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Yemen: colonial echoes in the south

There 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.

In 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.

The 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.

When 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.

At 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 south.

The Southern Question (as it's known) was an obvious topic for discussion last week at the London conference on the future of Yemen.

One 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.

"The 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.

"Essentially, 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."

He 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 that Ali 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.]

Meanwhile, according to Petouris, al-Hirak seems to be hopelessly out of touch:

"Whilst 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."

Another 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.

The 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. 

In 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.

By 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 war which 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.

Aspirations 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 it."

Talking 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.

According 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.

(They 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.)

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 January 2013. Comment.

Yemen and the Houthi conflict

Since 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 transition.

In 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.

Details 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 homes.

Last 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. 

Shelagh Weir said the conflict is often described as "tribal" in a derogatory way, implying that those opposing the government are unruly and inherently anti-state. 

She 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.

"Tribes and their leaders are not anti-state," Weir said. "However, their compliance with state officials has always been conditional on fair governance."

"Where 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 – khuruj, the right and duty to oppose unjust rulers.

"Until 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. 

"One of the most prominent and respected Zaidi religious scholars was Badreddin al-Houth, the father of Hussain al-Houthi after whom the Houthi wars are named."

A 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.

Though 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 Arabia."

Weir continued:

"During 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.

"Salafis 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."

Inevitably, the aggressive salafi/Wahhabi proselytising triggered a response from the other side. Hussain al-Houthi founded hisBelieving Youth movement – 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. 

"A 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. 

"This 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."

In another presentation to the London conference, Madeleine Wells, a PhD student at George Washington University, examined government rhetoric linking the Houthis with Iran.

She 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".

Initially, 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.

"This 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 anti-western resistance."

Although 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.

She continued:

"The 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.

"Perception 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."

Regime 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 solution.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 January 2013. Comment.

Yemen's ambivalent transition

Yemen 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 democracy".

Culturally, 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.

"It's 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 determined ...

"In 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 very important.

"Regardless 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."

Parallel 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.

Viewed 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 backyard.

"Yemenis, now, are confronting the confluence of these two very disparate historical junctures," she continued. 

"The so-called GCC initiative is 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."

Despite 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 regional stability.

Two other speakers on the same panel – Adam Seitz and Ludmila du Bouchet – discussed civil-military relations inside Yemen.

Referring 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. 

She 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. 

"The 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."

The 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 military".

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.

Under 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."

As 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.

"However 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 conference."

Returning 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 these positions." 

This raises the question of the persistence of authoritarian enclaves within the framework of democratic transition, she said.

President 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.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 January 2013. Comment.

Yemen, water and qat

"Land 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).

Although 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.

The 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 efficiently.

Allan also makes an important distinction between what he calls 
"big 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%.

"The 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.

Water 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 economy."

A 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 priority."

He 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.

Considering 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 Lackner told 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.

Lackner 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.

She 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:

1. Give the state final authority over water resources, especially groundwater (though authority can be delegated where appropriate).

2. Ensure all decisions are implemented in the interests of the population as a whole.

3. When necessary, used the power of the state for enforcement – especially with respect to drilling.

4. Develop desalination.

5. Use sophisticated techniques to increase awareness.

Two other speakers discussed conflict resolution methods – Jens Kambeck in connection with land disputes, and Gerhard Lichtenhaeler in connection with disputes over water.

Lichtenhaeler 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.

Problems 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 neutrality".

Kambeck 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 added.)

The last few months have seen renewed debate in Yemen about qat, with talk 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".

He 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.

There 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. 

Overall, he thought a better approach would be to try to reduce demand for qat rather than the supply.

  • Note: 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.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 January 2013. Comment.

Yemen: a challenging year ahead

A 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.

The 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.

At 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 conference:

"Just 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. 

"Given 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 people."

Duncan 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 continued:

"The 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.

"In 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. 

"We 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 around unused.

"I 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 constructive projects."

Two Yemeni government representatives also spoke at the opening session: foreign minister Abubakr al-Qirbi and planning minister Muhammad al-Saadi.

Qirbi 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.

Southern 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.

