colonial echoes in the south
is no doubt that southern Yemenis had a raw deal under
President Ali Abdullah Saleh though they were by no
means alone in that. There is also no doubt that southern
grievances and aspirations will have to be addressed in the
forthcoming National Dialogue if Yemen's political
transition is to have any hope of success.
theory, Saleh's departure and replacement by a southern
president, together with the National Dialogue, has given
the south a once-in-a-generation opportunity for redress.
What seems to be missing from this, though, is a politically
realistic set of goals on the part of the south.
southern separatist movement, al-Hirak, is engaged in one of
the world's oddest "liberation" struggles: it
seeks to re-establish a vanished state which was the
accidental product of British and Turkish imperialism.
the British withdrew from Aden in 1967, the southern part of
Yemen became the Arab world's first (and last) Marxist
state. The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen lasted
until 1990 when
it merged with
President Saleh's northern state, the Yemen Arab Republic.
the time, unification was a voluntary choice by the southern
leadership, though circumstances probably pushed them into
it including an economic crisis and political disarray
as communism collapsed in eastern Europe. Soon afterwards
they began to have second thoughts and in 1994 fought a
brief war of secession with the north, which they lost
despite having Saudi support. Since then, many southerners
have complained about northern "occupation" of the
Southern Question (as it's known) was an obvious topic for
discussion last week at the London conference
on the future of Yemen.
of the speakers, Thanos
Petouris, gave a bizarre picture of contemporary
southern political discourse in which the accepted
historical narrative of the colonial period, and to some
extent the socialist era too, has been turned on its head.
colonial past of the south is no longer being seen as a
period of oppression, social injustice and political
marginalisation as the rhetoric of the nationalist
organisations would have it but it has been transformed in
collective memory into a period of almost golden age
proportions, the restoration of which is to be desired.
the political and ideological language of al-Hirak, in so
far as it can be seen as a unitary organisation, appears
to have been locked between two extremes. The almost
unreserved glorification of an imaginary colonial golden
age on the one hand, and the political resurrection of
former southern leaders on the other."
pointed out that three-quarters of the south's youthful
population has no direct experience of the socialist period,
let alone of British colonialism. [Many will also be unaware
Salim al-Baidh, the inept politician who has now
resurfaced at the head of al-Hirak, was the man who led the
south into Saleh's arms in 1990.]
according to Petouris, al-Hirak seems to be hopelessly out
in the Sixties the nationalist movement was in direct
connection to other Arab and Third World anti-colonial
movements, the Hirak appears to be completely isolated
from what has been going on in the rest of the Arab world,
and also within the country itself. This has led to the
movement's failure to mobilise larger segments of the
southern population and, more importantly, to connect it
to the youth uprising."
speaker, former diplomat Noel
Brehony, began by noting that Yemen's independent
southern state lasted for slightly less than 23 years and
that unified Yemen has existed (so far) for roughly the same
period of time an intriguing fact, though perhaps not a
particularly useful one. More interestingly, he pointed out
that the south has not been ruled by an imam since the 18th
century a significant difference with the north where
the imamate continued until 1962.
young and politically inexperienced Marxists who took over
from the British faced a terrible inheritance, Brehony said.
They set up a centralised state modelled on the Soviet Union
totally different from the north and were
"pretty ruthless" about it, with not much regard
for human rights.
comparison with the north, though, the PDRY did have its
good points: good social services, rights for women, limited
corruption and very little difference between the poor and
the rich. It also made a valiant but failed attempt to
reduce tribalism, treated Islam as a private matter not a
state matter, and kept qat use under control.
the early 1980s, the PDRY appeared to have a stronger and
better organised state than in north, Brehony said. But in
1986 political quarrels led to civil
more or less finished off the PDRY as an independent
country. When the fighting stopped, 70% of the central
committee were gone dead, arrested or in exile and
this tipped the balance in the north's favour.
of Yemeni unity were an essential part of the PDRY's
rhetoric. "Every speech, every party document, every
political meeting began with unity this was their
goal," Brehony said. "Unity was very central to
the politics of the PDRY though they didn't quite mean
of unity without actually achieving it was one way of
managing relations between north and south, while each side
continued building its own separate state. However, there
were some notably socialists of northern origin who
really believed in unity and wanted to bring it about by
spreading the PDRY's system to the north.
to Brehony, the latter idea was also prevalent among the
southern leadership around the time of unification: they
believed that once the country was unified they could take
control of the north through the ballot box.
were wrong about that, of course. Had they been right, we
might now be seeing northerners demanding separation from
the south. If unification and its aftermath holds a lesson
for the National Dialogue, it's probably that everyone
should stop trying to dominate everyone else.)
by Brian Whitaker, 15 January 2013. Comment.
and the Houthi conflict
2004 the Yemeni government has waged a
series of warsagainst the so-called Houthi rebels in the
far north of the country, close to the Saudi border. This
conflict is currently in abeyance but a long-term solution
will be needed if Yemen is to undergo a successful political
the most recent episode of fighting (2009-10), which the
government called Operation
Scorched Earth, the conflict became internationalised
when Saudi Arabia carried out bombing raids in Yemen with
President Saleh's blessing.
are still obscure because journalists and aid workers were
not allowed into the area but that thousands were killed or
injured and an estimated 350,000 were forced to leave their
week, at the London conference
on the future of Yemen, a panel of experts shed some
light on the origins and nature of the conflict.
the conflict is often described as "tribal" in a
derogatory way, implying that those opposing the government
are unruly and inherently anti-state.
pointed out that the tribes in the area, far from being
anarchic, have their own traditional systems of law and
governance. They exist in a symbiotic relationship with the
Yemeni state, coordinating with local government officials
such as governors, sharia judges and police, but they are
also strongly self-reliant. In the absence of government
help, for example, they constructed much of the rudimentary
local infrastructure themselves.
and their leaders are not anti-state," Weir said.
