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One woman’s experiment: taking off the hijab 31, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Islam.
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The ever informative @blakehounshell pointed me (and all other Twitter followers) to an article written by a Muslim lady who decided as an experiment to take off her hijab to see how it feels.

Here is the link to the fascinating and superbly written article. It’s well worth a read. Some of the best bits are below with one or two really rather profound turns of phrase. This is one of the best things (and certainly best written things) that I’ve read in yonks.

Why is the hijab considered obligatory in Islam for women? Is it really obligatory or was it just something that a group of men decided was most appropriate for women of that time and age to protect them? Does what applied more than 1400 years ago still apply now? And if so, why? Does a woman really need to cover herself from head to toe to avoid being harassed or being seen as a sex object?

I had been traveling around the world for ten years and while doing so I observed women, how they dressed, and how men reacted. The conclusion I always came to was that women all over the world were wearing what they wanted to wear and for the most part were not treated inappropriately because of how they dressed but rather how certain people reacted to dress based on their own convictions. What I noticed is that no matter what a woman wears, there are some people out there who treat women inappropriately. There are men who will harass women that are scantily dressed and men who will harass women covered from head to toe. There are people – men and women – who treat women with disgust because they are scantily dressed and other people – men and women – who treat women with disgust because they are covered from head to toe.

So one morning while in Barcelona, I decided to leave my hotel room wearing a short-sleeved shirt, jeans and no scarf on my head.

I went to the breakfast hall and immediately felt that I was invisible. I had become accustomed to being noticed – just ever so slightly – as a woman wearing hijab in Europe…For the first time in my traveling years, I wasn’t noticed. And I IMMEDIATELY missed the attention. I was a bit hurt, I must admit.

I then tried walking around on the streets of Barcelona and did some shopping. Nothing. I was just one person amidst thousands on those streets and in those shops. Had I always been one person among thousands? Was I always this invisible?

No matter what I wore, there were still the rude people, the nice people, and the we-could-care-less people.

I tried the same experiment in London and got the same reaction of no reaction.

Two things did happen as I walked around these two European cities without the head scarf. But they were internal.

I felt that a Nadia I had known years ago reappeared. It was high school Nadia. Nadia before the hijab. It wasn’t that I had felt young again. It was more like I had figuratively peeled away some layers to bring back a person I was many many years ago. It was refreshing.

I’m back home in Cairo, wearing my hijab. I don’t feel regret for having experimented. And I don’t currently feel like I want to permanently take off my hijab. There are a few reasons I feel that way. I don’t expect people’s reactions to me taking off the hijab in Egypt – people I know – to be positive or supportive or we-could-care-less. There would be lots of drama involved and I don’t know that I’m up for that. There’s also a part of me that still feels that the hijab might be obligatory. Maybe God really does want me to cover up from head to toe. I still need to figure that one out.

If Qatar loses the World Cup 30, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Signs are looking ominous for Qatar and their desire to host the 2022 World Cup. To strip them of this would be a major source of embarrassment for FIFA and, obviously, Qatar. It could only happen in an extreme set of circumstances, which we may be approaching now. Blatter, who by now should be utterly desperate and in severe fear for his position if there is any justice in the world, may use robbing Qatar of their right to host the WC as a kind of diversion, I fear: desperate times (for Blatter) may call for desperate measures.

So, were the unthinkable to happen what should Qatar do?

I would heartily advise the Qatari elite to take the high road. Eschew the grubby practices of litigation and libel courts which would surely be one possible recourse. Instead, in a dignified manner, say that they profoundly reject any and all suggestions of impropriety and that FIFA is clearly in desperate need of wholesale changes, just as happened to the International Olympic Committee. The elite ought to note that they will continue to improve Qatar’s infrastructure but that, say, the £30billion that would have been spent directly on the stadia etc will now be used to boost the Marshall Plan for the post-revolutionary Arab States. This would be a remarkable gesture for Qatar (given that they are mooting spending $10billion already on this plan) and would draw praise and kudos by the bucket-load.


Qatar ‘may be stripped of World Cup’ 30, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Football’s governing body, FIFA, is currently undergoing a painful and acrimonious bout of self-reflection. In the run up to the FIFA Presidential elections the incumbent, Sepp Blatter, was faced by Qatar’s Mohammed Bin Hammam. However, amid an ever widening corruption scandal, Bin Hammam pulled out of the race leaving Blatter unopposed.

