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Yemen and the parcel bombs

A young woman described as a medical student has been arrested at her home in Sana'a, along with her mother, in connection with the parcel bombs found on planes bound for the United States.

She was identified by US officials through a SIM card found in one of the devices, according to the German press agency, dpa. Yemeni officials are telling a slightly different story: that she was identified from a phone number left with the cargo company.

Whether she was knowingly involved is another matter. Her lawyer, quoted in a BBC report, says she is not known to be connected with religious or political groups.

The bomb-makers would presumably have been smart enough to ensure that nothing in the devices that could be easily traced to themselves, and it would not be surprising if the SIM card turns out to have been lost or stolen. 

In the meantime, it looks as though the sending of packages by air from Yemen to Europe and the US will be halted until tighter security measures are in place. 

The incident has also raised questions about the crash of a UPS Boeing 747 cargo plane in Dubai on September 3. The aircraft had taken off from Dubai 45 minutes earlier and was attempting to return after the pilot reported smoke on board. The cause of the crash has not yet been finally determined, though an initial report 
suggested lithium batteries had caused a fire.

It has been widely reported that the parcel bombs were discovered as the result of a tip-off from Saudi intelligence. It is well known – as the Waq al-Waq blog points out – that Saudi intelligence is operating in Yemen (and it is probably able to do so more effectively than western agencies). But I do slightly wonder if the praise heaped on the Saudis for their tip-off might be disinformation, intended to panic the bomb-makers into believing they have an infiltrator in their midst.

I don't know how closely air freight manifests are monitored, but I would imagine pretty closely these days, and the basic description of at least one of the packages ought to have rung alarm bells.

In theory a toner cartridge is quite a good disguise for a bomb, because normal cartridges contain electronic circuitry as well as a space for explosives. But the usual route for electronic equipment is into Yemen rather than out if it. Why would an individual in Yemen go to the expense of air-freighting a toner cartridge from Yemen to the United States? It's hard to think of sensible reasons, and that should have prompted further investigation.

More improbably still, why would a Yemeni in Sana'a want to send it to a synagogue in Chicago? I know there are still a few hundred Jews left in Yemen but, even so, the whole idea is preposterous.

This leads to another rather puzzling part of the story as it is known so far. If the packages were meant to explode in flight, as some reports say, why risk arousing suspicion by putting an obviously Jewish address on them? 

Incidentally, it is reported this morning that one of the synagogues concerned is host to a gay and lesbian congregation.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 October 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 2 November: It now appears that the packages were not clearly addressed to synagogues as news reports had initially suggested. 

According to an article in the New York Times on November 2: "An American official said that the addresses on the packages were outdated addresses for Jewish institutions in Chicago. But in place of the names of the institutions, the packages bore the names of historical figures from the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, the official said. The addresses are one reason that investigators now believe the plan may have been to blow up the planes, since there were no longer synagogues at the Chicago locations."


Jail and flogging for power-cuts protest

I haven't seen this reported anywhere in English, but an Arabic website says a prominent journalist in al-Qassim region of Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to two months in jail, plus 50 lashes, for "inciting" people to protest about power cuts outside an electricity company. The website does not name the journalist concerned.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 October 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 3 November: Here is a report in English. The journalist's name is Fahd al-Jukhaidib.


Campus security dispute rumbles on

Following the court ruling in Egypt a week ago that state security forces must be removed from university campuses, it's not surprising to see that practical objections to the ruling are now being raised.

Mohamed Tawfiq Abul Naga, one of the founders of the university guard squads at Cairo University, has been telling al-Masry al-Youm of the difficulties this might cause:

1. "Extreme groups" could take control of on-campus activities.
2. It could lead to drug-dealing on campus.
3. Private security guards are less well-trained.
4. Using private security firms would be too expensive for the universities.

His solution? Keep the Interior Ministry's guards, but put them in civilian clothes.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 October 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 4 November: For further discussion see this article by Ursula Lindsey in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Al-Jazeera suspended in Morocco

The Moroccan authorities yesterday suspended al-Jazeera's operations in the country by withdrawing press accreditation its staff who are based there.

A statement from the communications ministry said the Qatar-based TV station had "seriously distorted Morocco's image and manifestly damaged its interests, most notably its territorial integrity".

It had shown a "determination to only broadcast from our country negative facts and phenomena in a deliberate effort to minimise Morocco's efforts in all aspects of development and to knowing[ly] belittle its achievements and progress on democracy".

