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Parris on the financial crisis 18, December 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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Here’s the best commentary that I’ve seen on the financial crisis yet from Matthew Parris of The Times of London.

 

To the tumbrils, I say. I want show trials. The public are in for great grief next year. A consolation would be to see some of these cuff-linked Catos of conventional City wisdom carted through the streets and pelted by the crowd. I want TV interrogations before jeering studio audiences.

I want to see hedge-fund managers tipped into cage fights with naked Gypsies; bank managers wrestle with lions in the O2 arena; failed regulators thrown to alligators in the Royal Docks; short sellers in pits of snakes; and distinguished City economists try their luck with sharks. They’ve had their heyday, their bonuses, their Porsches, their fine wines and oafish ostentation – they’ve had their fun. Now for ours.

To the guillotine!

 

Santa’s getting a Mosque 8, December 2008

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Snowy Mosques

Well…not quite. To be technically correct, a new mosque is to be built in northern Norway not Lapland per se, but, to me at least, any places that are full of perma-snow are ipso facto Santa’s land.  

An unnamed Saudi business man has decided donate nearly $3 million to build the first ever Mosque in the Arctic region, in northernmost Norway.
 
Thanks to Al Shams and Al Arabiyya for the story and picture. 
 

Mumbai attack as diversion 5, December 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Sub Continent.
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Ahmed Rashid, the noted expert on Central Asian jihad generally and the Pakistani ‘Taliban’ issues specifically, made a simple but perceptive point in a recent BBC article. He suggested that the recent attacks on Mumbai carried out allegedly by the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba was primarily a diversionary tactic, designed to force India and more importantly Pakistan to deploy troops to their borders. They calculated correctly that tensions between the countries would rise necessitating the redeployment of Pakistani troops from hunting down Lashkar-e-Toiba in the Tribal lands of Northern Pakistan to the Indian border instead. They are, essentially, buying themselves some breathing space. Indeed, this is not that first time that they have pursued such a tactic. Rashid suggests that this was the underlying motive behind the Lashkar-e-Toiba attack on the Indian Parliament back in 2002, after which nearly 1,000,000 men were mobilised. The governments of India and Pakistan simply must not – as Rashid cautions – fall for this ploy.

 

If Lashkar-e-Toiba is indeed responsible for the attacks – as Indian authorities claim and Pakistan denies – it will be the second time that the group has single-handedly put the two countries on a war footing. In 2002 each mobilised one million men for nearly a year after Lashkar attacked the Indian parliament.

The attacks have led to rising public anger in India against Pakistan and right wing Pakistani jingoism against India, in which some have even called on the moderate President Asif Ali Zardari to go to war.

When the Pakistan army finally stopped allowing Pakistan-based militant groups from infiltrating into Indian-administered Kashmir in 2004, groups like Lashkar, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat-ul Mujheddin splintered and fragmented.

Besieged

Some militants went home, others got jobs or stayed in camps in the mountains.

However the youngest and most radicalised fighters joined up with al-Qaeda and the Pakistani and Afghan Taleban in the mountains of Pakistan’s tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.

 

They embraced the global jihad to fight US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and later attacked the Pakistan government and army as the Pakistani Taleban developed their own political agenda to seize power.

The group that attacked Mumbai may well include some Pakistanis, but it is more likely to be an international terrorist force put together by al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taleban, who are besieged by the Pakistan army on one side and a rain of missiles being launched by US forces in Afghanistan against their hideouts on the other.

Al-Qaeda is looking for some relief and a diversion.

What better way to do so than by provoking the two old enemies – India and Pakistan – with a terrorist attack that diverts attention away from the tribal areas?

Such a move would force Pakistani troops back to the Indian border while simultaneously pre-occupying US and Nato countries in hectic diplomacy to prevent the region exploding.

A diversion such as this would preserve extremist sanctuaries along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and would provide militants with a much needed respite – especially considering that in the next few months President-elect Barak Obama is due to send an additional 20,000 US troops to Afghanistan, backed by more Nato troops.

