Tuesday, July 27, 2010

War is tedious business By: Claude Salhani

IT’S about time that the antagonists in the Middle East begin growing up. With their rich history the peoples of the Middle East gave the world much of today’s basic needs, from algebra to zoology, allowing modern society to function as it does. Yet despite this wonderful past filled with glory and stories of grandeur, what will these peoples leave as a legacy to their children?

“A good politician thinks about the future of his children and grandchildren and what sort of legacy he will leave behind him for them,” said Avishay Braverman, Israel’s minister of minority affairs during a recent meeting in Washington, DC. That is precisely dead on target, so to say. But you rarely find that sort of thinking in the region where hate seems to be the favorite pastime of most actors involved in the conflict. Israeli leaders for example complain that Palestinian textbooks used by children in Gaza and the West Bank continues to promote violence and incite hatred of the Jews among Palestinian children. That may well be the case and while by no means

justifying such despicable behaviour as to instill hatred in the minds of young people, many Israelis continue to look down on Palestinians as though they belong to some form of sub-human group.

That same thought about caring for our children struck me while reviewing the recent Israeli film called ‘Lebanon’ that tells the story of a tank unit going into south Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The film shows life inside a tank, in the small compartment where a three-man crew live, sleep and work, filled with fumes of diesel oil, high explosive ammunition, grime and perpetual fear. And the thought crossed my mind: that regardless of what atrocities these young men commit in the name of their beliefs, of God and country, the real guilty parties are the older men who send their children to battle in this manner.

The Middle East conflict is now 60-plus years old and it’s about time that the nations (and nations to be) in this dispute begin growing up somewhat. Time to take a reality check and to accept the facts as they are. Israel is a reality. Many in the region may not like that but those who remain the most concerned by the Middle East conflict, the Palestinians, have come to grip with that and they realise that Israel must be engaged in dialogue rather than conflict. Other members of the so-called frontline states, Egypt and Jordan have also come to accept Israel. Indeed, rather than simply sign a peace treaty these two Arab states have gone a step further, they went ahead and established full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, exchanging ambassadors and establishing diplomatic legations in each other’s countries.

Ironically, today it is the states that are least concerned with the Palestinian-Israeli issue that are becoming the most belligerent towards Israel, as with Turkey and Iran. It would greatly benefit the countries concerned to look at the European Union as an example of how to conduct foreign policy and avoid conflict.

After centuries of wars that have devastated the continent the Europeans realised that continued confrontation is simply not going to make life better for any of their citizens. The EU was founded on the basis of an economic agreement that would give the member states financial incentives to avoid war. Today it is simply unimaginable for Germany and France to go to war as it is equally unthinkable for say Austria to try and conquer parts of Hungary. The European states have reached maturity in that respect. Isn’t it about time that those involved in the Middle East conflict did the same?

Time will tell and history will be the judge. But so long as the leaders of the Middle East continue to ignore the plight of their children and grandchildren, it is the leadership who remain the real guilty parties. During a radio interview some years ago I was asked if I thought there would ever be real peace between the Arabs and the Israelis; and I was told to answer in less that 30 seconds, before the next commercial break.

I replied that I thought there would be peace the day the antagonist in the region would develop greater love for their children than the hate they have for their enemies. Only then would young men and women be sent to fight and die in horrible conditions.

Claude Salhani is a veteran Arab political analyst specialising in the Middle East and terrorism

Sudden death, gradual justice By: M J Akbar

IT would be odd, and wholly unacceptable, if secularism were to be defined by the fate of a gangster in Gujarat. At stake in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case is not the religion of the individual, or his preferred means of sustenance, but the rule of law.

It was in pursuit of this principle that the Supreme Court handed over investigation of his death in a fake encounter, and the subsequent murder of Sohrabuddin’s wife Kauserbi, to the CBI on January 13, 2010. The Gujarat government effectively lost its credibility when it admitted in December 2006 that Sohrabuddin had been killed in a fake encounter on November 26, 2005, and that his wife had been murdered two days later.

The Supreme Court has taken a stand that should terrify not just the Gujarat government, but any administration. It has asserted that it is the court’s business to determine guilt and innocence, and not that of the police. The truth is that for at least two decades, and in some places for longer than that, security forces have used fake encounters as the easy option in their war against crime and anti-national terrorism. This is not unique to Gujarat.

We do not know how many innocents have been killed in Mumbai in the process of tackling the renowned underworld of the city. Police officers who shot first and refused to answer questions later have been glamourised as heroes, not only by the Maharashtra government, but also by Bollywood.

Bollywood intervened only because this practice has the support of many citizens, for reasons that might not be palatable to either the police or the people. We no longer believe that crime, let alone anti-national terrorism, can be controlled through legitimate means, because corruption has made large parts of the police-judiciary system impotent. Now comes the difficult part: we citizens are partners in crime as well, since we buy products that the underworld sells. Every user of drugs and narcotics in Mumbai is complicit in corruption, because the underworld would not survive without this trade. Rich Mumbaikars who need a hashish puff to keep cool during their fancy parties might want to think before they smoke. Our selfish self wants a level of crime, which sustains our weakness, and the elimination of criminals who threaten our comfort.

Amit Shah cannot escape, no matter how smart a politician he might be. The wheels of Indian justice may take their time, but when they move they grind with persistence. Shah will attempt to exploit contradictions in the public mind, for there will be those who support “killer-solutions”, but his case is badly tarred by the accusation that he took money from businessmen in the larger transactions surrounding this case. Shah, and Narendra Modi, will learn that the circumference of power is wider than the political world. This episode will also interfere with Modi’s hopes of becoming his party’s candidate for Prime Minister, which may not displease everyone in his party.

But surely accountability cannot be limited to just one case in one state. Who is responsible for the death of Rajkumar Cherukuri Azad, the 55-year-old Naxalite leader who was shot dead by the Andhra police in Adilabad district? Was this an “encounter” or a “fake encounter”? Do the police have evidence of a Naxal attack, to which they were responding? Or did they track Azad on orders from Delhi or Hyderabad, and then murder him?

There is a political dimension to Azad’s death, for he was the prospective bridge between the government and the Naxalite movement for any negotiations. Did Delhi want him eliminated because the Home ministry had decided that it would kill its way through the Naxal upsurge, and its offer of talks was not serious? Intermediaries like Swami Agnivesh have suggested as much. Is this the moment when Swami Agnivesh should move a writ petition in the Supreme Court, arguing that the Andhra police, being complicit in the death, will make no effort to try and answer these questions?

It is perhaps easier to pose questions than to find answers since we are dealing with a prickly proposition: who is an enemy of state? There is no confusion about a Kasab and the many thousands who have been sent across an international border to damage our country. The problem gets more opaque for the Supreme Court when categories change. The court has taken a courageous decision in ruling that a man like Sohrabuddin, who has killed gangsters to spread an extortion racket and has employees armed with automatic firearms, cannot face an arbitrary death squad. Does Azad, in the opinion of the court, deserve to be killed without a trial because certain persons in Andhra Pradesh and Delhi have decided that this is how it should be?

The Supreme Court is not a political party. It cannot vary its principles to suit pragmatic needs.
M J Akbar is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi. For comments, write to opinion@khaleejtimes.com

How about banking with our most valuable asset? By: Iman Kurdi

They say the best ideas are the simplest. What could be simpler than a time-based barter? When I first heard of the concept of a time bank a few years ago, I thought what a throwback to primitive times.

It struck me as a left-wing, almost communist idea, that was not only utopic but ultimately pointless. As a good capitalist, I thought why take money out of the equation when it is the most efficient way to run a market. But last week I saw a TV programme about a time bank in Chile and I was dazzled by the beauty of this simple idea put in action.

Here is the basic principle. I join a community of people who have signed on to a timebank. I list all the services I could offer to do for other people and the services I seek. Then I give an English lesson to A, who gives me an hour credit, with which I pay B to vacuum my apartment, in turn C uses my hour credit to have D teach her how to use a programme on her computer, which enables D to ask E to take his children to the park for an hour, and so on...

It is a mechanism that facilitates barter. Whereas straight barter is common and easy: I do this for you, you do this for me, time banks enable sophisticated and complex barter to take place, a little bit like money does. So why not just use money?

We all have skills that could help other people. Some of these skills we could sell for money but many of these skills are soft skills that are not easily priced, sold and marketed. Similarly we all need help and have a wishlist of things we would like to do. Time banks facilitate this exchange in a way that money is not able to do. It may seem wrong that an accountant should give an hour of her time giving financial advice, while she spends an hour of her time getting a dance lesson, when the first she could charge $100 for and the second she could get for $50, but a time bank is not a commercial enterprise, it is a tool for community adhesion.

Besides, the great thing about a time bank is that it takes money out of the equation. Time becomes a currency in its own right. It’s not what you do for someone but how much time it takes that is the criterion. It is egalitarian: everyone’s time is equal.

What converted me to the idea was not the theory but the reality of seeing it in action. It quite literally changes peoples lives. In the TV programme, a retired woman spoke of how using up her free time to help other people had enabled her to do things she only dreamt of doing previously. It also enriched her life by enabling her to fill her time with activities that she enjoyed, some of which she was paid for and some of which she paid for.

Imagine an apartment block as a community. On the third floor, Reema, an elderly Lebanese lady wishes someone could drive her to the supermarket once a week. She would also like someone to wire up her new television set. On the second floor, Ella wishes someone could teach her how to make kibbeh. She would also like someone to take her children to the park for an hour once a week. On the first floor, Sam, wishes someone could cook him dinner every now and then. He also would like Arabic lessons. In this community of just three people, you can see how a time bank could enable all three members to get what they want. Reema could teach Ella how to make Kibbeh, Sam could take Reema to the supermarket, Ella could cook for Sam, and so on... If you extrapolate that to a community of 300 you see the infinite possibilities it opens up.

