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Qatar 2022 and the future of the Middle East 3, December 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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It matters not if you are a pauper or a Prince; from time to time everyone suffers from the green eyed monster. Until its spectacular demise, Dubai grew covetous glances from around the region. Since then Abu Dhabi and Qatar have been quietly vying to fill the space. Abu Dhabi hosts the über luxurious and glamorous F1 Grand Prix and promises a whole island’s worth of cultural delights. Qatar led with an emphasis on education and a cultural approach, trumpeting its American Universities, Tribeka film festival and a stunning Islamic art museum.

Kuwait meanwhile has been too busy infighting to agree on any strategy to compete, Saudi Arabia is hamstrung by a repressive social atmosphere and Bahrain does not have the cash to compete meaningfully; their F1 Grand Prix being something of a hang-over from the ‘good old days’.

Yet by winning the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar has catapulted itself to the top of this imaginary league. In terms of a global audience and prestige, nothing but the Olympics comes close. This is a coup of epic proportions for Qatar and – make no mistake – is a seminal moment in the entire history of the state.

Despite official congratulations for Qatar, therefore, I have not one doubt that in private there are howls of derision and anger ringing around the Palaces of the Gulf. Outwith this micro-region, Egypt are long-term antagonists if not enemies of Qatar and Mubarak will viscerally hate this little upstart of a country grandstanding and upstaging Egypt so effectively time and again. Those in the Levant will be shaking their heads marvelling at what the money of oil Sheikhs will buy them while the Iranians will be working out how best to use this to their advantage.

Expect, therefore, a flurry of op-eds in the near future offering any number of back-handed compliments.

‘Yes, well done to little, rich, plucky Qatar’ they will patronisingly muse, ‘but hosting such a large tournament in such a small country is madness and they will have to spend tens of billions etc etc’.

It is interesting to note that one of the key reasons for Qatar’s success is the fact that it is hoped that the World Cup can in some way, shape or form, bring the Middle East together. Of this I have no doubt: Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s President will be creating space on his mantle piece for his Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet this optimistic view woeful misunderstands the curiously bitter disputes that riddle the Arab Middle East. Even, as mentioned earlier, among the Gulf States, a broadly homogenous group of people in terms of religion, language, culture, ethnicity and history, there are remarkably prickly relationships in evidence.

While in public, Qatar’s Arab brethren will have to ‘come together’ and support Qatar such will be the public support of having a football tournament so close to them, I fully expect no end of snipey remarks for, well, over a decade.

Does Blatter stand any chance of getting his Peace Prize? Two factors strike me as favourable in this regard.

First, 2022 is a long time away. This potentially allows some long-term-thinking negotiating, offering a natural and unmoving deadline. A skilful negotiator could potentially use this to his/her advantage.

Second, now that Qatar has the World Cup, the only possible greater prize is securing Middle East peace. And I’ve no doubts that they will redouble their efforts towards this aim, again, using 2022 as a categorical deadline.

Clearly, militating against some kind of resolution is the rather obvious fact that this conflict is epically intractable and requires a difficult confluence of peace and politics in the Arab world, Palestine, Israel and America.

Perhaps Qatar would be wise to seek to role together a united Arab front using the World Cup as a truly pan-Arab event to press on the conflict. Yet, as described above, it will be difficult to persuade chauvinistic Arab countries to follow Qatar’s lead at the best of times, let alone when they have just been awarded the kudos-busting largest tournament on earth.

Yet, if one has learned anything from the past few day’s events, it is that one must never bet against Qatar. It is infinitely more than simply a very rich country. Qatar has a wealth of outstanding individuals that are gifted, world-class business people and its newer generations are shaping up to be the best educated Arab generation in history.

While it is crucial to acknowledge the staggering challenges that Qatar still faces in its quest to host a superb World Cup, as its rivals fear, Qatar could well be the future of the Middle East.

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Women’s rights in Middle East 5, March 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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A study of women’s rights in the Middle East has just been released. Tunisia and Jordan, two countries which provide legal protection against domestic abuse, came top of the list, followed by Morocco, Algeria and Lebanon. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Yemen and Saudi propped up the list at the very bottom. Indeed, Yemen holds the dubious distinction of having the lowest percentage of women ‘economically active’ in the world at a paltry 28%.

