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Gulf Arabs: own a third of all yachts 23, August 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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I just read that Gulf Arabs own a third of the world’s yachts. I confess I’m jealous. But at least they work hard for all their cash…


Arab-Persian Gulf shenanigans 15, August 2010

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Shiraz’s mayor (in a desperate bid to ingratiate himself to Iranian hardliners) has called “for action” against Bahrain’s Gulf Air for…have a guess…not using ‘Persian’ in the name of the Gulf.

He insists that Iranian passengers have been complaining about the name. Who can imagine the mental scarring that such a travesty causes them? Poor lambs.

Airlines have been the source of constant issues. Qatar Airways got in trouble earlier last month for using the wrong name for a city in Iran. All Gulf airlines sporadically cause issues as they do not call the body of water the Persian Gulf but the Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. The temerity.

Japanese oil tanker blast: terrorism 6, August 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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So it turns out that it wasn’t a freak wave, an old mine or a collision with another ship or submarine but a terrorist attack. The Japanese tanker M-Star which nearly had a hold punched in its side last week on route from Qatar to Japan was the victim of a U.S.S. Cole-esque attack, it has been announced.

Residue from a home-made explosive was detected on the outer hull by Emirati authorities. Numerous implications come to mind.

Firstly, this is quite a departure from typical terrorist tactics and a worrying development for GCC States which have been largely free of any such attacks for years now (particularly so if you exclude KSA).

Secondly, that such an attack can be launched from the Arab side of the Gulf will be seriously perturb security forces (no doubt bolstering their reasoning behind banning Blackberrys).

Thirdly, this is a somewhat paradoxical attack. It highlights the apparent ease with which terrorists can mount such an attack without discovery or even the suggestion that an attack has taken place. Whilst at the same time it shows that conducting a successful attack may well be more difficult than they realised. The hull of the ship, whilst clearly damaged, held up well. This will give other would-be seaborne terrorists pause for thought. [Though, if they are expecting a great ball of flame to erupt, I think they’ll be mistaken: I believe oil is rather difficult to ignite. LNG, on the other hand…]

Fourthly, experts, journalists and […deferential cough…] supposedly knowledgable bloggers ought to have suggested this possibility. Such notions have been floated for years now. The USS Cole, whilst some time ago now, is nevertheless relatively fresh in the mind too. Why many (including myself) failed to connect these suicide boat-shaped dots is a mystery to me. Poor form.

Fifthly, this signals that no country is safe. Japan can – surely? – not be a selected target. They have no baggage, history or issues in the Middle East. Or am I missing something here? Why wouldn’t they have waited for an oil tanker destined for the U.S?

Sixthly, do we trust this report from the Emiratis? Their first explanation, after all, was – laughably – that a freak wave caused the dent. I would have thought that mentioning hard, cross checkable facts would either mean that they are lying in a particularly foolish, brazen manner or they actually found such evidence. Given that I can’t see why crying terrorism would suit their needs, I think I’ll believe then. (If they had said that Iran had done it…)

Qatar’s obesity epidemic 27, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, The Gulf.
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Anyone who has lived in the Gulf and has walked through a busy mall will know the scale of the obesity crisis. On an average day, the majority of the Nationals present appear to be overweight and there are always a good handful of really supersized Gulfies. The scale of this problem – pun firmly intended – has reached such levels that the venerable NYT has decided to run an article on it.

They focus on Qatar which has some of the highest obesity levels in the world. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that it’s Qatar’s (and the Gulf’s) extreme wealth that makes a significant contribution to this problem. The article also suggests that Arab custom contributes too, with eating being a focal point of family life, yet I don’t really buy that argument as Arab culture is hardly unique in this respect. Indeed, going out to dinner with a Chinese friend or boss is every much a belt-busting ordeal as it is in the Arab world.

Another aspect that the article rightly picks up on is that relating to genetic disorders. Qatar again comes high up on these kinds of lists too. Families in the Gulf are notorious for intermarrying with predictable results. Given that there are less than 250,000 Qataris, these problems are really quite serious.

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Tax in GCC ‘by 2013’ 27, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, The Gulf.
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The Arab Times reports that a ‘reliable source‘ in Kuwait’s Ministry of Finance stated that all GCC countries will introduce a range of individual and company taxes by 2013.

