Thursday, May 31, 2007

Kuwait Ministry of Communications Cracks down on Internet Telephony

There are some things in Kuwait that I don’t understand. And one of them is the mentality at the Ministry of Communications (MOC) with regards to internet telephony and cheap international calling cards. Whereas before the advent of the internet, poorly paid expatriate workers were forced to use the services of the MOC to call home at expensive rates to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines to name a few places, they now have the opportunity to use cheap internet telephony such as Net2Phone or international calling cards that connect through the internet. However, the MOC has criminalized the use of such services and blocked access to websites of internet telephone services.

Statements attributed to MOC officials with regards to the matter are found quoted in different Kuwaiti newspapers. In the May 28, 2007 issue of the Daily Star Kuwait Edition, a small article appeared stating that the MOC had “blocked 67 websites being used to make ‘illegal’ online international phone transactions,” and one high official said that such transactions “waste public funds, as well as create social and security menaces in the country.” That is quite a loaded statement without any explanation. In what possible way could using much cheaper internet telephony services create a social and security menace? The MOC went on to say that they are recording names of customers of such services for easy tracking of violators, reminiscent of an Orwellian world. It is difficult to imagine the underpaid Indian or Bangladeshi who perhaps works at slightly above subsistence levels of $200 a month being called a criminal violator because he tries to save money on calling home. It is also more puzzling to read in the government newspaper that “brave” police officers arrested these violators and the people running such internet telephony “dens.”

But the Kuwait MOC is not alone in its actions. The UAE also joined Kuwait in this move, even to the point of blocking Skype. Bans on internet telephony services are also reported to extend to other countries in the region. But at least in Kuwait, Skype is not banned, which is great as I use it to call family and friends at home.

The reasons for the ban are economic and perhaps political as well. When the ministries of communication or government owned phone companies began seeing a drop in revenues, they quickly banned internet telephony in a move to force migrant workers, who are largely from Asia, to try and force them to continue calling home at expensive rates with the government’s telephone company. Yet I can’t understand why oil rich states such as the UAE and Kuwait, which is currently making record level profits from oil sales and recently decided to provide all Kuwaiti university students with $1000/month salary, is squeezing money from its migrant workers. The political reason behind banning internet telephony may be due to the increased difficulty or lack of possibility with tapping phone conversations since some internet services such as Skype automatically encrypt phone calls.

How long can Kuwait’s MOC swim upstream the river of time before they concede to modernization, the new possibilities of the internet, and the new role to which they must adapt as a MOC? On the homepage of the MOC’s website (, the MOC proclaims that “The State of Kuwait is considered a pioneer among the Gulf countries in the field of modern means of communication.” Unfortunately it seems this claim applies to a pre-internet era.
Below is a good newspaper article detailing the MOC’s difficulty to accept internet telephony and globalization.

By Amer Al-Hilal
From Arab Times (10th March, 2007)

The Kuwait Ministry of Communications apparently is not familiar with globalization, the shrinking 'world village' and the communications revolution sweeping the world. The bureaucratic, backward MOC mentality is stuck in a 1985 time warp. As reported the last few days, the Ministry of Communications has blocked Internet Telephony Services. One could see this particular train wreck coming ever since one of the MOC Under-Secretaries complained a few months ago of losing "20 million KD" in revenue per year due to the Net services.

But let us ponder the issue at hand what is KD 20 million to the MOC? Is this amount more important than allowing our expatriates and businesses to communicate in a swifter, less expensive manner via the net? The majority of citizens in Kuwait are expatriates, and many of them rely on services like Net To Phone because they cannot pay the exorbitant prices by the MOC. These tactics by the MOC are akin to Mafia extortion tactics (arrests, intimidation, blocked sites), forcing citizens to use high cost, sub par services. We are dealing with basic human rights here, the right to communicate with family and friends and not pay outrageous prices.

I am positive tens of millions more get wasted due to corruption and mismanagement at the MOC. The Kuwait international rates are among the highest in the Middle East and the world, technology is catching up; internet telephony services are one day going to make charges obsolete, so the MOC needs to 'get with the program' : preparing itself for its essential and eventual transformation from a traditional, bloated, pedantic government bureaucracy to an "Authority" that provides services and quality control.
Thousands of people are moving away from landlines (part of a global trend) and obtaining mobile numbers (they are the real MOC revenue-killer) - does the MOC intend to sue Wataniya and MTC as well?

