Ringing in the New Year

December 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

happy_New_Year_s_hat_5The time has come to bid adieu to yet another year. Countries around the world, from Russia to Japan, will ring in 2012 with the pomp and pageantry befitting of a new year. However, for many, bidding farewell to a passing year and welcoming in another one is mere ritual. For others, saying goodbye to 2011 gives reason to pause and reflect on the past twelve months. Nowhere is this truer than the Middle East where the “Arab Spring” was born and continues to take baby steps to freedom and democracy. Albeit through infinite tears and immense bloodshed.

Countries in the region ring in the New Year differently. In Kuwait, the celebration is limited to private parties and the odd buffet meal at a five-start restaurant. In Saudi Arabia, it is largely ignored since following the Islamic calendar, as opposed to the Gregorian one, takes precedent. And in countries like Egypt and Syria, there will be little reason to celebrate given the tumultuous political environment that rages on with little end in sight. There is one country, however, that always has a New Year’s Eve celebration that rivals even the grandest of celebrations in the West. And that’s Dubai.

The tiny United Arab Emirate’s municipality of Dubai holds one of the biggest New Year’s Eve celebrations in the region each year without exception. And this year, event organizers have promised a bash bigger and better than ever. The tallest building in the world, Burj Al-Khalifa will take center stage as a larger than life pyrotechnical display with shake it to its very core and illuminate the skies in a sea of colors. The nearby building Burj Al Arab will also have its own fireworks display at the stroke of midnight.

Resorts, hotels and nightclubs in Dubai have a host of activities that start well before midnight and will last well into the morning hours of New Year’s Day. One of the most unique celebrations will be held at the Fairmont Hotel where an acrobatic performance of “Charlie and the Cirque Factory” will be held. Guests will be treated to dessert and candy at the stroke of midnight. Another notable celebration will be held aboard the QE2 ocean liner, however the black-tie affair is by invite only and is being touted as the most exclusive New Year’s Eve event in the entire world.

A slew of celebrities have descended upon Dubai this past week to ring in the New Year with their entourages. Indian mega-star Shah Rukh Khan and British actress Amy Childs are just two personalities that plan to welcome 2012 in Dubai. American actresses Lindsay Lohan and Pamela Anderson are also confirmed to be participating in the QE2 festivities.

14-1

Zardari Suffers Heart Attack, May Quit

December 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

PAKISTAN-PRESIDENT/

Pakistan’s President Zardari in file photo taken August 2, 2010. Zardari had a minor heart attack and is undergoing treatment in a Dubai hospital, a source said Wednesday.          

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Washington: Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who abruptly left the Pakistan capital for Dubai, has suffered a minor heart attack and some in the US government believe he may even resign on account of ‘ill-health’, a media report said.

Zardari Tuesday evening left for Dubai to visit his children and also to undergo some medical tests, Pakistan’s official news agency Associated Press of Pakistan had reported.

Though the president’s personal physician Col Salman said the proposed medical tests are of routine nature and are linked to a previously diagnosed cardiovascular condition, the Foreign Policy magazine quoted a former US official as saying that parts of the US government were informed that Zardari had a ‘minor heart attack’ Monday night. He had flown to Dubai via an air ambulance.

Zardari may have to undergo an angioplasty procedure Wednesday and may also resign on account of ‘ill health’, the media report said.

The former US government official told the website that Zardari was ‘incoherent’ when President Barack Obama spoke with him regarding Nov 26 NATO’s killing of two dozen Pakistani soldiers.

Zardari had planned to address a joint session of Pakistan’s parliament on a controversy over a memo to Washington that claimed he feared a military coup after the May 2 commando operation to kill Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Zardari has been under tremendous pressure since the memo came to light.

‘The noose was getting tighter — it was only a matter of time,’ the former official was quoted as saying.

The ex-official noted the growing expectation inside the US government that Zardari may be on the way out, reported Foreign Policy.

In September, Zardari underwent an angiography at a hospital in Britain where doctors gave him a clean bill of health.

Two surgeons from the US too were involved in the medical check-ups along with the British doctors.

Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, in a Tuesday interview said a plan would see Zardari step aside.

Nawaz said: ‘Unfortunately, it means that the military may have had to use its muscle to effect change yet again.’

13-50

Safe-Haven Status Puts UAE Luxury Car Sales in High Gear

November 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Martin Dokoupil and Martina Fuchs

2011-11-16T141125Z_2016428751_GM1E7BG1OL701_RTRMADP_3_GULF-AUTOS

Emirati men check technical specifications of a Porsche Cayenne at the Dubai International Motor Show November 10, 2011. Mother-of pearl dashboards and diamond-encrusted hood ornaments at the Dubai International Motor Show this week underlined how the safe-haven status of the United Arab Emirates is fuelling dramatic growth in sales of luxury cars. Picture taken November 10, 2011.

REUTERS/Martin Dokoupil 

DUBAI, Nov 16 (Reuters) – Mother-of pearl dashboards and diamond-encrusted hood ornaments at the Dubai International Motor Show this week underlined how the safe-haven status of the United Arab Emirates is fuelling dramatic growth in sales of luxury cars.

The market was hit hard by the 2008-2009 global financial crisis and recovered only partially last year. But this year’s political unrest in the Arab world boosted sales in the UAE, which was spared such turmoil. Companies and individuals from around the region looked for a safe haven in Dubai, a key Gulf business hub.

“The uprisings…have provided confidence that Dubai is important from a security point of view,” said Michel Ayat, chief executive of AW Rostamani Automotive, which sells Nissan’s luxury Infiniti models.

With Brent oil prices above $100 a barrel, promising continued economic growth for the UAE, a debt crisis in Europe and financial stormclouds in the United States have also largely failed to deter wealthy consumers. The UAE economy is expected by analysts to grow about 3.8 percent this year.

“The crisis is everywhere. (But) even if the local has nothing to eat, that’s no problem if he has a luxury car,” joked Emirati businessman Salem Seif, 28, eyeing a new Porsche Cayenne sport utility vehicle at the motor show.

Porsche in Dubai sold 211 new cars in August, the best-ever performance for any Porsche showroom globally, with the Cayenne remaining the brand’s top seller. Sales for the first eight months of this year are up 46 percent from a year earlier, said Vijay Rao, the showroom’s general manager.

In the UAE, the Gulf’s largest market for luxury cars, total sales are expected to jump 32 percent to 25,010 this year after a 16 percent rise in 2010, consultants IHS Automotive forecast.

That would be the fastest growth in the Gulf and exceed volumes seen in the oil-boom years before 2008, when access to credit was easier. Luxury cars account for 9 percent of the country’s car sales.

And many of them are being bought by young customers just getting a taste for such vehicles; some 66 percent of all new car purchases in the UAE, which has the world’s sixth highest per capita income at over $47,000, are made by customers between the ages of 18 and 29, according to Business Monitor International.

EUROPEAN IMPACT

A moderate economic slowdown looks likely in the UAE next year if the global outlook worsens, and this could cool the luxury car market. Dubai’s safe-haven effect may also fade as partial political stability returns to other Arab countries; in the last few months, rapid growth in deposits at UAE banks has slowed, central bank data shows, suggesting there are no longer big inflows of foreign money seeking a refuge from political turmoil.

Ayat estimated the luxury segment of the UAE car market would grow around 15 percent next year, but that is more optimistic than the 8 percent growth forecast by IHS. Gulf car sales data are not available on an aggregate basis, posing a challenge to industry forecasters.

Overall UAE passenger car sales of all types are expected to rise 15 percent to 273,924 this year and climb a further 13 percent in 2012, after a 6 percent increase last year, IHS said.

Even if growth in the luxury market does slow, the top-end brands such as Rolls-Royce, which sells cars priced above $270,000 mainly to royalty and expatriate entrepreneurs, may see little impact.

“In the third quarter this year, with the problems in the euro zone, the market slowed down a little, but let’s emphasise that we will still continue to see growth in the market compared to 2010,” said James Crichton, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars’ regional director for the Middle East and Africa.

“In the UAE, we are up 78 percent this year, and in Saudi Arabia we are up almost 60 percent,” he said at the motor show, where the automaker displayed its blue and white “Riviera Phantom” with the iconic flying lady figurine, covered in 2,300 diamonds, perched on its brushed stainless steel bonnet.

Home to some 5.4 million people, the UAE is the world’s fourth-largest market for Rolls-Royce.

“There is a crisis and tension around the globe but people who are luxury spenders by nature, they will continue to spend,” said Adham Charanoglu, chief executive of Aston Martin Middle East and North Africa.

“This is completely separate from the retail market,” he said at the launch of the $530,000 Aston Martin Zagato in Dubai.

DIVERGING SPEEDS

Car sales trends diverged in the Gulf in 2011. In Bahrain, hit by the worst political unrest since the 1990s, luxury car sales are projected to fall 19 percent this year before rebounding 20 percent next year, IHS said.

Oil giant Saudi Arabia, which saw only minor political protests, is forecast to see a 4 percent drop in high-end sales this year before growth takes off strongly — at a 24 percent clip — in 2012. That would far exceed the 8 percent rise predicted for overall Saudi car sales next year.

Dealers see potential for further growth if the kingdom eventually allows women to drive. In September the government decided to let women vote in municipal elections, a step which could presage further social change.