What I like best about this is that it enables people to ask for help without feeling indebted. Think of Reema the elderly Lebanese lady. Yes, her neighbours could and should help her out but it is so much nicer for her to feel that she need not ask for favours. It is also highly rewarding to know that she has skills that are valuable to other people.

With modern technology time banks are easy to set up and run. They can be run via a web-site, where members are listed and transactions are done by e-mail and e-accounting. Or they can be run the old fashioned way, like the time bank I saw in Chile, where members have cheque books and sign cheques of time which they deposit into a time bank account. Either way time banks enables people in communities to help each other in a way that is equitable and easy. Time is our most valuable asset. Why not use it well.

Iman Kurdi is an Arab writer based in Nice, France. For comments, write to opinion@khaleejtimes.com

Tackling the climate killer By: Sasha Chavkin

In 2008, Margaret Okeke awoke one July morning to find the floor of her home sinking beneath her feet. During the night, heavy rains had flooded the gorge near her family’s compound.

Washing away soil along their path, the waters rapidly widened the bottom of the ravine – until the hillside where Okeke lived suddenly dropped out from beneath.

Okeke’s family – her husband, eight children, a co-wife and the co-wife’s six children – were left with nowhere to go.

The family’s struggle for refuge following the disaster is shared by millions worldwide displaced by changes in the environment, varying from dramatic events such as floods and erosion to gradual desertification caused by decreasing rainfall. The plight of these environmental migrants – defined by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) as persons who are obliged to leave their homes by “sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions” – represents a rapidly growing humanitarian and political dilemma.

In 2005, United Nations researchers estimated that by this year there would be 50 million environmental migrants worldwide, and the IOM projects the number will reach 200 million by 2050. After their compound was destroyed, the Okeke family headed to the local primary school for shelter, but the local government soon turned them away.

Okeke now rents a small plot of land together with six of her children in the neighbouring village of Agbiliba, also in Nigeria’s southeastern Anambra state. She parted ways with the co-wife and her children after they moved to a nearby city.

Less than a year after the disaster, her husband, Edward Okeke Okonta, died of a heart attack, leaving the family without a provider or an inheritance. The one-time owner of fields of cocoa yam, cassava and maize was buried beneath a small heap of dirt in their host community’s compound. Okeke had to beg her hosts to provide space for his grave.

The leading driver of environmental migration is climate change. Desertification, rising sea levels and extreme rainfall events are increasing in severity and scale, threatening unprecedented numbers of homes and livelihoods. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that episodes of extreme rainfall had become more frequent in his area, and Oliver Ujah, an environmental researcher at the African Institute for Applied Economics and a native of southeast Nigeria, expects that “the menace of flooding will continue to exacerbate.”

The magnitude of environmental displacement is matched by the invisible status of those affected. Environmental migrants have no recognised rights, legal classification or institutions to support them, and many suffer extreme poverty even before they are displaced. The result is a rapidly growing population with nowhere to go, while governments remain blind to their struggles.

“I don’t believe that when natural forces destroy your home that you have a right against anybody,” said Michael Egbebike, commissioner of the environment in Anambra, Okeke’s home state. He noted, “I’m not sure if I know of anybody that has been displaced.”

Patricia Ndum, a lifelong resident of Isiakpuenu, and other community elders claim that more than 60 families have been displaced since 1974, when the first major erosion incident created the gully gradually consuming their village. “We are begging for government to give us another site for people to relocate,” said Samuel Ezeokafor, a former Isiakpuenu resident who lost his home to erosion. But following the 2008 episode that displaced 11 families including Okeke’s, he said state assistance was limited to delivery of food and clothing. Ezeokafor, displaced from Isiakpuenu in 1986, said that all the government provided to his family then was mosquito nets.

Poor countries like Nigeria experience the vast majority of displacement linked to climate change, although climate change is primarily caused by centuries of carbon emissions by the world’s leading industrialised powers. Regions facing greatest impacts include river deltas such as the Ganges in Bangladesh and the Mekong in Vietnam, dry areas such as the Sahel in West Africa, and small island states such as the Maldives and Tuvalu. Most environmental migrants relocate within the borders of their home states, ensuring that they don’t attain refugee status.

Displaced populations threaten political stability in regions that already face severe challenges in governance. The gravity of the risks posed by environmental displacement has sparked calls for an international response. Without appropriate policy action, Koko Warner, head of the Environmental Migration Section at the United Nations University, anticipates a humanitarian crisis in coming decades.

Perhaps the most well-known mechanism for addressing the needs of environmental migrants is the UN climate change convention. The initial convention – approved by all leading developed nations, unlike follow-ups such as the Kyoto Protocol – commits wealthy countries to assisting vulnerable developing countries with the costs of adapting to climate change.

The disappointing Copenhagen negotiations of December 2009 included a provision that could set this process in motion. Buried in a draft accord reached by a key working group is language calling on nations to adopt “measures to enhance understanding and cooperation related to national, regional and international climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation.”

The accord calls on developed countries to provide financial support for this process in the developing world. Activists call for a new international convention to address the problem directly. David Hodgkinson, an Australian lawyer who has taken up the cause of environmental migrants, founded the group “A Convention for Persons Displaced by Climate Change.”

As proposed by Hodgkinson, the convention would operate through request by state signatories; to receive aid, a nation would voluntarily seek en masse designation of those displaced by climate change. Hodgkinson argues that the UN climate accord lacks the institutional bodies to serve displaced persons effectively and has too much political baggage to gain necessary levels of state support. “We’re concerned with providing an instrument that we believe can be accepted by states,” said Hodgkinson.

But from pledges for UN financing to the creation of a new convention, any such international agreement remains distant on the horizon. For the people of Isiakpuenu and countless other communities, the pace of environmental change outstrips the pace of official response. As erosion wears away the land, remaining residents face the risk that their existence will become invisible – vanishing through the land’s gaping cracks and in the eyes of laws and institutions that deny their plight. At his office in Anambra’s capital city of Awka, Commissioner Egbebike said that the government provides for those whose lives are disrupted in the immediate aftermath of flooding and erosion, preventing any long-term displacement. “Maybe once in a while we might get one or two persons displaced,” Egbebike insists. “But I have yet to see.”

The struggles of Margaret Okeke and millions like her also remain unseen from the capitals of the developed world – where environmental displacement remains on the back burner even as the crisis simmers.

Sasha Chavkin received his MS degree in 2010 from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He has reported on the environment from Nigeria, Bolivia and Nicaragua. © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

How to rescue a moral-hazard economy By: Shahid Javed Burk

Hillary Clinton’s just-concluded visit to Islamabad—for the second session of the strategic dialogue that she and her Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, launched in Washington earlier this year - brought some comfort to her hosts.

The United States promised to provide $500 million of funding for several “highly visible” projects in Pakistan. This was to be part of the $1.5 billion allocated to Pakistan in legislation signed by President 
Barack Obama last year.

The day before Clinton arrived in Islamabad, the Friends of Democratic Pakistan met there. An earlier meeting of the group was chaired by Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York last year. It was attended by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain, the heads of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and government ministers from several countries. At the Islamabad meeting, the FDP agreed to provide finance for Pakistan’s energy-development programme, and requested proposals from the Pakistanis for the development of other sectors considered vital for the economy.

A few days before that, President Asif Ali Zardari paid his fifth visit to Beijing since taking office in August 2008 -- this one a state visit—and received pledges of support for developing nuclear power and constructing a railway line over the Karakoram mountain range, linking the two countries. This would facilitate western China’s access to the sea, via the Pakistani port of Gwadar.

These promises and pledges underscore Islamabad’s growing dependence on foreign assistance, which is not surprising, given that Pakistan’s tax-to-GDP ratio has declined to less than 9 per cent, the lowest among the 22 largest emerging economies. They also suggest the continuance of a sort of moral-hazard approach to economic management that ensures foreign help whenever the country drives itself to the edge of an abyss.

Today, Pakistan is Asia’s worst-performing economy. Its GDP growth rate of 3 per cent is half that of Bangladesh and one-third that of India. And, while there is a good chance that this latest infusion of foreign money will help the country to pull out of a deep economic crisis, it will simply be history repeating itself. Pakistan does well when it receives large flows of foreign assistance, as in the 1960’s, during President Ayub Khan’s term in power, the 1980’s, when General Zia-ul-Haq ran the country, or the early 2000’s, when General Pervez Musharraf was in charge.

During these three periods of military rule, the country was able to align itself quickly with the US. In the 1960’s, America wanted Pakistan to be on its side as it sought to contain the spread of communism in Asia. In the 1980’s, the US wanted Pakistan to help it force the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the US wanted Pakistan to help end Taleban rule in Afghanistan.

Now, for the first time, the US is providing large amounts of assistance to a democratic government. Will this relationship help Pakistan get off the economic rollercoaster it has been riding for the last half-century?

To ensure that its economy’s performance is no longer dictated by the availability of foreign aid, Pakistan must undertake some fundamental restructuring. If carried out by a representative government, such economic reforms have a better chance of being sustained. On the other hand, there is no assurance that the right policies would be maintained if power once again passed to a military ruler.

The foreign governments that are currently engaging Pakistan should encourage its leaders to move forward on at least two related fronts: trade and better relations with India are crucial.

At independence more than 60 years ago, Pakistan had a larger trade-to-GDP ratio, owing in part to trade with India. That came to a sudden stop in 1949, as a result of the first of many trade wars that the two countries have fought.

Before 1949, India absorbed roughly 60 per cent of Pakistan’s exports and accounted for 70 per cent of its imports. Nowadays, India accounts for less than 5 per cent of Pakistan’s total trade turnover.

This is contrary to what would be predicted by the so-called gravity model of trade, which is based on both the size of the trading partner and its distance. According to this model, China and India, not the US, should be Pakistan’s largest trading partners. Thus, Pakistan should not devote so much of its energy to improving its access to the US textile market, as it now does. Indeed, given competition from low-wage economies such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, Pakistan should abandon its focus on textiles altogether and expend much greater effort to develop its knowledge-based industries.

