Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Iraqi de-Bathification Purges Continue to Intensify

With the Iraqi elections only a week away, the de-Bathification measures that already banned over 600 candidates have been intensifying of late. Though there has been some decent coverage of these purges in the press the last month or so, the latest micro-level de-Bathification developments and their negative impact on the rule of law in Iraq haven't gained much traction yet in US media outlets.

The issue of the de-Bathification purges has dominated the public discourse throughout the campaign period. The largest Shi'i coalition - the Iraqi National Alliance - has been strongly pushing the issue, and not just through the de-Bathification committee headed by Ahmad Chalabi and Ali al-Lami. Though the de-Bathification committee announced Thursday that it was purging 376 officers (20 of whom are high-ranking) from the Iraqi army and police, the purging of civil servants with alleged Bathist ties has now gained substantial traction throughout the Shia-majority provinces of Iraq's south. The provincial governments that are headed by Dawa and ISCI have been following the lead of Chalabi and Lami in Baghdad and have begun implementing micro-level purges throughout their respective provinces.

Though Maliki is legally able to overrule the decisions of the de-Bathification committee, he cannot afford to do so when the national elections are only a week away. In this respect, the Iraqi National Alliance (for whom Chalabi and Lami are candidates) has politically boxed Maliki into a corner. Maliki can't overrule their decision lest he risks looking sympathetic to these alleged Bathists. That will certainly not win him many votes among his core constituency. So in response to the de-Bathification blitz being pushed by Chalabi and the INA, Maliki and his Dawa party have actually been organizing demonstrations in favor of the purges, and Dawa-dominated provincial councils have been pushing through micro-level purges themselves. So much for the 'Rule of Law'.

It is clearly evident that not only have these purges been used to weaken the secular/nationalist current in Iraqi politics at a critical time before the election, they are being implemented at the security and micro-levels of Iraqi society to fundamentally alter the balance of power in favor of the Shia religious parties (most notably ISCI). These parties that comprise the INA and who are close allies of the Iranians don't really have anything substantive to run on in these elections. They got hammered in the provincial elections of 2009, and their continued inability to provide reliable services to their constituencies hasn't made them any more popular. Hence their emphasis on identity politics and their persistance in pushing the Bathist witch hunts.

Since there seems to be no Iraqi institutional capacity for resisting the de-Bathification board's legally dubious high-handedness, how far will these purges go? So far the international community's response has been fairly muted. The US has made a little noise over it, but clearly not enough to have any effect on Chalabi and Lami. US Ambassador Christopher Hill spoke about the controversy at a press briefing in Washington last week and sounded worryingly optimistic, claiming that he thinks "we've gotten through that issue." The fact of the matter is that the issue is not through with; it is most likely far from over. The recent intensification of the purges demonstrate that. And just because the issue may not generate much violence (most of the disenfranchised groups don't have the capacity to take on the Iraqi security forces) doesn't mean the problem isn't important. A functional Iraq depends on the rule of law and capable institutions. The last six weeks have revealed just how non-existent these two principles are in the current state of affairs in Iraq.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Jeremiads on Dubai

There have been a lot of doomsday predictions lately regarding Dubai's future. Consider this FP article on the emerging literature that has sprung up criticizing Dubai's model of development and anticipating the city's imminent downfall. Critics of the city point to a staggering number of legitimate shortcomings: Dubai is over-leveraged, its development model is unsustainable, its cultural vision is contradictory, its population is under-educated, its institutions are bureaucratic and corrupt, its labor conditions are miserable, its buildings are shiny but substance-less and now empty, its judicial system is arcane, and it is now attracting an array of unsavory criminals, smugglers, and racketeers.

All of the above criticisms of Dubai are, in my opinion, entirely valid. The city-state grew too fast during the boom years. It built in order to impress, not to develop. It tried to market itself as a meeting place between East and West, as a cosmopolitan melting pot in the Arab world. The problem is Dubai thought this utopia could be bought (or borrowed and then bought) rather than being cultivated over time.

Curious people from around the world were unsurprisingly drawn to this strange new phenomenon happening in the deserts of the Arab Gulf. They came, they took photos, some of them even settled down for a bit. Now they are all gone. With the unveiling of the new Burj Khalifa, Dubai seems not to have quite learned its lesson. The city is still trying, now increasingly desperately, to attract the world's attention with another superlative, hoping that no one will notice that they have yet to find enough find tenants to fill the monolith.

All that being said, I think the Jeremiads on Dubai are overblown. The bloom may be off the rose -- but the rose still remains. Dubai, for all its myriad flaws, has a lot going for it. For example, Dubai is the sixth busiest port in the world with thousands upon thousands of containers passing through on their way from the East to the West and back again. The only ports with more traffic than Dubai are the megaports of East Asia -- Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Busan. The next largest port within even the general vicinity of Dubai is Mumbai, at number twenty-seven. In the Middle East, Jeddah is second, with a ranking of thrirty-two and about a quarter of the traffic of Dubai.

Dubai's port is likely its greatest and most sustainable long-term asset. Think of Singapore, another city that had its fair share of skeptics and detractors in the 1970s. Its position as one of the largest ports in the world (today it is number one) has propelled it on a bull-run of multi-decade economic growth, such that it now ranks as one of the world's greatest metropolises. The Dubai port generates a huge amount of commercial activity in the city, which is the original reason that so many different companies in various industries originally decided to set up shop there. As long as the hum of port activity persists, many of these industries and companies are likely to remain.

