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.

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.

When will the US economy collapse?

PRESIDENT Barack Obama recently did something that no other chief executive of the US has in recent times – he came around with a begging bowl to countries in Asia, asking them to increase their exports of American goods so that more jobs would be created in the United States.

Yet, no media outlet highlighted this fact, nobody bothered to note that if the US president was sinking this low then something must be seriously wrong at home.

Obama first went to India, a country that was once considered a Soviet satellite. These days, American firms rely on India to carry out many of their back-office functions at cut-prices. Lots of American companies have branches in India where a lot of their work is done, again at cut-prices.

So here was someone, who is often referred to as the most powerful man in the world, asking a poor country like India to buy more American goods. His next stop was Indonesia, again a poor but populous country, where he repeated his sales pitch.

The last time this happened was when Bush the elder went to Japan in the early 90s and tried to get that country to import more American cars. He was staring down the barrel of defeat due to bad economic conditions at home and finally ended up being a one-term president.

Obama is stuck with terrible economic conditions; he inherited a bad situation from George the younger, and made it worse by his own calls when the economic crisis hit in 2008. Now the US economy is dependent on China but Beijing is increasingly reluctant to continue as the main point of take-up for US dollars when the US continues to act in a way that threatens China.

Japan had a taste of what happens when one listens to US requests when it agreed to devalue its currency back in 1985 and leave things open totally to market forces; the Japanese economy has never recovered and has limped along ever since.

Now China is being asked to devalue its currency and float it so that the US can manipulate things to its advantage. Why would anyone commit economic suicide? The US is trying desperately to bolster any country it can as a counterweight to China and asking China to provide the means for it do so. All the money that comes in is spent on wars in foreign countries and building bases and maintaining them all over the world.

The US has for far too long maintained a high standard of living by exploiting other nations. Trade deals that favour Washington are one way of doing this – in some cases, other countries have been cowed into signing such deals due to subtle threats from the US. In many others, the leaders of smaller countries have sold out and feathered their own nests at the expense of their own people.

It looks like those days are now over and the time of reckoning has arrived. It will be only a few years before we see the eagle begin to crumble as its economic clout fades.

As soon as Afghanistan is debated, the old terrorism bogey rears its head

THE Australian government, under pressure from the Greens, a party that is lending it support as it governs as a minority government, has begun a debate on why the country has troops in Afghanistan.

Curiously, just a couple of days after this debate began, we witnessed the spectacle of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation or ASIO – which has yet to announce the capture of any criminal – announcing that it is following hundreds of terror threats and that it has nipped in the bud countless others which could have led to unmeasurable bloodshed on Australian soil.

Call me a sceptic, but this kind of juxtaposition of events has been seen countless times in America during the time when John Ashcroft was attorney-general. With just one motive – heightening the atmosphere of fear. There are never any specifics given (due, of course, to “operational considerations”) but you are expected to believe that threats by the dozen are being snuffed out day after day by an organisation that has done nothing of note ever since it was founded.

The connection is quite clear – the Australian prime minister talked of the terrorist threat being the reason why Australian troops are in Afghanistan, in order to ensure that the country does not again become a haven for the likes of Osama bin Laden. Of course, this is all rather passé given that bin Laden has long fled Afghanistan and is taking refuge in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan.

Doubtless, one needs someone to point out that that threat still exists. Up pops the ASIO director-general with his terrorists-are-hiding-under-your-bed spiel. We’ve come full circle. The only thing that remains is for all moms to check carefully under their children’s beds to check that uncle Osama isn;’t hiding there tonight.

I know it’s too much to hope that the government will actually tell people the truth but they must seriously think Australians are a bunch of mugs to be taken in by this kind of charade.

Some facts about Afghanistan: right now, the Americans are helping the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government in the faint hope that there will be no bloodbath when, as is bound to happen, the Taliban takes power in Afghanistan again. The Afghan government has been secretly talking to the Taliban and recently said so itself.

The American government will have to do something concrete in the next 18 months else Barack Obama will end up being a one-term president. And yet the Australian prime minister keeps talking about the country’s troops being there for the next 10 years!

Of what use is such a “debate” where all the old falsehoods are used to justify the sending of 20-year-olds to die for no rhyme or reason?

What are Western troops doing in Afghanistan?

TWENTY-ONE Australian soldiers have died in Afghanistan since Canberra decided to join the American mission to that country. Thousands of American soldiers have been killed, and a goodly number of other Western forces have also paid the ultimate sacrifice. But to what end?

All these deaths have been in vain, for it looks very much like the Taliban will slowly come back to power; indeed, the Americans are already talking to the Taliban through proxies in Saudi Arabia in order to try and save face when they (US troops) are forced to crawl back to their bases. That will come about sooner rather than later as the American public will stomach just so many deaths; after that, it will become too much of a political hot potato for President Barack Obama to handle.