Another area of emphasis for donor dialogue with Pakistan is governance—not just reducing and controlling corruption, but also bringing policymaking closer to the people. Long stretches of military rule, with its emphasis on command and control, has left policymaking in Pakistan highly centralised. More power needs to be devolved to the provinces.

Today’s democratic government has taken a step in this direction by amending Pakistan’s constitution. The country’s “friends” should encourage this effort, perhaps by requiring that the country’s provinces be given a voice in their dialogue with Zardari’s government. Foreign donors must insist that Pakistan reform its economy in order to escape the moral hazard implied by continued dependence on aid flows. But that outcome is much more likely if democracy flourishes throughout the country.

*Shahid Javed Burki, a former finance minister of Pakistan, and Vice President of the World Bank, is currently Chairman of the Institute of Public Policy, Lahore

Coverage of US issues By: Huma Yusuf

Addressing a town hall meeting in Islamabad nearly a week ago, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Pakistan’s media as “freewheeling…free, [and] quite influential”.

This high praise for the fourth estate should be quite welcome in a country struggling to establish its democratic credentials. Unfortunately, the comment could spark a new crisis of media credibility within an industry that is already wracked by conspiracy-theorising. The image that comes to mind is of a dog chasing its own tail.

The fact is, the Pakistani media seems to have backed itself into a corner with regard to coverage of US foreign and military policy, aid (both military and civilian) and development projects. The sustained high note of anti-Americanism, which reached a crescendo when the Kerry-Lugar bill was passed, has rendered the objective reporting and consumption of US-related issues nearly impossible. If media outlets keep the criticism up, they will be accused of harbouring a blatant and unprofessional bias. But if they offer any praise for the Great Satan and its non-military investments in the country, media outlets are bound to be subject to finger-pointing by the competition.

This finger-pointing will no doubt be based on the allegation, whether implicit or explicit, that an outlet has been bought off by the Americans. Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced that it was allocating $50m for a ‘comprehensive communications strategy’ in Pakistan. Part of the funds was meant to be used to strengthen moderate voices in the Pakistani press, counter extremist views and monitor local media for inaccurate reporting about the US.

Through increased engagement with the Pakistani media, particularly private television channels, the US State Department aims to improve the American ‘brand’ by highlighting US-funded civilian and development projects, thereby stemming the tide of anti-Americanism. Not unexpectedly, this allocation was described as a ‘bribe’ for the Pakistani media and a fillip for the US propaganda machine.

Of course, it is only fair that there be an impartial, accurate and proportionate coverage of US-related issues and events within Pakistan. If anything, the US government’s need to create a media engagement fund is a sad reflection on the professionalism and reliability of our industry. But the existence of such a fund, and the rhetoric that surrounded its announcement, could taint any positive coverage of US initiatives. This may prove problematic as aid under the Kerry-Lugar Bill is disbursed and good news about hydroelectric projects and maternity hospitals starts trickling in.

The US seems to realise the limitations of its approach to the local press. In responding to a question at the Islamabad town hall meeting about increasing US engagement with the Pakistani media, Ms. Clinton sought advice rather than laying out a clear strategy: “If you have ideas as to what else we can do, I would appreciate them, because a number of people with whom we’ve been working over the last 14, 15 months have said the same thing. We see a lot of the changes, a lot of the progress in the [US-Pakistan] relationship, but it isn’t often reflected in the media, and the Pakistani people don’t know…. [Some] of it is we have to be more effective in how we deal with the Pakistani media… and we would welcome the advice that anyone might give us.”

It is clear, then, that the US is still determining how to effectively engage with — and, when required, tackle — the hydra-headed Pakistani media. A recent article in The Washington Post draws attention to an eight-month-old campaign launched by the US embassy to issue corrections in response to any factually incorrect or misrepresentative reports in the Pakistani press.

For his part, Adnan Rehmat, the executive director of Intermedia, an NGO concerned with media freedom and capacity building — and incidentally the person who posed the question about the media to Ms Clinton — believes that more engagement is key. Speaking to the Post, he argued that the US should focus on increasing interactions between Pakistani journalists and Americans from all walks of life — academics, artists, athletes and more.

But the onus to balance out coverage of the US in the local media does not lie with the Americans alone. It is essential that Pakistani media professionals brainstorm ways in which to boost the credibility of US-related reports — nothing less than the industry’s reputation is at stake.

The fact is, the Pakistani public is still feeling out the private media landscape. Public opinion about the media’s role in the current democratic set-up oscillates almost as wildly as US-Pakistan relations. For instance, a Pew poll in August 2009 noted that 77 per cent of Pakistanis believed that the media “is having a good influence on the country”. By November that year, the media had fallen out of favour with the public, and a Gallup poll documented that 31 per cent of Pakistanis blamed the media for political instability in the country. If the US succeeds in exposing the Pakistani media as hyperbolic, the industry could lose its audience for the fine work it does too.

In other words, in these still early years of a liberalised media landscape, coverage of US-related issues could determine how the Pakistani media is perceived both domestically and abroad. And in a worst case scenario, it would be truly unfortunate if anti-media voices in the government joined hands with the perplexed US authorities and succeeded in curbing media freedoms.

The time has come to think responsibly and creatively about how to cover US-related issues, particularly in terms of moving on from the mudslinging that has already passed. Editorial decisions in this regard will continue to be challenged by Pakistan’s security climate — for instance, in February this year, Radio Pakistan suspended broadcasts of Voice of America’s Pushto-language service, Deeva Radio, when the Taliban threatened to bomb its Peshawar premises. But if the fine line between censorship and sensationalism is not charted, the credibility of the Pakistani media will remain vulnerable to attack from various quarters.


Now that he’s got it By: Kamran Shafi

Various excuses are being trotted out by the apologists of the government and of the brass hats regarding the three-year (!) extension granted to Gen Kayani by what seemed to many an unnerved and bamboozled prime minister.

The most laughable of all: “Well, a three-year extension is not really appropriate but now that he has got it”...etcetera. Another is that he should have gotten the extension because of the army’s successes in Fata and Swat; yet another that since many soldiers have died in the war on terror, this extension to their ultimate commander should have been given. Now that he’s got it, I can only ask if those actually in the line of fire have also gotten extensions.

For many years have I, as a citizen of Pakistan and the subcontinent, and as a former soldier, campaigned for the toning down of the ridiculous and completely inappropriate and exaggerated drill movements of the Pakistan Rangers and the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) personnel during the Wagah flag-lowering ‘ceremony’ conducted every evening to jingoistic slogans of “Pakistan Zindabad” and “Jai Hind” from the assembled and frenzied crowd assembled on specially-built observation stands on either side of the border.

Not only is the spectacle aggressive and belligerent, it is downright brainless, showing the rest of the world in no uncertain manner the hostile behaviour of Indians and Pakistanis when they deal with each other officially. The news, then, as published in this newspaper of record of July 22 telling us that the BSF had suggested during the biannual meeting held in India in March this year that the aggression in the daily parade should be toned down because of knee and joint injuries to the soldiers came as a pleasant surprise.

Here one has to appreciate the Indians for taking the first step in this matter of lowering the aggressive actions, and to castigate our side for not taking the initiative. I must add that in my writings on the subject I had always called upon Pakistan to take the first step towards civilising the ceremony so that the rest of the world might stop sniggering at us for our infantile behaviour. I had pointed out that the flags of many countries are lowered at their borders with other countries with grace and dignity and elegance. Well done, India, for taking the first step.

We are also told that whilst the Pakistani side agreed to some of the aggressive actions such as the showing of fists and the thumbing of thumbs at each other during the drill being toned down, the DG of the Pakistan Rangers (Punjab) still feels that the “intensity of foot-pressing and leg-stretching” (the Ranger’s words, not mine) would not be discontinued, arguing that those were “the symbols of an active parade and a soldier’s fitness”.

Wrong, general, completely wrong. The ‘foot-pressing’ aka the banging of heels might be considered sort of alright (even though it kills brain cells faster than they can be regenerated), the ‘leg-stretching’ has no place in the drill manual, unless the Rangers have a drill manual all their own.

The drill manual stipulates that the knee will not go above belt level when coming to the halt or turning during parade. Let alone the knee, the Rangers and BSF soldiers actually lift their feet to head level which is completely against all rules and regulations. Let me add that if the DG Rangers wants his soldiers’ fitness to improve he should order a longer physical training period for them and institute other physical training standards such as the nine-mile run.

Excessive ‘foot-pressing’ will only make very stupid soldiers of his troops. If the Indians stole the march on us in taking the first steps towards toning down the silly so-called ‘ceremony’ to some extent, we Pakistanis should take it further and stop ‘foot-pressing’ and ‘leg-stretching’ immediately if not sooner. Let both these countries enter the ranks of the civilised world sooner rather than later, eschewing false bravado and braggadocio.

To other matters now, and it is to be appreciated too that Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna of India has castigated the Indian interior secretary for queering the pitch for the India-Pakistan talks recently concluded on a bitter note in Islamabad by referring to David Headley’s inconclusive and untested-as-yet evidence on the ISI’s direct role in the Mumbai attacks.

On our part we should understand that whether Mr Krishna or the Indian foreign secretary rang Delhi once or 17 times during the talks in Islamabad it was a matter for the Indians alone. It was impolite in the extreme for our foreign minister to point this out in a press conference.

The question to ask, however, is whether India and Pakistan are fated to take two steps forward and five back whenever they agree to talk to one another. If we were rude to the Indians in Islamabad they were doubly rude to us when Gen Musharraf visited Agra and was sent off without even a public handshake. But before the Ghairat-Brigade jumps down my throat, let me point out that that act of the Indians was roundly condemned by a very influential section of the Indian media (Frontline magazine comes to mind) and the BJP government taken to task for that discourtesy.

