hope to ride out the storm around him, or cut him loose and end the drama.

In the end, even an endorsement from President Trump could not save O’Reilly: In an interview with Times reporters on April 5, Trump called O’Reilly “a good person” and said he should not have settled the complaints made against him. “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” Trump said.

Fox said that Tucker Carlson, host of a discussion program now airing at 9 p.m., will take over O’Reilly’s 8 p.m. time slot. “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” in turn, will be replaced at 9 p.m. by Fox’s 5 p.m. show, “The Five,” starting on Monday. “The O’Reilly Factor” will continue for the remainder of the week, with guest hosts Dana Perino and Greg Gutfeld. Martha MacCallum and Sean Hannity will remain in their current spots at 7 p.m and 10 p.m., respectively, and the 5 p.m. hour will be occupied by a new show, hosted by Eric Bolling, starting May 1.

President Trump’s Egomania Shuts Down Teenage Girls Animated Kitten Web Site

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE MERCURY NEWS)

President Donald Trump has had a lot on his plate in recent weeks — defending his administration from news of a criminal investigation by the FBI for alleged Russia collusion, rallying support for a controversial health care bill.

Somehow amid all that, the president, or his lawyers acting on their own, decided to go after a teenage girl from San Francisco, the Hollywood Reporter said.

Apparently, America’s commander in chief took issue with the girl’s website Kittenfeed.com. Originally called Trumpscratch.com, the site allows users to punch an animated image of Trump’s face with tiny kitten paws. It comes with the tagline: “Trump seems very tough at first but he gets weaker with every scratch.”

The girl, identified as “Lucy,” told the Observer that she developed the site, with its #Trumpcat hashtag, for fun while applying for web developer jobs. Little did she know that her site, which only drew 1700 visitors after its launch in February, had attracted the notice of the most important political leader on earth.

On March 1, she said she received a cease and desist letter from The Trump Organization. The letter claims her site infringed on the “internationally known and famous” Trump trademark.

After Lucy changed the domain name, she received another letter from the Trump Organization because her site linked to an anti-Trump shirt that is available for purchase on Amazon. Lucy told the Hollywood Reporter that she removed the link, and hasn’t heard anything from the campaign since.

Lucy is not alone in thinking that the president should have better things to with his time than to ask his lawyers to go after a teenager for creating a silly website.

“I really just want people to be aware that this is a president who’s clearly more concerned about what people think of him than doing things of substance,” she told the Hollywood Reporter.


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However, she said she’s not surprised he might be so easily provoked by her site, given that he wages Twitter feuds with former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over ratings for his former reality TV show “Celebrity Apprentice.”

“Literally all my site is, is punching him with kitten paws,” she said. “A president should not have the time or care to hire people to shut sites like mine down. He should be running the country, not tweeting about TV ratings or anything else like that.”

Not surprisingly, the moves by Trump’s lawyers have had the opposite effect of their intention. After the Observer originally published its report on Tuesday, the site’s visitors surged from 3,000 to 50,000.

However, the site was down on Wednesday, possibly from so many users trying to access it.

The lesson here is that Trump may talk a tough game as president, but he and his tough, high-priced attorneys are no match for animated kittens.

Will The ‘Religious Police’ Ever Allow A Real Entertainment Industry In Saudi Arabia?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

 

Opinion

At Last, Entertainment in Saudi Arabia

A healthy debate is going on over social media and Saudi arenas mostly about objecting and welcoming a concept that is present in all countries all over the world, and has been absent in the kingdom for decades. It is entertainment, a concept absent from a state where 70% of its population is youth.

Naturally, any real change is equipped with enthusiastic supporters and conservative opposers, while a few await further developments to determine their position.

Vision 2030 admits implicitly that Saudi city life is boring and in routine and Saudi citizens constantly complain of lack of entertainment in their country.

Although the attendees’ queues, and many others who couldn’t attend events, prove the society’s excitement for entertainment, any rejection or discretion from others is a natural reaction for any real change in a society. Opposing any change is expected and should not be regarded as a strange thing.

I don’t think anyone can argue that entertainment as a concept is important for all societies, let alone that such trends are very profitable for neighboring countries, most of which are Saudi attendees.

The argument may be on the content of the events given that some think it is not suitable for the Saudi society. It is understandable as they are entitled to their own opinions regardless of what they are. Some prefer to attend such events in Bahrain, Dubai or Qatar. It is only a matter of time until those against such things will begin to accept the unavoidable truth.

Needless to say that there may occur mistakes and many events may get out of hand, which is also natural for an industry that is still young.

It is rather unfair to judge the entertainment committee and it has been a year since its establishment.

Industry of entertainment is crucial for Saudis not only for joy and amusement like many believe. There are many other purposes that no government should overlook, such as creating new job opportunities.

Entertainment, among other sectors, is expected to reduce unemployment from 11.6% to 7% which is close to the international rates and is the priority of the Saudi Vision 2030.

It would also boost tourism as part of the National Transform Program, knowing that in 2015, Saudis spent $26 billion on external tourism, and enhance both the private and public sectors to organize festivals.

It would also activate the role of public committees in contributing to establish and develop entertaining centers, encourage local and foreign investors to form partnerships with international companies, establish museums and libraries, and support talented authors and directors.

Not to forget the several cultural aspects that accompany such events and cater to everyone’s taste.

Is it possible to ignore all those social and economic benefits only because some don’t understand the truth about entertainment??

Development is not solely limited to the economic aspects; it is also about building a balanced healthy society capable of achieving a healthy relaxing environment.

Saudi Arabia is on its way to create a revolution in entertaining its citizens, improve the tourism sector, and enhance the infrastructure.

Those who are against this will eventually go on with the society’s desires no matter how long they object or how strong they criticize.

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