Why We Won’t Leave Afghanistan or Iraq

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Yes, We Could… Get Out!

By Tom Engelhardt

2010-05-05T120909Z_1306706484_GM1E6551JSJ01_RTRMADP_3_AFGHANISTAN

An Afghan man smiles after he received food aid in Kabul May 5, 2010. The Afghan Ministry of Defense distributed food aid such as wheat, cooking oil, sugar and beans to 220 poor families.        

REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Yes, we could. No kidding. We really could withdraw our massive armies, now close to 200,000 troops combined, from Afghanistan and Iraq (and that’s not even counting our similarly large stealth army of private contractors, which helps keep the true size of our double occupations in the shadows). We could undoubtedly withdraw them all reasonably quickly and reasonably painlessly.

Not that you would know it from listening to the debates in Washington or catching the mainstream news. There, withdrawal, when discussed at all, seems like an undertaking beyond the waking imagination. In Iraq alone, all those bases to dismantle and millions of pieces of equipment to send home in a draw-down operation worthy of years of intensive effort, the sort of thing that makes the desperate British evacuation from Dunkirk in World War II look like a Sunday stroll in the park. And that’s only the technical side of the matter.

Then there’s the conviction that anything but a withdrawal that would make molasses in January look like the hare of Aesopian fable — at least two years in Iraq, five to ten in Afghanistan — would endanger the planet itself, or at least its most important country: us.

Without our eternally steadying hand, the Iraqis and Afghans, it’s taken for granted, would be lost. Without the help of U.S. forces, for example, would the Maliki government ever have been able to announce the death of the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq? Not likely, whereas the U.S. has knocked off its leadership twice, first in 2006, and again, evidently, last week.

Of course, before our troops entered Baghdad in 2003 and the American occupation of that country began, there was no al-Qaeda in Iraq. But that’s a distant past not worth bringing up. And forget as well the fact that our invasions and wars have proven thunderously destructive, bringing chaos, misery, and death in their wake, and turning, for instance, the health care system of Iraq, once considered an advanced country in the Arab world, into a disaster zone(that — it goes without saying — only we Americans are now equipped to properly fix). Similarly, while regularly knocking off Afghan civilians at checkpoints on their roads and in their homes, at their celebrations and at work, we ignore the fact that our invasion and occupation opened the way for the transformation of Afghanistan into the first all-drug-crop agricultural nation and so the planet’s premier narco-nation. It’s not just that the country now has an almost total monopoly on growing opium poppies (hence heroin), but according to the latest U.N. report, it’s now cornering the hashish market as well. That’s diversification for you.

It’s a record to stand on and, evidently, to stay on, even to expand on. We’re like the famed guest who came to dinner, broke a leg, wouldn’t leave, and promptly took over the lives of the entire household. Only in our case, we arrived, broke someone else’s leg, and then insisted we had to stay and break many more legs, lest the world become a far more terrible place.

It’s known and accepted in Washington that, if we were to leave Afghanistan precipitously, the Taliban would take over, al-Qaeda would be back big time in no time, and then more of our giant buildings would obviously bite the dust. And yet, the longer we’ve stayed and the more we’ve surged, the more resurgent the Taliban has become, the more territory this minority insurgency has spread into. If we stay long enough, we may, in fact, create the majority insurgency we claim to fear.

It’s common wisdom in the U.S. that, before we pull our military out, Afghanistan, like Iraq, must be secured as a stable enough ally, as well as at least a fragile junior democracy, which consigns real departure to some distant horizon. And that sense of time may help explain the desire of U.S. officials to hinder Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s attempts to negotiate with the Taliban and other rebel factions now. Washington, it seems, favors a “reconciliation process” that will last years and only begin after the U.S. military seizes the high ground on the battlefield.

The reality that dare not speak its name in Washington is this: no matter what might happen in an Afghanistan that lacked us — whether (as in the 1990s) the various factions there leaped for each other’s throats, or the Taliban established significant control, though (as in the 1990s) not over the whole country — the stakes for Americans would be minor in nature. Not that anyone of significance here would say such a thing.

Tell me, what kind of a stake could Americans really have in one of the most impoverished lands on the planet, about as distant from us as could be imagined, geographically, culturally, and religiously? Yet, as if to defy commonsense, we’ve been fighting there — by proxy and directly — on and off for 30 years now with no end in sight.