“In Saudi Arabia, 20 percent of our customers are women, and the number is increasing,” said Umberto Cini, managing director at Maserati Middle East and Africa. At present, women are driven by relatives or chauffeurs. (Editing by Amran Abocar and Andrew Torchia)

13-48

Dubai Diversifies with Push into Diamonds

November 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nour Merza

DUBAI, Nov 16 (Reuters) – The United Arab Emirates, the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter and home to gold trading hub Dubai, is rapidly becoming a force in trade of another highly valuable commodity: diamonds.

Dubai, the UAE’s centre for gem trade, handled $35 billion worth of rough and polished diamonds in 2010, a leap from an annual figure of just $3 million a decade ago, according to Malcolm Wall Morris, chief executive of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC).

In the first half of this year Dubai traded $25.3 billion, a 55 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. Much or most of the rise was due to surging diamond prices rather than growing volumes — but the increase nevertheless underlined Dubai’s success in competing with other trading centres.

“Part of the UAE’s policy is to diversify its income and gradually move away from one or a few sources of income,” UAE Economy Minister Sultan bin Saeed al-Mansouri told Reuters on the sidelines of a diamond exhibition in Dubai. “So there must be manufacturing and other sources of income we can depend on and that are also sustainable.”

The DMCC, which provides the infrastructure for commodities trade in Dubai, now ranks the emirate as the world’s fourth largest diamond trading hub, behind Antwerp, New York and Mumbai. Antwerp, through which more than half of the world’s diamond production passes, saw $48 billion of trade in the first ten months of 2010, according to data from the Antwerp World Diamond Centre.

The UAE has competed with traditional diamond centres by keeping customs duties for diamond jewellery as low as 1 percent, a tiny fee compared to major diamond producer Russia’s 23 percent duty and 18 percent value added tax, according to Maximilian Artsinovich, founder of London-based retailer Maximilian Jewellery.

“Because of these duties, jewellery and imported watches in the Ukraine, Russia and Khazakhistan cost double their price in Dubai, or are at least 50 percent more expensive,” Artsinovich said after opening a boutique in Dubai.

The UAE also tightly regulates the quality of diamonds coming in and out of the country to increase investor confidence, says the DMCC.

But some traders still question Dubai’s ability to rival more established centres. A major obstacle keeping Dubai from becoming one of the world’s top three hubs, according to Mitesh Surti of Antwerp-based diamond seller Beyroha, is local banks’ lack of expertise in the diamond industry. Diamond traders have had difficulty setting up accounts with services catering to the industry, such as overdraft facilities, he said.

Another problem is the UAE’s inability to attract Israeli jewellers, who play a prominent role in the industry; for political reasons, Israeli nationals are generally not allowed into the country.

“A lot of Israelis cannot come here, and that’s a major problem because they are (one of) the industry’s main pillars. In Antwerp that is not a problem,” said Surti.

And while much of Dubai’s diamond trade comes from shipping the precious gem abroad, traders say the emirate’s reliance on tourists rather than the local market for most of its retail sales is a weakness.

Saurabh Shah, a seller at Antwerp-based diamond manufacturer Rosy Blue’s Dubai arm, said that if tourism in the UAE falls, diamond sales also drop because Arab locals and the large Arab and Indian expatriate communities traditionally prefer to buy gold.

“For Dubai, sales are mostly from the tourists. Indians (living here) buy only gold jewellery, and locals don’t buy diamonds very often,” said Shah.

Demand for diamonds in the Gulf is rising, however, and today stands at $15 billion annually compared to around $2 billion a decade ago, Shah said. By 2015, China, India and the Gulf could overtake the United States as top diamond consumers, analysts believe, creating more opportunities for Dubai, which is located between diamond producers in Africa and processors and buyers in Asia.

“Dubai is not rivaling Antwerp — Dubai is taking a new spot,” said Victor van der Kwast, chief executive of ABN AMRO Bank’s international diamond and jewellery group. Commodities flowing from Africa to China naturally tend to move through Dubai for geographical reasons rather than Antwerp, he said.

PROCESSING

While Mumbai has a long tradition of diamond cutting and polishing, Dubai hopes to control more of the industry’s supply chain by processing rough diamonds domestically rather than sending them to Mumbai and then re-importing the finished product into the UAE for retail sale.

“Eventually, that’s one of the aims. Dubai will try to do as much of the diamond processing as possible,” said DMCC business director James Bernard.

The DMCC has a diamond boiling centre, which removes dirt and trace materials from the gemstones, and a light jewellery manufacturing center. But some traders think bypassing Mumbai, which processes seven in every 10 of the world’s diamonds, will not be possible on a mass scale because of labour costs.

“Manufacturing diamonds needs different skills and a labour force, and the labour which is in India is more economical,” said Amit Dhamani, chief executive of Dubai-based jeweller Dhamani.

But he acknowledged Dubai’s potential in processing high-end products at lower volumes. “More processing in terms of high-end cutting of diamonds can be an interesting point — that is more quality-oriented, in that labour is not a major factor.”

Economy Minister Mansouri was adamant that Dubai could incorporate manufacturing into its diamond industry.

“We are confident that Dubai can be number one in a variety of sectors, including attracting investors and in areas like polishing diamonds and manufacturing diamonds,” Mansouri said. “Dubai does not know the impossible.” (Editing by Andrew Torchia)

13-48

Pakistan Cricket Head Replaced–Butt Removed

October 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Compiled by Parvez Fatteh, Founder of http://sportingummah.com, sports@muslimobserver.com

IjazButtAPKMChaudary1The controversial reign of Ijaz Butt as head of Pakistani cricket has come to an end. The Pakistani government has decided not to retain Butt as chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and has appointed Zaka Ashraf in his place.

Ashraf, a senior banker, will take over as PCB chairman immediately, as was announced by Pakistan’s Presidency. Butt recently completed his three-year tenure on October 8th. His term began in October of 2008, and it was plagued by controversy, including last year’s spot-fixing scandal in England which led to player bans involving Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamir. In addition, Butt was also head of the PCB when the Sri Lanka team was attacked in Lahore in 2009.

Butt returned home on Monday from Dubai after attending the executive board meeting of the International Cricket Council. It is unknown at this time as to what position he will return to. But millions of passionate Pakistani cricket fans will probably be happy to see him fade into oblivion after an embarrassing three years on and off the pitch.

13-42

While You Were Sleeping

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

COV_iranFlag This week has seen a spurt of would-be terror plots that painfully highlights the reality that our world is still not as safe as it should be, despite the two wars still being waged against purported terrorist regimes. The most notable occurred in the heart of New York City as Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad has confessed to being the mastermind behind the car bomb that, luckily, did not explode in Times Square. Shahzad was just barely apprehended as he sat on an Emirates flight set for Dubai.

The tiny Gulf State of Kuwait also got its own dose of a potential terror-plot in the making when security personnel unraveled a tangled web of deceit within its own borders. A ‘sleeper cell’ network of spies, apparently working covertly for the Iranian government’s Revolutionary Guard, was exposed this past week much to the surprise of the denizens of the region. For weeks, local Kuwaiti newspapers have been reporting renewed ties between Kuwait and Iran as well as a couple of deals, like oil exports. By all appearances the sleeper cell was put into place to gather intelligence on primary Kuwaiti and American targets, in the event that America decided to take a preemptive military strike against Iran. Iranian President has always promised to lash out at any Gulf neighbor that allows its land to be used by the US and its allies in a show of force against Iran.

Kuwait’s security forces have arrested at least eleven high-ranking Kuwaiti citizens that worked in close proximity to both the interior and defense ministries as well as several Arab nationals whose nationalities have not been released. During the bust, Kuwaiti security personnel raided the home of one of the leaders of the sleeper cell and found a great deal of incriminating evidence including maps for sensitive targets in Kuwait, hi-tech gadgetry and an estimated $250,000 stockpile of cold hard cash. Key players within the sleeper cell have also revealed to Kuwait security forces that they were instructed to recruit new members from Kuwait that were sympathetic to the plight of Iranians.

It’s not surprising that Kuwait was chosen as a primary location for the Iranian sleeper cell to settle in unnoticed. There are several American army bases littered throughout the country and Kuwait is a key stopping point for American troops headed to the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the strongest reason is most likely the friendship that Kuwait and America have built ever since the 1991 Desert Storm war, where America and its allies literally pulled Kuwait out of the clutches of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Word out of Iran is that the whole fiasco is merely a chance for Kuwait to discredit the country. However, the evidence is strongly leaning towards the validity of the sleeper cell and the Iranian governments full knowledge of its existence. And according to the Kuwaiti government there are still at least seven more members of the sleeper cell who have not yet been apprehended. But what is most disturbing is that interrogations with the suspects are slowly revealing that the espionage stretches clean across the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) member states with several Gulf countries supposedly having an invisible sleeper cell operating from within. Leaders from the Arab world are expected to meet in the foreseeable future to join forces in combating Iranian spy rings.

12-19

Gulf Islamic Banks Eye Conversion of Conventional Peers

May 3, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Frederik Richter and Shaheen Pasha

MANAMA/DUBAI (Reuters) – More banks in the Gulf Arab region may convert to Islamic finance in a bid to tap rising demand for sharia-compliant products and to avoid the heavy investment required to launch new banks.

A source told Reuters this month that Qatari investors are planning to buy a 25 percent stake in Ahli United Bank <AUBB.BH> <AUBK.KW> from Kuwaiti investors and have plans to convert Bahrain’s largest retail bank, which itself plans to take its Kuwaiti unit Islamic.

“Converting to Islamic is compelling in the region. In Kuwait Islamic banks have rapidly won market share from conventional ones,” said Sayd Farook, senior consultant at Dar Al Istithmar.