Now Blatter is warning that a re-run of the voting for the 2022 World Cup is possible. Thus far it is impossible to say whether a re-run is likely. For sure, many people in the world of football were not amused that the World Cup went to Qatar, a small country with a tiny population, with scorching summers, with no history of football and whose bid comprehensively outspent all others by a significant degree. Thus far there are plenty of accusations of impropriety and corruption, but none have been proven yet. If any are linked directly to Qatar’s successful bid then a re-draw is certainly on the cards.

Being stripped of the World Cup would be catastrophically embarrassing for Qatar and only marginally less so for FIFA. Also that notion that Blatter were to oversee such a re-run having not being indicted in any way, shape or form is absurd too and will – rightly – leave the Qataris feeling wholly and profoundly bitter.


FIFA have called an emergency press conference for tonight though no-one is sure what it’s about…

The GCC’s anti-revolutionary expansion 26, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) celebrates its thirtieth anniversary in May and by way of celebration it is mooting the inclusion of two other countries. Yemen is not being considered for membership, even though it long wanted to join, is situated within the eponymous Gulf, borders two current members, shares tranches of historical memory as well as cultural similarities and is in profoundly desperate need of regional political and economic support. Iraq, a Gulf state bordering two current GCC members, sharing a similarly extensive historical record with its neighbouring states and plainly in need of the economic assistance that GCC membership could offer, is also not being considered

Instead, Jordan and Morocco are the countries in question. Though Jordan is not a Gulf country, it is contiguous to Saudi Arabia whereas Morocco’s capital – Rabat – is separated by at least six countries, the Red Sea and nearly six and a half thousand kilometres from Muscat, Oman’s capital: even Shanghai is closer. Given these geographical anomalies, what sort of union could seriously be made between this group of countries?


The GCC was founded in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent alteration of the regional order caused by the offensive role played by Iran in the Gulf, which led to the Iran-Iraq war. In search of common support, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Oman joined together. Initially hopes were high that this union would herald the beginning of greater economic, political and cultural unity among members. Three decades on, and aside from a few relatively minor accomplishments, the GCC has been remarkably unproductive.

Its lack of tangible end product is surprising. The group of states involved possess a common language, religion, geography, history, culture, economic make-up and many face similar problems; to name but one, all of them fear Iran to a greater or lesser degree. Yet even under these circumstances and with an archetypal example of a common ‘enemy’ which – as Rene Girard described – would often bind countries together, the GCC are a remarkably argumentative bunch.

The economic union and single GCC currency, for example, is a long running saga. Initially proposed in 2000 and scheduled to come into force in 2010, the latest estimates now point to somewhere around 2013. In the mean time, the UAE pulled out of the currency, seemingly not able to withstand the notion of the GCC Central Bank being based in Riyadh and not Abu Dhabi.

In military matters, the Peninsula Shield force too, comprising elements of all the GCC countries, is a shell of a fighting force. A study conducted in 2000 by a Lieutenant Commander at the US Naval War College is scathing of the Peninsula Shield as a whole. [1] Not only was there a ‘nearly complete lack of interoperability’ among the various units but the training was comically bad, so much so that ‘success’ on a gunnery exercise was judged on whether you could ‘get the ammunition out of the muzzle. The number of hits is ignored.’ Since 2000 things did not improve much given that the Peninsula Shield force was all but abandoned as the 2000s wore on. In 2008 it was resurrected under the mandate of a ‘Rapid Reaction Force’ but little was heard of it until its surprising intervention in Bahrain in February.

Why now?

This is not the first time that other countries have been invited to join the GCC. In 1991 after, just after a crisis – Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait – the GCC sought to station Syrian and Egyptian troops in the GCC under the auspices of the ‘Damascus Declaration’. This idea soon fizzled out.

After another crisis – this time not the invasion of a member but an arguably bigger threat to all; the Arab Spring – again the GCC is moved to action. Yet the invitation of Jordan and Morocco appears to be a curious move.