Most Americans evidently remain convinced that “safe haven” there was the key to al-Qaeda’s success, and that Afghanistan was the only place in which that organization could conceivably have planned 9/11, even though perfectly real planning also took place in Hamburg, Germany, which we neither bombed nor invaded.

In a future in which our surging armies actually succeeded in controlling Afghanistan and denying it to al-Qaeda, what about Somalia, Yemen, or, for that matter, England? It’s now conveniently forgotten that the first, nearly successful attempt to take down one of the World Trade Center towers in 1993 was planned in the wilds of New Jersey. Had the Bush administration been paying the slightest attention on September 10, 2001, or had reasonable precautions been taken, including locking the doors of airplane cockpits, 9/11 and so the invasion of Afghanistan would have been relegated to the far-fetched plot of some Tom Clancy novel.

Vietnam and Afghanistan

Have you noticed, by the way, that there’s always some obstacle in the path of withdrawal? Right now, in Iraq, it’s the aftermath of the March 7th election, hailed as proof that we brought democracy to the Middle East and so, whatever our missteps, did the right thing. As it happens, the election, as many predicted at the time, has led to a potentially explosive gridlock and has yet to come close to resulting in a new governing coalition. With violence on the rise, we’re told, the planned drawdown of American troops to the 50,000 level by August is imperiled. Already, the process, despite repeated assurances, seems to be proceeding slowly.

And yet, the thought that an American withdrawal should be held hostage to events among Iraqis all these years later, seems curious. There’s always some reason to hesitate — and it never has to do with us. Withdrawal would undoubtedly be far less of a brain-twister if Washington simply committed itself wholeheartedly to getting out, and if it stopped convincing itself that the presence of the U.S. military in distant lands was essential to a better world (and, of course, to a controlling position on planet Earth).

The annals of history are well stocked with countries which invaded and occupied other lands and then left, often ingloriously and under intense pressure. But they did it.

It’s worth remembering that, in 1975, when the South Vietnamese Army collapsed and we essentially fled the country, we abandoned staggering amounts of equipment there. Helicopters were pushed over the sides of aircraft carriers to make space; barrels of money were burned at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon; military bases as large as anything we’ve built in Iraq or Afghanistan fell into North Vietnamese hands; and South Vietnamese allies were deserted in the panic of the moment. Nonetheless, when there was no choice, we got out. Not elegantly, not nicely, not thoughtfully, not helpfully, but out.

Keep in mind that, then too, disaster was predicted for the planet, should we withdraw precipitously — including rolling communist takeovers of country after country, the loss of “credibility” for the American superpower, and a murderous bloodbath in Vietnam itself. All were not only predicted by Washington’s Cassandras, but endlessly cited in the war years as reasons not to leave. And yet here was the shock that somehow never registered among all the so-called lessons of Vietnam: nothing of that sort happened afterwards.

Today, Vietnam is a reasonably prosperous land with friendly relations with its former enemy, the United States. After Vietnam, no other “dominos” fell and there was no bloodbath in that country. Of course, it could have been different — and elsewhere, sometimes, it has been. But even when local skies darken, the world doesn’t end.

And here’s the truth of the matter: the world won’t end, not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in the United States, if we end our wars and withdraw. The sky won’t fall, even if the U.S. gets out reasonably quickly, even if subsequently blood is spilled and things don’t go well in either country.

We got our troops there remarkably quickly. We’re quite capable of removing them at a similar pace. We could, that is, leave. There are, undoubtedly, better and worse ways of doing this, ways that would further penalize the societies we’ve invaded, and ways that might be of some use to them, but either way we could go.

A Brief History of American Withdrawal

Of course, there’s a small problem here. All evidence indicates that Washington doesn’t want to withdraw — not really, not from either region. It has no interest in divesting itself of the global control-and-influence business, or of the military-power racket. That’s hardly surprising since we’re talking about a great imperial power and control (or at least imagined control) over the planet’s strategic oil lands.

