ThePlace: The King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture (Ithra)

Time: June 22, 2018

The King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture — was inaugurated by King Salman on Dec. 1, 2017. The arts center, developed by Saudi Aramco, is located in Dhahran.

The iconic building was designed by the Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta, which also designed the award-winning Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Oslo Opera House.

Ithra’s stated mission is to “make a tangible and positive impact on human development by inspiring a passion for knowledge, creativity, and cross-cultural engagement for the future of the Kingdom” —  an ambition that ties into Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which places culture and entertainment at the center of its plans for increasing quality of life.

The center aims to stimulate knowledge, creativity and cross-cultural engagement in its facilities, which include an idea lab, library, theater, museum, energy exhibit, art gallery, children’s museum, and a “knowledge tower,” all housed under one roof to provide visitors with an immersive and trans-formative experience.

This article was first published in Arab News

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With freedom to drive, Saudi Arabia’s women could change the economy

Time: June 21, 2018

Women in Saudi Arabia will be able to legally drive for the first time on Sunday — a historic move expected to spark more employment options for half of the country’s population.

The milestone reform gives women independence and freedom of mobility, according to Enaam Gazi Al-Aswad, who is poised to become the first female driver, or “Captainah,” for ride-hailing app Careem, a Dubai-based start-up that competes with Uber in the Kingdom.

And as a result, more women will now be inspired to pursue their dream careers, she told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble.

“It’s not only equality, it’s about building our country together,” she continued: “It’s about community … Women and men equally now in Saudi Arabia, not like before.”

Al-Aswad said she believes her country’s social fabric will evolve within a decade as the current generation of youth grows up with newfound liberties: “Everything is going to change.”

Women have been banned from driving since 1957, even as the country, the birthplace of Islam, made progress on other women’s issues.

The royal decree, ordered by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud last year, is part of the royal family’s blueprint to modernize the oil-rich nation. Other initiatives include a crackdown on corruption as well as more open financial markets.

This article was first published in CNBC

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First Saudi female accident surveyors graduate: Najm insurance

Time: June 21, 2018

JEDDAH: Najm Insurance Services, the leading traffic support service provider in the Kingdom, on Thursday celebrated the graduation of the first batch of 40 Saudi female surveyors, who will manage traffic accidents.
The graduation ceremony was attended by Maj. Gen. Mohammed Al-Bassami, director general of the Saudi Traffic Directorate.
Najm CEO Fahad Ibrahim Al-Akeel underscored the importance of involving women in managing and dealing with traffic accidents, in line with the royal decree enabling them to drive. The company strives to raise awareness among drivers about safety rules, he said.
Maha Al-Shunaifi, Najm’s director of marketing and corporate communications, said the female graduates underwent an intensive training program, having been selected in accordance with clear and precise criteria.

This article was first published in Arab News

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International Day of Yoga celebrated in Riyadh with verve and fervor

Time: June 21, 2018

OVER 600 yoga enthusiasts celebrated the 4th International Day of Yoga on Thursday with verve and fervor at the picturesque Al-Madi Park of King Abdulaziz Historical Center in Riyadh, with yoga experts providing an open-air demonstration of the postures for well-being.

This was the first event of its kind when the International Day of Yoga is celebrated in an open arena with the approval of Saudi authorities.

Yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual practice attributed to India. Under the theme “Yoga for Healthy and Active Life”, the Embassy of India organized Thursday’s event at Al-Madi Park, adjoining the historical Murabba’ Palace and the coveted National Museum.

June 21 is celebrated as the International Day of Yoga all over the world. Recognizing that yoga provides a holistic approach to health and well-being, the United Nations General Assembly in its 69th Plenary Session held on Dec. 11, 2014, decided to proclaim June 21 as the International Day of Yoga.

According to experts, yoga does more than burn calories and tone muscles. It is a total mind-body workout that combines strengthening and stretching poses with deep breathing and meditation or relaxation. It uses breathing techniques, exercise and meditation. It helps improve health and happiness.

It raises and expands the consciousness from oneself to being coextensive with everyone and everything.

Addressing the event, Indian Ambassador Ahmad Javed thanked Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman for recognizing “yoga” as a sports activity of the Kingdom.

He spoke of the multiple facets of yoga, including the medical benefits attributed to it. The ambassador further appreciated Arriyadh Development Authority and the officials of the King Abdulaziz Historical Center for extending all possible support and arranging required facilities for successfully organizing the event.

The event was attended by many yoga practitioners, including a large number of Saudi men and women, officials of the diplomatic missions in Riyadh, journalists, Indian Embassy officials, their spouses and Indian community members.

