To revisit the Arab world two decades later is to find that in many ways history continues to pass the Arabs by. Freedom? The Arabs are ruled now, as they were then, by a cartel of authoritarian regimes practised in the arts of oppression. Unity? As elusive as ever. Although the fault lines have changed since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait 19 years ago, inter-Arab divisions are bitter. Egypt, the biggest Arab country, refused even to attend April’s Arab League summit meeting in Doha. Israel? Punctuated by bouts of violence and fitful interludes of diplomacy, the deadly stalemate continues. -- The Economist
Special Report on The Arab world - Waking from its sleep -Economist
Jul 23rd 2009
The Arab world has experienced two decades of political stagnation, says Peter David (interviewed here). But there is a fever under the surface
IN A special report on the Arab world which The Economist published in 1990, the headline at the top of this page was “When history passes by” (see article). That was when the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe were beginning to wobble and fall. In the Arab world, however, authoritarian rule remained the order of the day. And whereas Western Europe was making massive strides towards political and economic union, the Arabs remained woefully divided. Much Arab opinion remained fixated on the struggle with Israel, in which the Arabs seemed unable to hold their own, let alone prevail.
To revisit the Arab world two decades later is to find that in many ways history continues to pass the Arabs by. Freedom? The Arabs are ruled now, as they were then, by a cartel of authoritarian regimes practised in the arts of oppression. Unity? As elusive as ever. Although the fault lines have changed since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait 19 years ago, inter-Arab divisions are bitter. Egypt, the biggest Arab country, refused even to attend April’s Arab League summit meeting in Doha. Israel? Punctuated by bouts of violence and fitful interludes of diplomacy, the deadly stalemate continues. Neither George H. Bush at Madrid in 1991 nor Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000 nor George W. Bush at Annapolis in 2007 succeeded in making peace or even bringing it visibly closer.
The stubborn conflict in Palestine is a reminder that in some doleful ways history has not passed the Arabs by at all. They have seen plenty of history of the wrong sort these past two decades. It includes a good deal of violence: the Arab world has been caught up in wars both major and minor, not only between Arabs and outsiders, such as those with Israel, but also between, and within, Arab states.
Indeed 1990, the year Saddam invaded Kuwait, was something of a turning point. America’s quick eviction of his army from the tiny oil state after only 100 hours of ground fighting looked at the time like a triumph. But a case can be made that this was in fact the starting-point of a whole sorry sequence of events encompassing the rise of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s September 11th strikes on the American mainland and—in Arab eyes—America’s no less traumatic invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 in its “war against terror”.
Wars can happen anywhere. What makes the Middle East especially prone to them? Just count the ways. First is oil. In the late 1990s Mr bin Laden wrote a letter to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, in which he pointed out that 75% of the world’s oil was found in the Persian Gulf region and that “whoever has dominion over the oil has dominion over the economies of the world.” So long as that remains broadly true, the interests of energy-hungry powers from near and far will continue to grind against each other there.
Second is the continuing and worsening Arab, and lately also Iranian, conflict with Israel. Since 1990 thousands more Arab and Israeli lives have been thrown into the maw of this voracious struggle—in the Palestinian intifada (uprising) that started after the collapse of Mr Clinton’s Camp David peace summit in 2000, and in Israel’s ruthless mini-wars in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza at the beginning of this year.
The last and perhaps greatest underlying cause of instability arises from the nature of the Arab states themselves. Elections are widespread in the Arab world. And yet if you put aside the Palestinians’ imaginary state, hardly any of the 21 actual states that belong to the Arab League can plausibly claim to be a genuine democracy. In the absence of democracy, Arab states therefore rely to an extraordinary degree on repression in order to stay in power. And from time to time this system of control breaks down.
