Thursday, November 08, 2007

"Yes; M. Danglars is a money-lover, and those who love money, you know, think too much of what they risk to be easily induced to fight a duel." Alexandre Dumas, Le Comte de Monte Cristo

Saudi Deputy Defense Minister, acronym SDDM, Prince Abdulrahman Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, has called on Gulf GCC countries to prepare their armies to face threats, presumably external threats. He added that these states must coordinate and cooperate in defense matters. What have they been doing all these years in the tough neghborhood? After all these years, and, more telling, after tons of billions of weapons purchases and billions of commissions paid to local potentates?

Riyadh-Beirut: The Arab Thought Institute, there really is such an intitute, is headed by Prince Khaled Bin Faisal al-Saud- makes sense, who else can head a creativity institute in the Arab world but a prince who needs a job? It has issued a press release that it does not like being ignored, and that it has decided to take a huge step by sponsoring and encouraging Arab creativity in all fields and activities, based on subjective criteria, according to a statement published in the Saudi Elaph website. The fields of interest include: science, literature, art, economics, technology, sociology, media- sorcery is not included. Great, the wait is over, Godot has finally arrived- now we can expect to see a burst of creative activity across the Arab world, and in due time a slew of Arab Nobel laureates surrounded by a gaggle of beaming royal princes with deep pockets and sticky fingers.

Amendment: Elaph, published in London but owned by a Saudi potentate, has shyly announced that it has just won the creativity award from the above institute, for, what else, media creativity. Now that is creative intellectual incest.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Yesterday there was hardly anything about the Iraq war in the media. Oprah and her sex scandal, rather that of her African school, took up most of the pre-dinner and post-dinner TV news shows, at least the part not taken up by the young teacher who eloped with a teenage Mexican boy. Americans do love their dinnertime spiced with some sex and crime scandals, but what about the après le dîner? (BTW: where is Paris these days?).
Yet data released at night indicate that 2007 has been the worst year for US deaths in Iraq. That was an increase in deaths of about 20% for the year! But the recent trend has been downwardm so maybe it was the surge after all.

Arab media report that the US government has imposed sanctions, including freezing of assets, on some Lebanese who are against 'democracy in Lebanon'. It is not clear what these people have done, maybe there is something specific other than belonging to the opposition which we don't know. Yet perhaps at least half the population of Lebanon is opposed to the current Saniora-Hariri government, without necessarily being members of Hizbollah- should they all be sanctioned? Will the new visa form have a question such as :"Do you oppose, or have you ever opposed, the Saniora-Hariri government in Lebanon?". It is interesting that these sanctions were announced within a week or two of visits to Washington by pro-government warlords Sa'ad Hariri and Mr. Jumblatt.
If Lebanon is a democracy, should opponents of the government be punished for their political positions by a foreign power?

The Congressional Quarterly reported yesterday that the FBi and other government agencies had at some time taken to watching and monitoring 'falafel joints' as one way to track possible 'Iranian terrorists'. This was especially done in the SF Bay Area, for some reason. I got two pieces of information, call it free advice, gratis for the G-men:
1. Iranians do not hang around falafel joints. Mostly Arabs, and Israelis, hang around falafel joints. Falafel is not part of an Iranian's customary diet- there are no falafel joints in, say, Tehran or Qom - most mullahs don't even know what they are. Now Hezbollah types, being Lebanese, do hang around falafel joints, especially in Dearborn, but then again, when was the last time that group was engaged in terrorism in the United States?

2. Usually Iranians, as well as Arabs, who get to these shores want nothing to do with the ruling Iranian mullahs, Arab potentates or their politics. They also want little to do with falafel joints. So far all acts of terrorism have been committed by citizens of 'moderate allies' who support democracy, justice, tribal rule, and the American way of life. Which makes a good case for watching falafel joints: one way to know a potential terrorist's intentions is through his sandwich..

An Islamic fiqh (theology) assembly in Mecca has urged Moslems in the West to merge their societies. It urged them to participate in elections and vote- it did not , however, urge Moslem rulers to also allow people the chance to participate in free local elections.
The assembly did, however, allow prior identification of the (unborn) fetus, but only if this is necessary for medical or health purposes- definitely not for practical shopping purposes. They required that any demand to identify the sex of a baby must be approved by the Mufti, the bureaucratic religious arbiter appointed by the rulers of the country.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The march of democracy in the New Middle East has been stymied:

In Egypt, the ruling party conference has renewed for somnolent president Mubarak as its leader, and is poised to select his son, Jamal (Gamal) as the second man, in the tradition of the Assad, Hussein, Kim, and other Arab monarchical families. Mr. Mubarak has been in power since 1981, and the only man ever to run against him has been in prison ever since the rigged election. Egypt has been in an official state of emergency since the day Mr. Mubarak became president- it has also been in a state of political-economic-moral stagnation ever since.

In Pakistan, Generalissimo Parvez Musharraf has flushed the constitution, such as it is, down the toilet. A state of emergency, the ultimate tools of dictators, has been declared. This emergency comes loaded with nuclear warheads, which the neocons do not consider dangerous in a country half of which is ruled by al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies.

In Saudi Arabia, an Egyptian man was beheaded in a public square last Friday for 'sorcery', among other things. The official Saudi Press Agency stated that the man had also confessed to adultery and desecrating the Holy Quran as well- it seems this guy really wanted to be beheaded. Apparently Saudi investigators always obtain confessions when the accused are poor Third World types. Many Arab, Asian, and Africans have been beheaded over the years, but oddly not a single Westerner- perhaps because they have higher moral standards.

