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

Friday, March 12, 2010

Discussing the Vibrancy of a Democracy

Many of the news accounts and commentary I've seen covering the recent Iraqi elections have been emphasizing how "smoothly" the process transpired, and how the competitiveness during the campaign, coupled with the high voter turnout (about 62%) and the relatively low level of violence on election day signal the health of Iraq's democracy. Somehow we are supposed to acknowledge the fact that "only" about 40 people were killed in election day violence and that "only" a handful of candidates were assassinated on election day indicates that the country is approaching something resembling normalcy. Something tells me the bar is being set a bit low here.

The fact is that many of these commentaries and op-eds seem to be paying attention to superficial signs of progress. Ubiquitous campaign posters hung alongside the streets are not signs of a vibrant democracy. And though the absence of large-scale violence on an election day is a necessary condition for a functioning democracy, it is certainly not sufficient. So what are the key questions stemming from the recent election that may indicate some sort of progress?

Most important are questions of the rule of law and transcending the sectarian political dynamic that has governed power relations in Iraq since 2003. The lack of the former was exposed prior to the elections when it became clear that a legally-dubious de-Baathification committee could disqualify over 400 candidates for alleged ties with Baathists. The Iraqi institutional framework demonstrated its incapacity to deal with these problems in a legitimate way by not providing any sort of checks and balances to this process.

As for judging whether progress has been made in transcending the salience of identity politics in Iraq, the election results may provide some indication. The top two coalitions appear to be Nuri al-Maliki's 'State of Law' and Iyad Allawi's 'Iraqiyya'. Three questions to keep in mind are: can Maliki make inroads into some Sunni majority provinces in Iraq's center and north? And can Allawi make any inroads into some Shi'i majority provinces in Iraq's south? If the answer in both cases is a yes, then there may be a chance that Iraqi voters are eschewing identity politics and voting on substantive issues. As results filter in through the next week, the answers to these questions will become clearer.

One more thing: when talking about democracy in this context, it's important to recognize that we're talking about a particular kind of democracy - a democracy as we conceive of it in the U.S. This particular conception of democracy emphasizes individual rights like voting rights, elections, property rights, etc. It should be recognized that this conception of democracy is not universal. Other conceptions of democracy stress more substantive issues like the need for strong institutions, social services, clean water, electricity, etc. If these basic human needs aren't met, why should anyone care about the political process? Hence the need to transcend the prevalence of identity politics and start making the debate about substantive issues.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Nuclear Middle East

Nuclear is all the rage these days. Barack Obama's election in the United States and the recent climate change summit in Copenhagen have sparked a global rush into nuclear energy, with countries from El Salvador to Ghana to Mongolia declaring their intention to build nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy is a much cleaner (though also more expensive and potentially dangerous) form of energy than oil, gas, and coal and it can produce far more electricity than wind, solar, or hydro. The combination of these factors makes nuclear a popular option for governments seeking to wean themselves off dependence on fossil fuels.

The Middle East has not missed out on this fad. Beginning in the middle of the last decade, governments in the region abandoned their policies of striving for a nuclear-free Middle East (excepting Israel) as six countries announced their intention to build civil nuclear programs. As of today, the countries in the region that have voiced interest in establishing nuclear energy capabilities are: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. It is a pretty comprehensive list: the only countries that have not yet expressed interest are Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq.

The question of nuclear energy in the Middle East has resurfaced again in the past weeks. The United Arab Emirates recently placed its first order for a nuclear reactor with a consortium of Korean companies, following a fierce, year-long round of bidding. Israel says it wants to build a third nuclear power plant, in conjunction with its Jordanian neighbors (though the Jordanians say the project will not move forward until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved...). Syria, too, recently reaffirmed its desire for a reactor (no one really knows whether Syria already built one with North Korea's help, only to have it destroyed by the Israelis in September 2007). Meanwhile, Egypt claims to be making progress on finding a site for its first nuclear plant.

So the region is abuzz with nuclear activity. But this article in Daedalus, part of a series on nuclear power, says that not only are most of these countries incapable of building nuclear power plants in the near future, their justifications for wanting them are also implausible.