A second question that raises its ugly head is whether these two countries will ever get rid of the baggage both carry? Or shall we say the baggage that is carried by the dinosaurs on both sides of the border.

PS. If Gilani had given a three-year extension to a federal secretary this country would’ve been on fire by now.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

For one Octopus, life is a whole new Paulgame By: Anshuman Joshi

For an Octopus that had the world at its many feet, Paul will do very well for himself if he survives the cooking pot, there are loads of people who want him in there – head, feet, suction cups and all. And who’s to protect him? What if a crazed Dutch fan decided to take a harpoon to him at the Sea Life in Oberhausen where he lies submerged in his world of water, mollusks, flags and near-accurate predictions?

Even though, he’s probably more famous than Angela Merkel herself, his security apparatus would scarcely be up to the standards that the German Chancellor herself is eligible for. And for a centre that makes money out of selling deep-sea attractions to tourists, getting that sort of sophisticated private security is not just impossible, it’s a shallow ambition.

However, looking at the brighter side of things where Paul survives any dastardly attempts on his life and continues to wallow in the milk of human kindness, hoping that the world can block it out of its collective short-term memory, it’s not a bad idea to contemplate what lies ahead. Even though his biological clock may be running out of time what if he predicts something that annoys his adopted countrymen once again? What if they seriously start considering him as an evil omen that was cast upon them by the British? If that happens, its possible that some rich German auto magnate might end up offering to buy him at an impossible price so that he can take the pride of place on his dinner table. It’s money and in times of recession with the euro crisis biting really hard, Sea Life might just be tempted to let go of him. The Spanish, considering how lucky he has been for them, might even give him asylum, but is he smart enough to apply? Picking food out of a box is definitely simpler than filling in the paperwork and walking all the way to the embassy. Besides, what’s the guarantee that the Spanish won’t mix him with their paella, if his prognostic abilities go against them?

What Paul really needs is a retirement plan with benefits thrown in. Think about it, if only Paul had a Facebook and a Twitter account and a smart publicist like Max Clifford. He could have his own website where he would dole out his prophecies for a price – from forecasting the gender of a forthcoming child to who could win the next season of American Idol. His tweets would garner him an unparalleled following and his own Facebook page (he has one right now that has probably been created by an impersonator with over 8000 fans), which could make him more popular than the Pope himself. And if he ever recruited the services of an Octo-whisperer, he could write his own autobiography. Only a fool would doubt it’s potential as the single most popular bestseller of all times. The intellectuals could be left frothing at the mouth if the book goes on to win the Pulitzer, or even the Nobel Prize for literature, but celebs would give up anything, including their lives, to be photographed with him in his watery abode.

A film deal worth millions is not impossible either and Paul would be assured of his royalties and pots of appearance money if he decided to go on a global tour. Huge crowds will greet him everywhere he goes and the hype generated as a result would probably be greater than let’s say if the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley had ever decided to tour together. For the technologically-savvy, Paul the Octopus’ skills could easily be integrated with a mobile application that allows people to get a prediction at the touch of a button – the downloads alone would make a fortune, or even a video game in the mould of EyePet, where players could outfit Paul in different clothes, or interact with him using trampolines and bubble machines, etc. Toy makers too could make a squeeze-me-now product that children, even adults would love to wrap their hands around.

The possibilities are endless, just that Paul does not have too much time on his hands, barely two years, if he’s lucky – most of his type don’t live beyond five-six years and he’s already done four. First, he needs to relocate to a place where there’s no real demand for Octopus, well-done, medium or rare. Secondly, he needs to be in a country, where emotion over a silly game does not spill out into the streets, and his life does not depend on a Jabulani rolling over the white line into an extra large fishnet. Having said that, he won’t survive a return to the sea – his predators will get him anyway, and a life of anonymity won’t suit him.

Somebody may have to point out to him, but the United Arab Emirates with its large expatriate population might just be most suitable of alternatives to migrate to. It is also a place that boasts some of the world’s biggest attractions, and since Paul easily qualifies as one, he would be at home here. More importantly he will have company, if he decides to be moved into those giant aquariums that they have here complete with all forms of marine life. He will have his friends and we will have our prophecies. So will it rain today Paul?

Lebanese find the power of web By: Rita Chemaly

Blogs are becoming increasingly popular in Lebanon as they cover the political and social landscape, expressing society’s demands. As a result, blogs and online groups have become a true political tool in the hands of civil society to promote causes online.

Many web actors, mainly bloggers, are working to mobilise internet users to act on issues affecting citizens. “Social justice”, “democracy” and “mobilisation” are key words in the vocabulary of Lebanese bloggers. And the environment, national heritage and human rights are key themes. Through their blogs, posts or comments, these bloggers and “e-activists” hope to trigger change in Lebanon—towards a real democracy, based on reinforcing citizen participation in political decisions.

For instance, Lebanese e-activists have recently taken action against the construction of a parking lot under an old park in Beirut, which would result in chopping down the park’s aged trees because of their deep roots. They initiated the “Saving the Sanayeh Garden” campaign through an online petition and issued a call to citizens to protest through a “sit-in” in the garden. Lebanese e-activists also mobilised groups in favour of preserving old buildings or sites that are important parts of Lebanon’s national heritage by creating lobbying groups and urging members of parliament to create a law to protect these places. In one instance, these e-activists convinced Lebanon’s Culture Minister Salim Warde to head a new initiative aimed at getting Parliament to draft a law which, if passed, would protect some of Lebanon’s oldest and most endangered buildings. To promote human rights, Lebanese bloggers have organised an online campaign against arbitrary detentions and the improvement of detention centres. There have also been campaigns to establish the rights of Lebanese women married to foreign men, who currently cannot pass their nationality to their husbands and children. These are just a few examples of concerned citizens taking action, having their say, being heard and mobilising citizens – all through the power of the internet.

Using an online platform accessible to everyone, blogs provide politicians with the opportunity to read citizens’ reactions to some of their policy decisions. Passive receivers of policy in the past, citizens have become active users of new technologies to influence policy. French author Francis Pisani, who focuses on technology and communication, says “web surfers” have now become “web actors”.

Bloggers are only one part of a new trend towards a participative culture for citizens. In January 2010, 20 young Lebanese bloggers decided to come together and form a coalition. These internet users, including students, wanted to prove that they could change society for the better through activism.

The Lebanese Bloggers Organisation’s mission (as stated in their charter) is to contribute to the creation of communities which will trigger positive changes in Lebanese society. Blogs are creating a revolution. In Lebanon and throughout the Arab world, these platforms provide a space for youth who do not belong to the political class with a mechanism to express their views on topics that affect them – from freedom of expression to protecting the environment, as well as various other topics. Blogs are transforming inactive but concerned citizens into active players who can express themselves, ultimately changing the societies in which they live.

Rita Chemaly is a social and political science researcher. Distributed by the Common Ground News Service

Global brands, local tastes By: Bryant Simon

Shakespeare’s birthplace is not immune from a common complaint. When Jim Hyssop saw a Starbucks open up several years ago in downtown Stratford-upon-Avon, near the McDonald’s and Pizza Hut already there, he grimly forecast: “If someone blindfolded you, put you in a helicopter and set you down in a town somewhere in England, you wouldn’t be able to tell where you are anymore.”

Like many scholars and residents of places with a past, Hyssop fears that global brands will erode national, regional and neighbourhood distinctiveness. As chains deliver the same products, designs and exteriors everywhere, they could, Hyssop worries, create a soulless Generica, “a land where all the high streets look identical.”

Although McDonald’s serves 47 million customers each day in 119 countries and Starbucks serves about the same number each week in 51 countries, that one-world Generica has not taken control. Instead, the spread of these branded symbols of globalisation raises the value of the local. Everywhere multinationals go, they generate a grassroots pushback, an assertion of the enduring value of particular places, tastes and traditions. Yet this nearly universal assertion of the local is much less widely noted than the fears of the global.

Opened in Seattle in 1971, Starbucks initially seemed more local than global. In its early years, it sold whole bean, freshly roasted coffee out of one store with the owners often standing behind the counter. Even after the company opened a second, then a third store, it retained a mom-and-pop kind of feel.

As much as those first Starbucks looked and acted local, they were enmeshed in the global. The original logo with a bare-breasted siren imitated a Norse old-world Norse woodcut. And the beans came from far-off places like Guatemala, Sumatra and Ethiopia. Indeed, this remaking of coffee from everyday commodity into an imported, slightly exotic affordable luxury gave Starbucks products their cultural value. When Howard Schultz took over Starbucks in 1987, he thickened its global networks – opening the company’s first international outlet in Vancouver in 1987, then in Tokyo in 1996, Qatar in 2000, Paris in 2004 and Buenos Aires in 2008. By 2009, Starbucks had 16,120 stores on five continents.

As he tells it, Schultz experienced a coffee epiphany in a Milan espresso bar in 1983. Hearing the melodious clanking of saucers and hiss of steaming milk, he decided Americans would pay a premium for a facsimile of the Italian coffee bar.

Schultz did more than just introduce Americans to espressos and cappuccinos. Seeking to enhance brand value by associating it with Europe – the center of coffee culture and knowledge in the minds of most Americans – he and his colleagues sold grande and venti mistos and macchiatos prepared by baristas.

Continental references were just one part of Starbucks’s global posture. The company strived to create a transnational setting, distinct from any one locale or nation that was nonetheless still everywhere, everywhere globetrotters, creative types and the upper-middle-class convened. Whereas McDonald’s sells an idealised, consumer version of America as a fun, efficient place, Starbucks sold itself as a predictable destination on an increasingly flat global landscape.

Starbucks is the same everywhere, everywhere erasing differences and suggesting that we – those who can afford pricey drinks – are well-informed, sophisticated customers who appreciate quality, yet still care about the environment and the least fortunate. Thus, it became the brand for a new global middle class of the 21st century.

