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The UK counter terrorism bill: necessary or nonsensical? 31, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Terrorism.
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On Thursday the 24th of January, Jacqui Smith the Home Secretary took the new counter terrorism bill to Parliament for approval. There is expected to be a vote on it sometime in the spring and until then, you can be sure that there will be heated debates about its merits in and out of Whitehall. One of the precursors to this bill (the 2005 Terrorism Bill) inflicted Tony Blair’s first Parliamentary defeat after some 8 years in office. If Gordon Brown is to avoid a similar fate, it appears that he has his work cut out. It is an unpopular bill both with Labour backbenchers and members of the other main parties. Add to this public criticism from the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, the former Lord Chancellor Lord Faulkner, the Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald, and the usual motley crew of vocal civil liberty groups, and the murmurs of disapproval become more of a torrent.

The headline-grabbing quote that everyone is – understandably – fixating on is the extension of the ability to hold suspects without charge from 28 to 42 days. To give this some perspective – as Shami Chakrabati is only too happy to do – the British proposed limit of 42 days compares to only one day in Canada, two in the US, two in Germany, four in Italy, six in France and, what is perhaps most damming of all, only five days in the neo-autocracy that is Russia.

Often lost in the outcry and acrimony of the 42 day issue are the other measures that the bill seeks to introduce including:

§ Making it a criminal offence to communicate, publish or elicit information about Armed Forces personnel, punishable by up to ten tears in jail.

§ Allowing suspects to be questioned after they have been charged (something which is currently not possible).

§ Longer sentences for terrorism-related crimes.

§ People found to be involved at any stage of a terrorist activity will be put on a register (like the sex-offender register). This will theoretically make it easier to keep a track of these people and, if needed, prevent them from going abroad.

§ Assets of those convicted can be seized.

§ Greater use of DNA samples.

§ A larger, wider use of intercept materials.

§ Inquests into deaths deemed sensitive could be classified by the government and put out of public reach.

Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, has come up with two main arguments to defend her controversial bill. Firstly, the threat of terrorism in Britain is, she maintains, real, imminent and expanding. Furthermore, a critical plinth of this argument is that the terrorism that we will be facing in the future is even worse because it is more complicated. This comes up again and again in her interviews. Her particular definition of ‘complex’ is somewhat loose and nebulous – exactly like modern terrorist groups I suspect she would argue. She seems to be fixated on the fact that terrorist groups seek to cause mass casualties and give no warning, which – somehow – makes them more complex. But if this argument is just, then surely the government has been doing us a disservice by not introducing such measures sooner? After all, 9/11 aptly prove that terrorists seek mass casualties and don’t give warnings. If terrorism has indeed changed in the past few years, then such a change has not been adequately explained. Tired references to ‘multiple threats’ or ‘multiple actors’ are of no empirical use to anyone seeking to draw an informed conclusion.

Her second argument is even worse than the first. Assuming for a moment that these measures were enshrined in law today, they are not, however, being introduced to be used today, next week, or next month, but for the future. However, she is adamant that she is not simply introducing civil liberty threatening laws to guard against a hypothetical situation, for that would surely be absurd. In order to clarify how exactly she is not basing these laws on a hypothetical situation she says “if and when an attack happens, then it won’t be hypothetical.” Sorry? Run that by me again?

Mrs Smith is an Oxford educated MP and the first female Home Secretary. We can, therefore, assume that she is at least reasonably intelligent and so she must be inwardly cringing with the utter intellectual paucity and downright absurdity of this argument. But on she argues nevertheless: “we need to legislate for risks in the future…if an exceptional case can be made to a judge…” and so on.

I am struck with a bizarre parallel at this point. Michael Moore’s films and books may, deep down, at their very core, (possibly) have a point or an argument which, even if you don’t agree with, you can still appreciate. However, several hundred pages (or a couple hours) of insipid, low-balled, prejudiced, horribly skewed, poorly articulated arguments, you feel so bemused that he seems to think you’re that stupid as to believe that load of tripe, that you can’t see any merit in the original kernel of the argument. It is the same for me with Jacqui Smith’s whimsical logic.