On the feasibility point, there are two major hurdles that must be overcome before a state can buy a nuclear reactor: cost and grid capacity. The article states that in order to afford a nuclear reactor, which these days costs at least a few billion US dollars, a country must have a GDP of at least $50 billion. Then, in addition, its electricity grid must have a minimum of 10 gigawatts in order to accommodate a large reactor.

These criteria narrow the list of potential nuclear states in the region from eighteen down to five: Egypt, Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria.

But the reasons these countries have given for wanting nuclear power do not hold up under scrutiny. Energy security is the most common justification. Consider the UAE, which based its plea for nuclear power on its rapidly rising electricity demand and its inability to meet this demand with natural gas imported from Qatar. A nuclear option would allow the country to be self-sufficient, with nuclear power eventually providing 25% of all electricity. Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria have all made similar arguments.

But as the Daedalus article makes clear, all of these countries have more than adequate access to fossil fuels or other sources of power within their borders, giving them the potential to produce sufficient electricity for decades to come. In Egypt, natural gas supplies could power the country for 43 years. In Turkey, vast hydro resources, if harnessed effectively, could provide just as much electricity as nuclear reactors -- potentially forever. Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, have oil and/or natural gas reserves capable of providing electricity to their people for 43, 66, and 100 years, respectively. By the time fossil fuels come close to running out, either nuclear will be so cheap that it will be easily adoptable or (more likely) there will be myriad renewable energy alternatives, especially in countries with abundant sunlight.

So why the rush into nuclear power, an expensive and politically fraught energy source, when it isn't really necessary? The article poses two answers. First, nuclear energy confers a degree of international credibility on a country, especially in the developing world. Since the 1950s, a nuclear program has been seen as a sign of a country's entry into the developed world -- this is what motivated Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and Libya to seek nuclear options. A nuclear program is a mark of honor, a way of stimulating national pride -- and the rhetoric used by Middle Eastern regimes to describe their nuclear ambitions suggest that leaders will have no qualms using nuclear energy for this end.

Moreover, a nuclear program -- even for civilian purposes -- can create a certain strategic deterrent for neighboring countries, especially if the state in question develops its own enrichment capabilities. Japan, though not an officially recognized nuclear-weapon state, could probably build such a weapon within days if it wanted to. Middle Eastern states may be watching Iran's progress in its nuclear program and calculating that they, too, should probably get into the game.

A civilian program therefore provides both international credibility and a foot in the nuclear-weapons door. The important question is whether anyone -- either inside or outside the region -- would want to have the feet of eighteen Middle Eastern states eventually wedged in that door.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Nir Rosen on "Iraq's New Order"

With the Iraqi national elections taking place this weekend, there has been (comparatively) extensive coverage in the New York Times and Washington Post during the last few days concerning the multiplicity of meanings and implications the poll results could have on Iraq's future. Many of these reports have been warning of possible outbreaks of sectarian violence as a result of perceived Sunni disenfranchisement. In this context, I think it's helpful to consider Nir Rosen's latest piece in The National on why these fears of revived sectarianism and civil war are overblown.

Nir Rosen - a prominent freelance journalist and currently a fellow at NYU's Center on Law and Security - has written extensively on Iraq since 2003. His language skills and cultural savvy give him access to Iraqi society at the grass roots level. Instead of staying within the comparatively safe confines of Baghdad's Green Zone and reporting on political squabbles among the Iraqi elite, Rosen is able to venture into communities throughout the country and pays attention to ordinary people as well as the atmosphere in neighborhoods, villages and mosques.

According to Rosen, his latest trip to Iraq last month made it evident that the intense fear that led Iraqis to seek the protection of gangs and sectarian militias in the past has begun to dissipate. He concludes by asserting that fears of further sectarian violence are overblown, and that the threat of Iraq's civil war being revived no longer looms. The following is a brief summary of what leads him to these conclusions.

