Christmas Infectious in Middle East

December 27, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

-Christmas-Tree-Decorated Strands of colorful Christmas lights adorn the shop windows of too many stores to count, as employees decked out in red Santa hats greet customers with cheerful holiday grins. However, the setting is not in the suburbs of America but rather in the sand swept deserts of the Middle East. The majority of countries that make up the Middle East exercise religious freedom, which is in accordance with the religion of Islam. In many parts of the region Churches often reside on the same streets as Mosques and religious symbols, from Crucifixes to Buddhas, can be seen hanging from people’s necks and even rear view mirrors.

However, freedom of religion is primarily tolerated in the more liberal Gulf States while other Middle East countries, like Saudi Arabia, have a zero tolerance policy for any religion other than Islam. Churches and other religious buildings, other than Mosques, are strictly forbidden while displaying religious symbols in public are considered to be crimes punishable by imprisonment, lashings or deportation.

The large Christian population residing in the Middle East is the main reason why Christian holidays like Christmas are celebrated with such fanfare. The region is renowned for its’ hospitality towards guests. And encouraging a non-Muslim holiday to be celebrated in a Muslim country is just one of the many ways Gulf countries extend a hand of understanding to its non-Muslim inhabitants. Many Christians living in the Middle East put their own spin on Christmas and make it just as memorable as Christmases of the past back in their homelands.

In the city of Dubai, in the UAE, shoppers are greeted by a bedazzled 50-foot Christmas tree at Wafi City Mall which also boasts its very own ‘Santa’s Village’. In Kuwait, all of the 5-star hotels and restaurants offer a Christmas feast fit for a king as guests dine on roasted turkey with all the trimmings while Nat King Cole Christmas songs play in the background. The only thing missing from the menu is the Christmas ham, as pork is forbidden in most Middle East countries. However, it can still be found on the ‘Black Market’ most likely in an aluminum can or dried into meat jerky. In Bahrain, Christian members of the expatriate community often host their own Christmas parties and exchange gifts between one another. Christmas carols and singing programs are widespread in the western schools of most Gulf States.

And while Saudi Arabia forbids wanton public displays of religion, with the exception of Islam, the government does allow its expatriate community to celebrate Christmas within the privacy of their own homes. Granted, sticking a glittering Christmas tree in the front window could land any holidaymaker in the slammer, but an inconspicuous tree tucked safely away from being seen is acceptable. However, Christians in Saudi Arabia are hard pressed to find decorations for the aforementioned tree let alone the tree itself, although it is possible to find tinsel and baubles in the expatriate underground. Clever shopkeepers also do their part in offering a few Christmas items for their Christian customers. Tiny Christmas tree bulbs can often be found in the jewelry section of some stores and the odd plastic fir tree and even strands of lights can be found in the toy section, as many Asian expatriates use them year round to secularly decorate their homes. Many Christians in Saudi Arabia have also taken to making their own decorations, such as strings of popcorn and baked ornaments made of cinnamon paste.

The Prophet Muhammad (s) was an exemplar in religious freedom and never persecuted anyone based on his or her religious beliefs. So it is only natural for the holiday of Christmas to be welcome in the conservative Middle East, even though the degrees to which it is publicly celebrated varies as much as all those colorful bulbs strewn up on a tree.

11-53

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

December 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

mall_of_the_emirates_dubai_03

Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

Stolen glances, quiet giggles and flushed faces are just a few of the hallmarks of mingling with the opposite sex in the Middle East. Dating is wholly unacceptable and considered politically incorrect in the conservative Gulf region, which applies the letter of the Islamic law when it comes to relations between members of the opposite sex. However, as with most social aspects of life that governments attempt to control, where there is a will there is a way.

Tweens, teens and twenty-some things in the Middle East have come up with their own brand of dating that is not only secretive but also kept largely away from the public eye. Since a suitor driving up to a girl’s home is not an option, many Arab youths have capitalized on the abundance of luxury malls in the region. Many boys and girls cruise the malls looking for someone that catches their eye. Most malls are so enormous that is it easy to slip away from one’s family should the occasion arise. And while the ‘hunt’ may be extremely public, communications are kept excruciatingly secret. In many cases the boy will walk past a girl that catches his eye and slip his phone number to her on a piece of paper. It’s really up to her what she does with it, as some girls might call the boy and others may simply crunch the paper into a nearby garbage can. And in other cases both boys and girls interested in this new form of dating use technology to hook up.

Bluetooth cellular phone technology is the biggest ally for Arab youths wanting to find that special someone. Amorous boys and girls often send out random Bluetooth messages in both Arabic and English. Then they wait to see who will respond and reply back. It’s a little known fact that Bluetooth messaging has ignited countless numbers of romances in the Gulf. Unfortunately, many married men and women that happen to have their Blue Tooth switched on in the vicinity often get caught up in the wide-scoped message, which can create suspicion within their own union.

Once the match is made, actually going out on a date is almost a mission impossible. In the conservative Middle East, males enjoy more freedom than their female counterparts. For a girl to successfully get away from her parent’s watchful eyes she would have to lie and, most likely, enlist the help of some of her girlfriends to turn the date into a reality. And the date itself typically takes place on a local beach or garden, as it would be impractical to go to a restaurant or even the movies.

Two of the most relaxed Middle Eastern countries, when it comes to cruising for dates, are Kuwait and Bahrain. The opportunities for meeting are immense and there is very little enforcement when it comes to youths of the opposite sex scoping each other out. Contrastingly, Saudi Arabia takes a hard line against co-mingling and has its own religious police force to maintain segregation between the sexes. Even the UAE is becoming more stringent when it comes to public displays of affection.

The reality of this secretive form of dating is that Arab youths are dealing with adult issues that they may not be ready to cope with due to lack of sexual education in the region. They also lack parental support and intuition since the dating falls far below most parent’s radar. It’s very common to read in local newspapers about a young girl running off with a boyfriend. Instances of sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy and ‘date rape’ are on the rise. Unfortunately, due to the secretive nature of relationships between youths in the Gulf and most Arab governments unwillingness to admit that there is a problem, statistics revealing the magnitude of the issue are not readily available.

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Dubai Officials’ Confidence-Building Britain, US Trip

December 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Amran Abocar and Steve Slater

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An investor looks at stock information at the Dubai Financial Market December 16, 2009.   REUTERS/Mosab Omar

DUBAI/LONDON (Reuters) – Two top Dubai officials are visiting Britain and the United States over the coming days to rebuild investor confidence after neighboring Abu Dhabi helped bail out the emirate’s flagship company.

A source close to the government said the officials were already in London and would be in New York on Thursday and Washington on Friday to meet financial and political leaders.

“This is the next step in Dubai’s commitment to greater transparency,” said the source.

“They will spend the next few days meeting financial, economic and political leaders in London, New York and Washington, D.C. to discuss the actions taken this week to stabilize global markets.”

The emirate, famous for its man-made islands in the shape of palms and for other infrastructure projects, rocked global markets on November 25 with a request for a standstill agreement on $26 billion of debt linked to Dubai World and its two main property units, Nakheel and Limitless World.

The roadshow is being led by Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, chairman of Dubai’s Supreme Fiscal Committee and the uncle of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Until recently he was best known as leader of the Emirates airline, but his public profile has risen since the debt crisis erupted.

Also on the trip is Mohammed al-Shaibani, deputy chairman of the same committee. He heads Sheikh Mohammed’s court and is chief executive of the Investment Corporation Dubai, which oversees the government’s investment portfolio.

‘Comprehensive Solution’

Earlier this week, Abu Dhabi, which produces 90 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ oil exports, provided $10 billion of financial aid to its fellow UAE member to meet the debt obligations of Dubai World until the end of April and to stave off a bond default by Nakheel.

Some $4.1 billion of the rescue funding helped Nakheel repay an Islamic bond, or sukuk, on Tuesday, a day after its due date.

The Abu Dhabi lifeline came in the form of bonds, at similar terms to a $10 billion bond issue to the UAE central bank in February, which carried a coupon of 4 percent per annum for the five-year, fixed-term issue.

Dubai also announced this week it would implement immediately an insolvency law modeled on U.S. and British practices in the event Dubai World needs to seek protection from its creditors. Meanwhile, Dubai’s ruler ordered the creation of a tribunal, headed by three international judges, to oversee any disputes between Dubai World and its creditors.

