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Astronomy: The outer frontier of Mohammed bin Salman’s liberalization

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s investment of $1 billion and option to pump a further $480 million into Richard Branson’s ventures in space, confirmed during the prince’s recent visit to the United States, was more than just another headline-grabbing move.

By focusing on space sciences, long a field rejected by ultra-conservative Islamic scholars, some of whom insist that the earth is flat, Prince Mohammed was setting the outer limits of his top-down redefinition of Saudi Arabia’s austere interpretation of Islam.

In doing so, Prince Mohammed was seeking to end the dampening effect Islamic scholars have had on the kingdom’s technological and scientific development for both civilian and military purposes.

As recently as 2014, a Saudi astronomer complained that the kingdom’s “general culture,” a reference to religious ultra-conservatism, had resulted in a “lack” of teaching and study of astronomy.

Islamic scholars rejected astronomy as contradicting religious precepts as well as a form of astrology despite the fact that space research could help them calculate prayer times and the dates of religious holidays.

“The Salafis  as you know, have no mercy,” Saudi physicist Haisham Abad told Jorg Matthias Determann, author of ‘Space Science and the Arab World, Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East,” a recently published history of Arab exploration of space.

Mr Abad described how he felt he had to publish his efforts to reform the Islamic lunar calendar on a lunisolar basis outside of the kingdom even though he had garnered support from some within the religious establishment.

Similarly, when he wanted to give a public lecture at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, which is chaired by Prince Turk al Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to Britain and the United States, who at times publicly articulates views that Prince Mohammed shares but prefers not to air, Mr. Abad was rejected because his research was “outside the Salafi line.”

Space science threatened the long-standing religious status of scholars who each year determine the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan by sighting the moon. The Jeddah Astronomical Society opted in 2012 to halt its statements on moon sighting after the Abu Dhabi-based Islamic Crescents’ Observation Project (ICOP) declared that astronomical calculations indicated that a sighting of the moon in countries like Saudi Arabia Iraq and Syria was not possible.

“People who see the new moon with the naked eye, are the same people who have been seeing it for the past 20 years or so. With all this technology, astronomers and experts, we have special telescopes directed to the moon and then traditional moon sighting people say they saw the moon. I believe it’s time to trust science,” said ICOP president Mohammed Odeh in justification of the group’s conclusion.

Religious opposition to endeavours of scientists like Mr. Abad and groups such as the ICOP and the Jeddah society as well as past international sanctions against some countries like Iraq had stymied or prevented the development of space research but was unable to force a complete shutdown.

Government-sponsored scientists and institutions as well as independent scholars remained looped into the science through activities under the auspices of the United Nations, collaboration with European research facilities or because of their involvement in US research program, including an association with American universities in Beirut and Cairo.

Astronomy remained, however, a touch-and-go proposition. Authorities in Algeria, for example, were forced to back down from taking a compulsory astronomy course designed to enable religious scholars to apply the science to Islamic jurisprudence to the next level when they had to cancel plans to establish an institute of astronomical sciences and a planetarium.

As a result, students made their way to universities in the west while scientists migrated to the Gulf. “Astronomy, like the rest of Algerian science culture, and education, is in total disarray,” Mr. Determann quoted Nidhal Guessoum, a scientist who returned to Algeria after completing his doctorate at the University of California and working for NASA.

In a separate interview, Mr. Guessoum asked whether “Muslims (were) still in the dark ages.” He warned that without “a review of the education given to Muslim youth today…the future will be very dark.”

Writing in Gulf News last year, Mr. Guessoum noted that professors at the sciences faculty of the University of Sfax in Tunisia had allowed a PhD student to submit a thesis declaring the earth to be flat, unmoving, young at only 13,500 years old, and the centre of the universe.

Mr. Guessoum said the PhD was the result of an “adherence to religious, scriptural literalism, in other words taking the meanings of religious texts literally and blindly, at the cost of rejecting all knowledge that appears to contradict it, no matter how much evidence supports it.”

He warned that “we are not only failing to educate the public (that is manifest in the trendy ‘flat earth’ and ‘Nasa lies’ memes on social media) but also our brightest students.”

Saudi Sheikh Bandar al-Khaibari told students at a UAE university two years earlier that the earth was stationary and did not orbit the sun.