For crucially, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the queue of people opposing the bill and a deeply sceptical nature regarding the veracity of the apparent ‘mounting and complex threat’ I have no particular problems with such measures. I fundamentally trust in the rule of law and the powers that be in this country. I don’t at all subscribe to the slippery-slope argument – that seems as facile and as unfounded Smith’s arguments, and I believe that there will be always enough Shami Chakrabatis around to keep the British Government broadly honest. However, I am in the minority and I think that both Brown and Smith are going to have to do a lot better than these somewhat pitiful attempts at persuasion if they are going to avoid having an embarrassing rebellion on their hands.

Iran threatens reprisals 30, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran.
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The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, General Mohammad Ali Jaafari, has told Al Jazeera that Iran will  retaliate against American bases in the region if they are used in an attack against Iran. This, obviously, does not even need to be stated – of course Iran would attack these bases. Thus perhaps the reason that this statement has come out now is in light of the recent French acquisition of a military base in the UAE, less than 250km from the Iranian mainland. Then again, this could simply be the Iranians gently rattling their sabre as they are wont to do.

Interestingly, in this statement the General said that Iran would specifically try to only attack the American bases and not retaliate against the Arab hosts. This is a change in policy. Previously, Iran made bellicose remarks about how states that hosted US troops – Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar – could be attacked as part of Iranian reprisals, were they themselves to be attacked. This, if indeed it is a firm shift in policy, would be a welcome relief for the countries in the region and could signal Tehran’s desire to defuse regional tension.

Progress in Saudi Arabia for women’s rights 29, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia, Western-Muslim Relations.
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The government of Saudi Arabia have sanctioned the creation of a charity championing women’s rights in the Kingdom. The Ministry of Social Affairs have initially allowed the creation of a charity called ‘Ansar al-Maraah’ (supporters of women). According to Arab News, the goals of the charity are to “help women improve their social, educational and cultural levels.” This comes at a time when Saudi appear to be vacillating between creating a more open society with announcements such as this one, and closing off Saudi society, as the pressure on Al-Jazeera to tone down its criticisms of the Kingdom suggests.

A Chinese military base in Iran? 28, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, China and the ME, Iran, Oil, Western-Muslim Relations.
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After France’s move to secure a military base in the UAE looking out at the Straits of Hormuz last week, it is no surprise that the Iranians are feeling yet more hemmed it. Kaveh L Afrasiabi , an Iranian expert has suggested that it might not be too long before Iran seek a Chinese base on Iranian soil to compensate and reinforce their security. This is, without doubt, a premature forecast. However, the logic at the heart of the argument is sound.

China’s ever expanding need for importing fossil fuels is well known. Indeed, in the coming years, China will be – from their perspective – worryingly dependent on shipments from both sides of the Persian Gulf. They have tried to compensate for this in many ways. For example, recently China has been exploring the potential of overland pipes from various Central Asian countries through to the west of China. However, no matter how optimistic projections are about such a project, the lion’s share of fuel would still need to be shipped from Iran and the Gulf countries through the Straits of Hormuz to China. Bearing this in mind, there seems to be no way that China, in the long run, would simply accept American stewardship of a sea passage so crucial to Chinese interests. At the moment, the Chinese have a naval base in Gawdar, Pakistan (just around the corner), from which they have limited power projection to the Straits. However, compared to the massive American bases in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, the Chinese base is far from adequate. The fact that the French have just announced that they will soon have a base in the region too is no deal breaker, but it certainly does not help ease China’s nerves, especially since the recent French-American rapprochement under Sarkozy.