"However, their compliance with state officials has
always been conditional on fair governance."
officials or regimes have been corrupt or oppressive, have
flouted their cherished values, or threatened their
welfare or vital interests, they have opposed them ...
This also chimes with one of the basic tenets of Zaidism,
the dominant religion of the highlands of northern Yemen
the right and duty to oppose unjust rulers.
the 1980s, all the highland population of the governorate
of Saada were Zaidi Shiites and of those about 5% were sayyids,
members of the Zaidi religious elite who claim descent
from the Prophet and from whom the imams [rulers of Yemen]
were formerly chosen.
of the most prominent and respected Zaidi religious
scholars was Badreddin al-Houth, the father of Hussain
whom the Houthi wars are named."
major factor leading up to the Houthi conflict was rivalry
between the majority of Zaidi Shiites and a growing minority
of men who had converted from Zaidism to the salafi or
Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, Weir said.
ostensibly religious, this rivalry also had a social
dimension, she added. Converts included men who occupied the
bottom of the traditional status hierarchy and bitterly
resented their social disadvantage, as well as youths who
resented the power of the older generation or were attracted
by the charisma of salafi leaders and their obvious
financial resources. "Certain sheikhs openly or tacitly
supported salafism for personal or anti-Zaidi reasons or
because of the subsidies they received from Saudi
the 1990s the growth of socially-divisive salafism within
the heartlands of Zaidi Islam was encouraged and funded by
officials and business interests in Saudi Arabia and in
Yemen including President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
increasingly mocked or questioned the beliefs and rituals
of the Zaidi majority, threatening them in mosques and
accusing them of wanting the return of the imam [i.e. the
end of the republican system] though this was publicly
denied by the Zaidi clerics."
the aggressive salafi/Wahhabi proselytising triggered a
response from the other side. Hussain al-Houthi founded hisBelieving
initially a local effort to defend Zaidi rights in the
Saadah region. "Gradually it expanded to provide
educational and social services and became increasingly
politically vocal in opposing President Saleh's perceived
pro-American stance after 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of
Iraq," Weir said.
number of violent incidents took place between Houthi
supporters and soldiers. Then in 2004 government security
forces assassinated Hussain al-Houthi, allegedly during an
attempt at a mediated peace settlement.
extrajudicial murder not only violated the cherished
tribal ideal of settling disputes by negotiation through
respected intermediaries but it also sabotaged the
possibility of an early resolution of the Houthi conflict
and stoked its escalation."
another presentation to the London conference, Madeleine
Wells, a PhD student at George Washington University,
examined government rhetoric linking the Houthis with Iran.
said her purpose was not to discuss the accuracy (or
otherwise) of this rhetoric but to consider its effects. She
argued that the rhetoric had made the conflict more
difficult to resolve. Background noise about
"foreign" influence "muddles our ability to
perceive real signals about what groups actually want, she
said adding that it has also "put the Houthis in a
position where they now may actually have nothing to lose by
associating with Iran".
Wells said, the Yemeni government looked favourably on
Houthi's Believing Youth movement, supporting it financially
as a counterweight to Saudi-Wahhabi encroachment in the
north of the country.
changed in 2002 when [Hussain] al-Houthi began
specifically mentioning Iran in his rhetoric. After 9/11
he picked up increased sensitivity about a global war on
Muslims, he mentioned Iran as a laudatory example of
Houthi had spoken of Iran in the context of a larger Shia
struggle, President Saleh latched on to it, Wells said,
rallying support for war in part by charaterising the
Houthis as proto-Hizbullah footsoldiers for Iran.
rhetoric has ratcheted up to such a degree that it's hard
to see how much worse the political stand-off could
possibly get if the Houthis did accept external aid.
and rhetorical emphasis on Iran's role in the conflict is
just as dangerous as real support. Because of the regime's
inability to perceive the Houthis as independent agents
with legitimate grievances, it gives them nothing to lose
in pursuing actual foreign ties."
rhetoric, she added, has also had social and political
ramifications that cause elements of the National Dialogue
to doubt Houthi commitments to an equitable and local Yemeni
by Brian Whitaker, 15 January 2013. Comment.
has become the focus for "two quite different and
fundamentally contradictory phenomena", Sheila
Carapico, an American political scientist, told the
London conference on Yemen last week. One of them is an
uprising for social justice and and the other is "a
not-so-covert military intervention, including extrajudicial
executions and other operations that are pretty much the
antithesis of what you would mean by support for
politically and sociologically, the protest movement that
emerged in 2011 in which women and youth played an
important role was unprecedented in Yemeni history and
certainly in the whole Arabian peninsula, she said.
related to the almost simultaneous uprisings in Tunisia
and Egypt that led to the removal of long-standing
dictators in those two places, but also with a
tremendously indigenous Yemeni local flavour. Compared
with either Egypt or Tunisia, Yemenis stayed in the
streets longer, they were incredibly tenacious, incredible
spite of the fact that Yemen is so well armed it didn't
turn violent in anything like the same way as Syria or
Libya. Although there has been violence, the uprising
itself has been nonviolent and peaceful and that's
of the outcome, and the outcome is certainly tenuous and
uncertain, something very significant has happened
already, in terms of the mass expression of popular
aspirations for social justice and free democracy."
with that, the United States has become increasingly
involved in Yemen militarily even though it doesn't
really have a policy on Yemen. Instead, Carapico said, the
US has two related policies. One is a long-standing
commitment to the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and
the GCC states. The other is America's anti-terrorism policy
in which Yemen is treated as an extension of the AfPak theatre.
from Washington, Carapico said, Yemen is not a real place
where people are demanding social justice and democracy so
much as it is a theatre of operations in Saudi Arabia's
now, are confronting the confluence of these two very
disparate historical junctures," she continued.
a crisis resolution initiative. It's intended to maintain
stability in Yemen, to avoid too much upheaval, in
particular to avoid upheaval that might spill into Saudi
Arabia or upset the stability of the other Gulf countries.
