Middle East

External Brain

America’s Kingdom

I finally got around to this book which I had wanted to read ever since the spirited discussion of it on the short-lived Qahwa Sada. It’s a history of ARAMCO and US-Saudi relations between the 1930s and mid-60s that aims to debunk myths that the oil company was a benevolent, modernizing actor in the kingdom that provided its workers better conditions than other mining operations in contemporary Iran, Venezuela, etc.

Robert Vitalis re-trained himself in African American Studies to better advance the book’s main argument, that ARAMCO brought 1930s America’s Jim Crow social and labor practices with it when it opened its drilling operations on Saudi Arabia’s east coast.  In place of the standard narrative of ARAMCO bringing the kingdom into the modern world, he argues that progressive Saudis, whose writings he likens to Booker T Washington, had to drag the oil company into the 20th century through a series of strikes and labor actions that had previously been minimized or unreported.

He digs up a ton of great stuff on the gaggle of Arabist-spies that ARAMCO employed in its government affairs shop ready to turn any given Saudi royal from a ‘forward-looking reformer’ to a ‘profligate drunk’ and back again depending on how the political winds were blowing.

Very well-written book.  It makes other books on Saudi read like the Hardy Boys, and is also a very important historical reference point for current labor practices in the Gulf.


Middle East

My new article on Egypt-Iran film controversy

There have been quite a few interesting developments in the Egypt-Iran diplomatic tiff stemming from “Execution of the Pharaoh”:

Once the film hit YouTube it was quickly discovered to be little more than a series of clips pinched from an older Al-Jazeera documentary. So in addition to being tedious, the Iranian group behind the film, the Committee for Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, are also plagiarists. It seems they just changed the name and slapped on a dedication to Eslamboli.

Secondly, the group behind the film is now announcing that their site has been banned inside Iran. I think this shows how embarrassing the episode for Iran has been. Also last week, Iranian diplomats at the interest section in Cairo have revealed and offer they made to open a branch of Al-Azhar University in Tehran in an effort to improve Sunni-Shia understanding. It seems like what the Iranians thought to be a charm offensive backfired, and ended up upsetting the Egyptians even more.

I’d been following all these developments but not posting on them because I was doing a freelance article on the subject – cant give away all my golden analysis for free. The piece for ISN Security Watch is now online here. I’d love to hear what you think.

In other news, my family has just purchased a Nintendo Wii. Needless to say posting will be light.

UPDATE: article link was broken due to a site re-design over at ISN.  The new link is now up.

Middle East

Smoking in the pool

she kind of looked like this (in her imagination)
she kind of looked like this (in her imagination)

In Egypt you can get pretty much anything delivered.   I’ve had a 10 LE bottle of vegetable oil delivered to my apartment, and know people who will routinely call out for a single pack of cigarettes or a coke.  But what I saw today was on a different level.

I was about to get in the pool at my gym when I notice an attendant scurry over to a woman standing in the water.  He takes a cigarette from her and carefully carries it over to her friend who is lounging on the pool deck, waits while she takes a single drag,  and then delivers it back to the one in the water.

The amazing thing was how casual and routine the whole operation seemed.   It was only when I was swimming and turning it over in my mind that I grasped the full absurdity of the situation.

The only mitigating factor I could possibly think of would be that it was her last cigarette.  But this clearly wasnt the case because I could smell her chain smoking for the remainder of my swim.

Also, it’s still Ramadan and this was about 30 minutes before Iftar (when people who are fasting can start smoking again).  I just hope the pool guy wasn’t a smoker.  In any case, he needs to start reading some more of this guy.

Middle East

Eissa pardon is no victory for press freedom

One of my first memories from moving to Cairo in August of last year was hearing the rumors swirling that Hosni Mubarak had died or was seriously ill, which were subsequently discussed in the local independent press.   Ash-Shakkak has the English translation of the offending article from ad-Dostour, but here’s a taste:


The president in Egypt is a god and gods don’t get sick. Thus, President Mubarak, those surrounding him, and the hypocrites hide his illness and leave the country prey to rumors. It is not a serious illness. It’s just old age. But the Egyptian people are entitled to know if the president is down with something as minor as the flu.

In retaliation, several paper editors were sued by nominally private individuals, who accused them of causing capital flight and undermining the symbols [i.e. the president] of the state.  This resulted in a year-long legal drama that ended yesterday, when Mubarak gave ad-Dostour’s editor, Ibrahim Eissa, a presidential pardon, forgiving the two month sentence finally issued by the appeals court.