Dubai also has a slightly less tangible asset working in its favor -- inertia. Yes, the city has seen hitches recently. But are all those companies that relocated to Dubai, convinced it was going to be the new urban center of a fast-growing emerging market, really going to pick up and relocate? Is the marginal benefit of moving down the road to Abu Dhabi, or across the sea to Doha, or further into the desert to Riyadh really that great? Dubai may have tripped, but it will take a lot more than a single sovereign debt debacle to cause a true mass exodus. As long as the Gulf remains a key emerging market (and with oil supplies still plentiful, that will likely be for a while), it will need a regional capital out of which firms can base their operations. For the foreseeable future Dubai still looks like the most likely city to have that honor.

No doubt Dubai's glory days are over. But the city-state can still learn from the poor choices of the past decade and right itself. It can get itself back on a road to growth and development, though this time it will have to be at a much more restrained and sustainable pace.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Future of Iraq's Executive Trinity

Reidar Visser, a savvy Iraq analyst on the Gulf Research Unit at the University of Oslo and editor of the Iraq blog historiae.org, has just written a great piece in The National newspaper on the fate of Iraq's triumvirate executive council.

Here's the gist of his article. Back in 2006, the government headed by Prime Minister Maliki was formed under a transitional framework that mandated the following: the Iraqi president would be selected by a 2/3 supermajority in the Iraqi parliament. The two vice presidents would also be approved in the same vote. So not only was a supermajority consensus required to establish the three man executive council, but it was essentially a package deal. Furthermore, the dominant political parties agreed that the executive trinity should reflect Iraq's three main ethno-sectarian groups. Needless to say, the process of hammering out a consensus deal that could survive the supermajority vote took a long time. Only after the executive council was approved by parliament could the Iraqi president ask Maliki to form a government. Back in 2006, this process took an agonizingly long six months.

However, as mentioned above, the rules that guided the process in 2006 were only meant as a transitional mechanism. The new rules stipulate that Iraq's president not need a 2/3 parliamentary supermajority to be elected - only a majority. In addition, the president and vice presidents are to be elected on different votes (it's no longer a package deal). Beyond that, there is no stipulation that the executive triumvirate be comprised of a Shi'i, Kurd, and Sunni Arab. Given these new rules, it will be much easier to select a president and vice presidents. This means that the formulation of a new government following the March 7th elections should happen a lot faster than in 2006.

This change also has significant implications for identity politics in Iraq. Sectarianism has governed the political dynamic in Iraq since 2003. I'd like to emphasize that this in no way was inevitable; rather, the policies pursued by Bremer's CPA during the crucial years of 2003 and 2004 enshrined sectarianism into the Iraqi political system. Because of this sectarian political dynamic and the salience of identity politics in recent years, the dominant political parties were united in nothing more than the desire to cling to power. All of the parties involved in the ruling coalition had conflicting interests; there was hardly any ideological coherence among them. This explains why the past four years have seen hardly any real political accomplishments.

However, abandoning the principle of a supermajority means diminishing the number of special interests that need to be accomodated simply to form a cabinet. This creates space for alliances to form around horizontal forms of association (issue based) rather than vertical ones (identity based). In short, it will be easier for coalitions to find ideological coherence.

At stake here is how Iraq chooses to define itself. Does it see itself as a compartmentalized nation, consisting of monolithic ethno-sectarian groups? It seems that the Iraqi exiles who returned in 2003 see Iraq that way; it was they and their U.S. allies that promoted and entrenched this sectarian political dynamic. It should also be noted that Iran has a vital stake in perpetuating a sectarian political system in Iraq. As long as that system continues, their Shi'i allies (primarily ISCI and other smaller Shi'i groups) have an advantage. However, Iraqis could make an attempt to transcend this dynamic by eschewing an ethno-sectarian quota for the executive council. Abandoning this quota could signal a shift in the nature of the political dynamic. It could trigger a salience of issue-based rather than identity-based politics. Then again, the upcoming election may not even settle the issue or offer any tangible indication as to where the political dynamic is heading. We'll start to find out in two weeks when the polls close and the drama heats up.

The Love Lives of M.E.S. Students: More Problems than Methods

Having been witness (and perhaps party to) many stilted and uncomfortable conversations that do not include references to Foucault but are, instead, attempts to enter into relations with an attractive classmate, I am convinced that Middle Eastern Studies students are particularly awkward when it comes to romance. To some extent, the awkwardness of gender relations in the field can be attributed to the region’s own rigid gender divisions and conservative social culture. For instance, one would expect Lain American Studies students to be relatively more adept in this arena because of the region’s inherent sensuality and its peoples’ unbridled hedonistic impulses. (In particular, Paraguay has gained the reputation of being a bastion for pleasure-seekers.)

I seek here not only to problematize gender relations as they manifest themselves in daily graduate student life, but to suggest a new framework for how these gender relations may evolve. For that purpose and in belated celebration of Valentine’s day, I have composed a few pick-up lines, customized for students of the region. While making reference to common subjects of interest, these pick-up lines also subvert and complicate assumptions about the nature of romance in contemporary MESAstan. Note of qualification: Though these pick-up lines display a distinct heteronormative bias, they are in no way meant to support the unstable, socially-constructed categories that characterize gender.