Whilst this is an obvious long-term necessity, getting GCC nationals to see things this way is another matter. Kuwait in particular with its über populist Parliament more used to pushing through £4 billion of debt relief for their already inordinately rich population than discussing tax will have severe issues, I expect, even broaching the topic. One senior Kuwaiti and high-profile businessman told me that the T word is just ignored as it will prove to be such an incendiary topic.

In short, I just cannot see, for example, a Kuwaiti paying personal income tax in the coming decade. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

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Dubai bans then allows alcohol in food preparation 21, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Emirates, The Gulf.
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On the 20th March Dubai’s authorities announced that they were unequivocally banning the use of alcohol in food preparation in the Emirates.

The letter, a copy of which has been seen by Arabian Business, states the use of alcohol in the preparation and cooking of food, and the display and sale of food containing alcohol was “strictly prohibited”.

This caused varying degrees of outrage from hoteliers and restauranteurs fearful that this would take a significant chunk out of their profits. The stink created was so bad that only a few days later Dubai changed their minds.

‘It’s all just a little mistake’ they tried to say. ‘All we wanted was to make the segregation clearer on menus,’ someone probably added in a desperate attempt not to look like a complete idiot.

Does this remind anyone of anything?

Once again we have a clear example of ‘a’ Shiekh wielding his power and making a drastic decision regardless of consequences of planning or an able bureaucracy to temper, evaluate or implement the decision. Once again, some time later, after vested powers have used their own wasta to go above the head of this Sheik, the decision is rescinded.

Being as I write this from France, I’ll finish with a ponsey Frenchism:

Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose

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Law to protect Arabic 21, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf.
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Plans are afoot in the Emirates to protect the Arabic language. The perceived loss of ground of Arabic to English stems from several factors.

  • The language of international commerce, trade etc is English. The Gulf’s headfirst dive into the very heart of these worlds in recent years, has therefore, forced Gulf countries to improve their English to the point where it is the language of the vast majority of business.
  • Emiratees are a minority in their own country. The lingua franca for all – Europeans, Arabs, Asians and even Americans – is, therefore, English.
  • Also, because the Emirates need so many foreigners, their systems, companies etc need to accommodate the English language in order for skilled Westerners to do the necessary jobs.
  • English is generally taught better in schools than Arabic. Arabic teaching is taught through rote learning and memorization. English language teaching, however, has advanced and is far more interactive.
  • Countless interviews and conversations in the Gulf tell me that English is fast becoming the language of choice of the younger generation to the severe detriment of Arabic. Access to Western culture and Western travel are two precipitants of this.

Feel free to add to (or argue with) the list…

(more…)

Saudi to enter Gulf aviation industry 18, April 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia, The Gulf.
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As if Middle Eastern skies were not full enough, Saudi Arabia has announced plans to become a “major international aviation hub by 2035”. These kinds of slightly bombastic statements have been heard before with the various launches and relaunches of Gulf Air, Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and with Etihad Airways.

Some interesting points to note:

  • Even though Saudi may well be undertaking a “comprehensive overhaul” it is a decade behind the regional curve. The afore mentioned airlines will be hundreds of aircraft, tens of billions of dollars worth of investments and numerous world-class airports ahead of Saudi Arabia. Saudi will not only not have the luxury of a relatively free international aviation market to grow into, but instead they will be seeking to grow as Emirates, Qatar and Etihad are maturing into ever more competitive, world-spanning airlines.
  • However, MEED sagely notes that Saudi will base their growth not as much on the frightfully competitive international market per se, but on domestic aviation (something no other GCC states can do) and on religious pilgrims.
  • This unique market will have to do for Saudi Arabia. I can not foresee how they could possibly compete with the established GCC and other carriers on Europe to Asia flights, barring an unsustainable and epically costly slashing of ticket prices. Without a positive aviation reputation and certainly without alcohol, such markets will prove, I believe, outwith their reach.
  • Saudi hopes that King Abdulaziz International in Jeddah will be one of the largest airports in the world handling 80 million passengers a year by 2035.

Kuwaitis seeking to gentrify their names by adding ‘al’ prefix 27, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, The Gulf.
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Understanding tribal politics in the Gulf is exceedingly tricky. Whilst one can relatively easily identify numerous tribes and establish that they are originally considered to be bedu (historically quasi-nomadic people) or hadar (more settled people, often by the coasts) or from Iran, aside from generalized notions or clichés of Bedouin tribes being considered ‘less civilized’ than their hadar brethren, one is still mostly in the dark. How important are tribes today? What do tribes ‘do’? Are tribes little more than informal networks and the source of entrenched nepotistic practices? Do tribes still matter today when one no longer needs a tribe for physical protection?

