Cancer and religious strife: what Bush, Blair and Howard have sown

THE coalition of the willing invaded Iraq in 2003 in order to secure oil supplies for the West; they have left behind a legacy of religious and ethnic strife and diseases that cannot be cured.

The cancer rate in the city of Fallujah has risen to unimaginable levels; children are born every day with hideous deformities. Radioactivity in many areas is far above the normal level, even factoring in the fact that Iraq was the site of a war in 1991.

Buildings have been abandoned but the Iraqis who move about breathe in the harmful residues and a surge in the birth of deformed children is the result.

Couples in Fallujah are now afraid to have children. For any Arab, children are something to be proud about. But given the rising rate of unnatural births, the number of births has dropped.

The Americans have form in this regard: they bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the effects of that act of terrorism can be seen even today.

Depleted uranium is used in shells to increase their killing potential; what it leaves behind maims the living. It would be merciful if it killed them straightaway.

Winning hearts and minds? Sure, this is the way to go about it, by ensuring that a nation of deformed children rises up. We see ourselves in our children and the West has left Iraq in no doubt as to how it should start seeing itself.

George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard, meanwhile, have all released their memoirs, defending the decision to invade a sovereign nation. Blair even justifies the bogus 45-minute warning he issued about non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The other legacy that these three world leaders have left behind is religious conflict. Iraqi Christians are increasingly being forced to flee their own country because of attacks by Muslim militants. Iraq was one country in the Middle East where every religious minority could worship in peace.

But that is no longer the case. The level of militancy has risen a thousand-fold and people regard their neighbours with suspicion.

The Americans have exerted heavy pressure on Iraq’s government to keep these issues quiet. They are aided by their own media like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the TV channels like CNN and Fox News. These media organs have more important things — like Sarah Palin’s antics — to report about.

Hamas official’s murder: things get murkier

ISRAEL has come under more pressure after additional revelations from Dubai about the murder of Hamas official Mahmoud Al Mabhouh – namely that the identities of another 15 people were stolen and used by those who carried out the killing.

The Mossad is suspected of carrying out the assassination; Israel, as it always does, has refused to either confirm or deny the allegations.

Six of the 15 had British passports and three had Australian passports. Some of those whose identities have been used have dual nationality and live in Israel, making it some kind of first.

Mossad has generally not used its own citizens’ identities to carry out operations abroad though in the past it has not been too bothered about violating the sovereignty of other countries where such operations are concerned.

There are Arabs said to be involved too, with two Palestinians being held in Dubai and Syria reported to be holding an associate of Mahbouh.

The murder took place in January and it took 10 days for the Dubai Police to conclude that it was not a natural death.

Both Britain and Australia have traditionally been extremely good allies of Israel and the fact that both countries appear to have been treated with contempt will obviously rankle.

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, did not mince his words, saying that if it was found that Israel was involved in stealing Australian travel documents, then it would not be the act of a friend.

The whole affair looked like settling down when these fresh allegations broke. Now it is likely to drag on for quite a while.

Another targeted assassination – Mossad at work?

EVER since the former Mossad operative, Victor Ostrovsky, wrote what was then, in 1990, a sensational account of life as a Mossad agent, people have known for a fact that Israel targets people for assassination. The list of those targeted has to be approved at the highest governmental level.

Mossad, which normally carries out these operations, generally does not leave many loose ends lying around. If the agency carried out a hit in Dubai last month on Hamas operative Mahmoud Al Mabhouh, it looks like it made some serious errors and left far too much evidence lying around.

Dubai keeps footage of all visitors, right from the time they arrive at the airport. Hotels also have plenty of surveillance cameras and the faces of the 11 people who took part in killing Mabhouh are now available worldwide after the Dubai Police found out the nationalities which the alleged killers had adopted.

If Israel was involved – and no other nation has an interest in seeing Mahbouh dead – it won’t be getting too much sympathy from the rest of the world over this killing, as the operatives used German, French, British and Irish passports to enter Dubai. These passports have now found to be fakes.

Details of the people who were allegedly involved have also been published. At least one does not exist.

Security camera footage from the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel shows the 11 operatives, 10 men and a woman, from the time they entered the hotel. It’s an interesting tale, no doubt about that.

The tale of the killing, as detailed by the Dubai authorities, reads like a high-grade mystery novel. But then most of the operations which Ostrovsky detailed in his book, By Way of Deception, read much the same.

Melbourne’s climate: erratic and nice

YESTERDAY it was 39 degrees Celsius and fans and air-conditioners were in overdrive. That equates to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Today the mercury is sitting at 25 Celsius, a drop of 14 which is not remarkable when you consider that this is Melbourne.

This kind of swing can happen in a single day; there have been summer days when it has been 40 Celsius during some part of the day and half that by evening. By bedtime, it can even time to pull out a blanket.

