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God or government?

   
Recalling that a prominent Saudi cleric declared the tsunami of 2004 to be a punishment from God for fornication and homosexuality in south-east Asia, I had been wondering what religious folk would make of the castrophic floods that hit Saudi Arabia last week – during the annual pilgrimage, of all times – killing more than 100 people.

Trawling around the internet, I found that Daniel Martin Varisco, writing on the Tabsir blog, had got there first with an interesting discussion of religious attitudes to natural disasters, and whether a morally indignant God might have any part in them:

Those who believe that their God is not asleep at the cosmic wheel might be tempted to see the timing and severity [of the Saudi floods] as a sign of divine wrath. Pat Robertson would no doubt suggest that his God has sent the heavy rains to teach those pesky Muslims a lesson, as in the days of yore when the God of Moses and Joshua zapped the pagan Canaanites (who perpetrated the very first intifada in the Holy Land). Osama bin Laden, from his hidden cave in Swat or wherever, is no doubt thrilled that Allah has taken to task the infidel-backed Saudi princes who deign to consider themselves regents of the two holy cities.

Varisco's blog, incidentally, also has a remarkable old photo of floods in Mecca in 1941 – with people swimming around the Kaaba.

Despite a claim by Adel Zamzami, head of Jeddah's Civil Defence Department, that last week's death and destruction was "God's power", the general reaction has been one of anger rather than fatalistic acceptance. Government mismanagement is being blamed for the floods, if not for the rain itself. "What happened was a man-made problem," said a headline in Friday's Arab News.

Newspapers are asking questions and, for once, they are not prepared to be fobbed off. In an interview with the Saudi Gazette, the mayor of Jeddah is given what (by Saudi standards) is a pretty tough grilling.

In the space of three days, more than 11,000 people have signed up to a Facebook page calling for government action.

"We've been talking about this issue for years. Everybody knew this disaster was coming. We've seen something like this on a smaller scale," Saud Kateb, a professor who is one of the internet protesters, told AFP. "There's only one reason: it's corruption," he said. "The government is putting a lot of budget into this, and the budget just disappears."

There's also much talk of legal action and claiming compensation. Lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, who is planning to file a case this week, insisted that "everyone who has been involved in this chaos must be sued", according to Arab News.

"They didn't make the drainage work. They have told us for three years or more that it has been completed," he told AFP. "Even people from the city government said there were mistakes."

The real issue here, though, is not one city's failed drains but a lack of accountability. The foundation on which most Arab regimes are based – that the authorities know best and should be unquestioningly allowed to get on with running things – is being challenged in Jeddah on a massive scale.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 November 2009. Comment


Tunisian president: health rumours

There is speculation among bloggers and on Twitter about the health of the Tunisian president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The president, who is 73 and won a fifth presidential term in elections last month, abruptly cancelled a visit from the king of Spain which had been scheduled for last Tuesday.

The day before the king was due to arrive, the official Tunisian news agency reported that Ben Ali's doctor had advised him to take "a period of five days' rest after an acute inflammation of the pharynx" (i.e. a sore throat). 

This was followed by rumours that the president has swine flu, allegedly passed on by a relative who caught it in a school.

Yesterday, there were unconfirmed reports on the internet that he was "weakened by a long illness" and had been sent abroad urgently for treatment.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 November 2009. Comment

UPDATE: State media reported that the president returned to duties with several meetings on November 30. On December 1 he appeared at the opening of a conference


Yemen 'dragged Saudis into war'

Yemen dragged Saudi Arabia into its conflict with the Houthi rebels after realising it would not be able to defeat them militarily on its own, former vice-president Ali Salim al-Beidh claims in an interview published by Gulf News today.

Al-Beidh, who has been in exile since leading the south to defeat in the 1994 north-south war, says that instead of trying to resolve the conflict politically, the Yemeni regime "went ahead with the impossible task, a military solution. Now the government is stuck in the mud and will try to drag the region and the entire world into it." He continues:

I have information that the Yemeni team which is leading the war effort had planned to drag the Saudis into the war. This plan started when the regime realised it cannot crush al-Houthi group militarily. Informed sources in Sana'a tell me the government is quite happy today that it managed to turn the war into a regional one after the involvement of Saudi Arabia. 

I regret that we have reached this point, and it saddens me to see our brothers on both sides fighting. On the short and long terms, this war is not in the interests of anybody. Saudi Arabia is a key state in the region and it is unfortunate it got involved.

Al-Beidh (al-Baid, al-Baidh) also accuses the Yemeni regime of "trumpeting up" Iranian support for the rebels in order to secure international help. "Sana'a plays up this card whenever it feels powerless militarily," he says.