It's not, by any stretch of imagination (as conceived by
the GCC) intended to respond to the popular demands."
that, Carapico noted, the GCC initiative has given rise to
the Yemeni National Dialogue which is due to start next
month. She warned that this is going to be "a very
difficult path", but the dialogue needs to address the
building of a civil state in Yemen as well as questions of
other speakers on the same panel Adam
Seitz and Ludmila
discussed civil-military relations inside Yemen.
to President Hadi's "momentous" decrees in
December formally restructuring Yemen's military command,
Bouchet said the significance of this lies in its political
nature: "If implemented, this will put an end to the
military disjuncture that has beset Yemen since 2011, and
the political gridlock." But she added that it is still
unclear how far this reform will herald a "systemic
break" with the past.
then outlined the legacy of state-society relations under
Saleh and the political economy underpinning it in which
the military has been an integral part.
military is not seen as being restricted to self-evidently
military matters. The military is inherently bound up with
Yemen's social, economic and political relations."
political crisis of 2011 "revolved to a large extent
around inter- and intra-elite struggles and negotiations for
power that have taken place right at the heart of Saleh's
inner circles and have been manifested in rifts within the
uprising both revived and engaged long-standing personal
differences as well as deep-seated fissures. One
illustration of this, she said, was "the military
stand-off that characterised Sanaa until recently"
where the city had been divided into areas each controlled
by a military faction.
President Saleh, distribution of power did not lie with
formal institutions but instead with "informal, highly
personalised ad hoc rent-based patronage networks". She
continued: "Saleh shored up his position partly by
multiplying competing forces within the army and partly by
creating new ones outside it."
a result, it is still impossible to accurately quantify the
number of troops in the regular army, she said. "Far
from being a well-bounded cohesive professional body
dedicated to the provision of national defence, the regular
army acts as a loose social and economic institution
specifically as a social safety net on a par with the civil
service." It has also been a means for integrating
certain tribes and rewarding them.
historically momentous, Yemen's uprisings have not
produced a revolution as conventionally understood,"
Bouchet said. "The GCC-brokered transition agreement
is based on an elite compromise. This predicament holds
the potential for what is most promising and most
ambivalent about Yemen's transition and National Dialogue
to President Hadi's military restructuring, Bouchet said
there is a distinct possibility that General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar
and Saleh's son, Ahmad (the two most problematic figures)
will retain military command in the new security
architecture. "Both have retained their military
position, both have retained the colossal business interests
that they built, and the patronage networks that surround
raises the question of the persistence of authoritarian
enclaves within the framework of democratic transition, she
Hadi Saleh's replacement has also shown a preference
for appointing in individuals from his family, his clan and
his home region of Abyan which leads some Yemenis to suspect
they may be witnessing the creation of new patronage
networks in place of the old ones.
by Brian Whitaker, 14 January 2013. Comment.
water and qat
and water" was the topic for a panel discussion
yesterday at the London conference
on the future of Yemen. Inevitably, this led to the
issue of qat-growing and several sprigs of qat probably
Ethiopian-grown were passed round the audience (purely
for educational purposes).
the depletion of Yemen's water resources is often talked
about in apocalyptic terms, yesterday's presentations from
experts in the field were moderately encouraging. Solutions
do exist. The problem, as always in Yemen, is implementing
them before it's too late.
session was introduced and chaired by Professor
Tony Allan, a world authority who is noted for having
developed the concept of "virtual
water". Growing wheat, for example, takes a lot of
water. A country which is short of water can thus acquire
"virtual water" by importing wheat rather than
growing its own, and use its existing resources more
also makes an important distinction between what he calls
water" and "little water". "Little
water" used for washing, drinking and cooking, and
in industry accounts for only 10% of the total, while
"big water" basically used in food production
accounts for 90%.
extreme case of Yemen is that it doesn't have enough water
for the 10%, and if you are allocating water to growing the
interesting crop qat then
you are tending to make it even more difficult," Allan
told the audience on Saturday.
problems are generally solved beyond the water sector, he
said mainly by trade. "You solve water problems in
the political economy by developing a diverse and strong
diverse and strong economy, of course, is something Yemen
doesn't have. In Yemen's case, Allan said, "I am now on
the side of giving the technical solution some sort of
pointed out that desalination of water is now a lot cheaper
than it used to be and James
Firebrace, one of the panellists, presented a case study
of water in the Yemeni city of Ta'izz which strongly
suggested that desalination is the only realistic solution
in the light of its rapidly growing population.
that water is such a crucial issue in Yemen, it's
astonishing that the government had no explicit policy until
quite recently. After years of debate, a Water Law was
finally passed in 2002, accompanied by the creation of a
Ministry of Water and Environment. Even then, though, Helen
the conference, some of Yemen's landowners opposed the new
ministry, with the result that irrigation water (an
important part of the overall water use) was left in the
hands of the Ministry of Agriculture a situation that
persisted until 2011.
noted that uncontrolled drilling of wells continues and that
water-related conflicts in the country are becoming
increasingly frequent and serious. On the other hand, there
is more awareness of the problem and some agricultural
practices are changing, with greater emphasis on drip
irrigation and rain-fed crops.
argued that water issues must be addressed in Yemen's
forthcoming National Dialogue, and water governance
mechanisms should be included in the new constitution. She
offered five recommendations:
Give the state final authority over water resources,
especially groundwater (though authority can be delegated
Ensure all decisions are implemented in the interests of
the population as a whole.
