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On assumptions of truth 9, June 2011

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, North Africa, Opinion.
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Earlier this evening I read an article in which Libya’s comical Ali-esque spokesperson refuted the claims that Gaddafi had given the order to use rape as a weapon of war and instead claimed that the rebels, as he refers to them, had even engaged in cannibalism.

Immediately I assumed that, as you can clearly see, the official spokesperson was lying about the rebels engaging in cannibalism. While I certainly have some skepticism about the notion of Gaddafi ordering some kind of systematic policy of rape to be used, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. And, from what little news I’ve seen about it and with their snippets of ‘proof’ (i.e. boxes of viagra apparently strewn around areas recently deserted by pro-Gaddafi forces) I would suppose that this story is mostly true.

Though, as I note, I have, essentially, bugger all proof of this. Essentially, I believe that Gaddafi (probably) used rape as a weapon of war even though it is based on no reasonable evidence. Why is this? Is it because I manifestly dislike Gaddafi and think that he’s either crazy or evil enough to concieve such a plan or because I read about it in a trusted news source? A bit of both I’d suppose.

Yet this thought perturbed me, somewhat, as I thought about it earlier. Particuarly in the light of the saga of the abduction of the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’. As you’ve probably read, a ‘prominent’ blogger – the eponymous gay girl – posted (or had someone post for her) that she had been abducted by Syrian security forces. Only later, a few days after the story broke and she became something of a cause celebre against the awful Assad regime, it transpires that it’s all something of a hoax. She was never abducted and it is not wholly clear if she is real, gay, a girl, a blogger, in Damascus, or what.

Here again, I suppose, I automatically assumed that this story was (probably) true, or at least a good representation of the facts. After all, it sounded just like what Assad’s security services would do, didn’t it? And this fundamental assumption was expertly played on by the author of the ‘gay girl’ saga.

So too to I think that the notion of Gaddafi promoting the use of rape as a weapon of war fits really rather perfectly into my characature of ‘exactly something’ that that evil despot would do. Too perfectly, perhaps? Certainly the reply of Gaddafi’s spokesperson went the only way it could: it ramped up the act to cannibalism, perhaps one of the few taboos worse (though I really don’t want to start that argument) than rape. Presumebly the logical conclusion to this game of one-upmanship’s is for Gaddafi to accuse the rebels of engaging in nechrophilia.

But this un-subtle, rather stupid response from Gaddafi’s people doesn’t concern me; it’s blatant and obvious.

To take another example: the Iranian elections of 2009. They were, I believe, stolen by Ahmadinejad with an absurd amount of votes in certain districts mysteriously not counting for who they were expected to. I have alluded to this opinion as ‘fact’ in a number of things that I have written recently. Yet I have also been reading various quotes, comments and articles from people that I trust plainly declaring that there is no hard evidence of the election being stolen. Were someone to ask me to provide my evidence then I’d root around google news, find a NYT article or two and provide that. However, I suspect that were I to delve deeper into their sources, I imagine that there would (perhaps) not be all that much solid, bonafide ‘proof’ that the election were stolen. Such proof is, I’d have thought, near impossible to obtain. Yet I still believe that the election was stolen. So am I right to say so?

I suppose the ‘opposite’ example is currently underway, so to speak, on the other side of the Gulf where it is an assumption that has become hardened fact for many (and I’d be tempted to say most) Arabs that Iran is significantly at fault for, for example, the recent troubles in Bahrain. There is – to my knowledge; and I do live and breath this topic – no evidence of significant Iranian involvement, so I dismiss it, just as an Iranian may be tempted to dismiss my assumptions about their 2009 election.

How much ought one rely on one’s assumptions and on previous analysis in lieu of evidence for understanding a given event?

The notion that one must ‘always’ have absolute proof before one makes up one’s mind is absurd: I’ve no evidence whatsoever that the moon landings took place (on the moon…) but believe that they did. Clearly we need to rely on other people’s trusted judgments a lot of the time.

I’ve got no conclusion to this wavy and meandering stream of consciousness. All I would say is that this rant makes me believe that while blogging is good and all, it doen’t come remotely close to the rigour of a good newspaper (this blog being the grand exception, of course). While you may think that that is something of an obvious statement, I’m not so sure it is.

The hype that the ##sigh## Twitter revolutions have garnered, the ‘cool’ twenty-first centuryness of the blog and the commensurate if not necessarily wholly correlated demise of the profitability of newspapers suggest to me that the worth of newspapers is, for any or none of the afore mentioned reasons, going down.

