Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Yemen: The road ahead

The Romans called it Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia). The Arabs called it Al-Yaman Al-Saeed (Happy Yemen). When I visited it for the first time, in 2005, it was amazingly secured and relaxed, if not happy. President Ali Abdullah Saleh met our Saudi media delegation on his country’s national day with a relaxed confidence. A former army colonel, he was very much the “Boss in Charge!”.  

It was a long way from his humble beginnings, as a soldier with less than an elementary school education, and over a quarter of a century from his high-risk gamble to fill the institutional gap after the assassination of his mentor, President Ahmed Bin Hussein Al-Ghashmi, in 1978. Al-Ghashmi, in turn, was accused of the assassination of his popular predecessor, President Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, with the help of Saleh, a year earlier. Lt. Colonel Al-Hamdi came to power after leading a coup, in 1974, against the revolutionary government of President Abdul Rahman Al-Iryani.

In such a treacherous gang-like environment, it may be understandable that Saleh would act as mafia boss, like Saddam Hussein, Hafez Al-Assad and Muammar Al- Qaddafi, who came to power after a bloody string of coups. Like those conspiratorial dictators, Saleh assigned his trusted relatives, over 30 of them, to strategic army and security positions.

Some of these relatives were in charge of our tour’s security. A nephew visited with us one night and attended our private singing party. I learned from the awed Yemeni organizer that the man was the head of the Secret Service.

During our week-long tour that took us from the capital Sana’a all the way to Aden, former capital of the southern Socialist Republic before unification with the North in 1990, we were well protected.

In later years, changes started to accelerate dramatically. The Houthi revolt that began in 2004 when the army killed tribal leader Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi, and their wars with the government were not the only storms rocking the boat.  There had also been the increasingly militant Southern separatist movement. In addition, Al-Qaeda had been evolving dangerously into a large, strong  and effective organization. Its military cooperation with the Saudi affiliate was causing troubles for both countries. Then there was the ever-present tribal competition for limited resources of money, arms and authority.

In my opinion the worst of all challenges was the dire economic situation. The country was still living in olden times. Its infrastructure, rules and development projects suffered from Third World illnesses.  Corruption and mismanagement were eating up most of the internal revenue and international donations and support. It was clear that sooner or later the poor and frustrated population would reach an explosion point.

Still, the president relied upon his old tactics. He bought tribal leaders with money, arms and prime properties in the rich, badly exploited South. Using a “divide and rule” policy, he managed to split the country along tribal, religious and business lines, pitting one region against the other.

Saleh created enemies, like Al-Qaeda, the Houthi and Salafi movements, to frighten the outside world into the political, military and financial support of his regime. The US and Gulf countries were his prime targets.  Like other Arab dictators, Saleh did not realize that this Internet generation was different. The “social network” generation was much smarter and more politically savvy than former generations. They were adamant, persistent and united above tribal, political and religious dividing lines.  The reactions and solutions of the regime were no different than those of other regimes in the Arab Spring: promises of reforms coupled with brutal force. As elsewhere, it did not work. Worried neighbors and international supporters were forced to interfere. It was no option to live with a failed state with a population that was hungry, angry, and armed to the teeth, with an estimated 80 million guns, including heavy artillery, tanks and anti aircraft weapons.  

The president finally gave up power. But unlike other Arab dictators, he returned to lead his still-entrenched family members and allies, as the head of the former ruling party. His relatives in the army and security apparatus are resisting the new tide. His partners in business are keeping their grip on the largest companies and controlling the corrupt economy. Tribes are still divided, and some continue to support their former leader.

Why does the former president who almost died in an attempt on his life on June 3, 2011, insist on continuing the bloody fight, instead of enjoying the riches he had accumulated, protected by the immunity from prosecution Parliament granted him and his family?

Pride and power addiction could be the obvious answers, but in Saleh’s case it is much more. With huge investments in lucrative businesses, from communications to the oil industry, family and friends have much to lose without the protection of their privileged political and security positions. The Godfather has to fight on till the last breath - it has always been a one way road!

The challenges facing President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi will not fade away anytime soon. Saleh and “Familia” will resist every corrective move that will result in decreasing their power, so will the usual suspects from Al-Qaeda to the Southern separatists to the Houthis. But with the determination and support of his people and the help of the UN, US, EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council, Al-Hadi has a good chance of pulling it off - safely. 

