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Posts Tagged ‘middle east’

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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.”

Egypt, Jordan reproductive health changes — the new youth revolution

Jordan and Egypt made positive strides in reproductive health through the past several years but still have many challenges and opportunities to address, according to World Bank reports publicized yesterday.

Some of the key findings showed stark improvement in some areas: Egypt halved its infant mortality rate and malnutrition in children under five years old in the past two decades; 89 percent of Jordanian 15-year-old girls are literate; fewer than 2 percent of Jordanians live on less than $1.25 per day; overall fertility is declining, which is a positive for the overpopulated and youth-heavy nations; and use of modern contraceptives in both nations is increasing.

However, those pluses must be met with the sobering realities in each country. Contraceptive use among married women is just 60 percent in Egypt and 59 percent in Jordan. In Egypt, just 58 percent of women aged 15 and older are literate. Just 25 percent of Egyptian adult females work, mostly in agriculture. Fertility remains high among the poorest in each nation, creating large social problems. The poor are more at risk of early childbearing in each nation. HIV awareness is low in Egypt.

With 33 percent of Egypt and 35 percent of Jordan younger than 15 years old, tremendous opportunities exist to improve those statistics, the World Bank said. And if the revolutions in Egypt and Jordan (to a much lesser extent, of course) has proven anything, it’s that Arab youth are tired of being denied the standard of living so many other nations have. That means a path for grassroots reproductive health education has been paved, as raising the standard of living starts with healthy pregnancies.

Healthy pregnancies is an all-encompassing term. It doesn’t just mean birthing a functioning child — it means having a child at the proper age, having the right amount of children, being economically self-sufficient and having two parents. None of that will happen, however, without proper education and societal change that empowers women and promotes safe sex.

Both of those aims — empowering women and promoting safe sex — are complicated in the current Egyptian and Jordanian context. Still ruled and influenced by older religious men, women — especially in Egypt — are subordinate to men in every way. Additionally, contraception is frowned upon in Muslim society despite no explicit mention of banning birth control in the Qur’an.

These customs will be difficult to overturn in a top-down fashion. But, then again, the same would be said for changing governance — which is exactly why revolutions in Egypt and Jordan have been youth-led, grassroots efforts. The opportunity to change society and not only politics can be exploited in the same way. By directing the female empowerment and contraception message at the enormous youth populations in Jordan and Egypt, change will slowly occur. And this is change that does not require an election — it can happen everyday, with any person, whenever they choose.

Jordan report

Egypt report

Cutting US foreign assistance bad for economy, Arab democracy

August 2, 2011 1 comment

Everyone knows US foreign assistance is slated for spending cuts, but recent aid authorization bills show the major differences already forming between the House and Senate. Never has there been a better opportunity and greater need for democracy promotion and US aid than the Arab Spring. But if the House gets its way, that will mean a sharply decreased US role abroad — and, as I will argue, to the detriment of the US economy.

First, let’s start with the facts. The foreign assistance fund — which includes food aid, supporting stable democratic institutions and the like — is not in any way related to the defense budget. Politicians usually lump the two together, whether intentionally or not, because our military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have undertaken the ostensible role of democracy promotion. But when you look at the numbers, foreign assistance accounts for a mere 1 percent of the US budget. That still hasn’t stopped people like Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., from suggesting cuts of 44 percent by 2016. By comparison defense budget — cuts to which the House has tried to avoid — is the largest spending item in the US budget, comprising 24 percent of total spending this fiscal year.

Many people believe the US should turn inward — some argue the nation cannot project itself abroad when it cannot take care of its economic issues at home. I don’t buy that argument. US-based nongovernmental organizations will continue to do a lot of the heavy lifting overseas when it comes to international aid, but they will need government grants to keep major operations going. Denying those funds could lead to job loss, so keeping foreign assistance at current funding levels will keep Americans at work.

Also, it is in US economic interests to promote healthy governments and citizens because it will lead to economic rewards in the future. Corrupt, undemocratic governments will generally operate at the expense of their own people largely by keeping growing wealth for the government elite. That means people have less money to spend on more expensive American goods, which in turn dampens US overseas profits.

Curbing corruption will also ensure future US investment is not wasted. Billions of dollars of US investment — both from the federal government and private citizens or corporations — get lost among red tape or swindling politicians in corrupt foreign nations. Some of those nations — such as Afghanistan, Mongolia and India — sit on treasures of natural resources the US lacks, so US business interests are more than happy to invest. Cleaning up those states would produce a greater return on that investment.

In terms of the hopeful new Arab democracies, US foreign assistance can help build trust between those governing in Arab nations and the US officials with whom they will be communicating. It’s no secret that Egyptians oppose US meddling, a fear the military there is exploiting. But it’s not the Arab street the US must win over — it’s the new, democratically-elected leaders with whom the US must curry favor. The US already is training potential political leaders in Libya, Syria and Egypt — certainly a good start. The US wants to be the nation those new leaders look toward for guidance, but cutting foreign assistance will imperil the US ability to help guide new Arab democracies through the troubles they will encounter during nascent stages. In turn, that will dampen the ability to do everything from strike bilateral trade agreements to establishing and supporting sound human rights protections.

On top of the general budget malaise, a Foreign Relations Authorization bill currently going through the motions on Capitol Hill makes it more difficult for the US to use international aid in corrupt nations:

The corruption indicator has a range of uncertainly (especially around the median) and can have time lags of up to two years.  Using the control of corruption indicator as a hard hurdle for all U.S. economic and development assistance without addressing the inherent problems in the indicator could prove highly challenging.

That bill, pushed by the House (there also is a less restrictive Senate version) is not likely to pass in the Senate. But the writing is on the wall for US foreign assistance. If this debt ceiling fiasco proved anything, it’s that the House and Senate are beholden to very different interests and views. The House will champion spending cuts abroad because, rhetorically, it sounds good. The House will stomach defense cuts, but it will not digest those cuts easily. Still, it’s the assault on foreign assistance that should induce gagging.

 

Interesting essay on the Qur’an and beating women

August 1, 2011 2 comments

I don’t pretend to know the Qur’an, so I’ll refer you all to an informative analysis of Qur’anic verse and hadiths that discuss whether Muslim men may beat their wives. As I’ve argued before, some Muslim groups and nations oppress women more out of customary rather than textual Qur’anic interpretation. This essay at altmuslimah.com addresses that issue, but in much better detail than I ever could. It also discusses Qur’anic text juxtaposed with historical events and analysis that could justify Muslims beating their wives. Here’s an excerpt, but I encourage you to read the whole thing:

There are very mixed messages about “beating” in the hadith literature. Several reports seem to forbid it entirely; Abu Dawud quotes the Prophet as saying,: “Do not beat [women].” [9] In other narrations, the Prophet commands,: “Do not beat Muslims,” and warns that “anyone who gives a beating” will answer for it on the Day of Judgment. [10] Still other hadiths assume that a moderate level of beating is permissible in some situations, and admonish against beating a slave “more than he deserves.” [11]

Although the traditional view of 4:34 does affirm “beating,” Muslim scholars have narrowed its scope to the point where the term is almost meaningless. Based on a variety of hadiths, and the broader principles of Islam, they have ruled that any “beating” must avoid the face and must not cause injury. The Prophet allegedly used the Arabic words ghayr mubarrih to describe how it should be carried out. [12]When asked to explain this phrase, which can be rendered as “not violently,” a respected companion of the Prophet named Ibn Abbas suggested that the husband should strike his wife with a twig. [13] Classical scholars certainly agree that verse 4:34 does not condone domestic violence as we define it today, but they insist that the text does say “beat them.”

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