So…I dunno…go buy a newspaper or something, I guess.

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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.

 

On the absurdity of University rankings: Alex Uni 16, November 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Opinion.
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It is nice to say that I got my undergraduate degree from one of the top three broad curriculum Universities in the UK and that my Phd will be awarded from a University of similar repute. Yet I confess that I’ve never taken University rankings too seriously.

Durham University, for example, recently reached the heady heights of 3rd in the UK for broad curriculum Universities by one measure but was a lowly 30-something in another newspaper’s rankings. Why the disparity? Because the latter heavily weighted student satisfaction ratings in the make-up of their survey.

The NYT, however, has an article highlighting the most egregious league table absurdity yet.

Alexandria University in Egypt was placed 147th in the recent prestigious Times Higher Education league table. This placed it higher than, for example, Georgetown University in Washington D.C., making Alex Uni the only Arab University in the top 200.

(Infinitely) worse still was the fact that it was, according to one criteria, 4th in the world in terms of the ‘weighted impact of a University’s research’. This placed them higher than Harvard and Stanford Universities and is the sole source of their relatively high placing overall.

Digging deeper the NYT discovered that this anomaly stemmed from one Egyptian Professor who published 320 of his own articles in a scientific journal that he edits. He is currently involved in a court case over the “apparent misuse of editorial privileges”. I wonder why.

Another University rankings system noted that Alexandria University was not even the best University in the (small) city.

 

 

 

 

 

On Kuwait’s sponsorship system U-turn 19, October 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Opinion.
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The FT has a good article discussing Kuwait’s u-turn on abolishing their kefala sponsorship system. The day after it was announced by the Labour Minister that Kuwait would get rid of the system by February 2011, the announcement was rescinded by the same Ministry.

The key issue is that abolishing the system directly affects swathes of Kuwaitis. Currently, nationals of Gulf States can set up a massively lucrative businesses importing workers from abroad. Given the lack of oversight and the culture sadly prevailing across much of the GCC, wages are regularly unpaid, holidays canceled, gratuities reneged upon and far longer hours of work demanded. Yet, as I noted in a recent post about Qatar’s kefala system, businessmen voting to get rid of this system is like Turkeys voting for Christmas: unlikely.

The repeal of the whole system would redress the balance in employer-employee relations significantly and – essentially – hit (in this case) Kuwaiti businessmen in their pocket. When Bahrain announced that they were abolishing their kefala system their business lobby erupted with anger. The same happened in Kuwait and the same in Qatar. Instead, loop-hole-ridden, half-hearted reforms are enacted that are a shadow of what was initially promised.

It clearly does not matter to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that they are on the third and worst tier of the U.S. State Department’s watch list for human trafficking: is it truly unfair to say that by definition the majority of Kuwaiti businessmen care more about their profits than the human rights of the workers they import? Alas I’m not sure that that is such an outlandish statement.

 

 

 

On the passing of dignitaries: Lee Kuan Yew wife dies 3, October 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East, Opinion.
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Kwa Geok Choo, the wife of Lee Kuan Yew the founding father of Singapore and the mother of Singapore’s current Prime Minister, has died. The press release said that:

The family has requested that no obituaries, wreaths or flowers to be sent. All donations will go to the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI) Health Research Endowment Fund.

Sultan Al Qassemi noted this story on his twitter feed and made an interesting observation.

Imagine an Arab leader not expecting flowers, wreathes & obituaries, in addition to endless visits. There would be serious consequences.

WSJ: flagrant intellectual dishonesty 29, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Opinion.
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Abu Muqawama has an excellent post skewering Elliott Abrams for what amounts to blatant intellectual dishonesty. Abrams wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. In this he quoted two reports on the Palestinian Authority.

The World Bank reported this month that “If the Palestinian Authority (PA) maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well-positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.” The West Bank’s economy will grow 8% this year, said the bank. Meanwhile, tax revenues are 15% above target and 50% higher than in the same period last year.

and

Regarding security, cooperation between Israeli and PA forces has never been better. This month the International Crisis Group acknowledged that “In the past few years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) largely has restored order and a sense of personal safety in the West Bank, something unthinkable during the second intifada. Militias no longer roam streets, uniformed security forces are back, Palestinians seem mostly pleased; even Israel — with reason to be skeptical and despite recent attacks on West Bank settlers — is encouraged.”

These quotes from reputable scholarly sources paint a rosy picture. However, these quotes are flagrantly taken out of context and wholly misrepresent the general thrust and conclusions of the reports themselves.

