October 20, 2012

Enemy of the Arabs...

Just for a change, I'm going to shut up and let someone else do the talking, at least mostly.  I've just read an article that surprised me completely.  Not because I think it's wrong - though some will be offended by his comment about the Palestine situation, the point is still valid even if it's exaggerated - but because the writer takes a stance that is rather unusual.

I don't know much about this writer, but I do know the newspaper very well, and have known at least one of its editors and many of its writers over the years.  The "Arab News" is the English language sister of "Asharq al Awsat" - a Saudi paper with an international distribution.  The Saudi Research and Marketing Group, if I recall the name correctly, is that country's largest print media stable, producing several regional magazines too.  It is owned by Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, formerly Governor of Riyadh, and recently declared Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister - unusually ahead of his older brother Naif, who had been lined up for the role.

Anyway, I won't bother getting into Saudi politics, for now at least.  Suffice to say that this article's appearance under the indirect (or who knows?) auspices of the Saudi heir-apparent, is something very thought-provoking.  But I will leave you to make your own minds up. I don't think this needs any commentary from me.  Read it for yourselves. "Arab Spring and the Israeli Enemy", by Abdulateef al Mulhim

October 09, 2012

When Everyone is Wrong: the War on Truth

I think I might have made reference before to a Beirut-based British journalist called Robert Fisk.  He writes for the British daily newspaper "The Independent", among others.  Over the years, I've considered him a bit or a left wing reactionary.  Also, I have to say I've also seen him lately as an increasingly rambling old man who's spent too much team with secular Arab "intellectuals", to the point that he's started writing quintessentially Arab op-eds, that leave you wondering "so what is your point, then?"  If you've ever had the dubious pleasure of reading a self-consciously "high-brow" editorial think-piece by a prominent Egyptian, you'll know what I mean (sorry Egyptians, but YOU know what I mean too!)

But he's back to journalism at the moment, and has been in Syria.  A couple of months ago, I asked readers what they'd like me to write about, and one of the few specific requests was for a viewpoint on what's happening in Syria.  I've been meaning to do so for ages, but either too busy or sometimes just too angry, to try to write something coherent.  However, reading Mr Fisk's article a few weeks ago reminded me.  And another one yesterday finally brought me to the keyboard.  So it's back to "ramblings that take three hours to read", as Mr Mutt put it!

Amidst all the undoubtedly awful, ill-conceived, ill-disciplined and excessive reactions that the Syrian Government has made since the insurgency began, they have finally done something sensible for their own international image: they've taken an overt critic of "the Assad regime" (his words not that long ago, and those of most Western media these days) and put him alongside Syrian army soldiers.  The "critic" in question, is Robert Fisk.  A man who has openly condemned Bashar as a "dictator", and made no equivocation over his support for any and all forces for "democracy" and freedom of speech around the region.  As the region in question is one where shooting oneself in the foot, in public, twice, is the public relations default for most governments, this is quite some progress from the Syrians. 

So back to the point: in this article, Fisk describes being allowed to wander alone with ordinary Syrian soldiers, as well as talk to their more on-message senior officers.  He was also allowed to speak alone to foreign terrorist prisoners.  If you're only ever heard about the "war" or "revolution" from Sky News, Fox, or indeed the increasingly sectarian mainstream Arab media, you might find reading this a surprise.  In short, this is one of the first major news editorials to say credibly, and first hand, that not every Syrian wants to have a sectarian civil war, and that much of it really is being fueled from outside.

Having applied, or been invited, to spend time in Syria as a well-known liberal foreign journalist, it's refreshing to hear a first-hand story put in such a balanced way.  Contrast quickly with some kevlar-wearing half-wit from Sky talking about "snipers" and "massacres" and "the Free Syrian Army", and it's easy to spot the difference between news that comes through a single interpreter (provided by an insurgent group), and news that comes from long-standing experience in the region, at least a basic understanding of Arabic, and talking to both sides.

I suspect the Syrians also chose Fisk to have this privileged access because of his anti-war articles about Iraq, and his generally hostile attitude to GCC "dictatorships", especially Saudi Arabia.  But their wisdom was in choosing a credible and openly cynical "Middle East expert" of many years' standing, who would neither be afraid to contradict the prevailing line, nor deviate from his contention that he didn't like the Syrian Government either.

