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

King Abdullah of Jordan has issued the first in a series of "discussion papers" intended "to share his vision on the kingdom's comprehensive reform process" (full text here).

The paper is basically a lecture about citizenship, calling on Jordanians to participate actively in national debates so as to "breathe life into our democracy".

Referring to the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 23, the king says candidates "are not running for the right to sit in parliament in Amman and earn personal benefits", and he urges the public to challenge them about their policies. 

"As candidates come to your neighbourhoods over the next several weeks, they will be seeking to win your trust and your vote. But what they need to realise is that they must maintain your trust and honour your vote over the years to come.

"You have the right and the responsibility, and more importantly a national duty, to engage them in discussion on key issues related to the economy, the country’s reform course and your vision for the future of our beloved Jordan."

The king also urges people to judge candidates on their policies rather than (as often happens in Jordan) on tribal and family connections:

"To make democracy work, it is critical that we debate, discuss and vote on the basis of the positions put forward by the candidates on key issues facing our country, and not on the basis of personalities or affinities related to geography or family."

In principle these are fine ideals. Citizens need to be engaged in political processes and to hold the politicians and officials accountable (if they don't, who will?).

At the same time, though, this comes close to implying that the Jordanian public – through their lack of participation – are responsible for the current economic and political problems. The system that produced those problems, with its institutionalised corruption and patronage, is one that has been presided over by King Abdullah for nigh on 13 years.

Of course, this paper is said to be the first in a series so we can expect others to discuss different aspects of the "reform" process. Maybe in one of them the king will share his thoughts of the role of a monarch in a modern democracy.

Disagreement, the king says, is not a sign of disloyalty: "Respectful disagreement is the basis for dialogue, and dialogue over diverse ideas is the essence of democracy". But with criticism of the king still largely taboo it is unclear how far, in practice, public debate will be allowed to go. The paper talks about dialogue in a spirit of respect, tolerance, give and take, compromise, etc, etc.

On a slightly different level, the king's paper should also be viewed in the context of the coming elections and what many regard as a gerrymandering of the electoral rules to create a parliament of government loyalists. As a result of this, large sections of the opposition will be boycotting the elections.

At two points in his paper, the king takes a swipe at the boycotters:

"Many times — in Jordan as around the world — disagreement, whether personal or political, expresses itself ineffectively in political intransigence, violence, or boycotts, which do not necessarily deliver desired goals. When this happens, it represents a temporary breakdown in democratic practices."

He continues:

"While strikes and protests are constitutionally protected inalienable rights, they are extreme measures that should be tools of last, not first, resort. And let’s all remember that once the boycott or strike is over, we will still have to work together to reach agreement and proceed hand in hand to forge our shared destiny."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 December 2012. Comment.

Iraq: Mud-slinging in the rain

Flooding caused by several days of heavy rain brought much of Baghdad to a standstill last week. "Disruption to the electricity grid and the failure of emergency generators as a result of damage to cables underground left many businesses and individuals without power," The National reported.

With many people unable to get to work, the government's response was to declare a national holiday. It was, AFP noted, the 
fourth unscheduled holiday this year caused by bad weather – the three previous ones resulting from summer heat.

The head of Iraq's stock exchange (which was forced to close) complained: "Having the whole country stop for one day because of the floods is a grim reality of how bad the infrastructure is today."

Almost 10 years after the US-led invasion to "liberate" Iraq, infrastructure is a major problem. A $40 billion plan to update the country's infrastructure, which might have lessened the impact of last week's flooding, has been bogged down in parliament since 2009. That in turn is symptomatic of a wider political problem: Iraq's politicians seem more interested in factional wrangling than in setting the country to rights.

But even if the infrastructure plan had been approved, how much of the money would actually have gone into infrastructure is a moot point. Earlier this year, in a long and damning portrayal of Iraq's dysfunctional system, Ned Parker wrote:

"No political party or faction is immune to the lure of easy money, fed by the state's lucrative oil revenues and the lax controls on how cash is spent. The loyalty of a lawmaker, cleric, commander, or tribal leader can be bought with houses, cars, and cash. 

"A longtime Iraqi civil servant close to [prime minister] Maliki's Dawa Party explained to me how it works: political figures set up shell companies, helmed by a trusted businessperson or relative, that then bid to deliver goods or services to the government. The contracts, whether for building a sewage line or beautifying the Baghdad highway, are consistently overpriced, allowing the companies to divert revenues and assets to the foreign bank accounts of government officials."

The political situation was further complicated in mid-December when President Jalal Talabani – a Kurd who is often viewed as a calming influence – became seriously ill, reportedly after suffering a stroke. This came in the midst of a dispute over oil between the Baghdad government and the Kurdish autonomous region which is said to be costing Iraq $20 million a day.

Talabani's illness seems to have provided the cue for prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to strike against finance minister Rafa al-Essawi, a Sunni Arab in the Shia-led coalition government. Nine or more of Essawi's guards were arrested on terrorism charges.

This was reminiscent of the campaign last year against Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice-president who was accused of running death squads. Hashimi fled the country and was later tried in his absence and sentenced to death.

Though violence in Iraq is well below its peak of 29,000 civilian deaths in 2006, more than 4,000 civilians have been killed during each of the last four years, according to the Iraq Body Count website. Even the head of the stock exchange (quoted above) is said to carry two revolvers wherever he goes.

In an Iraqi context, whether there is any substance in the accusations against Essawi's guards, or the earlier ones against Hashimi, is not really the point. The point is that Maliki appears to be using such charges selectively, to settle political scores.

Large-scale demonstrations followed the guards' arrest, especially in Anbar province (where Essawi hails from). 