As far as Iran are concerned, China are excellent trading partners. They have a guaranteed growing demand in the long term for their fossil fuels, they have the means to pay for it (in goods or cash), they have fairly sophisticated weaponry to sell to the Iranians, they have no (or at least, certainly fewer) compunctions about selling such weaponry or indeed nuclear related technology, they have a meticulous approach to never criticising other governments internal policies and as they are a member of the P5 on the UN Security Council, they have a casting and blocking vote there. They are, thus, very useful allies to have. Additionally, Iran are currently uncertain and not a little perturbed about American intentions regarding their nuclear activities. China too, whilst having good relations with the US right now, are by no means close to America. To choose just one example, the issue of Taiwan – deeply, deeply important to Beijing – is a divisive issue that reoccurs periodically between the two powers. Add to this the afore mentioned point about China not wanting America to be able to cut off their supplies so easily, and there is a definite dove-tailing of interests here: a Chinese base in Iran doesn’t seem so far fetched all of a sudden.

However, China are a country with a long-term view of things and there are no pressing needs right now to do something as drastic as establish a base in Iran, especially with their moment in the sun – the Olympics – coming up. However, the West generally, and America specifically need to be wary about forcing China and Iran closer and closer together. Such a situation, with a worried and recalcitrant China sated for fossil fuels and with an emboldened Iran with access to sophisticated weaponry and even advanced nuclear technology, is not that much short of a nightmare scenario.

Cartoons from the media 27, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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These are some of the cartoons that I’ve stumbled upon from various Middle Eastern newspapers and magazines. More often than not they are from memri.org. I’ll post them as and when I find them.

They are emphatically not meant as some kind of political statement on my behalf and neither are they here to offend. They are simply what I have come across on a day to day basis and thought others might find them amusing/thought provoking/telling/meaningful etc.

America covers Israel for the Pal Slaughter

America covers for Israel’s slaughter in Gaza

Falastin, Palestinian Authority. 23/1/08

Bush approves Olmert’s list

Bush approves Olmert’s list.

Al Ghad, Jordan. 22/01/08

Israel attacks Gaza as Arabs and world are silent

Israel attacks Gaza as US and the Arab world are silent.

Tishreen, Syria. 22/01/08

China and the Middle East – made for each other 27, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, China and the ME, Oil, Saudi Arabia, Western-Muslim Relations.
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Everyone wants a piece of the Middle East at the moment. Israel, unfortunately, takes this quite literally and seems intent on forever expanding its borders with uncomfortable overtones of lebensraum. American companies have, for the most part, been falling over themselves to find GCC cash to bail themselves out of their various woes. The list of those seeking investment is a veritable who’s-who’s of the American blue chip elite: Citigroup, General Electric, Dow Chemicals, and Merrill Lynch to name a few. The French seem to have placed, in a rather un-Gallic, highly capitalistic way, a price tag on their cultural heritage. For about $1 billion, you can now purchase priceless French art, plucked from the bosom of the most famous museum in the world, the Louvre. Furthermore, the French have also taken the name of their most prestigious university in vain by building ‘the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi’ with infinitely easier entry requirements. However, not only have the French been handsomely rewarded for the loan of their culture, but they now have a military base overlooking the straits of Hormuz, so maybe they knew what they were doing all along. Britain were predictably slow on the uptake and are now desperately searching for Middle Eastern cash to bail out the collapsing Northern Rock bank and moving further east, Dubai holdings have invested heavily in the Indian bank ICICI, as well as taking an estimated billion dollar stake in Sony of Japan.

Among those doing their utmost to make friends and influence states in the region are the Chinese. However, they are doing this in a less brash manner. Indeed, to some degree, they have been doing the opposite way by investing in the Middle East. For example, two Chinese state-owned companies are investing some $4 billion in Saudi aluminium production. This is but one half of an example of reciprocal investment between various Middle Eastern countries and China, and, more to the point, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of it.

China are the most natural trading partner for countries in this region. This may seem like something of a bizarre statement, but it stands up to scrutiny. As any good (or even only mediocre) economics student will tell you, two crucial factors when discussing trade are supply and demand.