“They want to explain what happened this week,” said another source close to the government. “It’s very much the transparency message and to discuss the fact they presented a comprehensive solution.”

With the bond repayment out of the way, Dubai World must now agree a standstill with creditors, allowing it time to undergo a massive restructuring. It is slated to meet representatives from some 90 banks in Dubai on Monday.

(Editing by Andrew Callus and Kenneth Barry)

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Paan—Red-Stained Scourge of the Middle East

December 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

Paan2_new For many residents of Kuwait, litter and pollution have taken a back seat to a more heinous environmental disaster. As the tiny Gulf State continues to looks for ways to improve its global reputation as a country that cares for the environment, at least one segment of the society is determined to pollute the landscape as mindlessly as they can.

It used to be that second-hand cigarette smoke was at the top of everyone’s list of noxious pollutants. However, in many parts of the Middle East, poor Southeast Asian laborers have dotted the landscape with their own homemade pollutant. Commonly known as “Paan”, which is a concoction of natural and chemical substances bundled into a Betel leaf, this chewing-tobacco like substance creates dark red tinged saliva, which the person chewing it usually spits out at any available target. Paan stains can be found outside of buildings, inside elevators, at bus stops and just about anywhere the public shares a common place. As a result, the spit stains its target thus leaving a blood-like appearance on the surface. Most residents would agree that the red hued Paan stains are more offensive than graffiti especially since they contain millions of disease carrying bacteria.

Many business owners in Kuwait have called upon the Kuwaiti government to intervene. Paan is banned in Kuwait, as most of the ingredients are forbidden entry into the country. However, it is widely available on the Black Market, as clever businessmen have found ways to smuggle the ingredients into the country. Since Paan is more affordable than cigarettes, it is a hot commodity with an eager market. Yet enforcing a law against Paan could be difficult, as it would really entail looking in the mouths of every possible offender. However, Paan-spewing crimes might soon appear in Public Service Announcements (PSA) that already educate the public about litter and saving water. Perhaps future PSA’s will include proper receptacles for spitting as well as the dangers of chewing it.

2052708660_1 Paan is just as deadly, if not more so, than cigarette smoking. Since the Paan rests against the interior of the mouth when it is chewed, it can cause a host of oral mouth cancers that affect the throat, cheeks and tongue. Treatment for the cancers may involve the removal of the entire jaw or portion of the mouth.  Chewing Paan also permanently stains the teeth red and causes the gums to recede, which can cause the teeth to fall out prematurely.  And it also creates severely bad breath and is fast becoming a social stigma.

Kuwait is not the only Gulf state suffering from Paan chewing and the by-products of the habit. Dubai has seen its share of Paan stained surfaces and is cracking down hard on anyone who chews or sells it. According to the Director General of the Municipality, Hussain Nasser Lootah, anyone partaking in Paan will face harsh penalties, which includes a fine and deportation. The Dubai government has also offered a $1400 reward for anyone that offers information about people who sell or chew Paan. The municipality recently launched an awareness campaign by distributing leaflets to inform the public about the dangers and unhygienic nature of Paan chewing. In addition, the Dubai government has also launched a media campaign in local newspapers and magazines informing the public about the new laws that will punish Paan dealers and chewers to the fullest extent of the law. 

Even European countries are not spared from Paan staining their capitals, as more and more Southeast Asian immigrants flood to the region looking for a better life. London, for example, is just one city that has recently faced a spat of red-tinged spittle staining its most treasured landmarks.

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Dubai Babylon: The glitz, the Glamour – and Now the Gloom

December 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Property of TVS, Inc. Dubai, the Arabian city state that tried to turn itself into Manhattan-on-the-Gulf inside a decade, looks this weekend as if it may end up more like an expensive imitation of Sodom and Gomorrah. No brimstone, no vengeful God, but still an awful lot of wreckage after an orgy of hedonistic excess.

This, until last week, was the world capital of greed, a Legoland of lolly, where flashy malls, artificial islands, and preposterous skyscrapers were run up in no time; where monied chancers booked into £4,000-a-night hotel rooms; and where celebrities who didn’t know better were lured into a place that was even gaudier than their own homes. People said it was all built on sand, but, after the businesses at the core of the Dubai empire revealed a black hole of $80bn, we now know it was actually built on debt, semi-slave labour and the glossiest puffery that borrowed money can buy.

This, before we get down to the juicy details, is not how Gordon Brown saw it. The Dubai dream was largely the creation of the late Sheikh Maktoum and his successor, the current ruler Sheikh Mohammed. The day before Dubai’s shock debt announcement, the sheikh was in London. According to UAE’s national news service, Gordon Brown said he was “impressed with the quick recovery made by the UAE economy and the measures made by the leadership and government there that led to minimal impact of that crisis on the country’s economy.”

Once upon a recent time, this was true. At the height of Dubai’s property bubble, developers competed to outdo each other and impress the sheikh with more and more outlandish projects at the city’s annual property show Cityscape. Ski fields in the desert and the world’s largest shopping mall of 1,200 shops, complete with an aquarium housing 400 sharks, are among the projects already built, and plans for an underwater hotel.

Prospective buyers would queue for hours for the chance to purchase off-plan property. Ten minutes later they would sell on to someone at the back of the queue for a £10,000 profit.

While the economy boomed, the city partied hard. Dubai quickly became a favourite playground for Russian gangsters, Bollywood movie stars, and British footballers and their WAGs. David Beckham and Michael Owen were among those splashing out on multimillion-pound properties on the Palm, while Brad Pitt and Denzel Washington were also rumoured to have homes there.

Paris Hilton made a version of her reality show in the bars and malls of city this year. On any given night, parked out front the Grosvenor Hotel, with its popular bars, would be an eye-popping collection of the most expensive sports cars. “Soon,” one sheik was quoted as saying, “every Count of Monte Cristo will be in Dubai. In 10 years, only rich and famous people will live here.” And the servants? “I would hope robots or clones will do all that by then.”

With Western cash came Western cultural norms. Though foreign residents need a liquor licence to drink in their own homes, alcohol is widely available in hotel bars. All-you-can-drink brunches where expatriates got sloshed on champagne became the favoured way of passing Friday afternoons. While the Muslim community spent the holy day at the mosque, Westerners drank themselves legless.

It was at one of these infamous brunches that two Britons fell foul of the strict laws that govern the state. Michelle Palmer, 36, and Vince Acors, 34, who had met for the first time that day, were sentenced to three months in prison in July 2008 after being arrested for having sex on the beach. Not long after, British women Marnie Pearce and Sally Antia were jailed for adultery after their husbands told the police they were having affairs. Yet Arab men will drink openly in hotel bars and prostitution is rife.

The Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest skyscraper at 818m, disappears into the clouds high above this emirate of contradictions. Dubai is an architectural odyssey, yet an urban planner’s worst nightmare which employed, until recently, 50 per cent of the world’s largest cranes. The people of the more sedate and richer emirate of Abu Dhabi 70 miles down the road have often been said to shake their heads at the money its neighbour has wasted. Abu Dhabi’s developments such as the breathtaking Yas Marina Circuit used in this year’s Formula One championship have been carefully planned.

Dubai has simply built bigger and bigger with little thought given to planning. It was bound to fail: no city or region could sustain such growth – particularly as the oil that drove that expansion has been slowly running out. The financial crisis simply exacerbated the long-term structural problems of its economy. Last week’s announcement that Dubai World, the developer of the famous man-made Palm Jumeirah island development that can be seen from space, wanted a standstill on its repayments on a chunk of its $60bn indebtedness shocked the financial markets. Banks in London and Edinburgh, such as HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland, had lent Dubai World billions of pounds. Now there is the very real possibility that they will lose much of this as Dubai World defaults.

On the Palm, on the Persian Gulf’s man-made coastline, is the Atlantis Hotel, an imposing construction of two towers linked by a bridge. Kylie Minogue sang at its star-studded opening last year, with spectacular fireworks visible for miles a one-night jamboree that cost £20m. Dubai World could not have chosen a worse time to open the seven-star hotel.

Attracting Western tourists has been one of the pillars of Dubai’s gross domestic product growth, but as Westerners tighten the purse strings so Dubai’s tourism industry has started to wobble. The fear now is that the dreams of Sheikh Mohammed could turn into an economic nightmare for both the emirate and the rest of the world. Economists are analysing whether this is the disaster that will create a so-called W-shaped recession – that is, two collapses rather than just the one of a V-shape.