After all, the man does not want to be a one-term president. Keeping troops in Afghanistan will push down the ratings of a man who is already not going too well in the opinion polls.

The Americans sent forces to Afghanistan back in 2001, in retaliation for the attacks by al-Qaeda on the US mainland. Even at that stage, it was not very clear what their mission was, apart from exacting revenge. Killing Osama bin Laden was said to be top of the list; presumably killing his top lieutenants was also a priority.

Nine years on, bin Laden is very much alive. His chief aide, Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri, is alive and kicking as well. And the mission to Afghanistan has gone dangerously downhill. A great deal of the money poured into Afghanistan by Western and Arab donors has ended up in the pockets of sundry warlords. Many have repatriated some part of what they have managed to swindle, in the expectation that once the Taliban returns to power, they will have to flee the country if they want to stay alive.

Nobody had any illusions that the Americans would unseat the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist party which was governing Afghanistan at the time of the September 2001 attacks. But was that the end-all and be-all of the American mission? If the aim was to disrupt the activities of terrorists who were likely to plan future attacks on America, then that hasn’t been fulfilled.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who could be better described as the mayor of Kabul as his writ runs only thus far, is already talking to one of the Taliban leaders, Sirajuddin Haqqani, in the hope that he may be able to survive the return of the religious fundamentalists to power. It is highly unlikely that Karzai will be able to stay on and he is probably planning his departure now.

The problem is that the Americans have repeated the mistakes of Great Britain and the Soviet Union and tried to install a government of their liking in Afghanistan. Nobody has ever been able to do that. Afghans do not like outsiders and no matter how much money is used to try and bribe them, they will smile, take the money and then support their own. That is an Afghan trait and has not changed for centuries. Boning up on history would have helped the Americans no end.

Given the number of troops that have been deployed in Afghanistan, it is a joke to even think of controlling the country. Hardly had the troops been deployed when the Americans decided to invade Iraq and made that mission the top priority. The porous borders with states that are not exactly inclined to be helpful to the Americans have compounded the problem. The behaviour of mercenaries hired by the Americans – so-called contractors who handle various security-related tasks – has not helped to any degree. These mercenaries are often prone to smash up a local man’s car simply because they suspect him of being a militant. Not many people in Afghanistan have cars to begin with.

But even if the Americans and their allies had gone on a massive PR blitz to try and endear themselves to the Afghans, it wouldn’t have made much difference. The Afghans don’t mind living in a mess – as long as it is of their own making. They don’t like being invaded, they don’t like foreigners. In fact, which country likes to be ruled by outsiders? The American mission to Afghanistan will end in defeat; it might be a good idea to cut the losses and run right now.

For top-grade racism, you can’t beat the US

THERE have been a few instances in the last three months when racism has reared its head in Australia, via the utterances of sportspeople. One was the case of one of the coaches of the NSW rugby league team, Andrew Johns, who referred to a player from Queensland as a black cunt.

Then there were two former AFL players who made disparaging comments about Aborigines. But when it comes to xenophobia and racism you can’t beat the US of A.

Time magazine columnist Joel Stein recently demonstrated the supremacy of that country in the practice of racism – through the written word. In a column that expressed regret about the fact that Edison, the town in New Jersey which he grew up, was no longer lily white, Stein bettered even many of those who were masters of this art in the old Jim Crow days.

Stein’s beef was with Indians, who have apparently settled in Edison in such large numbers that they have changed the complexion of the town. Restaurants which once served white people’s food now serves curry, theatres which once screened movies fit for the white man now screen Bollywood masala. Stein didn’t miss out on a contemptuous reference to Hindu deities. He had the whole bag.

If all that wasn’t enough, Stein went one step further and threw in a reference to the insult levelled at Indians in Edison – dotheads – evoking memories of the infamous Dot Busters hate group which was responsible for a number of crimes against Indians in the 1980s.

There was more: Stein said he had no problem with Indian engineers migrating to his hometown; he didn’t like it when the lower classes such as merchants came in in numbers. I have never read a column where someone manages to bring in every possible racist angle within such a short stretch. One has to hand it to Stein – if the Ku Klux Klan is looking for a grand vizier, they know where to look.

If the column was about any group of white people and was written in the same vein, Time would never have published it. That’s something one can say with certainty. But people of colour – even the US president Barack Obama – are somehow illegitimate in their own country. There is still a bunch of ignorant, stupid Americans who claim that Obama was born outside the US.

Stein’s open racism – and the pathetic defence he offered – are examples of the fact that people whom one considers civilised are quite often not what they seem. What is inside comes out when people are under pressure and shows their real character. Of course, after the deed is done, we have the pathetic defence: “I never meant to hurt anyone. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

Surprising that people who lay claim to being educated know so little about themselves.