The Twitter hashtag for the conference is #YemenFutureConf.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 January 2013. Comment.

Resisting colonialism at Oxford

Global 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 month.

Ahead of the fair, Global Study UK posted a tweet which said:

Many Reasons to Study for British Degree! 1. Fees are Less than In Lebanon 2. 3yr Bachelor / 1yr Master 3. You Learn TOLERANCE & Equality

Amid 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 Britain.

This prompted a furious riposte from Twitter user @snarwani who said:

Really, u're going to send yr Arab kid to learn "tolerance & equality" from your old colonials? #Westoxified

For good measure, @snarwani added:

Brits KILL with impunity in this part of world. #Racism

This outburst might scarcely be worth noting – except that @snarwani is the Twitter name of Sharmine Narwani, a Senior Associate at St Antony’s College, Oxford University. 

Far 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.

Political commentaries under her name have been published by Huffington Post, al-Jazeera and the Asia Times, all citing her position as a senior associate at Oxford.

For 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.

But what, exactly, does "senior associate" mean? The website of St Anthony's college explains:

The 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.

Another part of the college website says:

Senior 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. 

Ms 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."

Maybe 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 tolerant place.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 January 2013. Comment.

Bahrain king is 'Humanitarian of the Year'

You 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 newspaper, al-Sharq.

Apparently, "tens of thousands of personalities from the GCC and Arab world" took part in the poll. The report says:

"The 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."

Presumably, 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.

The 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.

  • Yesterday, 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.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 January 2013. Comment.

Bahrain's failed charm offensive

There's 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".

The 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.

The 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.

The article's author, Anwar Abdulrahman, who is editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Khaleej (the Arabic-language sister paper of the GDN), writes:

"How 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. 

"Firms involved in this group of hired hands, including Washington DC-based Qorvis Communications and 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 Bahrain."

[Incidentally, 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 "supporting Bahrain".]

Abdulrahman continues:

"What 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?

"The 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."

Abdulrahman 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 disaster".

The second problem was that paying foreign PR firms large amounts of money to spread "good news" about Bahrain tended to devalue the message:

"It 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' ... "

This 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 criticism:

"We 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 positive result."

A row between the two men then ensued in the letters section of the GDN, with Abdulrahman telling the Earl of Clanwilliam:

"You 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 international press."

Abdulrahman also complained:

"Whenever you visit the kingdom, rather than meeting with myself or other members of the national press, you seem to prefer to play golf." 


The 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:

"There 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 decision-making."

In today's article, he continues this theme:

"Our 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.

"Let 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."

Abdulrahman 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).

There 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 attract criticism.

Yesterday brought more bad news on the PR front. Ian Black of the Guardian reports:

"Britain 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.

"Eight 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 ...

"The 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.

"Monday's 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 Bahrainis'."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 January 2013. Comment.

The futility of talking to Assad

Barring full-scale foreign intervention, a negotiated settlement in Syria is "becoming inevitable", Patrick Cockburn wrote in 
an article for the Independent last week.

As 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.

But 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.

In 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:

"The 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."

Cockburn doesn't seem to have been deterred from this opinion by the fact that he also pronounced the Libyan conflict to be 
a stalemate in April 2011, and was duly proved wrong:

"Gaddafi 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 blow."

The 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 itself from 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.

Once 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.

This 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 continues to equate national interest and national sovereignty with the survival and inviolability of his regime: to oppose him is unpatriotic.

In 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.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Bilal Saab and Andrew Tabler 

"After 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."

Negotiations 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.

Looking 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:

"Negotiated 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)."

Saab and Tabler acknowledge that a rebel victory in Syria would bring its own problems but they suggest that would still be preferable:

"If 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 off."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 January 2013. Comment.

Shutting out the world from Bahrain

Bahrain's habit of excluding foreign journalists, NGO representatives, politicians and others whose work it dislikes has long been common knowledge – though the government denies it.

Persisting in that denial may become more difficult following the publication of a report by Bahrain Watch which lists more than 200 individuals who have been kept out of the kingdom during the last two years.

The list is here.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 January 2013. Comment.