A famous saying about this city is that you can experience all four seasons in the space of a single day – and it’s not an exaggeration.

Summer brings its share of hot days – the highest I’ve seen in the last 12 years is 42 Celsius which works out to 108 Fahrenheit – but the mean works out 20 Celsius for the highs and 10 for the lows. Overall it is more than bearable. I love it.

Some people find the wild swings unmanageable, especially when it gets cold. Many retired people move to warmer climes as the cold has its attendant health issues. Arthritis is common.

Melbourne’s weather is particularly welcome for anyone who comes here from the Persian Gulf. There the temperatures stay constant for days on end; there are just two seasons the hot and the cool.

Seven months of the year in the Gulf are bearable only when one lives in air-conditioned dwellings. There are two distinct types of heat – some months the mercury rises to as much as 44 degrees and the humidity stays relatively low. And by low I mean something around the 60 percent mark.

August and September sees lower temperatures but the humidity more than makes up for, residing in the 90s all the time. And there is no change, it goes on day after day after day.

It’s a peculiar kind of heat and one has to experience it to understand what it feels like. The heat in Asian countries is an entirely different kind of beast. Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, Thailand are all different from the Gulf region, though the heat is always unpleasant.

But no region is as bad as the Gulf region. And yet people work outdoors even in those climes.

The entire Gulf region was built on the back of cheap labour from the Indian subcontinent and much of it was done in the summer.

A film that leaves the rest for dead

AT TIMES one encounters a work of art so finely crafted, a work that leaves one so satisfied, that thereafter one cannot view anything of the same genre and experience a similar sense of satisfaction.

The film Syriana is one such work which transcends practically every superlative and leaves one wondering when, or indeed whether, any filmmaker will ever come close to such a masterful effort.

Syriana (original script here) was made in 2005 by Stephen Gaghan who spent four years researching before he created this epic. And it shows.

The film brings together a number of stories:

  • that of a CIA veteran who is returning to the US and finds himself sent out on a mission that turns sour and results in the agency turning its back on him;
  • that of a lawyer who is trying to smooth out a merger between two oil companies and finds himself in possession of information that could end up being political dynamite;
  • that of a religious group in the Middle East which is looking for candidates to serve as suicide bombers;
  • that of a couple of Pakistani expats who lose their jobs because of the merger of the aforementioned oil firms and become prime recruitment material for Islamic terrorism;
  • that of an oil industry consultant who ends up as economic adviser to a sheikh who expects to become leader of a small Gulf country only to find his brother installed as leader instead because of American presssure;
  • and that of the aforementioned sheikh and his efforts to go against the grain and how they end in tragedy.

Despite being a film about people and situations from the East and West, despite including dialogue in five languages, despite drawing half-a-dozen story threads into a coherent whole, the film never, just never, gets boring or descends into stereotypes.

I have never seen a film which shows that the director has so completely understood the psyche of people from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, the Western world, and all their attendant cultures that he never puts a foot wrong. Directors often get things 95 percent right and that is deemed acceptable; Gaghan gets it 100 percent right all the time.

The film resonated with me because I could relate to it on different levels: as someone who has grown up on the Indian subcontinent, as one who now lives in a Western country, and as one who has spent a considerable amount of time in the Middle East.

The editing is so finely tuned that one scene begins almost before the other ends. The dialogue is taut and loaded with meaning; one has to see the film at least twice before all the little nuances of the excellent screenplay can be grasped.

If truth be told, one can’t praise this film too much. All of the above is just understatement. One has to see the film to begin to comprehend exactly why it is a statement of the times, a mirror to society and an apt illustration of the fact that in the inter-connected world we live in, an act somewhere far away can have unintended repercussions in our own backyard.

There is a range of emotions at play right through the film; there are moments of exhilaration when it looks like good will triumph, there are others when depression is the order of the day. The music is classy right through, every language spoken (English, Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and French are all used at various times) is translated correctly, with respect to both word and idiom.

Overall, there is a lesson for us all in the film: life cannot go on as it has, with the haves continuing to accumulate wealth while the have-nots continue to struggle for the bare necessities.

And the film also teaches us that the West cannot keep interfering in countries far beyond its borders to maintain its economic superiority, without facing a terrible backlash. Some part of that backlash arrived on September 11, 2001; Syriana sounds a grim warning that there may be more to come.

UAE National Day – but not much to celebrate in Dubai

TODAY is the national day of the United Arab Emirates. But I guess the sheikhs in Dubai won’t be breaking out the champagne or even having a feast. There’s a big shadow hanging over that emirate.

But much as Dubai is painted as the bad boy of the seven emirates that make up the country, there is no great virtue in any of the others.