Maliki's behaviour has become increasingly authoritarian as he seeks to amass power for himself – though how far he will succeed in that remains to be seen. "Maliki is trying to develop a personality cult," one Twitter user commented ... "Problem is, he has no personality."

Not that any of Maliki's opponents would necessarily behave differently. To quote Parker's article again:

"All of Iraq's political leaders seem to live by the maxim that no enemy can become a partner, just a temporary ally; betrayal lurks around every corner. Each politician grabs as much power as he can, and unchecked ambition, ego, and historical grudges lead them all to ignore the consequences of their behaviour for Iraq's new institutions and its society. 

"Maliki's tactics closely echo the pattern laid down by his predecessors, from Iraq's post-Ottoman monarchs to its first prime minister, Abdul Karim Kassem, to Saddam himself: put yourself first, and guard power with a ruthless security apparatus. Maliki's opponents, including his secular rival Ayad Allawi, the head of the Iraqiya Party, have given no indication they would act any differently. 

"In the last year, Maliki has chipped away at safeguards for democracy, stocking the country's Human Rights Ministry with loyalists and using the state's anticorruption offices to target political enemies. Maliki's harassment and persecution of anyone deemed a threat to himself or his party has dramatically reduced freedom throughout Iraq. Most ominously for his country, and himself, Maliki, through his bullying and nepotistic rule, threatens to cause his own undoing and push Iraq back into civil war."

As always in Iraq, there is also a sectarian dimension and Maliki has been accused of stoking religious tensions by targeting Sunni politicians. Some also see the conflict in neigbouring Syria as 
a contributory factor. A recent debate on al-Jazeera highlighted the opposing arguments but trying to pin the blame on one element or another is scarcely productive. The country is in a mess and its leaders have nothing to offer in terms of solutions.

To quote Hiwa Osman, an Iraqi Kurdish journalist who appeared in al-Jazeera's programme:

"Iraq is the fourth or the fifth most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International. Baghdad is still the worst city to live in in the world, according to the Mercer Index in London. These indices have nothing do with sectarianism, nothing to do with politics, it has everything to do with the performance of the government."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 December 2012. Comment.

Jordan king promises reforms (again)

King Abdullah of Jordan will shortly be issuing a series of discussion papers "outlining his vision on the kingdom’s comprehensive reform process," a statement from the Royal Court announced this week. "These papers seek to facilitate national dialogue and encourage citizens’ participation in decision making," it said.

Last month, in the midst of an economic crisis, the government lifted fuel subsidies, causing riots and demonstrations in many parts of the country. Increases in electricity prices are also planned. Unaccountable government, rampant corruption and the influence of patronage networks added to public resentment at the austerity measures.

Given that the king has talked constantly about reform since coming to the throne almost 13 years ago – and with very little to show for it – his latest "vision" is unlikely to offer anything genuinely new. The discussion papers sound more like an attempt to appease the government's critics and delay the day of reckoning.

The Impatient Bedouin blog points out that the latest reform talk comes shortly before a parliamentary election (scheduled for January 23) held under "reformed" electoral rules that were designed to produce a parliament of government loyalists.

Meanwhile, a team from the International Monetary Fund who visited Jordan earlier this month, issued a sympathetic-sounding statement about the economy:

“Jordan performed well under the program in 2012. The country has faced challenges during the year from the disruption of the flow of natural gas, the ongoing conflict in Syria, and an acceleration of influx of refugees. Combined with higher oil and food prices and a shortfall in grants, this has put further pressure on the country’s economy. Nonetheless, growth is expected to increase slightly to 3 percent compared with 2.6 percent in 2011, while average inflation is expected to be around 5 percent for the year.

“Despite this challenging environment, the authorities have been implementing sound macroeconomic policies aimed at reducing fiscal and external imbalances in a socially acceptable way. The removal of general subsidies on all fuel products except LPG on November 14 was an important step. It reduced costs and risks to the budget from fluctuations in oil prices. Introducing targeted transfers at the same time mitigated the impact of fuel price increases for a large part of the population.

“The authorities and the mission held very constructive discussions about the road ahead and how to overcome the challenges Jordan faces. The authorities have reaffirmed their commitment to continue their program of reforms to keep the fiscal and external balances on a sustainable path. Discussions will continue in early 2013 on designing a comprehensive program for 2013. This program will include specific policy measures that would help Jordan to reach its program objectives and address the key challenges it faces, including the large inflow of Syrian refugees. The IMF is looking forward to continue its dialogue with the authorities and support for the Jordan’s national program of economic reforms.”

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 December 2012. Comment.

Arab media dinosaurs meet in Bahrain

The dinosaurs of Arab media – the government news agencies – gathered for their 40th conference yesterday in an appropriate venue: Bahrain.

These agencies are one of the last outposts of an archaic style of journalism that speaks with a tone of authority and an almost complete lack of credibility. Their main task is to produce unreadable (but sometimes unintentionally entertaining) reports on matters of little or no interest to anyone except the governments they represent: telegrams exchanged by heads of state congratulating each other on anniversaries, recovery from illnesses, etc, and statements from ministers assuring the country that everything is fine, despite any appearances to the contrary.

Another of their tasks is to denounce more interesting stories that appear in other news media. Such stories, as they constantly remind the public, are fabrications with "no basis in fact" circulated by "foreign hands" that seek to undermine the country's "security, stability and social unity". Since the actual content of these "fabrications" is rarely if ever mentioned (lest someone might be tempted to believe them) and the sinister foreign hands behind them are never identified, it is often very difficult to work out what their reports are talking about.

According to the Bahrain News Agency, the conference will award a prize for "the best report prepared by Arab news agencies". This is going to be a very tough call, and I can't wait to read the winning report. The Syrian news agency, SANA, certainly deserves some kind of award – if only for perseverance in trying to present an air of normality in the face of what it describes as "recent events".

