Saturday, March 31, 2007

Gulf Inflation, Iran in a Corner

A study by an associate professor in Economics at a Saudi university has warned of the possible disappearance of the Saudi ‘middle class’, and the increase in poverty. The study attributes the trend to continued high inflation which seems uncontrollable and its impact on living conditions and on society in general. It claims that the endangered middle class represents 90% of Saudi society, an assertion which I strongly doubt, for everyone who lives in a country is part of its society at least in an economic sense, be he a native or an expatriate. This unchecked hyper-inflation, the study warns, will lead to higher unemployment and increased crime. The study partly attributes the trend in higher inflation to the system of ‘exclusive agencies’ that dominates the Saudi import sector. It notes that Saudi membership in WTO ‘might’ require dismantling this monopolistic system of trade.
In fact, in all the Gulf oil states, because of a system of dealerships for imported goods, prices are upward-biased. Increased oil revenues are automatically reflected in higher prices for consumer goods, both luxury items and staples. There is a normal economic reason for an inflow of foreign exchange to push domestic prices up through its impact on liquidity, unless this is sterilized by the monetary authorities. In the Gulf, the foreign exchange surplus (oil income) flows to the public sector, which then pumps it into the private sector through the budgetary process. Apparently the mechanism is speeded up by merchants, presumably monopolistic importers, who anticipate increased public expenditures by the state that controls oil income. Hence prices are raised automatically because of the lack of competition.

Looks like the regime in Iran is stuck with a new crisis it cannot handle. Regardless of where the British sailors were when taken, whether inside Iraq or inside Iran- the exact location is still debatable- the wise course would have been to release them quickly. It is not likely that the Americans, for example, will release any Iranians they have in Iraq or elsewhere, before they are ready, in exchange for these hapless sailor/soldiers.
Saudi media report that King Abdullah had warned Iranian President Ahmadinejad of underestimating American resolve and the dangers to his country. This is very likely true.
On the other hand, Syrian media, all government-controlled, seem surprisingly pleased with the results of the Riyadh Summit. They must know something we don’t.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Saudi King Abdullah vs. Bush: Blame Colonel Qadhafi

When Saudi King Abdullah said that Iraq was under 'illegitimate foreign occupation' he was merely protecting his own royal......flank.

Arab opinion, often ignored in the state-controlled media, had noted that Secretary of State Rice met with Arab ministers on the eve of the Summit. Hence, Libyan Colonel Qadhafi's accusation that the agenda for the Riyadh summit was prepared in Washington resonated with much of public opinion. The Saudis had to show that "it ain't so", that they are independent and do not take their marching orders from anyone: least of all a kaffir (that means infidel to you infidels), albeit a powerful one that keeps the menacing mullahs across the Persian Gulf at bay.
Besides, is there such a thing as a 'legitimate' foreign occupation?????


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Disappointment in Riyadh: The Camel And the Mouse

The camel went into labor, and gave birth to a mouse
This is a very popular Arab saying.

The Arab Summit in Riyadh is over. It was no different from any other Summit of the past twenty some years. What is more, Iraq downgraded it by sending its amiable but ceremonial president instead of the policy-making prime minister. Qadhafi of Libya did not show up, thus robbing it of any possible offbeat path, any diversion from the usual caca de boca.

Looking through the Arab media of various countries, each medium (usually state-owned, state-controlled, state-paid, or state-bullied) claimed that its own leader was pivotal in the success of the summit in achieving nothing. Normally these summits achieve nothing quite effortlessly, but this time they had to work for it.

One solid result was that the Saudi Stock Market Index lost all its gains of the past year on the same day that the Summit adjourned.

