Friday, February 20, 2009

Saudi King Changes Personnel. Iran, Bahrain, and Three Islands. Israeli ‘Winners’ Flirt with Lieberman- NY Post Goes Ape: Dead Chimp and a Vast Political Wilderness. Hugo Chaves vs Ayn Rand

Middle East: of elections, reforms, personnel changes, and fuel alcohol:

Saudi king Abdullah announced reforms that involve mainly changes of personnel rather than institutional or “constitutional” changes. Even so, these changes are quite unusual for Saudi Arabia, and would not have been expected a few years ago. The king changed the head of the very powerful religious police (Society for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice), the head of the judiciary, as well as some cabinet members. He also appointed the first female undersecretary, predictably in the Ministry of Education. She will be in charge of “female” student affairs. It is still easier for a woman in the kingdom to ride an ass than drive a car.

The changes are touted as momentous reforms, but in fact they are not: they involve mainly changes in the personnel rather than institutional, legal, or political. Real reform would call for disbanding the religious police and making the advisory council membership by election, among many other measures. Personnel changes usually reflect internal struggles rather than basic reforms. Still, by Saudi standards they are, well, changes, if mainly of personnel.

Saudi media and their satellites have not yet called King Abdullah the Arab Obama: after all he has been around forever, and he is an absolute king, and he doesn’t need to find a couple of Republican senators to pass a stimulus deal. But they are sending strong signals.

On the other hand, a leading Saudi cleric, a professor at the high judicial institute and member of the Supreme Theological College, has warned Saudis living abroad, especially students, from resorting to the use of alcohol fuel instead of gasoline. He quoted the Prophet Mohammed as putting ten curses on alcohol, including buying, selling, and carrying it. Except that they did not have cars in those days- camels always make their own gas, as the shaikh probably knows very well. Besides, the human body probably ferments its own alcohol through the digestive system.

A political prisoner released:

Egypt’s president Mubarak has released Ayman Nour, the man who ran against him once and paid for it with three years in prison on trumped up charges accepted by a state kangaroo court. Some Arab commentators speculate that maybe now he (Mubarak) will have a chance now to enter the new White House for a chat with you know who.

Iran and Bahrain-a shot in the foot:

Iranian officials have a knack for shooting themselves in the foot. Recently a “high” official has revived the old claim to Bahrain as an Iranian province. This is not the first such claim in the past year or two. In the early 1970s, at the end of British rule, the Bahraini people, most of whom are Shi’a, voted for independence. That should have settled the issue- it did.

Iranian claims do not help the people of Bahrain, who have some legitimate grievances against the ruling oligarchy. Such claims also do not help ease tensions in the Gulf region which is now highly polarized and some like to see even more polarized along ethnic and sectarian lines. They also do not help Iran’s position in the region. Perhaps the claims are related to Iranian elections, or perhaps they are in retaliation for public Arab claims to three Gulf islands that Iran holds and considers its territory. The UAE also claims those islands.

Israel scrambles to form a cabinet:

In Israel, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima came ahead by two seats, but the more right-wing Bibi Netanyahu has a better chance of forming a coalition. Avigdor Lieberman (no direct relation to Joe), who is further to the right of both, is more likely to join the Likud than Livni in a coalition government. Lieberman is reported to want to evict all Arabs from within Israel’s recognized borders: that is some chutzpah for a guy who arrived from Russia as an adult to want to expel people who have been there for over fifteen hundred years or so. One The Nation magazine article calls him virulently anti-Arab- that means anti Israeli Arabs.

The combination of Netanyahu-Lieberman, if it comes to that, is dreaded by the moderate Arab governments who have tried to push the settlement agenda in order to reduce Iranian influence in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon. It almost certainly will be a setback for the prospects of a settlement. Of course, with a hostile fundamentalist Hamas in Gaza and the Israelis own fundamentalist settler crazies clogging the West Bank, peace prospects were never that good during the past two years. This whole jockeying for power leaves Ehud Barak and Labor in the dust, an unfortunate development in recent years. It looks like both Israelis and Palestinians veer to the right whenever they have a chance to vote these days. I think they are somehow related?

On asinine economics, a dead chimp, and political wilderness: Lessons from the Gulf?

