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Harvard Arab blogosphere study 28, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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Harvard University has recently released the findings of what looks to be a fascinating major new study into the Arab blogosphere. I have not had time to read it as yet, but their key findings are below. The paper can be found here.

We conducted a study of the Arabic language blogosphere using link analysis, term frequency analysis, and human coding of individual blogs. We identified a base network of approximately 35,000 active blogs, created a network map of the 6,000 most connected blogs, and with a team of Arabic speakers hand coded 4,000 blogs. The goal for the study was to produce a baseline assessment of the networked public sphere in the Arab Middle East, and its relationship to a range of emergent issues, including politics, media, religion, culture, and international affairs. A Country-based network (view the full map): The Arabic blogosphere is organized primarily around countries. We found the primary groupings to be: Egyptian (largest, with distinct sub- and associated clusters, e.g., Muslim Brotherhood bloggers, including some women); Saudi Arabian (second largest and focused comparatively more on technology than politics); Kuwaiti (divided into English and Arabic language sub-clusters); Levantine/English Bridge (bloggers in the Levant and Iraq using English and connected to the US and international blogospheres); Syrian; Maghrebi/French Bridge; and Religion-Focused. Demographic results indicate that Arabic bloggers are predominately young and male. The highest proportion of female bloggers is found in the Egyptian youth sub-cluster, while the Syrian and Muslim Brotherhood clusters have the highest concentration of males. Arabic media ecosystem: Bloggers link to Web 2.0 sites like YouTube and Wikipedia (English and Arabic versions) more than other sources of information and news available on the Internet. Al-Jazeera is the top mainstream media source, followed by the BBC and Al-Arabiya. Arabic bloggers tend to prefer more politically oriented YouTube videos over cultural ones. Personal life and local issues are most important: Most bloggers write mainly personal, diary-style observations. But when writing about politics, bloggers tend to focus on issues within their own country, and are more often than not critical of domestic political leaders. Foreign political leaders are discussed less often, but also more in negative than positive terms. Domestic news is more popular than international news among general politics and public life topics. The one political issue that clearly concerns bloggers across the Arab world is Palestine, and in particular the situation in Gaza (Israel’s December 2008/January 2009 military action occurred during the study). Other popular topics include religion (more in personal than political terms) and human rights (more common than criticism of western culture and values). Terrorism and the US are not major topics. When discussing terrorism, Arab bloggers are overwhelmingly critical of terrorists. When the US is discussed, it is nearly always critically.

Consecutive word game… 25, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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I am writing away but am thoroughly bored, so I’ve have decided to start a thrilling new word game. How many words in the English language can you put consecutively with the sentence still making sense? My best effort is:

“Did you think that that that that that boy said was one too many?”

Ok. So its not the most sensical sentence ever, but it’s good and grammatical.

Any advance on 5 then?

Ban Ki Moon slammed in FP magazine 25, June 2009

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Jacob Heilbrunn launches a scathing attack on Ban Ki Moon in Foreign Policy Magazine. Slating Moon for being idle in the midst of crisis, employing too many South Koreans, collecting too many honorary degrees and buying too many Samsung TVs, Heilbrunn clearly steps far, far over the line from objective analysis to angry, has-an-agenda, patronising, ill-informed ranting. And what a surprise, Heilbrunn is a commentator for the National Interest. What a surprise.

Dubai police chief: ‘end sponsorship” 25, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, The Emirates.
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Dubai’s Chief of Police has called for the  ‘old’ and ‘outdated’ system of sponsorship that is responsible for the country’s legion of foreign workers to go. The kafala system, as it is known, is widely seen as one of the prime causes of the systematic abuses that are found with migrate workers throughout the Gulf. Under the current system workers are contractually as well as effectively tied to one employer whose job it is to hire workers from abroad, process their paperwork, arrange their accommodation and medical insurance. This has led to wide-spread abuses with employers seeking to cut costs where ever they can often to the detriment of living and pay conditions. Additionally, employers usually and illegally confiscate employees’ passports so can not move on.

The Chief’s comments do not come, however, from a humanitarian stand point. Indeed, he sees the current system as simply being a burden for Emirati employers. No changes are expected it the near future.

Bahrain was the first state that mooted changes to this system a month ago. However, the Bahrain business lobby soon set about reducing any changes to the bare minimum. It remains to be seen what, if any, changes will come out of the other end of this process.

Britain as old Great Satan 25, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran.
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Just a quick thought on my earlier article on Britain as the New Great Satan. I’ve spoken to a few people about this and had some interesting comments. I am well aware, though my title might have belied that, that Britain and Iran’s relationship goes back some distance and that Iran has a long, seething and passionate hatred for the UK. I’ve spent most of this year reading about the 17th, 18th and 19th century history of the Gulf and Britain’s involvement along with many other powers.

Whilst I do agree with some the sentiment of David’s comment that ‘Britain has ALWAYS been enemy number one in Iran’ I do feel that recently, at least, the empirical evidence disagrees. It is not Britain’s name that Iranian’s have been castigating as the Great Satan for the last thirty years in Friday prayers. It seems to me, moreover, that Britain as the arch-enemy is a straw-man, which has a nice, familiar and potent resonance in Iranian history. I don’t think for one second that Ahmadinajad et al really believe the the UK has been up to anything particularly nefarious in Iran. But that with America being so manifestly popular at the moment and a chance of detente potentially around the corner, they need to go to their back-up enemy, the British.

Ali Ansari from St. Andrews has a peice in the Times of London discussing briefly the background of the Iranian-British relationship. Also, David points to a fascinating article in Prospect Magazine. I think that this article must be taken, however, with a pinch of salt. The author is selling his book, after all, which – as luck would have it – takes something of a controversial tone repletajade with ornate, verbose language and somewhat clumsy ‘I was there reporting’.