Arab Media in the Persian Gulf: Hold the Sick Bag

This is a partial translation of an editorial in the conservative Kuwait daily Alseyassah. It was authored by the newspaper’s owner, a Mr. Ahmad Aljarallah. All phrases and words italicized and bracketed are my own.
Warning to the reader: You may need a barf (sick) bag or a bucket (pail) while reading this.
Here goes:
"The Riyadh Summit is An Arab Sunni Summit
BY: Ahmad AlJarallah
“This is not just an Arab Summit, it is a summit of the Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines, King Abdullah who had wanted it to be a Mass (no not the Catholic variety) Sunni Arab Summit, with the full meaning of the term, to put a limit to those who have tried to prove and assert their existence as a minority, through turmoil, fear, and sectarian slaughter as we see today in Iraq, and perhaps in Lebanon and Palestine.

“The Riyadh Summit had to be a Summit of King Abdullah, in the sense and meaning that the Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines deserves, in the sense of being the Sunni Islamic Majority's Marja’iyya (Marja’iyya is a center of religious reference and arbitration in the Shi’a, or Shiites to most of you infidels, faith), and pivotal decision-making (decider?) center of the Sunni majority in the Arab and Islamic Worlds.

“This Sunni deployment of this mass summit has led Iran to relent and ease tensions, and hint at release of a female British soldier. We can be bold and say that now the sectarian issues will be resolved, for it is not in the interests of Iran and the sectarian minority (i.e the Shi’as) that supports it to continue in their open hostility to the Sunni majority and their escalation against the West (i.e: if you don't behave we will sic our friends in the West on you).

“A Sunni Islamic Marja’iyya (he means Saudi King Abdullah) to whom all Arabs and Moslems will refer and defer will put an end to sectarianism…...for there will be no chance for the rise of sectarian tensions in Eastern Saudi Arabia (where most Shi’as live and are oppressed) or Bahrain (majority 70- 75% Shi’as) and the rest of the Gulf, unlike what happened in Iraq and Lebanon…

“The Riyadh Summit was held to edify this Sunni Marja’iyya and make the Kingdom the Supreme Force in the Islamic and Arab World. A Sunni Marja’iyya is needed to counter what others, those influenced by Safawis and Shu’aubis and their claims about the historical events related to the household of the Prophet. (Safawis were a Persian dynasty that fought over Iraq against the Ottoman Turks. Shuaubi is a derogatory Arab term used against all non-Arab and non-Sunni minorities who aspire for more, and especially against oppressed majorities as in ante-bellum Iraq. These were favorite terms used by Iraq’s Ba’athists when they were in power, and they made them popular among pan-Arab nationalists in the Persian Gulf monarchies. They have been revived in the Saudi-financed Arab media in the Gulf region. They have been used in Nazi Goebbelsian fashion in the past and again these days).

“His majesty the Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines has had his own visions of these issues for a long time, and he has acted now before it is too late.”
And more of such grovelling nonesense.....

(In other words: he is calling, and not too shyly, for installing the Saudi King as the equivalent of a Moslem Pope, the match and equivalent of any Shi'a Grand Ayatollh, but with much much more money to.....persuade his flock with. But he is not waiting for him to be officially anointed before kissing his un-anointed temporal

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

An Arab April Fools' Wish: The Summit and the Trough

The Arab Summit of Kings, Shaikhs, Presidents and Demi-Gods has Resolved:

Term-Limit Rule: A leader's term in office shall be limited to eight years, no matter how essential, indispensible or popular his media, his wives, and his sycophants tell him that he is. After April Fools' Day of 2008, every Arab leader who has served 8 years or more will resign, after making sure that an electoral system is in place under the supervision of the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, PETA, and Jimmy Carter.

Hereditary Rule: No son, daughter, brother, or wife (or wives) of an Arab leader shall be allowed to succeed him in office, until after one full term has passed since his departure from office or his demise (which heretofore has been the same thing). That succession shall be only after elections supervised by the above organizations and Jimmy Carter.

Anti-Incest Rule: An Arab head of state, head of government, head of foam, or just bubble-head, shall refrain from appointing any of his immediate relatives as minister in the government or cabinet he heads- the minimum penalty for defiance of his rule shall be the withholding of black hair dye, without which no Arab leader seems able to function improperly. This punishment can be ratcheted up, starting with with denial of ED medications- and that should keep the culprit from functioning properly or improperly.