So when Fisk saw elderly Syrian civilians coming out and hugging the army when they entered Aleppo, he wrote about it, and although he's second-guessed all the lines he's been given from Syrian generals etc., they've been smart enough to let him have unguarded conversations with ordinary soldiers, foreign jihadis recently arrested, and members of the public who have sympathies either way or neither.  Even though Fisk says he thinks the prisoners have been mistreated on arrest and quotes them saying so, and even though he's condemning the tactics of the Syrian army in Aleppo, in fact, because he's doing those things...his message that the Syrian goverment is correct in saying they're fighting a forieng-sponsored terrorists insurgency, at least to a point, is at last getting out. I hope it goes further, and with such credibility, as I've been ranting on about the same for a long time.

To me, this all looks too much like the Libya situation all over again: some genuine popular discontent, much of it based on rivalries and grievances with sectarian, regional, economic, and all sorts of other angles, directed against the government in protests -some peaceful, some not.  All of this inspired, of course, by the domino effect of the "Arab Spring".  The Syrian government react harshly, as usual, and just as Libya and others did.  But then, just like in Libya, and for what insane reason I still can't grasp entirely, the "West" not only jump on the bandwagon, but start sponsoring self-proclaimed opposition groups outside Syria.  They also encourage others to fund and arm insurgents (again just like in Libya), and end up backing Al Qaida against a sovereign (and secular) government.  Of course, we've seen brought home only last month how grateful extremist groups are a year later  for support from the "West".  As we now know, prior to the protests about the notorious internet movie - that just provided serendipitous cover on the day- a group planned the storming of the US Consulate in Benghazi, and the assassination of the visiting US Ambassador.

But still the war-mongering and "enemy of my enemy is my friend" fallacy, rumble on.  Thankfully, unlike with Libya, Russia and China have stood in the way of air strikes on the Syrian Government and military infrastructure.  No doubt they are well aware of how the Libyan experiment turned out so far - even though that is a super wealthy country that could theoretically spend its way out of social problems.  Russia also has a strategic base in Syria that might be at risk, but that's to over-simplify the point, I think.  Not only are China and Russia increasingly confident in this global economic turmoil, but are well aware that neither the American nor British public have any mind to see a war that involves spending more billions, and possibly having familiar pink faces dying in the sand.  And perhaps they can also see that this escapade has no good outcome among the variables.

So, unable to bomb another "dictator" directly, the process of equipping, training, inciting and cheerleading the armed terrorist insurgency in Syria continues.  The Saudis and Qataris provide the money and guns, and encourage the terrorists to go over there.  The Al Qaida types who were in Libya and Tunisia etc, now have a new place to go and shoot at people.  Desperate and despondent suicide bombers are recruited from Palestine, and mind-mangled Salafi converts from Turkey and anywhere else, are invited to the party.  Then alongside them, in an alliance that is so bizarre it's almost funny, British, American and French special forces (and Turkish, of course), provide intelligence, training and "non-lethal" equipment (actual guns come from Saudi, as I mentioned - "plausible deniability" is the term, I think), to anyone who's willing to shoot a Syrian policeman in the name of "freedom".

So, for the love of God, why?  Well, of course Iran has a good relationship with Syria.  Syria is run by non- Sunnis.  Iran is also already running the show in Iraq, through skilled manipulation of its Shia-majority politics.  Whereas Turkey is in NATO, and Sunni.  The GCC countries, aligned firmly with the West, are also run by Sunnis (one notable exception, of course!), and in at least two cases, Sunnis who are trying to control internal strife that they blame on Shia, and Iran.

Therefore, the "revolution" in Syria is a chance for both the West, and the Gulfie Salafis who believe they are already fighting Iran in Bahrain, and to a degree in Saudi Arabia, to knock over an Iranian ally.  The goal seems to be, then, to replace Bashar's minority Alawite govermnent,  with a Sunni who will be a Saudi ally against Iranian influence.

But of course, they're all idiots.  Even if this so-called "opposition" won, which it can't because it's not one force any more than the Libyan one was, and even if there emerged a new Sunni/Salafi led government hostile to Iran, such a government would not stay a Western ally for long.  It would be far more interested in fighting to liberate the Golan from Israel, than in fighting from a distance with Iran.  With Syria's own territory, and a newly-repaired common cause with the Palestinians against Israel that would be inevitable, there would be another great irony: just as Iran supports the Salafi-influenced Hamas in Palestine, a reparation, re-arming and re-calibrating of Iranian relations with the "new Syria", would happen quicker than you can say "f*ck Israel".