Huge blow for Doha’s Centre for Media Freedom 24, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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As I feared and predicted only yesterday, Robert Ménard the outspoken former head of Reporters Without Borders and the (then) head of The Doha Center for Media Freedom has quit along with his senior team. The final straw appears to have been the blocking of funding by higher authorities even though this was promised by the Centre’s funding charter.

The statement that Menard gave on his departure was scathing. He claimed that the Centre was being ‘suffocated’ by people that never wanted a truly independent Centre in the first place. He decried his inability to criticize Qatar itself saying “How can we have any credibility if we keep quiet about problems in the country that is our host?” He specifically singled Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al Thani, the head of Al Jazeera and who sat on the Centre’s board for criticism. Apparently, he refused to sign administrative documents to accept journalists under threat in other countries as well as seeking to extend more control over the Centre’s actions.

Ménard does, however, point out some of the good work that the Centre has managed to achieve recently, including giving assistance to deceased journalists’ families and providing flack-jackets for journalists who needed them. Furthermore, he singles out praise for Shiekha Mowza and Emir Hamad Al Thani, suggesting that they are, perhaps, somewhat ahead of their time.

Such a demise was, however, predictable. Having a truly independent Centre of this type in the Middle East would be highly difficult. Ménard’s frustration and anger is understandable, but how could Qatar, a tiny country in the Persian Gulf, accept journalists fleeing from, for example Iran, without creating an international incident? Unlike in the West, the State is assumed to be in control of more or less every organ in the country when it comes to matters such as these. Hence the difficulties that Al Jazeera has caused over the years for the government in Doha. Protestations that Al Jazeera or this Centre are independent entities and the government of Qatar do not exercise control over them are met with implacable demands to get them under control by other countries. Such independence is anathema to the Middle East as a whole.

This event caps a troubling and turbulent few months of media in the Middle East. The UAE introduced somewhat draconian laws severely hampering journalists’ freedoms and threatening them with jail terms or fines. Qatar too is apparently considering such laws making defamation of religion, the Emir or the country illegal. Also, the former British Editor of the National, the UAE based paper resigned, it is believed over the UAE’s press law and censorship issues more generally.

Inflation in Zimbabwe 24, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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zimbabwe inflation

Britain as new Great Satan = Iran wants detente? 23, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, UK.
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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has denounced Britain as a meddling, evil power to the extent that maybe – just maybe – we might have taken over America as the Great Satan. Whilst I would be thrilled for the UK to beat America at anything, I wonder what this means more strategically.

First, I suppose that it is more difficult to castigate America as evil now that Obama is being so manifestly open to dialogue and generally genial.

Second, obviously, the powers that be in Iran need some foreign power to blame. It makes historical sense that the UK would be next in the kicking line.

Third, does this, therefore, mean that Iran has some kind of longer-term detente stratagy with America? I honestly think that it might do. I can’t see them performing elections again or giving in in other substantive ways, though who’s to say what can happen in such a volatile situation? This leads me to suggest that the conservative few in Tehran are thinking a few moves ahead. Once this election fiasco has calmed down then, ceteris paribus, America might well seek to tentatively get back on track with their detente with Iran. This, therefore, seems to me to be Iran’s first gesture towards taking part in this detente as a way to appease the vocal liberal swathe of their population.

Doha Centre for Media Freedom funding withheld 23, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Doha’s Centre for Media Freedom, true to its ethos, vented its anger regarding what it sees as official meddling and non-payment. In an article it claimed that it had not been paid its stipulated and agreed funds by the 1st April. This meant that it was unable to fulfill its mandate and help journalists in dire need. It vaguely cites “some members of the government” as purposefully withholding payment. Until April, the Centre had given a total of 254 assistance grants to journalists in need around the world.

Although the Centre’s budget is a paltry $4 million by the standards of Qatar’s gas wealth, the Centre does not endear itself to the government. It criticizes the state as and when it sees fit and its criticisms of neighbouring countries will, as Al Jazeera has in the past, cause many issues for the Qatari government. The current head of the organisation, Robert Ménard, has something of a direct and even confrontational style when pursuing his work. How long the Centre will function, be funded and be headed by Ménard must be – unfortunately – open to question.

Sarkozy’s Islam comments poorly timed 23, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in French IR, Middle East, Qatar.
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French Emperor President Nicholas Sarkozy has controversially stated that the Islamic Burka is not welcome in France:

The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it’s a problem of liberty and women’s dignity. It’s not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can’t accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That’s not our idea of freedom.

Many worry that overt symbols of Islam such as the Burka or girls wearing the Veil in schools (as well as anyone wearing any religious symbolism in schools) threaten France’s secular nature.

These comments come, however, during the visit of the Emir of Qatar, Hamad Al Thani, to France. Qatar is something of a confusing country. Outwardly, they host Al Jazeera, allow alcohol consumption in the state, invite Western Universities to Doha to teach their children, but they are intrinsically a conservative country and follow the strict, much maligned Wahhabi version of Islam, as in Saudi Arabia. Conservative or not, such comments are sure to be provocative in a country where France wants to secure lucrative defense and other types of contracts. Indeed, this visit officially celebrates Qatar Airway’s purchase of Airbus aircraft at a time when the aviation industry isn’t far from on its knees.

One wonders how one the one hand Sarkozy wants to tow this hard-line approach at home, sure to anger many Muslims, but also seek to create ever greater links with countries in the Persian Gulf. These links range from establishing a French military base in Abu Dhabi, to supplying the Emirates with fighter- aircraft as well as ‘selling out’, as some French people see it, and allowing the Sorbonne and the Louvre to go to Abu Dhabi. Indeed, it seems like Sarkozy is seeking to let himself have cake and eat it.