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Wikileaks: Oman, US missiles and Iran

Amid all the excitement about the king of Saudi Arabia urging the Americans to bomb Iran, the Wikileaks documents show Sultan Qaboos of Oman taking a much cooler view.

In a two-hour meeting with Admiral William Fallon of Centcom last February, the Sultan remarked that the Iranians are "not fools," and Tehran knows there are "certain lines it cannot cross" (ie, direct confrontation with the United States). 

Nevertheless, the Sultan shared Admiral Fallon's frustration with Iranian interference in Iraq, saying that Iranian meddling abroad was "almost a game" to the regime in Tehran, and that Iran's leaders would have to stop this practice if Iran wanted to "join the world as a noble country".

Oman favours negotiation with Iran rather than military action but seems happy to shelter under the American umbrella, so long as the Omani public don't realise that it is doing so. The Sultan is quoted as saying: "I must say that as long as (the US) is on the horizon, we have nothing to fear." 

Like many Arab states, Oman has two versions of its military relationship with the United States: one for public consumption, and another one that it likes to keep private.

That pretence was jeopardised in January, according to a Wikileaks document, when the New York Times published an article headed: "US Speeding Up Missile Defenses in Persian Gulf". 

The story said that Patriot missile batteries would be set up in four more Gulf countries besides Saudi Arabia (which already has them): Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait – presumably to defend them against any attack from Iran.

A syndicated version of the article, though not the version on the NYT's website, also included a sentence saying: "Oman, which has always been sensitive about perceptions that it is doing US bidding, has also been approached, but there is no deployment of Patriots there, according to US officials." 

Oman initially denied having been approached. Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi, of the Omani foreign ministry issued a statement saying, "the Sultanate's position on such matters is firm and that it does not ... enter into alliances or axis (sic) against any state." He stressed that Oman "does not allow its territory to be used to carry out any military operations against any country in the region". 

The US embassy in Muscat also received "a pointed inquiry" from the Sultan, apparently worried about the repercussions of the NYT's report.

The Americans then provided evidence that discussions about Patriot missiles had indeed taken place, though the Sultan was apparently unaware of them because of a "lack of lateral coordination within the [government of Oman]." 

A comment at the end of the US embassy's note says:

The strength of Oman's immediate reaction, and the level at which it transpired, is reflective of the tremendous seriousness with which this matter is viewed by the GoO [government of Oman]. It is likely that one of the goals of Badr's media statement was to protect the US/Omani relationship, as any belief that the US would attempt to utilise Omani territory in this way could potentially cause a public backlash that would jeopardise other aspects of our relationship.

The deployment of Patriots to Oman, especially with the goal of countering the Iran threat, would run completely counter to Oman's publicly-stated foreign-policy objectives. 

Although they do not find the threat imminent, Iran is Oman's number one strategic threat; however, the GoO fundamentally believes the threat can be mitigated through careful management of the relationship. Therefore, the GoO works very deliberately to create a public perception of balance in its relationships with the US and Iran. 

Oman's security strategy of keeping a low public profile in general has been threatened by the attention brought by the NYT article, and the GoO is working to manage the message for the public. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 November 2010. Comment.

Wikileaks: Egypt, an obstacle to peace

In 1979 Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel – and it has been handsomely rewarded ever since. After Israel, Egypt was the second-largest recipient of American aid until both were overtaken by Iraq following the removal of Saddam Hussein.

American aid – totalling more than $50 billion over the years – has helped to keep the wretched Mubarak regime in power, but what do the American taxpayers get for their money?

A large part of the deal is that Egypt acts as a broker and facilitator for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But how effective is Egypt at that? Not very, according to the Amir of Qatar.

In a meeting with Senator John Kerry last February, the Amir suggested Egypt is more interested in maintaining its role as a peace broker (to keep the aid flowing) than in actually achieving peace.

The conversation is recorded in one of the Wikileaks documents released on Sunday:

The Amir said the Egyptians' goal is to stay in the game and maintain their relationship with the US, which is built around brokering Middle East peace, for as long as possible.

By way of example, the Emir accused Egypt of sabotaging a memorandum of understanding between Fatah and Hamas.

The message that Egypt wants to prolong the peace process for its own ends was repeated more forcefully the following day when Kerry met the Qatari prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani (referred to in the document as "HBJ"):

According to HBJ, Egypt – the broker – has a vested interest in dragging out the talks for as long as possible. Egypt "has no end game; serving as broker of the talks is Egypt's only business interest with the U.S." 

HBJ likened the situation to a physician who has only one patient to treat in the hospital. If that is your only business, "the physician is going to keep the patient alive but in the hospital for as long as possible." 

HBJ emphasised that Qatar, on the other hand, is interested only in bringing about peace in the region – and as quickly as possible.

So Qatar was not only quietly badmouthing Egypt but angling for a greater role in the peace process for itself:

Asked his advice for President Obama, the Amir recommended the establishment of a small US-Qatar committee to discuss how to proceed. Qatar is close to Hamas, emphasised the Amir, because "we don't play in their internal politics." That does not mean we share their ideology or do not disagree with them. "I can remember many arguments with them (Hamas) on the 1967 border with Israel." 

The Amir noted that he had mediated with Hamas previously at the US request, namely when he urged Hamas at the previous Administration's request to participate in Palestinian elections.

Kerry appeared to share some of the Qatari Amir's frustrations about Egypt:

Senator Kerry observed that economic development in the West Bank is taking place, but not in Gaza. The Palestinian reconciliation that would make possible developmental assistance in Gaza has not happened. The Egyptians have not delivered, said Senator Kerry.