In Lebanon, the expected showpiece of the New New Middle East is still in limbo, torn evenly between two visions (if one can call them that): the vision of the Hariri-Saniora cabinet with its Western and Saudi backers and the vision of Hezbollah-Amal-Oun opposition and its backers, including Iran.

Is this relevant? CNBC reports that its own superstar and cat's meow, Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal has lost about $4 billion from his holdings in Citibank, courtesy of his friends Sandy Weill and Charly Prince. Easy come, easy go- hey, it may even come again.

On a brighter note: in Kuwait, the legislature has won another battle with the government, and perhaps put an end to a nasty habit by the government of recycling old ministers to new jobs in a game of silly political musical chairs. Whenever a minister faces a no-confidence vote, he resigns and is often given a new portfolio. Parliament does not confirm or approve cabinet appointments, but it can hold hearings and withdraw confidence- so far, not one minister has chosen to face no-confidence hearings (istijuab), which says something about the quality of the government cabinet.

Not even the speaker, Mr. al-Kharafi, who was largely chosen by the government and is basically its mouthpiece in the assembly, could save the former minister of finance B. al-Humaidhi. The minister was switched to the Oil portfolio in a silly political game, but the angry legislators threatened to hold no-confidence hearings on the prime minister himself, and His Highness was forced to relent. The minister had to resign within a few days, he did not even have the chance to appoint a bunch of his cronies in high positions in the oil ministry and its corporations, as recent national tradition requires. Now the poor man can't claim any achievement for his tenure- not even enough time for a major screw-up.

BTW: Mr. al-Kharafi himself was minister of finance during the corrupt and unconstitutional 1980s, when he appointed many of his cronies to top positions in public corporations, which they proceeded to screw up real good, as recent national tradition seems to expect and require.
The legislature is dominated by Islamist fundamentalists, and the Salafis, in alliance with the tribals, are probably the strongest and most conservative bloc.

Meanwhile Mckenzie International has prepared a proposal on suggestions for developing Kuwait into a financial and commercial center. A high committee of grandees and recycled potentates is holding meetings on the issue- actually a couple of them are quite good professionals, but a few others belong to the dum and dummer (or is it dumb and dumber?) school of economic thought. Over the past two decades, several international consulting firms have been commissioned to prepare proposals on 'making' the country a financial and commercial center, and several local committees have dealt with the matter. But alas, all to no avail. Now with oil prices so high, it is extremely unlikely that the matter will get anywhere beyond where it has been for years.
There is a good and succinct American (East Coast) term which summarizes what I expressed some years ago in a paper at a symposium on this very subject: fohgetaboutit.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Passing the Buck: the Saudi Foreign Minister told Channel 4 in London that he personally believes Saudi women should be allowed to drive. He then said that the matter is not in the hands of the ruling family, but that it depends on the families! He explained that it was a social issue, not a political one. So, if a woman goes out to drive in Riyadh, the police will not stop her, but everyone will give her nasty, maybe lascivious, looks? What about the mautawwa'een squads?

I expect that Saudi women will start driving, if only because the costs of paying and maintaining Asian drivers are going up. Once women start driving, the rate of accidents will increase sharply- not just because women will drive recklessly (some do), but because it will take men some time to get used to the idea. A young Saudi man, for example, may show his infatuation with a driving lass by ramming her car, or by making a complete ass of himself and causing a major accident. A goateed grandee (there are many of those) may feel insulted if a female driver cuts him off or passes him on the highway. We may see a wave of Arabian Road Rage that could make Los Angelenos look like pussy cats. It is possibe that a new type of Bassooss War may start, this time because of totaling a girl's car instead of killing her camel (that old war lasted many many years among the Arab tribes).

The bar for Arab reform has been lowered so much these past two years that once women get the right (or is it a privilege) to drive, we can all declare victory, for we will know that the New Middle East has become a reality.

The Mufti of Dubai, a Dr. A. al-Haddad, yesterday issued a fatwa to the effect that chat rooms and video-phoning between the sexes is haram (i.e taboo, as Melville would have said). He said that it allows men and women to be in the same 'room' without chaperon, and this could lead to sin and adultery. He did not say anything about the bars, nightclubs, and other forms of 'trafficking' that go on in the boom city.

The (non)natives are getting restless again along the Gulf. There have been riots, demonstrations and strikes by Asian workers attributed to bad treatment, non-payment of wages, and work conditions. Asian labor is vital for the functioning of all economic units in the (Persian) Gulf states, and that applies to large corporations as well as small households. The recent unrest has been mainly in the UAE, with a few limited cases in Kuwait. Not much these days about labor unrest in Saudi Arabia perhaps because the punishment/retribution is more severe. Or, to be fair, maybe because they are treated better. But then again, we probably would not hear about it either.

Breaking News Flash: The Crown Prince of Bahrain, His Highness Sheikh Salman Bin Hamad Bin Issa Bin Salman al-Khalifa has had an epiphany. Today he told the London press that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. His Highness is definitely ahead of the curve.

A new idea circulating some Arab media (it is part of our conspiracy obsession, but conspiracies do exist, you know, just ask the late Jim Garrison or Oliver Stone): the US will attack Iran after the 2008 elections, so that the Republicans' chances will not suffer. Imagine a scene like the finale of Dr. Strangelove with Darth Vader skydiving hugging the bomb over Tehran. Or maybe it is wishful thinking by some editors.
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