1. Why don’t we continue this conversation about forms of contestation in Ottoman Macedonia over drinks on Friday night?

This line is particularly effective if you have just attended a lecture on Ottoman Macedonia and are engaged in a riveting conversation about the role of the bandit in the Empire’s far flung provinces. If you have not been discussing Ottoman Macedonia, this statement may be a non-sequitur. The danger here is that when you do continue the conversation, you are unable to impress your classmate with your knowledge of Macedonian geography and Ottoman language.

2. Let me be your Caliph, I will put an end to the fitna within your soul.

3. May I establish my intellectual hegemony over you during a cup of coffee?

This sentence reveals your intellectual “confidence” in a not-so-subtle way. Also, asking someone out for coffee is always a safe bet given the reality that some of the Pious, Righteous and Virtuous members of the ummah do not indulge in the drink (laban).

4. I would like to problematize your single status on Facebook by taking you to dinner on Thursday night.

Most Middle Eastern Studies graduate students spend an embarrassing amount of time on the social networking site. While referencing somebody’s relationship status on Facebook may have been taboo two years ago, the nearly universal adoption of Facebook as an element of our Panoptic society means that you can safely use this line. However, you may feel obligated to mention how Facebook is used to surveille and discipline the population and, therefore, constitutes a form of state power. References to the not-so-unproblematic forms of self-representation and modes of “staging the self” engendered by Facebook participation would also be appreciated.

5. I’d like to be the New Historian of your current relationship.

6. Ana Ismi Maha. Ana adrus el arabiyya fi Jamaat New York. Eskun fi Brooklyn. Walidi t’amel fi el umum el mutahida. Wa Ana fahlan wahiida.

Imitating Maha from al-Kitaab’s impeccable fusa is one way you can establish your linguistic prowess and impressive your classmate. However, you must be sure to stick to the script, lapsing into colloquial Egyptian is guaranteed to elicit stares and derogatory comments from the Lebanese. (Ca va?) This method works best when you are able to use Maha’s lines semi-appropriately in context. For example, in a crowded public lecture you may turn to your attractive classmate and say:

“Why don’t we grab a coffee, ya’ni, besebub el izdiham” (on account of the crowdedness”)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Yemen, Again

James Dorsey, a freelance journalist, recently published an article on Foreign Affairs' website that may just be the best piece of analysis on Yemen I have read thus far. It does a beautiful job capturing why Yemen is such a problem-ridden state and why it will be so difficult for anyone (including the Yemeni government) to solve its interconnected problems. He addresses some of the biggest questions that have been aired since the Christmas Day bomb attempt of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Why has Al Qaeda gained a foothold in Yemen? Why is Yemen so difficult to rule? And what can the US (or the West) do about it?

He points out that one of the principal reasons AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) has been able to settle in Yemen is because it provides social services to local villagers. The Yemeni government's presence beyond core sectors of the country is so minimal that critical services -- like education, healthcare, and security -- are entirely ignored. Locals are happy to extend their support to any group that can fill this void. This notion of legitimacy coming from social service provision is not a new one, and has been used to describe political dynamics in other parts of the Middle East, as well as Latin America, South Asia, and Africa. There is compelling evidence that any group -- state or non-state -- will gain grassroots political favor through the extension of services; in fact, the phenomenon is so common in the developing world that 'non-state social welfare provision' has become something of an academic sub-field. Within the Middle East, experts have mostly studied how providing social services can be a key part of the political strategies of certain Islamist groups -- Hamas, Hezbullah, and the Egyptian MB, being the most prominent examples. It is therefore unsurprising to hear that Al Qaeda's Yemen branch has adopted much the same tactic, with equal success.

This point dovetails nicely with Dorsey's second key insight, which is that a security-dominated approach to Yemen is likely to bear little fruit for the West. Al Qaeda has been successful in Yemen, in part, because it provides key services that the government fails to offer. Foreign aid, both in the form of funding and training, can help the Yemeni government extend its social service capabilities further afield. By usurping Al Qaeda's role as a provider and protector, the government can win back the favor of the population and erode Al Qaeda's popularity and legitimacy. Of course, there is the issue of Yemen's current government being so corrupt and bureaucratic that it struggles to accept large amounts of aid. But, as Dorsey points out, the West has few better options but to try.

A final important argument that he makes is that the West is much better off relying on other state actors, particularly Saudi Arabia and others in the GCC, to help implement reform in Yemen. The Saudi government has influence both with Yemen's government and with many of its tribes and could be a powerful agent of positive change if it signed onto a series of reform initiatives. Many of Yemen's greatest security, political, social, and economic problems could be better addressed with Saudi support. Moreover, Saudis are trusted in Yemen to a far greater extent than Western workers and do not operate with the automatic handicap of being seen as a foreign occupier or agents of neo-colonialism.

