November 30, 2011

Dear Sultan Qaboos (2): Things to Be Concerned About on New Year's Day

When the public holiday was declared to combine both the commemoration of the forty-first national day, and the new year of the Hijri calendar, it rather neatly linked the two thing about which I wanted to write: an occasion for looking back over past achievements, and an occasion to look forward and make plans.

In my previous post, I pointed out a few things - obvious things, or at least to me - that Oman has already done. Obvious, but important.  Even extraordinary.  That was the full half of the glass.  Now for the half that's empty.  Again, I would suggest that most of the serious issues facing this country at present and for the future, are equally self-evident.  Yet they're forgotten somehow, by officials, planners, even ordinary people, who expect things to just somehow roll along by themselves.

One thing that has characterised the "Omani Renaissance", has been a willingness to change things.  Abolish old restrictions.  Open up to international business.  Invent and develop a whole new means of political participation - and accelerate it on demand.  Emancipate women through equal suffrage and exemplary public appointments.  But as each of those ground-breaking steps has been taken, it has been upon the eggshells of reactionary tradition and, sometimes, vested interests.  The balance has been kept rather well, I would say, but just as time seems to get faster the older we get, so the pressures on Oman are in a phase of acceleration. Some eggs may need to be broken.  

I'm just a foreign migrant here, trying to make my living like anyone else.   But like many of my peers, I have also made a home, engaged with Omani society, and developed a sense of care and shared community.  If I have to criticise, it's not to throw stones, but to warn a friend out of concern - concern for a future in which I too hope to participate.  I have lived in several countries, and as a perennial outsider perhaps I have a different perspective.  And from this view, I see the shared future of this wonderful country as suddenly uncertain.  I hope to be wrong, as we all would, but hope is not enough.  The next forty years of development need to exceed the first if the great vision of 1970 is to be realised.  Here are some things which need to be looked in the eye:

1.  Face the demographics.  I said a lot of this was obvious, after all!  Every year, tens of thousands of new citizens come into existence, and may God bless them all.  Oman must feed, educate and employ them all.  But how? Since the previous census, private sector employment has increased and educational provision to support it.  Yet it's not enough: compared to seven or eight years ago, fewer Omanis leaving education get a job in the private sector now than then.  Insufficient opportunities?  Unrealistic expectations?  Or inadequate skills?  Oman's economy has grown, but its workforce is not growing fast enough.  More people registered for the new job seekers' allowance than are currently employed by all the businesses in Oman (including state-owned enterprises).  Those skewed proportions, on current trends, will get worse every year rather than better.  It can't go on, but where is the discussion of these cold realities?

2.  Foreigners help and hinder.  Like me.  Doing a job that maybe someone else should be doing.  Someone Omani.  In my own defence, I have always been predisposed to hiring Omanis, and have "Omanised" jobs where I've worked out of preference rather than under obligation.  Perhaps I have always been confident in my position, confident that doing this wouldn't at some point cost me my livelihood.  Anyone who has worked for or with an Omani company knows that there are foreign workers who help Omanis get on, and others who stand in their way.  The office or factory can be the backdrop to an strange employment cold war, with some Omanis having to fight through a system to get trained or promoted, others happy to be passengers on a boat rowed by Indians.  Bizarrely, sadly, the insecurities of some expatriates seem to be passed on to Omani managers too, who then stand in the way of their countrymen, fearing an imaginary zero sum game where someone else's advancement is their loss.  Employers see Omanisation as a tax or a punishment, something to be avoided, or exaggerated for the Ministry and the annual report.  But the fact is that at a time when Omanisation is a decade or more into serious application, and hundreds of millions invested in opportunities for Omanis, there are more foreigners working in Oman than there were a decade ago.  The number of foreigners in the Omani private sector has increased faster than the number of Omanis.  That growth can be reversed, and must be.  Hiring a foreigner is still the easier option.

