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Bahrain thanks UAE for banning speaker

Bahrain has expressed its appreciation to the UAE for turning away a British academic who was due to speak at a conference in the Emirates last Sunday.

Bahrain's foreign ministry said the UAE's decision was "a true reflection of the strong bonds of fraternity between the UAE and Bahrain and an example of GCC co-operation in addressing such issues".

Dr Kristian Ulrichsen of the London School of Economics (LSE), had been scheduled to speak about Bahrain at a conference, "The New Middle East: Transition in the Arab World", which was jointly organised by the LSE and the American University of Sharjah.

The title of Dr Ulrichsen's talk was "Bahrain’s Uprising: Domestic Implications and Regional and International Perspectives".

Towards the end of last week the UAE authorities intervened and said no discussion of Bahrain would be allowed. Rather than accept what it regarded as a restriction on academic freedom, the LSE pulled out, causing the conference to be cancelled.

A statement issued by the UAE foreign ministry on Monday said Ulrichsen "has consistently propagated views de-legitimising the Bahraini monarchy". It continued:

"The UAE took the view that at this extremely sensitive juncture in Bahrain's national dialogue it would be unhelpful to allow non-constructive views on the situation in Bahrain to be expressed from within another GCC state."

The statement added that it was "important to avoid disruption at a difficult point in Bahrain's national dialogue process".

The idea that Bahrain's political future might hinge on an academic discussion in Sharjah prompted a comment from Bahraini activist Alaa Shehabi on Twitter that either Ulrichsen must be amazingly powerful or Bahrain's national dialogue process must be extremely feeble.

A paper on Bahrain, published by Ulrichsen last year, can be read on the LSE's website. It is certainly critical but scarcely inflammatory. It accurately describes the ruling family of Bahrain as "determined to swim against the tide of the Arab Spring, uninterested in meaningful political compromise and reliant on foreign protection as the guarantor of regime security".

Ulrichsen has also written critically about the UAE, describing its rulers as "unable or unwilling to comprehend or tolerate any form of political plurality". This hasn't been mentioned as a reason for excluding him from the UAE possibly it was an additional factor.

While this might seem like a fairly minor incident, Ulrichsen himself sees it as part of a bigger problem. Writing for Foreign Policy, 
he notes that the UAE has "invested heavily in cultivating a sophisticated international brand" and continues:

"This has included a significant soft power component based around creating links with prestigious and world-leading cultural and academic institutions, with Abu Dhabi attracting New York University (NYU) and branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, and major British universities – including the LSE, Durham, and Exeter – in receipt of large amounts of funding from the country."

One effect, he says, is that this tends to steer academic debate away from the Gulf monarchies and "toward safer topics".

As often happens, Gulf rulers are trying to have it both ways. They want the kudos and respectability that comes from being associated with renowned universities, but without buying into the principle of academic freedom. Ulrichsen adds:

"Universities now are caught in the crossfire of the Gulf rulers' growing intolerance of criticism. This latest example of attempted intervention in a university's affairs marks the culmination of a depressing pattern that has seen the UAE authorities take closer control of domestic academic institutions, close down branches of international think-tanks and research institutes, expel a US professor of media and communications, and – now – seek to control research and conference agendas."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 February 2013. Comment.

The Gulf's golden handcuffs

After a decade of seeking to expand the private sector, Arab Gulf monarchies have swung into reverse and are now promoting a culture of economic dependency on the state in the hope of buying off political opposition, Suliman al-Atiqi writes in an article for the Sada website.

This development has been apparent for some time and was especially noticeable as Arab uprisings spread during the early months of 2011 (the Saudi king suddenly found some spare billions in his pockets and Kuwait gave cash handouts of $3,600 to every citizen) but Atiqi's article provides some startling figures relating to employment.

  • In Qatar, for example, only 1.5% work in the private sector. According to the Oxford Business Group, this is a decline from 4% twenty years ago due to the availability of "plush government jobs".

  • In Oman, during a nine-month period in 2011, private sector employment fell by 4% to 170,000 (out of an estimated population of 2.5 million). At the same time, employment of expatriates (a group that don't cause trouble and can be thrown out of the country if they do) increased by 10%.

  • In Kuwait, the government provided 17,000 new jobs in the public sector in 2011 – double the figure for 2010 and more than at any time in the previous 10 years.

Atiqi makes the economic argument that this is damaging the private sector:

"The adopted responses to the uprisings of 2011 have only reinforced the culture of state-dependency and the general impression that GCC citizens are better off in the public sector. This will make it more difficult for private companies to entice and retain talented citizens as employees ..."

It seems to me, though, that the main issue here is not the respective merits of the public sector versus the private sector – at least, not in the sense that they are discussed in most other countries. It's about maintaining an archaic patrimonial system through economic subjugation.

Given the lack of any clear distinction between "the state" and the ruling family, or between the state's coffers and the rulers' coffers, we might also question whether the Gulf countries have a public sector at all in the usual meaning of the term. It might be more accurate to regard the ruler (aka "the state") as the country's largest private employer.

This is very reminiscent of a situation in the west during the industrial revolution when whole towns could become economically dependent on a single factory-owner – except that in the Gulf it happens on a national scale.

For the most part, economic subjugation to the rulers of Gulf states does not equate with poverty or hardship but it does buy allegiance. It usually brings affluence and an undemanding job, plus an understanding that it can all be summarily taken away if employees fail to behave themselves politically (and in the absence of a substantial private sector they are unlikely to find an alternative employer). In effect, the state is offering them golden handcuffs.

There are similar practices in the poorer Arab countries, and for the same reasons, though they generally have less money to splash around. In Syria, for example, it was estimated before the uprising that as many as half the country's inhabitants depended to some extent on government pay cheques – and that is probably one of the reasons why the Assad regime has managed to cling on for so long. 

So far, buying allegiance through government jobs has proved a reliable way for Gulf regimes to protect themselves but that doesn't necessarily mean it can be relied upon in the future. It only works so long as people are easily intimidated and fearful of stepping out of line.

Even in the Gulf, the Arab Spring is making people more assertive and rebellious, and once they start to act collectively the regimes have problems. Atiqi describes what happened in Kuwait in 2011:

"Thousands of public-sector employees — emboldened by the uprisings — went on strike to demand higher wages and more benefits. By February 2011, the government had already announced salary increases which ranged from 70%-100% for law enforcement personnel (defence and interior) based on rank. 

"When the government announced salary increases up to 66% in September for employees in the oil sector, labour unions (for example, those of Kuwait Airways and customs employees) intensified their efforts and went on strike to demand wage increases while the situation was ripe. 

"The government relented, and by March 2012 it had announced a 25% public sector wage increase — amounting to higher pay for over 80% of the Kuwaiti workforce — as well as 12.5% increases in pensions."

Employing a vast workforce has certainly given Gulf rulers a sense of security, though it may be a false one. A vast workforce also has the potential to organise itself on a vast scale, and who knows where that could lead?

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 February 2013. Comment.

Arming the 'good' rebels in Syria

There has been a flurry of articles over the last few days about new weaponry reaching anti-Assad fighters in Syria. This is a very significant development, for two reasons.

First, it reflects a shift in attitudes among some western and Arab governments as far as arming the rebels is concerned. It's not a change in official policy but nor is it simply a matter of turning a blind eye to arms supplies. Evidence suggests the supply of weapons is being actively managed and directed, though obviously the process is happening at arm's length in the hope that it will remain deniable.