Unfounded

This strategic diversion ploy for the sake of al-Qaeda and its surrogates is the principle motive behind the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

It worked well in 2002 when the Pakistan army moved away from the Afghan border to meet the Indian mobilisation, thereby allowing al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taleban to escape from Afghanistan and consolidate their positions in the tribal areas.

 

If the two countries now mobilise their forces against one another they will be walking straight into the trap laid for them by al-Qaeda.

Charges that the Pakistan government, army or its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were behind the attack appear unfounded.

Pakistan can hardly contemplate a rise in tensions with India when it is beset by a monumental economic crisis, insurgencies in Balochistan and in North West Frontier Province, rising violence in Karachi and one-third of the country out of control of any constitutional authority.

Certainly Pakistan is not blameless. The army and its former military ruler President Pervez Musharraf must be faulted for refusing after 2004 to properly demobilise Kashmiri militant groups and being so reluctant to deal with the insurgency in the tribal areas. It was not until August when the army finally began a sustained offensive there.

And despite Musharraf’s own peace overtures to India after 2004, the army itself has been slow to make the strategic shift from seeing India as the primary threat. It has taken time to understand that local extremists now pose a far greater danger.

 

As the militants working under the umbrella of al-Qaeda have targeted the army in the mountains and in its cantonments, the army has retaliated but it has been slow and late in doing so.

If India and Pakistan can understand that they are both victims of a strategic diversion by al-Qaeda and if international mediation can help deepen that understanding, then there is perhaps a greater opportunity for the two countries to address the conflicts that have bedevilled their relationship for 60 years – Kashmir and other lesser issues.

It will certainly be difficult for the two countries to walk away from the brink. India has a weak government whose counter-terrorism policies have been a failure and which faces an election in the next six months. The Indian public and media are demanding revenge – not co-operation with Islamabad.

Pakistan also has a weak government that is still trying to set parameters of co-operation with an army which dominates foreign and strategic policy and controls the ISI, the most powerful political entity in the country.

Pakistan’s other problems could well overwhelm the government – a troops mobilisation is the last thing it needs.

To turn the possibility of war into the possibility of peace, the leadership of both countries need to show statesmanship, determination and authority even if they have to defy the public mood in their respective countries to do so.

The boom in Beirut’s banks 5, December 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Lebanon.
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The property market in Beirut does not change that much. Despite the civil wars, fractious politics, occasional bombs or Israeli invasions, property prices look on these events with a weary disdain and don’t really budge. Beirut will always be sought-after and whatever crisis is affecting it will pass. True, there will be another around the corner, but c’est la vie. Beirut will, nevertheless, still be Beirut.
 
This resilience has, according to the BBC, passed on to Lebanon’s banks too. Business, the BBC correspondent assures us, is booming. Beirut’s vaults are full to bursting and banks are reporting record deposits. This is, however, not only due to a robust attitude but more specifically thanks to the Governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, Riad Salameg. He foresaw the coming crisis to some degree and urged Lebanon’s commercial banks to reign in their exposure to international markets. Furthermore, Lebanon as a country has something of a conservative banking frame of mind so that banks are not allowed to incur that much debt, must have 30% of their assets in cash and risky speculation is not allowed.
 
There are, however, a few darker clouds on the Lebanese horizon. Remittances from abroad make up almost one third of the whole Lebanese economy and these will no doubt be hit by the crisis. Furthermore, whilst there has been conservative and sober banking practiced in Lebanon for some time now, this has not been the case at the governmental level. Lebanon is, therefore, per capita, the most indebted country in the world. Though, it must be said, that it has had a lot to recover from in recent decades.
 
 

An outstanding critique of Egyptian society 4, December 2008

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Below i have copied and pasted an article by Inanities regarding the Cairo International Film Festival. It is without doubt one of the best blog posts that I have ever read. Aside from the fact that the author can clearly write exceedingly well, the story of the film festival leads her on to a discussion of Cairo and indeed, Egypt as a whole. It provides a perfect encapsulation of the many, many problems that affect Egyptian society. It is very much worth your time.

