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Poor Arabic journalism and its effects 5, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Media in the ME, Middle East.
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You do not have to be able to read or understand Arabic to understand what I’m trying to say with this post. Simply have a look at the Arabic/squiggles below. This is an article taken from the Saudi daily newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat. In bold are the names, titles and roles of the ministers involved in this meeting. As you can plainly see, they take up, what, 80% of the article? This article is, therefore, little more than a list of who attended the meeting. The rest of it is just the usual kind of fluff “met to discuss improving economic relations etc etc etc” that, along with lists of names and titles, plagues swathes of Arab journalism. This is turgidly bad journalism and wouldn’t be tolerated in a University newspaper in the UK.

When people read this kind of thing I fear two things. One, that they automatically dismiss it as government controlled fluff with no real content, analysis and certainly no independence. Two, that this automatic dismissal of ‘official’ newspapers infects peoples’ views about the media as a whole. That they subsequently do not trust other mainstream newspapers and instead seek their information from irregular sources be it on the internet, the local shisha bar or the Mosque. That they grow to automatically reject any kind of media consensus or what any government says.

I wonder how far to push this logic: can it stretch to some notion of it pushes some people to ‘divine their news from religious sources’ which is, after all if you’re that way inclined, the one true truth that there is. Does this embedded anti-establishment antagonism essentially guarantee that instead of reasonable discussion and analysis conspiracy theories take a vicious hold of society? Does this hold true or is the leap of logic and a generalization too far?



استقبل الأمير سلطان بن عبد العزيز ولي العهد نائب رئيس مجلس الوزراء وزير الدفاع والطيران والمفتش العام السعودي، في قصره بأغادير أول من أمس، الشيخ الدكتور محمد صباح السالم الصباح نائب رئيس مجلس الوزراء وزير الخارجية بدولة الكويت، والشيخ خالد بن أحمد بن محمد آل خليفة وزير الخارجية بمملكة البحرين، والشيخ عبد الله بن زايد آل نهيان وزير الخارجية بدولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة، ووزير الخارجية الأردني ناصر جودة، الذين نقلوا له تحيات وتقدير قادة بلدانهم.

وقد استمع ولي العهد خلال اللقاء من وزراء الخارجية لإيجاز عن أعمال الاجتماع الوزاري السادس لمنتدى المستقبل الذي عقدت أعماله أول من أمس في مدينة مراكش المغربية والتي ستسهم في تعزيز التطور الاقتصادي والسياسي والاجتماعي في شمال أفريقيا والشرق الأوسط. وأقام الأمير سلطان مأدبة غداء تكريما للوزراء.

حضر الاستقبال ومأدبة الغداء الأمير سلمان بن عبد العزيز أمير منطقة الرياض، والأمير سعود الفيصل وزير الخارجية، والأمير خالد بن عبد الله بن محمد، والأمير خالد بن سعد بن فهد، والأمير سطام بن سعود بن عبد العزيز، والأمير فيصل بن سلطان بن عبد العزيز الأمين العام لمؤسسة سلطان بن عبد العزيز آل سعود الخيرية، والأمير فهد بن خالد بن عبد الله بن محمد، والأمير سعود بن خالد بن عبد الله بن محمد، والأمير عبد الله بن خالد بن عبد الله بن محمد، والأمير محمد بن سلمان بن عبد العزيز، والأمير نايف بن سلمان بن عبد العزيز، والأمير بندر بن سلمان بن عبد العزيز، وعبد الله بن سعد الغريري رئيس مراسم ولي العهد، وحمد بن عبد العزيز السويلم نائب رئيس ديوان ولي العهد، ومحمد بن سالم المري السكرتير الخاص لولي العهد، وعبد الله بن مشبب الشهري رئيس المكتب الخاص لولي العهد، ومحمد بن عبد العزيز الشثري رئيس الشؤون الخاصة بمكتب وزير الدفاع والطيران والمفتش العام، والدكتور محمد البشر سفير السعودية لدى المغرب، واللواء ركن عبد الرحمن بن صالح البنيان مساعد مدير عام مكتب ولي العهد نائب رئيس مجلس الوزراء وزير الدفاع والطيران والمفتش العام، واللواء ركن علي الدحيم الملحق العسكري السعودي في المغرب، والشيخ خالد بن سلمان آل خليفة سفير البحرين لدى المغرب، ووزيرة الدولة في دولة الإمارات ريم الهاشمي، وسفير الكويت لدى المغرب محمد صالح الذويخ، وسفير الإمارات لدى المغرب سعيد الكتبي.