Secondly, this is not necessarily meant to hasten Assad's fall. It seems to have be prompted more by fears that when Assad does go jihadist groups will hold the upper hand. The aim, therefore, is to shift the balance among opposition fighters in favour of the less extreme elements.

The following articles help to fill in the picture:

In Syria, new influx of weapons to rebels tilts the battle against Assad
Liz Sly and Karen DeYoung, Washington Post, 24 February.

Who just started arming Syria rebels?
Michael Weiss, NOW, 20 February.

Saudis step up help for rebels in Syria with Croatian arms
CJ Chivers and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, 25 February.

Weapons from the former Yugoslavia spread through Syria’s war
Eliot Higgins (@Brown_Moses), New York Times blog, 25 February.

Sightings of new weaponry in Syria have been highlighted over the last few weeks by several blogs, including Brown Moses, The Trigger, The Gun and EA Worldview.

It's still too early to say what this will achieve. The dangers are that it could further escalate the conflict and/or lead to fighting amongst the rebel groups themselves. A lot will depend on the response from Moscow and Tehran.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 February 2013. Comment.

Defaming the dead in Syria

A tweet circulated today by numerous Twitter users casts a particularly nasty slur on Olivier Voisin, the French photographer who was fatally injured in Syria last week. It says:

"Dead French Photographer was State Department-Funded – Embedded in Syria With Al Qaeda"

There are no established facts to justify this smear but it obviously appeals to conspiracy theorists. It also sheds some interesting light on the tenuous connections they make in order to sustain their theories.

The tweets refer to an article by Tony Cartalucci, a Bangkok-based "geopolitical analyst", which is posted on the Global Research website and the Infowars website as well as Cartalucci's own Land Destroyer website which appears to blame just about everything on American imperialism – including the Arab uprisings.

Cartalucci's recent e-book, War on Syria (co-authored with Nile Bowie) claims that the Arab Spring is basically a western plot, with international media using "unverified reports of excessive government violence" to "tarnish the image of national governments in the region". Regarding Syria, he writes:

"Contrary to the popular historical account of events, the conflict that has ravaged Syria is not an indigenous internal dispute, and it is not a tale of a belligerent dictator bent on 'murdering his own people'. Regardless of how this situation is resolved, it must be remembered as an attempt by allied foreign entities to use unrestrained tactics of subversion and terrorism to overthrow a sovereign nation's government."

Photographer Voisin was implicated in this plot, according to Cartalucci's article, because at the time of his fatal injury in Syria he was working for the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF, known in English as Reporters Without Borders).

Cartalucci describes RSF as "a notorious faux-NGO that plays a pivotal role globally, undermining nations targeted by Western corporate-financier interests, working in tandem with US State Department-backed proxies in Iran, China, Russia, Sudan, and everywhere else Wall Street and London seek to plant their flag".

Despite Cartalucci's complaints about "unverified" reports in the international media, his own article scarcely sets a good example. He provides zero evidence to back up his claim that Voisin's fatal trip to Syria was in fact funded by the State Department. The best he can do is point to RSF's accounts for the year 2008 which state that one of its donors was the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) – which in turn is funded mainly by a grant from the State Department's USAID budget. 

Whether RSF still receives money from the NED is another matter. The most recent accounts (for 2011, and not referred to in Cartalucci's article) make no mention of it – which suggests it has stopped.

Cartalucci, of course, is trying to bolster his grand conspiracy theory by characterising RSF (and Voisin) as proxies of the US State Department. Whether or not RSF was wise to accept NED money, there is no indication that it has ever provided more than a small part of RFS's overall income. In the 2008 accounts, donations from the NED and three other foundations were only 10% of its total income.

Nor is the claim of State Department influence borne out by RSF's website which has plenty of articles criticising the US authorities' behaviour towards journalists.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 February 2013. Comment.

Oman: the sultan and his prisoners

Rampant military splendour: the despotic Sultan Qaboos

With the killing of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, Sultan Qaboos of Oman inherited the mantle of the Middle East's longest-surviving despot.

Qaboos – described by the US State Department as "a longtime friend of the United States and a valued partner who's made enormous changes on the ground in his country" – seized the throne from his father (with British help) way back in 1970.

He has always had close ties with Britain, having once served in the British army. Last December he delighted the recession-hit British government by agreeing to purchase $4 billion-worth of military aircraft that he probably doesn't need.

It's not surprising, therefore, that the sultan gets an easy ride from western governments in terms of the way he treats his own people.

Last week, 20 human rights organisations from various Arab countries issued a joint call for the release of Omani activists who have been jailed for exercising their right to free expression and assembly. Similar calls came from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Last year, 35 activists were sentenced to between six months and 18 months in prison on charges that included "defaming the Sultan", "illegal gathering" and violating Oman’s cybercrimes law through posts on Facebook and Twitter. 

"None of the charges involve recognisable crimes by international standards," Human Rights Watch says.

On 9 February, 17 of these prisoners began a hunger strike in protest at a Supreme Court delay in hearing some of their appeals. They have since been joined by others, bringing the total of hunger strikers to at least 31, according to Amnesty International.

An "urgent action" note from Amnesty explains the background:

The crackdown began on 31 May 2012, with the arrest of three activists who tried to travel to Fohoud oil field, approximately 250km south-west of Muscat, to document an oil workers’ strike that had started a week earlier. The three – lawyer Yaqoub al-Kharousi and activists Habeeba al-Hina’i and Ismail al-Muqbali from the newly formed Omani Group for Human Rights – were reportedly charged in connection with inciting a protest. 

In June several dozen more writers and activists were arrested – at least 22 people were detained on 11 June alone after protesting peacefully outside Muscat’s police headquarters, where they were calling for the three arrested on 31 May to be set free.

On 5 December the Muscat Appeal Court upheld convictions against five men and a woman for insulting the Sultan and using the internet to publish defamatory material. Abdullah al-Abdali, Bassam Abu Qasida, Hilal al-Busa’idi, Issa al-Mas’udi, and Muhammad al-Kiyumi received sentences of a year in prison and a fine of 1,000 riyals (around US$2,600) each. The woman, Maymouna al-Badi, left the court with a sentence of 20 days’ imprisonment.

On 12 December the Muscat Appeal Court upheld the Court of First Instance’s convictions of 11 men and one woman for insulting the Sultan and using the internet to publish defamatory material. Ten of the men – Abdullah al-Arimi, Abdullah al-Siyabi, Ali al-Muqbali, Hamad al-Kharousi, Mahmoud al-Rawahi, Mohamed al-Badi, Mohamed al-Habsi, Nabhan al-Hanashi, Rashed al-Badi, and Taleb al-Ebri – and the woman, Mona Harden, were sentenced to a year in prison and a fine of 200 to 1,000 riyals (around US$520 to US$2,600), while the 12th defendant, Hamoud al-Rashidi, received a suspended six-month prison sentence.

Verdicts against 11 other activists, nine men and two women, who had been sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of 200 riyals for unlawful gathering, were also upheld by the Appeal Court on 12 December. The 11 activists are Abdullah al-Ghilani, Badr al-Jaberi, Basimah al-Rajihi, Basma al-Kiyumi, Khaled al-Nawfali, Mahmoud al-Jamoudi, Mahmoud al-Rawahi, Mohamed al-Fazari, Mukhtar al-Hina’i, Nasser al-Ghilani and Sa’eed al-Hashimi.