In terms of supply, the Middle East has oil and money. According to the US Energy Information Administration, as of 1st January last year, the Middle East as a whole had 739 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, more than the rest of the world combined which amounts to 578 billion proven barrels. As for money, thanks to the bumper oil prices of recent years, the region is awash with cash. In total, Morgan Stanley estimate that in 2007 alone, Persian Gulf countries invested around $75 billion overseas. This, therefore, excludes the $500 billion that is being investing domestically in creating new super-cities, trying to look ahead to the paradigm changing day when oil runs out. The crucial point here is that this inflated oil price appears to be with us for the medium term, and, therefore, so do these record profits for Middle Eastern government and thus their ability to generously invest abroad.

As for demand, the same economics student would no doubt tell you that demand is infinite. This is meant in a theoretical way, but when discussing China, the theory becomes a lot more practical. China has a population of 1.3 billion people. By the year 2050, however, the UN population division estimates that (depending on which report you read) the population will rise to between 1.5 – 2 billion people. So not only do these people need their energy needs taken care of, but thanks to China’s phenomenal growth, many people have ever growing energy needs. With greater affluence comes greater demand for bigger and better houses and apartments and, of course, bigger and better cars, to name but two energy consuming factors. In 2007 alone, the Chinese car market grew 20% and overtook Japan as the world’s second largest automobile market, and with tens of millions of people waiting to dump their bicycles, this market is only going to grow faster in the coming years. The staggering conclusion of these factors is that, according to Commentary magazine, China’s demand for imported oil will grow by 960% over the next two decades.

Issues of demand and supply, therefore, are clearly suitably poised for a long and prosperous relationship. Yet there are many more factors to consider. After all, the rest of the world demands oil and will continue to do so for a long time yet. So what makes China so special?

For one thing, China do not have any historical or colonial baggage in the region. This could be construed as a good or a bad thing. For example, France’s long standing relationships with the Emirates clearly made it possible for Abu Dhabi to cede some land for a French military base, and America’s long history in Saudi Arabia made it possible for similar arrangements there in the past. I would suggest that the latter example is more instructive, especially considering the eventual outcome of the US bases in the land of the two holy places. China, however, has a clean slate; indeed, it was as late as 1990 when they officially recognised all GCC countries. There are no old policies to appease, apologise for or defend.

Another aspect that appeals to many governments worldwide is that China are very good partners to have in terms of demands exogenous to the deal itself: there aren’t any. For example, China will never lecture, pressure, castigate or otherwise try to impose their ideals on another state. This is a fundamental pillar of Chinese policy: the absolute and utter respect of sovereignty from criticism or interference. Thus, if a state is not appreciative of America’s lectures regarding full democracy or the rule of law (especially regarding the egregious hypocrisy of Guantanamo Bay) then they will certainly know that they would receive no such criticism from China.

Along the same lines, China make it easier for Middle Eastern companies to invest there. Whilst, as it was shown above, many countries have invested heavily in the West, there is still an element of quasi-racism. This was clearly shown in the Dubai Ports World controversy, where a furore erupted when it was revealed that a Middle Eastern company would be involved with security arrangements at American ports. This would, according to some woefully misguided segments of the American media, lead to security concerns. It is difficult to imagine such security concerns from the Chinese.

Lastly, with significant anti-Americanism in the Middle East, and significant anti-Arab sentiment in America and the West generally, China could offer themselves as a neutral alternative to the Middle East-American/Western axis. It is no great secret that parts of the Middle East have security concerns, which are answered in one way or another by the West generally or America specifically. For example, answered in terms of arms sales ($20 billion only last week) as well as physical protection, as in the Gulf War. However, it must not be forgotten that China has been supplying various countries in the region for a long time now. More to the point, China are more willing to sell certain weapons that the West are – generally – not willing to, such as ballistic missiles and related technology, which were sold to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war, to take but one example. Furthermore, with the amount of industrial espionage that Beijing currently engages in, certain aspects of their armaments technology may not be that far behind the US itself.