When necessary, used the power of the state for
enforcement especially with respect to drilling.
Use sophisticated techniques to increase awareness.
other speakers discussed conflict resolution methods Jens
connection with land disputes, and Gerhard
connection with disputes over water.
presented a case study from the Amran basin looking at how
tribal customs can be used to deal with problems of water
stress. His preference for local solutions appeared somewhat
at odds with Lackner's advocacy of intervention by the
state. In the question-and-answer session, Lackner did not
object the local solutions in principle but said they were
not always appropriate for example when aquifers don't
fit neatly inside administrative boundaries.
identified by Kambeck in relation to land disputes included
the weak rule of law (with potential for influence at all
levels), the lack of an accurate land register, and a
judicial system "burdened with distrust in its
also provided an interesting statistic: that half of the
privately-owned land in Yemen belongs to just 200 families.
(Privately-owned land accounts for 80%-85% of the total, he
last few months have seen renewed debate in Yemen about qat,
of eradicating it over
the next 30 years. Peer Gatter, author of the
recently-published book, Politics
of Qat (which
looks like becoming the standard work on the subject), that
most Yemeni qat users are aware of its detrimental effects
but he insisted "you can't stop qat farming".
explained that there are 494,000 farmers currently growing
qat; 3.9 million people depend on it for their income, while
6.7 million (34% of Yemen's population) depend at least in
part on qat-related businesses.
has been talk of encouraging farmers to grow coffee instead,
but Gatter said: "It's an illusion to substitute coffee
for qat." Coffee prices are more volatile, making it a
riskier crop for the growers. Alternatives to qat should
probably be found in rural activities outside the
agricultural sector, he said such as quarrying.
he thought a better approach would be to try to reduce
demand for qat rather than the supply.
At the risk of boring some readers, I shall be posting
reports from other panels at the conference over the
next few days. One reason is that the presentations were
generally of a high quality and it is rare to have such
a wide range of expertise at a conference on Yemen. More
importantly, the issued that were discussed are very
relevant to the National Dialogue which is due to start
in Yemen next month.
by Brian Whitaker, 13 January 2013. Comment.
a challenging year ahead
two-day academic conference
on the future of Yemen opened
in London on Friday. Organised by the London
Middle East Instituteand the British-Yemeni
Society, it comes at a timely moment as Yemen prepares
for its national dialogue a key step in the country's
political transition plan.
London conference has generated a surprising amount of
interest. Some 270 people registered to attend and the
organisers say a further 150 had to be turned away because
there were no more seats available.
the opening session, Alan Duncan, Britain's minister of
state for international development said 2013 is going to be
"very challenging" for Yemen and warned that
urgent action is needed over the next year. He told the
over 12 months remain before the date of the presidential
election which was promised to the Yemeni people by the
GCC agreement [which led to the resignation of President
Saleh], so between now and then a lot of ground will need
to be covered.
the preparations required for elections, substantial
progress needs to be made in the next six months if
Yemen's leaders are to keep their promise to their
said the national unity government has already made some
progress towards establishing the national dialogue
"but it does remain off schedule, which is seriously
undermining confidence in the transition process". He
UK and others will continue to do everything we can to
support [Yemeni] the government to overcome the remaining
challenges and help establish the national dialogue
conference as quickly as possible, because the delivery of
a successful national dialogue on schedule would be a
major signal to the Yemeni people that their leaders are
serious about addressing the divisive issues which drive
conflict in the country.
Riyadh and New York in September the international
community came together in a show of unprecedented support
for Yemen. Nearly $8 billion was pledged to support the
Yemeni people in this hour of need. This money is ready
and waiting to be spent on urgent priorities such as basic
services and repairing damaged infrastructure.
are working with the [Yemeni] government and other
partners to undertake decisive action to present project
proposals to donors so that the funds can be unlocked and
begin to flow to where they are desperately needed. We
can't afford to have these promised billions sitting
think the biggest challenge facing Yemeni ministers ... is
for them to work with each other and with the relevant
Yemeni institutions and alongside international
organisations such as the World Bank and development banks
and other government so we can get this money moving into
Yemeni government representatives also spoke at the opening
session: foreign minister Abubakr al-Qirbi and planning
minister Muhammad al-Saadi.
agreed that any delay in the national dialogue will delay
the second phase of the transition plan. There are a number
of crucial questions to be debated not least in the
drafting of a new constitution. Is Yemen to have a federal
system or not? A parliamentary system or a presidential one?
There is also the question of southern separatism which
is "the one people disagree most on", Qirbi said.
separatism was the topic for one of Friday's panel
discussions. Others covered the Houthi issue in northern
Yemen, and the international dimension. I hope to post
reports on those in the next day or two, together with notes
from Saturday's discussions.
Twitter hashtag for the conference is #YemenFutureConf.
by Brian Whitaker, 11 January 2013. Comment.
colonialism at Oxford
Study UK is a company that promotes British universities by
organising student fairs in various countries. One of its
fairs will be taking
place in Lebanon next
of the fair, Global Study UK posted
a tweet which
Reasons to Study for British Degree! 1. Fees are Less than
In Lebanon 2. 3yr Bachelor / 1yr Master 3. You Learn
TOLERANCE & Equality
some Twitter debate about whether fees at British
universities are really lower than those in Lebanon, Antoine
Haddad of the Lebanese Democratic Renewal Movement commented that
tolerance and equality are "by far the most relevant
among the three mentioned reasons" for studying in
prompted a furious
Twitter user @snarwani who said:
u're going to send yr Arab kid to learn "tolerance
& equality" from your old colonials? #Westoxified
good measure, @snarwani added:
KILL with impunity in this part of world. #Racism
outburst might scarcely be worth noting except that @snarwani
is the Twitter name of Sharmine Narwani, a Senior Associate
at St Antonys College, Oxford University.
from shunning the "westoxifying" influence of
British universities (as her tweets recommend), Ms Narwani
seems keen to advertise her Oxford connection not only
in her Twitter profile but also when she writes articles
about the Middle East.
commentaries under her name have been published by Huffington
Post, al-Jazeera and
Times, all citing her position as a senior associate at
a commentator on the politics of the Middle East this is
obviously a valuable cachet to have, since it provides an
air of authority and academic respectability.
what, exactly, does "senior associate" mean? The
website of St Anthony's college explains:
College has about 60 Senior Associate Members each year.