The Qatari prime minister, in his meeting with Kerry, argued that the pursuit of peace should include "Palestinians of all stripes" and that it is a mistake to work with just one partner, Fatah, and ignore Hamas. The biggest obstacle on the Palestinian side to an eventual agreement with Israel is the reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah, the prime minister told him:

We need to broker a quick reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and move forward quickly on rebuilding Gaza. Senator Kerry asserted that HBJ was preaching to the converted ...

Kerry also asked the prime minister about prospects for a reconciliation between Hamas and Israel:

From HBJ's perspective, there are differences in style and approaches between the two wings of Hamas, but in principle both are fundamentally aligned. They can accept recognition of Israel, but have to calibrate the timing very carefully because Hamas knows that its supporters in the Palestinian territories are not ready for this change.

HBJ said Hamas leaders in Damascus and Gaza are aligned on wanting to open the border crossing at Rafah, for example, but differ on tactics in reaching this goal. The leaderships in Syria and Gaza consult each other, and no one leader in Hamas can take a decision alone, reported HBJ. 

Senator Kerry asked the prime minister to explain why Hamas does not seem "to move when we need Hamas to move": 

Simply put, answered HBJ, "Hamas does not trust Egypt and the Quartet enterprise." HBJ noted that since its inception the Quartet has been anti-Hamas and aligned with the interests of Abu Mazen, Egypt and Jordan. These partners of the Quartet, observed HBJ, are the very partners who have not delivered a Palestinian-Israeli agreement. 

Returning to his theme that "peace brokers" act in their own self-interest, HBJ observed that President Mubarak of Egypt is thinking about how his son can take his place and how to stave off the growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood … The Egyptian "people blame America" now for their plight. 

The shift in mood on the ground is "mostly because of Mubarak and his close ties" to the United States. His only utility to the US is brokering peace between Palestinians and Israelis, so he has no interest in taking himself out of the one game he has, underscored HBJ. "Tell your friends (in Egypt) they must help themselves." 

… Continuing to illustrate how Egypt had not delivered for the U.S. on Palestinian issues, HBJ said Qatar was told in late 2008 that Israel and the U.S. needed the Egyptians to deal with the crisis in Gaza. Yet former Israeli PM Olmert later complained to Qatar that Egypt is a big country and not nimble; it could not move fast enough.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 November 2010. Comment.

Wikileaks: The Arab media dilemma

This is an extraordinary moment for the Arab media. Gleeful anticipation that the latest revelations from Wikileaks would prove deeply embarrassing to the United States has suddenly turned into a realisation that the leaked documents (the first batch at least) portray various Arab leaders in a bad light – among other things, as duplicitous and cowardly in relation to Iran, urging the US to do their dirty work for them. 

Further murky goings-on involving Arab regimes are likely to emerge as people trawl through the welter of documents in more detail during the coming days and weeks.

In their content, the documents are not particularly earth-shattering; they merely confirm the impression that many people had of Arab leaders already. But what they have done – and this may be much more important in the long run – is to crash through the red lines and taboos that usually surround the discourse among Arabs about their leaders. Forget the customary mutterings behind closed doors; it's now there on Wikileaks, spelt out in black and white for anyone who cares to read it.

For journalists in the Arab countries this is a huge problem. Ignoring Wikileaks entirely is not a sensible option – the story is all over the internet anyway. But what can they report without getting into trouble? So far, the answer seems to be to report it selectively ... very selectively.

The Saudi-owned al-Arabiya, for instance, skims over the business of King Abdullah saying he wants the Americans to cut the head off the Iranian snake in a single sentence:

The cables also contained new revelations about long-simmering nuclear trouble spots, detailing US, Israeli and Arab world fears of Iran's growing nuclear program, American concerns about Pakistan's atomic arsenal and U.S. discussions about a united Korean peninsula as a long-term solution to North Korean aggression.

Marc Lynch, a leading commentator on the Arab media writes:

Thus far, most of the mainstream Arab media seems to be either ignoring the Wikileaks revelations or else reporting it in generalities, ie reporting that it's happening but not the details in the cables. I imagine there are some pretty tense scenes in Arab newsrooms right now, as they try to figure out how to cover the news within their political constraints.

Al-Jazeera may feel the heat the most, since not covering it (presumably to protect the Qatari royal family) could shatter its reputation for being independent and in tune with the "Arab street". So far, the only real story I've seen in the mainstream Arab media is in the populist Arab nationalist paper al-Quds al-Arabi, which covers the front page with a detailed expose focused on its bete noir Saudi Arabia. 

Meanwhile, the details are all over Arabic social media like Facebook and Twitter, blogs, forums, and online-only news sites like Jordan's Ammon News. This may be a critical test of the real impact of Arabic social media and the internet: can it break through a wall of silence and reach mass publics if the mass media doesn't pick up the story?

We may have to wait a while for the answer to that. But it won't be the last time that something of this kind happens, and Arab regimes (and the Arab media) will have to get used to it. As Amira Nowaira observed the other day in connection with Egypt: you can station troops along the ring roads, but you can't do the same on the information super-highway.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 November 2010. Comment.

Wikileaks: Salih-Petraeus meeting in Yemen

One of the new Wikileaks documents records a 90-minute meeting on January 4 this year between David Petraeus, commander of Centcom, and the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Salih. 

Some interesting points:

1. Salih repeatedly asked for 12 armed helicopters ("a topic that he would manage to insert into almost every item of discussion" according to the memo):

Possessing such helicopters would allow the ROYG [Yemeni government] to take the lead in future CT [counter-terrorism] operations, "ease" the use of fighter jets and cruise missiles against terrorist targets, and allow Yemeni Special Operations Forces to capture terrorist suspects and identify victims following strikes, according to Saleh.

Petraeus may have been worried that these would be used against the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, because Salih is quoted as saying: "We won't use the helicopters in Sa'ada, I promise. Only against al-Qaeda."

