Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Iran Plays in the Background

Concern mounted in the weeks prior to Israeli strikes against Gaza that Iran was stepping up efforts to exploit tension in Palestine. That concern coupled with fear that a Hamas victory in Gaza would strengthen Islamist forces across the Middle East has driven a wedge between Arab public opinion demanding assistance to the Palestinians and Arab governments' inability to effectively respond to the crisis. Some analysts believe Iran earlier this month was stoking Shiites to embarrass Arab governments by demonstrating already before the Israeli strikes against the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

In what seemed to be a coordinated move, Shiites demonstrated on December 19 in Beirut, Bahrain and Qatif, a predominantly Shiite area in eastern Saudi Arabia, where Shiites have more often defied a ban on public protests. With Hizbollah organizing the rally in Beirut, the Iranian connection was obvious. In Bahrain, the gathering of some 3,000 people ended in clashes with police, Three police officers were injured. Days earlier Bahrain arrested 15 people accused of planning to set off a series of bombs on Bahrain's national day. Saudijeans quotes the website Rasid as saying that several hundred demonstrators in Qatif waved posters of Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasarallah and chanted anti-Israeli and anti-US slogans. Police did not intervene but arrested tens of participants several days later. When protesters gathered again on Monday in Qatif in the wake of the Israeli strikes, police fired rubber bullets to break up the protest. Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki, denied that Monday's demonstration took place. "Street protests are banned in the Kingdom and security forces will intervene to enforce the ban," Reuters quoted Al-Turki as saying. Saudijeans said several petitions to allow for demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians were rejected by the Interior Ministry, which fears that lifting the ban on public protests could set a precedent for demonstrations in demand of more rights in Saudi Arabia itself.

Reflecting Saudi concerns immediately after the demonstrations in Beirut, Bahrain and Qatif, Tariq Alhomayed, editor in chief of Saudi-owned Asharq Al Awsat wrote: "If the West fears the missiles that Iran claims it is developing, then we fear the Iranian bombs that are planted among us! The simplest example of this lies in last Friday's demonstrations in Bahrain. (Hamas political leader) Khalid Meshal repeatedly called for Arab demonstrations and received no response. Yet, when Hassan Nasrallah made similar calls for demonstrations in support the people of Gaza, even some Bahrainis took to the streets. Furthermore, the Bahraini protestors went so far as to pelt security officers with stones. What happened in Bahrain cannot be described as anything but a demonstration of power by the high-commissioner of Iran in our region, Hassan Nasrallah! It is so odd that the King of Bahrain [Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifah] instituted reforms in his country and relinquished some powers for the sake of his country and people, whilst some people [in Bahrain] are surrendering their decisions and freedom, not to mention their country's constitution, for the sake of the high-commissioner of the Wilayat Al Faqih," Iran's model of political guardianship of the clergy.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hizbollah: Putting Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

For the past two years, Lebanon's Hizbollah Party of God has basked in its status as the only Arab military force to have stood up to Israeli military superiority and foiled Israeli military attempts to defeat it on the battle field. This week Hizbollah exploited its status to organize the Arab world's largest protest against the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah urged Muslims across the Arab and Islamic world to rise in support of the Palestinians.

Yet, as Israeli air strikes on Gaza continue and Israeli ground troops mass along Israel's border with the Strip, Nasrallah risks looking like other Arab leaders unable and/or unwilling to do more for the Palestinians than employ rhetoric and verbal protests and organize political rallies. Recent studies have concluded that Hizbollah remains a considerable military force capable of pouring rockets and missiles into northern Israel. Al Hayat newspaper reports that Egypt and Turkey have decided to warn Israel that a ground assualt could provoke Hizbullah in attacking Israel from southern Lebanon.

It cannot be very long before Hizbollah will have to explain what makes it different from Arab states fearful that the confrontation in Gaza could escalate into wider regional conflict and therefore unwilling to grant Palestinians more than moral and humanitarian support? Hizbollah's dilemma is likely to be increasingly highlighted as Arab leaders fail to effectively respond to the Gaza crisis. Arab foreign ministers are scheduled to meet tomorrow in emergency session in Cairo, five days after Israel launched its assault on Hamas. Plans for a possible Arab summit in Doha on Friday that would produce only one more statement are politically risky. "Staging an Arab summit could be dangerous and subject to criticism, especially if it does not result in practical measures," news reports quoted Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit as saying. Yet, continuing to be seen as impotent is equally risky. Just how great those risks are perceived is reflected in Jordan King Abdullah's decision to fire in the middle of a regional crisis his head of intelligence, Mohammed al-Thahbi. Al-Thahbi had led in recent months Jordan's rapprochement with Hamas as well as the Jordanian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The potentially explosive mix of anger at Israel and frustration with glaring Arab impotence coupled with criticism of authoritarian governments unwilling to grant greater freedom was evident at yesterday's demonstration in Cairo, the largest since the 2006 Lebanon war. Egyptian President Hosni Mobarak alongside his foreign Minister Aboul Gheit and Arab leaders in general were targets of the crowds anger. "The blood of the martyrs will remain a disgrace on the forehead of (Arab) leaders," read one banner. Protesters shouted: "Aboul Gheit, you are a coward, just shut up." In a rare public appearance, Muslim Brotherhood supreme leader Mohammed Mahdi Akef told the crowd of several thousand: "It's needless to say that the Zionist enemy, which is occupying Palestine, the Arab and Islamic land, wouldn't have been able to conduct these horrific criminal massacres without scandalous international complicity, humiliating silence, shameful impotence and disgraceful Arab collaboration."

Egypt, one of two Arab countries to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, risks being pressured by more radical Arab nations to break off relations with the Jewish state. More level headed leaders are unlikely to want to jeopardize Egypt's role as a mediator between Hamas, Israel and the Palestine Authority. Meanwhile, 81 of the 135 members of Jordan's parliament have urged the government to reconsider its ties with Israel. As pressures on Arab leaders mount, eyes will also be on what Hizbollah does. Al Hayat quoted Turkish sources as saying that Egypt and Turkey would put forward a plan for a ceasefire that would involve opening Gaza crossings, lifting of the siege of Gaza and regional and international guarantees to ensure the ceasefire is honored.