An interesting idea highlighted within this argument is the suggestion that the GCC bring Yemen into its fold. To my knowledge, this is not a possibility that has been seriously discussed, probably because the Gulf countries would never give it real consideration. Yemen is far too poor, divided, and corrupt for the other Gulf states to consider letting it into what they consider to be an elite club. Moreover, as the GCC considers the possibility of further economic integration (possibly a single currency union), letting Yemen in would complicate matters even further. But what could work is providing Yemen with a reasonable path toward GCC membership. This strategy has proven remarkably successful in Europe, where the European Union has laid out a series of stringent development hurdles that must be cleared in order for candidate countries to gain membership (in fact, this article points out how much better this strategy has been than the foreign aid approach that the US has used with its Caribbean neighbors...and is likely to use with Yemen). In Eastern European countries like Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the Union in 2007, massive political and economic reform efforts were undertaken to prepare for membership. Yemen has openly expressed its desire to join the GCC. If the Council provided a credible path toward Yemeni membership, entailing a series of stringent criteria that would first have to be met, Yemen's government might be coaxed into making some of the tough decisions necessary to avert further decay.

No effort at domestic transformation in Yemen will be successful without the full backing of the Yemeni government. A path to GCC membership may be the best idea yet aired to cajole the government into coming fully on board.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Moving the UN to Dubai

As a brief follow-up to my last post on Dubai, this article introduces a provocative, if somewhat amusing, argument: move the United Nations headquarters from New York City to Dubai. The authors point out that moving the UN to the Emirate would solve a host of problems for each city. For New York, it would free up office and residential space and relieve the city from having to pay for the expensive upkeep of a crumbling facility full of America-bashing diplomats. And for Dubai, it would bring renewed international attention and prestige after its image has been tarnished and would fill a bunch of empty buildings that are currently desperate for tenants. The city could even construct a Dubai United Nations City -- to go alongside its Media City, Internet City, Knowledge Village, Festival City, Sports City, and Cultural Village. Dubai, for its part, seems enthusiastic: it responded to the Op-Ed three days later, saying it "is fully prepared to host the UN's headquarters."

The idea is interesting perhaps most for its implausibility. While it makes perfect practical sense the way the authors lay it out, there is simply no way the UN would choose the razzle-dazzle Emirate as its new home. The city is too young, too unproven, and too closely associated with glamor, new money, and ostentation. The United States is also wary of Dubai and the broader UAE, as evinced by Congress's decision in 2006 to block the Dubai port operator DP World from taking over operations at a collection of US ports. It is much more likely (as the article points out) that when the UN seeks a temporary new home in 2015, it will go to a different Asian city state -- Singapore. This is perhaps a telling choice. Singapore, at one point in its life, faced many of the questions skeptics are now raising about Dubai. In the decade following its independence many in the international community doubted that Singapore could present a viable economic model that would ensure its survival. And yet, here it is: a thriving cosmopolitan center of economic prosperity, vying to host the world's preeminent international organization.

Who knows. Perhaps three decades from now Dubai will not seems such an unlikely choice to host the United Nations...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Migration as Development

A provocative new paper http://www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/1423717/ by researcher Michael Clemens of the Washington-based think tank Center for Global Development argues that advanced economies should consider relaxing immigration policies considerably, based on the fact that migration to rich countries has been remarkably successful at raising the living standards of the world’s poor. Clemens, who has most recently applied his ideas about labor mobility to the Haitian crisis, forces us to question some of our firmly-held assumptions about development process(es) and migration.

Clemens begins by critiquing narrow “place-based” approaches to development- he argues that the field is preoccupied with the idea of poor countries as potential sites of development. Instead, by focusing on statistics such as the average income gains of poor migrant moving to wealthy countries, Clemens says, we can see migration as an effective and efficient mode of development. After citing a number of impressive statistics about the income gains of migrants who move to wealthier countries, Clemens concludes that “No known schooling intervention, road project, anti-sweatshop campaign, microcredit program, investment facility, export promotion agency, or any other in situ development program can surely and immediately raise the earning power of a large group of very poor people to anywhere near this degree.”

There are a number of questions that the article raises for me with respect to the Middle East:

Can migration to wealthier countries in Europe and North America raise the living standards of people in the poorest countries of the region (Yemen, etc)? I assume that this would be the case given the enormous wage and standard of living disparities between the poorest countries of the Middle East and OECD countries. Unfortunately, concerns about terrorism are likely to poison any effort to introduce a policy that would allow large numbers of Yemenis to migrate to France, Germany and England (for example).

Given the documented abuse of expatriate workers in the Gulf, can increased labor mobility within the region enhance the livelihoods of the poor when destination countries (Saudi, Kuwait, etc) do not have a protective legal and political infrastructure? This is a complex issue given the fact that laborers experience an increase in wages but not necessarily in living standards. In this respect, Clemens argument seems more applicable to Western European and North American countries which allow for a more sustainable rise in income and living standards.

It is certainly important for people and organizations concerned with economic development in the Middle East to consider innovative recommendations such as the ones outlined in A Labor Mobility for Development when formulating policy. For example, with respect to the situation in Afghanistan, there may be a strong argument to allowing Afghans to migrate to wealthier countries such as Iran (and perhaps compensating those countries directly for the burden imposed on infrastructure) rather than implementing top-down development programs within Afghanistan at a large cost. Evidence-based, innovative arguments like the one made by Clemens are desperately needed in policy circles where discussions of global development are based on ossified thinking and antiquated ideas about what works.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Problem with Symbols

Several days ago the Burj Khalifa, the latest 'superlative' to emerge from the emirate of Dubai, was closed to the public after a small explosion in one of the elevators. A group of tourists apparently sat terrified in the elevator, stuck between two floors, for more than 45 minutes before rescue workers managed to pry the doors open and evacuate them via a service elevator. Afterward, Emaar properties, which owns the property, announced that the observation deck would be closed due to "technical issues with the power supply."