Such was the anticipation ahead of the Bahrain conference that Dr Farid Ayyar, secretary-general of the umbrella organisation, the Federation of Arab News Agencies (FANA), arrived two days early – an event duly reported by the Bahrain News Agency. A day later, the Kuwait News Agency issued a 200-word report announcing that Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah, chairman and director-general of the Kuwait News Agency, had also arrived.

The conference was opened yesterday – again, very appropriately – by Samira Rajab, the Bahraini government's official spokesperson, who complained of "fallacies disseminated about Bahrain, describing them as bearing no iota of truth and misleading to the public opinion". 

"She said Bahrain was and is still the victim of false news which are misleading to the public opinion, stressing the key role of official news agencies in disclosing news objectively, responding to lies and laying bare fabricated news."

Ms Rajab, readers may recall, is a fan of the late Saddam Hussein.

In a separate speech, Bahrain's prime minister, Prince Khalifa, called for "unification of Arab media discourse" (whatever that means). 

"The Prime Minister urged for working towards unification of Arab media discourse in the face of defamatory, separatist and crisis-mongering campaigns which target the Arab nation, asserting that the safety of one Arab state means the safety of all other states and that the targeting of one Arab state means the targeting of all other Arab states and that our fortitude relies upon our unity and our disassembling makes us more targetable. 

"The Prime Minister pointed out that we're concerned about the fate of our Arab nation whose interests and unity should be defended by everybody each according to his capacity and position and that an efficient media is the prime defence line."

A conference of this kind is never complete without some ludicrous fawning from those in attendance towards their hosts, and FANA's secretary-general, Dr Ayyar (an Iraqi), dutifully obliged:

"[He] lauded the Kingdom of Bahrain's accomplishments in terms of its renaissance in all walks of life, specifically in media aspects which qualified Bahrain to become the Capital of Arab Press 2012 which reflects atmospheres of freedom and openness experienced in the Kingdom of Bahrain under the wise leadership of HM King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, HRH Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa the Prime Minister and HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa the Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander."

For other reports of this event see the Kuwait News Agency, the Oman News Agency and the Emirates news agency, WAM.

In 2009, incidentally, as part of a "freedom of expression and media pluralism" project, UNESCO provided a $40,000 grant for "building insitutional capacity" among the Arab news agencies.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 December 2012. Comment.

Saudi Arabia's soccer republic

Largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, Saudi Arabia held a presidential election last week. The presidency in question – that of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) – was scarcely of earth-shattering importance and yet, in several respects, the election marked a significant milestone.

SAFF, in effect, has become a soccer republic. For the first time since its foundation in 1956 by Prince Abdullah bin Faisal Al Saud, football's governing body in the kingdom is no longer run by a member of the royal family. In last week's election, members of the general assembly had a choice of two candidates (neither of them royals), who set out their platforms in a TV debate. And if that kind of process can work for SAFF, might it not be applied to other official bodies in the kingdom too?

The presidency became vacant earlier this year when 34-year-old Prince Nawaf bin Faisal resigned – reportedly because of pressure from fans after Saudi Arabia was beaten by Australia in a World Cup qualifying match.

His successor, elected for a four-year term by 32 votes to 30, is Ahmed Eid Alharbi, a former goalkeeper with the Jeddah-based Al-Ahli club. Alharbi has been described as a reformer and a proponent of women's soccer (an issue that causes as much alarm in the kingdom as gay marriage does in the United States).

Decrepit regimes like to associate themselves with sport – partly because they think it boosts their image, but also often to provide a plaything for junior members of the ruling family irrespective of their capabilities or performance.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussain's brutal son, Uday, was put in charge of the Iraqi Olympic Committee and, by extension, the national football team (which he led it its worst-ever FIFA ranking). In Libya, 
Saadi Gaddafi was captain of Tripoli and the national football team as well as president of the Libyan Football Federation. In Bahrain, the president, secretary-general and chief executive of the National Olympic Committee are all members of the royal family.

Writing for the Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, James Dorsey says Prince Nawaf's resignation from SAFF "marked the first time that a member of the ruling elite saw association with a national team's failure as a risk to be avoided rather than one best dealt with by firing the coach or in extreme cases like Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Muammar Qaddafi's Libya brutally punishing players".

There may be truth in that, but Ahmed al-Omran of the Riyadh Bureau blog says the election for his replacement "took place specifically because FIFA insists that national football federations must be independent from governments". He points out that in 2008 Kuwait was suspended by FIFA over the issue of government interference in the affairs of Kuwaiti football.

Despite stepping down from SAFF, Prince Nawaf continues to exercise his royal prerogative in other areas of sport. He remains president of the National Olympic Committee and is also the senior official responsible for youth welfare (through which he will still control some of SAFF's funding).

Dorsey writes:

"Major soccer clubs moreover continue to be the playground of princes who at times micro-manage matches by phoning mid-game their team's coaches with instructions which players to replace.

"In addition, sports remains a male prerogative in the arch-conservative kingdom. Saudi Arabia underlined its lack of intention to develop women’s sports by last year engaging Spanish consultants to develop its first ever national sports plan – for men only."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 December 2012. Comment.

Saudi writer Turki al-Hamad arrested over tweets

Turki al-Hamad, one of Saudi Arabia's most famous writers, was arrested yesterday after posting remarks on Twitter that angered religious elements. His arrest is said to have been ordered by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi interior minister.

On Saturday, al-Hamad posted a dozen tweets in Arabic, several which appeared to complain about misuse of religion.

One said: "The Prophet came with a humanitarian religion but some changed it into anti-human religion". Another said: "All religions call for love ... practices and rituals do not mean what is going on in the heart."

