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Explaining Qatar’s schizophrenic foreign policy 29, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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I’ve just written an article that has been published in the Egypt Daily News discussing Qatar’s apparently contradictory foreign policies. Do go and have a look.

Doha’s monster update 28, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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Alas, as i feared, the little monster running around Doha is no more…shame.

Optimism on Pakistan 28, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Central Asia.
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Here are two posts from respected commentators on Pakistan’s crisis. They decline to jump on the ‘we’re all going to die’ bandwagon and put Pakistan’s recent issues into context.

Hitchens’ Waterboarding 28, April 2009

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Here’s the video of journalist Christopher Hitchens being subjected to waterboarding. It is such a curious thing as it looks so harmless, yet so obviously isn’t. Where does it fit, however, in the grander scheme of torture? Torture in some of the Middle East’s prisons would be, I imagine, more like the torture that one imagines: blood, wailing and gnashing of teeth etc. The video of Sheikh Issa torturing the Afghan trader that I discussed recently is a case in point. Obviously that ordeal was far longer and more imaginative and certainly looks worse, but as I don’t suppose Hitchens would volunteer for a ‘compare and contrast’ experiment, we’ll never know.

Marketing 101: Understand your customer 28, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran.
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Many sources have reported the recent Iranian outbursts at the apparent sale of Israeli fruit in Tehran. It transpires, however, that this is simply down to a Chinese exporter that stuck the Israeli brand ‘Jaffa’ on the fruit, thinking that this carries connotations of quality. Whilst this may be true in some parts of the world, this clearly shows that this exporter has woefully misunderstood its market. Whilst it is, nevertheless, just a misunderstanding, several Iranian officials have (as usual, some might say) made abject fools of themselves by describing this as a ‘conspiracy‘ and demanding that those responsible be brought to justice. Such a pathetically ignorant attitude would be morbidly tragic if it weren’t quite so funny. I fear, however, that Iran would not be alone in such an absurd over reaction: imagine, for example, chairs being imported into China with a ‘Made in Independent Tibet’ sticker…

Picture: the offending fruit

Hat tip: MEI

Iran and Shiism: A misunderstood relationship 28, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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As usual there’s an excellent article over at the Middle East Institute’s blog, this time discussing the false association of Shiism with Iran. The article concisely explains that its roots are “as Arab as Sunnism” and that it is only since the 16th century or so when the ruling Safavids adopted Shiism that a closer association began. This Shia-Iran nexus was, of course, further entrenched with the 1979 revolution which began to pyrolyze across the region, worrying Sunni powers.

One of the most interesting aspects of this is the belief from the Sunni minority in Iraq (and who knows how many other people) that because the majority of Iraq’s population is Shia that they will somehow ‘side’ or be overly sympathetic towards Iran. This, as I have written about before, is just not the case. The MEI article adds another dimension to what I previously wrote and lends strength to the overall argument.

Backgrounder: Some Thoughts on Iraqi and Iranian Shi‘ism and Misperceptions

The attacks on the shrine of Al-Qazimiyya in Baghdad on Friday and on other Shi‘ite targets on Thursday and Friday threaten a renewal of sectarian conflict, as I noted at the time, but also spur me to talk a little about the role of Shi‘ism in Iraq, which is often misunderstood.

One fundamental misunderstanding is the idea that Shi‘ism is somehow intrinsically “Persian,” because of its contemporary association with Iran. Misunderstood by whom? I can think of at least three major groups:

  1. Westerners who know enough about Islam to understand the differences between Sunni and Shi‘a, but who have a fairly superficial knowledge;
  2. Most Sunni Arabs, at least those from countries without a large Shi‘ite population;
  3. Most Iranian Shi‘a.

The last one may be a bit unfair, and the second needs to be qualified, as it is above, to note that Sunnis from countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain or Kuwait usually have a more sophisticated understanding of Shi‘ism. But this is not just a rhetorical point: Shi‘ites in largely Sunni countries are sometimes portrayed as a pro-Iranian fifth column because of this misperception.

Shi‘ism was, in its origins, as Arab as Sunnism. It was born in Medina, nurtured in Kufa and had its great martyrdom on the field of Karbala’.

Of the 12 Imams of Twelver Shi‘ism, only one, ‘Ali al-Rida (‘Ali Reza), the eighth Imam, is buried in Iran (at Mashhad). The twelfth Imam disappeared in Iraq, and the other ten Imams are buried in Saudi Arabia or Iraq: ‘Ali, the central figure of Shi‘ism, is buried in Najaf, Iraq; Hasan, the second Imam, is buried in Medina; Husayn, the third, is buried where he fell at Karbala’ in Iraq; the fourth, ‘Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin, is buried in Medina, while the fifth and sixth are also buried in Medina; the seventh and ninth are buried at the Qazimiyya shrine attacked last Friday in Baghdad; the tenth and eleventh are buried in the al-‘Askari shrine in Samarra’ (blown up in 2006, starting a wave of sectarian killing); the twelfth disappeared in Samarra’ as well.

