Friday, December 29, 2006

The dangerous voyage to Yemen

One overlooked consequence of the lawlessness in Somalia in recent months has been the stream of refugees making their way across the Gulf of Aden northwards towards Yemen.

It is an extremely perilous journey, as this report from Reuters shows. The irony is that the Yemeni government was supplied with better coastguard vessels by the US government after the USS Cole attack in 2000.

Early reports have shown that those 'boat people' who survive the trip face difficult circumstances in Yemen. Their Arabic dialect is very different from Yemeni Arabic, meaning that they cannot easily find work and there is insufficient aid to help them. Yemen, for various reasons I covered a while back, is the poorest country in the Middle East.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Not in the national interest

An unexpected Christmas card (of sorts) arrives from the Saudi Ambassador, whom I have never met. It made me think about the sudden decision by the Serious Fraud Office to abandon its two year investigation of British Aerospace's defence deal with Saudi Arabia. A glance at the Transparency International 'corruption world map' above - the redder the shade, the more corrupt the country - gives an indication of what the SFO might have found out about the way in which business is done in Saudi Arabia and why the Saudis were so keen for it to be swept under the Persian carpet that they threatened to cancel the contract, supposedly worth £40 billion, and stop sharing intelligence on Al Qaeda with Britain.

The decision to suspend the enquiry is unbelievably craven. Britain treats the Saudis far too well, and the excuse given, that it is important to 'safeguard national and international security' is astonishing given the malign influence Saudi-funded religious ideology plays throughout the world. And yet it is completely unsurprising. Britain has been the Saudis' ally since 1915. Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud had sprung to importance two years earlier when he captured the eastern, coastal, Al Hasa region of Arabia, bordering the Persian Gulf. The British needed his support when in 1914 they invaded southern Iraq to secure their oil supplies there. In 1915 they signed a treaty paying Ibn Saud a retainer. At that time Britain maintained friendly relations too with Sharif Husein in the Hijaz, which put the British government in an difficult position when fighting then broke out between the two sheikhs over land in central Arabia in 1918. Husein's awkwardness gave the British an excuse to withdraw their support, and Ibn Saud conquered Husein's kingdom of the Hijaz in 1925.

The alliance is all the odder in the present climate given the long-held British suspicion of the puritanical religious fundamentalism, Wahabbism, that the Saudis widely promote. This was already worrying the British in 1915. After the discovery of oil in the 1920s in Al Hasa, the Saudis have used their petrodollars to promote Wahabbism worldwide. One of the best ways to demonstrate the hypocrisy at the heart of this exercise - the dissolute lifestyles of many of those supporting this destabilising 'evangelism' - might have been exposed by the Serious Fraud Office's investigation. When Transparency International next report, Britain should be a darker shade of orange.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Jordan coup averted?

A friend has just returned from a visit to the Middle East having heard a rumour from several sources that King Abdullah of Jordan has averted a coup. Apparently he has made a one-off payment to civil servants and the army in an effort to head off dissatisfaction.

Up until now Jordan has enjoyed the reputation (helped by an impressive security apparatus) of being one of the region's most stable regimes. Interestingly though, it seemed to me when I visited Amman late in 2004, that the new king probably did not enjoy the support that his father did. Throughout the capital were banners depicting a smiling Abdullah together with his equally cheery late father Hussein. Their message seemed to be "You liked me - now like my son".

However, like many other countries, Jordan has been destabilised by an influx of Palestinian refugees. Moreover, both Jordan and neighbouring Syria are having to cope with large numbers of refugees who had fled Iraq. If the rumours of the coup are true, they may help explain the tone of Abdullah's recent warning of civil war in the region. Whatever, the pressures of migration forced by the civil war in Iraq are likely to test the foundations of the states to the west, possibly to destruction.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The answer is trade