This is only the latest public relations debacle to wrangle Dubai, after an embarrassing near-default on semi-public debt that required neighboring Abu Dhabi to come to the rescue with a multi-billion dollar loan. The world watched stunned as Dubai's shiny veneer was briefly scraped away to reveal a slightly grimier undercoating. Dubai responded to this financial setback by unveiling a brand new display of profligacy and ostentation. The opening for the Burj Khalifa was rushed forward to January 4, largely to take the world's attention off the debt embarrassment. The event was steeped in symbolism. At the last minute the name of the building was changed from 'Burj Dubai' to 'Burj Khalifa,' a nod (perhaps of gratitude) to the ruling family of the UAE and a sign of Emirati national unity. The tower is the tallest in the world, a symbol of Dubai's rise to international prominence, a beacon calling one and all to a new cosmopolitan Mecca that fuses the best of the old and the new... Or so they hoped.

The tower may still achieve what Dubai had in mind. But the problem with symbols is that their meaning can shift in unpredictable ways. Until last week the only part of the Burj Khalifa that was open and operational was the tourist observation deck. Even when it opened, the windows at the top were apparently still caked in dust because cleaners had had no time to wipe them down. This new setback, which has received attention in a slew of Western publications, could actually bolster the image of the city that was fostered by the debt mess. Will the emirate continue to be seen as an urban meeting place between the East and the West, with enough pomp to wow even the savviest global travelers? Or will this new tower come to represent a city that is already past its heyday, with nothing much to show for it but a whole lot of debt and a bunch of behemoth-like structures that barely even work?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Egypt's Negotiating Handicap

The International Institute of Strategic Studies just released a 'strategic comment' on the Israeli-Palestinian peace situation. The title kind of says it all: "Receding Prospects for Middle Eastern Peace." It certainly makes for sober reading. The authors systematically enumerate the array of problems that are currently conspiring to make the alleged 'Peace Process' more like a 'Peace Debacle.' Intransigence on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the table are the primary drivers of the stalemate, though virtually all of the participating actors have contributed to the mess as well.

One of these actors is Egypt. The Egyptian regime currently serves as a sponsor and intermediary in the talks between Fatah and Hamas to create a unity Palestinian government. Given how much these two parties hate each other, it is not terribly surprising that Egypt has seen little success. As the article explains, Fatah has signed an Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation agreement that would establish elections for a new Palestinian government in 2010. But with no real incentive, Hamas has yet to sign on.

Whereas in the past Egypt has sought to cajole Hamas into taking more conciliatory positions, its strategy at this stage seems to be good, old-fashioned arm-twisting. It has started construction of an underground wall, which will block Hamas's system of tunnels that gives it access to outside goods. It has also started rallying other Arab states to apply pressure on Hamas to sign the agreement and claims to be building support for an Arab peacekeeping force that would maintain security in the Gaza strip. Much of this seems to be a tactic aimed at forcing Hamas to back down and sign the accord.

Egypt's tactic may work. But given how resilient Hamas has proven itself in the face of outside pressure, I agree with the IISS and suspect the group may hold out.

In fact, there are may be a more fundamental problem stemming directly from Egypt's role in the process. I have not seen this discussed much (which means there may be nothing to it!) but I tend to believe that one of the reasons Egypt has so much difficulty extracting concessions from Hamas on Fatah's behalf is because of a basic lack of trust. Hamas doesn't trust the Egyptian regime -- probably with good reason. Egypt is an unequivocal supporter of Abbas and the Fatah party. It also has a deeply hostile position toward political Islam, primarily due to its fraught relationship with its own internal Islamist movement. In fact it struck me as somewhat ironic that this press on stalled Fatah-Hamas talks came simultaneous with news of Egypt's most recent wave of crackdowns on moderate Muslim Brotherhood leaders. How does Egypt expect to build trust with Hamas if it is groundlessly imprisoning and repressing members of Hamas's sister organization? I honestly don't know how deep Hamas's current connection with the MB is (beyond there ideological and historical links), but even if these ties are weak, it does not send a very constructive message.

To be honest, I believe that Egypt is not the best party to broker these negotiations. The best intermediaries are at least ostensibly neutral in the dispute and are trusted by both sides. Egypt is neither of these. I think the prospects for a mutually agreeable reconciliation agreement would be much higher if a different Arab or Middle Eastern government were to step in instead. Off the top of my head, I can think of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Qatar as obvious possibilities. Saudi is a major regional player, which has better Islamist credentials than Egypt and whose role in the Peace Process has come to be crucial over the years. The latter two have both proven to be adept intermediaries (Turkey with Syria and Israel, and Qatar between factions in Lebanon) and also have relatively good relations with both Hamas and Fatah.

To be honest, no matter who is the mediator, the likelihood of these two parties coming together to form a unity government is still very slim. But these things only get solved through baby steps. Jettisoning Egypt as chief negotiator between the two parties might be a good start.

