Gulf sheikhs must be shaking in their thobes

IN THE space of a week, Egypt has gone from tourist mecca to a place that people avoid. It has gone from a police state to one where the dictator who has ruled for nearly 30 years is shaking in his shoes. There is talk of an uprising in Yemen too – the West is less interested in what goes on there than in Cairo so we won’t be seeing too many headlines about Sana’a.

But Egypt’s case is interesting, to say the least. The last time there was anything like this it was in the years following the assassination of Anwar Sadat by the Muslim Brotherhood. Their expectations were belied – they hoped that the people would support them in the chaos that followed the slaying of Sadat in revenge for his having signed the Camp David peace deal with Menachem Begin.

But the people preferred the iron arm of the dictator as long as stability was restored in the country and the Muslim Brotherhood was given a working over; 302 of them were tried and though some were acquitted, many met their fate by firing squad. Their leaders were tortured and Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the key men, fled the country in 1985 when Mubarak began to hunt out those who were part of the Brotherhood.

Zawahiri fled to Afghanistan and we know whom he tied up with; he became the spiritual mentor of one Osama bin Laden, the man who is better known worldwide than even Julian Assange. (Adam Curtis has some brilliant footage of a young Zawahiri in court as part of his documentary, The Power of Nightmares).

In Algeria, similarly, the Islamic Salvation Front indulged in a grisly campaign of murder and intimidation in the early 90s after they had made a decent showing in the elections and then been frozen out by the ruling party, hoping that the people would rise up and join them. Once again, the desire for stability – no matter the kind of political system that would bring it about – won and the Islamists have never been a force there since then. There is a school of Islamic thought that holds that in times of anarchy, the rule of a dictator is to be preferred to no rule; that’s one of the reasons why there are so many dictatorships in the Muslim world.

Given this background, it is important that the Islamists do not try to capitalise on the situation in Egypt, even though the sight of Mubarak quaking in his shoes must be a source of much amusement and delight to them. It appears that they are now supporting an army takeover as long as Mubarak is exiled. There are plenty of Islamists in the armed forces as can be gauged from the killing of Sadat, hence this preference.

But the most interesting fallout could be in the Gulf states, those tiny empires of sand which have financed people like Mubarak for years and years. Propped up by the Americans, the Gulf sheikhs – in the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain – have been living it up in style and mollifying their citizenry with handouts to keep them in a comatose state. As long as the oil price is kept at levels that the Americans can manage to buy, the sheikhs have known that they are safe.

Saudi Arabia has a sizeable number who subscribe to the Islamic model of a state; as long back as 1979, the Islamists tried to take power by seizing the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Bin Laden enjoys considerable popularity in the country and he must be overjoyed to see those who exiled him and stripped him of his citizenship in this situation. Saudi ruler, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz is much more popular than the former ruler, Fahd, but the armed forces cannot control the country if something erupts. American assistance will be needed as it was in 1979 though the whole thing became farce when the US helicopter flying to the aid of the then king, Khalid, crashed in the desert. It will be more bloody and violent if trouble breaks out – the Saudi method of keeping something quiet is by extermination.

Of the six Gulf states, only Qatar has reason to feel somewhat confident that there will be no trouble. The head of the country, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has brought in some reforms, given women more right and also helped the birth of Al Jazeera which surely must take some credit for all the protests. The other Gulf states will be very nervous, especially Oman, where Sultan Qaboos has ruled for nearly 40 years without a change in sight.

But leave all this aside – the most nervous of all countries will be the US of A which has troops in many of the states and gets most of its oil from the region. If trouble does break out, the rulers will call on the US for help to stay in power and given that oil is part of the equation, the Americans will have no choice but to agree.

Ashes to Ashes: Australia left in the dust

AT LEAST one Australia could have been happy after the catastrophic defeat in the fifth and final Ashes Test – but even that didn’t happen.

Ricky Ponting, forced to stand down due to an injury, would have been happy that the team had not done better under Michael Clarke than under him – but then any happiness would have been washed away when the chairman of selectors, Andrew Hilditch, refused to say whether Ponting would be captain again when Australia resumes Test cricket in August.

Poor Ponting will have to keep biting his nails and spitting on his hands and rubbing them together for the next seven or eight months.

At the end of a series in which Australia was humiliated, becoming only the second team to lose three Tests by an innings at home, Hilditch said he had done a good job. You’d have to wonder what would have happened had he done a bad job.

Maybe if Australia had lost all five Tests, Hilditch would have been a mite more modest and said that he had done an average job. One never knows with such an unassuming gentleman.

The coach, Tim Nielsen, backed players like Phillip Hughes (who lacks even the semblance of technique and insists ‘but that’s how I play”). Steven Smith (who spent the last morning of the series making cow-shots against England) and Michael Beer Australia’s future looks bright, especially given that Nielsen has had his contract renewed until 2013.

Nielsen still said he had done all he could, but did not specify whether it was all he could to destroy the team or to make them able to win Test matches.

The selectors, who have been clearly unmasked as a bunch of jokers, also said they had done a good job. Australia needs a couple more series like this and it could well end up in a battle for ninth place in the ICC rankings with Bangladesh.

Three innings victories in a Test series down the years:

1928 – England 3 home innings wins in a row v West Indies
1931 – Australia 3 home innings wins in a row v West Indies
1931 – Australia 3 home innings wins in 5 tests v South Africa
1936 – Australia 3 away innings wins in 5 tests v South Africa
1947-8 – Australia 3 home innings wins in 4 tests v India
1957 – England 3 home innings wins in a row v West Indies
1958 – England 3 home innings wins in 5 tests v New Zealand
1959 – England 3 home innings wins in 5 tests v India
1994 – India 3 home innings wins in a row v Sri Lanka
2007 – Sri Lanka 3 home innings wins in a row v Bangladesh
2010-11 – England 3 away innings wins in 5 tests v Australia

Final Ashes Test: Ponting’s mixed feelings

RICKY Ponting faces five very difficult days ahead. Days when he will be torn between wanting Australia to do well in the final Ashes Test and also fully aware that any improvement will be put down to the stand-in captain Michael Clarke.

And any improvement will also decrease even the smallest chance he has of regaining the captaincy when Australia next plays Test cricket in August. Thus in a perverse way, Ponting will probably be happy if Australia suffers another defeat.

Would Ponting play under someone else as captain? He really wouldn’t have a choice – if the selection panel decides that a new captain must take over, then he will have no choice. And the new captain wouldn’t have much choice to having Ponting in his team if he merits a place on form.

Ponting is anxious about the captaincy and also highly insecure. This is evident from the fact that he wants to be in the dressing room for the fifth Test even though he is not playing. He wants to be around so that he can claim some credit in the event that the team fares better than it did in Melbourne.

Clarke must be feeling as though he has a millstone around his neck. It is highly unusual for a situation like this to develop but both the selectors and Clarke are being diplomatic about it. Nobody wants to make it appear as though Ponting has played his last Test as captain.

But that is what is very likely to happen. Ponting has some years left as a batsman but the team needs some rejuvenation and the long gap between Tests is exactly what is needed to blood new players.

The selectors have to look seriously at trying to regain the country’s ranking in Test cricket – it now stands fourth, thanks the weather in Sri Lanka that caused both Tests in the two-Test series between the West Indies and Sri Lanka to end in draws. Lanka thus slipped back from fourth to fifth and Australia moved up a notch.

It is always a touch tragic to see a good batsman come to a fork in the road as Ponting has. He is desperate to hang on to the captaincy and does not see that his time as captain is up. If he were to step down voluntarily it would be good for him. He could then continue as a player as long as his form warrants.