Saturday, 11 December 2010

Interview Transcript with Sheikha Mozah of Qatar

This past week I had the chance to attend the Doha Debates and World Innovation Summit on Education, and interview Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, the wife of the Amir of Qatar and Chairperson of Qatar Foundation. I wrote an article reflecting on the events in the Huffington Post that can be found by clicking here

Below is the full transcript of the interview with Her Highness. 

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Transcript of Interview with Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned
Wednesday, December 5, 2010 

Location: Office of Her Highness at Qatar Foundation, Doha, Qatar

Others Present: Ali Willis, Director of Media, Office of Her Highness

Trancript
(‘HHSM’ represents Sheikha Mozah; ‘TR’ represents the interviewer, Taufiq Rahim)

TR:  Congratulations on winning the World Cup bid for 2022. What do you think it means for Qatar and the region?

HHSM: We saw immediately on the faces of millions and millions of Arabs and not just in the Emirates or the Gulf or our direct neighbors, but also in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, everywhere – Lebanon. It shows that you are correct when you say that it excited the region, and it did, and I hope it will continue for several years.

TR: So do you see the World Cup victory as a victory for the Middle East…

HH: Of course

TR: For the Muslim world as well?

HHSM: Well the Middle East is part of the Muslim world. But I think it is a victory for all parts because we – what happened in Zurich, is the success of a hard-working group of young people that represents all the Middle Eastern youth. And that success is a success of all youth in the Middle East.

TR: With the World Cup victory, it has brought a lot of attention on Qatar – for example the WISE conference, which has been fascinating in bringing together not just regional but global stakeholders. What do you see as Qatar Foundation’s role as a regional and global leader on the education agenda?

HHSM: Well I saw it really a long time before, 15 years ago. What happened 15 years ago - to understand the current vision you have to understand what inspired us to have this vision. It started from three issues or three convictions that I carry myself or that I deal with myself.  First of all I believe that we can reach a quality of global education without losing our identities, without losing our nationalities, because so far, 15 years ago, before we start our reforms, what happened before is that we used to import education from abroad. Importing education from abroad in a way resulted from our vision.

Education itself can transcend barriers and borders. Through education - education can also be used as a soft power as a soft force to transform societies. When I say transform societies it means we can tackle issues in political, social, cultural, economic areas. These are the most important things.

TR: It is interesting that you mention transforming societies. Yesterday [Former UN Envoy] Lakdar Brahimi was talking about education, and he was talking about the importance of values and he brought up the example of the Church in Baghdad [that was attacked recently]. Do you incorporate that kind of philosophy, of, not just the hardware of education, but also the values, tolerance, creating a more open-minded youth?

HHSM: Of course. Of course, this is it. One of the lessons that we learned on education, education is very, very, very living and organic. This living organ needs to always be flexible and needs to be filled with new ideas, with creative approaches. Once we have this in mind, we will build up the critical mind, the global mind, the tolerant mind to accept the other, to live with the others. This is why …one of the areas that we are trying to instill [this philosophy] is in the hearts and minds of every individual who lives here in Qatar.

TR: And what about beyond Qatar?

HHSM: We are – to be frank with you – I can’t say that 15 years ago when we started this I was thinking beyond Qatar.  No. And I don’t think that there is a vision that can incorporate such scope. We started this, we started focusing on Qatar. What we can achieve for our people, and what we need to build up our society. And to understand that if you want to enhance and develop our sector of the economy, culture, and the politics you need to start with education. If what we are doing here in Qatar Foundation or in Qatar can be emulated or adapted elsewhere we are very welcoming here to share our experience with others.

TR:  With the case of Al Jazeera and media, it was something here but it transformed the way people were doing media in the region. The World Cup itself will transform the nature of sports in the region. Do you feel that Qatar can also lead that vision in education? What is that kind of moment or breakthrough in education that could build similar excitement like a World Cup?

HHSM: You know if you go back to history, and see what’s going on, what was going on, what’s still going on in Qatar Foundation, you can see that we have already made many breakthroughs. First of all, by transforming our education system, by creating this independence or semi-independence in the education system - we shifted away, moved from ministries and ministers. The Supreme Council [on Education] is the governance body of the overall education system – a governance body that takes decisions according to consensus of all board members, including members who came from high profiles from different parts of the world. We don’t have local members only but also have international members. This type of mixture gives us a broader view and perspective of our vision when it comes to education. The education system is transformed and in that on the concept of independent autonomy and accountability. This is one breakthrough.