One of the key conclusions of the The World Bank is that

Sustainable economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza, however, remains absent. Significant changes in the policy environment are still required for increased private investment particularly in the productive sectors, enabling the PA to significantly reduce its dependence on donor aid.

The obstacles facing private investment in the West Bank are manifold and myriad, as many important GoI restrictions remain in place: (a) access to the majority of the territory’s land and water (Area C) is severely curtailed; (b) East Jerusalem — a lucrative market — is beyond reach; (c) the ability of investors to enter into Israel and the West Bank is unpredictable; and (d) many raw materials critical to the productive sectors are classified by the GoI as “dual-use” (civilian and military) and their import entails the navigation of complex procedures, generating delays and significantly increasing costs. … Unless action is taken in the near future to address the remaining obstacles to private sector development and sustainable growth, the PA will remain donor dependent and its institutions, no matter how robust, will not be able to underpin a viable state.

As Abu Muqawama notes:

The point of the whole friggin’ World Bank report was that the very real economic gains we have witnessed in the West Bank over the past few years will turn out to be ephemeral if they are not followed by a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. That political settlement doesn’t necessarily have to lead to the immediate creation of a Palestinian state, but it has to address the areas of concern highlighted in the above paragraph. And that bit about “access to the majority of the territory’s land and water” being severely curtailed? Any guesses from the readership what the World Bank research staff thinks is doing the curtailing?

As for the Crisis Group Report, Abrams has cherry-picked (again) to an absurd degree, ignoring its central conclusions.

The undeniable success of the reform agenda has been built in part on popular fatigue and despair – the sense that the situation had so deteriorated that Palestinians are prepared to swallow quite a bit for the sake of stability, including deepened security cooperation with their foe. Yet, as the situation normalises over time, they could show less indulgence. Should Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapse – and, with them, any remaining hope for an agreement – Palestinian security forces might find it difficult to keep up their existing posture. … Without a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process or their own genuine reconciliation process, Palestinians will be stuck in their long and tenuous attempt to square the circle: to build a state while still under occupation; to deepen cooperation with the occupier in the security realm even as they seek to confront it elsewhere; and to reach an understanding with their historic foe even as they prove unable to reach an understanding among themselves.

This is really, really naughty stuff. Pure and simple, whole-scale, grade-A, Pinocchio-like dishonesty. Read the original post for more withering and well-sourced criticism of Abrams’ article.

On Qatari media 29, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Al-Jazeera, Opinion, Qatar.
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It’s hardly a revelation that the newspapers in Qatar are in a poor state. Too often filled with Ministry press releases and utter fluff, they are used as an example of the double standard when it comes to Qatari media: mostly free if you discuss other countries; wholly emasculated on domestic matters.

An article delivered to my Google Reader about a certificate given to a Qatari employee at the Movenpick hotel prompted this post.

Ali Abbas Al Khanji, a Qatari national working as a Bill Collector with the Movenpick Hotel Doha since March 1 this year has scored a perfect attendance. As a Bill Collector his job is to deliver invoices to customers and receive payments from them on behalf of the hotel. He is also assigned to follow up on pending issues and notify the Credit Manager of any failed collections. On August 29, the hotel awarded a Certificate for Perfect Attendance to Al Khanji.

Is this news: a meaningless certificate given to an employee for not missing work in the – hold the phones – 6 MONTHS that he has worked there? Granted, the fact that he is Qatari and hasn’t skipped work is something of a story, but they don’t pursue this tack (can’t imagine why).

Non-stories like this feed the cliché about the duplicity of Qatar when it comes to the media. Some of the criticisms are true and just. There is very little domestic criticism for Qatari leaders to deal with. The newspapers in Qatar know their red lines and they do not cross them. Al Jazeera is frequently lambasted for its harsh, investigative and uncompromising reports on other Arab governments and their almost absolute silence on matters in Doha.

On this last matter I disagree.

Firstly, Al Jazeera’s audience is the Arab world and beyond. I’m not too sure how much they care about what goes on in Doha. Instead, the audience, I’d have thought, would prefer to hear about what is happening in Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These are far larger issues than Qatar and are thus covered far more.

Secondly, what exactly happens in Doha that is interesting? I like the city but aside from traffic, there seems to be relatively little to report: not much happens. Some argue that Al Jazeera did not cover the recent mooted coup attempts but these were little more than summer rumors in Saudi and Jordanian newspapers. What other ‘dirt’ is there that Al Jazeera does not cover in Doha? They way that critics lampoon Al Jazeera one would think that there are countless fascinating stories that they simply pass up. I’m just not sure that that is the case.

