September 29, 2011

Freedom of Speech?

Well here we are, the "Arab Spring" a few months on, and Oman has a new cause celebre, involving basic principles of  "freedom", international NGOs, gleeful finger pointing from the neighbouring country's press, and a lot of hand-wringing all round.  Even the celebrated "Muscat Confidential" and the scion of Salalah, "Dhofari Gucci", have been on the case.  A newspaper has been prosecuted for writing something about a Ministry.  Now don't get me wrong, I think being able to say what you think is pretty important (hell, read down this website for a few hours!), but on this issue, I'm going to take the traditional Middle Eastern view of this online human rights convention: I'm citing a reservation.

A long time ago, in a land far, far away...well, about fifteen years ago in a neighbouring country called the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, their lived two funny men.  They made a television programme called "Tash ma Tash" (roughly translated...."Sh*t Happens").  It was a success, a huge success.  Not because the humour was original or sophisticated, not even because there was no other comedy around.  No.  It was because these two talented men tapped into something people were really ready to watch: satire of real life in Saudi Arabia.  As a resident there at that time, I too enjoyed it very much.

In (I think) 1997, the programme became a huge sensation during Ramadhan, where it seemed the whole country would come to a standstill after iftar as households - men, women and children, old and young, sat down to watch it together.  One episode at that time showed the two anti-heroes running around trying to get a "licence" (yes remember those days?) for a mobile phone contract.  They were met by bureaucracy, rudeness, obstructive staff etc.  And there was no doubt about whom they were talking: pre-privatisation telecomms in KSA were all in the bailiwick of the Ministry of Telecommunications.  For the first time on Saudi-accessible TV, people were openly mocking poor services from a Saudi government organisation.  The reaction was like an earthquake: the Minister was writing in the newspapers immediately, explaining the ministry's plans to improve things, defending his staff, laying out commitments to better services, etc.  The media had acted, in this case through comedy, as a voice of the people, and been heard.

Years later, newspapers in Saudi Arabia, talk shows on satellite TV channels and yes, "Tash ma Tash" still, are all talking about social issues, government services and even (carefully) the religious establishment.  The Saudi press, far from being some reactionary stereotype, has evolved into one of the most dynamic media forces in the region.  And the strange thing is, those men who first satirised their government's telecommunications services, did so with impunity.

So, back to Oman.  I don't know the facts of the case, I don't even know what was said, as like most people (bar the immediate families and friends of the owners and employees, possibly only under duress), I didn't read "Az-Zaman".  But again like most people, I have nevertheless read a lot about the prosecution of its editor, a certain journalist, and the suspension of its licence to operate.  It's fair to ask, then, why in mean old Saudi Arabia it's OK to criticise the Ministry of Phones, but in cuddly lovely Oman it's not OK to criticise the Ministry of Right and Wrong?  The answer is pretty simple I think, hence my reservation on this whole allergic reaction to the prosecutions at "Az-Zaman".  The answer is that never, in any episode of "Tash ma Tash", never in any insightful newspaper editorial, did anyone expect to be able to insult or accuse an individual.

Oman shares the depressing distinction, at least in my opinion, of having the worst media in the GCC.  Not just in quality, but (along, I hasten to add, with the UAE), in domestic coverage.  With these recent prosecutions, it's easy to say that it's all because of censorship.  I would disagree - I think the failings of the domestic print media are largely based on self-fulfilling assumptions about censorship; a kind of self-censorship that prevents any serious local commentary or reporting.  Those that show a bit more spirit are doing well: take, for example, "The Week", and "Muscat Daily" - publications from the same stable that have openly reported on policy and service failings e.g. in the wake of Cyclone Gonu.  Did the owner get prosecuted for pointing out problems?  No, of course not.  The "Az-Zaman" case, then, is for another reason - we're back to individuals.

You'd have to be pretty ignorant to live in Oman for any length of time and not be aware that the insulting people is a criminal offence.  Like it or not, flipping someone the finger or calling them names, can get you a fine and up to three months in prison.  It's not socially acceptable.  It's not culturally acceptable.  And, reflecting the sensibilities of its people as a legal system should, it's not acceptable in law.  You can be mean to someone.  You can be selfish or even ill-mannered.  There is a limit to how much the law can prescribe human interaction, and rightly so.  But nevertheless, in this country the law draws a very clear line: insult someone directly and you have crossed it.

These prosecutions are not under that law (ihanat karaama -"offence to dignity") as far as I know, but the point is that in a legal system where such a crime exists, it is not hard to predict that rules on libel are also a matter of criminal proscription.  To put it simply, in a place where you can't call Johnny an a-hole, writing "Johnny is a thief" in your newspaper is also (pretty obviously) going to be unacceptable.  I don't know what "Az-Zaman" wrote about the Minister of Justice, his Undersecretary, or what may be true or false in their writing.  But what I do know is that the journalists involved must be extremely naive to think that taking an accusation of criminality from a disgruntled official and printing it as fact, could possibly go without a reaction.

"Az-Zaman" is a tiny paper.  Perhaps they are trying to make a name for themselves (as some have in other countries) by writing tabloid rumours or even "investigative journalism" to capture the public imagination.  But publishing accusations in the newspapers is ugly, and the reaction pretty predictable.  Perhaps also the prosecutions of these people are totally counter-productive, giving a big voice to a small paper by making a rumour into a scandal.  It seems like a heavy-handed way of going about things, but at least it sends a reminder to others, however painful: if you think a crime has been committed, give your evidence to someone whose job it is to solve crimes.  

I have spent a lot of my life dealing with newspapers and the like - giving interviews, advising other people on how to deal with them, or even writing for the papers myself.  In light of that, I'm extremely critical of the poor quality of both print and broadcast media in Oman.  But at the same time, there are some things I wouldn't change here.  In some countries where reporting rumours and accusations against individuals is easier to get away with, it's become a whole media industry culture.  Even blanket coverage of trials, hammering home the message to an audience or readership that so-and-so is in court - an image that taints a name forever even if he or she is acquitted.  Trial by media is something I could never wish to see in Oman.

It's no secret that all sorts of different government organisations look at what goes on in the media, or even through private online expressions like this website.  Yet I don't feel constrained in what I write, other than by my own morality!  I would like to think that the reason this humble portal has a bunch of people who don't know me at all following it, is that I write sometimes about subjects in which people are interested.  Newspapers that do the same, I think, get more readers.  But if I were to start accusing this person and that person of criminal activity because it was "what I'd heard", then sooner or later I would expect repercussions. I don't have a problem with that.  I don't even feel that it's a restriction.  I just feel that it would be wrong to accuse someone based on gossip, when if I had any actual evidence I know where it should go.

So, although I do feel sorry for anyone who's faced with prosecution or with losing their livelihood, I'm not convinced that this is a serious issue of human rights or freedom of speech.  I personally think that freedom from personal slander or libel is pretty important too.  Maybe these journalists will produce proof for their accusations and be acquitted in which case well done.  Either way I suspect they will be shown some clemency.  But the thing is, even if we all acknowledge that there have been corruption cases or whatever in government organisations before, we also need to respect the fact that this is a country where it's possible for a minister or other bigshot to go to jail occasionally.    It's no excuse to say "oh, well they wouldn't do anything so we're taking it into our own hands".  It has happened.  And either way, how much store do you set by "they say that..."?  Is it enough to ruin someone's reputation?  Wouldn't you feel awful if it turned out to be untrue?  Ask yourself this: would you expect to be accused through a newspaper, rather than reported to the authorities?

I won't pre-judge "Az-Zaman" either and suggest that they've set out to be dishonest.   Maybe they are just on a quest for truth and justice, and good for them.  But there are some rules in this society - not just about VIPs, ministers and big businessmen, but about anyone.  You can't accuse people publicly of things that you just don't know.  I'm actually glad that such limitations exist.  I hope these cases get concluded quickly without too much damage and some lessons learned instead.  And my advice to "Az-Zaman" would be that if they want to make a name for themselves, don't try to use these questionable short-cuts.  It's perfectly possible to  write about problems, issues, and even government policies.  Just do it without abusing the human rights of other individuals.  And as others have shown, that is what makes a newspaper better, and it's a much more sustainable way to gain respect and a bigger readership.

