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Kuwait uses terror laws to arrest journalist for questioning leadership 30, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Kuwait is one of the most politically and democratically advanced countries in the Middle East. They also have one of the freest presses in the region. Long established newspapers like the Kuwait Times are broadly free to discuss all manner of topics even if, for example, criticising the ruling family is wholly out of bounds. Kuwaitis are proud of their proto-democratic institutions even if they are frequently infuriated by their inaction and inability to get things done and their robust press is similarly a source of some pride.

However there is currently a severe test of Kuwait’s relatively free press. Mohammed Al Jassem is a former editor of a Kuwait daily newspaper (Al Watan – The Nation) and the founding editor of the Arabic versions of Foreign Policy and Newsweek. He is also one of Kuwait’s most famous journalists and has a habit of criticising the Prime Minister, a nephew of the Emir. This is, essentially, the extent of his charges.

The Prime Minister is no stranger to criticism and has been the subject of various attempts to make him answer questions in Parliament; the so-called ‘grillings’. Yet Al Jassem’s criticisms have struck a very raw nerve. He accuses the PM of being some kind of conduit for Iranian power and influence to grow in Kuwait. He is also accused of exhorting the PM to resign in a private meeting.

The Al Sabahs reacted furiously to these allegations. They rained down slander and defamation cases on Al Jassem who was sentenced to 6 months in jail in one example. Under appeal he was rearrested under the auspices of an Internal Security Law and charged with “instigating the overthrow of the regime and “inciting to dismantle the foundations of Kuwaiti society.””

Along with using this terrorism-type law to arrest him he has been treated, according to the Washington Post, as a terrorist; being hooded when brought into court and handcuffed and confined to a courtroom cage. Perhaps most worryingly, local press has been banned from covering his trial.

The Iranian issue is extremely sensitive throughout the Gulf. The smaller and richer GCC states fear Iran in various ways. Directly, Iran poses a serious military threat, yet this is significantly mitigated by the presence of U.S. forces in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and in the Gulf waters. The more pressing concern, therefore, is the notion of Iranian ‘5th columnists’ at large in GCC states. Bahrain with a Shia majority and Saudi with a significant minority in their resource-rich Eastern provinces have more acute fears than Kuwait yet many are still concerned. Salafi MPs in Kuwait have been drawing attention, much like al Jassem, to what they see as the worrying growth of Iran’s influence in Kuwait. Some MPs were arrested in 2008 when they praised/celebrated the death of Imad Mugniyah, the assassinated Hezbollah leader. Other MPs have ominously warmed that there are Iranian ‘sleeper cells’ throughout the Gulf.

Whilst concerns of the growth of Iran’s soft power are to some degree understandable, notions of legions of Iran sponsored sleepers or indeed that the PM is somehow spreading Iranian influence, are not credible.

Nevertheless, Al Jassem’s comments, striking with force such a profound nerve in Kuwait and the Gulf more generally, will prove a serious challenge to Kuwait’s vaunted relative press freedom. I expect Al Jassem to be sentenced to jail for, say, 15 years only to be released after 6 months as well as possibly being exiled.

UAE GDP per Emirate and tax 29, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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Once every six months or so there is an article in the Gulf press – no doubt studiously ignored by the rulers – which calls for some kind of tax imposition. The latest article is more interesting than most as it comes with some figures on each Emirate’s contribution to the UAE’s overall GDP.

2008 UAE GDP: $254 billion

Abu Dhabi: $141 billion

Dubai: $82 billion

Sharjah: $19.6 billion

Ras Al Khaimah: $4.3 billion

Ajman: $3 billion

Fujairah: $2.7 billion

Umm Al Qaiwain: $1 billion

Jail for Dubai DJ with cannabis in his blood 29, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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A British DJ has been sent to jail in Dubai for 4 years for having traces of cannabis in his blood. No cannabis was found in his possession.

The Emirate is well-known for its absurd harsh anti-drugs policy. Though Dubai’s police aren’t good enough to catch over thirty Mossad agents sauntering through Dubai and killing a Hamas commander, they have arrested and prosecuted other visitors for carrying 2.16g and 0.0002g of cannabis as well as 0.5g of hashish and 2 poppy seeds. Nice to see they have their priorities in the right place.

