Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dude, where’s my gas?

Sabria S. Jawhar

PRESIDENT Bush has again left Saudi Arabia empty-handed. Apparently he hasn’t learned from his previous trip that giving more oil to the United States is not the solution to deal with high gasoline prices there.
Bush’s first trip to meet with Saudi officials, which culminated into the first rejection, was embarrassing enough. But for an American president to come back yet again with hat in hand only emphasizes Bush’s weakness as a leader. His mission to persuade the Saudis to increase oil production was futile, and he knew it even before he boarded Air Force One.
The price of a barrel of crude oil is flirting with $128. The reasons for the soaring oil price are so complex that if you ask a hundred oil and economic experts worldwide about them, you probably will get just as many different answers.But experts do agree on one thing: Oil supplies are not the problem, and global demand is not so high as to force prices up.
David Kelly, chief market strategist at J.P. Morgan Funds, told the Washington Post earlier this month that the “growth in the world oil consumption is not that strong.”
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that Bush traveled all the way to Saudi Arabia on the false and simplistic assumption that dropping oil production quotas, or at least increasing production, would solve his problems.Business Week reported that US oil stockpiles had reached 33 million barrels since January 1, while the demand for gasoline had dropped by almost six percent.
US oil refineries are not even running at full capacity. In fact, they have dropped their utilization from 89 percent to 85 percent this year. Yet, the US continues to stockpile anywhere from 800,000 to 1.4 million barrels of gasoline, which demonstrates the decline in consumption.This is why there aren’t any long queues at US gas stations like they did in the 1970s.
The myth that China is responsible for a surge in demand is simply media speculation. The Energy Information Agency reports that “China’s oil consumption is expected to rise by 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2008, with Chinese oil imports in March showing an increase of 800,000 bpd from year-earlier levels.
So, China’s oil consumption is projected to remain relatively unchanged, which hardly translates into a surge of demand.Just before Bush’s trip to see Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, Ali Al-Naimi, the Kingdom’s Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, announced that oil production will be raised by 300,000 bpd, with most of the extra supplies going to the US.
But the Saudi government rejected Bush’s new pleas, noting that there is no demand to justify the increase, and that production increases will not bring gasoline prices down.Needless to say, Bush’s visit to Saudi Arabia was pointless. In effect, his visit wrongly sends a signal to the American public that Saudi Arabia alone is responsible for the high oil prices and denying oil to the US.
He apparently is forgetting that there are 12 other members in OPEC, all of whom have a say in setting prices and production.Instead of pointing fingers at Saudi Arabia – or other OPEC members, for that matter – perhaps the US ought to examine its own role in driving prices up.
The $10-a-barrel paradise of the late 1990s simply vaporized into double-digit high hell when the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps a single-front war in Afghanistan might have kept oil prices stable, but the US took its eyes off the ball and began its folly in Iraq. From that point on, oil prices began to spiral out of control.
Prices soared as the wars dragged on, pushing the US deeper and deeper into debt, and weakening the value of the US dollar in the process. The weak dollar, to which crude prices are pegged, is largely responsible for the high prices.
Along with a weakening dollar, consider a US Senate staff report published in June 2006, which stated that “there is substantial evidence that the large amount of speculation in the current market has significantly increased (oil) prices.”Unregulated commodities trading in energy futures has sparked a US congressional investigation.
A congressional report found that high oil prices were a result of billions of dollars in oil and natural gas contracts being placed at the Intercontinental Exchange, also known as ICE, which is not under the supervision of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission.
So if the US government is hot on dropping the price of a barrel of crude oil and wants to give American motorists relief at the gas pump, it should look into its own backyard before accusing OPEC of holding Americans hostage by refusing to increase production.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Hezbollah shooting itself in the foot

Sabria S. Jawhar

FOR those who have any doubts, Hezbollah’s attack in West Beirut could be a monumental disaster.
Over a couple of days Hezbollah forces seized control of a portion of the Lebanese capital in what appeared first to be a coup against the country’s weak government and passive military, but ended up simply being a show of force. On Saturday the Lebanese Army, which has been neutral in the conflict between Hezbollah and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government, agreed to help find a solution to the dispute between the two parties over Hezbollah’s private telephone network and the government’s attempt to fire the airport security chief, who is a key ally of Hezbollah.

I have mixed feelings about an army that refuses to bring law and order on the streets while gunmen from both sides kill dozens of people and destroy businesses. But I also admire the army’s restraint not to take sides and commit further bloodshed.But the disaster lies in Hezbollah’s show of strength. We’ve already witnessed Hezbollah’s power during the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon war in which it single-handedly fended off constant Israeli attacks. The organization scored a major long-term victory when the war ended in a stalemate and deeply embarrassed the Israeli government. I’m not sure what is the point of this latest adventure.

The problem is the unpredictability of the Bush administration and its strong desire to wage war on yet another Muslim country. President Bush has long rattled his saber against Iran and is hungry to bomb it out of existence. But the reality is that the US military is stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no matter how rosy Bush wants to paint a picture of the alleged success in his “surge,” the US military can’t go the distance on a third front in Iran. The truth is Iran can stand on its own against Bush.But Syria is another story.