P.S.  No I don't know the Minister of Justice, nor the other guy, nor anyone at the paper or in the least bit associated with this case, and no I'm not on anyone's payroll either.  Just in case you were wondering.  Although I'm prepared to be, if you're offering - at least while I'm waiting for the arms dealers or drug barons to come through...

September 23, 2011

You Ignorant Bastards!

The wise and fragrant blogster Susan al Shahri has been talking about customer service in Oman.  A subject about which, I'm sure, most of you have a story or ten.  Anyway, I started writing a response on her page, but got so carried away I thought I'd better regurgitate the whole thing unedited through my own febrile voice box.  Seeing as I wrote a warm, positive life-affirming piece last week like some lily-livered bleeding-heart hippy, it's time to have a bit of a rant and let the spleen back out.  But not about politics for a while, because most of you don't give a shit anyway.  I'm not quite ready for lame restaurant reviews ("Grated carrots! Yay!"), or complaining about how the maid doesn't know how to programme the washing machine, but a bit of day-today whinging is always a hit.  So, here we are.  Dedicated to Susan, I'd like to talk a little about the "f*** you" culture that is becoming the hallmark of Omani society - as ever, catching up with the neighbours at its own pace...

Everyone knows that shops, banks, airlines or whatever are in some cultural dark age when it comes to customer relations in Oman.  The "can't do" culture is living loud, manifested through people of every background and nationality, united in a common quest for obstruction, obfuscation and sub-mediocrity.  What each company wants to do about it is their own problem, and they know it.  That most are still failing is something so obvious I can't be bothered to go on about it - plenty of others have.  I do have one very surprising (in a positive way) customer experience from Nawras though.  Without going into incriminating detail, they made an excellent effort to make me happy.  And although the product still basically sucks rear end, they kind of did - mainly just by wanting to.  But for every one of those (OK, it is just the one), there are a hundred of vein-throbbing, eyeball-popping, fist-shaking meltdowns I could offer to the case for the prosecution.

Anyway, the point of this isn't just about customer service, it's about manners.  The sad thing is that most Omanis (at least most of my friends anyway) have a self-image that tells them Omanis are polite.  And in a way it's true - with people they know.  No smoking in front of the older generation.  Ladies first.  Gentle language and gentle manners even in all-male company.  No quibbling over the bill (unless it's a fight to be the one who treats the others), no cursing or stealing the last chicken wing, profuse apologies for the slightest perceived shortfall in kindness and camaraderie.  My friends are nice, really.

But what is it with people in general?  I'm not imagining it: the younger generation are getting less and less polite, and even older ones (especially on the road - a whole other subject featured in a previous rant) seem almost as bad now.  Queue-jumping, no more "ladies first that was standard when I first came here ten years ago, and general arrogant disdain for other human beings - no response to your polite greeting, talking on the phone while you're waiting to be served, standing in the way of their elders without care or apology, spitting, swearing, and insulting passers by (attitudes to women are also a major issue) .  It makes me furious.

The only way to counter it, though, is to keep doing what the aforementioned Sheikha Susan is doing: keep talking, keep insisting on a response, keep picking people up on their rudeness.  Most people, even the most ignorant, still have some sense of shame to which you can eventually appeal.  There is a magic screen around rude people, young or old.  The car is usually an effective one - it allows them to see another human being as an object, an environmental irritation, rather than a person to be reckoned with.  And some, the most talented boneheads, are able to switch off their human interaction radar even in close proximity to their fellow beings.  For them, you have to try hard, and it's worth it.  Deliberate eye contact and a strong "as-salaamu 3alaikum" to a bunch of young brain donors has an almost magical effect sometimes.  The same in the supermarket at the checkout - being 230lbs and male helps, I imagine, but forcing the spotty human ballast to look at you and speak, changes the whole atmosphere.  If we all do it, I'm sure they'll develop into better social creatures.  

And we'll all get better customer service as a result.  Also, I do have some sympathy for the sheer mind-numbing spirit-crushing craptaceousness of the jobs (or lack of jobs) faced by the average Omani school-leaver.  First of all, if you haven't got a job, you can read through all the papers and find nothing worthwhile at all.  Sure, there are lots of young guys and girls who are just fundamentally lazy, spoiled and/or stupid.  They find it hard to get jobs anywhere (except maybe in teaching).  But let's not write them all off:  if you're an eighteen year old Omani, your family has a borderline poverty income and your parents weren't educated, you've been to a government school that is supposed to have been teaching you English for eleven years and you can't string a sentence together, let alone write one, it that really your fault?  Is it really your fault nobody bent the rules or was able to pay to get you into university?  Then you look at the situations vacant and everyone wants an Omani national with five years' experience and bilingual.  Real meaning: they don't want you at all, they just had to advertise unsuccessfully before employing an Indian.  So a lack of motivation in young people might not be entirely without reason. 

Also, even if you do get a job as a young Omani, especially as a non-graduate, it can suck pretty badly.  Chances are you're being hired as part of a quota rather than a management preference (i.e. they didn't really want you, you're kind of a human tax).  You're not going to feel exactly valued and welcome.  And a lot of the time, your colleagues are going to resent you, and it's got to have a psychological effect. Imagine your Indian boss won't tell you anything in case you steal his job, your European boss doesn't really understand anything about who you are, and worst of all, your Omani boss has the extraordinary mental agility to believe simultaneously both that you're about to steal his job and that you're mentally retarded - treating you both as a threat and an inferior as a result.  And due to the collective incompetence of all of the above, you're asked to implement a customer service policy that seems designed by the Marquis de Sade and Franz Kafka during a long absinthe session, usually as a desperate defence of a product or service over which you have no control, which has been delivered to the paying customer with the grace and inherent value of a face full of monkey vomit.  

Sheikha Susan was writing about a particular supermarket - not naming names and I'd normally agree, but I think in this case it was specific to Lulu.  I kept wondering from her piece about how you can "wheel a basket", then I remembered that Lulu have this great idea of something that's half way between a cart and a basket: that plastic one with wheels on, which I think is what she was talking about.  I'm sure other supermarkets have their problems (security at Carrefour as an example anyone?) so I'm not picking on Lulu and I don't think Susan was aiming to.  But as an example of desperately moronic policy affecting standards of customer service in the customer's eye, this isn't a bad one.  If you don't know, Lulu's policy is that the plastic wheelie baskets can't leave the store and enter the car park.  Therefore, Susan's story of being chased by the Basket Police is one that leaves me with sympathy for both parties, rather than dismayed at the actions of a grim-faced teenaged employee.

Now, to my occasionally-logical mind, it seems that if you have a receptacle designed to be wheeled on the floor because it's too heavy to carry, then making people carry its contents from the checkout is kind of stupid.  Sure, the contents of a basket you can carry - you carried them all around the shop for twenty minutes (and maybe stood in the queue for something similar!).  And a cart/trolley is for stuff you can't carry, which is why you get to wheel it to your car, unload it, and (if you're not one of the aforementioned arrogant shitmunchers, old as well as young), you put it back rather than leaving it blocking the only empty parking space for a hundred meters because someone less important than you can move it if they want to park.

So why provide an object that's designed to carry your heavy shopping around on wheels, but is lighter and more manageable than the steel cart, and then not allow you to...carry your heavy shopping in it on wheels?  Are they so afraid that, unlike those heavy carts, the thieving customers will just load these into their cars and steal them?  That would seem to be the only explanation.  Considering how far away I've seen the carts end up, I can only assume their fears are justified, which is a pity.  Maybe they need to hire some people to be i the car parks and make sure the wheelie baskets don't get stolen.  A sad indictment of popular morality indeed.  But not letting Sheikha Susan take her bags to the car on wheels is just retarded.  And because of it, some poor young Omani dude whose responsibility it was to stop her, not only has to face the wrath of an angry lady, but also help her carry her shopping.

There is no excuse for being rude (like the fat acne-monster in a Shell station who sat there fiddling around with his tray of lighters two minutes before iftar instead of letting me pay for my water, and ignored my greeting three times), and people should have manners even when they're not having a good day.  There is a culture of selfishness and aggression that I barely recognise from this country a decade ago.  A pervasive attitude that says "f*** you" to anyone and everyone: I'll park in two spaces because the next guy doesn't matter.  I'll throw my garbage here, only three feet from the trash can, because someone else will pick it up.  I'll jump into this queue because I'm in a hurry and "f*** you" all because I just don't care.  It's disgusting, it's eating at the morals of this society, and year by year it's alienating more and more people who want to visit, live, work or invest in this country.  Make no mistake, that's a really bad thing.   Bad for everyone.

