It was a Saudi wedding like any other — clutching a decorative sword, the groom bobbed and swayed in a traditional dance. But there was one striking difference — a tiny guest list.
Weddings in the oil-rich kingdom are typically lavish affairs, with a bulging guest list which is seen both as a social obligation and a symbol of affluence.
Such expectations are often a source of economic strain for grooms, who foot most of the bill which includes renting out exorbitantly-priced marriage halls where nuptial celebrations are usually held.
But millennials like Basil Albani are increasingly hosting weddings at home, defying family traditions and social pressure and making huge savings instead.
Fewer than two dozen close relatives and friends were invited to the 26-year-old insurance executive's recent wedding feast comprising kabsa — a traditional rice and meat dish — at his ancestral home in western Jeddah city.
It was a microscopic figure by Saudi standards.
"People go all crazy with weddings, inviting hundreds of guests and spending millions in one night to get the best singers, best bands, best thobes," said Maan Albani, the 21-year-old brother of the groom, dressed in a gold-trimmed cloak.
"We wanted to do something different with a smaller celebration at home, which can also be fun."
Although prevalent for years, home weddings symbolise a war on excess by the country's youth as much as they are a barometer of the lagging economy.
They appear to be gaining popularity in the petro-state in a new age of austerity amid low crude prices.
Saudi Arabia has one of the world's highest concentrations of super rich households.
But with cuts to cradle-to-grave subsidies and a new value-added tax amid soaring youth unemployment, Saudi households are seeing stagnating disposable incomes and what experts call a lifestyle downgrade.
The change in fortunes in the once tax-free kingdom facing a youth bulge is a stress point that poses a challenge for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country's de facto leader.
And there are signs of an impact on the Saudi wedding market.
Annual spending on marriages in the kingdom exceeds two billion riyals ($533 million, 466 million euros), the highest in the Arab world, organisers of the Saudi international wedding fair said last year.
Statistics on frugal home marriages are hard to come by, but two wedding planners with a large Saudi clientele told AFP that average spending on marriages had dropped by 25 per cent over the past year, with many trimming back the pomp and pageantry.
A retailer of wedding invitation cards in Riyadh said business fell by 70 per cent over the period, as many customers demand rich designs at cheaper prices.
"Weddings should not start with a bank loan," said Murtada al-Abawi, a 29-year-old Uber driver.
It typically costs 80,000 riyals ($21,300, 18,600 euros) to rent a wedding hall and pay for the dowry and bridal accoutrements — including gold and makeup — a price Abawi was unwilling to pay.
He created a family storm when he suggested a small soiree in the local community centre for his own wedding in 2016.
A physical altercation broke out with his elder brother, who branded the idea shameful because "people will call us poor".
His parents and those of the would-be bride were equally furious but, ultimately, they all caved when Abawi cannily resorted to emotional blackmail.
He threatened to remain unmarried and flee to neighbouring Bahrain, a relatively liberal archipelago that many conservative Saudis view as a seedy offshore Las Vegas.
Abawi put his foot down: no dowry, no gold, no post-wedding party.
For the main wedding party, he used another ploy — he invited all his friends and relatives so as not to offend anyone, but hosted the late-evening celebration on a busy weeknight, forcing families with school-age children to voluntarily opt out.
The wedding, ultimately, cost only 9,000 riyals ($2,400, 2,100 euros).
The experience led Abawi to start an "affordable marriage" self-help group in his native eastern city of Al Ahsa, which counsels young men on tackling the social pressure to overspend.
Not everyone is cutting wedding expenditure, however, with many Saudis still splurging on designer prom dresses for the bride and belly dancers from Egypt for the entertainment.
Many still succumb to the pressure — or choose to get hitched overseas to circumvent the cultural minefield that hosting a small wedding can become.
In a 2017 newspaper column titled "Expensive weddings, a waste of money", writer Abdul Ghani al-Gash chided the kingdom's religious scholars for failing to educate the masses that weddings were not an occasion to show off.
