Houstonian Corner (V13-I51)

December 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Inaugural Grand Ball of International Trade Center

With the splendid light blue and white backdrops, Westin Galleria Hotel Grand Ballroom showed a picturesque setting for the around 700 guests that were in attendance at the Inaugural Grand Ball of International Trade Center (ITC). Program included exciting entertainments from across the globe; motivating interactive auction professionally done by Former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt; Silent Auction on the beautiful artifacts & jewelry from across the world; sumptuous dinner from the Chefs of Westin Galleria, and much more. Our media outlets congratulate the whole team of ITC on this most wonderful program.

Chris Wilmont, Chairman Greater Houston Partnership World Bank Task Force & Honorary Grand Ball Chair; Honorable Gordon & Sylvia Quan, Grand Ball Co-Chairs; Wae Lee, ITC Founder; Gezahgen Kebede, President of ITC; Yuki Rogers, Executive Director; and Munira Panjwani-Zahid  & Munir Ibrahim, Co-Chairs of the Grand Ball Steering Committee; welcomed all the guests.
Keynote speaker on the occasion was James Edmonds, Chairman of Port of Houston Authority (POHA), who informed all the guests about the services POHA is providing for international trade; more potentials for trade with the projected widening of Panama Canal; and incredible opportunities for local small businesses to get contracts of the various projects happening at POHA all the time.
Guest of Honor Congressman AL Green gave special congressional proclamation to ITC and said he felt really proud to have recently visited Shanghai China to start the “Made in USA Center” over there, which has been inaugurated by Wae Lee of ITC: “I will like to visit China again with ITC,” added Honorable AL Green.

Robert Sakowitz Hazak received a beautiful memento for the Life-Time Achievement Award of ITC for his success in the world of fashion & business.

Other esteemed globally recognized award recipients were AT&T (International Corporation of the Year); Mr. Moez Mangalji of Westmont Hospitality Group (International Businessman of the Year); Late Dr. Michael Elias DeBakey of Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center (International Legacy of the Year); UNICEF (International Humanitarian Organization of the Year); Houston Community College System (International Academia Award); Ms. Sandra Bloem-Curtis of Rice University (International Educator of the Year); and three persons got the International Students of Excellence namely Mr. Yuqian “Kevin” Wu (University of Houston), Mr. Sumedh Warudkar (Rice University), and Ms. Sung Un Lee (Houston Community College).

For more information about the services & programs, and recurring updates of ITC, please regularly visit http://www.itchouston.org/

HPD Officers’ & Volunteers Donate Food

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, Houston police officers, including Officer Muzaffar Siddiqui, and dozens of community volunteers finished packing food supplies, that will be distributed to those less fortunate in Houston. This annual effort was held at the Pepsi Bottling Group Inc. Plant at 9300 La Porte Freeway.

Thanks to the generosity of the Houston community, food and monetary donations were collected by HPD officers stationed at Fiesta Mart locations throughout Houston during HPD’s 26th Annual “Comida” (“Food” in Spanish) Drive.

The Comida Drive began 26 years ago, in December 1985, with an officer’s concern for the less fortunate citizens of Houston. That began what is now one of the largest food drives in the city of Houston. During its first year, approximately 600 families received a box of non-perishable food. Each donated box feeds a family of four. The food drive now provides food for more than 3,500 pre-registered families throughout the City of Houston.

For more information, please call 713-308-3280.

Al Dah to Fight in US Next

October 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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

17-EisaAlDah9-cropUnited Arab Emirates welterweight boxer Eisa Al Dah, also known as The Arabian Warrior, is scheduled to fight his tenth bout against as yet unconfirmed opposition on December 16 in Tampa, Florida after an invite to the USA International Boxing Championship sanctioned by the International Boxing Council (IBC).

The 32-year-old Emirati (seven wins, three losses, from nine fights, four by knock-out) has been training in the United States for the past two months with British WBA Super and IBF World Light Welterweight Champion Amir Khan. Khan fights Lamont Peterson at the Walter E Washington Convention Centre in Washington DC on December 10 to defend his titles.

Al Dah, who will fly back into the UAE on Monday before returning stateside for early November for the big fight, is hoping his famous sparring partner will enable him to reach higher competency over eight and six rounds, instead of his current four round ability.

The two-time Arab, six-time UAE and three-time West European champion, will be busy stoking support for his fight when he arrives back here this week as he looks to raise the profile of the sport in this region. Local training sessions will be taking place at Bel Rematha Sports Centre.

Having first beaten Larry Foster in 2007 via technical knock-out (TKO) in the first round at Shaikh Rashid Hall, at the Dubai World Trade Centre, Al Dah went on to beat David Love by first round stoppage in 2008 at the same venue.

Al Dah also beat Karl Taylor on points at Newport Leisure Centre in Wales that same year before losing to Alfredo Valdes by second round TKO in Polanco, Mexico in 2009. Three more wins followed in the form of two points decisions either side of a second round KO against Wayne Downing and Steve Cooper in Wales, plus Matt Seawright in Knightsbridge, London [listed chronologically] all in 2009.

However, it proved to be too much in a split decision loss awarded to Anthony Woods in Florida 2010. Al Dah made up for it in front of a home crowd at the Trade Centre with a third round KO of Ignasi Caballero this February. He now seeks his first career win in the Americas, [US and Mexico] where he’s previously sustained his sole losses.

13-44

Jordan’s Aqaba Port Thrives Amid Region’s Instability

September 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

2011-09-21T151251Z_1249690098_GM1E79L1S6H01_RTRMADP_3_JORDAN-PORT
2011-09-21T141512Z_01_BTRE78K13LI00_RTROPTP_3_INTERNATIONAL-US-JORDAN-PORT
2011-09-21T152533Z_1388484729_GM1E79L1S6Q01_RTRMADP_3_JORDAN-PORT

Immediately above:  Trucks transporting containers drive past the Port of Aqaba, 350 km (217 miles) south of Amman, September 18, 2011. It has not been as busy for a long while for vessel supervisor Mohammad Qassem, who is overseeing the loading of a commercial cargo ship that has just anchored in the sparkling blue waters of Jordan’s Aqaba port. Picture taken September 18, 2011.

