Video: The Case of Jailed Saudi Activist Mohammed al-Bejadi

Independent journalist Iman al-Qahtani has produced this short video to highlight the case of Mohammed al-Bejadi, a Saudi activist who was sentenced to four years in jail followed by a five-year travel ban after a secret trial in early 2012. Amnesty International said at the time that the trial “demonstrates a blatant disregard for his fundamental rights.” He was featured on Foreign Policy last October as one of the unsung heroes who fight injustice in their countries but don’t make the headlines. Al-Bejadi, 35, is a co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). His fellow co-founder Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani appears in the video to talk about the case. Al-Qahtani, along with a third founding member of the group, Abdullah al-Hamed, are on trial for their political activism.

Saudi Government Accused of Favoritism in Awarding Major Contract

The state-owned Saudi National Water Co. reportedly plans to spend $38 billion on water projects over the next 16 years. As the world’s largest producer of desalinated water, the Saudi government sure spends a lot of money on water projects. There are, however, some questions over how this money is being spent and the lack of necessary oversight in the process for awarding major government contracts.

On November 21, al-Riyadh daily reported that China’s SEPCO3 complained to several Saudi government departments, including the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the General Audit Bureau, after they lost competition for a contract to build a power plant in Yanbu. The company chief sent an angry letter to the Minister of Water and Electricity saying that the contract was awarded to a local company that lacks experience to build the project, which would cost SR11 billion and supply Madinah with water and electricity

SPECO3 chief wrote in his letter to the minister: “I met with you in your office on 14/11/2012 and the meeting was attended by the representative of the Chinese Embassy. You said you would award the project to a local company despite the fact it does not meet the requirements of the bid, did not submit complete documents and did not have enough experience,” Saudi Gazette reported.

The Ministry of Water and Electricity has rejected the assertion that it has favored a local company, the newspaper reported. In a statement issued earlier this week, the ministry said the contract was awarded to the local company because SEPCO3’s tender was SR700 million higher in terms of capital, saying “All information Sepco Electric mentioned in its letter did not have a shred of truth and was mere fabrications.”

Saudi Consumes 4 Million Barrels Daily, Aramco Official Says

Saudi Arabia burns four million barrels of oil per day to satisfy local energy demands, a senior official at the state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco said. Speaking at an energy forum in Riyadh earlier this week, Ahmad O. al-Khowaiter, Chief Engineer and Manager of Facility Planning at Aramco, said the company is working on several projects to explore the best alternative sources for energy in the country, including wind and solar power.

Amnesty Wants Held Protesters Freed

Amnesty International urged the Saudi government to release or charge about 15 men held after they protested Tuesday outside the Human Right Commission in Riyadh to call for the release of their detained relatives.

“The Saudi Arabian authorities must release all those detained on Tuesday’s protest or charge them with recognizable criminal offenses if there are legitimate reasons for doing so,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s director for the Middle East and North Africa in a statement.

Saudi King Makes First Appearance After Surgery

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia appeared on state television Wednesday, making his first public appearance since he has undergone a back surgery on November 17. The official Saudi Press Agency said the King has received members of the royal family who came to visit him at the National Guard Hospital in Riyadh. The footage shown on television showed the King drinking coffee and chatting with his visitors.

Levy on Foreign Workers Unconstitutional, Saudi Lawyer Says

The Saudi Ministry of Labor decision to to fine firms with too many foreign workers is unconstitutional, leading lawyer Abdulrahman al-Lahem said today.

In a blog post he published on his site, al-Lahem explained that according to Saudi law no fines can be imposed without a royal decree after the approval of both the Shoura Council and the Cabinet. Since the decision was issued by the Cabinet without the approval of Shoura and without a royal decree, this renders it unconditional, the lawyer said.

The new MOL policy, which came into effect earlier this month, makes it mandatory for private companies that employ Saudis less than half of the total number of its workers will have to pay an additional monthly fee for each expatriate worker.

Moufarrej al-Hagbani, the deputy minister of labor for planning and development, said in a statement that “The aim of this decision is to increase the competitive advantage of local workers by reducing the gap between the cost of cheaper expatriate labor and local labor, and developing national talent.”

The decision is the latest in a series of steps taken by MOL to increase the number of Saudi workers in the private sector, but it has faced resistance by business owners who complained that it would hurt their interests. Small business owners from Buraidah in the central province of Qassim gathered to protest the fee at MOL office in the city last week, according to local media repots. The owners reportedly accused the ministry of being unfair and said they would not comply with the order.

Some analysts agree with the business owners that imposing this is not a good idea. Economist Abdullah Al-Shadadi told Arab News Sunday the fee “will automatically lead to rise in prices in general besides raising the cost of government project contracts.”

Despite the protest, MOL is adamant that they will not reconsider. “The ministry will not go back on its implementation of the Council of Ministers’ decision No. 353 concerning the higher fees on expatriate laborers when their number exceeds Saudi workers,” ministry spokesman Hattab al-Anazi said in a statement.

Saudi Police Disperse Small Protest in Riyadh

Saudi police dispersed a small protest today in Riyadh held by the families of prisoners who called for the release of their relatives. Photos posted on Twitter showed a large number of security forces surrounding the small group of protesters who gathered outside the Human Rights Commission, a government-run organization. The organization office is located on King Fahad Road, one of the main traffic arteries in the city. Police reportedly closed a section of the road before arresting protesters, including women and children.

Will Saudi Govt Continue to Pay Unemployment Benefits?

Unemployment benefits program for Saudi nationals (Hafiz) would be extended for 12 more months, local online news site Sabq reported Sunday citing unnamed “reliable sources.” Hafiz, which provides a monthly stipend for 600,000 unemployed youths, is scheduled to end this month, according to an official of the Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF) who spoke to Arab News Friday. The Riyadh-based al-Jazirah quoted an unnamed official source who said it is now up to the King to approve the extension of Hafiz after several parties have recommended that it is necessary to do so but under a new mechanism.

The Saudi government has resisted the idea of giving benefits to the unemployed for years despite popular demand, but last year the King’s issued a royal decree announcing a change of that policy. The decision was seen as part of the Saudi Arabia’s response to the uprisings in neighboring Arab countries. The official unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia is above 10 percent, and is believed to be even higher among young people. The King is still not seen in public since an 11-hour back operation that he has undergone on November 17. Doctors have said the surgery was successful and the King is reportedly recovering at the National Guard Hospital in Riyadh.