Al-Hamad also likened Islamism to neo-Nazism, but the tweet that seems to have caused the biggest furore said:

"Our Holy Prophet came to rectify the faith of Abraham, and the time has [now] come when we need someone to rectify the faith of Muhammad."

In theological terms this could be considered heretical, since Muhammad is regarded as the last of the prophets, delivering God's complete and final message which "corrects" those of previous prophets.

Turki al-Hamad, born in 1953, is best known for his trilogy, Atyaf al-Aziqah al-Mahjurah ("Phantoms of the Deserted Alley") which is banned in Saudi Arabia and several other countries. This first two volumes, Adama and Shumaisi, have been translated into English.

Set in the 1960s and 1970s, the books tell the story of Hisham al-Abir, a Saudi teenager who spends his time reading banned books, becomes infatuated with Arab nationalism and later discovers the pleasures of illicit sex. (Reviews here and here.)

"Where I live," al-Hamad once said, "there are three taboos: religion, politics and sex. It is forbidden to speak about these. I wrote this trilogy to get things moving."

His efforts certainly did not pass unnoticed. Religious scholars condemned the books and he is said to have received several death threats.

On the day that al-Hamad posted his controversial tweets, a Saudi court decided to pursue apostasy charges against online activist Raif Badawi – charges that carry the death penalty.

Badawi, 25, has been detained since June, originally on charges that included "setting up a website that undermines general security" and ridiculing Islamic religious figures. 

He edited a website known as "Saudi Arabian Liberals" which published an article about Valentine's Day (celebration of which is banned in the kingdom) and another suggesting that al-Imam Mohamed ibn Saud University had become "a den for terrorists".

At a hearing before Jeddah District Court on December 17, a judge reportedly ordered Badawi to "repent to God". When he refused, the judge referred the case to a higher court, recommending that it try Badawi for apostasy. That process is now under way.

"Badawi’s life hangs in the balance because he set up a liberal website that provided a platform for an open and peaceful discussion about religion and religious figures," Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, 
said. "Saudi Arabia needs to stop treating peaceful debate as a capital offence."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 December 2012. Comment.

Brahimi meets Assad

Lakhdar Brahimi, the international envoy on Syria, is in Damascus today for what appears to be a hurriedly-arranged meeting with President Assad. Those taken by surprise included the Syrian information minister, Omran al-Zohbi: Brahimi was already on his way as Zohbi told reporters he was unaware of any such visit.

So far, neither Brahimi nor anyone else has said anything officially about the purpose of his mission – and this reticence may be an indication of its importance and sensitivity. The most likely explanation is that Brahimi will not be seeking another ill-fated ceasefire at this stage (as he did during his last visit in October) but will be taking soundings about a possible political transition.

Last Thursday, Brahimi had a phone conversation with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and according to The Voice of Russia they discussed "prospects for a political and diplomatic settlement in Syria".

On Friday, Lavrov announced that Brahimi would visit Moscow for talks on Syria "before the end of this year".

On Saturday an unnamed Arab League source told Reuters Brahimi would visit Syria "in the next few days" and was expected to meet President Assad, government officials and "some opposition factions".

On Sunday, Brahimi arrived in Beirut from Cairo then continued his journey overland with a UN escort, thus avoiding Damascus airport where fighting has been reported in the vicinity.

This sequence of events suggests that Brahimi's Damascus trip is to lay some of the groundwork for his meeting in Moscow later this week or early next week.

Russia has become markedly less supportive of Assad during the last few weeks, raising hopes that a negotiated end to the conflict may yet be found.

Lavrov has repeatedly said that he regards the Geneva Communique, issued last June with international agreement, is the basis for a solution and a report from al-Jazeera today places Brahimi's visit to Damascus within that framework.

The Geneva Communique includes "principles and guidelines" for what it describes as "a Syrian-led transition". It says:

There is an overwhelming wish [among the Syrian people] for a state that:

• Is genuinely democratic and pluralistic, giving space to established and newly emerging political actors to compete fairly and equally in elections. This also means that the commitment to multi-party democracy must be a lasting one, going beyond an initial round of elections.

• Complies with international standards on human rights, the independence of the judiciary, accountability of those in government and the rule of law. It is not enough just to enunciate such a commitment. There must be mechanisms available to the people to ensure that these commitments are kept by those in authority.

• Offers equal opportunities and chances for all. There is no room for sectarianism or discrimination on ethnic, religious, linguistic or any other grounds. Numerically smaller communities must be assured that their rights will be respected.

Among the "key steps" for a transition, the document specifies:

• The establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent. 

• It is for the Syrian people to determine the future of the country. All groups and segments of society in Syria must be enabled to participate in a National Dialogue process. That process must not only be inclusive, it must also be meaningful – that is to say, its key outcomes must be implemented.

Al-Jazeera's report today says Brahimi is hoping to "achieve a breakthrough" – though such talk is probably premature. Developing a plan for political transition in Syria is bound to be an incremental process. There are signs, as I reported yesterday, that an outline is taking shape but it is far from complete.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 December 2012. Comment.

The Syria question. Is the answer 142?

There are growing signs that Russia, the US and a number of other countries are now working behind the scenes to bring the Syrian conflict to a negotiated end. 

The latest indication that something is afoot came on Saturday when a source at the Arab League said international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is planning to visit Syria, probably "during the coming few days" and is expected to meet "some opposition factions" as well as President Assad and government officials. 

Brahimi's visit has not been officially confirmed but if it does go ahead the likelihood is that he will want to put some options on the table and test Syrian (government and opposition) reactions to them, as part of the process of assembling a "transition" package.

The problem with such a package – until now – has been differences of opinion over Assad's fate. While the rebels, the US and many other countries insisted that Assad must go, Russia seemed unwilling to contemplate any package that required Assad's departure.

