Qatar zeroes in on cousin marriage

DOHA // Six years after the law passed, Qatar launched mandatory premarital screenings this week, mainly to alert couples who may be related of any potential health risks for their future offspring.

About half of all marriages across Gulf nations are between cousins, and their frequency is increasing, according to a recent study in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention. At 54 per cent, the rate of cousin marriage appears highest in Qatar, and has increased nearly 30 per cent from the previous generation.

On its own, marriage between cousins, or consanguinity, is not necessarily problematic. But many debilitating genetic disorders – including sickle cell anaemia, cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular atrophy, mental retardation, epilepsy and Down syndrome – can be up to 20 times more frequent among populations in which cousin marriages are common.

“It is certainly a problem,” said Dr Ahmad Teeb. A genetics and paediatrics professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Qatar, he has been researching Arab genetic disorders for more than 25 years and contributed to the recent study.

“The issue here is not the cousin marriage, the issue here is to avoid the disease,” Dr Teebi sai. “However, virtually none of us is free from carrying some bad genes, and when you are cousins the likelihood of you are carrying the same bad gene is higher.”

Marriage between second cousins or more distant relations has very little impact on the passing down of genetic disorders. Yet the children of first cousins, who share 12.5 per cent of their genes, are nearly twice as likely as the general population to contract a disorder. And within populations that intermarry regularly over generations, the coincidence of disorders can increase exponentially.

“If certain disorders are more common in a population,” said Dr Teebi, “the likelihood of its occurrence can be many times increased.” In the Gulf, most cousin marriages are between first cousins.

A report by the Dubai-based Centre for Arab Genomic Studies (CAGS) in September found that a handful of genetic diseases – the blood disorder thalassaemia, diabetes and Down syndrome among them – have reached epidemic levels (more than 100 cases per 100,000) in several Gulf countries. The report also found that Arabs have one of the world’s highest rates of genetic disorders, nearly two-thirds of which are linked to consanguinity.

Qatari leaders have been working to improve national health and medical awareness. This week, the Doha Exhibition Centre hosted Qatar Health 2009, an international forum for the latest advancements in health care research and technology. Sidra Medical and Research Center, a Qatar Foundation initiative that is backed by a US$7.9 billion (Dh29bn) grant and set to open in 2012, aims to become a regional centre of biomedical research and medical education.

Yet Qatar is the last Gulf nation to institute premarital screenings and many nationals remain unaware of the risks of marrying a close relation. A study to be published in Cambridge University’s Journal of Biosocial Science next month found that most Qataris surveyed did not know that consanguinity had been linked to serious genetic diseases or that distant cousin marriages were genetically less risky than unions between first cousins.

“These results indicate that more effort needs to be made in developing public health strategies to improve the population’s understanding of the cost-benefit analysis involved in contracting consanguineous marriages given the goal of healthy offspring,” the report’s authors wrote.

Although cousin marriage is legal in 26 US states and across Europe, the rate of consanguinity in industrialised nations is generally less than one per cent. In Muslim countries, meanwhile, cousin marriage represents about 35 per cent 40 per cent of all unions. Research from CAGS and others suggests consanguinity is declining in Lebanon, Egypt and among Palestinians, but increasing in Morocco, Mauritania and Sudan.

It is also increasing across the Gulf. Dr Teebi links the trend to tribal tradition and the region’s expanding economies. “Rich families tend to marry rich families, and from their own – and the rich like to protect their wealth,” he said. “So it’s partly economic, and it’s also partly cultural.”

Qatar’s Supreme Council of Health aims to change that culture, with an outreach campaign that includes workshops, online information, university lectures and the distribution of educational CDs and brochures. Earlier this week, the Qatari minister of public health, Abdullah bin Khalid al Qahtani said, “a healthy family is the basic cell of society”.

The screenings are meant to strengthen that cell. Couples are tested for both communicable and genetic diseases. Doctors warn of any disorders likely to be passed to each other or to the couple’s potential offspring, but cannot withhold a marriage licence due to any health risks.

The final decision rests with the betrothed. “The couple will think twice or maybe three or four times,” said Dr Teebi. He said that similar screenings in the UAE and Bahrain appear to have lowered the frequency of sickle cell anaemia.

“Some people might say, ‘All right, we will take the risk,’ and some will change their mind,” he said. “It’s the nature of humans that they will think about it.”


Arabs encouraged to blog and be heard

DOHA // For Raouf Shabayek, blogging is easy.

