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.