The Former MOC Minister should have spent more time attempting to 'fix' Kuwait Airways (which is now being sued by 17 stranded passengers in Thailand) than trying to milk every last cent out of poor expatriates and citizens attempting to communicate with others via the Net . I also hope expatriates and their representatives in Kuwait help pressure the MOC to revers its course.

For a ministry that has proclaimed its willingness to 'reform,' 'modernize' and avail Kuwait of the latest technological developments in the Communications field, it has failed miserably to keep up with modern trends, limit ISP charges and upgrade its digital and broadband services to be on par with most modern states. The MOC needs to move away from its bureaucratic, inefficient and intrusive Orwellian world into the 21st century.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Kuwait Changes to Friday-Saturday Weekend

The Kuwaiti government recently announced that it will change the official weekend from the current Thursday-Friday to Friday-Saturday starting Sept 1 of this year. Friday is the day of worship to Muslims equivalent to Sunday for Christians. In Egypt and the Levantine countries (Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan), the weekend has long been on Friday and Saturday. However, the Persian Gulf countries followed a Thursday-Friday weekend. Yet, as the economies of these countries grow and businesses become more interrelated with their trading partners in Europe and the United States, the fact that the Thursday-Friday weekend meant there were only three shared business days between East and West became a hindrance to doing business. Thus, it is all the more economically feasible solution to institute a Friday-Saturday weekend and private business were the first to follow suit. With time however, the lack of a unified weekend became disruptive as families may have one spouse working for the government with a Thursday-Friday weekend and another spouse in private business with a Friday-Saturday weekend.

Hence, it was only a matter of time before a Friday-Saturday weekend was instituted in the public sector to unify it with the private sector. Yet, the move was not without its societal grumblings, with some Islamists yelping against the change since it was an imitation of the West and pointing out that Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath day. The point about imitating the West refers to a Hadith or saying by the Prophet Muhammad which says: “He who imitates a people is one of them.” And as in the Islamist view, Christians are not on the right path whereas Muslims are, Muslims should not imitate Christians. However, this is simply another example of poor interpretation as these sayings are quoted out of context, thereby losing the general meaning or purpose of the saying. For there is another Hadith that states: “Seek after knowledge, even unto China.” And during the time of the Prophet (600 AD) the Chinese had a lower rank as idol worshippers than Christians who were at least “People of the Book.” Thus, one can see the difficulty of Hadith quoting without a proper understanding of context or principle.

Nevertheless, the argument against a Friday-Saturday weekend because Saturday is a Jewish holiday sheds light on the rather absurd fear, hatred, and misunderstanding of Jews in Islamic, especially Arabic, societies. Teachers, especially those of religion, tend to preach the most irrational conspiracy theories about Jews that inculcate a generally poor view of Jews as a people from childhood.

Be that as it may, Persian Gulf countries have recently changed to Friday-Saturday weekends. Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE have already done so, with the UAE changing in fall of 2006. The only countries left on the Thursday-Friday schedule are Saudi Arabia and Oman. Saudi is reported as currently studying the issue of a change. Below is an article from Kuwait Times highlighting the weekend switch in Kuwait.

Title: Public reaction to Friday-Saturday weekend switch
Published Date: May 28, 2007
By Ahmad Al-Khaled, Staff Writer, Kuwait Times

KUWAIT: Kuwait's Cabinet yesterday issued an administrative decision to officially change the state's weekends from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday. "I think the change will help in the development of Kuwait in international businesses, as by changing the second day off to Saturday we will only lose one business day with our international counterparts." said Jassem Ali, a banking sector employee who went on to add, "we in the banking sector have already been on such a schedule for years -- it only makes sense to initiate the change in the rest of the state as well."

The Gulf States of Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have already switched to a Friday-Saturday weekend while Saudi Arabia has stated it is currently studying the issue. While there had been a parliamentarian Islamist outcry in previous discussions of such a change, the parliament's hands are tied in what is a Cabinet administrative decision. Should MPs seek to change the decision they may enact a law of their own - declaring weekends to be on Thursdays and Fridays but with 16 voting Cabinet members favoring the new weekend and perhaps 16 or 17 Islamist MPs against the change, Islamist MPs do not have the numbers to support any counterattack on the new weekend.

