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Archive for June, 2011

Saudi private school teachers forced to take low wages or quit

While teachers in the United States are poorly paid, I don’t think they would settle for $533-$800 per month. But that’s what Saudi Arabian private school teachers are being forced to take, unless they’d rather quit.

Of course, the Saudi Arabia gross domestic product per capita was $14,799 in 2009 — about one-third of the U.S. And much of that GDP is locked into the royal family’s bank accounts. Saudi Arabia should put that money back into the economy in some way — funding education would be a good start — to ensure it doesn’t hang onto an unsustainable industry for its indefinite economic future.

From ArabNews.com:

Maha Al-Qadi, an elementary school teacher, said that she sees no justification for the school management to compel her to sign a new contract with a monthly salary of SR3,000 or resign.

“The order issued by the king should be fully enforced. It needs no further clarifications from the ministry or any other educational bodies,” she said.

Al-Qadi refused to sign the new contract and instead resigned.

“I tendered my resignation papers even though I am in dire need of money to support my family. But I have no regrets leaving the job,” she said while criticizing private school operators for their greed and exploitation.

This underfunding of education professionals will be a drain on one of the richest countries in the world. Saudi Arabia needs talented brainpower for the coming decades as oil reserves begins to deplete. It won’t necessarily be their own oil reserves running out, but if supply runs out around the world it will increase the cost of Saudi oil. That, in turn, could make importing oil too expensive and force more countries to turn to other fuel sources rather than being dependent on a foreign nation. And then Saudi Arabia will be left with an ancient industry and no backup plan.

This scenario is still decades away, but it is very real. Saudi Arabia should be using its oil revenues to support education, pay teachers and diversify the economy. Instead, the House of Saud keeps the revenues for itself.

Lebanon gets 3G, elevates its business attraction

Lebanon probably hasn’t paid too much attention to 4G iPhones, as the country just got 3G capability nationwide this week.

The new network should make Lebanon a more attractive destination for investment. It still has to get over the whole being a puppet of Syria and constant tension with Israel things, but this can only help — especially since Iraq and Syria are the only other 3G networks in the region.

The Middle East and Africa as a region had just 7 percent 3G cellphone penetration in 2009, one of the worst regions in the world for cellphone service. That number is expected to grow to 35 percent in 2014.

The Middle East has been a little slower than many regions on communications technology, but it is trending toward modernization. More Middle Eastern residents have cellphones than ever before, and it is one of the fastest growing regions for cellphone adoption.

Lack of economic diversity certainly has played a role in the Middle East’s slow adjustment to 3G. With so much of the Middle East dependent on the oil industry, there was little incentive for governments to make that investment because the oil industry could get along fine without it. Everyone needs oil, and production efficiency isn’t a big concern for buyers.

The 3G technology also could help protest movements, if Lebanese feel so inclined to join other Arab nations. Faster and more reliable communications technology would make Twitter even more viable.

From the Lebanon Daily Star:

The state-owned GSM operator is set to launch one of the latest versions of the 3G technologies, 3.9G, granting users Internet speeds of up to 170 MB per second, more than a 100 times maximum bandwidths of current 2G networks.

This is like bringing Lebanon out of the cellphone stone age. That alone should make it a more attractive place for business. It has the aforementioned shaky governance and political atmosphere issues to overcome, which will definitely inhibit investment. Still, businesses couldn’t have liked the idea of operating in a rapid-paced global world on a 2G network. This will certainly pay off.

“Middle East Marshall Plan” should include human rights promotion

U.S. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are planning a sort of Middle East Marshall Plan by tying U.S. intervention with business and economic interests. IF (and I say IF) this is what the U.S. decides to do to break its relative isolation during the Arab Spring, the senators should work to promote human rights at the same time.

This extremely nauseating puff piece about the war veterans/politicians/BFFLs seemed to care less about the news and  more about their on-again, off-again Beltway lovefest. I hope WaPo plans on a follow with some analysis, but in case they don’t, I’ll go ahead and do it anyway.

From The Washington Post:

The elder statesmen are also hoping to forge something resembling a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, aiming to spur massive private-sector investment across a region remade by revolution. The pair traveled to Egypt last weekend with eight Fortune 500 executives in an attempt to ignite investment in a country that has struggled since the February fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.

Human and basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech and free and open elections, ideally, would come before economic development. Without human rights, society is at greater risk of corruption and abuse.

The U.S. has had its rear end pinned to the pine when it comes to supporting revolutionary forces in the Arab Spring. So the first proactive approach the U.S. makes is to support investment and U.S. economic interests, which is not going to set off a ticker tape parade in most Arab countries.