Weddings, typically segregated by gender, are also known for wasting colossal amounts of food. Mountains of food, which culturally reflect generosity and class, often end up in the trash can.
The pressure to keep up appearances amid rising costs and unemployment is prompting many young men to delay marriage up to the age of 40, the Saudi Gazette newspaper reported in September.
But even Saudis who can afford to splurge are discovering an aesthetic value in simplicity and cutting back waste.
"My wife looks back at our wedding and says 'why did we even spend 9,000 riyals?'" said Abawi.
"We could have travelled with that money."
BANGKOK: The Saudi woman who made a desperate plea for asylum after landing at Bangkok airport has been placed “under the care” of the United Nations refugee agency, a Thai official said late yesterday. Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun told AFP she ran away from her family while travelling in Kuwait because they subjected her to physical and psychological abuse. The 18-year-old said she had planned to seek asylum in Australia and feared she would be killed if repatriated by Thai immigration officials who stopped her during transit on Sunday.
Thai immigration chief Surachate Hakparn had said Sunday that Qunun was denied entry because of her lack of documents. But he made an abrupt about-face the next day, following a global media frenzy as the young woman pleaded on Twitter for different countries to help her. After announcing that Thailand “will not force her” to leave, Surachate told reporters late yesterday that Qunun would be “allowed to stay” after a meeting with officials from the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
“She is under the care of the UNHCR now but we also sent Thai security to help take care (of her),” Surachate told reporters at Suvarnabhumi airport. He said Qunun had told UNHCR officials she “wants to stay in Thailand for a while seeking asylum to a third country”. The agency “will take five days to consider her status” and another five days to arrange for travel, Surachate said, adding that he would meet with Saudi diplomats today to explain Thailand’s decision.
Following the announcement, a relieved Qunun tweeted that she felt safe “under UNHCR protection with the agreement of Thailand authorities”, adding that her passport had been returned to her after being taken away on Sunday. UNHCR’s spokesman in Geneva Babar Baloch confirmed Qunun had “left the airport to a safe place in the city” and said agency officials would interview her once she had had some rest.
Surachate had told reporters earlier yesterday Qunun was stopped by immigration because Saudi officials had contacted them to say she had fled her family. “Thailand is a land of smiles. We will not send anyone to die,” he said. “We will take care of her as best as we can.” Qunun had earlier posted a video on Twitter of her barricading her hotel room door with furniture in a bid to stop her deportation from Thailand.
She said Saudi and Kuwaiti officials had taken her passport from her when she landed – a claim backed by Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Abdulilah Al-Shouaibi, charge d’affaires at the Saudi embassy in Bangkok, told Saudi-owned TV channel Khalijia that the woman’s father – a senior regional government official – had contacted the diplomatic mission for “help” bringing her back. But he denied that her passport had been seized and that embassy officials were present inside the airport. A Twitter statement from the Saudi embassy in Bangkok said Qunun was stopped by Thai authorities for “violating the law”.
The ultraconservative Saudi kingdom has long been criticized for imposing some of the world’s toughest restrictions on women. That includes a guardianship system that allows men to exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on behalf of their female relatives. In addition to facing punishment for “moral” crimes, women can also become the target of “honor killings” at the hands of their families, activists say.
If sent back, Qunun told AFP she would likely be imprisoned and was “sure 100 percent” her family would kill her. “My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair,” she said. She told Reuters via text and audio messages she had fled Kuwait during a family visit there, and had planned to travel to Australia to seek asylum. She said she was held after leaving her plane in Bangkok and told she would be sent back to Kuwait. “They will kill me,” Qunun told Reuters. “My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”
Qunun said her family was powerful in Saudi society but she did not identify them. Asked why she was seeking refuge in Australia, she told Reuters: “Physical, emotional and verbal abuse and being imprisoned inside the house for months. They threaten to kill me and prevent me from continuing my education. They won’t let me drive or travel. I am oppressed. I love life and work and I am very ambitious but my family is preventing me from living.”