Despite Starbucks’ message of high-end universalism, its global expansion did not go uncontested. When the World Trade Organisation met in Seattle in 1999, protestors vandalized a Starbucks, accusing the company and other multinationals of polluting the environment and exploiting cheap labour in the developing world.

In 2003, Singapore’s Chua Chin Hon wrote, “I’m no anti-globalisation protestor,” but admitted a change of heart, triggered by a Starbucks opening in Beijing’s Forbidden City. He wrote about understanding “the rage against the global capitalist machinery’s relentless and oft-times, senseless drive to sell a few more cups of coffee, burgers, or T-shirts.”

Four years later, Rui Chenggang, an anchor for Chinese Central Television, demanded that Starbucks leave the nearly 600 hundred-year-old former royal residence. Accusing the company of tainting “China’s national culture,” he organised a boycott. Eventually Starbucks vacated the location, and a Chinese company took its place – selling lattes and cappuccinos in white cups with green logos.

Starbucks takeover of street corners in Hong Kong triggered a kind of consumer dissent. One-of-a-kind, owner-operated coffeehouses – tiny and unadvertised – sprang up in second- or third-floor apartment living rooms all over the city. “When it comes to cafe culture,” wrote a Financial Times reporter, “above ground is the new underground.”

While Starbucks has struggled during the New Recession, closing 600 stores in the US and halting expansion abroad, sales at independents, according to industry sources, remain robust.

In 2009, Starbucks responded to the shift towards the small by redesigning and retrofitting several Seattle stores and, later, several London stores. The new cafes didn’t carry the Starbucks name or familiar green logo. One was named 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, another Roy Street Tea and Coffee. In other words, the company opened stealth Starbucks meant to look and sound like independent coffee shops.

The message? The global had generated so much demand for the local that a global chain needed to look local to survive globally, at least in some markets.

This marks a change in the appeal of the big versus the small. What’s constant in the age of globalisation is that the local and global co-exist, always in conversation and tension with each other. You can’t have one without the other.

Bryant Simon is the director of the American Studies programme at Temple University. This paper was written for Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

A decade in power By: Matein Khalid

Hafez Al Assad, the legendary colossus of Arab politics, ruled Syria for thirty years, longer than any other caliph, sultan, amir, wali or President in Damascus since the reign of Amir Maawiyah, the first Ummayad caliph.

However, the Lion of Damascus was not able to bequeath his absolute power to his eldest son and anointed successor Basil, who was killed in a car accident in 1994. Bashar Al Assad was never meant to be the heir yet the 34-year-old political neophyte and London trained ophthalmology inherited the Presidency of Syria when his father died exactly a decade ago in a bloodless, if disputed, dynastic succession.

Dr. Bashar Al Assad has confounded his critics by simply surviving as President of Syria for the past decade. The Baathist old guard and Alawite generals who dominate Syria’s Baathist single party state and multiple intelligence agencies viewed Dr. Bashar with deep suspicion. A succession of abortive palace coups against his ascendancy failed and the new President ruthlessly purged his father’s cronies from the pinnacles of power in Damascus. Vice President Khaddam defected and General Ghazi Kanaan, once Hafez’s omnipotent viceroy in Lebanon, was forced to commit suicide.

George W. Bush made no secret of his desire to engineer regime change in Damascus, after American troops overthrew Saddam Hussein and the leaders of Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution accused the Syrian regime for Rafik Hariri’s assassination. A popular uprising in Lebanon forced Bashar Al Assad to withdraw Syrian troops from the fractured state where his father had intervened with an iron fist during the civil war between the Phalange and the PLO in 1976. In 2005-6, the risk of a US attack on Syria seemed all too plausible, particularly after the devastating Israeli attack on Hezbollah and Shia Lebanon in July 2006.

While Dr. Assad has survived multiple external threats, Syria’s anachronistic, Soviet style command economy is the Baathist regime’s Achilles heel. While hope of a Damascus Spring were overblown even in 2000, Dr. Bashar Assad has licensed private banks, eased foreign exchange controls, attracted Saudi and Gulf petrodollars in a FDI surge, even spawned a property boom in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Latakia. Yet the Syrian regime remains one of the most repressive “mukhabarat states” in the Arab world, intolerant of even the slightest murmur of political dissent. The President’s Alawite blood kinsmen control the Baath Party, the intelligence agencies, the lucrative state economic monopolies and military high command. Assad is no Syrian Gorbachev committed to systemic political reform. After all, he knows all too well that the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda have never forgotten that his father sent Syrian Army tanks to crush a Sunni revolt in Hama and executed an estimated 25,000 rebels. Thomas Friedman’s “Hama Rules” still define Syrian politics.

Bashar Assad’s greatest foreign policy humiliation was his exit from Lebanon in 2005, hailed by George Bush as the beginning of the end for the Arab world’s last surviving Baathist dictatorship. Yet Dr. Assad, thanks to Hezbollah and a rapprochement with France and Saudi Arabia, has quietly restored Syrian influence in Lebanon. Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt have both visited Damascus to “reconcile” with the regime they once blamed for the murder of their respective fathers. Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor and Mossad assassinated top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah in Damascus but was still forced to seek Turkish mediation in secret talks over the future of the Golan Heights. Hezbollah, with its ballistic missiles, rockets and Cabinet veto power, still dominates Lebanese politics.

Assad still faces multiple geopolitical landmines. The Obama White House has extended Bush’s sanctions against Syria. The State Department brands Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism. Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman threatened to unseat the Assad clan from power in the next war with Syria. The resurgent PKK revolt in Turkish Anatolia could well trigger secessionist unrest among Syria’s own Kurdish minorities. Al Qaeda’s jihadist networks could resume terrorist attacks against the Syrian regime. A Republican takeover of the House and Senate in the November US election will be the last nail in Obama’s policy of engagement with Damascus. A new Israeli assault against Hezbollah and tighter US sanctions against Iran are existential threats to Syria’s closest allies in the Middle East. President Assad’s first decade in power was eventful, precarious but, ultimately, successful. In Syria’s Darwinian politics, survival alone is the ultimate compliment.

Matein Khalid is an investment banker based in Dubai

Stress tests: for banks or customers? By: Anthony F. D’Silva

One of the positive aspects of the global financial crises is that our vocabulary has been enriched by some esoteric financial and banking terms that were hitherto Greek to most of us, such as subprime crisis (a puzzling term to me even today), foreclosures (stranger still), sovereign debt (money owed by a king?) and bailout (something you do when your friend is in trouble with the police or the moneylender).

Now, the newest term that foxes me is stress tests. Or, to be more precise, stress tests for banks. The European Central Bank has started conducting stress tests for banks, and other parts of the world are likely to follow suit.

They have apparently caught hold of the wrong end of the stick, because in all fairness it is customers who need stress tests, not banks. Besides, what is the point in conducting stress tests on banks after the horse has bolted and the damage had been done?

On the other hands, stress tests for bank customers are long overdue. After all, customers go through greater stress than banks. I bet my last dirham on the theory that more people die of stress induced by bank actions than in road accidents.

Foreclosures and defaults may do some minor damage to a bank’s bottom line, but the poor customer is knocked off his bottom each time he receives his statement. Yes, we know that banks want to clean up their balance sheet post recession, but the hapless customer struggles to restore his balance each time the bank sends him an SMS.

My stress levels have hit record highs over the past few years. It first began when I was trapped into taking my first credit card. The smooth-talking sales guy conned me with enticements, most of which did not materialise or were not utilised me, including a free ticket, discounts at fancy restaurants, insurance on loss of employment, movie tickets, theme park passes and sundry other allurements. When he wanted to sell me the card he breezed in like the emergency patrol but disappeared like a stealth bomber after the deed was done.

Ever since that fateful day, the credit card has turned out to be a hydra-headed monster, with the figures multiplying mysteriously. All my Himalayan efforts to get rid of this Damocles’ sword have ended in failure. The outstanding balance, conniving with finance charges, late fees and sundry other ‘hidden charges’, must has surely swelled the annual bonus package of some fortunate bank CEO, but it has wrought havoc with my health status.

The bi-monthly visits to the doctor have added hundreds of new words to my medical vocabulary. Each month he gleefully pencils some new tests to be carried out, including triglyceride, creatinine, uric acid, HBA1C, HDL, LDL and RBS, apart from the treadmill test. I see signs of insomnia, sleep apnea, absent mindedness and loss of memory, all of which, of course, cannot be attributed directly to my bankers, but I am certain they can be named as instigators.

So, now tell me, who needs to undergo stress tests?

My second encounter with the banks’ insatiable appetite for human blood was three years ago when in a moment of madness, I took a personal loan. On my first call, the entire banking machinery swung into action, the sales guy turned up at my office in 45 minutes flat (this was during the pre-recession boom period). The girl at the counter promised the amount would be in my account in 24 hours. It was there in 12 hours!

Today, the EMI has become an Extended Monthly Irritation. The fluctuating floating rate sends me to the deep end; the occasional payment defaults rattle my medulla oblongata and the loan tenure seems to be extending into eternity.

It is time they pass legislation making stress tests mandatory for bank customers in order to gauge their capacity to absorb monthly shocks delivered by bank statements, maintain sanity in the face of credit card outstandings that defy ordinary mathematics and make sense of loan installments that beat common man’s powers of comprehension.

Anthony F. D’Silva is a Dubai-based writer and public relations consultant

The politics of dodgy degrees By: Maleeha Lodhi

Opposition leader Mian Nawaz Sharif moved swiftly to defuse a confrontation between Pakistan’s powerful news media and his party over the scandal of legislators faking their educational qualification to be elected.

But the issues raised by the firestorm continue to resonate in the political arena and across the country’s energetic media.