But I think we also need to look at why this is happening, and at the gulf between the young generation's reality and the expectations we all have and had of our lives.  That's not peculiar to Oman - a whole disaffected generation exists in a hundred countries, manifested in benefit fraud, petty crime, drugs and anti-social behaviour everywhere from London to Lahore.  What strikes me about Oman, not just because I live here but because it's different, is how suddenly this has happened.  Maybe it's just economics and demographics - a simple factor of unemployment doubling since the last census while two hundred thousand more, largely unskilled workers, were hired from outside the country.  Maybe.  

What's wrong with the economy and how it should be fixed are maybe subjects for another article, or several.  They're certainly subjects that the new Majlis al Shura needs to get its teeth into next month.  But in the mean time, although I'm complaining as much as anyone else about the lack of manners and respect in Omani society as a whole, I think we also need to ask ourselves why the most polite country in the Gulf is developing the same depressing, selfish, nihilist and amoral social environment as the worst inner cities of Europe or America.  Maybe, as businessmen, HR managers, colleagues or just members of society, we need to ask what we're doing to make the future better, realistically better, for those who are trying to follow us. Otherwise is might not just be the sullen teenager at the checkout who's an ignorant bastard.  Maybe it's us?


September 21, 2011

Only Yourselves to Blame!

Also known as: "The Idiots' Guide to Developing Democracy"

Not that I'm calling anyone idiots.  It's just a turn of phrase.  OK, I guess I am calling idiots idiots, but not really directly or overtly because that would be mean.  And idiots never know they're the idiots anyway in my experience so it's kind of redundant anyway.  Right.  Now that's out of the way, back to...democracy.

Democracy, or "tabloid rule" as I like to think of it, is a pretty popular concept in a lot of countries, or at least in Europe and America.  It's where every adult gets to vote (even idiots; even total, card-carrying entirely demonstrable idiots), and by some complex system related to that process, someone gets to be in charge of them for a number of years.  Which is fun, I suppose.  Not knowing who is going to be in charge of your  healthcare system or national security.  Just participating in a kind of masked show of hands to select a person.  And that person and a few hundred others also selected by other blind shows of hand, then get to have an open show of hands to choose who's in charge.  

It sounds a bit frightening really, that the girl whose knowledge of current affairs comes mostly from Hello magazine, the guy who has never read a book, and Uncle Joe who won't talk to "darkies" all get exactly the same say.  Equal rights sounds like a good idea.  Equal right to be in charge of all national decision making is a bit less convincing.  And let's not forget, the person you vote for you might not really know.  You might know who he or she has pledged allegiance to, and will vote for as leader, but you might not know the exact position on other issues.  Wars.  Gay marriage.  Currency unification.  International aid.  Whatever your thing is.  

So you, the airhead, the moron and the racist all line up to show hands.  And someone whose future actions you can't really predict gets chosen.  To be one of many you didn't choose who then in turn choose someone you may or may not have chosen yourself.  And even then, the one you chose might change his or her mind at any time and stop choosing the leader they said they'd choose (over a disagreement on a war, gay marriage, etc etc..).  Or worse, keep supporting one despite disagreeing on such a thing.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is democracy.  Not the "mob rule" exactly, more of a mob ritual.  Some people who have the money and the organisational infrastructure, and usually the established brand name (blue, red, nationalist, socialist, whatever..) get to put themselves up to be chosen, leaflet your house and advertise in the media.  And you, the airhead, the moron and the racist all get to say which one you'd like to be one of the hundreds of strangers who choose the one you may or may not like to rule you for, say, five years.

The more alert reader might have decided by now that I'm not a big fan of democracy, which is true.  And you might also ask the question, that if democracy is imperfect, what is a better solution?  Well, the answer in Europe and America is democracy.  The thing is, the process above isn't very democratic.  The referendum (where everyone is asked a question on an issue and the answer is a simple majority "yes" or "no"), is rare.  The number of members of a certain party in the parliament may be entirely disproportionate to the number of votes they won.  And most strikingly, a person can be chosen as head of government when two thirds of voters actually preferred someone else.  No run offs.  No second and third choices. 

The reality of democracy in most of these cases then, is a system evolved over hundreds of years to maintain a status quo: an illusion of individual voices, filtered through weighted processes of access to wealth, design of constituency bounders, seats or electoral colleges or suchlike, and eventually down to a narrow contest between two similar and perennially victorious political cliques.  A president or prime minister in Europe or the USA can be the head of government with 30% of the vote.  And when only 50% of eligible adults vote, too.  15% "majority" rule.  A strange democracy indeed, but now a standard one.

That's not always the case, though.  At  least not when the pseudo-democracies are calling for "Democracy" elsewhere.  For example, as I might have mentioned before, the constitution in "liberated" Iraq is based on a proportional representation (PR) system.  The kind of system that even the pro-PR Liberals in the UK knew was so unacceptable to their governing coalition partners as well as opposition, that they abandoned it even though it had been central to their election manifesto.  The system that, even when watered down heavily to an "alternative vote" system that retained electoral constituencies, was rejected by both main parties who campaigned successfully against it in a unique referendum - on the basis that it would be "too complicated for people to understand".  Basically, "let us decide what's best; you're idiots".  

You might think that the vested interests of  major political parties in established democracies are what keeps these very un-democratic democratic systems in place.  And that might be the case - who wants to have anyone able to make a party and take a proportional share in government according to their popularity?  It would be chaos, right?  Well, that's a fair point too.  Having a distorted "first past the post" system helps stability, in two ways: firstly, it means that a lot of people tend to stay in politics for a long time, gaining experience - whether in government or opposition.  And secondly, it means that small, single issue or extremist parties can't really win a share of government with a short-term craze of public opinion.  With "first past the post" you're establishment, or you're nobody.

So it begs the question: why do the UK, US etc try so hard to export an ideal of democracy that's totally unacceptable to them at home?  Iraq is a model example, with full proportional representation, leading to the effective impossibility of a single party forming a majority government, leading to government that has to happen entirely by consensus, and so crippled by constraints such as a two thirds majority to make any important decisions (in the UK or US it can be one vote...they literally wheel people in on hospital beds to vote sometimes), that there is really no government at all.  Parties are largely of ethnic or sectarian identity, all have to agree, no one position holds any real power, and nobody can realistically "win" an election.  And who wrote this constitution?  The UN, with technical support from the US, UK and Australia.  Who all use a first past the post system and require simple majorities for legislation.  Even the UN's people were American and European.  

Bizarre.  So why did they?  I know the answer: because, they decided, no more Saddam-a-like dictators could possibly emerge in a country that had a constitution where nobody's allowed to be in charge, to win, or to be able to change the constitution.  That probably seemed like a smart idea in the Green Zone at 2am after a marathon negotiating session, but it did have the small and ever-so-slightly disastrous effect, of not allowing the possibility that anyone could realistically form an effective government.  As Homer Simpson might have said, had he been part of that constitutional drafting team: "Doh!".  And I'm not saying he wasn't.

The "West", then, is pretty confused about democracy.  It's something that, at home, needs to be controlled, managed, filtered and diverted, to produce a midde-of-the-road, moderate, mainstream and preferably predictable outcome.  This guy might win or that guy.  But they both dress the same and the people who will vote in the house of representatives to support or oppose them, will already have been there for an average of two to three previous terms of government.  But if you're selling it abroad, go crazy: get right back to Plato.  Everyone has a say, nobody can rule anybody else.  From the Republic, to the Tower of Babel.

In the context of all this, then, more democracy is coming to the Middle East.  Either at the point of a gun, in Libya (we'll see), after much chaos, confusion and indecision in Tunisia, or whenever the army decides they will allow it in Egypt (great job there, guys..).  Having seen the way it's turned out in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, I'm not convinced it's a great idea - especially if it's the undiluted, overnight instant-acting version doled out to those countries, regardless of context, culture, history or sensitive stomachs.