The convened leaders and potentates shall not mention Thomas L. Friedman in conjunction with this summit and its resolution on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

The Summiteers resolve never to repeat the term "One Arab nation, with an Eternal Message", not even if they are joking royal princes. Should it be inadvertently repeated, this will have nothing to do with the good old days of Ba'athism, genocide, and Kurdicide.

Optima are relative, not necessarily mathematical, phenomena: We resolve in our collective wisdom that while this is not the maximum of all minima, it is not the absolute minimum of all maxima either.
Beaux Reves and Cheers

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Arab World: Shame in Egypt, Humor in Bahrain, Confusion in Lebanon, Organized Chaos in Iran.

The Justice Minister of Egypt, who also heads a body called the Supreme Election Committee, has declared that 75.9% of Egypt’s voters have approved constitutional changes proposed by the ruling party of President Mubarak. He said about 27% of eligible voters participated. This is quite a feat, IF true, considering that the voters were given one week after the parliament rubber-stamped the changes. Egypt’s main opposition groups rejected the results of the referendum, calling it a sham marred with irregularities, to say the least. Where were you Jimmy Carter when the Egyptians needed you??

In another joke of the week, the Bahrain parliament, half-appointed by the King, has approved a new anti-corruption law. It requires exposure of the financial positions of people (only some people), presumably high officials (but not too high, eh?). It is called: the “Where Did You Get It” Law, honestly. Parliament approved the measure in five, what would Senators Reid, McConnell et al say to that? The laws punishes anyone who realizes illicit gains, presumably from some public position, with 5 years of prison. This will most likely not affect very high officials, who are of course always very honest, all across the Gulf. Otherwise, who will run things for 5 years?

Libya is boycotting the Arab Summit this week in Riyadh. Colonel Qadhafi said today that the agenda for the summit was set in Washington.

Iraq will be represented at the summit by its President Talibani and Foreign Minister Zibari. Since the Prime Minister makes policy in Iraq, this is sort of downgrading of the summit by the Iraqis, who know that it is a waste of their time.

Lebanon is sending two rival delegates to the summit: one headed by the (Christian) President Lahoud, who is allied with Hizbullah and the Shi’a (Shiite) opposition, the other is headed by the Prime Minister Saniora, who is allied with the Hariris (Sunni) and Jumblatt (Druze). This neatly reflects the almost de facto division of Lebanon into two camps and the paralysis of political life.

Iran’s Ahmadinejad did not attend the last U.N Security Council meeting. That probably robbed the occasion of its only possible source of excitement. But then again, it saved the delegates from having to listen to another long-winded speech. I still haven’t figured out who is doing what in Iran these seems that it is in a state of organized chaos. Organized but not creative.

The Arab Summit and the Mafia: Godfather IV

It looks like the Arab summit this week, in Riyadh, will come short as it aspires to tackle issues ranging from Palestine, to Lebanon, Iraq, and inter-Arab trade (yes, there is some trade). Everyone is eager for it to bring back the glories of past Arab summits.....those were glorious only in their rhetoric.
The last such glorious Arab summit was in Baghdad in the spring of 1990, hosted, led and bullied by Saddam Hussein, only weeks before he swept across Kuwait and stood a few meters from Khafji. After that, Arab leaders gave up all pretenses to statesmanship, friendship, and brotherhood: it took Papa George (H.W, that is) and Mama Maggie (of the stout handbag fame) to stiffen the despotic spines. They proved, these Arab leaders, at that time, that on their own they could not organize an orgy in a brothel.

Not much has changed: it might take Tovarischa Condoleezza (of piano fame) to get some firm resolution on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. And she has been trying. The view on the Arab street, for all its worth, is that she has been coaching the Four (it should be the 5=4+1) in last-minute meetings with their foreign ministers, on how the summit should go.

As for Lebanon.....I don't think so: the President, the Speaker of the Parliament, Hizbullah, and their allies aren't playing the game by the rules envisioned by most Arab leaders. So the mess in that beautiful but unfortunate country will continue with the standoff between the allies and proxies of two generous regional oil states, one ruled by a Shi'a (Shiite) fundamentalist regime and the other ruled by a Sunni fundamentalist-absolute-monarchy-tribal regime.