Converting conventional banks would help the industry expand its retail footprint — for instance in countries where no new licenses are given out but conversions are allowed –, which experts say the industry needs to develop a more sustainable business model.

The Islamic banking industry in the Gulf Arab region has mostly relied on channeling the region’s oil wealth into real estate and private equity, and was badly hit by a regional property correction late in 2008.

“I would say between 70 to 80 pct of the Muslim market (in the region) would bank with an Islamic bank….if you are an Islamic bank you get to capture that market,” said Sameer Abdi, head of Islamic finance at Ernst & Young.

Scholars have said they do not oppose converting conventional banks as long as their investments and debt levels are brought in line with sharia, which bans investments in certain sectors such as alcohol, over a grace period.

“There is usually a two-year conversion gap from the moment you convert….during which you need to give away to charity any income from conventional instruments,” said Farook.

Experts say that converting a bank comes cheaper than launching a green-field retail bank, but costs associated with revamping the bank’s work-flow, accounting and core banking IT systems are still high.

“Depending on the scale of the bank and the market in which it operates, it could take two or three years before the investment pays off,” said Hatim El Tahir, a Bahrain-based director at Deloitte & Touche.

Abdi said he estimated that up to 15 percent of existing customers could leave a converted bank, not necessarily because they disapprove of the switch to sharia, but because the bank might struggle to maintain its service level during a difficult transition period.

Bahrain’s Al Salam Bank <SALAM.BH> is converting Bahraini Saudi Bank <BSBB.BH>, which it bought last year, as is Egypt’s National Bank for Development <DEVE.CA> after Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank <ADIB.AD> partially bought the lender in 2007.

But the Gulf Arab region is rarely seeing mergers and acquisitions due to cultural sensitivities and opaque ownership structures, which could be the biggest obstacle to the conversion of conventional assets.

Bahrain’s Ithmaar Bank <ITHMR.BH> this month concluded the transformation from an investment house to an Islamic retail bank to improve its funding base, but could do so because it fully owned Islamic retail bank Shamil.

But Kuwaiti banks and merchant families have been badly hit by the financial crisis and are trying to sell down their international assets, which could be a way in.

Their ownership in many banks in the off-shore banking center Bahrain, both Islamic and conventional, could migrate to Qatari investors and banks that are awash with cash, bankers and analysts say.

“Qatar is a small economy…the bigger banks are looking at other markets,” said Janany Vamadeva, banking analyst at HC Brokerage, adding that Qatari companies would also be best positioned to raise money in current capital markets.

(Reporting by Frederik Richter and Shaheen Pasha; Editing by Dinesh Nair and Louise Heavens)

12-18

The Legacy of Lunch

April 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

lunch%20tray For the past couple of months now I have been intrigued with an anonymous blog project based in America that has captured the imagination of countless Internet users. The topic of the blog is school lunches in America and the blogger is a schoolteacher that masks her identity for fear of losing her job. Every day, she shares the food that not only her students are eating but what she is eating herself in the school cafeteria. The blog, Fed Up With School Lunch, has ignited a rallying cry that stretches clean across the globe with teachers in countries like Korea and France chiming in to share their school lunch victories and disasters. Most notably, the blog highlights the poor quality of food served in most American schools and the lack of nutrition to sustain students.

What strikes me the most about the project is not the fact that American kids are eating a ton of processed foods intermingled with a mere sprinkling of fresh fruits and vegetables, but the fact that kids in the USA are actually served lunch every day whereas my own children in the Middle East are not offered any form of lunch in their schools whatsoever. In fact, the vast majority of schools in Kuwait don’t offer hot or even cold lunches. And vending machines are absolutely nowhere to be found on school campuses. Most parents send their kids a packed lunch, usually potato chips or chocolate and Pepsi. Some don’t even send lunch at all. And what’s worse is that there is not an allocated time slot for lunch in most schools in Kuwait, so many children bring their lunches back home with them or eat while they are studying.

Kuwait is not the only Gulf country lacking when it comes to school lunches. Even wealthy Arab neighbors like Dubai have a school system that rarely serves lunch. Parents are left to monitor their own children’s nutrition at lunchtime with zero support from the faculty at their school. The biggest problem for parents of school-aged children in the Gulf region is a lack of proper nutritional information. In a recent survey that I conducted in my own daughter’s 3rd grade class, a whopping 90% of children had been given junk food for their lunch with only a handful of children having a healthy lunch and an equal number having no lunch at all.

The price for the ‘rubbish’ lunches, as my hero/cooking guru Jamie Oliver would say, is more and more children in Kuwait are battling obesity before they even reach puberty. The Ministry of Health in Kuwait has recently projected that the rate of diabetes amongst children in Kuwait is set to double in the coming years. And, so far, no one is doing anything about it.

So no matter which way you, slice, dice or reheat it, the legacy of lunch is something that affects children from all walks of life and in every region of the world. It’s up to adults to make the right food decisions for the younger generations, and win the battle over lunch once and for all.

12-17

Upgrade: Islamic Finance 2.0

April 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Rushdi Siddiqui, Gulfnews.com

sharia_finance_dollar Future of Industry lies in move from sharia-compliant to sharia-based approach

Dubai : We are at an important crossroads in Islamic finance and banking, and I want to explore, in this column, the future of Islamic finance.

We hear about 1.5 billion Muslims, but has Islamic finance benefited the ‘man on the street?’ What is so ‘Islamic’ about Islamic finance?

Have we simply been putting an Islamic wrapper around conventional structures and products and placing a blessing them?

I’ve been in Islamic finance for more than a decade. This inaugural article will set the non-technical tone for the important areas I want to explore in the future, and I encourage the readers to comment as the Islamic finance community’s collective psyche, experience and insight will benefit the industry.

We in Islamic finance want to see a group blueprint of the industry going forward, including the building of two-way bridges — be it with South-east Asia or with Group of 20 (G20) countries.

Islamic finance is, at one level, for all those interested in “boring finance”, asset or project backed/based financing and non-turbo-charged investing (without derivatives and excessive leverage) in selected real economic sectors.

Islam does not necessarily have a monopoly on ethics because these are common shared values with other religions and philosophies. However, the former has ‘codified,’ via scholars, screens and structures into financial contracts having links to permissible real economic activities.

Sharia compliance

Among the 57 Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) countries, not one Muslim country in the last 40 years has ‘Islamised’ its economy for general acceptance; not Sudan, Pakistan or Iran.

The $1 trillion (Dh3.67 trillion) industry operates in a world economy of inter-connected interest rates, debt and other similar factors, hence Sharia scholars have allowed a permissible amount of impurity as long as the industry moves towards removing such impermissibilities.

Put differently, scholars, as Sharia gatekeepers, are seeking progress and prosperity, which is different from modernisation. Thus the reference rates in Islamic mortgages, syndicated loans, sukuks and other financing are the efficient cost of capital credit of the London interbank offered rate (Libor) and/or the Treasury.
However, where is the industry with a methodology for an Islamic interbank offer rate (Ibor)?

There are over 555 Islamic funds with $35 billion (Dh129 billion) of assets under management, and, if we focus on Islamic equity funds, the question that comes to mind is this: ‘What is the link between a Sharia-screened company from any of the five index providers to Islamic finance or a Muslim country?’

The screening results in a universe that can be deemed as a style of investing — ‘non-financial, low debt social-ethical investing.’

Thus, some of the Sharia-compliant companies include Microsoft, BP Amoco, Pfizer (with a bias towards energy, health care, and technology), yet what is their link or connection to Islamic finance?

Could such companies and, in the aggregate, present day Sharia-compliant Islamic indices, be deemed an economic indicator of Islamic finance in a Muslim country? We now need to look at Sharia-based Islamic indices.

IFIs and sukuks

We hear and read about 300 Islamic financial institutions (IFIs) in 75 countries, and the need for larger balance sheets to compete against the ‘big boys’ on the project finance deal table for instance, hence, a call for the consolidation or the creation of established Islamic mega-banks.

A concern with such an Islamic mega-bank revolves round whether it poses a systemic and confidence risk in the home country as concentrated exposure without many compliant-hedging mechanisms?

Is there a need to think about safety nets and stress tests before central banks allows for an Islamic mega-bank?

The sukuk market, roughly equated to Islamic bonds, is now worth over $107 billion, having been the locomotive of Islamic finance during the petro-liquidity spike.

However, recent bankruptcies, defaults, and restructuring exercises, have been portrayed by western media as the beginning of the end of Islamic finance.

In an embryonic industry, like the 40-year-old Islamic finance, these growing pains are welcomed and will actually strengthen the industry, as precedents become known and down-side risk is better understood.

Sukuk growth and development appear to be following the ‘path’ of the Eurobond market, and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and General Electric (GE) sukuk issuances in late 2009 underline the merits of such financing in turbulence.

Contribution factor

We have a number of Islamic finance conferences, and a number of Islamic finance awards.

It is often strange to see or read when different conference organisers or magazines have, for instance, a ‘best Islamic bank’ award, and each names a different bank.

It has been said in certain quarters that some of these awards are driven by sponsorships rather than actual votes or, ideally speaking, real contribution to the industry.

At this stage in Islamic finance, awards should emphasise ‘contribution’ and not ‘best,’ as that latter implies mature and connected Islamic financial institutions globally.

The foremost contribution to Islamic finance has been made by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and Governor Zeti Akhthar Aziz, and, obviously, the real Sharia scholars, regulators like the United Kingdom’s FSA, central banks like the Central bank of Bahrain, and conventional banks with windows and subsidiaries.