The dead chimp cartoon in the New York Post (Feb 18) shows how unhinged the right wing has become after its well-deserved election defeats. The prospect of many years in the political wilderness of minority status is painful. Listening to Rush Limbaugh on the car radio has convinced me that he sees the prospect of a long time in the political wilderness. At least he strongly suspects it- it comes through the bravado that he needs to show for his $50 million/year contract.

“It may be necessary to nationalize the banks temporarily in order to save them…” An almost-repentant Alan Greenspan (Financial Times)

“Greenspan backs bank nationalisation: Temporary government-control may be necessary…” FT

“Bank nationalization gains ground with Republicans: Long regarded in the US as a folly of Europeans, nationalization is gaining rapid acceptance among Washington opinion-formers – and not just with Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman. Perhaps stranger still, many of those talking about nationalizing banks are Republicans….” FT Feb 18

Have they all now become disciples of Hugo Chaves instead of Ayn Rand?

Actually one advantage of ‘partial’ nationalization is that it may be the only way to get rid of the old failed management that seems to cling to power even as the results of their overpaid genius are out in the open now.

The state of the US financial industry now reminds me of another financial industry I am quite familiar with-outside the US of course. Maybe they/we have influenced the American financial CEOs in some ways: as in how to screw up real good, lose billions, ask the government for aid, get the public aid, and cling to corporate power. Then do it again every few years.



Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Valentine and Equus Asinus in the Middle East- Damascus: Ancient City of Asses- The Revered Donkeys of Egypt- On George Washington, Women, Cars, and Jackasses

Jordanian Valentine?

This gruesome photo of animal abuse from Jordan on al-Jazeera TV (on the left) focused my attention on the life and times of Arab jackasses. Jackasses, a k a donkeys, a k a asses, have been an integral part of the economic life of the Middle East for thousands of years. They are perhaps more important in politics these days than ever before. The social and political power of asses in Arab countries cannot be over estimated. This is the case in both the moderate New Middle East and in the radical old Middle East. Like it or not, the Arab peoples are stuck with their asses (and donkeys) today as much as they have ever been in their long history. The same can be said of other Muslim countries. The only exception to close political association with donkeys probably was a period spanning a few decades from the end of the 6th century to the early part of the 7th century A.D, the first few decades of Islam.
The asses took over after that. It is interesting that the political ascendancy of Arab asses started in Damascus, after the era of the First Four Caliphs. Damascus at some point was called the city of donkeys. Maybe it still is a city of asses, but it now has tough rivals for that title across the Arab Middle East, and in Israel and Iran. Nowadays in the Middle East: asses rule but the people don't drool.

There is consensus that the most probable ancestor of the domestic donkey (Equus asinus) is the Nubian subspecies of African wild ass.... The earliest known remains of the domestic donkey date to the fourth millennium BC from a site in Lower Egypt. It is probable that cattle-raising peoples in Nubia, in the distribution area of the Nubian wild ass, first developed the domestic donkey as a beast of burden....

Damascus, known as the city of asses through cuneiform writing and a center of the caravan trade, became famous for its breed of large, white riding ass. At least three other breeds were developed in Syria. This is the first indication of specific mammoth breeding, 3200 years before introduction and importation to North America. In Arabia the Muscat or Yemen ass was developed. This strong, light-colored donkey is still used in caravans and also as a quality riding animal…..

George Washington was one of the first American farmers who imported several male (jack) and female (jennet) donkeys from Europe in order to develop a strong work mule….. The Red River Donkey Company of Manitoba

Donkeys have been prominent in Arab media this past week. As they should be every day for several reasons most of which I shall not divulge here with the aim of protecting the innocent.
In Jordan, citizens protesting against any signs of Valentine’s Day celebration painted a donkey with the color of a red rose (above). I never though Jordanians had much of a sense of humor, but this really takes the cake. I guess lack of humor is closely related to stupidity- and I am not talking about the donkey either.

