Inside the Middle East
May 30, 2012
Posted: 1555 GMT

Arab clients smoke waterpipes after breaking their fast at a Ramadan tent in a five-star hotel in Dubai on September 16, 2008. (MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Smokers in the United Arab Emirates may soon be feeling the squeeze.

Dubai is set to mark World No Tobacco Day this Thursday by banning tobacco sales for 24 hours, according to the UAE-based newspaper Gulf News.

More than 200 companies – including restaurants, gas stations, and supermarkets – have reportedly elected not to sell tobacco products for the day.

In the past five years, the UAE has banned smoking in closed public places, increased the price of cigarettes, and soon will cover tobacco-related products with graphic warning labels.

But banning tobacco altogether may be tough for some:

A pack of cigarettes in the UAE costs under $2, but the nation's rulers are intending to change that.  Measures such as a tax increase on cigarettes are just one example of  the country's plan to discourage smoking – especially among the younger generation.

“It is never too late for the smoker to consider quitting regardless of the type, amount or duration of smoking. Whenever you have the will, there will always be a way,” Dr. Abdul Razzak Al Kaddour, a cardiologist at the Sheikh Khalifah Medical City in Abu Dhabi, told the Khaleej Times.  The Sheikh Khalifah Medical City is putting up breath-analyzing booths on Thursday to help motivate smokers to quit.

Dubai residents welcomed the news on social media, but some noted that the day-long ban might not go far enough:

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Filed under: Abu Dhabi •Dubai •General •UAE

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May 29, 2012
Posted: 1206 GMT

Tragic images out of the Qatari capital Doha as families mourn the deaths of 19 people in a fire at an upscale mall, including 13 children. It seems the fire began in the Gympanzee nursery and fire fighters had to break through the roof to get it.

The dead include four teachers, two would-be rescue workers, and thirteen children from multiple nationalities including 2-year-old triplets from New Zealand.

The Qatari government has ordered  an immediate investigation into the incident. A Civil Defense official said at a press conference yesterday that the roof and staircase of the nursery had collapsed, forcing rescue workers to create an opening in the roof to take out the victims.

Eyewitness Christine Wigton told CNN "There were no sprinklers, and there was nothing that would tell somebody that something was wrong."

Qatari authorities insist that all buildings adhere to strict codes per civil defense.

Disturbingly, a Qatar expat forum flagged exactly this issue as far back as February 2009 in a post titled "Fire Hazard at Villagio", with photographs claiming to show padlocked fire exits at the Villagio Mall itself.  

CNN cannot confirm the accuracy of these photos or the information claimed:

Photo from Qatar Living expat forum from February 2009 claiming to be at Villagio Mall.

Photo from an expat forum in Qatar. CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of these photos, their location, or date.

An eerie comment posted over three years ago rings ominous on this tragic day...

A gathering is planned today at 5pm Doha time at nearby Aspire Park to commemorate the victims.

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Filed under: Qatar

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May 28, 2012
Posted: 1109 GMT

Check out this youtube clip published a few days ago showing a Saudi woman standing up to the Mutawwin, or religious police.

The woman is being told to leave the mall, apparently because she is wearing nail polish and – possibly – because some of her hair is showing.

Although women are expected to cover their hair in public, many women in malls, hotels and restaurants in Saudi Arabia wear only the flowing black abaya, without covering their hair. It is not clear from the video where the incident took place, but it is not uncommon to be monitored in malls by members of the dreaded body officially called The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

“You are not the boss of me” the woman yells in the video which according to an article published by The Saudi Gazette, prompted the commission to start an investigation into the incident.

Despite efforts to reform the religious police, including setting up a human rights unit and signing a deal with the local tourism authority , many a woman will still reach for her headscarf when a Mutawwi is nearby!

This video revived an ongoing debate in the kingdom about the role the religious police should play in Saudi.  Here’s what some tweeted:

Here you can see photos from Inside the Middle East's most recent trip to Saudi a few months ago.

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Filed under: Saudi Arabia •Women

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May 24, 2012
Posted: 1254 GMT

Egyptians headed to polling stations on Thursday, for a second straight day, to place their ballots in what many are calling the first free presidential election in Egypt's history.

Political cartoonists have always been a burden for leaders in tightly-controlled, autocratic political systems. In the old Egypt, under the three-decade rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, the press was less regulated than some of its other Arab neighbors.  Still, Egypt's press has opened greatly since Mubarak's February 2011 ouster, and cartoonists are relishing new freedoms that allow them to unleash their creativity.