It might seem extraordinary that a tiny emirate of about 1.5 million people could cause such global turmoil, but Dubai is intertwined with some of the most everyday parts of the UK economy alone. Dubai World owns P&O, the ferry operator, while Dubai International Capital (DIC), the state’s international investment arm, has a 20 per cent stake in the company that runs Madame Tussauds, the London Eye and the Sea Life Centres.

The reciprocal nature of the UK and Dubai economies means that British firms are now coming to the rescue. The Independent on Sunday can reveal that Dubai World’s big lenders, led by the UK-based institutions, have lined up the London-based financial restructuring team a accountants KMPG to salvage the $30bn-plus they are owed. A formal appointment is expected this week.

They will have their hands full.

Gulf state’s holdings: Small sample of Dubai’s global reach

Millions of dollars have been invested in Sheikh Mohammed’s passion: thoroughbred racehorses. In Newmarket, he owns Dalham Hall stud farm and Godolphin stables. The sheikh’s 4,000 acres in Ireland make him the largest farmer in the country. He also owns 7,000 acres of paddocks in Britain and 5,000 acres of farmland. Other assets owned by Dubai investors include:

* The QE2, currently moored in Cape Town
* The Adelphi on the Strand and the Grand Buildings in Trafalgar Square
* A 20 per cent stake in Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian circus troupe
* Budget hotel chain Travelodge
* A stake in Merlin Entertainments, which runs Alton Towers, Madame Tussauds and the London Eye
* Scottish golf course Turnberry
* Chris Evert tennis clubs in the US
* A ski resort in Aspen, Colorado
* A 21 per cent stake in the London Stock Exchange
* Ports and ferries group P&O

11-50

The Great American Fraud

November 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

money-stacks2 The U.S. Chief District Attorney, this week, revealed a conspiracy by a Kuwaiti owned and operated food company to bilk the American government out of $8.5 billion in contracts to provide food for troops in Kuwait, Jordan and Iraq. It took the Atlanta-based Grand Jury no time at all to indict the Kuwaiti company. According to the indictment, Agility (formerly known as the Public Warehousing Company) was charged with a veritable ‘laundry list’ of crimes related to defrauding the U.S. Government. Agility provided food for U.S. troops from 2003-2005. The conspiracy was uncovered during a probe into unethical business practices of Middle East vendors.

According to court documents, Agility took painstaking measures to get away with the fraud. Some of the charges include submitting falsified documents, overinflating prices to sometimes triple the local Kuwaiti market value, making false statements and wire fraud. Most damaging is perhaps the revelation that Agility ordered it’s own suppliers to reduce the size of packages so that twice the number of packages would be delivered to unsuspecting U.S. military bases.

Agility is not taking the charges sitting down and has already come out ‘swinging’ and leveling their own verbal barrage at the U.S. government. In a recently released statement to the press, Agility has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and says that the charges are baseless. The company also says that ongoing contracts with the US government, which are not part of the current indictment, remain in tact. However, Agility has been barred from bidding on new contracts with the US until the pending indictment is either proven or dismissed. The press release also went on to say that Agility is putting its’ full confidence in the US system of justice to prove its’ innocence, “An indictment and a complaint are merely allegations. PWC is confidant that once these allegations are examined in court, the will be found to be without merit.” Agility also revealed that the prices it charges for its’ goods and services were predetermined and approved by the U.S. government and that company heads are “surprised and disappointed” by the charges.

This case is only one out of several that have been launched against contractors hired by the U.S. government over the past several years. The most notable is a case of fraud leveled against KBR, which is a subsidiary of Halliburton. The company has been charged with overcharging the U.S. government for oil and other military supplies. Since the news of the Agility fraud broke, the company has ceased all trading in the Kuwait stock market which has seen an 8% drop in its stocks. However, on the Dubai market, Agility continues to rally without incident.

Agility stands to lose plenty if it is found guilty of the charges of fraud. According to a recent report by Goldman Sach’s, the company’s annual revenue is comprised of a meaty 37% of American contracts. A guilty verdict would result in Agility being put on probation and having to repay either twice the gain they received from the contracts or twice the loss that the U.S. government incurred. The U.S. government has promised to deal swiftly with those seeking to defraud it and that the charges against Agility are “only the first step” in dealing with dishonest contractors.

In the meanwhile, Agility continues to look for new ways to break the chains of reliance upon the U.S. government for it’s daily ‘bread’. Agility has diversified itself across the board. The company now sells real estate and even provides freighter service for gold mining companies in Papua New Guinea. However, their new business ventures may prove to be exercises in futility as the U.S. government is unlikely to back down as it relentlessly seeks justice.

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Interview–Pakistan Wants Trade, not Aid

November 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Amena Bakr

DUBAI, Nov 1 (Reuters) – Pakistan plans to send an official delegation to the United States in mid-November to attract investment in a bid to revive its economy following a series of militant attacks, a senior official said on Sunday.

Last month, suicide bomb blasts targeted the United Nations, army headquarters, police and general public, killing more than 150 people.

“The recent attacks did have a negative impact on the perception (of the country), but at the same time Pakistan is a growing country and investors have to be in it for the long term,” Waqar Ahmed Khan, Pakistan’s minister of investment, told Reuters during a visit to Dubai.

A delegation headed by Khan, along with businessmen from Pakistan, will head to Washington on Nov. 18, he said.

“From the United States we are seeking trade, not aid, because that’s what’s going to really help stimulate our economy,” he said, adding that opening up trade between the two countries would support political stability.

“The growth of the economy and fighting terrorism go hand-in-hand and the government is committed to protecting investors’ interests.”

U.S. President Barack Obama has also said increased aid and trade will be tools to fight Islamic extremism both in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

Congress has just approved a bill tripling aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year for the next five years, but with conditions attached that have unleashed a storm of protest from Pakistanis who say the country is being humiliated.

Investment Interest

Last month, a delegation headed by the Turkish prime minister was in Islamabad to discuss investment opportunities, said Khan.

“The Turkish investors are now in talks to establish textile factories, lease land for agriculture projects and are also looking at the livestock and dairy industries,” he said.

Pakistan’s GDP growth is expected to be between 2.5 and 3.5 percent in the fiscal year 2009/10, up from 2.0 percent in the previous year, the central bank said in its annual report released on Thursday.

“Despite all the recent attacks I think that the GDP will remain on the positive side this year, and I also expect foreign investment to increase during the forth quarter,” said Khan, without giving further details.

Net foreign investment in Pakistan fell 28.9 percent to $671.1 million in the first three months of the 2009/10 fiscal year, beginning on July 1, compared with $943.4 million in the same period a year earlier.

(Reporting by Amena Bakr; Editing by Nick Macfie)

11-48

Mall Rats

November 12, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

wallgarden The Middle East is world-renowned for hosting some of the tallest buildings in the world. However, the region is also home to some of the largest and most luxurious shopping malls in the world. As a result of almost year-round scorching temperatures and excess oil wealth that flows out of banks just as quickly as the bubbling crude can be exhumed from the earth, shopping is the new national pastime for most Middle East nations.

It’s primarily the elite and wealthy denizens of the Gulf region, in countries like Kuwait, Dubai and Oman, that can afford to shop til they drop in the most prestigious designer boutiques and stores from the global arena. And since the wealthy clearly outnumber the less fortunate in the Gulf region, malls go up at a record pace, each bearing a signature style to lure customers and ring up sales.

Built across 12 million square feet, the largest mall in the Middle East can be found in the United Arab Emirates.  With more than 1,200 stores ready and open for business the Dubai Mall attracts approximately 750,000 visitors each week. The mall is part of the Burj Dubai Project, which is the tallest building in the world. Some of the features that make the mall unique include the biggest gold market in the world with more than 220 jewelry stores. It also has more than 70 stores that carry exclusive haute couture designer clothing. And as for entertainment, the mall is home to the first SEGA indoor theme park in the Middle East and a 22-screen movie theater.

However, the undisputed crown of the region’s largest mall is set to topple by next year’s end. Just a hop, skip and a jump away from Dubai, the leading contender for the most lavish and gargantuan mall in the Middle East can be found in Kuwait. ‘The Avenues’ mall lives up to its name. This monster of capitalism and sheer consumerism is as big as it gets with several hundred stores and plans to house a European-styled ‘Grand Mall’. The mall has already opened despite the fact that only two out of the proposed three phases have been complete. Security is also very tight as the mall features its very own police department with a force of 350 ‘mall cops’ that work around the clock to ensure public safety. The command center of the police department receives live feed from over 350 security cameras situated all over the interior and exterior of the mall.