Local Islamic NGO the Thawabet Al-Ummah Convention came out vocally against the move saying the change would align Muslims with the Saturday Jewish holy day of worship. "I am no fanatic, but I prefer to keep our weekends the way they have always been and not change our lives to mesh with the West," said Ibrahim Muhamed. "Why do we as a state have to change ourselves for the sake of the West," said Khaled Jassem. But many in the financial world believe the move will allow Kuwait to procure more businesses with the international world. "With this change we will be on the same page as the western world with whom we do business and of course we would never give away our Friday for business. It is only Thursday we are trading for Saturday - those two days mean nothing to us is only Friday that we should cherish - and we do," said Hussein Muhamed.

"It seems silly to fuss over Thursday versus Saturday when we should be thinking in terms of Kuwait's future," said Ghadha Ahmad. The change, which will be initiated on September 1, 2007, coincides with the first day of school in many areas. "As a mother who works in a bank, I will be so happy to see my children on weekends. With this school year their weekends were Thursday and Friday and mine on Saturday so we had only one day together as a family," said Layla Faisal.

"I think the start date for the change is perfect in that nobody's summer holidays will be affected and the school year will only have just begun so we can all get used to the new day offs together," said Daoud Yusef. "As an oil sector employee, I only spend time with my wife and children on Fridays because they have Thursday and Friday weekends - I am 100 percent in favor of the change to bring my family together," said Waleed Muhamed. Omar Abdulrahman took a different view of the forthcoming change saying, "I used to dread Fridays because I was due back at work on Saturdays but now Friday will hold the place it should, as a day for praying...I can learn to hate Saturdays."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Chat with a Migrant Worker

Migrant workers have been a fixture in Kuwait for around 40 years now and comprise a substantial amount of the population here as well as in other Persian Gulf countries. Some notable statistics include that 2/3 of Kuwait’s population of 3 million and 80% of the UAE’s population of 4 million are non-citizens.

In the beginning of the development of the Persian Gulf countries, in which Kuwait took the lead early on, many of the needed workers were brought from other Arab countries, most prominently Egypt and Palestine, due to their ability to speak Arabic. But over the years, many foreign migrant workers came from the South Asian countries, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and from the Philippines, and more recently Indonesia. These migrant workers come to the Persian Gulf with the hopes of more opportunity for work and higher salaries, a portion of which they send back to their families in their home countries as remittances. Thus, the economy of the Persian Gulf countries supports the economies of several countries with substantial remittance sending migrant populations in the Persian Gulf, notably Egypt and the Philippines.

But the promises made to migrant workers aren’t always as advertised. The hopes for better salaries and adequate working conditions are often betrayed. In a country as expensive to live in as Kuwait, the Bangladeshi servants in one public library for example, whose job it is to prepare tea for the librarians and keep the place clean, receive 30 KD or about a $100 a month, with housing and transportation to and from work already covered by the company sub-contracted to provide the servants by the government. Even if you added the cost of housing and transportation to their salary, it would not total more than 50 KD or $175.

Yesterday, when I went to the local shopping area in my neighborhood to print the surveys I am using to conduct my research, I had a nice chat with the migrant worker in the copy/print shop. He had a clean-cut appearance and was from Bangalore, India. He looked in his 20s, about 25. He told me he made 100 KD ($350) per month. He grumbled a bit about why the Kuwaiti owner paid him so little. He said Egyptians get paid more because they can read and type in Arabic, which makes sense.

But in a country where a decent apartment that another Fulbright Scholar is renting for 325 KD per month, more than 3 times his salary, I asked him how he gets by on just 100 KD. First he began by telling me that he sends 70 KD ($240) to his family back in India and lives off of 30 KD ($100). He helps to support his parents and two younger sisters and a younger brother. From his 30 KD he spends 13 KD ($45) for monthly accommodation and some meals in a flat shared by bachelors, with about 10 bachelors to a flat. That means he has about 15 KD ($50) left as disposable income per month. The remainder is probably used for mobile phone or international calling expenditures, clothes, and food.

He manages to get by on $50 a month of discretionary income for himself while more well off members of society here easily spend that kind of money on themselves for dinner. The wealth gap is flagrantly conspicuous, but an accepted aspect of the developing global economy.