On 16 January 2013, the Muscat Appeal Court upheld the sentences against seven activists for insulting the Sultan and violating Oman’s internet laws of between 12 to18 months’ imprisonment and a fine of 1,000 riyals. The seven include Usama al-Tawayyah, Ahmed al-Mu’ammari, Awadh al-Sawafi, Mukhtar al-Hina’i, Mohammed al-Jamoudi, Ismail al-Muqbali and Hassan Raqishi. Mohammed al-Jamoudi and Mukhtar al-Hina’i were already serving sentences that were upheld on 12 December. In addition, Ishaq al-Aghbari and Ali al-Hajji in the same case had their sentences reduced to three and six months’ respectively.

Meanwhile, the sultan has continued his "reforms" by 
replacing six members of the government-run National Human Rights Commission.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 February 2013. Comment.

Conference speaker banned from UAE 

The London School of Economics (LSE) has cancelled a conference which was due to be held in the United Arab Emirates tomorrow after one of the speakers was turned back at Dubai airport.

The conference, entitled "The New Middle East: Transition in the Arab World", listed several prominent Middle East specialists in 
its programme, including Prof Fawaz Gerges (LSE), Prof Juan Cole (University of Michigan), Prof Roger Owen (Harvard) and Prof William Quandt (University of Virginia).

The speaker who was refused admission to the UAE, Dr Kristian Ulrichsen of LSE, had been due to speak on "Bahrain’s Uprising: Domestic Implications and Regional and International Perspectives".

Yesterday, Ulrichsen tweeted:

"I am being held on arrival at Dubai International Airport. My passport has been taken & I have been separated from my #LSE colleagues."

An hour later he tweeted that he was being put on a plane back to London. In subsequent tweets he said the only reason given was that his name appeared on a "blacklist" but he also said "orders" had had come through at the last minute to drop his paper from the conference.

Last year Ulrichsen published a critical paper on "Bahrain's aborted revolution" which ended by saying:

"Officials throughout the region will be observing how cracking down so hard has saved the Al-Khalifa [Bahrain's ruling family], at least for now. But their survival has come at a very high price economically and politically, and has shattered social cohesion in a country polarised as never before. 

"With a ruling family determined to swim against the tide of the Arab Spring, uninterested in meaningful political compromise and reliant on foreign protection as the guarantor of regime security, ruling elites will be absorbing lessons from the Al-Khalifa’s crushing of opposition at the expense of their domestic and international credibility."

Since being turned back from the UAE, Ulrichsen has also been subjected to a series of abusive tweets from an Emirati Twitter user, Jalal Bin Thaneya.

The conference was to have been a joint venture between the LSE and the American University of Sharjah (see press release).

According to the BBC, restrictions on the conference were imposed by "very senior" UAE government officials. The BBC also notes:

"To date LSE has received £5.6m ($8.5m) from the Emirates Foundation, which is funded by the UAE government, but the institution denied that the foundation was involved in placing the restrictions."

Given the previous embarrassing history of its dealings with Arab regimes, the LSE probably had no option but to cancel the entire conference rather than accept the exclusion of a single speaker. 

In 2011, the LSE was heavily criticised for having accepted £1.5 million from the Gaddafi Foundation (headed by the late colonel's son Saif, who had acquired a PhD at the LSE under dubious circumstances).

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 February 2013. Comment.

Egypt's Christians angry over Easter election

President Morsi's announcement of the dates for parliamentary elections has angered Egyptian Christians.

Polling is to be phased over two months but the first stage – in Cairo and four other provinces – is scheduled for 27-28 April, overlapping with Palm Sunday in the Coptic calendar. The run-off, a week later, coincides with the Coptic Easter.

Egypt has the largest Christian community in the Middle East, numbering several millions, and Coptic activists are claiming the election has been timed to discourage them from voting.

Even if the timing was not a deliberate ploy it does seem an inconsiderate and insensitive move on Morsi's part.

"Didn't the president consult anyone before setting the dates?" Bishop Rafiq Gereish is quoted as saying in a report by the Egypt Independent.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 February 2013. Comment.

UPDATE, 13.00 GMT, 23 February: Reuters reports that President Morsi is planning to issue a new decree changing the election dates. It seems extraordinary that he didn't think about the Coptic Easter (and no officials saw fit to remind him) before he announced the dates in the first place.

Syria talks: a lifeline for Assad?

When Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, offered talks with representatives of the Assad regime his move 
infuriated many in the opposition. But it also put Assad on the spot and the Syrian president is now facing diplomatic pressure to respond.

"There has been a very important offer of negotiation by Khatib of the National Coalition," Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, told reporters during a visit to Lebanon yesterday. "It is important that that offer is responded to with serious negotiations by the Assad regime." 

A day earlier, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov had made a similar point, calling on the Syrian government to "take certain steps" to show its readiness for talks.

Assad himself has no particular need for talks at the moment but the lack of a response makes Russian support for his regime more difficult to sustain. His attitude to talks could change, however, if the regime's military position worsens significantly – in which case negotiations might even provide him with a lifeline..

Of course, the absence of formal talks does not mean an absence of contacts or exploratory discussions – there is plenty of manoeuvring behind the scenes. From what has seeped out, though, there are fundamental differences about the purpose of any talks.

As far as the anti-Assad camp is concerned the purpose is political transition – an orderly (insofar as that is possible) dismantling of the regime. The regime, on the other hand, views talks as a means, in extremis, to salvage as much power as it can from the wreckage. In a best-case scenario (for Assad) it might even neuter the armed opposition and give the regime space to start consolidating again.

In that context, it's worth recalling Prof David Lesch's observation a couple of weeks ago that Assad has redefined "victory" to mean not losing.

Assad's stated position is that he intends to complete his current presidential term which ends in 2014. This, incidentally, is similar to the position adopted by ex-President Saleh of Yemen before he was eventually persuaded to resign.

One option currently being explored, according to Asharq Alawsat, is whether Assad would be willing to step "aside" rather than step "down". Stepping aside, apparently, would mean he remains as president but hands over his executive powers to the prime minister.

The "aside-but-not-down" idea comes from two (unnamed) Lebanese politicians who are close to Assad and the same proposal would also reward his sideways move by granting immunity from prosecution.

But even if that were agreed, Assad would not necessarily be out of the spotlight for long. He has consistently refused to say that he won't contest future presidential elections.

Another disputed question is at what point Assad would be expected to step aside (or down): should it be a prelude to negotiations or the culmination of them? 

The Syrian National Coalition seems to have ceded some ground on that point. In a draft communique reported by Reuters yesterday it said Assad could not "be a party to any settlement" but did not repeat its earlier insistence that he must go before talks can start.

The problem with all this is that there can be no equitable political solution, and probably no end to the military conflict either, while Assad remains. For political processes to begin inside Syria – fair elections, constitutional changes, etc – there has to be a level field. 

That can only be achieved if Assad and his closest associates go completely and the Baath party's hands are removed from the main levers of power. There is really no way of fudging it, though it would be important to avoid the more extreme forms of de-Baathification that the US imposed in post-Saddam Iraq.

