Category Archives: commentary

Saudi Arabia Bans 50 ‘mocking’ baby names

Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry has decided to ban fifty names as being too ‘mocking’. Among the forbidden names are Amir (prince), Abdel Nabi (Slave of the prophet) and… Sandy!

The ministry has also identified four ‘western’ names to ban in a bewilderingly random fashion. They are: Linda, Alice, Elaine, Lauren and… Sandy (mocking the landscape?)

Syrian Revolution Three Years On

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions achieved their primary aim in a matter of weeks; Libya and Yemen toppled their tyrants in under a year. The Syrian crisis, however, is already three years old, with no end in sight and up to 200,000 of its citizens dead.

Syria was always going to be different.

Among the region’s dictatorships, Syria was the most ruthless in extinguishing any opposition and its internal security services were notoriously thorough.

I confess I was surprised when the first, brave, Syrians took to the streets in peaceful protest, doubting their chances of unseating Bashar al-Assad by dissent alone.

Al-Assad has, to date, largely retained the support of a professional army equipped with air power and sophisticated weapons. Gadaffi, by way of contrast, had deliberately run down the Libyan Army for fear of a coup and had only security brigades run by close relatives and hired-in mercenaries to fight the rebels. Mubarak was undone when the Egyptian army announced its sympathy with the protestors and refused to fire on them. Syria’s troops have no such qualms.

Unlike the regimes which have already fallen to the ‘Arab Spring’, al-Assad has heavy-weight allies in Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. China, India and Brazil have also declared their support. This made a Nato-led military intervention, such as the one which toppled friendless Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi, much more problematic and therefore less likely from the outset.

Another significant factor which sets the Syrian crisis apart from its antecedents is the wholesale integration of international jihadist groups into the conflict. The West was alarmed by the post-revolutionary electoral successes of relatively moderate Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, and it certainly did not foresee jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) benefitting from Libya’s revolution, plundering  truckloads of sophisticated weaponry from Gadaffi’s abandoned stockpiles and sharing them with like-minded groups across the region.

The chaos that has engulfed Libya allows the jihadists free passage in and out of the country, and the US felt the danger of ‘blow-back’ most keenly in September 2012 when its Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three senior diplomats were murdered in Benghazi.

Now, the presence in Syria of jihadist groups such as al-Nusra – which has formally declared allegiance to al-Qaeda – and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) dominates the international community’s agenda. Last year, Jane’s Defence and Security Weekly estimated that more than 50 percent of the opposition forces were jihadists, many of them foreign.

External powers standing at the fringes of the region’s turmoil, have had time to analyse the unanticipated consequences of regime change and, perhaps, to consider how popular uprisings might be marshalled to their own causes. The fruits of this study can be seen in Ukraine where the West apparently encouraged an uprising against Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich – perhaps to divert Russia’s attention and military resources away from Syria – while the Russians took immediate advantage of the resultant security vacuum to effectively annexe the Crimea peninsula where its naval fleet is based.

The possibility of a Western military intervention in Syria remains on the table -and the removal of the Russian naval fleet to the Black Sea where it could be easily blockaded would certainly facilitate that – but most external parties would prefer a political settlement for a growing number of reasons.

First, because there is no credible alternative government. The Syrian opposition is increasingly divided, torn apart by infighting both politically and, more recently, militarily.

Second, all external parties whether for or against the regime, fear the expansion of al-Qaeda type groups. Here, they are on the same page as Assad himself who warned of this danger from the outset. If Assad goes, the jihadist groups will thrive in a post-regime-change security vacuum, as they have done in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. While some Gulf states argue that it would be better to topple Assad and then deal with the jihadists, the consensus is the opposite. Although they will be encouraged by the current, bloody, internecine battle between al-Nusra and ISIS, the West still fears a contiguous Islamic emirate in Iraq and Syria, right at Israel’s doorstep… Israel’s security remains one of the most important drivers of Western foreign policy.

Third, regional and international polarization around the sectarian roots of the Syrian conflict raised real fears of escalation. The US, Europe, Turkey and the Gulf States coalesced around the Sunni opposition, and until recently seemed poised for a military intervention; meanwhile Russia was championing a Shi’a bloc comprising Assad’s Alawite minority, Iran and Hezbollah. The potential for war involving the major powers became obvious.