 

Cairo International Film Farcical

Mysterious sheets of plastic appeared on the railings of the Cairo Opera House on 17th November. The railings separate the Opera grounds from the busy central artery of Tahrir Street, an extension of the Qasr El-Nil bridge popular with ambulant lovers taking evening strolls.

The sheets’ function was revealed the following day when guests of the Cairo International Film Festival made their appearance at the opening ceremony, parading the red carpet in their diamante-studded, perfumed glory. The sheets had been strategically-placed to protect the good and the grand of Hollywood and Spain and Egypt from the unwholesome, hungry stares of Egypt’s hoi polloi.

Rows of security guards along the red carpet, a 100 metre gap and metal railings were apparently not enough to protect the A-listers from whatever mischief the CIFF/Opera organisers feared the no-listers would engage in: they were not prepared to risk the evening being defiled by the uninvited participation of the unimportant in any form.

This attitude – exclusion – seems to be the ethos of the 32 year-old festival. 2008 was my second film festival, and I have yet to understand who, exactly, it is for. Article 1 of the CIFF regulations (available on its lamentably inaccurate website, about which more later) states the following:

The goal of The Cairo International Film Festival is to promote films, to create artistic links between different nations, to encourage comprehension and meetings between cinema professionals around the world and to develop the Film industry in the Arab world, in the Middle East and all over the world

As I understand it, this goal encompasses behind-the-sheets ordinary people of all nationalities, (“different nations”) and actors, film directors and producers and journalists (“cinema professionals”). In short it means everybody.

In theory.

The reality is very different. The most important thing to bear in mind for the uninitiated is that the CIFF takes place in Cairo, which is in Egypt, which – for all its wonderful qualities – remains a class-ridden autocracy of individual fiefdoms where rules are designed to fit wallets and who you know is more important than who you are.

This stratification has necessarily seeped into all areas of the CIFF. Witness Omar Sherif’s remarks in the opening ceremony about Egyptians being poor but “always smiling…smiling at the sun and the blue sky, and knowing that if they don’t get their reward in this life they’ll get it in the next”. Which is perhaps why it doesn’t matter that the smiling buffoons had been kept behind the sheets.

Within the CIFF fiefdom Hollywood has most currency, followed by Egyptian stars, followed by popular Turkish soap opera actors. This year Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Susan Sarandon, Charlize Theron, Julia Ormond and Mira Sorvino brought the LA starlight to the Festival, guarded by Amr Badr, a cigar-smoking individual whose job as far as I can tell is to keep members of the lower species known as the press as far away from his charges as possible. We were batted away like flies.

The flights and accommodation of these guests are paid for by the Festival. Is it conscionable that in a week’s stay in Cairo they are brought out for only 1 or 2 press conferences and spend the rest of the time sight-seeing? The question again poses itself: who is the CIFF for?

CIFF’s relationship with the press is a story in itself. I attended ten CIFF events (film screenings/press conferences/symposiums) this year, only five of which went without a hitch. Finding out about the timing of these events was in itself a challenge because I made the mistake of relying on the CIFF website, whose schedule is as reliable as a pubescent teenager.

I went to the Good News cinema on Sunday expecting to watch Fawzeyya’s Secret Recipe. Having been informed that it was playing in the main auditorium I waited as a press conference for another film came to an end. It ended, and I was then ejected from the auditorium “so it could be cleaned.”

I went back upstairs to the smaller screen where I located the man who had given me the wrong information. “No, Fawzeyya is playing here, and it’s for the judging committee only.” No apology was offered, no explanation.

I didn’t have the chance to ask why he had chosen to neglect communicating this minor detail to me an hour ago, because next to me an extremely angry Palestinian woman was trying to extract some sense out of a Good News employee.

She had come specifically to watch Palestinian film Salt of This Sea, at the Good News cinema. The problem is, Salt of This Sea had at some point been moved to the Opera Creativity Centre. I had found this detail out entirely by chance two hours before, from the film’s director herself. God knows how many people missed the film because of the organisers’ failure to update the website.

The woman said that this was the second time she encountered this problem. The Good News man said he wasn’t responsible, that the CIFF organisers bore responsibility. But of course.