The likely course of a Syrian "transition" process which did not exclude Assad and the higher ranks of his regime can be seen, in a milder form, in Yemen.

There, President Saleh was persuaded to step down (rather than aside) but was granted immunity from prosecution and continues to live in Yemen. His patronage network remains largely intact, with some of his relatives still in powerful positions and his party – in the absence of elections – still holding a large majority in parliament.

Saleh is now free to continue meddling and plotting, without the burden of day-to-day government to distract him from that. The National Dialogue – on which virtually all hopes for a successful transition are pinned – is once again on hold and the UN is bleating impotently about "interference" in the process.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 February 2013. Comment.

Bahrain king's son heads for Britain ... again

Sheikh Nasser, the controversial son of the king of Bahrain, is organising an equestrian event in Britain, to be held next May in the grounds of Windsor Castle, Bahrain's government news agency (BNA) reports.

BNA says the event – an "international endurance horse ride" – will take place "on the sidelines" of the Royal Windsor Horse Show which is patronised by Her Majesty the Queen.

Sheikh Nasser is president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee and chairman of the kingdom's Supreme Council for Youth and Sports. There were calls to ban him from the London Olympic last year because of torture allegations (which he denies) but he did attend the opening ceremony.

It is unclear from the BNA's report whether the phrase "on the sidelines" means Sheikh Nasser's equestrian event will be an official part of the Royal Windsor Horse Show or not.

The report says Sheikh Nasser had a meeting in London with the show organisers but, oddly, it doesn't say if anything was agreed at the meeting:

During the meeting, the show organisers presented Shaikh Nasser with details of the programmes and activities ...

Shaikh Nasser affirmed Bahrain's keenness to be part of this wonderful festival, to be held at the private grounds of Windsor Castle and is patronised by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth ...

On his part, Brooks [Simon Brooks, one of the organisers] expressed appreciation to Shaikh Nasser for his efforts in supporting equestrian sports in Bahrain, which had astonishing sporting achievements in the past years thanks to the continued backing of His Majesty King Hamad.

The Bahrain News Agency, as I've pointed out many times before, is notorious for making up quotes from foreigners praising King Hamad and the kingdom's achievements. The latter quote from Brooks sounds suspiciously like another of them.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 February 2013. Comment.

Arab media: a question of freedom

Only three of the 22 Arab League countries – Comoros, Mauritania and Kuwait – are ranked in the top half of this year's World Press Freedom Index issued by Reporters Without Borders. As a very broad-brush picture of where Arab media stand in comparison to other parts of the world, this is probably fair. Looking more closely at the rankings of specific Arab countries, however – comparing them against each other – I began to feel that something has gone awry.

Here are the rankings, with the change in position from last year shown in brackets.

51 Comoros (-6)
67 Mauritania (0)
77 Kuwait (+1)
101 Lebanon (-8)
110 Qatar (+4)
114 UAE (-2)
125 Algeria (-3)
131 Libya (+23)
134 Jordan (-6)
136 Morocco (+2)
138 Tunisia (-4)
141 Oman (-24)
146 Palestine (+7)
150 Iraq (+2)
158 Egypt (+8)
163 Saudi Arabia (-5)
165 Bahrain (+8)
167 Djibouti (-8)
169 Yemen (+2)
170 Sudan (0)
175 Somalia (-11)
176 Syria (0)

In principle, league tables of this kind are a good idea but if they are to be useful the methodology has to be right and, in the case of the World Press Freedom Index, I suspect that it isn't. Or maybe the index needs a different name.

For a start, are Comoros, Mauritania and Kuwait really so far ahead of the others (there's a gap of 24 places between Kuwait and the next Arab country, Lebanon)? And does Oman really enjoy more press freedom than Egypt? I can't imagine anyone, with the possible exception of the Sultan, saying that it does.

Devising an objective measure of media freedom is no easy task. Reporters Without Borders uses six indicators: media pluralism, media independence, the working environment and self-censorship, the legislative framework, transparency, and infrastructure. The questionnaire on which its survey is based also asks plenty of sensible questions.

I think the main problem with this is that it gives too much weight to the institutional and legal frameworks and too little to questions of how well (or not) journalists serve the public: what use are they making of the freedoms that they do have – are they pushing at the boundaries – and to what extent is there anything that could be considered as vibrant public discourse?

In terms of pluralism, the existence of privately-owned media is treated as a plus point – though that can be deceptive if the result, as in Mauritania, is a burgeoning of sensationalist publications or, as in some of the Gulf states, the "private" hands are actually people close to the government.

Similarly, low numbers of arrested journalists can be a healthy or unhealthy sign. It may be because the government allows them freedom to do their job but equally it can mean that the media has become utterly tame.

One useful test is to ask what criticisms can be made of senior officials, and especially the head of state, without fear. On that basis, Egypt deserves a higher ranking than it has got, sandwiched in 158th place between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Writing for his Chronikler blog, Khaled Diab argues that the index's methodology results in some countries with a more critical media culture scoring more poorly than those which are less critical:

Although no Kuwaiti journalists were arrested last year, the profession as a whole tends to self-censor to stay within the carefully delineated “red lines”, while attempts by Mubarak, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood to impose restrictions in Egypt through intimidations and periodic crackdowns, have been met with defiance and open rebellion by much of the independent media.

“When Kuwait comes ahead of Egypt, this confounds me,” Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian publisher and democracy advocate admitted to me amid the bare concrete and dust in the future offices of his ambitious new media project in Cairo a few months ago. “If rulers in the Gulf were exposed to the same level of attacks that Mubarak was in his last years, then heads would roll.”

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 February 2013. Comment.

Threat to Muslim MP over gay marriage vote

A British Muslim MP is reported to have received threats after voting in favour of gay marriage in the recent parliamentary debate. 

According to the Mail on Sunday, police say the threats against Sadiq Khan, Labour member for the Tooting district of London, are "credible enough that he should review the security around him and his family".

Britain has eight MPs who identify as Muslim. As I noted in an earlier blog post, five of them – including Khan – voted to allow gay marriage, two did not vote and only one of them voted against.

This brought abusive comments from some sections of the Muslim community, with one imam from Bradford declaring Khan to be apostate.

Explaining his vote, Khan said he regards same-sex marriage as "fundamentally an issue of equality". He also pointed out that the parliamentary Bill "upholds freedom of religion" because "no Church, Mosque or other faith group will be obliged to hold same sex marriage ceremonies if they do not wish to".

Inayat Bunglawala of Muslims4UK, who has written on his blog in support of same-sex marriage, has also come under fire.

One of the readers' comments says:

"When you die don’t think that everything is over and done with, rather the real life only starts from that moment on, then you will think back to and lament the days when you used to write these things and your rejection of Islaam, but by then it will be too late, the fire of hell will stare you in the face and your arrogance, confidence and 'courage' will disappear like a balloon being popped, you will then be tried in one of those 'islaamic courts' that you detest so much, but on that day you will shake like a leaf, you will swim in your own sweat, and you will not be able to utter a sound, because the judge is not some random molvi, the judge will be Allaah Rabbul 'Izzah, that same Allaah that condemns the kuffaar to hell that you seem to feel is unjust, that same Allaah who forbade gay marriages that you are trying to make legal, that same Allaah who created man from dust that you reject in favour of the view of your lord Darwin and his theory of evolution."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 February 2013. Comment.