REUTERS/Abraham Farajian

AQABA, Jordan (Reuters) – It has not been as busy for a long while for vessel supervisor Mohammad Qassem, who is overseeing the loading of a commercial cargo ship that has just anchored in the sparkling blue waters of Jordan’s Aqaba port.

“With all the problems around us, it’s amazing. These few months have been very active,” said Qassem, 49, near one of the port’s six large cranes at a berth that has become a huge construction site.
APM Terminals, part of the Danish A.P. Moller-Maersk Group, which won a 25-year contract to manage the port in 2006, has begun a $235 million investment to double the container terminal capacity’s to 1.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) by 2013.

“This will allow the port to reach new efficiency levels and enhance its role as a shipping hub for the Middle East and Levant,” said Soren Hansen, chief executive officer of Aqaba Container Terminal (ACT).

The fortunes of the port, which is wedged between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and is Jordan’s only outlet to the sea, have fluctuated from boom to bust over the last several decades with every major political upheaval.

There was a golden era in the mid-1980s, when the port serviced Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran, and then a near-complete standstill during a U.S. naval blockade and United Nations sanctions in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The last watershed was a boom after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Now, as political unrest sweeps the Arab world, hurting trade flows through nearby ports including Syria’s Latakia and Tartous and Egypt’s Alexandria and Suez, Aqaba is enjoying a fresh revival.

“At the moment everyone is seeking security. Security is very, very important and Aqaba has it,” said Captain Mohamad Dalabieh, executive manager of Jordan’s Shipping Association.

“Aqaba is more of a political than an economic port.”

Last year, the port handled close to 16.8 million tonnes of freight, while throughput at its container terminal was around 605,000 TEU, almost double the level in 2003.

Since the start of this year, Aqaba has bucked the regional trend. Incoming cargo has climbed 27 percent from a year earlier to 6.69 million tonnes in the first eight months of 2011, while transit trade, mostly to Iraq, has jumped 68 percent, according to data from port authorities.

A major reason is the turmoil in Syria, where the political unrest and international economic sanctions have sharply cut the use of Syrian ports for regional transit trade. Much of this business is now going through Aqaba.

Another factor is U.S. military cargo being transported out of Iraq and through Aqaba as U.S. forces scale back their presence in that country, local shippers say.

“U.S. army cargo is trucked all the way from their bases in Iraq to both terminals in Aqaba, containers as well as general cargo, and this is helping boost traffic,” said Dreid Mahasneh, a former head of Aqaba port and a prominent shipper.

Both factors are expected to be temporary; U.S. forces are due to complete all or at least the vast bulk of their withdrawal from Iraq by the end of this year, while Syria’s port business should recover when the country eventually regains political stability.

But Jordanian officials hope that even when calm returns to the region, Aqaba will be able to hang on to much of the business it has gained this year — particularly business related to the reconstruction of Iraq.

Port officials estimate as much as 40 percent of Aqaba’s incoming cargo is destined for Iraq, while ACT’s Hansen predicts total container throughput will rise 15 percent to around 700,000 TEU this year, mainly driven by Iraqi transit demand.

Shippers say Umm Qasr, Iraq’s main port, may not have enough capacity to handle the volume of imports that many predict Iraq will need when it begins reconstruction in earnest. Aqaba may also be helped by bottlenecks at Umm Qasr that include poor service and high handling costs.

“Iraqi cargo has increased to Aqaba simply because there are so much bureaucracy, capacity limitations and corruption…” Mahasneh said.

REGIONAL HUB

After years of underinvestment, ACT officials say the construction underway at Aqaba will allow the port to become a key conduit for regional trade on a permanent basis. Bulldozers are cutting more of the rugged mountains by the port’s tiny sliver of coast to make more space.

The average stay for a vessel is now 12-14 hours, down from two to three days several years ago, ACT officials say. The turnaround time for loading and unloading trucks has dropped to 40 minutes compared to as much as 48 hours in 2004.

“Aqaba is now working at nearly 60 percent of its capacity. We can handle at least 25 million tonnes annually with ease,” Dalabieh said.

Shippers say, however, that without improved efficiency in Jordan’s fleet of over 16,000 trucks, other competing regional ports could undercut Aqaba.

“Turkish, Iraqi and Kuwaiti ports, each of them have an edge. Jordan has a phenomenal opportunity to strengthen its position for Iraqi trade — but all components of the supply chain must work together,” said Hansen.

(Editing by Andrew Torchia)

13-39

Saudi-India Ties At A “New Height,” Says Saudi Envoy

July 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

NEW DELHI: Though he has been in India as Saudi envoy for only two years, Faisal Hassan Trad returns to his country as a satisfied diplomat. Within a short period, many steps have been taken in strengthening bilateral ties between India and Saudi Arabia. In Trad’s words: “My tenure in India has been a short one, two years but I am happy to have shouldered the responsibility assigned to me as ambassador of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to India.”

Trad returns this month to Saudi Arabia to spend Ramadan at home, following which he will take diplomatic charge in Belgium. While India and Saudi Arabia have always entertained good relations, undeniably, the past few years have witnessed a major upswing in development of their ties. It began with the landmark visit of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz in January 2006. He was the Chief Guest of Indian Republic Day celebrations. His visit “opened a new chapter in Indo-Saudi bilateral relations.” The King referred to India as his “second home.” The highlight of his visit was the inking of Delhi Declaration, the first such bilateral document to be signed by a Saudi King. Saleh Mohammed Al-Ghamdi was then the Saudi envoy in India.

Since the Saudi King’s India visit, Indo-Saudi ties have been only on the upswing. It has been marked by active engagement between leadership of the two countries. Another chapter was opened in their bilateral ties with the historic visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Saudi Arabia, from February 27 to March 1 2010. The highlight of this visit was signing of Riyadh Declaration which outlines a “new era of strategic partnership” between India and Saudi Arabia.

Elaborating on Indian Prime Minister’s Saudi-visit, which has taken place during his tenure, Trad said: “Saudi-India relations have now reached a level of Strategic Partnership. The roads are indeed paved for a bright future.”

Reflecting on recent developments, Trad said: “During the recent period, bilateral relations have reached a new height with exchanges taking place, at all levels, practically continuously, almost on a daily basis, between industrialists, investors, political people, community leaders, pilgrims and others.” Last year, while Saudi Arabia had issued 7,500 visas to business people, this year within six months only, 4,000 visas have already been issued, Trad pointed out.

