Saturday, January 31, 2009

Can Obama make good on his promises?

President Obama’s address to Arabs recently aired on Al-Arabiya sends a message that Muslims haven’t heard in a good eight years. He wants to rebuild relationships and forge ahead partnerships in which all of us have a common interest, not only in fighting terrorism but finding common ground among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

These are only words and only time will tell whether his actions back up his rhetoric. I hope that his interview signals a new and improved relationship and is the beginning of a long road to repair the damage wrought by the previous administration.

The message as I see it is that diplomacy is the cornerstone in establishing and maintaining any relationship. Obama is at least now engaging in honest dialogue and has already taken a different path in US foreign policy by agreeing to close Guantanamo Bay and secret torture sites around the world.

He is engaging his military leaders in Iraq on a more proactive and practical level and is taking the time to explain his goals.Rather than a stance of “you are with us or against us” or using meaningless phrases like “war on terror” he is speaking directly and frankly but also showing respect to the people who are counting on him to do the right thing.

It’s interesting that he chose Al-Arabiya to deliver his message to the Middle East. The television station is Saudi-owned in Dubai. And, of course, recent comments by King Abdullah and in the commentary written by Prince Turki Al-Faisal in the Financial Times, that the US must alter its full and unconditional support of Israel to bring about a long-overdue peace, may have prompted Obama to choose Al-Arabiya to send a direct message to Saudis in particular.

Obama could have chosen Al-Jazeera with its larger audience, but he risked alienating the conservative base that view Al-Jazeera as a mouthpiece for terrorists. And the US-owned Al-Hurra, long favored by the Bush administration to speak down to Arabs, would only be greeted with laughter since most of us have no confidence in the station’s credibility.

So Obama’s appearance on Al-Arabiya was carefully crafted for the right effect by striking just the right tone in the right environment and to the right people in the birthplace of Islam and the land of the two holy mosques. Now we are waiting for him to make good on his promise to visit a Muslim leader to further repair almost a decade of damage.

Ironically, US conservatives and more than a few prominent Arabs were not impressed by Obama’s extension of the olive branch. There is no love lost between Saudis and Al-Qaeda, especially after the bombings and murders of more than a 100 innocent people in the Kingdom between 2003 and 2006. And there is even less affection for the Taleban with its repugnant tactics to enforce their odd ideas of Islam.

Throwing acid in the faces of schoolgirls who want education or announcing on the radio the names of people they killed who committed some transgression against the Taleban regime does nothing but sicken most Muslims.Michael Goldfarb with the Weekly Standard complained that Obama’s language regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions was namby-pamby because Obama characterized Iran’s policy as “unhelpful” rather than just saying “no” to Iran.

Another observer noted that any tough assessment voiced by Obama to force Arabs to face their own problems and find their own solutions was absent.What I don’t understand is what is the point of alienating people you are supposed to help? Did Bush’s “tough” assessment help the Middle East with the Iraq invasion bring them closer to democracy? Are we on the road to solving these problems, which, in all honesty, have failed for much of the past 40 years due to an indifferent US government? Wouldn’t finding a peaceful solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of going to war in Iraq and talking tough to Iran have been a more productive way to helping us solve our regional problems?So now the US has a president who is talking with a much more pragmatic approach that I can only believe will be a world more productive than what we have seen so far.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Leading Arab unity

SOMETIMES great leaders demonstrate their ability to control a situation or ease the effects of a tragedy through an emotional speech or a well-timed and courageous decision that is unexpected but welcomed by his people.

Words, followed by a strong, decisive act, creates the biggest impression and makes an impact felt worldwide. There’s been a lot of rhetoric lately about Israel’s invasion of Gaza and the resulting deaths of more than 1,300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and the rubble made of their homes and businesses.

Yet this rhetoric – whether coming from world leaders or media commentators or the ubiquitous bloggers who have much to say but know little about the events on the ground – means little to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians suffering at the hands of an invading army.Saudis have always believed since the Crown Prince Abdullah became King in the summer of 2005 that he would achieve great things.

We have witnessed it with his open attitude towards women’s rights, the new projects to make Makkah and Madina the source of pride of every living Muslim around the world, and his desire to wean ourselves from oil revenue to create the six economic cities and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

This man has no fear of bringing in the best minds, no matter what their background or religion, from around the world to make Saudi Arabia a leader in technology.What Muslim leader can we name that has had an audience with the Pope? What Muslim leader can we name that has organized a religious inter-faith conference in an effort to bring peace between Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of other religions?