Al-Beidh's analysis may be broadly correct but his comments are somewhat ironic, considering that he played the same game himself in 1994 when the southern separatists relied heavily on funding and weaponry from the Saudis.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 November 2009. Comment


Reflections on Eid al-Adha

From Dalia Ziada at Bikya Masr:

On the morning of the first day of Eid el-Adha, while watching the sheep from my house and other houses in my street herded, without resistance, to a spot at the end of the street to be slaughtered, they reminded me of the submissive majority of my country, who are not willing to show any resistance against the tyrants who drive them, slowly but surely, to their definite end ... They are stronger [than sheep], but still do not want to resist the man driving them with a stick from behind or the man waiting for them with a big knife at the other end.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 November 2009. Comment


What's Really Wrong ...

My book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, is reviewed in the Guardian today by Avi Shlaim. He describes it as "lively, highly readable and illuminating". 

For other recent reviews, see Patrick Seale (al-Hayat), Sholto Byrnes (New Statesman), Issandr el-Amrani (Middle East International) and Sally Bland (Jordan Times).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 November 2009. Comment


Too graphic for Egypt

Why is it, I wonder, that cartoons are seen as such a threat in Arab countries? Following the recent cases in Tunisia and Morocco, an Egyptian cartoonist and his publisher have been fined for corrupting "public morals".

Last year, Magdy el-Shafee produced a book called Metro, which is thought to be the first graphic novel for adults in Arabic. It was seized by the Egyptian authorities and booksellers were not only ordered to remove it from their shelves but to delete it from their computer stock control systems too.

Writing on the Shaqiq blog, Jano Charbel explains:

Metro's story line revolves around a fictitious young Cairene software engineer named Shihab who lives in a society afflicted with the vices of poverty, political corruption, and socioeconomic injustice, all of which are touchy topics in Egypt. In this graphic novel Shihab and his friends decide to rob a bank in order to pay off debts incurred from an illicit loan-shark. 

The two most controversial drawings in this comic book depict a couple making love in bed (while concealed beneath the sheets,) and a half-naked woman. There are also a few curse words which are sparingly scattered in the pages, specifically “fag, whore, and pimp/bastard."

An extract from the novel, with speech bubbles translated into English, can be seen on the Words Without Borders website.

The case against Metro's creator and publisher dragged on in the courts for months, but last week the Qasr el-Nil Court of Misdemeanors fined both of them LE5,000 ($900) under Articles 178 and 198 of the Egyptian Penal Code forbid publications that "contravene public decency" and allow their confiscation. That may not quite be the end of it, because both say they intend to appeal.

There seems to be something about the cartoon/graphic form that the authorities find especially alarming. As Charbel notes, "There are numerous Arabic and foreign novels on Egypt's bookshelves which contain far more explicit language and imagery than that found in Metro."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 November 2009. Comment


Doing the hajj in style

One of the more impressive features of the hajj, I have always thought, is its egalitarianism. Pilgrims perform their rituals in a state that is as close as possible to what nature intended. Wrapped only in a single piece of unstitched cloth and with the simplest of footwear, they do not shave or put on make-up or perfumes. Rich or poor, powerful or lowly – all are equal in the sight of God and all endure the rigours of the hajj together.

Imagine my disappointment, therefore, on reading an article in Arab News yesterday, headed: "Wealthy pilgrims offered VIP services". For a price, the paper says, affluent Muslims can "perform the hajj in the comfort of luxurious tents". There's a picture inside one of the tents, and very nice it is, too.

For those who prefer to avoid the bustle of the crowd, there are also luxury buses to transport them from place to place.

Some who avail themselves of these services say it allows them to focus on the spiritual aspects of the hajj in a state of "serenity" but concentrating on up-market pilgrims also helps the companies involved to maximise their revenue. A Google search for "VIP hajj" throws up numerous companies offering these services (here and here, for example).

One pilgrim who opted for the VIP hajj – an Egyptian investor living in Britain – told Arab News his mutawif (pilgrimage guide) had even provided him with a velvet bag containing cleaned and sterilised stones to throw at the pillars symbolising Satan. “The mutawif has spared me the trouble of collecting these stones from Muzdalifah,” he said.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 November 2009. Comment


Jailing Egypt's boat people

Egypt is holding hundreds of people in indefinite detention because they are suspected of trying to emigrate to Europe illegally, according to a local human rights organisation.

The Cairo-based Land Centre for Human Rights appears to have uncovered a previously-unreported category of prisoners detained under Egypt's near-permanent "emergency" law. Citing Karem Saber Ibrahim, the organisation's executive manager, a report in The National says:

Many of the prisoners, some of whom have been held for up to two years, have remained in jail even after they were charged, tried and acquitted for either attempting to emigrate to Europe by boat or for conspiring to help others emigrate ... The state is holding the men legally under the terms of emergency law.

The emergency law – ostensibly imposed to combat terrorism – has often been used to detain Islamists and other political activists but the authorities also seem to be using it against economic migrants.

An Egyptian lawyer quoted in the article says: “The emergency law is very wide and they [the government] use it badly ... The real solution of the problem is not to arrest these young people or arrest those who drive them to the sea. But unfortunately, we don’t think of the roots of these problems. We think of the appearance of the problem.” 