By promoting human rights in tandem with economic interests, the U.S. will appear more benevolent and also secure more stable investments. Fortifying institutions such as free and open elections will make politicians more accountable and curb corruption, which will mean a more honest and even approach to things from government contracts to welfare. Human rights reform will reduce workplace abuses, alleviate gender wage and employment differentials and therefore lead to a more productive and stable economy.

There’s also the dangers posed by opening up economies to the global market when those nations do not have sound human rights protections. “Race to the bottom” scenarios could develop in which nations depress wages to earn a competitive advantage for foreign investment. It also makes exports cheaper and therefore more attractive in the international market, but at the expense of a nation’s own people because it decreases purchasing power. That, in turn, diminishes the opportunity to innovate and be entrepreneurial because citizens have less disposable income and have to provide for families on sub-standard wages.

This is obviously asking for a lot. Promoting business will address youth unemployment, one of the largest causes of the Arab Spring. That alone would go a long way. But the U.S. should aim to have equal involvement in helping craft institutions and human rights reform as it does in boosting the Middle East economy.

Ultimately, the U.S. is currying favor with future Arab leaders, and one way to do that is by bolstering those nations’ economies. The U.S. doesn’t negotiate trade or peace agreements with the Arab street, so I understand the tactic.

But the U.S. has often worried about its image in the Arab world, and its hesitance to support revolutionary forces has not been viewed positively by most Arabs. The perceived inconsistency of the State Department — intervening in Libya but not Syria, for example — only amplifies that negative image.

I truly believe a more active approach to human rights promotion is possible. There is a power vacuum in the Arab world, unlike China, where the U.S. has also used rhetoric rather than might to encourage human rights reforms. The Arab street genuinely wants the freedoms U.S. and other nations have, so I believe it would be more receptive to U.S. help.

Diplomatically, America’s hands are tied. Intervening on the side of revolutionary forces will send a signal to allies that the U.S. is fickle. But the Arab street sees a contradiction between U.S. actions and its purported values of freedom and liberty. Arabs see that as hypocrisy, which amounts to an image problem of the worst kind.

 

Impact of Jordan decision not to recognize Palestinian statehood

Jordan’s announcement that it would not recognize the Palestinian Authority’s seemingly imminent unilateral declaration of statehood will send shockwaves around the Arab world. While the Arab Spring has united the Arab world and occurred irrespective of the Palestinian statehood question, the Hashemite Kingdom’s stance will certainly provoke strong reaction.

Arab leaders have rallied around the Palestinian cause for political gain, although the only Arab country with a true vested interest in Palestinians is Jordan. Most Arab nations — Syria being the most prominent example — have used Palestinians as rhetoric and as a political football. Many Arab nations reject Palestinian citizens from entering their borders, as even the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been met with resistance.

Jordan's border with Israel and West Bank could be more volatile with Palestinian statehood

Jordan, however, begrudgingly accepted Palestinians. They are second class citizens in that country despite comprising nearly half the population. So if anyone is an authority on Palestinian statehood and refugees in the Arab world, it’s Jordan.

But as new Arab governments come to power, they may be less beholden to United States and other Western influences. The U.S. supported many Arab dictators — like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — because they were willing to support Israel’s right to exist. However, that view was not aligned with the Arab street in those nations. As democratically elected governments come to power in Tunisia and Egypt, and possibly Libya in due time, it will be more difficult for the U.S. to interfere and pressure those leaders to support the unpopular cause of aiding Israel.

Jordan may now have partially ostracized itself among a new group of Arab leaders by essentially breaking a party line. It will be interesting to see how accepted Jordan is when a new government in Egypt takes control. And if Bashar al Assad remains in power, Jordan will not be spared from his vitriol. Same goes for Iran.

Jordan’s stance on Palestinian statehood breaks from Arab solidarity on that issue. Jordan already has set itself apart from Arab nations by its cool but cordial relations with Israel, which may be more for Jordan’s own border security than shared ideological beliefs. Jordan maintains respectable ties with Israel out of necessity because they share a border. Their histories would not naturally align the two.

And that is why Jordan is making this decision — the border. A unilaterally-declared Palestinian state would mean Israeli involvement, as it could be considered aggressive behavior because Israel believes it has a right to settlements in the West Bank. Politically, Jordan had to try its best to maintain the status quo and keep as quiet a border as possible with Israel and the West Bank. By not lending its support to Palestinian statehood, Jordan shields itself from Israeli blame and the associated political ramifications.

The U.S. will undoubtedly veto any UN Security Council resolution, so the Palestinian Authority will have to appeal to the General Assembly for symbolic support of statehood. Nothing will be official until the Security Council agrees, which is unlikely for the indefinite future.