Senior Associate members, or SAMs as they are known, are
usually academics on sabbatical leave, who wish to come to
the College to work within the regional Centres and/or
with particular Fellows for varying periods of time from
one term to one academic year.
part of the college website says:
Associate Members are normally visitors to the College and
the University for periods
of up to a year who
are pursuing a specific research objective of their own.
Narwani's research project, according to the website is
"The rise of the 'Resistance Bloc' in the Middle East:
Shifting power centres and changing world views."
her research is proving unduly difficult or complex, because
it seems to be taking rather a long time. The normal time
limit for a senior associate at St Antony's (according to
its website) is one year but a check on the internet shows
Ms Narwani has now held her senior associate title for well
over two years. St Antony's College must be a very
by Brian Whitaker, 10 January 2013. Comment.
king is 'Humanitarian of the Year'
couldn't make this stuff up. The Bahrain News Agency reportsthat
King Hamad of Bahrain "won the title of Humanitarian
Personality of the Year with absolute majority of
votes" in a recent poll conducted by a Kuwaiti
"tens of thousands of personalities from the GCC and
Arab world" took part in the poll. The report says:
participants hailed the role of HM King Hamad bin Isa Al
Khalifa in placing the Kingdom of Bahrain amongst
economically, scientifically, touristic-ally and
democratically advanced countries, highlighting the fact
that HM has succeeded in leading his country into a
comprehensive revival and development in all areas."
since the poll was in a Kuwaiti newspaper, the Emir of
Kuwait is wondering why he didn't win the Humanitarian of
the Year title himself. Hopefully he won't take that as an
insult otherwise someone may have to go
to jail again.
Bahrain News Agency's report fails to mention how many votes
the king got, or how the poll was conducted, so we can
safely assume the whole thing was pretty dodgy.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon added
his voice to
those complaining about a Bahraini court's decision to
uphold sentences, ranging from five years to life,
imposed on 20 opposition activists in the kingdom.
by Brian Whitaker, 9 January 2013. Comment.
failed charm offensive
an interesting article for once in today's Gulf
Daily News (GDN), a generally pro-government newspaper which
bills itself as "the voice of Bahrain".
article is an
extraordinary attack on
what its headline calls "PR mercenaries"
British and American "reputation management" firms
hired by the Bahraini government at great expense to polish
up the kingdom's image.
firms involved have often been criticised in the west for
accepting repressive governments as their clients but the
GDN article looks at the issue from the other side and
suggests that from the Bahraini government's point of view
the PR effort has been next to useless.
article's author, Anwar
Abdulrahman, who is editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Khaleej
(the Arabic-language sister paper of the GDN), writes:
much has been spent by Bahrain on these PR experts and
agencies over the past two years? According to various
sources, the figure over the 18 months following the start
of the unrest has reached millions of dollars in fees.
involved in this group of hired hands, including
Washington DC-based Qorvis
London-based Bell Pottinger, have undertaken a number of
tasks including writing and placing opinion pieces
supporting Bahrain in western media outlets, briefing
western journalists about the political situation in
Bahrain, creating websites and feeding social media
accounts to create public opinion and arranging meetings
with western government officials. The irony is that the
opposition has been welcomed to make its biased case in
these news outlets at a fraction of the cost incurred by
part of the latter paragraph seems to have been copied from
the Bahrain Watch website which is critical of the
government though with one
subtle change. Where Bahrain Watch talks about PR firms
placing media articles "supporting the
government", Abdulrahman says they were
has not been sufficiently scrutinised is the value for
money that Bahrain has received. Are the dollar millions
being spent on international PR producing tangible,
quantifiable and genuine results?
answer is yes there are quantifiable results, but not the
results that would necessarily say that the money was well
spent for the benefit of the kingdom."
makes two perceptive points about the reasons for this PR
failure. One is that some western journalists, instead of
swallowing the government's line as expected, wrote
critically about the kingdom's "charm offensive".
"The hired defenders have become the story,"
Abdulrahman says "which in PR terms is a
second problem was that paying foreign PR firms large
amounts of money to spread "good news" about
Bahrain tended to devalue the message:
appeared that Bahrain's hired guns were not known for
their commitment to a cause or to the truth but rather to
their loyalty to the 'dollar-a-fact' ... "
is not Abdulrahman's first public spat with western PR
firms. Last June, discussing the international controversy
over the holding of the Bahrain Grand Prix, he singled out
Bell-Pottinger and a British lobbyist, Lord
Paddy Gillford (the
8th Earl of Clanwilliam), for special
have relied on individuals like Lord Gilford [sic] and
public relations organisations such as Bell-Pottinger
(whose staff deserted the kingdom en masse as soon as
trouble started). They have milked the country's financial
resources for a long time, yet failed to deliver any
the two men then ensued in the letters section of the GDN,
with Abdulrahman telling the Earl of Clanwilliam:
have been paid handsomely to lobby on behalf of the
kingdom for many years ... you obviously have not done a
very good job because the total lack of support which
Bahrain has received from the media in the UK shows us
clearly that the kingdom has no friends amongst the
you visit the kingdom, rather than meeting with myself or
other members of the national press, you seem to prefer to
solution Abdulrahman proposes for this is to place Bahrain's
charm offensive in the hands of Bahrainis rather than
foreigners. In his June article, he wrote:
are many highly capable, mature, experienced Bahrainis and
expatriates who have been in this field all of their
professional working lives. They are the ones fully aware
of internal politics, and only experts of such calibre can
explain and influence western thought and
today's article, he continues this theme:
own media and PR professionals have proved that they can
operate regionally and internationally ... It is time that
we put the image of Bahrain into the hands of people who
are passionate and committed to the natural evolution of
democracy in a kingdom rich in diversity and tolerance.