That has now changed. Russia no longer views Assad as essential to Syria's future, though it is not directly calling for him to go. It says it won't pass on messages from countries offering him asylum, though it doesn't object to such offers being made in other ways. The New York Times reports:

“Some countries in the region have turned to us and suggested, ‘Tell Assad we are ready to fix him up’, ” the [Russian] foreign minister, Sergey V Lavrov, told reporters ... 

“And we answered, ‘What do we have to do with it? If you have such plans, approach him directly.’ 

“If there are people wishing to give him some kind of guarantees, be our guest,” he said ... “Whether this will end the carnage – that is far from obvious. It is not obvious at all.”

First indications of a shift in Russia's position came at the beginning of this month, around the time of President Putin's visit to Turkey. Although Russia and Turkey had not seen eye-to-eye on Syria up to then, Putin described their assessments of the situation as "identical". He said they agreed on “what kind of situation we should achieve” but still disagreed on how to settle the conflict.

Later, 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."

The first week of December also brought signs that the American and Russian positions on Syria are beginning to converge – at least on some points. On December 7, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, held a three-way meeting in Dublin which appeared unusually cordial.

Russia now seems to recognise that Assad's eventual defeat is a distinct possibility, if not a near certainty. It hasn't publicly abandoned him but says its concern now is the future of Syria rather than Assad himself.

That is a position the US can also relate to, because what scares Washington most is the prospect of turmoil – especially the jihadist kind – in a post-Assad Syria.

So, if there is movement on the diplomatic front, how far has it actually got? A report yesterday in the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Alawsat, citing the Syrian National Coalition, claimed that the US and Russia already have the bones of a formula.

The plan would involve Assad stepping down, though “sticking points in this agreement include the precise mechanism of Assad’s departure and handover of power”.

The key question, of course, is whether Assad would agree to step down and, according to Asharq Alawsat he is being offered an inducement: either he can become "a partner in transferring power" and have the benefit of "international protection" (presumably immunity from prosecution as well as safe passage), or lose that protection by staying out of the negotiating process.

The report goes on to say that Assad “has expressed his readiness to negotiate and leave power, accompanied by 142 members of his entourage”. Expressing "readiness" to negotiate is not much of a commitment, though, and Assad has never been much of a negotiator. He may still prefer to fight on till the bitter end

Considering the carnage in Syria, there are also many who find the idea of granting protection/immunity to Assad and his associates thoroughly repugnant, though that might be tempered if it brought a clear end to the conflict and to his regime.

As often happens with diplomatic processes, bits of information are leaking out from sources who do not want to be identified and who may well have an axe to grind. Whether or not the leaks are accurate, their existence can be read as evidence of manoeuvrings behind the scenes.

While it is possible that at this stage the manoeuvrings amount to little more than exchanges of ideas, we do have one apparent "fact" of intriguing precision: 142, the number of regime figures who would supposedly leave power with international protection.

This suggests that someone, somewhere, has at least drawn up a list of names (a list that would presumably have to be accepted by both Assad and the rebels, and which might be in Brahimi's briefcase next time he visits Damascus).

The number 142 may also give a pointer to diplomatic thinking about the likely nature of a political transition. It is said to include "108 military and security figures who are responsible for issuing orders to the armed and security forces to kill Syrians" while the other 34 are said to be members of the Assad family.

What this significantly omits is civilian Baathist politicians – opening up the possibiity of some role for them in a transitional government. That could include the much-speculated-about "Sharaa option" with Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim who has been mostly invisible throughout the conflict, temporarily assuming the presidency.

In the science-fiction story The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a computer called Deep Thought spends seven-and-a-half million years working on "the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything" and comes up with a disappointing answer: the number 42.

Add 100 to that, and you might – just might – have the answer to the Ultimate Question of Syria. On the other hand, it could prove equally meaningless. Time will tell, but hopefully within weeks rather than millions of years.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 December 2012. Comment.

Selling to the Sultan

Sultan Qaboos, the Anglophile tyrant of Oman, has come to the aid of Britain's struggling arms industry with a $4 billion order for 20 military aircraft. British prime minister David Cameron (seen enthusing about the deal during a visit to Oman in the video above) says it will support thousands of jobs in the UK.

In the Guardian, Dan Milmo writes: "Britain's largest defence contractor and manufacturing employer [BAE] is targeting growth markets such as the Middle East as part of a strategic imperative that has become even more urgent in the wake of the failure to agree a £25bn merger with EADS, the owner of aerospace company Airbus". 

In contrast to the British prime minister's excitement, coverage of the deal by Omani media has been extremely sketchy. The Times of Oman describes it as "part of the Royal care and attention accorded by His Majesty to enhance the capabilities of the Royal Air Force of Oman" but doesn't say how many aircraft are involved or how much they will cost. 

The Oman Tribune talks about buying a "fleet" of fighter jets and the Oman Daily Observer talks about a "squadron" though, again, neither paper mentions the exact number of aircraft or their cost.

This certainly reflects the general lack of transparency in Oman's governance, but the extent of the Sultan's military relations with the west is also something he prefers to keep from the Omani public as much as possible.

Qaboos, who once served in the British army and seized the throne of Oman from his father with British support in 1970, maintains warm and close relations with the British military. He donated sports pavilions bearing his name to his old military college, Sandhurst, and the RAF officers' college, Cranwell.

The US, meanwhile, operates an air base at Thumrait in Oman and in one of the WikiLeaks documents the Sultan was quoted as saying privately: "I must say that as long as [the US] is on the horizon, we have nothing to fear." In 2010, however, the Sultan was infuriated when the New York Times reported (correctly) that Oman had been approached by the US about a possible installation of Patriot missiles.

The US embassy later noted: "Oman's security strategy of keeping a low public profile in general has been threatened by the attention brought by the NYT article, and the [government of Oman] is working to manage the message for the public."