The reason there were so many Iranian pilgrims killed in the attacks in Iraq (leading Iran to blame them on the US and Israel, though clearly Sunni radicals were responsible) is that most of the major shrine mosques of Shi‘ism are in Iraq, final resting place for six of the twelve Imams.

The close identification of Iran with Shi‘ism really only dates from the 16th century, when Safavid Iran officially adopted Twelver Shi‘ism as its faith. While there had been earlier Shi‘ite dynasties there, Shi‘ite dynasties of one kind or another flourished in many Arab countries. Cairo’s ancient Fatimid gate, the Bab al-Nasr, even has an inscription reading “There is no God gut God; Muhammad is the Prophet of God and ‘Ali is the wali of God,” the Shi‘ite formulation of the Muslim shahada. (The Fatimids, though, were Isma‘ili Shi‘ites, not the Twelver variety found in Iran, Iraq, etc.)

Until Saddam Hussein began really cracking down on the Shi‘ite clerical establishment during the Iran-Iraq war (again, the suspicion of Shi‘ites as a fifth column), Najaf was the most important scholarly center for Shi‘ite theology; it was where the Ayatollah Khomeni himself taught in exile from Iran. With the Iranian Revolution and Saddam’s crackdowns, the importance of Najaf declined and Qom, Mashhad, and other Iranian clerical schools became suppliers of clerics to Shi&lsquites in other countries; with that came some genuine Iranian influence (such as with Hizbullah in Lebanon), but most Arab Shi‘ites are Arabic-speakers, not Persian-speakers.

As I said though, many Sunnis assume Arab Shi‘ites are somehow more Persian than they are, and many Iranians are surprised when Arab Shi‘ites do not avidly follow the Iranian model of clerical rule. Iraqi Shi‘ites rightly and proudly consider their country the seedbed of Shi‘ite Islam.

The UAE’s enormous defense spending 27, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, The Emirates.
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F-16E fighter jet

It has been announced that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the third largest weapons importer in the world after China and India, according to the Swedish think tank SIPRI. Furthermore, as the Al Jazeera article reveals, that means that that UAE is importing over a third of the entire Middle East’s arms. Considering that this includes Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iran, this is massively surprising. The UAE apparently bought 80 F-16E combat aircraft from America in addition to 50 Mirage fighter jets from France in the last four years alone. In an astounding bit of analysis, Al Jazeera’s correspondent suggested that this was of the UAE’s proximity to Iran.

This means that – if you’ll excuse some serious rounding up and generally inaccurate figures – that, per capita the UAE spend around $1750 per year on arms, where as China spend $8.72 and India $9.58. I think you’ll agree that the numbers are so vastly different that a few thousand (even million) either which way in terms of populations or arms estimates will not make any difference: either which way, the UAE are spending a huge amount for such a small country.

One last point: who is going to fly the planes and drive the tanks? I realise that there will, no doubt, be many UAE pilots in the US, for example, training away, but what happens when they get back? I spoke to a UK army advanced tactics tank commander in Kuwait where he was teaching the Kuwaitis which end of the tank is which. He was astounded at just how uncommitted and poor the elite of the Kuwaiti army were. The didn’t turn up to class, left half way through etc etc. Needless to say, if you did that in the British Army you’d be off to the glasshouse. Does the same thing apply to the UAE army and air-force? I fear it might. Such issues, apparently afflict the Saudi army too: all the toys that the American arsenal can give, but no dedicated or capable troops to use them.

Picture: F16-E Fighter jet

Lebanon’s terrorist chic 27, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Lebanon.
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There is an excellent post at semi-expert about the fetishisation of aspects of the Lebanese-Hezbullah discourse in the Western media. The well-written article roams from the ‘terror-tourism” of less than adventurous non-experts of the Middle East who get whisked around Beirut which results in “the usual enormously shallow analysis” to other themes of this pornographic writing genre such as a bizarre fascination with clothing, bars and (the more understandable fascination with) elections. The author persuasively identifies several sources for these penchants.

