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Seymour Hersh loses his marbles? 18, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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Working out when to leave the lime-light, put down the pen or stop treading the boards so as not to sully one’s reputation is a fine balancing act. Some can seemingly continue forever (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) while we wish that others had quit years ago. Who cannot have felt slightly creepy watching Sean Connery in Entrapment or finished watching Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau without a tinge of sadness?

I’ve talked before about this feeling with Robert Fisk. Once a great of the journalism world, a literal by-word for thorough fact checking and rigour, not only was his most recent tome utterly riddled with mistakes but his regular articles can be similarly error-strewn and one gets the impression that they are based on friends’ anecdotes more than a thorough appreciation of the ‘macro’ situation. (This doesn’t preclude him from the occasional super article, though).

So too must we now kindly ask that Seymour Hersh retire. Once – like Fisk – one of the brightest, most diligent and investigative of investigative reporters, uncovering government malfeasance and reporting it to the public, today he appears to have crossed over into a realm where every oddity or curious connection is automatically part of a grand conspiracy. At a talk that he just gave in Doha, Hersh recounted that:

Regarding the looting in Baghdab in 2003:

In the Cheney shop, the attitude was, ‘What’s this? What are they all worried about, the politicians and the press, they’re all worried about some looting? … Don’t they get it? We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. And when we get all the oil, nobody’s gonna give a damn…That’s the attitude…We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command.

He then alleged that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, “are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.

“They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins…They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.”


Torture of a Kuwaiti: Minister resigns 17, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Last week a Kuwaiti, Mohammad Ghazzai al-Mutair,  died in a police station as a result of “excessive torture”. He had been arrested in Ahamdi in Kuwait’s south transporting 24 bottles of Whiskey; something that is wholly illegal in Kuwait.

An opposition MP who investigated the claim said that he had been ‘brutally tortured and had a stick inserted into his anus’ and he arrived at hospital with his hands and feet tied.

The Kuwaiti Minister of Interior, Sheikh Jabir Al Sabah, submitted his resignation after persistent demands, while 5 policemen have been suspended.

While there are many serious flaws with Kuwait’s Parliament and issues with its ingrained rentireism (as I often note), there cannot be many Arab countries where their national print media would have followed such a case and where the national representative body could force the resignation of a Royal Minister.

Tunisia, its future, dominoes and the new media 17, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in North Africa.
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It was fascinating following Tunisia’s upheavals via Twitter. The first thing that struck me was how often trending tweets were (completely) wrong. Twitter is great for disseminating information extraordinarily quickly. An interesting tweet can be recycled at the touch of a button and, if it is on a trending topic, the tweet is exponentially repeated. There is only the (at times) gullible judgements of those re-tweeting there to stop a false rumour from being re-tweeted ad nauseam.

The first falsehood that I’m aware of was when the Foreign Minister’s webpage was hacked and a fake resignation letter was posted. Quite the interesting bit of gossip, this was whipped around the twittersphere at pace as news. Then were rumours that the President’s family had left for Malta and that an escape route had been planned for his imminent escape: two days before he finally left. When he did finally leave Twitter was comically bad at predicting where. Malta. Sardinia. Paris. Malta. Qatar. Malta. UAE. Saudi. Sudan and so on.

This is not to criticise Twitter as much as to prompt people to step back for a second and think about what Twitter actually is: a 21st century gossip super-highway.

Most of the tweets on Tunisia’s developments were of a breathless fervor; joyful that the dictator was leaving. While, of course, it is most certainly a good – great – think that Tunisia’s dictatorial leader has left, there was rarely any consideration of what was next. Indeed, many people appeared to simply assumed that things would automatically, ipso facto, be better with Ben Ali gone. While – again – I fervently hope that this is the case, it is far from a given conclusion. Today, looting and vigilantism has become a minor civil war between loyalists and the Army. Next? Who is to say? Even if there is no descent to civil disorder, I fear that peoples’ expectations now are sky-high and no politician operating within the constraints of a country that has gone through such a transition (perhaps badly wrecking one of its key national industries: tourism) can possibly compete.

So will Tunisia’s example lead to sweeping revolutions across the Arab world? History suggests not. Strangely enough we seem to have some kind of innate belief that such events often cascade across regions in a domino effect. Yet this is simply not true. It is worth noting that (Stephen Walt beat me too it) neither the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, Communism nor the Iranian Revolution led to any kind of ‘indigenous’ sweep of similar revolutions in nearby countries. Where neighboring countries did begin to follow, say, Communism, this was hardly the likes of the ‘natural domino effect’ that we think of but under the Soviet or Chinese boot or extreme pressure.