The other breakthrough is bringing for the first time in the whole world Ivy League schools to this part of the world. The Ivy League was brought according to very tenacious studies and analyses of what we need and what we really require as a society and country. So we selected certain faculties to build up our own societies. This idea also requires us to adapt and be oriented toward research [on changing priorities]. We now – for us as well – for us it’s a great thing – we don’t mind - as long as [the change is] something good for the project cycle there.

The third breakthrough for me, I think it’s research. Our philosophy is that research is the core business for any advancement. Research should not be imported from abroad but should be built here through building capacity in our individuals, and open our environment and our institutions. This is what happened. Today we are giving 2.8% of our GDP to research. This is something again that is a breakthrough, as nobody was even thinking of research as a tool or component for advancement in this part of the world.

For me education is the key, education is the answer. In other parts of the world maybe they think it cannot be. For me, it is education. If you look at our population, 66% is the literacy rate in the Arab world. We have 58 million illiterate among adults in our part of the world. So can you imagine what education can achieve once you put it as a main priority for us? Education is the solution.

TR: I went to Harvard – and was also a teaching fellow there - and for sure I’m a fan of the Ivy League. However, a lot of the work in terms of fostering successful students happens before they even reach the institution.  These are great institutions [in Qatar Foundation] but do you feel the necessary groundwork is being done to prepare the students in primary and secondary...

HHSM: Of course because this is what our education reforms are about…

TR: Because you know the TIMMS scores [assessment tests for 4th and 8th grade students in math and science], they are for Qatar the lowest or second lowest in the world…

HHSM: I’ll tell you what, this is a question we were asking ourselves as a board: should we participate in those tests or not. And I was the one who held the devotion towards this. The others said there are risks because our experience is very, very immature until now as we are just two years of experience into our reforms, and that will reflect significantly on the results and people will miscalculate the results. I said it’s okay - don’t do it for us, at least we’ll have it as a benchmark from when we started. The results that you saw are the results that reflect our starting point, not our ending point. The ending point you will see it in three years time.  Not even then, it is a process that will continue. But you will see the results in three years – actually it’s happening today, every year results are better. Each year is better than the year before. So what you saw is a journey to me, very cautiously, because we wanted to see the results. We want to know our path ourselves. 

TR: Thank you so much for your time and best of luck.

HHSM: Thank you. 

Qatar and Sheikha Mozah's Vision Extends Further Than the World Cup

I recently had the opportunity to sit down in an exclusive interview with Sheikha Mozah, the transcript of which I have posted in another blog post. I wanted to share with you the article that I wrote in the Huffington Post on the interview, reflecting on the vision of Qatar and Sheikha Mozah and the direction of Qatar Foundation: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/taufiq-rahim/qatar-and-sheikha-mozahs-_b_794827.html?ref=fb&src=sp
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Qatar and Sheikha Mozah's Vision Extends Further Than the World Cup