Monday, February 8, 2010

USIP Report on Oil Politics in Iraq

A recent report on oil politics in Iraq was recently brought to my attention. Entitled "Iraq's Oil Politics: Where Agreement Might Be Found", this intriguing report was published by a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. It chronicles the developments and negotiatations concerning the hydrocarbon legislation that the Bush administration had long championed as a benchmark for Iraqi political reconciliation, and tries to explain why these negotiations concerning Iraq's oil resources have reached a stalemate.

Given oil's status as Iraq's primary export and the fact that more than 90% of public expenditures are financed by oil monies, finding an acceptable formula for distributing Iraq's oil revenues was always going to be a key issue. Yet the underlying approach pursued by the Bush administration focused more on investment and contracting, and less on an acceptable formula and respectable mechanism for distributing oil revenues. This approach is embodies in the hydrocarbon law, which has gotten nowhere so far and seems dead on arrival in the Iraqi parliament.

The reason this hydrocarbon law (which focuses almost exclusively on oil contracting and investment) is so problematic is because Iraqis disagree vehemently over who should have the authority to sign oil contracts. Should it be the sole right of the central government in Baghdad? Can the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) sign them too? If the Shia were to create a super-region in the south (a very real possibility up until recently), would they be able to award oil contracts separate from Baghdad? The possibility of regional governments overriding the central government in terms of control over the state's main source of funds could lead to the unraveling of Iraq - a prospect that made Sunnis and more nationalist Shia anxy over decentralizing power.

Moreover, part of the problem lies with the Iraqi Constitution. The constitution is purposefully vague about whether regional or national law has primacy over signing oil contracts; the Kurds made sure it was written that way. This gives them wiggle room to sign their own contracts in the future. They have indeed already signed 25 contracts with foreign firms for production in KRG-controlled territory.

In short, Iraqi Arabs are demanding that an agreement on revenue sharing include constitutional amendments that prohibit the Kurds from having the best of both worlds - being alotted 17% of Iraq's oil revenues in addition to signing their own contracts. In the Iraqi Arabs vision, the Kurds would simply be guaranteed 17% of oil revenues, and contracts would be signed with Baghdad alone. This is a formula highly desired by the Kurds, since the current arrangement of being alotted 17% of the budget can capricious and arbitrary. (During the 2008 budget negotiations, there was a concerted attempt by Sunni and Shia Arab MPs to cut the KRG's share from 17% to 13%). Instead, the Kurds would like to see a revenue-sharing law that would provide the KRG with a transparent and automatic mechanism to transfer its share of oil revenues rather than continuing to rely on the budgetary process.

So, both Kurds and Arabs agree that a just and equitable revenue-sharing law is needed. The problem is that the Arabs want constitutional amendments that will solidify the primacy of federal law over regional law; the revenue-sharing mechanism won't work if an entire region can just opt out and start signing its own contracts. Yet, because of the way the constitution was written, the Kurds have veto power over any constitutional amendment. Hence the logjam.

This issue will undoubtedly be central to how the next government is formed after the March 7th elections. Again, because of the way the constitution was written, the Kurds more likely than not will be in a position to play kingmakers during the negotiations to form a government. There actually is a little bit of room for manouvering and compromising. There are plenty of tradeoffs that can be made regarding revenue-sharing and constitutional amendments. Yet, there is always the possibility that such an issue of colossal importance may precipitate violence since constitutional mechanisms seem to be useless. The Constitution is where many of the problems are to begin with.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Sign of Things to Come?