3.  Slavery Lives.  And it's a shame.  That's a strong, emotive word.  Perhaps I should say "human trafficking", "bonded labour", "exploitation" or some other euphemism.  But the fact remains that some people work in Oman in conditions outside the law, for little or no pay and against their will.  There is only one word for that.  I'm not singling out Oman - this is a problem in many nations.  And employer abuses run a spectrum from unlawful contracts right through to wrongful imprisonment and physical abuse.  All are found here, and more people than would like to admit it - educated "decent" people reading these words - are involved either actively or passively in supporting such crimes.  I cannot lay that charge at the feet of the Ruler, of course.  Under this reign, Oman has acceded to any number of treaties and agreements, passed many laws (including the latest on working hours) and issued a hundred decrees on the rights of the worker.  But the system, the society, has not internalised these messages.  Enforcement is weak, education of the exploited is negligible, and the public maintain a clear unwritten multi-layered apartheid between VIP, citizen, notable foreigner, and disposable foreigner.  At this point, perhaps I could offer a suggestion?  If the minimum wage were applied to all regardless of nation, and if the uneducated migrant workers were given pro-active, multi-lingual information on and access to the courts, Oman would be acting practically to implement the just policies laid down so far.  What's more, in such a situation, unskilled labour would be cheaper from Omanis than from illiterate foreign-speaking migrants.  That presents its own problems, described in the next two points:

4.  People avoid responsibility.  I could say that about many societies, including the one that raised me (perhaps especially that one!).  It is a widespread phenomenon.  My grandfather's generation set great store by a work ethic, by taking care of one's family, and by providing for oneself not only out of duty, but as the very essence of self-esteem.  That attitude declines in many places, and Oman is among them.  I wrote recently about how manners among Omanis had become worse, from cursing to cutting queues to dangerous driving.  But that is just a symptom.  The disease is more pervasive, and that disease is a lack of personal moral responsibility.  "It's not my fault".  "It's not my problem".  The twin maxims of a society whose fabric is ever more loosely woven.  Drug use, sexual issues like prostitution and HIV, vandalism, violence and of course, abuse of the migrant worker, are all getting worse.  Oman can be proud of keeping many traditions that Europe or America have in large part lost: an expectation to care for elderly parents, a closeness more broadly between generations, a strong sense of the value of marriage, a respect for education - maybe.  But it's changing.  The younger generation do not remember having no hospitals and walking barefoot on dirt to an open-air madrasa as the only form of learning.  They do not feel grateful for air conditioning or subsidised clean water.  Instead they look at their even more fortunate neighbours in, say, Abu Dhabi, and ask for more.  The simple equation that Abu Dhabi has seven times the income and half the population, is not their concern.  Somebody needs to remind them or their blessings, and their responsibilities.  There is an increasing nihilism among the coming generation that needs to be stopped in its tracks, because it is self-fulfilling.

5.  Too much for too few.  We can hear this rhetoric on six continents today, about the uneven distribution of wealth, social justice and so on.  I'm sceptical, in as much as I believe, broadly, that it is the differences in our achievements and potential that spur us on to try to better ourselves.  But I do believe in social justice, in that those whose circumstances, self-made or unfortunate, put them below the means for basic human dignity, must be helped.  I know that this country tries to provide for its poor.  I know that the father of the nation takes a personal and deliberate interest in public services for isolated villages, orders electricity generators on mountains, helicopters to take children to school, and scholarships for the least privileged to get the best education.  There is more to be done: I once picked up a half-blind old man from the side of the road on a hot summer's day, who had made his way almost a hundred kilometres in order to ask the Ministry if they could help him pay his water bill of twenty Riyals.  He was lost for the last few, and I helped him, as many others would.  But I wondered, wasn't there an easier way for him?  He represents addressing the poverty of some.  But the more controversial question is addressing the greed of a few others.  When certain groups called for the "old guard" of ministers to be removed, they did so not just on grounds of alleged incompetence.  They did so because those people were perceived to have taken vast wealth for themselves by exploiting their positions.  I believe that a significant part of that wealth, in land or opportunities, came in personal gifts from a grateful ruler, much in early days when its future value could not be imagined.  That context is perhaps lost on the "protestor", who is simply envious.  However, perhaps when moving some of these extremely privileged public servants on, it might be worth considering whether some of that wealth could be...shall we say "encouraged"?...back into the ordinary person's orbit.  Perhaps a not-so-gentle hint that a certain proportion needs to be reinvested by that group into a new fund, designed solely to provide long term employment opportunities?  Just a thought.  But the point is this: the balance of power in society changed this year, when a less accomplished section of society made its voice known in a disturbing and ugly fashion.  That voice is now as important as the old guard, maybe more so.  And nobody wants to hear it again.