Amidst this madness though, a small glimmer of sanity: Oman.  A lot of strange things have happened in the GCC over the last couple of decades: Saddam's sudden interest in seaside vacations in 1990.  Oil at $9 a barrel in '98.  King (then Crown Prince) Abdullah going on a world tour dressed as a cowboy (maybe at that price he was trying to fit in in case they had to hitchhike).  Al Qaida discovering airports are a faster route to attention than supermarkets, ships or embassies.  And everyone in the GCC being against another war in Iraq apart from all of those who participated secretly.  Which was everyone.

But one of the first things that happened was democracy in the Gulf.  After the massed ranks of everyone came and kicked Saddam out of Kuwait, there was a strong insistence that it was time to modernise the whole culture of government in the region, and that meant being more "democratic".  For Kuwait, most indebted to the democracy-sellers, it meant jumping straight into a full-on parliamentary democracy with an uncertain model of constitutional monarchy, and predictably, only massive oil wealth could keep troubled political waters more or less under control.  In other Gulf countries, the idea was either do nothing at all and wait for this nonsense to pass while smiling politely (UAE, Qatar maybe), or like Oman, be a little more strategic.

In 1991, Oman began its first democratic experiment in the modern era.  A consultative council (the Majlis al Shura).  Every five years since, the franchise has been extended, the role talked up, even the membership expanded.  A British-style upper house i.e. appointed rather than elected, and from those who've already achieved some status, was included, and together they make the equivalent of an Omani parliament.  Step by step, the Majlis is now at a critical point, where anyone can stand, anyone 21 or over can vote (unless they work for a goverment security body in which case they can't - kind of the opposite of Egypt...), and it has more say than ever in how things are going to work.  Twenty years on, with the fifth election just around the corner, the Majlis is serious.

In March this year, the Diwan announced that as of this election, the Majlis would have legislative powers for the first time.  What's more, some of its elected members would be chosen as ministers.  Although the extent of those legislative powers and the exact authority of either house is not yet confirmed, both of these things are enormous.  What they mean is that the old, tired criticisms of the Majlis al Shura as "irrelevant" or a "talking shop", are torpedoed.  The Majlis matters.  Which means that voting in the coming election, understanding who the candidate is, and what they stand for, matters too.

In previous elections, a lot of people either didn't vote (although ironically, voter turnout was still comparable with the US or UK), gave their votes to others to cast (how or why this is possible are interesting subjects for debate!), or voted simply for the person they associated most with their family. tribe or father's opinion.  Sorry stuff.  That's not to say Omanis vote for stupid reasons: some do, but then that happens everywhere,  but some just didn't take it seriously.  

On the latter point, it's a pity.  The role of the Majlis, even without law-making powers, was as an intermediary between the citizen and the top levels of public administration.  Instead of the traditional routes of tribal leader, wealthy and influential friend, or camping outside a VIP's office, they created a channel for seeking better services or dealing with problems.  A channel that could increasingly be based on meritocratic competition for votes.  So even without the power to change the law, the Majlis should always have been important.  Its had four terms to establish a culture of constituency representation regardless of ethno-sectarian or other narrow allegiance.  To show that an elected official works for everyone the same, whether or not they voted for him.  To breed a culture of accountability.  Perhaps it has just not been "marketed" in that way sufficiently.

Now though, no excuse.  Whatever those powers are, they mean something.  Also, more than ever before, candidates can promote and explain themselves and compete in public.  They have websites (mostly awful) and socal media accounts where they talk about their views (mostly vain platitudes but hey, they are aspiring politicians), and basically just more freedom to reach an audience.  If you're an Omani voter, you have more choice and access to more information than ever before.  And you'll need it: that guy (or girl, please let there be some girls..) you elect isn't just someone to ask about the regularity of your local garbage collection.  That person might vote for a law saying you have to collect your own.  Or become minister of garbage collection, and be in charge of yours and everyone else's directly.  Or  minister of education, or health - big stuff.  That guy or girl on the poster.  How important do you think your decision is now?  Yeah, quite.

I was pretty depressed yesterday reading a forum which is populated mostly by a privileged, highly-educated younger generation of Omanis.  In other words, exactly the people who should be most informed about this election.  There was a discussion of the subject in which none of the participants seem to have noticed the new importance of the Majlis al Shura.  The same tired old excuses for disinterest and cynicism were trotted out again.  I don't know whether it's just laziness, lack of information or stupidity.  But I'm starting to think they deserve what they get and I hope that the new Majlis passes a law making luxury cars illegal for the under 25s.  Maybe they'll notice that.

I've always had the view that since day one, His Majesty has intended a gradual, iterative transition to a participatory political system based on a constitutional monarchy.  Every step over the last four decades has seemed like a step towards that.  Yes, slowly, but without the chaos seen in other countries - a product designed for its market.  And now, with this latest small step, a quantum leap in giving power to the electorate.  If he reads the ill-informed and inelegant reactions of the cream of this country's youth, I imagine he might wonder why he bothered.

Anyway, the point of all this is simple really: after centuries of democracy and its transformation (erosion?) in some countries, people who have always voted can be lazy, sceptical and stupid with their votes.  But while others, rightly or wrongly, all across this region are seemingly begging for the chance to choose, I think Omanis need to wake up to how important these new rights are.  I'm not Omani, just an outsider who's lived in a few countries and feels an urge to share an opinion.  But I love this place, and I love my friends and colleagues who make it my home.  And to them I just want to say: someone is going to get elected, and with these changes, that someone is going to affect your life.  So think and choose carefully and participate, because if you don't and this country changes in a way you don't like....you've only yourselves to blame.


P.S.  I never did say what I thought was the best system of government: absolute rule by a wise and benevolent leader.  I'm willing to be considered in at least an advisory role :)
o-

September 16, 2011

Be Cool! (And Give Me Ten)

It has been brought to my attention by someone close to me that my posts of late have been  a little strident and angry.  It's true.  Maybe it's all that effort during Ramadhan to remain patient and understanding.  Come Eid, it was time to let it rip and vent my rage at the injustices of the world - at least just a little bit.  That done, maybe it's time to resume normal service and mix up the political rants with something more...positive.  Maybe I'll even think of something funny again a bit later - let me think about it.

I do go through phases where all I can think about is what's wrong with things: my car, my bank account, my house, the world, the Muslims, the others, the East or the West, the bad people and the good people doing bad for good reasons or bad reasons or just the sheer stupidity and short-sighted madness and inhumanity of....well, you get the picture.  But we all do that, right?

Today's sermon then, ladies and gentlemen, is more of a thought for the day: take a little moment to remember what's good.  What makes you happy.  What isn't wrong at all, and how much better that makes our mortal existence.  We all waste time on Fridays every now and then.  Some of us..er..a7em...quite a lot, and not just Fridays.  So, just take five will you?  Humour me?  Write a list of ten things that are cool in your life.  You can keep them to yourself.  Post them on your Facebook page.  Post them here as a comment if you really would like to share.  Or just read them over a couple of times to yourself, and feel a bit better about stuff.  Here are mine, off the top of my head:


1.  There are people out there who love me and miss me when I'm not around.  Friends, family, and of course beautiful women who find me irresistible.  No really.  Even when I'm alone, if I think about it, at least a few people would be really happy to see me right now, and I them.

2.  I just had lunch.  Soup, salad, coffee, juice...all nice stuff, pretty much all exactly the way I like it, and made by someone else even.  I also have something for dinner that I cooked, and a treat for later.  Maybe that's a trivial thing.  Maybe I don't know where the groceries or the social meals out are coming from next week or month or year.  But I'm fat and full.  There are millions of people starving to death, really not far away, which is not a thought to make one happy.  But it makes being grateful to be fed a moral duty.  I am grateful.  I enjoyed every bite.

3.  The Crapmobile is working.  Not exactly a divine miracle, and I'm not entirely confident of how long.  But, it's clean, functional, and took me out for lunch.  If I wanted, I could get in The Crapmobile and go somewhere, do something, see someone...quickly and in comfort at a mere whim.  Not being able to do that would really, really suck.  I have a car.  That's me in the top 10% in the world.  The Crapmobile puts me in a global elite.  Well, fancy that?