DOHA -- When Qatar was awarded the World Cup for 2022 it was viewed derisively in many Western capitals. Who was this small nation? Where was this country? Why Qatar? Even US President Barack Obama claimed afterwards, "The wrong decision was made." This country of 1.6 million residents and less than a quarter-million citizens had burst onto the world stage in the most spectacular of ways. Its victory, however, was not just its own, as Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, the Amir of Qatar's wife and an influential leader in her own right, explained to me this week, in an exclusive interview:
We saw [the excitement] immediately on the faces of millions and millions of Arabs and not just in the Emirates or the Gulf or our direct neighbors, but also in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, everywhere -- Lebanon... what happened in Zurich, is the success of a hard-working group of young people that represents all the Middle Eastern youth.
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Sheikha Mozah had made a related impassioned plea in her closing speech for Qatar's World Cup bid. Perhaps many in Western capitals were hearing her speak for the first time. Usually, it is her sense of fashion that precedes her anddominates media coverage. Qatar itself is viewed as an obscurity. Yet, that limited perception, especially in North America and Europe, really is suited only for those who've arrived late to the party. Qatar has the world's third largest natural gas reserves, one of the world's largest corporations (Qatar Petroleum), one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds (Qatar Investment Authority), and last but not least, one of the world's largest foundations (Qatar Foundation), chaired by Sheikha Mozah herself. This is not even to mention the awe-inspiring Museum of Islamic Art that was recently built, or Al Jazeera which has transformed news media in the Arab world and beyond.
At the heart of this integrated vision (QNV 2030), is the push for true social and cultural transformation, and for Qatar to be an example in this regard for the wider region. That effort is led primarily by Sheikha Mozah, one of the world's most influential women according to Forbes Magazine. In Qatar this has meant pushing for a more open society, that is thinking, that is tolerant, that is informed. Sheikha Mozah's Qatar Foundation for example, partnered with Tim Sebastian to found the Doha Debates, which tackles sensitive topics in the Middle East. This past week's fiery discussion, saw renowned Muslim philosopher from Europe, Tariq Ramadan claim to the delight of the local audience, "What we need today in Muslim countries is courage to challenge governments and policies."
The key for the Qataris, however, is education. "Education is the solution," Sheikha Mozah related in our conversation. "Education can also be used as a soft power and as a soft force to transform societies. When I say transform societies it means we can tackle issues in political, social, cultural, economic areas. These are the most important things." In this light, Qatar has played host to the World Innovation Summit on Education for the past two years, to try and push further collaboration and sharing of lessons, akin to a World Economic Forum-style event. It brings together, for example, education leaders from Ghana, Saudi Arabia and the UK, to share a stage on equal footing to learn from one another. At this year's event, Sheikha Mozah announced a new $500,000 International Prize for Education, the first of its kind in the world.
Domestically, Qatar has engaged in a series of reforms and built a number of new institutions of higher learning in a multi-billion dollar location appropriately named, 'Education City'. This was a concerted effort to bring "Ivy League" quality universities to Doha, and empower specific "faculties to build up our own societies." You can see satellite campuses of Cornell Medical, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, Georgetown and beyond seamlessly fitting into the Qatari landscape. Sheikha Mozah also emphasized that "Qatar is giving 2.8% of our GDP to research. This is something again that is a breakthrough, as nobody was even thinking of research as a tool or component for advancement in this part of the world."
Qatar's focus on education and empowerment is impressive in its own right. It's doubly important in the region where as Sheikha Mozah pointed out, "66% is the literacy rate in the Arab world. We have 58 million illiterate among adults in our part of the world." Moreover, Sheikha Mozah's own example as an impassioned social leader is inspirational to millions of women in the region and also for men. Yet, just as with the World Cup bid there are also a number of questions that need to be raised. Firstly, multi-billion dollar infrastructure cannot replace the 'software' needed for an educated, thinking society. When global assessments (TIMSS) were carried out in 2007 for 4th and 8th grade students across the maths and sciences, Qatar ranked at the bottom of the class. Sheikha Mozah insists that she "was the one who held the devotion towards this. The others said there are risks because our experience is very, very immature until now as we are just two years of experience into our reforms, and that will reflect significantly on the results and people will miscalculate the results. I said it's okay -- don't do it for us, at least we'll have it as a benchmark from when we started. The results that you saw are the results that reflect our starting point, not our ending point."
There are also similar questions around the suitability and sustainability of having branch campuses of universities, who are deeply influenced by revenue streams in moving to the Gulf and do not have the same sense of entrenched history that they do in their own countries. After all, world-class universities are as much (if not more) about the culture and identity of the institution, as the bricks and mortar. Qatar across a range of sectors has embarked on an ambitious national development programme, and it remains unclear if the tens of billions of dollars that are being spent and will continue to be spent, will generate the expected results. More importantly, as Lakdar Brahimi, the former UN Special Envoy mentioned during the WISE conference, countries such as Qatar need to do more in assisting the region around them, and improving the conditions in education for example in Afghanistan (Qatar Foundation has established Reach Out to Asia to this end).
It remains to be seen how exactly Qatar's vision will play itself out. Despite Sheikha Mozah's enthusiasm, there is of course reason to be skeptical about whether the results will follow good intentions. At the same time, there is tremendous reason to be optimistic. The institutions of the Qatar Foundation around social change are extensive and now well-rooted. Additionally, Sheikha Mozah has been providing strong leadership on changing attitudes locally, regionally, and even globally towards education. Winning the right to host the World Cup in 2022 truly inspired the Middle East, especially the youth. It was, however, only one step in Qatar's grand vision and certainly not the last.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Doha a Go-Go with the World Cup

Somewhere out there, two Qataris were sitting in Souq Waqif debating what was meant by the alleged quotes by their leaders, which appeared in the cables posted on Wikileaks.org. Did the Qatari Emir really authorize the use of American bases in the country for a potential attack on Iran? Would the Prime Minister of Qatar really be double-dealing the Iranians? Amidst the quiet conversations, like a phoenix rising from the desert, FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced that the micro-Gulf state of Qatar would be awarded the 2022 World Cup. A quarter of a million citizens and the overall 1.6 million residents were told they would host what is arguably the globe's largest sporting event, if not its most significant spectacle. Wikileaks who?