And then there’s another factor to consider: habit. Over the decades, Washington has gotten used to staying. The U.S. has long been big on arriving, but not much for departure. After all, 65 years later, striking numbers of American forces are still garrisoning the two major defeated nations of World War II, Germany and Japan. We still have about three dozen military bases on the modest-sized Japanese island of Okinawa, and are at this very moment fighting tooth and nail, diplomatically speaking, not to be forced to abandon one of them. The Korean War was suspended in an armistice 57 years ago and, again, striking numbers of American troops still garrison South Korea.

Similarly, to skip a few decades, after the Serbian air campaign of the late 1990s, the U.S. built-up the enormous Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo with its seven-mile perimeter, and we’re still there. After Gulf War I, the U.S. either built or built up military bases and other facilities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, as well as the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. And it’s never stopped building up its facilities throughout the Gulf region. In this sense, leaving Iraq, to the extent we do, is not quite as significant a matter as sometimes imagined, strategically speaking. It’s not as if the U.S. military were taking off for Dubuque.

A history of American withdrawal would prove a brief book indeed. Other than Vietnam, the U.S. military withdrew from the Philippines under the pressure of “people power” (and a local volcano) in the early 1990s, and from Saudi Arabia, in part under the pressure of Osama bin Laden. In both countries, however, it has retained or regained a foothold in recent years. President Ronald Reagan pulled American troops out of Lebanon after a devastating 1983 suicide truck bombing of a Marines barracks there, and the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, functionally expelled the U.S. from Manta Air Base in 2008 when he refused to renew its lease. (“We’ll renew the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami — an Ecuadorian base,” he said slyly.) And there were a few places like the island of Grenada, invaded in 1983, that simply mattered too little to Washington to stay.

Unfortunately, whatever the administration, the urge to stay has seemed a constant. It’s evidently written into Washington’s DNA and embedded deep in domestic politics where sure-to-come “cut and run” charges and blame for “losing” Iraq or Afghanistan would cow any administration. Not surprisingly, when you look behind the main news stories in both Iraq and Afghanistan, you can see signs of the urge to stay everywhere.

In Iraq, while President Obama has committed himself to the withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2011, plenty of wiggle room remains. Already, the New York Times reports, General Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in that country, is lobbying Washington to establish “an Office of Military Cooperation within the American Embassy in Baghdad to sustain the relationship after… Dec. 31, 2011.” (“We have to stay committed to this past 2011,” Odierno is quoted as saying. “I believe the administration knows that. I believe that they have to do that in order to see this through to the end. It’s important to recognize that just because U.S. soldiers leave, Iraq is not finished.”)

If you want a true gauge of American withdrawal, keep your eye on the mega-bases the Pentagon has built in Iraq since 2003, especially gigantic Balad Air Base (since the Iraqis will not, by the end of 2011, have a real air force of their own), and perhaps Camp Victory, the vast, ill-named U.S. base and command center abutting Baghdad International Airport on the outskirts of the capital. Keep an eye as well on the 104-acre U.S. embassy built along the Tigris River in downtown Baghdad. At present, it’s the largest “embassy” on the planet and represents something new in “diplomacy,” being essentially a military-base-cum-command-and-control-center for the region. It is clearly going nowhere, withdrawal or not.

In fact, recent reports indicate that in the near future “embassy” personnel, including police trainers, military officials connected to that Office of Coordination, spies, U.S. advisors attached to various Iraqi ministries, and the like, may be more than doubled from the present staggering staff level of 1,400 to 3,000 or above. (The embassy, by the way, has requested $1,875 billion for its operations in fiscal year 2011, and that was assuming a staffing level of only 1,400.) Realistically, as long as such an embassy remains at Ground Zero Iraq, we will not have withdrawn from that country.

Similarly, we have a giant U.S. embassy in Kabul (being expanded) and another mega-embassy being built in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. These are not, rest assured, signs of departure. Nor is the fact that in Afghanistan and Pakistan, everything war-connected seems to be surging, even if in ways often not noticed here. President Obama’s surge decision has been described largely in terms of those 30,000-odd extra troops he’s sending in, not in terms of the shadow army of 30,000 or more extra private contractors taking on various military roles (and dying off the books in striking numbers); nor the extra contingent of CIA types and the escalating drone war they are overseeing in the Pakistani tribal borderlands; nor the quiet doubling of Special Operations units assigned to hunt down the Taliban leadership; nor the extra State department officials for the “civilian surge”; nor, for instance, the special $10 million “pool” of funds that up to 120 U.S. Special Operations forces, already in those borderlands training the paramilitary Pakistani Frontier Corps, may soon have available to spend “winning hearts and minds.”