4.  I am free.  Nobody is going to arrest me today, I'm certain of it.  Or tomorrow, or next month or next year.  I express my opinions vociferously and freely, and although many might disagree, there is no punishment for it.  I censor myself, yes, to avoid insulting individuals great or obscure, but I can say what I think.  I can do what I want to do.  Make a living (kind of, but nobody else is stopping me!).  Associate with whoever I like, and shout from the rooftops both real and virtual.  There is no threat to me.

5.  I am healthy.  So obvious, so taken for granted, that it didn't occur to me until number five (I tend to write as a stream of consciousness in case you didn't notice and just publish immediately, so this list is in order of appearance in my brain rather than perceived value).  OK, I'm not going to run any marathons or model swimwear any time soon, and I have many imperfections, even illness.  But I'm fine.  Breathing and eating and sleeping and walking and running up the stairs.  That's fabulous.  My body works, my brain functions, and the "me" that's carried around inside is sustained.  I've feared for my health, or even my life, just a couple of times, and thankfully without good cause.  There is nothing really wrong with me.

6.  I have purpose.  I am a father.  I have things and people I care about.  I have ideas to express, initiatives to pursue, and a living to make.  I have responsibilities and moral convictions that drive me to meet them.  My worries and fears are incentives because I have a reason to succeed.

7.  I am noticed.  It's not just those who know and love me.  People know me just as some words on a page or a screen.  An article I've written, a comment on a forum, even a painting.  People have agreed or disagreed with me though they don't even know who I am.  Been validated or infuriated by my words, or perhaps just, to some degree, stimulated to thought, or merely entertained for a moment.  All of this means I exist.  Earlier I made a "Google" search (they should pay me for saying that...). and found an article online that I wrote in a printed publication about ten years ago.  I didn't know they still existed, and you'd be hard pushed to find them.  But they do.  It's a tiny, obscure legacy, but part of me.  Whatever happened tomorrow, I have scratched the surface of common existence.  Thank you for reading...

8.  I know things.  Every person I meet knows something I don't, and almost always they tell me something new.  I have read hundreds, maybe even thousands of books.  Millions upon millions of words.  I've seen and known thousands of people; interacted with so many I can't possibly remember, yet they have all made their impression.  Every piece of existence had left it's scratch on my surface, or gone deeper still.  Films, conversations, overheard facts, the constant live multi-media of consciousness stores facts, feelings, impressions in me every day of my life.  Sometimes it takes a question from a stranger to make us realise how we all have a unique experience, and that it has value to someone.  I am a walking, unique, personalised encyclopaedia of life experience and observations.  We all are.

9.  I see beauty.  Even in an ugly urban environment.  A bird.  A child.  A fragrant young woman breezing past in a cloud of perfume and self-conscious hubris.  A wave or a smile from a stranger.  The sky.  The sea - oh, the sea!  A thousand small human acknowledgements; the waiter who knows your name, the stranger who thanks you for holding the door, the surprised checkout person in the supermarket who looks embarrassed when you say hello - in a happy way - thinking "why don't people always just say hello?"  The other senses too - music to your ears, evocative smells to make you smile at a memory you can't even place.  The touch of something pleasant - a hand, or the warm glass of coffee.  Everything is beautiful if you see it that way.

10.  I believe.  Not everyone has the same religion; some discount belief as a matter of principle, which is perhaps a belief in itself.  But everyone has something they believe in.  Right and wrong.  Good and bad.  Charity and meanness.  Call it what you like, but it's the very definition of God in my eyes.  We know it, we all know it, that there is right and wrong.  Doing some small kindness feels right, feels good.  It's programmed from the beginning.  Whatever name you choose for that, to me it's the meaning of life.  Maybe that's why, with all these little worldly cares, there's still a way to be happy?

That went on a bit more than I expected it to, but it's amazing how much is there when you start to think about it.  So be cool....life is what it is, and what's not to like? :)

September 11, 2011

9/11: A Decade of Denial?

Two days ago I read an interesting article by Robert Fisk, in "The Independent".  If you didn't see it, or just can't be bothered, then the basic premise is this: when looking at a crime, we generally seek to first establish what has happened, then who has done it, and why.  Fisk states, bluntly as usual, that the latter question has simple not been asked, or at least with insufficient force, and insufficient volume.  He has a point.  The various inquiries into the events of that day, the responses in politics, military action and even social conscience in the US and beyond, seem to have proceeded as if there were no motive, no driving force behind these events at all.  "Bad men did it, we have to get them" is the sum of the analysis if you ignore the fluff around it.  And for ten years, "getting them" has been the focus of every effort to prevent such a thing happening again.

There will always be some who accuse Fisk of making excuses for the bad guys.  He was accused (including by me at times), of making indefensible defences of Saddam Hussein in opposing not just the war in Iraq, but the years of sanctions and military operations that preceded it.  Perhaps now he is feeling vindicated in some hollow way, as I fear I might be at some point down the line in my opposition to NATO's sponsorship of civil war in Libya.  In this case, Fisk will be accused of making excuses for terrorism, and eventually for attacking the protagonist to which he says all these events will ultimately point: Israel.

Unquestionably, Robert Fisk has written plenty of articles about illegal and immoral acts carried out by the State of Israel.  But I can't accuse him of bias, as there are few governments or even causes in this region that he has not shown the wrath of his pen on some occasion or another.  Dismissing his article as simplistic, or worse, anti-Israeli, is silly.  Fisk isn't saying that because the occupation has carried on for decades innocents must die.  He's saying that when people, especially large groups of people, do terrible things, it's frequently because they have lost any sense of belief in a broader justice or order.  If you'll excuse the metaphor, I see it rather like this: if drug addicts are carrying out two thirds of petty thefts and burglaries, those things are still crimes.  But it is not a defence of drug addiction, or an excuse of individual responsibility, to suggest that more resources are dedicated to preventing or treating addiction as a broader social ill.  Two wrongs don't make a right, but wrongs often spring from other wrongs.

There is no question that the situation in Israel and Palestine has proved a competent and persistent recruiting sergeant for terrorism.  Mostly in Palestine itself of course, where desperation fuels many choices and motivations that are unfathomable to anyone with a normal life.  I have visited several Palestinian cities, including Ghaza as well as the West Bank, and the way most people have to live there is far from normal.  I cannot ever describe the decision to strap oneself with explosives and self-destruct in a market place as either logical or moral.  But, like Tony Blair's wife famously admitted a few years ago, I can at least partly understand why some do.  

The international community, including the USA, is essentially unanimous in the view that the West Bank, Ghaza and East Jerusalem are outside the sovereign territory of Israel and therefore under illegal occupation.  If pressed, even the US State Department will acknowledge that according to its own definitions, forcing people from their homes and building settlements on occupied land, is a war crime.  Yes despite this, a Palestinian made homeless and destitute then imprisoned in a refugee enclave might reasonably ask: "So what are you going to do about it, oh mighty international community?"  And then to decide that in the absence of an answer,  some ugly, self-defeating action on his own part might be all that is left.  If only to do something.

The eleventh day of September is an anniversary of several things.  The CIA-sponsored coup that installed war criminal Augusto Pinochet's military junta in Chile, ousting the democratic government.  The first Camp David accords, involving Egypt and Israel in an extraordinary peace that has lasted (more or less) thirty three years, but that excluded both Palestine and Syria (as if some comprehensive peace without them were possible).  This day is also the anniversary of the abandonment of the refugee camps Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon to a massacre by the Israeli army: most figures put the death toll at between eight hundred and two thousand men, women and children.  The research of an Israeli journalist puts it at over three thousand - more than those killed in New York ten years ago.

Again, this is not a justification of terrorism, rather a contextualisation of how it began.  Let's not forget that Al Qaida and Usama bin Laden first became opposed to the West when they were denied the freedom to return to Saudi Arabia with their men and weapons and fight the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.  They objected in principle to a foreign, non-Muslim army being stationed in the Arabian peninsula.  A ridiculous over-reaction on the surface, but in the context of history, the arrival of a massive army from the West has plenty of unpleasant precedents.  Many also forget that the attack on the United States in 2001 was simply the largest Al Qaida attack to date, yet one of many on Americans and their allies in several countries since the early nineties.  If "9/11" was an outrage, it was neither new, nor a surprise.