The fracas was triggered by the adoption in the Punjab legislature, controlled by Sharif’s faction of the Muslim League, of a resolution last week condemning the media for irresponsibility and damaging democracy. In a rare show of unity, League members were joined by all their rivals to support the unanimous resolution. What precipitated this extraordinary move was the press and broadcast media’s unrelenting effort to expose those MPs who had submitted bogus degrees to run for elected office.

At the time of the general elections in 2008 the graduate qualification was mandatory for eligibility as a member of parliament. The condition had been imposed by the country’s former president Pervez Musharraf but was swept away by the constitional amendment adopted by the national parliament two months ago. This did, however, bring to an end media questioning about whether some politicians had used fake documents to secure their election. Indeed it was a prominent and feisty member of Sharif’s own party who kept agitating the matter and drawing the media’s attention to this. Once the media began to unearth cases of bogus degrees involving members of virtually all the major parties represented in parliament, this prompted the Supreme Court in May to order the Election Commission to verify which lawmakers had bogus degrees and initiate action against them.

As this process got underway in the full glare of the media angry legislators affected by these disclosures began to cry conspiracy. It was both intriguing and an example of extremely poor judgement that while a relatively modest number of legislators were initially accused in the media of lying about their graduate qualification the majority of their partymen and women came to their rescue and sought to defend the indefensible.

Lawmakers from different parties accused the media of “corruption” and undermining democracy by tarnishing the reputation of politicians. This elicited a stinging response from TV anchor persons and newspaper editorial writers who pointed to the moral bankruptcy of those hurling these allegations in an obvious effort to cover up their own misdemeanour. The media was only doing its job by exposing the truth. Those engaged in a fraudulent practice were the ones bringing the political class into disrepute. Losing patience with the daily embarrassment caused by the fierce media onslaught on the matter the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution denouncing the media. Predictably journalists reacted furiously and portrayed the resolution as an assault on their freedom. Countrywide demonstrations were held demanding that the resolution be rescinded.

In the face of this the Punjab’s legislators began to retreat. Nawaz Sharif addressed a press conference while he was in London denouncing the action against the media and declaring that he was prepared to risk losing the Punjab government rather than defend or protect those who had lied to be elected. This set the stage for a remarkable U turn by the Punjab Assembly which proceeded within days to adopt a resolution praising the role of the media – again unanimously!

While this ended the media’s boycott of the Punjab assembly and defused the situation it has far from buried the issue. Three kinds of political implications have flowed from this episode. One, the issue of ethics in politics has taken centre stage in a country where the integrity of public officials is often in question. For weeks those political leaders who kept expressing doubts about the media’s intent and ascribing partisan motives to the disclosures hurt their case even more by deliberately obfuscating the real issue: the mendacious conduct of legislators who produced false documents about their educational status.

The scale of the scam is still being ascertained by the Higher Education Commission, the body that has been asked by the Election Commission to verify the degrees of over 1,100 federal and provincial lawmakers. But it has already laid bare the lack of probity among those expected to set a higher standard rather than lie about their educational qualifications.

Several of those affected by the media revelations marshalled out a number of rather disingenuous arguments. Some said that the eligibility requirement was introduced by a military dictator and was therefore patently wrong. Others wondered why journalists were making such a fuss when this was no longer a requirement for legislators to be elected. Many MPs insisted that others – judges, generals and journalists – should be held to the same standard and the media by not focusing on them was out to damage the nascent democratic process in the country. None of this however helped to obscure the fact that a number of their party men had been found guilty of outright fraud.

Two, the whole affair has injected new strains in what is an increasingly adversarial relationship between an energetic and newly empowered media and politicians. Although party leaders have sought to quickly distance themselves from the move against the media this is not going to diminish the media’s resolve to hold public representatives more vigorously to account. More disclosures can be expected in coming months not just on this issue but other accounts as well. This could make for rocky relations ahead despite the present rapprochement. Three, if the number of lawmakers with fake degrees continues to rise, political leaders will come under greater public pressure to cleanse their parties of such elements and suspend them from their organisation. So far party heads have shown a marked reluctance to do this – a hesitation that has further eroded their party’s credibility. In the final analysis if a significant number of legislators are found to have dodgy degrees and the Election Commission is obliged by an assertive Supreme Court to take action this could strengthen the possibility of mid-term polls. No party may want such an outcome but this could be an inescapable consequence if the fake degree saga comes to embroil a large number of MPs.

Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. For comments, write to opinion@khaleejtimes.com

List of don’ts for Washington By: Faryal Leghari

With Washington having braced itself to turn the tide of a losing war in Afghanistan, pressure on neighbouring Pakistan has inevitably increased.

While the US is determined to not allow Afghanistan to become another Vietnam, it’s policy remains mired in confusion and doubt. Grappling at every straw thrown its way, the US seems caught up in trying out all available options to prevent heading the way of the Red Army. This is indeed unfortunate since it is not only for the sake of Western interests but also in the interests of the entire region, that terrorism is defeated and stability restored.

Moreover, recent developments have consolidated the perception that there is visible mistrust and lack of consensus between the three key players, all with considerable stakes. This emanates from the Reconciliation and Reintegration Strategy, President Hamid Karzai has adopted as necessary to winning the war. Originally a US brainchild, it came into existence when the realisation sank in that military means are not going to do the trick. Alas, it is now being viewed in an unfavourable light. This is especially true when Kabul and Washington are at loggerheads over which insurgents to do business with.

Pakistan’s role in the process is both crucial and complex. It bears the distinction of allegedly hosting the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. To Washington’s frustration Pakistan is yet to decide on when to start military operations in the tribal agency. These Afghan insurgents led by Jalaluddin and son Sirajuddin Haqqani are believed to be even closer to Al Qaeda than Mullah Omar-led Taleban and are proving to be an onerous challenge to US war efforts.

The visit of the new Coalition Commander General David Petraeus to Pakistan last week was to emphasise a new set of expectations from its strategic partner. General Petareus is well known among Pakistan’s military circles owing to his frequent contact with them as former head of US Central Command. However, in view of the rapidly shifting dynamics and new responsibility at the helm of the Afghan operation, Petraeus is likely to demand more from Islamabad. At this point one could make a reasonably safe assumption that it would be to target the Haqqanis. They are now on top of the US agenda, so much so that General Petraues is believed to have pushed Washington to include the group in the US list of terrorist organisations. This is likely to impact both Kabul and Pakistan.

First, Pakistan would come under further pressure to open a fresh offensive and hunt down past allies—that have long standing ties with its security establishment. In addition, Pakistan understands that its connections with the Haqqani’s would be crucial in the future political roadmap of Afghanistan. This is something even Kabul has realised. Not only that, the Afghan government’s improving relations with Islamabad reflects the birth of a new trust and joint commitment. It is especially evident in cooperation with negotiation efforts of the Reconciliation and Reintegration strategy.

Second, President Karzai’s efforts to broker a deal with the Haqqani’s and eventually Mullah Omar are likely to fail if US succeeds in blocking these negotiations. While both Islamabad and Kabul rejected reports of a meeting between Sirajuddin Haqqani and Karzai in Kabul arranged through Pakistan’s military channels, it is very possible that such a meeting took place. It is also rumoured that Washington is unhappy with the increasingly independent Afghan ruler who has finally woken up to the feasibility of carving a bigger role for himself in Afghanistan’s political future. While his assertions may have been tolerable for Washington, his making contact with undesirable elements among the insurgents remains a major contention.

The overriding apprehension in Washington is that brokering a deal with Al Qaeda sympathisers would negate all its efforts, thus the threat to US and Western interests would remain a tangible reality. This threat perception may be an exaggerated one but it is credible save for one aspect; what the US fails to realise is that these insurgent groups were forced into an alliance with Al Qaeda. They do not share Al Qaeda’s global Islamic objective, their’s is simply a nationalist struggle to oust foreign forces and regain control. While Al Qaeda and Afghan insurgents may have colluded in sharing operational knowledge and staging terrorist attacks against foreign forces and even civilians these can be explained as desperate measures to fight superior combatants.

Even though Petraeus on his recent visit praised Pakistan for its efforts to counter terrorism and take on home- grown militants, US frustration with its lack of efforts to target Afghan insurgents, allegedly present in the country, is growing. Further, it is deeply suspicious of Islamabad initiating negotiations with these insurgent groups.

It is something Richard Holbrooke in his capacity as Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan remains sceptical about. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently, Holbrooke defined Pakistan’s role in the Reconciliation and Reintegration process as “ambiguous and opaque.” At the same time Holbrooke was careful to leave room for manoeuvre saying it was difficult to determine the veracity of reports pertaining involvement of certain elements in Pakistan in deals with elements within the Taleban insurgency.

This is precisely the concern Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is likely to raise on her forthcoming trip to Pakistan before she attends the Donor Conference in Kabul. One can imagine her exchange with the political and military leadership of both states. Secretary Clinton may actually have a more fruitful trip if she listens to reason and tries to understand how political dynamics in this part of the world actually work. She must realise that neither Islamabad nor Kabul would like to live with Al Qaeda. After all they have suffered much more and lost thousands of more lives than US, even if you add up all the fatalities of Qaeda-led terror attacks visited upon it. If the US is serious about brining political stability and clearing out terrorist elements it must work in congruence with the national interests of both Pakistan and Afghanistan, not try and impose a system it deems best. Mutual trust and a solid strategy that works in tandem with safeguarding the political and security interests of all three needs to be worked out. Unless that happens, the waters are only going to get murkier.

Sitting tight on a time bomb By: Gretchen Reynolds

In 1982, researchers affiliated with the Cooper Institute in Dallas surveyed a large group of well-educated, affluent men.

The researchers were interested in the men’s exercise habits, but they also asked, almost incidentally, about their indolence. Specifically, they inquired about how many hours each day the men spent watching television or sitting in a car. (This was before you could do both at once.) Over the years, the survey’s main results were used to reinforce a growing body of science about the health benefits of regular exercise.