Perhaps it’s historically accurate to say that great powers generally leave home, head elsewhere armed to the teeth, and then experience the urge to stay. With our trillion-dollar-plus wars and yearly trillion-dollar-plus national-security budget, there’s a lot at stake in staying, and undoubtedly in fighting two, three, many Afghanistans (and Iraqs) in the years to come.

Sooner or later, we will leave both Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s too late in the history of this planet to occupy them forever and a day. Better sooner.

Tom Engelhardt runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”).

12-19

$640b Halal Industry Needs to Align with $1tr Islamic Finance Sector

April 15, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By Rushdi Siddiqui, Gulf News

I wanted to take a sukuk break, as the last few months seem to be only about sukuk default, restructuring, conferences/seminars, etc. Islamic finance is not sukuk, its much bigger than an instrument. I wanted to look at an area that Islamic finance (IF) has not been linked to: the $640 billion (Dh2.3 trillion) halal industry (HI). There is a link, but it’s associated with IF ignoring HI!

The halal industry believes that Islamic finance has long ignored its little ‘halal-half’ brother, because it either does not understand the business model or its financing needs.

Islamic finance continues to have expected ‘challenges’ with standardisation, and the halal industry, the issue of certification and certifying bodies appears to be even more nascent. In IF, we have generally accepted guidelines on accounting (AAOIFI and Malaysia), prudential regulations (IFSB), ratings (IIRA), hedging (IIFM), but what and where are the leading HI standard bodies; Malaysia (Jakim), Brunei (Brunei halal), but there are more ‘bodies’ in OECD than OIC countries. Query: is the certification process accepted outside the home country?

The GCC countries are major importers of billions of dollars in foods/products, projected to touch $53 billion in 2020. Now, what if large importers like Saudi Arabia or the UAE impose ‘their’ halal certification criteria for exports from these countries, including G20 countries like Australia (red meat) and Brazil (chickens)? Because of the GCC’s volume of imports, could there be a risk of back-door certification via the GCC? However, if GCC countries do not have certifications or it’s not yet harmonized, then halal exporters still have time to establish certification before externally imposed.

In Islamic (equity) investing, we have Sharia-compliant screening from the five index providers plus AAOIFI and Malaysia, however, what criteria, if any, for investing in listed halal companies. Meat or poultry [and food] companies should have their products according to Quranic guidelines, “O mankind! Eat of that which is on earth, lawful and good…” 2:168.

Global market

Although a Sharia-compliant food-only index may not yet exist, S&P has, as of March 30, 15 Sharia-compliant food companies in the GCC (15 Saudi and one in each Oman and the UAE) and 123 global Sharia-compliant food companies from China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the US and others.

Is it correct to assume that GCC public listed food or meat or poultry companies’ offerings are halal, because large local populations and percentages of the expatriate communities are Muslims in these Islamic countries? Assuming correctly, then the Halal Index is possible with ensuing Halal Funds/ETFs off of such indexes.

Thus, two sets of indexes: Sharia-compliant and Halal index, but what about Sharia-compliant Halal Food Index? Would this be a ‘low-debt non-financial social-ethical counter-cyclical halal index? This could benefit ‘investors of conscience and appetite.’

The reality is the halal industry needs to establish an initial screening methodology for publicly listed companies in the halal industry globally, as the Sharia-compliant screens may not capture them. The present awkward situation is: one can consume the food or products of listed halal companies, yet cannot invest in them because they may fail the present Sharia screening!

Islamic banks (in the GCC) have traditionally financed the chain of ‘borrowers’ associated in real estate industry, commercial and residential, as they allegedly better understand the business model, risk, and recourse. The banks have stayed away from halal companies, possibly ex-Al Islami, hence, the latter has relied on the ‘friends and family finance’ (upstarts) and traditional interest based loans (established companies).

