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Internet survives as Dubai conference collapses

The Dubai conference of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has ended in disarray – much to the relief of those who support internet freedom.

The purpose of the conference was to draft a new international treaty on cross-border communications. As I reported last week, Russia and others – including a group of Arab countries led by the UAE – viewed this as an opportunity to assert more governmental control over the internet.

Although 89 countries accepted the new treaty – prompting the ITU to describe it as a "solid new framework for tomorrow’s hyper-connected world" – 55 countries refused to sign, in effect making the treaty inoperable.

Rejectionists include the US, the UK, Canada, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Kenya, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Qatar and Sweden. The US had earlier described the text as "inconsistent with the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance".

According to AFP, a key part of the document states that "all governments should have an equal role and responsibility for international internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the existing internet and its future development and of the future internet" – which is seen as opening the door for meddling by authoritarian regimes.

In a highly critical report for the dot-nxt website, Kieren McCarthy argues that the main loser in all this is the ITU itself:

"Having turned industries and governments upside down, the internet has claimed its first organisational scalp, subjecting the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to a humiliating failure at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai ...

"The collapse [of the conference] will come as a severe embarrassment to the ITU. Efforts to bring its core telecom regulations into the Internet era had exposed the organisation to modern realities that it was incapable of dealing with. In the end, they proved overwhelming ...

"In the end, the ITU and the conference chair, having backed themselves to the edge of a cliff, dared governments to push them off. They duly did. And without even peeking over, the crowd turned around and walked away."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 December 2012. Comment.

Arab uprisings: a book list

Some new additions to al-bab website:

  • There are now dozens of books about the Arab uprisings that began at the end of 2010. I have compiled a fairly comprehensive list of those that are readily available in English. Readers and publishers are invited to send details of any omissions or new titles.

Live news feeds

  • I have also added a series of live news feeds, combining RSS feeds from various sources. There is a general news feed for the Middle East, plus others for the individual countries. 

  • Separately, there is also a live feed of posts from various bloggers.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 December 2012. Comment.

Spinning the UAE

Yesterday I wrote about moves to fend off complaints about human rights abuses in the UAE with "rapid rebuttal" of critics. I suggested it's only a matter of time before the Emirates go down Bahrain's route, hiring a plethora of western PR firms and "reputation management" consultants.

Well, it's happening sooner than I thought. A reader in Dubai posted a note on Facebook naming three PR firms with government contracts.

There's no suggestion that these firms directly condone rights abuses by the UAE, but the nature of PR is to "accentuate the positive" – and putting a cheery spin on things inevitably distracts attention away from more unsavoury matters.

One of the firms, Asda'a Burson-Marsteller, was hired by the UAE government in 2001 to manage communications for Federal National Council election. The FNC is a quasi-parliament and half of its 40 members are directly elected. 

A large part of the firm's task was to encourage Emiratis to turn out and vote. A more questionable part, though, was to "manage international and regional media expectations about the election" by presenting it "as next logical step towards wider political participation in the UAE" and "as a gradual process towards more political power – especially following the events of the Arab Spring".

That is certainly a very generous way of viewing the UAE rulers' intentions. A more realistic interpretation is that the elections were little more than a token gesture and the rulers have no serious intention of ceding power to democracy.

Incidentally, and aside from politics, Asda'a Burson-Marsteller also handled PR for the Dubai leg of Kim Kardashian's dreadful "milkshake" tour of the Gulf. According to its website, the firm managed to attract 400 journalists and bloggers to a press conference – which probably says a lot about the state of journalism in Dubai.

The website also mentions that Asda'a Burson-Marsteller was writing tweets for Kardashian to post during her trip. Presumably this means some other PR firm wrote the tweets for her controversial visit to Bahrain – including the stuff about how much she loved the repressive little kingdom.

A second PR firm, Falcon & Associates, was established by a decree from the ruler of Dubai in 2009 – so it is closely linked to the government. It says on its website:

"We drive new, tangible initiatives and strategic communications that build on the emirate’s many successes to date, thereby helping Dubai to fulfill its long-term potential and enhance its global position as a financial, business and tourism hub ...

"Whether the end goal is economic, social or trade related, deepening the understanding and appreciation of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed’s vision for Dubai is central to what we do."

A third PR company, Edelman, is not very forthcoming about its UAE activities on itswebsite, though it says it was chosen by the National Day Committee "to co-ordinate celebrations to honour the United Arab Emirates’s 40th Anniversary".

  • Note: An earlier version of this blog post referred to Falcon Media rather than Falcon & Associates – which was the name I had been given. Falcon Media lists the government of Dubai as one of its clients but appears to work in advertising rather than PR.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 December 2012. Comment.

Yemen: All the president's missiles?

Ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh continues to haunt the political scene in Yemen, more than nine months after being ousted from office. In the latest confrontation, Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed, is refusing to hand over long-range Scud missiles to the defence ministry, Reuters reports.

Ahmed, a brigadier-general who at one stage was regarded as heir to his father's presidency, controls the missiles in his capacity as commander of the Republican Guards. It is unclear how many Scuds he has, but these are far from being insignificant weapons (see picture).