Side note:

Interestingly, the YNet story also had this to say about Palestinian identification papers in Jordan:

Meanwhile, the paper also reported that Jordan is preparing to cancel the identification papers provided for Palestinian statesmen and their families. The decision was explained as a move that began with a 1988 ruling “to disengage from the West Bank and maintain Palestinian identity”.

The wording is extremely vague. I’m not sure yet what it means to “cancel” identification papers. The papers were issued to Palestinian refugees beginning in 1988 to distinguish them from Jordanian citizens. The Jordanian government put a nice spin on it with that quote, but it ultimately has been used to discriminate against Palestinians in Jordan rather than to “maintain Palestinian identity” out of some source of nationalistic pride. By canceling these papers, are Palestinians in Jordan recognized as the same as Jordanians? Or are they now officially nomads with no national identity or rights? I’ll have to look into this.

Media quiet on Jordanian protests

June 29, 2011 1 comment

Jordanian protests have largely gone unreported by the U.S. media. Most likely it has something to do with the good relations Jordan had with the U.S. and the Hashemite Kingdom’s quiet border with Israel — because, let’s be real here, the U.S. was late to denounce Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak because of foreign policy implications with Israel.

Jordanian protests have not reached Egypt levels, which would be tough to do considering about half of the Jordanian population are Palestinians with very few rights to begin with — despite being such a large portion of the country, Palestinian representation in parliament is at its lowest ever at 12 percent. I can’t imagine much solidarity between Jordanians and Palestinians when it comes to calling for a new government, although they may both want the same thing. But if they do get the same thing, that means Palestinians could more equal representation and become an enormous bloc of the Jordanian parliament. That’s reason enough for Jordan to balk at true reform.

Ministers have resigned. Legislation curtailing media freedom has been introduced. The prime minister was cleared of a corruption charge despite being implicated in a parliamentary report. The government has been slow to act on promised reforms. There is fear prolonged protests will lead to Islamist gains.

Protests are happening. Corruption is happening. Read about it here, from Amman-based journalist Osama Al Sharif on ArabNews.com:

Jordan is locked in a vicious circle that threatens to deepen the current political and economic crises. The government headed by Marouf Bakhit is being chocked by scandals, resignations and public accusations that it is incapable, or unwilling, to carry out dire political reforms in response to royal directives and public demands.

On Monday the Lower House voted to exonerate the prime minister from charges relating to circumstances under which a casino license was granted to a foreign investor in 2007, when Bakhit headed his first government. Fifty-three deputies voted against him, but the motion was defeated even though a parliamentary report had implicated the prime minister. It was the latest in a series of political crises which have bedeviled the Jordanian government.

Last week Minister of Information Taher Adwan dealt a heavy blow to the government by resigning his post over what he described as amendments hostile to media freedom being introduced to laws that will be presented to the Lower House in spite of the Cabinet’s objections. He warned of forces that are trying to push Jordan toward a dangerous path.

Adwan’s walkout came two weeks after two other ministers resigned apparently over the case of convicted Jordanian businessman, Khaled Shaheen, who was allowed to leave the country earlier this year supposedly to seek medical treatment in the United States. Shaheen’s case became the force behind public protests across the kingdom driving accusations against the government of complicity in one of the most controversial corruption cases in recent times.

The government has initially defended its decision to allow Shaheen to leave his deluxe prison cell on humanitarian reasons, but under media and public pressures, the prime minister later admitted that there have been irregularities in the handling of the case.

Since public protests in Tunisia and Egypt broke out earlier this year, Jordan has been witnessing weekly demonstrations and sit-ins across the country demanding major political reforms and a strong crackdown on official corruption. Most of the government’s mega projects of the past few years have been blemished by accusations of corruption including a royal initiative to provide affordable housing to the country’s poor, and allegations concerning certain deals by an independent government corporation, Mawarid, an investment arm for the army, which is involved in a major development project in the heart of Amman.

The two most pressing issues for Jordanians today are political reforms and fighting corruption. Both are interrelated and both are believed to be connected to the bad economic situation in the country. In response to the first, and after weeks of protests, King Abdallah announced that the government has been instructed to oversee political reforms, especially with regard to introducing new elections and political parties laws.

A National Dialogue Committee, appointed by the prime minister and headed by Speaker of the Upper House Taher Al-Masri, met for almost two months and finally approved two pieces of draft legislations. It was boycotted by Jordan’s powerful Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Still the proposed laws were received with enthusiasm by the public and the media. The king said the government will refer the laws to Parliament for approval and in few years Jordanians will be able to elect their own government.

But after almost a month of submitting the draft laws, the government is yet to take action. It is now believed that the laws will be presented to Parliament in its next ordinary session this November. Meanwhile, another committee, appointed by the king, is yet to deliver its report on constitutional amendments. Political parties, especially the Islamists, have been calling for major changes to the constitution limiting the king’s powers and establishing a parliamentary monarchy.