There are halal funds set up, but they are more for acquisition than financing. It would seem the fragmented global halal industry, in OIC and G20 countries, would be ripe for a consolidation strategy, hence, no different than the often heard quest for a big balance sheet Islamic mega bank created via consolidation.

Thus, financing of viable halal companies via roll-up acquisition strategy? Surely, more must be done, otherwise we may continue to consume halal products or meats financed with Riba-based finance companies!

The halal industry needs to get (1) its act together on process, auditing, and certification, and get into the face of Islamic banks and better explain the (2) inter-relatedness of the sectors, (3) better explain the business model, risk and its mitigation, (4) better explain that it establishes the foundation for diversified lending, and increased investor options for Islamic banks’ customers, and (5) allow Islamic finance to talk the talk of a $2-trillion ‘niche’ market in the making!

The writer is the Global Head of Islamic Finance, Thomson Reuters. Views expressed in this column are of the writer.

12-16

Funerals Burden Omani Families

January 4, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

Sultan Qaboos mosque The Middle East region is world-renowned for the often lavish lifestyles of its citizens, as most wealthy Arab states boast all of the designer clothes, houses, yachts, cars and luxury items that anyone could ever shake a stick at. However, the sumptuous lifestyle often extends beyond the grave as funerals and the price tag of entertaining the ensuing mourners rivals that of any party amongst the living. 

No place is this reality more vivid than in Oman, where it is a tradition to have grand feasts fit for a king and his army following the departure of a loved one. Funeral expenses and the costs for providing food for those wanting to pay their respects are often astronomical, numbering in the thousands of dollars. It is not uncommon for a few hundred people to show up as a sign of respect for the deceased. The mourning period often lasts for three days and serving refreshments is expected. In a recent interview, Omani citizen Rahma Saif revealed that more than 200 people showed up at her home to mourn the death of her father, “It is draining both physically and mentally, not to mention the cost of the food. I cared for my father when he was ill for six months and did not sleep well during the time. Immediately after his death, I had to provide a feast for three consecutive days for 200 people each day,” Mourners often stay throughout the day well until the sun has set. Bereaved family members are often too exhausted from catering to the mourners that they do not have the time to mourn the very personal loss themselves.

The Omani government lends a helping hand in funeral costs for low-income families, however it is only a few hundred riyals, which barely covers the cost of the gravedigger and some Arabic coffee for the mourners. Poor families must dig deep into their savings or even sell off valuable possessions to provide a minimum of six square meals for the mourning guests.  In Saif’s case, she had to use all of her father’s savings to feed the mourners, which negated any possible inheritance for his family members.

Contrastingly, many rich Omanis have no problem in hosting a grand feast for mourners and relish in putting on a huge event. Unlike their low-income counterparts, wealthy Omani families have huge bankrolls to pay for the affair and a fleet of servants to tend to the mourners every whim. It’s not uncommon for a high-end funeral service to cost several thousands of dollars, as guests dine on 5-star meals from local upscale restaurants and drink only the finest beverages available.

Critics of the mourning period in Oman have accused our contemporary world of altering an age-old tradition meant to comfort the bereaved into simply an excuse to get a free meal. It’s not surprising that, with the current state of the global economic crisis, more and more people are attending funerals in Oman for the sole reason of getting their fill, turning the occasion into a festivity instead of a time of sadness and introspection. Many skeptics have called for the government to legally shorten the mourning period to one day and put a cap on funeral expenses. Others have called the practice unIslamic and a transgression against a fellow Muslim in his greatest hour of sorrow.

Unfortunately, societal norms might have the final word as many a man is judged, not by the deeds he committed in this world whether good or bad, but by the number of people who showed up at his funeral. And those he left behind cannot escape the rumor mills should they not provide a grand feast for mourners who might label them as miserly. 

12-1

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.

11-47

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

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

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.

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Mumbai-Terror Strikes Dominate India’s Diplomatic Parleys

December 24, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

2008-12-23T145504Z_01_DEL44_RTRMDNP_3_INDIA

NEW DELHI: Diplomatic impact of Mumbai terror strikes has not been confined to the West, particularly the United States. The last week was marked by the issue being discussed between India and visiting dignitaries from countries closer, geographically than the US. The Mumbai-issue dominated the press conference addressed by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh before concluding his India visit (December 19). During his visit, Akhoundzadeh held discussions with Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon. India and Iran discussed tragic Mumbai incident, deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Akhoundzadeh said at the press conference.

