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Where were you on the day when… 29, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Egypt.
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At the tender age of 28 years old, I can only really claim to remember two events in the ‘where were you when?’ category. On 11th September 2001 I was about to go to work in the Rusacks Hotel in St. Andrews to confront tens of bewildered and worried Americans and (trivially, by comparison) when Diana died I had just returned from a holiday in Turkey. Somewhat shamefully when the Berlin Wall came down, despite my mum’s protestations that ‘you’ll want to remember this moment’ I was just nagging her to go out as planned.

Perhaps the last week of January 2010 will become one of these synonymous events that reverberates for decades. It is certainly looking that way.

I am not an Egypt expert and do not claim to be so, hence my lack of posting on the topic (though this leaves me in the minority). I will just make a few notes:

– The notion of dominoes falling is ahistorical. We seem to have this inbuilt notion that an event in one country usually cascades around a region. This is simply not the historical record, especially so without any kind of supra-national involvement. However, it seems that the domino effect is actually coming to pass in Egypt. This will be an issue that intrigues Middle Eastern scholars for generations.

– Thus far, so far as I have seen, there has been essentially no Islamist involvement in this proto-Revolution. However, clearly the Muslim Brotherhood have a commanding organization network which will advantage them in the future.

– Al Jazeera’s role in this is interesting. At first they desperately avoided televising the burgeoning revolution. Clearly they were under some kind of orders not to exacerbate tensions by broadcasting events in Cairo and elsewhere. Indeed, there was some kind of accommodation reached by Al Jazeera/Qatar and Mubarak in recent months where many believe it was agreed that Al Jazeera’s coverage of Egypt would be toned down. Only when the elephant in the room reached epic proportions did they then cover it and since they have covered it extremely well.

– To follow events you must follow: @SultanAlQassemi  @nolanjazeera  @arabist  @shadihamid  @bencnn @themoornextdoor

– So where’s next? I’d not be sitting pretty if I were in Jordan and Yemen, that’s for sure. Saudi Arabia? I doubt very much that there are enough angry and unhappy Saudis willing to put in the necessary graft to instigate some kind of reform. Bahrain would be the only other of the GCC countries that I could at all see having issues but there too I’d be surprised if much came of it.

– One of my great fears about these revolutions is that people seemingly automatically expect things to get better. Don’t misunderstand me, I think it is a good thing that Tunisia and Egypt are in the process of seemingly throwing off their dictatorial yoke, but how exactly people think things will ipso facto get better I just don’t understand. Essentially, you can’t eat or pay the rent with democracy.

– Sky news: it’s not Tahir Square, it’s Tahrir Square

In defence of the US Government 27, January 2011

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While I am most certainly not in receipt of any US Government cash nor am I American or do I usually agree with the folk in the White House that much I feel compelled to offer a quick defence of said Government.

Seasoned commentators, old hands, angry bloggers, erudite analysts et al does not really believe that much that the US Government says. They know and understand that the Government diplomatically says what its says to tow the Party line and to play the long-term game of international politics. They realise that the US Government stresses democracy and other such goods but everyone is aware that this kind of stuff must be said as a kind of rhetorical cover as, for one thing, the US is based on notions of freedom. In reality, everyone is aware that the game of real politik takes place and relations are based on power, not on nice, friendly, whimsical notions of freedom and self-determination.

I’d say that the majority of mainstream commentators and blogging heads would agree with the above statement.

However, in recent weeks there has been a false outcry based on the assumption that the US actually means what it says. This is gross hypocrisy. Those who know perfectly well and have written numerous times in the past on the gap between rhetoric and reality in US policy suddenly become amazed in bouts of mock outrage that the US is not living up to its ideals and staunchly supporting protesters around the Arab world.

What do these people expect the US to say? After a day’s protesting: ‘we want Mubarak out’? This false surprised mockery really grates with me. No one is surprised that the US is trying to be noncommittal over Egypt’s future. Of course the White House spokesman would not be drawn on any ‘guarantees’ towards Mubarak!

Pretending otherwise strikes me as an immature stunt for a cheap shot and a false sense of outrage.

Seymour Hersh loses his marbles? 18, January 2011

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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.”


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

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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 ‘strengthens security’ with Iran & America 5, January 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Iran, Qatar.
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Qatar likes to try to assure its security on all fronts. Hence friendly visits to Iran and extra security agreements with America.