Obviously, neither Lebanon, Hizbollah's home base, nor Syria, together with Iran Hizbollah's main backer, want to be drawn into military confrontation with Israel and Hizbollah may not want to risk being blamed for an all-out regional war. Moreover, Syria, for much of this year, has been engaged in indirect peace talks with Israel mediated by Turkey. Already, Gaza puts those talks in jeopardy. Syria nonetheless is also not spared ridicule. "Whenever Arab governments call for peace, the Assad regime, which has not fired a bullet to liberate its (Israeli-) occupied Golan Heights since 1974, wages its fictional war on Israel through its state-owned media and its proteges in Lebanon, who accuse Arab governments of letting down the Palestinians by not marching to war with Israel.... Perhaps it is the time now for the former strong man of Lebanon, ths Syrian intelligence officer Rustum Ghazaleh, to use the 'Rifle of Resistance' that Mr. Nasrallah bestowed on him in 2005," wrote Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a visiting fellow at London's Chatham House.

Iran like many Arab states is not holding its breath for a substantial change in US policy when President-elect Barak Obama takes office next month, but may hope that Obama will be more inclined to lower tensions and seek a resolution to the region's multiple conflicts. So far Iran's response has been at best symbolic, only outdoing the Arabs in the shrillness of its rhetoric. Iran's semi-official Fars news agency reported that hard line clerics were signing up volunteers to fight in Gaza. But with Israel and Egypt controlling all access to Gaza, those volunteers were unlikely to see action any time soon. Hizbollah leader Nasrallah seemed to suggest in his speech to the Beirut rally that his organization had no immediate intention of becoming embroiled in renewed military confrontation with Israel. Nasrallah went out of his way to deny knowledge of eight rockets aimed at Israel that were discovered in southern Lebanon last week.

Islamist leaders meanwhile walk a tightrope, seeking to exploit the Gaza conflict to their political advantage, while not upsetting a fragile political balance. While Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Cairo called yesterday for continued peaceful demonstrations in support of the Palestinians, but many in the crowd demanded that Arab armies come to the aid of the Palestinians. Hizbollah, with the exception of Palestinian Islamists like Hamas, is the region's only non-state actor with a military capability of its own. Channeling and exploiting public anger while doing little to put its money where its mouth is, could well put a dent in its claim to the mantle of resistance against the Israelis, a mantle that now could well be inherited by Hamas. If anything, Hizbollah's caution proves that Islamists like all political players are mindful of circumstance and operate within the parameters of political realities.

These realities are compounded by facts on the ground. While Nasrallah's and Akef's calls for continued protests are likely to raise temperatures and increase public pressures, little will change on the ground. Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Al Destour, an Egyptian opposition daily told The National there was little hope that millions of Egyptians would heed Nasrallah's call for demonstrations to force Mubarak to fully open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. "The truth is that the Egyptian people are exhausted and besieged by thousands of security officers who managed to scare the Egyptians. Therefore, no one will respond to Nasrallah's appeal because the nation who can't confront despotism won't be able to combat its enemy or support its brothers," The Nation quoted Eissa as saying.

Lessons Not Learnt

Ten-year old Mahdi al Dajani like his brother Ahmed, his mother and his grandmother sits glued to the television in Cairo watching events in Gaza unfold. "These scenes make me very sad and angry… I don't blame Hamas. I encourage Hamas to do more. I'm pro-resistance and martyrdom operations. Sometimes I feel this is what I want to do when I grow up," Mahdi tells a reporter of The National. "The more the Israelis strike, the more the victims, the more we love resistance. We have to resist by our minds, souls and bodies," adds Ahmed who attends a British international school in Cairo.

Those are stark words for two kids born and raised in Egypt who have never set foot in Palestine. Knowing who their grandfather was makes his grandson's views even starker. Ahmed Sidki Dajani was a soft-spoken historian, writer, diplomat, human rights campaigner and co-founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization who died in 2003. Within the PLO, a coalition of nationalist Palestinian guerrilla groups, some of them stooges of radical Arab states, Dajani cut an elegant and intellectual figure. More importantly, he was in the 1970s an early advocate of Palestinians abandoning their dream of a 'secular democratic state in all of Palestine' that would replace the State of Israel and incorporate the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Instead, he argued for a two-state solution long before that was a concept to which Israel, a majority of Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community paid lip service. At the time, he was one of several PLO officials who risked their lives to meet with the only Israelis, left-wing doves on the fringe of Israeli politics, in the hope this would persuade Israeli and US public opinion to support what was then a controversial utopia.

The worldview of Dajani's grandsons paints a micro picture of the likely outcome of Israel's military effort to bring Hamas to its knees. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, two years ago, Hamas will probably emerge from the fighting temporarily wounded but intact, politically strengthened and capable of hitting Israel. Their worldview is as much formed by the militant nationalism of their parents and grandparents as it is by graphic pictures of destruction and death beamed into their Cairo home 24 hours a day. They highlight a lesson Israel has failed to learn in more than 40 years of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza: using its vast military power to military and civilian infrastructure in a bid to convince Palestinians that coming to the negotiating table on Israel's terms has only led to Palestinians regrouping, becoming politically more determined and willing to use whatever violent means they have at their disposal to fight Israel. Similarly, Israeli attempts to position groups as it viewed as moderate or at least less nationalistic as viable counterparts have consistently failed.

Forty years ago almost to the day, Israeli commandos raided Beirut airport, blowing up 13 jets of Lebanon's Middle East Airlines. The raid, in retaliation for a Palestinian attack on an El Al airliner in Athens, was designed to persuade Arab nations to crack down on the emerging Palestinian guerrilla movement. Jordanian King Hussein acted two years later, expelling in a bloody civil war Yasser Arafat and his PLO, including Ahmad Sidki Dajani, to Lebanon from where Palestinians struck at Israel with even greater furor. Israel responded initially by destroying the infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza of Al Fatah, the largest guerrilla group within the PLO led by Arafat, whose heirs today control the Palestine Authority. Ironically, to counter the PLO's nationalism, Israel tacitly supported and gave financial aid to Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which endorsed armed resistance to Israel but initially on building a social, religious, educational and cultural infrastructure to ease the hardship of Palestinian refugees, confined to sprawling refugee camps.