Al Arabiyya also picked up on a typical Saudi piece of absurdity where women are allowed to study for law degrees but are not allowed to appear in court for their clients. Yet, as always with Saudi, its small steps.

China & the Middle East: An Unfolding Courtship 16, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China and the ME.
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This is something that was published sometime ago. Yet, it is only now that I have found a suitable (but still not perfect) way of uploading it here. Use the arrow pointing downwards on the right to make it larger or click the ‘full screen’ button (the one furthest to the right) to have a read.

(PS. No, “an unburdened Panda” was not my idea)

Originally published in the Kuwait Times : 09/02/08

View this document on Scribd

China No.1 exporter to the ME 7, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China and the ME, Middle East.
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Here’s a quick note of an interesting article in – of all places – the Torygraph, by the author of the New Silk Road Blog. It highlights the trend of China’s ever growing exports to the Middle East to the tune that they are now the number one exporter to the Middle East at $60bn (up from just $4bn a decade ago).

It contains a few interesting nuggets of information such as the existence of ‘a virtual Arab market town’ not far from Shanghai as so many buyers from the Middle East apparantly go there to look for products and it also cautions as to the effects of cheap Chinese products flooding Middle Eastern cities. Whilst Kuwait City and Doha need not worry so much, Damascus and Cairo, with their enormous populations, the young-age of many and their skills sets, have something to fear from this. The author concludes that this can only draw on a protectionist backlash at some stage.

Qatar and Iran: on top in Middle East’s gas shortage 2, June 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, LNG, Middle East, Qatar.
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lng-qatar-kuwait

Irony, schadenfreude, poor management or just life, call it what you will but there is going to be a critical shortage of gas in the Middle East according to the FT. Such a notion goes against the grain of popular perceptions of the Middle East as region, for if the region is know for anything it is for its oil. People might assume, therefore, that because of the plentiful supplies of one carbon-based fuel, that there might be equally plentiful supplies of another. To a fair degree such an assumption is correct. Qatar and Iran are two of the top three countries in the world by proven gas supplies. Other Middle Eastern countries have more modest but still far from insignificant supplies. Saudi Arabia has over 7 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas supplies at 4% of the world’s proven reserves, the UAE has over 6 tcf of reserves at 3.4% of the world’s supplies and Kuwait has nearly 2 tcf of proven reserves. Compared to their oil reserve equivalent, these supplies are fairly paltry, but compared to, for example, their populations (around 27, 4.6 and 2.6 million respectively) they ought to be easily sufficient. Yet this is clearly not the case if the judicious and sober FT are declaring their need to be ‘critical’.

There are various reasons as to why most GCC states find themselves in this somewhat perplexing situation. Many of these countries have, as the article’s author Andrew England states, a highly escalating demand for energy spurred on by burgeoning populations spending the wealth accumulated in the recent oil-fueled boom. Furthermore, the myopia that the oil fueled boom seems to have instilled on the region in terms of a lack of significant investment in any other industry seems to have further exacerbated issues. Gas, it is now starkly evident, is crucially needed “for power generation, desalination plants and to provide feedstock to the energy intensive industries they have been seeking to lure.” The problems are particularly acute in the summer months when demand for AC is at its peak.

Whilst the recent economic troubles that have afflicted the region have momentarily taken the edge off the gas needs with its dampening effects on demand overall, this is but a temporary phenomenon and “the medium and long-term outlook remains critical.”