Qunun said she had obtained an Australian visa and booked a flight. She said she had planned to spend a few days in Thailand so she would not spark suspicion when she left Kuwait. Surachate, however, said that Qunun did not have a visa for Australia. The Australian Embassy said it had no immediate comment.
HRW’s Robertson said Qunun “faces grave harm if she is forced back to Saudi Arabia”. “Given Saudi Arabia’s long track record of looking the other way in so-called honor violence incidents, her worry that she could be killed if returned cannot be ignored,” he said. “She has clearly stated that she has renounced Islam which also puts her at serious risk of prosecution by the Saudi Arabian government.”
An Australian government spokesman said the claims made by Qunun “that she may be harmed if returned to Saudi Arabia are deeply concerning” and they are monitoring the case “closely”. Australian embassy representatives in Bangkok have reached out to Thai authorities and the UNHCR to “seek assurances” that she will be able to access the “refugee status determination process”. The UNHCR said that according to the principle of non-refoulement, asylum seekers cannot be returned to their country of origin if their life is under threat. – Agencies
WASHINGTON: The United States does not want to be the “Policeman” of the Middle East, US President Donald Trump tweeted yesterday, as he defended his controversial decision to pull US forces out of Syria. “Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight….,” he tweeted.
Trump added: “Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the US leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.”I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!” The US president faced intense opposition to his abrupt announcement Wednesday that Islamic State had been defeated in the region, and that he was ordering the 2,000 US troops in Syria to exit the country.
US allies were stunned after President Donald Trump declared victory over the Islamic State group in Syria and abruptly ordered the withdrawal of US ground troops from the country. The decision runs counter to long-established US policy for Syria and the region. It blindsided lawmakers, the Pentagon and international allies alike. Britain and France warned on Thursday that the fight against jihadists in Syria was not finished.
‘We won against ISIS’
Trump earlier said: “We’ve won against ISIS,” in a short video posted on Twitter. “We’ve beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land. And now it’s time for our troops to come back home.” A withdrawal could have major geopolitical ramifications, and plunges into uncertainty the fate of US-backed Kurdish fighters who have been tackling Islamic State jihadists, thousands of whom are thought to remain in Syria.
A US official told AFP that Trump’s decision was finalized Tuesday. “Full withdrawal, all means all,” the official said when asked if the troops would be pulled from across Syria. Currently, about 2,000 US forces are in the country, most of them on a train-and-advise mission to support local forces fighting IS. Pentagon officials scrambled for a reaction. A spokeswoman eventually said the Defense Department had “started the process” of bringing troops home.
Lawmakers assailed Trump’s decision, saying it could embolden Ankara to attack US-backed Kurdish fighters. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, said the president’s decision was unwise and put the Kurds “at risk.” Democratic Senator Jack Reed said it amounted to a “betrayal” of the Kurds that “provides further evidence of President Trump’s inability to lead on the world stage.” Blasting the move as a “huge Obama-like mistake,” Graham said “I fear it will lead to devastating consequences for our nation, the region and throughout the world.”
Most US troops are stationed in northern Syria, though a small contingent is based at a garrison in Al-Tanaf, near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders. Trump has previously voiced skepticism about the US presence in Syria, saying in March he wanted to bring troops home “soon.” But military advisors and international allies warned Trump against a precipitous pullout, and he later acquiesced to an indefinite Syria mission.
The US official would not provide a withdrawal timeline, saying only it would come “as quickly as possible.” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the US-led coalition that includes dozens of nations would continue fighting the jihadists. “These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign,” Sanders said in a statement.
The Pentagon refused to say what effect the troop withdrawal would have on air operations in Syria that have been ongoing since late 2014. A senior administration official said Trump’s decision was consistent with comments he has made for years. “The notion that anyone within the administration was caught unaware, I would challenge that,” the official said. – AFP
A tsunami following a volcanic eruption killed at least 168 people when it slammed without warning into popular beaches around Indonesia's Sunda Strait on Saturday night, cutting a swathe of destruction and triggering mass panic as it swept inland.