The successful bid for the World Cup, of course, has resonance beyond sport. The impact was felt in the audible gasp throughout the entire Middle East in light of the announcement. This is the first time that the event will be hosted not only in the Gulf, or in the Arab world, or in the Middle East but in fact in any Muslim-majority country. In Qatar's sandy dust, lies the U.S., no competition for the apparently carbon neutral event to be held in 50 degree weather (celsius for your Americanos). The UAE, which recently trumpeted its world-class F1 track, is left to scratch its head; even sizzling Dubai at its peak could not land a marquee event to match what Qatar has now done. Yet, perhaps, in a positive development for the region, other Arab countries will seize on this as a moment to come together. As Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, said on his Facebook page of all places, "I would like to congratulate Qatar on their win to host the World Cup in 2022. This victory is an achievement for all Arab countries."

Why Qatar? Of course, there will be the nefarious rumors that there were financial incentives that secured the 14 to 8 vote by the 22-member executive body in FIFA. George Vecsey aptly writes in the New York Times: You say bribes. They say vision. Split the difference." The critics, however, are out in full force, beginning with President Obama, who claimed the wrong decision had been made. America's leading sports channel ESPN led with a headline, 'World Cup decisions defy logic.' The Boston Globe had a piece stating that there were a trillion reasons not to host the World Cup in Qatar, including that somehow Qatar's record on women's rights (which to be honest is a really an uninformed comment and you just have to ask Sheikha Mozah about that) should be an issue (should US Foreign policy also be a barometer for awarding the World Cup?).

For just one second, forget about the drawbacks, or why a nation that has less than two million residents (although possessing a natural-gas driven GDP of $100 billion) was awarded the World Cup. This is a country that successfully pulled off the Asian Games in 2006. This is the country that hosts every year a world-class Golf tournament and tennis tournament (I myself was witness to Nadal and Federer last year in Doha). This is a country that has created a deep national commitment to sport with the Aspire Academy. This is a country that made an amazing proposal. So if Qatar wants to dream, let them dream. If they can commit the tens of billions of dollars to build the requisite infrastructure for the World Cup, let them realize their dream. Because it is not just their dream. It is a dream for the millions of youth today and the millions of youth tomorrow in the Arab world. When there are 113 million youth (or one third of the entire population) should they not look to the future with excitement? Just look at the vision of the Qatari bid:



This is the country that revolutionized media with Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera International, not just in the Arab world, but worldwide. They are flush with cash and committed to making this event not just happen but to organize something amazing for the world to see. Qatar against improbable odds - and counter to many predictions, my own included - captured a coup as a country. They deserved it. The region deserves it. Quite frankly, wither the naysayers, I'm excited. See you in 2022 in Doha.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

A Call Beyond Islam

I recently had the good fortune to attend the prestigious ceremony for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in Doha, Qatar this past week, which is held every three years (in 2007 it was held in Kuala Lumpur). It was a very interesting event, with the Qatari Emir in attendance. Here's the article I wrote for Huffington Post, please check it out (direct link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/taufiq-rahim/a-call-beyond-islam-the-a_b_788405.html).
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A Call Beyond Islam: The Aga Khan Award for Architecture Makes Its Mark