The Cyrus Cylinder, an artifact revolutionary to the politics of sixth century B.C.E. Persia, is suddenly playing an active role in the politics of twenty-first century Iran. The Cylinder, believed to be the world’s first declaration of rights, was commissioned by the Persian ruler Cyrus following his conquest of Babylon. Obviously, this object holds a great deal of importance in the heritage of the Persian people and consequently was set to be placed on exhibit in Iran’s national museum starting this winter. However, reports have come out that the British Museum, who possesses the Cylinder, have now delayed the loan in order to continue a research project that they have already begun. According to the English institution, the aim of the project is to compare the Cylinder to two other artifacts that were recently discovered and are believed to date back to the same period.
The Iranian government, in response, has stated that the move to delay the loan is not due to academic reasons, but rather is a politically motivated decision based upon British opposition to the ever-growing mess that is the Iranian nuclear stand-off with the West. That’s probably a fair assumption on their part, as this decision comes in the wake of President Mahmoud Amahdinejad’s call for a resumption of his country’s uranium enrichment program, producing uranium enriched up to 20%. I ran through the nuclear fuel cycle in a previous blog, but for the sake of those that are not nuclear physicists: nuclear fuel (read: enriched uranium) for civilian purposes like nuclear power need be enriched only to about 3%. Fuel for a bomb requires enrichment up to 90%. So it’s probably safe to assume that pushing for 20% and beyond equates to the flexing of political muscle.
But what can the episode about the Cyrus Cylinder teach us about the overall political climate, and perhaps, what’s to come?
Well from what I can tell, there are three potential scenarios of which this event could represent the beginning. The first of which is simply the black-and-white scenario; that is, that the artifact’s loan to Iran is being delayed simply because of the reasons already set forth by the British Museum. If the archeologists and researchers for the British have suddenly stumbled upon new objects that necessitate comparative study with the Cylinder, why shouldn’t they be granted a longer period of with which to complete their work? The museum has contended that the Cylinder could still come to Iran as early as this summer, so in essence, what’s the problem? Put another way, if all this represents is an academic tug-o-war, then there really isn’t anything more to read into.
But what if it actually is a politically motivated act? What if the delay of the loan is actually an extension of British foreign policy toward Iran and is just one of many sanctions the U.K. wishes to impose in response to the nuclear programs of the Islamic Republic? I suppose this one could just be called sanctions scenario. The sanctioning and further sanctioning of Iran from the beginning of the nuclear debate has been the initial reaction of the West and will likely be the next one, at least to a point. For example, economic sanctions prohibiting exports to Iran, engaging in business with the Iranian oil industry and working with Iranian-owned banking institutions have been launched by the United States, and similar actions have been taken by other governments in the so-called “P5 + 1” (U.S., Russia, China, U.K., and France + Germany, or the group of nations leading the protest against Iran’s nuclear program). Now prohibiting the loan of a renowned artifact doesn’t exactly qualify as a typical economic or trade sanction, but it does have a similar effect of waging protest against government activity. The fact that members of the Iranian government have now publicly acknowledged the delay of the loan and even linked it to the United Kingdom’s opposition to their nuclear program is a testament to this possibility. From here, further and more severe actions would be taken by P5 + 1 if the Islamic Republic does not choose to scale back their enrichment efforts and return to the negotiating table. However, in the end, if sanctioning is the name of the game, it stands to reason that that is all that would come about in this scenario. Just this past week, it was reported that the Iranian Foreign Minister stated publicly that a final agreement between their leaders and the Western nations was nearly reached, but this report was dismissed, namely by Germany, as nothing nearly as constructive as it sounds. Sanction, negotiate, fail-to-agree, repeat. And so on.
For the sake of argument, let’s take this one step further and explore one more “what if?” This one I’m going to refer to as the super-paranoid scenario. What if the refusal to loan out the artifact is just the beginning of the end of negotiations with the Iranian government? What if, in the coming weeks and months, the world watches as negotiations are called off completely and replaced with missile strikes and a buildup of troops along the borders of Iran. What if the current war of words just suddenly became an actual war? It doesn’t seem very likely, given that many of the nations involved in the P5 + 1 are just getting out of a costly war in Iraq and are still involved in an equally costly war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the English media group Telegraph reported just yesterday that the conservative political Tory party in the U.K. would support military action against the Islamic Republic. While an offensive is officially regarded by the U.K. as “inconceivable” (with similar sentiments echoed by other P5 countries), the further this pressure cooker continues to run, the more unsettlingly possible it seems to become. I’m an optimist, so I’ll throw my lot in with the diplomacy scenario and hope that a compromise spontaneously appears and the situation is diffused, but who knows. The only thing that we can really be sure of based upon this episode is that anything could happen in the days ahead.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Which Middle Eastern Language?

The choice of which Middle Eastern language to study can be an agonizing one, especially for those of us who value language skills as an essential aspect of our area studies education. The vast majority of Middle Eastern Studies students, both undergraduate and graduate, elect for Arabic while the few, the proud, the unpragmatic choose Persian, Turkish, and other less-widely spoken languages. There is certainly a strong case to be made for studying Arabic but other Middle Eastern tongues remain important for a number of reasons. Let us attempt to tease out some potential justifications for the study of less widely-spoken languages.

Persian- When one studies the Persian language, he has complete and unfettered access to the inflated national ego and chauvinistic imaginary of the Persians, which dwarfs even that of the Arabs. The Persians, whose language has been sadly circumscribed to Afghanistan, Iran and the relatively insignificant Tajikistan, have a glorious past dating back to days of US-supported Shah. Learning Persian would give you the ability to simultaneously quote poetry to scholars of the Mughal period and collude with the State Department on its top-secret Restoration of the Iranian Monarchy Initiative. If your Farsi is superb and your career aims more modest, you could help the Iranians tweet to freedom by working for Open Society’s secret office in Bahrain. Sample Tweet: Shmo baroi jomai madani vokei va jomai jahon omodeh hastid?

Translation: Are you ready for real Civil Society and the World Cup?

Potential Careers for Farsi speakers:

Spokesman, Iranians for Reinstatement of the Monarchy, Los Angeles
Assistant to the Mughal Emperor- Old City, Dehli, India
Carpet merchant- Kabul, Afghanistan

Turkish- Learning Turkish will help you connect with Turkic speaking breathren all over the Asian continent, especially populations in the remote, obscure countries of Central Asia. You can revive the pan-Turkic movement by writing the definitive grammar textbook of a Turkish Esperanto that is to be spoken from the villages of Turkmenistan to the oil fields of Kazakhstan. Learning Turkish can be a challenge- the grammar of this agglutinative language is even more complex than the place of religion in the Turkish society. If you have no moral qualms about perpetuating the hegemony of the modern state, you can help the Turkish army maintain its position as protector of the secular republic by working as a Turkish language teacher/army commandant in subversive Kurdistan. Fortunately, I have had the chance to learn some Turkish through my interaction with the young Turks at our department. Bilgilid Tsekkur Attaturk Edderimadiliguri oz bodinjon mikilet! (Oh, Attaturk may the sun never set on your eggplant sandwich).

Some Potential Careers for Turkish speakers:

Roller Blade shop owner in Izmir
Protector of the Turkish republic
Head of State Archives- Kyrgyzstan

Hebrew- What are you, a Zionist?

