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A brief snippet from Uzbekistan 16, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Central Asia.
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UzbekistanF

…from Prospect magazine. I spent quite some time in Uzbekistan some years ago and did not notice the omnipresence of police and security forces in the capital as is mentioned in the piece. Friends currently working there, however, testify to a gradual slip into ever more draconian and authoritarian ways in recent years, mirroring what Prospect has to say.

Conversely, my time there was preoccupied with sampling the world-class tourist sites to be found dotted around the country. Samarkand and Bukhara are truly breathtaking. Go have a peak at my photos of them as clear and unequivocal proof (indeed, if a lousy photographer like me can take photos like those…). I suppose that in hindsight perhaps I was walking though the country in something of a typical tourist-like daze.

Currently, the country is run by a megalomaniacal dictator who boils dissidents as a form of torture, clamps down horrendously on any kind of popular uprisings and has eviscerated any notion of a pluralist society evolving with wide-spread repression. This, unfortunately, shows no signs of change with Uzbekistan’s not insignificant oil and gas reserves shielding them from anything approaching meaningful criticism.

NYT journalist’s account of kidnapping 10, September 2009

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Stephen-Farrell_2_611272a(Stephen Farrell – The Times)

Here’s the link to Stephen Farrell’s account of his four days in captivity after being kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan until his rescue by British Special Forces, during which one soldier died. It is as engaging and ‘page-turning’ a read as it is possible to get. Once again as with all of these writings or even just those where people have some spent time with terrorists/freedom fighters/irregulars/bandits/insurgents, what comes across most profoundly (to me at least) is the relative normality of the people. They aren’t monsters, though some of them to monstrous things. Alas the other aspect of the story that is familiar is that the interpreter is killed, this time not by execution but in the fire-fight at the very end.

Here’s a link to an article to the memory of Farrell’s translator, Sultan Munadi, who died in the rescue operation. I feel, however, that it is unfair to call people like Sultan translators. To me a translator is someone who sits in an office or in an organisation and translates articles, speeches and the like. They are in a civilian environment doing a civilian job. People like Sultan are a different breed entirely doing a different job entirely. Whilst they do not always do it well, they are, nevertheless, unquestionably risking their lives. Their job is, therefore, unequivocally different and must be treated as such. It makes decisions like the British Government’s not to automatically grant translators entry to the UK utterly disgusting and immoral.

Afghanistan: Lost in Translation 26, July 2009

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The Guardian has an excellent video of the US forces in Afghanistan and their problems with understanding what the local Pashtun are trying to tell them. The clip shows one of their translators wilfully mistranslating what a tribal elder has to say. One can only hope that translators such as these are in the vast minority, however unlikely that may be.

Hat Tip: Media Shack

Article catch up 21, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Central Asia, Iran, Kuwait, The Emirates.
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There’s a veritable flood of interesting stories today:

  • Quote of the day is taken from the World Politics Review Blog, with a firm and hearty hat tip thanks for Andrew Bishop.

We’ve now got upwards of 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, with the ostensible mission to eliminate the threat posed by 300 guys. In Pakistan. Think about that.

  • An article on Al Qaeda’s apparent new ties with an Iranian Sunni (yes, Sunni) terrorist group.
  • The UAE have pulled out of the proposed Gulf single currency. Whilst achieving such a milestone of integration would have been enormously difficult in any case, it now appears to be all but impossible.
  • The Kuwaiti Amir has reappointed his nephew, Shaikh Nasser, as the Prime Minister. This is highly unlikely to appease opposition MPs and calm the volatile and fragile nature of Kuwaiti politics, considering that Shaikh Nasser was, essentially, the very reason that Parliament was dissolved last month (for the fifth time in three years).
  • There’s another good piece covering the Kuwait election written by Brian Ulrich. The most interesting bit is when he quotes from Kristin Diwan on the reappearance of one of the original and fundamental societal clefts in the Arabian Peninsula between the settled people (hadar) and the nomads (bedu) who did not get settled into cities until the last century (if at all). [Brian writes] “(quoted with permission from a professional list-serve)”:

“The other area of dynamism in Kuwaiti politics is coming from the ‘tribal’ outer districts. I attended a HUGE and very well planned rally for women in the south of Kuwait near Ahmedi, and was duly impressed by the energy, which may have been amplified by the fact that it was held in an amusement park and most of the women brought a bevy of happy children in tow. As observant Kuwaiti social scientists have been telling us for years, these relatively late arriving citizens of Kuwait are becoming better educated and less willing to accept their role as ‘service’ candidates quietly accepting government jobs for loyalty to the rulers – especially as there are less jobs and services to give to their steadily increasing numbers. They may mobilize as a ‘tribe,’ but their complaints are essentially economic and full of historical resentment of the better off ‘hadhar’ of Kuwait’s inner constituencies. The democratically elected parliament gives them the perfect vehicle to press their economic demands, and goes a long way in explaining why many of the merchant-led Kuwaitis who championed Kuwaiti democracy can now contemplate an unconstitutional dissolution of it.”


Iconoclastic thinking 20, May 2009

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I have been a fan of John Mueller for a long time. Indeed, I tried (and failed miserably) to emulate his work in a dissertation of mine. Mueller is that rare thing in hyperbole-ridden the international politics/security discourse: a calm, rational, empirical, unflappable and iconoclastic analyst. In 2006, he wrote an excellent essay for Foreign Affairs which took the American Government, most academics along with mainstream thought to task over the implicitly accepted notion that America was in imminent danger from a terrorist attack. This was, and indeed still is, a difficult line to take. In the May 2009 edition of Foreign Affairs he uses that same kind of critical view-point to ask serious questions about Afghanistan. Would it immediately revert to an Al Qaeda strong hold if Western forces withdrew immediately? Mueller thinks not for a host of persuasive reasons that I don’t quite have time to go into, leaving you the only option of reading for yourself

Optimism on Pakistan 28, April 2009

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Here are two posts from respected commentators on Pakistan’s crisis. They decline to jump on the ‘we’re all going to die’ bandwagon and put Pakistan’s recent issues into context.

Al Azhar opening up in Kabul 20, March 2009

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Instead of a Middle Eastern country attracting foreign institutions to set up shop in some kind of ‘Education Zone’, this time the tables are turned as Egypt’s famous Al Azhar University is opening an Islamic Institute in Kabul. The Al Azhar is, of course, not only important in Egypt but one of the most influential and important seats of Islamic learning in the world. Its foray into Afghanistan is a fascinating move. These kinds of exchanges are the perfect vehicles for soft power enhancement. This is another way to describe building up a good relationship with others so that, over a given decision, ‘they’ will seek to – starkly put – do as you want because they want to help you and not because you cajole or force them to.

Hat tip: Andrew Bishop

Interview with Ahmed Rashid 20, October 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Central Asia, Random.
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From ‘Conversations with History‘ here is an interview with the vastly knowledgeable Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani journalist and commentator. His knowledge of the region is profound and makes the interview well worth watching.

Turkmen find massive new gas reserves 16, October 2008

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There is an excellent article over at Asia Times Online (ignore the irrelevant and flowery opening paragraphs) on the discovery of a massive new gas field in Turkmenistan. This Central Asian oddball country already had significant gas reserves but this new find could well see them leap up to second in the world in terms of gas supplies, eclipsing Iran and Qatar, currently second and third respectively.

Until recently, in the wider world, Turkmenistan has been known as ‘that country with the mad leader’. Their erstwhile leader, Niyazov was famous for numerous utterly ridiculous initiatives all aimed at creating and augmenting his cult of the personality. He designed the education curriculum around a few ridiculous texts that he had written, build a gold plated statue that revolved to the sun, changed names of the months of the year and various other absurd and costly ventures. Yet Turkmenistan could afford this: it was well endowed with natural resources. Yet this only compoundsNiyazov’s dictatorial regime. Thankfully for Turkmenistan and its atrociously poor people, he died in 2006 and the new leader had mooted reforms throughout the country.

This latest discovery will lead to a rush of foreign investors eager to extract the gas from Turkmenistan. Russia, having already got good relations and existing deals with Turkmenistan, appear to be best placed. However, the previous regime and the currentincumbent have pursued a strictly non-partisan and neutral foreign policy. All bidders, therefore, might well stand a fair chance. But then again, this is Turkmenistan after all, so who knows?