Now that Usama bin Laden is in his watery grave, Al Qaida has lost many key leaders, and terrorism inspired by that ideology is more often carried out by small groups in imitation rather than coordination, it is tempting to say there has been progress over the last ten years in fighting this cause.  That is why what Robert Fisk has written is so important, such a vital alarm call: the individual crimes might have been solved in higher numbers. The serial offenders might have been stopped, jailed or eliminated.  But the supply of terrorism addicts is still there, as strong as ever, or maybe stronger.  Just as many people are furious now about the decades of injustice in Palestine as there ever were. Although the operating environment for terrorists might be less permissive than it was at the turn of the last millennium, the number of people willing to take matters into their own hands and open to manipulation by the doctrine of terror, is not in decline.

My blog colleague, the redoubtable Trygve, touches on an important point in this regard: the bending of the rules to get a quick result, the undermining of the principles of freedom and the well-publicised excesses of both East and West in tackling terrorism, represent a victory to the terrorists.  Supporters of terrorism, and the web of lies and conspiracy theories that motivate them, point to corruption and lies in their governments and in the established world order.  They believe that the so-called "free" democracies of the West are as dishonest and deceitful as any dictator, and create elaborate theories of crusader-pillaging to justify this message.  In breaking or avoiding their own laws, through Guantanamo, endemic torture policies, and renditions to countries now described as "dictator regimes", the supposedly free and transparent Western governments simply play the part they have been given.  It's not just anger that fuels terrorism, it's derision.  Contempt.  A belief that the "enemy" is without morals or convictions and therefore without purpose or worth.  In flouting their own ethical codes and principles, the US and others have now played this part enthusiastically for a decade.

That's one part of the story.  The root causes of terror, or perhaps more accurately, the root causes of sympathy for terrorist actions, remain unchanged.  Several more have been added - Afghanistan and Iraq with both the ridiculous conspiracy theories that surround them, and the genuinely horrific loss of life and incidents of torture.  Perversely, as I was writing only the other day, we have NATO equipping and supporting the same Al Qaida franchises in overthrowing their government, in some confused effort to decide where the causes of freedom and fighting terror must be balanced.  First the West created the monster to fight the Russians, then it became the enemy, now again it's the ally against "tyranny".  That's a peculiar position to be in on this anniversary.  The credibility of the West has been enhanced in the eyes of some through the Libyan civil war, but it won't last.  The open sores of Palestine (sixty-three years), Iraq (eight years) and Afghanistan (ten years), remain open, and the infection spreads.

But there is another side to this.  Another kind of denial.  I'm sure I have many readers who feel slighted, uncomfortable with my talking about why terrorists take up their horrible business instead of simply mourning those lost lives in New York.  It's an uncomfortable thought that the good guys aren't all good, and even the bad guys have their reasons.  For my part, I think that allowing those uncomfortable equations, those grating recognitions, into one's head, is the only thing that gives sense to morality or reason.  One cannot be sure of taking the right perspective, without considering first that which appears to be wrong.  I hope I haven't offended you - before turning the coin to see its reverse.

The reverse is this: we all know Israel still occupies Palestine.  We all know that the USA, UK and probably other countries, have broken their own laws and principles and done bad things.  We ("we" meaning those who oppose such things, whatever their background) are quick to point the finger on a day like this, and cry "hypocrite".  But conversely, "we" the Muslims, Middle Eastern or otherwise, have a broader case to answer too.  "We" the people who consider ourselves understanding of the injustices that have spawned this kind of terrorism.  "We" need to take a long hard look at ourselves.

Another blog post I read today noted, as a casual aside, that "we know that Usama bin Laden said he didn't do it".  Not in any justification of the murders of ten years ago, nor offering any alternative explanation.  Just as if it were true.  Of course, Usama bin Laden not only said he did it, he explained the how and why at considerable length and with great pride.   So why would someone say such a thing?  Why do people forward each other emails full of nonsense - asinine, hate-filled lies, as if it is some secret, privileged source of truth?  Is it to make them feel special?  Is it simply because they no longer believe the news, their own governments (East or West), or just an information overload that makes them unable to distinguish between one source and another?  I suspect a combination of all of the above.

But there's another, more important reason why people spread silly conspiracy theories or make outlandish justifications for the worst horrors of Al Qaida-inspired terror.  I've heard people, even friends, argue completely contradictory theories (Usama did it, and they deserved it/the CIA did it/Mossad did it/it never happened) within the same sentence, and take some apparent comfort from this logical contortion. It is as if it excused them from having to deal with what it meant.  But that is the problem, the core reason, the nub of the issue. A vast number of people do not want to deal with the fact that a bunch of Muslims, claiming to be religious, following relatively mainstream conservative doctrines familiar and acceptable to all of us, have integrated terrorism into that moral framework and sold it as a single package.  People are afraid to oppose a man who calls himself a man of religion, even if what he is preaching is from the Devil himself.

The uncomfortable realities for the West to consider are well documented by Robert Fisk and others - in the West, and applauded gleefully by those who want to blame them in isolation.  The mirror image of the terrorists' message is also presented in bold letters in the West - that Islam is evil and that terrorists are just mainstream Muslims.  But the uncomfortable reality for us, for all Muslims regardless of nationality or ethnicity, is that they are partly right.  Too many Muslims accept the word of anyone who is overtly religious as if it is religion itself.  There is no evil more pervasive or more quick to propagate, than evil disguised as a moral duty.  Whether it's a president ordering his armies to fire on civilians in the name of a war on terror, or terrorists themselves ordering the same in the name of a holy mission, evil is evil.  Freedom-loving democrats who engage in extra-judicial kidnapping and torture, are wrong and they are hypcrites.  But so are those who kill women and children in the name of Islam.

The West is always able, eventually, to pick over its darkest acts in public.  US and British soldiers who tortured people in Iraq were named and shamed by their own, and publicly by their media, then tried and punished by their own governments.  Yet in the late nineties and up until but a few weeks before the attack on New York, some Middle Eastern governments were denying in public that Al Qaida was even active in their countries - going as far as to blame a whole series of indiscriminate AQ terror attacks on "foreign criminals engaged in alcohol smuggling".  This was while simultaneously providing intelligence to the CIA and others that AQ had both the intention and capability to attack Westerners in both Arabia and the West.  It is not only the USA that can be a hypocrite - far from it.  And perhaps it's best not to delve too deeply into why the most prominent den of vice in the Middle East has never experienced as much as a word of condemnation from Al Qaida, let alone an attack on its easy and obvious targets.  Who has hunting lodges in Helmand, and who uses smuggling and money laundering routes through certain GCC ports, might be relevant questions to consider for those who have not yet asked.

The chicanery of governments is not my main concern, though.  It is the denial among ordinary people, ordinary peace-loving Muslims.  The willingness to nod and wink at terrorists when it offends someone for whom we harbour a dislike.  The refusal to see an innocent from one place as being equivalent to an innocent from another, is a disease of both sides equally.  Dropping bombs on cities and accepting "collateral damage" of even one life, is wrong in my opinion.  But so is shooting the child of a "settler".  So is blowing up a grandmother while she is out shopping, whatever her politics (as if you could know them anyway).  The lack of understanding of our common humanity has brought war upon war, hurt upon hurt, injustice upon injustice, evil upon evil.  East or West, Christian, Muslim or unbeliever, we are all guilty of the same thing.  

But Muslims have one special problem, and we will never be able to look these hideous events in the eye until we address it. The culture of deference to anyone who uses the word "Allah" with apparent conviction, is undermining our religion, or lives and our future.  Not everyone who speaks about religion is good, or even wise.  We must be free to question, we must be free to argue and debate.  The pantomime of an Islamic mediaeval church that is being created in accessible and multiple media for the masses, is the mother of all terrorism, and the father of ignorance and immorality in the Muslim nation of our age.  Until we can strip "men of religion" of their un-Islamic titles and badges, and until we can free our minds to read and learn our religion as if it were new, then we will be as guilty of hypocrisy as anyone.  Israel and Palestine might be fundamental factors in inspiring terrorism.  But the failure to fight un-Islamic murder as an ideology, lies entirely with us.  It's time to clean house, and not allow another decade of denial.

September 08, 2011

World's Dumbest Counter-Terrorists!