Here's a look at what Egypt's political cartoonists had to say about this historic election:

From Egypt Independent, an independent online daily:

This cartoon shows a dentist treating a patient and – referring the nation's newfound political freedoms for voting – says, “Your voice is really bad. You give it to the wrong person every time. Take care this time!”

Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Culture •Egypt •Elections •Media

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May 23, 2012
Posted: 1442 GMT

Police in Dubai are warning swimmers to wear appropriate clothing this summer, following thousands of citations for ‘bad behavior’ at the emirate’s popular beaches this year.

More than 3,000 beachgoers in Dubai were cited in the first five months of 2012, according to the National newspaper.

Wearing bikinis or revealing swimsuits is not forbidden at most beaches in Dubai, unlike some of the United Arab Emirates more conservative Gulf neighbors.  Going swimming in underwear (and not a proper bathing suit), however, is apparently illegal.

Some of the beach crimes in 2012, as reported by the National, included:

      • Overdressing: 2,800 offenders were people “who go to the beach with full dress to stare at other beachgoers”
      • Underdressing: 259 people were caught swimming in their underwear
      • Voyeurism: more than 100 men were busted taking photos of women at the beach

“We have seen 114 offenses of people recording women on beaches using their mobile phones and 119 offenses for people harassing and annoying beach users. First we warn people and if they repeat the offense again then we make a criminal case against them and charge them with sexual molestation,” Lieutenant Colonel Abdullah Mohammad Al Mazyoud, head of Dubai’s Port Police Station, told the UAE’s 7 Days newspaper.

Last week, two Emirati women launched an online campaign to encourage expatriates living in the UAE to dress more modestly while shopping in malls.

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Filed under: Culture •Dubai •UAE

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May 22, 2012
Posted: 1115 GMT

As Egyptians prepare to head to polling stations later this week for the nation’s first presidential election since the 2011 ouster of former ruler Hosni Mubarak, voters in Cairo will likely face an all-too-common obstacle in their path:


Chaotic, loud, incessant, and sometimes even horrifying traffic.

In a sprawling metropolis of more than 20 million residents, where an estimated 2.5 million cars share narrow streets with trash-wielding donkey carts and rickety, three-wheeled tuk-tuks, idling in the endless traffic jams can easily whittle hours off each day.  And there is no such thing as rush hour in the Arab's world largest capital – every hour is rush hour in Cairo.

Our team got an up-close look at #CairoTraffic (yes, Cairo's gridlock claims its own hashtag on Twitter) during a recent trip to Egypt to film our 100th episode.  Taking a short drive across town – sometimes just 10 to 15 kilometers – frequently took us several mind-numbing hours.  With little else to do in the car, we snapped a few pics of the daily jams – take a look at them here on our Facebook account.

READ MORE: Inside the Middle East in Cairo for our 100th show

Egypt’s recent uprising did not help matters on the roads, according to government officials.

In late January 2011, two weeks before the departure of Mubarak, most police vanished from their posts. Traffic police have since returned to the streets of Cairo – but not every street.

“Things have got worse since the recent revolution, because motorists can now get away with traffic violations without being punished,“ Amer Gamgoum, head of Cairo traffic enforcement, told the state-run Egyptian Gazette last May.

It's hard to imagine things could actually be getting worse.  Take a look at this 2010 video from CNN’s Egypt correspondent, Ben Wedeman, who is certainly no stranger to the perils of crossing the road in Cairo.

Will Egypt's future president be able fix congestion in the capital?

The candidates were offered some last-minute campaign advice from at least one Twitter-user, in this follow-up to a tweet from Wedeman on Tuesday:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Egypt

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May 21, 2012
Posted: 1256 GMT

The United Arab Emirates is sending a woman to compete in weightlifting at the London Games this summer, the first time that a female bodybuilder from the Gulf nation has qualified for the sport.

But the Emirati women's squad is also making history for another reason – they were the first female weightlifters to compete internationally while wearing the hijab, according to a recent report from the National.

The Abu-Dhabi-based newspaper reports on the UAE’s decision to wear the Islamic headscarf while competing:

Until recently, the rules governing the sport stipulated uniforms had to be collarless and could not cover elbows or knees, essentially because judges need to see that a competitor's elbows and knees are locked during a lift.