DOHA -- In a room flowing with dignitaries, scholars, architects and other invited guests, the Aga Khancalled for the need to close the gap of ignorance between the Muslim world and the West, asking in particular: Can these societies exchange knowledge but on an equal footing?
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It was a challenge very much embodied in the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA) when established in 1977, and which was conferred for the 11th time this year in Qatar on November 24. This year's ceremonies were hosted by the Amir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned (with other notables in attendance). Behind the pomp and protocol, however, was a very important but two-fold message. Certainly, there was the continued recognition of projects that contribute in multi-faceted ways to the societies in which Muslims live. Yet, the Award in a very stark manner recognized a project --the Bridge School in Fujian Province in China -- that was wholly unrelated to the Muslim world, except for the fact that it was an initiative (the Award) inspired by the ethics of Islam that was conferring the recognition.
The Award has been given to 105 projects over its history and was established by the Aga Khan, a philanthropist and spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, with the objective to "enhance the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture as expressed through architecture." One of the most prolific and methodical honors in the architecture world, the AKAA draws a truly diverse crowd and this year was no exception. The 2010 Master Jury itself included members from an eclectic array of backgrounds, geographically and professionally, including individuals from Syria, China, Senegal, Iran, France, the UK and Saudi Arabia. It was no wonder then that the five selected recipients of the $500,000 Award included a pluralistic collection of projects: the Bridge School in China; a revitalized hypercenter in Tunis; the Wadi Hanifa Wetlands in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; the Ipekyol Textile Factory in Turkey; and theMadinat al-Zahra Museum in Spain.
The recipients truly symbolized the pluralism extant in its multi-faceted dimensions within the Muslim world, which is by no means a monolith, but rather a dynamic confluence of identities. The factory in Turkey was an industrial project that cost $17 million to build and used the essence of natural light to improve an otherwise downcast setting. The Bridge School in China, is at once a school, bridge, and new public meeting-ground in a marginalized village in Fujian province and was constructed at the cost of only $100,000. Meanwhile, the wetlands just outside Riyadh was a $160 million endeavor that reclaimed a neglected but important oasis in Saudi Arabia.
True, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture has recognized people and projects that improve the built environment in Muslim societies and empower Islamic identity and culture. Yet, there is also something post-cultural and post-Islamic that the Award represents. First of all many of the concepts that it has championed, such as local sustainability and environmental stewardship, it has done so ahead of its time starting over 30 years ago. Second, and more importantly, there is a universality in the 'excellence' of the projects. In his speech during the Award ceremony, the Aga Khan asked, "How can we share our lessons with others outside the Ummah?" In this year's cycle, the recognition of the Bridge School in China is particularly instructive. There is no Muslim heritage at the site nor is it in a Muslim area. Yet the principles of sustainable and responsible architecture are no different. When approaching development of the built environment in rural areas, we see a universality of principles, of course applied contextually across geographies.
It is here then that we can see the embryonic phase of an exchange of knowledge on equal footing between the proverbial West and Muslim world. That exchange is truly about the universality of knowledge and ideas, which need not be bound by geography or religion. The Vatican plays host to the ubiquitous portrayal of the School of Athens by Raphael. Within this painting is the portrait of Ibn Rushd or Averroes, amidst the historic scholars of Plato and Aristotle. Yet who is this Arab Ibn Rushd inhabiting the quintessential landscape of Western civilization? Averroes as he is known in the West, was not only responsible for the preservation and endowment to European thought of many of the ancient scholars of antiquity, but he also was the pioneer in conceptualizing the coexistence of secular philosophy and religious thought, his influence reverberating to this very day.
The reality today is often a one-way flow of ideas and knowledge, from West to East. It would be nostalgic to repeatedly recount the tremendous contributions of scholars such as Averroes and Avicenna. While they should indeed be recognized, the Muslim world needs to go beyond historical memory and look to what it also has to offer in the present and future to a global society. What are innovative ideas and approaches from within the Muslim world that should be considered universally?
What is remarkable about the Aga Khan Award is that it is now setting, in many ways, the new standard for architecture and the built environment globally. The list of 105 award recipients of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture is inspiring in this regard. But it is not enough. As one Saudi philanthropist attending the Award ceremony remarked to me: "We need more, and not just in architecture. We need the same in medicine and other fields to promote excellence and new ideas from the Muslim world." My response was concise and clear -- Inshallah

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Security on Planes

On October 29, a bomb plot originating in Yemen, was foiled in the last moments. One of the packages was intercepted on a UPS cargo flight. Another was discovered on a Fedex carrier. The idea was to blow-up cargo flights either en route or in mid-air. After the attempted attacks, large cargo carriers have prohibited shipments originating from Yemen. Yet, this will not solve the problem but only shift it downstream to even smaller companies. Below you will find a comment piece in the UAE newspaper, The National, written with my colleague and friend Ted Karasik. 