Why the music has died

“In Mozart’s time, word of mouth built an audience. People found him and heard him play. Then someone came along and said, ‘We can sell this experience.’ Right there, you’ve got trouble. Music comes from the spirit, but where does the guy selling the music come from?” – Prince

THE music that you and I hear on radio, on TV, in the theatre is strictly controlled by the four big music companies – Sony Music, EMI, Warner and Universal.

These companies specify how often various songs should be played on public radio. They determine which artists should be promoted and which should take a backseat. And if you do not get one of them to sign you on, the chances of making it big are all but zero.

Musicians need advertising dollars, they need marketing, they need to travel and play gigs in order to become known. The big four pay these costs but recoup them more than adequately. If a musician has no chance of making money for the companies, he or she will not get a contract.

That’s why there is little or no innovation in the music industry these days. What is produced is like the food from McDonalds – all in the same style, tasteless crap. As with all other industries once consolidation takes place and huge monoliths start running the show, everything tastes or looks or sounds the same.

The period from the 1960s to the mid-1980s was a glorious one when there were creative bands galore like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Dire Straits, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, to name just five outfits. And there were Santana, Hendrix, Marley, Guthrie, Clapton, Sting, Baez, Frampton, Lightfoot, Croce, Taylor, Chapin, Winwood…

What equivalents does one find these days? Those that do produce music are plastic imitations of each other. Oasis and Coldplay are garbage. So too Lady GaGa, Beyonce, and their ilk. Buble is forced to sing songs from the 70s when he wants to create a hit album.

Commoditisation works for some things. Not for creative trades like music. The McDonaldisation of the music industry has put the lid on human ingenuity.

Why do people drive four-wheel drives in the city?

THERE’S a trend that is common in the US – driving four-wheel drive vehicles in the city – that seems to be spreading to other countries. These vehicles are meant to be driven on sand or gravel, they are very high-powered and are slow to take off from traffic lights.

They are very heavy, built of steel and will wreck an ordinary car if a collision eventuates. They also make visibility for those cars behind them impossible. Yet there are plenty of idiots who travel in these monstrosities in a city. Why?

With some, it appears to be the fear factor, so common in America, where people are pumped full of fear by the government, the media and everybody who has a voice in society. People figure that they have a better chance of survival if they are travelling in a four-wheel drive vehicle – not realising that when their time to die comes, they will croak no matter if they are bunkered down in a nuclear shelter.

Then there is the desire to do as others do, not to appear different. If one fool buys a four-wheel drive, others follow. And people like to appear “normal”, whatever that means. If everyone owns a four-wheel drive vehicle, then that becomes the norm. Keeping up the with the Joneses is another way of putting it but that doesn’t go down well with those who endeavour to do so.

There are plenty of reasons to avoid four-wheel drive vehicles. They consume much more petrol than the average car, are extremely expensive to maintain and are not meant for city travel. They are meant for negotiating desert tracks, mud roads and mountain paths. You only have to see a car that has been in an accident with a four-wheel drive to realise that anyone driving a four-wheel drive vehicle in the city is nothing short of an idiot.

One would think that with all the talk of peak oil and the oil price at very high levels, the car manufacturers would think twice about manufacturing such huge, unnecessary vehicles. But then, car manufacturers only look at ways of making money – if there are fools lining up to buy four-wheel drives, why the manufacturers will make them available.

Ultimately, it comes down to commonsense. Which is the commodity most in short supply, especially in the US of A.

When it comes to cringe, Australia and New Zealand are much the same

YOU don’t need to spend a great deal of time in New Zealand to see that it’s very different from Australia. Having lived in the latter country for nearly 13 years, I was able to easily spot some aspects of life in which our Kiwi neighbours differ.

Environmental awareness is the big one. Australia seems to be on one long binge to nowhere, much like the Americans. Accumulating things seems to be the main game in life, wherease across the Tasman, people are concerned about recycling, greening the place and reusing things to avoid wastage.

There is a much more practical approach to common things – one which was easily noticeable was the way the Kiwis do not wait endlessly for a green light to cross the road. If there is no traffic in sight, people cross even though the light is red and go about their business. Australians are more prone to wait for the light to change, much like the Americans do.

The New Zealand attitude appears to be that the law can sometimes be an ass and that one does not need to obey it when it is. I never saw an accident happen because of it.

The drivers in Wellington do not display half the aggression that Australians do; they are perfectly willing to share the roads with pedestrians and smaller vehicles and are not waiting to charge off the moment the traffic lights turn green. Not that this means they are a bunch of dawdlers; there is a relaxed attitude about people on the road that is not observable in Australia.

