Saudi Arabia’s gender hegemony in the new Arab world

February 16, 2012 1 comment

For a nation that measures success in black gold, Saudi Arabia hopes sending one female athlete to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London will pacify gender equality activists. But meeting the International Olympic Committee’s bare minimum requirement for female participation is hardly a bold stance.

Taken in context, this is still Salafist-dominated Saudi Arabia, the hallmark of gender inequality in the Arab world. Putting it in another context, however, spells bad news for the clean Arab Spring slate regarding human rights.

From The Jerusalem Post:

Saudi Arabia, which follows a male-dominated puritan form of Islam that bars women from driving or travelling aboard alone follows strict gender segregation, is the last to buckle under to IOC demands. Since it is seeking athletes who live abroad, Saudi Arabia’s most likely Olympic female athlete is reportedly Dalma Rushdi Malhas, an 18-year-old equestrienne who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics. At that time, Malhas did not officially represent the kingdom.

From Tunisia to Egypt, women hoped bringing down dictators would usher in respect for women’s rights. Unfortunately, the hodgepodge revolutionaries’ power was far too scattered to mount a cohesive political front or voice. Yes, women’s rights, they said. But how? The question remains largely unanswered as political realities threaten to minimize liberal groups’ impact in nascent democracies.

The Kingdom of Saud is the counterbalance to the revolutionary hoopla. An overwhelmingly Sunni nation — much like the rest of the Arab world — asserting social values across the Persian Gulf with recently empowered fundamentalist political parties will likely slow the women’s rights agenda.

The Muslim Brotherhood and conservative groups like Ennahda were poised to jump into the political arena because, though marginalized under former reigns, were still organized political groups. This much is known, is history.

The future will reveal them to be more moderate than fearmongers predicted one year ago. Playing in the political system does these things, and those groups didn’t wait decades on the backburner within their respective nations to throw it all away on unpopular, autocratic initiatives.

But to each Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda there are even more fundamentalist groups. Their strength — and, to the same extent, liberal parties’ weaknesses — will determine whether groups like the Muslim Brotherhood invite them into coalitions. The Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt especially, recognized doing so would blatantly dismiss the work of the revolutionaries whose views are not reflected in ultra-conservative parties.

Viewed through this Olympic snafu, the Arab Spring hardly has had a liberalizing effect on Saudi Arabia. While expected, the ramifications of this resistance should not be understated. Undoubtedly, fundamentalist groups in new Arab democracies will follow Saudi Arabia’s lead, which is as hegemonic a force for fundamental political Islam as anywhere in the world.

If strong liberal parties in other Arab nations fail to emerge, Saudi Arabian influence may continue to grow as Egypt’s prominence declines. That will make it ever harder for women’s rights to gain traction.

 

 

Gaza Strip must pursue waste proposal for better economic future

January 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Creating two new landfills to alleviate the Gaza Strip’s three operating dump sites would provide much needed emergency fixes to the territory’s solid waste management program, the World Bank said in a report released this month.  Those long term measures would reduce groundwater contamination and air pollution stemming from the 1,450 tons of solid waste deposited daily in Gaza’s three near capacity landfills in Johr al Deek east of Gaza City, Sofa east of Rafah City and Deir al Balah in the territory’s center, the 23-page report said.

But local governments will need to raise revenue to finance the $9.6 million effort, the report said. That represents a major hurdle for the program considering a majority of residents find fees too high for the current level of service, and most cannot afford to pay them anyway, it noted.

“The three sites are reaching their maximum capacity, in addition to the fact that the expected amount of solid waste is expected to reach a round 3700 tons/day in 2040,” the report said. “Accordingly there is a growing need for establishing an integrated SWM (solid waste management program) that to adequately handle the growing waste generation rates in GS (Gaza Strip) with minimum impacts on public health and the environment.”

The unmonitored waste management program needs revision regardless of cost, the report said. With a growth rate of 3.2 percent in 2011, the Gaza Strip was the world’s seventh-fastest expanding population, according to the CIA World Factbook. At 360 square miles — roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C., for almost three times the people — it is the 205th largest territory in the world.

Such a concentration of people surrounded by faulty waste management yields catastrophic public health problems. Chronic illness and prenatal health risks posed by consuming contaminated water and food will continue to negatively affect citizens’ economic potential and threaten long term development prospects.

Sofa and Johr al Deek would get new landfills under the proposal, with three new transfer stations serving each site, the report said. Sofa would swallow 550 tons of solid waste daily beginning in 2011 and increase to 1,200 daily in 2032. That figure would rise to 3,000 tons daily in 2040, it said.

Uncontrolled dumping mixes harmful health care and hazardous waste, the report noted. Decomposition releases particulate matter and toxins into the air, thus contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and myriad other public health problems.