As for Iraq; fohgettaboutit. Arab countries are still collecting Iraqi reparations through the UN for the 1990-91 war: that includes many Arab countries, including those that, like Jordan, sided with Saddam. Besides, governments calling for political changes in Iraq is similar to calling for political changes in, say, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain or Jordan: it is called interfernce in the internal affairs of a sovereign country, with the unsavory, in some cases quite savory, intention of installing a like-minded regime.

So, it will be back to Palestine-Israel: and that cannot be seriously solved without a clear resolution of two issues, the pre-1967 land and the status of the 1948 refugees (are any of them around?). Even if the Arabs adopt the old 2002 initiative (a.k.a Thomas Friedman-Saudi King Abdullah plan), it would not amount to a hill of beans without a clear resolution of these two issues. These two tough points will outlive a Hamas government.

The real achievement of this summit is that it will formalize the petro-dollar era: the Saudi monarchy will finally become the anointed acknowledged dominant Arab power. For the first time in modern history, one family will dominate the Arab World, backed by a vast, bought and paid for, media network of newspapers and satellite television stations. Unfortunately it won't be the Medici family, not even the Borgias. Which means that we are back to the stagnant era of pre-Gulf War and Pre-Iraq: R.I.P reform and democratic aspirations- we will shelve those until oil prices go down. Or until the Arab Barzinis, Tattaglias, and Moe Green decide to gang up on the new leaders. Then, eveyone will go to the mattress again, with Fat Clemenza.

Still, we will be nice and, like all the Arab media, we will call it a success: at least in terms of measured, wise, yet tough rhetoric. Very self-satisfying.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Jordanian Inquisition, Egypt Frowns on Humor

(This item appeared earlier on my website)
Jordan and Shi'ism:
Saudi-owned Alarabiya TV reports (3/23) that Jordanian authorities have expelled 23 Iraqis from the country for "spreading Shi'ism". The report also claims that an investigation (a favorite Arab term for a serious interrogation where hands and fists are often used) has been conducted with six members of an Islamic movement "accused of 'Shi'ism". The six "confessed" to having received religious teachings from a Shi'ite activist.
The report claims that Jordanian authorities have called in several 'families' for interrogation, in order to find out about their "religious and political loyalties".
So far, there have been no reports of any burnings at the stake in Jordan, and there may never be.....since this was a purely European invention used mostly to counter the spread of heresy and the persistence of Judaism.

Egyptian Humor:
Egyptians are a humorous people, perhaps the only funny people in the whole Arab World, one that often uses self-deprecating humor to overcome life's hardships. Normally an Egyptian, any Egyptian, even Ayman al-Zawahiri or Husni Mubarak (I know the latter may be a stretch), has more humor than a basket of 21 Arabs representing all other Arab countries (to use an economic yardstick). Therefore it was sad to read this week that the Egyptian government has banned a lecture on "humor", merely because the lecturer belonged to an opposition group. Scartch Husni Mubarak from the list up there. Now most Arab authorities, especially the Jordanians (see the above item) will never have to cancel any such event, because there is no serious humor in most of these countries, at least none that we can take seriously.

So, both the freedom of religion and the freedom of humor are alive and well in the 'moderate' allied states of Egypt and Jordan. Now about Saudi Arabia, that other cornerstone of the axis of democracy and moderation in the New Middle East.......


Friday, March 16, 2007

Iran Faces Operation Sting, Saudis Seek a Cup

(This item was originally posted on my website)
Iranian Sting:
Arab media are buzzing with excitement, widely quoting a Russian press report that the United States has set April 6th as the date to attack Iranian installations. In the past, media expectations have ranged from merely surgical attacks on suspected nuclear sites to WWII-style carpet bombing of the infra-structure. The farther one gets from the Persian Gulf, the more limited the operation gets according to local media, perhaps reflecting reduced tensions and other baggage. Most Gulf media have fully expected an armageddon-style assault that will put an end to the mullah theocracy...but that is clearly a severe case of wishful thinking. Lately, though, some hawkish newspapers have been playing a dirge, lamenting the possibility of an unlikely Iranian-American detente that could divide up the area into spheres of influence, save lives, as well as, oy vey (that would mean heaven forbid in this context), cement the structural changes in Iraqi politics. On va voir.