Vigilance for cargo on carriers large and small

Last Updated: Nov 10, 2010
With the recent bombing attempts by al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen using cargo airlines, what happens to the smaller cargo carriers operating throughout the Arabian Peninsula, especially in the UAE? What are the security implications?
AQAP's use of major carriers from the Gulf to transport packages from the region has drawn a quick reaction from UAE-based airlines such as Etihad and Emirates, and now Air Arabia in Sharjah. The extra security and regulations on major carriers are likely to cause a significant share of air cargo traffic to shift to the many smaller carriers.
With roughly two million tonnes of air freight annually going through Dubai alone, it is already a challenge to monitor security threats. The shift to smaller carriers that have less stringent regulations will provide smaller commercial entities in the Gulf an economic boost. It will also mean that companies with a lower capacity for monitoring security threats will be responsible for a greater share of air freight, which assuredly AQAP will try to manipulate. So while the banning of air cargo from Yemen by major airlines is a positive step, it must be complemented by a comprehensive strategy that bolsters the capabilities of smaller companies, for which the UAE serves as a hub.
For more than two decades Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, and Sharjah have had dozens of "no-name" cargo carriers that operate out of their facilities. Other GCC states, including Qatar and Kuwait, also allow smaller operators in and out to transport goods.
Not so many years ago it was well known that contraband materials could be shipped via smaller cargo airlines from several emirates to locations in Central Asia. For instance, on Tuesdays, it was rumoured, one could send a shipment on a flight direct to Dushanbe from one airport in the region for a fee, no questions asked. The case of Victor Bout, the arms dealer still locked up in a Thai prison, who based himself in the Gulf to transfer lethal goods around the world, is the most famous.
Things have changed dramatically. In 2005, Dubai-based Emirates Group became the first Middle East air cargo and airline organisation to achieve TAPA (Technology Asset Protection Association) certification, in recognition of high standards of security. Under the TAPA certification, all airport warehouses of Emirates Group companies - Dnata, Emirates SkyCargo, Emirates Group Security, and Transguard, were certified to TAPA Classification A - the highest category of the certification. Other major airlines vie for this title but smaller carriers appear to fall outside this area.
The UAE General Civil Aviation Authority and other airports within the UAE must maintain a constant level of vigilance based on international rules, advice and regulations. Officers play a high-visibility role in general patrols of the airport, the monitoring of arriving passenger and cargo, the supervision of scanning of cargo and baggage, and the protection of sensitive areas and equipment, such as the airport's navigation aids.
All members of staff are regularly briefed on new regulations regarding security issues, and an ongoing programme of security training courses ensures all key employees at the airports are aware of the latest recommendations and developments. Information is shared between the airport and various international agencies, including the airlines making use of UAE airports. This information-sharing network is essential in order to maintain the highest levels of safety and security.
But if a terrorist organisation is seeking to target a cargo aircraft to make a political proclamation, obstruct commerce, or simply shock the world, local and regional air traffic may be an easier path. Certification of all cargo companies is a critical step, especially in the current environment.
AQAP is a very serious organisation bent on disrupting commercial traffic. The group has the leadership and tacticians to carry out attacks in the Gulf and worldwide. It now claims that it was behind the crash of a UPS plane in Dubai in September 2010. This may or may not be true and the entire case needs to be re-examined.
Nevertheless, security for this type of commerce is not the same as for other commercial operators and needs to be reviewed in the wake of the attempted cargo bombings by AQAP. However, there should be extra caution that al Qa'eda in Yemen could try to shift its operations elsewhere to circumvent the embargoes.
The first layer is to isolate the Yemen case, as the authorities are doing, and see what the impact is. Then officials can decide if the ban needs to be expanded to other countries through direct communication and intelligence sharing.
Ultimately, cargo that is loaded on to cargo planes should be treated no differently than cargo loaded on to commercial cargo flights, ships, trains, trucks, and the trunks of cars. The UAE can be a leader in this realm when it comes to smaller carriers for the rest of the region and beyond.
Dr Theodore Karasik is director of research and development at the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma). Taufiq Rahim is a visiting fellow at the Dubai School of Government

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Adrift in Andalusia

This article was originally published on IslamComment.com and can be found by clicking here