(Unfortunately, it was crap) I got to see Fawzeyya’s Secret Recipe in the end, seated on the cinema floor (no problem, I have a press card, I wasn’t paying) with my friend (who had paid for a seat).

When I went to the Creativity Centre to watch Under the Bombs on Wednesday I was accompanied by the same press pass-less friend. Not a problem since the CIFF website announced the screening as open to the press and public.

They refused to let my friend in at first on the pretext that attendance was by invitation only, and that we had to go to the press centre to get an invitation. Tired and frustrated by a week of similar incidents I must admit that I lost my rag with the Creativity Center official who told me that in fact no, I had not seen an (American) friend admitted into the Creativity Center without an invitation earlier this week to watch Salt of This Sea. I had. He wasn’t having any of it.

Voices were raised, as was blood pressure, until another Creativity Center official took my friend aside, took an invitation (for an entirely different film) out of his pocket and gave it to him saying “this is my fiancee’s but I’m giving it to you”(!) before admitting him.

Is there an equivalent word for ‘je m’en foutisme’ in English? Its literal translation is not giving a damn-ism, and should be the CIFF’s motto.

On Friday I turned up at 11.30 a.m. for a symposium on human rights. A CIFF official appeared at 11.45 a.m. and announced that the symposium would begin at 1 p.m. “as had been stated on official invitations.” Some of us lower-level amoeba hadn’t received this invitation. Who cares. Our time isn’t important, after all.

The not giving a damn extends to guests, too. Annemarie Jacir, director of Salt of This Sea told me that some of the actors and crew involved in her film had been invited to the Festival, and that visas would be waiting for them at Cairo Airport.

Then, she told me via email, this happened:

Then they ‘suddenly’ couldn’t help us and told us 3 days before flying that there would be no visas for them at the airport nor would they help get them one. So it was urgent because Ossama [Bawardi, the Palestinian producer] had a flight landing him in Cairo airport and suddenly was told he had no visa to enter. The festival wouldn’t even help us change the flight or give any solutions so I ended up paying myself for a new ticket since Cairo fest refused to take responsibility for it. I am of course totally broke and it cost us a lot of money that we simply don’t have.
CIFF had “discovered” that Jacir’s Palestinian crew members hold Israeli passports and summarily dropped them.

This is aside from the fact that upon arriving in Cairo Jacir was hustled into a symposium at the last minute. She had no prior idea what the symposium was about or what was expected of her. Aleya Hammad, the symposium’s moderator (who in an urgent whisper asked her who she was while she was on the podium), described Jacir’s feature film as a documentary.

At the beginning of Charlize Theron’s press conference, as photographers and cameramen fought in front of her to get the good angles, press conference moderator Ezzet Abo Auf said (in Arabic) “let’s have some order, we don’t want to look bad in front of our guests.”

This obsession with image. With makeup, and fireworks, and revolving stages that spin out their startled occupants as the crowd claps and the music plays and ugly reality is kept at bay outside, 100 metres and a million miles away behind a plastic sheet.

I reject the argument that because CIFF is held in Egypt, we should forgive it the incompetence of its organisation, the constant screw-ups, the continual late starts, the complete absence of a relationship with the press…etc.

That stuff (independent political parties, World Cup bids, independent film festivals, historical parliamentary buildings, police-citizen relations) is repeatedly messed up in Egypt is clearly not because of some entrenched incompetence within the fabric of Egyptian society. Rather, the problem is twofold: firstly, talent is usually inextricably linked with creativity, and original thought, and is therefore a potential risk. Secondly, raw natural talent lacking the benefits of wealth and connections is necessarily crushed by poverty and its associated concrete ceilings.

Which means, inevitably, that many of those at the top are dullards, and all take care of interests other than those of the many million they are meant to represent.

CIFF – like everything else in Egypt – is the embodiment of these factors, the embodiment of this calamity. Its mistakes therefore aren’t just minor errors, or the product of good ole Egyptians and their quaint time-keeping. Rather, they are the manifestation of a sickness.