A Scud launcher. Attribution: Share Alike 3.0 Germany 
After a 13-month uprising against his rule, Ali Abdullah Saleh was finally persuaded (under international pressure) to leave office last February. In return, the Yemeni parliament granted him immunity from prosecution and he remains in the country.

Meanwhile, Yemen's "transitional" president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who previously served as Saleh's deputy, has been battling to assert his authority – a task made more difficult by the presence of Saleh's relatives and loyalists in key positions. 

Reuters says:

In April, Hadi removed about 20 top commanders, including a half brother of Saleh and other relatives.

In August, he began chipping away at General Ahmed's power base by transferring units from the Republican Guards to a new force under his command or under different regional commands.

The current squabble over Scuds appears to be a further attempt by Hadi to curtail Ahmed's power and bring Yemen's military under unified command. Besides Ahmed's Republican Guard there is also the problem of General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a a kinsman of Saleh who was once a strong supporter of the ex-president but later turned against him and is now said to be close to the Islamist-traditionalist Islah party. Ali Mohsen also controls his own troops.

Aside from these regular forces, Yemen also has tribal militias (not to mention jihadist insurgents) and a generally well-armed citizenry. On November 30, five people were injured in Sana'a by an explosion at the home of businessman Ali Garman Muhammed Garman. The blast was said to have been caused by a fire in the armoury that the family kept in their cellar.

Yesterday also brought the assassination of yet another senior member of the security services. Brigadier-General Ahmed Saeed Mubarak Baramada, deputy director of the political security in Hadramawt province was shot dead on his way to work by two men on a motorcycle. 

Motorcycle assassinations are a regular occurrence and al-Qaeda is usually blamed for them. Last month, in an effort to crack down on this, the government began confiscating unlicensed bikes – much to the annoyance of poor but honest Yemenis who use them for deliveries or as "taxis" carrying pillion passengers.

Unlike many of his opponents, President Hadi does not have a significant power base inside the country and his position would be precarious were it not for the fact that he has strong American backing behind the scenes.

The problem with that, though, is that the US seems more interested in using Hadi to further the war on al-Qaeda than in furthering Yemen's political development. This is short-sighted, because a well-functioning political system offers the best long-term defence against jihadism.

Hopes for political restructuring are pinned mainly on the long-promised "national dialogue". To that end, a preparatory committee has now finished work and is due to present its report to President Hadi shortly.

The dialogue is supposed to be inclusive and fully representative but there are fears that the more peaceful elements – youth movements, women, civil society, etc – will be sidelined by those whose weapons give them political muscle.

In an article for Foreign Policy, Yemen-based journalist Adam Baron writes:

Even if the dialogue succeeds, restoring unity to this notoriously fractious country will still prove a tall order. Across the country, powerful tribal leaders maintain their hold over their own fighting forces; even the Yemeni army, many here complain, are closer to a collection of private militias than it is to a truly national military. 

Rather than holding a monopoly on power, the post-Saleh government often appears to be at the mercy of various factions whose interests often seem to diverge from those of the nation as a whole. In some sense, it's a thorny paradox: As the country aims to move forward, the cooperation of such divergent interest groups is key. But their continued sway, many argue, could render any progress in Sanaa moot.

"The source of Yemen's problems is clear," says Mujahid al-Kuhali, who serves as Minister of Expatriate Affairs in the unity government. "The center of power remains in the hands of certain armed groups controlled by men ... who work for themselves rather than for Yemen. Until this changes, the problems will not be solved."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 December 2012. Comment.

Self-inflicted wounds in the UAE

There are calls in the United Arab Emirates for action to "provide rapid rebuttal" when the UAE is "a victim of unjust and inaccurate criticism from abroad", according to a report in The National today.

The UAE authorities are fuming over complaints about their human rights performance, and in particular a highly critical resolution passed by the European Parliament in October.

Among other things, the resolution expressed "great concern about assaults, repression and intimidation against human rights defenders, political activists and civil society actors within the United Arab Emirates who peacefully exercise their basic rights to freedom of expression, opinion, and assembly".

At a public meeting with six members of the Federal National Council in Dubai on Sunday, lawyer Ali al-Haddad complained that "people" were working to ruin the UAE's image.

Council member Mona al-Bahar said the UAE must "work with the same aggression" as its critics. "It's like a game, we need to know how to play."

That probably means it's just a matter of time before the UAE goes down Bahrain's route, hiring a plethora of western PR firms and "reputation management" consultants.

It's comforting for Emiratis, of course, to blame their country's image problem on the "bias and prejudice" of foreigners (as the minister of state for foreign affairs has done). To the extent that anyone admits the problem is self-inflicted, it's seen as the fault of lazy ambassadors and a failure to refute "inaccurate allegations" with accurate statistics rather than a failure to protect people's rights – at least, according the The National's report of Sunday's meeting.

It doesn't help the country's image, though, when the UAE arrests a teenage blogger (as happened last week) or issues a new law on internet use which much of the world regards as bonkers.