Each and every emirate has been built on the back of cheap labour from the Indian subcontinent, workers who pay hefty bribes to agents in Bombay and Karachi to get jobs that promise much in terms of pay and deliver very little.

These workers are treated like indentured slaves – anyone who works in the UAE (and indeed anywhere in the Persian Gulf) has to give his passport to his employer; if a worker goes missing, the employer is held responsible and this is used as logic to retain the passport.

But in reality, this is a way of ensuring that employees cannot flee if they feel that conditions are getting too much for them to bear. During the decade I spent in Dubai, I have seen building site labourers stagger into air-conditioned supermarkets, their eyes bloodshot after a day of working outdoors in 36-degree heat, so that they could pick up a cool can of Pepsi (which at that time cost one dirham; 3.65 dirhams buys one US dollar) and a plastic pack of cheap unleavened bread (quboos) for their dinner.

These are the same people who try to spot a literate person on the plane home in order to get their immigration forms filled. I have spent the entire 2½ hours from Dubai to Bombay filling in forms more than once.

Abu Dhabi may have more stately buildings than Dubai but they were built in the same way as those in Dubai. And the same goes for Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm Al Quwain and Ajman.

The last-named emirate, incidentally, has a thriving business importing liquor and bottling it there. I once visited a man who is a major importer of rum which he then bottles and passes off as Old Monk rum, a well-known brand from India. Being a regular rum drinker, I was able to spot the difference, but my host smiled and said that only one in a thousand was a devoted rum drinker to the extent that I was at the time. Most people in Ajman buy liquor just to get drunk and forget the drudgery of their existence – they are not bothered about the brand, merely that it should be fermented enough to enable them to forget their misery.

My host told me that he had no visa to stay there and did not need one – he merely presented a new model Mercedes to the director of the municipality every year. At that time, he had been there for 28 years.

But it’s not only fake liquor that you can buy in Ajman. You can buy the real thing too and openly on the beach. One Friday, back in April 1995, during a picnic on the beach in Ajman, I remember putting down a few cans of Foster’s beer, an Australian brand. Not far from me and my friends and family on the beach, there were citizens of many different countries, all paying homage to the same brand. There were plenty of good Muslims among them as evidenced by their attire.

Sharjah, for all its cultural preenings (the ruler, Shaikh Sultan, has allegedly obtained a doctorate by writing a thesis claiming that there was never any piracy in the Gulf!), is also driven by the one god to whom all of us pay homage – money. If liquor is not served in Sharjah hotels, it is only because of the donations made to the emirate by the Saudi rulers, money that has enabled Sharjah to build a very nice old-style souk.

(But then Saudi Arabia’s ban on liquor has nothing to do with religion. Back in the 1950s, one of the royal family members shot and killed the British ambassador after getting intoxicated. King Ibn Saud offered blood money and the prince’s head to the envoy’s widow. After that, liquor was banned in the country – but every good Saudi has a decent bar, with the liquor mostly coming into the country in crates of furniture. Plenty of Saudis are summoned to the airport to be told that their furniture is leaking.)

For quite a few years after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of the flights coming into Sharjah from the central Asian republics were full of beautiful women – who then promptly headed to Dubai for a spot of “work”. I had a glimpse of the fashion parade when my family returned to the UAE via Sharjah in 1996.

Dubai is more open about things like liquor and makes money off it too – every bottle or can or cask sold at either Maritime Mercantile Inc or African & Eastern, the two liquor agents, had a 30 percent mark-up during my time there. This tax goes to the government.

Those who are castigating Dubai, get a grip on the facts. The tales told about Dubai may be more lurid and licentious, but the rest of the UAE is in the game too. It is done in quieter fashion, though. Perhaps that is more acceptable to the Western eye.

Dubai: the party seems to be over

INDICATIONS are emerging that the Dubai financial crisis will lead to a significant change in the emirate’s make-up. The Dubai government has let it be known that the debts of Dubai World, which sought a deferment of loan payments last week, is not guaranteed by the emirate’s government.

The Dubai government’s distancing itself from what was once thought to be a state-owned company indicates that it will let the company go to the wall as long as the government’s backside is saved.

Not that there has been no inkling of this – in October, the government issued a prospectus to interest investors in a $2.5 billion Islamic bond. Few who read the prospectus noticed this: “The Dubai government is under no obligation to extend support to any government-related entity”.

That little bit of prose now assumes great significance after the announcement last Wednesday by Dubai World, which is carrying around $60 billion of debt, that it would be seeking a six-month break in repayments. This came hours after the government of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum had raised something like $5 billion from two banks to cover its own debts.

Abu Dhabi, which has 92 percent of the UAE’s oil reserves, and is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, can easily bail out Dubai. But, given the tribal nature of society in the UAE, it is unlikely that any money will change hands unless Abu Dhabi can extract a price – possibly control of Emirates airline, the Dubai Ports Corporation or the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone.