However, there are a few caveats. Firstly, America is currently the only power capable of offering a meaningful security blanket, such as the one that freed Kuwait and protected Saudi Arabia. Theoretically, were the Chinese to sell an Atomic bomb ‘off the shelf’ to Saudi, that might negate that particular US role, but such a reckless policy is highly unlikely for the cautious and long-term thinking Chinese. Secondly, the prevalence of American goods, ideas, motifs, restaurants, books, films, TV channels, and music throughout the Middle East, compared to the utter lack of Chinese equivalents, shows that America, or at least, its manifestations are not going anywhere. It does not seem at all likely that McDonald’s will turn into Jowza (dumpling) restaurants any time soon. American culture, therefore, may well be here for the next 100 years, even if the manifestations of American power and trade are not.

Ahmadinejad severely criticised by ex-Presidential advisor and Parliamentary spokesman 26, January 2008

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Mohammad Shari’ati, advisor to former Iranian President Khatami, savaged Ahmadinejad on Al Jazeera. His criticism were wide ranging and severe. He began by prefacing his criticisms by saying that considering that Ahmadinejad had little international experience when he started, he changed far too many policies. With their neighbours, he believes that Iran ought to have continued along with their ‘friendlier’ policies of the last regime. He is also critical of the Ahmadinejad’s dealings on nuclear issues. The policies of Khatami, Rafsanjani, and al Rouhami were all “more realistic.” The fallout of this is that the former Iranian UN nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani had to resign – he seemed to be inferring – because of the dichotomy between the old and new policies and the difficulties of negotiating across the change.

Regarding Hamas and Hezbollah, Shari’ati maintained that they could not be cut off, but that they must be dealt with in some kind of framework. It was unclear what he was specifically referring to, but he went on to maintain that Iran ought not to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, be it Iraq, by supporting militias about whom they really know quite little, or Lebanon where Iran “has ties everywhere.”

Domestically, he complained that there is, overall, less work and less money for Iranians and he castigated the government for signing fake contracts, to look as if they are doing something productive. Ahmadinejad’s excuse that this “is the result of out steadfastness” cut no ice whatsoever. Also on domestic issues, Hadad’Adel the Iranian Parliamentary spokesman, angrily reacted to Ahmadinejad’s attempts to abolish certain Majlis (parliamentary laws) by saying that only the Guardian Council had the right to do so.



Finkelstein on the Israeli-Palestinian situation: it’s not complicated 26, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Media in the ME, Western-Muslim Relations.
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The soft spoken Norman Finkelstein took the stage some 15 minutes late: not so bad for a visiting lecturer. For the next two and a half hours he gave a professional and persuasive lecture entitled ‘Israel and Palestine: the roots of the problem and the prospects for peace.’ He was, of course, preaching to the converted. This event was the last of a five stop UK tour which began in Manchester and ended last night at the George Square theatre in Edinburgh. It was organised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) and had the typical adornments of such events: the pro-Palestinian pamphlets, the selection of hippies, and the communists – literally – outside in the cold.

He began with the almost iconoclastic phrase that the Israeli-Palestinian situation was not, in any way shape or form, complex. It is not – he continued – controversial; too difficult to understand or comprehend; it does not defy analysis; and it is, above all else, quite simple. This was the theme throughout the lecture, and it was well argued.

He cites the four issues of the conflict, which are often said to be the most intractable:

1) the question of the legal borders of Israel and Palestine

2) the question of the legality of the Israeli settlements

3) the questions of East Jerusalem

4) the question of the Palestinian refugees

These are the four questions which are the kernel of the problem, he maintains, which are consistently portrayed as being so complex as to be nigh-on insoluble. However, they are not at all that controversial and this confusion is sowed specifically to muddy the issues, he continued.