A spectacular example came in Algeria in 1991, when the army blocked a promising experiment in free elections that was starting to unfold under President Chadli Benjedid. After an opposition Islamist party won in the first round of parliamentary elections, the generals blocked the second, and so detonated a gruesome civil war that lasted almost a decade and may have killed 200,000 people. In the 1990s internal terrorism stalked Egypt too: radical Islamist movements such as Islamic Jihad and the Jamaat Islamiya claimed more than 1,000 lives. And although most of Egypt’s erstwhile jihadists have long since renounced violence, others—notably Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mr bin Laden’s number two—went on to found and lead al-Qaeda.
Tribes with flags
The political instability of the Arab world is in turn connected to another problem: the missing glue of nationhood. Many years ago an Egyptian diplomat, Tahsin Bashir, called the new Arab states of the Middle East “tribes with flags” (though he exempted Egypt). His point still holds. In countries as different as Lebanon and Iraq, ethnic, confessional or sectarian differences have thwarted programmes of nation-building. That is why Iraq fell apart into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish fragments after the removal of Saddam despite decades of patriotic indoctrination. Syria could follow suit if the minority Alawi sect of the ruling Assad family were somehow to lose control of this largely Sunni country. Sudan has seen not one but two civil wars between its Arab-dominated centre and the non-Arab minorities in its south and west.
In reviewing this litany of troubles, it is necessary to remember that what people call “the Arab world” is a big and amorphous thing, and arguably (see article) not one thing at all. It would be a distortion to portray the whole region as a zone of permanent conflict. However bloody they have been, the wars in Iraq, Algeria, Sudan or on the borders of Israel have not disrupted ordinary life in the whole Arab world. Most Arabs have been touched by the violence only through their television screens (though, as we shall see, the powerful emotions such images stir up have real-world consequences too). Many Arab countries can look back over the past two decades and see elements of progress to be proud of, including, in some places, rising prosperity and a slow but steady expansion of personal freedom.
And yet the years of conflict cannot just be written off, as if the various outbreaks of internal or inter-state violence were just local aberrations or the product of bad luck, or as if they had no bearing on the region’s future prospects. It is not just that, if you add all the bloodletting together, up to a million citizens of the Arab world may have perished violently since 1990, and that killing on this scale cannot but leave deep scars (see table 2). The disturbing point for the future is that none of the underlying causes of conflict enumerated above has disappeared. On the contrary, each appears to be taking on the characteristics of a chronic condition.
Take the contest over energy resources. This stands little chance of abating at a time when the energy appetites of China and India continue to grow and when a beleaguered America and a rising Iran are competing for domination of both the Levant and the Persian Gulf. As for Palestine, peace looked more achievable during the negotiations initiated by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in the 1990s than it does now, with Hamas and a Likud-led government in Israel darkening hopes of a two-state solution. In most Arab countries the glue of nationhood is still weak: the sectarian conflict in Iraq may intensify again as America begins to withdraw its forces (and Shia-Sunni tensions have spread beyond Iraq). Lastly, in almost any Arab country, at almost any time, political and social discontent is in danger of tipping into violence—even, some insiders and outsiders are beginning to argue, into revolution.
Detainees in Saudi Arabia
An awful lot
Jul 23rd 2009
A human-rights report takes the kingdom to task
SINCE the attacks on New York’s twin towers in 2001, “the Saudi authorities have imposed a range of counter-terrorism measures that have worsened what was already a dire human-rights situation.” So says Amnesty International, a London-based human-rights lobby. Its latest report follows an official Saudi announcement earlier this month that 330 people had been convicted on charges of terrorism, with sentences ranging from fines to (in one case) death by beheading, with just seven defendants acquitted; of those convicted, 42 would never be freed without “repenting” before a judge. Some 660 people are still in the dock, undergoing a trial that began in March. Another 2,000-plus are reckoned to be behind bars; when or whether they will be tried is not yet clear.
Between 2003 and 2007, some 9,000 people have been held on suspicion of terrorism at one time or another in Saudi Arabia; around 6,000 are thought to have been freed without trial. A large minority of those detained are from Egypt, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Quite a number of them, says Amnesty, are civil-rights campaigners who have plainly had nothing to do with terrorism or jihad.