Regarding the deal with Britain, although all the Omani reports highlight the merits of Typhoon fighter jets – "latest avionics", "unique aerodynamic design", etc – it's difficult to believe the cosy relationship between Britain and the sultan played no part in the decision to purchase them.

Also, treating Middle Eastern autocrats as a "strategic" growth market for arms sales, as BAE seems to be doing, doesn't look like a particularly brilliant idea at a time when the autocrats' future is increasingly uncertain. 

While sales of warplanes are often justified on the grounds that they form part of a country's national defence, the example of Syria shows they can also be used by a regime against its own population.

It's also worth noting that deliveries of the aircraft to Oman will not start until 2017. Whether Qaboos will still be ruling the country by then is anyone's guess.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 December 2012. Comment.

Bahrain violates workers' rights, says US

Bahrain has violated the terms of its free trade agreement with the United States by failing to protect workers' rights, according to a US government investigation.

In a report published yesterday, the US Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA) found that trade unionists and leaders in Bahrain "have been targeted for dismissal, and in some cases prosecuted, in part for their role in organising and participating in the March 2011 general strike, and that dismissals also reflected discrimination based, in part, on political opinion and activities. 

The report also found evidence of religious (sectarian) discrimination against Shia workers. 

The findings mean Bahrain is in breach of the labour chapter of its free trade agreement. The investigation was prompted by a complaint from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

The OTLA report makes a series of recommendations which its says would "facilitate compliance by the government of Bahrain with its commitments":

1. Explicitly prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation in its labour law, including based on political opinion and religion; 

2. Repeal the ban on multi-sectoral labour federations;

3. Amend the bans on public sector union formation, on trade unions engaging in political activities, on strikes in “strategic undertakings,” and on individuals who have been convicted of any violations that lead to dissolution of a trade union or executive council from holding union leadership posts, to ensure consistency with international standards;

4. Amend criminal sanctions for striking or encouraging others to strike in the public sector or in undertakings related to public services or public service requirements, consistent with international standards;

5. Allow workers’ organisations to select the most representative labour organisation to represent them in international fora and national-level collective bargaining; 

6. Implement the commitments of the Minister of Labour’s February 2012 plan and the Government of Bahrain’s Tripartite Agreement, to the maximum extent possible, to ensure reinstatement of workers dismissed in response to the March 2011 strike to the same or equivalent positions without preconditions or discrimination and with back pay due and other remuneration owed or another appropriate compensation package;

7. Review all criminal cases against trade unionists and union leaders and drop outstanding charges for those whose charges do not consist of advocacy of violence and stem from organising, participating in, or encouraging the March 2011 general strike, consistent with the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry recommendation on such cases;

8. Refrain from engagement in or support of activities undermining freedom of association, in particular against the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions and its leadership; 

9. Investigate allegations of and sanction, as appropriate, employer acts of intimidation and harassment of trade union members and leaders and other similar employer actions to weaken workers’ organisations.

It seems unlikely that the government of Bahrain will see fit to comply with most of these, since depriving workers of their rights forms a major part of its strategy to contain unrest.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 December 2012. Comment.

Yemen president grasps the nettle

Ex-president's son Ahmad Ali Saleh. Will he go quietly? 

Some good news from Yemen, for once. Yesterday, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi – Yemen's "interim" president – issued a series of decrees changing the structure and leadership of the military.

The changes, which seem to have been broadly welcomed in Yemen, seek to remove key obstacles to a political transition ahead of the "national dialogue" which is due to start shortly.

ReutersAP and CNN have more details and the full text of the decrees (in Arabic) can be found at Almasdar Online.

The crucial point is that the three most problematic military figures have been removed from their posts: Yahya Saleh, a nephew of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was Central Security chief of staff, has been replaced. 

The Republican Guard and the First Armoured Division are being brought under the control of the defence ministry – which means that Yemen's two most troublesome military figures are lose their jobs. The Republican Guard was led by ex-president Saleh's son, Ahmad, and the First Armoured Division by Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a kinsman and former ally of Saleh who turned against him during last year's uprising.

If Hadi's ploy succeeds, it should reduce the scope for mischief-making by Saleh who stepped down from the presidency in February under internal and international pressure but who remains in Yemen after being granted immunity from prosecution by parliament.

The first public comments on the military changes from ex-president Saleh and General Ali Muhsin were surprisingly favourable, though they probably cannot be taken at face value. It would be uncharacteristic of both men if they were not working behind the scenes to undermine them.

Meanwhile, Saleh's son Ahmad seems to be denying (via the Republican Guard's Twitter account) that he has been sacked. The suggestion is that he will be put in charge of the Border Guard – one of the four main sections in the reorganised military – and a post on Twitter claims that "broad sectors" of the Republican Guard have been transferred to the Border Guard.

Last week, I noted on this blog that Ahmad was refusing to hand over long-range Scud missiles to the defence ministry – in defiance of the president's instructions. This may account for a line in the government news agency's report of yesterday's military changes which says "the president also formed special missiles units under the supervision and leadership of the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces". 

Although President Hadi lacks a significant power base of his own inside Yemen, strong international backing – particularly from the US and Saudi Arabia – has given him more clout than would otherwise be expected, so he may succeed in pushing the changes through.

Yesterday the UN envoy on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, warned that anyone impeding the country's transition could face sanctions. There was a “possibility [the UN would] impose individual or group sanctions against whoever creates an obstacle or attempts to delay the track of the [political] settlement,” he was reported as saying.

Reform of the military is clearly an essential first step towards political change but beyond that there is a likely divergence of goals. The Yemeni protesters who worked for months to topple Saleh want genuine change. The Americans and Saudis, on the other hand, view security – and in particular, fending off the jihadist threat – as their top priority.