us never forget that only people living in Bahrain with
their livelihoods at stake, will be true defenders of the
honour of our noble country."
is said to be close to Bahrain's prime minister, so this may
reflect the government's current thinking on the use of PR.
But there may also be an element of special pleading.
Reading between the lines of both articles, it's difficult
to avoid the conclusion that Abdulrahman might be
volunteering his own services (in the event that His Majesty
the King sees fit to appoint him, of course).
is, however, a more effective solution to the image problem
that Abdulrahman doesn't or can't mention. It's for
the government of Bahrain to get on with the reforms it
keeps talking about, and to stop behaving in ways that
brought more bad news on the PR front. Ian Black of the
has expressed 'deep dismay' at a decision by Bahrain's
highest court to reject an appeal by 13 opposition
activists who were convicted of involvement in the Arab
spring protests in 2011.
of 20 defendants were given life sentences, part of a
crackdown on dissent since anti-government demonstrations
erupted in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, home to the US navy's
fifth fleet ...
high-profile case has brought international pressure to
bear on Bahrain, criticised even by its friends for
failing to implement reforms recommended by an independent
commission of inquiry.
strongly-worded statement by UK Foreign Office minister
Alistair Burt reflected that. France's foreign ministry
also expressed regret at the Bahraini court ruling and
said it had hoped for leniency to help promote
reconciliation. Amnesty International said: 'This unjust
decision will confirm the view of many that the judiciary
is more concerned about toeing the government's line than
upholding the rule of law and the rights of all
by Brian Whitaker, 8 January 2013. Comment.
futility of talking to Assad
full-scale foreign intervention, a negotiated settlement in
Syria is "becoming inevitable", Patrick Cockburn
the Independent last week.
the dreadful carnage continues, shifting the battleground
from Syria's streets to the conference table might seem an
appealing idea. Realistically, though, a deal with the Assad
regime is neither inevitable nor probable: the historical
experience since 1945 is that less
than a quarter of
all civil wars end in a negotiated settlement. Given the
tenor of President
Assad's speech yesterday,
the prospects for any deal between regime and rebels in
Syria, now or in the future, look extremely remote.
let's return for a moment to Cockburn's argument. He wisely
devotes much of his article to cautioning against simplistic
interpretations of the Syrian conflict, but then rather
illogically ends up advocating a simplistic solution,
reducing it to an either/or choice between full-scale
foreign intervention and a negotiated settlement. Since
full-scale intervention clearly isn't on
the cards, Cockburn appears to be offering no real choice at
all: the only option, in his view, is talks with Assad.
order to make his case, however, Cockburn has to eliminate
various other possible outcomes such as a military victory
for the rebels or the eventual collapse of the Assad regime
through general attrition which he does by asserting
that the conflict has reached a stalemate:
rebels are making some progress on the ground but,
overall, Syrians face a political and military stalemate.
The rebels' assaults on Aleppo and Damascus have faltered,
but the government forces do not have the strength to push
them out of enclaves they have taken over."
doesn't seem to have been deterred from this opinion by the
fact that he also pronounced the Libyan conflict to be
April 2011, and was duly proved wrong:
appears to be stabilising his authority and may be there
for months or even years. On the ground there is a
military stalemate. Small forces from both sides have
captured and recaptured the town of Ajdabiya over several
weeks, but neither has been able to land a knock-out
Syrian conflict may be protracted but it is no more a
stalemate than Libya was in 2011. A stalemate occurs
when further moves become impossible. On the military front,
the Syrian rebels have obviously faced setbacks but the
overall trend points in their direction. Nobody seriously
expects Assad to defeat them; the only real question is how
long it will be before he falls. On the political front,
meanwhile, support from the regime's few international
allies is looking less dependable. Russia has begun distancing
Assad, Iran is mulling
its options, the Maliki government in Iraq has a
crisis of its own, and President Chavez of Venezuela
a more distant supporter is seriously ill.
Assad goes, or agrees to go, there will certainly be a lot
for Syrians to negotiate about but it's clear from the
context in Cockburn's article that he is not talking about
that. He is advocating a settlement with Assad some kind
of Grand Compromise for the salvation of Syria.
may sound reasonable to people living in established
democracies where there is a culture of compromise and the
concept of "national interest" takes precedence
over the interests of any particular government. Compromise,
however, scarcely figures in the Baathist psyche, and Assad
equate national interest and national sovereignty with
the survival and inviolability of his regime: to oppose him
those circumstances, attempting to reach a political
settlement with Assad would not only be futile but foolish.
It would remove much of the pressure on the regime while
giving it an opportunity to retrench.
in Foreign Affairs, Bilal Saab and Andrew Tabler
almost two years of bloodletting by the Syrian government,
there is little chance that splitting the difference
between the factions would end the conflict. Even worse, a
negotiated outcome would perpetuate Assad's favorite
strategy honed over decades of using the threat of
sectarian war to make his adversaries in the international
community wary of getting involved. Instead, the end of
the Assad regime should be decisive and complete."
with Assad have often been proposed as a way to end the
bloodshed, but it is questionable whether they would do so,
let alone resolve the underlying issues that caused the
uprising in the first place.
at the historical record, Saab and Tabler argue that rebel
victories tend to be more durable than negotiated solutions.