Most importantly, the power relations between sectarian militias and the Iraqi security forces has changed drastically in the last two years. No longer can militias and gangs roam the streets unchecked by state authority. Though they still exist to one extent or another, they're immasculated and outmatched by the much strengthened Iraqi security forces. Since these militias can't hold territory anymore, and can't work around the ubiquitous security checkpoints, violence is limited to mortar attacks and the occasional spectacular car or suicide bombing.

Furthermore, Rosen notes the widespread feeling of indifference among Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, Diyala and Anbar provinces. Whereas their sense of injustice and disenfranchisement from 2003 through 2008 led to forms of contestation expressed through violence, today Sunni Arabs seem "downright docile". The banning of prominent Sunni politicians like Saleh al-Mutlak from this weekend's elections caused concern that it would precipitate a Sunni boycott or a return to sectarian violence. Neither has materialized so far. Similarly, the idea that failing to integrate the Sunni Arab Awakening groups into the Iraqi security forces would lead to a revival in the insurgency proved unfounded as well. In short, Sunni Arabs seem resigned to their fate of disenfranchisement and are no longer willing to contest it through violence.

Rosen also notes how many ordinary Iraqis associate the Shi'i religious parties with sectarianism and thus prefer the more nationalist-leaning Maliki or Allawi. This makes sense given that Rosen was traveling primarily around Baghdad and the surrounding provinces of Diyala (just northeast of Baghdad), Babil, and Salahuddin. However, the election may be won or lost in the critical province of Basra, home to the third largest city in Iraq after Baghdad and Mosul. In Basra, Maliki has to compete with the Iraqi National Alliance (the list that includes many of the largest Shi'i religious parties).

Rosen's reporting is refreshing due to its detailed coverage of the mundane and subaltern. Most importantly, this piece underscores the point that the saliency of sectarianism in Iraq has varied significantly throughout its history. Since 2003, one gets the sense from the media that sectarian tensions in Iraq are something primordial and inherent. This piece does a good job in terms of belying these flawed assumptions.

Given the amount of hysteria out there concerning the de-Bathification controversy and the supposedly rising sectarian tensions, Rosen's perspective certainly offers some valuable insight into developments, attitudes, and the saliency of sectarianism outside of the Green Zone.