The Souk al Milh at dusk

The bazaars and souks of the Middle East are one of the region's greatest draws for tourists: my favourites are the labyrinths of Aleppo, the hot and fuggy Hamidiyeh in Damascus and the Souk al Milh in Sanaa, in Yemen. A purchase in a place like these never fails to generate a vivid memory. I remember how at prayer-time in Jeddah, the twinkly-eyed Afghan who was trying to sell me a carpet simply pulled down the metal shutters of his treasure-trove of a shop: locking us in and the religious police, the Mutawwa out. I bought the rug. And two others.
Trade opens countries, for traders take a pragmatic view of life. The hey-day of Middle Eastern trade began a thousand years ago when, like today, Europeans wanted goods from China. I've just been re-reading an account of a seventeenth century younger son, John Verney, who went to Aleppo in 1662 with £10 in his pocket and a letter from his father advising him not to 'keep lewd company, and by drinking, gaming, or your own idleness, loose your reputation'. John Verney did gamble with his trading friends, but on the arrival dates of cargo ships. It was an early form of freight derivatives, I suppose. Aleppo was a cosmopolitan city, and Verney rubbed along with Turks, Armenians and Syrians, Muslim Christian and Jewish. He survived the plague which killed his room mate, and returned to London twelve years later a relatively rich man. (Susan Whyman, Sociability and Power in Late Stuart England, Oxford 1999)
Ways of trading change. Electronic trading has largely replaced the open outcry markets which are the spiritual successor of the eastern souk. Damascus will have a stock market next year, it is hoped. If we in the west want peace and prosperity in the Middle East, we should be doing our best to encourage developments like this.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A force to be reckoned with

It's now been twelve days since crowds massed outside the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fuad Siniora's office in Beirut, the Ottoman Saray, to demand his resignation. Hezbollah, which has stage-managed this confrontation from the start, has cleverly turned it into a tug-of-war between itself and the Lebanese and western governments, whose vocal support for Siniora has easily been portrayed as interference. The more the western governments now back Siniora, the more he looks like their puppet and is bound to fall.

It is hard to believe that Hezbollah would have had the power or confidence to orchestrate this uproar if the war this summer had not happened. Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon this summer was sparked by Hezbollah's ill-advised snatch of two Israeli soldiers patrolling near the border, inside Israel. Hezbollah's aggressive defence of Lebanon, in the face of US and British support for Israel and silence over the civilian casualties in Lebanon, has won it widespread support, not just from its Shia base, but from other Lebanese, including Christians, and beyond. When he visited Damascus this summer my friend Richard Spring was struck by the Hezbollah flags he saw flying in the Christian quarter of the old city. The solidarity Hezbollah has generated is formidable.

It is a mistake to see Hezbollah simply as an agent of the Syrians or Iranians. Sure, Hezbollah could not survive without their backing. But Hezbollah is also satisfying a long-held appetite in Lebanon for Arab, and latterly Lebanese, independence. In 1884 the political activist Jamal al-din al-Afghani (bear with me here) who opposed European colonisation of the Islamic world sent more copies of his influential periodical Al-Urwa al-Wuthqa to Beirut than any other Middle Eastern city save Cairo, where he was based. The Ottomans knew that Beirut was a hotbed of Arab nationalist feeling. In May 1916 they hanged 14 nationalists in Beirut - twice as many as in Damascus, as a warning. But Ottoman rule ended two years later, helped considerably by Arab opposition. While Hezbollah can portray itself - with some justification - as the guardian of Lebanese independence it is a political force to be reckoned with.

Monday, December 11, 2006

A side-effect of nuclear know-how

The news that the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have announced their view that they have a 'right to possess nuclear technology for peaceful purposes' is no doubt a reaction to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, although they deny it. A happy side-effect for the countries involved is that by developing nuclear technology they will effectively thwart outside efforts to encourage democracy within their borders.