Shaikh Mohammad, a standalone stakeholder, raised the profile of Islamic finance globally via the Dubai brand before oil reached $140 a barrel, and Zeti, as a globe-trotting ambassador, made her a separate asset class in Islamic finance.

They have established the awareness and macro framework, and now the industry has to move towards Islamic finance 2.0.

Pulse of Islamic finance

One of the serious issues the markets are tackling is to how to find an effective, overall pulse of Islamic finance. In most instances, numbers such as $1 trillion and the like are used to demonstrate the awesome potential of this industry.

However, how can we really gauge what’s happening to the industry on a daily basis?

The path to Sharia-based Islamic finance is expected to have speed-bumps, pot-holes, diversion road signs, construction vehicles with signs such as ‘do not follow’, but lets raise the issues from Sharia-compliance to get to the destination of Sharia-based.

The writer is the global head of Islamic Finance & OIC Countries for Thomson Reuters. The views expressed in this column are his own and should not be attributed to his organisation.

12-14

Sukuk Market Starved of Benchmark Sovereign

March 25, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Carolyn Cohn and Shaheen Pasha

LONDON/DUBAI, March 23 (Reuters) – Sovereign borrowing still eludes the Islamic bond, or sukuk, market, leaving investors hungry for a benchmark issue to reinvigorate trading after the credit crunch and the Dubai World crisis.

Where issuance from euro zone and emerging market borrowers in 2010 has been fast and furious, with emerging market borrowers alone issuing over $50 billion, there have been no sovereign sukuk issues at all.

Only one international sukuk has been issued so far this year, a $450 million Islamic bond for Saudi property developer Dar al-Arkan.

A resolution of debt woes at state-owned Dubai World, the mounting of domestic regulatory hurdles for issuers and improved liquidity could bring sovereigns to the sukuk market from around the third quarter.

But for now borrowers have been deterred by thin trading, the extra premium which borrowers have to pay to attract investors into this relatively small and specialist market, question marks over sovereign guarantees and regulatory conundrums.

“There is genuine need for issuance,” said Muneer Khan, partner and head of Islamic finance at law firm Simmons & Simmons in Dubai.

“Government-related issuances and good credit corporate issuances can often open the gates for further corporates.”

A sukuk is similar to a bond but complies with Islamic law, which prohibits the charging or payment of interest.

The typical path for any debt market is that the initial borrowers are sovereigns, seen as relatively risk-free, followed by state-owned entities, and then by corporate borrowers who will offer a higher yield.

“If sovereigns get deals away at a certain level, corporates should trade 30-40-50 basis points above,” said a London-based Islamic finance specialist.

But without sovereign deals, it is hard for corporates to follow.

The Philippines last week shelved plans for a debut sukuk issue, citing legal hurdles.

Indonesia, which has previously issued in the sukuk market, has no plans to issue again before September.

Gulf borrowers such as Bahrain and Dubai have also previously issued sukuk. But trading is weak after the shock payment standstill on Dubai World debt, which includes Islamic debt, and other defaults in a market once boasting a zero default rate.

In addition, the lack of a government guarantee for some state-owned Dubai World debt came as a shock to many investors.

Sukuk prices are generally trading below par and the market is highly illiquid, market participants say, even as benchmark emerging sovereign debt spreads are trading at their tightest over U.S. Treasuries in nearly two years.

Global sukuk issuance is likely to range between $15-17 billion in 2010, down from $19 billion last year, a recent Reuters poll shows. Currently even those forecasts look ambitious — in 2009, nearly all sukuk issues were made by states and quasi-sovereign entities.

“The sukuk market has been doubly affected by the downturn and the situation in the Middle East, so people are not pushing ahead — it’s not an easy market for a first-time borrower,” said Farmida Bi, partner at law firm Norton Rose in London.

European sovereigns have failed to issue any sukuk at all.

The UK was at the forefront of plans for sukuk issuance, and has the legal framework in place. But its original plans coincided with the outbreak of the global financial crisis, and the country has since saddled itself with huge amounts of debt.

“The reality is that the UK government has to fund a 178 billion pound ($266 billion) deficit,” said the Islamic finance specialist.

“To come to the market with a $500 million to $1.0 billion sukuk is not the highest on their priority list.”

France was also hoping to issue a sukuk but has become bogged down in legal changes, and market participants say sukuk issuance in countries such as Turkey remains some way off.

However, there are a few signs of light.

Investors are awaiting a restructuring any day of $26 billion in Dubai World debt, which will draw a line under the four-month old problem.

“The more positive news that comes for resolutions, the better,” said Khan. “It can’t hinder further issuances, but it could help.”

Sovereigns such as Jordan and Kazakhstan have said they want to issue sukuk for the first time, although there is no set timing.

And as markets around the world recover, led by emerging debt which is seeing strong demand, sukuk could yet attract investors.

According to a Gulf regional banker at a major investment bank: “The sukuk market is a natural follower of the debt capital markets and we’re starting to see more activity there. There is liquidity in the bond market.”

12-13

British threat to Israel over Dubai Hamas assassination

March 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Britain will consider severing its intelligence-sharing agreement with Israel if Mossad agents are proved to have stolen the identities of British passport holders, The Daily Telegraph has learnt.

By Gordon Rayner, Con Coughlin and Duncan Gardham, Telegraph UK

Ministers are understood to be furious that an alleged hit squad which murdered a Hamas leader in Dubai last month cloned the passports of six unsuspecting Britons, who are now living in fear of reprisals.

Israel, which has not denied involvement in the murder, had previously promised that Mossad, its secret intelligence service, would never use British passports to help its agents carry out covert operations.

Israel’s ambassador to the UK was summoned to the Foreign Office to give his explanation as the diplomatic row intensified.

Ron Prosor will meet Sir Peter Ricketts, the permanent under secretary at the Foreign Office, on Thursday where the ambassador is expected to be asked whether Israel played any part in assassination.

Gordon Brown, making his first public comments about the incident, promised a “full investigation” into the passport forgery.

Mossad has been accused by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, of being behind the murder of its military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was found dead in his hotel room in Dubai on Jan 20.

All of the British passport holders whose identities were stolen live in Israel, meaning Mossad would have had ready access to copies of their travel documents.

A senior Foreign Office source told The Daily Telegraph: “If the Israelis were responsible for the assassination in Dubai, they are seriously jeopardising the important intelligence-sharing arrangement that currently exists between Britain and Israel.

“If it transpires that Israel has been using British passports to assassinate its opponents, the British government will need to give serious consideration to any future cooperation.

“Britain has cut ties with Mossad in the past, and will do so again if the Israelis are found to be acting against British interests.”

Britain’s relationship with the Israeli security service reached an all-time low in 1986, when the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed down Mossad’s UK operation in response to a series of incidents including the discovery of a bag of forged British passports which had been lost by a Mossad agent.

Mossad was allowed to re-establish its presence in the UK only after it promised not to abuse British passports in the future.

Its intelligence-sharing relationship with the security services over such sensitive issues as Iran is now more important than ever, but the Foreign Office source said: “In the past Israel has had a reputation for making life difficult for its friends. It is sincerely to be hoped that this is not the case in this instance.”

Several of the six Britons whose identities were stolen have spoken of their shock at being accused of murder, and of their fears that they could be in danger if Mossad did carry out the assassination.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, said: “If the Israeli government was party to behaviour of this kind it would be a serious violation of trust between nations. If legitimate British passport holders were put at risk it would be a disgrace.

“Given the current speculation, the Israeli government has some explaining to do and the ambassador should be summoned to the Foreign Office to do so in double-quick time.”

The Labour MP Mike Gapes, who is chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, said the cloning of passports raised a “big concern” and agreed that the ambassador should be asked for an explanation, while Hugo Swire MP, chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, said: “This is not something that can just be swept under the carpet …you cannot conduct foreign policy at this extremely sensitive time by this sort of illegal behaviour.”

William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, wrote to David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, urging him to “establish the facts as rapidly as possible” to “prevent further such abuses from happening”.

Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said there was “no reason to think it was Mossad” which carried out the alleged hit, but refused to issue a denial.

He said Israel had a “policy of ambiguity” on intelligence matters, and “never confirms and never denies” involvement in operations.

He added: “I think Britain recognises that Israel is a responsible country and that our security activity is conducted according to very clear, cautious and responsible rules of the game. Therefore we have no cause for concern.”

The Serious and Organised Crime Agency, which has a unit based at the British Embassy in Dubai, has begun its own investigation into the identity thefts, and the Prime Minister stressed the importance of protecting the status of the British passport.

“We have got to carry out a full investigation into this,” said Mr Brown. “The British passport is an important document that has got to be held with care. A British passport is an important part of being British.

“The evidence has got to be assembled about what has actually happened and how it happened and why it happened and it is necessary for us to accumulate that evidence before we can make statements.”

How Dubai Unraveled a Homicide, Frame by Frame

March 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

A mix of old-fashioned legwork and high-tech razzle-dazzle, scouring hundreds of hours of surveillance videos, helped police home in on suspects in a Hamas man’s slaying, blamed on Israel’s Mossad.

By Borzou Daragahi, LA Times

  • Hatem Moussa / Associated Press

Reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Lacking witnesses but blessed with hundreds of hours of video, the cops and spooks worked the case of the slain weapons smuggler like a movie in reverse.