6.  Business needs to help.  Someone commented on my previous post that acceding to the demands of protestors for benefits and jobs, was unfortunate.  I disagree, not because I think paying people not to work is good, or that having the state create jobs out of nothing is a good economic policy.  I believe acceding to those demands, and quickly, sent a message that unlike in many other countries, the head of state was hearing his people.  It needed to be done, because it needed to be seen to be done.  A few months on, and the different situations between Oman and certain other countries, couldn't make that point any more eloquently.  But an equally interesting part of that response was the encouragement of private sector companies to follow. Company X announced two thousand new jobs, company Y five hundred, and so on.  Again, it's no way to run a business to hire on demand, any more than it is good policy for a government department, but it needed to be seen to be done.  Now that precedent has been set, and the symbolic gesture made, business needs to address the real issues just as the Government does.  And in the case of business, that should mean a serious look at who is getting away with economic murder.  Few, if any, of the large private sector companies I know have any significant Omani management.  The board, yes.  The executives, no.  A result of that is that the executives of many private (family) businesses are protecting their interests, or even their nationality's interests, at the expense of the economy.  Omanisation is a tax.  Visa rules are a game to be played.  Work permits a currency to be traded, embezzled and spent.  Ministries need to look at themselves, but they are hamstrung by the power of some large companies.  A willingness to say "no" to established family interests is essential.  They will threaten to "move their wealth elsewhere" (I've heard that one), to "no longer be able to employ so many Omanis" or "undermine confidence in the economy".  The threats are idle.  They know full well that if Oman is a cow, it is their small group of hungry fat mouths that are attached to the udder, and only drops reach the pail below.  The last thing they will do is leave, and every minister needs a remit, nay an instruction: don't be blackmailed; say "no" to "company X" if they want to flout the rules.

7.  Apply the law.  Oman is the only GCC country I can think of that has put senior officials in jail now and then for corruption, or at the least, bumped others out of their jobs as a chastisement.  Is it enough, though?  It is a bitter, shallow soul who would enjoy seeing people of status locked up just for the spectacle.  But the reality of corruption in so many places, might demand it more often.  I am not talking, necessarily, about a minister whose new house appears to have built itself by the power of love, or the coincidences of certain family owned companies cropping up time and time again in tender awards.  Those are issues, they must be addressed, but for all their seriousness, they are but a tip of the iceberg below the big table.  And how can one expect a senior official to understand that a gift or a favour is a bribe just the same as a brown envelope, or that passing on his nephew's cv is no better than stealing another man's livelihood?  Certainly he is to blame for any such sin he might commit, but not entirely.  Because at every step of his life, he has been told that it's normal.  Then in turn, seeing what goes on inside the marbled offices of the top floor, the man at the bottom merely imitates as best he can, and breeds a new generation of nepotism and thieving.  How is it that the son of a rich man escapes punishment for a traffic offence when a poor man spends a few days in jail?  How is it that some people can have a driving licence without a test?  How is it that a company can be called to tender for a contract before the tender has been issued?  I am not for a moment suggesting that serious corruption is endemic, or that it is an accepted policy to allow it.  There are many good men and women in many important roles, some of them even committed to fighting such injustice.  But my point is that while a culture of favours, of influence, of wasta, of hiring the best "PRO" who can have his cousin process your papers faster than the other person, fosters a culture where a "small corruption" is OK.  But the bigger one gets, the smaller any corruption might seem.  One day fifty for a licence.  The next, well, others know better than I.  There should be a unit of secret policemen investigating major corruption - I suspect there already is.  But I think it's even more important to attack the small corruption - through education, discipline and enforcement.  Show people the definitions.  Fire the low level bribe-taker and name him.  And when the billionaire runs a red, let him spend his three days in a cell with the others.  Word will spread soon enough.

There are some big subjects here, and I think I will leave it for now: seven things to worry about is enough.  And as most people - me included - are essentially still happy here, it is only right that the things to be proud of should outnumber the concerns.  I don't think I've really said anything that has not been said before, and I hope I've not crossed any unacceptable lines.  I love this place, and I want it to be better for everyone.  That's all.

I will probably write about some of these issues individually again, and think of more both good and bad.  Perhaps, having opined about these things so arrogantly, I should be equally confident in offering some suggestions that might help.  Let me think about it.  In the mean time, I think we all have things to think about. God bless you, and may He continue to guide you too.

TLS

November 28, 2011

Dear Sultan Qaboos (1): Things to Make You Proud on National Day

At the risk of sounding patronising, or sycophantic, there are a few things I'd like to mention that Oman can feel very smug about.  That's not really why I want to write them down.  I want to write this because, in the last year, Oman has been on a list of countries lumped together as one in the international consciousness, and has got some bad press by association.  But the fact is, Oman as we know and love it, is about the same age as me.  From humble beginnings and with a pretty unhelpful peer group at times, expectations might not have been great.  That they are now, says a lot.