Laying emphasis that Saudi-India ties are no longer confined to only oil diplomacy, Trad pointed to “complete cooperation” between the two countries in other fields, including education, science & technology, defense & security, taxation, extradition and culture, among others. Trad may also be credited for promoting people-to-people interaction between the two countries. The Saudi Embassy in association with Saudi Journalist Association invited Indian women delegation to visit the Kingdom last year in October. This was the first visit of an all-women delegation (including this scribe) to Saudi Arabia, which has been hailed as a major success.

Economic relations between India and Saudi Arabia have shown a remarkable growth with bilateral trade registering a three-fold increase during the last five years. Saudi Arabia is India’s 4th largest trade partner and the bilateral trade was $18 billion in 2010-11 (April-December), according to Indian sources.

The bilateral trade is now “worth $24 billion and is poised for increase every day,” Trad stated.

Saudi Arabia is India’s largest supplier of crude oil, accounting for almost one-fifth of the country’s needs. To meet India’s growing energy needs, sources said, the two sides are working towards strategic energy partnership including long term uninterrupted supply of crude oil by Saudi Arabia to India.

Besides, the 2.2 million-strong Indian community in Saudi Arabia is the largest expatriate community in the Kingdom. The total remittance send by Indian expatriates, spread world-wide, is valued at $50 billion, of which 60 percent is from GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, with the largest share from Saudi Arabia. Taking note of this, Trad said: “The 2.2 Indians who live in the Kingdom support nearly 25 million at home (India).”

Haj diplomacy is also a major component of Indo-Saudi bilateral ties. More than 1,70,000 Indians perform Haj every year.

During Trad’s tenure, a new chapter has opened in religious diplomacy too. This is marked by the visit of Dr. Sheikh Abdul Rehman Sudais, Grand Imam of Masjid-al-Haram in Mecca, earlier this year in March.

There is every reason for Trad to be satisfied and happy at his successful tenure in India. Not surprisingly, he is one of the few diplomats, in whose honor, numerous farewell parties have been hosted in the capital city. He is perhaps the first Saudi diplomat, according to Indian sources, to receive so many farewell parties. In addition to Trad being viewed as a successful diplomat, the hosting of numerous farewell parties in his honor is yet another major sign of the two countries coming closer, Indian sources said. This in itself marks expansion and strengthening of bilateral ties between India and Saudi Arabia.

13-31

Gas Pipeline to Reach Border Next Year: Iran

July 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The Newspaper

TEHRAN: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Saturday that Tehran was hopeful of completing its section of the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline by the end of next year.

“Construction of the pipeline to export Iranian gas to Pakistan is under way, and we hope it will reach the frontier by the end of 2012,” he said of the multi-billion-dollar project after a meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari.

President Zardari, who arrived in Tehran on a day-long visit, held two rounds of talks with President Ahmadinejad — first delegation-level talks and then a one-on-one meeting.

The two leaders also reviewed progress on a proposal for the transmission of electricity from Iran to Balochistan.

They expressed confidence that joint efforts would prove helpful in countering terrorism, terming the menace a common enemy for the region and the world.

Mr Ahmadinejad said his country looked forward to a new era in relations with Pakistan.

“Iran is ready to reinforce its cooperation with Pakistan in every field,” the Iranian president said.

Mr Zardari said relations between the neighbours should be strengthened, and proposed that “trade between the two countries be conducted in local currency, and not the dollar, to curb smuggling”. He also proposed a bilateral free trade agreement.

The President said Pakistan was already in negotiations with Turkey, Sri Lanka and China for the currency swap arrangement.

He denounced “efforts by our enemies who seek to show that the Pakistan government is unstable by provoking trouble,” saying that those responsible would face justice.

President Zardari praised Iran’s constructive engagement in the trilateral process, recalling last month’s Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan summit hosted by Tehran.

He urged the Iranian government to consider the creation of an integrated border management regime for tackling militancy and extremism. He said Pakistan and Iran had vital interests in stability and peace of the region.

Mr Zardari called for developing coordination between governments to curb narcotics and human trafficking in the region. He said Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan faced a common menace of drug trafficking and expressed the hope that a trilateral initiative would help counter the curse.

The President said Pakistan and Iran had the potential to undertake joint economic projects in Afghanistan to enhance connectivity, build infrastructure, rail and road links.

Mr Zardari said there was a need to raise bilateral trade to four billion dollars from one billion dollars. He called for working together to identify impediments to implementation of the Pakistan-Iran Preferential Trade Agreement, signed in 2006.

The Iranian president agreed to take full advantage of geo-strategic locations for “ushering in a new era of progress”.

About the Afghanistan issue, President Zardari said Pakistan supported the process initiated by President Hamid Karzai for reconciliation and peace. He said Pakistan supported a reconciliation process which must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, adding that Islamabad was ready to provide all possible assistance to Kabul in reconstruction efforts.

It was Mr Zardari’s second visit to Iran in less than a month. He visited Tehran last month to attend the counter-terrorism summit, on the sidelines of which the two countries and Afghanistan reached an agreement to augment cooperation in the fight against militancy.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Water and Power Minister Syed Naveed Qamar, Petroleum Minister Dr Asim Hussain and presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar accompanied Mr Zardari.

KHAMENEI LAMBASTS US: Later Mr Zardari called on Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Fars news agency quoted Ayatollah Khamenei as telling the President: “The principal enemy of the Pakistani people and the unity of the country is the West, headed by the United States.”

Iranian officials have been vocal in their criticism of the prolonged US troop deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which are now set to be drawn down.—Agencies

13-30

Islamic Trade Finance Seen Lifting Growth of Sector

July 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Shaheen Pasha

DUBAI, June 9 (Reuters) – Islamic trade finance has benefitted from shifting preferences towards Sharia-compliant banking and could serve as one of the key growth drivers to help the nearly $1 trillion Islamic finance industry double in size.

The global Islamic finance industry, which has been growing between 15 to 20 percent a year, is widely expected to reach $2 trillion in the next three to five years.

While Islamic banking and Islamic bonds, or sukuk, are expected to lead growth, bankers say Islamic trade finance could serve as the dark horse emerging to propel the industry further.

Trade finance, the lifeblood of global commerce, underpins 60-80 percent of the $12-13 trillion trade in global merchandise and practitioners say it is safer than other forms of lending.