Intense diplomacy on the part of Russia, and America’s willingness to step back from the brink, resulted in surprise rapprochement between Tehran and Washington. Russia was also instrumental in procuring Bashar al-Assad’s signature on the Chemical Weapons Convention agreement which paved the way for the latter’s partial rehabilitation and the Geneva 2 conference.

The path to peace began quite promisingly, with regime and opposition delegates sitting in the same room, but without the participation of regional superpower Iran, further progress is unlikely. Meanwhile Assad saw in the Geneva process an opportunity to enhance his own credibility and legitimacy on the international stage. He hired a European PR company and procured the services of glamorous former al-Jazeera presenter – Luna al-Shabel – to deal with the press.

In every ‘Arab Spring’ country I have visited, people express disappointment with the fruits of their revolution. Formerly strong, united, countries have been torn apart by sectarian, ethnic and tribal divisions. Many in the Arab world now subscribe to a conspiracy theory that blames the West for opportunistically fomenting rebellion in order to achieve regime change without risking soldiers’ lives and financial investment. It is certainly remarkable that Israel’s most powerful Arab enemies – Iraq, Libya and Syria – have all disintegrated. Regionally, only Iran retains the capacity to menace Tel Aviv.

It is difficult to envisage a short-term ‘fix’ for the Syrian crisis. The democratic government of national unity the original protestors struggled for requires political experience and infrastructure which is currently absent but may come with time – after all, revolution is a process, not a destination.

Much remains uncertain. The fragile accord between Russia and the US, which has prevented international escalation, is now threatened by a cold-war style stand-off over Ukraine.

Meanwhile, as the cohesion of strong – albeit oppressive – central government melts away, Syria risks fragmenting into sectarian and ethnic pockets engaged in ongoing conflict with each other. A paradigm we first witnessed in Lebanon in 1975…  a nightmare that lasted sixteen years.



Camping – Misery for Girls?

Granada, southern Spain, campsite ‘Sierra Nevada’.

‘Sierra Nevada’, Grade ‘A’ Camping, has retained its original 1950s look and boasts an enormous pool filled with mineral water from the eponymous mountains above the city.

We’re in our red, ex-post office, camper. I’ve twisted a rope of blue neon lights around a lamp-post on our pitch and I bought a lovely desert blooming plant with a mass of  multi-coloured flowers in the supermarket over the road. I’ve made a little home here and I’m happy.

My (male) partner is away for the evening and I am content; goat’s cheese salad and super-cold Yllera sauvignon-blanc (recommended, under 5 euros a bottle)…

But camping, it seems, has not worked out so well for our immediate female neighbours.

To our left, a young, relaxed and good-looking pair from Italy arrived earlier. Having erected their tent, they slung a stripey hammock between the trees. Later, we saw them at the pool; she like a young Audrey Hepburn with a cat-like face, dark bob and shades. He, handsome with a beard.

On our return from the pool to our pitch and in the course of a long lunch, we saw the young Italians entwined in the hammock. He had attached a special string so that he could control its rocking motion. Soon the bearded Roman was deeply asleep and Audrey Hepburn, who had been resting on his chest, gracefully disentagled herself from his embrace with a fond smile, and lightly disembarked. That was 3pm.

At 6pm, having had an hour’s siesta, we were surprised to observe that the Roman was still sound asleep in the stripey hammock. Girlfriend was nowhere to be seen. Good for her, I thought…why should she be hanging round waiting for him to wake up, she’s gone off somewhere on her own.

At 8pm, I was getting my stuff together go to the campsite cafe to check my emails. The Roman’s girlfriend had returned and she was not happy. Beardy was still snoozing. She started unpacking the shopping she’d done over the road at the hypermarket, making as much noise as possible…bang with the potatoes on the table, clank with the beer bottles into the cool box, smash with everything else… but to no avail. On he slumbered.

I was working on my writing but was greatly distracted at 8.30pm when shouting broke out from the Italian camp. Beardy, from his hammock and still half-asleep, had enquired whether the girlfriend had bought any meat for his dinner.

Fantastic Italian fireworks ensued. Shouting, crying, wildly dramatic gesticulations….In my experience, nobody does freaking out better than the Italians.

However, even under such intense fire, this Hirsute knob still did not extricate himself from his stripey haven.

He shifted his position instead, stationing himself across, rather than along, the stripes, so that his folded wrists and pointed feet flopped over the edges of the hammock… but still spelled ‘spoilt’.

Girlfriend’s operatic fury became more intense and, according to my limited grasp of Italian, she shouted, most passionately, ‘I’m off’; and good for you I thought. She started to pack her bag.