For Those of You Who Enjoy a Good Conspiracy…

Yeah I know: typically conspiracies are the topics of fantasy and belong within the realm of literary fiction, not area studies. But in the case of Turkey, conspiracy theories, at least in recent years, have found a bit more merit than elsewhere. Thus, I present to you, the story of Ergenekon. For many of you, as it was for me until recently, the name probably means little. However, for the Turk’s that may be reading this, it represents the story/case that has been omnipresent in Turkish media for the better part of the last three years.
But first, a short history of Turkey:
The Turkish Republic was founded following World War I upon the principles of (among others) nationalism and secularism, despite possessing almost an entirely Muslim population. Obviously, some issues ensued, namely how the secularism was to be upheld by the government and to what extent religion was to present in government affairs. Consequently, the twentieth century represented a continuing struggle of balancing both Islam and secularism in the country. As with any other political struggle, there is of course a spectrum of participants in the debate. There are the ultra-secularists and the corresponding ultra-Islamists and the moderate left and right leaning groups in-between. But for all intents and purposes, Turkey still possesses a constitution that defines it as a secular nation and includes provisions to limit the influence of Islam on government affairs and within the public sphere.
Here’s where the issue arises: In November 2002, the Justice and Development Party (or by the Turkish acronym, AKP) was elected into power by a decisive vote in the Turkish general election. The AKP is also an Islamist political party. Much to the collective dismay of the secularist fringe, the AKP proved to be both an effective and pragmatic political institution. In the past, Islamist political parties had come to power, the Welfare Party of the 1990s being an example. However, the Welfare Party did not command the same level of pragmatism that the AKP would later have and pushed their Islamic agenda a little too far. Long story short, in 1997 there was a coup (described as “post-modernist” by many scholars as there was no actual take over by the military but merely the threat of one) on the part of the secular, military elite that removed Welfare from power.
The AKP of the twenty-first century took a different approach. Continuing the successful social programs of the Welfare Party while also dialing down their outward Islamic approach, the AKP commanded a high level of popularity and an effective government. Their platform has been shaped by the recent surge on the part of the Turkish Republic to gain entry into the European Union, and many citizens have backed them in this approach.
Despite the AKP’s popularity and pragmatic approach, there is still a significant contingent of the population that wishes to see such a party with Islamist roots removed from power. As shown above in the case of the coup that brought down the Welfare Party, this secularist segment of society has also traditionally held the majority in the military, namely at its most elite levels. I’m pretty sure you can see where I’m going with this.
The word “Ergenekon” is a reference to a legend about the genesis of the Turkish people and is the suspected name of a criminal organization within Turkey that has slowly but surely been linked to members of the government at the highest levels. According to the formal indictment that was brought against the members of the group, its intention was to bring about as much chaos as possible in Turkey in order to justify yet another military coup (there have already been four since 1923). The investigation and its consequent trial have been referred to as the case of the century, having exposed a shady and somewhat disturbing conspiracy to control and shape the progression of a government and society that has tried several times to prove to the world its commitment to democracy.
For example, the original indictment that was brought against the organization by the government in the summer of 2008 outlined a number of different plots that had a number of high profile targets in mind. These featured both the current Prime Minister of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the world-renowned novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk. In addition, murders that had already been committed and the bombing of a newspaper were included in the charges. The campaign of destabilization had raged throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century and, despite the open investigation, is believed to continue until the present day.
Just this past week, another indictment was submitted to a Turkish High Criminal Court implicating 3rd Army Commander Gen. Saldıray Berk and 12 other suspects in a plot to frame the police force in the city of Erzincan. Weaponry had been planted near a dam in the city as a means of discrediting the police department and raising suspicions of its actions. What would this accomplish, you ask? Well, the Erzincan Police Department has been aiding prosecutors in the Ergenekon investigation. Furthermore, Erzincan possesses a diverse group of peoples, featuring Sunnis, Alevis, Kurds, and the plotters believed that fragmentation of public opinion made it more susceptible to manipulation. Despite the failure of many of the efforts of Ergenekon, the plots as exposed in the indictments cited above, if they are in fact completely true, are a bit frightening in their precision and calculation. One can only hope that conspiracies like this one can be uncovered and stopped before they can succeed, not merely for the lives that are immediately at risk, but also for the threat it poses to the democracy of the Turkish people generally.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Mossad Assassination: Strategic Move or Attempt at Absolute Gangsterdom?

The assassination of top Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai several weeks ago has attracted considerable attention in international affairs circles, with many foreign ministries and independent analysts accusing Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad, of carrying out the target killing. The Economist published an article titled “Does Mossad really make Israel safer,” analyzing the strategic implications of such an aggressive operation while sympathetic commentators were quick to pat the Israelis on the back for a job well done. Some of these analyses dwelt on issues such as al-Mabhouh’s alleged connections with Iran and other relatively un-compelling reasons why Israeli officials may have ordered the hit. I think there is a very clear motivation for the operation that has been ignored by regional experts and diplomat savants alike: the Israelis simply wanted Mossad to be considered for the title of the “World’s Most Gangster Intelligence Agency, ” the unofficial designation given to the intelligence agency which is able to carry out the most callous, brazen violations of international law within a given time frame.

Though bulldozing homes, destroying large parts of southern Lebanon, and using White Phosphorus on U.N. personnel and Palestinian civilians certainly qualifies as gangster, Israel decided that an assassination carried out by its elite intelligence agents would be the logical next step in a series of “gangster-as-hell” moves. Upping the ante for Israel has been difficult given the country’s moderately gangster foreign policy, but the Israeli decision must have been based on the idea that any reduction in Mossad’s perceived gangsterness would pose a serious (existential?) threat to the small nation state. Several political scientists at John Hopkins’ School of International and Advanced Studies, a small group of academics who created the Aggregate Gangsterness Index (AGI) in order to quantify the gangsterness of governments, private individuals, and Russian businessmen, point to Israel’s troubling scores in the past few years as one possible explanation for its actions. Israel’s AGI score, they say, peaked immediately after the Gaza operation but has plummeted considerably in the two years after due to its relative inactivity. The Israeli score hovers above the world median due to its periodic military operations in the Territories and its “straight gangsta” blockade of the Gaza Strip. Besides falling AGI scores, there is yet another other reason for Mossad to fret about losing its position as the world’s most gangster intelligence agency: stiff competition from other intelligence agencies.