Size, however, does not always matter. There seems to be a mall on every corner in the biggest cities of the Gulf region with most of the smaller malls mimicking each other and offering little more than a rehashing of the one prior. However, there is one mall that while small is standing out as a veritable gem in the crown of all things commercial. The ‘360 Mall’ of Kuwait was built in a perfect circle and is an architectural feat of sheer minimalism and art. The most attractive features of this mall are not a giant store or an enormous entertainment center. What makes the 360 Mall unique is that it houses two very unique and permanent art installations. The first is the largest vertical garden in the world, which was grown by French botanist Patric Blanc and is the size of four tennis courts in length. The second are two glass sculptures, made to look like the moon and the sun, by renowned American glass artist Dale Chihuly.

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INTERVIEW-Pakistan seeks US trade, not aid, says minister

November 12, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Amena Bakr, Reuters

DUBAI, Nov 1-Pakistan plans to send an official delegation to the United States in mid-November to attract investment in a bid to revive its economy following a series of militant attacks, a senior official said on Sunday.

Last month, suicide bomb blasts targeted the United Nations, army headquarters, police and general public, killing more than 150 people.

“The recent attacks did have a negative impact on the perception (of the country), but at the same time Pakistan is a growing country and investors have to be in it for the long term,” Waqar Ahmed Khan, Pakistan’s minister of investment, told Reuters during a visit to Dubai.

A delegation headed by Khan, along with businessmen from Pakistan, will head to Washington on Nov. 18, he said.

“From the United States we are seeking trade, not aid, because that’s what’s going to really help stimulate our economy,” he said, adding that opening up trade between the two countries would support political stability.

“The growth of the economy and fighting terrorism go hand-in-hand and the government is committed to protecting investors’ interests.”

U.S. President Barack Obama has also said increased aid and trade will be tools to fight Islamic extremism both in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

Congress has just approved a bill tripling aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year for the next five years, but with conditions attached that have unleashed a storm of protest from Pakistanis who say the country is being humiliated.

Investment Interest

Last month, a delegation headed by the Turkish prime minister was in Islamabad to discuss investment opportunities, said Khan.

“The Turkish investors are now in talks to establish textile factories, lease land for agriculture projects and are also looking at the livestock and dairy industries,” he said.

Pakistan’s GDP growth is expected to be between 2.5 and 3.5 percent in the fiscal year 2009/10, up from 2.0 percent in the previous year, the central bank said in its annual report released on Thursday.

“Despite all the recent attacks I think that the GDP will remain on the positive side this year, and I also expect foreign investment to increase during the forth quarter,” said Khan, without giving further details.

Net foreign investment in Pakistan fell 28.9 percent to $671.1 million in the first three months of the 2009/10 fiscal year, beginning on July 1, compared with $943.4 million in the same period a year earlier.

(Reporting by Amena Bakr; Editing by Nick Macfie)

11-47

Halal Make-Up

September 17, 2009 by · 8 Comments 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

skin_240809 What started out as a quest to find halal make-up for her own skin, has now taken Layla Mandi on the journey of a lifetime. As a Canadian convert to Islam and with an extensive background as a make-up artist, Mandi was unsatisfied with the quality of the beauty products available to her as a Muslim. “There are pork derivatives and alcohol in most cosmetic products,” Mandi said in a recent interview. She has performed extensive research into many beauty products currently on the market and her findings are pretty alarming.

Many shampoos, moisturizers and lipsticks contain pig by-products such as placenta, blood, urine fat and gelatin obtained from boiling pig skin, bones and hooves. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have long been protesting against the use of animal byproducts in the cosmetic industry, which is a multibillion-dollar industry in America alone. For this reason Mandi moved to Morocco in 2006 to both enrich her Islamic faith and obtain halal beauty products to use for herself. The only trouble was that there were not any halal products available. “I assumed, just as in the food sector, there would be plenty of halal cosmetics for Muslim women. But I suddenly realized there were none,” she said recently, “In fact, people either didn’t know or didn’t care that the cream they were putting on their face had pig and other animal derivatives in it. I decided to try to make my own.”

It took her three years and another move to Gulf powerhouse Dubai, while also enlisting the aid of a chemist and dermatologist from Canada, to create her very own brand of halal make up called, One Pure. Dressed in a flowing black abaya and with blond strands of a perfectly coifed hairstyle peeking out from her hijab, Mandi is slowly making a name for herself in Dubai and the rest of the Middle East. Her products are guaranteed to be free from pork derivatives and come packaged in sparkling luxury wrappers to appeal to even the most refined tastes. Her first clients were Saudi Airlines and Souk Al-Bahar, which is located in the World’s tallest building, Burj Dubai. Mandi has also been selling her halal beauty products online.

The One Pure cosmetic line also has religious backing in the form of halal certification from Malaysia and recent comments from at least one religious scholar in Dubai who has confirmed that Muslims are forbidden to touch the pig let alone allow its bodily fluids and parts to penetrate the skin. For the time being, the line is primarily being released in the Middle East with Mandi already turning her attention to a men’s line.

As with anything new that hits the market, critics of One Pure have already started weighing on in on the whole concept of halal beauty products for women. Some say that it is just a clever marketing ploy to make Muslim women buy the products so that they feel they are better Muslims. Others insist that One Pure is not the first halal make-up to be sold, the secularly marketed ‘The Body Shop’ has been in business for years and all of their products are free from animal derivatives and are not tested on animals either.

Only time will tell if One Pure will become a sensation, with Mandi declared the reigning queen of the halal beauty scene. There is nothing new about halal cosmetics in the Gulf region with an estimated $150 million worth of products being filtered through the tiny UAE alone per annum. However, these products rarely find the hands of consumers. For Mandi, her top priority is fulfilling the halal beauty needs of the everyday Muslim woman so that they can put their best face forward.

11-39

Back to School?

August 27, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

School Bus - Cartoon 7 The photo spreads in local sales circulars in Kuwait bear all the familiar ‘back to school’ images of kids wearing cute outfits complete with backpacks swung over an arm. The ‘back to school’ sales placards cover the storefronts over most businesses that are competing for each sale as the global downturn continues to dig in. However, despite the familiar images, there is nothing ordinary about this school year that is set to start in only a few days.

The H1N1 virus, known as the ‘swine flu’, has cast a dark shadow over the Holy Month of Ramadan and impending school year that is set to start on the first of September in all Gulf countries. More than 1,100 people in Kuwait alone have already been diagnosed with the H1N1 virus, and while almost all of the patients have recovered, three people have died as a result of the H1N1 virus. The Kuwaiti government has been vigilant in providing public service announcements, via various media, since the spring when the first few cases were reported in Mexico and later America. The H1N1 virus ahs spread to all regions of the Middle East as each country can only count as the rapidity of infection rises.

In Kuwait, in particular, many parents have been sounding the alarm as the summer holidays have slowly begun to fade away. Concerned ministries, primarily the Ministries of Health and Education, met this past week to discuss the possible closing of schools to avoid the spread of the H1N1 virus. The results were less than fruitful. The joint decision as of press time is to only postpone the start of Kindergarten classes in both public and private schools for 10 days. Regular classes are set to resume as usual on September 1st.

The Kuwaiti government has also this week developed a swine flu plan, which is supposed to be put into effect by school administrators in the tiny Gulf state. Desks will be positioned 1 meter apart and congregating, in the cafeteria or at the playground, will be forbidden. Health Minister Helal Al-Sayer further announced that, in the event that a single student comes down with the H1N1 virus, the entire class will be closed indefinitely. He also said that if any school reports more than 5% of the student population are infected with the H1N1 virus then the entire school will be closed.  Individual students, who are suspected of having the H1N1 virus by teachers while in class, will be quarantined until health officials can properly diagnose their affliction. Al-Sayer further announced that 120 schools would be outfitted with special clinics specifically for the treatment of students suffering from the H1N1 virus.  The remaining schools in the country have no such facilities and it remains to be seen if health officials will monitor each school individually.

Kuwait is not the only Middle Eastern country to take ‘back to school’ swine flu precautions. Several private schools in Dubai have also postponed the start of the school year by several days. However, no Gulf country has taken as drastic measures as Oman. The country has cancelled the school term for both private and public schools until mid-December when the H1N1 vaccine, expected to be available in September, will have immunized pupils from the deadly virus. So far 5 people have died in Oman from the H1N1 virus.