Clearly the government and police need to pursue such a draconian policy to act as a moral counterweight to all of Dubai’s debauchery. With a silent minority/majority of Emiratees unhappy at Dubai’s ‘westernisation’ replete with legions of prostitutes and drinking culture, these kinds of petty symbolic efforts are there – like the proverbial finger in a Dike – to appease locals and for officials to save face.

A Rentier Coup in a Rentier State 28, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, The Emirates.
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The following article was published in the Daily News Egypt.

The quickly declining health of Ras Al Khaimah’s ruler is precipitating a round of intrigue and succession stories in the northernmost Emirate of the UAE. Sheikh Saqr Al Qasimi, 92, one of the longest ruling leaders in the world having ascended to the throne in 1948, has been in hospital for at least the past month.

His son and Crown Prince, Sheikh Saud, has been in charge of the Emirate for some time but his official assumption of the throne faces a serious challenge from the former Crown Prince Sheikh Khalid who was deposed in 2003. The reasons for his removal from power are not wholly clear. It is believed that Khalid was forced into exile by his half-brother Saud for his staunch anti-Iranian rhetoric in addition to leading anti-Iraq war protests during which an American flag was apparently burned. It is even alleged that his ‘pro-woman’ attitude in the conservative emirate contributed to his downfall. Either which way, when he was deposed the UAE central government needed to send tanks to RAK to restore order after protests erupted. Saud has lived in exile since in Oman and London.

None of this, however, is anything new. Succession challenges are the norm in Gulf States. Overall, the majority of transitions of power in the past two centuries have involved some violence in the form of a coup or, at the very least, the successor has been challenged for the title.

What is different in this case is the 21st century manner in which Khalid has gone about resuming his place in line to the throne. Much like the Emirates’ economy is described as a ‘rentier’ in nature with their income (or rent) largely derived from oil and gas with an exceedingly heavy reliance of foreign workers, this appears to be a rentier coup. Specifically, Khalid hired Californian Strategies, an American public relations firm to devise a plan to return him to power. Some members of the PR staff even reportedly get a $250,000 bonus if they succeed.

Cognisant of exactly what will grab the attention of America and the world at large, the PR agency — paid some $3.7 million to date according to The Guardian — began to formulate an image of Khalid as a Western-orientated, modern, pragmatic, facebook and twitter-friendly leader. They even arranged meetings and photo opportunities with, for example, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Saud, in stark contrast, was depicted as either fostering or at least harbouring terrorist elements including Al Qaeda. The decision of the America’s Cup yachting team not to stop off in RAK due to alleged terrorist concerns was one strand of this ploy. Moreover, RAK’s close links to Iran and their Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) were highlighted. RAK was portrayed as an offshore sanctions-busting Mecca for Iran; a ‘rogue state’ within the UAE.

The PR agency collated these charges into a report (with similar visual similarities to official US Congressional Research Service reports) which opens with the line “Closest to Iran and furthest from UAE central authority is the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, which lies some 60 miles from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and enjoys excellent deep-water ports.” From the very beginning, therefore, insinuation and nefarious implications abound.

The true extent of these charges is not clear. Certainly, RAK is a conservative Emirate but evidence of their harbouring terrorists is sparse and unconvincing. There was an alleged plot against the Khalifah Tower in Dubai, but this centred more on the Emirate of Ajman not RAK. As for their Iran links, these must be understood in the Emirati context. Dubai, for example, according to a recent Bloomberg article, has 8,000 Iranian businesses, at least 1,200 trading companies, 400,000 Iranians living there and trade rose to $12 billion in 2009. In short, it would be miraculous if RAK, the closest Emirate to Iran, did not have significant trade with Iran.