Mossad has always lived in the shadow of its American counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency. In order to challenge the sheer dominance of the CIA in the area of gangsterness, Mossad needed to plan a spectacular operation that did not involve the use of aerial drones or secret prisons (lest they look like CIA copycats). Also,rather than use the Russian method of poisoning dissidents and Ukrainian opposition leaders, Mossad decided to employ the good, old-fashioned, time-tested tactic of veteran gangsters: murder. Mossad’s attempt to cement its position at the top of the gangster hierarchy has been impressive but the agency still has much to learn from the Russians and Americans. For example, Mossad’s network of Palestinian and Lebanese (native) informants cannot match the CIA’s rolodex of nefarious, murderous regional power brokers in Afghanistan. Nor have Israelis shown the gall of the Russian and Uzbek government-connected gangsters who murder their own journalists with relative impunity. Al-Mabhous’ assassination was a valiant attempt but the Israelis have yet to foment revolutions (Central America) or overthrow democratically elected leaders (Iran). However, there is something admirable in the publicness of the act as well the brazen disregard of international norms displayed in the forging of foreign passports, elements of the assassination which suggest that perhaps Mossad may be able to contend with Saudi intelligence for the title of the “Most Gangster Middle Eastern Intelligence Agency.” This is surely a significant achievement that should be celebrated by Israelis from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. To Mossad, a Mazeltov is in order.


Someone recently pointed me to this article in the Abu Dhabi newspaper The National. It is one of the most interesting pieces I have read in a long time on the political economy of the Middle East. John Lavois, one of the newspaper's senior editors, weds some beautiful anecdotal reporting with broader musings on the moral and economic implications of remittance flows from the UAE's foreign-born underclass.

Remittances are an incredibly important part of the Middle Eastern economy. In the non-oil states, remittances from nationals working abroad make up significant portions of gross domestic products. In oil states, like the UAE, workers from poorer countries (both within and outside of the Middle East) form a large majority of laborers and service workers and many of them remit as much as 90% of their wages to their families back home. Remittances therefore shape the region's economy in every possible way -- they flow into, out of, and within the borders of the Middle East.

Some of the facts are startling. According to this article, for example, a total of $34.7 billion flowed into the Middle East and North Africa in the form of remittances in 2007. That is a larger amount of money than the entire GDP of Jordan. The World Bank estimates that the top recipients of remittance payments in the region are, in order: Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria, and Tunisia. In some of these countries, sizable proportions of national GDPs are composed of remittances. Lebanon, for example, relies on remittances for one quarter of its GDP; in Jordan they comprise one fifth. Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen all rely on remittances for roughly 6% of their GDPs.

On the flip side, the remittance flows coming out of countries in the Gulf are equally striking. The World Bank calculates, for example, that only the United States sends out more remittance payments than Saudi Arabia, which in turn sends out more than rich European countries like Germany and Switzerland.

The relative weight of these remittances on the economies of so many Middle Eastern countries is all the more striking when the nature of these payments is actually considered. Most of the payments are relatively tiny; they are micro-payments, proportions of wages that are already startlingly low. The National article does an especially good job of demonstrating the truly "micro" nature of these payments. Their relatively large weight on very "macro" economic forces says a good deal about how many laborers there really are living and working in countries other than their own.