Accentuating the positive, as the PR firm Qorvis has been doing for Bahrain, may distract attention from the negative but it doesn't actually solve anything. 

A recent headline in The National (an Emirates-based newspaper) cheerily announced that the UAE had been ranked fifth in the world for "order and security" by the World Justice Project in its annual 
Rule of Law Index. But "order and security" (low rates of crime and violence) is only one of nine factors used to compile the overall index. 

Referring to the UAE, the World Justice Project's report complained about "discrimination against marginalised groups" in the civil court system and continued:

"The formal system of checks and balances [in government] remains weak, and the country has a poor record on respect for fundamental rights (ranking eighty-second), including labour rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom of 
opinion and expression. Accessibility of official information is lower than in other high income countries."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 December 2012. Comment.

Saudi crackdown on 'fake' muftis

The Saudi Gazette reports that "a number of scholars and citizens" are urging the authorities to take a firm line against "self-styled muftis and religious guides who mislead people with false fatwas based on questionable knowledge of religious matters".

One prominent scholar, Sheikh Hassan Safar, is quoted as saying there should be a licensing system for muftis and preachers.

It's not the first attempt to do this. More than two years ago, King Abdullah decreed that the issuing of public fatwas (religious rulings) would be restricted to members of the High Scholars Authority – all of whom are appointed by the king.

However, the king's decree only applied to public fatwas – not those issued privately to individuals for personal guidance. It is private fatwas from unrecognised "scholars" that Sheikh Safar seems to be objecting to in the Saudi Gazette's story. Referring to people who pose as muftis on the strength of their physical appearance, he says:

"By growing a beard, shortening their clothes so that they rest slightly above the ankles and constantly brushing their teeth with a miswak, they try to fool people. 

"However, such people have only little knowledge about the Shariah and even the Arabic language. They can advise people on simple religious matters but they should not dare to issue edicts on matters concerning those permissible (halal) and those forbidden (haram) in Islam."

There is certainly a problem here. Fatwas from people with dubious knowledge and credentials have contributed to the spread of religious extremism.

In the Crossroads Arabia blog, John Burgess writes:

"Some of the fatwas issued are just nonsensical; others, though, create serious problems of intolerance ...

"There is a need to get out of the era of ‘dueling fatwas’, wherein it’s far too easy to find fatwas in complete contradiction with each other. ‘Shopping for fatwas’, i.e., continually hunting around to find a mufti who will issue the fatwa you like, would be ended as well by a single, uniform body. That is indeed what the government has established. It needs now to make it stick."

But there are several objections to that. The idea of granting licences for preaching or issuing fatwas raises questions about who might be approved – or not. Determining whether someone is suitably qualified can often boil down to a matter of opinion and in Saudi Arabia's case it's very likely that approval will depend on adhering to the wahhabi establishment's line.

A second objection is that the principle of free speech should apply to religion as much as to anything else. If Muslims want to express views about what is haram and halal, they should be allowed to do so.

Arab governments have traditionally use licensing systems for newspapers, NGOs and political parties to restrict free expression by not licensing those they disapprove of, and the Saudi government has now begun extending this to preachers.

Basically, the Saudi authorities are approaching it from the wrong direction. This is part of a much wider problem among Arab regimes (which I wrote about in my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East) where they treat the public as children or sheep and attempt to protect them from "harmful" ideas.

In the long run, that doesn't work and it tends to result in "harmful" ideas getting more credence than they deserve. The solution is not to suppress them but to let them out into the open so they can be challenged with evidence and rational argument. Ideally, too, ordinary Muslims would rely less on fatwas and move towards a situation where ordinary believers can make their own informed choices on ethical and religious matters.

But that would require a major shift in attitudes and there are some who suggest it's too much to hope for. The last time I wrote on this topic, I received the following comments from a reader:

"While I agree that there are "authoritarian tendencies" in Islam, I think you're overlooking an important point, which is that Islam is a religion. Religions, Islam or otherwise, are designed to be authoritarian. Whether it's Egyptian Christians following [the late] Pope Shenouda III's orders or Muslims following the dictates of scholars and sheikhs, that's what religions do. They're not democracies and they can't change themselves to satisfy the people. 

"Disobeying religion is another thing, which people should be completely free to do should they choose. But if you're going to adhere to a particular religion, the only way to do so is to obey it. At least that's how I see it.

"Regarding your suggestion that Muslims need to 'rely less on fatwas and move towards a situation where ordinary believers can make their own informed choices on ethical and religious matters', I think this is harder than it seems. I am a Muslim, and if in the event that I wanted to make an informed decision on a particular matter of which I was unsure, I probably wouldn't be able to. For a scholar to make an informed and sensible fatwa, he usually has to draw on an enormous body of texts to ensure it doesn't contradict the principles of the religion."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 December 2012. Comment.

Tunisia: another Egypt?