The latter tend to founder on questions of disarmament:
settlements have, in fact, proved weak in terms of
promoting mutual disarmament, military integration, and
political power sharing. Less than a quarter of all civil
wars since 1945 have ended in a negotiated settlement.
Many of those power-sharing deals were broken before they
could be implemented (such as Uganda in 1985 and Rwanda in
1993). Of those that made it to implementation, the
governments generally collapsed into renewed conflict
(Lebanon in 1958 and 1976, Chad in 1979, Angola in 1994,
and Sierra Leone in 1999)."
and Tabler acknowledge that a rebel victory in Syria would
bring its own problems but they suggest that would still be
regional powers change course, opting seriously for
negotiations to stop the bloodshed and build peace, the
diplomatic challenge will be enormous. At this late date,
such an attempt would be a long shot at best and would
likely prolong the Syria conflict instead of finishing it
by Brian Whitaker, 7 January 2013. Comment.
out the world from Bahrain
habit of excluding foreign journalists, NGO representatives,
politicians and others whose work it dislikes has long been
common knowledge though the government denies it.
in that denial may become more difficult following the
publication of a
Bahrain Watch which lists more than 200 individuals who have
been kept out of the kingdom during the last two years.
list is here.
by Brian Whitaker, 4 January 2013. Comment.
requirement in Egypt's new constitution for
the state to protect "public morality" is facing
its first test with a
by a former member of parliament.
al-Fakhrany who was an independent member of the
People's Assembly before it was dissolved has launched a
case against President Mursi, the prime minister and the
local government minister demanding that they close liquor
stores and nightclubs.
motives are unclear but, since he is no
friend of the Muslim Brotherhood, it seems likely he is
less interested in banning alcohol than in highlighting some
of the issues created by the constitution which was approved
last month in a controversial referendum.
to Fakhramy's demands on alcohol would be politically
difficult for the government Egypt has the largest
Christian minority in the Middle East and its economy
depends heavily on foreign tourism so it will probably
have to look for ways to wriggle out of the obligations it
imposed on itself in the constitution.
Egypt Independent says:
his lawsuit, Fakhrany referred to Article 2 of Egypt's new
constitution, which states that Islam is the state
religion and the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main
sources of legislation, and to Article 10, which says the
state and society must protect morality."
major practical problem with this is that the
"principles" of Sharia are not formally codified
and religious scholars differ as to what they are. Article
219 of the constitution offers a vague and extremely broad
definition which looks certain to generate more heat than
principles of Islamic Sharia include general evidence,
foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible
sources accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger
4 also says that senior scholars at al-Azhar are
to be "consulted" in matters pertaining to Islamic
law (though it does not explicitly state that their advice
must be followed).
for the Arabist blog, Issandr el Amrani wonders how
Articles 2, 4 and 219 "will together change the way
Sharia impacts the legal system and how they might be used
by Islamist activist lawyers to force Azhar and the
government to adopt retrograde measures".
gives, as an example, the question of whether Egypt can have
a woman president. The new constitution is silent on the
president's gender. On the other hand, there is a hadith
from a widely-accepted source saying: "A nation led by
a woman will be led to its perdition."
is far from clear how a dispute along those lines could be
resolved, Amrani says:
practice of the last two decades of hesbalawsuits
and activist Islamist lawyers certainly suggests that many
will try to use this vagueness to impose their views,
including in ways this hastily drafted constitution might
have avoided if it had been more precise in its
consultational role came into play earlier this week over a
finance ministry proposal for "Islamic bonds". Al-Azhar's
Islamic Research Academy rejected
the plan on
the grounds that it "violates Islamic Sharia and
endangers the state's sovereignty."
exact nature of al-Azhar's religious objections is unclear,
and it is difficult to see how questions of national
sovereignty can be regarded as a Sharia matter.
The National, Hassan Hassan argues that using al-Azhar in
such a way will ultimately damage this venerable
newly approved Egyptian constitution has granted al-Azhar
a codified independence and consultative powers. But,
ironically, these provisions will prove to be to the
detriment of al-Azhar's religious influence by dragging it
into local political and religious bickering. Religious
groups will seek to take over the centre and impose their
own ideologies to bolster their political and religious
makes the eclipse of al-Azhar a deeply worrying
possibility is that it is part of a wider trend, along
with the rise of religious extremists. Mecca and Madina
used to be places where Muslims exercised tolerance and
coexistence through tutoring circles that represented all
schools of thought; they are now exclusively Wahhabi
requiring strict compliance with that definition of pure
similar transformation has occurred in Najaf, Qom,
Damascus and other learning centres. Jerusalem once was a
centre where Muslims from across the spectrum worshipped
together, with members of other faiths. These centres have
now retreated to their locales and are subject to local
politicking and narrow religious understandings.
trend of provincialism among Islamic institutions has
created a profound religious crisis that is likely to
deepen if the institutions continue to lose their global
reach. And yet little has been done to prevent or
compensate for their demise."
by Brian Whitaker, 4 January 2013. Comment.
on motorcycles were responsible for the murders of 40
military and security officers and four civilians in Yemen
during 2012, the interior ministry said
further 21 military officers and nine civilians were injured
in attacks involving motorcycles:
of the motorcycle-used crimes were committed in the
capital Sana'a with 18 cases, followed by 15 in Lahj
province, 10 cases in each of Hadramout and Taiz provinces
and six in Dhale province the others were committed in
provinces of Aden, Baidha, Abyan and Dammar."
attacks usually in the form of drive-by shootings
are mostly blamed on jihadists linked to al-Qaeda.
to al-Arabiya, the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda recently
advised its supporters especially those travelling in
Hadramout, Abyan and Shabwa to use
motorcycles rather than cars, since it is easier to
avoid being monitored or arrested. It also recommended
travelling "under hazy weather conditions" to
reduce the risk of being targeted by drones.