The article suggests the detentions are a response to pressure from Europe:

The problem has been an increasing cause of concern for southern European states, whose governments have appealed to their northern African counterparts to stop the illegal boat traffic on the Mediterranean Sea.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 November 2009. Comment


Deadly clashes in southern Yemen

At least four people – and possibly as many as seven – died yesterday in clashes between southern separatists and security forces in southern Yemen. Two of the dead were said to be soldiers.

Shooting broke out at a rally in Ataq (Shabwa province) which was reportedly attended by about 1,000 people. Reports: BBC
Yemen Post, UPI, Xinhua.

In the capital, Sanaa, about 200 took part in an anti-Iranian demonstration chanting "No to the plot of Persian expansion" and "Yemen will remain free and independent". Reuters suggests that this demonstration had official approval. The government accuses Iranian elements of backing the Houthi rebellion in the north of the country.

Yesterday, the interior ministry announced the closure of the Iranian hospital and clinic in Sanaa "because of lack of transparency of their accounts and ... Iranian financial support to these two institutions."

On October 13, the hospital, which employed 120 staff (eight of them Iranian) was sealed off by security forces amid claims that it had links with the Houthi rebels. A government spokesman later denied the move against the hospital had anything to do with politics but said it owed the Endowments Ministry 27 million riyals ($130,000) in unpaid rent for the building.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 November 2009. Comment


A very British coup

A BBC radio programme broadcast on Monday (re-playable here) has shed some new and intriguing light on Britain's role in the Omani coup of 1970 when Sultan Qaboos deposed his father.

Basically, it was decided that Qaboos would serve British interests better than his father and plans were hatched to send the ageing and paranoid sultan, Said bin Tamur, into luxurious exile at the Dorchester Hotel in London.

The programme makers gained access to secret documents from the time which were later inadvertently released into the public domain then hastily withdrawn again because of their sensitivity. They also spoke to a number of those who were involved on the British side.

British forces "assisting" in Oman had instructions to "switch allegiance" if the coup succeeded, and "to use force to ensure it succeeds if it appears to be failing". 

One of the British interviewees tells the BBC: 

"We would of course maintain the public position that we had no fore-knowledge. The correct form should be observed so as to enable the coup to be presented as an internal matter with the British hand concealed or at least deniable."

In the event, the coup succeeded and British forces did not become directly involved, the programme says. Almost 40 years later, Qaboos is still in power.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 November 2009. Comment


Saudi witch hunt

Human Rights Watch has written to King Abdullah complaining about the growing number of “sorcery” cases in Saudi Arabia.

"Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police," the organisation says. "The crime of ‘witchcraft' is being used against all sorts of behaviour, with the cruel threat of state-sanctioned executions."

The latest case is that of Lebanese-born Ali Sabat, who has been sentenced to death in connection with advice and predictions he gave on Lebanese television.

Arab satellite channels often feature programmes with horoscopes and advice that Saudi clerics regard as sorcery.

"Sorcerers who appear on satellite channels who are proven to be sorcerers have committed a great crime ... and the Muslim consensus is that the apostate's punishment is death by the sword," one prominent cleric, Sheikh Saleh al-Fozan, told al-Madina newspaper in September. "Those who call in to these shows should not be accorded Muslim rites when they die," he added.

According to an article in Arab News last September, “Hardly a day passes without a local newspaper reporting the arrest of a sorcerer in the kingdom, something that is indicative of the widespread meddling in sorcery.”

Despite the kingdom’s austere religious façade, superstition persists on a grand scale and is exploited by charlatans who extract large sums of money from the gullible either to work magic or undo evil spells supposedly cast by others.

The main problem with criminalising sorcery, as I wrote in an article a couple of years ago, is that it involves giving official recognition to “magical” powers – which in turn reinforces popular belief in them. People who extort money for casting “spells” should be charged with fraud, not witchcraft. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 November 2009. Comment


Rescuing Yemen? 

The Center for a New American Security – a thinktank with links to the Obama administration – has published a paper on US policy towards Yemen. It is concerned, of course, with American interests rather than the interests of Yemenis and it says: “The consequences of instability in Yemen reach far beyond this troubled land, and pose serious challenges to vital US interests.”

The paper makes some sensible observations but I find its focus on promoting “stability” troubling insofar as that means propping up the Salih regime.

The question it doesn’t really address is whether Salih is a force for stability or instability and, currently, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. Sustaining him in power, at best, only postpones the day of reckoning.

While I'm very dubious about this strategy, I don't have a better plan to offer. Yemen is a mess, full stop. Maybe it's already beyond the point of rescue.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 November 2009. Comment


Kuwait's prime minister may face grilling

There are signs that Kuwaiti MPs may finally get an opportunity to question their prime minister. If it happens, this would be a milestone for parliamentary government and it could bring an end to a long succession of political crises.

The questioning of ministers, which can lead to a vote of no confidence, is permitted by the constitution, though the ruling family has often manoeuvred to avoid it. Since the Kuwaiti parliament was established in 1962, more than 30 ministers have been questioned but the questioning has often been pre-empted by resignations, cabinet reshuffles and even the dissolution of parliament. 