Bashar Al-Assad’s transformation

In 2007, when my last article was published and I took a break from writing, Syria was a country with two faces. One face was that of a dictatorial police state, allied with Iran against US and Israeli interests. The other was that of a young leader, trained as an eye doctor in Britain, with a clean history.  Unlike his elder brother, Bassel, and younger, Maher, Bashar’s hands seemed bloodless. Like Michael Corleone in the “The Godfather”, he was apparently disconnected from the “Family’s” dirty business.

The other brothers were heavily invested in the patriarchal, sectarian family-led regime. The heir-apparent, Bassel, created the secretive militia, known today as “Al-Shabbiha” from the sect’s youth. He prepared them to support the Alawite regime on a rainy day, like today. Maher is the heartless executioner who would drive fear into the hearts of any enemy or potential enemy.

Bashar instead chose to stay away from politics and action, and went to Britain to study medicine, hardly a profession suited for a future leader of his Ba’ath led country.

Then, again, like in “The Godfather”, the elder brother was killed in his car, and the second in line was called back from Europe to take his place, as the Crown Prince of the revolutionary, anti-royalty Republican President. Hafez “Al-Assad” (formerly "Al-Wahsh," which means “the beast”) was orchestrating a political position for his son, but fate disrupted his plans.

At 34 (six years short of legal presidential age), and before he was fully prepared, death again interfered, taking his father away, which put Bashar in charge of the “Family” and business.

He was a fresh, young and innocent face, who started with a few economic and political reforms that earned him some popularity home and abroad.

Not for long, however. The assassination of Lebanon’s Rafiq Al-Hariri was blamed on Syria. The Syrian reaction to the accusation cost them their economically profitable and strategically vital control of Lebanon. The situation got worse, as Syria’s relations with most of the world soured. It lost its preeminent position in the Arab world and strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.

Together with the global financial crisis of 2007, the effects on the country’s economy were dire. The harsh suppression of complaints and dissent ended a relative calm and peace in the country and hurt Bashar’s image as a kind leader.

Still Bashar was relatively beloved and his country was united behind him.  Later he managed to steer his country away from stormy waters, fixing relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world without sacrificing the strategic alliance with Iran. He also created a new lucrative alliance with historical enemy and superpower neighbor, Turkey. The future looked brighter for his country and leadership.

Then came the Arab Spring. Arab youth revolted across the Arab world. Syrians were encouraged. As elsewhere, what started as demands for certain reforms, including the abolishing of the half-century old Emergency Law, turned with the military crackdown into a full-fledged revolution. The true colors of the Godfather showed. When the dominance and survival of his “Family” were in danger, he called on his mafia soldiers, the “Shabbiha.” Supported by the elite Maher-led Fourth Division of the army, they used the worst tactics to frighten the dissidents, including rape, torture and mass killing.

Syria, in five years, went from a stable, united, secured country, to a failed, isolated, condemned state drawn into a bloody civil war.  And Bashar, who had been a relatively popular leader, became a war criminal, using his armed forces to bomb his own cities, killing his own people.

What happens next is in the hands of God, the army and a sympathetic, but reluctant to interfere, world. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Arab Spring .. Dreams (to be) realized!

In spring 2007, when I took my political writing sojourn, the world looked much prettier. Stability, security, and business were better than usual.

Then the wheel started to turn. Commodities became more expensive, life was harder for the poor, brighter for the rich, and unemployment was at its worst in decades. But money, for investors and stock market gamblers, was aplenty!

Few months later, the global economy suffered a downturn. The Arab world, which had just started to breathe hope of a better day, looked like a balloon punctured once more. The youth, who made more than half the population, were the worst affected. But few paid heed.

Less than five years later, business, at the top, was normal ... or so it seemed. The aging dictatorial regimes were still screwing the lid on the pressure-resistant pot. The noise of the steam was not loud enough for the heavy old ears of Arab dictators. The clock-ticking became familiar and part of the noise pollution. It seemed so normal that Ben Ali of Tunisia was on a family vacation, Mubarak was relaxing in his permanent vacation retreat, and Ali Abdullah Saleh was busy ‘preparing’ his son to become the next “revolutionary” president when Arab streets revolted.