Spreading the Wealth

This article from the Associated Press caught my eye earlier this week. The semi-official Palestine Investment Fund is teaming up with Abraaj Capital of Dubai to start a $50 million private equity fund specifically devoted to investing in the Palestinian economy. $50 million is a little more than 1% of Palestine's GDP...so the potential impact is huge.

I think it's a positive move. I have long puzzled over why the Gulf, with all its oil wealth sloshing around with nowhere to go, doesn't put more of that money where it's mouth is. These states are vehement supporters of the Palestinian national cause. None of them recognize Israel and Saudi Arabia especially is considered a key player in brokering any final deal with Israel.

But for all their bluster, I wonder that these governments don't devote more of their state-controlled oil wealth toward strengthening the Palestinian economy in preparation for its ultimate independence. Salam Fayyad, Palestine's prime minister, has embraced this strategy, setting a two-year time horizon for developing an economy that can survive on its own. Israel certainly hasn't made this easy for the Palestinians: there are still ample roadblocks to economic growth, not the least of which was Israel's devastating attacks on Gaza at the beginning of 2009. But in the case of the West Bank, at least, the economy has recently flourished. While the rest of the world languished in recession through 2009, the West Bank's economy grew at 5.5%. As long as the peace with Israel remains intact, growth in the territory is likely to continue, setting Palestine on a course toward economic viability and (possibly) statehood.

This strikes me as an arena where the Gulf states can have a real impact, especially while political negotiations are deadlocked. The governments in the region have huge wealth to deploy through their sovereign wealth funds. They can't invest it all (or even most of it) in their own economies because of the risk that this would spur inflation, crippling other industries that they are trying to establish. So they have to deploy this capital abroad. Although they have mostly tended to look to the West, especially Europe, for investment prospects, the funds should consider sourcing deals closer to home.

Moreover, for these sovereign wealth funds, a little can go a long way. $50 million may be a big drop in the bucket of the Palestinian economy -- but it is minuscule compared to the holdings of these funds, some of which manage hundreds of billions of dollars.

It is somewhat ironic that the Gulf investment institution behind this new private equity fund is Abraaj Capital, which hails from oil-poor and debt-ridden Dubai. Perhaps, though, its move will strike an example for some of the other funds in the region.

People often talk about the Middle East as a poor and backwards region. It certainly is not the latter and only parts of it are the former. With so much wealth collecting in the Gulf, the managers of these assets should consider how they can use their economic power to effect positive change in their less well-endowed neighbors. Investing in Palestine's economy is an obvious first step.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Iraqi Appeals Court Lifts Ban on Disqualified Candidates

Sometimes I get the feeling that Iraqi politicians create these political crises just to keep the drama going. Some one always over-reaches, which causes everyone to freak out, and then a compromise is struck at the last minute. Maybe that's how they get their kicks. I mean, first the Kurdish parties fomented a crisis back in November by blocking the electoral law until they got what they wanted. At the last minute, a reasonable compromise solved the issue and allowed the process to move forward. Then in December, VP Hashimi vetoed that electoral law because he insisted that it disenfranchised Iraqi refugees, the vast majority of whom are Sunni. How did the Shia religious parties (ISCI and their allies) respond? By coming up with a new law that further disenfranchised Sunnis. At the last minute, again, a compromise was reached and the electoral law was passed.

The latest political crisis stemmed from a decision by a legally ambiguous body deciding to ban over 500 candidates from the upcoming elections due to their alleged Baathist ties. The decision inflamed sectarian tensions, since many of the more prominent candidates who were banned were Sunni. The decision sent the Obama administration's Iraq team into full force trying to get this bizarre decision overturned so respectable elections could take place and pave the way for the planned withdrawal of US troops in the summer.

Thus, Wednesday's announcement that an Iraqi appeals court had overturned the decision to ban over 500 candidates was a great relief to everyone concerned (except to ISCI and Ahmed Chalabi's crew). Al-Arabiyya reported that the appeals court decided to reinstate the banned candidates, but that another review process will take place after the elections. This is the compromise that Joe Biden was pushing for. I'm not exactly sure of the behind-the-scenes role that Biden played, but at least one Iraqi media outlet is complaining that the court "gave in under pressure from Biden."

Though this appears to be good news, Iraq's problems are far from fixed. The most bizarre thing about this whole episode is that nobody in the Iraqi government (especially Jalal Talabani and Nuri al-Maliki) seemed that dismayed about the fact that 500 candidates had been disqualified under highly dubious legal pretenses. Talabani and Maliki voiced some complaints, but one could hardly qualify them as outrage over blatant despotism. Perhaps they were more active behind the scenes? Perhaps Maliki didn't want to be publicly seen as advocating on the behalf of alleged Baathists?

Nevertheless, the political system still seems inherently broken. And I say inherently because of the way it was set up under the Iraqi Constitution. The question now is if elections next month will produce any meaningful change whatsoever. Will we see cross-sectarian alliances and real compromises made during the process to form a government? And how will the new government navigate the thorny issues like the status of Kirkuk, the hydrocarbons law, and integrating the Awakening councils into government positions? These questions remain to be answered.

On second thought, Iraqi politicians really shouldn't be faulted for fostering so much drama. I mean, has anyone seen the United States Congress lately? No wonder Jon Stewart is so successful.