The natives are much more visible in New Zealand than in Australia. It is rare to see an Aboriginal face in the city of Melbourne but in Wellington, you can see plenty of Maori and other islander faces. The country appears to respect the fact that the original inhabitants of the two islands (North and South) were willing to strike a deal to share their land with others, and they are given their rightful place in society.

Some attribute this to the fact that the Maori were a fighting race; Australia’s Aborigines do not have the same pushiness. Whatever the reason, this is one aspect of New Zealand that appeals to anyone who has a sense of fairness.

But when it comes to cringe, New Zealand is on par with Australia. One of the things that brings home the inferiority complex that Australia has vis-a-vis America is the presence of silly people like Jim Courier as commentators at one of the major international events that the country hosts – the Australian Open tennis tournament.

And this, when Australia has an excellent tennis pedigree and boasts some of the true greats of the game.

In New Zealand, this cringe can be seen in their own parliament. I was taken aback when an American conducted a tour of parliament which is offered many times a day during the off-season. If the man, Bill Wieben, had done a professional job, one would probably have written it off as an aberration.

But he was the typical American public official – patronising, making poor jokes and acting quite the buffoon in a setting where a serious, informative talk would have served the cause of the country and the visitors much better.

Why does New Zealand have an American conducting these tours? In truth, it spoiled the entire trip for me. There is nothing more representative of a nation than its own parliament – and New Zealand has some proud achievements on this front, one of them being that it was the first country to give women the vote.

I’d love to hear a Kiwi accent there the next time I visit.

Why are the Americans still in Afghanistan?

MOST people who haven’t been living in a cave or under a rock for the last eight years know that American soldiers, and forces from a few other countries, were sent to Afghanistan in 2001, following the attacks that brought down the World Trade Centre.

The attacks were judged to have been carried out by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi who had taken refuge in Afghanistan after having his citizenship revoked, and the idea was to capture the man and make him stand trial.

Eight years and a bit later, the forces are still there, bin Laden is still at large, and the Americans are still talking about capturing him.

Indeed, the top American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal has been quoted as saying that the capture of this elusive Saudi is crucial to defeating the Al Qaeda terror network which the West believes is a vast empire of terrorism controlled by bin Laden.

A few weeks back, there was a bit of news that runs counter to this talk: an US Senate report said that bin Laden was within the grasp of the US in 2001 but had been allowed to get away because the then US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, rejected calls for reinforcements to take the Saudi into custody.

Get that? Did they want to capture the man or not? Or did Rumsfeld want an excuse for the Americans to continue to stay in Afghanistan? Once he had been captured, the Americans would have had no reason to stay there.

About the only change in Afghanistan of 2001 when the Americans attacked and now is the absence of the Taliban in positions of power and the presence of opium aplenty in the fields. When the Taliban ruled the country, there was not a single opium plant under cultivation.

The Americans have installed a puppet government, headed by a former oil company executive, Hamid Karzai. This gentleman was caught rigging elections a few months back but is still the president of the country. That’s what American democracy does for you – it helped an unelected man like George Bush to rule in the US and it helps Karzai to rule in Kabul.

But the Taliban have made gains and Karzai’s remit runs only as far as Kabul and only as long as there are men with guns from various foolhardy Western nations willing to guard him.

Initially, there was evidence that the Americans’ prime interest in Afghanistan was setting up a pipeline to carry gas from central Asian republics through Afghanistan to Multan in Pakistan. The proposed extension would move gas on to New Delhi, where it would connect with an existing pipeline.

This kind of project required a stable government in Afghanistan. And many have speculated that that is why the Americans went to the country. In 1998, an existing pipeline project had to be shut down after the Americans launched cruise missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan.

But the Americans are blissfully aware that no outside power has ever been able to bring stability to Afghanistan. The mix of warring tribes, all of different ethnic origins, has always ensured that unless a dictatorship, or something close to it, was in place, there would be organised chaos.

The pipeline project began in May 2002. By then the Taliban were defeated by American military power. And the opium fields had started to bloom again as Afghans returned to growing what is their main crop.

Given that American military forces have in the past been involved in smuggling drugs back to their country – the famous druglord Frank Lucas cut out the middlemen and made a fortune by getting drugs brought in to the US on American military planes from Vietnam – it is not unreasonable to assume that something similar is happening now.

After all, the biggest market for heroin, one of the many products produced from the opium poppy, is the US of A. It seems to come down to oil and drugs in the end. And for that many thousands of Americans have died. Soldiers from other countries have given their lives too in a meaningless war that has brought no peace to Afghanistan..

For it is becomingly increasingly clear that once the Western forces are out of the country – and that will happen by mid-2011 – the Taliban will be back in power. The pipeline will be guarded and the Taliban are unlikely to meddle there. The flow of drugs may lessen.