Over time, emboldened by the vacuum left by the pounding of the PLO in the occupied territories and criticism of complacency and corruption within nationalist Palestinian ranks, Hamas' social influence translated into political power. The Islamist victory with the toppling in 1979 of the Shah of Iran, a pillar of American influence in the region, and the emergence of Hezbollah as a fighting force in Lebanon enhanced that power. Whether by default or by design, Israeli support for Hamas set a tone that has overshadowed Middle East peace efforts ever since: actions by Israeli hawks and Palestinian hardliners often serve each other's purpose, the prevention of a peace process involving significant compromise. If anything, Israel's hard line and the lack of progress in the peace process has undermined more moderate groups, strengthening Hamas and leading to more radical spin-offs like the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

Imposed hardship and suffering like the checkpoints on the West Bank and the siege of Gaza have created a pool of recruits for Hamas and other Islamist groups. In a region of authoritarian regimes that over decades have done little to improve lives and resolve national issues, Islamists have emerged as one of the few, if not the only, credible force on domestic fronts as well as in confronting Israel. All of this is reflected in the Gaza crisis in which it's Hamas confronting Israel and the Islamists on the streets of Arab capitals demanding support for the Palestinians while Arab governments are so divided that they are reduced to issuing statements and sending humanitarian aid. Islamists may not be the people one really wants as a counterpart, the facts on the ground are that Israeli, Arab and Western policies have made them a force across the Middle East that no longer can be ignored.

Fear and distrust are the most irrational human emotions; they govern the discourse between Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the equation. Israel indeed withdrew from Gaza in 2005. But against the backdrop of Israel and the international community's refusal to recognize free and fair elections that brought Hamas to power, the siege of Gaza and the lack of progress in efforts to end the conflict what Palestinians recall are the words prior to Hamas' election victory of Dov Weisglass, a senior advisor to than Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon referring to the Israeli withdrawal: : "The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians... this whole package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our agenda indefinitely."

Implicit in the discussion of Hamas as in debates about Islamists in general is the notion of immutability: Inspired by religious fervor, Islamist groups unlike other political entities are immune to political circumstance, inflexible and incapable of change. The opposite is true. Hamas last week did not reject extension of the ceasefire unconditionally, it demanded that Israel lift the siege of Gaza and accept a ceasefire on the West Bank too as conditions for continuing the truce. Hamas, says the former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency has "recognized (that their) ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future…. they are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967 and are e aware that this means they "will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original goals" towards a long-term peace based on compromise... Israel, for reasons of its own, did not want to turn the ceasefire into the start of a diplomatic process with Hamas."

A majority of Palestinians and Israelis favor territorial compromise, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, a notion first championed 30 years ago by a minority on both sides of the divide. This is a political reality that Hamas has been forced to acknowledge even if its commitment to a two-state solution is weak. Hamas has acknowledged that in different ways. In the years between 1993 and 1997 during the failed Oslo peace process, Hamas denounced the Palestine Authority's engagement with Israel, but did nothing on the ground to obstruct it. In effect, it has accepted the possible emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel by proposing a 10-year truce provided that it would not compromise the Palestinian rights with regard to Jerusalem, refugee issues and freedom of political action.

Back in 1997, when the Palestine National Council met in Cairo to kick start the PLO's torturous 11-year road towards abandoning its goal of a secular democratic state in favor of a two-state solution, radical Palestinian guerrilla leader George Habash rejected the initiative saying: "if I today accept this as a tactic, tomorrow it will be my strategy." His words were echoed on the eve of the Israeli strikes against Gaza by Abu Qatada, the radical Islamic cleric who is widely viewed as Al Qaeda's spokesman in Europe, in an interview published on the Shumukh forum on the Internet. "I love the Muslim Brotherhood when it is oppressed because it focuses on education and jihad. But when it is allowed greater freedom, it loses motivation and becomes a pragmatic political party. Hamas is a good case in point. Look at its recent decision not to declare itself an Islamic emirate like the Taliban, " Abu Qatada said.

The lesson of 41 years of Israeli occupation and control of Palestinian lands is that confrontation only serves to exacerbate the conflict and radicalize the parties. The risk is that what a brave band of Palestinian and Israeli moderates started 30 years ago and with international and regional endorsement has become a common good, a two-state solution with a Palestinian state established alongside Israel, may be lost and the region will be returned to square one. Says journalist Nir Rosen in an emotional criticism of Israel: "Land expropriation and separation barriers have long since made a two-state solution impossible. There can be only one state in historic Palestine. In coming decades, Israelis will be confronted with two options. Will they peacefully move towards an equal society, where Palestinians are given the same rights, a la post-apartheid South Africa? Or will they continue to view democracy as a threat? Colonialism has only worked when most of the natives have been exterminated. But often, as in Algeria, it is the settlers who flee. Eventually the Palestinians will not be willing to compromise and seek one state for both people. Does the world want to further radicalise them?"

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Double-faced Arab Politics

Arab condemnation of Israeli attacks on Gaza is vocal and universal. For some Arab countries, that condemnation appears more designed to cater to mounting public anger at the attacks as well as Arab inability to do anything real to stop the assault rather than at really forcing a halt to Israeli operations. Arab nations like Egypt, which engineered the six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that ended last week and has been mediating between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian group that controls the Palestine Authority on the West Bank, as well as the Gulf states see Islamists with widespread public appeal as potentially the biggest challenge to their regimes. But mounting public anger in the Arab world coupled with the high death toll in Gaza could undermine the tightrope these Arab leaders are walking. Already, public anger at events in Gaza is spilling into the streets of Arab capitals across the region from Yemen to Mauritania.

For the Islamists, the Israeli attacks are a window of opportunity and they are exploiting it to the hilt. In Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef led demonstrations in Cairo while angry arguments between Muslim Brotherhood and ruling NDP deputies have roiled Parliament. Islamist deputies in Jordan have called for the severance of relations with Israel. Egyptian opposition daily Al-Dustour called for a popular response to Egypt's alleged collaboration with Israel commensurate with the magnitude of events and popular fury.

Details of that alleged cooperation are reported by London’s pro-Palestinian Arab-language Al Quds Al-Arabi. The newspaper quotes Palestinian and Arab diplomatic sources as saying that Egypt and perhaps other Arab states effectively worked with Israel to mislead Hamas about Israel’s plans so that the Islamists would be caught off guard when Israel launched its attack. Al Quds Al-Arabi quotes the sources as saying that Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman informed several Arab leaders that Israel was considering a limited attack on Gaza to force Hamas to renew the ceasefire it allowed to elapse, but that it had not yet formally decided to do so. Suleiman allegedly left the impression that an Israeli decision would not be taken before today’s weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Suleiman’s message followed a visit on Thursday to Cairo by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in which Egyptian leaders tacitly endorsed Israeli plans, according to Al Quds Al-Arabi, but cautioned Israel to avoid civilian casualties in a bid not to provoke Arab public opinion. The paper quoted a source close to Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar as saying that Egypt had advised Hamas on Friday evening, hours before Israel launched its strikes that Israel had agreed to negotiate a new ceasefire and would not attack in the meantime.