According to local press reports cited by The National newspaper, the prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmed al-Sabah, has now agreed to submit to questioning. If he does so, the move will be without precedent in Kuwait’s political history.

However, Sheikh Nasser – like many of Kuwait’s cabinet ministers – is a member of the royal family and there are suggestions that the family may still resist “allowing a senior royal to face potentially embarrassing questions”.

There are at least four current requests from MPs to question the prime minister – including one about a payment from Sheikh Nasser to a former MP.

Attempts to question ministers are sometimes made for vexatious purposes with the intention of harassing them, but ministers’ accountability to parliament will have to be accepted sooner or later if the country’s emerging democratic system is to move forward.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 November 2009. Comment


Saudi troops 'enter Yemen'

Al-Jazeera is reporting that Saudi ground forces have entered Yemen in what seems to be a large-scale offensive.

A statement from the Houthi rebels said: "The Saudis began an attack along many fronts on the Yemeni border ... The Saudi army has been using all kind of weapons; land, air, tanks, and artillery."

Despite an official Yemeni denial (which on past form can't be taken very seriously), witnesses in the northern border area of Yemen confirmed the attack to AFP. "The Saudi army launched a vast offensive against Huthi positions," one is quoted as saying.

If the reports are correct, this is a very serious development – and probably a major blunder on the Saudis' part. As Mai Yamani notes in an article today:

The Saudis are unlikely to succeed militarily in Yemen. Yemen's army of 700,000 could not suppress the Houthi rebellion, despite five attempts since 2004. Now they are leaving Saudi Arabia's untested army of 200,000 men to do the job for them. And, while the Saudis are currently relying on their air force, a full-scale land battle will have to follow – on the same harsh terrain that helped defeated Nasser's battle-hardened troops in the 1960s.

Saudi military involvement on Yemeni soil will also be unpopular in Yemen (not just among Houthi supporters) and could prove extremely damaging to President Salih politically.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 November 2009, 20.00 GMT. Comment

UPDATE 25 November 2009: Saudi Arabia officially denied that its forces entered Yemeni territory.


Widows 'bring bad luck'

The National newspaper reports from Oman on a rarely-discussed phenomenon: prejudice against widows.

"Many Omani widows struggle to lead happy lives after losing their husbands in a society that treats them as a burden and bad luck," the paper says. "According to a local superstition, anyone they marry is destined to die a premature death."

Widows tend to be shunned and are rarely invited to social events. "No one likes to admit it, but we are treated like social outcasts; it’s all smiles in front, but frowns behind your back,” according to 29-year-old Sabiha Malik whose husband died three years ago, leaving her with two young children.

The article continues:

Women’s rights activists say the superstition is contrary to Islamic teaching, but is kept alive by men who do not want to be saddled with orphaned children and by women reluctant to share their husbands with second wives ... In the Qur’an, Muslim men are allowed to marry four wives, and one of the reasons given is to help provide a new life for widowed women. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 November 2009. Comment


Rebels kill three Saudi soldiers

Just days after King Abdullah "confirmed" that "all armed infiltrators" had been driven out of the kingdom, Saudi forces have suffered their heaviest casualties since entering the war against Yemen's Houthi rebels.

Three soldiers were killed and an unspecified number wounded in an attack by "dozens" of infiltrators in the Jebel Rumayh area of the border on Saturday, according to military sources.

The Houthis, who claimed in turn to have repulsed two Saudi incursions into Yemen, accused the Saudis of carrying out their heaviest air strikes on Yemeni territory so far, targeting Hidan, Razah, Shedah and Malahidh.

Some of the rebels are reportedly driving around in military vehicles captured from the Yemeni army, so it's probably only a matter of time before the Saudis fire on Yemeni troops by mistake.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are both separately claiming (here and here) that their navy has thwarted a Houthi attempt to seize the Yemeni port of Midi, which would have given the rebels an outlet to the sea.

The Saudi daily, Asharq Alawsat, also has an interesting article on how the war is affecting supplies of qat, which forms a major part of the smuggling trade in the border area (see my post here from yesterday). Qat prices have trebled and drug smuggling activity more generally has gone down by 50%, it says.

What this indicates is that despite the military operations, and intensive efforts to seal the border, drugs are still getting through. And if drugs can get through, so can weapons.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 November 2009. Comment


'Indecency' in the UAE

Police in the Emirates have now joined the campaign pioneered by the Saudi mutawa to rein-in fashion-conscious youngsters.

Gulf News reports that scores of young people have been arrested in Ras al-Khaimah shopping malls "for violating decency laws" with "unusual hair styles" and trousers and shirts "showing parts of their bodies".

"Sources said that police gave haircuts to some of the youngsters and summoned their parents who were instructed to sign an undertaking to monitor their children and stop them from visiting malls in indecent clothes."

The parents, allegedly, said "the manner in which the authorities handled the situation has been extremely helpful and that youngsters will be now be forced to dress in a decent manner".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 November 2009. Comment


Saudi Arabia's border clear-out

Two weeks after Prince Khaled bin Sultan announced that Saudi forces had “purged the mountains inside the kingdom” of Yemeni guerrillas, military operations in the border area are continuing with aerial bombardment by warplanes while troops on the ground search for “infiltrators” and hidden weapons.