The article also tells a story of real moral ambiguity. The Gulf's foreign-born labor force is often held up as a sign of all that is perverted and wrong about its political economy. Rich locals, too spoiled and pampered to take menial jobs, rely on foreign-born workers, often living in sub-par conditions, with few rights, and depressed wages, to perform the basic tasks necessary to run a society. In places like Dubai, where growth has been happening at a dizzying pace, foreign labor has been even more important, a key driver behind the emirate's frenetic modernization. The sad paradox of cities like Dubai, critics say, is that while half the city lives and plays in a grown-up's version of Disney Land, the other half of the city lives in squalid labor camps that don't even appear on maps, too scared to speak up for fear of losing a job that is supporting an entire family thousands of miles away.

But there is another story to tell, as well -- one of economic empowerment, of new opportunities, of globalization harnessed in a way that enriches the formerly impoverished. As the National article points out, there is a reason so many workers continue to migrate to the Gulf, in spite of its deplorable labor conditions. Indeed many development economist argue that lower barriers to immigration and maximizing labor mobility is one important way by which poor countries can develop. Some see the large number of foreign remittances flowing into non-oil MENA states as a sign of economic weakness and dependency. Viewed another way, they could be a powerful force pulling members of these countries out of poverty. For example, one of the reasons Yemen's economy is said to be so backward is because huge numbers of its nationals were expelled from Saudi Arabia in the early 90s when President Saleh backed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Those workers were forced to go home, the remittances stopped flowing in, and the economy fizzled and crashed.

I don't think there's an obvious way to come down on this issue. There may be some middle ground, though. Remittances are clearly important for many individuals in the developing world and encouraging labor mobility is certainly a defensible policy. But the UAE and other Gulf countries are wrong to take advantage of their foreign workforce. Their governments should appreciate how much of their economies are dependent on these laborers, and accord them the appropriate level of social and political rights. There is, after all, no law of economics that says remittance payments have to flow from the exploited.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Guns and Butter = Qat and Water

On the first day of an introductory economics class, you are usually lectured on the simplistic, fundamental tradeoff concerning how the federal government allocates resources: guns (defense spending) and butter (social services). In Yemen these days, the fundamental tradeoff seems to be between qat and water.

According to this article in the Guardian that I stumbled across last week, Yemen is literally chewing itself to death. The treasured Yemeni past-time of relaxing in the mid-afternoon by chewing on some qat is threatening the viability of the water basin in Sana'a. Though the growing and consumption of qat is fundamental to the Yemeni economy, it is contributing to massive water shortages in the capital since the growing of qat requires extensive irrigation. Four times as much water is taken out of the Sana'a water basin as falls into it each year. Furthermore, the fact that Sana'a is one of the fastest growing capitals in the world is only exacerbating the problem.

Sana'a is expected to run out of economically viable water supplies by 2017. Coincidentally, the World Bank predicts that 2017 will be the year in which Yemen will have to start devoting all of its oil resources to internal demand, leaving it nothing to export. Since oil sales currently account for 75% of state revenues, this could have drastic implications for humanitarian, economic, political stability in Yemen.

As Killian noted last week by highlighting the James Dorsey article in Foreign Affairs on governance and security in Yemen, armed groups like al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate have taken to providing grass roots services in parts of the country that are not exactly under the direct control of the Yemeni government. Of course, this concept of acquiring legitimacy through implementing grass roots social services is nothing new (see Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza, as well as many groups in Iraq since 2003). The point is that as Yemen's twin water and oil crises begin to accelerate, opportunities may increase for militant non-state actors to acquire legitimacy by filling the power vacuum.

I'm not suggesting that the West in general or the US in particular "do something" about this. After all, whenever the topic of Yemen makes its way into the US public discourse, prominent senators start saying crazy things like the US should invade Yemen. In that respect, maybe it's better that Yemen saw its Google News searches drop from over 24,000 in January to just 593 in February (think of all that wasted expertise!).

Nevertheless, the international community would be foolish to turn a blind eye to the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in Yemen. The recent fighting there has left over a quarter of a million people displaced, and much of the infrastructure demolished. Though an international donor's conference was held in London last January, and Saudi Arabia is hosting a Gulf donor's conference in Riyadh this weekend, the amount of aid so far committed to rebuilding Yemen has been modest at best. The GCC as well as the international community can and should do more to stave off an impending humanitarian disaster.