The initial assumption is that the GCC are just expanding their club of Sunni Kings (with Oman being an exception; they are mostly Ibadi). Were Morocco and Jordan to join then all monarchies in the Arab world would be tied into the GCC. Obviously, the GCC with their significant wealth would then be able to support their fellow Kings to a greater degree: after all, no one in the GCC wants to set the precedent of one of their brethren falling from power to a republic or even set a tone of greater constitutionality.

Following on from the Damascus Declaration precedent, the GCC could be motivated by the notion of facilitating an official path for the stationing of Jordanian troops in the Gulf. Not only are the Jordanian armed forces the most professional Arab force, but the Gulf Kingdoms clearly do not trust their own forces. Historically, many rested on foreign guarantees of power from the Ottomans then the British then the Americans on whom many rely to this day. Moreover, the recent example of the UAE’s development of a mercenary army is a devastating indictment on the lack of confidence that they have in their own armed forces.

The idea that these states would join together to augment their collective strength is also – at least in theory – persuasive. Indeed, there are two possible blocs for the GCC to unite against. First, there is the sectarian divide which has come to the fore in recent months, whereby the GCC could band together their political and military capabilities versus Iran. After all, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah who coined the phrase ‘the Shia Crescent’ in 2004. Second, this new configuration of states could come together as a bulwark against the two potentially resurgent Arab states that traditionally sought to dominate the region: Egypt and Iraq.


Yet arguably the most persuasive driver of this unusual policy stems from the fact that the GCC states want to draw a line in the sand: no more revolutions. This initiative is heavily led by Saudi Arabia with the UAE following closely behind. The revolutions have profoundly perturbed the powers that be in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Seeing Tunisia’s regime fall was interesting if slightly perturbing; seeing Egypt’s regime fall was earth-shakingly concerning: if Mubarak with his three decade-long vice-like grip on power in a country that experienced 5 per cent growth per year that was staunchly supported by America can be evicted, anyone can. After Mubarak, Syria and Libya began to wobble alarmingly and any such concerns in Bahrain were viciously halted with Saudi Arabia’s help and mandate.

The notion of Jordan and Morocco joining the GCC is, therefore, arguably first and foremost a way of stopping the roll of the revolutions; halting its momentum. Any recent progression in Morocco and Jordan towards a more representative, constitutional monarchy would in all likelihood be halted as an intrinsic part of the GCC deal.

Will it come to pass?

The GCC is replete with half-baked and unrealised initiatives. Such a profound change would surely take this organisation, which typically operates at a glacial pace, many years to arrange, during which time the idea will most likely be quietly shelved. Indeed, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait appear to be far more reticent about the expansion.

Qatar and Kuwait in particular are secure in their own borders have very little to fear from the Spring Revolutions. Oman meanwhile probably does not want to see an extra two hungry mouths to feed, fearing that while they would never be left to starve and fend for themselves, they would most likely ipso facto get more support if Jordan and Morocco are not included.

The only caveat to this is that Saudi Arabia is profoundly concerned by recent events as indicated by the unprecedented intervention in the Bahrain troubles. Under these circumstances, and given how much politics across the Gulf is dominated by personalities, they could potentially strong-arm this move through the GCC: after all, unusual times call for unusual measures.

It is also worth noting that this move is not necessarily supported in Jordan and Morocco. Certainly, many may be pleased at such a union given the potential economic benefits that might transpire. However, not only would the trickle-down of any GCC cash take some time, but many realise perfectly well that joining the GCC would, as mentioned earlier, in all likelihood shelve any movement towards a more democratic system.

It may be a good thing for the GCC were this union not to come to pass. Already and despite the aforementioned similarities, there is an intrinsic disunity within the GCC and a bizarre lack of identity; of clarity of mission. The inclusion of the other states would make deciding what the GCC is actually there to do yet more of a challenge. Thus perhaps the GCC’s lack of an ability to make a decision will, for once, be its saving grace.


[1] The Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield Force’ Glenn Kuffel, Naval War College (7 February 2000)

Qatar ‘not to benefit’ from 2022 World Cup 18, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, The Emirates.
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Citigroup’s chief economist has posited that Qatar will not see any (net) economic benefit from hosting the 2022 World Cup. While this would hardly make Qatar unique, this will not come as happy reading to Qataris concerned about their inheritance being squandered on the mother of all prestige projects.