Testing Egypt's constitution

The requirement in Egypt's new constitution for the state to protect "public morality" is facing its first test with a lawsuit filed by a former member of parliament.

Hamdy 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.

Fakhrany's 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.

Acceding 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.

The Egypt Independent says:

"In 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."

A 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 light:

"The principles of Islamic Sharia include general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible sources accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger community."

Article 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).

Writing 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".

He 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."

It is far from clear how a dispute along those lines could be resolved, Amrani says:

"The 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 wording."

Al-Azhar's 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."

The 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.

In a column for The National, Hassan Hassan argues that using al-Azhar in such a way will ultimately damage this venerable institution:

"The 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 standing."

He concludes:

"What 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 Islam.

"A 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.

"This 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."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 January 2013. Comment.

Yemen's motorcycle murders

Killers on motorcycles were responsible for the murders of 40 military and security officers and four civilians in Yemen during 2012, the interior ministry said yesterday.

A further 21 military officers and nine civilians were injured in attacks involving motorcycles:

"Most 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."

The attacks – usually in the form of drive-by shootings – are mostly blamed on jihadists linked to al-Qaeda.

According 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.

Last November the government launched a campaign against unlicensed motorcycles, threatening to confiscate any that are used illegally.

The move brought protests from poor Yemenis who use unlicensed bikes to carry goods or fee-paying passengers, or simply to travel to work.

Many 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.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 January 2013. Comment.

Critic of Israel/Palestine NGOs loses case

A 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.

Gerald 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 agendas". 

In an article published in 2005, Steinberg wrote:

"With 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 actions."

More 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)".

He 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.

Dissatisfied 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.

At 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".

The court accepted that the European Commission had valid reasons for withholding some of the information. In its ruling, the court said: 

"Refusal 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."

It 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.

Steinberg was ordered to pay his own legal costs as well as those incurred by the European Commission.

In an 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:

"The 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 embarrassment.

"Help 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 anti-Israel NGOs. 

"We need $50,000 to crack the EU/NGO wall of silence. Your gift by December 31, 2012 will enable us to achieve this goal."

There 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 drain.

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.

According to the 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:

1. "To educate about and advance civic responsibility."

2. "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 determine."

The 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 Monitor, Inc.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 January 2013. Comment.

Readers' favourites

It's the start of a new month, so here are the top 10 readers' favourites from December (based on Twitter clicks):

1. Six pointers to Assad's fall Dec 4 

2. Syria's chemical weapons: how real is the threat? Dec 6

3. Arab media dinosaurs meet in Bahrain Dec 27

4. Will Assad flee or sink with his ship? Dec 5

5. The 'crime' of cross-dressing in the Emirates Dec 19

6. The Syria question. Is the answer 142? Dec 23

7. Bouazizi and the arrogance of power Dec 17

8. Syria: preparing for the end Dec 7

9. Saudi crackdown on 'fake' muftis Dec 10

10. Kuwait election results: key points Dec 2

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1January 2013. Comment.

Previous blog posts




January 2013

Unholy matrimony battle continues in Lebanon

Saleh, the victim

Mufti's threats over civil marriage in Lebanon

Citizen Saleh

Sects and marriage in Lebanon

Egypt's national dilemma

Saudi Arabia: subversion by stealth

Saudi apostasy case dropped

Britain and Israel: tax benefits for settlers?

Gay marriage, Lebanese style

Jordan: a transition to what?

Saudi Shoura Council: no hanky-panky, please

Yemen: colonial echoes in the south

Yemen and the Houthi conflict

Yemen's ambivalent transition

Yemen, water and qat

Yemen: a challenging year ahead

Resisting colonialism at Oxford

Bahrain king is 'Humanitarian of the Year'

Bahrain's failed charm offensive

The futility of talking to Assad

Shutting out the world from Bahrain

Testing Egypt's constitution

Yemen's motorcycle murders

Critic of Israel/Palestine NGOs loses case

Readers' favourites


Blog archive

All blog posts

General topics

Saudi Arabia 


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



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Last revised on 22 February, 2013