The reports claim the raids will last from dawn until dusk (and it ain't even Ramadan yet), and that they will target at least 20 'secret' Iranian nuclear and military sites, using missiles and bombers. The operation is supposed to delay Iran's nuclear program by 5 to 7 years. Called 'The Sting', the operation will not be a scam-within-a-scam, and will not star Paul Newman and Robert Redford, or Robert Shaw. It will, however, be in the thick of Prohibition, so to speak. Hopefuly, this time the operation will be based on more than offshore intelligence from some Iranian exiles. And no spectacular 'slam dunk' this time, eh?
Whatever happened to the genteel old days, with their genteel and discreet good old in 'Operation Ajax' of 1953? Imagine the insult of those genteel methods, using a Greek name for a Tehran operation. Unless it was innocently named for a cleanser. But then, hey, either way it worked...for a quarter of a century exactly.

Sadr City:
While American officials hint at, and the media stress, that the operation in Sadr City is friendlier than previously thought, Muqtada al-Sadr is grumbling about American occupation again. He has complaind of a campaign of lies and rumors spread by the occupation. Perhaps he wants to stay in practice....he needs his own unpredictable and violent Cato, like a chubby young Clauseau in Mesopotamia. Or perhaps he is content to see American armor pummel the Sunni Jihadists on the outskirts of Baghdad and beyond, but still needs to keep al-Maliki on his toes.

Saudi Arabia and the Cup:
The Saudi Soccer Federation has done it again. They just fired their Brazilian coach, and hired another Brazilian coach. The Suadis have been hiring and firing foreign football (soccer) coaches at an amazing rate over the past two decades. The average tenure for a coach for the past decade has been about one year or less: that is not long enough for him to know every player's name, let alone convert from Catholicism. With all that oil money, you'd think they would be able to buy a cup....a World Cup, an Asian Cup, a Gulf Cup.....a Starbucks latte...any cup. But they are not alone- the older Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have lost ground in sports for ten years now. Newcomers like UAE, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain are the leaders- perhaps because their sports bureaucracies have not had time to become as corrupt, not yet. Perhaps it is time to fire the royal princes who always run the sports federations in these states like feudal fiefdoms, and keep the Brazilian coaches??

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Middle East's Fuzzy Math, Swordsmen of Arabia

Iraq's Wars:
Iraqi, and Arab, media reports that there is a mini inter-Sunni civil war going on in al-Anbar province. Al-Anbar is the hotbed of the insurgency that rejects the results of the Iraqi elections. It is a multi-faceted insurgency (this word, insurgency, by the way, is a politically correct, polite, and now Washington-sanctioned name for a violent terrorist campaign that blows up civilians and chops off heads in front of the camera). It looks like al-Qaeda in Iraq has been pushing hard to enforce its new Islamic Emirate (no oil their, though), and has been stepping on some big tribal tails, or toes, depending on the particular tribe in question. Some tribal sheikhs are objecting to this usurpation of their authority, and some heads have been rolling, literally.
It is also very likely that large amounts of money have been changing hands, just to bolster the resolve and the backbone of these tribal sheikhs. It would make the 'resistance' much more palatable inside Iraq and in the West if it could get rid of the political and cultural baggage of al-Qaeda and its Salafi allies.

Muqtada al-Sadr has been cooperating after all, in his own volatile way, with the 'surge', a.k.a the Baghdad Security Plan. The Iraqis and the coalition are negotiating with the hairy cherub now to open a manned security zone in al-Sadr city.