In this part of Saudi Arabia – largely Shia and ethnically Yemeni – the word “infiltrator” covers a multitude of sins, not just the Houthi rebels. The border is almost impossible to control and there has always been a lot of movement across it, both legal and illegal.

In the first six months of this year 127,875 people were detained for trying to enter the kingdom illegally, according to a Border Guard report, and in one recent two-week period an astonishing total of 30,557 people were allegedly arrested for smuggling offences. The smuggling trade includes weapons, hashish, qat, “shamma” snuff and alcohol. A report in Okaz newspaper said:

“The villages on the border assist their Yemeni counterparts in smuggling, with Saudi homes and Yemeni homes sometimes separated by no more than a few metres.

“Smugglers and infiltrators use abandoned houses as hiding places before moving on to the main cities in the kingdom, and use donkeys at night, navigating their way along tracks that take them around checkpoints, and sometimes seeking the help of local shepherds to keep them aware of any police presence.”

The mass evacuation of the border area prompted by the Houthis’ incursion has given the Saudi authorities an opportunity to tackle these other problems at the same time – though at considerable cost to the local population.

Thousands of people of Yemeni origin who were considered to be in breach of the kingdom’s residency laws have been rounded up and deported. On November 10, the head of the Passports Department in Jizan province said the number of deportations was running at about 1,500 per day. They were being bussed across the frontier into Yemen and probably included some 
recent arrivals who were seeking refuge from the fighting in Yemen.

Initially, about 240 villages were reportedly evacuated though 
according to the Saudi Gazette the restricted zone has now been extended westwards, affecting 400 villages in all. 

Some of those made homeless have been talking to the Saudi media about their experiences. In al-Raha the order to evacuate came late at night and with immediate effect. 

Ali Qarish said he left the village during the night with his 200 sheep, and as he made his way towards the refugee camp he was overcome by tiredness and slept. 

“When I woke up I couldn’t find a single one of them,” Ali said, believing them to have been stolen.

“A lot of the evacuees I’ve met have said they’d had money and cattle stolen as they headed to the evacuation camp,” he said.

Many had no choice but to abandon or sell their livestock – which caused prices in the markets to fall. Fortunately, though, the drop was not as great as it might have been at a different time of year: with the Eid approaching, demand for sacrificial animals is high.

It is unclear exactly how many people have been evacuated. On November 11 the Saudi Gazette reported a total of 3,473 families which was said to be still increasing. Assuming an average of six people per family, that would amount to more than 20,000 people. Some have made their own arrangements to stay with relatives or friends, while 7,500 are currently living in 500 tents at the Ahad al-Masareha camp. 

The camp, as the Saudi Gazette was careful to point out, “is exclusively for Saudi refugees holding an official identification card as proof of their Saudi nationality” and, if Saudi media reports are to be believed, every effort is being made to make keep up morale with entertainments, sport and play facilities for children all laid on. Fifty Islamic scholars are also being dispatched there “to teach the people how to behave during the war”.

Even so, many of the camp’s rsidents are hankering to return to their homes and possessions. “The fear of losing their homes is one of the main issues facing the refugees,” the Saudi Gazette 
said. One man told the paper: “I have just finished building my home in the village of al-Kheshel. I spent more than SR300,000 ($80,000) to finish it … I am always thinking about my home. I didn’t take anything with me like furniture or clothes. I was only thinking of leaving the restricted area as soon as possible.”

But amid reports of continuing improvements to the camp – “roads” being asphalted and “street” lighting installed – there’s nothing to suggest the evacuees’ return is imminent. Indeed, as far as pacifying the border area is concerned, it would probably suit the authorities’ plans better if they never go back.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 November 2009. Comment


Arabic and information technology

Computer ownership in most Arab countries is well below the world average. In Algeria, Egypt, Djibouti, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen it is less than half the world average. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are the only Arab countries where computer ownership exceeds the world average.

Similarly, internet use in the Arab countries, though growing rapidly, is still only about half the world average.

This might seem bad enough, but even more striking is the fact that Arabic-only web pages account for only one-thousandth of the worldwide total: the presence of the Arabic language on the internet is far below what might be expected in relation to the number of Arabic speakers.

Discussing this problem in a chapter on information and communications technology (ICT), the recent Arab Knowledge Report says: 

The efforts expended in creating Arabic digital content are also restricted to limited areas, most of which are disconnected from the reality and needs of Arab societies and fail to enrich knowledge related to social or economic development.

Certainly, the domination of some subjects and meagre treatment of others ... is out of keeping with the challenges of a highly competitive world; in such a world, marginalisation is the fate of cultures that fail to reproduce themselves adequately through the creation of knowledge and devise new forms for its utilisation.