If the GCC countries develop nuclear weapons, western governments will have a powerful interest in maintaining their undemocratic status quo, since Islamist parties frequently form the only opposition in these countries. In the short-run pursuing stability will be the west's only option, but this will only increase the problems in the Middle East long-term.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The perils of pilgrimage

'Every fort is like a prison': an old pilgrim hostel in the Hijaz, Saudi Arabia

News that two British Muslim pilgrims have died in a coach crash while driving between Medina and Mecca is a sad reminder that even today the Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj, continues to have its dangers. But these are slight compared to the risks one hundred years ago, before the train and plane made getting to the Hijaz to fulfil this once-in-a-lifetime demand of Islam very much more easy.

On her visit to Syria in 1905 the British traveller Gertrude Bell asked her guide about the hardships pilgrims faced on their way to Mecca. 'By the face of God! they suffer,' he answered: 'Ten marches from Maan [in sourthern Jordan] to Medain Salih, then from there to Medina and ten from Medina to Mecca, and the last ten are the worst, for the Sharif of Mecca and the Arab tribes plot together, and the Arabs rob the pilgrims and share the booty with the Sharif. Nor are the marches like the marches of gentlefolk when they travel, for sometimes there are fifteen hours between water and water, and sometimes twenty, and the last march into Mecca is thirty hours.' And he was less than complementary about the fortified caravanserai, or hostels, at which the pilgrims stayed along the route. 'Every fort is like a prison', he said. (The Desert and the Sown, New York 1907, p.239)
The completion of the Hijaz Railway from Damascus to Medina by 1908 dramatically changed all that. The forty-day desert march from Damascus or an expensive voyage by sea down through the Suez Canal now took just three days by train. Yet this achievement brought the Ottomans into mounting conflict with the Bedu - the small and feuding tribes of violent nomadic herders who scratched a living in the desert from robbing one another and hiring camels and guides to travellers. The traffic of rich pilgrims through the Hijaz made protection rackets and robbery lucrative additional lines of business for the Bedu, whose demands grew more shrill as their ancient way of life and death came under threat from the train. The pilgrimage of 1913 was especially bad. 70 Iranian pilgrims were killed in one attack and an Ottoman officer who had been promoting plans to extend the railway from Medina south to Mecca itself was hacked to death. Under pressure from both the tribesmen and shopkeepers in Mecca who did not like the fact that the poorer pilgrims who could now afford the journey did not spend as much in the city, some Muslim clerics tried to claim that pilgrimages made by train did not count: they were too easy.
The devastating economic impact of the railway on the Bedu helps to explain why they were so willing to support the Sharif of Mecca, Husein, who called for a revolt in 1916. In the uprising that followed, which was backed by the British, the Hijaz Railway was largely destroyed. Stiff opposition from the Saudi national airline, which wants a monopoly on pilgrim traffic, has thwarted attempts to rebuild it. The railway has never functioned again.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Britain loses major ally in Helmand

The Times reports that the Governor of Helmand, Mohammed Daoud, has been sacked by President Karzai. The reasons for his dismissal are far from clear.

Engineer Daoud was appointed with strong British backing in January. He is seen as honest and not involved in drugs in a part of the world where both qualities are unusual commodities. He was also an outsider with no close link to any of the local tribes. Until a replacement is found the acting governor will be Daoud's deputy, Amir Muhammad Akhunzada, who could not be more different. One source quoted in The Times said: 'For the moment and before a new governor is named, the governor of Helmand is a drug-dealing warlord who was banned from the elections by the UN for keeping a militia and his connection to narcotics, and with whom the British have said they cannot work. Nice.'

Daoud had backed efforts to eradicate next year's poppy crop which is likely to equal or exceed this year's record-breaker, and the decision to remove him raises some awkward questions about President Karzai's priorities. Moreover, will the local peace agreements which Daoud negotiated hold?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Spot the difference

Some revealing semantics at the Bush-Blair press conference yesterday.

George Bush: 'I also believe we're going to succeed. I believe we'll prevail. Not only do I know how important it is to prevail, I believe we will prevail.'