AFP says the move appears to be mainly a response to its coverage of issues relating to Islamists and the Western Sahara dispute.

Following the closure of Nichane magazine under pressure just a few weeks ago, the suppression of al-Jazeera marks a further decline in media freedom in Morocco.

Two years ago, al-Jazeera's bureau chief in Rabat, Hassan Rachidi, was fined more than $6,000 for "disseminating false information" about violent clashes between police and demonstrators. Al-Jazeera had reported a human rights activist's claim that security forces had raped and killed protesters; it also broadcast government denials of the alleged fatalities. The activist who made the claim was jailed and fined.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 October 2010. Comment


'Hong Kong solution' in the West Bank?

An intriguing report in Asharq Alawsat says the US and Israel have been quietly exploring the possibility of a land-lease option for parts of the West Bank. 

The proposal is that under a peace deal, Israel would lease some land (including "land in occupied eastern Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley") from the Palestinian Authority for a period of between 40 and 99 years.

This is reminiscent of the situation following the Opium Wars in the 19th century when Britain leased parts of Hong Kong from China for a period of 99 years before handing back the whole territory to the Chinese in 1997.

According to the Saudi-owned newspaper, land leases were also discussed at the Taba talks between the Israelis and Palestinians in 2001, though the period discussed then was much shorter – only six to nine years.

A note on those talks, written shortly afterwards by the EU envoy, Miguel Moratinos, said

"The Israeli side requested an additional two per cent of land [in the West Bank] under a lease arrangement to which the Palestinians responded that the subject of lease can only be discussed after the establishment of a Palestinian state and the transfer of land to Palestinian sovereignty."

The renewed talk of leases – especially long ones – is interesting because it might help to break the deadlock by satisfying Palestinian claims of sovereignty while at the same time allowing Israel to retain some of its West Bank settlements and maintain a presence in the Jordan Valley. How well it might work in practice is another matter: probably a lot would depend on the detail of any leasing agreements.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 October 2010. Comment


Saudi religious police cool off (a bit)

Saudi Arabia's religious police – the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice – have reported a 20% drop in the number of cases they handled since last year, saying this is due to a "fear of negative media portrayal".

The often-thuggish behaviour of the religious police has been much criticised, both outside the kingdom and inside, and they have come under pressure to wear uniforms and identify themselves properly when intervening with members of the public.

Despite the drop, though, they still recorded 55,000 cases last year – most of which (39,301) involved non-Saudi citizens.

Of the 16,650 cases involving Saudi citizens, the majority (around 10,000) concerned "belief and worship" issues. Conflict between Saudi citizens and the religious police over "belief and worship" seems to be increasing, at least in Mecca and Riyadh, according to the report.

Writing in the Crossroads Arabia blog, John Burgess comments:

"... the entire concept of 'religious police' is one whose time has passed, if it ever really existed. But less activity on their part is definitely better than more.

"I do recognise that many Saudis believe that there is not only a role for religious police to be playing, but an actual, religiously mandated duty to do so. I disagree. Criminal behaviour can be handled by the police; a second layer of authority assessing the morality of people’s behavior does not change that behavior: it just sends it deeper underground while opening the door to more instances of improper behavior by the Haya [religious police], thus diminishing respect for Islam. 

"Moral behaviour is not something that can be effectively controlled by authority; too often it turns into an excuse for expanding authority and authoritarianism."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 October 2010. Comment


Qatar 'less corrupt' than UK and US

Qatar has out-performed both Britain and the United States in this year's Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International. The tiny Gulf state is ranked 19th worldwide – one place ahead of the UK and four places ahead of the US.

Elsewhere among the Arab counrties the picture is very mixed. Somalia again comes bottom in the global list. Iraq and Sudan are also near the bottom, at 175 and 172 (out of 178) respectively.

The annual survey is based on perceptions of corruption and does not attempt the far more difficult task of measuring actual levels of corruption. It relies on the assessments of experts and business people – "those who are most directly confronted with the realities of corruption in a country" – and it focuses specifically on perceptions of corruption among public officials and politicians.

Qatar's ranking as the least corrupt of the Arab states raises the question of whether there is anything that other countries in the region can learn from it.

One key factor is that petty corruption appears to be less widespread than elsewhere. A survey by Freedom House in 2004 attributed this to the fact that state employees are well paid (Qatar can afford to pay them well), and many of them are foreigners who would risk deportation if they were caught making improper financial gains. 