The success of this quasi-coup depends on Abu Dhabi. The most powerful of the Emirates, their ruler and Emirati President, Khalifah bin Zayad Al Nayhan, will have a significant say in the decision. He has a vested interest in assuring stability in RAK; any security concerns could quickly end up 80km down the road in Dubai or 120km further on in Abu Dhabi. Installing the (now) clearly pro-American Khalid in power would not only please the Americans but fit in more with Abu Dhabi’s harsher anti-Iranian stance as compared to, for example, Dubai. Nevertheless, interfering in succession issues is always a dangerous business, even more so if there is the suggestion that it was done under foreign (American) pressure. Lastly, if Saud is ousted and Iranian trade does consequently dip, as it surely would under Khalid’s premiership, then the Iranian sized hold in RAK’s economy will have to be filled — quickly — by Abu Dhabi lest they wreck the fragile rentier bargain.

Bandar bin Sultan: recuperating in Morocco 24, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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There have been wild rumors for some time now speculating on what has happened to Saudi Prince and former Ambassador to America for 2 decades Bandar bin Sultan. Some of the more inventive stories suggested that he was in jail in Saudi for plotting a coup. However, more mundanely, Le Figaro’s Middle East blog reports that he has been in hospital in France and is now recuperating in Morocco: like father like son, you could say.

Depending on which rumour you choose to believe, he has been suffering from spinal problems, depression or colon cancer.

The Crucible & Bush 18, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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I went to a rather nice open-air rendition of Miller’s The Crucible earlier in the week. In the midst of Regent’s Park, with the trees swishing around, the sun gently setting and birds chirping away, it was a delightful setting. The play itself didn’t disappoint.

Written about the McCarthyist purges in America in the 50s, much of the play seemed to have distinct echoes in much of Bush’s rhetoric: the absolute notion of you’re either with us or against us; the hysteria of rooting out Al Qaeda sleeper cells based on scanty often absurd evidence and the tautological sense of logic that so often seemed to pervade. Rumsfeld’s notion that the fact that there is no proof that x is a terrorist just means that s/he has hidden it really well not that s/he might be innocent, leapt to mind time and again.

The best line in the play was, however, nothing to do with such shenanigans:

The pure in heart need no lawyers.

UAE press censorship 17, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Censorship, Media in the ME, The Emirates.
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Here is a perfect example of press censorship in the UAE.

This is the opening line from an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ras Al Khaimah wants to avoid the financial problems of fellow sheikdom Dubai and reduce its 5 billion U.A.E. dirhams ($1.36 billion) of debt after funding a development splurge with Islamic bonds, a senior official said.

This article was reproduced in Gulf News. But here’s their first line.

Ras Al Khaimah wants to reduce its Dh5 billion ($1.36 billion) of debt after funding development with Islamic bonds, a senior official said.

Surely there are laws about taking such content and changing it? If not there really ought to be.

An excellent hat tip to Sultan Al Qassemi.

New Israeli flotilla attack video 16, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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Some parts of this video are a bit difficult to watch.

Israeli Attack on the Mavi Marmara, May 31st 2010 // 15 min. from Cultures of Resistance on Vimeo.

This is the latest video from the Israeli flotilla attack. Some things I learned:

  • The boat was a lot larder than I first realised
  • There were SIGNIFICANTLY more people on board than I first realised
  • This video mooching around what I’d guess to be a fair bit of the ship gave no evidence whatsoever of any quasi-militias on board. The worst was a guy – quite literally – flicking something at an Israeli helicopter with a tiny hand-held catapult. A bit pathetic and pointless really.
  • This video shows what I imagine to be a majority of the people on board having nothing whatsoever to do with brandishing any weapons or attacking anyone. Most people seemed to be holding cameras, offering first-aid and generally milling around.
  • The caveat to some of the above points being that this video does not cover any struggles/fighting between Israelis and others. Yet, my point overall has been and still is that the vast majority of people on board wanted no fight to break-out. I’ve no doubt that some were looking for a confrontation, but, I suggest, that such people are not in the majority.

Qatar plan $100bn investment spree 14, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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There is not much of a sign of a recession in Qatar where plans have been announced for a $100 billion spending spree on infrastructure projects. Roads, water treatment and other large-scale infrastructure projects will take the lion’s share of the total in the coming years.

This article on Gulf News quoted the predicted growth of Qatar’s economy as some 18.5% this year, though I have seen (unbelievable) estimates of 25%.

BP spill coffee cup 14, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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