“Focus with me, this is Earth;” Mr. Al-Khaibari said, holding a cup. “If you say that it rotates, if we leave Sharjah airport on an international flight to China, the earth is rotating, right? So if the plane stops still on air, wouldn’t China be coming towards it? True or not?”

Waving the cup in a circle, Mr. Al-Khaibari argued that “if the earth rotates in the other direction, the plane will not be able to get to China because China is also rotating.”

Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi, a self-styled essayist and short story writer, shared religious leaders’ opposition to astronomy. In one story, entitled Suicide of the Astronaut, Mr. Qaddafi described a man who found nothing of interest when he visited the moon. On his return to earth, the man discovered that his qualifications as an explorer made finding a job impossible. In the end, he commits suicide.

In a twist of history, it was Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman’s voyage in 1985 into space as a payload specialist aboard the American STS-51-G Space Shuttle that constituted a first step in countering religious opposition to astronomy.

The voyage of Prince Sultan, Prince Mohammed’s older brother, and the first Arab and Muslim astronaut, helped set the stage for the crown prince’s more recent push.

“It took the return of a Saudi prince for Ibn Baz to cease his assertions” that astronomy is un-Islamic because the sun moves and the earth is fixed, Mr. Determann reported. He was referring to Abdulaziz ibn Baz, the then head of the Islamic University of Medina and grand mufti of Saudi Arabia whose assertions were taken to mean that the earth is flat.

The fascination with the first Arab and Muslim space explorer may have had a dampening effect on religious resistance but didn’t squash it. Neither did a controversial effort by Saudi universities that started at the turn into the 21st century to kickstart the study of astronomy and boost their international rankings by enlisting prominent western astrophysicists who were offered lucrative packages.

The experience of Mr. Abad and his colleagues fit a pattern. Efforts at the beginning of the 21st century by Saudi scientists, who pointed not only to civilian and economic implications of space studies, including satellite technology that had been embraced by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, but also its national security and military applications, long failed to get the hearing they deserved.

That all is changing with the rise of Prince Mohammed in 2015. There is little doubt that his quest for Saudi advances in space studies as part of his effort to take the kingdom into the 21st century was also driven by Iranian space efforts and inspired by the United Arab Emirates determination to make the development of a space industry “a primary national objective.”

By pumping money into Mr. Branson’s trio of space-focused companies, Prince Mohammed was joining the UAE which already has a stake in Virgin. “The future of Saudi Arabia is one of innovation…and it’s through partnerships with organisations like Virgin Group that we will make active contributions to those sectors and technologies that are driving progress on a global scale,” Prince Mohammed said.

Not someone to play second fiddle, Prince Mohammed’s investment potentially signals a Gulf race into space. The UAE announced that it intended to land a space craft on Mars by July 2021, the country’s 50th anniversary, and would build a $140 million Mars Science City that will cover 176,000 square metres of Emirati desert, making it the largest space simulation city ever built..

The UAE initiatives and Saudi efforts have prompted Kuwait to think about establishing a space agency of its own despite the high cost at a time of depressed oil revenues.

Saudi Arabia’s investment in Virgin follows an agreement with Russia concluded in 2015 to partner in efforts to build a second international space station by 2023.

“The Kingdom seeks through the space and aeronautical technology program to achieve a regional leadership in this vital sector relying on its preeminent position and vital capabilities that will allow the country to obtain its objective,” the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology said at the time the agreement with Russia was signed.

Chances are that Prince Mohammed will succeed in promoting space science. His success is, however, likely to depend on his ability to keep ultra-conservatives in the kingdom in check, groom a generation of more liberal Islamic scholars that enjoy popular credibility and deliver on his economic reforms. The jury on all of that is still out.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Who are the real betrayers of Egypt, Critics or Sycophants?

Mohammed Nosseir

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“You are betraying your country by exposing its defects!” is a common accusation made by the sycophants to the ruling regime in Egypt who have managed to well situated themselves in our society simply by blindly praising the ruler’s policies. Apparently, these sycophants place a higher value on the privileges that they have gained to living in a truly advanced nation. In fact, the real betrayers of any given authoritarian nation are those who justify this immoral ruling mechanism for their own personal gain.  

