Sunday, October 16, 2016

Are Saudis tiring of Israeli conflict?

There are signs — very much behind the scenes at the moment and denied by all concerned — that Saudi Arabia may be inching towards an historic accommodation with Israel.

The forces nudging the country’s rulers in this direction are economic. The plunge in oil prices has hit the kingdom hard. For the first time the word ‘austerity’ is being mentioned in official circles, ending a decade of profligate spending.

The country’s Public Service, long a repository for the idle sons of the middle class, has been told in no uncertain terms to get its act together; the Budget deficit for the year is approaching $100 million.

Then there is the war in Yemen— a massive drain on the country’s finances that seems to be producing nothing but condemnation from the international community — and Iran, which both Israel and Saudi Arabia see as a looming threat.

It is against this stark background that King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud may be turning his attention to the Middle-East’s long running problem of how to deal with the Jewish State.

This issue has been tentatively explored before. I remember an off-the-record interview with a retired Saudi general who said the billions of dollars that had been pumped into support for the Palestinian cause over decades had produced absolutely nothing.

“The Israeli State is stronger than ever. It’s not going away and we can’t shift it. That money would have been better spent raising the standard of living in the Arab world,” the military officer said.

As early as 2001, a Saudi initiative offered peace and recognition for Israel if it withdrew to its 1967 boundaries. Nothing happened then, but after 15 years of continued frustration it is possible that plan is being dusted off.

In a recent interview, Director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, Simon Henderson mentioned the activities of Prince Turki al-Faisal, a son of the late King Faisal and prominent in international diplomatic circles. 

“He was a guest and participated in a forum discussion with [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu’s former National Security Adviser, Yaakov Amidror,” Henderson said.

“Also earlier this year at the Munich Security Conference he was photographed shaking hands with Moshe Yaalon, who was then Israeli Defence Minister — so something is happening.” 

These developments have to be seen in context with the internal situation in Israel where there is a growing feeling that the Palestinians are not going to be dissuaded from their desire for a separate State.

The retired chief of the country’s Intelligence Agency, Mossad, Tamir Pardo, caused a sensation when he said there was no military threat to Israel — a comment in direct contrast to Netanyahu’s policy that the country is surrounded by dangerous enemies and deadly threats and Israel must continue to be on a state of high alert and spend billions on its defence forces as the price for its very existence.

So war weariness and simple economics may be pushing both sides in this long-running conflict into an accommodation. Without the Saudi bankroll the Palestinian campaign against Israel would be reduced to rock-throwing youths. The big question is how this would play out in other parts of the Middle East.

It would really be a question of whether the idea of peace could be sold as better for the Palestinians and better for the Arab world – and how much Israel would be prepared to contribute to that idea.   

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Why referendums are bad for democracy

The recent referendum in Colombia highlighted once again the inherent danger in putting single questions to an entire electorate.

What should have been the final chapter in a long and bloody conflict has now heralded a period of prolonged uncertainty and even, heaven forbid, a return to the battlefield.

The deal that was worked out between the Government and the rebels, the Marxist Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) was the best it could be. Of course it was a compromise, what else could be expected after half a century of turmoil?

Politics is, and always has been, to quote Otto von Bismarck “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”.

Politicians and diplomats understand it, but it is a hard concept to convey to tens of millions of people who have little or no understanding on how politics and diplomacy work.

In the case of Columbia, there was a great deal of emotion involved. Families had lost members in the decades-long conflict; other had been internally displaced; people had been kidnapped and simply disappeared. The scars ran deep. 

What information the Government provided was fragmented and scarcely reached beyond the big cities and the elite who had easy access to television, radio and the internet. Yet it was often the remote, rural areas that had borne the brunt of the conflict.

This led to a widespread feeling that the electorate was being ignored, that their opinions did not matter, something that was emphasised by the hubris between the conclusion of negotiations with FARC and the actual referendum.

Champagne popped, there were military fly-overs, Heads of State witnessed the signing, and acclaim came from the international community. The referendum was relegated to a side issue, and the people punished the Government for taking them for granted.

All that was needed to give form to the simmering discontent with the negotiations was a populist hero — and that came in the form of former President Alvaro Uribe who is generally credited with turning the tide against FARC while he was in office.

