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The strength of Middle East nationalism as a search for legitimacy 27, February 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Foreign Policies, Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East, Saudi Arabia.
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Since Napoleon raised his army on a diet of nationalistic fervour, flags and anthems, people in the West have been only too aware of the powerful nature of nationalism. This is not to say that it is not powerful elsewhere. However, from a Western perspective, since Western states have – on the whole – been established, bordered and Weshphalian entities for longer than elsewhere in the world, there is, it could be suggested, something of an implicit assumption that nationalism could be ipso facto stronger in the West. In the Middle East, for example, how could the forces of nationalism possibly be that strong, one might think, in such young states (some of which only became independent in 1971) where there is such a manifestly important and pervasive uniting element at the supra-national level in Islam?

Whatever the apparent logic of such a position, it is clearly wrong: nationalism in the Middle East is thoroughly entrenched and all too visible. During the Iraq-Iran war, many on the Iranian side expected that their Shia brethren in the Iraqi army (and the vast majority in the country) might switch sides to the Iranians or at least not fight. Eight years of bitter, attritional and epically costly warfare later and such notions were thoroughly disabused. In a talk given at Durham University, the Iraqi Ambassador to America echoed these sentiments when discussing Shia in power in Baghdad today: they did and do not ‘sell out’ Iraq to Iran in any way, shape or form, act as Iranian stooges or even fail to drive a hard bargain where necessary. They were Iraqi first and Shia second.

Exactly the same logic has been apparent in Bahrain recently. Bahrain, like Iraq under Saddam, is mostly Shia but ruled by a Sunni minority. In the Bahraini case the country is approximately 2/3 Shia. There have always been exceedingly close ties with Persia/Iran but some 230KM away. Indeed, the ruling al Khalifah family have always feared the closeness of Iran and their history of overlordship. Their fears are not eased by periodic hawkish remarks from various Iranian parliamentarians, such as last week’s comments by Ali Akber Nateq Nouri the speaker of Iran’s parliament bemoaning that Bahrain used to be the 14th province of Iran. Far from inciting his Shia, Farsi-speaking former country-men in Bahrain to stand up against the Sunni minority (whether that was what he was intending or not) such actions created a vociferous nationalist reaction and general opprobrium.

“Three Arab summits in response to the Gaza offensive.”

3-conferences-for-gaza-peaceAl-Quds Al-Arabi, London, January 17, 2009 (MEMRI)

The manifest strength of nationalism in the Middle East is one of the reasons that, despite most of the region having a common language, an over-achingly common religion, a common enemy in Israel, a common cause in the Palestinian situation and common social, cultural and political histories, so many divisions emerge when trying to come together over a given issue. The most recent example of this was in the establishment of conferences to deal with the Israeli invasion of Gaza: one involving Qatar, Iran and Syria, another with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and a third in Kuwait. As Gregory Gause writes, however, these divisions are nothing new and indeed were even more divisive in the recent past.

It could be argued that the desire for each Arab country to be seen as ‘fixer in chief’ stems from their inherent lack of democratic legitimacy. Without a popular mandate, leaders have to justify their positions in a different way. Acting as a leading country in the region, one that is standing up to Israel or assiduously helping the Palestinians, is all currency that may help fill the democratic void.

Kuwait: still seeking reparations from Iraq after 19 years 27, February 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iraq, Kuwait.
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I have just learned that Iraq is still paying Kuwait war reparations for the invasion 19 years ago. Apparently, Iraq pays 5% of its oil revenues to Kuwait each year. So far this has totaled some $13.3 billion. Here are a few statistics to be thinking of:

………………………………………….Kuwait                                Iraq

Infant mortality                          9/1000                              45/1000

Average life expectancy             77                                         69

Unemployment rate                    2.2%                                     18-30%

GDP per capita                        $60,000                             $4,000

So, in sum, Kuwait is an epically rich country with a tiny, healthy population whose infants are going to out-survive Iraqi infants 5:1, whose population out lives Iraqis by 12 years, who are vastly more likely to be able to work, and whose GDP is 15 times greater. This, of course, is not even mentioning things such as a Kuwaiti’s ability to walk down the street, go shopping, visit friends without the fear of being kidnapped, murdered, raped or beaten. The biggest problem that a Kuwaiti has is whether to gorge themselves at Chillis or TGI Fridays.