2. The US proposed to help establish and train a Yemeni special operations aviation regiment, "leaving Sa'ada air operations to the Yemeni Air Force". Presumably the idea was that by keeping the special forces separate from the air forces, the US could ensure that its military aid would be used against al-Qaeda rather than the Houthi rebels:

Without giving much detail, Saleh also requested that the US equip and train three new Republican Guard brigades, totaling 9,000 soldiers. "Equipping these brigades would reflect upon our true partnership," Saleh said. The General urged Saleh to focus first on the YSOF [special operations] aviation regiment. 

3. Salih and Petraeus discused the airstrikes in December against al-Qaeda which had resulted in civilian casualties (dozens of casualties according to reports at the time):

Saleh praised the December 17 and 24 strikes against AQAP but said that "mistakes were made" in the killing of civilians in Abyan. The General responded that the only civilians killed were the wife and two children of an AQAP operative at the site, prompting Saleh to plunge into a lengthy and confusing aside with Deputy Prime Minister Alimi and Minister of Defense Ali regarding the number of terrorists versus civilians killed in the strike. 

(Comment: Saleh's conversation on the civilian casualties suggests he has not been well briefed by his advisors on the strike in Abyan, a site that the ROYG has been unable to access to determine with any certainty the level of collateral damage. End Comment.) 

Salih then continued with his usual assurances that al-Qaeda is on the run:

AQAP leader Nassr al-Wahishi and extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki may still be alive, Saleh said, but the December strikes had already caused al-Qaeda operatives to turn themselves in to authorities and residents in affected areas to deny refuge to al-Qaeda. 

4. Salih resisted an American proposal to have US personnel "inside the area of operations armed with real-time, direct feed intelligence":

"You cannot enter the operations area and you must stay in the joint operations center," Saleh responded. Any US casualties in strikes against AQAP would harm future efforts, Saleh asserted. Saleh did not have any objection, however, to General Petraeus' proposal to move away from the use of cruise missiles and instead have US fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory, "out of sight," and engage AQAP targets when actionable intelligence became available. 

Saleh lamented the use of cruise missiles that are "not very accurate" and welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs instead. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh said, prompting Deputy Prime Minister Alimi to joke that he had just "lied" by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG. 

5. Gen Petraeus said relations with the Yemeni air force were problematic. "Only four out of 50 planned US Special Operations Forces Command training missions with the Yemeni Air Force had actually been executed in the past year, he said. Saleh said he would personally instruct Minister of Defense to improve the situation.

Petraeus also complained about Yemeni customs holding up US embassy cargo at the airport, including shipments destined for the ROYG [Yemeni government] itself. "Saleh laughed and made a vague pledge to have the customs issue 'taken care of'."

6. Salih asked for more help guarding Yemen's coastline:

The General told Saleh that two fully-equipped 87-foot patrol boats destined for the Yemeni Coast Guard were under construction and would arrive in Yemen within a year. Saleh singled out smuggling from Djibouti as particularly troublesome, claiming that the ROYG had recently intercepted four containers of Djibouti-origin TNT. 

"Tell (Djiboutian President) Ismail Guelleh that I don't care if he smuggles whiskey into Yemen – provided it's good whiskey) but not drugs or weapons," Saleh joked. 

Saleh said that smugglers of all stripes are bribing both Saudi and Yemeni border officials. 

7. Salih objected to the inclusion of Qatar in the international Friends of Yemen group with was due to have its inaugural meeting at the end of January. Salih is quoted as sayinh that Qatar should not be involved because "they work with Iran." The note adds: "In this regard, Saleh also identified Qatar as one of those nations working "against Yemen," along with Iran, Libya, and Eritrea."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 November 2010. Comment.

Election-rigging in Egypt

A minority of Egyptians – probably no more than a third of the 41 million who are registered to vote – will be going to the polls today in a parliamentary election where the ruling party has already made sure of winning by large majority.

Talk of rigged elections usually conjures up images of stuffed ballot boxes but these days, in Egypt at least, election rigging is a whole lot more complicated than that. In the old days, under Nasser, they didn't even need to stuff the ballots, as Amira Nowaira noted last week:

Not many people now realise that during the Nasser era elections were held and people were urged to go out and vote ... Rigging was unnecessary because the government sifted the candidates before nominating them and giving them its blessing. So it mattered little to the regime whether Mohammed, Ahmed or Laila was finally elected.

Having the government decide who can or can't be a candidate is still a feature of Egyptian elections today, though it's only one aspect of the rigging process.

The ruling party's goal is to win at least two-thirds of the parliamentary seats (a total that brings several advantages under the constitution) and it is helped along the way by having 10 of the 518 members not elected but appointed by the president.

At the same time, the regime needs to be able to claim that the election is democratic (a more important consideration now than it was in Nasser's time) and so opposition candidates have to be allowed to win a respectable number of seats. Determining how many they shall be allowed, and ensuring that this will be reflected in the result, is where it starts to get complicated. 

From the government's standpoint, too little restriction of opposition activity could jeopardise its majority; on the other hand, too much restriction could damage the election's credibility and, ultimately, the regime's legitimacy. There are indications this time that the government may have been too restrictive for its own good – especially because attempts at interference are more visible now and get talked about more than in the past.

One of the early signs was the effort to rein-in the media and, unusually, this hasn't been confined to the local media. There was a clash last week with the BBC over participants in a studio discussion and on Saturday the information minister accused the American al-Hurra TV channel of violating a ban on "electoral propaganda" during the last 24 hours before polling – a ban that the government-run media in Egypt happily ignored in respect of government candidates.

There were also the government's restrictions on SMS messaging (a popular campaigning tool) which a court finally ruled illegal on the eve of polling day.