UN welcomes Yemen's National Dialogue

The UN Security Council yesterday welcomed Yemen's National Dialogue, after Russian objections (reported here yesterday) were overcome.

The statement issued yesterday names both ex-President Saleh and southern separatist leader Ali Salim al-Baidh in connection with "reports of interference" in Yemen's political transition process. It also rejects southern separatism by reaffirming the Security Council's commitment to "the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen".

According to the Kuwait News Agency, Russia had objected to a paragraph in an earlier draft which said:

"The Security Council notes, in particular, persistent allegations against Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ali Salim al-Beidh, and certain individuals and groups that receive money and weapons from outside Yemen for the purpose of undermining the transition."

This was later changed to say:

"The Security Council expresses concern over reports of interference in the transition by individuals in Yemen representing the former regime, the former opposition, and others who do not adhere to the guiding principles of the Implementation Mechanism Agreement for the transition process, including former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and former Vice-President Ali Salim al-Beidh."

The statement issued yesterday (full text here) still mentions the supply of money and weapons, but in a separate paragraph, not linked to Saleh and al-Baidh:

"The Security Council expresses concern over reports of money and weapons being brought into Yemen from outside for the purpose of undermining the transition."

In 1990, as secretary-general of the Socialist Party which then ruled the south, Ali Salim al-Baid (or Beidh or Baidh) led southern Yemen into union with the north. He became vice-president of the unified state but soon fell out with President Saleh.

In 1994, the former southern regime fought, and lost, a brief war of secession and al-Baid went into exile.

During the last few years he has re-emerged as the main figure demanding independence for the south. Several recent reports have described him a "former president" of the south – though he never actually held that post.

Al-Baid, now 73 and not in the best of health, is currently living in Lebanon. There's an interesting profile of him in Executive Magazine by Yemeni writer and activist Farea al-Muslimi.

Lebanon has become a popular outpost for Yemen's warring factions, according to an article on the Lebanese website, NOW. Al-Baid's Aden Live TV channel is based in the Hizbullah stronghold of Dahiyeh, while the Houthis’ al-Massira channel also broadcasts from Beirut, the article says.

Meanwhile, Saleh's nephew is said to be planning a "Saleh Residential City" of 250 houses, built in the Yemeni style, in Burj al-Chemali in southern Lebanon.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 February 2013. Comment.

Kuwaitis acquitted on 'battery' charge

The acquittal of five Kuwaitis accused of "offending the emir" on Twitter has raised hopes for a more sensible approach to freedom of expression online.

Human Rights Watch has called on the Kuwaiti authorities to "take a cue" from the court's decision and end the criminalisation of "peaceful criticism of public officials".

Since October 2012, at least 35 people have been charged with offending the emir, HRW says. Criminal courts have sentenced at least six of them, including the three former members of parliament, to prison terms. 

One of those acquitted this week, Rashid al-Enzi, is currently serving a two-year prison term for "offending the emir" in a different case.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW says: "The Kuwaiti judicial system is clearly at odds with itself, sentencing some for offending the emir, while freeing others. The court needs to set clear and unequivocal precedent that offending the emir is not a legitimate charge."

Those acquitted this week were said to have caused offence by using a Twitter hashtag which said "#battery" in Arabic. The hashtag allegedly referred to rumours that the emir has a battery-operated heart pacemaker.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 February 2013. Comment.

Russia blocks UN statement on Yemen

Russia has prevented the UN Security Council from issuing a presidential statement welcoming Yemen's National Dialogue which is due to start on 18 March.

According to diplomats cited by the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA), Russia objected to a paragraph mentioning "persistent allegations" against ex-President Saleh and others who receive "money and weapons from outside Yemen for the purpose of undermining the [post-Saleh] transition".

It also objected to a paragraph that mentioned "readiness to consider further measures" under Article 41 of the UN Charter if "actions aimed at undermining the government of national unity and the political transition continue". (Article 41 permits various economic and diplomatic measures but not armed force.)

Russia has generally shown little interest in Yemen since the fall of the Marxist regime in the southern part of the country, though in 2011 it joined forces with China in blocking a UN Security Council resolution urging Saleh to refrain from violence against protesters.

The latest Russian move may be related to recent (disputed) claims about Iran supplying weapons to elements in Yemen.

According to KUNA, Yemen's interim president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has been lobbying the security council to call on Saleh to leave the country. When Saleh stepped down from the presidency last year he was granted immunity from prosecution by Yemen's parliament and continues to live in Sana'a where he claims to spend much of his time gardening.

Hadi is said to have complained that Saleh continues to use his influence (and his alleged $7 billion fortune) to obstruct the political transition and progress towards the National Dialogue.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 February 2013. Comment.

Saudi Valentine's Day is looking rosy

Ever since Valentine's Day became popular in Saudi Arabia, the authorities' attempts to suppress this harmless bit of romanticism have been widely mocked both inside and outside the kingdom.

The strange effect of their annual crackdown (as I pointed out in 2010) was that bunches of roses, heart-shaped objects and other lovey-dovey paraphernalia could be purchased in Saudi Arabia at any time of the year except for a few days around February 14. 

This year, though, there are signs that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (the religious police) may at last be seeing sense. According to the Saudi Gazette, the head of the commission has denied any plans to close flower shops this year.

Police in Jeddah have also said they won't be restricting flower sales or "interfering with the rights of others and annoying families". We shall see whether they stick to that.

I have often thought that when Saudi Arabia's revolution comes it will be social rather than political in character: the first target for the people's wrath will not be the king but the reactionary busybodies who prevent change. Thanks to the Arab Spring, they are being challenged as never before and find themselves increasingly on the defensive.

It's not just on Facebook and the blogosphere. It's happening now in the kingdom's mainstream media too. Here's an example from Saudi Gazette columnist Khaled Batarfi on Tuesday, blasting away at the interfering attitudes of these "social intruders":

The idea is that "your business is my business, but mine is not yours." Why? Because, I am more religious, conservative and patriotic than you are. I know what is going on, even in your head and heart. I am aware of the conspiracy of local and global liberals to destroy this society. Since I am the self-appointed guard of virtue, it is my holy duty to fight you and your fellow conspirators with all means, even if not holy.

“Together, with my fellow faithful, we will protect our society from your moral decadence, even by force. And don’t tell me you are free to live your rotten Western lifestyle here, we won’t allow it, not even in your own home. We are the representatives of God and the guardians of his religion, and we have the right to correct your habits and dictate your ways. If you don’t like it, you may leave and live where it suits you. This is the land of Islam and holy places, and there is no place for liberalism and liberals.”

So whether you are preaching your beliefs or keeping it to yourself, you can’t be free or safe. Your neighbor will criticize the women in your family for not covering their face and “mutawwas” will put you in jail for driving your female colleague home, and your friends will hammer you for allowing your wife to work in a mixed environment. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 February 2013. Comment.

Egypt's economy drifting down the Nile

"Egypt sinks deeper into junk status," a headline in the Financial Times says after Moody's announcement that it has downgraded the country's bond rating from B2 to B3 with a threat to downgrade it further "depending on the severity of possible adverse developments".

Moody's gives three reasons for yesterday's downgrade:

1) The economic impact of the intensification of civil unrest, as reflected by the recent decree announcing a state of emergency.