Another interesting aspect of this migrant worker I met was his background. In the copy shop, recordings of Qur’anic chants were blaring from one of the computers. Seeing as he was the only one in the shop, I surmised it was he turned on the chanting and not an Arab Muslim co-worker. However, he looked more like a Hindu Indian. There are some noticeable differences in appearance that allow Indians to discriminate between Hindus and Muslims. As a result of my curiosity, I asked him if he was Muslim. He replied yes but with the clarification that he was a convert.

And so I inquired further: “Did you become a Muslim in Kuwait?” With his response being: “No, me and my family converted in India.” Followed by: “Alhamdulillah [Praise be to God] we found the right path.” I asked him his name which was the Arabic name Suleiman. His original name prior to his conversion was Mohan Krishna and very Hindu in type, and he was from Brahmin caste, the highest caste in the Hindu religion. Krishna was the prophet-founder of the Hindu religion. However, he said extended family relations with his Hindu family are good and that they are on speaking terms. He also said they didn’t convert, implying his family had already tried unsuccessfully before hand. When I asked about what kind of friends he had, he replied that he prefers friendship with Muslims over Hindus, which in addition to previous statements conclusively revealed his proud Muslim religiosity.

Although I had enjoyed speaking to him and learning a little bit about the life of South Asian migrant workers, I had to go off to Kuwait University and distribute my surveys. I’ll probably see him again when I go back to print more surveys. And although he may be paid minimally, he appears fine and well for the most part and I’m sure his family looks forward to his remittances.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lecturer suspended after breastfeeding fatwa

Cairo (Reuters) May 21, 2007

CAIRO'S al-Azhar Islamic University has suspended a lecturer who suggested men and women work colleagues could use symbolic breastfeeding to get around a religious ban on being alone together.

The lecturer, Ezzat Atiya, had drawn on Islamic traditions that forbid sexual relations between a man and a woman who has breastfed him to suggest that symbolic breastfeeding could be a way around strict segregation of males and females.

But after controversy in the Egyptian and Middle East media, university president Ahmed el-Tayeb suspended Mr Atiya overnight pending an urgent investigation into his opinions, the Egyptian state news agency MENA reported.

Mr Atiya is the head of the department that deals with sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and the university is part of the al-Azhar institute, one of the most prestigious in Sunni Islam.
Mr Atiya's unusual opinion was widely publicised by Arabic-language satellite television channels and featured in a discussion in the Egyptian parliament.

The Dubai-based channel Al Arabiya quoted him as saying after five breastfeedings the man and woman could be alone together without violating Islamic law and the woman could remove her headscarf to reveal her hair.

But a committee from al-Azhar said his proposal contradicted the principles of Islam and of morality.

Mr Atiya had said he had drawn on medieval scholarship to justify his position. The opposition party newspaper al-Ahrar overnight quoted him as saying he retracted his views because they were based on the opinions of a minority of scholars.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Excuse Me..!!!! Was that a....???

So I was standing in line to buy Persian bread at the bakery in the local shopping center of my neighborhood in Kuwait. The system is that you bring your own bag to take your bread home in or a newspaper to wrap it in.

I was standing in line with my bag while the person in front was flipping through a newspaper that he would later carry his bread in. I was looking over his shoulder to see what was in the paper, and as he turned the page my eyes fell on what I could not believe I just saw. There before my eyes was an advertisement section with ads, in Arabic, for penis pumps and breast enlargers with pictures of the devices along with the descriptions so that I had no doubt as to what I was reading.

I paused for a moment to reflect on this bizarre and surreal juxtaposition. Here I was in one of the most conservative Arab states where the majority of the citizenry believes it is forbidden in Islam for men and women to shake hands and where the government forbids and makes illegal co-ed university classes. Yet it was allowed to advertise devices with such lewd purposes and without any hint of discretion. Why would co-ed university classes be forbidden while the importation of an obsessive Western cultural trait with large phalluses be tolerated?!?! Such are one of many contradicitions in the Middle East. Yet it didn't seem to raise a glance from the paper's reader in front of me.

When his turn came, he spread his paper, accepted his bread and wrapped it within it, and cheerfully walked home without a thought as to the contents of the paper.