Such a situation is, of course, not that bad for Qatar and Iran. Both these countries, sitting atop mountainous stores of gas and sharing the world’s largest gas field, gain extra strategic importance. Kuwait and Qatar are currently in talks over a 5 year supply deal worth around 1.4 million tonnes of LNG per year. Yet, as England notes with an interview with Qatar’s oil and gas minister, Qatar will not necessarily sell their gas to their neighbours for “at the end of the day I [the Minister]  am concerned about what is the best revenue for the country…I’m not in a social security game.” Qatar already has the Dolphin pipeline sending gas to the Emirates and then on to Oman. This can be seen through a pessimistic or an optimistic prism. Either Doha can now exert more authority over the Emirates and Oman or this closer reliance will bring the countries closer together. A Russian-Ukrainian style threat to turn off of the pipes is highly unlikely, outwith extreme provocation or a severe deterioration of relations. And in much the same way, the countries are different, independent and competitive enough to avoid some kind of harmonious new relationship. As usual, the practice will most likely be somewhere in the middle with all concerned knowing that a touch more power has just been ceded to Qatar. Expect their attempts to diversify their supply or seek nuclear technology to increase.

Picture from LNGpedia

Original FT article

Gause on the Middle East 20, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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Gregory Gause has another excellent article, this time in Foreign Affairs discussing the rule of the Middle East. Here’s the key paragraph:

…the new administration needs to remind itself of the rules of the local game — the traditional contest for influence among regional states. It is played out more in political terms than in military ones, although the possibility of violence is never far. The players are the stronger regional powers (Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey) and the playing fields are the weaker powers (Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories) whose governments cannot prevent outsiders from interfering in domestic politics. The tools of influence are money, guns, and ideology — and the scorecard is judged by the political orientations of the weaker states.

By this metric, Iran is doing rather well. In Iraq, its influence is greater than that of any other regional power. Iran’s closest Iraqi ally, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, did not do well in recent provincial elections, but Tehran’s ties to the political party of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and to the Sadrist movement, a Shia party built around Muqtada al-Sadr — both of which fared better in provincial elections — remain strong. Meanwhile, Hamas, Iran’s longtime client, emerged from this winter’s war against Israeli forces in Gaza bloodied but unbowed, much as Iran’s ally Hezbollah did from its own war with Israel in 2006. Hamas and Hezbollah now dictate the course of politics in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, respectively — far more so than the central governments controlled by “moderate” Arabs with pro-Western inclinations.

To anyone with a fair knowledge of the Middle East, nothing that Gause says is particularly new. Rarely, however, is swathes of Middle Eastern history, politics, intrigue and modern-day machinations so well summarized.

Feminism and headscarves 3, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Saudi Arabia.
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Never let it be said that I am not in tune with feminists doctrine…here’s an excellent article which, so far as i can see, superbly speaks to one of the touch-stones of feminism: choice. The article is from the Washington Post and tackles the issue of head scarves. The author, Mona Eltahawy, has seen the ebb and flow of general proclivities regarding hard scarves over the years: to wear or not to wear, and now suggests that the general resurgence of Islam (in Egypt for example) is again reducing choice. She also rightly points out the bizarre state of affairs between people demanding to wear scarves in one Muslim country (Turkey) and a relative lack of people demanding that women’s oughtn’t have to wear them in another Muslim country (Saudi Arabia or Iran, for example).

Censorship in the Middle East 2, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Middle East.
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After living in the Middle East for a couple of years, you begin to get somewhat accustomed to various kinds of censorship, especially when you live in Kuwait and you are a teacher. I was reminded of the often bizarre nature of censorship by a recent post on the Indie Hour blog. If ever there was proof to the adage that a picture tells a thousand words, this is it. Witness what the Saudi censors did to Nirvana’s Nevermind album cover.

Nirvana censored

If for some reason you can’t remember what the original cover looked like (shame on you), here is the dastardly image in all its Bielzibubian horror.

Nirvana uncensored a

There is not that much you can add to that really.

This incident fervently reminded me of being in the Jarir bookstore in Hawally, Kuwait when one of my friends showed me a children’s book of Whinny the Pooh and friends. The only difference between this book and one from the UK was that Piglet – cute, little, harmless, Piglet – had been heartlessly, brutally and conscientiously scribbled out with black felt pen. Obviously, if Kuwaiti children saw this picture of a cute pig they would no doubt rush out in a panicked and hungry (but fruitless) rampage to find themselves a chunk of pork.