In the ladies’, I saw the Roman girlfriend repairing the damage tears had done to her make-up, I saw she had a couple of carrier bags on the shelf.

Now, it is 11pm and the Italian pitch, having recently echoed with the sounds of passion, purrs with low, reasoned voices, male and female on chairs around their table…and the smell of seared steak fills the air.

The French triumvirate to our right presented a more complex social scenario. The two men and one woman party have left now, but her misery remains frozen in the air around the tent she  shared with her boyfriend.

This French woman was, forgive the generalization but according to my many years’ observation this is true, typically French: petite, well turned out in suitable attire (a strappy sundress and sandals) and very particular that everything should be in good order.

Her partner was quiet, in his early to mid-thirties, greying, dressed in neutral-coloured shorts and T-shirt, and I didn’t hear him say a word the whole time they stayed just across a little hedge from us.

Her partner’s friend, however, from the minute they arrived at 11 in the morning, was keen to demonstrate his credentials as a top class ‘voyou’ (a social group immortalized by Georges Brassens  in his marvelous song ‘je suis un voyou’ and whose nearest equivalent in English is ‘hooligan’ ).

The friend, for easy reference I will call him the voyou, in his twenties, had a shaved head, was wearing a glaringly yellow football shirt (I am not sure which team), and started swilling lager as soon as he had pitched his tent which towered over his companions’ abode.

The Voyou immediately demonstrated his regularly-repeated habit of bursting into enthusiastic, football hooligan-type song, accompanied by an upward movement of the fist and laughter (only his). He also liked to whistle in a playful but aggressive manner whenever he felt he was being ignored. His piece de resistance was ferocious belching punctuated with donkey-like braying.

A little later, I was in the ladies’ bathroom brushing my teeth and putting on some make-up prior to going out for the evening, when I felt I was being observed. Turning to the entrance, which is neighboured by the Mens’ toilets, I was surprised to see said voyou staring unabashedly into the ladies and directly at me. I looked at him, he looked at me. ‘What are you doing?’ I asked. He continued to stare. Then the male companion came out of the Mens’ and they went off.

At 2 am, with the whole camp site asleep, the voyou was still loudly proclaiming his presence with outbursts of aggressive laughter and song; I wondered how the French woman could bear such an inconsiderate traveling companion.

In the morning they were dismantling their camp. Voyou went off to the Mens’ on his own and French woman finally cracked in an outburst of high velocity temper. ‘How can you expect me to to bear this idiot?’ she asked. ‘When we get back to Paris it’s me or him…and that’s final.’ Her partner looked amazed, studied his nails, and said nothing. The unhappy threesome left in silence, the voyou in the back seat.

It is past midnight now. People are switching off their lights and crawling into tents and sleeping bags or closing campervan doors.

To our North, Germans, who arrived late this evening and who switched off their loud conversation abruptly at the stroke of twelve. Not so the two Austrian girls to our South who are in their tent chatting and giggling.

Large strides over the dust from the German camp and stop beside the girls’ tent. ‘Hello?’ The girls screams pierce the night and they cling to each other in terror. ‘It is after midnight,’ says the German. ‘It is the regulations. You will be silent pliz.’

Why the Arab Spring went wrong – Machiavelli

Perhaps the post-revolutionary period in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ countries is not as disappointing as it appears. Maybe the liberty that inspired thousands to shed their blood is still within reach; perhaps these countries, unused to freedom, will eventually tailor-make a form of freedom acceptable to all and encompassing the unique combination of values (religious, cultural, sectarian and ethnic) on which these ancient lands (artificially divided) are founded.

Or is there, perhaps, some truth in Machiavelli’s proposition from ‘The Prince’ that, ‘when countries are accustomed to live under a prince, and his family is exterminated, they, being on the one hand accustomed to obey and on the other hand not having the old prince, cannot agree on making one from among themselves, and they do not know how to govern themselves’.

Failure to achieve national unity, political inexperience and polarization of extreme views (formerly prohibited) characterize the post-revolutionary landscape in Tunisia and Egypt and, to a much greater extent in Libya where the ‘Prince’ figure (Gaddafi) was even more pervasive in the national psyche.

In Syria, too, the disunity of the various opposition factions  impedes victory and increases the chances of the ‘Prince’ retaining power despite breaking all humanitarian values and expectations. Even when a foreign power intercedes, as Machiavelli points out, it is invariably in order to add the client state to its own empire.