“Everyone can blog,” the editor-in-chief of the Dubai-based consultancy Real Marketing Solutions said during a blogging conference on Saturday. “It doesn’t have to be 1,000 or 2,000 words, it can be one sentence, one picture – we can all add something to the conversation.”

Five years ago, Mr Shabayek started a blog about Arabic entrepreneurship (blog.shebayek.com). Waves of positive feedback soon inspired him to organise his writing into a book, which he published himself. He has since published three more, and now sees blogging as a potential Gutenberg Bible for the region. "We in the Arab world can now have our own Renaissance," he said.

About 300 speakers, bloggers and guests turned up at “Mudawanat: All About Blogging,” a one-day forum held at Doha’s Sharq Village resort, to help realise that vision. IctQatar, a government-run technology support group, organised the event to nurture interest in blogging in Qatar and across the region.

Arabic is the world’s fifth most widely spoken language, yet Arabic speakers represent less than three per cent of all web users, according to Internet World Stats. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s blogs are written from Europe and the United States. A June study by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society found there are an estimated 35,000 active blogs in the Arabic language. But compare that to 70,000 blogs in Farsi.

Yet the potential is considerable. A report from Internet World Stats found that internet users in the Middle East and North Africa increased nearly twenty-fold between 2000 and 2009, faster than in any other language or region. Google searches for the word “mudawanat” (“blogging” in Arabic) have increased 20 per cent to 50 per cent in the past few years, most prominently in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Jeremiah Owyang, a partner at Altimeter Group, a social media research and advisory firm in California, called for clarity among those interested in starting a blog. “What is your topic, and who is your audience?” Mr Owyang asked. “Find your area of interest and focus on it.”

He advocated several steps: treat your blog like a brand; make an editorial calendar; hire a designer to improve the site; and incorporate social networking tools from Facebook and Twitter to better respond to your readers.

An attendee asked Mr Owyang if social networks were pulling web surfers away from blogs. “They’re not taking away from each other; they’re all becoming one,” he said. “You’re building a house and you have many tools – a hammer, saw, nails – you should use them all.”

Ahmad Hamzawi, Google’s head of engineering for the Middle East and North Africa, highlighted some of those tools. He showed how to use Google’s keyword tools to find frequently used search terms, explaining that increasing the use of such terms on a blog increases that blog’s search rank.

For those uncomfortable with English, Mr Hamzawi explained Google Translate, an add-on that offers immediate translations of blog posts in up to 50 languages. Finally, he emphasised the growing popularity of the form: more than 120,000 new blogs are launched every day. Technorati, which indexes blogs, reported in October 2008 that there were 133 million blogs worldwide.

There are about 1,100 blogs in Qatar, according to Ammar Mohammed Khaled, who blogs at ammar- talk.com and founded Al Jazeera Talk, where Arab youth discuss a wide range of issues online. He urged more Qataris to blog, pointing out that blogs can incorporate words, images and video and blogs offer freedom when so much news is controlled.

At least one audience member appreciated this last point. Hassan Al Jefairi said that over the past two decades he had been forced out of columnist positions from three of Qatar’s Arabic-language newspapers because his work ruffled government feathers.

“Everybody knows I’ve got a hot mouth and a hot pen, and I write about hot issues,” said al Jefairi, who writes mostly on environmental and economic issues.
Recently he took to the internet. Al Jefairi’s new blog – he calls it an “electronic magazine” – attracted more than 3,000 visitors in its first month and inspired him to distribute his writing in book form. “There’s more freedom of speech today,” he said.

“The topics I am raising today, 15 years ago I couldn’t discuss them.”

Shabina Khatri discusses a wide variety of issues on her personal and professional blogs, as well as in contributions to Global Voices Online. Her initial inspiration? A slow work day, several years ago. “I was bored at work and decided to start a blog,” said Ms Khatri, whose site quickly gained attention. “You don’t have to be famous. Anybody in this room can just start blogging.”

Blogs can also be a way to make money, according to Mr Hamzawi. He showed attendees how to use Google’s AdSense and FeedBurner applications to place advertisements on their blog and generate income.

Mr Owyang offered a warning to the profit-seekers. “Start a blog with passion first, and then if it turns into a business, great,” he said. “But if you’re starting a blog just to make money, it will probably fail.”

Originally published in The National --


Qatari father vents anger sentence given to son's killer

DOHA // After the killing of his 16-year-old son Mohammed in England, Abdulla al Majed vowed, “justice has to be done”. Some 16 months later that justice has come, but it is not the sort the grieving father envisioned.