Now, in what many of us consider the darkest days Arabs have faced since the worst fighting in Iraq, King Abdullah, in a decisive and bold move, has pledged $1 billion this week towards the reconstruction of Gaza.Kuwait has followed with a $34 million donation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

The United Arab Emirates, which last year donated $280 million to the Palestinians, will now launch another aid project to build 1,300 homes in Gaza after the destruction caused by the Israelis.But there are two sides to the coin. With his generosity to the Palestinians, King Abdullah has a warning for the Israelis: Our patience is wearing thin and the 2002 Arab peace plan that guarantees peace if Israel returns to its 1967 borders will not remain on the table forever.

The Arab peace plan has gained currency over the past two years and even the Israelis have warmed up to the idea but have not acted or taken negotiations any further. Regrettably, rather than sit at the negotiations table with Arab leaders to hammer out a peace agreement, it chooses a full-scale assault on the Palestinian civilian population over the regrettable and ill-advised behavior of Hamas.

King Abdullah, in his wisdom, is laying out before the Israelis what everyone is sensing. Time is running out and the ability to settle once and for all the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, either through a two-state solution or some other means, is reaching a crisis point. If there ever was an event that creates a breaking point between lasting peace and more decades of violence, the Gaza invasion is it.

“Israel must understand that the choice between war and peace will not always stay open and that the Arab peace initiative that is on the table today will not remain there indefinitely,” King Abdullah told attendees at the Arab economic summit in Kuwait City.

But equally important to the Ummah in general and to Arabs in particular is that this historic event brings unity in the Arab world long beset by divisions. Especially telling in this new unity is the talks held between King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar Assad, which was also attended by the leaders of Qatar, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan.The Arab League Summit, I believe, will usher in a new era of hope.

If the Israelis accomplished anything with its invasion, it united Arab leaders to act boldly to finally put pressure on the Israelis to behave responsibly and in a controlled response to Hamas’ sporadic rocket attacks.

We have witnessed the dismal failure of the United States’ performance in achieving peace in the Middle East, and it has obviously been left to us to pick up the pieces. I have high hopes that the new US president will demonstrate the wherewithal to achieve peace than the previous administration, but at the end of the day it will be left to Arab leaders to find the solution.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

How about abaya allowances?

LIVING outside Saudi Arabia and only visiting twice a year, now that I am studying in the United Kingdom, I adapt and get used to many different things.

One of those new experiences is leaving my flat each day not wearing an abaya. Now that I have lived in Newcastle for more than a year, the thought of putting on the abaya rarely occurs to me. And when I pack my bags to visit my family in Madina and Jeddah I have to post a note on the mirror of my dresser telling me to pack it.

I made the mistake when I left for the UK in September 2007 to give away all my lovely abayas. I kept one for my visits, but when my maid saw it once she asked me if she could use it as a cleaning rag. Not being a dummy I took that to mean I should buy a new one.

So out to the store I went with my SR700 in my purse looking for something fashionable and to keep with my newly acquired social status as Dr. Jawhar in the making. After all, if I am going to earn a doctorate degree and become indispensable to Saudi Arabia then I must dress the part. But, oh, how sadly I was mistaken.

How sadly I am out of date. Imagine the humiliation when the salesman knew more about abaya styles than I. Imagine him telling me what the girls are wearing today. I felt like an old lady who hasn’t left the house in decade.And imagine, if you will, the shock I felt when I saw the price tags.

I can almost see the salesman smirking at me with my little SR700 clutched in my sweaty little hand.I discovered, not from my sisters, my nieces or even my mother, but from Mr. Sales Expert that abaya fashions have changed dramatically. Back in the olden days, say like 2005, you can have any abaya you wanted as long as it came in black.

If you were daring, perhaps a little embroidery on the sleeves. But that had to be in black as well. Now there are all sorts of glittery stuff: sequins, bits of red and blue, and clasps that looked like sapphire.And apparently those fashionable girls over in the UAE are teaching the Saudi girls a thing or two about how to wear one.

The hem drags on the ground and if you have it open to the knees, well, then you are the cat’s pajamas (a Western expression for looking cool).That’s all fine for the young girls and I want to be as fashionable as the teenager standing next to me at the Serafi Mall, but with such fashion comes a hefty price.