Total trade finance among the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which includes Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Turkey, is expected to reach $4 trillion by 2012, said Mohamad Nedal Alchaar, secretary-general of the Accounting & Auditing Organization for Islamic Financial Institutions (AAOIFI).

“(Islamic finance) could tap 20 percent of the total trading financing, that’s very reasonable,” Alchaar said, adding that while the current Islamic trade finance market remains fragmented and non-competitive, there has been a shift towards pushing trade finance among Islamic practitioners.

Part of the increased interest in Islamic trade finance is that the Islamic finance industry, which prohibits interest, has matured and can provide complicated instruments, such as Sharia-compliant hedging products to protect trade transactions, said Yakub Bobat, global head of HSBC Amanah commercial banking.

“If you don’t have access to Islamic hedging, there will be a currency conversion impact. In the absence of those solutions, people go for conventional,” Bobat said. “But the proposition is now complete and you can now use Islamic hedges for trade transactions.”

Bobat said such innovations in the industry will help persuade people inclined toward Sharia-compliant business to opt for Islamic trade finance over conventional forms.

In Islamic trade finance, a bank will provide a letter of credit, guaranteeing import payments using its own funds, for a client based on sharing the profit from the sale of the item.

But some banks are still wary of providing Islamic trade finance services, citing it as more costly and time consuming.

In addition, some see little difference between conventional and Islamic trade finance as both are fee-based products, resulting in lower demand for the Islamic product.

Changing that view will be key for the industry, said Shabir Randeree, chairman of the European Islamic Investment Bank.

East-East Trade Flows Grow

“There is a very compelling reason to promote this product given that the returns of trade financing can be very attractive, much more than real estate financing, for example,” he said. “Providers of this product have not been as aggressive in promoting it.”

But with increasing cross-border trade among Asian and Middle Eastern countries, demand for more Sharia-compliant financing from Muslims is still expected to increase.

Asia to Middle East trade flows more than doubled between 2005 and 2008, according to the World Trade Organization.

“If I compare three years back, volumes have gone up overall in the Islamic trade finance market,” said Ghazanfar Naqvi, managing director, Islamic origination and client coverage at Standard Chartered Saadiq.

“It’s a function of more awareness and more offerings. Today we are seeing customer preference changing and trade finance is a key component of growth in Islamic finance.”

Naqvi said it was difficult to pin down tangible global figures for Islamic trade finance as the majority of deals are not public transactions.

The International Islamic Trade Finance Corp. (ITFC), an independent entity within the Islamic Development Bank, said in its annual report that it approved $2.17 billion in Islamic trade finance transactions at the end of 2009.

That grew to around $2.55 billion in 2010, with a majority of transactions taking place in OIC member nations.

HSBC Amanah’s Bobat said Islamic trade finance will be a significant contributor to growth in Islamic finance but the industry will have to look beyond asset finance.

“The industry today is pretty much focused on asset finance and it needs to have the ability to capitalise on trade,” he said. “(Islamic trade finance) should be as much bread and butter business as it is for conventional trade flows.” (Reporting by Shaheen Pasha; Editing by Jon Hemming)

13-28

Australia Suspends Cattle Exports to Indonesia

June 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia said on Wednesday it was suspending cattle exports to Indonesia after an outcry over the inhumane treatment of cattle in its neighbor, as animal rights groups called for an outright ban on trade to other countries.

The minority Labor government has been under fierce pressure to suspend the A$320 million ($342 million) Indonesia live cattle business after television footage showed cattle being beaten, whipped and maimed prior to slaughter in some abattoirs.

Canberra would impose a six month initial suspension on Indonesia shipments, and the government would also review the live export trade to all overseas markets, including the Middle East, Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig said.

“Trade will not be able to be resumed until the government, community and industry are confident that we have safeguards in place to ensure appropriate animal welfare,” he told ABC radio.

“The Australian government is committed to reaching the best possible outcomes for our livestock, the industry and our important relationship with Indonesia,” Ludwig said.

Lyn White, who shot the graphic footage and is the campaign director for Animals Australia, welcomed the news of the suspension but said it should have come sooner.

“There has been an extraordinary outpouring of rage that our cattle have been treated like this and have been supplied for such treatment. So this is a first step,” White told Australian television.

Australia exports about 500,000 head of cattle a year to Indonesia, representing 60 percent of its live cattle trade.

The live trade to all countries is valued at A$730 million, with sheep exported to Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Israel, and cattle shipped to Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Jordan, Japan and Brunei.

“This industry over a period of time has shown that it can’t be trusted. We have no control over what happens to our animals in importing countries, and the only way to safeguard their welfare is to not supply them,” White said.

Australia’s cattle industry on Monday put forward a plan aimed at reducing the suffering of animals sent to Indonesia.

Industry group, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), said under its plan cattle would only be supplied to 25 accredited Indonesian slaughter houses currently meeting World Organization for Animal Health standards.

The conservative opposition, which has strong support from farmers, said the suspension was a blunt instrument that would hit all Indonesian abattoir workers, as well as risk trade and security retaliation from Australia’s fellow G20 member.

“We’ve made a statement also about our nearest neighbor Indonesia, who we are totally reliant on for other things like border control. I don’t think we have thought through the ramifications,” Nationals party Senate Leader Barnaby Joyce said.

The previous conservative government banned live cattle and sheep exports to Saudi Arabia between 1991 and 2000 after hundreds of animals died from heat stress en route to the Persian Gulf.

13-26

US Hopes Obama Trip Will Boost Trade with Indonesia

March 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Doug Palmer

2010-03-16T103621Z_11355208_GM1E63G1FMP01_RTRMADP_3_INDONESIA

Barack Obama’s impersonator Ilham Anas of Indonesia poses in front of an image of U.S. President Barack Obama after being interviewed by Reuters TV in Obama’s former school, State Elementary School 01 Menteng, in Jakarta March 16, 2010. Obama is scheduled later this month to visit the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where he is a popular figure. Obama studied at State Elementary School 01 Menteng from 1970-1971.

REUTERS/Dadang Tri

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States hopes President Barack Obama’s visit next week to Indonesia will help spur reforms that boost trade with Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the world’s fourth most populous nation.

“Economic nationalism, regulatory uncertainty and unresolved investment disputes give pause to American companies seeking to do business in Indonesia,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke said in a speech on Wednesday.