November the government launched a
unlicensed motorcycles, threatening to confiscate any that
are used illegally.
move brought protests from
poor Yemenis who use unlicensed bikes to carry goods or
fee-paying passengers, or simply to travel to work.
of the bikes have been smuggled into the country without
paying customs duty, which is why they are unregistered.
According to one rider, registration including the unpaid
customs duty costs 40,000-50,000 riyals ($185-$230)
money that most can ill-afford.
by Brian Whitaker, 2 January 2013. Comment.
of Israel/Palestine NGOs loses case
vociferous campaigner against NGOs that criticise Israel is
appealing for money following a disastrous legal action in
the European Court of Justice. His supporters in Britain are
being urged to make donations through a registered charity
in effect, with a subsidy from taxpayers.
Steinberg, a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel,
is president of an organisation called NGO Monitor which seeks "to
end the practice used by certain self-declared 'humanitarian
NGOs' of exploiting the label 'universal human rights
values' to promote politically and ideologically motivated
in 2005, Steinberg wrote:
their multi-million-dollar budgets, global superpowers
such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International,
Christian Aid, Oxfam and dozens of smaller allied groups
have contributed to the hatred, rather than supporting
peace [in the Middle East]. Their activities amplify the
rhetoric that labels Israel as an 'apartheid regime' and
Jews as 'imperialists' and 'colonialists', while
whitewashing terror and condemning Israeli defensive
recently he has turned his attention towards Israeli and
Palestinian NGOs that receive EU funding. In 2008, Steinberg
(who according to court documents is a UK citizen) wrote to
the European Commission requesting "access to a series
of documents relating to funding decisions for grants to
Israeli and Palestinian NGOs under the Partnership for
Peace (PfP) programme and the European Instrument for
Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR)".
was eventually granted partial access to the documents, with
redactions. The European Commission claimed it was legally
entitled to withhold some of the information on grounds of
public interest, protection of individuals' privacy and
protection of the commercial interests of third parties.
with this, in 2010 Steinberg began a legal action against
the European Commission to force full disclosure (application
document here). In remarks to the press at the time, he accused
the EU of
a lack of transparency in its funding of NGOs, many of which
he said were "demonising" Israel.
the end of November, the European Court of Justice threw out
Steinberg's case without an oral hearing. It ruled that his
claim was "in part, manifestly inadmissible and, in
part, manifestly lacking any foundation in law".
court accepted that the European Commission had valid
reasons for withholding some of the information. In its
ruling, the court said:
of access to the blanked out passages of the requested
documents is, in essence, based on the apprehension that
the detailed information on the projects in question which
they contain could be used to exert pressure on the
persons concerned, which may range from the publication of
newspaper or internet articles to hate-mail campaigns and
even threats to their physical or moral integrity, and
thus disturb public security."
added that Steinberg had not "put forward the slightest
argument to show that the Commission made a manifest error
of assessment in finding that there was a high risk that the
activities of the NGOs in question would attract hostile
attention which could result in threats to the moral and/or
physical integrity of the various persons concerned and thus
disturb public security, with the result that it was
necessary to blank out certain detailed information on the
projects in question in the requested documents".
The full text of the court's ruling is here,
and there is also an
articleabout it on the +972 Magazine website.
was ordered to pay his own legal costs as well as those
incurred by the European Commission.
appeal for funds via
the NGO Monitor website, Steinberg does not directly state
that he lost the case or provide a link to the court's
ruling. Nor does he mention that he is personally liable for
the costs. Instead, he portrays the affair as "a major
embarrassment" for the EU:
Court's ruling highlighted the EU's secretive support for
political advocacy NGOs, thus increasing pressure for the
release of the classified documents. Although the Court
allowed the EU to continue hiding its NGO decision-making,
this public admission of non-transparency is a major
NGO Monitor lead a major political and media effort to
compel the EU to release the documents exposing how 600
million euros in taxpayer funds have been spent on radical
need $50,000 to crack the EU/NGO wall of silence. Your
gift by December 31, 2012 will enable us to achieve this
is no suggestion that any of the $50,000 will be used to
defray Steinberg's legal costs. Apparently it will be used
for "a major political and media effort" to crack
the EU's "wall of silence" though given the
failure of the court case that may well be money down the
NGO Monitor website goes on to say: "Contributions in
GBP £ are tax-deductible in the UK, through gifts made to
REPORT (UK)" via an address in London.
Charity Commission's records, REPORT (UK) was registered
as a charity last September and operates in England and
Wales and Israel. Its stated objects are somewhat vague:
"To educate about and advance civic
"Such charitable purposes for the public benefit as
are exclusively charitable according to the laws of
England and Wales as the trustees may from time to time
charity gives its website as www.reportorg.org.
This is the website of a US-based organisation which is also
called REPORT ("Research + Evaluation = Promoting
Organizational Responsibility and Transparency, Inc")
and which was previously known as American Friends of NGO
by Brian Whitaker, 1 January 2013. Comment.
the start of a new month, so here are the top 10 readers'
favourites from December (based on Twitter clicks):
pointers to Assad's fall Dec
chemical weapons: how real is the threat? Dec
media dinosaurs meet in Bahrain Dec
Assad flee or sink with his ship? Dec
'crime' of cross-dressing in the Emirates Dec
Syria question. Is the answer 142? Dec
and the arrogance of power Dec
preparing for the end Dec
crackdown on 'fake' muftis Dec
election results: key points Dec
by Brian Whitaker, 1January 2013. Comment.