Some well-placed Arab sources believe however that Egypt may not have been a party to the Israeli plans and was itself mislead. These sources say that Livni assured Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other senior officials that Israel had not yet decided to attack Gaza. Egypt has publicly condemned the Israeli attacks in stark terms as ”murder.” One Arab source told me as he prepared to leave for Muscat for tomorrow’s summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council that comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman and is certain to be dominated by events in Gaza: “If the Egyptians wanted Israel to teach Hamas a lesson because it refused to extend the ceasefire, Egypt will end up learning a lesson. Hamas is a genuinely popular movement, it cannot be destroyed.” The summit has gained importance because it is the first Arab gathering since the Israeli air strikes began after Arab foreign ministers postponed an emergency meeting originally scheduled for today until Wednesday, a move that many in the Arab world see as underscoring Arab impotence. Speaking at a news conference in Gaza on Sunday, Hamas officials said Arab silence had made the Israeli attack possible.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit fueled suspicions that Egypt had played Israel’s game by saying on Saturday that Hamas was responsible for the outbreak of violence because of its repeated firing of rockets into Israel and noticing that both Egypt and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had warned Hamas of the consequences if it failed to do so. Al Quds al-Arabi earlier this week quoted intelligence minister Suleiman as telling Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad that the “Hamas leadership must be reined in, even in Damascus” where part of the Hamas leadership resides after the Islamists refused to restart talks aimed at bridging differences with Fatah. The paper quoted Suleiman as saying the Damascus-based head of Hamas’ Politburo, Khaled Mashaal, was responsible for the decision to continue firing missiles at Israel. It said Suleiman described Hamas leaders as ‘thugs’ and a ‘gang’ that would pay a heavy price for its intransigence. "Hamas' leadership is guilty of hubris. It snubs Egypt. Its leaders must be reined in and must wake up from their dream," Al Quds al-Arabi quoted Suleiman as saying.

Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, caught between a rock and a hard place, also placed the blame for the Israeli air strikes while on a visit to Cairo squarely on the shoulders of Hamas. In doing so, he aligned himself with Egypt and the Bush administration, the only member of the quartet seeking Middle East peace – the US, UN, EU and Russia – not to condemn the Israeli attacks, calling instead on Hamas to stop its rocket attacks and on Israel to avoid civilian casualties. Despite the fact that Hamas TV today appeared to confirm Israeli assertions that a majority of the dead in Gaza were Hamas fighters by reporting that 180 Hamas fighters had been killed since the beginning of the Israeli attack, Abbas posture is unlikely to enjoy much popular Palestinian support.

Abbas said Hamas could have averted the attacks by extending the ceasefire. He said he had contacted Hamas leaders directly and pleaded with them to extend the ceasefire to avoid bloodshed. If any Arab leader sees his position threatened by the situation in Gaza, it must be Abbas. Israeli sanctions on Gaza have served to strengthen popular support for Hamas rather than persuade public opinion that Hamas’ intransigence is the reason their lives are so difficult. That support for Hamas is further enhanced by the boycott by Israel and much of the international community despite the fact that Palestinians democratically elected Hamas in 2007. It is Hamas rather than Fatah and the Palestine Authority that today is seen to be standing up to Israel. The siege of Gaza and the Israeli attacks are accelerating popular rallying around the Islamists, who had made the lifting of the siege a precondition for extension of the ceasefire. Sanctions have historically proven ineffective in persuading populations to revolt asserting that the powers to be are the reason that their lives are being made miserable. Instead public opinion invariably puts the blame on those imposing sanctions. Gaza is no different.

Speaking from Damascus, Khaled Mashaal called for renewed suicide attacks and for Palestinians to revolt in a third Intifada. The Israeli air strikes make reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas virtually impossible as such as unification of Palestinian ranks would put Hamas back in the driving seat with Abbas as an adjunct. As a result, Abbas, foremost among Arab leaders, can only hope that Israel’s military offensive will succeed and succeed fast with not too much further bloodshed. The longer the attacks continue the more blood is shed, the more popular Hamas becomes across the Arab world and the more difficult it becomes for moderate, pro-western leaders. West Bank Palestinian opposition leaders are already calling on Abbas to stop peace talks with Israel and close ranks with Hamas in the face of the Israeli aggression. "Forget about Palestinian unity. It is a mirage. Tou can't unite with a bunch of collaborators who are seeking to take Gaza back," says Azzam Tamimi, author of 'Hamas: A History From Within,' referring to Abbas.

For Israel, the United States, Egypt and Abbas the end game has to be the restoration of Gaza to Palestine Authority control. Israeli tanks and troops are already massing on Gaza's border for what could be phase two of the Israeli operation with a ground assault. In the short term, months long sanctions against Hamas, including the Israeli Should Israel succeed in defeating Hamas and returning Gaza to moderate Palestinian control, quick, significant and tangible progress in resolving the Palestinian issue would be the only thing that would save Abbas from being successfully portrayed as an Israeli collaborator. For the time being, that seems to be more of a fata morgana. Already, the attack on Gaza is taking its toll on what little is left of the peace process with Syria reportedly having broken off indirect talks with Israel.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gaza: A Godsend for Islamists

Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper reports that the humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza this week despite Palestinian rocket attacks served as one of several measures to give Hamas a false sense of security so that an already authorized attack would catch the Palestinian Islamists off guard. Today's air strikes, apparently designed to at least weaken Hamas to the degree that it no longer can complicate or obstruct talks with the Palestinian Authority, inevitably beg comparison with Israel's 2006 attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon.

That attack failed to achieve its target, the destruction of an Islamist group and the liberation of Israeli soldiers held prisoner. If anything, Hezbollah emerged politically stronger, having fought the first Arab war with Israel in which Israeli military superiority was dented and Israel failed to achieve its objective. Granted Gaza is not Lebanon, and Hamas is not Hezbollah. Hamas took a serious beating on the first day of what Israel promises could be a prolonged offensive, a drubbing that appears to be far more punishing than pain inflicted on Hezbollah in the initial days of the war. Hezbollah constitutes far more of a military power than Hamas does.

Israel will certainly have drawn military conclusions from its 2006 experience and taken those into account when its National Security Council last Wednesday unanimously authorized the attacks on Gaza. The devastating effect of the attacks indicates that Israel's effort to deceive Hamas about its plans including statements to the media suggesting that Israel was still discussing and had yet to decide on military moves appears to have succeeded. Hamas police officers were killed as they attended their graduation in Gaza's main policy academy. Yediot quotes Israeli sources as saying that Hamas officials who had gone into hiding reappeared before today's air strikes and resumed normal operations.