2) The further weakening in Egypt's external payments position given the large drop in January in the level of international reserves held by the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE).

3) The continued uncertainty surrounding the Egyptian government's ability to secure financial support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

It warns that a further downgrading could result from one of more of the following factors:

1) The absence of substantial and predictable external financing support;

2) an assessment of a likely further weakening of the external payments position and further run-down of official international reserves;

3) instability in the banking system, which may prompt the imposition of tighter capital controls on domestic deposits or foreign-exchange transactions; or

4) a sharp rise in the government's funding costs above previously elevated levels to a level that significantly heightens refinancing risks.

One major issue here is continuing uncertainty about a possible $4.8 billion load from the International Monetary Fund which, under the terms of the new constitution, may have to be vetted by religious authorities.

Reuters reports that the Salafist Nour Party is objecting to payment of interest on the proposed loan and is considering legal action to ensure that any deal is submitted to scholars at al-Azhar for their approval:

"Such a challenge could complicate the Muslim Brotherhood-led administration's effort to finalise the International Monetary Fund deal that was tentatively agreed last year but shelved following political unrest in Cairo.

"Abdullah Badran, head of the Nour Party's bloc in the upper house of parliament, told Reuters the move was intended to 'activate the role of the Senior Scholars' Authority in all matters pertaining to sharia (Islamic law)'. He said the party was studying its legal options ...

The constitution states that the opinion of al-Azhar's Senior Scholars' Authority must be sought 'on matters pertaining to Islamic sharia'. It does not say whether their opinion is binding on government nor make clear the scope of al-Azhar's role.

As Egypt's currency reserves dwindle to critical levels, politicians seem oblivious to the economic crisis facing the country. On Monday, members of the Shura Council (the upper house of parliament) were devoting their time to some ludicrous debate about whether sexual harassment is the fault of women

Speaking in Alexandria on Sunday, US ambassador Anne Patterson gave what she described as "a bleak picture" of the Egyptian economy and called on politicians to take ownership of the problem: 

"Every economy goes through bad periods, but economies only recover when they are tended. And that means someone has to take ownership of the solutions (even if they are difficult) and lead the way out. People must be shown a vision of how the future will reward the sacrifices of the present. 

"The most catastrophic path is for the government and the political leadership of the country – whether in power or in opposition – to avoid decisions, to show no leadership, to ignore the economic situation of the country. When management of the economy is treated as a by-product of political disputes instead of a core function of political leadership, the business community is left trying to protect itself instead of investing and growing."

Ambassador Patterson is surely right about that, whether or not one agrees with her ideas about what measures should be taken. It's time for Egypt's politicians to stop messing about and start treating the economy as a top priority. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 February 2013. Comment.

Ex-admiral calls for US fleet to quit Bahrain

A retired US admiral has joined those calling for the Fifth Fleet to pull out of Bahrain.

Dennis Blair, a former chief of the US Pacific Command who also served as Director of National Intelligence in the first Obama administration, complains that American support for democracy and human dignity is often selective, and is over-ridden by short term military or economic interests.

In an article on The Hill website, Blair argues that the US should be taking a longer view, especially in the light of changes in the Middle East:

"The growth of democracy and rule of law-based political systems that respect and protect the rights of citizens are in the fundamental long-term US national interest; shorter term military and economic cooperative arrangements should be secondary and supportive ...

"We should on balance be true to our fundamental values rather than denying them to others in favour of short term military and business concerns."

Regarding Bahrain, he says:

"The Fifth Fleet headquarters should be moved back on board a flagship, as it was until 1993. This is an expensive proposition at a time when the defense budget is being reduced, but it is necessary. Permanent basing in a repressive Bahrain undermines our support for reform and is vulnerable if instability continues."

He also suggests the US should seek Saudi support for gradual democratic reforms in Bahrain – though he recognises the Saudi government will probably not be enthusiastic about that idea:

"This is heavy lifting, given the role of the Kingdom in repressing Bahrain’s uprising. However success would remove a threat to Saudi Arabia’s own stability."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 February 2013. Comment.

The art of the diplomatic dispatch

In 1960 an unfortunate "incident" occurred when a British warship arrived on a ceremonial visit to a foreign country and its band struck up with the wrong national anthem. Anxious to avoid any similar faux pas in future, the Foreign Office wrote to British embassies in all the countries that were likely to be visited, to check that the Royal Navy had the correct music for each of them.

The story was recalled last night in a BBC radio programme about British diplomatic dispatches – and the art of writing them. Over the years, some diplomats have gone to extraordinary lengths to make them witty, and the best examples of this obscure literary genre have been widely circulated in Whitehall.

The 1960 mix-up over national anthems led to the writing of one dispatch which is still regarded as a classic of the genre. It came from John Phillips, and British Consul General in Oman, and was addressed to Lord Home, the Foreign Secretary at the time. It can be heard about 12 minutes 20 seconds into the programme:

My Lord, I have the honour to refer to your Lordship's dispatch No 8 of 29 July in which you requested me to ascertain on behalf of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty whether the B Flat clarinet music enclosed with your dispatch was a correct and up-to-date rendering of the national salute to the Sultan of Muscat and Oman.

I have encountered certain difficulties in fulfilling this request. The Sultanate has not, since about 1937, possessed a band. None of the Sultan's subjects, so far as I am aware, can read music, which the majority of them regard as sinful.

The manager of the British Bank of the Middle East who can [read music], does not possess a clarinet and, even if he did, the dignitary who in the absence of the Sultan is the recipient of ceremonial honours and who might be presumed to recognise the tune is somewhat deaf.

Fortunately I have been able to obtain and now enclose a gramophone record which has on one side a rendering by a British military band of the Salutational March to His Highness the Sultan of Muscat and Oman. The first part of this tune, which was composed by the bandmaster of a cruiser in about 1932, bears close resemblance to a pianoforte rendering by the bank manager of the clarinet music enclosed with your Lordship's dispatch.

The only further testimony I can obtain of the correctness of this music is that it reminds a resident of long standing of a tune once played by the long-defunct band of the now-disbanded Muscat infantry and known at the time to non-commissioned members of His Majesty's Service as – I quote the vernacular – "Gawd strike the Sultan blind."

I am informed by the Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs that there are now no occasions on which the salutation is officially played. The last occasion on which it is known to have been played at all was on a gramophone at an evening reception given by the Military Secretary in honour of the Sultan who inadvertently sat on the record afterwards, and broke it.

Oman's current anthem, based on the 1932 composition, is here.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 February 2013. Comment.

Bahrain: talks about what?

A new round of political dialogue is due to start in Bahrain today amid generally low expectations. The last such talks, in the middle of 2011, collapsed quickly.

However, the Bahraini government has faced growing diplomatic pressure to talk to the opposition and the latest talks may have been timed to give a positive spin to the second anniversary of the uprising on February 14.

A blog post by Justin Gengler describes the background to arranging the talks. It appears there will be 24 participants – eight from parliament, eight from opposition societies and eight from "nationalist" societies.

So far, the agenda for the talks, and the government's exact role in them, remains unclear.

There's little to suggest this is anything other than window-dressing by the kingdom's rulers and, as AP points out, the crucial test is whether the authorities are willing to contemplate "any reforms that would weaken their direct control over the country’s affairs".

For example, "a key challenge could be opposition calls to replace Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, an uncle of the king who has been in office since Bahrain’s independence in 1971," AP says.