Then we have the arrests of opposition supporters (around 1,400 from the Muslim Brotherhood during the last few weeks) – arrests which seem calculated to disrupt their campaigning abilities. In Alexandria on Thursday and Friday, 23 of them were sentenced to two years in jail for distributing election material that contained forbidden religious slogans. More than a dozen of the Brotherhood's candidates have also been disqualified.

Egypt has long rejected calls to allow international election observers on the spurious grounds of national sovereignty, but local observers don't seem to be faring much better. 

According to al-Masry al-Youm, only 10% of those who applied to monitor the polling have been granted permits, and even they will not be allowed to question voters or election officials.

Amid all that (and these are just a few examples), one small story particularly caught my eye. It concerns the people who make banners for hanging across the streets. Nothing in this election is being left to chance, and even they have had visits from state security:

Walid Saad points to a palm-sized rectangular sticker glued to one of the walls of his modest studio. Bearing the label of the Cairo Security Directorate, the white label is covered with stamps and bears the names and contact information of four senior officers. "They said I was to contact them before working on any promotional material for the elections. They have to approve any slogan or message before it goes public."

I can't help thinking that if all the effort that goes into manipulating Egyptian elections were diverted to other purposes – such as governing the country properly – Mubarak's NDP might actually have a chance of winning fairly and squarely.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 November 2010. Comment.

Military trial for Facebook man

A 30-year-old Egyptian is due to appear before a military court on Monday, accused of "disclosing information about the Egyptian armed forces" on Facebook. He could face five years in jail if convicted.

Ahmed Hassan Bassyouni set up a Facebook group called "Conscription and Mobilisation Department" which provided advice and information to young Egyptians about military service. 

According to Amnesty International, Bassyouni was interviewed on Egyptian radio about the Facebook group on October 30. "After the interview, he was called back to the studio where military investigation officers were waiting to arrest him."

Amnesty says it appears he "is being tried solely for publishing information readily available in the public domain and often published in local newspapers".

The case is reminiscent of another one earlier this year when a young Egyptian called Ahmed Mustafa was hauled up before a military court after complaining on his blog about favouritism in a military college. That trial was eventually abandoned following publicity in the media.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 November 2010. Comment.

Second car bomb in northern Yemen

Just two days after a car bomb killed 17 or more Houthi supporters during a Shia religious festival in Yemen, a second car bomb attacked mourners attending a Houthi funeral yesterday. Reports of casualties vary wildly, from two including the suicide bomber (AFP) to 40 or more (UPI).

The latest attack, in Saada province, targeted a convoy of cars carrying tribal leaders from Marib province to the funeral of Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the Houthi patriarch who died on Thursday at the age of 86.

Once again, the finger of suspicion points towards al-Qaeda, or at least Sunni militants, as the likely culprits. Presumably their aim is to re-ignite the Houthi rebellion (which went into abeyance following a ceasefire agreement last February), thus putting further pressure on the Yemeni regime and its security forces, and perhaps taking some of the heat off al-Qaeda.

The Yemeni government's Supreme Security Committee issued a statement yesterday condemning the latest attack. It appealed for information and said the authorities "will do their best" to track down the attackers.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 November 2010. Comment.

Fear of photography

There's a very strange story going around that Kuwait has banned the use of digital SLR cameras (the sort with interchangeable lenses) in public places, except when used by accredited journalists.

Now, I know that Arab governments have a propensity for banning the most unlikely things for the most absurd of reasons, but this one baffles me. Can it really be true?

For instance, why only digital SLRs? Why not the old type of SLR that uses film? (I still have one somewhere in a cupboard if any Kuwaitis would like to take pictures and don't mind waiting to get them developed.) And why only SLR cameras? Why not the small point-and-shoot cameras or the ubiquitous mobile phone cameras?

"This is another sad story of regional governments slapping a ban on every kind of technology they simply don’t want to learn how to deal with," Ahmad al-Shagra writes on the TNW Middle East website.

It's perhaps worth pointing out, though, that all the stories and comments about the ban (and there are now quite a number of them on the internet) are based on a single source: a report in the Kuwait Times on November 20. 

According to the paper, the Kuwaiti ministry of information, the ministry of social affairs and the ministry of finance all got together and decided "that photography should be used for journalism purposes only".

There has been no further explanation and, far as I'm aware, no official promulgation of the ban. That leads me to wonder whether the report in the Kuwait Times is correct (any clarification on that point would be gratefully received).

However, there is no doubt that photography is a sensitive issue in many Arab countries – for reasons of both privacy and security. The Saudis have previously tried to ban camera phones, without much success.

There also seems to be a general suspicion of photography in Kuwait. The Kuwait Times suggests this is because people have "so little exposure to art" – with the result that "a big black camera tends to worry people" and they "may wonder if the camera is being used for the wrong reasons".

The report quotes two amateur photographers on the problems they have faced taking pictures in Kuwait.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 November 2010. Comment.

Syrian nuclear impasse

Syria and the International Atomic Energy Authority seem to have reached an impasse over nuclear inspections. According to a report this week, Syria is refusing access "to numerous suspect sites and has provided scant or inconsistent information about its atomic activities".

The problems began in 2007 when Israel bombed what it said was a nuclear site at Dair Alzour, reducing it to rubble.

Satellite pictures taken before the attack showed a building that was very similar to that of a known reactor in North Korea. Syria's behaviour after the Israeli attack also suggested it had something to hide. It cleared up the remains very quickly and, while denying that the building had been a nuclear facility, gave no explanation of its purpose beyond saying it was "under construction" and "related to the military". Journalists were not invited to visit the site – which would have been an easy way to allay suspicions if its purpose had been innocent.

More than a year after the attack, UN inspectors were allowed to visit and reportedly found traces of uranium which "had undergone chemical processes".

Syria, unlike Israel, is a party to the Nuclear Non-Profileration Treaty but, even if it does have a nuclear programme, this would 
not necessarily be a breach of the treaty. 

