Monday, November 26, 2007

UAE to attend Annapolis

With barely an official confirmation, the UAE will attend the Annapolis peace conference in the US. The UAE was a part of the Arab League decision last Friday to attend the peace conference at foreign ministry level. However it is not a part of the 12+1 Arab Committee designated at the May 07 Arab League summit in Riyadh to follow up on the relaunch of the Arab (Saudi) Peace Plan. The UAE was invited by the US to attend the conference at Annapolis, along with 39 other countries and organisations, including a number of other Arab states not represented in the 12+1 Arab Committee. The UAE is also a member of the US-promoted "Arab Quartet" with Saudi, Egypt and Jordan, but had kept schtoom over whether it would be represented at the US-hosted peace conference beginning Tuesday 27th November (see also my "UAE and Mid East Peace" posting below). In the usual fashion, the UAE has waited for the "Arab cover" that the Arab League summit meeting provided before it responded to the private urgings of US officials and of course Mr Blair, the special mid-east peace envoy appointed by the awesome foursome of the US, EU, UN and Russia. Now replete with such "ideological" niceties, the UAE, like big brother Saudi, can travel to the ball in the US having backpocketed the soothing balm of "Arab unity" and support for the "Palestinian brethren", and having played their part in ensuring that Syria was not left on the shelf, even if no-one is really that interested in trying to make them a full partner in the process.

The UAE knows that the journey from Madrid back in 1991, to the Arab Quartet formed last year, has put it in a potentially more exposed position on the Palestine Question than hiding, virgin-like, behind the vanity partition that the shibboleths of "Arab solidarity" allow. A UAE ex-minister told me recently that the Arab Quartet was founded as a "facilitator" for the peace process, and that it is pushing (via the US) for "light at the end of the tunnel" for the Palestinians. If the conference in the US leads to any meaningful interim steps on the ground (ala the resurrected "Roadmap"), and serious efforts at resolving final status issues between Israel and the Palestinians, then the Saudis and the UAE know that they will be expected by the US to meet with Israel periodically at such international summits in order to give their blessing to progress and Palestinian compromise, and to hold out a clearer vision to Israel of what (a fuller) normalisation will look like. Moving from Annapolis to a kind of interim recognition of Israel of the type seen on the part of Qatar, Oman and Morocco is not on the cards for the UAE or Saudi. However the more they have to share a table with Israel, the more a kind of semi-normalisation will have been reached. Short of premature handshakes, much less trips to Jerusalem to meet Israeli officials, this kind of engagement is realistic, and, potentially, helpful in terms of resolving over 100 years of blood and tears.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Limbo land

It's a strange state to be in, between research projects, awaiting the call to authorise the next phase. I have completed revisions on a major, if imperfect, piece of work related to the Gulf, but it is currently stalled in the company's internal decision-making machinery. Other things understandably have a greater priority, and my manager, I believe, does not know if he has the energy to try to reconstruct the piece of completed work with me. In the meantime I consider ways to preoccupy myself, ploughing through research and interview notes and conducting meetings, calls and on-line searches to prepare for the next piece of work. Until then it's a waiting game, a game of patience. Bigger events preoccupy the upper echelons and personal matters no doubt intrude on people's time. The world does not revolve around my concerns, but there is a distinct feeling of being left in limbo land

Thursday, November 15, 2007


“Inspired” by the article by Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji in the current edition of NewsWeek on "Islamic Fascism", I want to point out something that every single commentator I have seen on this subject - from Ganji to Blair/Bush, and points in between - has failed to engage with. What exactly IS fascism?

Ganji, Blair and Bush engage in reductionist thinking akin to undergraduates the world over who unthinkingly trot (sic) out the word "fascist" as an insulting epithet for authoritarians and/or nationalists, but who seemingly have little historical understanding of what fascism actually is.

Whilst fascism lacks the ideological canon of what some regard as its philosophical twin, communism, there are definitions and characteristics available from original Italian "thinkers" and from the fascist parties in general of Europe in the 20s and 30s. The word "fasci" was borrowed from the undifferentiated sticks contained in the "tribute" paid to a Roman emperor. Hence the indistinguishable whole of a single nation united in reverence for Il Duce, the Reich Fuhrer, et al.

In the fascist thinking of Europeans - akin to communist party organisational thinking it is true - a single united, and of course highly centralised, single party would embody the mission and leadership of one people, one nation, and "revive" their faded glories, and seize absolute control of the state. Its methods and symbolism gave great importance to military and personal strength. In the Italian version under Mussolini it embodied corporatist anti capitalist thinking part borrowed from his Marxist background; in the German Workers Party (National Socialist) an ideological and personal divide on this issue showed that fascism lacked clarity on some key points. Furthermore, Mussolini did not lead an Italian Fascist Party that was initially obsessed with the Jews. Fascism in general in Europe however did embrace ideas of racial superiority as part of a nationalist creed of a people's revival under one true leader. Furthermore fascism's relationship to religion was often distrusting. Christianity was a cultural legacy of the Italian or German or Spanish nations of course. But the catholic (and in the case of Germany catholic and protestant) church in these countries were toughly policed and engaged with pragmatically. While not necessarily the enemy (far from it in the case of the Falange in Spain), the clerics were not ideological partners, much less sources for the leadership or the shock-troops of the fascist movement.

What we can gleam from this is that fascism is a totalitarian ideology that reveres and organises around a single "secular" leader and a single party, and is geared toward mass mobilisation behind national and, to some extent, ethnically pure objectives.