His claims that the deal disrespected the victims and would hand the country to the rebels were simplistic and hugely exaggerated, but the grain of truth they carried was sufficient to mobilise a slim ‘no’ majority in the vote.

Here lies the problem with referendums in general, just at the time they are becoming increasingly popular with timid Governments that shrink at the very shadow of unpopularity: Handing complicated issues with far-reaching implications over to an entire electorate risks the raising of multiple grievances which have little to do with the question at large.

I well remember during the United Kingdom’s June referendum on European Union membership  hearing the single mother with six children saying she was voting for Leave because she had not been given public housing — an argument with her local council, but certainly not with Brussels.

In Australia the Government seems determined to put the issue of gay marriage to a plebiscite rather than a Parliamentary vote. While polls have suggested that 70 per cent of the population agree with the question and a national vote will surely pass, the campaign will provide a platform for a homophobic minority to give vent to their hatreds, quite possibly resulting in an upsurge of abuse and violence against everyone perceived to be ‘different’.

In a democracy we have the opportunity to elect men and women to represent us and govern in our name for a period — four in many countries, five in India and the UK and just three in Australia — at the end of that time we have the chance to re-elect them or throw them out. They stand and fall by what they have done in the intervening period.

The only referendum needed is that vote. To constantly run to the electorate on this or that issue is an abrogation of responsibility and a failure of leadership. Worse still it undermines the functioning of democracy and gives ammunition to those who believe in more authoritarian or totalitarian philosophies of government.   

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Kashmir – time for level heads to prevail

The question following India’s ‘surgical strike’ across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir — taking out what it describes as terrorist ‘launch-pads’ in Pakistani territory — is what happens next.

Despite all the rhetoric, the preferred answer from political centres in New Delhi and Islamabad is ‘not a great deal’. There has since been an attack by ‘militants’ on an Indian base in its part of Kashmir but on the scale of actions in this war-torn province, it was just another working day.     

The Indian strikes were in response to a far more serious militant attack on its Uri Army base that killed 18 Indian soldiers. That followed two months of street protests in the divided territory over the killing of militant Burhan Wani that left more than 85 people dead.

Tit for tat, tit for tat — the history of Indo-Pakistan relations over Kashmir that go back to partition.

Twice they have escalated into full-scale war, but the stakes are far higher now — and not just because both countries have nuclear arsenals.

To put it simply, China backs Pakistan and the United States supports India. Confrontation between the two sub-continent States could drag in the superpowers — and that is a situation no-one wants.

However, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, might be content with allowing matters to rest, there are other forces at play.

In Pakistan Sharif has to contend with an aggressive military which has a habit of seizing power for itself if it feels things are not going well for the country and a restive parliamentary opposition outraged over what it sees as India’s violation of its territorial integrity.

Army Chief Raheel Sharif is far more popular in the country than his political namesake and does not want to see that reputation tarnished by inaction. Finally, fundamentalist Islamic elements are generating pressure for more far-reaching reprisals.

Modi is not entirely immune from pressure either. His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is delighted with the strikes across the LoC after what it sees as India’s failure to respond to constant provocations, and Pakistan’s failure to deal with militant elements on its soil.  

For the right wing of the party, the crisis is a godsend, silencing liberal voices who seek a political settlement of the Kashmir question and moving closer to what so many of them have demanded for decades – a military solution.

It is to be hoped that level heads will prevail. New Delhi needs to be reminded that the latest tensions boiled over mainly as a result of its own brutal crackdowns in Indian-administered Kashmir and it now needs to deal with the unrest there in a more measured way.

With the United States distracted in the midst of its four-yearly presidential election cycle and with the Middle East still firmly on its plate, early intervention to calm the dispute cannot be guaranteed.

This opens the ominous possibility that China might decide the time is ripe to stir the Kashmir pot, raising the stakes to a point that Washington could no longer ignore.

Modi can avoid this by using some of the political capital he has gained so far to deescalate the situation. The next moves should be at the negotiating table rather than the battlefield.   

Monday, September 26, 2016

Little people forgotten in the march of history

It would be fair to say that life has not been kind to Harun İpek.