Along with three Indian yoga trainers, two renowned female Saudi yoga trainers, namely Noura Al-Wayeli and Reem Ibrahim Al-Arfaj, demonstrated the Common Yoga Protocol and other popular yoga asanas (postures) necessary for fitness and well-being.

Al-Wayeli spoke on the medical benefits of yoga and its growing popularity in the Kingdom. Al-Arfaj shared her experience in propagating yoga in Saudi Arabia. The yoga demonstrations were led by Al-Wayeli and Al-Arfaj.

A special session focusing on the medical benefits of yoga postures was presented by the embassy-based yoga teacher. Simple yoga postures, which are scientifically proven to offer relief in cervical spondylitis, lower backache, diabetes and hypertension were demonstrated.

The event garnered huge attention among the yoga enthusiasts, especially Saudi women. Saudi Arabia has recognized yoga as sports activity in November 2017, thereby paving the way for this year’s International Day of Yoga event to be celebrated in a grand way.

The Indian government also awarded Padma Sri in 2018 to a Saudi women yoga practitioner Nouf Marwaai for her efforts in promoting yoga in the Gulf region, especially in Saudi Arabia.

The Indian Embassy organized online competitions — yoga poster competition and yoga photography competition — from June 5 to 18, and the winners were declared on June 19. The mission received a huge number of posters and pictures, particularly from children, who participated in droves in the competition, reflecting the growing relevance of yoga in the Kingdom.

Earlier, Indian prime minister’s message on the occasion of the International Day of Yoga was shown in a special gathering at the embassy premises on June 18.

Moreover, the embassy in association with the International Indian Schools organized a series of events across the different cities of the Kingdom with participation of over 2,000 students.

The International Yoga Day was celebrated in the Indian School, Riyadh (Boys & Girls Section) on June 20; and IIS Dammam and Jubail (Boys & Girls Section) on June 21. IIS Majmaa will be organizing the IDY celebration on June 24, 2018.

This article was first published in Saudi Gazette

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Saudi soap breaks taboos and triggers debate on society

Time: June 16, 2018

The first hint that Saudi viewers were in for a Ramadan shock was when a woman left a child by a mosque because he was born out of wedlock.

More was to follow. The lead character, the son of a middle class family living in Riyadh, began an affair with his neighbour’s wife and later cavorted with friends during boozy nights of music and dancing.

The scenes played out in a Saudi soap opera broadcast during the Muslim holy month, traditionally a time when families gather around their televisions for light entertainment. But Al-Asouf was different — set in the 1970s it sought to portray a period when society in the ultra-conservative kingdom was far more liberal. It broke taboos and triggered a storm of controversy.

Critics said it did not offer a true representation of the period and promoted immoral behaviour. “The matter is serious and ugly. They are calling for adultery, incest, betraying one’s neighbour and sleeping with his wife,” said Abdulaziz al-Fouzan, a conservative cleric, in an interview on Saudi-owned television.

Nasser al-Gassabi, the actor who played the lead character and is the main creative force behind the soap, dismissed the criticism and alluded to implicit backing of the kingdom’s key power: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is pledging to modernise the conservative nation.

It portrays a rather dramatic shift away from Saudi religious orthodoxy as being authentically Saudi

“The crown prince’s talk was a big supporter. It reaffirmed where we were going,” he told Saudi media.

He was alluding to Prince Mohammed’s promises of restoring Saudi Arabia to what the young royal says was a more tolerant society before 1979. That was the year the Islamic revolution in Iran sent shockwaves across the Middle East, and, in the view of some Saudis, was the precursor to the rise of the kingdom’s “Islamic awakening” movement.

“We were not like this before. We will just return to what we used to be, moderate Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and peoples,” Prince Mohammed told a conference in Riyadh in October.

But the controversy sparked by Al-Asouf underlines the challenges Prince Mohammed faces in shaping the narrative of change and presenting a softer image of a deeply religious society with a powerful clergy. Music concerts are now held regularly, cinemas opened for the first time in April and this month a decades-long ban on women driving will be lifted.

Experts said contextualising Riyadh’s grandiose modernisation plans in historical terms was an effective communication strategy.

Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, described the idea of reverting Saudi Arabia to its pre-1979 status as “dubious history but brilliant messaging”.

“It portrays a rather dramatic shift away from Saudi religious orthodoxy as being authentically Saudi. And it has the added benefit of casting the blame for Islamic radicalism on rival Iran,” she said. “I expect this will continue to be a master narrative for the new Saudi Arabia accommodating the turn toward ‘moderate Islam’ and supporting nationalist aims.”