The IAEA could insist on "intrusive inspections" but for the time being, at least, it is still trying persuasion.

It seems likely that Syria does have some kind of nuclear programme but whether it has anything major to hide is another matter. The non-cooperation could just be a case of Syria being Syria. Along with most Arab countries, Syria is touchy about its sovereignty. And from the regime's perspective, playing games with the IAEA could also boost its self-image by putting it on a par with Iran.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 November 2010. Comment.

Hard times for MEMRI

I received an email the other day from MEMRI, the translation and "media research" outfit founded by former Israeli intelligence officer Yigal Carmon. It was appealing for money.

Considering all the critical things I have said about MEMRI over the years (here, here, here, here, here, and here), I have no idea why they thought I might be willing to help out with their finances, but it seems that MEMRI has fallen on hard times.

According to the email (also posted on a Yahoo message board), "MEMRI has been hard hit by the current economic crisis. We need your help now more than ever."

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post last year, Carmon also spoke of financial problems and waning support. "The economic meltdown is a tragedy for us," he said:

"Some of our supporters, such as Elie Wiesel, who is on our board, can no longer help us. Others who continue to give are giving less. We are desperately in need of help. While I'm deeply grateful for all the financial support we received in the past, and I understand the difficulties imposed by the current financial crisis, I have to say that it will be disastrous if we can't finance our projects. We already have projects that we cannot implement for lack of resources."

MEMRI has been well funded in the past, largely by anonymous donors. Its income increased steadily from $1.7m in 2002 to a peak of $4.9m in 2008. As a non-profit organisation it is also subsidised by US taxpayers.

However, in the last couple of years it has been running at a deficit – $755,000 in 2008 and $502,000 in 2009. To cover this overspend it has been eating into its assets which by last year had dropped to $925,000 from $2.1m just a couple of years earlier.

Despite its claims to be an independent research institute, MEMRI clearly has an agenda – of a rightwing Zionist kind – but even in those terms one might question whether donors are getting value for money.

The email appealing for funds makes some grandiose claims about the value of its research to the US authorities (including the military) and it says that leading media outlets, both print and television, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, CNN, and others are "all requesting MEMRI research every day".

MEMRI made a similar claim a few years ago, saying that "Al Jazeera TV consults us frequently". This was rather puzzling since the broadcaster had no obvious need for the translations from Arabic to English that MEMRI provides, and it came as news to Al-Jazeera whose spokesman said: "We monitor all kinds of publications and media. I doubt very much that we would use this as a source of information because we can go directly to the Arabic sources."

The reality is that as propaganda operations go, and for all the money it spends, MEMRI is not particularly effective. It does have a following among the American right and Zionist organisations, providing confirmation for their views of the Middle East, but beyond that its impact is much more limited. Its selectivity, and its penchant for taking things out of context, reduces its usefulness as a source for serious research as opposed to polemics.

In short, for those who don't already buy into its agenda and/or know enough about the Middle East to be aware of its agenda, MEMRI has a credibility problem.

In his interview with the Jerusalem Post, Carmon himself conceded that MEMRI's impact has been less than he expected. "I thought we would go a lot further in a decade than we have done," he told the paper.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 November 2010. Comment.

Many dead in Yemen car bombing

An explosion said to be from a car bomb killed at least 17 people in the far north of Yemen on Wednesday, according to numerous reports.

The bomb targeted a procession of Houthi supporters celebrating the Eid al-Ghadir holiday (a Shia festival) in the Zaher district of al-Jawf province. A local tribal leader, Hussein bin Ahmed bin Hadhban, and his son are reportedly among the dead.

The fact that Sunni Muslims of the Salafi persuasion disapprove of Eid al-Ghadir could point to a motive, and some reports suggest al-Qaeda may have been responsible (though it may be wise to keep 
an open mind on that until more is known).

Citing an tribal leader who asked not to be identified, Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee writes in his blog that the attack was a reprisal by al-Qaeda after five of its members were captured by the Houthis and eventually handed over to the Yemeni authorities:

The tribal leader said, last August Al Houthi rebels had arrested five Al Qaeda suspects including Ali Hussein Abdullah Al Tais, originally from Sa’ada, who was released from Guantanamo ...

"They were handed first to leader of Al Houthis in Zaher area (Al Jawf), Abu Saleh, who handed them to the government," the tribal leader said over phone from al-Matoon, the area where suicide bombing took place this morning.

Arrabyee also quotes some recent statements from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) condemning the Houthis as agents of Iran and the enemies of Muslims.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 November 2010. Comment.

Amr Khaled arrives in Yemen

The popular Egyptian preacher and televangelist, Amr Khaled, has arrived in Yemen for a government-sponsored "hearts and minds" campaign against al-Qaeda. 

This could be an important development if, as the Yemen Observer 
suggests, it marks the start of a concerted effort to challenge the jihadists. I wrote here last week of the need to change the public discourse in Yemen and quoted Gregory Johnsen of the Waq al-Waq blog:

"Yemenis need to be convinced that AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] is bad for them and bad for Yemen. But at the moment al-Qaeda is the only one doing the arguing. It puts out statement after statement that depict the group as some sort of Islamic Robin Hood defending Yemen's oppressed and weak people against western military attacks. While largely unnoticed in Washington these unchallenged and baseless claims are carrying the day in Yemen’s hinterlands."

Amr Khaled, who has been described as "the Muslim Billy Graham", will be spending a couple of weeks in Yemen (in both Aden and Sanaa), giving interviews and conducting courses for preachers, youth leaders, etc. Middle East Online has more details of his programme.