Despotism is the evilest ruling mechanism ever devised; apart from its cruelty and unfairness, it works on inflating the ruler’s ego by mirroring his thoughts that are always passionately endorsed by his flatterers, regardless of their merits! Meanwhile, the ruler’s manipulation of the entire political sphere impairs the state’s ability to detect and correct its blunders. Concurrently, the harsh and inhuman treatment of the state’s critics, which includes threats to their personal lives, results in spreading fear throughout the entire society.

A successful strategy for running a country ruled by a tyrannical government is to enable ignorant citizens to dominate the state media exclusively, thus empowering them to express their opinions on a much wider scale than knowledgeable citizens. This approach consequently creates significant friction between knowledgeable and ignorant citizens, resulting in the polarization of the entire nation. The state methodically fuels this process by labeling the mediocre as loyal citizens and accusing its critics of treason.

The privileging of sycophants financially, along with advancing their power and upscaling their status, have prompted many Egyptians to join this beneficial club, which prerequisites praising superiors and justifying their faults, thus compensating for the natural dullness and incompetence of the flatterers. Meanwhile, the state’s critics who demand freedom and stand by their values are aware that they are engaged in a long-lasting battle and are risking their lives for generations to come!

In fact, sycophants are the weakest link in the state’s ruling dynamics. They hypocritically heap intense praise on the security apparatus who sacrifice their lives to defend our nation – but do their utmost to ensure that their youngsters abandon their military duty; just one facet of their deceitful conduct. Sycophantic behavior and false testimony are the most sinful acts in Islam; yet they have become, ironically, a habitual pattern of behavior in our social norms.  

That Egypt needs to be ruled by an Iron-fist is a common argument put forth by the flatterers. It is translated into applying harsh measures to critics and laxity toward lawbreakers – a proposition that reflects the low moral values espoused by flatterers to secure their status. The policy of maximum repression adopted by the current ruling regime might be successful in controlling society; however, it has certainly contributed to an escalation of terrorism activities by political Islamists against the military apparatus.

In my former party, the Egyptian Democratic Front, a few executive party members used to instantly report our internal discussions to the State Security apparatus. In addition totheir immoral conduct and betrayal of their peers, they used to enhance their ratting out by exacerbating our opposing political stands. I argued, at that time, for either offering those ratters a crash course on “minutes-taking” or inviting the State Security apparatus to participate in our meetings to better learn about our viewpoints.

“Cairo is a dirty city” – a painful remark that I occasionally hear from international visitors to our capital. The Egyptian State will never be able to manipulate the perception of millions of diversified tourists who visit Cairo yearly, but we can easily work to bring order to our city and live in a hygienic place. The same applies to other qualities of life such as freedom, dignity and justice; we need to highlight deficiencies in these areas to be able to advance our nation.  

President Al Sisi has a clear desire to be a remarkable leader; he believes that expanding our roads and building new flyovers will make Egypt an advanced nation and that these developments will be credited to his legacy. The president is unaware that the future of our country will be written and judged by the youths of today, who are extremely angry with him due to his policy of demolishing humanity and freedom, compounded by his inability to create decent jobs for youngsters.

Egypt is currently confronting a number of complex internal and external challenges, including an economic slowdown, a civil war on our eastern borders, a potential water shortage due to the filling of Ethiopian GRED and rising unemployment. All of these challenges, and many more, will simply be intensified by our deep polarization, further weakening the state. The sycophants’ deliberate misleading of Egypt concerning these challenges is dragging our nation downward, transforming us into a fragile state.

Advancing an old-fashioned country like Egypt requires honest citizens who have bold ideas and enough courage to implement their ideas. These qualities are found more among knowledgeable citizens and critics of the state who are already sacrificing for their country; large numbers of them are spending their best years in prison simply for having voiced their opinions. Modernizing Egypt will require our president to unite our nation, appointing well-educated citizens to key positions and completely discarding state sycophants.

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Middle East

Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.

Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.

Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.

This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.

Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.

The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.

If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.

The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.

“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.

Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.

“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.

It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.

“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China.  The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.

One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.

That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.

“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.

The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria.  China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.  

BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.

Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.

Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.

The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.

“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.

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Middle East

Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.

Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.

Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.

They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.

To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.

History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.

Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.

A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.

Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.

It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”

To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.

The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.

Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.

“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.

The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.

Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.

The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.

To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.

A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”

There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.

It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.

The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.

That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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