Besides, that, Freedom House said Qatar is "generally free from excessive bureaucratic regulation, registration requirements, and other controls that would increase opportunities for corruption".

However, that report – and a more recent one by the Carnegie Endowment – suggested that high-level corruption is more widespread. Freedom House also highlighted a general lack of transparency:

"There is no effective process to promote integrity and to prevent, detect, and punish the corruption of public officials. Asset declarations of public officials are not open to public and media scrutiny or verification. 

"Since the government does not rely on taxes for revenue, but rather on the direct sale of oil and gas, there are no effective internal audit systems to ensure the accountability of revenue collection. No independent auditing body exists outside the executive."
  

Arab countries in the corruption league table

  2010 2009 2008
Algeria 
Bahrain
Comoros 
Djibouti 
Egypt 
Iraq 
Jordan 
Kuwait 
Lebanon 
Libya 
Mauritania 
Morocco 
Oman 
Qatar 
Saudi Arabia 
Somalia 
Sudan 
Syria 
Tunisia 
UAE 
Yemen 
105
48
154
91
98=
175
50=
54=
127=
146=
143=
85=
41=
19
50=
178
172=
127=
59=
28=
146=
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, 29 October 2010. Comment


Money talks in Marrakesh

The World Economic Forum is currently meeting in Marrakesh and the photograph above, showing an odd but official-looking banner, is being passed around on the internet. 

The wording says: "Wolrd [sic] Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa. Can We Cut to the Chase? Show Me the Benjamins! Money Talks .. and Human Rights Walk".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 October 2010. Comment


Vote-buying charges in Jordan

Ahead of next month's elections in Jordan, five people have been charged with vote-buying, the Jordan Times reports. Under the electoral law, they could face seven years in jail.

The 2007 elections were marred by complaints of irregularities and this is the first time the Jordanian authorities have charged anyone with vote manipulation, according to the German dpa news agency.

At present, 817 candidates, including 137 women, are listed to contest the elections on November 9 but objections to some of them are still being heard in the courts.

The Islamic Action Front, the main opposition group, is boycotting the poll, on the grounds that the government has failed to give adequate assurances against ballot-rigging.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 October 2010. Comment


Jailed for 'disobeying' father

Following yesterday's story about the Saudi "morality queen" contest – won by Zainab al-Khatam, who dutifully stays at home "taking care of her family" – here's the other side of the coin.

Twenty-nine-year-old Samar Badawi has just been released after spending seven months in jail for "disobeying" her father.

Ms Badawi, who is divorced with one son, fled to a women's shelter in 2008 complaining of abuse by her father. She left the shelter last year after her father then started legal proceedings against her. Arab News has more details. The paper explains:

Under Saudi law a woman who has no guardian or who is in dispute against her guardian becomes a ward of the state who can face imprisonment for refusing to stay in authorised women's shelters.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 October 2010. Comment


Yemen, the US and child soldiers

Discussing the use of child soldiers in Yemen, the US State Department's annual report on trafficking in persons, issued in June, said:

"Despite a 1991 [Yemeni] law which stipulates that recruits to the armed forces must be at least 18 years of age, and assertions by the government that the military is in compliance with these laws, credible reports exist that children have been recruited into official government armed forces – as well as government-allied tribal militias and militias of the Houthi rebels – since the sixth round of the intermittent war in Sa’ada began in August 2009.

"A local NGO estimated that children under the age of 18 may make up more than half of some tribes’ armed forces, both those fighting with the government and those allied with the Houthi rebels."

The problem was also highlighted in the State Department's most recent human rights report on Yemen, published last March. It said:

"Reports of child soldiers increased in a number of armed conflicts across the country. According to the NGO Small Arms Survey, direct involvement in combat killed or injured hundreds of children annually.

"The intermittent conflict in Saada, which began again in August, reportedly drew underage soldiers fighting for the government and the rebel Houthis. The Houthis reportedly used children as runners in between groups of fighters as well as to carry supplies and explosives, according to local children's rights NGO Seyaj. Tribes [that] the government armed and financed to fight alongside the regular army used children younger than 18 in combat, according to reports by international NGOs such as Save the Children.

"Married boys, ages 12 to 15 years, were reportedly involved in armed conflict beginning in November 2008 in Amran governorate between the Harf Sufian and al-Osaimat tribes. According to tribal custom, boys who married were considered adults who owed allegiance to the tribe. As a result, half of the tribal fighters in such conflicts were children who had volunteered to demonstrate their tribal allegiance."