How well this will work remains to be seen. Khaled's appeal in Egypt is largely among the affluent middle classes, and there aren't many of them in Yemen. I'm also unsure how his basic message – that change will only come when Muslims "change that which is in their hearts" – is likely to be received by disaffected young Yemenis. The government backing could also be a problem.

Nevertheless, if his visit does kick-start a public debate about jihadism, it will be all to the good. The danger, though, is that once his visit is over the Yemenis will think the job is done and the campaign will fizzle out. To make any impact they have to be prepared for a long haul. In the meantime, that effort could be damaged by misguided security policies on the part of the Yemeni and American governments.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 November 2010. Comment.

All the president's family

The Wall Street Journal reported the other day that US special operations teams in Yemen are training counter-terrorism units created by President Salih and "commanded by his sons and nephews". 

I do hope the Obama administration understands what it's getting into here, because working with the family of Ali Abdullah Salih can be every bit as tricky as fighting al-Qaeda.

Take, for example, the affair of the Schlumberger oil services company, which is currently under investigation by the US Justice Department regarding allegations of possible bribery in Yemen. Two of the president's kinsmen have popped up on the Yemeni side in connection with that.

One of them is Tawfik Saleh Abdullah Saleh, a nephew of the president, whose company, Zonic Invest Ltd, received a total of $1.38m from Schlumberger between 2003 and 2007. It is not entirely clear what the money was for. 

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported:

Nearly a decade ago, Schlumberger planned a Data Bank Development Project of seismic information on oil exploration in Yemen, a joint project with the government.

According to Schlumberger documents reviewed by the [Wall Street] Journal, in 2002, Yemen's [governmental] Petroleum Exploration and Production Authority [PEPA], before signing off on the project, urged the company to hire a firm called Zonic Invest Ltd as a go-between ...

Schlumberger agreed to hire Zonic and pay it a $500,000 signing bonus, and the project went forward, the documents show.

The WSJ continues that the two companies' dealings spanned several years:

In May 2004, a Schlumberger manager "resisted signing a contract with Zonic, but he started receiving threatening calls," according to a Schlumberger internal document dated December 2008. It said the threats stopped after the contract was signed.

Zonic's Mr Abdullah Saleh denied that any threats were made. In an interview, he said Zonic was created as a lobbying and business-consulting firm specifically for the data project.

"Schlumberger came to us for help. They had been trying for so many years to get the contract," he said. "If it wasn't for Zonic, there would have been no data-bank project."

The other important name to emerge from the Schlumberger affair is that of Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. Ahmar is a kinsman of the president (sometimes, probably wrongly, described as his half-brother) and the most feared military figure in Yemen. He is also 
chairman of Dhakwan Petroleum & Mineral Service Co, which Schlumberger has been using as a customs broker since 2003. 

The Wall Street Journal takes up the story again:

Dhakwan prepares and processes customs exemptions and re-export permits at PEPA, according to internal Schlumberger documents. Schlumberger paid Dhakwan $280,000 between 2004 and 2007, the documents show ...

When Schlumberger's internal investigation revealed Dhakwan's ties to the government, the documents say, the company tried to terminate its contract. But it found its imports stalled, and decided to reinstate the broker, according to company emails and other documents. The documents say Schlumberger thought Dhakwan officials might have interfered with its imports, but didn't cite specific evidence for the company's suspicions.

"It appears that PEPA will process NO documents unless they are presented by Dhakwan (and this applies to ALL companies in Yemen, not only SLB)," read an Aug. 11, 2009, email from Nigel Bennett, Gulf Supply Chain Services Manager for Schlumberger, to several other Schlumberger employees. "It appears that we have no choice but to continue to use them to present the paperwork to PEPA if we wish to continue business."

[Note: accessing this WSJ article may require a subscription, but it is also available here on the Yemen Post website.]

A list produced by Jane Novak for the Armies of Liberation blog a few years ago gives some idea of the scale and scope of the president's kinship connections in business and the military (though the spelling of some of the names is not particularly accurate).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 November 2010. Comment.

Another dose of democracy?

Just five days to go before Egypt's parliamentary election, but I can't work up much enthusiasm to write about it. The whole thing is a bad joke.

For a general overview, I'd recommend this assessment by Jack Shenker on his blog. "Welcome to the bizarre world of Egypt’s parliamentary elections," he writes, "where thousands of candidates from dozens of parties are competing for hundreds of parliamentary seats – all safe in the knowledge that their campaigning will have virtually no impact on the final result."

For my own part, I'll just offer this poster from the 2005 presidential election (which I covered for the Guardian). The slogan in Arabic says: "Yes to freedom and democracy. Yes to economic development and prosperity."

You at the back there, stop laughing. It isn't funny.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 November 2010. Comment.

Cinema returns to Saudi Arabia

Several decades after the last cinema in Saudi Arabia closed its doors to save the kingdom from sin, a new one is opening at a shopping complex in Dammam. Al-Hayat reports (in Arabic) that it has five screens and there will be separate showings for men and women. It will specialise in cartoons and "action" films which, hopefully, won't be too alarming for religious conservatives.

Even so, there has been little fanfare so far for the opening – presumably to avoid controversy. Al-Hayat says crowds have been turning up, just to check that the cinema exists.

Saudi cinemas were gradually driven out of business during the 1970s and 1980s under pressure from religious elements.

The first tentative move towards a resumption of public screenings came in 2005 when the municipal authorities in Riyadh gave permission for a series of cartoon films to be shown at a hotel, to audiences of women and children.

A film festival was held in Jeddah for three years, from 2006 to 2008, but the 2009 festival was cancelled on the orders of the authorities at the last minute. There appears to have been no attempt to hold it again this year.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 November 2010. Comment.

Are drones really the solution?

As I mentioned last Sunday, there's a debate going on in the Obama administration about the use of drones in Yemen for strikes against suspected militants (as opposed to just using them for surveillance). It's a hugely important debate, with implications for other parts of the world too.