Bush is looking for an excuse to attack Syria precisely because arms flood to Hezbollah from Syria and Iran. If attacking Iran is out of the question, why not its more vulnerable little brother, Syria?Bush has long supported Lebanon’s existing government under Siniora, and will support any democratically elected government as long as it serves as opposition to Hezbollah.What Hezbollah has done in this demonstration of power in West Beirut is turn its guns on the Lebanese instead of the Israelis. It broke its promise to the Lebanese people and in a very disturbing sign has sparked sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias. By fomenting sectarian violence in Lebanon, Hezbollah has only demonstrated that Muslims can’t work jointedly to put together a collaborative and cohesive government. We continue to look like idiots who can’t manage our own affairs.

This muscle-flexing by Hezbollah – muscles provided by Syria – will lead the Bush administration to conclude that containing Hezbollah can be achieved by containing Syria through military might.Most Middle East observers agree that events in Lebanon set the stage for what occurs in the rest of the region.
Sectarian violence has largely been confined to Iraq. But if it erupts in Lebanon, then there is a real danger that it can spread throughout the region. And if Sunnis and Shias fight among themselves, then Bush can slip through the back door of Syria and destroy its government, its military and its infrastructure. And we can kiss goodbye to any hope of the US military abandoning the Middle East any time in the next 20 years.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this latest round of violence is isolated, or worse, should not be taken seriously by the United States. Bush and his warmongers want us to bicker and fight among ourselves. It makes us weak. We are giving the United States the excuse they need to invade Syria.

In a response to Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s last week’s call for an urgent meeting, the Arab League ministers met in Cairo Sunday. They issued a statement making an “urgent call for an immediate halt to hostilities, a ceasefire” and “the withdrawal of all combatants from areas of tension to facilitate the army’s duties to maintain security and stop the bloodshed.”They also said that they will send a delegation to try to reach a settlement between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the government.

Considering the fact that Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the most influential Arab coutriers in the region, will not be represented by their delegations and judging from the results of past Arab summit meetings, I am not hopeful. When it comes to Lebanon’s internal politics, I don’t think that much will be accomplished unless Syria and Iran are contained and brought to the table of discussion. But the fact is, the region is boiling and we are running out of time.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Virtue Commission under the spotlight

Sabria S. Jawhar

THERE has been an extraordinary amount of coverage of the doings of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Most of it hasn’t been very positive.
There have been fatal car chases, couples taken out of coffee shops and raids ending in death. The media glare has put the Commission under a spotlight. And naturally, the Western media loves to report this stuff.
The latest incident that was reported by the media involved a Filipina nurse who was arrested with her Western male friend in a Riyadh restaurant for being in a state of “khulwa.”The man was hauled off and shackled while the woman was jailed and not a word from her has been heard since. Even the Philippines Embassy has no access to her.
Many men I know believe there is a need for the Commission in the Saudi society. There is a need to ensure that our morality is protected and it does our society good to have noble men remind us of our duties.
Women, on the other hand, have mixed feelings about the Commission.The Western man dining with his Filipina companion was humiliated by being picked up by his belt and thrust into a Commission vehicle while diners tried to look the other way. But at the end he was released and his female companion remains in custody.
We also saw a similar incident with a businesswoman arrested in Starbucks.But the problem is not just unequal justice for men and women, it’s the inconsistency in which the laws are applied and the procedure in which these laws are enforced.
Let’s consider the case of the Filipina nurse and her companion for a moment. I don’t know whether they are Muslims, but even if they are they come from a part of the world in which two unrelated people having dinner together is a normal thing. We often tell foreigners that they must respect the customs and religion of their host country, but by the same token we did not respect their sensibilities. We should ask ourselves even whether a state of “khulwa” applies to non-Muslims. And if it does, should it be applied throughout Saudi Arabia and not just parts of it.
I’m sorry to have to inform the Commission that in Jeddah many unrelated couples go out for dinner or a cup of coffee together. If being in a state of “khulwa” is an offense that requires arrest, is it serious enough to shackle the offenders? Is it serious enough to deny a foreigner access to his or her embassy? And if it is indeed a serious offense, does that justify making a very public arrest and humiliating the offenders in front of others?
We were promised not long ago that the Commission would implement a program to educate its members on how to deal with foreigners, how to make arrests and how to counsel those who need reminding of their pious duties. It appears that little has been accomplished.Commission members have complained recently about the bad publicity they have been getting and that their noble deeds go unrecognized.It seems to me that it cuts both ways. Recognition for good deeds usually follows the good deed.
I’m not sure carrying a man by his belt and then clamping leg irons on his ankles is necessarily a sensitive or noble thing to do.If the Commission hopes to minimize the negative publicity it has received in the past years or so, then perhaps its policies and procedures, especially when dealing with non-Muslims, should be clearly defined.The Commission announced recently that it has set up a media and public relations department to counter negative publicity. Instead of countering bad press, though, I hope the new department will allow the Commission to be more transparent and helpful to the media and to the public in general.