Drawing a distinction with the Lebanon war, Israeli sources insist that today's attacks serve more limited objectives and are designed to stop the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel and not the destruction of Hamas or the liberation of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier being held by Hamas since 2006. It would, however, not be the first time that a war has involved Israel expanding its goals as fighting continued. Israel's initial objective in the 1982 war fell far short of expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon or occupation of Beirut but ended with Yasser Arafat and his cohorts setting sail for Tunisia and Israeli troops in control of the Lebanese capital. That is not to say that Israel is likely to expel Hamas. It is however a confrontation that could follow the pattern of Israeli Arab-confrontations since the 1967 Middle East war up to the 2006 Lebanon war: a battle that Israel wins militarily, but looses politically.

That is all the more true in a world where western nations are grappling with the fact that Islamists in the Arab and Muslim world are popular because they are seen as agents of reform and change. They do well in those countries where free and fair elections are held – Turkey or Jordan for example – and would do very well if more authoritarian countries such as Egypt would let the ballot decide. Islamist popularity makes Western support for often politically and morally bankrupt governments more risky and costly. Israel's attacks on Gaza, certainly if they continue for some time with this intensity, could raise that risk and cost.

Within hours of today's Israeli bombing, clashes on the West Bank between Palestinian youths and Israeli troops erupted reminiscent of the second Intifada. At a demonstration of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front (IAF) in the Jordanian capital Amman, an IAF leader warned that Arab leaders who deal with Israel were criminal, a less than veiled reference to Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It was in Cairo after talks with Mubarak that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned with reference to Hamas that "enough is enough." The Israeli attacks must put UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdallah Bin Zayid Al Nahyan, who this week paid a rare official Arab visit to the West Bank, in an embarrassing position. The visit, although to the Palestinian Authority, constitutes a de facto recognition of Israel as the minister and his delegation would have had to pass Israeli passport control. The UAE does not recognize Israel and does not even acknowledge it on maps of the region printed in the country.

Various Arab countries are likely to privately take a much milder view of Israel's attempt to cut Hamas down to size than is evident from their public condemnations. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit earlier today said Egypt had long warned Hamas that Israel would respond to rocket attacks in this manner, and that those who did not heed the warning "should bear the responsibility." Arab governments have privately sought to discourage Western contacts with moderate Islamists whom they view as their most serious challenger. Moderate Islamists to them constitute a political challenge given their public appeal, militant Jihadists are a security problem that can be harshly dealt with by security forces. This is all the more true in an economically depressed world where lower oil prices make it more difficult to create jobs and give legions of unemployed or underemployed youths at least an economic stake in the status quo. Public anger at the Israeli strikes coupled with Arab impotence is likely to fuel the vicious circle in which anger and frustration in the absence of a free media and freedom of expression can only be channeled through one outlet in the Arab world: the mosque.

Although unrelated to the violence in Gaza, the risks were highlighted when Bahrain Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa today accused Bahrain opposition leaders in London of having masterminded Bahrainis arrested earlier this month on charges of planning bomb attacks in the Gulf kingdom. He said the group had travelled this summer to Syria for military training under the guise of visiting religious shrines. Khalifa said Bahrain would have to introduce stiffer punishments in terrorism cases and toughen current legislation. Arsonists set fire to an electricity substation on one of Bahrain’s busiest streets hours before the arrest of the 14 was announced. Bahraini police have repeatedly clashed with Shiite villagers in recent weeks wanting to commemorate victims of unrest in the 1980s and 1990s.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Hebron Pits Syrian Jews against Olmert

At the heart of heightened tension between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank town of Hebron, Khalil to the Palestinians, lays a reclusive, conservative Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn and a Palestinian property owner who apparently is backtracking on a sale that ultimately could cost him his life. The dispute has all the elements of an explosive brew likely to strengthen support for hardliners like Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud and the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party: hard-line religious politics, business, opportunism and historical claims in a land where history is lived every day.

By and large publicity shy, hundreds of Syrian Jews, including the wealthy community's rabbis, rallied this month in support of fellow community member Morris Abraham, who bought from a Palestinian a building in the center of Hebron that sparked the latest dispute, according to The Forward, a Jewish daily. The community was outraged by the evacuation of Israeli settlers from the building after Israel's Supreme Court granted the government custody of the property, pending resolution of a court case in which the Palestinian owner is seeking annulment of the sale on the grounds that it was fraudulent. The eviction sparked settlers' riots in which 17 Palestinians were injured while Israeli security forces stood.

The eviction and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's description of the riots as a 'pogrom' has served to reinforce support for right-wing opponents of Olmert's Kadima party in the forthcoming election. The Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn already gives substantial support in part through the Hebron Fund that provides financial aid to Israeli settlers in Hebron and helped Abrahams purchase the property in Hebron. Abraham, a 40-year old shoe wholesaler, admits that the purchase was as much politically motivated as it was business related given his plans to convert the 40,000 square foot property into apartments for rent. The Forward quotes him as telling the rally that he bought the property because he was religious.

Hebron has religious significance for Jews and Muslims alike. It is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives are said to be buried. In addition, the Hebrew Bible describes Hebron as King David's original capital before he moved it to Jerusalem. "We have created a nation of suicide peacemakers," The Forward quoted Abraham as saying in his denunciation of the Olmert government's failure to side with him in the dispute with the Palestinian seller. With settlers seeking to assert Jewish rights to Hebron by acquiring real estate, Palestinian sellers risk execution as traitors.

Hebron claims a special place in Israeli and Palestinian history. A focal point of clashes during pre-state colonization, Palestinians in 1930 killed 68, many of them members of Hebron's long-settled Sephardic community. Abraham told the rally he had a personal affinity to the city because his grandfather had lived there at the time of the massacre but was able to escape.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Covering God

In my journalism book, one reports what one knows to be true and shies away from assumptions. Analysis gives a journalist the opportunity to put events into context and to map out scenarios. Vincent Carroll, editorial page editor of the Rocky Mountain News, violates that rule in his otherwise excellent Wall Street Journal review of 'Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion,' entitled 'God Is A Problem, Sources Say.'

Carroll writes: "In a jarring misreading of the Islamist mentality, the New York Times last month described a Jewish center in Mumbai, India, as the 'unlikely target' of the terrorists who attacked various locations there. 'It is not known if the Jewish center was strategically chosen," the Times went on to declare, "or if it was an accidental hostage scene.'