Away from the continuing drama in Egypt, Tunisia's Islamist-led government is also in trouble. In many ways the developing conflict in Tunisia is similar to that of Egypt: protests have broken out against a government which seems more interested in pursuing its religious agenda than solving the country's problems – and a government which is beginning to display some of the high-handed arrogance that characterised the previous regime.

Towards the end of last month, trouble broke out in Siliana, an obscure and economically marginalised town 90 miles from the capital. Stone-throwing youths clashed with riot police who hit back with teargas and birdshot. More than 250 people were reportedly injured – 17 of them blinded by birdshot. The initial battles lasted for five days (see reports by Reuters and AFP).

The protesters were demanding jobs and removal of the local governor appointed by Ennahda, the Islamist party that won the largest bloc of seats in last year's parliamentary election, but they also reflect a more generalised disaffection with the government. A wave of strikes has also hit Kasserine, Gafsa and Sfax.

"The government is reproducing the behaviour of Ben Ali's regime," Iyad Dahmani from the centre-left Republican Party told Reuters.

"It's an arrogant government that thinks its election victory means it can use tear gas and birdshot on people instead of giving them jobs and investment."

Reuters continues:

One protester, a teacher who did not wish to be named, said she had voted for Ennahda last year but felt the Islamists had let people down.

"This is the paradise of Ennahda that we elected," she said, grasping an empty tear gas canister. "This is what Ennahda has to offer us. We won't make this mistake again."

Meanwhile, Ennahda doesn't seem to have learned much from the mistakes of the Ben Ali regime. Although it "temporarily" removed the governor of Siliana, it has been generally dismissive of the protesters, accusing them of driving away investment and showing little interest in their demands for jobs.

Tunisia's main trade union, the UGTT, has now called a one-day general strike for 13 December – a move which Rashid Ghannouchi, Ennahda's leader, denounced as purely political and not based on social aims. Some of Annahda's supporters have been more conciliatory, saying they "respect" the UGTT's decision to hold a strike even though they disagree with it.

On Saturday, pro-government demonstrators took to the streets, opposing the UGTT's strike call, and various religious figures have weighed in too. One of them, a hardline cleric called Basheer Bin Husein said the strikes were not permissible because they would harm the economy and the society. 

He told al-Arabiya his ruling was based on the Quran and the prophet's teachings. If he were a business owner, he added, he would dismiss any employee who went on strike.

Tunisia, like Egypt, has a long history of labour activism which Ennahda can ill afford to ignore. Last Wednesday was exactly 60 years since Farhat Hached, regarded as the father of Tunisian trade unionism, was assassinated by agents of French colonialism. 

Recalling Hached's legacy in an article for Open Democracy last week, Rob Prince wrote that the recent outburst in Siliana was much more than an expression of anger and frustration:

"It was a reminder that massive youth unemployment, low wages combined with classic 'structural adjustment take-ways' were among the key contributing factors to the revolt which brought down Ben Ali ...

"It was a protest against the government’s dilly-dallying, its fixation with shifting Tunisian society in a more religious direction while coming up empty (or almost so) in efforts to address the country’s appalling poverty and unemployment. 

"It was a protest against the social polarisation between rich and poor, between the urban centres and the more rural areas, which again has hardly been addressed since Ben Ali fled the country ...

"Siliana was a warning to the transition government – nothing less: get serious about dealing with the country’s genuine problems, or face the consequences ..."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 December 2012. Comment.

Arab regimes' new threat to internet

A group of Arab governments have joined forces with Russia in a move to gain more control over the internet. 

The group, led by the United Arab Emirates, are expected to present their proposals next week to the world conference of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which is meeting in Dubai to prepare a new international treaty on cross-border communications.

The ITU, which operates under UN auspices, has traditionally dealt with such matters as technology standards for telephone companies and payments for international phone calls. But now, an Arab-Russian alliance is seeking to extend the scope of the global treaty to include the internet – a move that the US, Japan, Australia and others are resisting.

Details of the UAE-led proposal have not been released but Reuters reports:

"All of the indicators we have so far is it's something that could be a clear effort to extend the treaty to cover Net governance," said policy counsel Emma Llanso of the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology, which draws funding from Google and other U.S. Internet companies.

"What we're seeing is governments putting forward their visions of the future of the Internet, and if we see a large group of governments form that sees an Internet a lot more locked down and controlled, that's a big concern."

The US ambassador to the conference said in an earlier interview that his country would not sign any agreement that dramatically increased government controls over the Internet.

That would potentially isolate America and its allies from much of the world ...

At the conference earlier this week, the US and Canada, with European backing, sought to pre-empt the move with a proposal to limit the ITU's scope to telecom companies – specifically excluding internet-based companies such as Google – but failed to win enough support.

Writing on CNN's website, Vinton Cerf, Google's "Chief Internet Evangelist", says some governments are using the ITU conference in Dubai "to further their repressive agendas". 

"Accustomed to media control, these governments fear losing it to the open internet. They worry about the spread of unwanted ideas. They are angry that people might use the internet to criticise their governments.