To increase trade, “it’s incumbent upon Indonesia to make market-oriented reforms that will make it a more attractive market, not just for U.S. companies but companies all around the world,” Locke said.

“Growing trade with Indonesia is a piece of the president’s broader plan to create jobs here at home by growing market access overseas.”

Obama is returning to the country where he spent part of his youth for talks in Jakarta with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and a stop in Bali to meet civil society groups and urge further progress on democracy.

Indonesia — a majority Muslim nation of 230 million people — and the United States are expected to sign a “comprehensive partnership” agreement, which Locke said would be a “blueprint for cooperation on a whole host of issues.”

Two-way trade between the United States and Indonesia was just $18 billion last year, a tiny chunk of the $788 billion in trade the United States did with all Pacific Rim countries in 2009.

“In fact, Indonesia does less trade with the United States than some of its smaller, less populous ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) neighbors like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand,” said Locke, who will be leading a clean energy trade mission to Indonesia in May.

The United States exported $5.1 billion of goods last year to Indonesia, led by civilian aircraft and farm goods such as soybeans, animal feeds and cotton.

U.S. imports from Indonesia were just $12.9 billion last year, included clothing and textile goods, furniture, electronics, computer accessories and coffee.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will visit Indonesia just weeks after Obama but Locke downplayed the idea that the back-to-back trips were a demonstration of Washington and Beijing vying for influence.

“I don’t think these visits in any way were set up to compete against each other,” Locke said.

But Ernie Bower, director for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he did see a healthy competition between the United States and China for “hearts, minds and markets” in Southeast Asia.

China “really picked up its game” in Indonesia with help it provided during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and Obama’s trip helps set the stage for more U.S. involvement in a strategically important region, Bower said.

But Indonesia has a long way to go before it is ready to join a proposed regional free trade agreement with the United States, said Mark Orgill, manager for Indonesia at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.

A much less ambitious trade deal between ASEAN and China already has raised concerns among Indonesia’s manufacturers, Orgill said.

The United States began talks this week on the proposed Transpacific Partnership pact with Australia, Chile, Singapore, New Zealand, Peru, Vietnam and Brunei. Two other ASEAN countries, Malaysia and Thailand, have expressed interest in joining the talks.

“Indonesia fights battles at home” over moves to open its market, Orgill said.

Editing by John O’Callaghan

12-12

Korean President’s India Visit

January 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

NEW DELHI:  Taking India’s ties with Republic of Korea (ROK) to a new height, the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations (January 26) was ROK President Lee Myung-bak. Lee’s India visit assumes significance as he is the first Korean President to be Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day function.  Besides, his is third Korean presidential visit to India in a period of less than 13 years. The discussions held and agreements reached during Lee’s visit clearly signal that both countries are optimistic about further strengthening India-ROK ties in several key areas.

Lee paid a state visit at the invitation of his Indian counterpart President Pratibha Devisingh Patil, from January 24 to 27. He was accorded a ceremonial welcome on January 25 at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. This was followed by his meeting with Patil. The highlight of Lee’s visit was his summit meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Welcoming Lee, in his opening remarks at the delegation level talks, Singh said: “We are delighted that a friend of India is at the helm of affairs in Korea and that together we will have the opportunity to realize your vision and our common vision of a strong and vibrant India-Korea partnership. Your State visit today reflects our mutual commitment to strengthen relations between our countries. This is a relationship that rests on our shared values of democracy, rule of law and respect for human freedoms.”

Ahead of his India visit, Lee projected it as a key part of Seoul’s “New Asia Diplomacy” campaign, to improve ties with Asian countries. In his message, Lee said: “I have tried to realize the vision of New Asia Diplomacy. This trip to India marks a key point of such efforts.” He described India as a key player in Asia taking center on the global stage in the 21st century. “Asia is developing as a new growth engine in the world. Asia is expected to account for 35 percent of the world’s GDP (gross domestic product) ten years from now,” he said. “I am paying attention to India because of its potential,” Lee asserted.

With both the countries eager to push forward bilateral ties, during the summit meeting, Singh and Lee discussed ways to develop them and also exchanged views on regional and international issues. The joint statement released after the summit meeting, stated that during the talks, the two leaders “expressed satisfaction on the strong development of India-ROK relations based on the ‘Long-term Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity,’ established in October 2004.” They “welcomed the steady growth in high level exchanges and contacts between the two countries, and the expansion in various areas of bilateral relations including defense, trade, science & technology, information & communication technology, education, and culture.”

Singh and Lee agreed that there was “immense scope for further enhancing bilateral relations in various areas.” They “welcomed entry into force of Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA)” from January 1, 2010 as “bedrock of a new comprehensive partnership between India and ROK.” With both countries as major economies in the region, their “partnership has the capacity to promote regional growth, and to contribute to prosperity and economic development of Asia,” they stated.

To enhance bilateral relations to a “strategic partnership,” Singh and Lee identified key aspects of their future relationship. These include, political & security cooperation; enhancing trade & investment flows; strengthening cooperation in field of science & technology; increase in cultural exchanges & people to people contacts;  and cooperation in the international arena. Affirming “their commitment to ensure implementation of CEPA,” they agreed to set a target of $30 billion for bilateral trade to be achieved by 2014. The India-ROK bilateral trade stood at $13 billion in 2008-09. Bilateral trade, which was less than $3 billion in 2001, crossed the $10 billion mark in 2007.

Singh and Lee agreed to designate 2011 as “Year of Korea” in India and “Year of India” in ROK to strengthen cultural exchanges and people to people contacts. India welcomed ROK’s initiative to open a Korean Cultural Center in New Delhi in 2011, which according to the joint statement will go a long way in “promoting awareness about Korean life and culture in India.”

Lee’s India visit was also marked by inking of four pacts. These include: Agreement on transfer of sentenced persons; Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on cooperation in information technology & services; Program of cooperation in science and technology for the period 2010-2012 and MoU for cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space.

Singh and Lee agreed “to facilitate development of a framework for bilateral civil nuclear cooperation.” They shared the view that “nuclear energy can play an important role as a safe, sustainable and non-polluting source of energy.” Lee is understood to have told Singh that he was “very optimistic” about progress in this area and that ROK nuclear companies were “very competitive” on this front.