As a writer of editorials Carroll enjoys the freedom to make opinion the driver of his writing. A reporter doesn't. Initially, during the Mumbai attacks, it remained unclear who the perpetrators were. Jihadis were obviously the first suspects that came to mind but at least in the public domain that remained initially unconfirmed. Similarly, the degree of coordination and determination of the perpetrators emerged only gradually during and after the attacks. As the story unfolded, reporters did not know for certain whether the perpetrators were Jihadis and therefore the Jewish center would have constituted a target for them, and even if it had been confirmed that they were Jihadis, whether the center had been part of the plan or something they stumbled on in the course of events. The perpetrators made no demands which would have suggested who they were; the statement to a news agency by the hitherto unknown Deecan Mujahedeen, remained unverified at the time. Certainly, the New York Times reporter's description of the center as an "unlikely target" should have been questioned by an editor since 'unlikely' presumes knowledge of the perpetrators.

Carroll's is a fair review and a legitimate criticism of the way Western journalists cover stories with a religious component. He quotes Blind Spot co-editor Paul Marshall as saying that some journalists are reluctant to accept the "fundamental religious dimension" of jihadist motives and concentrate instead on "terrorist statements that might fit into secular Western preconceptions about oppression, economics, freedom and progress." Mr. Marshall's statement goes to the heart of what is an unresolved debate: Are perpetrators inspired by their religion or do they gravitate because of social, economic and political circumstance to extreme interpretations of religion? Mr. Marshall apparently supports the first school of thought.

The second of school of thought is vividly illustrated in Young Jordanians rebel, embracing conservative Islam by Michael Slackman in today's New York Times, which portrays student members of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood. They opt for conservative and strict forms of Islam as a protest because they are "angry, alienated and deprived of opportunity…. It is their rock 'n' roll, their long hair and love beads". Slackman continues: "As a high school student, Fawaz, 20, had dreamed of earning a scholarship to study abroad. But that was impossible, he said, because he did not have a 'wasta,' or connection. In Jordan, connections are seen as essential for advancement and the wasta system is routinely cited by young people as their primary grievance with their country. So Fawaz decided to rebel. He adopted the serene, disciplined demeanor of an Islamic activist… 'I find there is justice in the Islamic movement,' Fawaz said one day as he walked beneath the towering cypress trees at Jordan University. 'I can express myself. There is no wasta needed.'" Granted the students in Slackman's portrayal have opted for peaceful protest but joined an organization that supports the use of violence in Palestine. Yet religion is for them a tool to achieve political change and social justice, what religion means to them as they mature as did the 1960s rebels of Paris, Berlin and Berkley remains an open question.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Prnt Media Face Hard Times in Developing Countries Too

For much of this year, and certainly amid the accelerated global economic crisis, it looked like the media was experiencing two contradictory trends: Western media, hard hit by drops in advertising and grappling with the impact of new technology, were shrinking news rooms and seeking to fend off bankruptcy. By contrast media in the developing markets of the Middle East and Asia were booming, print was on the rise and unemployed Western journalists were scouring the region for jobs.

That picture may slowly be unraveling. The Guardian’s media commentator Roy Greenslade notes on his blog today that hard times are hitting the Indian print media too. A report in India’s Business Standard quotes various media executives as saying India’s print media is experiencing difficult times with newsprint prices rising sharply and advertising revenue falling sharply. The Standard quotes an ad tracking firm as saying that ad revenue in November had dropped by 45% compared to October and 20% on a year-on year basis. In response, Indian papers are cutting their number of pages, laying off staff, shelving expansion plans, eliminating editions and/or raising prices. Sound familiar?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Gulf Benefits from Media Crisis in the West

Global economic turndown is accelerating an already painful transition in the Western media. While journalists and media professionals grapple with the fallout and debate the fate of the mainstream media as we know it, for many of the more than 15,000 who this year alone lost a job in journalism in the US, the issues are existential. Many are looking for salvation in the Middle East where despite economic doom and gloom, the media industry is still expanding.

Recruiters report a more than 50% increase in the number of western journalists looking for jobs in the region. For Middle Eastern media this means the ability to choose from a larger and more qualified pool than before, a development that started with Abu Dhabi’s launch earlier this year of The National, an English-language daily, that recruited from some of the West’s greatest brand names, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Daily Telegraph.

The National constitutes in many was a breath of fresh air, producing in layout and content one of the region’s journalistically most professional publications. Yet even it has had to tome down its aspirations to be a hard-hitting, investigative product that lets the chips fall where they may and acts as the force that holds the powers to be accountable. For those that find employment in a region and an environment they know little about, the transition may prove more difficult than expected. Those that preceded them and have encountered the boundaries of a free press in the region can tell the story. This is not to say that press freedom in parts of the region have not come a long way. Qatar’s Al Jazeera and The National are undeniable proof. Yet, it remains a far cry from the freedoms the Western press enjoys as a result of legal restrictions, informal red lines and the lack of a culture in which sources see the media as more than mere scribes.

Often the issue is that governments have yet to go beyond simply talking the talk. The UAE is currently discussing a new media law to pass the existing one that was enacted 28 years ago. Dubai kicked off the development of media free zones and has become with Dubai Media City a regional hub. Similar initiatives are underway in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt, the later two certainly being locations with degrees of media control. In September, UAE Vice President and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, suggested that the new law should no longer allow for journalists to risk imprisonment for carrying out their duties. An appeals court in Dubai within weeks of Sheikh Mohammed’s statement overturned the conviction of two journalists on libel charges.

International press organization Reporters Without Borders ranks the UAE as one of the region’s most liberal media environments. It sees the main problem for press freedom in the emirates as self-censorship practised by media, which eschew criticism of the government in order to avoid repercussions. Putting a legal framework in place that allows journalists to fulfil their role as part of the fourth estate is a key ingredient for nurturing a free press. Encouraging a culture receptive to critical reporting without red lines is another. Sheikh Mohammed’s statement and the obvious effect it had on the appeals court is an important step in shaping an environment conducive to independent investigative reporting.

Dubai Reads the Writing on the Wall

The writing was on the wall two years ago. Research then predicted that Dubai’s real estate bubble would burst. Best estimates spoke of a 30% drop in prices by 2009. That was long before the current global economic crisis and the only question was what would trigger the downward spiral. At the time, no one paid attention. Life was too good to be true.