Introducing the human trafficking report in June, secretary of state Hillary Clinton said: "This human rights abuse is universal, and no one should claim immunity from its reach or from the responsibility to confront it."

Well, not quite. Child soldiers have been causing a legal problem for the US in its provision of military assistance to Yemen. This is because the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2008, prohibits military financing, military training, and several other categories of US military assistance to governments using child soldiers, based on the findings of the Trafficking in Persons report.

The legal problem appears to have been resolved with a little-noticed memorandum signed by President Obama on Monday (and thanks to the emptywheel blog for pointing it out).

Basically, Obama has waived sections of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act which require US missions abroad to "thoroughly investigate reports of the use of child soldiers" and require the State Department to report such abuses to Congress, in relation to Yemen and three other countries (Chad, Congo and Sudan).

So now, everything is fine. Abuses in Yemen will not be investigated or reported. The US can legally continue sending military aid to Yemen and Yemen can continue using child soldiers.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 October 2010. Comment


Saudi 'morality queen'

The annual Queen of Beautiful Morals contest in Saudi Arabia, where contestants are chosen not for their appearance but their commitment to "traditional" Saudi values, has been won by Zainab al-Khatam, a 24-year-old blind woman from Qatif.

Arab News says that since finishing at school, Ms Khatam "has remained at home taking care of her family".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 October 2010. Comment


Yemen strikes tribal alliance against al-Qaeda

Fifteen men described as al-Qaeda fighters whose names are on the government's wanted list surrendered to the authorities in southern Yemen yesterday.

They gave themselves up following negotiations with tribal leaders in the area and the governor of Abyan province is quoted as saying that more are expected to surrender during the next few days.

This seems to be a significant development, marking a change of tactics by the Yemeni government. The state has little authority in the area and some experts have been urging the government to engage with the tribes in order to defeat al-Qaeda.

One of the largest tribal groups in the area is the Awalik, to which Anwar al-Awlaki, the wanted US-born militant belongs.

A security official quoted by al-Arabiya says the governor of Shabwa province and the Awalik have signed an agreement to "expel al-Qaeda elements from their territories and mount a joint operation with the army [to do so]." 

The deal, basically, involves paying off tribes and providing them with arms. A report by AP says:

Hassan Bannan, a leader of one of the Awalik branches in Shabwa and an opponent of the policy, told The Associated Press that more than 2,500 tribesmen have been divided into small groups to carry out daily searches. Another tribesman, Awad al-Awlaki, said 180 of his fellow tribesmen in the Shabwa town of al-Saaid each received 100 automatic rifle bullets and a daily stipend of $50.

The AP report strikes a note of caution about this, saying that critics of the policy fear it could further destabilise the situation by fuelling in-fighting among the tribes, since tribal members are thought to be divided in their attitudes to al-Qaeda.

Enlisting the support of tribes through payments and patronage is a common tactic in Yemen, though not always an effective one. The problem, often, is how to ensure that their support continues.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 October 2010. Comment


The politics of Egyptian statistics

In Egypt the state has a virtual monopoly on data, which effectively stops public debate about government decisions. 
Read more at Comment Is Free ...

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 October 2010. Comment


Maid faces execution in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's supreme court has confirmed the death sentence on Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan maid who was convicted of murdering a four-month-old child, Arab News reports.

Ms Nafeek was 17 at the time of the child's death and, as Amnesty International points out, Saudi Arabia is a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which expressly prohibits the execution of offenders for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old.

Although she was accused of strangling the baby, there are suggestions that he may have choked while she was feeding him – a task for which she had received no training.

Ms Nafeek also says the confession that was used to convict her had been made under duress and that she was not provided with a competent translator during the early stages of the trial.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 October 2010. Comment


Police ordered out of universities

A group of Egyptian professors yesterday won an historic legal battle to have state security forces removed from university campuses – though it is doubtful whether the government will abide by the ruling.

Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper says human rights organisations welcomed the decision by the Supreme Administrative Court as a step towards the independence of Egyptian universities.

Reuters explains that the police presence in Egyptian universities dates back to 1981, when President Sadat rounded up political opponents and that the government-controlled guards have often been accused of interfering with university affairs such as student elections and stifling dissent.

The professors originally went to court in 2008 – and won – but the government appealed. Rejecting the appeal yesterday, the Supreme Administrative Court said "The presence of permanent interior ministry police forces inside the Cairo University campus represents an impairment of the independence guaranteed to the university by the constitution and the law." 