Donkeys are reported to have acted as suicide bombers in Afghanistan: which makes sense to me although it is still surprising. I didn’t realize a donkey can be stupid enough to take up the Taliban cause. I guess there are enough Salafis everywhere, even in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A Yemeni website prides itself in the intelligence of local asses (donkeys), noting that some of them act as smugglers of hashish into Saudi Arabia. Saudi border guards now thoroughly inspect all Yemeni donkeys crossing their border. It is not clear what they mean by a “thorough inspection” of a donkey, but I can’t help but feel bad for the poor asses. When a donkey refuses to stop at the border, he is promptly shot. Some of these donkeys are especially raised and trained as smugglers. A good ass is reported to fetch a price of $100.
That is probably more than the Queen of Sheba (Saba') cost King Solomon.

Recently a Saudi dissident writer complained that women in his country are not allowed to drive cars, but they can ride donkeys. He thought that was an odd thing. I am still trying to figure out what he meant.
Another Saudi Shi'a dissident uses the ass to complain. We are the donkeys of the Two Holy Shrines: this was the title of an article by a Saudi Shia writer who has asked King Abdullah to punish an extremist religious shaikh who called Shi’as ‘donkeys (asses) that are ridden by the Jews’….. Aafaq

At a new ancient tomb complex, overlooking the ancient town of Abydos on the Nile about 500 km south of Cairo, archeologists this year found the skeletons of 10 donkeys that had been buried as if they were high-ranking officials. These are the first animals to be found in an Egyptian burial site. To me, this indicates that asses were as revered in ancient Egypt as they are obeyed in modern Egypt.
Which brings us to the next quote: "A study by the Egyptian government concludes that 89% of the Egyptian people are happy and content with their situation…. Alarabiya

Asses, as in jackasses or donkeys, are appreciated in the Middle East, even though they are verbally abused as stupid creatures. I grew up with donkeys all around me, and not just figuratively. In those days some donkeys, those of the hammara that carried water, were important for the local economy- more important than many people I've known and worked with, and much less harmful. I have read that a vice principal of my old high school has even titled a chapter of one of his books How I have found my happiness with donkeys. A friend of his, who is also a former high school (secondary school) teacher of mine, claims in al-Watan that this man has a rare license to ride donkeys, a license he claims he got in Spain during a festival of donkeys. No, he doesn’t live in a communal stable now.

For some reason I could not find much about jackasses or donkeys of Iran. I don;t think they are banned; so maybe they have moved into the cities. I am sure they have their fair share of asses in various positions in Tehran and other places. I know at least one I can mention, but not right now.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Facebook of Arabia: Pairing Off Leaders Online. A King, Kosher Razorbacks, A Palindromic Mufti, Tzipi Livni, Ahmadinejad, and Ann Coulter

(I cannibalized this posting from the most recent piece of my other website)

I was exploring Facebook this evening and I discovered some interesting potential friends. I discovered that many Middle East leaders, oligarchs, and plain crazies have Facebook accounts in their names. I also found out that even some of the dead leaders have accounts as well. Some have been dead for years, yet they keep in touch, and possibly plot coups, through the network. Even the Arab Baath Socialist Party has several accounts, and not just the Syrian Baath.

Saudi King Abdullah has a Facebook account under the name: King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz (al-Saud, of course). It has a nice official photo of the king. Oddly, he lists his address as Little Rock, Arkansas. Maybe he is a secret Razorback supporter although I doubt he went to college there. Still, deosn’t have to eat them to be a fan. It is kosher to support them.

There is a link on his page (wall) asking me to ask his majesty to add him as a friend. Dutifully I clicked on the link and now the king has a request from this humble person asking to add him to my empty list of friends. After all, I haven’t been near a monarch in many years, and the last one wore a cocktail dress and pearls. I may do the same with Carla Bruni (Sarkozy for now).

I took a peek at his majesty’s friends and was surprised that not many of them look royal or even kingly: some look downright stoned out of their heads, like the weeders of yore that I knew. And a couple of the female friends are appropriately skimpily clad, (if you are the type that looks at the glass as half-empty, which I am usually not, especially in a case like this).

Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, in power for 28 years, has over 20 accounts, two of them carrying his full name, Mohamed Husni Mubarak. Most of his accounts don’t list Egypt as his location: maybe that is for security reasons?