Civil nuclear cooperation figured prominently in the summit meeting and the talks Lee held with Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. After his meeting with Krishna, Lee said: “This is (civil nuclear) an area which will be very productive for both of us.” A member of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), ROK had supported consensus for reopening global civil nuclear trade with India in September 2008. Lee recently succeeded in marching ahead of western contractors by securing a $20 billion contract to build four nuclear reactors in UAE. While from the Korean-angle, Lee’s India-visit is a part of his New Asia Diplomacy, from the Indian it is certainly suggestive of India looking towards East more seriously than before!

12-5

U.S., Turkey Launch New Trade, Investment Forum

December 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

2009-12-21T113419Z_2140208691_GM1E5CL1I6101_RTRMADP_3_EU-TURKEY

Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis (L) talks to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu during a news conference at the European Union Council headquarters in Brussels December 21, 2009.    

REUTERS/Francois Lenoir  

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and NATO ally Turkey launched an initiative Monday aimed at boosting trade and investment ties, but said there were no plans for the two countries to negotiate a free trade agreement.

“We can … build on what is a good trade and commercial relationship and make it a much more robust one,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said at a press conference with Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan.

The initiative creates a new Cabinet-level forum to discuss ways to expand bilateral trade and investment flows and to try to resolve disputes when they arise, similar to one the United States has with China.

“This framework … will be an important vehicle for expanding trade and investment and creating new jobs for the workers and the people” of both countries, said U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.

The announcement followed a White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to discuss Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. plans to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Obama told reporters he believed Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country and long-time U.S. ally, could be an ‘important player’ in moving Iran toward resolving its dispute with the West over its nuclear program.

Erdogan said Turkey stands ready to do whatever it can to achieve a diplomatic solution on the nuclear issue.

Turkey, which has applied for membership of the European Union, is the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner in the Muslim world and 27th overall.

U.S-Turkey trade has dropped from a record of nearly $15 billion in 2008, but there is every reason to expect the two countries can surpass that “when the world economy gets back on its feet,’’ Locke said.

Babacan said the two countries would seek suggestions from business on how to increase trade in areas ranging from energy to agriculture to military equipment.
He downplayed the chances of Ankara using the forum to press Washington to reduce high U.S. tariffs that Turkey faces on textiles and some other exports.

Kirk said the initiative was not intended as a stepping stone to talks with Turkey on a free trade agreement. (Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Chris Wilson)

11-53

U.S., Turkey Launch New Trade, Investment Forum

December 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and NATO ally Turkey launched an initiative Monday aimed at boosting trade and investment ties, but said there were no plans for the two countries to negotiate a free trade agreement.

“We can … build on what is a good trade and commercial relationship and make it a much more robust one,’’ U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said at a press conference with Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan.

The initiative creates a new Cabinet-level forum to discuss ways to expand bilateral trade and investment flows and to try to resolve disputes when they arise, similar to one the United States has with China.

“This framework … will be an important vehicle for expanding trade and investment and creating new jobs for the workers and the people’’ of both countries, said U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.

The announcement followed a White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to discuss Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. plans to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Obama told reporters he believed Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country and long-time U.S. ally, could be an “important player’’ in moving Iran toward resolving its dispute with the West over its nuclear program.

Erdogan said Turkey stands ready to do whatever it can to achieve a diplomatic solution on the nuclear issue.

Turkey, which has applied for membership of the European Union, is the United States’ fourth-largest trading partner in the Muslim world and 27th overall.

U.S-Turkey trade has dropped from a record of nearly $15 billion in 2008, but there is every reason to expect the two countries can surpass that “when the world economy gets back on its feet,’’ Locke said.

Babacan said the two countries would seek suggestions from business on how to increase trade in areas ranging from energy to agriculture to military equipment.
He downplayed the chances of Ankara using the forum to press Washington to reduce high U.S. tariffs that Turkey faces on textiles and some other exports.

Kirk said the initiative was not intended as a stepping stone to talks with Turkey on a free trade agreement. (Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Chris Wilson)

11-51

Indo-Azerbaijan Ties With a Filmy & Romantic Touch!

December 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) India Correspondent

NEW DELHI: Bollywood icons, particularly Raj Kapoor and Nargis, may be viewed as actors of the past by Indian society, they still remain a favorite in Azerbaijan. This was revealed by members of Azerbaijani delegation who were in India last week. Led by Huseyn Bagirov, Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources, the delegation was here for the first meeting of India-Azerbaijan Intergovernmental Commission, which was held on 26th November. The Indian side was led by Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Jyotiraditya M. Scindia. Though held after being postponed a few times, the meeting is viewed by both sides as a major milestone in strengthening India-Azerbaijan ties. On sidelines of the meeting, members from both sides dismissed the delay in the meeting as an insignificant issue. Rather, they gave emphasis to the meeting being held, which they were “absolutely confident” would enhance their bilateral ties.

During their meeting, held in “an atmosphere of mutual understanding and traditional friendship,” the two sides “exchanged information on the current economic situation in their respective countries and opportunities that exist for further development of bilateral economic relationship,” sources said. They agreed to deliberate on measures to be “undertaken to increase the volume of bilateral trade on a balanced basis and to widen the trade basket of bilateral trade for mutual benefit.”  India is keen on entering into a long term contract with Azerbaijan for supply of crude oil, sources said.

India and Azerbaijan agreed “to develop economic ties” and explore “opportunities of implementation of mutual investment projects.” They aim to create a “friendly and positive atmosphere among businessmen of the two countries and contribute to enhancing mutual trade relations,” sources said.” The two sides decided to through “mutual diplomatic channels” develop “cooperation in field of oil-chemistry industry, especially oil treatment,” enhance technical cooperation and find possibilities for exchange of views in the field of agriculture, and explore opportunities for participation of Azerbaijan at workshops and trainings organized by India’s International Technical Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program and other technical assistance programs.

India and Azerbaijan also touched on issues such as their membership of International North-South transport corridor (INSTC). They expressed the need to “make joint efforts towards identifying issues and impediments in the smooth functioning of the Corridor and to further develop their relations in the area of transportation,” sources said. With Azerbaijan well endowed with good reserves of non-ferrous minerals like gold, aluminum, zinc, copper, molybdenum, chrome, rock salt, gypsum, limestone, bitumen, clay, marble, etc, they also viewed cooperation in the field of non-ferrous metallurgy as “mutually beneficial,” sources said
In the field of Communication & Information Technology, as India plays a leading role, the two sides deliberated on inking an agreement on bilateral cooperation. The delegates also agreed on their being “potential” for strengthening bilateral ties by expanding cooperation in areas such as agriculture, tourism, environment protection, health, education, customs issue, chemical & petrochemical sector and the engineering industry.