We don't, of course, know exactly what people are saying in the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department, but there's a parallel debate on the internet which probably reflects some of the same arguments (examples here, here and here).

The latest contribution comes from Gregory Johnsen at the Waq al-Waq blog. (He also, incidentally, has an article in the New York Times arguing that the US has become unduly fixated on Anwar al-Awlaki – and he's certainly right about that.)

On the question of drones, he writes: "I have sat and thought ... and yet I can't find a way that using drones in Yemen doesn't exacerbate the problem of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."

In a some ways, drones are a typically American approach to the problem: high tech, with minimal risk of casualties on the American side. But what can drone strikes actually achieve in Yemen?

Johnsen's answer is that "The results of a year of drone strikes will be no different from a year of airstrikes: al-Qaeda will gain more recruits, grow stronger, and continue to launch increasingly sophisticated attacks at the US and Europe. The US may kill a few commanders, but those men will be replaced many times over."

Johnsen argues that comparisons with Pakistan are likely to be unhelpful and a better model for Yemen would be the campaign the Saudis waged against al-Qaeda between 2003 and 2006:

"That campaign combined the hard fist of military and police power with the softer approach of encouraging qualified Islamic scholars to challenge al-Qaeda’s claim that it represented Islam. But most importantly it used al-Qaeda’s mistakes against itself, leading to a public backlash that left the terrorist organisation nowhere to hide."

I broadly agree with that, though one reason why the Saudis succeeded was that they had Yemen next door. When life in the kingdom became too difficult for al-Qaeda, they re-grouped in Yemen. Driving al-Qaeda out of Yemen too might push them into Somalia but that would be progress, further reducing the area where they can operate relatively easily.

Johnsen's main point, though, is something I alluded to yesterday: the need to change the public discourse in Yemen in order to undermine al-Qaeda's support. That is not going to be achieved by drone strikes; quite the reverse. 

"Yemenis need to be convinced that AQAP is bad for them and bad for Yemen," Johnsen writes. "But at the moment al-Qaeda is the only one doing the arguing. It puts out statement after statement that depict the group as some sort of Islamic Robin Hood defending Yemen's oppressed and weak people against western military attacks. While largely unnoticed in Washington these unchallenged and baseless claims are carrying the day in Yemen’s hinterlands."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 November 2010. Comment.

Falconry: a worthy heritage?

At a meeting this week Unesco finally decided to include falconry on its list of the world's "intangible heritage". The decision marked the culmination of a five-year effort by the United Arab Emirates, supported by 10 other countries, to win international recognition for falconry and the video above was issued by Unesco to celebrate what is sometimes called the "noble" sport.

The idea behind "intangible heritage" is that it is not limited to ancient monuments and the like but, as the Unesco website explains, "encompasses living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally".

The UAE's campaign to have falconry included – which involved work by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), the Emirates Falconers Club and the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency among others – was certainly an example of effective lobbying, and falconry is certainly an ancient tradition in some parts of the world. But should it really be regarded as a treasured heritage?

I've quoted this before, but it's worth repeating. It comes from Charles Ferndale, a critic of falconry:

Arabian falconry has over the last 36 years (at least) been catastrophically damaging both to wild falcons and to the quarry favoured by Gulf Arab falconers (the houbara bustard and, to a lesser extent, curlew). 

As early as 1974, the high prices paid by newly-rich Gulf Arabs and their Asian and European sycophants (including huge British companies), led to many hundreds of people, in many countries, seeking to lift the eggs and chicks of wild falcons and to trap mature birds. 

… whatever wisdom and virtue the desert Arab falconry traditions ever had have long since been forgotten … 

True desert bedouin in the Egyptian desert, who for centuries used falcons to feed their families, no longer see any. In the 1970s they saw eight-foot-high piles of dead birds rotting in the sun – the results of various Gulf Arab hunting parties competing to see who could kill the most bustards. The hunters used four-wheeled drives, scores of falcons, radio communications, shotguns and automatic weapons to kill the poor, slow, clumsy, helpless bustard. Even those who kill wild animals for pleasure could not have called it sport: it was slaughter.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 November 2010. Comment.

Yemen conspiracy theories

According to a Yemeni politician, the recent parcel bombs affair was part of "a suspicious plan for harming Yemen's sovereignty and its independence in preparation for imposing foreign agendas".

The remarks – from Salah al-Saiadi, secretary of the Yemeni Popular Democratic party (described as an ally of the ruling party) – were broadcast on al-Ikhbaria TV channel and reported without challenge in the Yemen Observer.

Another article in the Yemen Observer, headed "Al-Qaeda, Yemen, and the Great Game", talks at length about foreign powers' designs on Yemen. In support of its argument, it quotes a "sharply detailed" analysis by an American-German writer, William Engdahl, entitled "The Yemen Hidden Agenda". 

Let's be absolutely clear about it: this stuff is rubbish, though the uncritical way it's often treated is worrying.

Foreign powers have no intrinsic interest in Yemen. In a way, that's part of the problem, because in quiet times they do little or nothing to help its development. They only take an interest when they see some kind of threat, and when the threat declines again, so does their interest. Even in colonial times, Britain regarded Yemen as little more than a coal bunker for refuelling ships on the route to India. These days, ships don't need coal and Britain no longer rules India.

Salah al-Saiadi may not be an influential politician but his hypothesising about foreign conspiracies, together with the longer article in the Yemen Observer, reflects a significant strand of opinion in Yemen: many people simply don't believe what they are told about al-Qaeda, even when it's well substantiated as in the case of the parcel bombs.