Creating web pages in Arabic used to be an extremely cumbersome business and the report acknowledges there are still some serious technical problems in working with Arabic on computers (morphological analysis, automatic vocalisation and automated parsing, for example) which affect other processes such as indexing and searching. 

Amazingly, though, the report also points out that there is still no universal system for encoding Arabic letters and symbols – and this seems not so much a technical issue as a symptom of the Arab countries' wider inability to get their act together.

The report's chapter on ICT certainly contains some interesting facts, even if parts of it are virtually unreadable. But, as with the 
chapter on education which I discussed earlier, it glosses over some fundamental issues such as government attempts to control the internet (filtering of web pages, harassment of bloggers, etc). As with education, Arab regimes want the benefits of information technology but without the political consequences that would result from a "knowledge society".

The report recognises that the course of development of ICT has major implications for Arab culture and in particular the future of the Arabic language:

Will current and future technologies lead to a decline in the status of Arab cultural identity? Or will they provide opportunities that enable its preservation and the consolidation of its position on the map of human civilisation? A positive answer is conditional upon the digital presence of the Arab countries and their citizens on the current and future internet.

Unfortunately, though, it envisages a central role Arab governments in providing a solution:

It falls on the shoulders of the governments of the Arab countries and concerned NGOs active in them to play founding and creative [!!] roles that deal with the formulation of policies, strategies, and initiatives for the production, distribution, and utilisation of knowledge in areas where the private sector cannot get involved or with which it should not perhaps be entrusted.

I dread to think what the result of that might be. The dead hand of Arab governments is probably the last thing anyone needs in such a situation, and talk of "preserving" Arab culture in this context is ill-conceived – it smacks of trying to hold back the tide. Cultures are not ancient monuments; they have to serve needs of the people who live in them. Trying to preserve a culture by freezing it in time is the quickest way to destroy it. In order to survive, it must be allowed to adapt and develop with changing circumstances.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 November 2009. Comment


Plight of Lebanon’s Palestinians

A lengthy post on the Qifa Nabki blog tackles the sensitive question of Lebanon’s 400,000-plus Palestinian refugees – more than half of them living in camps:

The living conditions of these refugees – most of whom were born in Lebanon – is dismal. They have few civil rights; they are banned from working in over seventy trades; they are dependent almost entirely on the welfare of UNRWA for basic social services like education, water, food, etc. Of all the Palestinian communities in the diaspora, the Lebanese one is surely the worst off.

The article goes on to challenge some of the familiar arguments for maintaining the status quo:

  • “Lebanon’s political system, which is based upon a delicate sectarian balance, cannot handle the influx of several hundred thousand new citizens, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims.”

  • “Lebanon is barely big enough for its own people. We don’t have room for anyone else. “

  • “We did not create the refugee problem – Israel did … Naturalising the Palestinians deprives them of their right to restitution.”

  • “Why can’t they go to Saudi Arabia or Jordan? In a larger country, four hundred thousand new citizens would be nothing. It’s the size of a small city in Syria!”

It is high time this issue was debated, and the article already has more than 40 readers’ comments. One of them says: “If the Saudis can buy half of Lebanon, why can’t the Palestinians?”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 November 2009. Comment

UPDATE: More discussion of this issue on the Human Province blog.


Saudis fanning the flames

Writing in the Financial Times, Roula Khalaf calls for a rethink on Saudi policy towards Yemen, and the Houthi rebellion in particular. She argues that the Saudi bombing of Houthi positions is adding fuel to the fire and suggests the kingdom is “allowing its resentment of Iran to cloud its judgment over Yemen”:

The Houthi rebellion is, above all, a reflection of social, religious and political grievances by a group that feels marginalised and considers that the [Yemeni] state has succumbed to radical Sunni Salafi ideology …

… Saudi involvement is certain to aggravate the grievances and possibly prolong the fighting. The rising destruction, casualties and displacement of the population have fed the rebellion, widening its territorial scope and winning the rebels thousands of new recruits. 

“The ultimate travesty is there is no way to militarily solve the problem – you need a humanitarian ceasefire and mediation,” says Christopher Boucek, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East programme. If stability is the aim in Yemen, then, as Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, argues, Saudi Arabia needs a policy that is neither “throwing money” at the problem nor military intervention.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 November 2009. Comment


Palin’s peace process

Just to put my recent criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy in context, it’s worth recalling that a different result in the US election would have brought Sarah Palin within a heartbeat of the presidency. Here she is, expounding on the Israel-Palestine question:

I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead and I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 November 2009. Comment


Clashes in southern Yemen

Overshadowed by the war in the north of Yemen, separatist violence continues at a lower level in the south. 

A fuel truck was hijacked in al-Habilain district of Lahej province on Tuesday, according to government media. In Dhali’ (Dalea), also on Tuesday, a military supply vehicle was intercepted and set on fire. One man was killed and two others wounded in subsequent clashes between anti-government gunmen and security forces.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 November 2009. Comment


Qatar's progress against corruption

Qatar's reputation as the least corrupt of the Arab states is further enhanced in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index issued by Transparency International. It has moved up to 22nd place out among the 180 countries included in the annual survey – which puts it ahead of France and only fractionally behind Belgium.