The fear, then, is that Yemen's "transition" could become a case of imperialism by stealth: installing leaders who are in more tune with perceived US/Saudi security needs while the country's political development gets pushed to the sidelines.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 December 2012. Comment.

The 'crime' of cross-dressing in the Emirates

Photo circulated by police of an Indian man arrested for cross-dressing in Sharjah last month

A Filipino man appeared in court in Abu Dhabi yesterday accused of “imitating a female”. He had been arrested in a shopping mall, allegedly dressed in women’s clothes and holding a handbag. A report in The National says:

“Store workers were making fun of him when one took offence and called the police.

“When officers arrived, the Filipino denied being dressed as a woman. Police then searched his bag and found make-up.”

His trial has now been adjourned until December 26.

Similar cases are reported in the Emirati press with alarming frequency, and the authorities actively encourage the public to report cross-dressing “crimes”.

Two years ago, following what was said to be “a large number” of complaints about cross-dressers using women’s toilets, a police official urged people to dial 999 if they spotted anyone cross-dressing. It didn’t matter whether the cross-dressing was causing a problem or not, the official said, because “dressing up as women in public places is violating the laws”.

The official went on to say that anyone who did report a cross-dresser to the police would be guaranteed anonymity.

The prohibition on cross-dressing was also listed in a “code of conduct” for tourists issued by the Abu Dhabi tourist police (in 12 languages) last July.

The Filipino man’s trial is the third cross-dressing case reported in the UAE this year, and there have been several others in recent years:

November, 2012:

An Indian man was arrested for "violating public decency" after being found in a “women only” park in Sharjah wearing a black abaya (see police photo above). He was reported by a woman who noticed his moustache.

July, 2012:

A beautician from the Philippines was sentenced to two years’ jail, followed by deportation, after being convicted in Dubai of “cross dressing, pretending to be a woman, tricking a woman into undressing in front of him, assault and practising medicine without the proper permits”. There are indications from the press reports that the person was transgendered rather than just a cross-dresser.

The case came to light after a female inspector, posing as a customer, visited the beauty salon. According to The National, the inspector assumed the beautician was a woman “as he had long hair, wore women's clothes, perfume and make up, and had manicured hands. He had also been taking breast enlargement tablets”.

Following the undercover visit, the inspector reported the salon to the police for various breaches of the regulations, and the police arrested the beautician. According to another report, “one of the beautician's fellow employees told the officers of his true gender”.

The report adds:

“The inspector was not the only person confused by the beautician's appearance. When he responded to his name being called in court, he began to walk towards the judges' bench, but was initially sent back by police guards who thought he was a woman.”

June, 2010:

A 30-year-old Egyptian man was acquitted of cross-dressing in Dubai International City. Police claimed he had been wearing a bra and panties – which the man denied, saying they were in a bag that he had found outside his house. 

He told the judge: "I swear to God that I am not a pervert … your honour, I was born a man and am proud of my masculinity. I do not mind undergoing any biological test to prove my manliness, if that is what it takes to convince the court that I am a normal adult."

Dubai Misdemeanours Court decided there was not enough evidence to convict the man. Prosecutors later appealed against his acquittal and the appeal court’s decision appears not to have been reported.

March, 2010: 

A 22-year-old Emirati student was convicted of “consensual homosexual sex, cross-dressing and insulting a religious item or creed”. He was arrested at Dubai airport on his way to Europe in the company of his partner, an Emirati man who had previously been convicted of homosexuality.

Prosecutors said the student featured in pornographic material found on his laptop. A report in The National said:

“Public Prosecution records state that ‘the suspect has circulated materials which defy decency by posing in a provocative manner using women's make-up in his underwear and at times in swimsuits revealing his buttocks, and, at times, wearing female clothes and accessories’. 

“He was also convicted of insulting a religious creed or item after prosecutors said that he circulated images on the net of himself dressing up in a 'hijab' while reading the Holy Quran. ‘He has insulted the Islamic creed by wearing female make-up, accessories and a hijab-like veil while sitting in front of the Holy Quran and acting like he is praying,’ the indictment sheet said.”

He was initially sentenced to three years in jail but this was reduced to one year on appeal.

January, 2009:

A 45-year-old Indian man was convicted of cross-dressing and using mascara at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. The man, a manager with a property firm who also worked in the film industry, claimed he was rehearsing for a Bollywood film role which required him to dress as a woman.

The man was given a six-month suspended jail sentence and fined Dh10,000 ($2,700). A report in Gulf News said: “The judge suspended his imprisonment because it's his first offence and it [is] believed that he won't repeat the crime.”

July, 2008:

Police in Dubai announced they had arrested 40 "cross-dressing tourists" of unspecified nationality. There appear to be no further press reports indicating what happened to them.

One point worth noting is that in the news reports of these cases there is no mention of any of the accused misusing public toilets. So if complaints about that were the real reason for the campaign against cross-dressing, the police seem to have been singularly unsuccessful in catching anyone.

The reported cases all involved men, though last year Dubai also launched a campaign against boyat (“tomboy” women).

Another point of note is that the authorities in the UAE seem to have very confused ideas about sexuality, generally equating cross-dressing with homosexuality (cross-dressers are not necessarily gay), and failing to distinguish between cross-dressing and transgender.

Adding to the confusion, the campaign against the “problem” of boyat – which Dubai’s chief of police blamed on co-educational schooling – was also lumped together with campaigns against domestic violence and sexual harassment.

The roots of the Emirates’ hostility towards gender non-conformism lie partly in religion and partly in the local culture.