When asked about the current decision the Kuwaiti government has made to continue with the start of the school year as normal, a Pakistani housewife and resident of Kuwait who wishes to remain anonymous said, “ What’s the point in closing a class after a student gets sick? The whole class will already be infected. I can only pray that the Minster will change the decision before school starts.”

11-36

A New Kind of Television Dawns in the USA

July 9, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

By Adil James, MMNS

box-angle

As Tracy Thompson-West explains it, Talfazat and its sister stations, TV-Desi, and Kylin TV, were born from the union of NeuLion (whose specialty is in IPTV), and JumpTV (whose specialty was Arabic programming).  Ms. West is the Chief Executive of International Business for NeuLion, Inc. The marriage has led to the birth of several discrete and independent television networks, serving discrete niche markets–the Arabic, Chinese, and Desi markets.

Like NeuLion and JumpTV, Ms. West has an impressive resume, having worked for 20 years in the US and European satellite industry–where she had a hand in building Dish’s industry leading collection of international channels.

IPTV is still a mystery to most American consumers–in fact IPTV television providers in this country are far behind their counterparts in Europe.

Even the television services that are available via IPTV are not defined as such–Netflix, AT&T’s U-verse (still with fewer than 100,000 customers), and now JumpTV and its subsidiaries–usually refer to themselves as sources of television, alternatives to satellite and cable. 

In Europe however, the largest IPTV service provider (France’s Iliad) had over 1,000,000 customers as of January of 2008.  Its nine closest competitors, none of whom are American, all have more than 100,000 customers each.

The Talfazat box is simply a set top box (STB) that plugs into the internet and your television.  It uses proprietary technology developed by NeuLion to transfer video signals through the internet to your TV, and is controlled by an ordinary remote control.

talfazat logo shadow The technology is impressive.  NeuLion provides professional business-to-business display of major sports.  The pedigree as listed by Ms. West is simply unimpeachable–NFL, NHL, AHL.  If those guys trust NeuLion, you know their product is top-of-the-line. 

The box that you install in your home speaks over the internet with NeuLion’s servers and accesses the content you want to watch.  It needs a connection, according to Ms. West, of only one Mbs, and a 2 Mbs DSL connection nowadays is pretty standard.  With upcoming improvements in the internet network in the United States, especially for Fiber optics (like Verizon FIOS, for example), speeds ten times as fast will become very standard. 

Talfazat offers about 30 Arabic channels, including as far as I can tell all of the ones offered by Dish Network–with perhaps the exception of Dubai Sports.  The news channels are all available, including Al-Jazeera, Al-Jazeera English, and Al-Arabiya.

control Kylin offers, according to Ms. West, about 40 channels of Chinese language content.

TV-Desi is offered in several discrete packages, each tailored to a particular language group.  Their are Hindi, Bangla, and Pakistan-focused channels.  The channel list includes some news channels however some of the major Bollywood blockbuster movie websites are still missing, although Ms. West of JumpTV indicated to me that JumpTV was working in the direction of making those channels available in the future.

Potential future pitfalls with the technology include the increasing rumors and movements of internet service providers towards limiting bandwidth.  This controversy, frowned on by major net presences like Google, businesses that benefit and in fact need people to access the internet freely, is known by the name “net neutrality” and is increasingly coming up in legislative debates at the federal level–although until now it is unclear whether the movements toward bandwidth caps by ISPs AT&T and Comcast will later be widely implemented.

Asked about this potential problem, Mr. Alyas Ali of Talfazat explained that one of his Canadian customers, whose ISP is Rogers, faced bandwidth overages (which come into effect after 60 gigabits) and was charged for them.  Yet the total maximum fee charged by Rogers for those overages, even when added to his Talfazat bill, is still less than what he would have to pay for Bell ExpressVu Arabic channels.

The Roku box may be the most similar single service.  Roku offers access to Netflix.  You pay $99 and your payments to Roku are finished forever, but you get to enjoy Netflix instant views as long as you have a subscription.

There are free online IPTV sources, but the most professional services that provide IPTV are formed as walled gardens.  Explains Alyas Ali of Talfazat, “We want to provide a clean product that people are willing to pay for.”

Similar services exist from other providers.  AT&T has launched their U-Verse plan, which offers roughly the same channels you would expect from Dish Network.  Unfortunately AT&T has done a really awful job of marketing U-Verse.  Nobody knows that it exists.  If people know about U-Verse, most of them think that it is actually AT&T’s satellite service through its partner (was Dish Network, now DirecTV). 

If you find out about U-Verse, you may not want to buy it because AT&T has priced it at the same level as Dish Network–which is already the most expensive satellite network and fast losing market share as a result.  What could they have been thinking? And on top of that AT&T is maintaining a partnership with their own competitor, DirecTV.

The wild web, however, has much to offer if you can winnow the wheat from the chaff.  Despite its many nonsense or bad-spirited or generally poor quality channels, many fun and interesting videos are available on Youtube.  Services providing free IPTV include Joost, Hulu, Justin.TV, ChannelChooser, and WWITV.  Of these, Hulu may be the most professional, although the focus of Hulu is more on mainstream American shows.  And it is possible to construct an imitation of the walled gardens but without losing the wild and free content–either by connecting a PC running Boxee (and thus indirectly also Hulu) or by hacking an AppleTV box to run Boxee (and thus Hulu).  Surely other hacks will emerge as time passes, but for now the $200 AppleTV (which you buy once and never again pay for) in connection with Boxee is the most cost effective means of accessing free IPTV content.

The price structure of Talfazat and her sisters is middle of the road–but by comparison with other services that are available it is at a fair market rate.  For $30 a month, you can have 30 Arabic channels piped into your house.  Compared to Dish Network this is pennies.  Compared to the freely available content via satellite perhaps it is a little bit expensive–but perhaps the difference in price is made up for in ease of access and professionalism of the end product.

Considering that the price for Dish Network’s foreign content is simply outrageous (on average you would have to pay about $15 for only one foreign channel on Dish), NeuLion is in a strong position to secure customers escaping from long contracts, or sometimes mediocre customer service, and perhaps will recapture some of the former pirates who have been chased away from Dish Network recently by its increasingly aggressive anti-piracy encryption.

DirecTV, Ms. West explained, has just cancelled all its Arabic channels–perhaps a concession to Dish Network, which in fact provides a very decent array of international programming.

The Indian channels available in a standard package from TV-Desi are rather minimal, only roughly four or five from each package–yet if you are from a foreign country and you have access to the four channels you used to watch at home that might be more than enough–especially when TV-Desi is poised to expand into other channels.

Another competitive point emphasized by Ms. West is the ease of installation.  The box is mailed to you, you unpack it, plug in an ethernet cord, a power cord, and turn it on, and you are in business.  Unlike a satellite or cable install, which might require you to stay home from work when “a satellite guy or a cable guy has to come into your house” and install it.

Talfazat and her sisters offer limited American channels–about 30 of the JV American channels including Fox News and Discovery, for a nominal fee.  They plan to expand their coverage in this area, as they do in their ethnic channel repertoire.

Customer service through Talfazat seems excellent.  In a brief call to explore the available service, I encountered excellent, knowledgeable and friendly customer service from an Arabic-speaking customer service representative.  This is a level of niche marketing that, even with some effort, Dish Network or your local cable company will be unlikely to find a willingness to compete with.

As far as quality of the picture, Talfazat is excellent.  Ms. West claims there is no buffering  if a customer has a pipe of 1 Mbs.  The box is HD-ready, although regional programming in HD is slim-to-none.  What looks like an S-Video jack in the back of the Talfazat box is actually a plug for a dongle that can accept HD-ready HDMI or component plugs to connect to your television. 

NeuLion did not discuss the potential impact of the higher quality picture on bandwidth, but presumably that will push them beyond their current 1Mbs. 

Presumably NeuLion are experts at providing HD content, since their expertise has been developed through years of servicing the sports leagues which thrive in large part based on their HD filming.

But the brilliance of the NeuLion team is not only in the quality and availability of their product, it is also in their clever marketing to an available niche, at a marketable price, through friendly customer service.

Note:  Talfazat is a valued advertiser in this newspaper.