But the information about the amount of time the men spent being inactive remained largely unexplored. Recently, however, scientists from the University of South Carolina and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., parsed the full data. In a study published in May in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, they reported that, to no one’s surprise, the men who sat the most had the greatest risk of heart problems. Men who spent more than 23 hours a week watching TV and sitting in their cars (as passengers or as drivers) had a 64 per cent greater chance of dying from heart disease than those who sat for 11 hours a week or less.

What was unexpected was that many of the men who sat long hours and developed heart problems also exercised. Quite a few of them said they did so regularly and led active lifestyles. The men worked out, then sat in cars and in front of televisions for hours, and their risk of heart disease soared, despite the exercise. Their workouts did not counteract the ill effects of sitting.

Most of us have heard that sitting is unhealthy. But many of us also have discounted the warnings, since we spend our lunch hours conscientiously visiting the gym. We consider ourselves sufficiently active. But then we drive back to the office, settle at our desks and sit for the rest of the day. We are, in a phrase adopted by physiologists, ‘‘active couch potatoes.’’

The amount of time that most Americans spend being inactive has risen steadily in recent decades. A 2009 editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that, on average, adults spend more than nine hours a day in oxymoronic ‘‘sedentary activities.’’ For studies like these, scientists categorise activities by the number of METs they demand. A MET, or metabolic equivalent of task, is a measure of energy, with one MET being the amount of energy you burn lying down for one minute. Sedentary behaviours demand one to one and a half METs, or very little exertion.

If you sit for long hours, you experience no ‘‘isometric contraction of the antigravity (postural) muscles”, according to an overview of the consequences of inactivity published this month in Exercise and Sports Sciences Reviews. Your muscles, unused for hours at a time, change in subtle fashion, and as a result, your risk for heart disease, diabetes and other diseases can rise.

Regular workout sessions do not appear to fully undo the effects of prolonged sitting. ‘‘There seem to be different pathways’’ involved in the beneficial physiological effects of exercising and the deleterious impacts of sitting, says Tatiana Warren, a graduate student in exercise science at the University of South Carolina and the lead author of the study of men who sat too much. ‘‘One does not undo the other,’’ she says.

You can, however, ameliorate the dangers of inactivity with several easy steps — actual steps. ‘‘Look for ways to decrease physical inactivity,’’ Ms. Warren says, beyond 30-minute bouts of jogging or structured exercise. Stand up. Pace around your office. Get off the couch and grab a mop or change a light bulb the next time you watch ‘‘Dancing With the Stars.’’

© New York Times Magazine

How location-based advertising will shake up the trade By: Kartik Ram

Unlike our Western counterparts, the growth of mobile advertising in the UAE has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Though our wireless speeds are formidable, the mobile medium remains largely untapped for targeted customer engagement, beyond unruly SMS spam.

Mobile advertising is still a tiny portion of the overall online advertising pie – about 2 to 3 per cent excluding text messaging. However, Gartner has forecasted that the overall mobile advertising segment will become a $7.4 billion market by the end of 2014. So, what’s the ‘killer app’ for mobile marketers? It’s location, location, location!

Location is the new demographic. It’s no longer just about age, gender, and socio-economics, but about reaching mobile users who are in a geographic position to buy. Consumer research indicates that consumers are interested in receiving location-based marketing on their mobile phones from their favorite establishments, provided that it is opt-in and perceived as a valuable service.

Location-based advertising will soon change the way hundreds of brands in the region play out their dream of hyper-targeting customers. It’s as much about being less annoying as it is about their return on investment as compared to traditional advertising. Now, brands that have a physical presence with an unparalleled way of driving traffic into physical stores, and it is taking off today.

As an entrepreneur who follows the industry, I have come across campaigns by McDonalds, Starbucks, Pepsi and Nike, all trying to crack the code around how customers can be engaged with location based advertising. Small and medium-sized businesses in the UAE are also jumping on the bandwagon.

Providing more value for smaller businesses requires delivering a sufficient number of consumers, making it easy to buy through a self-service process, and providing some kind of return-on-investment measure such as increased store traffic. Enabling local businesses to easily opt-in their own base of customers to a programme – similar to following someone on Twitter – is one approach that can gain traction quickly and change the playing field.

The critical success factor for brands will be to tie the customer’s location with other existing customer relationships like loyalty programmes and outdoor media, because it will bring a lot more context and ‘stickiness’ to mobile advertising.

Just knowing somebody’s exact location isn’t enough to make smart marketing decisions. Jeff Montgomery, Placecast’s chief revenue officer said the company has learned three things on location-based advertising. Firstly, timing affects the location, meaning that a hotel is very different on a Monday morning than a Friday evening, and this impacts the user’s experience and needs. Secondly, consumer behaviour can be changed, but the message – the advertisement – has to give consumers time to respond meaningfully. Lastly, brands need to give consumers control on the messages and ads they opt-in to receive.

At the MobileBeat 2010 Conference in San Francisco last week, Facebook’s Mobile chief, Erick Tseng, asked the audience, “How many people have ever used a type of coupon where an offer is pushed to you based on your proximity to a store?” No hands went up. Tseng continued, “To me, those types of coupons would feel like spam. However, if there is social intelligence on top of the location-based ad that makes it more relevant, I am interested.” The tools to make this happen could boost Facebook’s already-big mobile audience of 150 million users.

Who’s going to be making money from location data? No one, from upstarts like Placecast and Foursquare to giants like McDonalds and Google, has a definitive answer. LikeList, a company that refers businesses to consumers based on peer recommendations, said the value of location-based services resides in the bond between the user and the business. The consumer-business relationship is getting much more personal and there’s a windfall for the companies who can exploit that.

Just recently, Google has successfully been awarded a patent on location-based advertising they had filed six year ago, firmly planting their foot once more on trends that will drive the market. Location-based advertising makes great sense for an end-user, since the more relevant the ads are, the less intrusive they feel. However, the business model is still in its infancy and unproven – it will take some maturing before Google, like others, can truly reap the fruits of this trend.

Kartik Ram is a Dubai-based digital media entrepreneur

Winners and losers of US politics By: Roger Cohen

The Clintons threw a big Washington bash on June 30 for Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide, Huma Abedin, and what struck one of the many guests was the absence of anyone from President Obama’s tight White House inner circle.

Congressional heavyweights thronged the garden of the Clinton spread on Embassy Row, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The city’s big powerbrokers and various State Department honchos were there for a party marking Abedin’s marriage to Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York. But White House insiders stayed away.

Well, as Bill Clinton told CNN recently, “I did everything I could to defeat President Obama and I wanted Hillary to win” — old wounds do not heal overnight. Indeed, they may not heal at all. When my informant said something about the old grievances not going away, the response from the hosts went something like this:

No, they don’t and they never will. But, we’re public servants and suckers for punishment, so we soldier on.

Speaking of soldiering on, Mrs. Clinton left for Europe the next day and while Americans celebrated July 4, she was in Armenia trying to sort out the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and — equally thankless task — mediate between Armenia and Turkey on their disagreement over what happened in 1915.

You’ve got to salute Hillary. She’s got guts to go with that razor-sharp mind. It’s a heck of a job being secretary of state when the White House puts a tight collar around the big issues and you’re left with Nagorno-Karabakh, disputed Ottoman crimes of World War I and, if you’re lucky, US bases on Okinawa.

The situation might be slightly less troubling if the boys in the White House — and they are overwhelmingly boys — were foreign-policy heavyweights. They’re not. Indeed, I’m told Henry Kissinger refers to them as “the kids.” Chief among them, according to my colleague Helene Cooper, is Denis McDonough, the National Security Council’s chief of staff. Earlier this month, Cooper wrote: “Forget Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates. When it comes to national security, Obama’s inner circle is so tight it largely consists of McDonough, a 40-year-old from Minnesota who is unknown to most Americans.”

I do know McDonough and I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Minnesota. He has many of the state’s qualities: positive, brisk, can-do, affable and efficient.

But am I reassured when I read that Obama’s national-security inner circle is comprised of him? Nope. He was a great guy to control the foreign-policy side of a campaign but he’s not a great guy to think big about the world.

Thinking big and bold is required right now. The clock is ticking on momentous presidential decisions. Among them are an Afghan extrication that will salvage a minimum of core US security interests and what to do about Iran when it becomes apparent by the end of this year that the latest sanctions have changed nothing. Obama’s apparent carte blanche to Israel this month on Iran was disturbing.

Then there’s Israel-Palestine, where Obama can’t decide whether the cost of being an honest broker is worth the domestic heat he takes for being critical of Israel, with the result that he’s zigzagging to little effect.

After firing Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, Obama said he would tolerate debate but not division. My sense is his foreign-policy house is divided — and the weaker for it. Gen. James Jones, his national security adviser, speaks fine French — the French love that — but he’s left most people unconvinced. Tom Donilon, Jones’ deputy, dances around the vacuum as best he can. Like McDonough, David Axelrod and Rahm Emmanuel were brilliant campaign strategists, but should they be foreign-policy strategists?

In Clinton, Obama has a Baker-class secretary of state. For how much longer is he going to delegate her to Nagorno-Karabakh? The State Department, a repository of other underused talent, cannot be the White House annex for non-critical affairs.

Back in the 1860s, James Gordon Bennett, then the editor of the New York Herald, a forebear of the International Herald Tribune, gave these instructions to an intrepid foreign correspondent named Henry Morton Stanley: “Draw a thousand pounds now; and when you have gone through that, draw another thousand, and when that is spent, draw another thousand, and when you have finished that, draw another thousand, and so on; but, find Livingstone.”

He was referring to the lost African explorer, David Livingstone, whom Stanley eventually tracked down on Lake Tanganyika, uttering the immortal words: “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”

That sort of journalism’s gone out of fashion. So we can all thank Rolling Stone for opening its pocketbook and telling Michael Hastings to do whatever it took to find General McChrystal. In his brilliant piece, Hastings did that. He also found something else: an Afghan policy as fragmented as the team Obama running it. McChrystal’s gone, but not the dysfunction. A blow-up, I presume? Watch this space.