Underlying these political problems, of course, is the marginalisation of the kingdom's Shia majority by its Sunni rulers. In that connection, the Bahrain Mirror has an intriguing story (in Arabic) about the resignation of Gordon Smith as chief executive of the Bahrain Petroleum Company (Bapco). 

Smith's resignation was announced last month with no reason given for his departure. Bahrain Mirror quotes unnamed "informed sources" as saying he resigned in protest at discriminatory employment practices that were forced on the company by the government.

It claims he rejected a decision from the royal court to replace dismissed Shia employees with 120 soldiers.

If the story is true, Smith deserves to be congratulated for his stand.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 February 2013. Comment.

Muslim MPs back gay marriage 

In the welter of debate about legalising same-sex marriages in Britain – including ferocious opposition from some religious elements – one fascinating aspect has scarcely been noticed: the attitude of Muslim members of parliament.

Unexpected as it might seem, only ONE of the eight MPs who identify as Muslims opposed gay marriage in the parliamentary debate on Tuesday, and more than half of them actively supported it.

Four Labour MPs who identify as Muslim voted in favour of gay marriage: Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green & Bow), Sadiq Khan (Tooting), Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham Ladywood) and Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central). A Conservative Muslim, Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove), also voted in favour – as did George Galloway, the Respect MP who has a very large Muslim following.

The only Muslim MP to vote against gay marriage was the Conservative Rehman Chishti (Gillingham & Rainham). 

Two Labour Muslims – Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) and Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham Perry Barr) – did not vote. Nadhim Zahawi, the Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon, also abstained. He is of Iraqi Kurdish origin but it is unclear whether he regards himself as Muslim.

This has not been well received in some parts of the British Muslim community – for example, there's a critical article 
here on the Muslim Debate Initiative blog. 

Conventional Muslim religious teaching condemns homosexual acts, as did the vast majority of Christian churches until half a century ago. However, the question of gay rights is a slightly more complicated matter. British Muslims and gay people have something in common: they are minorities who are liable to be discriminated against.

However much Muslims may disapprove of gay sex, opposing discrimination on principle serves the interests of Muslims and gay people alike.

The position of most Muslim MPs in this week's vote echoes the position adopted by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in 2007 when it formally declared its support for the Equality Act outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. In a statement issued at the time, the MCB said:

"We affirm our belief that the practice and promotion of homosexuality is forbidden according to the teachings of Islam. However the Sexual Orientation Regulations are not about religious belief but about prohibiting discrimination in the provision of goods and services on grounds of sexual orientation. The MCB stands opposed to discrimination in all its forms."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 February 2013. Comment.

Assad, the unassuming Godfather

There are many unknowns in the Syrian conflict but perhaps the most important of all is a lack of knowledge about the thoughts and intentions of Bashar al-Assad. Outside Syria, few are better-placed to cast some light on that than Professor David Lesch, who gave a fascinating psychological profile of the Syrian president during a talk in London last night.

Lesch, Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in Texas, had numerous meetings with Assad over several years that began as part of his research for a book, The New Lion of Damascus

Assad is "not the typical Middle East dictator," Lesch said. He is naturally unassuming and initially he discouraged the sort of personality cult that had surrounded his father. For a short time after coming to power he also seemed genuinely interested in reform.

He was often viewed as a moderniser – based partly on his (fairly brief) spell in Britain while training as an ophthalmologist and his fondness for Phil Collins' music. But Lesch reminded the audience that there were other influences too: he had grown up in Syria, in the Assad family, and in an atmosphere charged with all the problems of Middle east politics.

Lesch suggested that Bashar really did set out with good intentions but "rather than changing the authoritarian system the authoritarian system changed him". He drew an analogy with the fictional gangster, Michael Corleone in The Godfather, who at first tried to be legitimate but ended up worse than his father.

Bashar's talk of foreign conspiracies against Syria is not mere rhetoric, Lesch said – he actually believes it (as do others in the regime). He feels that his efforts have been under-appreciated outside the country and that whatever he does, enemies will always demand more. In this context, a formative moment was his withdrawal of troops from Lebanon following Hariri's assassination in 2005 – a gesture that did not bring him the credit he thought he deserved.

After surviving the Lebanon crisis (the most serious crisis of his presidency at that stage) he became more confident and, in Lesch's words, "more comfortable with power". Surrounded by yes-men who insisted that everyone loved him, he started to believe the sycophants.

When the uprising began in 2011, his violent crackdown was "a push-button, convulsive response" to the threat to his regime: "You just don't give in to protests." Lesch said. The "reforms" he introduced (new laws on demonstrations and political parties, a new constitution, etc) were also a response to the protests but he never acknowledged them as concessions: they were presented as something the regime had been planning all along.

There was nothing in Lesch's talk to suggest that Assad might be amenable (or persuadable) towards the sort of compromises that would be needed for a negotiated end to the conflict. Lesch also argued that the resilience of the regime has been "grossly underestimated" by western media.

Despite these insights into Bashar's character, Lesch – whose latest book is called Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad – had less to offer in terms of new ideas about how the conflict might end. He proposed three scenarios, two of which he thought unlikely: a victory by one side or the other, or a solution through a political process.

As things stand at present, Lesch said, the most likely outcome is stalemate or partition, with different factions controlling different areas. Some have described this as "Lebanonisation" of Syria but he suggested it could be worse than that because of the competing foreign interests (in the Lebanese civil war there was "a gentleman's agreement" between Syria and Israel, he said).

Lesch did not foresee the regime ever regaining control over the whole of Syria, but in the meantime Assad seems to have modified his concept of what "victory" would entail. He has reversed Henry Kissinger's famous dictum that insurgents win by not losing and conventional armies lose by not winning. As far as Assad is concerned, not losing would amount to winning.

  • Tweets from the talk can be found under the hashtag 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 February 2013. Comment.

Meritocracy, Riyadh style

The appointment of Prince Muqrin to what is described as the "key" post of Second Deputy Prime Minister in Saudi Arabia has caused a flurry of excitement among riyadologists.

Writing for Al-Monitor, Thomas Lippman notes that Prince Muqrin is "relatively youthful". In fact he's 67 but in Saudi Arabia such things are always relative.

While it may be useful for diplomats and the like to know who stands where in the princely pecking order, the trouble with riyadology* is that it tends to over-emphasise the significance of minute twitches in what is fundamentally a rotten and unreformable system.

For example, in an article for Open Democracy under the sub-heading "Meritocratic moves", Michael Stephens describes "a very meaningful shift away from traditionalism towards a system based more on meritocracy". 

Stephens is actually talking about a blatant case of nepotism – the appointment of Prince Muhammad bin Nayef as interior minister. Prince Muhammad, of course, is the eldest son of the late Prince Nayef who spent 37 years as the kingdom's interior minister.

If you're wondering how that could be meritocratic, the answer is that Prince Muhammad was promoted to the job "ahead of the incumbent Prince Ahmed, his uncle and senior by some 20 years".

Meanwhile, Stephens hails the rise of Prince Muqrin as a sign that the kingdom's monarchical rule is becoming "more consultative and hierarchically horizontal". 

* Riyadology: the study of royal politics in Saudi Arabia.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 February 2013. Comment.

Staggering along in Yemen

Chatham House, the foreign affairs thinktank, has issued a progress report on Yemen's post-Saleh transition – though I'm not sure "progress" is the right word to describe it.