Dubai’s cameras never blink. The security system allows law enforcement to track anyone, from the moment they get off an airplane, to the immigration counter where their passport is scanned, through the baggage claim area to the taxi stand where cameras record who gets into what cars, which log their locations through the city’s automated highway toll system, all the way to their hotels, which also have cameras.

Which brings us to the Bustan Rotana hotel on the night of Jan. 19, and an assassination made to look like a run-of-the-mill heart attack.

The dead man, as the world now knows, was a 50-year-old Hamas commander named Mahmoud Mabhouh, wanted by Israel in the killing of two Israeli soldiers. Once Dubai investigators narrowed the time of death to 8 to 8:30 p.m., they quickly found that seven people in the Bustan Rotana had no business being there.

Using facial recognition software, a source familiar with the investigation said, a team of 20 investigators pored over hours of security camera videos to sketch out a picture of the suspects’ movements and accomplices, a group that has grown to at least 27 people.

They tracked down taxi drivers and grilled them about the suspects. They even traced the trip of a female suspect to a shopping center and discovered what she bought.

For years, the United Arab Emirates has been using its considerable oil wealth to build up its defense and security infrastructure, including the National Security Agency, the secret police, which is playing a key role in the investigation.

"They buy the best," said Kamal Awar, a retired Lebanese army officer and editor of Beirut-based Defense 21, a regional military magazine. "They bought the latest technology in satellite and communications."

In the end, a mixture of high-tech razzle-dazzle and old-fashioned investigative work cracked the case.

"What it takes is a few skilled police officers putting stuff on the board and figuring out who relates to what," said Col. Patrick Lang, a former U.S. military intelligence officer who served in the Persian Gulf for years. "It’s not a magic thing. It’s a question of thinking clearly."

A homicide in disguise

The middle-aged man was splayed out dead in his hotel room as if he’d gone into cardiac arrest. The door was chained from the inside. Coroners surmised that he’d died of natural causes.

But one doctor noticed an abnormality in the blood. He later spotted strange puncture marks on a leg and behind an ear. And after the Palestinian militant group Hamas informed Dubai authorities that the dead man was Mahmoud Mabhouh, they decided it couldn’t hurt to double-check. Blood samples were sent abroad. Days passed.

When the toxicology reports showed that he’d been given a lethal dose of a powerful anesthetic, Dubai authorities knew they had a high-profile homicide on their hands. Though Mabhouh was no friend of the Emirates, authorities were furious about the killing.

"The whole operation was based on one key assumption: that the death will be recorded as a natural death," Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center, a Dubai think tank, said of the assassins. "And that was the downfall. The reason why they were so careless was because they thought there would be no investigation."

At least half of the passports used by the 27 suspects bore the names and registration numbers of Israeli dual citizens who held British, Irish, Australian, French or German passports, leading many experts to believe that Israel’s spy outfit, Mossad, had forged the identities.

Israeli officials have been tight-lipped about the case and refused to confirm or deny the nation’s involvement. None of the suspects captured on video or identified in passport photos, including a bottle-blond and an assortment of beefy, balding guys wearing rectangular glasses, have come forward to deny or confirm their involvement.

Interpol announced last week that it was joining the international investigation.

"Investigative information provided by the authorities in Dubai bore out the international links and broad scope of the number of people involved, as well as the role of two ‘teams’ of individuals identified by the Dubai police as being linked to al-Mabhouh’s murder," Interpol said in a statement.

An unlikely place to strike

Perhaps no hotel in Dubai is less amenable to an assassination than the upscale Bustan Rotana, in the Garhoud district adjacent to the airport. The circular building’s rooms are arrayed around a vast airy atrium.

"If you’re sitting in the lobby you can see the door to every room," said Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Affairs, a think tank with offices in Dubai and Beirut. "If there’s a scuffle, you can see and hear it."

Security experts around the world have also puzzled over the apparent size of the hit team: 27 bearers of Western passports and, according to Hamas, two or three Palestinians.

Some security experts said the assassins knew what they were doing, organizing themselves into evacuation, surveillance and execution teams.

But others see a classic bureaucratic blunder.

"You have a surveillance team and a counter-surveillance team and the technical people as well as the security people around the perimeter," said Lang, the former U.S. military intelligence officer. "Once you start doing that, you have to have shifts. You have to have two or three sets of these people and rotate them. Once you start doing it that way you’re going to have a lot of people."

The assailants apparently entered the hotel room without any struggle, suggesting that someone on the team knew Mabhouh. A fatal dose of the powerful muscle relaxant succinylcholine quickly paralyzes its recipient and ultimately mimics the effects of a heart attack. It should have killed Mabhouh within 15 minutes.

But something must have gone wrong, said the source with knowledge of the investigation, because the assassins pressed a pillow against Mabhouh’s face for one or two minutes until he suffocated. "They were panicking for one reason or another," said the source.

The hit team tidied up the room and laid Mabhouh out as though he’d suffered a massive heart attack and dropped dead.

Dubai Police Chief. Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim told satellite channel Al Arabiya that "the murderers tried their best to mislead us."

A knack for putting things together

Just as police were about to conclude that it was a natural death, a Palestinian man trying to contact Mabhouh learned of his death and telephoned his family in Gaza. It was only then that Hamas officials contacted Dubai police, Tamim said.

"Dubai police are very good at piecing together crimes," analyst Karasik said. "I’ve seen it before when you had robberies or murders occur and you’ll forget about the story and then six months later the guys are arrested via Interpol, brought back here and then they disappear into the system."

Although Mabhouh’s assassins managed to enter the country, kill him and get out without getting caught, the case has generated what most analysts consider unwelcome fallout for Israel, which most suspect of being behind the attack.

Authorities are now reexamining the death of Faisal Husseini, a charismatic Palestinian leader who died in his Kuwait hotel room in 2001.

"Now we know their tradecraft," said Alani. "We know how they operate."

If Mossad agents were behind the attack, the operation blew the identities of 27 agents; it takes up to five years to train each agent.

"They’ll never be able to go outside of Israel again, even with disguises," Karasik said. "Biometrics means all of the contours of your face are on file."

daragahi@latimes.com

Israeli politician Livni hails Dubai Hamas killing

March 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

BBC News

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

Mr Mabhouh died in his hotel room in Dubai last month

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni has applauded the controversial killing of a Hamas commander in a Dubai hotel by suspected Israeli agents.

"The fact that a terrorist was killed, and it doesn’t matter if it was in Dubai or Gaza, is good news to those fighting terrorism," she said.

It is thought to be the first time a top Israeli has made such a comment.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was found dead in his room on 20 January, having been electrocuted and suffocated.

His alleged killers used fake British, Irish, German and French passports, according to the authorities in Dubai, which released pictures of the suspects, none of whom were caught.

Mr Mabhouh was one of the founders of Hamas’s military wing.

The Israeli secret service Mossad has been widely accused of carrying out the killing but Israel has repeatedly asserted there is no proof its agents were involved.

‘Fighting terrorism’

Mrs Livni, the former foreign minister who leads the parliamentary opposition for the Kadima party, did not indicate who was behind the killing.

"The entire world must support those fighting terrorism," she told a Jewish conference in Jerusalem.

"Any comparison between terrorism and those fighting it is immoral."

The current Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, responded to allegations of a Mossad plot last week by saying: "Israel never responds, never confirms and never denies."

Dubai security cameras picked up 18 members of what local police believe was a hit team.

Diplomatic tension between Western states and Israel has grown over the killing.

Those City Lights

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

Dance Club The party capital of the Middle East has long since been Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon. The tiny gulf emirate of Dubai has tried, but miserably failed, to win the hearts and minds of the jet set and party-hungry consumers. The wide open consumer market for clubbing in some parts of the Middle East is enticing and could be very lucrative, as the region was barely scathed by the current credit crisis affecting much of Europe and North America.

A new contender has thrown their hat in the ring to vie for tourists looking to spend their leisure time partying in the windswept deserts of the Middle East. And that country is Jordan. Most famous for its rose-colored city of Petra, one of the 7 new wonders of the world, Jordan is slowly emerging from its well-known lethargic  conservative atmosphere and morphing into a clubber’s paradise. Nowhere is this transformation more prevalent than in the capital city of Amman.

The city of Amman has undergone a total makeover thanks to a younger workforce of skilled workers with extra money to spend. As a result, an affluent class of partiers has surfaced, fully willing and able to party the nights away. Unlike most countries in the Middle East, alcohol is not illegal in Jordan and flows freely in Jordanian restaurants, dance clubs and bars. With names like, ‘Wild Jordan’, ‘Canvas’ and ‘Upstairs’ there are an abundance of high-end party venues for locals and tourists alike. Even conservative Muslims have found a comfortable niche within the party scene while not overstepping the bounds of Islam, opting for a round of Shisha or piping hot mugs of steamy Arabic coffee instead of alcoholic drinks that are forbidden for Muslims.

Quite notably there is also a dark side to the new party atmosphere in Amman, which is an increase in crimes of morality. Promiscuity and adultery are particularly on the rise in Amman. It is not uncommon for men and women partying together to engage in a ‘dangerous liaison’ for a couple of hours. There is even an underground network of clever businessman capitalizing on the need for privacy in this newly found culture in Amman, providing secret rooms for rent by the hour. Even married people are getting in on the indiscriminate action, as a popular steakhouse in Amman called ‘Whispers’ has become a popular meeting place for cheating spouses.