The fact is, in typically Middle Eastern fashion, that for all their rivalries and proxy wars, Saudi Arabia and Iran and their various acolytes, also have common cause from time to time.  If anything, Bashar with his "talk tough but do nothing" policy on Israel, is exactly the kind of secular stability that Israel and indeed the West, would wish for from a strategic point of view.  But a newly theocratic "jihadist" regime in Damascus is going to have to live up to its warlike credentials.  And that will mean less stability, a rapid cooling of relations with the West, a subsequent detachment of the GCC from their sectarian bedmates in fear of the terrorist hydra growing new heads, and ultimately, the headlong rush of the new Syrian government back into bed with Iran.  Not just a state that supports Hamas, but a state that becomes Hamas - secular causes of liberation from the Occupier, Sunni-Salafi religious labels, and money and support from Shia Iran.  No wonder nobody in Washington ever seems to understand what the hell is going on.

But they should.  In Libya now, there is an ex Al Qaida detainee in charge of the armed forces, such as they are, with most armed men who aren't AQ-affiliated cadres, still belonging to their local or tribal militia rather than under any government control.  There is still no prime minister or cabinet, because nobody will agree to be told what to do by a member of another faction.  The former ruler was buggered with a stick and then murdered in the street on live television, and his son is still being held by the Misrata militia rather than handed over to either a Libyan court or the ICJ, because they want to be paid $12 million "expenses" for him. The East of the country is trying to take over the oil export infrastructure and secede, raising the spectre again of civil war.  And in the mean time, as I mentioned, of course they murdered the US Ambassador to remind everyone whose friends are whose, and whose aren't.

So it's been a disaster, because all that talk of freedom and justice has just made Libya into a fragmented, unstable, terrorist-funding mess.  Yet now the idea of exporting that to Syria seems to be popular because western leaders still don't get it, and because both they and the Saudis, are more interested in poking Iran in the eye than in what actually happens to Syria.  It's pathetic, and it's criminal.  Starting civil wars deliberately, to my mind, is a far bigger crime than invading Iraq was supposed to be: at least at that point, the goal was supposed to be to make Iraq better, deal with a (overblown, as it turned out) threat, and do so by putting their own troops on the line to die, while asking the UN to ensure a better system for the future.  Of course, the justifications turned out to be empty - a shallow fabrication by cynical Iraqi exiles, designed to encourage eager and ignorant intelligence officials to rubber stamp a war that would deliver those same exiles into power and prestige.   The Iraqi "regime change" was a disaster too, but at least there were some good intentions initially - however misguided.

The only intentions here, though, are to break something.  Not to deal with a threat (phantom or real), not to liberate or re-construct, not even with some vague notion of "regional stability".  Just, like Libya, a simple convenient bogeyman.  In the case, a bogeyman who is also Iran's little friend.  Attacking Iran directly is to messy a prospect.  But undermining an Iranian ally is just fun.

So that's why i'm glad to hear an independent voice suggest that for all Syria's lies and infamies, not everything the Syrian Government says is a lie, and not all it does is infamous.  The world needs to know that the image of a cohesive and popular opposition ready to "liberate" the Syrian people, is a nonsense fabricated by the same kind of people who formed the Iraqi "opposition", and sold fanciful tales of WMD to the CIA.  The reality is that thousands of men in Syria are taking arms from the Gulf, training from the West, facilitation from Turkey, and shooting at the Government for any reason they like.  Some have been wronged, some have a cause, some are religious extremists, and some just want to fight.  Some of them are even Syrian.  But what this civil war isn't, is good versus bad.  

It's wrong from every possible angle.  Ask the confused, terrified people who hugged the familiar figures of government soldiers as they rolled into Aleppo.  Civil war might be exciting to watch, and support one team over another, in another country.  But imagine that the protesters in your country last year were being armed by, say, Russia or China.  That militiamen from other countries had come to fight for "your freedom" and were camping with their guns in your children's primary school or church, hoping to draw the police and army into a street battle.  Ask yourself how much you'd love to see that, however much you hate your government.