SR700 doesn’t do it anymore. SR1000 apparently buys me the cleaning rag my maid wants. So if I truly don’t want to embarrass myself in public with a plain grandmother-style abaya, then I must spend SR1,500 or SR2,000 to not only look respectable but not make a fool of myself.

I want to go to the mall looking my best, but I don’t want to go to the mall as poor as a basement mouse.Since I am required to wear the abaya, and you will never get any complaints from me about wearing one, the least the Saudi Government could do is subsidize the expense.

Saudis are generous by nature. They give aid to refugees. They build cultural and religious centers worldwide. They provide meaningful jobs to hundreds of thousands of Saudis. And they have sent me off to get a higher education.

The Saudi Government’s generosity can be limitless.So why not an abaya allowance? Why not chip in SR1,000 for my SR2,000 abaya. Saudis don’t want their national treasures walking around in dish rags. Don’t they want us to outshine those Emirati girls across the border? It doesn’t even have to be cash. A voucher will do? My name on a discount list at Sami’s Abaya Emporium on Tahlia Street will be just fine.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hillary, the key to negotiations

THIS just in: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has cancelled a visit to China so she can monitor Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip.

Stop the presses. The world is now safe for democracy. Freedom rings. Terrorists live in fear. Another couple hundred Palestinian civilians die.There is probably nothing lamer than the lame duck President Bush than the do-nothing, but all-seeing and all-knowing Condoleezza Rice.

If the international community bothered to check and see what Rice is doing these days, there will be nothing to see but an empty skirt. She has about as much bite in her diplomatic portfolio as a yapping, toothless poodle.

But one thing Rice does well is monitor things. She can stand on the sidelines and say startling – and, I suppose, “frank” – remarks like, “Frankly, it’s time for the establishment of a Palestinian state.” Or, “We frankly have better things to do than invite people to Annapolis for a photo op.” (As it turns out that’s all that Annapolis was, a photo op.) Or this gem: “Hamas has held the people of Gaza hostage ever since their illegal coup against the forces of (Palestinian Authority) President Mahmoud Abbas.”

Rice and Bush never had much interest in the Israeli-Palestinian affair, somehow believing the salvation of the Middle East could be found in conquering Iraq and Afghanistan. They never realized they lost sight of the fact that the key to maintaining a lasting peace in the Middle East is dealing with the daily horrors committed in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Rice showed about as much interest in dealing with the Palestinian issue as an 8-year-old forced by her parents to take piano lessons against her will.So in the end we are treated to empty statements, photo ops of Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and then the ridiculous Annapolis summit that nobody, including the Israelis and Palestinians, wanted to attend.

The result of Annapolis was the promise by the Bush administration that peace will be achieved by January 2009. That’s now and appears not to have worked out too well.To compound the problem the Bush administration last week blocked approval of a United Nations Security Council statement calling for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel and expressing concern at the escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas.

It seems that the only thing the US can do effectively is bully the Security Council, which plays the weak sister in the international community. Imagine if Rice had the foresight to use those bullying tactics with another set of weaklings: Olmert and Abbas.Rice has insisted over the past couple of years to bring together Olmert and Abbas, who are both in the twilight of their careers and have done virtually nothing to shore up their poor political standing by hammering out a peace agreement.

If these two men had the strength, under the guiding and principled hand of a competent secretary of state, then Hamas could have been pacified and the disaster we see today could very well have been averted.While making predictions is a dangerous business for a journalist’s reputation, I will go out on a limb and predict that Hillary Clinton, President-elect Obama’s choice for Rice’s replacement, will do a heck of a lot better than Rice.

Clinton is everything Rice is not. She’s a forceful, downright negotiator who can brawl with the best of any diplomat, whether it’s in the mould of Jimmy Carter or the rather nasty former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton. She’s nobody’s fool.Yes, she has set off alarm bells in the Middle East with her unwavering support of Israel and that bit of nonsense of bombing Iran if it misbehaved, but that is presidential campaign talk.

That’s showmanship. After all, Clinton wanted to be president.Well, now with that out of the way she answers not to herself or to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which shames American politicians into submission, but to Mr. Obama. And if there is anybody that can whip Olmert, Abbas or anyone else into shape it’s her.Yet I can’t be too optimistic.