Al-Asouf has been airing on a channel owned by the Middle Broadcasting Center. The channel, which is planning a second and third series, has long been a target for attacks by religious conservatives who accused it of spreading western and liberal values. MBC recently came under government control after its founder was among the hundreds of businessmen, royals and government officials rounded up and detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh as part of Prince Mohammed’s contentious anti-corruption drive.

While the series was written and produced before the 32-year-old prince made his comments on pre-1979 Saudi Arabia, people in show business said it would not be surprising if its creators received hints on which direction the country was heading.

“I don’t think that someone from the royal court called MBC and told them ‘let’s do a show like that’, but they probably got a green light from under the table,” said Abdulmohsen al-Mutairi, a local film director.

Still, some people said even if the ultimate goal of such series was to dismantle extremist ideology, it should not be done by depicting the country’s past in an unflattering light.

“Talking about stories like this at a time when the country is going through a sensitive period could open opportunities for any outsider, foreigner or conspirator to use it to target the kingdom and attacks it,” Ali al-Guhais, a Dubai-based editor of Saudi daily al-Riyadh, wrote in a recent comment article.

This article was first published in The Financial Times

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Saudi TV drama extols modern past

Time: June 15, 2018

Riyadh: A Saudi television drama that glorifies a period before the rise of religious fundamentalism has evoked nostalgia about the kingdom’s modern past.

“Al Assouf”, set in the 1970s and aired on satellite broadcaster MBC during the holy fasting month of Ramadan portrays a different Saudi Arabia – a traditional but tolerant society where the sexes mingle unfettered, some women blithely pursue lovers and appear unveiled in musical soirees, and the men appear disinterested in controlling what they wear.

That image of Saudi society chimes with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s repeated assertion that the kingdom was a cradle of moderate Islam until 1979, a turning point that marked the birth of conservatism.

That year saw an Islamic revolution in arch-rival Iran and a militant siege of Makkah’s Grand Mosque, which the crown prince has said gave conservatives free rein to enforce an austere vision of Islam.

While conservatives in the country have voiced their distaste for the show, moderates, including Al Assouf’s lead actor Nasser Al Kasabi, have fiercely defended it.

“Extremists are against it because they believe it is an attempt to destroy what they built over the next two decades (since 1979), which they refer to as the ‘awakening’,” columnist Abdul Rahman Al Rashed wrote in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat.

“They are attacking Al Assouf because it has cast light on an era that was deliberately made dark. The raison d’etre of the extremists is to extinguish this light.”

The show comes as Prince Mohammed pursues reforms that mark the biggest cultural shake-up in Saudi Arabia’s modern history.

The reforms have ended decades-long bans on women driving and cinemas and allowed mixed-gender concerts, sidelining hardliners who were once the traditional backers of the royal family.

Others who made regular appearances on television have disappeared from the public eye, and some long known for virulently opposing women’s rights have mysteriously come out in support of the prince’s pro-women reforms.

Columnists in Saudi newspapers have openly called for abolishing the kingdom’s once-feared religious police, whose powers have been clipped.

The modernisation drive has been lauded by the prince’s supporters as a “second awakening”, an idea that Al Assouf appears to promote.

“Our communities are in need of an Al Assouf that is capable of sending us back to our first life, or in the correct sense, our simple life before we changed for the worse,” Ali Al Zuabi, a professor at Kuwait University, told AFP.

The flagship MBC show, aired daily during Ramadan, was filmed two years ago in Abu Dhabi.

The broadcaster said the delay in airing was caused by production reasons, adding that the top-rated show will have two more seasons.

This article was first published in Gulf News

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In pictures: Female bikers training session in Saudi Arabia

Time: June 12, 2018


Saudi women clad in skinny jeans and Harley-Davidson T-shirts, revving motorbikes at a Riyadh sports circuit. But ahead of the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female drivers on June 24, women gather weekly at the privately owned Bikers Skills Institute, to learn how to ride bikes.

This article was first published in Arabian Business

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The Message to hit Gulf cinemas after 42-year ban

Time: June 11, 2018

Moustapha Akkad’s movie is finally given green light to be shown in region over the Eid al-Fitr weekend

After a 42-year ban in Middle East territories, Moustapha Akkad’s The Message is finally coming home with a cinema release in the region which includes Saudi Arabia.

The film will release over the Eid al-Fitr weekend starting from June 14, it has been announced.

The Message has a long and storied production followed by a tumultuous release worldwide. Moustapha Akkad’s dream was to bridge the gap between cultures and foster a climate of tolerance and understanding but the film was initially shunned by authority figures.

Trouble started in the first phases of shooting and production as the crew was forced to move its set from the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad, and into Morocco. This required set replica construction and exacerbated the budget.