Repent or be damned
After being hit by a string of jihadist bombings and attacks between 2003 and 2006, the Saudi security service seems, for the time being, to have contained the violent opposition. But the number of people behind bars suggests that the well of discontent will not easily be drained. The authorities are particularly pleased with a “re-education” programme under which some 1,500 extreme Islamists are said to have been persuaded to mend their ways and have been released back into the community. Scores of them, however, are known to have reverted to prior form, with some making their way to back to jihadist strongholds in such places as Yemen, to the lawless south of the kingdom.
This apparent hardening of the authorities’ approach to suspected opposition, whether violent or not, comes despite a number of notable if tentative steps taken since 2001 to modernise the Saudi judicial system. A “code of law practice” has been enacted, along with a “law on criminal procedures” which is supposed to limit to six months the period of detention that can elapse before a trial must be held; all defendants should, in theory, have access to legal assistance. Last year it was reported that a law had been drafted to provide for the setting up of independent associations, though there is no hint that political parties will be allowed. But no word has been heard of the law being passed.
Before the present trials began, the Saudi foreign minister said they would be in public, defendants would have “full guarantees” (presumed to include their own lawyers) and local human-rights outfits would monitor the proceedings. None of this has happened. The trials have been in secret. No defendant has even been publicly named. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby that has had marginally better access to the Saudi authorities, was refused permission to attend. Amnesty has never been allowed into the country. At this rate it never will be.
The Arabs' view of Iran
Jul 16th 2009 |CAIRO
Most Arab governments are queasy but the people feel more ambivalent
AS PUBLIC protest in Tehran seems to dwindle, at any rate on the streets, many Arab leaders are quietly exhaling a sigh of relief. At first, a lot of them were quite chuffed by the sight of turmoil in Iran, since they have long felt edgy about their big neighbour’s rising ambition and influence in the region. But as time passed they began to feel queasier: the prospect of revolution in the streets, albeit those of a rival power, is not something most Arab regimes, wedded to the status quo at home, truly welcome.
Arab governments, like most others, had expected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be easily re-elected as Iran’s president. For regimes that oppose Iran and worry about its support for radical Arab groups such as Hizbullah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Mr Ahmadinejad’s continuing tenure seemed happily to guarantee more bad blood between Iran and the United States. A number of conservative Arab leaders are worried that Barack Obama’s apparent eagerness to re-engage with Iran could increase its clout in the region, to the detriment of moderate Arabs.
Leading this camp are the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and their Sunni royal family also fear that the Iranians will stir up the large Shia minority in their oil-rich Dhahran province in the east. In the past few years the Saudi and Egyptian governments have occasionally let their media descend into anti-Shia bigotry and old-fashioned Persia-bashing.
But their officials have generally stayed silent, resisting the temptation to tweak the noses of the ruling clergy in Tehran, since they rail against interference from outside when it comes to their own politics. But they have been quite happy to let the state media ridicule Mr Ahmadinejad.
On the other side are Syria and the rich little Gulf state of Qatar, which sympathise with Iran’s regime, help Hamas and Hizbullah, and welcome Mr Ahmadinejad’s re-election. After an initial period of awkward silence, when they said the “democratic process” should take its course, they have often resorted to mocking Arab calls for democracy in Iran. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, who deposed his father in a coup in 1995, quipped that “Iran has had four presidents since its revolution, while some Arab countries have not changed their leaders at all.”
Indeed, among Arab republics, only Algeria and Lebanon have had as many recent heads of state as Iran. Many ordinary Arabs know this—and have felt confused about whether or not to side with Iran’s street protesters. They tend to admire Mr Ahmadinejad’s fierce hostility to America and Israel, and are ashamed of their own governments’ far more pliable attitudes on that score. They also tend to believe official Iranian claims that American and Western agents have been trying to stir up a “colour revolution” in Iran. Yet, as they saw the pictures of hundreds of thousands of people taking to the street, they will have been envious too. However flawed Iran’s version of democracy, it still looks more a lot more real than the typical Arab one.