However, reports suggest the government may ignore the ruling or, at the very least, try to delay implementing it.

In 2005, a report on the repression of academic freedom in Egypt, by Human Rights Watch, described the situation on campuses thus:

Different branches of the state police, under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior, monitor most aspects of state university life. University guards are stationed at campus gates and have offices in each faculty. Plainclothes members of the state security forces roam campuses to stop spontaneous expression, such as speeches or posters. 

The police also hire or coerce students into spying on each other. Those belonging to the student club "Horus" are notorious for intimidating their fellow students; this club, or usra, which has branches at the major universities, works for President Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) and receives financial and moral support from the activities department in each faculty. Together these forces strive to silence activist students and deter other, less political students from joining them. They suppress specific expression while creating a general climate of fear.

University guards control access to the campus, keeping people both out and in and heavily scrutinising politically active students in particular. They make it very difficult for visitors to enter the university ... 

The university guards also sometimes block exits. To keep student and faculty demonstrations from spilling into more public areas, they close the gates and confine demonstrators to campus. The use of state security forces to monitor university behaviour affects private as well as national universities.

Members of the state security forces intimidate students with scare tactics. For example, they call students on their cell phones to advise them they are being watched. Alternatively, they call students' parents to tell them they should stop their children from "causing trouble." Family members then apply the pressure the state desires. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 October 2010. Comment


Destination: gay Beirut?

A symposium was held in Beirut earlier this month under the auspices of the Florida-based International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association – basically aimed at promoting Lebanon as a "gay" tourist destination.

Some members of Lebanon's LGBT community were uneasy about it (to say the least) and it has sparked quite a debate. I won't go into the arguments here – it would take far too long – but they do raise some important questions for LGBT activists, and particularly about distinguishing between types of activity which might be productive or counter-productive.

I have compiled some links for anyone who wants to explore this further:

Press release announcing the symposium and "familiarisation tour".

Promotional video

Report of the symposium by Raynbow Media Monitor

Statement by Helem (the Lebanese LGBTQ organisation)

Response to Helem

The consumption of gay others (discussion in Bekhsoos magazine)

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 October 2010. Comment


Murder by motorbike

The motorbike assassinations of security officials continue in Yemen. AFP reports that a colonel in the intelligence service, Mohammed Abdel Aziz Bou Abess, was shot dead near his home in Mukalla (Hadramawt province) yesterday by two masked men on a motorcycle.

Such attacks, widely attributed to al-Qaeda elements, have become a common tactic in recent months. On October 14, another intelligence colonel in Hadramawt died in hospital after being seriously wounded by armed motorcyclists.

A criminal investigations officer was shot dead in Abyan province on October 10, again by two men on a motorcycle.

Last month, al-Qaeda issued a list of 55 security officials and said they would be killed if they failed to "repent". 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 October 2010. Comment


President for ever?

In what must surely be the least credible news of the day, a senior official of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party 
announced that Hosni Mubarak will be the party's candidate in next year's presidential election. Another six-year-term would take the ailing leader up to the age of 89.

The official, Ali Eddin Helal, appeared to be trying to quash expectations that Mubarak's son, Gamal, will stand in his stead.

But Saif Eddin Abdel Fatah, a Cairo University professor quoted by al-Masry al-Youm, described this simply as a "pre-arranged political ploy". The paper continues:

He predicted that President Mubarak would make a last-minute announcement that he would not be able to run due to health concerns and that the NDP would then nominate its "non-military candidate," Gamal Mubarak.

"This ploy will present the opposition with a fait accompli," he said.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 October 2010. Comment


Another bad year for Arab press freedom

Once again, all the Arab countries are in the bottom two-thirds of the annual Press Freedom Index compiled by the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiθres (RSF).

This year, tiny Comoros (not in the Middle East but a member of the Arab League) gets the highest ranking in 70th place (out of 178), followed by Lebanon at 78.

Kuwait, the highest-ranked Arab state last year, has slipped to 87. RSF says that is "mainly because of the Kuwaiti authorities' harsh treatment of lawyer and blogger Mohammed Abdel Qader al-Jassem, who has been jailed twice".

Morocco has fallen eight places, due to "the sentencing of a journalist to one year in prison ... the arbitrary closing down of a newspaper, the financial ruin of another newspaper, orchestrated by the authorities, etc".