The Bloomberg article carrying this story focuses on the issue of hotel rooms. Currently, Qatar has around 60% occupancy but has pledged to increase its capacity tenfold. It is perfectly reasonable to ask, therefore, who will be staying in all these rooms after the World Cup. Sure, tourism will pick up somewhat after – inshallah – hosting a successful tournament, but 90,000 rooms? I don’t remotely see where that number of people will come from.

It is the same story in the Emirates. The large hotels on Yas Island, aside from the week per year when they are full with F1 fans and officials, generally operate at less than 10% capacity. How this can continue, I just don’t see.

All of this is a part of the voodoo economics that envelopes the Gulf. Supply and demand? Where? I just don’t really see it in the Gulf. Look at all the empty towers dotted around the region and the new soon to be empty towers currently rising beside them. It often far more resembles a Soviet-esque command economy than anything else. Sometimes this can work, at least for a time. Dubai’s ‘build it and they will come’ attitude did well until its spectacular crash; hardly a good harbinger for the region loosely following some of its principles.

Map of religion in the Middle East 17, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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This superb map is taken from the equally superb Gulf 2000 initiative at Columbia University, organized by the workaholic Gary Sick.

Qatar, Libya and risk analysis 17, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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As I have noted before, Qatar’s elite has the ability to operate with amazingly few constraints. Specifically, the Emir and the Foreign and Prime Minister, for example, need only consult each other before acting. There is next to no bureaucratic involvement in terms of ‘adding to the debate’ that I can discern. No Whitehall mandarins will look a policy, scoff, and emasculate it until it is a pale shadow of its former self, as would happen in the UK.

There are several corollaries of this.

Firstly, Qatar can act quickly, dexterously and decisively in unusual ways.

Secondly, policy can be generated by one or two men. This has dangers. In Qatar’s case – happily – the trend is that, thanks to the individuals involved most policies seem, overall, to be rather enlightened.

Thirdly, and intimately linked to point two, Qatar’s policies may well contain any blind spots, prejudices, assumptions and beliefs of these men. Thus far Qatar has steered a largely untroubled course in its ever more diverse and interesting foreign policy forays. Yet everyone makes mistakes from time to time. The question is has the Qatari elite gambled too much on this occasion?

Intrinsically linked to this whole issue is the hierarchical structure of Qatari and Gulf politics. This imbues nationals lower down the food chain with a truly, profoundly and paralyzingly great fear of acting on their intuition, of showing initiative, of taking chances, of independent thought and of independent action.

So here is my concern:

I am flying on Qatar airways tonight back to London. Gaddafi is a despicable man with a lot money, a loose grasp of reality, a clear history of stoking terrorism and, I would suggest, a burning hatred of Qatar. One need not be a professional risk analyst to note that the risk of an attack on Qatar Airways has, therefore, elevated in recent weeks.

So did the Qatari elite take this into account in their decisions? Did they appreciate the potential retaliation that Gaddafi could inflict? Or did they think that it would all be over by the proverbial Christmas and that Gaddafi would no longer be a problem?

A or perhaps the key corollary of this is was any risk analysis done in the wake of Qatar’s interactions in Libya? Did anyone below the elite level dare suggest that such a step was necessary? Or were/are people aware of the need for an analysis or extra security at, say, Doha International Airport but afraid to suggest this fearing that this might be construed as someone questioning the decisions of the elite?

I know for a fact that in other walks of Gulf life this kind of trade off is made, where safety (granted, at a ‘smaller’ level) has been compromised because people are not willing to act for fear of causing offense to one’s command structure or because nationals can, at times, be epically unwilling to take even an iota of responsibility.

At the level of something like Qatar Airways I am sure that there are/must be weekly risk assessments et al in place to provide for such situations. After all, not to have such practices (or something similar) would be criminally stupid…no? Yet what about other Qatari targets: embassies around the world; soft targets here in Doha; ships paddling their way hither and thither?

Iranian flotilla heads for Bahrain 16, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
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An Iranian naval convoy of activists, students and professors is heading to Bahrain to protest at what they see as the legitimate demands of the Shia population there being ruthlessly oppressed with the open support – if not direction – of regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia.

The flotilla insists that it will ask for permission to enter Bahraini waters, which will surely be refused.