So, if you'll forgive a foreigner for stating the obvious, here are some things to be proud of at the age of 41:

1.  Existence.  It's easy to forget that Oman as a sovereign state, within its current borders, might not have existed at all.  The people would be in the same place, and perhaps much of the recent development and culture would have been similar anyway.  Or not.  But half a century ago, Oman could have become one with the UAE.  Or worse, the Soviet-backed insurrection in part of the country could have gone further, and left Oman with the same confused and tragic legacy as Yemen.  That Oman is Oman is something, and the choices, alliances and policies chosen by its current ruler, have been a major factor in ensuring it.

2.  Freedom.  The word is thrown around a lot in this region, normally by foreign men on top of tanks, or sponsored insurgencies.  But to me, it means the ability to go about your reasonable, lawful business unhindered.  Most of us take it for granted.  I'm damn sure Omanis do.  Life isn't always easy, but the freedom to travel, to work, to start a business, to educated your children, it's all there.  Perhaps the law is a little paternalistic.  Perhaps there are issues that still need to be addressed.  But the fact that (as an Omani or a foreigner) one can write on a blog criticising policies and social phenomena with impunity, is pretty special for a country in this region.  Making slander and libel of individuals a criminal, rather that civil matter, looks strange to some.  But it's designed to provide the same deterrent, and is more likely to mean justice than (financial) vengeance.  I feel free.

3.  Tolerance.  In a world and a region where ethnic and sectarian violence makes the news every day, Oman doesn't.  Three major Muslim sectarian groups live together, pray together and inter-marry.  We joke, we criticise, we even argue.  But there is no hate or fear.  Non-Muslims are plenty, but again with Government-funded temples and churches, there is no sense of oppression.  Ethnically, old tribal attitudes die hard, but there is no legal discrimination, minorities hold the highest posts and own the biggest businesses, and the variety of ethnicity, language and culture is as much a feature of Omani nationals as it is of the international migrant workforce.  We don't have to look far away to see that it could be otherwise.

4.  Development.  It almost seems corny to say this as it's been written in so many places, so many times.  But it has to be said!  This country had essentially no schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, sanitised water or industrial development.  Really, for 99% of the people, none.  And that was within the lifetime of many people reading this.  Mogadishu now has better public services than Muscat did then.  Afghanistan had better infrastructure and education.  Think about that for a minute.  Men had walked on the moon, but Oman didn't have a television set, a bus, or an operating theatre.  None, not even in the capital.  And out in the villages, people were living pretty much as they had when William the Conqueror was buying a ferry ticket and the Mayans were inventing Tekken-basketball.  Every fancy house, clinic, school, electricity sub-station, factory, apartment block, traffic light and water meter has been built in the last four decades.  Wow.

5.  Women.  OK, technically Oman always had women.  But it didn't do much with them.  I'm guessing that His Majesty had a formidable lady for a mother because respecting women seems to have been a recurring theme of speeches and policy statements.  At a time when Saudi scholars are saying women shouldn't use the internet without a mahram supervising, Oman has more female ministers than any other GCC country, women in prominent private sector positions, women as ambassadors abroad, women running campaigns and charities, women in politics and women, frankly, leading the way.  Sure, it's true that very few women have won elections in this country, but not because of any institutional obstacle.  Society might be taking its time, but the message of the leadership is clear enough: women can do stuff, and should.  It's almost ten years now since the first woman was given ministerial rank.  But that much-ridiculed appointment paved the way for some big steps.  Women now run both education ministries.  Is there a bigger responsibility given to anyone?

6.  Politics.  How are we doing so far, Your Majesty?  Well, I hope it all feels pretty good.  This one might be making some people nervous, because yes, we all know this country is a monarchy.  Meaning one guy, who didn't get elected or even selected, is in absolute charge of everyone else.  That's you.  Yep.  The thing is, when people talk about non-elected leaders ruling by decree, the implied understanding is that this is not a popular arrangement, and certainly not a consensual one.  But I beg to differ.  A leader, a ruler in fact, who is above personal criticism, is definitely a king.  But a leader whose laws forbid personal insult to anyone - not just himself - is just.  And a king, although never permitting insult, who nevertheless allows public criticism and discussion of any and every policy and decision, is wise.  Such is the case in Oman.  Also, I would suggest that the degree to which traditional rulers in the Gulf rule by the consent of their people, is often underestimated outside.  Absolute rulers are always praised by their people in public.  But it is a ruler truly trusted by his people, who is loved rather than feared in private as well.  And of course, now the paradigm has shifted completely with the development of more direct popular participation.  The "Shura" means something:

7.  The Arab Spring Sprung.  Thanks to the events in Tunisia, and the copycat demonstrations, insurrections, and foreign-sponsored civil wars across the region, Oman has had its own rumble of discontent.  Perhaps it was good fortune that the Majlis al Shura elections were already scheduled for this year, and without question the handling of the issues in the first days, was tragically inept.  But the response from the top, was simply masterly.  The people called for more jobs.  Jobs were created.  The people called for help for the unemployed.  A new allowance was delivered.  The people called for the "old guard" of long-serving ministers to be replaced with new blood.  Every one of them was replaced.  The people called for a bigger role in politics and reform.  They got it.  And remarkably, they got it literally within days of asking.  Overall, very few were doing the asking, but they were heard.  Those who carried on demonstrating afterwards (without direction in my view), were encouraged to stand for election themselves and engage constructively.  They did, and some have won seats.  They will have new powers to make the law.  The problems that I will describe later are serious, but in Oman, major civil disorder has not become one of them.  A group of people cried out, and were heard.  That is, as I said above, why an absolute ruler can still be loved, rather than feared, in private as well as in public.

8.  Diversification.   From an economy that had little more than dates, goats and fish in the 1970s, Oman has come a long way.  Even half way through that development period, it would have been hard to imagine Omanis making hi-tech televisions in a factory in Sohar.  Actually, it's pretty hard to imagine now.  But it's there.  The oil, gas and petrochemical industry was on its way from day one, but meeting senior financiers, engineers and managers now who are of my generation, tells me that Oman has arrived.  Tourism, manufacturing and services are following.  And it's not just about investing the money and building the facilities, it's about building the people.  When an international oil company hires an Omani to work on a rig, the expectations are that he's going to do the job.  That wasn't always the case, and is not the case now in every GCC country.  Oman started last, but has arrived first.  From CEOs to coffee shop waiters, Omanis now do every job.  Sure, some good and some bad.  But a lot more on merit than there used to be.  This the upside only of course, but it is a real upside.

9.  Peace.  I heard someone say recently that Oman's foreign policy can be represented in one simple phrase: "Don't piss anybody off".  And it's kind of true.  As a policy, it has its value as a tendency towards appeasement and moderation, and its risks - of being seen as an insincere or fair weather friend, and not taking the (right) side in any argument.  But it's worked.  Partly because, as we have seen, nobody has got into a fight with Oman in forty years, at least not really.  Disagreements, periods of cooling, even tension, but Oman has not picked any fights, and that's a good thing.  It's not easy either, with some difficult neighbours, and difficult times.  And when Oman has been forced to take a position, its not always been the line of least resistance: not joining the Arab boycott of Egypt after Camp David, for example, and taking the lead in normalisation with Israel after the Oslo accords.  Not easy decisions, either regionally or domestically, but genuine statements of principle.  Oman has not merely been passive in wanting peace, and even those countries with opposing viewpoints, have managed to respect Oman's self-made identity as the region's "professional moderate".

10.  Recognition.  This contradicts, ever so slightly, what I said earlier about Oman's reputation being tarnished by association.  But the fact is that before, since and even during the "Arab Spring", a lot of people have said a lot of good things about Oman.  The international stability index ranks Oman and Qatar as the only two Arab League members with a "green" rating.  And Qatar only has twenty five citizens and they're all billionaires so that's an easy thing to manage.  But for Oman to have achieved the same with more people and a fraction of the resources, is something.  Western politicians, journalists and international organisations have called Oman the World's most rapidly-developed nation.  Oman has relationships everywhere, and no apparent enemies (recent friction with the neighbours notwithstanding).  One journalist wrote with great enthusiasm about young girls at the University speaking to him in educated English about all sorts of issues, representing a modern, international Oman.  To him as an outsider, that said it all.  

He was right, but he missed the point: they are all those things, yet they have managed to remain distinctly Omani.  In short, this is what Oman has achieved in forty-one years: massive, unprecedented and accelerated development, while retaining a unique cultural identity.  Of that, Your Majesty, you and all Omanis can be proud.

(Now, here comes the more difficult bit...I hope you're sitting comfortably with a cool glass of water...)

November 27, 2011

Dear Sultan Qaboos...

There are a few sharp intakes of breath I can hear around the place.  "Don't do it" said my friend Mimi.  But don't be alarmed.  Firstly, I've no intention of being rude to or about any individual.  And secondly, I think most people - heads of state included - like to be told how it is, unedited, once in a while.