There is, however, a Husni Mubarak Fan Club, with only 360 members: a surprisingly small number for a leader who has never lost an election, one who doesn’t even need to hold elections. Maybe these are the only people who have benefited from his rule. I wonder if Ayman Nour, who is rotting in Maubarak’s jail on trumped up charges, has more fans. He was the only man ever to run against Mubarak, and somehow I don’t think anyone will, ever again.

The Dauphin, his son Gamal (Jamal in non-Egyptian Arabic), has several accounts one of which lists his supporters at 401. Probably those who benefit from his father’s rule plus others who expect to benefit from his rule when he takes over. There was one account for Gamal Mubarak Lovers, with 265 members only. Which means that not all those benefitting from his father’s rule love the son also.

Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Salih, president for over 30 years, has an account listed as: United Happy Yemen without Ali Abdullah Salih: I think they meant “with” rather than “without”. He has another account listing him as residing in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where there is no qat to chew but plenty of Jim Beam.

Bahrain’s king has an account listed as: King of hearts - King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. This first reminded me of Las Vegas for some reason, then I remembered that Valentine’s is upon us, even though it does not specify what kind of heart. His fan club has 810 members only, although the ruling elite in Bahrain numbers much more than that, I think. Maybe they left out a few zeros.

Syria’s Bashar al-Asad has his account as well, under the title: Bashar Al-Asad, and he has 7,564 fans exactly, which is surprising. He couldn’t be more popular than the other oligarchs and potantates. These must be the only ones that have been officially asked to admire him.

His Most Royal Highness Prince al-Waleed Bin Talal al-Saud has several accounts under his name. One of these accounts is a joint one with a woman. He is listed as having 1,681 fans, which made me somewhat jealous: I have no fans, not yet. I wonder how many of these fans are Citigroup executives and CNBC anchorwomen, and possibly a few anchormen.

Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr has more than six accounts in his name, but two of them are suspicious because they are located in Winnipeg and Stockholm. No militias are listed.

Iran’s Mohmoud Ahmadinejad has many many accounts, and, and many more carry his fan club and hate club names. Apparently he shares one Facebook account with Ann Coulter, another conservative icon, which makes sense. The other one I really liked was for the “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Appreciation Society”, but I declined to join it.

His boss, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenai has an account that lists 903 fans only. I guess it has been a long time for many Iranian.

Usama Bin Laden about 8 accounts in his name (there are more under Osama), but none lists the Pakistan, Saudi, or Afghanistan networks.

On the dour side, the Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaikh Abdul-Azeez Aal al-Shaikh (a k a ash-Shaikh), has no account. FYI: he is the great great grandson of Mohammed Abdelwahab (the late Najdi freak not the late Egyptian singer). I call him the palindromic sheikh for obvious reasons (check the dictionary). Maybe he can double with Israel’s Tzipi Livni: double not couple to the old man’s chagrin. Tzipi has many, many, accounts under her name. More than any Arab leader, and she has many fans and supporters. She also has many detractors. Anyway, the sheikh can do much worse- as for Tzipi, she can’t do worse. That’s for sure.

Libya’s Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi has 15 accounts and boasts 835 fans, one in the name of his son Hannibal.

Even Saddam Hussin still has his account under his full legal name: Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti صدام حسين عبد المجيد التكريتي. He is listed as a politician, and he has 280 supporters, which is more than I do, and I am still alive.

Abu Musaab Al Zarqawi still keeps 5 accounts open, from the beyond, presumably keeping an eye on his former fans in al-Anbar and Samarra.

Che Guevara is the most popular dead person, based on Facebook accounts, even more than Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov or Stalin.

The most popular among all, dead or alive, are President Barack Obama and Governor Sarah Palin. Their friends and fans count in the millions (Obama) and hundreds of thousands (Palin). Those Arab rulers need to improve their image some more.

Most of the Arab oligarchs are not really active on Facebook; they are probably even less active than me. However, I bet they are active when the moment is right, as they say on television. Still, it is not as potentially dangerous for them as it is for their subjects to post on the network. Many people have ended up in jail or worse, and I am not talking about mere waterboarding here, simply for giving in to the temptation of venting off online.

Maybe they, the oligarchs, do it because they think it is important to save face, even when your flank is completely exposed.

There are many more world oligarchs and potentates on Facebook than I mentioned, but I shall refrain from commenting now, with the admirable goal of protecting the innocent.


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