Khaled Al Maeena is a veteran Saudi journalist, commentator, and the former editor-in-chief of the Arab News and Saudi Gazatte. Speaking to the editorial team of Madhyamam on a short visit to the daily’s headquarters, Al Maeena talked about the tourism prospects of Kerala, along with the political developments in the Arab world. Excerpts:
You occasionally visit Kerala. How has it been?
It’s been good. The tourism sector in Kerala is good. The thing is Kerala has to brand itself as branding is very important in the tourism sector. You see, Singapore and Malaysia and all. Branding matters a lot. Many think that all the Arabs are rich. But they are not; most of them are middle class people who work hard to earn a living. But all of them prefer better health service and all and that is what you have to make use of. You should brand yourself. There are several elements that you can highlight in the branding – the hotels, greenery, backwaters, hill stations and so on.
Did you face any problems here?
No, I haven’t faced any problems so far, personally. I am used to the systems here. You have a lot of attractions here. Different seasons such as the Christmas, the December-January period and all. People from Europe and other places usually plan to go out in those seasons. The Arabs too. So you can make use of such opportunities setting up homestays and and resorts to attract the tourists. The Arabs like to fly in wide cabins even if it’s in economy class. So the government and the companies should consider flying such aircrafts.
The Kerala people are polite. There are so many things you can offer. You have Ayurvedic medicine, you have sports, and you have so many other celebrations and auspicious ceremonies here. People from outside don’t know all that. So you have to market it.
What are the things that attract you here?
The people, the greenery, and the backwaters… And, it’s easy to reach here. I have visited Kerala five times. It takes just 3.5 hours if it’s a direct flight. Residing cost is also cheap here comparatively. You should use your available facilities. You have this great Malabari dishes, the backwaters, hill stations like Wayand and all. There are a lot of people who are interested in all that. And you have cultural programmes and events and all; Music festivals and film festivals. You have to brand all that. You should promote tourism.
What you have to say about the reports that Saudi is sponsoring the IS in an indirect manner?
I would bat for myself but to speak frankly, I did a lot of research on it, the origin of the IS and their growth… I do think that there are certain groups of people who pay these people to fight. Then these groups become sub-groups and all and the network gets expanded. I don’t think that the Saudi government per se pays money to these people. Yes, lot of money had gone to those people. They become sub-groups, casts, creeds and ideologies. It’s true they get support from certain quarters as they appeared as the protectors of the people.
About the outfit, first of all, the name IS itself is wrong. They are not Islamic. They have no relation with Islam. They are just a cult. I never saw any of them pray. They can’t read Qur’an. Then how can they use the word Islam? During the Spanish civil war, many Americans joined in the fight. They didn’t know why they were joining. I covered the Afghan war. I met a French man there. He came to join the Mujahidins as he thought that would be the only chance in my life where he could hold a machinegun and fire. Back home, he was a bartender. I was shocked. He came to join the Mujahidins for adventure. That is the situation. Half of the guys who have gone to join the IS have no idea why are they joining. Some of them join for adventure, some are frustrated. Some have no clue. They make money too. They steal things.
You said IS is just a cult. But they could attack even Paris.
These are stupid things. You know, in America, there are something called copycat killers. At the moment there are 4000 killers roaming in the US. Nobody knows them. The FBI there, you know, they do this profiling, profiling people and kill them. So, these people copy them. Tomorrow, god forbid, if I come and attack this newspaper and issue a statement that I am Al Queda or so and so, what does it mean! They are not Muslims. They have no relation with Islam. In the evenings they sit and smoke ganja. In Afghanistan, I asked them to read Qur’an, they didn’t k now. They didn’t even pray. Now the thing is, the person who created all this is George Bush, who attacked Iraq. It was later proved that the United States was lying. You see, these people come and create problems. And the ‘cult’ copies them.
But they run their own websites and all. How to know their authenticity?
Anyone can create a website these days. You can and I can. The problem with the Arab world is that they didn’t take these people seriously. Now, they have become a problem to the Arabs.
How can the Arabs curb the catastrophic decline in oil price?
You see, there are so many elements in the sector now. Many stake holders and new entrants, so many other countries and all are there. There is no unity or price structure. Different countries are giving different prices. To have a good economy, you need to have a price of 55 dollar per barrel. Now it goes down to 25. You are killing yourself. There are market forces that are playing this game.
How can Saudi Arabia withstand this?
We will have to rely on other elements such as the industries and ecotourism and all.
What do think of the involvement of Saudi Arabia in Yemen?
Unfortunately many people died in the attacks. Many Indians also died. There were people from Kerala also. It is sad. I think Ali Abdullah Saleh (who was President of Yemen from 1990 to 2012) created this problem. For several years, they had been paying money to the tribal leaders. There was no direct investment. And the money was going to Saleh himself. As a result, he was planning a comeback. He thought he is the only one in Yemen. He is the reason for all these problems. Otherwise, Yemenis are nice people; they are peaceful and hardworking.
Do you think there is a conspiracy in the Western media against Saudi Arabia?
I don’t think there is a conspiracy but, yeah, most of the prominent media in the West write against Saudi Arabia. But that’s freedom of the press. (Laughs)
Prince Mohammed bin Salman is on the news!
Yes, the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is more on the news! There is so much in the media. Saudi Arabia is very poor at Public Relations. People get to hear only about the negative side.
The status of women in Saudi is also a topic of discussions!
Saudi Arabia is trying to balance the social status. There are 30 women appointed to the 150-member advisory Shura Council, which is not a bad number, its twenty percent. There are women heading institutions, there are women editors in chief, and they are running NGOs and other organizations. Recently, there were women elected to the municipal seats also.
In India, women go out wearing black abaya and all. Why black! Such a beautiful place Kerala is and why are you wearing black! Why don’t you wear blue or white! Why are you forcing your women to be like Arab countries? I don’t know why you are imposing the Arab culture here.
Indian women - Muslim, Hindu or Christian - they are so conservative. Look at you - you are still discussing topics like kissing in public. India is a conservative society. Here, the ruling BJP is against Valentine’s Day or Halloween or similar celebrations, like the mullahs in the Arab world.
Religion is a very personal issue. I don’t care who you are or what religion you belong to. I care how you behave with me. That’s what the prophet taught. The mullas have hijacked the religion in the last couple of years. The prophet taught us good behavior, civil behavior.
Are you saying the Arab world is more secular than India?
The Arabs were the most secular people in the world until 1980; until the Afghan war. In the Arab world, a Muslim is called Muhammed, and a Christian is also called Muhammad. Names such as Umer and Mustafa are also common among Muslims and Christians. Tariq Aziz, a close advisor of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein and the then Deputy Prime Minister, was a Christian. Nobody felt the religious difference until 1980.
Even now, by and large, the people are secular. It is those elements who gain power forcing the people for all that you see there. This covering the faces was not there. If it was there, God said not to cover the faces in Hajj and Umrah and this was not for a particular period. Anybody should know the covering the face has nothing to do with Islam. It’s the cultural aspects of particular areas. People here in India do not need to follow that.