Ironically, though the meeting is viewed as a major beginning towards developing stronger bilateral ties between India and Azerbaijan at the diplomatic level, it served as an eye-opener to strong cultural and historical ties between the two countries. On sidelines of the meeting, the Azerbaijani members drew attention to the traditional folklore Laila-Majnu, on which several Hindi movies have been made. It can be traced to Azerbaijan, with Nizami Ganjavi, known as the greatest Azerbaijani poet, who lived in 12th century, having begun a new trend in poetry- the epic-romantic genre. The historic linkage is also marked by Azerbaijani-origins of Babur, the founder of Mughal dynasty in India. The outstanding monuments constructed during the Mughal period, include the Humayun tomb in Delhi. The architect of the tomb was from Azerbaijan.

What is perhaps most amazing is that cultural linkage between people of the two countries remains strong. Bollywood movies and film-stars are extremely popular in Azerbaijan. It was a pleasant surprise to find the visiting Azerbaijani delegates enjoying Hindi film songs being sung at a reception hosted in their honor by their country’s envoy to India, Tamerlan Karayev. Even though for several Azerbaijani delegates, it was a first visit to India, they seemed fairly familiar with Hindi movies as they easily voiced the names of films from which the various songs were being played. Elshad Nassirov, Vice President, State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, who has been to India before, revealed that amongst the most popular names used in his country, were Indian names, including that of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and film star Nargis. In his words: “You will find quite a few Indiras in Azerbaijan. It is a popular name there. So is Nargis. My wife’s name is Nargis.”

Muslims constitute more than ninety percent of Azerbaijan’s population. Earlier, a part of former superpower Soviet Union, Azerbaijan declared its independence on 18th October 1991. India recognized Azerbaijan in December 1991 and established diplomatic ties with it on 28th February 1992.

Notwithstanding the diplomatic formalities taking their own time in strengthening cooperation between India and Azerbaijan at the official level, there is little doubt that people have let their cultural ties remain undisturbed.  While Laila-Majnu, Shireen-Farhad and other romantic folklores traced to Azerbaijan remain popular here, Bollywood superstars, including Raj Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan are a favorite there!

11-50

Mothers of Captured Young Hikers Encouraged

October 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, Mary Ambrose

 

Shane_Bauer_25
Reporter Shane Bauer

The wait for the release of three young Americans arrested on July 31 for allegedly crossing the border illegally into Iran continues, but their families hope they have made some progress towards bringing them home.

On Friday, Nora Shroud, Laura Fattal and Cindy Hickey, the mothers of Sarah Shroud, Josh Fattal, and Shane Bauer, met in New York City to deliver a petition to the Iranian trade mission. The 2,500 signatures and appeals were collected at the families’ site, Free The Hikers, and at vigils held across the country. They all want the same thing: release the hikers from jail and allow them to leave Iran.

The trade mission accepted the petition, which the women viewed as a good sign, as were encouraging noises from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but they want action.

About a month ago, a Swiss diplomat was granted the first consular access visit to the hikers. Switzerland represents U.S. diplomatic interests in Tehran, since the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran. The diplomat phoned the parents and reported that their children were in good shape. The diplomat gave them chocolate and assured each of them that their companions were well. It’s assumed they are not being held together.

It’s been three weeks since Ahmadinejad said that the hikers entered the country illegally, which he noted was “considered a crime everywhere,” and despite insisting he has no control over the judiciary or the case, he told the Associated Press that he could ask that “the judiciary expedite the process and give it its full attention … and basically look at the case with maximum leniency.” The families want him to deliver on that promise.

Laura Fattal said they see this as a humanitarian issue and on CNN said she thinks that as a father, Ahmadinejad can “easily imagine how difficult it is for the families of the hikers.”

11-44

Islam A. Siddiqui, Nominee for Chief Agricultural Negotiator, Office of US Trade Rep.

September 24, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Islam Siddiqui Islam A. Siddiqui is currently Vice President for Science and Regulatory Affairs at CropLife America , where he is responsible for regulatory and international trade issues related to crop protection chemicals. Previously, Dr. Siddiqui also served as CropLife America ’s Vice President for agricultural biotechnology and trade. From 1997 to 2001, Dr. Siddiqui served in various capacities in the Clinton Administration at U.S. Department of Agriculture as Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, Senior Trade Advisor to Secretary Dan Glickman and Deputy Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs.  As a result, he worked closely with the USTR and represented USDA in bilateral, regional and multi-lateral agricultural trade negotiations.  Since 2004, Dr. Siddiqui has also served on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Industry Trade Advisory Committee on Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals, and Health/Science Products & Services, which advises the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and USTR on international trade issues related to these sectors. Betwe en 2001 and 2003, Dr. Siddiqui was appointed as Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where he focused on agricultural biotechnology and food security issues.  Before joining USDA, Dr. Siddiqui spent 28 years with the California Department of Food and Agriculture.  He received a B.S. degree in plant protection from Uttar Pradesh Agricultural University in Pantnagar , India , as well as M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in plant pathology, both from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Minister: Indonesia, Egypt to Boost Trade Cooperation

June 18, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Jakarta (ANTARA News) – Foreign Affairs Minister Hassan Wirajuda said the visit of Mohamed Elzorkany, Egypt`s assistant foreign affairs minister for Asia, was aimed at boosting bilateral trade cooperation between the two countries.

The bilateral relations between Egypt and Indonesia was limited to the political field so far, and therefore the ties would be expanded to include economic, social and cultural fields.

“The close political relations between Indonesia and Egypt will be intensified and translated into cooperation in other fields, including trade,” Wirajuda said.
Elzorkany visited Jakarta as parts of his Asian tour which included China, Mongolia, and Malaysia.

During his two-day visit in Indonesia, the Egyptian official held meetings with Foreign Affairs Minister Hassan Wirajuda, Trade Minister Marie Elka Pangestu, and National Education Minister Bambang Sudibyo.

Elzorkany at a dinner reception hosted by the Egyptian ambassador to Indonesia, here on Monday evening, said that Egypt and Indonesia had big potential to intensify the bilateral cooperation in the trade and investment fields.