"The ITU is bringing together regulators from around the world to renegotiate a decades-old treaty that was focused on basic telecommunications, not the internet. Some proposals leaked to the WICITLeaks website from participating states could permit governments to justify censorship of legitimate speech – or even justify cutting off internet access by reference to amendments to the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs).

"Several authoritarian regimes reportedly propose to ban anonymity from the web, making it easier to find and arrest dissidents. Others have proposed moving the responsibilities of the private sector system that manages domain names and internet addresses to the United Nations. Yet other proposals would require any internet content provider, small or large, to pay new tolls in order to reach people across borders."

In any case, Cerf argues, the ITU is the wrong place to make decisions about the internet:

"Only governments have a vote at the ITU. This includes governments that do not support a free and open internet. Engineers, companies, and people that build and use the web have no vote.

"The multi-stakeholder model of internet policy development that is the hallmark of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the Internet Governance Forum, the Regional Internet Registries, among many others, is the only sensible way forward."

But repressive governments are not looking for a sensible way forward. That's why they see the ITU as a useful forum to pursue their agendas.

  • On Wednesday, while the ITU conference was under way in Dubai, authorities in the neighbouring emirate of Sharjah arrested 18-year-old Mohamed Salem al-Zumer in connection with comments posted on the internet supporting prominent jailed activists.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 December 2012. Comment.

Syria: preparing for the end

The last few days have brought a sudden revival of diplomatic activity over Syria. 

On Monday, Russian president Vladimir Putin met the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Istanbul. Yesterday, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, the international envoy on Syria held a three-way meeting in Dublin. Today, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon is due in Turkey at the start of a Middle East tour.

Underlying these moves is an apparent weakening of Russian support for Assad as the decline of his regime accelerates. 

Russia and Turkey have certainly not seen eye-to-eye on Syria up to now but following the Putin-Erdogan meeting the Russian Itar-Tass news agency reported that they had come up with a number of new proposals for a settlement which they would "work on".

“Russia and Turkey have so far not been able to come to agreement on how to settle the conflict in Syria, but their assessments of the situation are identical,” Putin said after the talks.

They also have agreed on “what kind of situation we should achieve”.

Itar-Tass did not elaborate on what these "identical" assessments of the situation are, but there are signs that Russia is becoming disillusioned with Assad. Yesterday, Vladimir Vasilyev, a key ally of Putin in the Russian parliament, was quoted as saying: "We have shared and do share the opinion that the existing government in Syria should carry out its functions. But time has shown that this task is beyond its strength."

Renewed diplomatic activity implies there is something new to talk about and perhaps even a prospect of establishing some kind of international consensus. The New York Times suggests the focus has now moved on from arguing about the current conflict to what should be done when Assad falls.

The CIA reportedly expects the regime to be gone in a couple of months or so, and the Obama administration is said to be worried about its lack of influence with the fighters who will then take control on the ground.

Russia, having previously hitched its colours too firmly to Assad's mast, has even less influence with the rebels. It also risks losing its naval facility in Tartus – the only one it has outside the former Soviet Union – as well as some business interests in Syria (including armaments).

Other countries with closer links to the rebels – such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar – will also want a say in what happens next, as will Turkey which has specific concerns about the Kurds.

This might be expected to lead to a squabble over the spoils – except that in the end there may be few spoils worth having, so it may be more a case of each country trying to allay its own fears. In the Telegraph today, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group 
warns that we may be about to witness "the total destruction of Damascus".

There are two great dangers in the aftermath. One, which almost everyone is aware of, is the danger of sectarian and ethnic bloodletting along with continued jihadist activity – and obviously it is desirable to minimise that. 

The other danger, less often talked about, is that in an international effort to bring stability to Syria the aspirations of its people to determine their own future – the original goal of the uprising against Assad – will become submerged once again.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 December 2012. Comment.

Syria's chemical weapons: how real is the threat?

Fears about Syria's chemical weapons continue to grow – at least in some sections of the media and on Twitter.

"Syrian forces have mixed chemical weapons and loaded them into bombs in preparation for possible use on President Bashar Assad's own people," Fox News reports:

"A senior [unidentified] US official told Fox News that bombs were loaded with components of sarin gas, a deadly nerve gas. Syrian forces have 60 days to use these bombs until the chemical mixture expires and has to be destroyed."

According to NBC News, the weapons are now ready and "awaiting final orders" from Assad.

"As recently as Tuesday, officials had said there was as yet no evidence that the process of mixing the 'precursor' chemicals had begun. But Wednesday, they said their worst fears had been confirmed: The nerve agents were locked and loaded inside the bombs."

Meanwhile, RT (formerly known as Russia Today) announces: "Thousands of US troops arrive near Syrian shore on USS Eisenhower", causing a predictable flurry on Twitter about an imminent American invasion.

The original source of the RT story is Debka File, an Israeli website with a history of being unreliable. Debka says:

The USS Eisenhower Strike Group transited the Suez Canal from the Persian Gulf Saturday, Dec. 1, sailing up to the Syrian coast Tuesday in a heavy storm, with 8 fighter bomber squadrons of Air Wing Seven on its decks and 8,000 sailors, airmen and Marines.