Finkelstein explained that in July 2004 the highest judicial body in the world, The International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave an advisory opinion as to the legality of the wall that the Israelis were (and are) constructing. In order to render this opinion, the court had to consider preliminary questions which correspond to the first three questions above.

On the question of Israeli borders the ICJ was unequivocal. Since, according to international law, land may not be acquired by force, and since Israel acquired land in Gaza and the West Bank this way, it is, ipso facto, illegal. There is, therefore, in effect, no dispute regarding the disputed territories: international law is clear and straight forward – the land does not belong to the Israelis. Therefore, following on from this judgement, Israeli settlers are settled on land that was obtained illegally, and are thus in flagrant violation of international law.

On the question of East Jerusalem the court is similarly unambiguous. It was acquired during the 1967 war and thus, again, because land may not be seized by force according to international law, this is Palestinian land and Israelis have no title to it.

However, the crucial aspect is how many judges voted on or for the above arguments? The final tally was a resounding 14:1. This is where Finkelstein gets his ‘there is no confusion or complexity’ notion from: it has already been overwhelmingly decided upon by the ICJ. Even the one vote against the motion from the American judge was not a rejection but a more neutral lack of acceptance, and furthermore, he did accept the notion that the wall that the Israelis are building was illegal because they had acquired the land illegally and thus, on that specific question, the vote was 15:0.

The second theme that he addressed was around the issue of terrorism semantics. A crucial difference, it is often claimed, is that the various Arab terrorist groups strive to maximize civilian fatalities, where as the Israelis, whilst killing three or four times as many people, at least do not have this as an avowed aim. Finkelstein defines terrorism as ‘the targeting of civilians to further a political end’ and retorts that if the Israeli army launch artillery into a town or spray a crowd with bullets then the “inevitable and foreseeable consequence” of this is the deaths of civilians and therefore, these actions are ipso facto purposeful and intentional. Israeli actions are thus the intended targeting of civilians. The stated Israeli aim of many such actions (eg. the shelling of a village) is to put pressure on the leaders to do x and y, which is wholly political. Thus, Israel are pursuing a political end by the specific targeted killing of civilians, which is terrorism.

In order to answer the fourth ‘intractable’ question, he used his own situation as an analogy to good effect. When he was denied tenure at his former university, he firmly believed that had he gone through the court system, he would have won eventually. However, he was told that this would take around six years and would cost an exorbitant amount of money. He said that whilst he will always believe that he does have the right to tenure at the university, just as the Palestinians have the right to return, in terms of practicality, for him it was just not feasible to pursue it, just as he believes, the Palestinian right of return is not feasible.

He also eloquently argued against several other perceived injustices surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Returning to his central theme, he pointed out that every year the UN security council vote on a resolution on a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The vote is typically utterly one sided. E.g. 1981: 151:3, 1997: 155:2, 2002: 160:4, 2007: 161:7. Although the numbers of dissenters appears to have been rising in recent years, it must be forgotten that one is always the US and the other Israel, whilst the others are states such Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, the Federal States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.

Another interesting point that he made was about the comparison of the conflict with others in the past. Whist to some there seems to be an apt comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa, such notions, if they make it to mainstream media are drowned out in a sea of vitriol and outrage. This was the case when former American President Jimmy Carter released a book titled ‘Palestine: Peace not Apartheid’ to considerable opprobrium .Those defending Israel from this comparison, inevitably end up discussing the holocaust and using it to garner sympathy and obfuscate generally. However, the list of people who do think that such a comparison is warranted is lengthy and impressive, including Jimmy Carter, Haaretz the leading Israeli newspaper, Israel’s former attorney general, education minister and even Ariel Sharon.

Finkelstein concluded by saying that all is not lost. Much or even most public opinion is against Israel in this situation and that while the Israeli lobby may be strong; those fighting for the Palestinians have truth on their side.