Tunisia has fallen a further 10 places "because of its policy of systematic repression enforced by government leaders in Tunis against any person who expresses an idea contrary to that of the regime". 

Bahrain, Syria and Yemen have also fallen significantly.

On the plus side, Iraq has moved up 15 places to 130 because safety conditions for journalists "improved substantially in the country", despite several killings.

The Palestinian territories and Algeria have also seen an improvement, with less harassment of journalists.
   

Rankings of Arab countries (out of 178)

Last year's ranking in brackets

70= Comoros (82)
78 Lebanon (61)
87= United Arab Emirates (86=)
87= Kuwait (60)
95 Mauritania (100)
110 Djibouti (110)
120 Jordan (112)
121 Qatar (94)
124 Oman (106)
127 Egypt (143)
130 Iraq (145)
133 Algeria (141)
135 Morocco (127)
144 Bahrain (119=)
150 Palestine (161)
157 Saudi Arabia (163)
160 Libya (156)
161 Somalia (164)
164 Tunisia (164)
170 Yemen (167)
172 Sudan (148)
173 Syria (165)

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 October 2010. Comment


Prosecutor questions Kuwaiti royals

Following the attack on a privately-owned TV station in Kuwait on Sunday, Reuters reports that two members of the royal family have been called for questioning by the public prosecutor.

The station, Scope TV, has accused Sheikh Faisal al-Malik al-Sabah, who is Kuwait's ambassador to Jordan, and his brother of being among the crowd that ransacked its studio. The Saudi-owned al-Arabiya has a picture of some of the damage on its website.

Sheikh Faisal appears not to be denying that he was present during the attack but his lawyer says he was "there to calm the crowd". His brother denies involvement.

Reuters says: "The [Kuwaiti] government has accused Scope TV of insulting the ruling family, but has also denounced the attack on the station."

The Kuwait Times says Scope has now gone off-air indefinitely after its owners "realised there is great displeasure from ruling family members".

Reports suggest that the station offended the Malik branch of the ruling family by claiming that their forbears tried to overthrow the government 50 years ago.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 October 2010. Comment


Saudi silence over murder case

I have been looking around Saudi news websites for some mention of the court case in London yesterday where His Royal Highness Prince Abdulaziz bin Nasser al Saud was convicted of murdering his "manservant", but I can't see anything in Arab News, the Saudi Gazette or al-Arabiya. If it has been reported in the kingdom's mainstream media I'll be interested to know where.

Some of the Lebanese and Emirati media (Gulf News and Emirates 24/7) have carried reports from international agencies but mostly the Arab media seems to be showing a distinct lack of interest in the crime.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 October 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 11 November: An article by Ahmed Maher, who reported the trial for BBC Arabic discusses the lack of coverage in other Arabic-language media. He writes: "I was left with the impression that the 'state-run' outlets had enforced a blackout on the trial."


Fracas at Kuwaiti TV station

An angry mob stormed a privately-owned television station in Kuwait on Sunday. The group, said to number at least 150, smashed windows and overturned furniture at Scope TV. About 10 people were reportedly injured.

The Kuwait Times says the station accused the attackers of being under the guidance of "a well known diplomat" before if went off air. 

The mob were apparently enraged by a talk show, 'Zain wa Shain' ('Good and Bad'), broadcast on Saturday, which they believed to have insulted a member of the royal family.

Last week, writer-director Fajer al-Saeed was questioned by Kuwait's public prosecutor following a complaint from the information ministry. Her lawyer, quoted by AFP, says she was accused of attempting to overthrow the government, change the country's economic and social systems and demolish the foundations of society using illegal means.

The accusations arise out of a satirical show, 'Sawtak Wasal' ('Your Voice Has Been Heard'), which was broadcast by Scope in August, according to her lawyer. One episode joked about "privatising and exporting Kuwaiti democracy".

Today, the prosecutor is due to question her brother, Talal, who is the station's director and a former member of parliament.

Several MPs have criticised the government's action. AFP quotes Jassem al-Khorafi, the parliamentary speaker, as saying: "Referring the Scope channel to the public prosecution on state security charges over a comedy show is a catastrophe and a silly act by the information ministry."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 October 2010. Comment


The Middle East gender gap

Arab states account for almost half of the worst performers in the World Economic Forum's latest survey of the Global Gender Gap.

As in previous years, four Nordic countries – Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden – top the list.

The best-performing Arab country – the UAE – is ranked at number 103 (out of 134), while Yemen is at the very bottom. Israel comes in at 52 and Iran at 123.