Rosen in Middle East Forum: ma’essalama to the last fig leaf of impartiality 3, December 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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It can be difficult to say or write anything regarding the surprising power of the Israeli lobby in America (and specifically their affect on American foreign policy) without being lambasted as a pinko lefty or, at worst, an anti Semite. Look at two of America’s most respected academics, John Mearshimer and Stephen Walt, and their attempt to engage with the topic. They wrote the imaginatively titled “The Israeli Lobby” to much opprobrium and outrage. I think that when academics of this calibre write a book as meticulously researched and seemingly as scrupulously honest as this book happens to be, and yet they still receive such heated criticism, there is, as one might say, a cat away with the pigeons (i.e. something is not right).

I can understand it, to some degree, when people come up against the irascible Norman Finklestein. His book, The Holocaust Industry, is interesting, thought provoking and generally a good read, though perhaps a claim or two too far. Either which way, it simply does not convey anything like the academic authority as does the Mearsheimer-Walt effort. This is not to mention, of course, the combative nature of Finklestein. I saw him give a lecture in Edinburgh last year and whilst his typical spiel was utterly convincing (as you might expect) and generally well articulated, after an hour or so of this and with the q and a at the end, his bristly, angry and polemical self came to the fore. His scathing, vicious and obviously deep seated hatred of the American and Israeli elite was all too visible to see. He is, therefore, something of an easier target. 

So, having pinned my colours to the wall somewhat, I come onto the case of Steven Rosen and his new job in an influential Middle East Forum think tank. Some background first. Steven Rosen was the head of policy development in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the top Israeli think tank-cum-lobbying group in the States. Whilst in this position he was accused of stealing highly classified information from sources within the America government and passing it on to the Israeli government. Indeed, he is still technically on trial at this point.

It is alleged that Rosen and Keith Weissman groomed one of the Pentagon’s top Iran experts, Larry Franklin, and got him to pass some 83 classified reports onto them and AIPAC and, therefore, Israel, over some three decades. The FBI eventually caught up with this alleged spy ring and arrested Franklin who was sentenced to a reduced sentence of 12 years in jail for his cooperation. Despite his testimony indicting Rosen and Weissman, the case has still never seen a court of law, owing to – it is suggested – delaying tactics by the defending lawyers.

The defence of the accused was not that they were not involved in the alleged activities, for they admit that they were, but they maintain that they were simply engaging their first amendment rights and doing the job of a good journalist. Need I point out that there was not, however, a newspaper as the end-user of this information, but the Israeli government? This, it seems to me, would make a difference, but then again, I am not immersed in the nuances of this case.

Yet despite ipso facto admitting that he was indeed committing a crime – but for “good” reasons – and indeed being quickly let go by AIPAC, Rosen has now been hired by a think tank whose mission is – like all think tanks – to inform, educate and suggest policy. Rosen, it seems to me, whether you think that he was morally right or wrong, is an unsuitable candidate for such a job. His position on Middle Eastern issues is painfully clear – he has committed a federal crime to support them – so how can he possibly be expected to undertake balanced research or reach balanced policy recommendations? He is in fact going to join Daniel Pipes’ think tank, which is already placed firmly on (the right hand of) the  ideological scale. Yet even for Pipes himself, surely this is an egregious example of flagrant bias so as to not even cast a vague, half-hearted nod to any pretentions of equality or impartiality whatsoever?

I do not claim to be an expert on this situation. I have only been reading about this story specifically for a few days now, but the evidence seems to be just simply incontrovertible. Any dissenting opinions are welcome.

 

McDonalds mistake 2, December 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa.
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A Happy Meal toy sold in a McDonalds in Morocco has caused something of a problem when it had a map on it that did not correctly include the Western Sahara as part of Morocco. The demarcation of this area is something of a touchy issue in Morocco and has been the cause of numerous almost totally unreported clashes in recent years. Perhaps one could equate this mistake to a Russian map not containing Chechnya or an Iraqi map which has Kuwait as a part of Iraq. But the salient question is this: how many McDonald’s will be burned to the ground because of this sleight