Four other Arab countries figure in the top third of the index: the UAE (30), Oman (39), Bahrain (46) and Jordan (49).

Saudi Arabia, which had long been perceived as the most corrupt of the Arab Gulf states, has improved its position this year, moving up to 63 from 80 last year. It is now marginally ahead of Kuwait.

Somalia is bottom of the entire list, with Sudan not far off at 176. Yemen has dropped several places to 154. The top country in the survey is New Zealand.
   

Arab countries in the corruption league table

  2009 2008
Algeria 
Bahrain
Comoros 
Djibouti 
Egypt 
Iraq 
Jordan 
Kuwait 
Lebanon 
Libya 
Mauritania 
Morocco 
Oman 
Qatar 
Saudi Arabia 
Somalia 
Sudan 
Syria 
Tunisia 
UAE 
Yemen 
111=
46
143
111=
111=
176
49
66
130=
130=
130=
89
39
22
63
180
176
126
65
30
154
92
43
134
102=
115=
178
47
65
102=
126
115=
80=
41
28
80=
180
173
147
62
35
141

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 November 2009. Comment


Moroccan journalists face jail

Two journalists from Morocco's biggest-selling daily newspaper have been sentenced to jail for "publishing false information".

Rachid Nini, founding editor of al-Massae was given a three-month sentence and writer Said Laajal a two-month sentence in connection with a report on August 17 about the dismantling of a drug trafficking network in Morocco. The "false information" charge arises from a suggestion that a judicial official was involved with the network.

Both journalists will remain free during the 10-day period allowed for an appeal but Nini says he has no intention of appealing. Describing the case as a masquerade, he said: "My sentence is intimidation. What's needed is to pursue the real traffickers."

Last month, Nini lost an appeal in a libel case and was ordered to pay six million dirhams ($688,043) in damages and fined 120,000 dirhams (US$13,759) for defaming four deputy prosecutors. The scale of the damages and fine was condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists as an attempt to close the newspaper.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 November 2009. Comment


With respect, Mr President ...

After respectfully bowing to the emperor of Japan last week, President Obama travelled on to China where both countries agreed that "the fundamental principle of respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity" was at the core of China-US relations.

Obama is big on respect. Speaking to the Muslim world in his inaugural address, he promised to "seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect", and in his Cairo speech last June the president used the word "respect" no fewer than 10 times.

But developing a foreign policy based on "mutual respect" is not without problems ... Read more at Comment Is Free

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 November 2009. Comment


Clearing out civilians

It is now two weeks since Saudi forces first clashed with Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Jabal al-Dukhan (the “Mountain of Smoke”) which straddles the border. Since then, what at first looked like a minor skirmish has turned into a large-scale – and possibly long-term – military operation by the Saudis.

Their immediate goal is to contain the war within Yemen, and to this end they are creating a buffer zone 10km wide on either side of the border in the affected area. That, basically, means clearing it of civilians.

On the Yemeni side, Saudi warplanes have continued their airstrikes – some of them beyond the 10km zone, according to the rebels. Ostensibly this is to “drive back” the rebels but by accident or design it seems to be driving civilians away too. Aid agencies are reporting a new influx of displaced people in Yemen and the estimated total, which had been around 150,000 for several weeks, has now increased to 175,000.

The rebels are also being squeezed by Yemeni forces in the border area. Yesterday, fierce fighting was reported in the Malahidh (Malahit) area which includes Jabal al-Dukhan.

The Saudis insist they are not using ground forces on Yemeni soil (which is probably wise) but on their own territory they seem to be making extensive use of parachute troops. This allows them to reach hotspots quickly without the risk of ambushes along the road.

On the Saudi side of the border there has been a mass evacuation, with 50 schools reported closed and 240 villages cleared of civilians – ostensibly for their own safety. A camp has been set up to receive at least some of those displaced:

General Adel Zamzami, the Director of Civil Defense in Mecca, who is leading the relief efforts in the Jizan province, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the number of people displaced in the border region continues to increase. He also indicated that there are [November 12] one thousand displaced citizens staying in the accommodation camp [set up for this purpose] which is located in the Ahad al Mousaraha governorate.

Zamzami said that alternative accommodation was being organised in the region to give the displaced citizens an alternative to the camp, including furnished flats and youth hostels.

In addition to that, several thousand people without residence papers have reportedly been pushed across the border into Yemen.

Prince Khalid Bin Sultan, the assistant defence minister, says the evacuees will not be allowed to return until the security situation is stable and armed [Houthi] elements have ceased all attempts to infiltrate the Saudi interior. However, the idea of having an unpopulated border area may prove so attractive to the Saudi authorities that the evacuation could become permanent.

The military action on the Saudi side of the buffer zone has two purposes. One, obviously, is to prevent rebels from crossing. The other is “monitoring the civilian population to prevent any attempts to provide the Houthi forces with intelligence or support”. As I explained here earlier, sections of the population in this part of Saudi Arabia have long-standing affinities with their neighbours in northern Yemen – which makes the Saudi authorities wary of them.