The USS Eisenhower group joins the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group which carries 2,500 Marines. 

Debka continues:

"This mighty US armada brings immense pressure to bear on the beleaguered Assad regime after it survived an almost two-year buffeting by an armed uprising. Its presence indicates that the United States now stands ready for direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict when the weather permits."

The US certainly has contingency plans in connection with Syria's chemical weapons but it is not at all clear that the USS Eisenhower is part of them. The aircraft carrier is (or at least was) on its way back from routine duty in the Gulf to its home port in Norfolk, Virginia, where it is due to arrive before Christmas. Because of that, it is currently in the Mediterranean.

Conceivably it has been ordered to hang around near Syria for a while, but at present the only source of information on that is Debka.

There's no doubt that some people are trying to whip up hysteria over the chemical weapons issue – whether because they want direct military intervention or because they strongly oppose it. There are also echoes of the propaganda campaign against Saddam Hussein's Iraq regarding weapons of mass destruction – though, as I pointed out yesterday, it's important to recognise that the situation with Syria is somewhat different.

Firstly, Syria does not deny having chemical weapons but it denies any intention of using them against its own population. Concerns about these weapons have heightened as a result of the conflict but they are not a recent concoction (as some people seem to believe): at the diplomatic level they have been an issue for years, even when relations with Assad were a lot better than they are now. 

Secondly, in 2002-2003 President Bush was looking for reasons to attack Iraq and WMDs provided a useful excuse. Obama, on the other hand, has not been actively seeking direct military involvement in Syria. If anything, he has been looking for excuses to avoid it.

Thirdly, Obama's red line in Syria is different from Bush's in Iraq, which relied on a supposedly "imminent" threat. Obama made clear the other day that the trigger for an American response in Syria is the actual use of chemical weapons, not reports of preparations to use them from shadowy intelligence sources:

"I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and anyone who is under his command ... If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."

This warning has mostly been considered in terms of its military implications, though the political implications may well be more important. For a start, it puts Russia and Iran – Assad's two key allies – on the spot.

There is a global consensus against chemical weapons which includes Russia and Iran. Only a handful of countries have refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, and Syria is one of them. Iranians have good reason to fear chemical weapons, since they suffered terribly from them during the 1982-88 war with Iraq.

By focusing on Syria's chemical weapons, therefore, Obama is probably hoping to weaken Russian and Iranian support for the Assad regime. On the Syrian side, the likely damage to relations with Russia and Iran provides a very strong reason for Assad not to use his chemical weapons.

Saddam Hussein, another Baathist, did use them against his fellow Iraqis in Halabja in 1988, though the people attacked were Kurds and thus, in Saddam's eyes, not strictly his "own people". While it's possible that Assad might do the same against Syrians, Juan Cole thinks it's unlikely:

"Chemicals would be difficult to deploy against a guerrilla movement of the sort the Baathist government of dictator Bashar al-Assad is facing. Guerrillas just fade away when confronted. 

"Moreover, Syria’s mixed population makes it difficult to use chemical weapons on rebels without killing Alawi Shiites and other groups that so far have largely been an underpinning for the regime.

"I don’t say it is impossible for the regime to use poison gas against the revolutionaries. At the moment, I wouldn’t give it a high likelihood of success."

Apart from battlefield use, it's also possible that Assad, sensing that he is cornered, might use them for "shock and awe" purposes to cow the rebels into submission. But at this stage it's far more likely to have the opposite effect of turning uncommitted Syrians against the regime.

In that case, you might wonder why Assad is interested in chemical weapons at all. The short answer is that it's to counter Israel's nuclear arsenal. Chemical weapons, since they are terrifying but relatively cheap to produce, are considered the poor man's atomic bomb.

Israel refuses to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, so Syria refuses to sign the convention of chemical weapons. Egypt, another neighbour of Israel, also refuses the sign the convention for similar reasons.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 December 2012. Comment.

Will Assad flee or sink with his ship?

The Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal al-Miqdad, has visited Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador during the past week, delivering "classified personal letters" from President Assad to local leaders, Haaretz reports.

The Israeli newspaper says Assad is exploring the possibility of asylum in Latin America for himself, his family and associates. Maybe this information came from a reliable source but the evidence, as published in the paper, looks rather thin:

"A source in the Venezuelan capital Caracas who spoke to Haaretz was not able to say what the response to the Syrian request was, but Venezuela's foreign ministry confirmed to the El Universal newspaper that al-Miqdad did indeed bring a letter for President Hugo Chavez ...

"All that the official spokesperson in Caracas could confirm was that Assad's message touched on 'the personal relationship between the two presidents', and that the deputy foreign minister's visit defines the close relationship between the two states."

While exile might be an option for some of the Assad family and regime officials, it probably is not for Bashar himself. Here's an 
alternative view from a Russian analyst, via the New York Times:

"[Assad's] mood is that he will be killed anyway," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a Russian foreign affairs journal and the head of an influential policy group, said in an interview in Moscow, adding that only an "extremely bold" diplomatic proposal could possibly convince Mr Assad that he could leave power and survive.