This action will now be the face of Saudi claims that Iran is interfering in Bahrain’s domestic politics, a view that is utterly entrenched in the Kingdom and elsewhere throughout the Gulf. Indeed, overall there has been little appreciation that the Shia in Bahrain may have legitimate grievances that ought to be given a voice. Instead many Gulf countries, strongly led by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and of course Manama have been propagating the notion that practically all of the troubles are down to Iran.

Technically speaking, this incident should pass without a hitch. First, the flotilla will never be granted access to Bahraini waters, which they claim they will seek. And second, the Bahraini (or Saudi) ships which will intercept them should they progress further will surely be aware that there will be approximately a million cameras on the Iranian boats ready to capture any images of ‘unprovoked brutality against a humanitarian convoy’.

Yet this overlooks two things.

Firstly, one must not forget what a profound mess the Middle East’s best trained armed forces made of a flotilla intervention last year.

Secondly, there is a wholly poisonous Sunni-Shia, Arabian Gulf-Persian Gulf atmosphere in the region at the moment. Moreover, Saudi Arabia appear to be edging away from simply following the American lead and are striking out on their own in terms of a more muscular, assertive foreign policy. Under these circumstances, not only is it unfortunately possible to see them using this example of ‘Iranians entering GCC waters with…umm…hostile intent’ as an excuse to act but more generally in this febrile atmosphere I would not remotely put it past Saudi or Bahraini sailors to take a pot-shot just for the hell of it.

Qatar mediation for Shalit? 16, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Qatar.
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The French satirical and investigative magazine Le Canard Enchaine (like the UK’s Private Eye) reports that the Qatari Prime Minister has, on numerous occasions in recent years, spoken to Israeli President Netanyahu while in Paris about trying to obtain the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israel soldier kidnapped in 2006 by Hamas.

Though unconfirmed, such mediation would be wholly in keeping with Qatar’s profile. Not only have they sought to reestablish relations with Israel on numerous occasions but this type of role is made for Qatar: where they have, more than practically any other Arab states, relations on both sides of the fence and they are also removed enough from the conflict not to be embroiled. To my mind, this kind of example, if indeed it is the case, highlights Qatar’s erudite and mature foreign policy.

I come from the UK where I grew up with the IRA occasionally blowing up chunks of London, Manchester and Northern Ireland. The notion of sitting down with Gerry Adams and his murdering ilk, or indeed hearing his voice without being dubbed on the television, is profoundly disturbing, but needs to be done.

The UAE’s mercenary army? 16, May 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates.
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So it seems that the UAE, or more specifically, Abu Dhabi, has been cultivating mercenary armed forces in the desert. Their aim is reportedly to either quell uprisings within the Emirates, act somehow against Iran or to be first responders to a terrorist incident.

All in all it is really rather impressively poorly thought out.

  • So the UAE want to rely on a bunch of paid killers for their security. People who have specialised (particularly in the South African case) in taking money and killing people at the behest of…well…anyone. What a morally bankrupt policy.
  • The report notes that such an army might be a part of a plan, one day, to take back the Abu Musa and Tunb islands from Iran. What a joke. There is no way that the Emirates would be that stupid: that would be a bona fide act of war, however justified historically. And I would not want such a mission to be entrusted to a bunch of mercenaries who couldn’t give two hoots about the lumps of rock in the Gulf: if there’s a good chance you’d die (do you think the Iranians would give up without a fight, or fight fairly for that matter?) it hardly matters how much you’re being paid.
  • A mercenary army unleashed against Emirati protestors? Is that what’s envisaged? This would immediately de-legitimize their mission and cause a fire-storm of protests: ‘Emiratis killed by foreign mercenaries’
  • A bunch of mercenaries as first responders to a terrorist attack? What – exactly – would their rules of engagement be? What role would traditional CT forces play in this? How would they hand-over? What legal authority would they have?
  • Let’s not forget how integral military forces are to the prestige of Gulf (if not most) countries and particularly to the leaders. Deploying such mercenary forces would be a monumental slap in the face for any and all Emirati forces. It clearly and brazenly states – to the world – that every last one of them is rubbish at their job; that they cannot do what they are paid and trained to do: defend their country. I think that the shock-waves of shame would reverberate around the Emirates.

Overall, then, IMHO (as the kids say), this idea…needs some thought.

Update: I’ve just updated all the typos in this article – apologies!