During the last fortnight various Houthi arms caches are said to have been discovered on Saudi territory. To some, that suggests the Houthis had definite plans to spread their insurrection within the kingdom (and it is consistent with the recent claim that they are seeking to establish a Shia state which would include parts of both Yemen and Saudi Arabia). On the other hand, it could be that the kingdom was simply a hiding place and the weapons were actually intended for use in Yemen.

Meanwhile, the hunt for “collaborators” appears to be focusing on “Asian and Arab nationals” (i.e. non-Saudis). How much truth there is in these allegations remains to be seen, but blaming foreigners for the kingdom’s problems is more or less standard practice.

There is also an unfortunate man with dishevelled hair and long fingernails who was arrested near the border and has now “confessed” to using magic in support of the Houthis:

The man was initially believed to be a refugee fleeing the conflict but security forces searched him and found amulets, animal remains and scrolls containing symbols. The man later admitted he was planning to place amulets in the conflict zone to help the trouble-makers sneak across the border and defeat the Saudi forces. When asked why he had long nails, he answered that he was obeying the order of the jinns or spirits.

In Saudi Arabia, sorcery is a capital offence.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 November 2009. Comment


After the meal ... jail and flogging

A young man from Qassim province in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to eight months in jail with 300 lashes for meeting an unrelated woman.

The couple, who have not been named, made contact online then met at a well-known restaurant in Riyadh, according to al-Jazirah newspaper (in Arabic). They were then caught by the religious police and handed over "to the competent authorities".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 November 2009. Comment


Shielding corruption

When it comes to corruption, the Arab region is second only to Africa. Arab governments like to give the impression they are doing something about it, even though in most cases government corruption is a large part of the problem. 

With the exception of Oman and Somalia, all Arab states have signed up to the international Convention Against Corruption. The Convention, which came into force four years ago, is a well-intentioned by mainly toothless document (which of course is why so many countries were happy to agree to it).

Last week, Egypt and Algeria – along with Angola, China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe – succeeded in blocking efforts to give it some teeth.

An international meeting in Qatar discussed plans for a review mechanism to ensure that states abide by their treaty obligations. A mechanism was eventually agreed but in such a watered-down form that anti-corruption campaigners say it will be ineffective.

Countries' performance will be monitored every five years but "review teams will have to seek permission if they want to make a country visit or talk to those outside of government," according to Gobal Witness. Participation in the process by civil society organisations is also not guaranteed.

Furthermore, assuming that this allows meaningful reports to be produced, their full findings will not be available to other countries participating in the Convention.

As on other occasions when it has something to hide (international election observers, for example) Egypt justifies this on grounds of national sovereignty.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 November 2009. Comment


Previous blog posts

     

Feeds

  
  

November 2009

God or government?

Tunisian president: health rumours

Yemen 'dragged Saudis into war'

Reflections on Eid al-Adha

What's Really Wrong ...

Too graphic for Egypt

Doing the hajj in style

Jailing Egypt's boat people

Deadly clashes in southern Yemen

A very British coup

Saudi witch hunt

Rescuing Yemen?

Kuwait's prime minister may face grilling

Saudi troops 'enter Yemen'

Widows 'bring bad luck'

Rebels kill three Saudi soldiers

'Indecency' in the UAE

Saudi Arabia's border clear-out

Arabic and information technology

Plight of Lebanon’s Palestinians

Saudis fanning the flames

Palin’s peace process

Clashes in southern Yemen

Qatar's progress against corruption

Moroccan journalists face jail

With respect, Mr President ...

Clearing out civilians

After the meal ... jail and flogging

Shielding corruption

Lining up against the Shia

Rebels' challenge to Saudi state

Kuwait's heritage industry

Saudis admit attacks in Yemen

What did the Iraq 'surge' achieve?

Middle East International is back

Video of 'captured Saudi'

Facing the music in Kuwait

Tunisian blogger interrogated

Saudis deport 3,000 to Yemen

Saudis continue battle with Yemeni rebels

Coming soon: female muftis

Saudi Arabia joins the war

Reforming Arab education

Tackling slavery in Mauritania

'Ten more days' of war in Yemen

Torture in Egypt: UN report

Al-Qaeda threat to Hizbullah?

Security chiefs killed in Yemen

Investigating slavery in Mauritania

The Arab Knowledge Report

Book review

Egypt's 'war on butterflies'

Dangers of slamming the door

Al-Azhar capitulates over niqab

President of mass destruction

  

Blog archive

Previous months

General topics

Algeria 
Bahrain 
Comoros 
Djibouti 
Egypt 
Iraq 
Jordan 
Kuwait 
Lebanon 
Libya 
Mauritania 
Morocco 
Oman 
Palestine/Israel 
Qatar 
Saudi Arabia 
Somalia 
Sudan  
Syria 
Tunisia 
UAE 
Yemen 

 

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


  

 
 
 
 
 


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Last revised on 02 December, 2009