Roger Cohen is Editor at Large of the
International Herald Tribune

Oil’s shame in Africa By: Julia Baird

It was hard to believe BP when it announced oil had stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, July 15. It had taken 87 days.

There was relief but little jubilation: it will take many years to clean the shores and the birds, and for the sea to begin to repair itself from the onslaught of poisonous oil. Surely we can no longer call it a “spill”—it seems too light and trite a word.

What’s even more troubling is that in Nigeria, the country that has arguably suffered most from oil drilling, oil “accidents”—large and small—occur almost weekly, and we hear little about it. A lethal combination of sloppiness, corruption, weak regulation, and lack of accountability has meant that each year since the 1960s, there has been a spill the size of the Exxon Valdez’s into the Niger Delta. Large purple slicks cover once fertile fields, and rivers are clogged with oil leaked decades ago. It has been called the “black tide”: a stain of thick, gooey oil that has oozed over vast tracts of land and poisoned the air for millions of Africans. In some areas fish and birds have disappeared: the swamps are silent.

Americans consume a quarter of the world’s oil—and 10 per cent of the oil we consume comes from Nigeria. Why are we not worried and angry about this? Or at least demanding global accountability from companies we support? Many Nigerians watched, amazed, as Americans berated BP for the Deepwater Horizon spill, then saw progress: our president visited the site and demanded immediate action and compensation. Not so in Africa. According to a group of independent experts, between 9 million and 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger Delta since drilling began in 1958. Cleanups have been halfhearted, and compensation has been paltry.

The money that has come from oil drilling in Nigeria—$600 billion so far—has gone to very few; most Nigerians live in extreme poverty.

As Prof. Rebecca Bratspies from CUNY School of Law says, “Problems associated with oil production are usually invisible to those of us who consume vast quantities. We don’t see how dirty it is.”

Obama asked that $20 billion be set aside to cover cleanup costs in the gulf. Will it be enough? How much would companies like Shell and ExxonMobil have to pay if Africa were well regulated and proper compensation demanded for the loss of livelihoods, illness, and damage to the environment?

This is the perfect time to assess oil-industry practices. America should lead a push to ensure global scrutiny and monitoring of oil drilling, on- and offshore. It’s messy and will never be entirely safe, but why should we accept different standards for countries with less money and clout? Global companies should develop adequate global response and compensation mechanisms.

One simple but clever idea from Bratspies is that we, through worldwide coordination, ensure that oil companies cannot drill unless they have the proven technology and capacity to respond to leaks, saboteurs, and explosions. If we made it a requirement, it would lead to a “tremendous spur in innovation in clean-up technology.” That’s something every country would benefit from, rich or poor.

Julia Baird is a Deputy Editor of Newsweek

Culture, made in Dubai By: Hisham Wyne

Cities only exist because they can produce better than individuals. Urban theorists have recognised there are costs to people riding the conveyor belt of development to an environment where they get packed in like sardines.

Infrastructural costs rise, as do those of provision. Take Dubai – our city has spent millions providing infrastructure for the million plus denizens calling it home.

Cities form due to economies of scale, because the cost of making goods decreases as more individuals band together. In this instance, size really does matter. A city thrives when its production is greater than its consumption, creating more than is needed to sustain it. This process of creation, however, is changing in both form and complexity.

Industrial economics rely on physical goods that Dubai as a trade hub handles well. The service economy is catered through imported talent bolstered by local expertise. But the knowledge and idea economies rely on ‘cultural goods’ of a more nuanced nature. These include film, television, new media, games, publishing, advertising, books, verse, visual and performing arts.

As a city, we excel at the large, the vast, and the macro. Our charge is lead by massive developers, big creative and media houses, and millions in infrastructural investment. Our investment, and economic output is fairly obvious. The city has been excellent at attracting extraneous talent, usually affiliated to big brand names from the world over. CNN and BBC rub shoulders with CNBC and Reuters in the city’s free zones.

Yet, some of the world’s most compelling and relevant local content is created not by large firms but by independent creative spirits who sense a disquiet with the world and set about doing something about it – be it through paint, sculpture, film, performance, verse or prose. Cultural goods are surprisingly often seeded by individuals with a creative streak. But these producers require space, helpful services, and a structure that lets them elide the travails of the nine to five should they choose. Creative content producers can be highly idiosyncratic and the cultural goods they produce more so. In many instances, they are also small, nimble and relatively unfettered by the inertia of larger businesses.

Dubai is seeing the first instances of independent creative cliques. An eclectic collective of filmmakers behind the Levity: Zero Error, the UAE’s first sci-fi computer graphic film, represented the city at the Cannes Film Festival. Local artistes are being selected to work on international projects such as the Ralph Lauren Art Star initiative. Dubai’s Al Quoz area has become an impromptu incubator of creativity, with industrial warehouses re-arranged to form art galleries, concert houses and collaborative workspaces. The city has its first student radio station. Add to that content portals for music and human rights, and a drive towards the collaborative use of available space. Factor in too numerous free poetry recitals, workshops and plays. Dubai is getting into the habit of producing cultural goods, and frequently at that.

Yet there is almost a feeling that these advances are in spite of the system, not because of it. We’ve catered well to the large and iconic. It is now time to ensure the nascent grass roots content creation initiatives are given fair chance.

A number of facilitators may ease this passage. Ideas must collide in physical space to reach finished form; holding them in one’s head is no longer sufficient. More available space, with easier rents and faster procedures may give people avenues to express creative form. A greater push to recognise content creators and afford them needed support less reliant on bureaucratic whimsy is a possibility. Ready grants for plausible content, and the ability to set up collaborative projects without exorbitant licensing costs could be explored.

Dubai’s future fortunes are inextricably tied to the tenacity of its smaller businesses and autonomous creators. Much has been done, almost against the grain, but there remains the compelling possibility of so much more. Cultural content is an essential part of the urban economy; the likes of London, Toronto, New York, Sydney and even Singapore have realised that cultural goods attract tourism, can be traded, generate real wealth and improve citizens’ quality of life.

Dubai is already the financial, trade and hospitality hotspot for the Middle East region. It can easily become the region’s finest cultural Petri dish, incubating content that is indigenous, relevant and representative as opposed to imported wholesale. We’re on the way, but not there yet.

Hisham Wyne is a columnist, radio commentator and copywriter fascinated by global socio-politics as well as local arts, culture and community activities


Moving on in Afghanistan By: Anders Fogh Rasmussen

On Tuesday, an international conference on Afghanistan in Kabul brought together more than 70 countries, international and regional organisations and financial institutions to support a plan for development, governance and stability. The meeting would result in a clear way forward for the transition to Afghan responsibility and ownership. In short, it’s a milestone in the process by which Afghans are finally becoming masters of their own house.

This new political momentum has not come about by happenstance. It is the result of a sustained effort both by Afghans and the international community to give this country a new lease on life.

After the tragedy of 9/11, indifference was no longer an option. Engagement was our only choice. Leaving Afghanistan to its own devices would have spelled more instability there, and more terrorist attacks worldwide.

There is no denying that the international community initially underestimated the magnitude of the challenge. After nine years of international engagement, it has become painfully obvious that the price we have to pay is much higher than expected, most of all in the loss of life of international and Afghan soldiers.

But Afghanistan is finally moving in the right direction. Maybe the insurgents think they can wait us out, but we will stay for as long as it takes to finish our job. Our training of Afghan soldiers and police is ahead of schedule, and by next year there will be a 300,000-strong Afghan security force — and it can’t be waited out.

By sending 40,000 additional international troops, we have demonstrated our commitment to protecting the Afghan people by holding areas we have liberated from the insurgents. We are also finally taking the fight to the Taleban where it hurts them the most. Over the past months, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has launched military offensives into Taleban heartland — Helmand and Kandahar.

These operations, in which the Afghan security forces play an important role, will inevitably lead to intensified fighting. Regrettably there will be more casualties. But these military actions are of tremendous political importance. They contribute to the marginalisation of the Taleban as a political and military force. And this will encourage many who joined the Taleban to quit their ranks and engage in the reconciliation effort.

Reconciliation, however, is no blank check. Renunciation of violence and respect for the Afghan Constitution, including women’s rights, is a precondition for successful reintegration. The Afghan authorities know this, and we will keep reminding them.

The next important political step after the Kabul conference will be the parliamentary elections in September. Despite death threats, Afghans have voted several times since the fall of the Taleban regime. Nothing could illustrate better the desire of the Afghan people to take their future into their own hands. NATO-led forces will support these elections, but the overall responsibility for their security and their free and fair conduct will lie with the Afghans themselves.

All these developments point in the same direction: a gradual transition to Afghan lead. This transition will not be done on the basis of an artificial timetable. It will be done on the basis of clear assessments of the political and security situation in each area. Where and when we do it, it will be irreversible.

Starting the transition does not mean that the struggle for Afghanistan’s future as a stable country in a volatile region will be over. Afghanistan will need the continued support of the international community, including NATO. It is important that we send a clear message of long-term commitment. The Afghan population needs to know that we will continue to stand by them as they chart their own course into the future.

To underline this commitment, I believe that NATO should develop a long-term cooperation agreement with the Afghan government.

We now have a new commander of the ISAF mission, Gen. David Petraeus. But our strategy hasn’t changed, because it is the right one. Our objective is clear: to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorism.

We are building Afghans’ ability to resist terrorism and extremism on their own. We are changing the political conditions in the key strategic areas of Afghanistan; we are protecting the population; we are strengthening the capability of the elected government; and we are training the Afghan Army, to enable Afghanistan to look after its own security.

If we and our Afghan partners stick to our strategy and give it time to work, it will.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen is a former prime minister of Denmark and the Secretary General of NATO