Trouble in the United Arab Emirates
The perils of autocracy
Jul 9th 2009 | ABU DHABI AND DUBAI
When things go swimmingly, few people seem to mind being run by benevolent autocrats. When things get sticky, they are less obliging
IT WAS once hailed as a miracle. New cities, even new islands, were springing out of the desert or the shimmering turquoise sea. Nowadays, ten months after the financial crisis came crashing in on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), nearly destroying its shiniest component, Dubai, hundreds of cranes and dredgers have yet to resume work. The Queen Elizabeth II, once the world’s smartest liner, due to become yet another posh Dubai hotel, is a sleeping quayside hulk. Nothing is happening on three of the most recently man-made islands shaped like palm trees off Dubai’s coast that were the latest flashy projects of Nakheel, the emirate’s shaky real-estate developer.
These days, despite defiant protestations of resilience, no one seems to know when the sweet breeze will return. The UAE is still in the doldrums. For the first time since the seven Gulf statelets joined together as a union in 1971, people are beginning to mutter—rather quietly, for sure— whether there may be something amiss with the autocratic, opaque system that hitherto seemed to work so well behind closed doors. “Nobody really knows what any of the statistics are,” says a Western analyst. “We haven’t seen the half of it yet,” says a Western banker, referring to the debt and the possible defaults. It is notable that almost nobody in business or government is prepared to talk publicly. Cohorts of public-relations people surround the bigwigs and shield them from scrutiny.
In the past few weeks it has become clear, nonetheless, that the bottom has yet to be reached. Standard & Poor’s (S&P), a credit-rating agency, has issued a string of recent gloomy assessments, downgrading four Dubai-based banks and noting that “the risk to Dubai’s economy has increased as the real-estate sector has entered a sharp correction period.” Property values are still about half what they were a year ago.
Some foreign building and dredging companies have not been paid for months, and some Dubai companies are offering to pay them only partially. S&P grimly notes the “increased uncertainty regarding the government’s willingness to provide support to Nakheel, a key government-related entity with sizeable repayments coming due at the end of this year.” The amount is $3.5 billion. A visiting British trade minister took the rare step, on July 4th, of publicly declaring, while insisting that Dubai would bounce back, that British contractors and suppliers “need to be paid”. Earlier this year a leading Dubai figure said that the statelet’s consolidated debt was around $80 billion, but no one has issued a detailed breakdown of accounts; only a minority of Dubai companies are listed. Others say that the true sum of debt may be closer to $120 billion.
In February Dubai’s department of finance issued the first $10 billion chunk of a bond totalling $20 billion to help stave off the creditors, open new lines of credit and reschedule debt. Now, at a time when international banks are still loth to lend, it has been reported that the second chunk will be guaranteed by the UAE’s government. More may still be needed.
It is not clear who is in charge—apart from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler (pictured above), whose big interest is racehorses. He appointed a respected local man, Nasser al-Shaikh, to take over the department of finance and sort out the crisis. It was reckoned that, for a start, he would be empowered to identify the size of the debt, both commercial and government (often one and the same) and the extent of Dubai’s toxic assets. But in May he was summarily and mysteriously sacked. Some think he was blocked from looking too closely into the accounts at Nakheel, among other firms. Otherwise the old-guard management of Dubai—and the UAE—is still pretty intact. No one has been held responsible.
Putting your hands over your ears
The two buzz words in Dubai’s business and media circles are “denial” and “bail-out”. A persistent complaint is that the authorities—in particular, the ruling family of Dubai and its acolytes, led by Sheikh Muhammad—took far too long to recognise the gravity of the crisis when it broke in September. “They were splashing about in the water when they should have been swimming across the channel,” says another Western banker. In October Nakheel was still parading grandiose development schemes. It was not until January that Sheikh Muhammad summoned Dubai’s top businessmen and ministers to take stock and plan a recovery. For months the Maktoums seemed to be in denial.