This is partly due to the Salih regime's lack of credibility – especially its habit of using the al-Qaeda label as a general smear against opponents – but also to western media hysteria about al-Qaeda and Yemen (sometimes coupled with calls for full-scale military intervention). In the face of so much exaggerated talk it's not surprising that people are sceptical, but their scepticism makes the battle against genuine threats that much harder.

We certainly shouldn't underestimate al-Qaeda, but it's important not to overestimate it either.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 November 2010. Comment.

Royal families: British and Arab

The inhabitants of Arab countries – unlike Her Majesty's subjects here in Britain – are not generally expected to take an interest in the family lives of their rulers. In fact, it's a subject that ordinary Arabs, even if they do happen to be curious, are rarely permitted to know much about.

I was reminded of this yesterday with the announcement that Prince William, second in line to the British throne, is to be married next year. On such occasions the BBC abandons its usual sense of objectivity and starts behaving like Syrian state television. All other news gets pushed into the background, to be replaced by a succession of people, from the prime minister downwards, all saying how thrilled they are. A headline on the BBC website even proclaimed: "Royal engagement delights world" – as if the rest of the world really cares. In due course, the whole of Britain will be required to celebrate with a public holiday for the actual wedding.

Contrast this with the late King Hassan of Morocco whose wedding was held in secret. "Nobody knew when [King Hassan] wed his Berber wife Lalla Latifa and she never appeared in public or featured in family photos. He is understood to have maintained an extensive harem who lived in isolated luxury and were never allowed to bear children."

That is still the general rule among the more traditional Arab monarchies; royal wives are mostly invisible and in some cases it's not even clear how many wives the rulers have. Much the same applies to the increasingly monarchical republics, too. A few royal (or semi-royal wives) have been allowed to develop a public persona – in Jordan, Qatar, Egypt and Syria – through charitable work, but that's about as far as it goes. Others are treated as if they don't exist.

Perhaps this is changing a bit. Morocco's current king, Mohammed VI, broke somewhat with his father's tradition when he married. Official photographs were issued, though the wedding ceremony was held in private. Public festivities were planned but then suddenly postponed because of "the continuous aggravation of the situation in the Palestinian territories".

One obvious factor behind this low-key approach to the family lives of Arab royals is the seclusion of women, along with the idea in Arab-Islamic culture that it's bad form (at least for males) to show an interest in other men's wives.

But I think it's also connected with maintaining a distance between rulers and ruled. Arab rulers would not dare claim to be deities like the Roman emperors but they do try to give the impression of being more than ordinary mortals – remote figures who always know what's best for their people and whose wisdom is not to be questioned.

The British royal family, on the other hand (along with others in Europe) have tried to appear closer to the people by humanising themselves – with disastrous results in the case of the dysfunctional Windsor family, whose trials and tribulations have at times resembled a national soap opera. Far from establishing common ground with the public, this has tended to give the impression that Queen Elizabeth is the unfortunate matriarch to a bunch of posh, out-of-touch weirdos.

In Britain, we know plenty about our royal family, and certainly more than is good for them. But in terms of the way our country is governed, it doesn't really matter. These days, we keep them in their palaces mainly for their entertainment value. They may still own large tracts of the country but they don't run it: that is the job of elected politicians.

In Arab countries, though, kings and hereditary presidents actually govern – which is a major difference. Arabs have a right to know more about them, and what sort of people they really are.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 November 2010. Comment.

Ahmed Shaaban update

The case of Ahmed Shaaban, the Egyptian teenager who died after being arrested by police in Alexandria, is now beginning to attract attention. The BBC and al-Jazeera have both reported the story. So far, the Egyptian media are generally being more circumspect, though Youm7 website (in Arabic) and Daily News Egypt (in English) have interviewed Shaaban's family and carried lengthy reports. A Facebook page has also been set up and the Egyptian Chronicles blog continues to cover the story (here and here).

With elections less than two weeks away, the Egyptian authorities obviously don't want this case to rock the boat. They are spinning the line that Shaaban was involved in petty crime, which may limit public sympathy for him – though even if true, it wouldn't of course justify beating him to death. 

A blog post by Egyptian journalist Mohammed Abdelfattah describes some of the pressures and intimidation that Shaaban's family are facing from the security apparatus.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 November 2010. Comment.

Previous blog posts




November 2010

Wikileaks: Oman, US missiles and Iran

Wikileaks: Egypt, an obstacle to peace

Wikileaks: The Arab media dilemma

Wikileaks: Salih-Petraeus meeting in Yemen

Election-rigging in Egypt

Military trial for Facebook man

Second car bomb in northern Yemen

Fear of photography

Syrian nuclear impasse

Hard times for MEMRI

Many dead in Yemen car bombing

Amr Khaled arrives in Yemen

All the president's family

Another dose of democracy?

Cinema returns to Saudi Arabia

Are drones really the solution?

Falconry: a worthy heritage?

Yemen conspiracy theories

Royal families: British and Arab

Ahmed Shaaban update

Yemeni warplanes 'attack al-Qaeda'

Egyptian police accused of killing youth

Containing al-Qaeda

The blame game in Yemen

France 'aided Saudi war on Houthis'

Palestinian arrested for atheism

Saudi Arabia: champion of women?

Blogger completes sentence ... re-arrested

Fatwas and supermarkets

Child marriage: a cure for gayness

Libyan in-fighting

Sentence completed, blogger stays in jail

Shortage of Saudi Qur'an teachers

Saudi media challenge Grand Mufti

Setbacks for civil society

Al-Qaeda and the Dubai plane crash

Gaddafi's son censored

Human development and the Arab states

Saudi scholars clash with government

Readers' favourites

Date set for maid's execution

Faifi and the parcel bombs tip-off

New fatwa against women cashiers

'Parcel bomb' student released

Government hails Yemen's 'progress'


Blog archive

All blog posts

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Saudi Arabia 


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



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Last revised on 24 January, 2011