Not to be outdone by their heterosexual counterparts, there is also a thriving homosexual party scene in Amman, a city that often turns a blind eye to homosexual activity. Homosexuals are treated less severely in Jordan than in other Middle Eastern countries. Well-known and openly gay establishments are littered between the ones specifically created for heterosexual clientele. Two of the most famous gay hangouts in Amman are called ‘Fame’ and ‘Books@Café’. However, it’s not uncommon to find people from all sexual persuasions partying together in Amman regardless of the theme of the venue.

And while there have not been any fatwas condemning the newly forged party ethos in Amman, several businesses seeking to serve alcohol have struggled with governmental ‘red tape’ in obtaining the necessary permits. Many business owners have complained that the slowing down of the permit process or denying permits altogether, has been a major and purposeful tactic of some devout Muslims city officials, who are against the whole party culture in Amman, seeking to put a damper on the celebratory scene.

12-9

Dubai Now Seeking 26 Suspects in Hamas Killing

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Raissa Kasolowsky and Cynthia Johnston

DUBAI (Reuters) – Dubai is hunting for at least 26 people over the killing of a Hamas commander in a Dubai hotel in a suspected Israeli operation that has caused a diplomatic furor.

Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed last month in his hotel room in what Dubai police say they are near certain was a hit by Israel’s Mossad spy agency.

Dubai police added 15 new names on Wednesday to a list of suspects wanted over the killing. Six carried British passports, three held Irish documents, three were Australian, and three French, the Dubai government said in a statement.

Israeli media reported on Wednesday the new list could involve further cases of identity theft.

Dubai authorities had earlier named 11 suspects, who they said travelled on fraudulent British, Irish, French and German passports to kill Mabhouh. Six were Britons living in Israel who deny involvement and say their identities were stolen.

“Dubai investigators are not ruling out the possibility of involvement of other people in the murder,” the statement said.

The suspected killers’ use of passports from countries including Britain and France has drawn criticism from the European Union. Some of the governments involved have summoned their Israeli ambassadors.

“We will not be silent on this matter. It is a matter of deep concern. It really goes to the integrity and fabric of the use of state documents, which passports are, for other purposes,” Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said, as his government summoned Israel’s ambassador.

The Dubai statement said: “Friendly governments (which) have been assisting in this investigation have indicated to the police in Dubai that the passports were issued in an illegal and fraudulent manner.”

It said pictures on the passports did not correspond to their original owners.

In a statement on Monday that European diplomats said was intended as a rebuke to Israel, EU foreign ministers said that the assassination was “profoundly disturbing.”

Israel has not denied or confirmed it played any role but its foreign minister said there was nothing to link it to the killing. The United States, Israel’s main ally, has kept silent about the affair.

Mabhouh, born in the Gaza Strip, had lived in Syria since 1989 and Israeli and Palestinian sources have said he played a key role in smuggling Iranian-funded arms to militants in Gaza.

A Hamas official and Israel have also said he masterminded the capture and killing of two Israeli soldiers during a Palestinian uprising in the 1980s.

Like last week, Dubai police released passport photos and closed-circuit television footage of the new suspects, who police said arrived from cities including Zurich, Paris, Rome, Milan and Hong Kong.

“This was to take the camouflage and deception to its utmost level and to guarantee the avoidance of any security supervision or observation of their movements,” the statement said.

Once their part in the operation was completed, the suspects again dispersed to different parts of the world, with two suspects leaving Dubai by boat for Iran, it said.

Dubai police also released credit card details of some of the suspects. At least 13 credit cards used to book hotel rooms and pay for air travel were issued by the same small U.S. lender, MetaBank. The bank declined comment.

“MetaBank is declining comment pending a factual review of this matter,” it said in a statement emailed to Reuters.

Israel’s Ynet news website said it had tracked down a person with the same name as one of the suspects living in Tel Aviv.

“I am in shock from what I just heard. This is an identity theft. I cannot believe it,” Adam Marcus Korman, an Australian-born Israeli, told the website.

Several other names listed as suspects by Dubai police were similar to those of people listed in the Israeli telephone directory, including two named as British passport holders. Reuters was not immediately able to contact any of those people.

Two Palestinians suspected of providing logistical support were in detention and Dubai’s police chief has said he believes the operation could not have been carried out without information from inside Hamas on Mabhouh’s travel details.

An official from the movement was quoted as saying last week that Hamas had launched an investigation to try to discover “how the Mossad was able to carry out the operation.

Mossad is believed to have stepped up covert missions against Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia as well as Iran’s nuclear project.

Mabhouh’s killing was the third high profile murder in less than two years in trade and tourism hub Dubai, one of seven emirates in the UAE federation, where violent crime is rare.

(Additional reporting by Rania Oteify in Dubai, Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem, Daniel Wilchins in New York and Rob Taylor in Canberra, Writing by Raissa Kasolowsky; Editing by Matthew Jones)

12-9

The Manhunt of Epic Proportions

February 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

spy The scene plays out like something you would see in a chilling Hollywood thriller or spy movie. A team of seasoned assassins, eleven altogether, plots and plans a ‘hit’ to be carried out against an unsuspecting victim. In this case, the target was a Hamas official named Mahmud Al-Mabhuh and his death is not fiction but rather a stone-cold reality. Last January in the tiny Gulf nation of Dubai, the corpse of  Al-Mabhuh was found in his luxury hotel suite. The apparent mode of death was suffocation, however a coroner’s official report regarding the exact cause of death is still pending.

According to the lead investigator, Dubai police chief Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, the team of assassins were composed of both men and women from various European countries. This past week, the Dubai government released a series of photos of the eleven suspects and began creating a timeline up until the point where the assassins completed their mission and fled the tiny Gulf emirate. Composed of six Britains, three Irish, one French and one German national, authorities believe that the team entered the country around the same time that Al-Mabhuh did and followed him straight to his hotel room.

Once there, hotel video cameras corroborate the intricate plot of the assassins, which included several hotel rooms, disguises and the tools necessary to deprive Al-Mabhuh of his life. According to Tamim, at least 4 of the assassins broke into Al-Mabhuh’s hotel room while he was out. They waited for him to come back and then took less than 10 minutes to kill him. Once the deed was done, the assassins executed an almost perfect escape plan, exiting Dubai on separate commercial airplanes in under 20 hours.

The release of the eleven suspects passport information, by the Dubai government, should have provided more answers than it did questions. Unfortunately, it has left even more unanswered questions. By all accounts, the Irish assassins do not even exist according to the government of Ireland.  The passport number for the supposedly German assassin is wrong. And a few of the assassins named are actually Israeli citizens who have ironclad alibis and have never even traveled to Dubai. The Dubai police have not revealed exactly how they obtained the information about the assassins. However, many Hamas-friendly political analysts have speculated that the assassination was a poorly carried out murder plot designed by the long arm of Israel’s Mossad, or Secret Service.

It’s no mystery that there was no love lost between Al-Mabhuh and Israel. Al-Mabhuh was one of the original founders of Hamas. Israel also accused him, in recent years, of participating in a 1989 murder of two Israeli soldiers. And Israel has, for years, blamed Al-Mabhuh for orchestrating teams of smugglers to bring missiles into the Gaza Strip to help Hamas to continue to fight the Israeli occupation. But according to former Mossad officer Rami Igra, in an interview with the Israel Army Radio, the plan looks professional but really “…doesn’t look like an Israeli operation.” The primary reason being the assassin’s total lack of regard for the hundreds and hundreds of security cameras all over Dubai, almost as if they wanted to be filmed so as to lay blame elsewhere. And according to some speculators, the real culprits might be too close for Hamas’s comfort such as in the company of their rivals found in the late Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Movement.

The government of Dubai has reached out to the global community for assistance in solving the murder and this week launched an international manhunt to bring the assassins to justice. It’s not surprising that Dubai is eager to put the murderers behind bars, as it is fast becoming the site of several high profile murders.

Back in 2007, the famous Lebanese singer Susan Tamim was slain in her luxury high rise Dubai condo by none other than a hit man for her estranged boyfriend.

12-8

Who Killed Mahmoud al-Mamdouh in Dubai?

February 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Amy Teibel, Arizona Daily Star

Mamdouh mossad X

KHALIL HAMRA  Palestinian Fayeq al-Mabhouh sits in front of posters of his brother and Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, left and right, who was assassinated in Dubai, and Hamas member Mohammed Hussein Mabhouh, in the family house in Jebaliya, northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010. Dubai police appealed for an international manhunt Tuesday after releasing names and photos of an alleged 11-member hit squad accused of stalking and killing Mabhouh last month in a plot that mixed cold precision with spy caper disguises such as fake beards and wigs.(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

This combination image made from undated photos released by the Dubai Ruler’s Media Office on Monday, Feb. 15, 2010, which were claimed by Dubai’s Police Chief to show eleven suspects wanted in connection with the killing of a Hamas commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in his Dubai hotel room last month.

Israel’s foreign minister said Wednesday there was no reason to assume the Mossad assassinated a Hamas military commander in Dubai, even as suspicions mounted that the country’s vaunted spy agency made the hit using the identities of Israelis with European passports.

While few people are privy to the cloak-and-dagger operations of the Mossad, senior Israeli security officials not directly involved with the affair said they were convinced it was a Mossad operation because of the motive and the use of Israeli identities. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a government order not to discuss the case, characterized it as a significant Mossad bungle.

The suspicions ratcheted up pressure on Israel to be more forthcoming over the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a man it claims supplied Gaza’s Hamas rulers with the most dangerous weapons it possesses. Israeli critics pointed the finger at Mossad, accusing it of sloppiness and endangering Israeli citizens.