The “three musketeers,” Ahmad Ali, Jamal Mubarak and Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, were rehearsing their future cooperation. In Aden, for example, they were building a huge hotel compound, among other mega luxury and profitable projects planned in their fiefdoms. So was the picture in these countries before Bouazizi decided to take his life in protest for his diminishing hopes of a decent life in Tunisia.

The economic time bomb finally exploded. The sleeping dictators were taken by awakening and annoying surprise. Their response was typical: Fast and strong in punishment, slow and weak in reforms. They treated the Facebook and Twitter generation the same way the pre-net and satellite generations were subjected to.

Between denial mode and panic attack, reactions were just “reactions”. The similarities were astounding. The Arab dictators showed no creativity and brilliance even in deception.

Except in Syria, Arab streets now rule. The scenes are not rosy, yet. Sometimes you may be tempted to be nostalgic. Egypt, for example, behaves like a genie out of a box. The masses, which only demonstrated in celebration of dictators for 60 years, are going out for any and every cause one may imagine. The attack on the Saudi Embassy and consulates in support of an Egyptian lawyer accused of drug trafficking, was a vivid example. It showed the extent an agitated street could go, shooting themselves in the feet, hurting their country’s relations with its biggest Arab ally and strategic partner. I am so glad we are back on track.

Five years later, we still don’t have a Spring, except in Tunisia where it all started. The search for freedom that began, since the European colonists left, continues. However, light shines brighter now at the end of the confused and noisy tunnel. Let’s keep praying and working .. That’s how dreams are realized. 

The Middle East: 5 ‘US’ years later!

It is useful for writers to take a break every now and then, and come back with fresher outlook and perception.  
My break was not volunteered, however. Since mid 2007, I was advised, by wise heads, to take back seat in the political arena and keep my critical mouth shut.  Now, Khaled Almaena, the new Editor in Chief of Saudi Gazzette, is telling me: open up .. your opinion is requested.

It's amazing how much things have changed .. and not .. in the past five years. Take Iraq, for instance. Five years ago, it was still debated weather US meant what it said, and said what it meant, regarding the future of Iraq. 

Today, it is obvious the US failed in all tests of sincerity and competence. Iraq was obediently delivered in a silver plate to Iran and its Iraqi stooges. It's no longer united, stable or safe. The promise of freedom, prosperity and democracy is almost forgotten. The immediate and foremost concern, now, is security. 

My Iraqi friend, Ibtehal, was telling me in "Whatsapp" chat today about her trip to the Kurdish north, and how different it was from the rest of the country: secured, stable, prosperous .. and well governed. She is looking for investment opprtunity among waves of multinational investors. Good for her, I said, but what about the rest of the country? Her answer was prompt and heartbreaking: What country? I don't have one! 

America's foot soldiers are finally leaving, its footprints are not. For obscured political and economic reasons, US decision makers still shoot themselves in the foot. They brought Nori Al Malki back from Iran, together with his exiled Aldawa party comrades. Knowing their slave attachment to Iran's mullas, vandeta against the Sunnis, and ideological entrenchment, US still gave them the reins and supported them economically, politically and militarily. 

Now, with diminishing power and influence, America cannot even convince al Malki government to adopt US and allies position on Syria.  

Prophet Mohammad PBUH says those who supported the aggressor will be hunted by him. The US may feel safe for now, but once the last soldier leaves, and more Hezbollah soldiers (and commanders) take their place, the hunt will begin. America cannot change its fundamental blind support of Israel, the arch enemy of Iran, and the latter cannot stop its appetite of more gains in and influence in the Middle East. Therefore the final face off is guaranteed. With the military and nuclear capabilities/aspirations of  both powerhouses, and the vulnerabilities of the oil rich region, the disaster would be global Tasunami. America's interests and friends are the first getting the punch.  

For us, the residents of the Arabian Gulf, the stakes are much higher. The battle grounds for any conflict may include neighbors like Turkey and Pakistan, but it would be mainly fought on our backyard. Our oil fields and export ports are all concentrated between the coasts of Iran and Saudi, Kuwait and UAE.  The oil tanks all go thru the Strait  of Hormuz, with much of world's oil needs. It's frightening to imagine a fire, let alone a battle among nuclear powers on such volatile grounds!

Let's hope that cool heads prevail, especially in the US.  With new administration soon to take over, I pray that new policies will reposition and reengineer US stands towards regional players and conflicts. Till then, I wish my return to active commenting will be a happier .. and safer one!