11-29

Canada: Sharia ETF Poised for Launch

June 18, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Proposed ETF from Islamic firm UM Financial and Jovian Capital could be a Canadian first

By Shirley Won, Funds Reporter, Globe and Mail

Islamic financial services company UM Financial Inc. has teamed up with Jovian Capital Corp. JOV-T in a bid to list Canada’s first sharia-compliant exchange-traded fund (ETF).

On Wednesday, Standard & Poor’s launched the S&P/TSX 60 Shariah Index. In compliance with Islamic law, the index avoids firms involved in financial services, alcohol, gambling and pork products.

The proposed product from UM and Jovian would be based on the S&P/TSX 60 Shariah Index so the two firms are in discussions with Standard & Poor’s to get a licence for the new index to start the Islamic ETF later this year. Eventually, “the goal is to launch a family of ETFs,” UM chief executive officer Omar Kalair said yesterday.

The sharia ETF would target Canada’s Muslim population (which numbers about one million), as well as foreign investors, Mr. Kalair said in an interview.

Jovian’s BetaPro Management unit is a provider of leveraged and other ETFs, while its AphaPro Management unit has actively managed ETFs. “Any product launched would come from BetaPro,” Mr. Kalair said.

In recent years, sharia-compliant ETFs have popped up in various countries including Britain, India, Singapore, Dubai, Malaysia and South Africa. In March, a sharia gold ETF was launched in Dubai.

Barclays Canada, which administers the iShares ETFs and is the largest ETF provider in the country, “has no plans to go down this route,” said Oliver McMahon, its director of product development. “It’s not in our existing product pipeline.”

Jasmit Bhandal, a spokeswoman for Standard & Poor’s in Canada, said there have been talks with ETF, mutual fund and structured products providers for use of the S&P/TSX 60 Shariah Index, but nothing is final. But a licence with an ETF provider is typically an exclusive one, she said.

A couple of sharia-compliant mutual funds are sold in Canada, but both have less than $2-million in assets.

A Toronto-based investment firm, frontierAlt Management Ltd., launched Canada’s first sharia-compliant mutual fund, frontierAlt Oasis Canada, in 2007. The firm also later started sharia-compliant funds frontierAlt Oasis World and frontierAlt Global Income funds, but these were closed last fall because it was no longer cost effective to run them, said Taras Hucal, president of frontierAlt Management.

The two Oasis stock funds invested in firms in the Dow Jones Islamic Market Indexes. The income fund invested in sukuk, which is similar to conventional bonds, but pays out a share of revenue from a designated pool of assets or services rather than interest. Islamic principles prohibit receiving interest income.

A problem with selling the Oasis funds is the fact they are no-load funds; they do not pay financial advisers a commission, but rather a 1-per-cent annual trailer fee as long as investors hold them, Mr. Hucal said.

“There has also been a lack of awareness” about products in this niche, and the steep market collapse didn’t help sales, he said.

The frontierAlt Oasis Canada Fund suffered a 42-per-cent loss for the year ended April 30, and an average annual loss of 23 per cent over two years. Funds need a solid three-year return number to attract inflows of money, Mr. Hucal said.

In March, Global Prosperata Funds Inc. launched the sharia-compliant Global Prosperata Iman, a global stock fund that is sold with front- and back-end load commissions. It now has $1.5-million in assets.

“We are expecting another $1-million to $2-million from a number of different investors in the next 30 to 60 days,” said Glenn Moore, vice-president of Toronto-based Prosperata Funds. “There is a lot of pent-up demand.”

11-26

Attacks Commence

April 23, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Dahr Jamail, Truthout

2009-04-21T201436Z_01_BAG200_RTRMDNP_3_IRAQ Everyone knows the analogy of the beehive. When it is goaded, countless bees emerge, attacking the tormentor. Right now in Iraq, the formerly US-backed al-Sahwa (Sons of Iraq) Sunni militia, ripe with broken promises from both the occupiers of their country and the Iraqi government that they would be given respect and jobs, have gone into attack mode.

It is an easily predictable outcome. An occupying power (the US) sets up a 100,000-strong militia composed of former resistance fighters and even some members of al-Qaeda, pays them each $300 per month to not attack occupation forces, and attacks decrease dramatically. Then, stop paying most of them and tell them they will be incorporated into Iraqi government security forces. Proceed to leave them high and dry as the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki begins targeting them – assassinating leaders, detaining fighters and threatening their families. Allow this plan to continue for over six months, unabated.

Not surprisingly, the Sahwa are fighting back against US forces and those of the Iraqi government.

2009-04-23T110151Z_01_BAG400_RTRMDNP_3_IRAQ While not all of these attacks can be attributed to Sahwa forces, I believe it is safe to say the majority of them are. A brief overview of the last few days in Iraq is informative, as it shows many of these attacks, as well as some of the ongoing attacks by government forces against the Sahwa:

# April 20: Suicide bomber wounds eight US soldiers in Baquba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad. Dubai-based satellite TV channel al-Arabiya reports that three of the US soldiers were killed. The US military does not confirm the deaths. Iraqi officials tell the media the bomber was wearing a police uniform. This method is becoming increasingly common now. Sahwa forces already have police and military uniforms, as they have been working as security personnel for months now. In another attack in the same city, a suicide bomber kills two US soldiers, their Iraqi interpreter and two bystanders, although the US military has not reported on the incident. Overall, 16 Iraqis killed, 11 wounded.

# April 19: Gunmen kill an off-duty lieutenant-colonel policeman in his car in Baghdad. Mortar round wounds two civilians when it hits a power generator in the Zayouna district in east Baghdad. Police find the bodies of two Sunni Arab militiamen with bullet wounds in the head and chest in Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad. Gunmen kill two Sahwa members in separate incidents around Mussayib. Gunmen kill an Interior Ministry official in Nu’ariyah and another in Ur. The Interior Ministry is responsible for targeting the Sahwa leadership. In total, 14 Iraqis are killed, 28 wounded.

2009-04-23T124809Z_01_BAG202_RTRMDNP_3_IRAQ-VIOLENCE # April 17: Mortar attacks across Shi’ite-majority districts of Baghdad kill eight and wound 19.

# April 16: A suicide bomber kills 16 Iraqi soldiers and wounds another 50 after infiltrating an army base in Habbaniyah, on the outskirts of Fallujah, and mingling with a queue of soldiers at a dining facility. The bomber is wearing a military uniform. A Sahwa leader is killed when a bomb planted on his car explodes in Baquba.
In addition to the aformentioned, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of bombings and roadside bombs across Iraq recently. On April 20, two young girls were killed in Fallujah when a sticky bomb targeting an army officer exploded outside their home as he left for work. The same day in Basra, a roadside bomb targeting a US patrol detonated, but the military reported no casualties. April 19 saw a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol that wounded five people, including two policemen in the Zaafaraniya district of southeast Baghdad. That same day, another roadside bomb wounded four people in the Doura district of southern Baghdad, and the so-called Green Zone was shelled. On April 17, a roadside bomb wounded a policeman in Baquba, and three bombs were defused in Amara in southern Iraq.

There is a new kind of war on in Iraq – and it is spreading. Tit-for-tat killings between the Sahwa and government forces are increasing. Roadside bomb attacks and suicide strikes against US forces are also increasing in recent days. Meanwhile, there is no sign of reconciliation between the Sahwa and the Iraqi government, and of course little if any of this is mentioned in most US corporate media.

While the current trend still pales in comparison to previous levels of resistance in Iraq, if left unchecked, it will certainly continue to increase.

»Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of “Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq,” (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for eight months as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last four years.

11-18

The Crimson Tide

March 26, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

Red%20Tide

It sounds like something out of a sci-fi blockbuster. A mysterious red blob suffocates and kills anything that gets in its way as it slithers along, leaving mayhem in its wake.

However, in the case of the current crimson tide washing up in the GCC, truth is stranger than fiction. Known as ‘red tide’, the phenomenon is caused by a thick growth of phytoplankton called dinoflagellates, and it occurs naturally.

However, scientists have discovered that some variants of the occurrence may also be a by-product of human activities, such as development programs to extend land borders by adding fillers to the sea, or the dumping of waste into the ocean. The red tide suffocates fish and other marine life to death. Areas of the coastline affected by the phenomenon are often littered with the carcasses of fish, crabs and other sea creatures.