“The situation at the existing uncontrolled disposal site is associated with resident populations of vermin which are factors for increasing nuisances to humans and the spread of disease, and disrupting the natural ecosystem,” the report said. “The adoption of high standards for the new landfill, through compaction and daily coverage, will limit the potential for the development of resident populations of vermin and pests.”

Erecting borders in the new landfills could help mitigate some health problems the current system exacerbates. Scavengers often infiltrate the currently unprotected landfills, spreading health problems associated with the piles of waste, the report said. The outdated, boundary-free landfills also contribute to soil contamination as rainwater runoff carries toxins into the earth that so many in Gaza depend on for subsistence farming.

The proposed landfills will include base lining to contain toxic materials, the report said. A drainage layer also will divert leachate — the liquid containing solid particles — through a system of underground pipes, where the liquid will be pumped into a “leachate pond.”

Abu Dhabi green city the start of a new Middle East energy vision

November 8, 2011 1 comment

If Abu Dhabi were a canvas, few painters would consider using “green” to paint the skyscraper-clad urban desert oasis. Sure, the rich United Arab Emirates city pumps artificial green into its oven of a climate — tree-lined boulevards, expansive golf courses and other vegetation that could never survive without plundering a tremendous amount of resources give the metropolis a more Western feel.

Maintaining this Middle Eastern fantasy ecosystem comes at a heavy environmental and social price. Environmentalists last year warned, “the country, already reliant on costly desalination plants powered by its lucrative fossil fuels, must cut consumption by its 8.2 million people or risk depleting groundwater resources in 50 years,” according to a Reuters report.

It appears Masdar City, an Abu Dhabi community, took that message seriously. Masdar aspires to be the world’s first zero-carbon community and hopes waste timber will earn it that distinction. Masdar also will use native plants in landscaping, which require one-third the amount of water compared with Abu Dhabi’s penchant for unsustainable, unnatural flora. The city intends to divert 50 percent of all waste from landfills by recycling and reusing timber and other materials in the project’s first phase.

Sustainability practices are the first step in attracting research and business opportunities in other energy fields, especially for a region like the Gulf Coast. With European energy markets already more mature and those economies lacking the capital to initiate expensive, advanced projects, energy firms are looking toward emerging economies in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia Pacific for investment.

Scotland struck a deal with Masdar City on Monday to support  university research and other initiatives. That deal is potentially worth billions of dollars, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said:

“I firmly believe this agreement will yield great results for Abu Dhabi, great results for Scotland, and I do believe it will lead to significant advances that will benefit this entire planet. That’s the importance of what’s been talked about.”

As I’ve said in this space many times before, Middle Eastern nations must diversify their energy economies. That will that help avoid dependence on state-owned oil c0mpanies that prone to corruption. It also will provide a place for investment dollars, as energy firms are simply waiting for the next market to pop up so they can do something with all their money. In turn, that will spur research institutions — possibly leading to patents and valuable innovation — in Middle Eastern nations that desperately need to create skilled jobs for its educated, underemployed and young citizens.

The Middle East, with its well-documented dependence on fossil fuel production as a main economic driver, is an embryonic energy market. Energy pioneers there realize the benefits of technologies like PV solar, but too few people in the region have enough understanding of the technology for any sort of renewable energy movement momentum. However, investors will be more than ready when that momentum builds.

The Masdar City project is a good start, as it will get people in the region thinking about renewable energy and sustainability. Already, Masdar Institute, a graduate-level university focusing on renewable energy and sustainability, hosted a meeting with 12 UAE universities about joining the European Union-Gulf Cooperation Council (EU-GCC) Clean Energy Network. That organization strives to “build a functional partnership and extensive new networks relevant to renewable energy sources, energy demand side management and energy efficiency, clean natural gas & related clean technologies, electricity interconnections and market integration; as well as carbon capture and storage.”

The Middle East needs a new energy picture. It’s time to paint the region green.

Illness

Sorry I’ve been out of commission for the past few days. I came down with food poisoning/bacterial infection, so I probably won’t be updating a whole lot in the next week as I do my best to recover. One lesson for you all: don’t order the tuna salad sandwich at Au Bon Pain just before close.

Categories: Uncategorized

PA faces future with fewer donations

The Palestinian Authority has long been a political football in the Arab world, and that has never been more apparent than during the Arab Spring. Mahmoud Abbas’ request that wealthier Palestinians donate food from expensive iftar dinners — the meal following the daily Ramadan fast — to the poor exemplifies the drop in funding the PA has received from its Arab friends.

The last paragraph from this short Al Bawaba story is the most telling:

For months, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has warned of financial woes due to a chronic shortfall in financial support pledged by donors, especially Arab countries.

Arab leaders have long used Palestinians as a symbol of Western oppression. However, most of those autocratic Arab leaders held discriminatory views of Palestinians, relegating them to second-class citizens. Only Jordan accepts Palestinians into its borders, where they are treated more as a nuisance than an accepted portion of the population.