Alas, as yet I can’t really answer too many of these questions, though I expect to get some answers this week.

The reason I bring up this topic is that I’ve come across a curious article about tribes in Kuwait. Seemingly many families are adding the prefix ‘Al’ to their names as they believe that this “gives them an advantage in business”. The survey reports that roughly 16,000 Kuwaiti nationals have does this in the last two decades to gentrify their family names to make them sound more regal and important. The author continues to conclude that Kuwaitis are doing this to follow the example of the ruling families of the region, the Al Sauds, the Al Sabahs and so on.

It must be said that the author doesn’t inspire confidence by writing

“Al”, meaning family…

as the basis of the article. It doesn’t. It means ‘the’. I realise perfectly well that if someone is called Abdullah bin Aziz Al Dosari, this ‘means’ Abdullah, son of Aziz of the Dosari family. In this sense, therefore, the ‘al’ does denote the family name. Yet surely no Arabic speaker would ever write “‘Al’, meaning family”.

I think that there’s a more technical problem too between ‘Al’ as in, for example, Al Attiyah (or any other non-royal name) and ‘Al’ as in Al Saud or Al Thani. As you can plainly see in English there is no differences between the two, yet this is not so in Arabic. The ‘Al’ in Al Attiyah is spelt ال whereas the ‘Al’ in Al Saud is spelt آل. The only difference is the little squiggle over the ‘a’ letter (the non-curvy one). Here I look to an arabic expert to confirm, but I think that this type of ‘Al’, known as an Alif Madda, is reserved for royal families only.

Nevertheless, ignoring this technical gripe, it’s an interesting article which argues against clichéd and stereotypical Gulfy notions of the ‘inviolability’ of one’s name and the prominence of family, for I would have thought that changing one’s family’s name would be an almost sacrilegious act.

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Saudi & Abu Dhabi in naval skirmish 27, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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In a worrying development for regional security, naval forces of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi have been involved in an exchange of gunfire in disputed waters. Reports indicate that Abu Dhabi naval forces opened fire on a small Saudi naval vessel which had strayed into what they considered to be Emirati waters injuring two Saudi sailors and forcing their surrender. Captured Saudis were handed back to KSA authorities earlier this week.

Given that this was seemingly such a minor incident and the Saudis were handed back relatively quickly, it is tempting to assume that this was simply a quasi-game of harassment gone awry (just like with the RAF and Russian bombers that I reported earlier this week).

This incident has caught many by surprise. Whilst boundary disputes between the UAE and KSA are well-known, there have been no such clashes in recent memory. Saudi unsuccessfully sought to block Qatar building their Dolphin pipeline to the Emirates claiming that their agreement was needed as it passed through Saudi territory. Even though Abu Dhabi is essentially the richest city on earth and Saudi easily has the world’s largest oil reserves, neither side wants to forgo the potential oil under the disputed territory.

America will be displeased to see such an obvious clash between two key members of its putative coalition establishing a united front against Iran. Particularly so given that Doha hosts a conference on maritime defense early next week including speeches by Saudi and Emirati naval commanders.

The Gulf has an unfortunate combination of latent and overt tensions combined with – as far as defense is concerned – seemingly unlimited liquidity. It is, therefore, unsurprising to find that 5 Gulf countries are in the top 10 of world defense spending as a percentage of GDP. The Emirates are only behind India and China as world’s largest weapons importers. Furthermore, both countries receive some of the most up to date military hardware from the US, with the Emirates being the first country in the world agreeing in principle to purchase America’s THAAD defence system. More generally, America agrees to the massive build up of arms by Saudi and the UAE thinking that they will bolster their defense, their deterrence and balance the power of Iran regionally, not so they can take pot-shots at each other, much to the amusement, no doubt, of Tehran.

It is also interesting to note that this incident appears to have been largely hushed up. This is unsurprising. Despite this incident, KSA and Abu Dhabi are generally cooperative allies and are united in their mutual antipathy and suspicion of Iran. I very much look forward to seeing whether Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper covers this story, for it is clearly newsworthy, yet clearly a sensitive topic. This is, in short, a perfect test for their level of independence, or lack thereof.

Update:

I’ve changed a few words of this article. I misunderstood a few facts such as about the number of Saudi’s injured.