As amusing as these examples are – and they are, to my mind, simply hilarious – there are, need it be said, more insidious examples of censorship in Kuwait and beyond. Teaching in a Kuwaiti school is an eye opening experience. On the wall outside my classroom there was a nice, large world map. However, political sensitivities being what they are, I was instructed to scrub out Israel on the map. Can anyone tell me where Israel is on a world map? Pretty much right in the centre. So, aside from every child in Primary simply walking past the map ten or more times a day and not paying it the blindest bit of notice, they were all transfixed and curious as to the nature of this black square in the middle of the map. “Mr David…shino hatha?” ‘What’s that’ – was all I heard for weeks.

Then there are the dictionaries and text books. After they have been carefully vetted by the Kuwaiti Ministry of this or that, we were given a list of what must be erased. Words such as “Israel, Jew, Zionist…etc” were to be blacked out of the dictionaries. (As well as the word “Dawn” for some inexplicable reason). In the text books, all Ancient Greek or Roman statues which depicted nakedness in any some way shape or form were to be given shorts or t-shirts. As did any other picture in any other historical context where the human form was depicted unclothed.

The censorship takes a more insidious form as you progress up the school and is, unsurprisingly, most difficult for History and Biology teachers. Most students in Kuwait sit the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (I-GCSE) which is a British exam. There are, therefore, severe clashes between what the pupils need to be taught and what they can be taught. Whole swathes of History text books were stapled together or just ripped out. These sections generally dealt with the Holocaust or Jews generally. The booklet that came around from the Ministry explained why the Holocaust could not be taught by saying that “others suffered more in the War.” I somehow doubt that the Kuwaiti Ministry of whatever was really that preoccupied with the Russians and their huge losses. It was permitted, however, to teach the Holocaust from the perspective that the Jews deserved it. For example, Kristallnacht could be taught as the teacher could explain, if they so chose, that the reaction against the Jews was understandable given the clichéd notion of Jews being disproportionately rich. The history teachers that I knew were totally unprepared to teach in this manner.

You don’t need much imagination to work out what the problems were for the Biology teacher. Either way, the pupils entered the exams only knowing parts of the syllabus and could conceivably have been examined on topics about which they knew absolutely nothing.

The historical censorship is the more surprising example of the two as the Kuwaiti press is arguably the most liberal in the region and frequently discuss Israel. Often this is even done in a relatively even handed way. The subject of the Holocaust is also discussed from time to time. However, the issue of childhood education is always a touchy subject. Witness the issues and diplomatic incidents in Japan and China in recent years over the school history textbooks.

It is a thoroughly trite and clichéd conclusion, but it has to be made: if the Middle East is ever to see any kind of lasting peace, the education of the next generation needs to be changed. Israel, some months ago, tackled this thorny problem when Yuli Tamir the Education Minister said that Israeli school text books ought to also show pre-1967 borders. Needless to say, this caused an apoplectic fit from the right wingers in the country, but it was the brave and correct decision to make. For an Arab country to make a similar decision is, at the moment, singularly impossible (see my article on the Middle East’s ideological straight jacket). However, hopefully slowly but surely the most egregious examples of bias and bigotry could be removed one step at a time. For example, starting with the simple step of acknowledging that Israel can be shown on a map. Such a transition would, obviously, take a generation or more, but with the way that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is spiralling at the moment, and the way animosities are growing seemingly exponentially, then it may come at just the right time.

Cartoons from the Middle East 16, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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 akhbar al arab uae 14.2.08 pol game in leb

The political game in Lebanon

Akhbar Al Arab, UAE

14.02.08

IN lEB

The explosive situation in Lebanon

Al Bayeb, UAE

12.02.08

Cartoons from the media 7, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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The same caveat applies:

These cartoons are emphatically not meant as some kind of political statement on my behalf and neither are they here to offend. They are simply what I have come across on a day to day basis and thought others might find them amusing/thought provoking/telling/meaningful etc.

(Click to enlarge)

On Israel, Palestine and International Law.

Tishreen, Syria 29/01/08

On Israel, the Arabs and the Palestinians

The picture improves in Saudi Arabia.

Al Watan, Saudi Arabia 4.2.08

The picture in Iraq improves