Dubai police this week released names, photos, and passport numbers of 11 members of an alleged hit-squad that killed al-Mabhouh in his luxury Dubai hotel room last month. Dubai said all 11 carried European passports. But most of the identities appear to be stolen and at least seven matched up with real people in Israel who claim they are victims of identity theft.

“I don’t know why we are assuming that Israel, or the Mossad, used those passports,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Army Radio in Israel’s first official comments on the affair.

But Lieberman did not deny involvement outright, saying Israel rightly maintains a policy of ambiguity where security operations are concerned.

“Israel never responds, never confirms and never denies,” he said. “There is no reason for Israel to change this policy.”

Amir Oren, a military analyst for the Israeli daily Haaretz, called for the ouster of Mossad director Meir Dagan.

“What is needed now is a swift decision to terminate Dagan’s contract and to appoint a new Mossad chief,” wrote Oren in a front-page commentary. “There’s no disease without a cure.”

The Iranian-backed Hamas has been blaming Israel for al-Mabhouh’s killing from the beginning.

“The investigation of the police of Dubai proves what Hamas had said from the first minute, that Israel’s Mossad is responsible for the assassination,” Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas legislator in Gaza, said Wednesday.

Al-Mabhouh was one of the founders of the Hamas militant group, which has carried out hundreds of attacks and suicide bombings targeting Israelis, and now rules the Gaza Strip. He also was involved in the 1989 capturing and killing of two Israeli soldiers.

Israel considered him to be the point man in smuggling Iranian rockets into Gaza that would be capable of striking the Jewish state’s Tel Aviv heartland.

Al-Mabhouh was targeted in three previous assassination attempts, his brother Hussein told The Associated Press.

At least seven people who live in Israel share names with suspects identified by Dubai police. One, a British-Israeli citizen named Melvyn Adam Mildiner, said the passport photo on the Dubai wanted flier was not him but the passport number was correct. He also denied having been to Dubai.

Another of the seven, Stephen Hodes, denied any link to the case in an interview with Israel Radio and said he, too, had never visited Dubai.

“I’m shocked. I don’t know how they got to me. Those aren’t my photographs, of course,” Hodes said. “I don’t know how they got to my details, who took them. …. I’m simply afraid. These are powerful forces.”

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Wednesday promised an inquiry into the use of fake British passports in the killing.

“We are looking at this at this very moment,” Brown told London’s LBC radio. “We have got to carry out a full investigation into this. The British passport is an important document that has got to be held with care.” He did not assess blame for the forgeries.

Several senior British lawmakers said Israel’s envoy should be summoned to the Foreign Office to explain what his country’s role in the slaying was.

The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the smallest of Britain’s three main parties, said that “if the Israeli government was party to behavior of this kind it would be a serious violation of trust between nations.”

Menzies Campbell, who serves on the House of Common’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said “the Israeli government has some explaining to do” and called for the ambassador to be summoned “in double-quick time.”

The committee’s chairman, Mike Gapes, a member of Britain’s ruling Labour party, added that the assassination was either the work of Israelis “or someone trying to make sure it looks like the Israelis.”

Like Lieberman, Israeli security analyst Ephraim Kam said the use of Israeli identities did not prove the Mossad killed al-Mabhouh.

“I cannot see a reason why the Mossad would use the names of Israelis here or citizens who live here,” Kam said.

Rafi Eitan, a former Cabinet minister and Mossad agent who took part in the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, thought Israel’s foes were trying to frame it by using the identities of Israelis.

“It means some foreign service, an enemy of Israel, wanted to taint Israel. It took the names of Israeli citizens, doctored the passports … and thus tainted us,” Eitan said.

Lawmaker Yisrael Hasson, a former deputy commander of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service, said he would ask to convene a meeting of the Israeli parliament’s powerful foreign affairs and defense committee to discuss the matter.

“No one should use someone’s identity without his permission or without his understanding in some way what it is being used for,” Hasson told Israel Radio.

The Mossad has been accused of identity theft before. New Zealand convicted and jailed two Israelis in 2005 of trying to fraudulently obtain New Zealand passports. New Zealand demanded _ and won _ an apology from Israel, which Auckland said proved the pair were spies.

But this would be the first time that the Mossad has been suspected of using the identities of its own citizens.

If the Israeli government was behind the identity theft, it broke Israeli laws against impersonation and fraud, said Nirit Moskovich of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Kam, the security analyst, said the people whose identities were released could be in danger from Hamas.

“I think they should be careful,” he said.

The affair could have unwanted diplomatic repercussions for Israel if it indeed used the foreign passports of its own nationals. Several British lawmakers on Wednesday called for the Israeli ambassador to be summoned to the Foreign Office immediately to explain what happened.

The affair could also have fallout for the Mossad as an agency, and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Dagan personally.

Netanyahu’s first tenure in the late 1990s was marred by the Mossad’s botched attempt at assassinating the man who now is Hamas’ supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal.

But while Haaretz commentator Oren was calling for Dagan’s head, analyst Ronen Bergman of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper deemed the operation a success.

“Al-Mabhouh is dead and all the partners to the operation left Dubai safely,” he said.

____
Associated Press reporter Rizek Abdel Jawad contributed to this report from the Gaza Strip.

12-8

Alleged Assassins Caught on Dubai Surveillance Tape

February 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Dubai authorities have released extensive footage from surveillance cameras that allegedly shows the movements of a professional 11-person assassination team in the hours before and after a top Hamas leader was killed last month in a hotel room.

The footage, taken from cameras at the Dubai airport and several luxury hotels, follows the activities of 10 men and one woman as they arrived in Dubai on various European passports and moved among hotels and a shopping center, changing into disguises at one point, during the hours before Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was killed.

Al-Mabhouh, 48, was a founder of Hamas’ military wing. He was believed to be behind the abduction of two Israeli soldiers in 1989 and said to be a liaison for smuggling weapons from Iran to Gaza. He had survived several assassination attempts.

He was found dead in room 230 at the Al-Bustan Rotana hotel on January 20. The door on al-Mabhouh’s room was latched and chained from the inside, and there was no blood evidence. An initial report indicated that he died from sudden high blood pressure in the brain. Subsequent reports have suggested he was electrocuted or strangled.

An investigation into hotel records and surveillance tapes uncovered the suspicious activities of a group of Westerners, most of them wearing baseball caps. They staked out al-Mabhouh’s room on the hotel’s second floor, met clandestinely in various locations, disguised themselves and left the hotel briskly after the deed was done. Investigators believe the assassins may have reprogrammed the electronic lock on al-Mabhouh’s door to gain entry.

Hamas has accused the Mossad, Israel’s secretive intelligence service, of masterminding the assassination.

In the 27-minute video, released by Gulf News TV, some of the suspected assassins arrive on separate flights to Dubai early the morning the murder took place. The footage shows some of them meeting up briefly in a shopping mall and checking into and out of hotels during the setup stage. One of the suspects, a bald male, enters a hotel and exits wearing a brown wig and glasses. Later, a woman identified as an Irish national named Gail Folliard, is shown checking into her hotel wearing glasses and a ponytail, then entering the same location where the male suspect changed his appearance. She exits that location wearing a brunette wig.

When al-Mabhouh arrives at his hotel around 3 p.m. on the 19th, the footage captures two of the suspects, dressed in tennis gear, getting into the same elevator with him to follow him to his hotel room. The two suspects later checked into the room across the hall from him, according to Dubai police.

Around 8 p.m., the cameras catch some of the team members in the elevator lobby of al-Mabhouh’s floor while he is out of the hotel for a bit. While they’re standing there keeping watch, another team is apparently trying to gain entry to the victim’s room. During this time, a tourist steps off the elevator, putting the operation in jeopardy, until one of the team members distracts the tourist. A note on the video indicates that, according to the hotel’s computer logs, someone tried to reprogram al-Mabhouh’s electronic door lock during this time.

Al-Mabhouh returned to the hotel around 8:25 p.m and passed the female suspect, Folliard, in the hallway on the way to his room. The killing itself took only 10 minutes around 8:30 p.m., Dubai Police Chief Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim told the Israeli newspaper Ha’Aretz. Four assassins allegedly entered the victim’s hotel room while he was out, using an electronic device to unlock his door, and waited for him to return. Hotel staff discovered his body around 1:30 p.m. on the 20th after failing to reach him on the phone. By then, he’d been dead about 17 hours, and the alleged assassins were long gone.

Oddly, although there is surveillance tape showing the closed doors of some of the rooms near al-Mahbouh’s hotel room when he first checked in, there is no tape showing the assassins entering or leaving the room or walking down that hallway at the time of the assassination. A map of the hotel shown in the video, indicates that the only surveillance camera in that hallway was located one door down from the victim’s room and pointed away from his door toward what appears to be a stairwell.

Following the assassination, the suspects left the hotel quickly and were tracked scattering to different parts of the globe, including Hong Kong, France, Switzerland, Germany and South Africa.

Authorities say the suspects paid for everything in cash and used special communication devices to avoid surveillance. They never made direct calls to one another, as far as authorities could determine. They did, however, make a number of calls to Austria, which authorities believe may have been the location of their command-and-control center.

Within 24 hours after the murder, Dubai investigators reportedly identified the aliases the alleged assassins used on their forged passports. The nationalities on the documents indicated that six of them are British, three are Irish, one is French and one is German. Although the videos show a second woman identified as part of the surveillance team, only one woman — Folliard — is listed among the suspects.