The survey, first established four years ago, measures national gender disparities based on a range of criteria: economic, political, educational and health-related. It looks only at the gap between male and female, so the results should not be affected by a country's general level of resources or economic development.

The rankings of the 15 Arab countries included in the survey are as follows:

United Arab Emirates 103
Kuwait 105
Tunisia 107
Bahrain 110
Mauritania 113
Lebanon 116
Qatar 117
Algeria 119
Jordan 120
Oman 122
Syria 124
Egypt 125
Morocco 127
Saudi Arabia 129
Yemen 134

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 October 2010. Comment


'Al-Qaeda financier' arrested in Yemen

The Yemeni authorities say they have arrested Saleh al-Raimi, who was wanted for financing al-Qaeda activities in Yemen. Raimi, a 33-year-old Yemeni living in Saudi Arabia, was captured at Sana'a airport on Friday when he arrived from the kingdom, according to the interior ministry.

Meanwhile, the ministry has offered a reward of 20 million riyals ($93,000) for information leading to the arrest of eight named al-Qaeda suspects. The eight are:

Ameen Abdullah Abdul Rhman al Othmani
Bashir Muhammad Ahmed al Huleisi
Shawqi Ali Ahmed al Ba'adani
Abdul Elah Ali Qasim al Mesbahi
Abdul Hamid Ahmed Muhammad al Hubaishi
Muhammad Ali Abdullah al Nasheri
Musleh Abdullah Ahmed al Huleisi
Yousuf Ahmed Muthana Zyood. 

AFP reports that three soldiers were killed and at least two wounded on Saturday when a military convoy was ambushed in Abyan province. Two men described as "al-Qaeda terrorist elements" also died when their car blew up, according to Almotamar, the ruling party's website.

Reports yesterday of a remark by Yemen's interior minister have raised new questions about the death of Jacques Spagnolo, a Frenchman who was shot on October 6 by a security guard at the company where he worked in Sana'a.

According to reports at the time, Spagnolo's killing was a criminal act resulting from a dispute the previous day. However, the minister, Motahar Rashad al-Masri, has now been quoted as saying that investigations have shown "this was a terrorist crime, whose perpetrator had contacts with elements of al-Qaeda". So far, though, no details have been given.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 October 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 19 October: A spokesman for the Saudi interior ministry said the kingdom has no information linking Raimi with terroris. 


The Chilean way, and the Arab way

Chile is a long way from the Middle East, perhaps in more ways than one. As I watched the rescue of the miners earlier this week, a question came to mind which has been niggling me ever since: What if the accident had happened in one of the Arab countries? How would the authorities have handled it?

Chile, along with most of the Arab states, aspires to be a developed country, not a developing one; during his election campaign President Sebastian Pinera pledged to move it forward into the "developed" league.

Conditions in Chilean mines, though, are still typical of those in developing countries. The accident that trapped 33 men underground last August shouldn't have happened and with more attention to safety it could have been avoided. The same is true of most disasters in the Arab countries. Think of the flood deaths in Jeddah last year, the Red Sea ferry disaster in 2006, the numerous accidents on the Egyptian railways, etc, etc.

Prevention is one thing. But once the accident had happened, look how the Chileans handled it – turning a negative into something very positive. 

It could easily have been otherwise. Some of President Pinera's advisers basically wanted to write off the trapped miners and look for scapegoats instead: to blame the mine's owners and the previous (centre-left) Chilean government. That, sadly, is the instinctive reaction of Arab regimes: arrest a few officials (the lowlier the better) and the problem can be put to bed.

But Pinera resisted his advisers and decided that the blame game could wait. In the meantime, while there was still hope for the miners, no effort should be spared to bring them out alive. Maybe he didn't think about it in these terms at the time, but his decision was significant not just for humanitarian reasons. It signalled a shift in Chile from "developing country" mode to "developed country" mode.

This is where the Arab regimes continue to struggle. For all the shiny new buildings in their capital cities and other symbols of modernity, they still hesitate to make that mental leap.

When it came to the actual rescue, Pinera was in the thick of it, tie-less and in a hard hat, greeting the miners as they were hauled to the surface. I didn't notice his bodyguards. Perhaps they were nearby, somewhere off-camera, but contrast that with the pictures of Ahmadinejad driving through Beirut this week surrounded by men scanning the crowds for possible assassins.