The two sides also discussed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project as Mumbai-attacks have raised India’s concern about its security.  “We have expressed readiness on part of our country to take forward the project, the sooner the better,” Akhoundzadeh said. “We are expecting a response from India and Pakistan,” he added. On whether Mumbai-case has had any negative impact on it, Akhoundzadeh said: “This century is a century of Asia, with Asian capacities flourishing. The growing need for Asia is to meet increasing demand for gas.” “We feel that there are attempts from foreign powers, who do not welcome this project, to torpedo it. We feel leadership in Asia should be vigilant to look into their future demands,” he said. Referring to Mumbai case, he said that terrorism “should not deter the will and determination” of Asian countries to move ahead with project.

On Iran’s stand regarding Pakistan-based terrorists being responsible for Mumbai-case, Akhoundzadeh said: “It does not matter from which place they are. They should be dealt with iron hand.” “Terrorists have no religion, no patriotic value. India and Pakistan have proved in past few years that they have maturity to deal with terrorist cases. We should be coolheaded.  Whoever is behind it (Mumbai-case), the leadership of both countries should not fall victims to designs of terrorists,” Akhoundzadeh said. He pointed to leaders in both countries having fallen victims to terrorists, including Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto.

“No genuine Islamic individual would dare to endorse terrorism,” Akhoundzadeh said when asked on Islamic States’ stand on terrorism.

To a question on whether Indo-Pak dispute on Kashmir was root cause of terrorism in the region, Akhoundzadeh said that “growing sense of insecurity” in Afghanistan could be linked with it. With those (United States) who had “promised stability and development” to Afghanistan having failed, the State “could be the breeding ground for more terrorism,” he said.

The brief visit of Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf Bin Alawai Bin Abdullah was the first from a Gulf country since the Mumbai attack. During his meeting with Mukherjee, Abdullah “expressed deep condolences at the loss of life in the Mumbai terror attacks and solidarity with the people of India” (December 16). Abdullah noted: “There can be no excuse for not dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism across the Indian border.” Abdullah’s visit followed the landmark visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Oman last month. Mukherjee expressed appreciation on the telephonic call made by Abdullah soon after the Mumbai attack. He also apprised Abdullah of the results of ongoing investigations, which clearly point to “complicity of elements in Pakistan.”

During the two-day meeting of India-Russia Joint Working Group on Combating International terrorism, the Russian side “strongly condemned” the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and “reiterated their solidarity to the government and people of India.” “Both sides underlined their shared concerns on the growing threat of cross-border terrorism and reaffirmed their commitment for strengthening bilateral cooperation against terrorism,” according to a joint statement released on the two-day meeting (December 17).

Vivek Katju, Special Secretary in External Affairs Ministry led the Indian side, while the Russian delegation was led by Anatoly Safonov, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for International Cooperation in the Fight against Terrorism and Transnational Crime.

During the talks held in “an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust,” India and Russia described their “cooperation in combating terrorism” as an important part of their “strategic partnership.” Giving stress to importance of “international efforts to prevent and fight terrorism” including the United Nations’ Global Counter Terrorism Strategy and relevant UN Security Council Resolutions, they “underlined the need for expeditious conclusion of negotiations leading to finalization of India sponsored Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) at the UN General Assembly.”

India and Russia pointed out to “curbing financing of terrorism” as a “key component of counter terrorism strategy.” They also expressed concern at spread of narcotics in the region, which “directly threatens the security of both countries.” “They agreed on the need to further consolidate bilateral efforts for sharing information and expanding cooperation against drug-trafficking.” They noted the “growing threat of use of cyber-space by terrorists in their activities and the need to cooperate in this field,” according to the joint statement. They also agreed to “expand the exchange of information, experience and cooperation in the means of countering terrorism.”

The Mumbai-case was also raised during talks between Albania’s Foreign Minister Lulzim Basha and his Indian counterpart Mukherjee (December 19). Basha was the first foreign minister from Albania to visit India (December 17-20). Albania, Basha conveyed, fully shared India’s sense of outrage at the Mumbai attacks and considered terrorism as a common challenge for the international community.

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