Sheikh Mohammed visited Abu Dhabi on November 27, the customary trip to greet the president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, on the occasion of Eid Al Adha (the Muslim feast of sacrifice). It is unlikely that their exchanges were limited to Eid greetings.

Dubai has always been the upstart of the federation, having sufficient finances to thumb its nose at Abu Dhabi and having a much higher profile than any of the other emirates. The other five emirates have all been dependent on Abu Dhabu for handouts; the capital provides 90 percent of the country’s budget.

The other sheikhs – Al Qasimis of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, Al Sharqis of Fujairah and Al Muallas of Umm Al Quwain – would be extremely happy to see Dubai taken down a peg or two. Despite much talk of Islamic unity and Muslim brotherhood, at heart they all still remain feuding desert tribes who delight in the art of one-upmanship.

Sheikh Mohammed is the third ruler of Dubai since 1958; his father, Sheikh Rashid ruled from 1958 till his death in 1990, and his elder brother, Maktoum, ruled from 1990 until he died in 2006. But Mohammed has always been the leader since his father died, and all the grandiose ideas come from him. Maktoum was a simple man; another elder brother, Hamdan, is a canny one with money and is the country’s finance minister. The youngest of the brothers, Ahmed, is something of a playboy.

It is not only in Dubai that things seem to be unravelling for Sheikh Mohammed. In London in October, Istithmar World, the investment arm of Dubai World, sold two properties, which it had bought for £90 million, at the knockdown price of £10 million. Marcol House in Regent Street and an office building in Newman Street were sold when Istithmar was unable to pay interest on a loan.

Additionally, Dubai World’s ports branch has been reviewing its £1.5 billion London Gateway Port project. A loan of £300 million was taken in November from the European Investment Bank to rescue the project.

Perhaps people should have sat up and taken notice three years ago when it became known that several of the projects proposed for Dubailand, a $5 billion project announced by Sheikh Mohammed in 2003, had been scaled down or knocked back altogether.

The arrogance evident in the announcement can be gauged from this bit of his speech: “I would like to tell capitalists that Dubai does not need investors, investors need Dubai and I tell you that the risk lies not in using your money but in letting it pile up.”

Probably that is why Dubai finds itself in the spot it is in right now.

Dubai: the mirage in the desert

FOR years, Dubai has been regarded as a marvel. It has had the most grandiose projects, the most outrageous projects, the most fancy buildings. Everything there has been a celebration of one god – money.

Now it looks like the party is coming to an end.

It is difficult to imagine the Maktoum family, which rules Dubai, going, begging bowl in hand, to the Nahyan clan, the rulers of Abu Dhabi, but that is exactly what the former will have to do if they do not want a sudden collapse to take place.

Dubai has overstretched itself to the extent of around $80 billion; something in the region of $3.5 billion will fall due for repayment in the next few weeks and the emirate has sought an extension of six months. In other words, the cupboard is bare.

Ten years ago, the fantasy projects were not underway, the emirate was doing well financially and serving as a trading post for every kind of deal under the sun. It has always had a laissez-faire attitude towards money and a man who walked into Dubai carrying $1 million in his briefcase never caused any eyebrows to be raised.

But after the grandiose projects began – the world’s tallest building, the creation of an island in the shape of the globe in the ocean and so on – the level of finance that was borrowed reached astronomical proportions. Nobody dared to suggest that Dubai could not pay back the money, everyone was eager to jump on the merry-go-round and grab a piece of the action.

Nobody ever thought it pertinent to point out that Dubai has little oil and that most of its money comes from trade. Nobody thought it relevant to point out that the entire United Arab Emirates is violating one fundamental principle of any country – it spends without a thought but the residents pay no tax.

Given that the whole country was once desert, the entire infrastructure is built on sand. Desalination plants supply water at a big price – but residents pay very little. Electricity is generated at a massive price – but again subsidised. Roads have to be built and rebuilt as they sink into the soft desert sand. In the end where does the money come from?

Ninety-two percent of the oil in the UAE is in Abu Dhabi, the capital, which subsidises the smaller emirates – Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Sharjah, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain – that, together with Dubai, make up the country. The extent of waste can be gauged by one simple fact – there are six, fully functional, international airports in this little dagger-shaped nation – two in Abu Dhabi, and one each in Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah. And a seventh is being planned, in Dubai!

Why does one need that number of international airports in a country which can be navigated by car in a few hours? One can understand if Dubai and Abu Dhabi have an airport apiece; they are not needed anywhere else. Sharjah is just 20 minutes drive from Dubai.

But this is only the first symbol of the gross over-consumption. For years, Dubai has been living beyond its means and the day of reckoning is coming. Unless, of course, the Nahyan clan is willing to come to the rescue and bail out Sheikh Mohammed.