Playing Second Fiddle:
While Iran's Ahmadinejad was flying into Riyadh for a Big Two meeting on Lebanon, Palestine, and sectarianism, Egyptian officials were busy publicizing President Mubarak's role in the region, especially his contacts with Assad of Syria- these would be the Little Two of the new Middle East equation. So, the Big Two meet in Riyadh, the newly anointed capital of the Arab World, while the Little Two meet nowhere: they exchange calls and letters.
Apparently the Egyptians are not happy with their new role as second-fiddle to the petro-potentates. The stagnant country ruled by (Leonid) Mubarak is not nearly as pivotal in regional policy-making as it was under his bold predecessors, Nasser and Sadat, when it was the undisputed Arab leader.
Speaking of second fiddles, an editorial in the Syrian official daily Tishrin (all newspapers are official in Syria, as in most Arab states- in some states they are merely semi-official, whatever that means), emphasized the deep roots and durability of Syrian-Iranian relations, dating back a quarter century to the Iran-Iraq War. This was probably a response to publicized attempts to wean Syria away from its alliance with Iran.

Libya will not attend the Arab Summit in Riyadh this month. The Libyans are using a procedural point, in that the last Arab summit had decided on Sharm El-Shaikh (does not say the sharm of which shaikh) in Egypt as a permamant venue, and that only a whole Arab summit can change that, not an agreement among the Saudis and Egyptians. They probably have a valid point, if they are into this sort of hair-splitting.

Fuzzy Arab Math:
A summit of seven Moslem countries will also be held in Mecca, after the Arab summit. This meeting will join leaders of what is dubbed 'The Sunni Alliance', including Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia- it has pointedly left out Iran, which makes for a much less interesting, albeit less contentious, summit.
The Middle East, especially the Arab part of it, is undergoing a flurry of summits these days of various groups and myriad cross-alliances. It is becoming mind-boggling, if you like cliches. It is almost impossible for most people to keep track of the many varieties of these multi-layered, sometimes almost incestous, Arab alliances that often cannibalize each other: the 22, the 7, the 6, the 4, the 6+2 (is it not easier just to say the 8?), the Big 2, the Little 2. Some would say that we should add one more to each category, since they contend that the United States is either an invisible partner, or is actually pulling all the strings of these groups: the 22, the 7, the 6, the 4, the 6+2 (that would be eight), etc. Then we should talk of the 22+1 (=23), the 7+1 (=8), the 4+1 (=5), the 6+1 (=7), the 6+2+1 (is that 9?). Or perhaps we should put the Arab cart behind the horse's behind and just say 1+22, 1+7,....etc. And we haven't started talking of the Maghreb (that is North Africa) yet. Game theory anyone?

Headless in Arabia:
The Alhayat Daily had an interesting interview with Saudi Aarbia's top swordsman, that is the state executioner who lops off heads in public squares. He does that every Friday after the noon prayers, just before his audiences head home for the traditional weekend lunch of roast camel and braised lamb, with all the fixin's. The man claims he has chopped off 3500 heads in the past quarter century- and he is not the only executioner in the country. He claims that he once chopped off the heads of twenty convicts in one day, and he might be telling the truth: records show that in one day in 1989, 16 Kuwaiti Shi'as convicted of security crimes were beheaded in Riyadh- and their families are reported to have heard about it in the usual fashion, from the media. Add to that the usual assortment of foreign laborers, vengeful abused Asian housemaids, and those accused of witchcraft or having intercourse with the djinn, and the number could easily go up to twenty in one day.
Last week, international human rights groups complained bitterly when Saudi authorities executed four Sri Lankan laborers for robbery, then left their headless bodies on display in public for some time. The groups claim that the hapless headless workers were denied legal council and subjected to beatings while in custody. It is not clear how many of those the Ace Swordsman himself dispatched. Does he get a Golden Noose on retirement? I think the man is angling for a Saudi Purple Heart.