"With attention focused on the National Dialogue process," it says, "the transition government is paying insufficient attention to Yemen’s economic crisis." 

Distribution of the $6.4 billion in international aid promised at the Riyadh donor conference last September has stalled because of "disagreements over mechanisms for delivering the aid". 

That is a polite way of saying donors are worried about the money falling into the hands of Yemen's various patronage networks – though the report does add that this need not be a barrier to humanitarian aid which is "less subject to political conditions".

President Hadi has also been accused of trying to build his own patronage network – "Abyanising" the government with appointees from his home province – but so far this hasn't gone beyond his inner circle, the report says.

One potentially positive development is that political rivalries in the transitional (coalition) government "has been the provision to civil society of valuable evidence of government corruption, as each party has been leaking documents and details of the other’s corrupt practices". 

"However, this increased flow of information has not been paralleled by any institutional response or signs of reform."

With the traditional elite and the establish patronage networks still firmly in place, Yemen is facing "a systemic crisis of representation" which neither the National Dialogue nor the inclusion of former opposition parties in the government is likely to change.

One consequence of this is that the youth movement which played a key role in the uprising against President Saleh has been sidelined from the transition process, though it still has influence on some issues. As a result, young Yemenis are increasingly being drawn towards the Houthi movement "as the only credible opposition to established political elites", the report suggests.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 February 2013. Comment.

Saudi Arabia: a question of identity

While waiting in a queue to renew my British passport last week, I was struck by an odd thought. How would I feel if, instead of saying that I am British, the passport described me as "Windsorian"?

"Windsor" is the name of our royal family and calling us all Windsorians would be the equivalent of what happens in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi people are called Saudis because they are ruled by the House of Saud.

As far as I'm aware, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where people's nationality derives from the ruling family's name, and this raises some interesting questions about their sense of national identity – especially if the monarchy were ever to be overthrown.

In Britain, we tend to view the Windsors in the much same light as other unproductive celebrities: mainly for their entertainment value. But, although the Windsors are almost completely stripped of the power their ancestors once had, they do still sit at the very top of the British state. For that reason they are part – but only a part – of the complex mix of ingredients that makes Britain "British". Equally, though, if the House of Windsor were to disappear overnight, I doubt that many of us would feel significantly less British.

The same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia. Without the House of Saud, Saudis would not be Saudis – it's a logical and linguistic impossibility. Or, to put it another way, we might say that Saudis have to be called Saudis because there is very little, other than rule by the House of Saud, that binds them together as a nation.

Discussing the problem of national identity (or lack of it) in Saudi Arabia, Faisal Abdullah Abulhassan writes:

"The idea of who is 'Saudi' and what it means to be Saudi is not understood even by Saudis themselves. This lack of definition and malleability leads not only to internal socio-political debates, but leaves room for manipulation from not only those outside the societal mainstream, such as by fundamentalist groups, but also by those outside the Kingdom itself. 

"Bordered by the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf in the west and east; by the Nafud Desert and Empty Quarter in the north and south; the lack of a national identity of Saudis poses a penetrable fifth border. The formulation of an enduring 'Saudi' national identity is essential to the stability, continuity and unity of the Saudi State."

The solution Abulhassan proposes is a further  "institutionalisation" of the Al Saud dynasty "as the basis of an enduring Saudi national identity". 

"Individuals are linked to the State in Saudi Arabia vertically through various top-bottom relationships, ending at a prince. Not only has this prevented class structures from emerging as a source of conflict and strife, it has allowed for the indigenous concept of shura, or consultation to develop. 

"Princes have direct access to various areas of Saudi society, giving them an opportune and unique role to play in fostering a national identity centered on the monarchy."

Building national identity in this way around a single family is potentially catastrophic and Abulhassan's argument starts to fall apart when he acknowledges that support for the royal family is performance-related:

"The monarchy serves the nation so long as it manages the State well. The Saudi people in turn support the monarchy so long as it delivers."

This begs the question of what happens to a monarchy-based national identity when the royal family fails to deliver.

In an article posted last year on the Jawaz Diblomasy blog, Rahaf al-Sanosi and Eman Bukhari take a very different view from Abulhassan, arguing that the kingdom needs a more inclusive and less elitist sense of identity:

"As a relatively new nation, the Saudi state has relied heavily on traditional forms of governance to promote its legitimacy. The narrative of our formation projects an image of tribal unity and allegiance to the founding figure of the Kingdom; King Abdul Aziz. This image is integral to the collective imagining of our past. As such, our history is dominated by one narrative that has evolved towards defining the Saudi identity, rarely questioned or disputed ...

"Saudi identity continues to be an exclusive identity dominated by one region and one discourse. The state controls who is included and excluded, and how hierarchies are laid out in order to maintain the regime’s stability. What is needed today is a shared identity that brings all the different sub-identities within the regions together, so that a Hejazi can speak with pride about Najd, and a citizen from Qatif can retell the Hejazi culture as if it is part of his/her own. 

"The foundation for a cohesive identity is equality."

Another interesting view comes from Abdullah Hamidaddin on the Riyadh Bureau blog:

"There is a proportional relationship between Saudi national identity and the active participation of its citizens in building the Saudi nation. The more I, as a Saudi, feel that I participate in building the nation, the more I have a national identity. The less I feel that I participate in that process, the weaker my national identity becomes."

He continues:

"Things that are not foundational for national identity have been emphasised, and the foundations of national identity have been ignored. The individual in Saudi Arabia does not feel that he is participating in nation building. He does not feel that his will is part of the nation's foundations. Therefore, he cannot accept the idea of a Saudi national identity."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 February 2013. Comment.

Readers' favourites

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

1. Gay marriage, Lebanese style Jan 20

2. Resisting colonialism at Oxford Jan 10

3. Britain and Israel: tax benefits for settlers? Jan 21

4. Bahrain's failed charm offensive Jan 8 

5. The futility of talking to Assad Jan 7 

6. Critic of Israel/Palestine NGOs loses case Jan 1 

7. Testing Egypt's constitution Jan 4 

8. Saudi Arabia: subversion by stealth Jan 24 

9. Jordan: a transition to what? Jan 17 

10. Bahrain king is 'Humanitarian of the Year' Jan 9 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 February 2013. Comment.

Previous blog posts




February 2013

Bahrain thanks UAE for banning speaker

The Gulf's golden handcuffs

Arming the 'good' rebels in Syria

Defaming the dead in Syria

Oman: the sultan and his prisoners

Conference speaker banned from UAE

Egypt's Christians angry over Easter election

Syria talks: a lifeline for Assad?

Bahrain king's son heads for Britain ... again

Arab media: a question of freedom

Threat to Muslim MP over gay marriage vote

UN welcomes Yemen's National Dialogue

Kuwaitis acquitted on 'battery' charge

Russia blocks UN statement on Yemen

Saudi Valentine's Day is looking rosy

Egypt's economy drifting down the Nile

Ex-admiral calls for US fleet to quit Bahrain

The art of the diplomatic dispatch

Bahrain: talks about what?

Muslim MPs back gay marriage

Assad, the unassuming Godfather

Meritocracy, Riyadh style

Staggering along in Yemen

Saudi Arabia: a question of identity

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



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Last revised on 27 February, 2013