Hundreds of buildings were destroyed by the wave, which hit the coast of southern Sumatra and the western tip of Java about 9.30pm (local time) following the eruption of a volcano known as the “child” of the legendary Krakatoa, national disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said.
Search and rescue teams were scouring rubble for survivors, with 168 confirmed dead, 745 people injured and 30 reported missing across three regions, he said.
A dramatic video posted on social media showed a wall of water suddenly crashing into an open-air concert by pop group “Seventeen” — hurling band members off the stage and then flooding into the audience.
In a tearful Instagram post, frontman Riefian Fajarsyah said the band's bassist and road manager had been killed.
Images of the aftermath of the tsunami in coastal areas show a trail of uprooted trees and debris strewn across beaches. A tangled mess of corrugated steel roofing, timber and rubble was dragged inland at Carita beach, a popular day-tripping spot on the west coast of Java.
Elsewhere it uprooted trees and left a trail of debris strewn across the ground.
Muhammad Bintang, who was at Carita beach when the wave hit, described a sudden surge of water that plunged the tourist spot into darkness.
“We arrived at 9pm for our holiday and suddenly the water came — it went dark, the electricity is off,” the 15-year-old told AFP.
“It's messy outside and we still cannot access the road.”
In Lampung province, on the other side of the strait, Lutfi Al Rasyid said he fled the beach in Kalianda city in fear for his life.
“I could not start my motorbike so I left it and I ran... I just prayed and ran as far as I could,” the 23-year-old told AFP.
Authorities say the tsunami may have been triggered by an abnormal tidal surge due to a new moon and an underwater landslide following the eruption of Anak Krakatoa, which forms a small island in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.
“The combination caused a sudden tsunami that hit the coast,” Nugroho said, but added that Indonesia's geological agency was working to ascertain exactly how it happened.
He added that the death toll would likely increase.
Video footage posted to social media by Nugroho showed panicked residents clutching flashlights and fleeing for higher ground.
Indonesian authorities initially claimed the wave was not a tsunami, but instead a tidal surge and urged the public not to panic.
Nugroho later apologised for the mistake on Twitter, saying because there was no earthquake it had been difficult to ascertain the cause of the incident early on.
“If there is an initial error we're sorry,” he wrote.
The wave swamped parts of the coast around the Sunda Strait, but was most damaging in Pandeglang district, on Java's western tip, where at least 33 people died and 491 people were injured.
Three people died further north in Serang, while seven were killed in South Lampung, on Sumatra island.
Heavy equipment was being transported to badly-hit areas to help search for victims, Nugroho said, adding evacuation posts and public kitchens were being set up for evacuees.
Abu Salim, a member of the Tagana disaster volunteer group, said he helped evacuate victims in Banten province.
“We evacuated the victims who died and were injured, we took them to health clinics ... Most of them suffered from broken bones,” he said, adding he feared more were missing.
Although relatively rare, submarine volcanic eruptions can cause tsunamis due to the sudden displacement of water or slope failure, according to the International Tsunami Information Centre.
Anak Krakatoa is a small volcanic island that emerged from the ocean half a century after Krakatoa's deadly 1883 eruption which killed more than 36,000 people.
According to Indonesia's geological agency, Anak Krakatoa had been showing signs of heightened activity for days, spewing plumes of ash thousands of metres into the air.
The volcano erupted again just after 9pm on Saturday, the agency said.
An eruption just before 4pm on Saturday lasted around 13 minutes and sent plumes of ash soaring hundreds of meters into the sky.
Indonesia, one of the most disaster-prone nations on earth, straddles the so-called Pacific 'Ring of Fire', where tectonic plates collide and a large portion of the world's volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.
Most recently in the city of Palu on Sulawesi island a quake and tsunami killed thousands of people.
In 2004, a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.3 undersea earthquake off the coast of Sumatra in western Indonesia killed 220,000 people in countries around the Indian Ocean, including 168,000 in Indonesia.
Anak Krakatoa is one of 127 active volcanoes which run the length of the archipelago.