Any MLB team looking for a good pitcher with strong arms and an awesome resume these days can contact the London-based Saudi newspaper al-Hayat.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Sunnis, Shi'as, al--Qaeda and Despots for Democracy

Absolute Democracy:
In her statement to a Senate committe yesterday, Secretary Condoleezza Rice said that the administration is mobilizing allies, what she called the GCC+2 (that would be the six Persian Gulf monarchies plus poor relations Egypt and Jordan) to 'support embattled democracies' in the region. She rightly listed the embattled democracies as Iraq, the Palestinian Territory, and Lebanon. I wonder if any of the senators noted the irony of mobilizing all these absolute monarchs, potentates, and life-time dictators to support nascent democracies that they not-so-secretly wish would just go away.

The Iraqi government has sent out invitations to a regional meeting in Baghdad later in March. It has invited all her six immediate neighbors as well as the premanent members of the UN Security Council, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Countries, possibly the EU, etc. It is not yet known if such NGO's as al-Qaeda, The Salafi Islamic Heritage Revival, the KKK, Jean-Marie Le Pin, and the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy will also be included.
The meeting will be watched mainly because it will bring the United States and Iran face to face in Iraq, to discuss Iraq. Perhaps it will be like watching Rhett and Scarlett: the rest, especially the Arab representatives, will be like those faceless extras of long ago. Jaw jaw beats war war, but don't hold your breath for a spectacular breakthrough.

In another possibly positive development, Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi, will visit Tehran in early March. Al-Hashimi is the highest ranking Sunni Arab in the Iraqi government.

Iran, the Shi'as, and McCarthy:

The regime in Iran clearly presents a threat to U.S interests in the Middle East. There definitely is a more intense and open rivalry now for influence in the vacuous (no, not a typo) region between Washington and Tehran. It seems that the twenty Arab states are out of the game, mere footnotes in this struggle. True, they do make the right noises occasionally (for example: Egypt and Jordan), and they do use their financial clout (Saudi Arabia), but they have lost the initiative in their own region for some time now.
Yet Washington seems to be committing one serious mistake: it is giving the impression of condoning, at least tacitly, the revival of a virulent anti-Shi'a sectarian campaign across the Middle East. At least that is the impression Arab media would give their audiences. Most Arab headlines in the Middle East are not about 'anti-Iranian' alliances, but of 'anti-Shi'a' alliances, or alliances to stem the 'Shi'a tide'. Except there is no such tide, it is a myth, as much as the imminent threat of a Communist takeover of the United States was in the early 1950s. Several Arab governments, three of them among those GCC+2 mentioned above, have stoked this dangerous sectarian fire with some irresponsible public statements at the very highest levels of government.
The goal is understandable: to reduce and stem Iranian influence. The tactic used over the past several months has been Machiavillian and short-sighted, if anything. It has put the non-Iraqi Shi'a Arabs, most of them in the Gulf and Lebanon, in a few cases they form a plurality or a majority of the population, under suspicion, and in the cross hairs of Salafi/Wahhabi Jihadists and other intolerant groups. And it pushes them to seek the safety and security of their co-religionists, even if they speak a different language. It encourages the Pakistani alumni of Saudi-financed Madrassah's to intensify their ongoing murderous sectarian campaign against the Shi'as of their country. It also plays nicely into the ideology of al-Qaeda and its Pashtun-dominated Taliban allies, who now seem to have all but established a new Emirate, with extensive training camps and all, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border- perhaps with the blessings of the ISI. It is almost as if the results of the post 9/11 war effort are being reversed.

The Odd Visit:
Iran's Ahmadinejad sure knows how to improve his image around the world, he knows how to pick them. He is now visiting General Omar Hassan al-Basheer, leader of Sudan since the 1980's. al-Basheer is one of the most detested among Arab leaders, which is no mean achievement. Perhaps Mahmoud will take the time to visit Darfur, then head across the border into Chad, where Angelina Jolie is holding court at a refugee camp.
While in Sudan, he got carried away again, calling the 'zionists', a.k.a Israel, an 'impersonification of Satan'. For good measure, he also attacked the usual suspects: the United States and Britain. On the positive hand, Ahmadinejad is flying to Riyadh to meet with the Saudi king, probably to hash out things over the Lebanese and Palestinian impasses. The Saudis, cautious and diplomatic devils that they are, are not likely to provide him with a public forum to embarrass them or his own country.
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