The judge Anthony Scott-Gall last week sentenced George Austin, 22, from South London, to four and a half years in jail for the killing of Mohammed. Austin has been in police custody since November 2008. With more than a year of time served, plus a possible early release for good behaviour, he could be a free man by early 2011.

“I’m not happy, I’m angry,” said Mr al Majed. “The judge was very good, very fair – the fault is with the British justice system. Their penal code encourages killing because it does not punish harshly. What guarantee do we have that when he’s released he will not kill again?”

In the summer of 2008, Mohammed al Majed left Doha to study English at an international school in Hastings, England. A few days before he was due to complete his studies and return home, Mohammed was with a couple classmates outside a kebab shop. Austin and two of his friends, all of whom had been drinking alcohol, began harassing the foreign students with racist taunts.

Austin struck Mohammed in the face as the teenager tried to run away. Mohammed’s head slammed into a kerb. He suffered a fractured skull and a brain haemorrhage and died in hospital three days later.

Austin was convicted of manslaughter last month and sentenced on November 25. His attorney, Susan Rodham, argued that the killing “was not premeditated”, and that the head wounds were “indirect” and “not foreseeable”. The British newspaper The Observer termed the sentence “lenient”.

“He should have gotten either a death sentence or 25 years in jail,” Mr al Majed said. “Sharia says, ‘An eye for an eye.’”

In Qatar, such a killing would probably receive a harsher penalty. “The sentence would depend on many factors – including the age of the defendant, did the victim die immediately, the anger of the victim’s family – but it would certainly be more than this,” said Hanan Malaeb, a law professor at Qatar University.

George Austin received a four and a half year jail sentence for killing Mohammed al Majed Nigel Bowles for The National

She estimated the punishment could vary from the death penalty plus a “blood money” payment of up to 150,000 Qatari rials (Dh151,322) to the victim’s family, to a much smaller fine and a dozen years in jail. “If this happened to my son, I don’t think a few years would be enough,” Prof Malaeb added. “This would not give me the satisfaction that he got his punishment.”

Mohammed’s family remains unsatisfied. His mother, father and four siblings live together in Doha, and recall the 16-year-old who liked football and was a member of the Kashafa, or scouts.

“Still no days pass without shedding tears,” said Mr al Majed. “It still makes me too sad to remember him – I don’t like to think about it. All of his family is missing him. But now we are not only upset about losing him, we are upset about this sentence.”

Each year, about 40,000 foreign students study English in Hastings, an East Sussex town of about 85,000. Police say confrontations with locals are not uncommon. Just hours before the incident, the owner of the kebab shop had warned police about the potential for violence from Austin and his friends.

“This was the duty of the British government, but they have failed,” Mr al Majed said.

On Tuesday the killer’s mother, Jacqueline Austin, pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice. She helped her son flee the country to evade capture a month after the killing.

In sentencing Austin, the judge said: “What a sad indictment you are for the youth of Britain.”

The victim’s father puts the killing in context.

“We have respect for the British people,” said Mr al Majed. “But some like this George, they defame the country. They are a danger to their own society.”

Mr al Majed believes the scars left by Austin will be deep and lasting. “The Quran says: ‘To kill one man is to kill all of humanity,’” he said. “He has not just killed one person he has killed against a family and a nation.”

--- originally ran 4 Dec 2009 in The National (www.thenational.ae).

Young learn principles of print

DOHA // Erika Widén is thinking big. With her new initiative, the director of business development at Qatar’s leading English-language daily newspaper aims to rescue the country’s print media and help build a skilled workforce in the Gulf.

“Not too many people are interested in reading the news around here anymore – they are checking their BlackBerry, maybe getting Al Jazeera on their mobile,” she said at the offices of The Peninsula.

“We want to get these kids interested in reading, interested in the news, and also help them write. There are not a lot of opportunities like this for young people in this region.”

Ms Widén and the Peninsula editor-in-chief, Khalid Abdul Rahim al Sayed, have just launched the Young Peninsula Journalists (YPS) programme, a free journalism training scheme for middle and secondary students. YPJ hopes to engage citizens in news, impart valuable work skills and steer local youth towards a successful career.

On the first day of classes last weekend, the Peninsula offices bustled. Dozens of the programme’s 300 seven to 12th grade students mingled in the halls. Teenage girls in headscarves talked about photography on couches in the lobby. Adolescent boys discussed journalistic integrity. “Some papers are trying their best to cover the real news,” said 13-year-old Vignesh during class. “But some are just publishing news that is not there at all.”

Ethics and accuracy are among the topics of discussion, along with writing, reporting and various media-related concerns. The students come up with their own story ideas – on sport, society, arts, business and more – but are advised to focus on what’s happening in Qatar.