To some extent, I'm sure, Pinera was playing to the cameras. He may be one of the richest men in Chile (with a somewhat chequered past) but he knows the importance for a politician of showing the common touch and it would be a hard-hearted person who didn't warm to him at least a little bit.

He was also there, not just on his own account, but as Chile's head of state, leading what by all accounts turned into a genuine national celebration. Again, how many spontaneous celebrations that bring the whole country together (as opposed to the phoney regime-organised celebrations) have we seen in the Arab world? The only one I can recall in recent years was when the Israelis left southern Lebanon – an event in which the Lebanese government was little more than a bystander.

The "common touch" is a crucial element in successfully governing a developed country. Politicians like to be on first-name terms with their voters. Address the British prime minister as "Dave" and he won't be offended – he'll relish it. This is partly about cultivating a certain image but also about the relationship between a government and its citizens: to show, as they like to say in election leaflets, that the politicians are "on your side" and "working for you".

That is not how it works in the Arab countries. With the possible exceptions of Colonel Gadafy (a "Libyan citizen") and Ali Abdullah Salih (the "brother president" of Yemen), Arab leaders make little effort to present themselves as men of the people – and it's one reason why their regimes lack popular legitimacy.

When was the last time, for example, that President Mubarak showed his face on the Egyptian streets, commiserating with his citizens after a tragedy? Did King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia put on his rubber boots and trudge through the mud in Jeddah after the floods? No, he went to inspect his troops on the southern border.

A few years ago, I attended the annual conference of the NDP, the ruling party in Egypt. At the end of it, prime minister Ahmed Nazif, was due to talk to the media. The building had a well-equipped room, ideal for holding press conferences, but it was on the ground floor and Mr Nazif happened to be on the first floor. An official said it would not be appropriate for the prime minister to "come down" to meet the journalists, so we had to go up to meet him. The result was that he spoke to us in a noisy, echoing foyer where hardly any of us could hear what he said. All for a trivial point of protocol.

There's an interesting paradox here which taps into one of the themes of my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East. Arab regimes are authoritarian but in a paternalistic sort of way, and heads of state like to portray themselves as the father of the nation. However, it's a concept of fatherhood that doesn't translate into the kind of leadership seen from President Pinera.

The difference is that Arab regimes mostly model themselves on traditional concepts of the Arab family, where the father is considered wise and benevolent but has to be treated with deference and the utmost respect. He also tends to be cold, aloof, distant and, at times, someone to be feared.

But back to Chile and the mine rescue. It has not only benefited President Pinera politically – it has benefited Chile as a whole. There's talk of a new sense of national unity (something the Arab countries claim to be seeking but rarely achieve) and, indirectly, it has brought a thaw in relations with the Mapuche ethnic minority. Internationally, it has also begun to change perceptions of Chile which, up to now, has been mostly remembered for the horrors of the Pinochet years.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 October 2010. Comment. Reader's feedback.


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October 2010

Yemen and the parcel bombs

Jail and flogging for power-cuts protest

Campus security dispute rumbles on

Al-Jazeera suspended in Morocco

'Hong Kong solution' in the West Bank?

Saudi religious police cool off (a bit)

Qatar 'less corrupt' than UK and US

Money talks in Marrakesh

Vote-buying charges in Jordan

Jailed for 'disobeying' father

Yemen, the US and child soldiers

Saudi 'morality queen'

Yemen strikes tribal alliance against al-Qaeda

The politics of Egyptian statistics

Maid faces execution in Saudi Arabia

Police ordered out of universities

Destination: gay Beirut?

Murder by motorbike

President for ever?

Another bad year for Arab press freedom

Prosecutor questions Kuwaiti royals

Saudi silence over murder case

Fracas at Kuwaiti TV station

The Middle East gender gap

'Al-Qaeda financier' arrested in Yemen

The Chilean way, and the Arab way

Al-Qaeda plans 'army'  in southern Yemen

Sectarian tensions in Egypt

Ya Memri!

Egypt cracks down on text messages

'Hit-list' officer shot dead in Yemen

Tackling poverty – by deportation

Battle of the fatwas

Saudi marriage official's child bride

Yemen and the GCC

Diplomats under threat

Diplomats attacked in Yemen

Free speech for some?

Kareem's story

Despotic benevolence

Moroccan magazine to close

'Imminent danger' from multimedia

Reading between the red lines

  

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Brian Whitaker, 2009


  

 
 
 
 
 


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Last revised on 11 November, 2010