Typically, the red tide rears its’ ugly head in the spring. However, this year the red tide arrived as early as this past October off the coast of the UAE where it still lingers and is spreading to other GCC States including Oman. This past January the Ministry of Environment and Water in Abu Dhabi appointed a specialized team to develop a national course of action to cope with the problem that has left many beaches in the kingdom empty as well as several dinner plates. The ministry has also launched an intense media blitz to inform the public how to stay safe during the peak of the red tides. While studies have shown that it is safe to swim in the tainted water, being in close contact with the algae can cause severe respiratory problems. As for eating the marine life that is veritably soaking up the contaminated water, it is safe to consume seafood as long as the catches are caught fresh and alive. Officials have warned the public from scavenging through the several tons of dead fish that have already washed up along the coast. A mass clean up effort is continuously underway in the affected regions to collect the decomposing corpses and incinerate them at a public facility.    The government of the UAE also plans to develop a system of satellites to serve as an early warning system for when the red tides begin to roll in.

This past week the State of Kuwait was put on alert as the red tide began looking for its next victim. The Environment Public Authority (EPA) in Kuwait has warned the government to give the phenomenon special attention for the sake of public health. The Kuwaiti government sent scientific expert, Dr. Mona Hussein, to the UAE this week to study the red tides first hand before they make landfall in Kuwait. Dr. Hussein will collect water and dead fish samples to bring back to Kuwait for further studies.

As a result of the red tides, the tourism industry in the GCC has taken a massive hit especially in Dubai where divers from all over the world come to enjoy the crystal blue waters and immaculate coral reefs. The murky waters are keeping tourists away and isolating the public from their own coastline.

11-14

Pretty in Pink

March 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS

pink

The delicate color pink graces everything from haute couture to the latest techno gadgets geared towards females in the global market, however one of the last places anyone would expect to find the color is on taxicabs. Sure enough, a savvy businesswoman in Lebanon has painted the traditional yellow taxicab a cuter shade of pink. Nawal Yaghi Fakhri is the owner of ‘Taxi Banat’, which means ‘Taxi for Women’. Female drivers decked out in, what else, pink drive a fleet of blush colored Peugeot taxis throughout the capital of Beirut. The uniform they wear is comprised of a pink shirt, pink tie and a complimentary bubble gum shade of lipstick. The customers they cater to are women only, as men are not allowed to ride in the gender specific cabs.

09_ae_pink_taxi01_4 The pink taxicabs are meant to serve as a safe option for women out on the town in Lebanon who want a safe ride home. Crimes against woman traveling in taxis, often by the male driver, is not unheard of in the region as well as in most cities of the world.  The taxis are also popular with Muslim woman who adhere with the Islamic specification of not mixing with non-related men. The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism has backed the initiative whole-heartedly as the country has launched a campaign to draw millions of tourists in 2009. The minister is banking on an influx of rich Muslim ladies from the Gulf descending upon the capital this year and taking advantage of the female-fueled taxicabs.

Female geared taxicabs are nothing new in the Middle East. Both Iran and Dubai have launched similar services. However, Dubai has found the most success with the cabs, in large part due to the sprawling commercial complexes chock full of female clientele looking for a way home with their shopping loot.

The pink taxicabs in Dubai have recently metamorphosed to allow families to use the service even when male family members are included. However, bachelors will still either have to use the ‘shoe leather express’ or hail a different shade of cab.

Like most things in the Middle East, the idea for the pink taxicabs was copied from the west.

In 2006, the British Pink Ladies Club first came up with the idea for the gender biased pink cabs to help inebriated female party goers find their way home safely in the wee hours of the morning after bars and nightclubs have closed.

While the pink cabs have largely been embraced in the west, they have come under harsh criticism from many in the Middle East. Numerous Gulf women have publicly spoken out against the cabs citing that they will just give husbands another excuse to shirk their duties.

11-13

American TV Popular in the Middle East

March 5, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

friends There certainly is no love lost between most Middle East countries and the US, where peaceful coexistence is often stormier than two dogs fighting over a juicy bone.  Years of bias, perpetrated by American foreign policy, has left a bitter taste in the hearts and minds of the denizens of the Gulf that won’t easily be washed away by mere ‘sweet talk’ from the Obama administration. However, politics aside, there is a quiet love affair between the East and West that has only grown more intense over the past few years. Regardless of the innumerable ‘fatwas’ issued about the evils of the boob tube or outright condemnations by Muslim clerics, western television and cinema is the daily bread of many Gulf residents, and have  made an irrevocable mark on the social fabric of the region.

Talk-Diva Oprah Winfrey’s show is just as popular in Kuwait as it is in the suburbs of California. Dramas like ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ have Gulf dwellers glued to their television screens, just like their American counterparts, on sofas in the UAE, Oman and Bahrain.  And even syndicated shows like ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ still resonate with the Gulf audience. And while English is not the primary language spoken in the region, all the programming is made complete with Arabic subtitles at the bottom. A notable side effect of the translation crawler is that many Arab speakers are learning to speak English, courtesy of the western programming.

There are two primary satellite television stations situated in Saudi Arabia and Dubai that send out American programming 24/7 throughout the whole Gulf region.  The media giant of the Gulf is known as the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) and is completely financed by Saudi Arabia. The MBC Group has evolved over the years to include 5 separate channels including MBC3 which airs American cartoons dubbed in Arabic, MBC4 which airs American sitcoms and dramas, as well as the newest channel named MBCMax which airs the latest Hollywood blockbusters to grace the silver screen. The second biggest media giant in the Middle East is known as OneTV, which is owned and operated by the UAE. It combines the best of both worlds, to include western sitcoms and movies in its monthly repertoire.

Both media empires compete for viewers’ attention by offering the most sought-after shows without charging a single penny. Unlike the popular Showtime channel, which is the predominant pay channel in the Gulf, and rakes in billions of oil soaked dollars every year from their subscribers. However, thanks to cutthroat advertisers hocking everything from shampoo to cooking oil, the television business is becoming more lucrative in the Gulf  than the ‘black gold’ that lies beneath the land. Advertisers scoop airtime up as fast as it becomes available, much to the chagrin of viewers who have to wait between 4-5 minutes for the commercials to end, with each show having no less than 3 commercial breaks.

Surprisingly, the key to the success of satellite television in the Middle East is censorship, which keeps everyone happy. Scenes depicting intimacy or even a kiss are cut off. Programming dealing with things such as homosexuality or teenage pregnancy is usually not aired. It is really up to the code of morals followed by each country where the stations are based. For example, the MBC group based in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia almost never shows intimate situations, whereas OneTV based in liberal Dubai has been known to allow some kissing scenes to appear on its viewer’s screens. For the most part, there is not a lot of governmental regulation as to what is aired by either the stations airing the programming or the countries receiving the feed.

However, one country has gone to great lengths to block American television and cinema. Iran only allows a handful of approved American serials to be played on the state-run news station. As a result, young Iranians are downloading their favorite American serials from the Internet or purchasing them from video dealers.
With the Middle East region constantly feeling the strain of threat, whether from internally or from abroad, western television offers viewers in the Gulf a chance to forget their problems and indulge in a bit of escapism, resplendent in jaw dropping comedy and breathtaking stuntmanship that could only be concocted in Hollywood and exported to the rest of the world.

11-11

An Inspiring Story: Rwanda Turning to Islam

November 26, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy Arab News

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Many Rwandans turned to Islam after the genocide because of the good example given by Rwandan Muslims during the genocide.  This is a portrait of a Muslim Rwandan girl visiting a mosque for a wedding (photo shown to document Rwandan Muslims, but does not to our knowledge directly relate to the genocide).

Courtesy “Samer!” on Yahoo/Flickr

DUBAI, 30 September 2007 — The life story of Umugwaneza Sulaiman, a contestant for the Dubai International Holy Qur’an Award, is truly inspirational since he has risen from rubble to create a renaissance.

Even though he is only 19, this young man from Rwanda has survived a life of hardship. As a young child he survived the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. He still has horrific memories of hiding in forests from militias that were killing people. The rivers and roads they walked through were littered with bodies. Later on he lost his father and had to lead a harsh life in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Despite all his hardships, Sulaiman was determined to become a hafiz and was rewarded by becoming the first Rwandan to take part in the Dubai International Holy Qur’an Award competition. Sulaiman’s quest with the sacred book started when he converted to Islam at the age of 11.

“Even though my family were Catholics I was never interested in the church. The Azan from the mosque in my neighborhood fascinated me and I started attending classes there,” he said.