Yesterday, Mr Fisk wrote about another nonsense, the canard that Syria is now a mighty aggressor attacking poor old Turkey.  I love Turkey, actually, and its people.  But it's a highly-militarised country, once said to have the largest standing army in NATO, and several times the size of Syria, also richer and more powerful in every possible way.  Syrian soldiers might have been stupid to fire at insurgents over the border, and risking civilian lives is evil.  But so is peddling the myth that some murderous drooling beast in Damascus, some Disney-cartoon villain, is sitting stroking his beard and cackling, perhaps in a turban and curly slippers, plotting with his evil henchmen on how to murder some babies.  Turkey is smuggling arms and armed men into Syria to commit acts of terrorism.  That is a bad thing.  Read this for an interesting allegory.

So there's another epic rant over for now, and thanks for reading this far.  I'm not an apologist for despotism, Syria, Iran, or even Robert bloody Fisk.  But having seen a little of one, I maintain that War is Always the Greater Evil, and this one is no exception.

October 04, 2012

Short-Term Idiot Storage

Dear Readers,

Sorry it's been a while again; I'm still here.  I'm just a little busy in the life of my air-breathing alter ego, and TLS has not been able get much attention.  Anyway, I will get to the point:

Most of you will have noticed around town, the placement of some parking spaces, often (though sadly, not always) extra-wide, and clearly signed with a special symbol.  They are placed close to public buildings and leisure facilities. These idiot storage bays are originally designed to facilitate the easy entrance of people with physical disabilities, to said buildings.  However, the short-term idiot storage role is ever more popular.  The inability of people to walk more than ten yards to a mall, then several miles around it, is not unique to Oman (or, indeed, to Omanis), but it is a phenomenon that can be well-demonstrated here, at least.  In desperate circumstances, unable to find a space immediately adjacent to the building's door, the more self-important idiots often take the short -term storage option for their vehicles, in the disabled parking space.

Now, I've written before about the criminally insane lack of traffic education, regulation and enforcement in Oman and around the region.  I'm not alone in that observation, and thought-provoking pieces have appeared recently from two of my favourite co-bloggers, Oman's own Susan al Shahri, and my personal heroine, the extraordinary Saudi writer, Sabria Jawhar.  But today I thought I'd home in on this specific issue.  Firstly, because it epitomises the culture of self-important, amoral, cretinous, narrow-minded, utter dickishness that pervades the road-user experience (and others), in Oman.  But also because it's an issue about which someone has tried to do something, and I'd like to offer some support.


I stumbled upon this link from a friend of my real self, on Facebook.  It seems someone is encouraging the public to post pictures of disabled parking-space abusers, and as you'll see when you visit the site, I've found  quite a few recently, and shared.  The thing is, it's not hard to remember seeing someone parked in a disabled space.  But it's not something we always think about.  However, keeping your phone on the passenger seat and going for a little drive, it's amazing how many you see in a single day without even trying.  I've clocked six, from a couple of brief excursions, just in one day.  Essentially that means that most of the disabled parking bays I saw on a given day, were made unavailable to the intended user.

Perhaps it's better that this anonymous Facebook user and his/her public page, are not "naming and shaming" the car owners.  The page owner deleted my suggestion that people do just that.  Probably worried, and rightly, that writing someone's name on the internet without their permission, and in an accusatory context, might bring about some terrible attempt at retribution.  Still, it frustrates me a little, because if enough of us post these pictures, sooner or later we will all recognise a car that belongs to someone we know.

So that brings me neatly to my alternative suggestion: instead of posting the names of the owners of cars you recognise, just tell someone they know.  A relative.  A mutual friend.  Just nonchalantly.  Something like "Hey, Abu Shamandar, did you see Abu Koosa's car on the internet?  No?  You know, that site where they post pictures of people who steal the disabled parking bay.  Yeah, seriously, his car's posted up there, I mean, how embarrassing.  I didn't want to mention it to him; I mean, someone will have told him, right?"

That way no "private" information is shared.  No litigation is likely to result, and nobody will be assassinated on the way to the supermarket (I hope).  BUT we live where we live.  Imagine it's your car.  Imagine, just that one time, you were in a hurry.  You didn't want to, but you were late.  And you'd only be just two minutes, right?  Maybe you even left the engine running and the hazard lights on, right?  But it would have been a real pain to park on the other side of the building and walk/use the steps/get hot/whatever, right?  And then the next thing you know, your father/brother/uncle/cousin-you-never-liked-because-he's-smug-and-loves-showing-you-up, suddenly shows you a picture of your car on Facebook.  In a disabled space.  Posted by a complete stranger, who's telling the world that this car must be driven by an "a-hole".  Imagine that happened.