Overall, Finkelstein was impressive, but there are, without doubt, several points to be raised with Finkelstein’s argument. The ICJ is a famously toothless body, rendering opinions for those that want to hear them. There is no coercion there whatsoever. Israel can ignore their injunctions and motions continually. They will have to be made to adhere to such motions by some other source. Also, in his section comparing Palestinian and Israeli terrorism, he defined terrorism in a self-serving manner, referring to it as ‘targeting of civilians for a political end.’ Whole books (and not small ones) have been written discussing the difficulties of defining terrorism. However, the vast majority these definitions include some notion of a sub-state actor in the definition. This would, thus, exculpate Israel from committing terrorism in a semantic way. I am not sure if simply glossing over this is the way to deal with this particular argument. Israel will simply refer back to the semantics which are in their favour. However, if – somehow – a concerted effort could be made to change the definition to one that included actions of states against civilians for political ends, then this would be enormously fruitful.

Saudi reforms: one step forward, many back 25, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Media in the ME, Saudi Arabia.
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In recent weeks, there have been promising signs emanating from Riyadh suggesting that the countries’ draconian policies towards women were being relaxed. Firstly, as reported here, there was the small announcement that women may stay alone in hotels in the Kingdom, so long as they have some kind of photo ID which will then be registered with the local police. Whilst this may not seem like much of a victory for women’s rights, it is certainly a start. Furthermore, later on that week there was the unconfirmed and then apparently conformed story that Saudi Arabia will let women drive ‘by the end of the year’. Needless to say, this would be a large step forward for women’s rights in the country.

However, it has just been revealed by NPR news that that there was a meeting last autumn between Saudi and Qatari representatives where Saudi officials demanded that AL-Jazeera be ‘brought to heel’.

Since Al Jazeera’s inception in 2001, it has been a breath of critical and relatively even-handed fresh air in a region traditionally full of news outlets bought and paid for by parties and governments. Al Jazeera, therefore, was a shock to governments around the region and especially Riyadh, where they were seen to be particularly critical.

However, Mustafah Alani, a UAE based analyst comments that since the growth of Iran as a potential regional problem, the Sunni countries across the Gulf have, to a greater or lesser degree, banded together to counter Iran. One casualty of this has been the Qatari based and funded Al Jazeera. Alani maintains that the Qatari government, at the behest of Saudi Arabia, has lent on Al Jazeera to tone down its criticisms of the Kingdom.

Peter Kenyan of NPR also refers to the imprisonment of one of Saudi’s most famous bloggers, Fouad al Farhan, as another example of a crackdown on free speech and the media. In an interview with Professor Bin Hashim, he describes his arrest as a ‘hot stove policy’ which is to say that by arresting one blogger, the authorities hope that this will act as a warning to others not to cross ‘the line’.


Close Saudi-US ties lead to Arab anger 24, January 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Saudi Arabia.
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The recent visit of President Bush to the region has elicited predictable responses from predictable sources. Various critics of the US have used this opportunity to berate the Americans for – amongst other things – preaching peace on the one hand, and imparting billions of dollars worth of weapons on the other. These points do have some validity, but, because of the quarters out of which they come, it is no great shock.

Additionally, you don’t need a political science degree to realise that Syria will not like the cordiality afforded the to Americans this past week. However, usually, you’d expect them to keep these views to themselves. However, the Saudi newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat reports a spat between the Syrian Ambassador to Egypt (as well as to the Arab League) Yusuf al-Ahmad and the Saudi Ambassador to the League, Ahmad Abdulaziz Qattan, at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo.

The Syrian Ambassador suggested that it was not appropriate to give the US President such a welcome, bearing in mind the US’ support of Israel. To this, the Saudi Ambassador vociferously defended Saudi Arabic, and pointed out that the US – a long term ally of Saudi – had physically defended Saudi Arabia in the Gulf War.

Of course, when questioned about this later on, this argument became ‘banter’ between friends, and the comments of the Syrian Ambassador were – apparently – not aimed at any country in particular. Naturally.