With the conclusion of the midterm elections in the United States, the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy has started to fade into historical memory. While the story is longer on the front covers of America’s leading newspapers, a fierce debate still simmers about Islam in the West. Many commentators called for greater tolerance of the minority Muslim population in Western countries. At the same time, a popular counter-opinion, echoed as well in a blog post by ubiquitous Republican Newt Gingrich, maintains that there should be no mosque built near Ground Zero (or elsewhere for that matter) before there is a church constructed in Saudi Arabia.
This latter point is a red herring that deserves to be ignored. American religious freedoms as affirmed in its constitution are not beholden to the lack of human rights in a distant land. However, this should not mean that the point should be ignored altogether. Why shouldn’t a church be built in Saudi Arabia? And why is this not of greater concern to the proverbial Muslim world? Historical nostalgia about Islamic tolerance has clouded the view of a climate today that is unfriendly at best and hostile at worst to religious minorities in most Muslim-majority countries.
The advent of Islam was revolutionary in affirming rights for marginalized groups. It was a fundamentally progressive religion that sought to curb if not eliminate abuses and discrimination against women, orphans, minorities, slaves and others. In an oft-cited verse (109:6) the Qur’an commands, “Unto you your religion and unto me my religion.” Another verse (2:62) further embraces those religious groups outside Islam: “Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians and Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds shall have their reward with their Lord.”
Enshrined within the faith from its inception was the concept of Ahl al-Kitaab or people of the book. This meant that Jews and Christians were part and parcel of any Islamic society. Subsequent empires such as the Ummayads,FatimidsMughals, and Ottomans incorporated this structure into their governance to safeguard the rights of minorities. The above definition sometimes expanded to include other groups such as Buddhists, Hindus and Zoroastrians. Within the Ottoman Empire, something called the Millet system developed that allowed for religious minorities to have their own courts of personal law. This general culture of tolerance spurred Muslim lands into safe havens for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, particularly from Russian pogroms and the Spanish Inquisition.
It would be mistaken to idealize this past as a utopia. Certainly amidst the coexistence was a clear acknowledgement that Jews and other religious minorities would be second-class citizens. Moreover, in Andalusian Spain, the 11th and 12th centuries experienced intermittent repression of Jews for example. In India, some Mughal emperors such as Aurangzeb forced Hindus to adhere to Islamic law. Yet, by and large, in its historical context, the ingrained ‘tolerance’ in many Muslim societies could be said to be unique and progressive.
Unfortunately, living in a bygone past is not an option. The contemporary reality is that while Islam embedded a progressive tolerance within the faith, this ethic has stagnated. The fear of the non-Muslim and of the wayward Muslim from within has led to a climate of intolerance and even hostility – sometimes deadly – towards religious minorities. There are the extreme cases that emerge in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. However, even in so-called moderate nations like Malaysia, the situation can be bleak; churches were frequent targets of attack in the past two years and courts blocked Christians from using the word ‘Allah’ for God, a common practice for the last 1400 years. Try building a new church in Saudi Arabia or any Gulf country; it is certainly not akin to constructing a new mosque. Try openly proselytizing; in many Muslim countries it is a capital crime to convert out of Islam (Ridda or apostacy).
Beyond the external religions, many Muslim societies are failing in their tolerance of religious minorities within or emanating from Islam. The Bahais are persecuted systematically in Iran. Ahmadis are prohibited from sayingsalaam alaikum (the traditional Muslim greeting) in Pakistan, as they are viewed as heretics. Worse, they have been specifically targeted by incitement campaigns by both political and religious leaders, which in turn has led to horrific violence against their community. The list of violent attacks, legal impositions, and cases of incitement throughout the Muslim umma towards minorities would be endless to document here.
Fundamentally, the bar for Muslim societies is set far too low. Why should not Muslim-majority countries be judged at the same standard as the United States or other nations in Western Europe? Of course, people likeGeert Wilders, the Dutch far-right leader, are extreme. Assuredly, there is discrimination against Muslims in parts of the U.S. Nevertheless, it would hardly compare to the violence, subjugation, and marginalization of many religious minorities in Muslim countries. While there are exceptions to this trend, they should not obfuscate the need for honest introspection within the umma. The question is, who will provoke this introspection, Western governments or Muslims themselves.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Why the truth is taboo in the Holy Land

We had the chance at the Dubai School of Government last night to host Adam Shapiro and Huwaida Arraf, co-founders of the non-violent resistance movement in the Occupied Territories, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM);  Arraf also chairs the Free Gaza organization that was responsible for dispatching the flotilla this past spring to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip. It was an interesting conversation, but one that is often ignored. Shapiro himself made a very interesting point - in all the news reports you read about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, you scarcely hear anything about Gaza. It is as if, the territory holding 1.5 million Palestinians has faded from existence. Yet, this has always been the troubling context of all Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The many elephants in the room are ignored in the feigned hope that perhaps somehow they will not be heard, seen, or felt. Sometimes, people do not want to face the truth until they are forced too.