Does this remotely have anything to do with theories or idea of an Islamic umma (NOT a "watan" nor a "qawm") subject to clerical leadership and largely distrusting of political parties? How on earth does anything about the thinking of the current Iranian president equate with fascism when the Iranian political system and constitution that he upholds is made almost inchoate by differentiated power centres with key players far from purely Persian and unable by dint of ideology to clearly embrace Iranian nationalist language or purely national interests? Sure Hitler played to the aspirations of other nationalities outside of Europe as part of a strategic calculation, not least in the Middle East. But his ideological goals and identifiers were clear, and fascist. Sure the Muslim Brotherhood are organized a political parties and the movement’s Egyptian founder Hassan al-Banna found things of interest in Nazi Germany. However the Ikhwan are NOT Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Kuwaiti nationalists, even though their focus is largely on what used to be considered “artificial” national (“watan”) lines. What is fascist about the Islamist political concept, and supposedly governing model in Iran, the velayat-e-faqih ?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bahrain beach land

Just spent a hectic 48 hours in the island, and what a relief it was from here. An island (or several) that feels as a Gulf city surrounded by, eh, the Gulf should. Plenty of corniche and unspoilt beach views, albeit more easily viewed from the road rather than the large amount of "private" beach land. Yes, there is a business district et al, but most of Bahrain is still pleasant to look at. The balad (old town) area is interesting and good for affordable hotels. Don't go into the internet cafes however, they suck. Cheap but virus ridden, bit like some of the hotels I didn't frequent.

Interesting politics there too. Not that it's covered in the English language press, but sure as hell is covered in Al-Wasat for example. In Dubai we enjoy plenty of local "political" coverage in the english language press, but little that concerns the structure of power other than stories documenting the difficulties of (some) foreign residents. In Bahrain the nationals are a majority and among the majority politics are rife, sectarian, and pretty public....

Christmas has also come early to Bahrain too...rejoice..who could resist some smurf like santa boys in a Gulf fortress scene, as can be viewed at the airport (see above). Charming.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Counter-Rhythms and Anti-Communist Reels

The decision to put Gloria Estefan center stage as part of “Rhythms and Reels” at the Dubai International Film Festival in December belies the impression I got when coming here nine months ago that the organisers were going to upgrade the quality of this year’s cinematic bash.

This decidedly average US-exiled Cuban singer, whose commercial success and Miami-fuelled politics have given her a platform that talent alone would not secure, is to be the star attraction at the DIFF, according to the local English language press and TV news. Readers of a certain pedigree will recall her ersatz offerings in the ‘80s when she regaled us with half-cooked disco beats under the label The Miami Sound Machine. Now for the relatively princely sum of AED175, the Gulf News informed its readers this week, we can have the opportunity to see her live in what will be her “middle east debut”. If only this purveyor of plodding rhythms and soppy ballads could have been shipped up the road to join the sexy but talentless Justin Timberlake, local papers would be free of one more unnecessary homage to the doyens of the retirement music scene that wash up on this particular section of the Persian Gulf. Of course one should not forget that Gloria is part of a double bill that also brings us the more interesting offering of 90 Millas, a documentary movie made by her husband about the (exile) Cuban music scene. No Buena Vista Social Club, 90 Millas will give us music from across the pond, in direct opposition to the sad excuse for socialism that is the ailing dictator’s island. But who needs the pet sounds of these gun running, drug fuelled, counter revolutionaries either? The Miami Contra Machine? No thanks….

Part of the DIFF quality uplift was, I thought, to include a greater Arab, nay Emirati, component. Arab musicians could more than adequately fill Mrs Estefan's shoes. Surely the Iraqi musician and singer Ilham Madfai would come cheaper. He is known to an extent in the west and very well known throughout the Arab world, and, lest we forget the preported objective of this film and culture showcase, is actually very good. One wonders about the DIFF platform for UAE film-makers. One or two have garnered international praise and publicity, yet I heard on Dubai Eye news last night that a separate Gulf Film Festival is to be held in Dubai concentrating on Khaleeji talent (and that of Iraq and Yemen, but not that rather large Khaleeji state, Iran).

In the Tabloid! section of Gulf News this week another middle aged median propagator of muzak was bigged up. This time it was the apparently best selling female singer of all time, Celine Dion, who has been awarded the Legend award at the World Music Awards in Monte Carlo by none other than that renowned muso Prince Albert. An obviously key contributor to the development of world music, one only has to look at her sales worldwide to justify this assessment, Ms Dion is most famous for the painful emotional manipulation of that song from the Titanic. She has also inflicted a host of other aural offences upon us over the two or more decades of her illustrious career. I was however pleased to see that Patti Labelle got an (unnamed) award too, no doubt also for her services to “world music”. Patti at least can perform and excite, and hey, that recently revived song that first saw the light of day 35 years ago was a classic. What else did she do in the intervening period? Well, a bit more that the Eagles did in the 28 years since they managed to condescend to put tracks to tape. At last however they have treated us with the awesomely named Long Road Out of Eden. The last LP was, I recall, The Long Run, released way back in 1979. So the titles haven’t got too imaginative in all that time, and, by all accounts, nor has the band’s music. This hasn’t prevented the record buying cognoscenti of the Sceptered Isle putting it straight in at No1, however; no doubt eager to find something to buy gramps for Christmas. The good news is that it is keeping Britney off the top slot - for now. But with repackages primed from the likes of Queen (again), Whitney (again) and, I believe, new albums from tiresome old “legends” Phil Collins and Eric Clapton, Ms Spears will get some stiff competition from the stiffs.