Tony Blair: 'I am sure that it is possible to resolve this [the situation in Iraq] and I also do believe that if we do, then it would send a signal of massive symbolic power across the world.' [My emphasis]

'If' and 'would', Prime Minister? Surely 'When' and 'will'?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Too late

A lot has already been written on the Iraq Study Group's thoughtful report, published yesterday. The report is an honest appreciation of the crisis in Iraq made all the more stark by the contrast of its tone and depth with the hallucinatory quality of previous statements on the prospects for Iraq made by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yet the report still has a slightly otherworldly feel to it. Its recommendations - external diplomatic initiatives designed to involve neighbouring countries which have a significant stake in Iraq's future, and internal efforts to achieve national reconciliation - all sound sensible yet still imply that the United States and legislation can play a role which events so far simply do not support. I cannot see Iran and Syria sitting down around a table at a meeting organised by the US government. The easiest way to persuade Iran and Syria to engage themselves would be for the US to withdraw, yet the report rules out this drastic option. After Recommendation 23 the report sets out a series of milestones involving legislation to achieve, for example, amnesties and Iraqi control of its army by the end of next year. And yet earlier, the report clearly states that the army is already divided along regional (and therefore probably sectarian) lines and that the government has favoured Shia over Sunni areas. If that is the consequence of democracy, it is hard to see how any legislation enacted within the Baghdad green zone will have any tangible effect beyond it. With the violence increasing every week and the country's institutions corrupted seemingly beyond repair, I suspect that the report's suggestions have simply come too late.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Hezbollah's ancestors?

I'm currently revising my book for the U.S. edition which will be published by WW Norton during next year.

I'm at the stage where Lawrence sets out on a long, behind-the-lines trek into Syria and Lebanon in June 1917. During this mission, he stopped in the Bekaa valley in what is now Lebanon to dynamite a railway bridge. ‘The noise of dynamite explosions we find everywhere the most effective propagandist measure possible’, he wrote afterwards., for the demolitions apparently triggered a revolt by the local Metawala tribesmen. Whether Lawrence did what he claimed has been disputed since: intelligence reports from both the British and the French of an uprising in the area are the strongest evidence there is that he was telling the truth.

The Shiite Metawala were concentrated in southern Lebanon. They were, according to Gertrude Bell ‘an unorthodox sect of Islam’ which had ‘a very special reputation for fanaticism and ignorance’ (The Desert and the Sown, New York 1907, p.160.) I can find little evidence of them today, save for the fact that a village in northern Israel, which was at the centre of the war earlier this summer, is named Metulla. Is there a connection, I wonder. And are the Metawala the ancestors of the modern Hezbollah?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Whatever happened to the Popular Front?

Seth Wikas of the Washington Institute has produced a handy short guide to the various opposition groups in Syria that the US government is now apparently talking to. It is not an appetising menu.

The Iraq Study Group, whose report is imminent, is expected to advocate engagement with both the Syrian and Iranian regimes. However, the Bush administration's combined output on these countries - labelling Iran as part of the axis of evil and Syria as an associate member - will make it hard for President Bush to accept this approach without implicitly acknowledging that his foreign policy since 9/11 has been a disaster.

The alternative, then, is engagement with the opposition groups in Syria and the exiled Syrian diaspora. If memories are too short in the US administration to remember the outcome of this approach in Iraq (where they backed Ahmed Chalabi) they might sit down one evening and watch the hilarious People's Front of Judea exchange in the Life of Brian which ends with Francis asking "Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?" Reg: "He's over there." Chorus: "SPLITTER!"

Friday, December 01, 2006

Look who's adopting guerrilla tactics in Afghanistan

Reuters has a fascinating report today. It shows how the British have learned from the earlier months of their deployment to Helmand, Afghanistan, by adopting guerrilla tactics to target the Taliban along the fertile Helmand river. Previously the Taliban had taken advantage of the fact that the British were obliged to defend a small number of widely spaced 'platoon houses' in the major towns of northern Helmand. Although it is an implicit acknowledgement that the British forces in southern Afghanistan are overstretched, the Royal Marines' approach may turn the tables.