In the short run, the much richer and more conservative state of Abu Dhabi, with 90% of the UAE’s oil reserves, will bail out its miscreant, extravagant neighbour, along with the other five, poorer statelets if they need help too. “In the long run, Dubai has enough assets to tide it over,” says a banker in Abu Dhabi, pointing to Dubai’s huge container trans-shipment business, its airline, aluminium smelter, tourism, and role as a regional services hub. Above all, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are too enmeshed to allow one part to fail.
Indeed, the Dubai disaster may prompt Dubai’s Maktoum family and Abu Dhabi’s ruling Nahyans to strengthen the federation and work towards a system of greater accountability and openness. A half-appointed Federal National Council is toothless, though it can now call ministers before it. The legal system, including commercial law, is weak; there is no proper bankruptcy code; there is no real tax base— nobody pays tax on his personal income.
Above all, in the words of a longtime adviser to the government, “you have a confusion between government and commercial operations. There is nobody in Dubai in government who isn’t first and foremost a businessman.” There are “massive conflicts of interest” across the board. “There are no checks and balances…the incentives for saying nothing are great.”
Abu Dhabi is ahead of Dubai in terms of government openness and efficiency. But in both the emirates all the big decisions are still taken behind closed doors. In the mild words of a diplomat, “neither Abu Dhabi nor Dubai are very good at clarity in decision-making.” Vital decisions are often not put in writing.
The aim of the two ruling families has been to modernise and open up the economy without modernising or opening up the politics to the extent that the people might one day dispense with their royal rulers. In the short run, there seems little chance of that happening. The expatriates who manage much of business have little say in the running of the place, but are generally content to live well and ask no questions about delicate matters of state. An English-language newspaper, the National, backed by the Nahyans, has opened a healthy space for discussion, though royal scandals or provocative words like “bail-out” or “in denial” are virtually taboo.
The indigenous emiratis, who count for less than a fifth of the 5m people living in the UAE, have hitherto been mollycoddled by benevolent rulers. In a couple of years, a recovery may ensue. A resurgence of oil prices is helping. But if the economy gets stuck, the glory days, at least of the Maktoums, may be numbered.
The United Arab Emirates and Sudan
An odd deal over land
Jul 9th 2009 | JUBA
Are Gulf Arabs taking a chunk of South Sudan for themselves?
THE pristine grasslands of south-eastern Sudan may be the largest trackless swathe of Africa. The annual migration of wild game across the Boma plateau may equal the more famous annual migration through Tanzania’s Serengeti plains. Yet for the next 50 years, under a recent discreet deal, some 16,800 square kilometres (6,180 square miles) of this wilderness will become the estate of a company which—it is presumed—has won approval from the ruling Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi, the richest of the seven statelets that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The leasing agreement was signed by a company called Al Ain National Wildlife after an earlier failed attempt by another company in the UAE to buy exclusive access to 6,500 square kilometres of the Serengeti plains in northern Tanzania. If well run, large slices of land bought up or leased by rich patrons may help preserve the area for future generations of locals. But some say the deal has been struck without the involvement of ordinary locals and say that aircraft registered in the UAE are already flying equipment to a camp in the Maruwa Hills to start building a resort.
Under the agreement, a copy of which was obtained by The Economist, Al Ain promises to build top-class hotels as well as the semi-permanent tented camps favoured by most up-market safari companies. Some conservationists wonder if the visitors may be looking for big-game trophies, despite a general ban on hunting in the south.
Other southern Sudanese discern strategic implications. They say the Emiratis, with their cargo aircraft, helicopters, road-building equipment, lorries and jeeps, may end up running an area of Sudan about as big as Denmark with little interference. They also wonder whether Al Ain and its contractors will employ Muslim security people from the north, who are generally distrusted by the Christian and animist southerners.
If Sudan’s north and south return to war, as may happen if the southerners try to secede in 2011 under a north-south agreement signed in 2005, sceptical southerners say that northerners might try to use the airstrip to bring in troops and weapons, though there is no suggestion that Al Ain would be party to such activities. As things stand, Al Ain is apparently already able to fly aircraft from the UAE in and out of South Sudan with no restriction or inspection.