There are guns and strange bearded men, and both will grab an editor back home and a writer eager to show off his access to a closed world that is vaguely menacing. There is the legitimate fact that Hizbullah plays a definable role in Lebanon, so that it makes no sense not to cover the party. However, when was the last time a journalist sold a story on the inherent pluralism in Lebanese sectarianism? Once you’ve woken the editor up and told him that this defines Lebanon more accurately than Hizbullah does, he’ll still choose the riveting clarity of a Hizbullah peg.

Leave aside that Hizbullah is not so terribly closed an institution. It is in fact very easy to gain access to Hizbullah, it’s leadership, functions, and neighborhoods of influence. Hence some of the journalistic stuff struttin’. Beirut still holds the reputation as being the space of civil war and kidnappings by those strange and bearded men. And to have been there marks one as having gained some kind of arcane insight into the netherworld.

Regarding women’s clothing:

Another thing that grabs editors is prattle about women’s attire – of all types. This one fom a recent edition of Der Spiegle is an especially egregious and voyeuristic example of the genre. For God’s sake “Damascene perversion”? and “Palestinian women have the wildest taste”?

Juan Cole: Many Shiite young women are every bit as chic and oriented toward Paris fashion as their Maronite Catholic peers

Hitchens: Women with head covering were few; women with face covering were nowhere to be seen. Designer jeans were the predominant fashion theme.

Miller: Beirut is at least two cities—the modern capital with its chic designer shops, expensive bars, raucous nightclubs, and billboards advertizing [sic] breast augmentations and tattoo removals, and…Hezbollah’s southern suburbs…patrolled by the Party of God’s own traffic police and security forces. No breasts or even hairdos are on display here.

On bars and elections:

In all of this, the talk of those bearded men, and those scantily clad women, as well as the preoccupation with the amount of alcohol consumed in the Arab world (a new addition to the genre here about a return to the drinking and whoring ways of the days of Saddam), seems framed in such a way as to offer the hope to consumers of the major Western news outlets that those people over there are not so bad, even if they are somewhat quaintly odd, so long as they seem willing to adopt some of our ways. Never mind that those ways when placed into a Western context are condemned. The piece about drinking and other vices practiced in Baghdad discusses men gathering round a cockfighting pit and speaks with apparent approval of a relative renaissance of the oldest trade. And of course your reporter cannot pass up the opportunity to describe the clothing:

“She dresses in a head-to-toe, skin-tight black chador, and she is adorned with several pounds of solid gold bracelets, pendants, necklaces, earrings and rings, her response to the financial crisis.The female workers in the nightclub wore rather less clothing, but nothing that would be considered risqué on a street in Europe”

Here are a few links to the types of articles that the author has in his sights.

x x x x

I highly recommend you read the article in its entirety. Excellent stuff.

Hat Tip: the ever-excellent Arabic Media Shack

Ford, Chrysler & GM 25, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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The Big 3

The Darkest of Ironies: UAE & US Torture 24, April 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, The Emirates.
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**This video is horribly graphic in places**

ABC news in America has received and released some of the video footage of a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family torturing an Afghan man. Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan is the half- brother of the country’s crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed. He is clearly visible throughout the 45 minute video leading the group of men – including a man in police uniform – in torturing an Afghan man who he believed was trying to rip him off. Here are examples of some of the torture:

  • Shooting an automatic assault rifle into the ground inches from the bound man
  • Beating him with a cattle prod
  • Inserting a cattle prod into the man’s anus
  • Using the cattle prod on the man’s testicles
  • Setting fire to the man’s testicles with lighter fluid
  • Whilst being held down by the police officer sand is forced into his mouth, nose and eyes
  • Beating the man with wooden planks, particularly one with a nail sticking out the end
  • Salt is then poured over the man’s wounds
  • The man is repeatedly run over by the Sheikh’s huge SUV

What the ABC edited video shows is the utter sadism of Issa. From recording the video in the first place to demanding close ups “to see his suffering” to (literally) rubbing salt into his wounds, the punishment dealt to this man is horrific.

At this stage, usually one would want the world’s strongest power to come out with a forceful statement or even(!) action of some description. But, of course, America simply cannot say anything without sounds ridiculous. It does not matter that the torture carried out by Issa was infinitely worse that the equivalent in America (not that I’d like to be subjected to America’s torture…). The simple fact is that America has yet further lost its moral high ground EXACTLY when it needed it the most. And no, I am not one of those people that blame Obama and not the Bush Administration for all this. So many people seem angry that people know about the torturing not that America actually did the torturing. People’s perspective is getting hopelessly lost in part-political debates and it’s fairly sickening, especially when put into relief again the focus of this story. So far as I can see, this is simply the Bush Administration’s last shot from the grave to finally and for an exceedingly long time tarnish America’s reputation. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo just weren’t enough for them. They have an epic amount to answer for.