British, Irish and French authorities have indicated that the passports used by the alleged assassins showed obvious signs of forgery. The Irish passport numbers used by suspects Gail Folliard, Evan Dennings and Kevin Daveron, for example, contain no letters and have the wrong number of digits.

At least five Israelis share the same names used by the alleged assassins. One of the names matches a man living near Jerusalem named Melvyn Adam Mildiner. Mildiner, a British national, says his identity was stolen and that he had nothing to do with the assassination. The picture of him that was released by Dubai authorities does not completely match him, Reuters reports.

“I woke up this morning to a world of fun,” he told Reuters after Israeli newspapers published the names and photos of the suspects identified by Dubai authorities. “I am obviously angry, upset and scared — any number of things. And I’m looking into what I can do to try to sort things out and clear my name. I don’t know how this happened or who chose my name or why, but hopefully we’ll find out soon.”

The Mossad is noted for its stealth assassinations. The intelligence service was responsible for tracking down and killing Palestinian militants who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, as depicted in the Steven Spielberg movie Munich.

The Mossad was also responsible in 1986 for capturing Mordechai Vanunu, a worker at Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant who had planned to disclose information about Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program to the Sunday Times newspaper in the United Kingdom. A female Mossad agent posing as a tourist in the UK lured the shy Vanunu out of London to Rome, where he was drugged and kidnapped and returned to Israel for a secret trial. He spent 18 years in prison and was released in 2004.

Hat tip: New York Times Lede blog

Abu Dhabi’s Dubai aid shrinks to $5 bln

January 21, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By Amran Abocar and Nicolas Parasie

2010-01-08T095618Z_1575008665_GM1E6181DQ601_RTRMADP_3_EMIRATES

Expert sky diver and BASE jump enthusiast Omar Al Hegelan (C) descends on to Burj Park Island after free falling from Burj Khalifa in Dubai, January 5, 2010. Al Hegelan and Nasser Al Neyadi both expert divers, have broken the record for the world’s highest BASE jump after free falling from the tallest building in the world, and made their landing on Burj Park Island after covering a vertical descent of 672 metres (2,205 ft). Picture taken January 5.

REUTERS/Stringer

DUBAI, Jan 18 (Reuters) – Dubai said on Monday that half of a $10 billion bailout from Abu Dhabi last December came from an older debt deal, highlighting what analysts said was the emirate’s poor market communications and lack of transparency.

Investors said news that Abu Dhabi directly lent less new money than previously thought also indicated the wealthy emirate wanted more evidence of Dubai’s fiscal probity, after helping it avert an embarrassing default on a state-linked bond.

“The government works behind a high degree of opacity and I think market players have factored that in,” said Khuram Maqsood, managing director of Emirates Capital.

The UAE is not known for exercising best practice transparency but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying. But I don’t think they’re there yet and I think people recognise that.”

A Dubai government spokeswoman said the last minute lifeline last Dec. 14 included $5 billion raised from Al Hilal Bank and National Bank of Abu Dhabi which was announced on Nov. 25.

“Obviously it’s a lot less cash than we had assumed,” said Raj Madha, an independent analyst based in Dubai.

“The interesting thing is what it says about the behaviour of Abu Dhabi: whether they are just rushing through a large amount of money or whether they are providing funding where required.”

Five-year credit default swaps for Dubai stood at 426 basis points, up from 423 basis points on Friday.

Dubai rocked global markets last Nov. 25 when it requested a standstill on $26 billion in debt linked to its flagship conglomerate Dubai World and its two main property developers, Nakheel and Limitless World.

The $5 billion raised from the two Abu Dhabi banks was part of a $20 billion bond programme announced early last year. The UAE central bank signed up for $10 billion of that in February.

But it was unclear whether Abu Dhabi’s $10 billion bailout on Dec. 14 — which enabled Dubai World to repay a $4.1 billion Islamic bond, or sukuk by developer Nakheel — was entirely new money or included the bond to the Abu Dhabi banks.

The government spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Gulf Arab emirate had already drawn down $1 billion of the $5 billion from the banks, provided under a five-year bond priced at 4 percent, with the rest yet to be used.

The remainder of the funds, some $4.9 billion, may come from the banks’ or the Abu Dhabi government directly, the spokeswoman said, through another of its investment vehicles.

“The question is whether there will be more funds coming in; because as things stand today, Dubai without further support will find it very difficult to drive a favourable bargain with its creditors,” said a Gulf-based banker.

Asked whether Dubai would seek more funds, the spokeswoman declined to comment.

Abu Dhabi’s support in December came nearly three weeks after the standstill news and amid a lack of communication by Dubai which shook global markets and may have caused lasting damage to the reputation of the Gulf business hub.

CREDITOR TALKS

Dubai World is in the midst of talks with its creditors to finalise a formal standstill agreement that would last for six months, during which the conglomerate will restructure its remaining debt burden, estimated at some $22 billion.

The conglomerate has insisted the restructuring is limited only to certain units and has ringfenced its jewels such as ports operator DP World.

In a research note on Monday, UBS said there was a high probability Dubai World would have to offer “sweeteners” to creditors to bring them onside in the debt talks.

That could include higher interest rates or equity swap options to persuade creditors to give up claims to key assets, like the profitable port operator.

“It is unlikely that Abu Dhabi’s support has peaked just yet and the probability of further balance sheet assistance is high,” UBS economist Reinhard Cluse said.

But he said Abu Dhabi, the biggest and wealthiest of the seven member United Arab Emirates federation, would not want to act solely “as a channel for cash” and would demand systemic changes.

Dubai has said the Abu Dhabi lifeline is contingent on Dubai World reaching an acceptable standstill with creditors.

Uncertainty over the restructuring has weighed on UAE markets as investors fret about the outcome amid a dearth of information.

The conglomerate said this month it is “some time away” from presenting its formal plan to creditors, though it is expected in coming weeks.

“Clearly there were critical time deadlines last year that required extraordinary measures,” said Mashreq Capital Chief Executive Abdul Kadir Hussain, of Abu Dhabi’s bailout.

“But whatever form is required, whether it’s the federation or Abu Dhabi, what is critical now is a well-documented plan for repayment and … a strategy that will show how all of this will be taken care of.” On Monday, the Financial Times said some creditors to the conglomerate are seeking to offload loans to reduce their exposure to the conglomerate.

(Additional reporting by Chris Mangham and Dinesh Nair; Editing by John Irish and David Cowell)

12-4

Nigerians Parents Fear for Students Studying Abroad

January 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, Commentary, Olugu Ukpai

My dear God, has it now become a crime to be a Nigerian? The headlines tell me so over and over again. Mutallab: Man Who Shamed Nigeria. Mutallab: The Nigerian Agent of Al Qaeda. The Boy Who Blew Nigeria’s Image.

Umar Faruq Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner has just landed Nigeria, my country of birth, on the list of 14 nations whose nationals are going to be singled out for special checks if they want to fly to the United States. Nigeria has become a uniquely insecure travel terrorism hub, they say.

But Abdulmutallab never studied in Nigeria. He did not have “terror connections” in Nigeria. Instead his initiation into terror clubs happened abroad in the countries where he was sent to study to become a better person.

Abdulmutallab went to a British high school in Togo. He studied in Dubai, Yemen and Egypt. Above all, he studied mechanical engineering at University College, London, one of the oldest in England. It makes me wonder how Nigerian parents who have sent their children to study abroad, and those children studying abroad, are looking at the story of “the boy who blew Nigeria’s image.”

I, too like Abdulmutallab, am a Nigerian student studying in the United Kingdom. I can understand the concerns of Nigerian parents like mine who sent their children abroad in hopes for a better education – a Western style education. Now there is a deep concern among the same parents, especially those at home who are skeptical of the kind of “cults” their children are being exposed to abroad in the name of acquiring “the white man’s” education. A study by the University of Notre Dame in 2009 found that parents tended to know only 10 percent of what their children were doing abroad.

Foreign education is no longer a safe haven. On the other hand fearful parents cannot bring their children back home either. After all, American media reports paint Nigeria as a hotbed of Al Qaeda terror. When I come back to the U.K. after Christmas break I do not know what will befall me. Will I be treated as a terror suspect because I am Nigerian? Will the U.K. government just wash its hands off me while it pockets my high tuition?

Nigerian parents and students worry whether the U.K. government is living up to its promises to protect the students in its charge. Has it allowed terrorist groups to penetrate its universities so that unsuspecting students can fall prey to their wiles? Already there is a systemic breakdown of security in U.K. institutions of higher learning. A King’s College, London report says more and more women are reporting rapes. Nigerian parents worry about their children abroad.

Instead of demonizing Nigeria, the international press and the world at large should be honoring and celebrating the alleged terror suspect’s 70-year-old father, who set aside blood bonds to report his son’s newfound religious extremism to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria. I contend that he deserves a Global Citizen Award, and Nigeria should honor him with a National Merit Award. He is an exemplary Nigerian whose act of integrity should be rewarded and recognized. This might help fight terrorism by encouraging others who might have similar useful information.

Instead of ganging up on Nigeria, world powers would do well to review security policies to better protect the lives of international students. Our parents sell their pound of flesh to provide a brighter future for us. No parent would ever dream their “well-behaved and humble” child — as many have described Abdulmutallab — would turn into a terrorist and end up in Guantanamo Bay, all in the name of acquiring the “white man’s” education.

Olugu Ukpai is a Ph.D student at School of Law at the University of Reading, U.K. He can be reached at oluukpaiolu@yahoo.com.

12-2

Next Page »