Starting in early January, a YPJ newspaper – with student reporting, photography, graphics and cartoons – will be inserted every Sunday into The Peninsula. The best student work will receive awards.

Over the year-long programme, the students will receive 60 hours of training in the job skills that are much needed in Qatar and across the region. In the UAE, a government body tasked with finding jobs for young Emirati nationals has found the private sector is willing to hire, but often cannot because of a lack of skills.

The Arab Labor Organization estimates unemployment at nearly 15 per cent in Arab countries – the highest for any region.Without intervention, the problem is likely to fester.

“The GCC will remain an unusually young part of the world,” said a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit called The GCC in 2020, which was released last week.

“Much will depend on the extent to which the young population can be harnessed as an effective labour force.”

That goal dovetails with one of YPJ’s lead sponsors. Silatech, an organisation created by Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned in 2008, engages public, private and civil society sectors to create jobs and opportunities for Arab youth.

“This helps young people inside Qatar that give back to Qatari society and enhance its growth,” said Ahmed Younis, director of strategic partnerships and communications at Silatech. “It’s important for the development and growth of the Middle East and North Africa region to be sure young people have a robust set of skills in journalism, public policy, and writing, and this is what we’re hoping to achieve.”

More than half of the YPJ students are Arab, 15 per cent to 20 per cent of whom are Qatari nationals. About 40 per cent are from South Asia, along with a handful of westerners. The initiative will also train 20 students with special needs from The Shaffallah School.

“This is the way the world works today, with people from all different places working together,” said Ms Widén, who put advertisements for the initiative in local Arabic and English-language newspapers. “We want all these different students to be integrated.”

Still, students will learn writing and interviewing skills, the role of a reporter and the value of news. The first class began with the basics – “What is Journalism?” – and ended with an assignment: write the five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) about a recent event.

The Palestinian triplets Yosra, Mohammad and Latifa, all 14, left class together, notebooks in hand. “We want to know more about newspapers, how they work,” said Latifa. She is doing her assignment on natural disasters, while her sister Yosra will focus on crime.

Their brother could not decide what to write about, then he brightened. “I know,” said Mohammad. “I’m going to write about the Algeria-Egypt football match.”

-- originally appeared Friday, 27 Nov 2009, in the National (www.thenational.ae).


Dubai is Good

The Burj Dubai sticks out from the city's skyline like a raised middle finger. Head, shoulders, torso and waist above all comers, the tower tells off legions of Dubai doubters. Indeed the building, which opens in January, is so tall as to be ludicrous. I first saw it from the plane as we prepared to land, and more than anything it looked like a creation beyond human capability, it rose so high, so sharply, piercing the sky like something out of a sci-fi movie. That the tower is stunning, a feat of both imagination and engineering, awe-inspiring and a wonder to behold is without question. But now that Dubai World has defaulted on its debt, the narrative of this Gulf city's glorious rise to global prominence -- as a financial center, a playground for the rich and adventurous, a laboratory for new ideas on architecture and urban planning -- and the meaning of the Burj have taken a darker turn.

A writer friend of mine, responding to mostly unfounded rumors that the foundation of the Burj had long since cracked, called the tower "the height of hypocrisy -- a most apt symbol for the city." Of course the Burj is a metaphor, but of what is as yet unclear. It's unlikely to become the Titanic, for one. Westerners seeking high salaries, ideal weather and the good life will continue to wash up on these shores.

Abu Dhabi will most likely bolster its economy and Dubai the dream will move on - and thank god for that. For Dubai is both a positive force in an unsettled Muslim world and a much-needed poverty reduction machine. Its economy is about as liberal and market-friendly as they get. Its government, although monarchic, is more laissez faire than any from Pakistan to Morocco -- and Muslims are all too aware of this. Ask any non-radical across the Muslim World where he'd like to go on holiday, or for the duration, and you'll likely hear "Dubai" within the first few options. Perhaps more importantly, there are few better places for developing world poor to go looking for work and success. The majority of Dubai's population is not Emirati, nor is it predominantly Western-expats splashing out for pads in Jumeirah beach. This city is comprised of mostly Indians and Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Fillipinos -- people from poor countries who've come looking for a better life, and mostly found it.

Still, with its reputation tarnished, its leadership chastened in the wake of the debt default, Dubai must now move out of its adolescence. Most likely, the opening of the Burj Dubai will represent the end of an era, and an awakening -- the moment Dubai accepted its mortality, stepped back from the brink and steadied itself.