However, those dress regulations were modified by the International Weightlifting Federation, after being challenged last year by a Muslim American who wanted to wear Islamic dress while competing in US national competitions.

"It was a decision which will help the whole Islamic world," Sheikh Sultan bin Mejren, president of the Emirates Weightlifting Federation, told the National.  "Now there is no difference between Muslims and non-Muslims in events like the Olympics. There is no border to accept them or not. Everybody can participate without breaking rules."

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Filed under: Abu Dhabi •Dubai •Sports •UAE •Women

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May 20, 2012
Posted: 1037 GMT

Would you fly halfway around the world just to order a slice of pizza?

One American recently did just that.

Jon Gabrus, a self-described "Fat American," flew from New York City to Dubai for the sole purpose of ordering and eating a pizza, reported the UAE's National newspaper on Sunday.  Gabrus, 30, traveled a total of 6,850 miles in 13 hours to get the pie.

Why?  Because it wasn't just any pizza – it was Pizza Hut's new Crown Crust cheeseburger pizza, which apparently is not available in the U.S.  Plus, the trip was part of a comedy bit.

Here's the National on Gabrus' rationale:

The answer is that the Crown Crust pizza is unique to the UAE. Pizza Hut Middle East's menu describes it as "grilled mini cheeseburgers nestled in a golden crown crusts. All in a pizza topped with beef, fresh tomato and lettuce, delightfully drizzled with Pizza Hut's special sauce".

Americans cannot buy a pizza whose crust is studded with little cheeseburgers unless they have a passport and an airline ticket, but the country that invented fast food seems mesmerised by it. After numerous incredulous reports in the US media, a website called College Humor commissioned Gabrus to fly to Dubai and taste one.

No word on how many calories in the Crown Crust, but Gabrus did post a video on his "greasy" adventure to Dubai.

Interestingly enough, the other big story in the National on Sunday was on childhood obesity.

Here's what one Twitter user had to say on the new pizza-burger hybrid:

What do you think?

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Filed under: Dubai •UAE

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May 18, 2012
Posted: 1147 GMT

File picture dated August 21, 2008 shows Warda Al-Jazayriah, one of the Arab world's most famous Divas, during her memorable performance on the steps of the Bacchus Temple in the Roman Acropolis of Baalbek in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. PHOTO: AFP/Getty Images

Fans around the Arab world are mourning the death of Algerian diva Warda, known for her powerful voice, patriotic songs and cinematic roles. She died of cardiac arrest at her Cairo home at age 72.

Born in France in 1940 to an Algerian father and Lebanese mother, she started singing at age 11 and moved to her native country after it gained independence in the 60s. She married there and quit singing for ten years, reportedly because her husband banned her from performing, but returned to the limelight when then-president Boumedienne asked her to perform to commemorate Algerian independence day.

Warda worked with some of the most iconic Arab musicians including composer and singer Mohammed Abdelwahab and composer Baligh Hamdy who she eventually married. She and Hamdy collaborated on of her most famous songs  "Ismaouni" or "Listen to Me."

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Filed under: Algeria •Culture

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May 16, 2012
Posted: 1106 GMT
Most malls in the UAE have a dress code displayed at entrances. Some Emiratis now want foreigners to respect this dress code.
Most malls in the UAE have a dress code displayed at entrances. Some Emiratis now want foreigners to respect this dress code.

It is not unusual to see (usually female) tourists and expats in Dubai's malls and restaurants dressed in fashions that could be called short, tight, strapless or generally "revealing."

Now some Emiratis are saying Respect Our Culture. An online campaign launched by two Emirati women shocked at the liberal dress code of many foreigners has gained momentum. The hashtag #UAEDressCode is trending on Twitter, local media is asking the question "how short is too short?" and even the British ambassador has weighed in, calling on tourists to respect local culture.

Although the overwhelming majority of those living in this Gulf nation are expatriate, Emiratis themselves are generally conservative and abide by Islamic customs and traditions. Tourism sites welcoming visitors to the country describe it as "conservative but tolerant when it comes to dress code."

Perhaps tolerance has its limits!

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Filed under: Social Media •UAE

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Welcome to the Inside the Middle East blog where CNN's journalists post news, views and video from across the region. This is also a place where you can start the discussion so please keep your comments coming. We highlight not only current news stories but also anecdotes and issues that don't always make the top of the headlines.

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