"If he will try to go, to leave, to exit, he will be killed by his own people," Mr Lukyanov said, speculating that security forces dominated by Mr Assad's minority Alawite sect would not let him depart and leave them to face revenge. "If he stays, he will be killed by his opponents. He is in a trap. It is not about Russia or anybody else. It is about his physical survival."

It's impossible to know for sure what Bashar is thinking, but this does have a ring of plausibility. 

Another important factor in the psychology of it all is that Bashar lives in his father's shadow. Odd as it may seem now, he never sought power. He was not the favoured son and was quietly getting on with his ophthalmology career in London when his more charismatic brother Bassel – the heir apparent – died in a car crash.

Bashar was then recalled to Damascus for some rapid training from his father in How to Succeed as a Baathist President. Since inheriting the presidency 12 years ago he has always, to some extent, been a prisoner of his father's legacy – entrusted with preserving it and bound by obligations to family and the ruling clique.

"What would father have done?" is a question he probably asks himself rather a lot. It certainly looks that way, given the nature of his response to the uprising. But what worked for Hafez in 1982 when thousands were massacred in Hama isn't working for Bashar now, and so we see a familiar story developing where a father builds the family business only to have his son let it go to ruin. 

By responding to events in the way he thinks his father would have responded, Bashar can at least absolve himself of blame when things go wrong. But whatever happens, he cannot be seen to abandon his inheritance. Defeat is one thing, but walking away and leaving others to sort out the mess is not part of the Assad mentality.

I really can't imagine Bashar, post revolution, living it up in Havana, Caracas or Quito. My hunch is that he will sink with his ship.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 December 2012. Comment.

Six pointers to Assad's fall

Each day's news brings more reasons to believe the Assad regime's fall cannot be far away. Viewed individually these signs may not in themselves spell doom for the regime but collectively they do.

1. Withdrawal of UN and diplomatic personnel: The UN announced yesterday that it has cancelled all missions to Syria from abroad and suspended its activities inside the country. All non-essential staff are to be withdrawn because of the "prevailing security situation". The European Union, which has a diplomatic office in Damascus, also said it will cut back activities " to a minimum level due to the current security conditions". In effect, the UN and EU are now only a step away from ordering a complete evacuation.

2. Jihad Makdissi flees: The foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, has fled Syria and yesterday was reported to have arrived in London. This may not be as big a loss as some of the earlier defections and assassinations but it does tell us how someone who was privy to a lot of regime information now views the situation. 

Whether Makdissi actually has a political quarrel with the regime is unclear but the Washington Post, citing a friend of Makdissi, 
says he is "taking a break from the pressure of being the official face of the government in the media while having no security protection for himself or his family".

If we take this at face value and assume he has not fallen out with Assad, it's a message of no confidence in the regime's once-feared security apparatus.

3. Damascus airport: A capital city without a functioning airport isn't really a capital city any more. Syrian officials insist the airport is still open, but to what extent it may be operating is a different matter. Travel to and from the airport is dangerous and very few of the few remaining scheduled flights appear to be arriving or leaving. Egyptair announced yesterday that it was resuming flights but then changed its mind.

4. Internet shutdown: Last week's two-day shutdown of the internet and mobile phones was widely seen as a deliberate move by the regime – and a sign of desperation, if not panic. Many recalled that a similar tactic had been tried by the Mubarak regime in Egypt shortly before its fall.

Syrian officials blamed technical problems for the shutdown. Even if that were true, the length of time taken to fix it would be a further sign of the regime's declining capabilities.

5. US reviewing its options: A report in the New York Times on Saturday said the US is "considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar al-Assad from power".

There are several ways of interpreting this story. One is that US fears it won't have much influence in a post-Assad Syria: 

“The administration has figured out that if they don’t start doing something, the war will be over and they won’t have any influence over the combat forces on the ground,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence officer and specialist on the Syria military. “They may have some influence with various political groups and factions, but they won’t have influence with the fighters, and the fighters will control the territory.”

Another interpretation is that the US, since it doesn't really have any new ideas about what to do, is simply making noises to step up the psychological pressure on Assad at what it sees as a critical moment in the conflict. 

Either way, the subtext is very clear: Washington's calculations are now predicated on an expectation that Assad will soon be gone..

6. Chemical weapons: Considering that Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction provided the excuse for war in Iraq, it's natural that people should be wary of Obama's latest statements about Syrian chemical weapons. But there is an important difference: Syria has never denied having chemical weapons and has indirectly admitted possessing them – courtesy of Jihad Makdissi who, when he was still foreign ministry spokesman, said they "will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression".

"All of these types of weapons," he said, "are in storage and under security and the direct supervision of the Syrian armed forces".

Even among Assad's opponents there is a general belief that he is unlikely to use chemical weapons except as a last resort. If the US has really detected signs of "potential" preparation for use, it would mean the Assad regime is actively thinking about the end-game.