Predictions of a downturn and common sense that an unrealistic, speculative bubble could only burst did little to stop the frenzy. Banks fuelled the six-year frenzy with mortgages of up to 95% often to speculators who had no intention of paying their second loan instalment in the expectation that they would be able to flip the property at a profit before another payment was due. Real estate developers and brokers viewed analysts sounding a cautionary note as mars men from another planet. Today many in the industry as well as in construction accept up to 30% salary cuts and reduced housing allowances and other perks just to save their jobs as thousands are being laid off. Others gratefully accept transfers to other Gulf states where the real estate and construction markets have yet to be seriously hit. That however may be holding on to straw. Kuwait, where real estate prices have dropped by 56% in recent months, serves to prove that Dubai is not an isolated case.

For the finance sector, the chicken is coming home to roost. With stocks of real estate developers nose diving and the market screeching to a virtual standstill, home owners are stuck with properties worth up to half their purchasing price. Increasingly banks are foreclosing on bad mortgages as over-stretched borrowers default because their assumption of continued price rises and demand outstripping supply evaporate. Banks are rightfully paying the price for throwing caution into the wind. But regulators and authorities let it happen.

As banks scramble to protect themselves and the UAE Central Bank prepares for what could be a massive bailout, the question rises whether other sectors of the Dubai economy may have to re-evaluate their prospects and re-examine the assumptions on which they are being built. Take healthcare and retail. They are being developed on the assumption that medical and shopping tourism is as important as domestic UAE consumption. Saudi Arabia, hardly a tourist destination beyond the religious, has a world-class, cutting edge medical and healthcare sector. India despite the recent Mumbai attacks already is a medical tourist destination. What should give Dubai an edge, its freewheeling, liberal environment, is increasingly less of an attraction as other countries push development and position themselves to grab a slice of the pie. The same is true for retail leaving aside that consumers in times of economic downturn and uncertainty are spending less. Shopping malls are springing up across the geography.

Nonetheless, Dubai deserves the credit for developing a model that the larger region – the Indian Ocean, the Gulf and the Middle East – is emulating with whatever tweaking and adjustments. In doing so, Dubai had a first-starter advantage. The trick is to turn that window of opportunity into something that is sustainable and durable. Dubai can learn from the lessons of Bahrain, an island nation that was in some ways Dubai in the 1970s and 1980s and failed to capitalize on its achievements. In the wake of the Lebanese civil war, banks moved their operations from Beirut to Bahrain, making the island a regional financial hub. Bahrain International Airport was the region’s transport hub where global airlines such as British Airways and KLM centred their operations between their European home bases and the Far East. Dubai has taken over that role as Bahrain struggles to catch up but needs to ensure that it stays ahead of the game. That will involve a transition from its gung-ho, can do, build and they will come attitude that served it well but has served its purpose into ensuring that its initiatives are sustainable and can weather the storm.

For the banking sector in Dubai, that transition point is arriving. Some banks may not survive widespread foreclosures on real estate. Exposure to the market expanded tremendously with the boom as well as with the emirate’s decision in 2002 to allow foreigners to buy property and qualify for financing. Foreclosures may not be the solution. Beyond the fact that there are currently no buyers to offload distressed property to, newly enacted laws allowing banks to repossess are untested. Similarly, efforts by real estate firms to prevent foreclosures by easing payment terms may fail as prices drop and homeowners are saddled with negative equity. Just how bad the banking crisis will be is uncertain. While real estate and construction account officially for no more than 20% of the UAE economy, bank exposure is likely to prove far higher. Many loans extended for projects in other sectors are likely to prove to have been diverted to the property sector.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Could We Uncover Watergate Today?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly is yes, despite Western media suffering a near existential transition and crisis. Two prominent journalists, one addressing the question directly in the wake of the death of Mark Felt, best known as Deep Throat, the source that helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein unravel Watergate and force President Nixon out of office. The other, Hesham Melham, a veteran Washington-based correspondent for Arab media, speaking days before Felt’s death in a very different context, a panel discussion on whether the US media are biased against Arabs and Muslims.

Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr used the question as the title of his contribution to today’s Outlook section of the Post. "In an age when the media have been turned upside-down by the biggest shifts in audience and economic models since the advent of television, my two biggest questions about whether we could still pursue a story like Watergate center on resources and verification…. In today's cacophonous media world, in which news, rumor, opinion and infotainment from every kind of source are jumbled together and often presented indiscriminately, how would such an improbable-sounding story ever get verified? As newsrooms rapidly shrink, will they still have the resources, steadily amassed by newspapers since Watergate, for investigative reporting that takes months and even years of sustained work?

These questions are not just about holding leaders and senior officials accountable but can also affect the lives of ordinary citizens. With other words investment bankers may be the only ones to enjoy poorer public ratings than journalists, yet the public has as stake in the media being able to maintain its roles as the fourth estate. The Post’s investigative reporting, Downie notes, ensured that care for US military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan has improved significantly at Washington’s Walter Reed Hospital.

In fact, if the Watergate story would have broken today, it would have led to a much quicker downfall of a Nixon, who in 1972 was re-elected five months after his Republican agents broke into the Democratic Party’s Watergate offices. Whistle blowers like Felt exist today in democratic societies in far greater numbers than they did in back in the early 1970s and they enjoy far greater legal protection than they did then. Whistle blowers also have a much larger choice of media and investigative journalists to approach.

In effect, Melham, looking at the US media from a very different perspective comes to the same conclusion. He like Downie points in a discussion organized by the National Council on US-Arab Relations among other stories to the Washington Posts’ disclosure of the CIA's secret interrogation sites for terrorist suspects. “The American media covered the Shabra and Shatila massacres in a more dignified professional way than all the Arab media put together. Make no mistake,” Melham said referring to the killing of hundreds of men, women and children in two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut by Lebanese Christian militiamen as Israeli troops stood idly by. “It was the American media that uncovered (US abuse of Iraqi prisoners in) Abu Ghraib. The New Yorker and CBS…. It was the media that uncovered the National Security Agency's involvement in listening probably some of our conversations overseas. That was the New York Times. It was the media that uncovered certain massacres in Iraq, such as Haditha. This was Time magazine.

This is the American media which I criticized during the run up of the Iraq war because they did not engage in the usual cynical questioning of authority and they did engage later on, a few months afterward, when we found out that there were no weapons of mass destruction and all that nonsense and there was no relationship between Al Qaeda and that awful regime of Saddam Hussein. They did engage in their own version of self-flagellation and mea culpa. I've always said and I will continue to say that the American media always get the story right. The problem with the American media is that they do not get the story right at the right time, sometimes,” Melham said.