The breaking of taboos is a continual process vis-a-vis the infamous conflict in the Holy Land. Many conversations are off-limits, particularly in the American mainstream media and especially when concerning Israel (or the preferred Israeli narrative). In past years, prominent figures have challenged this stranglehold on the discourse. In Israel, you have reporters like Amira Hass who has continued her brave coverage in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, unabated, despite threats and harassment. In fact, Haaretz - where Hass writes - has hosted a bevy of non-orthodox views, that many within Israel consider treasonous (i.e. Gideon Levy). Years prior, the so-called new historians such as Benny Morris (who has since become politically hardline if not extreme) and Avi Shlaim challenged the orthodox narrative in Israel, finally asserting the Palestinians as victims of the conflict, and asserting that Palestinians were refugees not just of their own creation. Ilan Pappe took this further with a groundbreaking book (in its depth and breadth) called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Some disobedience in Israel can have consequences. Mordechai Vanunu who bravely unveiled Israel's nuclear program to the world in the 1980s, has been jailed, silenced and hidden from public view for the last two decades. Many years later, in 2002 when 50 soldiers started the Courage to Refuse movement by refusing to serve in the IDF in maintaining the occupation, they created a new space (albeit with legal consequences) for dissent.

Artists have also played their role in challenging the orthodoxy. The animated film (and award-winning) Waltz with Bashir starkly portrayed the reality of Israel's wars of having mixed morality at best, and involving dehumanization of the enemy in the worst case. World-renowned pianist Daniel Barenboim collaborated with renowned Palestinian-American Edward Said on concerts, including in the West Bank, and challenged the discourse on anti-semitism (see Wagner) in Israel; he also accepted honorary Palestinian citizenship, demonstrating solidarity across the two 'nations'.

The tradition of challenging the accepted narrative on the conflict has been especially difficult in the United States, where the mere mention of a view critical (in any form, artistic, journalistic, political etc) of the established Israeli perspective can end a career. The label of anti-semitism is tossed around without abandon, for example by the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman. While before some 'challengers' such as George Ball (see Passionate Attachment) were effectively silenced, that is no longer the case. To talk about the 'lobby' in DC subservient to foreign interests used to be akin to believing in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That taboo was broken by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their landmark book The Israel Lobby, which was originally an essay that was rejected by a number of US publications, only to be published in the London Review of Books. Although Walt and Mearsheimer were lambasted, including in the Washington Post, as anti-semites, the label couldn't stick. Today, Walt is one of the most prolific contributors to Foreign Policy.

That same year, President Jimmy Carter published Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. Again, President Carter despite being the only President to actually achieve a successful peace agreement in the region,  was panned as naive and hyperbolic. Nevertheless, today, that phrasing is generally accepted not only within the United States, but also in Israel. Four years after the book was released, it was Israel's own Defense Minister Ehud Barak who stated: "If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state." America's own military main man, General David Patraeus shattered the view this year that Israel was an ally to US national security interests just one month later. It is assumed that the U.S. military is gradually being more vocal about pro-peace interests, and in some ways, pro-Palestinian.

The unfortunate thing is that despite so many taboos being broken, too many still remain. Each successive strike only reveals that many traditional views are untouched. Yes, there is now J Street (a by-product I would say of Walt's book), which challenges AIPAC. However, the Yitzak Rabins are still scarce. Who is willing to acknowledge the Palestinians existence and the need for a viable Palestinian state openly and definitively? Breaking taboos is difficult and takes spine; it is especially precarious for politicians who face electorates. It is these leaders, however, who will be looked upon to fundamentally change the direction of the conflict and upend the status quo. For political leadership, breaking taboos happens by taking bold steps and holding bold positions. It means PM Netanyahu eschewing Yisrael Beiteinu for Kadima. It means President Obama freezing military aid as long as Israel doesn't freeze settlements. It means Congress supporting the President.

The stranglehold on the narrative by the orthodoxy has been broken. The truth is out and cannot be hidden, as seen from the Flotilla coverage this past spring. The Israeli occupation itself is self-corroding (see the recent stories) and leading in effect to an apartheid state unless there is peace and a two-state solution. It is now the turn of the politicians in Israel and the US to find the courage to voice that reality and break those final taboos. It is time for a real conversation about peace.

(The next post will cover the Palestinian-side of the equation and the need for bold leadership)