وكان وزراء الخارجية الأمير سعود الفيصل والشيخ الدكتور محمد صباح السالم الصباح والشيخ خالد بن أحمد بن محمد آل خليفة والشيخ عبد الله بن زايد آل نهيان وناصر جودة، قد وصلوا في وقت سابق أول من أمس إلى أغادير، وكان في استقبالهم بالمطار الأمير سلمان بن عبد العزيز أمير منطقة الرياض وعدد من الأمراء والمسؤولين

Saudi snub Qatar and Oman 5, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Oman, Qatar, Russia.
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Al Sharq Al Awsat reports that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince summoned the Foreign Ministers of the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan to his residence for a discussion. Plainly and pointedly missing from this meeting are the Foreign Ministers of Qatar and Oman. Whether this is a deliberate snub is difficult to say. Veteran – if implacably angry – commentator on the region Assad Abu Al Khalil certainly takes this for a snub towards the excluded countries.

Oman and Qatar have the highest levels of Israeli interaction in the Gulf. In Doha there is an Israeli trade office which has been closed since the January Israeli incursion. As for Oman, they too have a (now closed) Israeli trade office in Muscat but there is also an Omani Embassy in Israel and formal diplomatic representation for Israel in Muscat. Both countries also apparently offered to resume relations in return for Israeli movement (or lack thereof) on settlements.

This is, therefore, a perfectly feasible reason or common denominator as to why the two states may have been excluded. Perhaps the UAE are lucky still to have been invited given that the Israeli flag was raised for the first ever time in Abu Dhabi a few weeks ago, but their relations still do not really compare to Oman and Qatar’s.

Indeed, at higher levels of the Saudi government, there is believed to be considerable anger remaining from the Qatar-Saudi Arabian conference scuffle in January, with each seeking to hog the limelight and host the summit to get Arab agreement on how to proceed to resolve the recent Israeli invasion.

There are no firm conclusions to be made, only interesting suppositions to be conjured up and – essentially – gossip to be spread.

Arabia running out of…sand 5, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia.
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No longer is the key debate in Gulf politics about when oil and gas reserves will run out but instead when sand will run out. This may come as a surprise to those who have been to the various bits and pieces of desert in the Gulf and seen, well, lots of sand or those that know about Saudi’s ‘Empty Quarter’, one of the world’s largest sand deserts covering some 250,000 square miles (i.e. France, Holland, Belgium and a bit of Luxembourg).

Yet as unbelievable as it seems, Bahrain will soon be looking for another supplier of sand as Saudi Arabia have announced that they will be stopping the sale of this latest precious substance for fear that they might run out.

Cynics, however, (or those with a rudimentary grasp of geography and common sense) might suggest that this policy about turn has more to do with politics and international relations. It was, after all, King Abdullah himself that ruled that no longer would Saudi Arabia supply the region’s sand. Unless he is some kind of sandologist and/or knows a whopping big secret about Saudi’s quarter of a million miles of sandy deserts, there is, it could tentatively be suggested, something else afoot.

Gulf Daily News reports that this is the second blow to Bahrain’s construction industry in little over a month. At the beginning of October King Abdullah banned the transport of cement and – wait for it – sand across the King Fahd Causeway to ease traffic congestion. How noble of the King to care about traffic congestion and to care about the plight of Saudi’s disappearing sands.

So, answers on a postcard as to what King Abudllah currently has against the powers that be in Manama. Perhaps he’s still angry that Saudi’s former protectorate/vassal-state knocked Saudi out of the World Cup last month…

Hat tip: MEI blog

The Doha Tribeca Film Festival 5, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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Doha’s inaugural Tribeca Film Festival seems to have been a success. The venues were all suitably busy and bustling, the chat about the films appropriately complimentary and the whole thing seems to have gone without a hitch. Alas I didn’t have the chance to see that many films, only three.

There was a free screening of ‘Jassim’, a documentary based on one of Qatar’s most celebrated leaders. It was directed by Peter Webber whose impressive CV includes an Oscar nomination for ‘The Girl With a Pearl Earing’. The cinematography was, therefore, beautiful. The story was…erm…certainly one way of looking at the history of Jassim Al Thani. There was spontaneous clapping when Jassim slayed some historical foe (in curiously non-galant circumstances…stabbing him in the back) which was a surprise and a nice reminder of how close Qataris feel to their history, in certain ways.

More interestingly, Webber discussed how he has been hired for what seems to be most of the year to be the literal/artistic director of Qatar’s National Day celebrations this December. He is making a few more short films and documentaries which include one about the screening of Jassim ‘days away from civilization by prop-plane’ in some jungle or other in South America to the tribes people there whom have never seen a desert before and then – if I understood all this correctly – flying some of them to Doha to have a look around. It just goes to those the unfathomable flexibility in the Qatari wallet, especially when it comes to anything to do with their precious history.

The other documentary shown was by a local director concentrating on the history of film and cinema in Qatar. No, before you ask, there wasn’t really one and no, it wasn’t that interesting.