In a much-quoted hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have cursed men who imitate women and women who imitate men. Writing about this in his book, Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, the Qatari-based scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi predictably warns that cross-dressing could bring about the end of civilisation as we know it:

“The evil of such conduct, which affects both the life of the individual and that of the society, is that it constitutes a rebellion against the natural ordering of things. According to this natural order, there are men and there are women, and each of the two sexes has its own distinctive characteristics. 

“However, if men become effeminate and women masculinised, this natural order will be reversed and will disintegrate.”

Statements like this basically provide religious cover for prejudice against those whose behaviour doesn’t fit the socially-determined gender norms. In a patriarchal society like the UAE, “feminine” men are viewed with repugnance for betraying their gender, while women who wear men’s clothing under their abayas are seen as a threat.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 December 2012. Comment.

Yemen plans to eradicate qat

One of the more intriguing and unexpected consequences of the fall of President Saleh in Yemen is that the national pastime of 
chewing qat has begun to be seriously challenged. An ambitious plan presented to parliament last week seeks to eradicate qat from Yemen by 2033.

Politically, the idea of trying to wean Yemenis away from their favourite leaf – even if it is spread over a 20-year period – is no less challenging and risky than President Obama's move to wean Americans from their love of guns. (Yemenis, incidentally, have a penchant for guns too, but that's another issue.)

Qat in Yemen is a national institution. Most men chew it, as do a sizeable minority of women. Communal chewing sessions begin after lunch and often continue until sundown. It's a pleasant, sociable way to spend an afternoon but, repeated day after day as tends to happen in Yemen, it clearly doesn't help the nation's productivity. There are also health risks associated with long-term qat use.

In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, qat is banned on religious grounds and offenders can be executed but in Yemen even al-Qaeda has shied away from expressing a view on it. 

According to Peer Gatter, author of a new book, Politics of Qat – The Role of a Drug in Ruling Yemen, the jihadists fear that taking a stance against qat at this stage would alienate too many people. So if jihadists are nervous about grasping the nettle, why is Yemen's transitional government – which already has a daunting array of problems to deal with – apparently preparing to do so?

The main reason is economics. With Yemen's modest oil and gas reserves in decline, the country has to look for other ways to earn its keep. Among other things, it needs to produce crops that feed the domestic market and provide revenue from exports.

Qat has no nutritional value and virtually no serious export potential, and yet the amount of land devoted to qat cultivation is said to have increased 18-fold during the last 30 years. Meanwhile, production of coffee – which does have export potential – has seen a significant decline.

For growers, qat is a very lucrative crop but it is also water-intensive. This has led to excessive drilling of wells to ever-deeper levels as the underground supplies become depleted until, as many reports have warned, the country is now on the brink of a water crisis.

Aside from these economic issues, the Yemeni moves against qat can also be viewed as an interesting experiment in managing change. Effective governance has always been one of Yemen's weak points – as it has to varying degrees in other Arab countries too. In the past, Arab regimes have tended to govern by diktat, issuing decrees that often proved futile – the attempts to ban camera phones in Saudi Arabia and female genital cutting in Egypt are just a couple of examples. Such laws generally turn out to be unenforceable unless a substantial body of the public sees merit in them.

Even the most ardent anti-qat campaigners recognise that a ban in Yemen, certainly at this stage, would be impracticable and unworkable. Instead, the aim is to bring about a gradual change in people's attitudes – making qat less socially-acceptable – accompanied by legislation to discourage production and consumption.

Under the latest plan, shops selling qat would need a licence and sales of qat on the street would become illegal. Qat growers would also receive government help in switching to alternative crops. Converting new land to qat production would become illegal, as would the digging of new wells to water the plants.

In parallel with that, the plan envisages a public awareness campaign on the dangers of excessive qat use as well as "social support and medical assistance" for those suffering from qat-related illnesses. There are similarities here with government campaigns in other countries to discourage smoking.

This approach may smack of paternalism but it's also very much in line with the spirit of the Arab Spring – the idea that government action needs public consent.

Qat has been chewed in Yemen for centuries, though in the past it was regarded as an occasional pleasure rather than a daily necessity. Consumption has increased dramatically in recent decades, prompting some to describe it as an epidemic. There have been attempts to curb the habit before (most notably when sourthern Yemen was ruled by Marxists) and in 1999 President Saleh announced that he was giving up qat and taking up exercise and computing instead. It is unclear whether he actually did so.

One important consideration in the latest campaign will be the attitude of tribes in the qat-growing areas who are capable of causing havoc for the government if they feel their economic interests are threatened. A lot will depend on how they perceive the incentives to switch to potentially less lucrative crops, such as coffee.

That is certainly a daunting task and it's possible the current moves against qat will fizzle out as others have done before. But the government does have strong economic reasons for staying the course this time and there is also more information available now than in the past about the health risks. Mouth cancers are one of them, and unwashed qat leaves are often tainted with pesticides.

Government efforts could also be helped if Yemen's still-small band of anti-qat activists manage to keep the isssue in the public eye. Last month they had a modest success when human rights minister Horriah Mashhour forbade qat chewing on ministry premises during working hours. Employees were urged to consume raisins, almonds and tea instead.

With qat sessions taking up such a large part of the day, though, Yemenis who want to give up or curtail their habit face the question of what to do instead. Apart from work and TV, Yemen doesn't have many alternatives to offer.

A recent article in the Yemen Times claimed to detect the emergence of a qat-free cafe culture with youth appeal. Two new cafes in Sana'a – the Frisco Cafe and the Facebook Cafe – aim to provide a social space away from the temptations of qat. Frisco says it wants to become a forum for "creative literary and artistic talents" and is also holding hip-hop dance contests every Thursday.

Yemen, however, is one of the world's poorest countries and such ventures tend to attract only the urban elite. And, given a choice between hip-hop and qat, most Yemenis would still probably settle for qat.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 December 2012. Comment.

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 31 December, 2012