Upon its’ completion, the film struggled to find a theatrical life in the Arab region while in the United States, The Message was met with a backlash from an offshoot of an Islamic group when it was erroneously thought that the image of the Prophet was portrayed on screen. Similar problems would surface throughout its’ Arab territory release eventually resulting in it either being pulled from theatres or an outright banning.

Now, courtesy of production company Trancas International Films and MENA distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment, the movie will get its release in a 4k digitally restored version.
The first ever screening of the 4K version took place in the latest edition of the Dubai International Film Festival, following which Malek Akkad, Moustapha’s son, and Front Row Filmed Entertainment’s managing director, Gianluca Chakra spearheaded a campaign to secure a wide theatrical release across the entire region.

Chakra and Akkad pressed the issue to censor boards in the GCC, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon and Ethiopia with only Kuwait banning the film.

However, in light of the approval from Saudi Arabia the film has been resubmitted in Kuwait in the hope the initial decision will be revoked.

Chakra said: “This was of utmost importance to us of course, given that the kingdom is the cradle of Islam and The Message is one of the very few mainstream films that portrays the peaceful and tolerant tenets of the religion in an honest way.
“The Saudi authorities allowed the film to pass and this in turn opened the door to the rest of the region. In the burgeoning landscape of the Saudi cinema market, The Message release could be its most important film.”

This article was first published in Arabian Business

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Training program to deal with cases of harassment

Time: June 10, 2018

RIYADH — An intensive training program to deal with harassment cases will be launched in the coming days in all Public Prosecution branches, according to Attorney General Sheikh Saud Al-Muajab.

The training program will review investigation procedures to be followed in harassment cases. It will also unify work at all Public Prosecution circuits to ensure effective implementation of the Anti-Harassment Law which was approved by the Cabinet last month, Saudi Press Agency quoted Al-Muajab as saying.

He said the Attorney General’s Office represented by the Public Prosecution bureaus will firmly deal with all types of harassment in line with the rules and regulations.

The Attorney General has issued directives to form a team to study the Anti-Harassment Law and come up with mechanism to ensure implementation of the regulations.

The legislation, which awaits an expected royal decree to become law, is the latest in a series of reforms that Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has initiated.

The anti-harassment measure introduces a jail sentence of up to five years and a SR300,000 ($80,000) fine.

“(The legislation) aims at combating the crime of harassment, preventing it, applying punishment against perpetrators and protecting the victims in order to safeguard the individual’s privacy, dignity and personal freedom which are guaranteed by Islamic law and regulations,” a statement from the Shoura Council said.

This article was first published in Saudi Gazette

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Saudi censors pass ‘The Message’ – Kuwait initially bans the film

Time: June 07, 2018

Anthony Quinn stars in the English-language version of the 1976 epic historical drama The Message, directed by Moustapha Akkad, chronicling the life of the Prophet Mohammed. Tarik Film Distributors

Saudi Arabian censors have today cleared Moustapha Akkad’s classic story of the foundation of Islam, The Message, to screen in cinemas in the kingdom. The 1976 film will open in Saudi on June 14 as part of its region-wide release – this will be the first time the film will have been seen in GCC cinemas. It was banned from screens on its initial release.

Distributor Front Row Films has confirmed that the process of achieving clearance was relatively straightforward. The film, which was shot in both English and Arabic with entirely different casts, is now set to go on rotation on Saudi’s five existing cinema screens. Another Eid release has cleared the censors there too, Jurassic World.

It is a different story in Kuwait, however. The National understands that the film was submitted to Kuwaiti religious leaders, who approved the film’s content for local audiences, however, a last minute intervention from Kuwait’s Ministry of Information put a block on the release. Front Row added that, in light of the Saudi approval, they will be resubmitting the film in Kuwait, with hopes the Kuwaiti authorities may reconsider in time for the film to release there along with the rest of the region.

Front Row chief Gianluca Chakra commented on the Saudi news: “We’re delighted that the film has been passed for screening in Saudi Arabia. This film is a vitally important part of the region’s history and culture, and to finally see it screening in Saudi Arabia is the culmination of a dream, and testament to the belief we’ve always had in this vital piece of cinema history. We’re thrilled and honoured to have been able to play our part in this journey.”

The Saudi screenings will represent a journey that has come full-circle for Akkad’s Oscar-nominated movie. Saudi Arabia was one of the countries that initially agreed to help fund the movie, and Akkad had hoped to shoot crucial scenes there before the controversy growing around his project led to numerous regional backers, including Saudi Arabia, withdrawing their support.

The film chronicles the life of the Prophet Mohammed without ever depicting him – it uses peripheral characters who followed Him to tell His tale.

The trailer for the English version of the film:

The trailer for the Arabic version of the film:

This article was first published in The National

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