You see, Linoleumites, I've been wondering lately whether it's worth the effort to write the odd satire here and there, or rant on about something that irritates me or upsets me, whether it's a world political event or just a social habit.  Sure, I get some pleasure out of it, and I'm truly grateful for and delighted by the feedback from readers.  Even the negative ones; even the abusive ones, are all cool with me: if I'm simultaneously accused of being anti-Muslim and a Muslim fundamentalist, anti-Arab and an Arab apologist, anti-Western and a Western chauvinist, hating Omanis and making excuses for Omanis, then I must be getting it about right!

But at the same time, I have been asking myself: "but what's it for?".  You might have noticed that I've been pretty quiet of late.  That's partly down to the pressures of real life, but also maybe a lack of motivation: The posts I write about serious issues (the inspired civil wars across the region for instance), get relatively little response or interest.  The ones that are just for entertainment get more - which is fine; making other people smile is rewarding and fun.  But the posts here that are about social issues are the ones that seem to capture the imagination.  My top ten most popular are almost all about real societal problems.  A couple of my more lazy and obvious ones have snuck in there, but a top three of prostitution, FGM and false religious propaganda, satisfies me a lot more.  So where to go now with that kind of thing?

Well, here it is: I'm going to write a couple of posts now that I've been thinking about for a while.  They might turn out to be a bit of a stream of consciousness, but there's some stuff that needs to be said.  Good and bad. Good things that this country's achieved that are not recognised sufficiently, and bad things that need urgently to be addressed for the future.  The plaudits for the first, and the challenge for the second, can best be directed at one man.  The personification of modern Omani identity: His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said bin Taymor Al Said.  There is a saying in Arabic that I've mentioned before: "your friend is the one who tells you the truth, not the one who believes you".  These are the words of a friend you don't know.  May God give you long life, Your Majesty: these are the thoughts I'd like to share with you.  

November 19, 2011

Impoverished Nations Seek International Help -"Colonial Liberation"

(WARNING: Contains nuts.  And blatant fabrication.)


European Capitals - "The Linoleum Surfer" Reports:

The breaking news that oil-rich Angola has come to the aid of destitute Portugal, has given a glimmer of hope to the European undeveloping countries.  Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passo Coelho, showing considerable wear to the knee areas of his suit, expressed his country's sincere gratitude on returning from his meeting with the Angolan buyers: "On behalf of the people of the Province of Portugal, I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart, our President and Big Daddy Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, for agreeing to buy us.  We have high expectations of the new colonial era and as well as the beads and mirrors in this bag, we are also expecting a revolution in technology and development from our brave and liberating masters.  And maybe a railway."

Other members of the undeveloping countries or "U12" expressed excitement at the prospect of widespread neo-colonialism from the the fast-growing "Third World".  Coelho's Spanish counterpart is reportedly already in contact with President Chavez of Venezuela, with whom he shares a socialist philosophy as well as a shared history.  "Yes, I spoke to Hugo today", said Prime Minister Zapatero.  "He's down with the people, you know, he is the one to stick it to the bankers and help out a brother with these damn loan payments."  A spokesman for Chavez also confirmed that a conversation had taken place. "Yeah, we heard from Zapatero and we are definitely going to be buying some shit in Europe", adding "and maybe Louisiana, but they are being hard-assed about it so far."

Two of U12's "big three" have also raised expectations, with France's Nicolas Sarkozy adding several prominent Algerian figures on Facebook and posting a picture of Zinedine Zidane to his profile.  Italy's interim administrators are also looking to North Africa for a deal. "Hey, Libya's got plenty money and we totally supported bombing the crap out of their country for them when they asked, so we're going to milk that, obviously...no such thing as a free [missile] launch, they say..." quipped acting Prime Minister Super Mario.  But the largest player in the Uro-zone, Germany, appears keen to remain independent.  Leading Urologists believe that Chancellor Merkel is still too sensitive about the country's history to allow a colonial arrangement with former partners Namibia, whom she is alleged to have described as "deeply racist about Germans since that whole genocide thing."

Europe's other major undeveloping nation, the United Kingdom, is not one of the Uri-nations but has nevertheless been affected as a Ur-out as much as the Ur-ines.  Prime Minister Cameron is believed to have tried on several occasions to contact his New Delhi counterpart for a bailout, but has been on hold since Wednesday with a call centre in Bangalore who "value his custom but are experiencing an unusually high volume of calls at this time."