Family councils could be convened.  Stern words spoken.  What if it wasn't even your car, and the owner was getting the bad reputation?  Your dad!  Your WIFE!  Oh man.  Definitely going to pay for this one.  That's got to be better than a fine of OR7 any day.

The person who's started "No Disability - No Parking" has mentioned that there does not seem to be much interest from the ROP in going after these people, so clearly this campaign needs to take off a bit.  And it seems to me that getting as many up there as possible, forwarding this to all your friends, snapping away (when safe to do so of course...ahem!) and posting as often as you can, will help.  Most of all, when you finally see a car you know, say something.  All innocent-like.  "Uncle, I saw your car on Facebook...".  This is a society where you don't need to name.  Shame can find its own way, with a little help.

Now, please do visit the page (yes I know that's the third time I've linked to it, I'm making a point!), link to it from your own site, Tweet it, Facebook-share it, read it, and contribute to it.  In the last few days I've come up with a veritable rogues' gallery all by myself.  Imagine if you all did it too?

But in the mean time, some music.  OK, not music.  Some of idiot-parking's greatest hits, including disabled-bay-theft/idiot storage, but with some other fun driving habits too.  Yes, it's outside the main area of discussion, but let's look at some other symptoms of the illness, shall we?

1. The disabled bay "ultimate dick-move".  This ass-hat, has not only taken the disabled spot outside SABCO.  He's taken both disabled spots.  Because, hey, fuck disabled people, I've got a TRUCK!  Contender for the annual "Raisin Balls Award"(that I've just invented) for the most un-manly act of social ugliness .  Tip: no need.  There is no need to explain to anyone why this is a really, really revolting act of assholery.

2.  Caught in the act.  You can run, but you'd better be quicker than this.  Almost escaping the gimlet eye of The Linoleum Surfer.  But I got you. Tip: the disabled person who came to park in this spot doesn't know if you're going to be "only five minutes".  And even if he did, what's he supposed to do?  Wait in the middle of the road to check?  No, he has to drive away, unable to get out of his car.  You idiot.

3.  The "beta blocker".  Someone so selfish, so stupid, so utterly devoid of any sense of self-awareness or moral responsibility, they both block the busy road through the Qurm shopping area and block some poor guy's car.  But hey, his car is cheap, and yours is a fancy one.  It says so on the badge.  Pity I missed the full registration as I passed, but hey, someone knows this car...Tip: when you spend a lot of money on ostentatious displays like this, you choose to draw attention to yourself.  So would you rather that attention be drawn to your being a good human being, or to your being a dick?  Think about it.

4.  Is it true that all Porsche owners have small private parts?  Oh, no.  Maybe it's just this guy.   Yes, it's everybody's favourite: the "doubler".  The guy who takes two spaces because he thinks his car is worth double the car park average, and therefore he's entitled to be able to walk around it with his arms held out.  Maybe muttering "I'm the Pimp-King" to himself as he does so.  Of course, to the rest of us, he's a dick.  Somebody tell him, please.  Pity it's too blurry to see the registration, I should have got that.  
Oh, wait.  I did.  Tip: see 3.  And by the way, taking two spaces doesn't stop your car getting scratched.  Heck, when I park next to a "doubler", I try to make a point of bashing the door of my steam punk spaceship off his paintwork.  And vomiting through his sunroof (try it kids, it's fun!)

5.  The budget "doubler".  Hey, what if you want to be a dick but don't have a Porsche?  Well that's OK, because if you behave badly enough, you can even be a self-important jerk in....er....a Skoda...Tip: see above, plus, don't draw attention to yourself if people are also going to laugh at you.

There, that was fun, wasn't it?  So get joining in on those pictures of idiot-self-storage/disabled-bay-stealers, and make sure to forward the fun to your friends.  And in the mean time, one more to keep you thinking.  Alas, I really didn't get the number of this one - I was clearly trembling too much at the horror of it:

Speeding, no lights (that's my headlight reflecting), and followed a few hundred metres later, by an unnecessary and illegal u-turn.  Which involved stopping the traffic on green, as the turn had to take place from the middle lane.  Why?  Because it's a big articulated truck carrying fifty tons of gasoline!!!!  In stealth mode!  Drive carefully, I love you all!