The way I see it, the pardon is neither a government climbdown on press freedom nor a reaction to pressure – although there was more of that in Eissa’s case than others.   Rather, the state wins and independent press loses regardless of whether he spends his two months in jail.

The point was not so much that a critic be punished, but that the red line around discussion of Mubarak’s health be touched up.   This had already been made abundantly clear over the twelve-month long highly public trial and appeals process, and having a prominent journalist sitting in jail penning witty columns  would only invite further scrutiny and pressure.

In fact, the government may have achieved, or thought it was achieving, a PR victory through the pardon, which I first heard about from a ‘breaking news’ text message sent by the state news agency (the subscription to these costs about 1/5 the price of the al-Jazeera ones).

For every “plucky and indefatigable” Eissa, there are many more journalists or activists who aren’t as witty, connected, or lucky who don’t get attention, and more articles not written and things not said.

This can’t be bad for Ad-Dustour’s sales though.   I had to go to four different newsstands this morning to find one that hadn’t sold out.

Middle East

UAE: Media hub strategy

I’m reproducing a brief I wrote a few months back for Oxford Analytica about the media hub model in the UAE.  At the time Abu Dhabi hadn’t formally launched its big media hub to compete with Dubai Media City, but I think that underscores even more the Dubai-Abu Dhabi rivalry/emulation I touched on in the briefing.  Enjoy:

United Arab Emirates: Media hub strategy bears fruit

EVENT: A new federal media law scrapping jail terms for press violations is nearing approval.

SIGNIFICANCE: The law formalises a decree issued last year by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. The United Arab Emirates is realising gains from a decade of investments aimed at developing into a global media hub.

ANALYSIS: The new law is part of a decade-long effort to boost the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) domestic media production and attract foreign media firms. Dubai is now the venue of choice for global media companies seeking a foothold in the region. Sponsoring and advertising in these media advance its strategic goals of becoming a world business and tourism destination (see UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Disaffected threaten Dubai model – May 8, 2008).

Its status as the physical base for media outlets also gives the state coercive political power over content, which it uses on occasion. This is a major success for the UAE’s state-driven development model, and has prompted the wealthier emirate of Abu Dhabi to take similar steps to centralise and promote media. A secondary goal of the media drive is to foster a unified Emirati identity and to strengthen civil society. However, this is hampered by conservative elites and a near total dependence on foreign workers.


Response to Martin Kramer on Ann Lambton

Martin Kramer had a post today on the MESH blog at Harvard pointing out that all the Ann Lambton obits (like this one) glossed over her advisory role in the 1953 US-British coup. A valid and timely point to make, but I think he went a bit too far in saying that Western scholars are shut out from Iran, and that this is because the government is afraid of Westerners exposing the weakness of the regime. With typos corrected, here’s my reply:

In his post today, Martin Kramer is right to highlight Ann Lambton’s role in the Mosaddeq coup. But as an American orientalist who traveled to Iran in April, I must push back on his assertion that “The present incumbents in power in Iran are careful to shut out Western Orientalists, not because they fear the situation in Iran will be misrepresented but because it might be accurately represented, exposing the weaknesses of their regime.”

A couple of points:

1. “Western Orientalists” travel to Iran frequently. As a student for the last two years in a UK university, I personally know British, Canadian, German, Irish, and Italian orientalists who were able to obtain visas for travel or study.

2. A better bet would have been saying that American orientalists cannot travel to Iran. This is closer to the truth, but still not totally there. I recently obtained a visa to travel to Iran for an academic conference, and I am aware of several other cases where American Iran specialists and students of Persian have been granted visas. To be fair, I have had my fair share of visa rejections, but the situation is more fluid than a simple visa ban on Americans or American scholars.

3. So why can other Westerners travel to Iran more freely than Americans? I think the Iranian government’s concern is not that Americans will learn the truth about the regime, but, rather, the perception that overthrowing the Iranian government is a goal of American foreign policy. I am aware that the official position as articulated in US strategy documents is “change in regime behavior.” Yet with the millions earmarked to promote democracy in Iran, American Persian broadcasting highlighting “color revolutions” and the allegations swirling about US covert funding for dissident groups, you can bet that it doesn’t seem that way from Tehran.