Alternatively, it's possible the US has merely detected the movement of some chemicals by the regime in order to keep them from falling into the wrong hands. But even that would be a very bad sign.

Back in July, Makdissi assured everyone that the chemical weapons were being carefully guarded. Indeed, it's reasonable to assume that chemical weapons would have been among the Syrian military's most heavily-protected equipment.

If they are having to be moved now, it's yet another sign that places once considered by the regime as ultra-secure are secure no longer.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 December 2012. Comment.

Kuwait election results: key points

Here are key points (via AFP) from yesterday's parliamentary election in Kuwait. The parliament has 50 seats for elected members, plus six for unelected cabinet ministers.

  • Sunni Islamists down to four seats, from 23 previously.

  • Shia candidates won 15 seats – the largest number ever (al-Arabiya gives the figure as 17). Shia account for about 30% of Kuwait's native population.

  • The Awazem, Mutair and Ajmans tribes, representing more than 400,000 people, won one seat compared with an average of about 17 in previous parliaments.

  • Parliament includes 30 new faces as a result of the opposition boycott.

  • Women won three seats (four in previous election).

  • Information ministry says turnout was 38.8%; opposition say it was 26.7%.

The Impatient Bedouin blog has a complete list of the winning candidates. The list highlights a major problem with the new voting system: it is possible to win a seat in parliament with very few votes. One of the winning candidates got only 502 votes (2% of the total in his constituency).

As the Impatient Bedouin notes, this low threshold for success increases the risk of manipulation, vote-buying, etc.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 December 2012. Comment.

The Kardashian effect

Kuwaitis were out on the streets again yesterday – thousands of them protesting against corruption and calling for a boycott of today's election, while others were merely trying to catch a glimpse of Kim Kardashian, the ubiquitous American publicity-seeker.

Judging by some of the "news" reports, Ms Kardashian's visit – she had travelled half-way round the world to open a milkshake bar – was the most momentous event to hit Kuwait since Saddam Hussein invaded in 1990.

For a share in this piece of history, Kuwaitis were being asked to pay 150 dinars ($400) according al-Arabiya: "The price includes group pictures with Kim, a Q&A session with her and you will get to watch her make her own ‘Kim’ milkshake."

As the Mail Online excitedly notes, Ms Kardashian had "taken full advantage of the fact Islamic dress is not compulsory in the Arab country to show off her famous curves at a promotional appearance".

"She donned a revealing white dress with see-through mesh panels – and was seen slurping away on a calorie-laden milkshake at the Millions Of Milkshakes store opening at the Avenues Mall in Kuwait City."

According to the Mail, she "met a lot of wonderful people and was treated with nothing but kindness and has learned a lot more about the culture" and – oh dear! – "is even looking forward to coming back".

Ms Kardashian also paid a visit (at the behest of a TV programme) to a young girl with cancer who was so thrilled she burst into tears, and had a spot of bother with her own teeth. Too many milkshakes, probably. Fortunately, though, she managed to find an American-trained dentist to sort it out.

Ms Kardashian, who announced on Twitter that she was praying for Israel during its recent Gaza offensive, continues her international mission today in Bahrain where, teargas permitting, she will – yes, open another milkshake bar.

A group of Bahraini MPs have tried to ban her from the country on the grounds that she has a "bad reputation", but the motion failed to get parliamentary time.

Meanwhile, Twitter users have been urging her not to go while others want her to meet human rights activists while she is there. 

Some warn that the oppressive Bahraini regime will try to use her visit boost its image. On past form, though, it seems just as likely that Ms Kardashian will use the visit to boost her own image.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 December 2012. Comment.

UPDATE: Gosh, this is getting really exciting. Kim wants everyone to know that she also dropped into the Dorothy Perkins store in Kuwait to check out the Kardashian Kollection (what else?). 

Oh, and those Kuwaiti Pepsi cans with their squiggly writing are just so cute – though she does hope it's the diet variety. 

It is. Says so on the can, in Arabic on one side and English on the other..

Previous blog posts




December 2012

King of Jordan: future is in the people's hands

Iraq: Mud-slinging in the rain

Jordan king promises reforms (again)

Arab media dinosaurs meet in Bahrain

Saudi Arabia's soccer republic

Saudi writer Turki al-Hamad arrested over tweets

Brahimi meets Assad

The Syria question. Is the answer 142?

Selling to the Sultan

Bahrain violates workers' rights, says US

Yemen president grasps the nettle

The 'crime' of cross-dressing in the Emirates

Yemen plans to eradicate qat

Bouazizi and the arrogance of power

Internet survives as Dubai conference collapses

Arab uprisings: a book list

Spinning the UAE

Yemen: All the president's missiles?

Self-inflicted wounds in the UAE

Saudi crackdown on 'fake' muftis

Tunisia: another Egypt?

Arab regimes' new threat to internet

Syria: preparing for the end

Syria's chemical weapons: how real is the threat?

Will Assad flee or sink with his ship?

Six pointers to Assad's fall

Kuwait election results: key points

The Kardashian effect


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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 15 December, 2012