The issue is a contentious one. Young Jordanians rallying under a movement calling itself the 24 March Youth were beaten and attacked by an unidentified mob when they lifted slogans calling for a constitutional monarchy in Jordan three months ago. The government denied any involvement and promised to investigate.

Another showdown took place in the eastern city of Zerqa two months ago when had-liners took to the street demanding freedom for their detained relatives. They clashed with the police and many were seriously injured from both sides. The hard-liners continue to march especially after a royal pardon issued recently failed to include members of their movement.

The fact that the government of Bakhit is embroiled in scandals makes it difficult for it to maintain credibility in the street, especially with regard to its ability to carry out political reforms. Jordanians are calling for its resignation and are appealing to the king to speed up reforms and defuse tension.

Pundits believe there are three forces working against each other in the Jordanian street today. The first is the conservative security apparatus, backed by old guard politicians, which is against adopting major political reforms for fear that they will benefit the Islamists. The second is the Islamist force, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is allied with other opposition groups. They are trying to pressure the palace to accept these reforms, fire the government and call for new elections. But there is a third force and that is the youth who are calling for a constitutional and other reforms but do not necessarily see themselves aligned with the Islamists. This last group is growing and gaining support as it becomes active in the street and on social media sites.

There is no doubt that the king is in favor of calculated reforms, but battling these forces is no easy task. In the absence of organized political parties, the common view is that the Islamists stand to gain the most in the future. Jordan is now at a crossroad and the street is frustrated with an impotent government, weak economy and allegations of widespread corruption. Unless concrete moves are made soon the pressure will continue to build up.

Egypt must push elections back to ensure political choice

June 29, 2011 1 comment

A call to eliminate Hosni Mubarak-era local councils in Egypt is another step toward clearing the political grounds of corruption. It shows the military is committed to transparency and a more functional government. Still, the nation should try to postpone its September elections to prevent a consolidation of power in the hands of the highly organized Muslim Brotherhood.

Representatives from Mubarak’s former party won widely presumed rigged elections to these countrywide local councils, so it makes sense to clear them out of office. There is a legacy of corruption with any officials tied to Mubarak, so good riddance.

Interestingly, Al Jazeera included this line:

Tuesday’s ruling followed calls by protesters for remnants of the old political order to be dismantled.

I don’t mean to twist words, so I’ll try not to. But the Muslim Brotherhood was a part of the old political order — albeit a marginalized one. But it was a part nonetheless, which means it is very much established. I am not saying it is anything like Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and I am not here to debate whether the Muslim Brotherhood is Islamist. All I am saying is the Muslim Brotherhood has an unfair advantage going into September elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood already had a hierarchy with clear leaders. As Egypt soon learned following Mubarak’s resignation, the protest movement lacked organizational structure befitting a political party. The movement had no focus following Mubarak’s fall. That created a power vacuum, which allowed the military — another already established group — to fill the void.

I don’t think the protest movement could have stepped right in and run the country or set up elections, regardless of how organized it was. The military has tried its best to provide security, and I’m not sure the peaceful Egyptian movement would have been able to ensure that sort of stability and command legal authority.

Still, the obvious confusion over how to become an organized political party is telling. And if Egypt rushes ahead with these elections, it could play right into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t believe the Muslim Brotherhood is to be feared, but it’s always good to have political opposition — the Muslim Brotherhood has very little right now.

The youth in Egypt led this revolution, so it would make most sense to allow the youth to devise their own parties rather than simply join the ranks of the older, established Muslim Brotherhood. This revolution was about choice and freedom to choose, freedom to speak. Young Egyptian voices could be quieted among the Muslim Brotherhood’s more experienced ranks.

As we learned, though, Egyptian youth can be loud. They have bold opinions. They have different ideas on how Egypt’s government should operate — beginning with the fact they don’t want it to operate like the last one.

Virtually the only strong party in the running right now was active during the last government. While there certainly needs to be caution about pushing the elections too far back and jeopardizing order and rule of law with extended military governance, it would be best for Egypt to give nascent political factions time to evolve into full-fledged parties.

Egypt forces clash with protesters

Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the nation’s military that has assumed control in a transitional government leading up to the country’s September elections,  clashed with protesters Tuesday night.

According to Zeinobia, who writes on Egyptian Chronicles, the 2,000-person protest in Tahrir Square started with a Tweetup. The Egyptian Ministry of the Interior has blamed out of control protesters for the dust-up.

The Associated Press reported a 5,000-person “rock-throwing” crowd was met with tear gas and force.

Video from Associated Press:

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