If anything, Downie argues, new technology has worked in favor of hard-hitting investigative reporting. The Internet allows for searching of records and other information. Contacting sources on pre-paid cell phones gives sources whose identity has to be guarded greater protections. And a Woodward and Bernstein would not be reporting in isolation as they did at the time of Watergate when other media were slow to join the chase. Reporters and bloggers today would be all over the story on the Internet and opinion polls would be gauging public reaction to the story.

That is good news. The key however is to ensure that the current crisis in the Western media constitutes a transition to a stronger and better fourth estate rather than its demise.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Can Dubai Meet the Challenge?

Dubai never misses an opportunity to be out front. Yet, reality, a realization that even in Dubai global recession means it is no longer business as usual may be kicking in.

Within days of announcing plans for the world's first climate controlled beach, Emirates Sunland Group, a joint venture between privately-owned Emirates Investment Group and Australia's Sunland said the project was on hold until it could be established whether the project was environmentally sustainable. "If an environmentally sustainable approach cannot be found and guaranteed then Sunland Group will not develop the beach in this format," said Soheil Abdeian, the group's founding director, according to Abu Dhabi newspaper The National.

The reversal highlights the pressures on Dubai, a young shoot struggling to grow between two massive trees as Emirati film maker Hamad al Awar in his 2006 animated feature Once Upon A Seed portrays his native land's efforts to carve out its niche in a global economy. Framed before the global economic meltdown during the heyday of Dubai's Richard Bransoniesque development push -- Screw it, just do it, or more elegantly put in the words of Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum, the current ruler's late father, build and they will come -- Al Awar's metaphor probably referred to regional power houses Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

It harked as far back as the late 1980s when Gulf leaders gathered in Abu Dhabi to create the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Emirati leaders and merchant families then worried whether they would survive competition with the region's wizened, experienced traders, the Kuwaitis, and the far less shrewd but cash-rich Saudis who also benefitted from their sheer population figures. Those anxieties are long gone. Today, the emirate competes with the best of the best and in many ways sets the tone.

Just how far it has come was highlighted this week by a report commissioned by the office of London mayor Boris Johnson predicting that Dubai among others could overtake the City as one of the world's foremost financial centers. "Other centers are simply more coordinated, more strategic and more aggressive" than London said Bob Wigley, Merrill Lynch chairman for Europe, Middle East and Africa and the head of Johnson's panel.

Yet, the report came just as Dubai witnessed its first layoffs in the financial sector and credit rating agencies downgraded the region's financial institutions, many of them in Dubai. The downgrades in ratings and/or outlook reflected fear that already hard hit stock and real estate markets in Dubai and elsewhere in the Gulf could deteriorate further. That in turn would affect asset their quality and profitability.

Emiratis and particularly Dubai will certainly take pride in the fact that their Gulf outpost is viewed as a worthy rival to the world's foremost, albeit humbled, financial centers. But that may be less glory to bask in and more a clarion call that much remains to be done for the emirate to be continued to be counted in the world's top league. Being the world's best, most outlandish, biggest, tallest or whatever may no longer be the name of the game. Getting it right has replaced that. If anything, the Johnson panel warning to the elders of London poses the challenge to Dubai to rise to the occasion.

More to Middle East Arms Race

That Iran looms large in current Gulf thinking was further highlighted with this week's announcement that the UAE has signed a $3.3 billion agreement to purchase US patriot missiles. The deal also involves medium-range Patriot manufacturer Raytheon transferring technology and training. It follows Iranian advances in missile technology with the introduction of its Shahab-3 medium range weapon. For the UAE, the purchase is a balancing act. A key conduit for supply to Iran of goods that fall under US sanctions, some US legislators fear that sensitive technology involved in the Patriot deal as well as US willingness to help the UAE develop a civilian nuclear energy program could end up in Iran. The recent announcements fits a pattern and is part of an extensive military upgrade program. Earlier this year, privately-owned Emirates Advanced Investments joined forces with Raytheon to develop laser-guided missile technology in the UAE. Also, earlier this year, France and the UAE said France would be establishing a military presence in the Emirates by spring of 2009.

A Middle East Nuclear Arms Race?

Saudi Arabia following in the foot steps of Abu Dhabi has put its weight behind the development of alternative energy if oil prices settle at about $75 a barrel. The move is significant because the Kingdom as the world's largest oil producer drives OPEC policy. Yet, geopolitics as always in the Middle East may lurk in the background of that decision. Pointing to mounting friction between Egypt and Iran, The Wall Street Journal notes: "...the broader context of the friction is its steady progress toward a nuclear weapon and the encroachment by Iran into the Arab world -- principally through Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Mahdists in Iraq. States like Egypt and Saudi Arabia watched with dismay in the summer of 2006 as Israel failed to deliver a knockout blow against Hezbollah. Now they calculate that the U.S. lacks the will to prevent a nuclear Iran. As for Barack Obama's promise of 'tough diplomacy,' we suspect the Arab states take him about as seriously as they would a tourist who thinks he knows how to bargain at an oriental bazaar. Little wonder, then, that the Arab states are taking a keen interest in acquiring nuclear capabilities of their own."

The Journal's argument that major oil producers like Saudi Arabia or Algeria have little need for nuclear energy and may like Israel and India did view non-military nuclear technology as a first step towards obtaining a bomb, while probably accurate may be a bit narrow. Diversification is key to concepts of development, certainly in the Gulf and ensuring that Gulf oil producers are at the forefront of issues such as pushing energy frontiers, preserving resources and greening the world makes perfect sense.

But Arab efforts to play catch up with Israel are not new starting with Iraq whose Osirak reactor was destroyed by Israel in 1981. Libya as part of its reintegration into the international community admitted having a program and discontinued it. Israel this summer attacked what was purported to be a burgeoning nuclear North Korea-assisted facility in Syria and Saudi Arabia, despite the Kingdom's denials has persistently been reported to be working with Pakistan. Perhaps most advanced in efforts to obtain civilian nuclear technology is the UAE' with its nearly finalized 123 agreement with the United States on nuclear technology designed to help the Emirates build nuclear power stations for its rapidly growing cities. Backed by the Bush administration, the agreement already faces opposition from some members of the US Congress. Just how Iran lurks in the background of all of this, was evident when UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed earlier this week joined representatives of Jordan, Egypt and Iraq in a meeting at UN headquarters in New York with the P5 + 1 group -- the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany plus the European Commission -- to discuss Gulf security and ways of stopping Iran from developing its nuclear military capability.

Still, it's difficult to see what use oil giants like the Saudis or Algerians would have for nuclear power except as a hedge against an Iranian bomb. IAEA safeguards or not, possession of "civilian" nuclear technology served India and Israel as the crucial first step to getting a bomb.