Thirdly, there have been a few documentaries critical of Qatar over their treatment of domestic workers.

Despite this robust defence, I do realise that after the return of the Saudi Ambassador to Doha in 2008, Al Jazeera was muzzled vis-a-vis KSA to a large degree. Also, their tone towards Bahrain has manifestly calmed down over the last decade and more. Nevertheless, I am still a defender (of sorts) of Al Jazeera.

As for those that see Al Jazeera as some kind of terrorism propaganda HQ, all I’d say is that, as Kaplan put it, ‘Where you stand depends on where you sit’.

On the Pope’s visit 21, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Opinion, UK.
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The Pope’s visit to the UK passed without any drama aside from the temporary arresting of six street cleaners who were overheard making a joke about unleashing his Popiness from this mortal coil sooner than expected. They have since been released.

The best commentary that I’ve come across so far on the visit is in The Times of London by Oliver Kamm ($) who took issue with the Pope’s speech where he lamented the:

“increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance…There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere.”

Kamm points out that this is:

…outstandingly dishonest – as if there is anyone in this debate who genuinely urges that the “voice of religion be silenced”, or that relegating religion to the private sphere is the same as silencing it – the Pope’s message stands against the single most important advance in Western civilisation in the past 250 years, namely the separation of civic and religious authority.

Secularism does not hold that religion should be driven out of public debate. Christians are, and should be, entirely at liberty contribute to politics and other areas of public policy, and to cite their inspiration and their inferences from it. They should not, however, be accorded a position at the head of the queue – or, say, a bench in the House of Lords – purely because they wear clerical garb or profess certain unprovable doctrines. The reason this principle is central to a free society (as is lamentably lost on Baroness Warsi, an obscure minister) is that religion has been a divisive force throughout history. Its claims can’t be adjudicated except by “faith”, and have hence historically (and to this day) been settled by conflict.

And to the key line, which to my mind goes far beyond the Catholic Church:

The Catholic Church has every right to express its view on social issues, but it has no right to be listened to: that will depend on the quality of its argument, not on the place it imagines it merits for purely extraneous reason…If the faithful wish to take part in public debate about matters of national life, then they will have to use reason to advance their arguments, which will be judged according to that criterion and that alone. They don’t get a free pass by claiming divine inspiration, let alone revelation. [Italics added]

Indeed, this is surely the core (if somewhat tautological) issue: the belief in the divine right of religion to pontificate, to be listened to, to chastise, to condemn or to praise on the basis that it is…well…religion, as opposed to any other institution or group that must earn the respect and space it deserves.

On the death of language 20, September 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Opinion, Random.
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There’s an excellent article in the FT on language using Apple and Microsoft as instructive examples.

Apple:

“We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don’t need any more Fart apps. If your app doesn’t do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted.”

The tone is direct, comic and elegantly threatening.

“We will reject apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, I’ll know it when I see it. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.”

And Microsoft:

The brand new browser, it says, “delivers a richer, faster, and more business-ready Web experience. Architected to run HTML 5, the beta enables developers to utilise standardised mark-up language across multiple browsers”. Well I never. Reading this, I’m bored and restless, irritated and alienated.

And an example of truly crappy modern prose from Bob Jeffrey, the head of JWT.

“Global consumers are rapidly re-evaluating and readjusting their value paradigms and purchasing decisions. Our job is to keep our ear to the ground with these consumers, providing relevant real-time insight to our clients that inspires cutting-edge, cost-efficient solutions.”

The Apple version of this would be something like: “Consumers can change so we try to keep up.” This version reads better, but it is not hard to see why Mr Jeffrey didn’t put it that way. “A relevant real-time insight” sounds like something that a befuddled client might pay more money for. [how true]

Then the author explains why all this matters.

An even better example of the link between high profits and low language was on the appointments pages in the Financial Times 10 days ago. It was an advertisement from “one of the largest and most trusted banking and financial services organisations in the world” which was hoping to hire a “customer journey re-engineering manager”.

This title contains three layers of obfuscation: the ludicrous yet ubiquitous idea that a banking customer is on a journey; the idea that this journey needs re-engineering; the notion that this needs managing. There is only one conclusion to be drawn: surplus profits generate bonuses and bullshit in equal measure.

All interesting stuff.

Also this morning I came across the BBC’s style guide which is – amazingly – quite a good read. It was difficult reading for me in places as I discovered that I was (am) routinely committing numerous language faux pas. I’ll endeavor to improve.

Hat tip: RIM