Moreover, not only have other Arab regimes now been forewarned as to the consequences of such demonstrations, but Tunisia is hardly going to seem like a glowing advert for a post-dictatorial state in the coming few weeks and months.




Free food & over $3500 for Kuwaitis 17, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Sometimes it can be tricky to come up with a definition of the rentier state; sometimes not.

On the occasion of Kuwait’s 50th anniversary of its independence from the British and its 20th anniversary of its liberation from Iraq, the Emir Sabah al Sabah is giving every Kuwaiti 1000 dinars or $3560 as well as 13 months of free food rations.

Several points now come to mind:

– Given that Kuwait is arguably on the brink (again) of serious issues in its Parliament, this may be a wise decision to try to placate all sides for a (short period of) time.

– I don’t quite understand the food stamps. Aside from simply being given 1000 KD, Kuwaitis have one of the most generous welfare states on earth (guaranteed jobs, ‘free’ loans then loan forgiveness, no taxes, no bills etc etc). Why would such a population who are – let’s be blunt here – very rich need food stamps? Perhaps it is some traditional-paternal ritual that the Emir wants to keep alive.

– Overall, I fear very greatly that these kinds of handouts are harmful for the longer term. Instilling in Kuwaitis more so than is already the case that they are owed free money, food and opportunities simply because they are Kuwaitis and not because of anything that they have done is a grim precedent to set. Emir after Emir will be forced to follow suit dishing out these bonuses for (again) nothing. Eventually, as Kuwait’s oil whittles down and it has to rely ever more on its (substantial) financial investments [for there is no meaningful sign of industrial diversification yet], such bonuses will become costlier and costlier for the Government to give out. Yet a population weened on such gifts will not give them up readily. Essentially, I see Sabah giving out this cash now as storing up huge problems for his great-grandchildren when they come to rule.


NYT on the Stuxnet virus 17, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran.
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There is an excellent piece of ‘traditional’ investigative journalism in the New York Times. It is a lengthy article, researched over many months and continents, analysing the Stuxnet computer virus that appeared to be targeting Iran’s nuclear enrichment industry.

When the story broke 6 months ago, little was known about the virus. Its aims were not clear neither were its targets or its authors. Like many others, however, given its prevalence in Iran and how the virus appeared to work in certain Siemens systems closely associated ywith Iran’s nuclear industry, I assumed that it was the first clear sign of international cyber-warfare conducted by America and possibly Israel against Iran.

The NYT confirms that this is the case.

The virus was incredibly subtle. It was seemingly designed only to ‘go to work’ when a series of very specific variables were met. Then it apparently ‘recorded’ the ordinary spinning of a Uranium enriching centrifuge and replayed these data back to the controlling stations so that all would appear normal while actually speeding up the spinning process, thus physically destroying the centrifuges. This is their best guess, at least.

Yet, while not wholly successful it does appear to have set back Iran’s quest for a bomb several years, as recently announced by Secretary of State Clinton and the outgoing head of the Mossad.

Palin, Giffords & a grimly prophetic video 11, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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This is a remarkably and grimly prophetic video by US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords warning that there are “consequences” to Sarah Palin using ‘gun sights’ to mark out her district as one to be targeted.

(Incidentally, the Palin camp is trying to deny that these manifestly obvious crosshairs are in fact crosshairs, but rather ‘surveyor’s symbols’ as one would see on any map. This from the gun-toting, ‘don’t retreat, reaload’ Palin. Hmm.)

Clearly, Palin et al (al being the shrieking right wing press and, of course, some left wing idiots too) are not directly responsible for the shooting. But how they can deny some responsibility is beyond me. They are, to my mind, wholly culpable for continuing and exacerbating a polarized culture where the other side are often demonized with a vicious, hyperbole-strewn, militarised vocabulary.

Qatar: new bonus-reward system for civil servants 11, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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In an interesting move, the Qatari government has detailed its Ministries to come up with a way to evaluate its employees performance, which will then be used to determine their annual bonus.

The new standards focus on the ability of the employee to make plans as well as his or her seriousness about work, enthusiasm, good behaviour, creativity and innovation…They also assess the employee’s performance timing as well as rapports with seniors, subordinates and other colleagues


Under the new rules, a negative evaluation or poor performance carries a delay or a cancellation of the annual allowance for the year…The bonus is one to six percent of the salary and is decided on the basis of performance.