While serving in the Turkish Army in 2003 the young conscript stood on a landmine planted by the Kurdish separatist group PKK, which has been waging a guerilla war with Turkey on and off for the past 30 years. Both his legs had to be amputated.

After he was invalided out of the military, İpek was able to retrain as a public servant and gained a job with the Directorate of Nature Conservation and National Parks. That ended in the wake of the 15 July failed military coup against the Government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

İpek is one of more than 100,000 workers sacked or suspended from State institutions over their alleged links to cleric Fethullah Gülen who Erdogan blames for engineering the coup. The disabled veteran’s offence was that he accepted scholarships from a Gülen Movement School for his four children.

“My children used to be proud of being the children of a veteran. Now they are seen as infidels. I have still not been given a reason why I have been removed,” İpek said recently.

This one human story reveals the lengths to which Erdogan is going in his “cleansing of State institutions”, to use his words.

It is hard to see what kind of threat a disabled former soldier working quietly away in an agency dedicated to improving the country’s environment might have been to Erdogan or his Government, and why he should be so punished for taking an opportunity to give his children an education.

While the Government will no doubt maintain that the Gülen Movement Schools are breeding grounds for revolutionaries, why then did it allow 300 schools catering for more than two million students to thrive up until the coup?

And why is it that the more than 700 schools that operate outside the country, including some in the United States, have not attracted the attention of local authorities?

When the events of 15 July are examined in the sober light of history, it will most likely be found that the coup was a bungled attempt by a few disaffected military officers who, in the end, could not even convince the forces at their disposal to do their will.

What the historians will concentrate on is the massive over-reaction by the Government which many observers are now saying, with some justice, has developed into a witch-hunt.

What they will not record in detail are the ruined lives and shattered dreams of the countless ordinary people like Harun İpek, punished for just being in the way.   

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The game is almost up for Mugabe

The end game is being played out for the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe.

The country is bankrupt; Government workers have not been paid; the main hospital in Harare has cancelled elective surgery in an effort to husband its dwindling stock of drugs; unemployment is more than 80 per cent and rising.

In recent days desperate protestors have taken to the streets in a rare show of defiance towards the country’s 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe. They were quickly dispersed by supporters of Mugabe’s Zanu PF Party, some say with the use of live ammunition.

Last week Minister of Finance, Patrick Chinamasa made one last attempt to pull the country back from the brink.

Presenting his mid-year Budget review to Parliament, Chinamasa said that in the first six months of the year 97 per cent of the nation’s revenue went to pay the wages of the bloated Public Service. He announced plans to slash 25,000 public sector jobs and cancel the end of year ‘13th cheque’ bonus of a month’s pay which has been a tradition since colonial times.

Yet almost before the country had time to absorb this information, the edict came out from the presidential mansion overturning everything the Minister had said. There would be no job cuts and the bonus would be paid as usual.  

Chinamasa, an experienced senior lawyer who has sought to re-engage with Western diplomats and international funds, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, might have expected this — a similar move a year ago was also overturned by Mugabe.

As a result payments to Government workers throughout the first half of 2016 have often been weeks late, although the president has been keen to ensure the army and police were always at the front of the line in order to keep them onside.

Mugabe can also reply on the support of roughly 70,000 Zanu PF party members which he keeps on the public payroll. Officially public servants, they do little or no work, but can be relied on to get out on the streets to break up any sign of popular discontent with the regime.

Former Minister of Finance Tendai Biti tried to reduce the number of these ‘ghost workers’ as they are known in Zimbabwe, but ran into the same presidential opposition as his successor.

Given Mugabe’s age, discussion about the succession is rife. There is growing support for 70-year-old Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is believed to have the best chance of re-engaging with the international community and securing the investment the country so desperately needs.

However Mugabe, who seems bent on retaining control of the country from beyond the grave, favours his wife Grace (51), known for her lavish lifestyle but with little administrative experience.

A key figure in the struggle against colonialism, Mugabe became Prime Minister after independence in 1980 and president in 1987; as such he is the only leader most Zimbabweans have ever known.

He took over a nation ravaged by sanctions and civil war, but with the potential to become one of the most prosperous in Africa. Instead, decades of his mismanagement have driven the country and its people into the ground.