Over at City Center I saw one of the best films that I might ever have seen. The curiously titled No One’s Heard About Persian Cats delved into Tehran’s underground music scene which, I admit, sounds utterly pretentious, niche and oh-so achingly ‘modern’. However, my cynicism was proved to be very misplaced. It was a film essentially about life in Tehran for a few young’uns and their attempts to escape literally and metaphorically the restraints that life in Iran today entails. It was a warm, superbly acted and visually stunning film with a fantastic soundtrack. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Qatar enters the movie business 5, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Just as the roadies are packing up Qatar’s Doha Tribeca Film Festival sets, stages and stands, there has been a veritable flood (ok, a sizable trickle) of movie related news emanating from the Gulf’s newest movie hotspot.

First was news that Qatari backers were going to launch a $150m English language film about the life of the Prophet Mohammed (PUBH). This film presumably looks to Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and sees its success as proof that audiences do actually like and go to see religious epics.

The film will be directed by Barrie Osborne whose film CV includes producing Lord of the Rings films and The Matrix. Religious consultancy will be provided by Qatar’s colourful resident religious expert Shiekh Yousef Al Qaradawi.

Also during the Tribeka Doha Film Festival a Qatari media group launched an ambitious $200m fund to finance “up to 15 features for the international market in the next five years.” One can never criticise Qatar for a lack of ambition, at least.

These film projects contribute to Qatar’s ever growing body of soft power policies designed to get Qatar more and more noticed on the international stage. Indeed, along with hosting numerous international sporting events, applying to host the World Cup in 2022 as well as more worthwhile policies such as large-scale munificence, peace-brokering and a huge push on education in Qatar itself, Qatar is undoubtedly making a positive name for itself across and beyond the region.

KAUST: criticisms and its future 5, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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Ibrahim Al Rubaish, a member of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has released a tape decrying Saudi King Abdullah’s decision to allow mixed sex education at the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) near Jeddah. The recording treads a familiar and predictable path accusing Abdullah of violating Sharia law and failing in his duty to protect Islam.

Al Rubaish himself is quite interesting. Interred at Guantanamo until his release into Saudi’s custody back in 2006, he entered their much vaunted rehabilitation programme until he left and promptly fled to Yemen and joined up with what passes for Al Qaeda there.

He is neither the first nor will he be the last to criticize King Abdullah’s $7bn pet project. More or less as soon as it was opened it was heavily criticised from within Saudi Arabia for – amongst other things – barring Saudi’s religious police from entering its perimeters. Therefore, in the compound, women can drive, do not need to cover their hair and will mix generally with the men, all of which is prohibited outside KAUST.

As I have discussed before, KAUST’s future is, as far as I see it, uncertain. Despite having world-class technology such as one of the world’s fastest super-computers, getting staff to move to Saudi Arabia to use it may well be a problem. Agreements with, for example, Oxford University and Stanford University, will get scientists and researchers there for relatively short-term stints, but this is hardly building a base of qualified staff for the long-term. Indeed, despite the no doubt high salaries, overall, I still expect that they will struggle.

Of greater concern to KAUST is, or at least should be, the thorny issue of Saudi’s succession. The current Crown Prince is, it seems, all but dead. I do not mean this in an unkind way, but simply that his death has been expected for some time now and reported on some occasions. Therefore, Prince Naif, the 34 year veteran of the Ministry of the Interior was made Second Deputy Prime Minister in March 2009. It appears that this position was made to simplify the route of succession, given Crown Prince Sultan’s severely ill-health.

Prince Naif is, however, generally believed to be something of an arch-conservative which, when said in a Saudi Arabian context, ought to give one pause for thought. His tenure at the head of the Ministry of the Interior has seen him, for example, crackdown repeatedly on Saudi’s Shia minority whom, I believe, greatly fear him coming to power. I have not come across an account of his personal views on the KAUST project but if (as seems reasonable) they can be extrapolated from his other long documented conservative tendencies, then it is safe to say he would disapprove.

However, this is not to say that he would automatically clamp down on KAUST were he to ascend to the throne. There is a powerful argument running through ‘Saudi studies’ which dictates that Saudi’s leader’s policies are shaped more by Saudi’s situation than by their own personal proclivities. King Abdullah’s reforms are, therefore, as much if not more due to the mandates of, for example, the international situation post 9/11 and Saudi’s ever more pressing need to seriously address their lack of top-class educational institutions as it was because of his own ‘liberal’ tendencies.

The truth, as ever, no doubt falls somewhere in the middle. So far, it does seem unlikely – though far, far from impossible – that the unquestionably negative and conservative signal that clamping down on KAUST would send for would-be academics as well as for those on a governmental level might stay Naif’s hand. This is, of course, pure speculation but that is almost beside the point. The very fact that this concern is a factor worth discussing is, in and of itself, a perfect example of the uncertainty that will, in addition to structural and other issues, continue to make KAUST’s job of recruiting, teaching and excelling all the harder.