This type of system is clearly aimed to tackle the woeful performance of many/some civil servants which is a running joke in the Gulf. Anecdotal stories abound about the absurdities that occur in the Gulf public sector: friends who literally turn up to work to download movies then go home (I heard this in Kuwait); others who work 10 hours per week (Kuwait and Qatar); some that go for 4 hour coffee breaks (Qatar); or those who do not turn up at all but still receive a salary (Qatar & UAE): speak to anyone in the Gulf on this topic and you’re guaranteed to have a raft of your own silly stories.

This move, therefore, needs to be applauded. Everyone knows that there is a real problem here and this is a constructive way to try to tackle it. There are, however, a couple of sticking points.

– Wasta is king: those with lots of it can surely still get away with doing nothing whatsoever.

– Does anyone seriously think that many managers will be rating their workers’ performances as unsatisfactory, practically guaranteeing a haranguing by a (perhaps literally) truck-load of relatives? Don’t forget that Qatar is an immensely small country: ‘everyone knows everyone’.

– Will the Ministries publish statistics with a Qatari-/non-Qatari break-down?

One must not forget that many jobs are acquired through family connections. Illegal in the West, nepotism is seen as a duty in the Gulf: if you’ve got the opportunity to get your brother or friend a job, you ought to. Therefore, is an uncle really going to give a poor rating to his cousin?

Incidentally, if anyone has any kind of statistics on nepotism in the Gulf (how anyone could magic up such stats I don’t know) then do pass them my way…Cheers!

Saudi woman jailed for attacking her maid 10, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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The BBC reports that a Saudi women has been (miraculously) jailed for three years for severely beating her maid. The maid from Indonesia was burned with an iron to the face, stabbed with scissors and suffered from numerous broken burns.

The Indonesian Embassy is pushing for a harsher sentence given than the maximum sentence possible was 15 years.

Human Rights Watch reports that this was the first time a jail sentence has been passed down to a Saudi national for such an attack.


Pakistan sexual education book causes controversy 10, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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A Pakistani doctor with a death-wish has published a book attempting to educate Muslims about sex.

His book “Sex Education for Muslims” seeks to inform ordinary Muslims about sexual matters in the framework of Islam. The books included numerous quotes from the Quran and from the Prophet Mohammed, both of which/whom discuss sexual matters with relative frequency, he maintains.

However, many Pakistanis – shockingly! – disagree with him and he has received numerous death threats.


The Chinese Ibn Khaldoun cycle 10, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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In the 14th century Ibn Khaldoun noted something of an immutable cyclical trait for Arabs. Families would rise to prominence, take power and last for no more than three generations before the cycle would begin again.

The first generation retains the desert qualities, desert toughness, and desert savagery…they are brave and rapacious…the strength of group feeling continues to be preserved among them. They are sharp and greatly feared. People submit to them.

Under the influence of royal authority and a life of ease, the second generation changes from the desert attitude to a sedentary culture, from privation to luxury and plenty, from a state in which everybody shared in the glory to one in which one man claims all the glory…others are [in]…humble subservience…the vigour of the group feeling is broken…But many of the old virtues remain…because they [the people] had had direct personal contact with the first generation…The third generation, then, has (completely) forgotten the period of desert life and toughness…Luxury reaches its peak among them…Group feeling disappears completely…People forget to protect and defend themselves…In the course of these three generations, the dynasty grows senile and is worn out.*

I was starkly reminded of this in a curious article in the Sunday Times (London). There was a feature on ‘America’s strictest mother’. Born to Chinese immigrants to America, she posited exactly the same kind of three generational cycle in terms of the ‘strictness’ (or ‘typical Chineseness’) of parenting.

There’s an old Chinese saying: “Prosperity can never last for three generations…The immigrant generation…will work non-stop until they become successful…Everything they do and earn will go towards their children’s education and future…The next [second] generation…will be high-achieving…The next [third] generation…Because of the hard work of their parents and grandparents…will be born into the great comforts of the upper middle class…They will expect expensive clothes…they will feel they have individual rights [!]…In short, all indicators point to this generation being headed for decline.

While I never assumed that Ibn Khaldoun’s cycle was particularly particular to the Arab world, indeed, it would seem to offer something of an immutable truism of ‘the human condition’, I’ve not come across it before being so clearly mirrored in a wholly different culture and situation. Interesting stuff.

(The Chinese mother, incidentally, came across as barking mad; a horrifically pushy parent who is desperately lucky that she didn’t drive her kids to the bottle or some other damaging vice.)

*Khaldun, Ibn. The Muqaddimah, an Introduction to History. Translated by Franz Rosenthal, Bollingen Series. [Princeton, N.J.]: Princeton University Press, 1969.