The Emir recently visited Iran becoming the first Arab leader to do so since the release of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables. Presumably he didn’t discuss how the two countries routinely “lie to each other” or any other such embarrassing revelations. Instead – you guessed it – emphasis was placed on the “brotherly and excellent” relations between Qatar and Iran, while Ahmadinejad parroted back something to do with harmony, stability and security.

I sometimes feel that there must be a simple machine that churns out these asinine comments, much like this Daily Mail headline creator.

In related news, Qatar recently signed a security document with the US for dealing with exchanging information about terrorists and other similar security-related matters. Again, in the wake of the Wikileaks revelations which place Qatar squarely last in the region for counterterrorism cooperation, unless this is a direct answer to those accusations, which seems is unlikely, I’d say that this visit and signing ceremony is about as much concrete use as the Iranian one.

Assange’s online dating profile ‘leaked’ 13, December 2010

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In a bitter if somewhat sweet bout of irony the online dating profile of Julian Assange, the man behind the explosion of Wikileaks and their Cablegate revelations, has been posted online.

Found online by an American gossip magazine, it contains a cringe-worthy selection of his writings

WARNING: Want a regular, down to earth guy? Keep moving. I am not the droid you’re looking for… I am DANGER, ACHTUNG.

The Times reports that he

says that he likes Russian books, movies and music – but never Russian food. He spends his time thinking about “changing the world” [Hmmm], loves travelling and wild places and could adapt to anything life threw at him, “except the loss of female company and carbon”.

One of his final lines warns

Do not write to me if you are timid. I am too busy. Write to me if you are brave.

What a prat.

Ordinarily, I would say that this is an outrageous invasion of an individual’s privacy. However, in this case, I think it’s simply the most deliciously ironic thing that this egotistical, blatantly anti-US and dangerous man has suffered this way. If, that is, this is not some plant by the US…

Best wikileaks summary so far 3, December 2010

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Peter Brookes – The Times of London

Cablegate: on reflection 30, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Opinion.
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Before analysts get too self-congratulatory about how the cablegate leaks have ‘proven’ how they ‘have been right all along’, there are a few important caveats.

1.       Just because a diplomat said something doesn’t mean it’s true. Ordinarily, one would never have to make such an obvious statement, yet I think that this is being forgotten in this debate. Many of these dispatches are Americans briefing other sections of their diplomatic establishment on, for example, Gulf countries. They therefore espouse the ‘party line’; the image that they [the authors] want the one who is going to x region to carry on.

2.       Yes, diplomats often have very good access. But when one is written by an Ambassador about an interview with a Crown Prince, for example, we must not forget that the Crown Prince in question is not necessarily telling the truth. Again, just because it is meant to be a private ‘off the record’ conversation doesn’t necessarily lend it any more validity. A Crown Prince in the Gulf has a vested interest in deepening and prolonging American support for obvious reasons. What is the best way to do this? By highlighting the Iranian threat and as a key corollary, ‘their’ important on the U.S. side against them too.

3.       The establishment in the Gulf, it must be forgotten, are not necessarily any kind of bell-weather of public opinion at large. They are mostly unelected, after all. While in some instances, I’m sure they do accurately reflect their peoples’ opinions, this must not be taken as a given, as, I think, it often is in this case.

4.       What has been leaked is but a fraction of the whole. There are supposed to be hundreds of thousands more documents to come. As I noted yesterday, Assange picked and chose these pieces of information for a reason. What reason? Publicity, probably, but who knows. Don’t for get this.

These leaks are both fascinating and useful: I don’t want to be too scrooge like about them, but at the same time, I think a brief pause is perhaps necessary to contemplate exactly what they are and where they came from.


Iranian nuclear scientists assassinated? 29, November 2010

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Though reports are sketchy, it appears as if there were two successful assassination attempts against two Iranian nuclear scientists this morning.

Dr Majid Shahriari and Fereydoon Abbasi were, according to one Iranian newspaper, ‘distinguished members of school of Nuclear Engineering at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran’ and members of the Iranian Nuclear Association. Both also – allegedly – had close connections with the Ministry of Defence.

This is either the third of fourth such assassination this year, depending upon what sources one believes.

It takes no imagination whatsoever to imagine that Israel and America would be interested in carrying out such assassinations. However, barring another spectacular diplomatic breach, we are unlikely ever to know exactly the cause of these deaths.