Indonesia and Egypt had close bilateral relations and both nations had set up a joint commission to improve cooperation in various fields, especially trade and investment, he said.

Egypt which recorded an economic growth at 7.1 percent last year, was a gate to Africa, Europe and other Arab countries, he said, hoping that Indonesia could use his country`s potential to penetrate those regional markets.

The bilateral trade value of the two countries reached US$1.1 billion, with Indonesia enjoyed a surplus of US$900 million.

Egypt`s exports to Indonesia include phosphates, cotton, fruits, and carpets, while its imports from Indonesia are among other things crude palm oil (CPO), rubber, paper, and tires.

Elzorkany believed that the two nations had huge potentials to achieve progress in the future.

Indonesia and Egypt as developing countries also supported each other in various international forum including in G-15, he said.

11-26

J&K Elections: Voters’ Message Beyond The Ballot vs. Bullet Fight

December 31, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

2008-12-31T121210Z_01_SRI09_RTRMDNP_3_KASHMIR-LEADER

Omar Abdullah (L), president of the National Conference (NC) party, waves to supporters as Ali Mohammed Sagar (R), a senior NC leader, looks on during a rally in Srinagar December 31, 2008. Thousands of strife weary Kashmiris gave their new leader, Omar Abdullah, a rousing welcome when he arrived home on Wednesday after he was named to lead a new coalition government in the disputed Himalayan region. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli

NEW DELHI: Despite the Jammu and Kashmir elections having thrown a hung assembly, ruling out prospects of single-party government in the India-occupied state, unlike the previous ones, these polls carry a different message. Though the elections were held with terrorism, as has been the routine in the past, bringing Indo-Pak diplomacy to the stage of tension, this time the issue of militancy in J&K was pushed to the backstage. It was overshadowed by excessive noise made in the subcontinent and elsewhere over terror-strikes in Mumbai, with India blaming Pakistan-based groups as responsible for these. The reported casualty in these elections was 12 civilian and five security personnel, compared to 220 civilian and 148 security personnel killed in the 2002 polls. This suggests a fall of 86 percent in militancy related incidents in 2008 polls against that in 2002.

Equally noteworthy is the large turnout of voters, 63.21 percent while that in 2002 was 44 percent. “In the last one year, there has been a reduction in militancy-related incidents and hence the fear factor was not there. The real success is wherever there was low percentage in the last elections, there was higher turnout this time and it showed that people wanted to participate in the democratic process in a big way,” according to Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami.

Notwithstanding the tensed Indo-Pak ties, marked by war-hysteria in certain political circles as well as media, amazingly these did not have any negative impact on the atmosphere in the J&K. Trade across the much-disputed Line-of-Control continued despite Indo-Pak animosity reaching a new height over Mumbai terror strikes. The cross-border trade, which began from October 21, continued amid the hype raised about India and Pakistan being near a war-like stage. For instance, earlier this month, as expressed by sources in Jammu: “A trader from Pakistan has sent a truckload of 150 boxes of oranges and 100 boxes of pomegranates besides 252 pairs of special Peshawari sandals to a business firm in Poonch.” The Indian firm had sent a consignment of 2,200 kg of tomatoes on December 23 as demanded by the Pakistan trader, they said.

Opening of LoC for trade between the two sides apparently has had a major influence on pulling Kashmiris towards the ballot box. This has assumed a yet greater importance in view of the weeks before the polls spelling tension within the state over Amarnath-issue. The three-month long tension, also marked by economic blockade of the Valley by extremist Hindu groups in Jammu, at one point even raised speculation whether the elections would be held in time. Amid this backdrop, the opening of the LoC for trade certainly carried a new meaning for Kashmiris (primarily Muslims) in the Valley. Even though trade across LoC has yet to reach substantial proportions, that it has begun, certainly signals a new importance being given to their economic concerns. The beginning of cross-border trade at LoC at least signals that Indo-Pak dispute over Kashmir has been – at least now – pushed to the background, with economic concerns of Kashmiris being given greater importance. This is indeed a major move for average Kashmiris, who till the last elections, only seemed to be caught needlessly between the bullet and the ballot, with neither spelling a solution to their socio-economic problems.

Despite the Amarnath-row signaling a clear split, marked by polarization of votes, between Jammu and Kashmir, it is not without reason that Kashmiri voters turned out in greater numbers than before to cast their vote. Thus even though the Congress party won fewer seats this time (17) than in 2002, when it won 20, the party leaders have welcomed the results. “The large turnout of voters is a vote for democracy. It is a vote for national integration. As far as who wins or who loses is a secondary issue,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said. Giving emphasis to electoral results carrying little importance than people’s participation, Congress President Sonia Gandhi said: “I have been saying from the very beginning that it dose not matter who wins, what matters is that the people of the Valley, the people of Jammu, the people of Jammu and Kashmir have placed their full faith in the democratic system which is a lesson to be learnt by our neighbors.” Highlighting the holding of state elections as scheduled, Gandhi said: “I have been saying from the very beginning that elections should be held in time and I am glad that they were held in time.

Compared to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) having won only a single seat in 2002, this time it has managed to win 11. While some hold the Amarnath land-row as responsible for BJP’s gain, with there being split between Jammu and Kashmir on religious lines, others hold the poll outcome as reflection of voters “regional” divide.

In the 87-member assembly, the National Conference (NC) has emerged the party winning the maximum number of seats (28), followed by People’s Democratic Party (21), Congress (17), BJP (11), National Panthers Party (3), with one each gained by Communist Party of India-Marxist, Democratic Party Nationalist, People’s Democratic Front and four won by independents.

Notwithstanding the fact that a hung assembly carries apprehension of political instability in the state, by turning out in large numbers the voters have send a strong message. They have defied the separatists’ call for boycott of polls. This may not have been possible if security measures had not been enhanced and had the trade across the LoC not been opened. Though the turnout was still less than in 1987, which was more than 70 percent, it carries a great significance. The Kashmiris have taken a major step forward to display their preference for peace in the region. For the Kashmiris and the government, the significance of 2008 elections should not be confined to their having cast their votes in large numbers. Now, it is for the center to ensure that Kashmiris’ hopes expressed through the ballot boxes are not defeated by bullets!

11-2