When asked if he faced any resistance from his family, Sulaiman said that his family had no issues with him becoming a Muslim, as Islam is a held in high regard in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. His whole family followed him a few years later and converted to Islam.

Since the genocide, Rwandans have converted to Islam in huge numbers. Muslims now make up 14 percent of the 8.2 million people in Africa’s mostly Catholic nation, twice as many as before the killings began. The reason behind the conversions lies in the fact that Rwandan Muslims did not take part in the genocide and played a key role in the humanitarian efforts that followed.

Muslims have been honored by the national government for their roles in saving the lives regardless of their faith. Many people attribute the recent spread of Islam to these humanitarian acts.

It took years of dedicated work for Sulaiman to memorize the Qur’an. The lack of qualified teachers in Rwanda made him make up his mind to travel to Kenya as there are good Qur’anic schools there.

“I was 15 when my five friends and I decided to travel to Kenya to seek knowledge. Two of my friends were converts like me,” he said.

The six young men packed their bags and traveled to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to find the school. They enrolled themselves in a free boarding school, which accepts students from all over East Africa. There they studied under the tutelage of Qur’an scholars. It took Sulaiman two years to memorize the whole Qur’an.

Now back home in Rwanda, Sulaiman works as a part time Imam and Qur’an teacher to supplement his income while studying at the only Islamic seminar in Kigali.

Masha Allah, there are so many Muslims now in my country. We are working hard at teaching the Qur’an to the new generation of Muslim children,” he said.

After finishing his education, Sulaiman hopes to get a scholarship to study Islam. “We get Muslim scholars coming from Uganda to spread the word of Islam in Rwanda. I hope that through my knowledge of Islam I will be able to help spread peace in my country,” he said.

10-49

Middle East Hit by U.S. Financial Crisis

October 16, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy New America Media, Shane Bauer

Editor’s Note: Even oil-rich Arab countries, which until recently were smug about being insulated from the financial debacle on Wall Street, are starting to worry. Analysts are predicting that they are sure to increase regulations and start pulling their economies away from the United States. NAM contributor Shane Bauer is a journalist and photographer based in the Middle East.

Stock traders in the Middle East

SANA’A, Yemen–While Washington was hashing out the terms of its largest financial bailout in history, Arab bankers were saying everything in the Middle East was as good as ever.

A full-page ad in one Middle Eastern magazine advertised a proposed business park called Falcon City, another fantasy land to add to the skyscrapers and glitter of oil-rich Dubai. Office buildings were shaped to resemble the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt, and the Taj Mahal.

“As a residential or business address, each wonder is a totally amazing investment,” the caption read.

A few days later, the same newsstands spelled dread. Images of fear-stricken men in white robes and kafiyyas, their eyes fixed on strings of red numbers, splashed the front pages. Headlines announced that the Middle East’s markets were crashing, and columnists spit fire, calling on the Arab world to free itself “from the shackles of American imperialism.”

The degree to which Arab investors, which have some $800 billion invested internationally, will rein in their international investments will likely depend on how heavily they are impacted by the crisis. But analysts say that at the very least, Arab countries are sure to increase regulations and start pulling their economies away from the United States.

“U.S. influence has long been waning, both in its capacity to inspire and to intimidate,” says David Levy, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Initiative at the Washington, D.C., think tank the New America Foundation. “The region has been increasingly looking elsewhere for investments and markets. The crisis on Wall Street will only hasten that process.”

2008-10-12T102958Z_01_DUB09_RTRMDNP_3_DFM-LIMITDOWN But Arab analysts say the United States was becoming increasingly unattractive for investment well before the financial crisis hit. Washington had rejected several investment attempts in recent years by Arab companies on the basis that they were, well, Arab.

The last rejection came when some Gulf companies showed interest in investing nearly $20 billion to help save Citi Group and Merrill Lynch when they were initially threatened with bankruptcy. The deal was stopped in Congress when opponents said an increase in Arab investment in the United States would present a national security problem.

As Arab stock markets fall for their third day since reopening after a one-week post-Ramadan holiday, one thing is clear: those with the most open markets and the strongest ties to the U.S. economy are being hit the hardest.

In the past three days alone, banks in the Persian Gulf have lost about $150 billion. On Tuesday, the Tadawul All-Shares Index, home to the Arab world’s biggest market, finished at its lowest close in four years.

Countries that last week were saying that their economies were “insulated” from international financial disasters are now bailing out their banks. The central bank of the United Arab Emirates pumped $17.5 billion into its banks this week and said it is ready to give more if needed.

Jan Randolph, an economic analyst at Global Insight, says that “Arab investors and banks are going to start looking locally for investments.”

The president of the Union of Arab Banks, Adnan Yusif, has announced that there needs to be an increase in regional investment, and economists have been calling for a meeting of financial ministers and policy makers to come up with a regionwide plan to deal with the crisis.

But inter-Arab economic cooperation might not be easy. The Middle East is home to some of the world’s most closed economies, like Syria, as well as countries whose names are virtually synonymous with unfettered growth, like the United Arab Emirates.

Antagonisms over competing economic ideologies run deep in the Arab world, and the current crisis seems to be reigniting debates about how much regional economies should be bound to the global economy.

“If this crisis does send real shockwaves through the region, and you start seeing that economies more closed to the world are more protected, people might start seeing open economies as a double-edged sword,” says David Levy.

Masa’ad al-Kurdi of the Saudi-owned Al-Majella magazine writes that neo-liberal globalization is to blame for the crisis. “The developing world’s economies are dependent on the U.S., the world’s largest importer, to buy their exports,” he argues. As the dollar weakens, “developing countries are going to pay the most,” writes Al-Kurdi, who concludes that “the United States of America is driving the world into the abyss.”

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The ‘Block’ That Wasn’t

September 25, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS

 

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It has got to be the shortest decree in the history of Kuwait and, if not, it’s sure gotta be close. This past Tuesday news broke that the Ministry of Communication issued a memo to all ISP servers in the State of Kuwait to block the world famous YouTube social networking and video-sharing website. The reason being that several videos were uncovered recently that were derogatory to the Prophet Muhammad (s) and which made a mockery of the Holy Qur`an. However, less than 24 hours after the decree was made, it was rescinded. Most likely, the Minister noticed that he could ‘flag’ a video deemed to be inappropriate and YouTube would remove it. As expected, the videos in question have already been removed.

YouTube is huge in Kuwait, with more than 59,000 videos from both citizens and expatriates in the tiny Gulf nation being available on the site. Immediately after the news about the block hit, not surprisingly it was leaked from a worker at one of the primary ISP’s in Kuwait to a local blogger, a frenzy of blog activity followed suit. One blogger had this to say, “If they block YouTube they might as well just go all the way and block the Internet completely.”

Kuwait boasts one of the most open freedom-of-speech stances for local media in the entire Gulf region. However, the latest political elections saw more religious-minded MP’s maintain a firm grip on parliament. Censorship in Kuwait is set to push the boundaries of what residents have seen in the past with the primary TV stations coming under scrutiny recently for not showing enough Islamic programming and favoring a bonanza of Western comedies and dramas instead.

28541-skype_blocked This is not the first time that the government has censored the Internet. The popular website Skype is no longer accessible for residents of Kuwait. However, the reason for the block was not religious but rather economics. Skype users in Kuwait were able to make cheap International phone calls, which took a huge piece of the ‘pie’ away from the Ministry of Communications. However, while the Skype website is blocked the service is still operational. Computing wizards in Kuwait discovered early on that the Skype installation program could be emailed to them and then downloaded right to their PC. Completely blocking Skype is impossible given that it runs on encrypted tunnels.

Other countries in the Gulf have exercised their right to block Internet content that is questionable or forbidden in Islam. All the Gulf States block pornography in every way, shape or form. Some have even gone as far as to block both dating and matrimonial websites. However, some countries have blocked internet content for the sake of their own reputations. In 2006, the Dubai government blocked YouTube because two Armenians filmed a documentary about the human trafficking of Armenian women and girls to Dubai. The duo used hidden cameras to shed light on an underground prostitution ring that thrives in Dubai. Like Kuwait, Dubai eventually rescinded the ban and YouTube was once again available.

The Internet is growing by leaps and bounds with unprecedented amounts of information, whether good or bad, at the tips of most everyone’s fingertips. The challenge for governments to filter that information grows increasingly hard, as the internet has given anyone who wants their voices to be heard a boundless audience.

10-40

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