Briefing / Africa/Middle East
Bodyguards on room service in Mogadishu, a peek at Saudi lingerie laws and the next failed state.
Qatar’s done it, Abu Dhabi’s done it and Dubai started it. Now Oman may be looking to build its national airline into another serious global player.
Knickers in a twist
After 20 years of debate, decrees and commissions, Saudi authorities are still baffled. The problem? Lingerie.
Oddly for a conservative Muslim country where bearded men in robes patrol the streets on the alert for vice, where too-bright lipstick earns a reprimand and a man and a woman holding hands must prove they are married, Saudi Arabia’s lingerie stores, like most shops, are staffed by men.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia imports €45m-worth of lingerie, ranging from basic cotton underwear to lacy bras and racy G-strings, and sales are growing by 5 per cent a year. Major western labels are readily available in the country’s sprawling shopping malls.
Price tags mean little in a country where oil revenues have left disposable incomes at an all-time high. At places such as Riyadh’s Faisaliah Shopping Centre and Jeddah’s Aziz Mall, women can spend tens of thousands of euros in an afternoon. But the embarrassment of dealing with a male sales assistant means that many save their lingerie sprees for trips abroad.
“It’s so embarrassing, having to ask some guy for your size,” says 31-year-old Shaikha al-Omar, who is married with a son. “Having him watch as you browse.” She shops for lingerie in London instead.
Complaints about harassment and inappropriate behaviour led to promises the issue would be “looked into”. But the Kingdom has remained torn between the need to shield its women from lecherous salesmen and the desire to keep them hidden from the public exposure that a sales job would bring.
Few of Saudi Arabia’s 12 million women have paid employment. Two years ago, under international pressure, the government ruled that male lingerie assistants should be replaced. Traditionalists expressed outrage, saying that a woman’s place is in the home, and by the deadline of summer 2006, little had changed. The few outlets that complied with the new law had problems with the religious police. Other shop owners claimed it had been too difficult for them to provide women with working environments in which they were shielded from men.
The issue encapsulates the Kingdom’s divide: a monarchy struggling to reform, and a religious elite with other ideals. In January 2007 the Ministry of Labour revised its edict: employing women in lingerie stores is now optional, although getting women into the workplace remains a priority. And the underwear issue will not go away.
Pink is for safety
Dubai’s pale pink taxis are something of a coup for the Emirate. Unveiled in January, these taxis – pink inside, pink outside, and with a woman driver dressed in pink – have been created especially for women. More significantly, in a region of the Gulf where the public presence of women brings much eyeing by men – taxi-drivers included – pink taxis are safe. Once again, the most liberal of the Persian Gulf states has put itself at the forefront of change, gaining kudos locally for its treatment of women.
“I'm very pleased with the service,” says Aicha Aslan, a housewife and mother of two young children. “It’s much more comfortable being with a woman driver, and much safer. Sometimes one goes out wearing an open top or short skirt and its so uncomfortable sitting in a taxi having a man staring at you in the mirror. And late at night we feel much safer with a female driver. They drive sensibly and are helpful: the other day I had both my children with me and shopping bags. The driver carried my seven-month-old son while I got our things together. We need this service.”
The fleet of 50 taxis, operated by Dubai Transport Corporation, trained 100 women drivers in First Aid and CPR. They also have to take a driving course, basic mechanics, as well as workshops on etiquette and dealing with emergencies. Taxis pick up round the clock at shopping malls, maternity centres and other female-oriented locations.
One of the drivers explains, “My husband said I could be a driver. The money is good, I like the work and I meet many different people. But the hours are difficult – I wake up so early, and sometimes finish so late. And Dubai traffic is bad. Sometimes I’m stuck on Sheikh Zayed Road for an hour, not moving. A woman-only taxi is so good because the ladies are nice.” Now Dubai just has to turn its attention to those traffic congestion issues.
Would Sir like a gun?
Dial one for room service, two for laundry, three for armed guards. Hotels in Mogadishu offer the sort of services that you don’t tend to find in the average Hilton.
The optimistically named Peace Hotel in south Mogadishu provides four men with AK47s for every guest who is willing to venture out of the heavily fortified compound. Mohammed and Ahmed slide into the back seat of our saloon car. “We are your security,” Mohammed grins. Two of his colleagues follow in a four-wheel drive.
More than a decade and a half of civil war has taken its toll on Mogadishu. Piles of rubble lie where homes and offices once stood. The city’s once-impressive landmarks – its national theatre, the central bank, the football stadium – are now nothing more than desolate concrete shells. Cactus and brush are the only things growing among the ruins.
Somalia’s capital is awash with weapons – and people who are not afraid to use them. Armed guards have become a requirement for foreign journalists covering Mogadishu’s wars.
But even the protection of a team of gunmen is no guarantee of your personal safety in Somalia. A Swedish cameraman was assassinated in June 2006 and a British BBC producer was killed the year before that. Despite the best efforts of the obliging front-of-house staff, this is not a place that is about to take off as a holiday destination.
At first glance Juba does not look like an expensive place to stay. The capital of Southern Sudan, on the banks of the Nile, has no proper roads or reliable electricity, no water or sewage system. There are no hotels, only a series of four tented camps with rudimentary washing facilities.
But Juba is in the midst of an economic boom. A brutal 21-year civil war between Northern and Southern Sudan ended two years ago. Since then aid workers, diplomats and investors have flooded into Juba to help build a city from scratch. Prices have, inevitably, skyrocketed. For the privilege of spending a night under canvas, Juba’s camp owners charge $150 (€115).
The costs have crippled many of the international NGOs that have moved their operations to Juba since the end of the war. Several are considering pulling out and basing themselves once more in Nairobi. And it is from Nairobi that a solution may soon appear. Ian Cameron, a businessman who runs the Kenyan capital’s popular Talisman bar and restaurant, has designed accommodation that he believes could make it affordable for NGOs to stay in Juba. Based on the designs of local tukuls – mud and straw huts found in many east-African villages – Cameron hopes to build a series of homes for NGO workers moving to Juba.
“The local people live in grass huts and mud buildings,” he said. “With a few modifications we can make them pretty good – put in a shower, have proper sanitation. It can be easily adapted into something an expat aid worker can live in.”
Some 26 tukuls, housing 52 people, will be built in the next four months, and Cameron hopes to build more if they are successful. “At the moment nobody wants to invest in Juba – they are all just passing through. This will help.”
Failed state watch
An ailing president, strikes, bitter succession battle and corruption that would make your eyes water. Welcome to Guinea: the west-African nation that most Africa-watchers fear is set to become the next Somalia.
President Lansana Conté, the diabetic, chain-smoking septuagenarian who has ruled the former French colony following a coup in 1984, is on his last legs. Public appearances are few and rumours abound that he is gravely ill. In a country where elections are more for show than for democracy, his succession is expected to be bitter. A power struggle has already begun as rival cliques battle for supremacy.
The prize is enormous wealth and power. One third of the world’s bauxite – aluminium ore – can be found in Guinea. But despite the potential to be one of Africa’s wealthiest countries the majority of Guinea’s population of nine million live on less than €1 a day. President Conté has been accused of using the central bank as a personal ATM. It is little surprise that the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International bestowed on Guinea the dubious honour of being Africa’s most corrupt nation.