Under different circumstances his name could have ranked alongside Nelson Mandela as one of the heroes of African liberation. Instead he will be seen as a throwback to the feudal concept of the absolute ruler regarding the nation and its people as his personal property.

That will be the sad legacy of Robert Gabriel Mugabe — and that is the tragedy of the ruined Zimbabwe he will leave behind.       

Sunday, September 11, 2016

India groans under garbage mountain

As if India did not have enough concerns about what to do with its garbage, a recent conference in Canberra, Australia, has been told that it is now the country of choice for the illegal dumping of e-waste.

This latest mountain of trash — everything from clapped out refrigerators to last year’s smartphones — are being ‘imported’ from Western countries taking advantage of India’s ‘throw away’ culture and lax regulations.

The conference, which had the theme World Making and the Environment in the Asia-Pacific Region, was told that a staggering 90 per cent of the world’s electronic waste is ending up in India.

Australian Nation University academic Assa Doron said people in Western countries liked to throw away goods and forget about them, while engaging in “pious everyday rituals of recycling”.  

However, while the West might be using India as an electronic waste dump, the country itself has to bear some of the blame for its failure to deal properly with its own domestic rubbish.

Ride on many trains in India and you will see passengers throwing drink and food cartons out of the windows. As one traveller said: “What else can we do? There is no proper disposal. If we throw it out onto the track, perhaps someone will come along and pick it up. Perhaps they will be able to recycle it.”

The Ganges River, sacred to Hindus, is still a repository for human and latterly industrial waste. The devout, who bath in it to wash away their sins, risk all kinds of infections resulting from their piety.

In recent decades central Governments have tried unsuccessfully to tackle the problem. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose constituency is the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges, was elected in 2014 with a pledge to make the river run pristine from the mountains to the sea.

However, while there have been a number of highly-publicised cosmetic clean-ups, the crucial work of building sewage works and treatment plants for the human and industrial waste dumped into the river every day, has made a faltering start.

Some observers blame the country’s stifling bureaucracy rather than Government inaction, with Modi expressing shock to close advisers at the lack of enterprise from his public servants. The PM has intervened personally to speed the process with a plan to give the job of building and running urban sewage treatment plants to the private sector, rather than municipalities.     

Back at the Canberra conference co-convener, Dipesh Chakrabarty was saying that because of their huge size India and China would be the two nations deciding the future of the planet.   

“If they don't give up on coal and fossil fuels, we're all done for," Professor Chakrabarty said.

Just another problem on the already brimming plate of the Government in New Delhi.

Monday, September 5, 2016

After Karimov? Uzbekistan in the balance

The recent death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov reminded me of a conversation I had with a commentator and former senator from that country some 16 years ago. We discussed why Karimov needed to keep such an iron grip on the country he had ruled since before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The president had just been re-elected with around 90 per cent of the vote in a process that was clearly rigged. Why, I asked, is it necessary for him to have such an unbelievably high percentage of the vote which would never happen in a fair election? Why couldn’t he be happy with say 65 per cent which would still be classed as a landslide in the West?

My companion said that if such a result was published and it was seen that perhaps 30 per cent or more opposed Karimov it would be an encouragement for “undesirable” elements in the country.

“Uzbeks have the choice between democracy and chaos or strong rule and stability and overwhelmingly they choose stability. In Uzbekistan if you go about your lawful business, raise your family, pay your taxes and keep out of politics you have nothing to fear from the Government,” the former parliamentarian said.

This supposed link between democracy and chaos has been skilfully managed by Karimov over the past quarter of a century, reinforced more recently by the need to confront Islamic extremism in a country where the majority of the population profess to be Muslim.  However, like many dictators, the Uzbek strongman saw himself as immortal and had no interest in succession planning.

The situation is complicated by the Uzbekistan’s strategic position in central Asia, which is bound to see the United States, Russia and China all vying for influence with whoever manages to take control in Tashkent.    

While a number of names are being thrown around as possible successors, an obvious choice has yet to emerge. At best this will result in a behind-the-scenes power struggle, at worst overt violence and the kind of instability that Karimov so feared.