But the Arab Spring has made it clear that while the leaders viewed the Palestinian symbol as important, the Arab street has not. The Arab Spring was never about and never will be about Palestinians. Arab oppression occurred at home at the hands of their own government, not the West. That means when and if democratically-elected governments come into power, the Arab street will hold those politicians accountable for domestic problems. Those leaders will not be able to deflect problems on the West if they want to win re-election — the Arab street is no longer uninformed or naive. Communication technology has opened them up to how the Western world lives, and those societies are not built on oppression like the Arab world’s autocrats claim.

All this could reduce financial support for the PA. Arab politicians will realize their citizens care more about the domestic situation than some existential Western campaign of oppression in the Middle East. The fact few Arab protests have invoked the Palestinian cause in this Arab Spring shows how little that issue matters. Arab citizens will likely frown upon sizable donations to the PA if such donations lead to sacrificing domestic issues.

That means the onus is on the PA to develop its own economies. The West Bank has done an admirable job. Gaza, on the other hand, has not been as fortunate. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Rafah crossing at Egypt has any effect — and if the Muslim Brotherhood, which supports the PA, ramps up Egypt’s influence in the PA.

The West Bank has experienced significant economic growth during the past several years. Ramallah’s population doubled between 2000 and 2010, with Israel saying much of that growth came from removing various checkpoints. At the same time, checkpoints and security measures in the Gaza Strip have prevented the free flow of goods and capital needed for economic development. The West Bank, therefore, has grown at a much faster pace while Gaza has stagnated.

Arab countries comprise 20 percent of PA donations. The European Union, which is dealing with a significant monetary and debt crisis, amount to more than half of donations to the PA. Relying on this aid is unsustainable and unlikely to continue at its pre-recession rates.

The West Bank is doing relatively well, given its circumstances. Gaza, however, relies on direct donations because its economy has been stunted by heavy-handed Israeli security. Whether justified or not, there is no doubt Israel’s security apparatus damages Gaza’s economy.  I would argue economic development and opportunity would reduce terrorism’s draw and therefore mitigate Hamas’ role in Gaza, but I’m not going to waste my time, either. Things like the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that eventually led to increased terrorist attacks in Israel have given credence to hardliners’ views. But autonomy or lack of foreign military presence does not end terrorism. Only a better standard of living can reduce terrorism. That takes time.

Israel living standards protest gives way to settlement expansion argument

 

The Israeli protests about high living standards have opened the chasm between secular and ultra-orthodox Israeli Jews once again. West Bank settlers argue that expanding housing in the West Bank would reduce prices — a typical lesson in supply and demand that probably carries some value. The Israelis who started the protests, however, oppose that logic.

Most Israeli Jews are secular and hold an unfavorable view of the settlers who believe the West Bank is a necessary part of the Jewish state. I was reporting in Jerusalem in 2009 and witnessed this dynamic firsthand — that summer, ultra-orthodox Jews began demonstrating outside a Jerusalem parking lot that was open on Shabbat. Those protests continue today.

I am not advocating for settlement expansion. Still, while unpopular, the ultra-orthodox Jew’s comments in the video above make sense at a surface level — expand housing to meet demand. It’s a politically toxic argument to focus that expansion in the West Bank, but Jerusalem already is stretched pretty thin when it comes to finding land to develop new high-rises. The areas surrounding Tel Aviv — a mere 45 minutes from Jerusalem — are too arid for sustainable development.

But I do think the last person interviewed in the video above makes a prescient observation — ultra-orthodox Jews will try to co-opt this living standards protest and make it about settlement expansion. The argument ultra-orthodox Jews have pushed is easy to understand. Ultimately, there are few people on the fence in Israel when it comes to settlements. Even former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin called settlers crazy, although in more colorful terms. Therefore, the simple answer posited by ultra-orthodox Jews is not likely to convert anyone disinclined to settlement expansion.

Cartoon: Iraqi puppets

August 3, 2011 1 comment

As Iraq dithers on its decision regarding US troop extension beyond 2012, violence only increases in the war-torn nation. The cartoon shows the massive presence US boots have in Iraq, but that the military is simply biding its time as Iraq tears itself apart. Iraqis have increased suicide bombings, targeted their own oil fields and ramped up sectarian violence.

The US has long played puppetmaster in Iraq. All bets are off when the US cuts the strings. Instability and unpredictability are about the only things foreign investors and Iraqi citizens can count on. That will have a detrimental effect on investment and economic recovery for decades to come. Not only that, but a stressed economic system and security situation will only cement corruption in the hands of powerful, oppressive leaders who believe they must resort to force.

The US might have unnecessarily involved itself in Iraq when it went to war there in 2003, and it might leave Iraq’s society and economy even more tangled.

From UPI:

Stuart W. Bowen Jr. said in his quarterly report that June was the deadliest month for the U.S. military in more than two years, with 14 soldiers killed, The Washington Post said. Most of the deaths were the work of Shiite militias, he added.

“Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work,” Bowen wrote. “It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago.”

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