Unless you're new around here, you're probably aware that I have strong feelings about those among my fellow Muslims who choose the path of violence - usually for ambiguous, deluded or simply really, really bad goals.  If you are new around here then let me put it simply: I'm a Muslim, and I think terrorists are retarded assholes.  See?  Italics and underlining.  That's serious.  If you are new to the world of The Linoleum Surfer, then you can catch up on this subject here, and even more here, which is also funnier.

Following on from the ridiculous incompetence of Muslims terrorists, I think it's only fair now to give equal billing to the other guys.  The ones who are working hard, day and night as we sleep, to keep Beardy and his Betty Crocker bomb attempts out of our lives.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...the world of "counter-terrorism".  Sadly, but for all their noble aims, there is increasing evidence that this group of brave men and women, might also be retarded assholes, with or without italics/underlining.

Firstly, they need to get their grammar sorted out.  I think they meant to say "anti-terrorism".  Meaning "something that is against terrorism".  As opposed to the popular "counter-terrorism", which I think sounds more like "terrorism that is against terrorism" (like a counter-measure is a measure, a counter-punch is a punch - not the same as countering a punch with something else.)  Quite a few years ago, a certain government decided to change its terminology from "anti-terrorism" to "counter-terrorism", in line with the originators of the latter term - the good old US of A.  I'm told there was some debate at the time about choosing to label their operations against terrorism AS terrorism.  But in the end the verdict seems to have been "f*** the grammar, it's American so it sounds cooler".  Anyway, I'm starting to wonder, from 2001 onwards, if that alternative meaning was chosen out of foresight rather than stupidity.

The thing is, people are pretty clear usually that terrorists are the bad guys.  Some of them, helpfully, have joined official syndicated terrorist groups so that you can tell who they are by their name badges or level of bearded weirdness.  After all, we've known since the early nineties that the whole "pay the beardy weirdies to kill Russians" thing from 1980-ish onwards, had a sting in the tail: they liked it, and now they want to kill every damn thing.  So the good ol' freedom-lovin' counter-terrorisin' West isn't going to get back into bed with those guys right?

Oops. Yeah they did.  Now I'm very much against any kind of war, and have been for a long time - ever since I saw a bit of what one looks like.  Just like I'm against terrorism, especially since I've seen that too.  But seeking out a war that supports the terrorists you've been fighting since the ninties, against the guy you made peace with for the last eight years...that has to go down as one of the dumbest things I've ever heard.

OK, I'm talking about Libya again.  No, I'm still not saying Baba Muammar is a good guy and I'd like him to be in charge of me.  But I am saying that the alternatives are worse.  And as foreshadowed a few months ago, the loonies are getting a boost from NATO.  Yep, it's almost beyond satire now: having admitted publicly as early as April that "Al Qaida elements" were active and prominent in the Benghazi-based opposition,  NATO have now handed over the country to a franchisee so well-known to them, and believe to be so dangerous, that they had previous had him arrested and tortured (by the guys they're now bombing out of power).  A guy who friendly Mousa Kousa (great name btw non Arabic-speakers - literally "Moses Zucchini", or "Moses Courgette" in Euro-speak..) offered to torture to order, and save the room fees at Git'mo.

Back in February, when the US and EU were still holding back on supporting Mubarak's ouster in Egypt because they were scared he might be cross if he stayed, nobody cared too much about Libya.  Just as it had been since the early eighties, Libya was facing some problems from ex-Afghan beardies coming back to Benghazi and trying to bring down the government (including on many occasions, by blowing shit up).  You know, the kind of thing most people call "terrorism".  

On top of that, like pretty much every country in the region (including Israel, where the proportion of the population currently demonstrating is equivalent to about three times those who protested in Egypt, not to mention the massive demos in the UK, France, Greece etc), some people in Libya protested for reform.  As in all the countries I just mentioned, they were summarily ignored and dispersed.  There were, as in several other countries, a couple of violent incidents, with conflicting stories as to who had escalated the trouble.  So far so ordinary.

Unfortunately, the demonstrations that the Muslim Brotherhood had called for in December 2010 in Egypt had been adopted by the middle class Facebook kids of Cairo, and word had spread beyond the usual down-trodden poor.  Camera-friendly English-speaking guys and girls in designer T-shirts were talking democracy, and nobody was supporting them.  Finally, to the relief of the watching West, the Army removed Mubarak in a nice democratic coup - which is still in place by the way, whereas had Mubarak stayed he had promised an election this month under a new constitution, and without his participation - ironic that now there's a military junta and no election in sight.  But he's gone, which is what the placards said.  

Naturally, the US and friends were unwilling to see any actual democratic will expressed in e.g Bahrain or Yemen, where they knew full well that either a pro-Iranian or Salafi-extremist influence was likely to come to the fore in any popular government.  But trying again to second guess the outcome of the "Arab Spring", having got it wrong in Egypt, they needed to be "on the side of democracy".  But where?  What the hell, how about Libya....so the rear-ending of former friend Qadhafi and co begins - swiftly followed by a group of countries, including Libya-bashers the UAE and Qatar, looking to expand and strengthen their kingdoms' club in case they're the next one to be sacrificed to a US election strategy....see GCC + Morocco + Jordan if you're not aware.

Enthusiastic media fabrication from Qatar followed (we know how Qadhafi LOVED the Amir of Qatar!), so making up air strikes on civilians in Benghazi, massacres at demonstrations etc, was just too tempting.  By the time the corrections had come out later on other channels, the message was well-enough sold.  Even now, there are ridiculous stories of "snipers shooting children in the head": even a normal 7.62mm round from the ubiquitous AK-47 would pretty much remove a child's head - whereas falling bullets from thousands of idiots firing them into the air make exactly the same nasty but usually non-fatal wounds in the top of the head or neck that you see on the TV reports.  

Of course the Government were doing all sorts of nasty things by that point, as were the insurgents, and it's often impossible to tell which. But bear in mind that only insurgents were allowed by NATO to fire rockets and artillery at civilians - Government armour was being hit by air strikes, not them.  Pity too the desperate migrant workers.  Hundreds of thousands fled, but for those that remained, the rumours of mercenaries meant they were being robbed, raped and killed all over just for being black.  Human Rights Watch and various others made creditable reporting on this - but it didn't catch the news like the mythical child-killing snipers do.

Sometimes the on-message Western broadcasters just make it up too: the other day I was watching one that claimed to be quoting an Arabic language report on Qadhafi's whereabouts.  The report in the background was actually saying in Arabic that since the fall of Tripoli, there was a massive increase in rape incidents...One more of many was that "Qadhafi has cut off the electricity and water in Tripoli".  Except that the same news channel the day before had shown one rebel group cutting off the refinery that supplied the electricity, that in turn powered the water supply.  Maybe not deliberately lying, but ridiculously pejorative anti-Government reporting nonetheless.

Anyway, we are adult enough to know how this happened.  We know why Libya was the easiest Arab "ally" to sell down the river.  And we understand that the UN resolutions "protecting civilians" weren't, they were allowing the bombing of the Libyan Government while insurgents can do what they like.  And we also know that the UN arms embargo only meant an embargo on the Government, not on any old hairy dude who wanted to shell Bin Jawad or Brega while college was still out and was prepared to wave the right flag on CNN.

All this, in some ugly way, makes some sort of grim sense.  No, it's not about the oil any more than Iraq was (much cheaper to just be big buddies with the crazy dude in charge and get a special deal than to go to war - cf. pretty much every other major producer on the planet). I like conspiracy theorists  only slightly more than I like terrorists, and they're equally dumb.  The real reasons are much, much sadder: just as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were both based genuinely on the fears and miscalculations of a tiny number of politicians, the proxy invasion of Libya and potential destabilisation of the whole region, are the product of a small group of men messing up.  They were being criticised for not acting elsewhere.  They talked a good game but where was the walk?  They had to sacrifice an "Arab dictator", and here was the softest choice.  Being seen to do something is everything - that's the real meaning of a free press and parliamentary democracy.