Clearly, Israel is not interested in peace. It’s not interested in lifting its devastating blockade. And Hamas is not interested in ceasing its rocket attacks. Clinton has her work cut out for her. But let’s hope she demonstrates more imagination than Rice, who prefers to watch from the sidelines.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Israel’s gangster credo

IT’s difficult to fathom just what Israel hopes to accomplish with their penchant for overkill by taking out an outrageous number of civilians while trying to kill Hamas leaders in this latest round of violence.

Hamas recognizes that it’s unlikely that Israel can do much to weaken its leadership so it does its best to provoke its enemies, thereby stoking anger in the region and helping shift international sympathy from Israel to the Palestinians. And Israel does itself no favors by adopting the American gangster credo that if your opponent attacks you with a rock, you respond with a knife, and if he comes at you with a knife, then you use a gun.

The result is one bloody mess. Not so much causing the deaths of Hamas leaders or Israeli soldiers but of Palestinian civilians.Typically there is much criticism of Hamas, some of it justified, some of it not. In the halls of the American Congress, where representatives of the American public see the world largely in black and white, elected officials believe Israel has the right to protect itself from attacks, although how one justifies the indiscriminate killing of women and children is beyond me.

But let’s set aside our emotions for a moment and quit dredging up the latest Internet photos of dead children being pulled from the rubble of the Gaza Strip and examine a bit more dispassionately what has happened.

The Egyptian-brokered truce between Israel and Hamas last June 19 was flawed from the beginning and only delayed the inevitable violence. The truce began to fall apart in November when Israeli soldiers conducted a raid in Gaza.

Hamas predictably responded with rocket fire.But that was only the result of a hostile attitude that both sides shared since June. Allegations of bad faith were lobbed back and forth. The Israelis claimed that Hamas never entirely stopped its missile attacks, while Hamas claimed rightly that food, medical supplies and other goods from Israel were never delivered to the Gaza Strip in numbers that were promised.And here lies the crux of the issue at hand.

Israel has effectively punished the civilian population of 1.5 million people for the perceived sins of Hamas. It has denied them adequate food, medical care and enough movement to conduct business. It has, with impunity, strangled the local economy to the point that malnutrition, poor medical care and despair has done the job in a much more subtle way than bullets and bombs could ever accomplish.

It’s almost diabolical in the way that Israel has curried international favor while at the same time systematically reducing an entire population to wretched beggars. It’s a silent form of terrorism that doesn’t garner headlines or shouts of outrage from elected officials. In short, the Israelis have waged a much more effective campaign as silent killers than Hamas with its bombastic statements and weak rocket attacks.

We have reached this sorry state for a variety of reasons. The language in the agreement for the cease-fire was muddled and made no one happy. Israel is in the midst of an election. The last thing Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and leader of the centrist Kadima party, and Ehud Barak, the defense minister and leader of the Labour party, both of whom are facing the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu, need is to look weak.

There is also much to make up for following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah debacle in which Hezbollah embarrassed the Israeli military. This time around, Israel has been carefully planning its attacks on the Gaza Strip and is determined not to fail.But equally important in this farce is the failure of the Bush administration to negotiate a lasting peace. We have seen that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is out of her depth and should return to academia as soon as possible.

Barack Obama is an unknown and Rice’s chosen successor, Hillary Clinton, makes Arabs nervous with her pro-Israeli positions. But at the end of the day she is Obama’s appointee and Obama has a tendency to view the big picture in this ongoing conflict. It gives Palestinians a ray of hope that Bush could never offer.

Unfortunately, this latest round of violence comes at the worst time. Obama has pointed out that there can only be one US president, and that president happens still to be Bush. Given this power vacuum until Jan. 20, civilians in the Gaza Strip can only wait and hope that Israeli bombs fall elsewhere.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was on an Arabic news show last week in which he basically bragged that Israel is the biggest, baddest and most powerful country in the region and it won’t hesitate to use its might to protect itself.

Well, my question is if Israel is indeed the biggest and most powerful country in the Middle East, why doesn’t it take the high road and expend a lot of that negative energy into something positive, like sparing the lives of innocents and demanding the resumption of peace talks with Hamas.The sad fact is the Gaza Strip’s civilians are simply pawns in a power struggle that should have ended long ago. And the price will be more blood.