I do not doubt for a second that the invasion of Kuwait was devastating as well as utterly illegal and immoral. Reparations were undoubtedly due. It was, however, 19 years ago and carried out by a ruthless dictator. The population had no say whatsoever and could not ‘opt out’. Kuwait’s actions can only be aimed at punishing a population that have been continuously punished to varying horrifying degrees over the last four decades.

In the last 19 years, Kuwait has recovered in every way, shape and form and is prospering like never before. In the intervening 19 years, Iraq has descended into a spiral of country-wide decay and destruction. For Kuwait to demand more money from Iraq, as it is trying to rebuild every facet of Iraqi life – from electricity generation to basic agriculture – is utterly immoral.

China’s population/world state map 27, February 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China.
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I’ve just found a curiously fascinating blog at wordpress.com which is well worth a browse: http://www.strangemaps.wordpress.com . One of the best maps that I saw was the one below, showing various countries as Chinese provinces by population. Excellent stuff.

China provinces and world population map

There’s some interesting bumf about the populations at the site too.

Djibouti & Dubai Ports open East Africa’s newest port 23, February 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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(From the FT 22/02/2009)

The Financial Times reports on the opening next month of East Africa’s highest-capacity container port in Djibouti. Dubai Ports World has invested around $400 in the facility that is excepted to capitalise on 30% year on year growth to become the East Africa’s premiere shipping terminal. It hopes to use the new facilities, its strategic location two days sailing from the mouth of the Red Sea and the port’s exceptionally deep water to make a sizable dent in Mombassa and Dar Es Sallam’s trans-shipping trade. These ports compete for the right to off load cargo from larger ocean going vessels to the (relatively) smaller ones used to go up and through the Suez Canal.

The Financial Times quotes Neil Davidson of London’s Drewry Shipping Consultants who cautioned that there was general over-supply is this type of shipment around Djibouti. Large amounts of regional growth would be needed, Davidson continued, if DP World’s goals for the port are to be met.

It seems, therefore, that the biggest winners will be the shipping lines themselves. Now that they have Djibouti as another option, they can further take advantage of an already competitive market to drive down their prices either at Djibouti itself or further south at Mombassa and Dar Es Sallam. So far the FT reports that DP World has been able to persuade APL the operator of the seventh biggest container fleet in the world, to switch to Djibouti at the expense of Sokhna in Egypt.

Actual changes in Saudi society? 16, February 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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I have written previously about the vacillating nature of reform in Saudi Arabia. Forward one day, back the next. However, it appears as if King Abdullah has taken something of a decisive step forwards. The New York Times reports the firing of the chief of Saudi’s notorious religious police as well as the conservative cleric who deemed it acceptable to kill owners of TV stations that broadcast ‘immoral’ content. Furthermore, as if to add insult to the conservative’s injury, he appointed a woman as a deputy cabinet minister overseeing girl’s education. Need it be said, this is first appointment of this type in Saudi history.

These signs are particularly encouraging as the King appears to be instigating practical reforms in key areas of society: the police, education, and the media. This will please those craving reform. However, they must realise – as indeed many of them do – that reforms can not come too quickly, for Saudi society is both fragile and conservative. Nevertheless, this is clearly at least one step forward and…

Darkly grim irony 11, February 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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The editor and the publisher of one of India’s largest English language newspapers have been arrested and charged with “hurting the religious feelings” of Muslims. Complaints ensued from an article that they reproduced from the Independent titled “Why should I respect these oppressive regimes?”

According to the BBC the police have broken up several protests this week outside the publisher’s offices in Calcutta. The original article slammed Islamic and Jewish regimes as well as Christianity and Islam. The central argument was that religions do not deserve unmitigated respect for what the author describes as barbaric practices. The irony, it seems to me, stems from the violence of those rioting claiming that they and their religion are not violent.

Low supplies in Afghanistan 5, February 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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STOP THE PRESSES….news just in from the US Military that Camp Phoenix, their largest in Afghanistan, is running low on supplies including Doritos and Tostitos Scoops…..oh the inhumanity of it all….war truly is hell.

(Thanks to Kings of War for the tip.)