So here we are.  Several rival factions are now in control of Libya.  First, the Berber (Amazigh) nationalists rolled into Tripoli, flying their own flags  (if you don't remember, you'll recognise it here) along with the old Libyan one.  Then the Misrata guys arrived by sea, because they couldn't actually get in through Eastern Tripoli that was held by someone else, then occupied the port and eventually (around twelve hours after it was reported), occupied the main square (and got rid of those Berber flags in the most part).  And now, the ex-Afghan ex-rendition victim beardy is the official, NATO-blessed commander of all the guns of Libya.  His boys have come to take their seats in politics, next to the fresh-faced Benghazi human rights lawyers and other such idealists who are about to be shunted back into oblivion.  But not next to the ex-Government generals etc. in this so called "national" council., because Mr Ex-Afghan and his friends have already assassinated them.

It took a special kind of shock for NATO to dive into Afghanistan, and ten years on, the operation there has outlived the Russian one from twenty years earlier.  It then took a special kind of incompetence to overthrow the Government of Iraq without better planning and resources for its aftermath, especially so soon after Afghanistan's lessons were already becoming apparent.  But most of all, it takes a really special kind of stupid to overthrow a friendly co-operative government even if their leader is a lunatic, and put the guys you've been fighting together in charge, right on the shores of Europe.  The strategy in every other country in the region is to develop participatory politics in a considered, iterative, evolution of government culture.  Where that's been ignored and a rushed solution sought, we have Lebanon and Iraq.  Just like Iraq, the American flags will wave in the street for a short while.  The Ex-Afghan now in control of Libya said he "only hates America about 50% now" - let's see how that lasts.  

I have no doubt that an awful lot of people are happy that Qadhafi is out of his chair (almost).  But plenty are already unhappy with the way this is going - and just like the residents of Brega and Bin Jawad until NATO bombed them; they don't really want to be ruled by the mob, let alone by the re-branded Taliban-a-likes.  Truly, I hope I'm wrong and that Libya ends up being the third-time-lucky external regime change in the region.  But I doubt it very much.  So far it's all going according to the darkest and most obvious predictions.  And for that reason, USA, NATO, and the pathetically duplicitous supporters elsewhere, you get the award: the World's Dumbest Counter-Terrorists. 

I'm Back, and Stuff About Cars...

Well hello and welcome back to The Lazy Linoleum Surfer.  After having condemned the lazy habits of Ramadhan in the GCC, I then disappeared and did nothing on this blog for a month, apart from mock the opportunistic thieving in London with a Libya-based satire that some people didn't seem to get....anyway...here I am, back.  Sorry for the intermission.  I don't have much excuse apart from some travelling East and West and trying to focus a bit more on making a living, but you don't care about that, do you?  Where's the Linoleum AT?!

So, I've been a-thinking, what to write about?  There are plenty of things on my mind as usual, and this might end up being the first of more than one post today (oh yeah, get him, a month of diddly squat and now he's talking double-header!), or not...but what's on my mind right now is my car.

OK, maybe that's not quite the socio-political elephant in the room that I normally like to bathe in the fierce luminosity of my insight (yeah, break hasn't done my ego any harm, eh Andy?).  Except that it kind of is.  Let me start at the beginning:

A little while back, a dear friend of mine moved back to Oman after some challenging times abroad.  We were talking about the difficulties that likely lay ahead, personal, practical, financial.  And then about the new car that had been ordered.  I suggested that perhaps, in uncertain times, buying a fancy-branded top of the range SUV, even a small one, for, say, $50,000, might be a bit...stupid?  OK, it was to be financed somehow, allegedly in some kind of halal way, and a car was needed, etc etc.  But still, honestly, I was very sceptical.  Because for me a new car has always been seen as a luxury indulgence for when everything else in life (e.g. having a house, kids schooling provided for, pension plan etc), is well under control.

This is where we get to the point, then.  I mentioned this whole new car thing in Ramadhan a little while ago.  At the risk of repeating myself, why is it that this time of supposed spirituality and prayer seems to be a competitive consumer-fest?  Frequently culminating in a four year loan (with religiously-forbidden usury built in) for twice the borrower's current annual net income, to have a shiny new car?  I mean, I accept that sometimes you just need to replace your car.  And in Oman, you really want to have a car, as every planning authority in the country has fought a forty year war against public transport and pedestrians.  But the interest part?  The massively-in-debt-for-a-rapidly-depreciating-asset part?  And just the spending loads of money on something you don't really need part?  Isn't that all just kind of....wrong?

Now we're all different and have our own preferences and priorities.  But logically, to me anyway, it's partly relative: when my buddy bought a brand new Porsche a couple of years back (ma sha Allah!), I was delighted for him.  But he, to put it bluntly, is a rich man.  OK, even rich people don't walk around with loads of cash washing about - from what I've seen, lifestyle seems to expand to accommodate income pretty fast whoever you are - but in his case, I know he's never going to have to worry about paying for somewhere to live or what he's going to feed the children.  So, fair enough I guess.

What worries me, practically, economically and ethically, is the consumer culture, and let's face it, the culture of showing off, for ordinary folks.  Ask anyone who works in a bank, or actually pretty much anyone at all, and they will know someone who has no house, a low income, and car payments that take up the majority of what they take home.  Sure, there are supposed to be percentage limits and this and that, but we all know how that works in reality: and even if the limit is supposed to be, say, 30% of net income...isn't that a lot?  A third of what you earn, what you spend on anything, just to own that shiny thing?  Before you've put fuel in it, maintained or insured it, let alone put a roof over your head, fed yourself or provided for your family.  

The personal credit levels right now are a crisis waiting to happen.  The first generation of credit card and car loan junkies are now retiring and realising that when  their salary gets halved and called a pension (for those fortunate enough to have one), the bank loans stay just the same.  And for the young kids who somehow get these loans without even having a job - some of whom were (I'm told) calling for their loans to be paid off by the Government during the protests in Salalah a couple of months ago, it was never sustainable in the first place.  If morality doesn't suggest it, then maybe just economically, it's time to throw some cold water on this credit culture with some tighter regulations.

In the mean time, Mr Falani can buy his Lexus and show off to his neighbours and act like a bigshot, regardless of his having a crappy job or none at all.  Maybe he can get a smaller car, and spend the rest of it on paying some people to follow him around shouting "Make way, Here comes Funky Voodoo Jesus! Yay!".  To be honest, in my jaded eyes, the two things look pretty similar.  Then there's my friend, who did buy that nice car and is very happy with it.  Except that same friend appears to have cursed my smug, po-faced, lecturing butt by placing an evil eye on my car to teach me a lesson.

Yes, maybe this is just sour grapes, because my car is a big blue pile of faeces.  The Crapmobile has recently developed some kind of electrical leukemia for which I am blaming my friend, rather than the gang of cackling, coke-snorting East Asian monkeys who seem to have built it.  So while I work out whether it's better value to actually pay for Shitwheels to be fixed again, or just tow it out into the dessert, and set fire to the damn thing, maybe I'm not looking objectively at what someone else should or shouldn't spend on a shiny new car.

But here's a thought:  whether or not you have $50,000 kicking around for a new car, or you have to borrow it, it's still a lot of money isn't it?  It sounds like it to me, from my admittedly humble background.  If you've ever not had money, you realise very quickly that money equals the power of choice.  And if you bought, say, the $30,000 car instead, the change could transform a lot of things in your life or someone else's.  What about the guy who buys some limited edition Bugatti for a million or more?  Trade down to an Aston Martin (which, I'm told, gets the same kind of speeding tickets anyway), and the change is a small fortune.  Imagine what you could do with it.

I seriously wouldn't mind a shiny new car.  But part of me is still certain that, even in the unlikely event I suddenly became very rich, I'd be a bit embarrassed to spend hundreds of thousands on some gleaming rocketship: partly because I know that for, say, $200,000, you could invest in a little trust find to give an orphan a top quality international education every year forever.  Or give a town a water supply.  Or save a few thousand starving Somali babies.  And partly, maybe, because I've never seen someone in a Lamborghini and not wondered if he might just be a bit of a dick.

Thanks for still reading,

TLS x


P.S. You might recall I said a couple of months ago that this blog was available for commercial sponsorship by arms dealers, drug smugglers, or manufacturers of deeply unhealthy food and beverage products.  I'd now like to add auto manufacturers to that list, just in case you work for one.  Pay me in kind, with some gas-guzzling horror show of a car.  Pretty much any car.  Just take that howling metallic turd away from me and shoot it.  Please?  Thanks.